The Workout of a Lifetime: Would Picasso Have Been Proud?

THE STORY GOES that Pablo Picasso was approached in a café one day by a woman who asked if he would do a drawing on her napkin. He agreed, made a quick sketch on it and said, “The cost will be 20,000 francs,” or some such enormous amount (some versions say $1 million).

“That much!” the lady exclaimed. “But it only took you five minutes!”

“No, my dear,” he replied. “It took me forty years.”

True or not, the story illustrates the lifetime of effort and experience it takes to be able to do something of quality while making it look easy.

Today’s workout at Body Specs brought Picasso’s napkin to mind. While hardly a work of art, completing it required drawing upon what I’ve learned and experienced since I began serious physical training fifteen years ago.

My workouts are assigned and supervised by trainers aware of my goals, and while the sessions range in intensity, occasionally one becomes a real test of what I thought were my limits. So it proved this afternoon.

This is from another session, but you get the idea.

Basically, I was given what the trainers call “supersets” consisting of a set of exercises performed in order, then “doubled” (repeated). For example, station 1 was monkey chin-ups, followed by ab exercises, followed by pushups. Repeat the three, then move on to station 2. I had a circuit of three stations in all, each with a set of doubled exercises. And I was to complete three full circuits.

After my first circuit I was spent. By the end of the second I needed to sit and rest after each exercise. My heart was pounding. I had nothing left. And I still had one to go.

Sure, I could have quit. All I needed to do was tell the trainers, “I’m done,” and head to the shower. It wasn’t a race, just a training session. And yet it had become, for me, more than that.

Because, for whatever reason, I’m an ultrarunner. And I’ve committed to the most aggressive race season ever, with the first race (50 miles) next month. Completing an ultramarathon requires mental and emotional discipline in addition to physical fitness. Patience, persistence, and dogged determination are needed to accept the continual discomfort and push through the inevitable low points. The mental muscles must be exercised, or they will fail you in a race as surely as undertrained legs.

So as I began the third circuit I called upon some principles I’ve learned and applied over the years.

  • From Aikido: breath control. Replace fast, shallow breathing with deep, slower breaths. This also relaxes the body. I did this after each exercise, establishing control before starting the next one.
  • From Aikido and ultrarunning: focus on where you are, not how much you have left. Do each rep with the best form you can. Then do another. “Remember,” Sensei said, “you can always do one more.”
  • From ultrarunning: pace. Take the time you need to complete the exercise. Don’t go too fast to show off. No one cares.

And, finally, I’d been here before, two-thirds through an extreme challenge, physically and emotionally spent, and ready to quit. Namely, the 65-mile mark at last year’s Lighthouse 100 (you can read my recap here). And somehow I’d found the strength to go on, and finish.

I slowly ground my way through the final circuit. One station, one exercise, one rep, at a time. My 30-minute session lasted well over an hour, and my muscles were shaking, but I completed it. Test passed. Until next time, of course.

So how did I reward myself? Like any health-conscious fitness nut would do:

Okay, it was really just the ice cream. (Peppermint Bark Moose Tracks, my new go-to treat.)

I also had a glass of tart cherry juice with my (healthy and nutritious) dinner. It’s supposed to help ease sore muscles. We’ll see if I can get out of bed in the morning. I hope so, cuz I should get a run in.

Publisher’s note: This post is available for sale for $1,000,000.00. Or best offer.

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Not So Frightful! Winter Running

We’re in the middle of one of the coldest winters in recent memory. Walking around outside has not been much fun.

But what about running? Do I still go out there and get the miles in? Maybe even actually do some races?

You bet your balaclava!

Zeeb Road pathway, New Year’s Eve. Temperature around 10 degrees.

In fact, I’ve already completed my first two races of the year: the Bigfoot Snowshoe 5K in Traverse City, and the Winter Switchbacks 5K on the Waterloo trail system. Both are among my favorite events. If you’re interested, last year’s posts can be read here for Bigfoot and here for the Winter Switchbacks. For this post I’ll just share a few photos.

My wife captures me at the Bigfoot finish line. (I finished #14 overall and 1st in my AD.)

