How Fit is Fit Enough?

Today’s First World Problem: I enjoy too many different types of exercise.

You already know I love running. I’ve backed off a bit this summer due to a slightly sore hip and the Texas heat, but I still hit the trail a couple times each week. After Hotter’N Hell, I’ll start running more to prepare for the big trail run in October.

My new road bike is a blast to ride, and with Hotter’N Hell 50 coming Aug 25 and a 27-mile warmup race called The Goatneck (?) on July 28, I’m trying to ride three times a week.

So that makes two activities, both of which make my muscles stronger but potentially tighter. To help them stay loose and maintain muscular balance, I’ve been practicing yoga at Jenny’s gym once a week with her guest pass. I’ll probably join eventually once they offer a good deal. So now I’m up to three activities.

As you might have wondered, since I already run and ride, why not add swimming and become a triathlete? I’ve never been a competitive swimmer, but I could probably learn. Or why not take up tennis to strengthen my core further and add some upper-body activity? Or why not hit the weight machines to support all the other work I’m doing?

So far no one has offered to sponsor me as a full-time athlete, and to be honest, I’m not exactly holding my breath. So I still need to make a living. Plus my body needs sleep and food from time to time. And I have two cute little boys and a loving wife and want to spend time with them. My grass grows (much to my chagrin) and needs to be mowed. I go to church and spend time with friends and family.

Something has to give, which leads me to today’s question:

How fit is fit enough?

How would you decide? Does working out four, five, or six days a week make you fit enough? What about three hours a week? Five? Ten? Is it being able to fit into your preferred pant size? Is it winning races in your preferred sport(s)? Is it being satisfied when you look in the mirror? Is it being satisfied with how you feel? Is it a heart rate, blood pressure measurement, or cholesterol level? Is it being able to run/ride/swim a certain distance or lift a certain amount of weight? Is it not being tired at the top of the stairs or being able to pick up your children or grandchildren?

I’m still working through this question myself and suspect it will take a little while to find the right balance. I definitely need to limit my activity to some extent, so don’t look for me in the Hawaii Ironman anytime soon. Rest days are important, so I’ll need at least one or two each week. Perhaps some days I’ll ride a bit and then run a bit, or maybe ride to the gym for a yoga class.

For those of you who do exercise, how do you decide how much to do?

I Haven’t Peaked Yet

People who analyze these things say that for any given sport, athletes typically achieve their top performance around a certain age and then gradually decline until they retire. Female gymnasts peak in their late teens. Swimmers of both genders peak in their early twenties. Tennis players peak in their early to mid twenties. Soccer, football, baseball, and basketball players peak in their mid to late twenties. Naturally, some athletes don’t fit the normal bell curve, such as swimmer Dara Torres, who won three Olympic silver medals in 2008 at age 41. But most athletes fall pretty close. This article and this article discuss the typical ages of peak performance in various sports and some more detail on how and why athletes improve, peak, and decline.

However, this model assumes that the athlete has trained hard for years prior to the “optimum” age range in order to peak then. On an individual level, the timeline might be different for someone who picks up the sport later in life.

This is good news for me.

Distance runners tend to peak in their late twenties and early thirties. Indeed, in my last 10k a few weeks ago, the overall winner was a 31-year-old man who beat me by 10 minutes. Since I’m in my mid-thirties now, I should be starting my downhill slide into slowness. But I still have hope. I didn’t get serious about running until a couple of years ago. I missed years of training prior to what should have been my best years. So if I work hard, I should be able to keep improving for a while, maybe a few years or even more, until I become the fastest I can be. Fortunately, running is a sport one can do well for decades, and there are 50- and 60-year-olds still run times that I’ll never touch. So it’s not like I’ll suddenly turn into a turtle four years from now.

A day will come when I set my final personal record (PR). I won’t know until afterward, though, when I keep trying to beat it and never succeed, and I finally accept that I’ve crested the hill. That will be a bittersweet realization. After that, I’ll run every race expecting to finish behind the young phantom Andy who’s waiting for me at the finish line, swigging Gatorade and checking his mile splits on the iPhone.

But I haven’t peaked yet. I can still do better. I can still get stronger and go faster. I can still improve my technique and run more efficiently. I can still add fuel to the fire.

And I will.

Thoughts for 5/9/2012

Look, I threw in a picture! It’s not my picture, but I liked it and stole it from the Interwebs.

