Wednesday, June 02, 2010

[Health and Fitness] Not Quite Going the Distance

Not Quite Going the Distance: I spend an inordinate amount of time at my health club and otherwise working out. Really, to the point where it's nearly unhealthy. I rarely speak of it because I agree with Haruki Murakami when he says, "A gentleman shouldn't go on about what he does to stay fit." Of course Haruki-san said that in a book about running marathons, so go figure. Most people, when confronted with a description of my workout habits, are confused. Why spend all that time sweating and grunting to stay fit? Why not enjoy life? It's not like you're going to live forever.

Here's the thing. I feel about fitness the way other men feel about golf, or fishing, or old cars, etc. It's my avocation, my escape, my hobby, my outlet. It is not a means to an end, but the end itself. It is one way in which I enjoy life. This post is just a set up because going forward, in outright defiance of Haruki-san, I may post a bit more about my fitness efforts. After all, this is my diary; it's about what I do and how I spend my time, so I really don't have much choice.

I have a number of fitness shortcomings and nemeses. Probably the worst of them is my flexibility, especially hamstrings. It's problem common to most men. And like much in the realm of physical limitations, it is genetic in nature. You can get better at anything through practice, but your DNA imposes certain limits on how much better.

The flexibility thing I can accept, but the most troubling nemesis for me is running. It's been a multi-decade struggle trying to get myself to be a strong distance runner and I haven't yet succeeded. I have friends who habitually knock off half- and full marathons; they speak of it casually, in the same tone as if they just rented a movie or went out for lunch. For me, five miles is a good solid run and I've never gone further than, oh, about 7 miles.

I started running many years ago -- call it the mid-80s. I was living on the western edge of Ypsilanti and I used to run through the various neighborhoods and by Washtenaw Community College. I managed to get a few races in. Did the Briarwood 5k a couple of times. And I did a 5-miler called the Miracle in the Apple Orchard run which basically circled WCC, wherein I finished in just under a 9 minute mile pace. But I plateaued there. No matter what I did I did not seem to get any faster nor did I feel particularly capable of running further.

Then I pretty much gave up running in any serious way. I suffered periodically from painful plantar fasciitis. It would come and go until I realized that had to religiously stretch my calves to keep it at bay. I also, from time to time, gained a fair amount of weight, which is death for a runner. Anyway, running fell by the wayside for years. It was just too uncomfortable and I felt I had better alternatives.

Fast forward to about a year ago and suddenly I started running again. I'm not exactly sure why. Perhaps the biggest reason is hearing friends talk about their running exploits and marathon training and so forth, then coming to the realization that time is quite probably running out on my ability to do such things. Essentially, if I was ever going to get to be a decent distance runner it was now or never (strangely, I'm not getting any younger). So I bought a pair of wonderfully comfortable Nikes and set out running again in earnest.

After about a year of semi-regular training I am, essentially, back where I was decades ago. A solid run is 5 miles at a 9-minute pace. I can push beyond that distance wise to about 7 miles. On level ground, or a treadmill, I can do three miles at about an 8-minute pace. That's it. And trying to push beyond my limits in any significant way has tended to result in little injuries -- stress fractures, strains of all sorts. While there's something to be said for being able to keep up with my quarter-century younger self, it's pretty clear I am never going to run a marathon. I suspect I am just not structurally designed to run vast distances. That DNA thing again.

But I've done a few 5ks. This summer I will do at least one 10k. I'd like to get up to a half-marathon. Folks tell me at that distance it's still a matter of athletic endurance vs. a full marathon which crosses into pain endurance. I've been doing some speed training with a local running group and some trail running which is a new experience and I did a fair amount of cold weather running this winter. Who knows, maybe a light bulb will go on over my head and I'll find the missing clue that leads me to find my inner Masai. Until then, I'll be one of those guys whose name pops up about half-way down the list of finishers in one of the middle-aged groups and is just happy to get a t-shirt and a distressingly ugly photo at the finish line.