No Sugar Tonight: Two Very Different Experiences

IT BEGAN WITH A STOMACHACHE.

I was working at a recent race, managing the Zero Waste program as usual. This is a very active job – lifting, moving things around and such, but mainly a lot of walking from place to place. And as typically happens at such races, I got hungry, early and often.

The food provided to the athletes is available to race workers, but I don’t want to rely on it or overdo it. So I brought along a large bowl of oatmeal with pecans, hoping it would sustain me a while. It did, until the cooking table started up and I was offered “taste tests” of the breakfast burrito. And a pancake. And boxes of cookies lay in plain sight, begging to be consumed. And ice cream, and so on. All par for the course, except on a warm day I was washing everything down with coffee instead of water.

Things did not end well.

So I lost my water bottle at mile 15 and it was a cupless race, you see…

By early afternoon my digestive system was in full revolt, and with cleanup and takedown left to do, there was nothing to do but gut it out. (I’ll stop with the puns now, as I’m guessing you don’t have the stomach for it.) Things settled down that evening, but the next day I ate very simply and drank only water. And again the next day. I stuck to basic foods, with nothing processed.

I felt fine, not even feeling any cravings, so I wondered if I could go an entire week this way. That’s right – no pastries, no chocolate, nothing with added sugar. And I did. I even made it through my weekly D&D game and Saturday long run this way, breaking my sugar-fast on Sunday in style with part of a whiskey-chocolate fig from Grocer’s Daughter.

From their Facebook page. The photo does not do it justice.

This brief foray into a sugarless diet was far different from the first time I tried it several years ago. I’d accepted a “challenge” by a fellow blogger who wondered if his readers could go a month without any sugary foods. I’d tried, but after only a few days I’d given it up, explaining that “I missed my chocolate.” I accepted his ridicule because, well, I had my chocolate to console me. This time all went smoothly.

I WON’T give up chocolate! You can’t MAKE ME!

What made the difference? I think mainly the source of the challenge. The first had been for a month, not a week, but I’d quit so fast I’m not sure that mattered. Rather, it was its external nature. The motivation was extrinsic – sugar is bad, so stop eating it at all – an attitude that didn’t resonate with me anyway. I had no incentive to stick it out, other than the praise of someone I didn’t even know.

This time the challenge was internal. No one put me up to it, or even suggested it. From just wanting to recover from my digestive fiasco, it turned into an experiment to find out how I could fare without my usual junk foods. It was a personal test, similar to how many pushups I can do or how far I can run. Instead of a burden, it was interesting and fun.

I also noticed that week that I didn’t miss the sugar itself. Rather, I missed the habit of eating it. Mid-morning coffee didn’t feel the same without a piece of chocolate or sugary snack to go with it. Fruit or savory snacks proved acceptable substitutes, or even going without. How about that?

And yet, with that week over, I’m back to eating the things I enjoy, whether or not they contain sugar. As a small part of an otherwise balanced and healthy diet. It’s nice to know, however, that I am not addicted to sugar or dependent upon it.

Although I refuse to give up chocolate.

Advertisements

Yes, I’m Aware that I’m Not Aware

Years ago, I was out on a Saturday morning club run. Among the runners that day was my instructor from the Running 101 class I’d taken the previous year. That class got me into running regularly, and resulted in my first half marathon. She looked at me as I passed.

“You’re doing great!” she said. “Drop those shoulders.”

Sure enough, they were riding up. I knew I was prone to this under stress, such as while running or in a tough Aikido class, but it’s not something I readily recognize. Since then I’ve worked on being more self-aware during long runs, and to consciously remind myself to relax.

Learning and applying self-awareness has several benefits. For one, it forces me into the moment – “how am I really feeling right now” – and takes my mind away from how much time or distance I have remaining. And once in the moment, it’s easier to remain there, to appreciate that I’m doing something I love, and how beautiful a day it is, or how beautiful the trail is. For me, at least, an ultra is a great thing to have finished, but the memories are more important. I have distinct memories from every one of my 22 (so far) ultras, and replaying them, good or bad, is very much like being there all over again.

Feeling good at the 2014 Dances with Dirt – Hell 50K.

It’s also good to be honest with yourself when others are not. Race staff, volunteers, and spectators don’t want to discourage runners. So what comes out of their mouths are things like, “You’re looking strong!” whether I’m bounding along or shuffling like a zombie and they’re texting the county coroner to stand by. So the times when they’ve been honest with me really stand out, like the guy who told me my nose was bleeding halfway through a 50K, or the aid station captain who gently hinted that maybe I should turn in my chip because I looked pale and wasn’t sweating. All this means I have to be conscious enough of my condition to make good decisions – or to specifically ask for an honest assessment from someone else..

Here are a few things I do at times during a long run or race:

  • Check my breathing. If I’ve picked up the pace, or run hard for a while, my breaths can get shallow and less productive. No matter how fast I’m going, I switch to several deliberate deep breaths. Not so much to get extra oxygen into my lungs, but to get the excess carbon dioxide out. So breathe out to empty the lungs, then breathe in normally.

Relax! Breathe deep!

  • Check posture. Am I upright, back straight, leaning from the ankles, or starting to hunch over?
  • General body check. How is everything feeling? Is there pain anywhere I’m not paying attention to? Am I favoring one side over the other? Do I need water or salt? You may wonder that I have to consciously do this, but when you’re focused on a particular goal or milestone, such as getting over this last ridge to the aid station, you can lose touch with how your body is doing.

Then, of course, there are times it’s obvious how my body is doing.

