Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dry January

I come from a long line of alcoholics. Loooong line. And I'm talking about All-Star caliber alcoholics. What the Kennedy's were for politics, and the Manning's are to NFL quarterbacking, my family was to drinking.

So, I stay acutely aware of my drinking habits.

And "habit" is the thing that you don't want drinking to be. For me, as 2011 wound down, it was starting to be just that. I found myself drinking, not so much because I was enjoying it, but almost by default.

So it was time to shake things up a bit. I decided to go without drinking for the month of January.

I thought it was going to be difficult. I worried that I'd spend my evenings jonesin' for a Guinness or a couple glasses of a nice cab. Or worse, just plain bored. Turns out, it's been pretty easy. And interesting.

This might sound odd, but it reminds me of another big change a few years ago. When my right shoulder started to get all goobered up, I switched mousing hands. For the first two weeks, it was as if I was in another person's body. I was using the other side of my brain for something I'd been doing with the other hand for decades. Neurons that had been on vacation for all of that time were put to work, and waking up their neighbors. I could literally feel myself thinking differently.

Stopping a routine, or habit, cold turkey is a jolt to your subconscious. If you pay attention, it can be an opportunity for insight into how you think, how you perceive the world around you, and what inputs drive your behavior.

For example, over the last month I've become keenly aware of social, visual, and event queues that flip my "I should be drinking a beer right now" bit. Driving by my local pub is an obvious one. Seeing a tweet from @NewBelgium or the weekly "What's on Tap" email from Beir Brewery make me thirsty. Finishing the massive clean-up of the GF's garage was definitely worthy of a "Job Well Done" beer. After three hours of stacking and organizing and dragging things to the attic, I thought I "deserved" a beer. What a weird concept.

Sitting down to a good meal is just as pleasant without a glass of wine, but it did feel like something was missing. It was pleasant surprise, though, when the check came. Get this...water, a lot cheaper than vino.

One Sunday, standing at the stove waiting for my chops to sear, I noticed that I didn't know what to do with my hands. That's because when I cook for anyone but my kids, I pretty much always sip on a glass of wine. It's part of the experience.

Those are the easy ones, rituals that poke at you... "Hey, aren't you forgetting something?" The tough ones, the times I thought would be the most trying, are when stress is piling up, or you're caught up in some emotional turmoil, or when you're just really sad. It's so, so easy to use alcohol to numb the pain, to keep from feeling what you don't want to feel. There were trying times, but I never felt an overwhelming urge to imbibe.

Here's a little secret... hiding from problems, pain, issues, doesn't make them go away. We all face them. It's how we deal with them that makes us who we are. You gotta suck it up, feel what you gotta feel, deal with your shit, and move forward. When crap happens, instead of hiding from it, or pretending it's not happening, try a good, hard run to clear your mind, or some stretching on the family room floor to calm your nerves. Most of the time, things won't look so bad.

I wish I could say that I've run better this month, or slept more soundly, or been incredibly productive. Actually, maybe it's better that I can't say that. It's probably better that not drinking hasn't really changed much in my life.

Still, Dry January has been a great experience. I think I'll do it every year.* Tomorrow, however, I'm going to open a seriously nice Napa Cab that's been waiting patiently in the basement. This weekend, I'll stop in the pub and have a beer. And a note to the Central Indiana craft breweries, don't go laying off anyone just yet. Those lower profit numbers this month aren't permanent. I'll be back supporting you, too, and enjoying the yummy fruits of your labor. But I'll be doing so more aware, more mindful, and with a little more insight.

Oh, and you might not recognize me as I'll be a few pounds lighter, too. I had no idea how many calories I was drinking. I don't want to carry any extra pints of Guinness up the hills of Big Sur.

Now... what shall I give up for February...

Good running,

*My buddy Mike suggested I consider Dry February since it's the shortest month.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Snow excuse for not running

Yesterday morning it was chilly, but clear. Perfect for a lunchtime run.

Between morning and lunch, someone undid the little twist-tie that was keeping the huge-ass bag of snow in the sky closed. All at once everything was covered in an inch of snow.

All of that snow, and the slippery footing and general misery that came with it, derailed the medium-long run I had scheduled.

For about 45 minutes.

Sitting at my desk, the guilt began to stack up. I'd already missed a workout earlier in the week to meetings. And someone's blog post from earlier this month kept ringing in my ears...  something about "when you skip a workout, you're adding minutes to your race time", and "You gotta suck it up on the shitty days.", got me dressed and out the door.