Lots of thoughts today, but none big enough to put into its own post (for now). So here are some things to chew on:

  • I am disappointed but not surprised by the victory for Amendment One in North Carolina, which enshrines a ban on gay marriage in the state constitution. However, I am hopeful that if the Supreme Court decides to rule on the issue of gay marriage within a year or two, laws like Amendment One and California’s Prop 8 will be ruled unconstitutional, effectively authorizing gay marriage throughout the country. If Obama is re-elected, I think he’ll fully support gay marriage in his second term. He can’t do it right now because it would cost him some crucial independent votes.
  • During my run, I found a guy letting his dog take a dump in his neighbor’s yard. He walked off like nothing had happened. Nope, not today, jerk. When I got close, I asked if he had a bag. Looking embarrassed, he muttered something and turned back. I kept running, so I’m not sure whether he actually cleaned it up or not. I should have asked him where his house was so I could go take a dump in his yard.
  • Dear clowns who call in bomb threats for flights (if any of them happen to follow all you’re doing is wasting everyone’s time and delaying flights. Real bombers probably don’t bother to call.
  • I’m running about 20 miles a week now and plan to roughly maintain that level through the summer, although not setting any speed records due to the heat. I’m generally doing 6 miles on Monday, 4 on Wednesday, and 10-11 on Saturday. If I run-walk and hydrate enough, which is means a LOT of water for me because I sweat like a soaker hose, I can handle the heat OK even on a long run. I just got a new style of knee brace, a compression sleeve that covers my whole patella, and I’m liking it so far. I might get another one for my other knee. That way I can be symmetrical, and there will be joy.
  • With the possibility of our first family trip to Disney World looming next year, I’ve started thinking about booking flights. I haven’t bought a real airline ticket in 15 years, so it’s a bit odd to think about flights like a normal customer rather than a nonrev. I’m most concerned about price and departure/arrival time and mostly unconcerned with the number of people onboard. It’s completely backwards! Also, it turns out that flying is pretty expensive. Fortunately, I should have enough Rapid Rewards points to get at least three of our tickets, maybe even all four.
  • I am tired of hearing people mention factors like race and sexual orientation in casual conversation when those qualities have zero relevance to the story they’re telling. If it matters to your story that a person is black or gay or Mexican or mentally retarded or whatever, then by all means include it. Otherwise, he’s just “a guy”, not “a black guy”. When you toss in irrelevant information, you’re simply revealing your prejudice toward those people.
  • One of my Facebook buddies is the community pastor at my church. I thought she seemed cool, so I friended her on Facebook. Our main connection is running. Until we raced together last month, I’d never held a real conversation with her in person. Our interaction had solely come through Facebook and an occasional “hi” at church. These are some of the strange types of relationships that social media makes possible.
  • I write one check per month. It goes to my boys’ preschool. I pay everything else online or automatically via my credit card. Checks are not my friend. Unless, of course, someone wants to give one to me. Then they are great.
  • Have I mentioned lately how glad I am not to be famous? No interviews, no paparrazzi, no public scandals, no pressure to please millions of diverse people. It’s also kinda nice not to be rich, either. Being a millionaire would change me somehow, and maybe not for the better. Plus I don’t have to worry about sycophants and thieves who want things from me.

My Next Adventure

This October, I plan to turn 34 years old. What better way to celebrate than by running through the gorgeous woods of East Texas? I’ve signed up for Whispering Pines Trail Run, a 25k (15.5 mile) run through beautiful Tyler State Park on October 13. This race is awesome because:

  • It’s a long trail run in East Texas in October!
  • It’s cup-free, meaning each runner needs to bring a water bottle or pouch so we don’t trash the park with thousands of ugly water cups.
  • It’s cheap for a race like this.
  • The organizers are really enthusiastic and eco-friendly.
  • The official shirt is bamboo and organic cotton.

Jenny and I will spend the weekend in the Tyler area and might visit some wineries or try something cultural after the race. Whatever we do, it will not involve much walking.

The only true trail races I’ve done were 5k, and this one will be even farther than my half marathon. It will definitely test my limits. But I think I can make it if I slow down and walk more, especially with six months to train. This race will be more about the experience than about going fast.

Pace Yourself

Ninety percent of this game is half-mental. – Yogi Berra

I never had much interest in NASCAR. Someone said NASCAR can be boiled down to four words: “Go fast. Turn left.” From what I could tell from intermittent glimpses at the TV, that was an accurate assessment. But then a NASCAR fan tried to explain what’s going on behind the scenes – the timing of pit stops, which maintenance to perform during each stop and the tradeoffs involved, the strategy of pacing oneself and managing the race well, how to make a move at the right time. Finally, I could understand the appeal. There’s a lot more to racing than keeping the gas pedal down for hundreds of laps.

