Thursday, October 18, 2012

Get up that wall! Go Go Go!

Your feet slap the concrete, a staccato beat overlapping the in-out rasp of your breath, which in turn overlaps the hammering of your heart. You inhale as one foot goes down and exhale on the other, just like they taught in high school track to fend off side stitches. Your arms pump at your sides, pistons in a regular motion, kidney punches to an invisible opponent. The whole coordinated operation is a series of layered rhythms which, when everything's working right, strike together in the athletic equivalent of an "amen!"

Finding these agreeable rhythms is a breeze for some people. For them, every run offers a smooth, reliable avenue for scoring hits off of their internal endorphin machine. I am not one of those people.

It doesn't usually take long before the side cramp kicks in. Or the blister on my big toe. If I'm outside, there aren't enough trees to shade me from the damn sun. And if I'm at the gym, some idiot programmed all of the TVs for TMZ. What for some people is as soothing as "Rhapsody in Blue" becomes something decidedly uncomfortable, something by Stravinsky, something that never lets you settle into a groove.

I've run off and on since my high school years in cross country. Some years I've probably only hit the pavement a handful of times. I think I ran the least during the couple years after Addison was born. Running while pushing a jogging stroller sucks. It probably didn't help that I had a gimpy stroller that veered to one side and had to be corrected every five feet.

But, even with the gaps, I've kept running over the years, for the following reasons:
1. I want to be a good example to Addison. I want her to grow up knowing how to manage her own fitness, and raising her to be a runner is one of the best ways I can think of to help her do that. 
2. Every once in a while, I have a great moment running, when everything coordinates in that physical "amen!" It mostly happens when I'm in good running shape, though even then it's probably only ten percent of the time. And it mostly happens when I'm running mountain trails. Best run I ever had was on a week-long solo trip in the Appalachian Mountains.  
3. Running is one component of a good obstacle race, and obstacle courses are one of the best ways to determine how well you'd be able to evade a pack of velociraptors.
Sometimes one of these reasons becomes more important than the others, and for the last month, reason #3 has been a pretty big deal.

I love obstacle courses. The reason I joined the army was to do obstacle courses. Yes, there was some naivete there. It turned out there was a lot more standing at attention and shivering in the cold while guarding against fake enemies than obstacle course running. I've learned my lesson. I will no longer be joining the military to get my fix.

Instead, I now sign up for obstacle course races like the Volkslauf. There's nothing like pulling yourself across a rope over a muddy trench filled with glass and nails and the bones of weaker contestents to make you feel manly. It's one of the few ways that my testosterone shows, I think. I mean, I have no problem admitting that I listen to Tori Amos, Yanni, and Rufus Wainwright. I'm kinda proud to be the primary caregiver for our daughter. I sit down to pee (whenever my daughter's liable to walk in on me). I don't watch football. I watch Project Runway. But I will try to kick your ass at an obstacle course.

Despite being a pretty scrawny specimen of a man (I'm considered "underweight" on the charts for our health insurance), I've still got the muscle to launch myself over eight-foot wall after eight-foot wall. There's nothing that makes me feel better than hauling myself up a barrier that the 250-pound meathead next to me can't manage. Sweet. He'll keep the raptors busy for a while.

Of course, there's still plenty of room to be humbled. I have a cousin who is arguably the BEST obstacle course runner in the United States. I kid you not. Here's a screenshot of him from Outside online:

You can google Hobie Call -- he's a bit of a character. The article from Outside sums up some things nicely, too. And there's no way around it; Hobie could eat me for breakfast.

Still, it's my goal to improve with each run of the Volkslauf. It's become a bit of a tradition in our family, and Addison has come to every single race I've run. Here's Addison from the first two years I ran (our camera crapped out this year), when she was six months old, and then at 18 months:

Melting in the Bakersfield heat
Heading for the barbed wire
The first year I ran the Volkslauf: 164th out of 412, with a final time of 1:15:38. I was in the top 40 percent who didn't get eaten by ravenous dinosaurs.

Second year: 113th out of 324, with a final time of 1:13:53. Top 35 percent.

This year: 74th out of 268, with a final time of 1:11:00. Top 27 percent.

At the rate I'm improving, I'd be able to beat my cousin 15 years from now. I'll be 44 years old. This sort of stuff only gets easier with age, right?

I hope Addison reads this post some day and internalizes the following: First, that velociraptors are real and dangerous. Second, that it's important to stay fit even when it's hard. And sometimes, the hardness can even make it awesome. Third, that even though there will always be someone better than you (unless you're Hobie Call), there will also always be someone worse, and they'll give you a few extra seconds to climb a wall while they're being devoured. Alternatively, the lesson could be to help other people over the wall if they can't do it themselves. But you can still gloat inwardly about being strong enough to do it all by yourself.

And, just for the heck of it, here's an old photo of Addison showing she knows what it means to be strong:

Stiff as a board! Look at those pointed toes and the bulging thigh muscles! If there was a competition for planking, this girl would definitely have won her age group.


  1. Oh my gosh, I love those old pictures of her. So cute

  2. I love this post. Maybe because I never get tired of hearing about you joining the army to do obstacle courses. You and the army -- worst fit ever?

