28 February 2015

How Quickly We Forget

In barely an hour, Spring arrives, at least by my reckoning. March First! Day 60 of the challenge! And yet, once again it’s dropping to the single digits tonight, and once again the call is out for another four to six inches of snow tomorrow eve. But it doesn’t matter. The sun is high, the forecast is for warming, and daylight savings time will be here in a week. It’s over. Winter, that is.

But something else is just beginning again: racing. It’s beginning again not because winter is ending (though more significant races have been cancelled or postponed than I’ve ever seen, so this year we did need winter to end for racing to start!) but because it’s been over four months since I toed the line. The last time was at Baystate, a race that went swimmingly till suddenly it didn’t, leading to a significant injury time-out, protective custody to keep me out of favorites like New Year’s Day’s Freezer, and a slow return to reasonable, though certainly not optimal, fitness.

Four months, tough training conditions, no speed work, weight on, weight off, and it’s time to race, which leads to the inevitable question, well, how fast can I go now? How fast should I go now? It’s not so simple as just bolting away with abandon. A decent performance requires decent pacing, and decent pacing requires some knowledge of capabilities. The wrong strategy means leaving too much on the course…or being scraped off the course with a spatula. And while four months isn’t really that long, four months with complications makes that strategy a complete mystery.

It’s really amazing how quickly we forget.

Racing is a funny thing. You forget how to do it in no time. Not as in forgetting how to ride a bike, not as in not knowing what to do with each leg in succession (no, left-left, right-right really doesn’t work), but you forget what you’re capable of and therefore how hard to go after that threshold. The only cure is…racing. My times of peak racing always come not just with consistent training, but with plenty of racing.

The plan was to ease in with my local Highland City Strider club’s annual tradition of re-assembling our masters team for the Hyannis Marathon relay. But alas, like the Martha’s Vineyard Twenty-Miler the week before, which sanely belied its slogan of “No Weenies” by cancelling when they couldn’t find the paths that the race was to traverse, the folks in Hyannis threw in the towel, or should I say they tossed off the Cape, in the face of overwhelmingly bad road conditions.

As far as easing back into racing and starting the process of capability rediscovery, Hyannis had three things going for it. First, it’s a relatively short (seven mile) leg. Second, it’s an easy course; that leg having one small hill that barely registers in my book. Third, and most importantly, being a relay, everyone’s performance matters, but there’s no microscope on anyone’s, and at the end of the day, we do this as a fun club excursion. It’s not all that competitive. It just doesn’t matter. It’s a perfect return-to-racing laboratory.

So why was it that within hours of learning of its cancellation, there I was, answering that email from my Greater Boston buds to join the team at the Amherst 10-Miler? The Grand Prix Amherst 10-Miler. As in, the every ringer in New England will show, guaranteeing you will get your butt kicked Amherst 10-Miler. Why?

Part of the answer is that I didn’t do much for my Greater Boston buds over the last year of injuries and wanted to fly the flag. Part of the answer is that I miss Amherst every year for Hyannis, and, well, I was curious. But the real reason was because I’d forgotten how to race, really needed to start that recollection rehab process, and my vehicle to do so had just dried up. I was signed up before I’d even looked really closely at the course profile which was, courtesy of its creator some forty years ago, GBTC’s own Tom Derderian, brilliantly challenging, brilliantly evil.

So instead of low-pressure fun and easy seven, I was now committed to a highly visible uber-competitive, diabolically hilly ten. Seven to ten may not seem like a big jump, but the other factors made it feel like triple the challenge. And just to add flavor, it was only after I’d picked my target pace and locked my brain around it that I learned that over two miles of this beast was on a dirt road, which, in the Winter from Hell, though pleasantly on the nicest day we’d seen in a long time during the Winter from Hell, meant snow and mud to help your target time slip-slide away.

How quickly we forget. How about something so simple as lining up at the start? Certainly not up front, this is Grand Prix, I’d be killed up there. As it was, I chose too conservatively and lost a bit to traffic on the snow-narrowed roads. Not that it mattered much in the end, but it just reminded me how quickly we forget the details.

