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!

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

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Inertia – Friend or Foe? Both!

I DIDN’T WANNA DO IT.

Yesterday was tempo day on my training calendar. One-mile warmup, followed by five miles at a medium-hard effort, ending with a one-mile cooldown. Simple and straightforward.

And a bitch.

Cuz I don’t like it, even at medium-hard effort. What’s that? Depends on how I feel at the time. Last week it was about 7:30 per mile, a pace that shouldn’t be overly challenging for me. But I was struggling and breathing hard. What’s wrong with me? I thought. The next morning I ended up running about the same pace, and it was much easier. Go figure.

Speedwork – intervals, hill repeats, progressions, and tempo runs – is an important part of my goal to improve short race performance. Problem is, that stuff is uncomfortable, and is supposed to be. When it gets easier, you step it up.

And I don’t like being uncomfortable.

So – why???? I’ll let you know as soon as I figure it out myself.

For now, getting out the door for speedwork means overcoming a certain inertia. It requires an active decision and deliberate action instead of a habit.

So yesterday evening featured a classic bout-with-self about the tempo run. Who would prevail – my brain, who wants the body to get faster? Or my body, which was feeling creaky from a recent race and gym workout, and really wanted to put it off? It went along these lines:

  • Brain: Tempo run time. Body: But I’m TIIIII-RED.
  • Come on, let’s get it over with. Let’s do it tomorrow, okay? We’ll feel better tomorrow.
  • It’s a beautiful, cool day! I’m your body. Listen to me. Coach says!

I’m not going to tell you this again…

And so on…until the pivotal moment. My wife called to tell me she’d be home in an hour. “Okay,” I said. “I’m preparing dinner, and then I’ll probably go for a short run.”

There! One way to overcome inertia is to make a public commitment. Having said I was going to run, now I had to do it. So I prepped dinner and then out the door I went.

I also made a compromise with myself. Because I really was feeling creaky and tired, I limited the tempo portion to three miles. Same intensity, lower volume. That self-promise sealed the deal, and I ran hard and with purpose.

But inertia isn’t always an opponent. When an activity becomes a habit, inertia becomes an ally (for good habits, anyway) and will work for you. Every Wednesday morning at 6 a.m. I go on an easy six-mile run with some of my run club. Was I going to show up today, even after a tough tempo and not being a morning person? Yep!

It’s automatic now, after a couple years of doing it. I laid everything out the night before, and this morning I just tossed on the clothes and went to the run. (Coffee and a treat afterward is a bonus.)

And speaking of bonuses, I’m going to hop into my hot tub. Both parts of me think it’s a pretty good idea.

My Ultrarunning Secret, and Other Pithy Wisdom from the VM150

I slouched in a comfy chair at this year’s Veterans Memorial 150, sipping a Coke and chatting with some Victory Gym staff. One of them heard I’d run the race last year. “150 miles,” he said. “What’s your secret?”

I thought for a moment. These were highly trained veterans who’d seen active service and more hardship than I’d ever know. And they were looking at me, wanting to know how I could run crazy long distances.

What did I tell them? Well, it’s a secret no more. Read on to find out!

This year’s VM150 was held over Memorial Day weekend as always. I have other training priorities this year, but I wanted to be involved somehow. It’s a fundraiser for Victory Gym, a nonprofit gym free for veterans and first responders, and offering support services for those dealing with PTSD. Last year the race raised over $18,000 for the gym.

I decided to run the first leg from Ludington to Scottville, help out at that aid station, and then be available as a pacer Sunday night. I would also collect the event’s waste for recycling and composting through my company, Happy Planet Running.

I showed up Saturday morning in a not-so-subtle red tech shirt, white shorts, and blue shoes. Kurt, the race director, introduced me as last year’s top male finisher, and Rebecca, the top female finisher, who was running the race again.

At the start. I’m just right of center. Rebecca is on my left (I’m looking in her direction), and to her left is Kurt, the race director.

The good news is that we had a record number of 150-mile finishes (seven) and 100-mile finishes (nine). No doubt the cool weather played a big part, with the high temps (low 80s) basically equal to the LOW temps for 2018’s race (with highs of 95+ during the days). Ah, Michigan weather!

Here are some vignettes from my time spent at the race that weekend. First, from that first leg to Scottville:

  • Chatting with Rebecca, whom I hadn’t actually met until now. Six weeks after the 2018 VM150, she’d run the Last Annual Vol State 500K, a 314-mile trek across Tennessee west to east. It took her six days. “Did you have a crew?” I asked. “Nope, I was ‘screwed’,” she said, using that race’s term for an unsupported runner. Where did she eat? Local towns. Where did she sleep? Park benches and churches. Wow. I asked her to talk me out of trying that race, but she refused.
  • Around mile seven, someone’s watch beeped. “Oh, I got all my steps in today,” he said.