    1. But, remember how I love a good regimen, and schedules?

  3. I have kind of thought I might like to try an obstacle course after I finish the marathon...but then I see pictures of people crawling through water-filled culverts and I'm not real sure I can do that without crying, or wetting my shorts.

    Way to keep getting better! and I like the outlook on competing, though you might want to put a little more emphasis on the velociraptors :)

    1. That's what's so great about the water-filled culverts. When you wet your shorts, no one notices.

      Seriously, though, I'd recommend obstacle races to anyone. Their impact depends so much on how you put in; they can be merely fun and kinda challenging, or if you push yourself a little harder, they can just destroy you.

      I'm pretty sure I would curl up in fetal position and cry like a baby if I tried to run a marathon.

    2. I think you should train for a marathon, you don't let your emotions out enough!

  4. Thanks for the info on proper running technique. If I ever actually get into a fitness routine I will have to remember that. Side stitches make me feel like wimp. I love football. Don't have cable and probably wouldn't watch Project Runway if I did. Congrats on improving your ability to run through mud and climb walls.

    1. I get side stitches ALL. THE. TIME. Enemy number one for me. The breathing thing helps, but it's no cure. I wish I had the perfect cure. Mainly I just try not to eat or drink very much before I run (I know, hydration is still important...), and I try to run in the morning.

  5. All my cousins are fat slobs. No, really. I need a cousin like Hobie to inspire me, meaning I need all the help I can get. Sounds like you are doing pretty darn good though. Good on you. And does Addison clap on the up push? That form is terrific!

    1. Hobie's pretty unbelievable. He's become something of a celebrity overnight. I try to stay in shape, which I think is easier having come from the exemplary stock I came from (marathoner dad, etc.), but it's still not "easy." I just want to still be able to hike/run with my daughter when she's my age. I'd love to have her as an exercise partner; it would help to keep both of us fit, I think.

  6. Sorry, not to dis your cousin or you or anything (just about anyone could cream me), but right now I'm thinking, "Typical sports mag - put a pic of a bloke on the cover but better not inspire girls with a pic of Margaret Schlacter - you know, the woman mentioned in the same sentence as Hobie." Seriously, seeing pictures of fit women being taken seriously as sports-people would probably do at least as much to inspire your daughter to keep fit as watching you run.

    1. I can't argue that I'd like to have my daughter see strong women doing impressive things, athletically or otherwise. I'm not sure I quite agree that my own example would be a lesser thing, though. Partly because I don't just intend to have hAddison watch me exercise, but rather have her participate with me. My dad ran in the mornings with every one of his kids, both boys and girls, always going at a comfortable pace that we could keep up with. And now, many decades later, every one of us participates in activities that derive very clearly from those experiences.

      Also, though Margaret is impressive, she hasn't won first place in race after race the way Hobie has. She's still cool, but her stats don't make for as interesting a story. Hobie really has stood out in the obstacle racing world as someone who consistently destroys his opposition, over and over again, for what it's worth.

    2. Hey, I'm glad you've got a family history of fitness involvement of both genders. Many of us don't / didn't have that. However, what I was trying to get across (and didn't do so well) was more to do with peer group role modelling than your specific family situation.

      By peer group modelling I mean things like: a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, my husband, my mother and my pastor could all tell me I'm a great engineer; will I really believe it? No. Why not? Because they aren't engineers. However, if another engineer who has been in the industry for longer than I have / has better qualifications than I have tells me that I'm a great engineer, I might actually believe it because it's validation from someone who should know.

      Similarly, when your daughter hangs on your legs while you do pull-ups and says, "You're so strong, Daddy", part of you nods but a greater part doesn't believe her because she isn't strong and isn't a good comparison or evaluator. However, if someone at your gym, who you see doing pull-ups while loaded with 20 kg (44 pound) plates on their legs, sees you doing pull-ups and says, "Hey, you've got a good technique there; keep it up and in a year you'll be adding weight plates to your regime" you might believe him or her. Why? Because that person should know - he or she has been where you are and you know that he or she can do that exercise to a much higher level than you.

      Now, just as I can't model for boys what it is to be a man because I'm not one, you can't model for girls what it is to be a woman (although you may do well in modelling good traits to look for in a man). Those things have to come from someone of the same gender. So, having sports magazines that show as many pics (at the same size) of female sports-people, on their covers and in their pages, as they do men, will go massive strides to telling little girls (including yours if you buy those magazines) that this is something women do (not just something the Call family does).

      It's also why "women's" magazines and most "romance" books are so horrible and dangerous. The magazines tell girls and women that they aren't real women unless they can fill a 34C bra, have no butt, wear 4 inch heels, wear scads of make-up and are generally vapid and shallow air-heads. The "romance" books tell a woman that she isn't desirable to a man (and after all, that's her sole purpose in life, don't you know) unless she is prepared to give in when he attempts to seduce her, even though she knows she 'shouldn't'.

    3. I think we're mostly on the same page about the importance of girls having competent, strong female role-models. And if they don't show up often enough in magazines (we don't actually subscribe to any), we'll have to spend time with biographies about Marie Curie, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Amelia Earhart.