And certainly not that it mattered in placing. You don’t go to a Grand Prix race with any expectation of hardware. By the time the course straightened out enough to see ahead any considerable distance, those ahead were gone at far more than a considerable distance. These races will make you feel small. While you might be in the top few in a local race, here there are hordes ahead, and not because there are twenty-five thousand in the race a-la-Boston. On this day, in a six-hundred person race, I wouldn’t crack the top quarter, so you’re not battling for place, it’s just you against you. How tough can you stay, mentally, to stay on pace through ten? And not just any ten, but a brutal ten?

The course is a “lollypop”, the first two-and-a-half being out and back, with a five-mile loop in the middle. The bulk of the out part of the out and back is downhill, planting firmly in your mind that you’ll have a treat of a climb at the end. But it’s the loop where the real action is, starting with climb so tremendous that it added a solid minute and a half to my mile three split compared to miles one and two. So bad that those I was paired with when hitting the three-mile marker groaned and insisted I not tell them the embarrassing number I’d just read off my watch.

After being hit by that blunt force trauma, there was no recovery and thus no settling in till it was over, which was a long, long ways away. Even the long downhill through mile six required mental effort; I’m not a natural downhiller and have to force the stride open. Then, the climb on the back part of the out and back surprised me only in that the part I expected to be the worst wasn’t, though that was no consolation as the part I didn’t expect, was twice that. This was the kind of race where I was quite pleased that the professional photographer, who happened to be sitting on that climb, stopped snapping pictures of passing racers a dozen or so worn faces before mine appeared. Short of visual evidence of the crime, that sort of imagery really didn’t need to be seen.

I already mentioned that I was pummeled in the standings, though I did get minor consolation of rising about forty notches in the age-graded stats. But I’m calling it a win. Even with the unexpected snow & mud, I hit my target pace within a second. I’ve got a data point. I’m starting to remember what I’d forgotten. A few more of these and it’ll seem like old hat again.

And about the time I finish this column…it’s Spring. At last.

21 February 2015

Science Non-Denial

As I sit down to write, it’s snowing once again. If this is a surprise to you, please remove your head from the orifice in which it has been inserted. And as for that previous comment, yes, I know I’ve always said that I write a family-safe column. At this point in this winter, I just don’t care anymore.

Normally at this time of year, I’m elated that we’ve blown through the eighty-percent mark on the Sixty Day Challenge and that my definition of Spring is just days away. This year, I’m fighting off the feeling of being beaten. My soul says, “Never Surrender!” but my body has had quite enough. Never before have I succumbed to the terrors of the treadmill to the extent of these past few weeks.

Today I took a zero on a Saturday, an event exceedingly rare. With a forecast of four degrees at eight AM, not unprecedented for running but just not attractive, I passed on the club’s donut run. Then, after several hours on a ladder whacking ice off the roof (a rather futile enterprise but it made me feel I’d done something to stave off the coming melt disaster) and emerging thoroughly chilled, the thought of getting out for a few miles in the afternoon, after the snow started falling, seemed, well, cold. Really, really cold. And with a race tomorrow – not the planned Hyannis relay which was cancelled due to snow-clogged roads, but an alternate race that I cannot for the life of me figure out why I was stupid enough to sign up for – staying inside and laying low seemed attractive.

Perhaps worse than the weather has been listening to the science deniers who proclaim that all of this snow and bone-chilling arctic air disprove the theory of human-induced climate change. It’s a core tenet of climate science that overall warming does not mean warming everywhere. It means increased volatility and changes to established patterns. One aspect of current thinking is that with the warming of the Arctic and subsequent loss of polar sea ice, the temperature differential between the polar and mid latitudes has diminished, which has weakened the jet stream, which has allowed more meanders in the atmosphere (think a slow, meandering river compared to a fast-running stream), which allows air masses to dive northward or southward more than in typical years, which results in pretty much exactly what we’re seeing.

Unlike certain politicians who recently have been afraid to admit their stances on basic sciences like evolution (seriously? didn’t we settle that one long ago?), I have confidence in the scientific process and the resulting knowledge that enhances our lives daily. Science debate is healthy. Science denial is ignorance. Ignorance of the process by which scientific knowledge is created, ignorance of the science we live by every day, and ignorance of the consequences that such denial can bring, especially if that denier is in a position of political influence. Go ahead, just ask that denier how they got to the rally they’re speaking at, and when they hold up their cell phone with the GPS app, ask them how it works – and how mankind figured out how to make it work. Science.

