Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole


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Boston’s Pride

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On April 15th, 2013, twenty-six thousand people lined up at the starting line for the 117th running of the Boston Marathon. These people were runners who worked their asses off to train for one of the oldest and most celebrated races to occur each year. A race held in one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in the world, and my home town. All around them, hundreds of thousands of supporters lined the streets from Hopkinton to Boston. On April 15th, 2013, these runners and their amazing Boston-bred supporters showed the entire world just how incredible the human race is.

You’re probably expecting to see hundreds entries pop up all over the blogosphere about this awful tragedy. Many writers will seek solace in putting words to paper on this day. Everyone is sad. Shocked. Angry. Hurting. But, at least for me, there is an underlining emotion behind all of the negative ones: pride.

If you love movies like I do, you’ve seen a thousand tragedies happen on screen. You’ve seen it all. Bombs blowing up in buildings, cars, on airplanes, you’ve seen depictions of war, destruction, distopia. You’ve seen giant alien monsters crush entire cities and bullets pierce hundreds of brave main characters and evil bad guys. In the movies, where the one or two bravest and best fictional heroes fight evil to its doom every time, the hundreds of innocent nameless people caught in the mix are always running fast and far away from the danger.

What I saw yesterday afternoon when I turned on my television was a scene right out of a horror film. Giant explosions of fire and smoke, people screaming, glass shards blowing. Nothing could prepare me or anyone else watching for that reality, and my brain wanted to remain convinced that it was all fake.

But, very much unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a movie screen, everybody close to the explosion was running into the danger, not away from it. It was one of the most incredibly unexpected things I have ever seen. Runners, spectators, officials…all of the innocent nameless people. They were running toward the fire, the smoke, toward the people who were hurt by the blast. They didn’t know if there were going to be more explosions, and they didn’t care. They pulled down fences, they ripped off their own shirts to use for rags, they came in droves to help wherever they could. They weren’t asked. They didn’t even think about it. On my television screen I saw dozens of nameless innocent people becoming heroes, right before my very eyes.

What a sight. I just couldn’t ignore the incredible goodness amidst the badness.

mrrogers1Many people will recall this event as an awful tragedy, a terrorist act, a bloody date in history. And it is all of those things. But perhaps even more importantly, this event is an opportunity. That’s right. It’s an opportunity for each one of us watching that dreadful horror movie to remember the enormous amount of good that exists in all of us. And the courage. With all that’s going on in the world of politics and international affairs, it can be easy to lose your faith in the altruistic nature of the human race. Yes, one or more – but few – individuals are responsible for creating this evil. But their numbers are infinitesimal, as compared to the many, the droves of the benevolent.

Events such as the tragedy at the Boston Marathon ask us…no, beg us to unite in recognition of the greatness that we are, and the greatness that we can be for one another. On April 15th, 2013, there were no Democrats, no Republicans, no minorities, no gays, no Muslims, no gun-supporters, no pro-lifers, no politicians…just a lot of great people. A lot of heroes.

You make me proud, Boston.

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My Fab Five-Miler and The Real Life Running Coach

At around this time last year I began “officially” working through the weeks of training for my first [minimalist] half marathon. Now that I have gotten over all the “you’re-an-idiot” injuries that kept me from running any other long races in 2011, I find it interesting how different my mindset is this time around.

First, I don’t have a spacial problem about distance anymore. When I was doing long runs, 10 miles seemed reeeeeaaaaaallllly far. And even if I had no real problem getting through 10 miles, the distance still seemed ridiculous. But now, even though my longest run since coming back from injury has only been 5 miles, those same 10 miles don’t seem as long anymore. It could be because over the last year I have made friends with people who run 10 miles for breakfast and another 20 for lunch, but more than that I think it’s due to a complete change in my attitude.

Since the last race that kicked my ass back in June, I’ve changed my GPS watch so that it only tells me how far I’ve gone. No time, no pace, no average pace. Just distance. And if I’m about to run a well-known route, I won’t even take the watch with me. Like Coach Rick says, “Nevermind what the watch says, just run. You’re only going to run as fast as your body can go anyway, and that’s it.” More on Coach Rick later.

These days, I’m a really slow runner. As slow as I was when I first started barefoot running. Well…maybe not quite that slow, but close. But I consider that lack of speed, as embarrassing as it is when I’m running with others, a needed lesson for me to enjoy the journey. I’ve realized I’ve just been dulling my experience by obsessing over how fast I can complete a 5K. And I’m so glad I’ve gotten to this point, it’s huge for me.