It wasn't long, about the time it took me to get clear of the parking lots and busy streets to a quiet neighborhood, before I was reminded how great it is to run in the snow. The quiet that comes from a blanket of fresh flakes is impossible to describe, as is the squeaky crunching sound you get with every footfall when those flakes are squeezed together.

Being the first to lay tracks in virgin snow is always a treat.

Seeing the usually invisible comings and goings of little creatures we share the earth with reminds us that we belong out here as much as they do.
Rabbit tracks from a bunny in a hurry

The excitement you feel for even a small patch of pavement, and how nice it is to relax for those few strides, helps us appreciate the little things that make running more comfortable, though a little less exciting.
Sweet, sweet traction

I love the moment when you realize that your hands have warmed enough to carry your gloves instead of wearing them. And later, emerging from the cozy neighborhood, back to the busy streets, feeling a blast of cold air that reminds us how nice our friends the neighborhood trees were for shielding us from the wind, and how nice it is to have gloves when you need them, even if they are a little soggy.

I hadn't run in real snow in months. I can honestly say it was a pleasure.


I did spend a few seconds thinking about how little traction my new shoes provide on snow... right before I misjudged a curb...

Fall #1 of the season*

Don't let a little thing like snow, or even a little spill, keep you inside. Embrace the season, let the cold air keep you cool, and be glad that you are able to run among the flakes. I mean the snow flakes, of course, not the weirdoes.

Good running,

*You may notice the L shaped track. That's the trace of my left foot as it landed, slid a bit forward, and then, as I rolled up onto the forefoot, traction gave way and it slid abruptly right/down the curb. The mess at the top is where I landed in a heap. All that snow provides surprisingly little cushion.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Know what's a lot of fun? Pretending you're rich for 5 days or so.

If you're gonna do it, I highly recommend doing it on Sanibel.

As if you didn't already know, Sanibel is a barrier island just west of Fort Myers, FL. To get to the island, you take a bridge, and pay a $6 toll. It's called "The Causeway", 'cause the $6 toll keeps away the Fort Myers Beach riffraff.

And it works.

If you were in Fort Myers and someone clubbed you unconscious, put a bag over your head, drove you to Sanibel, and threw a bucket of cold water on you, you'd swear you'd been out for days and transported a jillion miles to paradise. That's how far apart Sanibel feels from Fort Myers.

The place is a destination island, full of vacationers and snowbirds, but no tourists. There isn't a hint of the hyper-commercialized tourist trap atmosphere that usually comes with any beach in America. It's relaxing, quaint, serene, beautiful, and really expensive.

And totally worth it.

How can a middle-class software geek with a non-monetized running blog afford such luxury? Easy.

Just before Christmas, the GF's wonderfully generous, and thankfully otherwise busy cousin let us use her family beachfront condo for a few days. And we used the crap out of it.

So in the event that you're significant other's cousin let's you freeload on a beachfront condo in Sanibel, let's look at how to make the most out of it.

Stock Up

First, on your way to the island, stop and grab some groceries. Eating out at Sanibel is pretty pricey, but the main reason to gather grub is to have food on hand. It's a condo, not a hotel room. Take advantage of that. Eat when you want. Barefoot. On the veranda.

Picked over baguette, gouda, white cheddar, and genoa.
Paired with a nice wine, a perfect light dinner on the veranda.

Chips, salsa, scratch guac, scratch margaritas... also veranda worthy

It's also a good idea, if you think you might want to relax with a glass of wine, or maybe some kick-ass tequila, to stop by a liquor store. And it's also fun to take a "before" picture of your haul...

Four killer cabs, Patron for margs, 1921 anjeo for me,
and the Gulf of Mexico in the background. I know!*

After you dump your bags, put the groceries away, take a picture of your booze, it's time to explore a bit.

Where to Run

Running on the beach is for newbies and tourists. Running on soft sand will shred your calves. Running on the packed, but tilted sand by the water will wreck your ankles and hips. Either choice will leave you limping through your time on the island. So do a little research and find some place better to run.

It helps if the cousin's condo is right next to a golf course, one that is runner friendly.

The view from the cart trail before 7:15 am is beautiful,
especially if you're running and not playing golf.

How do you know if they're runner friendly? You ask. Go to the pro shop when they aren't busy, and ask if it's cool if you run the cart path before the first tee-off time. Most places will be a little reluctant, but cool. So don't ruin it for the rest of us. Ask first, be polite, and if they don't want you there, don't sneak on.

For another run, you can check out the multi-use paths that line every road on the island. One of them takes you to the Gulfside City Park, and along that path, you will find this...

It is a very small graveyard. I didn't count, but I'd say there are maybe 10 graves, each covered not with grass, or dirt, but shells. It's odd, no doubt, especially if you don't know it's coming, but worth a pause and a look around.