Which brings us to the news of last week, the much ballyhooed (I’ve been waiting years to use that word!) story paraded through the media of how running too much or too fast will kill us. (Yes, this column is about running; we do have to return to that topic.) Said study, published in the American College of Cardiologists journal, reported on the findings of the Copenhagen (Denmark) City Heart Study, and concluded, not unexpectedly, that “People who are physically active have at least a 30% lower risk of death during follow-up compared with those who are inactive.” So far, so good.

But then it gets interesting, and we get to the part where the media, always ripe for an angle and an argument to drive twenty-four hour coverage, tried to pick a fight. And I’ll admit they succeeded. I joined the fight, posting some rather pointed comments on various social media sites. But it’s worth stepping back a bit and looking at the whole story.

The second sentence in the abstract of the study (full disclosure: all I’ve seen is the abstract, since I’m not interested in paying to gain access to the whole study, so correct me if you’ve got the whole thing and I misspeak) states clearly, “However, the ideal dose of exercise for improving longevity is uncertain.” That too, would seem a reasonable statement. Every perspective is relative. Couch potatoes think light joggers are extremists. Light joggers view typical runners who actually race as hard-core. Typical runners see die-hard fossils like yours truly as a bit daft. And die-hards look at anyone who’s considered the Western States 100-Miler as a bit off their boat. It’s a given that at some level, too much of anything will kill you, so the authors’ statement is not unreasonable, no matter how much any one of you thinks you exercise an optimal amount.

Next, we get into the core of how science works, and this is where everything falls down, because I’d hazard that most in the media, and indeed most in the general public, aren’t enlightened on the process. In the simplest terms, you run a study, you publish the results. But the subtle key bit is that it’s unethical not to publish your results, even if they don’t match what you want or expect to see. It’s up to the rest of the scientific community to examine your methods to determine merits or correctable flaws and to try to replicate or repudiate your results based on further studies. One study doesn’t make knowledge. Replicable results do.

In keeping with proper ethics, the Copenhagen Study published their results, and they happened to show that in their study group, the lightest of the light joggers had a greater tendency not to die. (I describe them as lightest of light because the pace described only marginally exceeded a fast walk.) More average joggers had a slightly higher tendency to die. And the “strenuous” joggers (I use those dreaded double quotes because what was described as strenuous encompassed most of the runners I know, be they slow, middling, or fast) did, in fact, die most often. (Perhaps that odd wording, as none in fact died more than once, but you get the picture.) Whether they were surprised by this or not is irrelevant; they fulfilled their responsibility to publish. Reacting to the results, a researcher involved in the study was quoted as saying, "No exercise recommendations across the globe mention an upper limit for safe exercise, but perhaps there is one.”

The media, of course, had a field day. One could probably guess that most of those in the media who ran this up the flagpole rarely run the length of a flagpole, but that’s beside the point.

It’s perfectly acceptable to state that there may be a healthy upper limit for exercise. There are probably also healthy upper limits for broccoli, fish oil, and meditation.

It’s perfectly acceptable for us runner types to look at the study and guffaw at their category definitions of light, moderate, and strenuous.

It’s perfectly required of the scientific community to look at the study and determine its merits and flaws. To me, two stand out immediately. First, the sample size of strenuous joggers and the number of deaths in that tranche don’t provide enough statistical certainty to determine anything. Second, the causes of the two deaths in that group aren’t revealed, at least in the abstract. They’re labelled only as “All Causes” and for all we know, they were hit by a falling hyena in a freak zoo accident (but even if they died mid-stride, see Flaw One). The authors seem to recognize these facts, thus while they ethically report the data they found, they clearly state in their abstract that the optimal amount of exercise is uncertain.