Bigfoot: Check out the variety of clothing choices – from very light to traditional winter.

Winter Switchbacks – Charging up to the top on the fourth (and final) loop.

One of the few decently hazardous parts of the Switchbacks course this year. (That’s ice underneath the water and mud.)

Okay, you say, races are one thing. Do you really go outside and run regularly all winter long? Even with snow and ice on the ground?

This photo from a December club run should answer that question. And if you’re wondering what my running coach thinks of this, he’s the one next to me with the ice beard.

Your next question is, I’m guessing, “Are you really comfortable doing that?” No, not always. But over the years I’ve become more cold tolerant. At Bigfoot, I wore just one layer; the wind jacket on top was mainly to keep the snow spray off me. At Winter Switchbacks I wore two light layers, and it should have been just one. Even in slow easy runs I wear shorts if it’s above freezing.

And it’s not just the short stuff. In January 2017 I ran the Yankee Springs Winter Challenge 50K; my post about that can be read here. I planned another winter ultra this year, but that changed when I selected “the big one” – my main goal race for 2018. I’ll announce that, and my training plan for it, in my next post.

I do have limits. If it’s below zero I won’t run alone. And a couple of club runs have been cancelled when wind chills went below -10. So there’s a least a thread of sanity left in us.

But I must stop now; it’s time to go for a run. Good Lord! The sun is shining and it’s over 40 degrees outside.

I may have to run it naked.

Take Care, Jim

Well, the past few weeks have been eventful in the RBT family. Some things have been happy and some very sad, and some big decisions have been made in both the personal and athletic arenas. I promise to share it all here, and boy, there’s plenty to share. But I’m going to begin with a personal subject.

Last week my father-in-law, Jim Hoxie, passed away at the age of 88.

Jim and Sally Hoxie with their family on their 50th anniversary cruise.

We knew it was coming but it happened sooner than we expected, so we were knocked for a bit of a loop for a few days. Now that we’re settling back into routine, it’s time for me to pay a well-deserved tribute to this wonderful man and what he taught me.

I met Jim back in the Dark Ages (1980) when I was a University of Michigan student and dating his daughter. He was a bit intimidating at first, standing six-foot-seven with large hands and a very strong handshake. This was not a guy you wanted to fool around with, and indeed he didn’t suffer fools gladly. But we got along right away, and during the next 37 years I don’t recall a single unpleasant incident.

Jim spent his entire career as an engineer with Chrysler Corporation, where my wife and her sister now work as well. He expressed what have been called Midwestern values: hard work, dedication to family, and treating people straight up and fairly. He passed those values to his children and grandchildren. My daughter wrote on Facebook about how he taught her to be “tough” by, for example, giving no mercy in card games, forcing her to improve until she was good enough to beat him (and everyone else by then, too. I still bear the scars).

But Jim and his wife Sally were (and are) also kind and generous. When we went out to eat, he would always offer to cover the bill, even if it was his own birthday dinner. I had to learn to “beat him to the draw” which once led me to actually throw my credit card at the waiter approaching with the check. He and Sally also loaned us a lot of money so we could buy our house when we were still establishing our financial independence. I like to believe I’ve become more generous as a result of their example.

He was generous with his time as well, particularly enjoying taking the grandchildren to Greenfield Village and playing bridge with us. And if someone needed help moving, as we did when we bought our house, you could count on him being there from start to finish. His dependability resonated with me, as I also try hard to be responsible and dependable, especially when I’m volunteering or providing a service to someone.

This is not to say we agreed on everything. Jim’s outlook was strongly conservative, and I have socially liberal leanings. This resulted in some animated discussions, in which, perhaps, our voices were raised a little. My wife and mother-in-law sometimes worried we’d actually start fighting, but our arguments were never personal. Without fail, at the end of a visit we’d shake hands and he’d say, “Take care.”

When we visited Jim and Sally over the holidays, it was clear he was getting weaker and had at most a few months. But he wasted no time with self-pity, instead staying interested in what his family was doing. He asked me if I was still running and what races I had coming up. And we had one final political discussion regarding the Trump tax cuts and public education.

“I’ve been maybe a little too conservative,” he said with a smile.