I’ve also taken some time to reflect upon my attitude during difficult training runs and races over the last year. It’s an enormous understatement to call myself a complainer. Truth is, I bitch and moan way too much when I’m faced with big challenges. I’ve always told myself that it’s my coping mechanism, but I can sense that I put my running partners off sometimes (sorry, Killeen!), and in all reality it never helped me get through anything. It just kept me from enjoying myself. I realized it when I watched my dear friends cross the finish lines of races with great big smiles on their faces, and mine was scrunched in a scowl. After I finished the half marathon I teared up and wailed out to poor sweet Killeen: “That was really hard!” Not, “that was exciting/fun/exhilarating!” And the race was all those things, but unfortunately for me, I was only focused on the negative parts. Bad attitude to have after completing such a great goal.

This year's training "outline". I guess that means I'm on week 2. Ish.

It’s time to change that, I think. I must focus on my love for running, not just the difficult parts of it. It’s time to think about how great I feel (even if I’m tired), how awesome my last long run was (even if I had to walk part of it), and how I flew through that quarter mile (even if the rest of the run was really slow).

And nothing will make you rethink your attitude like a Boston Marathon running coach, such as one Rick Muhr.

I was invited to attend a Saturday training run given by Coach Rick, with a fellow (very inspiring) blogger and Boston Marathon runner, Sherée. This was the first time I’d ever met Sherée in person, and also the first time that I’d ever shared a training run with 40+ people and a Real Life Running Coach. I didn’t know what to expect, but I found myself sitting in a large room on the basement floor of the First Baptist Church in Newton, tights-clad butts in chairs lining the walls, every pair of eyes following the man with the inspired voice in the center. Coach Rick is just one of those people: you know the type, the guy who makes you feel like you could save the world with a paperclip. The kind of person who holds your gaze and appears truly enthusiastic about making your acquaintance, who instantly makes you feel important to him, even if you only just shook hands. He possesses the powerful companionability that got Barrack Obama voted into the White House, and the unshakable integrity of your greatest personal hero. The man talked for an entire hour in that church basement, and I was hooked the whole time. He mentioned the training and the fundraising that most of the runners had to do, but he talked about a lot of other stuff too. Motivating stuff. Sad stuff. Awe-inducing stuff. Stuff that you think about later on when you’re by yourself in the shower or having a bad day. All I could think the whole time was, man…if I had Coach Rick last winter, I bet that Incident of the Colossal Hill never would have happened, nor would I have had such a shitty outlook upon finishing my first half marathon. Hell…if I had Coach Rick last year, I might have run an entire marathon instead of just half of one. There was such a sense of community there, that I felt like I could conquer any distance I wanted, as long as I had this team of runners and coach with me.

After the lecture, everyone put on their hats and gloves and filed out the door into the 9am sunshine. An ill-timed bathroom break got us started a couple minutes later than the rest of the group, and I immediately fell behind Sherée while she tried to catch up. I knew my legs would have to last 5 miles so I put on some Florence + The Machine and chugged along happily at my own pace, absorbing Coach Rick’s words of wisdom like the sweet warmth of a summer day. I didn’t let it bother me when just about everyone in the group flew by in the opposite direction, already headed back to the church. Well okay…maybe it bothered me a little, but give me a break I’m still working on it.

The best part of the whole run is that when I stopped to get a drink of water (they had water stops!), and when I joined Sherée and the others at the end, I had nothing but positive things to say. “What a beautiful day to run!” “First five-miler in months!” “I feel like I could run six!” “Those hills were awesome!” What a difference a good pep-talk makes.

As I continue through the rest of my training, I plan hold on to Coach Rick’s words for as long as possible, and perhaps duck into the group again in a few weeks to top off the tank with some more motivation. I still love running alone because I just enjoy the meditative state of focus that it allows me, but there’s really something to be said for that community effort. After Saturday, I no longer wonder how my friend Sherée and some of these other Boston Marathoners made it through their 22 mile runs last year.


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Running as Art

Get the Book...Read the Book!

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like sports.

Despite having been raised by an athletic father who played softball in the summer and hockey all winter, despite having been a basketball and football cheerleader in high school, and despite the fact that I live right smack in the middle of Red Sox Nation, I have absolutely no interest in sports. It’s a lot like living in Nashville and not liking Country Music. While most of my coworkers are looking for tickets to the Yankees/Red Sox game during our next business trip to New York City, I’m mentally planning a quiet night at Shake Shack with the few who don’t give a hoot about which team wins.