This is one study. It is not knowledge. It is a data point to be replicated or repudiated. The media doesn’t get that. They just want news. But it brings up a good point when we go back to the weather. The media wants news, eyeballs, advertisements, revenue. They portray opposing sides of the climate change debate as having equal standing, because it makes for news. Any chink in the armor of one side grabs more headlines, sells more ads. But in this case, it’s not just one study. It is an overwhelming, nearly unanimous agreement of many, many studies and most people in the scientific community. It is knowledge. We can debate the details of how, and what to do, but it is knowledge. And it’s all of our responsibility to understand the scientific process so we understand why that is so. If we do, we can certainly question specific studies, but we can’t deny the very scientific process that brought us the technological capabilities to receive that twenty-four-hour news on the amazing device we carry in our pocket in the first place

Can one blame the public? I think I got a great education both in secondary school as well as at both of the colleges from which I graduated, yet through all those years of learning, never did anyone explain the process of peer-reviewed research. Only self-directed reading later in life lit me up on it. It’s no wonder most don’t get it, but we all need to. We’ve got to put a filter on the media, look behind the headlines, and understand the scientific process. Self-immolation through ignorance is a terrible way to go.

So at some point science might eventually tell me that all this running is folly, and if so, I can’t deny it. But at least I can enjoy the other benefits. A few days ago on a lunch-hour nine-miler, I came upon an unlucky motorist who, in an attempt to avoid an oncoming Behemoth SUV hogging the bulk of the curved, snow-covered and narrowed lane-and-a-half-wide road, ended up hung up on a massive snowbank. I can’t say that I was able to do a lot; a bit of digging, a little pushing (New England cross-training), some advice and moral support, but twenty minutes later we succeeded in freeing and sending him on his way. I ran off with a story and the satisfaction of leaving a little gratitude in my wake. That’s worth it.

09 February 2015

Helluva Hump

Saturday morning arrived with the kind of surprise that tells you that you’ve dug in, you’re into the winter thing waist-deep (literally). Rolling out of bed with nary a minute to spare to meet my local club-mates for our weekly donut run, I depended on the forecast from the night before and slid on the one and only pair of fleece tights I own, the ones reserved for sub-twenty days, since the Weather Gods had called for eleven to fourteen. Creaking stiffly down the stairs, I made a quick diversion to check the thermometer mounted in the dining room and – say what? It read twenty-three. And I thought, wow, it’s warm outside!

When twenty-three seems warm – and indeed, that morning’s run did feel warm and comfortable – it’s time for spring to set your sanity back in order. And to my way to thinking, it’s near, having passed the halfway point in the Sixty-Day Challenge (my definition of winter as the sixty days from January First to March First, after which is it spring, no matter what the calendar reads). Hump Day was January Thirtieth. For a while there it looked like we’d make the Hump with a light sentence. Ah, how wrong we can be. Summer has dog days. Clearly we’re in the sled dog days.

You’ve lived in a cave in the tropics out of range of all media if you don’t know about the blizzard that started New England on the catch-up trail to Buffalo status. Round One: Thirty-six inches – measured personally and confirmed officially in Hudson, just a mile from my front step – awarding us the crowing apex of the Blizzard Snowfall Derby. Six hours of hard shoveling over two days – I prefer an aggressive, rhythmic style – helped ratchet up the logged count of upper body workouts. Round Two - another eighteen inches less than a week later. And ignoring some noise of a few extra inches here and there in-between, Round Three, still tapering off, has added close to another foot and a half. We’re talking about six feet in two weeks. It’s enough to even make this native Upstate New York boy both proud and amazed, and dreading the melt behind the already massive ice dams.

School has been off more than on, the venerable Martha’s Vineyard Twenty-Miler has been cancelled, Massachusetts’ groundhog muttered something unprintable, and probably the most unthinkable result, I’ve actually hit the Hamster Cage (a.k.a. the dreadmill) more than once. Suffice to say it’s been a helluva hump. Yet amidst all of this, good things are happening.

Various bits that have been hurting actually seem to be healing. The Achilles feels better than it has in a long time. A brief scare with an inflamed sessamoid, the bit under the ball of your foot (very scary to me since that was the genesis of the Torn Tendon of Oh-Eight) passed by in the night with the tried-and-true medication of running right through it. And despite the snow, I’ve turned up the mileage dial, hitting two-hundred on the nose for January and getting a good jump on this month, resulting in at least a mild semblance of returning to a decent level of fitness. Not in spades, not in racing shape, but certainly in small, bite-size chunks. Hard work would seem to be paying off.

Let’s face it, there’s nothing like adversity to inspire. Damn the torpedoes, we’re over the Hump, even if a Helluva Hump it has been. Three weeks till spring.