Running races is very similar. To a non-runner, it might seem that racing is simply putting one foot in front of the other as fast as possible. However, as with NASCAR, there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes, largely in the runner’s head. Prior to the race, the runner develops a race plan that includes prep before the race, getting there, the race itself, and recovery. Pacing is one of the most important elements of the plan. It’s also one of the hardest to master.

Cruise Control

As far as I understand, a race car can run at full speed until it runs out of gas or its engine overheats. The human body doesn’t work that way. We can only truly run at full speed for a short distance, perhaps 100-200 meters. That’s why the 100 meter dash is the shortest and most prestigious running event and the male winner is known as the World’s Fastest Man. Currently that man is Usain Bolt, who averaged 23.4 mph during his record-setting sprint. That’s insane. I can’t maintain that speed on my bike without a tailwind or a downhill slope.

However, past about 200 meters, the human body can’t maintain that speed. The longer the distance, the slower a runner’s best possible speed must be over that distance. So a runner has two choices:

  1. Run as fast as possible for as long as possible (max effort available at that moment, which declines over time)
  2. Run the fastest speed that is sustainable over the full distance

Option 2 is actually faster than Option 1. If a runner starts at full speed, he’ll run out of juice and slow down considerably in the latter part of the race, producing a slower overall time compared to a consistent, fast pace. The elite runners generally run a very consistent pace from lap to lap and mile to mile, like they’re on cruise control. Ideally, they may even get faster as the race progresses, an achievement known as negative splits, the sign of a disciplined runner.

However, if a runner starts too slowly, he can cost himself some time because he won’t be able to go fast enough toward the end to catch up to his ideal overall pace. For instance, suppose his target pace is 8:00 min/mile for a 6.2 mile race (just under 50 minutes total). He plays it safe and runs the first four miles at 9:00 min/mile. He’ll have to run the final 2.2 miles at 6:21 min/mile, a pace that he probably can’t sustain.

Racers need to leave something in the tank for the end of the race, but not so much that anything is left at the end if they want to achieve their best possible time. They need to burn their last bit of useful energy as they cross the finish line. It’s a delicate balancing act.

The Sweet Spot

To get there, when training for a race of a given distance, the runner must estimate how fast he can realistically go and what his target pace is for that particular race. That’s one reason runners log so many miles and try so many different speeds. Finding the sweet spot takes some trial and error. If he starts out too fast, even just a bit too fast rather than full speed, he’ll wear out before the race is over and slow down to well over his target pace, resulting in a disappointing finish. This is a common mistake that I still commit myself.

In addition to knowing his body, it helps to know about other factors that will affect his pace on race day:

  • Course – Is it hilly or flat? Paved or trail? A flat, paved course is significantly faster than a hilly, dirt trail where footing is unpredictable.
  • Weather – What will be the temperature when the race starts and ends? Cool weather is best for running. Above 65 degrees, the body becomes less efficient at cooling itself off. I slow down noticeably above 70-75 degrees compared to 40-50. Will it be windy? A headwind can slow the runner down more than a tailwind speeds him up. Will it rain? Wet courses require a slower pace due to the poor footing. No one wants to leave the race with a broken ankle.
  • Other Racers – A popular, crowded race means more runners to dodge and a slower pace, especially at first before the runners spread out. Small races are best for setting personal best times.
  • Aid Stations – Does he plan to stop for water, electrolyte drinks, and/or snacks? Or can he carry what he needs? Obviously, any stops increase the time. I try to carry my water and any gels with me so I don’t need to stop.

On top of all these factors, the excitement and adrenaline of race day works against runners in terms of pacing. When the starting horn sounds, and they finally get to begin the race for which they’ve been training over several weeks or even months, they feel like someone just opened the gates at Disney World. They don’t feel like being slow and methodical and disciplined. They want to MOVE. Even if they try to hold back, many of the other runners do not, especially in a large race. It’s like being caught in a flash flood, a massive surge of bodies pulling runners along whether they like it or not.

Pacing is tricky. I’m still working on it. In my race Saturday morning (Run for Cover 10K in McKinney), I started out a bit too fast, got tired, and slowed down in the final mile. I missed my goal by about 35 seconds. So I signed up for another 10K in two weeks, hoping to redeem myself. This time I’ll tweak my plan based on what I learned yesterday morning and in all my other races. I hope to force myself to slow down at first so that I can kick it up a notch in the second half. I’ll also push myself to give just a little bit more at the end so there’s nothing left in the tank.

“Live” Blog from the Cowtown Half

I did it! I finished the Cowtown Half Marathon on Sunday morning, scratching off one more item from my bucket list. It was a blast, but I’ll be honest: it was really hard at the end, and I’m still recovering. Despite my training plan, my legs weren’t quite ready for that distance. I might or might not try a half again depending on how my future training goes. But I had a blast and am very glad I did it. Thanks for all your support!