No, I don’t like sports at all. But I am a runner. So what gives?

Last weekend I attended the Boston leg of Chris McDougall’s “Naked Run” tour. It was Marathon weekend, so there were tents, noise, streets blocked off and police everywhere. And the glorious finish line was all set up right next to the Boston Public Library, where about 60 barefoot and minimally-shod runners met up to run a 5-mile loop together. Regular Joes and Nancies all pounding the pavement with the likes of Scott Jurek, Dr. Daniel Leiberman, Lee Saxby, John Durant, and of course the man himself, Christopher McDougall. It was probably the coolest run I’ve ever done to date…yes, even cooler than that warm morning jog on Coronado Island last December. Kathy and I smiled until our faces hurt and she snapped a photo every 3 minutes. We ran behind McDougall most of the way, and at one point I was able to catch up to him for a quick chat. It was relaxed, laid-back and beautiful, exactly the things you want out of a run. With a half mile left we stripped off our shoes and ran “naked” across the Boston Marathon finish line and back to the library steps, still smiling like a couple of fools.

Running...ahem..."with" Chris McDougall.

What strikes me the most about that run, and about all of my running experiences since reading Born to Run, is that running represents nothing but joy to me. Unlike those who grunt out two miserable miles on the treadmill twice a week to fulfill their New Years resolutions, I’d rather be running than doing pretty much anything else. Could it be because I took my shoes off? Revamped my slacker running form? Could be. But I think the real difference is that now I see running less as a  sport and more as a practiced art.

The subject of barefoot running is filled with a ton of historical hypothesis, instructional information and biomechanical science. There are books, blogs, videos, forums, events and lectures all over the place about it. Anything you want to know about why you should run barefoot or with minimal footwear, it’s easy to find. There will be at least a few minimalist runners at every 5k and half marathon you’ll enter this year, and every running store worth its salt is carrying at least a few pairs of minimalist running shoes.

Running naked in Beantown.

I don’t believe that running should be thought of like a sport, or used as a workout that you do to get back into your high school jeans. Those jeans are out of style, anyway. I believe running should be approached as an art form, like dancing, singing, painting or writing. Things that we all do at some level all our lives, as a form of pleasure or social activity. For example anyone can sing, and it’s enjoyable even if you suck at it (think of all the times you’ve belted out “Happy Birthday” to your embarrassed friends and family at TGIFridays). And then there are people like Aretha Franklin, who sing too, just much, much better.

What I’m saying here is that some activities are part of who we are, part of our cultures, our societies. Why have we made running out to be anything different? Running is a default movement of our species. More specifically, it’s a default art form of our species. It’s inherent in all of us to run, just like bopping our heads to a great song on the radio, or drawing a stick figure of ourselves on our notepads during snooze-fest board meetings. We all have the tools to run; our bodies were built with parts meant to make us able to run, stuff that not all creatures have. We run constantly as children, and we do it without the aid of motion-control shoes or GPS watches. Certainly 99.999% of us will never win the Boston Marathon, we just don’t possess the talent. Still thousands show up every year to run it, just the same. It’s because these people know that running is a good thing, and that yes, it’s good for you. These people haven’t forgotten how to enjoy movement. Haven’t allowed themselves to become too distracted by their televisions, their careers or their iPads. They’re not members of the huge majority of Americans who have inexplicably convinced themselves that they can’t run. So let me take a moment here to remind everyone again, in the words of Chris McDougall:

  • You weren’t born broken.
  • Running isn’t a perilous punishment-for-pizza.
  • Everything you need [to run], you had the day you were born.
So yes, I believe that running is a form of art. Or at least that’s what it’s become for me (an artist by trade) since reading Born to Run last year. The book taught me that practicing my running form is cathartic on a level superior to deep breathing or antidepressants. That completing a difficult run is 90% mental. And that 10 miles is about so much more than just burning calories…it’s about the journey within myself. Learning these things has made my life happier, and in some ways it has even made me a better person.

Precisely the moment at which I choked. I thank my good friend Kathy for catching it on camera.

I wanted to thank Mr. McDougall for writing the book that would do such a thing for me, last weekend when I finally caught up to him on the bridge over the Charles River Basin. But instead I choked, and ended up asking him why he wasn’t running barefoot. It turned out okay anyway, and I even got a compliment on my running form. Maybe if I read the book again, I can learn to be zen enough to talk to celebrities without that residual “OMG I’m such a GEEK” side-effect. One can only hope.

I even geeked-out at the signing.