“We’ve had our differences of opinion,” I replied, “but it’s never affected our respect and affection for each other.” (Why can’t all political discussions be like this.)

He nodded. “You’ve been a good son-in-law,” he said. It was among the last words he said to me.

May I be as selfless and gracious when it’s my turn.

Goodbye, Jim. And wherever you are, take care.

Plan for 2018: Keep Moving, Keep Improving

It’s 2018, and as usual, I have no New Year’s resolutions. More accurately, I’m not changing anything I’m doing just because it’s a new year.

Yet while I’m not a fan of artificial “resolutions,” I am a strong believer in continually improving myself and the world around me. I try to live in that spirit every day, and I also set goals and then train and work to achieve them. Having a purpose, and something to look forward to, helps me focus on what’s important in my life and spend my time and energy there, as opposed to just ‘running in place,’ as it were.

And because I like to balance repeating favorite activities with trying out new things, 2018 will be similar to years past but with some twists and even leaps out of the ol’ comfort zone. And I look forward to sharing it all with you.

Here are some things I plan to keep right on doing:

Running. No surprise here, I hope. After ten years it’s become a part of how I define myself. In addition to keeping me healthy and fit, I use running to step away from the everyday noise and restore a sense of perspective. Whether it’s concentrating on a training assignment or easy coasting for a couple of hours, it’s a great way to clear the mind of mundane chatter. And I’ll continue to compete in races, too. In an upcoming post I’ll share what I have planned so far this year. (Hint: they’re not getting easier!)

Here’s a hint. (Photo courtesy of the Vote Charlie blog).

Supporting sustainability. I don’t talk much about my Zero Waste business on this blog, but Happy Planet Running had a terrific first year. In 2017 I worked 30 events and helped divert over seven tons of waste away from the landfill into more productive use as compost or recycled materials. And at every event I get thanks and compliments from the runners. It’s a passion of mine and a true labor of love.

2017 Firecracker 5K – holding the total trash with two fingers.

Lifestyle makeover. Last year we got a serious start on long-overdue updates to the house, getting rid of stuff we don’t need, and re-evaluating our diet. A sustainable lifestyle isn’t just about recycling; it’s all about reducing our imprint on the environment while improving quality of life. Some of this I’ve posted here, and I’ll continue to do so.

Little indulgences. Coffee and chocolate in particular are two of life’s little pleasures that I will happily continue to cultivate. Any changes to diet are not going to include reduction in either. Moderation? Save that for other things. Life is for living, after all!

Enjoying the good life in Richmond visiting my daughter.

And in the spirit of balance, here are a few things, popular as they may be at present, that I firmly intend never to do:

Cold showers. Yeah, I get that they are stimulating, help the body recover, blah blah. You know what I hate worse than being cold? Being wet AND cold. When I’m done with a workout, even a race in the summer, when I get under the shower, I want it hot. I’ll happily stick my feet into a cold lake after an ultra, but the rest of me is just fine being warm and dry, thank you.

From one of my few triathlons. The swim part was as much fun as it looks.

Faddish foods for runners. Raw eggs? Nope. Green smoothies? Looks like something from a primeval swamp. And even coffee isn’t exempt from questionable shit being added to it. The latest? So-called “bulletproof coffee,” which is perfectly good coffee with butter and coconut oil dumped into it. If I want saturated fat with my coffee, I’ll dust some bacon with espresso powder. Hey, that actually sounds good. I could start a whole new trend.

Give up on humanity. Given our current political environment, it’s hard not to get cynical about our leaders and our society in general. Sure, I don’t like a lot of what’s going on. But to me that’s an incentive to me to get more active and work for a world I want to live in, and not stand by and let other people make those decisions. Maybe I can’t change the world, but I can change a little part of it and help it grow.

So I’m looking forward to a healthy and positive year, and while there are no guarantees, I’ll be doing my best to make it so. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go join my club for the Saturday long run. Happy New Year!

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Postscript: I finished this post before my club run, but am publishing it afterward. It was ten miles at 10 degrees. But with coffee and chocolate afterward, life is good. (It was good during the run, too, but you know.)