Very small above-ground grave... the shells on top are sweet

So are the stuffed animals left for Baby Wiles.

Nice to know that the good folk of Sanibel buried this guy.

Okay, let's shake off that graveyard anti-buzz...


Now that you have your running planned, it's time to check out the rest of the area. Sanibel during the holiday season is full of "Toto, I don't think we're in Indiana" images... like...

Lemons, or oranges, or little grapefruit maybe...
growing in someone's backyard.

Snowman among palm trees

Mega-Christmas-balls hanging from banyan trees

Your first full day, head directly to the JN "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, first thing. I am not kidding. A huge chunk of the island is set aside for birds and gators. For a few bucks you get a naturalist-guided tour on a tram. Sure, you could drive yourself, but then all you see are miscellaneous birds. On the tour you get all of the details and background that makes it all makes sense, even if just for the 90-minutes of the tour. And yes, it costs a few bucks, but remember, you're "rich".

And you might see a gator...
... 's tail

We also checked out the Shell Museum, which is about as exciting as it sounds. Don't get me wrong, if you want to learn about shells, and see lots of shells, and watch two movies about shells, it's the place to be. But it's not gonna knock your socks off. Actually, it's Sanibel, so you should be wearing Keen sandals...without socks.

We also made a trip to the light house, which is equally underwhelming. It's kinda ugly. Lots of chain-link fence. Not nearly as quaint as you'd think a lighthouse on such a beautiful island should be.

I was expecting a Cape Hatteras quality lighthouse. Looks more like it should be at Cape Kennedy. But, it is a working lighthouse... so there's that.


For those times when you feel like putting on shoes and eating out, I've got four places you really need to hit:

For lunch in the marina, acting like you own a really big boat, and eat at Gramma Dots.

Gramma Dots, not easy to find, but the perfect first day lunch spot

Empty when we walked in, packed when we left.
Yeah, we're trend setters...

You must order the fried oysters,
even if you think you don't like oysters

Order a beer, enjoy the oysters, and relax. Try to act like you belong. And if you want, start talking to your significant other about how you simply must find a bigger yacht before next season's regatta.

"How can we possibly make do with that crappy 42 footer for another season?"

For breakfast out, try The Over-Easy Cafe. It's busy, but worth the wait. Besides, while you're waiting for your table, you can browse the cute-as-hell shops.

Over Easy

Breakfast outside

Eggs Benedict, or clown face?

For a fun casual evening, go to Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Grill, owned by novelist Randy Wayne White.

Doc Ford's

We were there on Sunday and there was no wait, but excellent football viewing, if you like that sorta thing. 

Neither of us are big rum fans, but they have a nice selection of sipping rums as well as a gajillion rum drinks, I highly recommend their fun twist on a margarita that includes pineapple juice and is actually quite yummy, but I can't remember the name to save my life. Just ask for that Margarita that Doug liked... they'll know what you mean.

Fun margarita and kinda nasty rum drink.

The real reason to go to Ford's is the Yucatan Shrimp. Un-be-lievably good. It's succulent, it's spicy, it's a little sweet. We tried a couple more appetizers, but nothing was in the same zip-code as the Yucatan Shrimp. Even now, late at night, when the I get a little case of the munchies, I find myself contemplating jumping in the car and driving to Sanibel just for this shrimp. Order it first, so you can order more when you finish your first batch.

Yucatan Shrimp is un

Ok, now the big one... the one place you absolutely must visit.

For a nice, really nice dinner, it's gotta be Il Tesoro. The restaurant used to be a house. A small house. That, and the open kitchen and too few tables packed in just a bit too close together give it the feel of a local joint in Tuscany. And the food is incredibly good.

Il Tesoro

I got one of the specials... always get one of the specials... Zuppa di Pesce, which translates to "fish soup", but it should have been called Frutti di Mare Celeste, or "heavenly seafood". Every bit was delightful, but also different. Not only were there lots of different yummables from the ocean, but the sauce changed, a lot, over time. It's hard to describe, but wonderful. Il Tesoro is expensive because it is totally, totally worth it.

Zuppa di Pesce

GF's Sea Bass and artichoke awesomeness

I don't like Tiramisu, but I loved this!

Tartufo - insane!

Yes, we take pictures of our food. Yes people is nice restaurants, like Il Tesoro, look at us like we are rubes. We don't care.


Later, we looked for nightlife, live music and stuff, and we found some so-so places (The Jac, Tween Waters), but nothing that could beat sitting on the veranda, drinking fantastic wine/tequila, listening to the ocean. And that's really the best thing to do on Sanibel... nothing.