Having run ultras for years now, it’s mostly second nature. Or so I’d like to think. And yet, this very morning I was out on a club run, cruising through Nichols Arboretum, and we passed a couple of people on the trail. I was the last one in the pack, and shortly after I passed them I heard the older man’s voice behind me: “Relax the shoulders!”

One of these days, I’ll learn. Maybe.

It’s Sad, and So Damn Pointless

Running is usually such a positive and uplifting sport that the occasional sad story gets, I think, an unusual amount of attention. Not just in the running community, but even in the national news.

In the “sad” category I include runners who die during an event, or leave us too early due to disease (R.I.P., Gabriele Grunewald), and also those who are disqualified or banned due to cheating. I include cheating because while it’s a human failing as opposed to a physical one, it’s just as pointless in the end.

The most recent example is Dr. Frank Meza, who was disqualified from this year’s Los Angeles Marathon after evidence surfaced that he’d cut the course. The story is doubly tragic because shortly after his disqualification, he was found dead in the Los Angeles River. The cause is not official as I write this, but it may have been a suicide.

This story baffles me. Dr. Meza was 70 years old, a lifelong runner, former high school track coach, and mentor of Latino students. People who knew him speak of the positive effects he’d had on them and the community. In his sixties he began to run marathons in under three hours – a mark of prestige at any age – and at the 2019 LA Marathon he finished in 2 hours 53 minutes, a record time for his age group. By all accounts, a real “feel good” story, right?

Except he may have faked it. And not just at this marathon. His 2015 finishing time was also under investigation, and the California International Marathon disqualified him twice, then banned him. He denied all allegations of cheating, and agreed to run a future marathon with an official monitor. But his death ends any chance to clear his name.

I don’t know if Dr. Meza cheated, or if he did, at how many races. But the preponderance of evidence suggests he was not as fast as his finishing times indicated. If so, I have a simple question that we may never know the answer to:

Why?

Cheating is as old as competition. I get that. The prestige that comes from winning can tempt people to reach for it any way they can. But Dr. Meza wasn’t attempting to win the marathon, qualify for the Olympics, or get sponsored. We’re talking about an age group award, which comes with nothing other than a hearty handshake and maybe a paperweight or similar tchotchke. Even setting an apparent record age group time wouldn’t have meant lasting fame or fortune.

Some of my more notable age group awards. (Yes, that is a roll of toilet paper on the right.)

Was it worth exposing himself to the scrutiny that would inevitably follow a record time? Was a fleeting mention buried somewhere in the LA Times worth risking his lifetime reputation of community service and inspiration to others? Was his ego that fragile that he couldn’t accept being anything but a champion?

For an amateur runner like Dr. Meza, or me, I find cheating to be especially pointless. For the real competition is not against others, but ourselves. Even with the support of crew, coaches, or other runners, in the end your performance is based on your own training, ability, and desire. It’s wanting to know how good we can be, or to break through what we thought our limits were, that keeps us going.

Sure, cheating hurts others if you take away an award or recognition that rightfully belongs to someone else. But mainly you cheat yourself. Even professionals do. Does Lance Armstrong ever wonder how good he could have been if he’d raced clean? I bet he does. But no one, including him, will ever know. And that’s a shame.

Perhaps Dr. Meza’s wife, even if inadvertently, summed it up best. “Running was very important to my husband,” she said, “and now unfortunately he won’t run marathons anymore.”

And that’s sad.

The Story of the Rest

Guest post by Harvey Paul (*)

WELL, HERE’S A TURN OF EVENTS EVEN I WASN’T EXPECTING.

In my previous post I wrote about getting in a tempo run when I didn’t want to. This one is about the other side of the coin. Today is tempo day on my training schedule, but I made the decision not to run.

Why? Because last weekend I worked two busy events. Friday was a 5K where 3,000 runners showed up to run, eat, and drink beer, all squeezed into a few hours before nightfall. Saturday I sorted a truck full of recycling and unloaded it at the dropoff facility, then packed for Sunday, an early morning triathlon. Basically, the entire weekend was one long workout.

Upper body workout on Saturday. Hey, if you’ve got hundreds of pounds of cardboard to get rid of, might as well have some fun with it.

The good news is that all went well at the events, and we had terrific Zero Waste results.

And on Monday I was absolutely wiped out.

So wiped out that I cancelled my gym workout. I didn’t make the decision lightly. My gym workouts, like my runs, are things I make time for, because I want to stay fit and strong. But I was as fatigued mentally as physically, and worried I might injure myself through inattention or pushing too hard. Better to rest.

Monday night I went to bed early and slept for nearly ten hours, so I felt much better today. I still decided to delay my tempo run so I could recover more fully.

In the past, I’d have felt guilty about these decisions. I’m an endurance athlete. I should just suck it up and push through it, right? Isn’t that what’s gotten me through all those hard workouts and ultramarathons?

But not this time. Not a smidgen of guilt.

What changed? Part of it could be getting older (definitely) and wiser (doubtful), but there’s another reason – one that could possibly change my outlook on this whole work-life balance thing.

I’m working through a few books on CD that share a common trait regarding the “busyness” today’s humans are wrapped up in, and our not all that healthy views on leisure time. It’s causing me to rethink some concepts I’ve always assumed were normal and expected, even desirable. I’ll share all this in future posts as I learn more and think through it all.

In the meantime, don’t worry – I fully intend to stay physically active, and to pursue goals I find interesting and fun. But perhaps I will develop a new attitude toward recovery, one where I appreciate it more and feel less guilty about it. Either way, you can be sure I’ll talk about it right here!

=====================

(*) Okay, not really, but I wanted to make sure y’all knew I was aware of the pun.