I don’t use Twitter (yet?), but if I did, and Siri could understand more than half what I say, I might have live-blogged the morning something like this:

4:05am: Ugh. I wake up nearly an hour early and toss and turn until my alarm goes off. This is normal for me on the very rare occasion that I have to wake up at a normal hour for some special event. I’m too excited to sleep.

4:55am: Get up, eat, and pull on my sexy-and-I-know-it black compression pants that aren’t spandex tights. It’s frickin’ cold out there. I debate what to wear on top and go with a long-sleeved tech shirt under my official short-sleeved Cowtown t-shirt that I got yesterday.

5:45am: Rolling out. The fam is still asleep. The only people driving around right now are drunks going home and crazy runners going to Cowtown. Plus maybe a few of my coworkers going to/from work. I hope those three groups don’t overlap.

6:10am: Stuck in a half-mile line of cars on I-30 trying to get to the race via Montgomery. Wish I’d left earlier. 8000 people take some time to get situated, Box. Panic a bit until I find a reroute. Thanks again, mighty iPhone, for the Maps app.

6:23am: Parked. Fiddling with my gear. Who knew such a simple activity could require so much stuff? Knee brace, pat strap, water bottle, inhaler, chip timer, bib with pins, gels, baggie for used gel packets, iPhone, earbuds, armband…Maybe I need a murse.

6:30am: Done. Must pee before race. Must pee before race. Don’t be THAT GUY who gets a UIP from Fort Worth’s finest during the race because he can’t wait any longer. My coffee will kick in momentarily. I couldn’t find on the website whether they have port-a-potties on the course. Surely they do…right????

6:50am: Hundreds of people waiting for port-a-potties near the start line. Quick math tells me that the 30 people ahead of me in line for these 2 port-a-potties won’t be done by the starting gun at 7:00. #dontpanicdontpanicdontpanic

6:55am: The bathroom line inside is only for the stalls, not the urinals, some guy says. Several of us sneak in through the bathroom exit and discover he was right. BLAM!

7:02am: Let’s roll! Our corral shuffles toward the finish line like a herd of cows. It is Cowtown, after all. Even though I lined up where the sign for Corral 2 was, the announcer is addressing us as Corral 3. Katy Perry is blaring on the speakers. I groove a bit. Purely to stay warm, of course.

7:05am: GO!

Mile 1: I feel great. After a really light week, my legs feel full of energy. With little effort, I’m going faster than my intended race pace. I want to run-walk to help my knees last longer, alternating 4 minutes running at 8:00/min with 1 minute walking at 12:00-15:00/mile. I should slow down, but meh. I’m having too much fun. The weather is perfect. The sky is lightening to a beautiful pale blue-gray.

I pass through Trinity Park. I spent an afternoon near this park in 1998 with my crazy college roommate, Craig, and two girls from nearby TCU. That was a nice day. I haven’t been here in over a decade. It’s like I’ve run back in time.

Mile 1.5: Yep, the water stations do have port-a-potties, although who wants to waste time on the course in one of those? Starting to see spectators with signs, mostly family members of the runners. Some have signs – encouraging, silly, scriptural, funny. It’s nice to have people come out just to cheer us on. Ten years ago I ran Cowtown for the first time (10k distance). A sweet girl named Jenny Matthews gave up her Saturday morning to ride out with me and meet me at the finish line. Anyone who wakes up early to stand and yell in the cold for average Joes like us is definitely a keeper.

Mile 2: I pass Fellowship Church’s Fort Worth campus. A few volunteers or staff are outside playing really loud hip-hop music, presumably the 2012 version of DC Talk or T-Bone. It hits me that the music sounds like regular hip-hop unless you listen hard to the words. A poster of senior pastor Ed Young stands along the sidewalk. Why do so many churches use their senior pastor as part of their branding?

Mile 3: We pass a graveyard and a funeral home. Did the course designers think some of us weren’t ready for this?

Mile 4: So far so good. My legs, lungs, and everything else feels fine. First gel – vanilla-strawberry e-Gel, 150 calories per packet. Mmm. I actually like this stuff. I preemptively stop and stretch my quads and hamstrings, hoping to keep them from tightening up. I turn away from the oncoming runners so it doesn’t look like I’m mooning them.

Mile 4.5: Getting a bit warm and sweatier than I prefer. I take off my gloves. Then I stop for a wardrobe change. I remove my armband and both shirts, tie the long-sleeved shirt around my waist, put the short-sleeved shirt back on, and rearrange my armband and earbud cord. Total time wasted due to tactical error: 1-2 minutes. But I feel much cooler, so I figure it was worthwhile knowing I still have over an hour left.