Oh, but you MUST be on the beach for every sunset.

But be sure to dose up on the bug spray. Those no-see-ums will eat your ankles alive.

Defiling a Fountain

Finally, if you want to get into a fountain, and who doesn't, well, it's slim pickin's. There must be some kind of zoning restriction against them or something. As we crissed-crossed the island, I kept a sharp eye out for the entire stay, and found... none.

Then, I spent an hour of the last morning, after I'd managed to jam the seriously cool, and empty tequila bottle into my carry-on, searching Google Maps satellite view like a CIA agent looking for centrifuges in Iran, trying to find anything that looked remotely like a fountain. And...

I found one. Probably the only one on the island. I could tell you where it is, but that would ruin all of your fun.**
Persistence pays

We hit on the way to the causeway, on the way off the island, on the way to the airport, making an otherwise melancholy drive from paradise to the real world, from pretend rich to middle-class reality, a little less depressing.

And a little damp.

Good running,

*For the record, we left one (awesome) bottle of wine and 3/4 of the Patron behind for our hosts. The rest we enjoyed immensely.
**If you're the kind of person who reads the last page of the book first, or checks for spoilers before seeing the movie, you can check the Interactive Map of Fountains I've Defiled.

Friday, January 6, 2012


Big Sur, my target marathon, is known for having one of the most beautiful courses in the world. You start in the midst of huge redwood trees, and spend most of the race on the meandering, and spectacular, California coastline. It's been called the most-scenic marathon, and best destination marathon, in the world.

That's all on the brochure.

What the brochure doesn't mention is that Big Sur has some monster hills with lots of lesser hills sprinkled in just to make sure you don't get cocky, and your legs don't recover.

Training for a hilly marathon in Indiana is a challenge. The only way to train for hills is to run hills.* Since the Ice Age, Central Indiana has been flat, and by Ice Age I am referring to the last Glacial Stage in North America some 25,000 years ago, not the forgettable 2002 animated film that continues to spew forth ever worse sequels. Those glaciers scraped the place smooth, like a carpenter with a plane, and left what topology there was between Gary and Center Grove as shavings down in Southern Indiana.

How flat are we talking?

Benjamin Harrison

If you strapped an EKG, right now, on Benjamin Harrison, former Indiana Governor, US Senator, and 23rd President of the United States, who happens to also be quite dead, the resulting green line would be only slightly less interesting than a topo map of the pool table I call home. Here, let me demonstrate...

Benjamin Harrison's EKG

Pool Table

Central Indiana

The challenge was made apparent yesterday when my marathon training program, modified from here, prescribed 3 miles and "TUT 4:00".

"What the hell's TUT?", you may be asking yourself, which is probably not very useful. It would be better to ask me, or consult the link to the training program, or just keep reading.

I'll tell you what TUT isn't... TUT is definitely NOT a mid-run impromptu performance of "Walk Like an Egyptian".

Pffft, that would be stupid.

Almost as stupid as a mid-post impromptu viewing of "Walk Like an Egyptian"...

Ah, good times... For those who don't remember the 80s and might be curious, no, the laws of gravity did NOT apply to hair back then. Now, um... what were we... Oh, right!

Directly from the program description:
TUT - Total Uphill Time: The total number of minutes you spend running semi-vigorously up inclines-- repeats up the same hill or total uphill time over a hilly loop.

"Semi-vigorously"... Sounds like a description of a disappointing sex scene, or is that just me? "They went at it, but only semi-vigorously. In the book, they hit it with full vigor."

Anyway, yesterday, my 3-miler was reduced to running loops in the office park to get in my 4 minutes of hill work because there's really just the one baby hill, though there are a couple different routes up it. At a semi-vigorous pace, it's about a minute from bottom to top.

I'm going to have to get more creative for Thursdays. I can't take all of those loops for much more than 3 miles. And one-minute hills are NOT going to prepare me for the long climbs of Big Sur. Looks like I'll be trekking south to much hillier venues like Brown County and Bloomington for some long runs with grown-up sized hills.

Good running,

*Yes, I know I could use a treadmill to simulate hills. But, that is an absolute last resort. We've covered this (here), treadmills are stupid.

Images from here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Marathon Training

I've heard that during childbirth, hormones are produced by the mother that cause her to forget how painful the whole "pushing a person out of your privates" experience is. Without childbirth amnesia, the human race may have died out long ago.

I believe that something similar happens to marathon runners. I have no evidence other than the fact that, after training for our first marathon, most of us decide to do another one, to return for more punishment.

Case in point... me.