At the Scottville aid station, my “helping out” turned out to be sitting around and clanging a cowbell for incoming runners. Tough job, but someone’s gotta…

  • Catching up with Ruth, who’d been unable to finish last year due to health issues. “Rebecca refused to talk me out of running Vol State,” I told her. “Oh, I’m doing Vol State this year,” she said. WTF? Yes, she’d recovered from her health issues. She planned to take the entire ten days allotted. “I figure I can do 50K per day,” she said. Eating and sleeping? See Rebecca’s plan.
  • Micheal Troutt, whom I’d met last year at Victory Gym, was there. He’s now very involved in the Warrior Ethos Foundation, a charity helping disabled veterans with things like house repairs, adjustments for wheelchair access, or finding transportation. This guy is always finding new ways to help people out. America needs a few million more like him.
  • Some Victory Gym staff members were there helping out. One of them heard I’d completed the race last year. “150 miles?” he said with some awe in his voice. “What’s your secret?” They all looked at me. What could I say? What’s a few miles in a safe environment compared with military service in a war zone? And yet ultrarunning is not exactly a typical or easy activity. Finally I had an answer. “Too stupid to quit.”

After the aid station closed, the Victory Gym president drove me back to Ludington. He told me how difficult it can be for veterans to adjust to civilian life, especially those with physical problems. The VA is short on resources, and vets in general don’t like talking about their problems. Over ten buddies of his had committed suicide. “But if they call, we can help them,” he said. “We just need to get them past that initial urge. So we do our best to let veterans know we’re here for them.”

I called Sunday afternoon about pacing, but the remaining runners were all set. So I picked up the collected aid station trash bags and drove to the finish line. I arrived just before midnight. Five solo runners and one relay team were still on the course. Gradually they trickled in, receiving our cheers and their belt buckles from Kurt.

  • Some of the race staff were napping on the picnic tables, wrapped in blankets. Ruth got up and stretched. “How can you possibly be comfortable,” I began, then cut myself off. “Oh yes, Vol State. Never mind.”
  • I chatted with a couple who were crewing. “Who’s your runner?” I asked. “Dean,” they replied. THE Dean? Who’d caught me at mile 35 last year, then gone to the ER with heatstroke? Yep, it was him – and this year he was going to finish! “He used the wet towel this time like you did,” they told me.
  • And then Dean came in! I approached, but he immediately lay down and began stretching while talking to his crew. Finally he sat up and said something about the top finisher. Kurt told him the name. “That guy’s in his fifties?” Kurt shook his head. “I’m talking about that Jackson guy,” Dean mumbled. Everyone laughed. “He’s right behind you!” someone said. He turned, and I shook his hand and congratulated him. “You were my motivation for finishing this year,” he said. Awww.

Dean, second from right, with crew and friends at the finish line.

The last runner finished at 3:30 a.m., and by 4:00 I took my trash and went home. A memorable weekend, even just helping out. Can’t wait for next year!

P.S. If you’d like to see my official sustainability report, with composting and recycling numbers, you can read it on the Happy Planet Running website here.

Being Gratefully Miserable

I sat in the passenger seat of someone’s car, depressed and feeling very sorry for myself. A few minutes before, I had reluctantly handed over my timing chip and withdrawn from the 2015 Glacier Ridge 50-miler. Only ten miles remained but I was dehydrated and lightheaded. The aid station captain and medics had agreed it was a good decision.

A race staff member kindly drove me back to the start/finish area. In an effort to take my mind off myself and what had happened, I asked him if he was an ultrarunner, too.

“I used to,” he replied, “but I can’t anymore.” An enlarged heart had not responded to surgery and even short distances left him out of breath. Running had been big in his life (“my stress relief”) but it was no longer possible.

His story instantly cured my self-pity. I’d failed to finish one race, but there would be more to run. He was done for good. Talk about restoring perspective! I came away from it all the more determined to return the next year and finish the damn race. In 2016 I did just that, and have completed every race since, including two 100-milers and a 150.

2016 – a much happier ending!

I was reminded of this story when reading one of the fitness blogs I follow. A fellow athlete over fifty has developed knee problems. She continues to be active but can no longer run, and it took her some time to come to terms with that. In this post she describes the grief she felt and how she dealt with it.

This year I’m working toward improving my speed and performance at shorter races (up to the half marathon). Training can be hard and uncomfortable, and races can take place in some pretty miserable conditions.

The Winter Switchbacks a few years ago – one of the better sections.

But I can remind myself, even at those times, how fortunate I am to be able to run, and to push myself toward new goals and face new challenges. With trail ultrarunning in particular there’s a sense of adventure and shared experience (re: suffering) that brings me deep satisfaction. I guess that’s what keeps me signing up for the silly things.

When the time comes that, for whatever reason, I can no longer run, I expect that like the people in the stories above, there will be a period of adjustment. But I hope I can look back without any regrets, and be grateful for whatever comes next, and for what I can still do to make life enjoyable.