Mile 6.2: I cross an electronic mat that supposedly sends an update text to my wife, mom, and sister. We’re running through the Stockyards on a bumpy brick road. Lots of spectators here. Even though I don’t know any of them, it’s nice to have a cheering section. Almost halfway there. Still going strong and right on pace. This time last year, I was already done, and my knee was killing me. Not this year, baby.

Mile 7: After a bit of empirical research, I conclude that female long-distance runners tend to have nice butts.

Mile 8: Gel #2 and a stretch break. The sun is getting higher. Shoulda brought sunglasses. Rookie mistake. Feeling a bit tired now, and I know The Hill is coming soon. Some good spectator signs here: “Where are you people going??” “Run faster, I’m bored!” “My feet hurt from standing here”

Mile 8.5: I see a guy running in a Chick-Fil-A cow suit. The spectators like to give him five and cheer, “Go Cow!”

Mile 8:75: I see another guy running in a tuxedo. He’s wearing an Al’s Formal Wear sign on his back. I hope they dry-clean that thing before they rent it out again.

Mile 9: The Hill, a half-mile climb up Main Street toward downtown and Sundance Square. I remember it from my first Cowtown 10k a decade ago. I trained for this hill. I own this hill. I’m mentally prepared for this hill – power through, use your abs, lift your legs. I pass several people and feel slightly superior. But I’m feeling the many miles I’ve already covered. Finally, I reach the top and head south on Houston. I love this area. Fans are everywhere.

Mile 9.75: Still trailing The Cow slightly. A team of runners is sponsored by America’s Beef Council or something. The team has a fan along the route that has a sign that said, “Powered by BEEF!!” The Cow saw it and was not amused.

Mile 10: Just a 5k to go. Right patellar tendon is getting tight. I am tired. The Hill took more out of me than I expected. My form has declined. We split off from the marathoners and ultramarathoners here and turn west toward Will Rogers and the finish line. I down my final gel and press on.

Mile 11: My phone says I crossed 11 miles about 2-3 minutes ago, but the 11-mile sign and timing mat are here. Hmm. Something is off. But I’m too tired to think about it. After this, I’m in uncharted waters. I’ve never run more than 11 miles before. My right knee hurts, and now my left knee is getting tight. Not unexpected, but not good, either. Two miles left. Come on, Box.

Mile 12: I’m on a very, very, very long bridge. The longest bridge in the world. My phone still says I’m right at my goal pace but starting to creep above it. I give up on the walk breaks to drive my average pace back down. I don’t want to leave anything on the course. By this point I know I’ll finish, so I focus on trying to finish under 9:00/mile rather than trying to save my legs for the end. This is the end. I get passed by The Cow.

Mile 12.85: According to my phone, at my pace, I should be finishing right now. But the finish line isn’t here. My phone has led me astray. Oh well. Just power through. I am exhausted. My legs barely have any strength left. Both knees hurt, and the pain alters my stride. Don’t walk, don’t walk, don’t walk…

Finish: I DID IT. I cross the line, raise my hands, and let out a primal triumphant scream that probably scared some poor little kid in the crowd. I DID IT. An asthmatic with IT band syndrome, who at one point wasn’t sure he would ever be able to run again, ran 13.1 miles. Finish time: 2:00:55 officially. A junior high girl puts a finisher’s medal around my neck. I limp toward an open area to rest and stretch and get a guy to take my picture.

Aftermath: I limp into the exhibit hall to pick up my finisher’s t-shirt and some grub. It’s a nice spread – hot soup, bananas, bagels, yogurt, crackers, and best of all, Blue Bell ice cream. I run into my triathlon buddy Chris from work, the one who introduced me to e-Gel and recommended training for hills. I finally sit down for a few minutes and see the Likes and positive comments that people are sending me. I am a mix of emotions – joy at having finished, satisfaction, relief, a touch of disappointment because it’s over and I’m not registered for anything else right now, concern that my knees are still hurting instead of immediately improving after I stop running, pride, camaraderie, gratitude, wonder.

I drive home, assure my mother that I had indeed survived, take a shower for the sake of all around me, and head to Braum’s. My phone said I’d burned about 1700 calories with that run, so I figure I’d earned a celebratory cheeseburger in my blue finisher’s shirt. I sit alone, quietly enjoying my meal. A guy sits alone a few booths down from me. After a few minutes, he looks at my shirt and says, “Did you run today?”

“Yes, I did,” I replied.