Category Archives: Life Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness

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.

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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!

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

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.