After 10 marathons, none of which have gone particularly well, I'm back for more abuse. I'm training for a bucket-list marathon, Big Sur.

Halfway point of Big Sur Marathon.
I know! Pretty awesome, right?

For those who've never done a marathon before, and even those who have but weren't really paying attention, marathoning really isn't about the 26.2 mile race at the end.

I know that some people run marathons and get nothing out of it than a T-shirt and a medal. If that is you, and you are ok with that, then feel free to stop here. I don't think you'll relate to what's to follow.

Those of you that are still reading understand that running a marathon is an opportunity to know yourself, and to challenge yourself. You're my kinda people,

For some of us, the race, that day way off in the future, is a carrot, an eagerly anticipated reward for all of the hard work put in recasting ourselves into marathoners. For others, it's an excuse, something to point to as rationale to all of the people who wonder why we are out on the road so much. It's a lot easier than trying to explain why you need to get away from people, or problems, or whatever, just for a little while each day. For still others, including me, the race looms as an ominous specter promising abuse and humiliation if we don't train hard enough.

No matter how you look at it, though, the race is just one day. Anyone can write a check, get up early, find their starting corral, and move forward when the gun goes off. They might even finish, but they'll hurt like a mother, and the only thing they'll have learned about themselves is that they can make very bad decisions.

The real challenge, and value, of the marathon isn't the race, it's the training.

Months of running, mostly alone, pushing yourself further and further, will wear down even the most fit. Day after day the training grinds on, and grinds you down.

And yet we return, over and over again. We tell people, and ourselves, we're doing it to "get it right" or to "just get under [insert goal time here]". Sometimes we play it off as an excuse to eat whatever we want.

Deep down, though, I think we are called back to find that place that week after week of long, hard training takes us, that state of mind where we are worn out, torn down to our base essence, ego and illusions stripped away, naked, real, raw. It's there that we see our true selves.

Many days we're sore, and tired, and fed up with the same stupid routes. No one has a gun to our head, but we know that if we skip, we'll be cheating ourselves. We push ourselves past where we are comfortable, past what is reasonable, past what our minds tell us is sane, to find out what we are capable of, and who we are.

If you're lucky and you run well, you'll find the most obvious and pronounced dose of that reality somewhere around mile 20 on race day. When your body screams "For the love of all that is good, STOP!", and you have the choice to surrender, or push on. Or maybe even push harder.

But you'll also face reality every time the alarm goes off early for a morning run, and every time you start a hard training run already sore from the day before, and every time you extend your long run a couple miles farther than you've gone so far, and every time you start a run in rain or cold or both, and every time you're faced with a choice of going to Five Guys with friends, or running over lunch and eating at your desk.

There are no shortcuts to becoming the best marathoner you can be. Every time you skip or cut short a workout you are selling yourself short, robbing yourself of the experience of finding out if you could have done it, finding out how tough you are, or how fast you are, or how much more you can take. Also, less importantly, but still important, when you skip a workout, you're adding minutes to your race time.

The real bitch about marathons is that how well your race goes is largely out of your control. Weather, sickness, injury, or a bad batch of Gatorade can ruin your day. The only thing you can control is your mental and physical fitness. And the only way to build those is to set your program, and stick to it. You gotta suck it up on the shitty days. You gotta run hard on hard days. You gotta pound out the miles on the long days.

You gotta go when you don't feel like it... when your mind is telling you not to... when your mind is telling you it's ok to slack off, or slow down, or walk. This is true in the race, and but also in training, because every workout is an opportunity to train your body and mind for the race. If you go easy on your body, it won't magically be strong and fast on race day. If you show your mind even the slightest hint of weakness during training, it will exploit that weakness on race day.

Marathon training is all about training your legs to run 20 miles, and training your heart to ignore your head and push the legs the final 6.2.

And so I'm one day, one run into training. I'm not gonna lie to you, I'm not sure how this is going to go. My body is a lot older, and creakier than it was the last time I tried this. But I think I'm tougher mentally now than I was then. I'm banking on that to make up the difference.

It's going to be a challenging few weeks, sprinkled with self-doubt, and discouragement, and opportunities to rationalize a reason to quit, not to mention the most brutal weather in Indiana. I know it will be worth it, but I also know it will be really hard. Still, I'm looking forward to what these weeks have in store for me.

The week of April 30th, the week after Big Sur, will be the week to rest, to look back at how far I've come, hopefully reflect on a fun race along the gorgeous California coastline, and to celebrate with good food. And then... well then it's best to have a couple beers, maybe a nice Napa Cab, and just let that amnesia kick in so I forget how much it hurt, and can start planning the next one.

Good running,

Image from here.