Walking past the UofI’s solar farm

There’s a dearth of good walking routes from Winfield Village to Champaign and Urbana.

From west to east, the choices are Prospect, Lyndhurst/Fox Drive, Neil/Route 45, First Street, and Race Street. The first two are okay if we’re heading to western or central Champaign, but are pretty out-of-the-way if we’re headed to campus or to Urbana. The latter two lack sidewalks and entail long walks along busy roads, which makes them pretty unsatisfactory.

A few weeks ago, I saw a pack of cross-country runners turn up a rather faint double-track on this side of the railroad, which alerted me to the fact that it’s possible to go that way.

img_20160409_132552803_25726287304_oI was doubly interested in going that way, both as a possible alternative route north, and because about one mile north of us there’s a large installation of photovoltaic panels that the University has been calling its “solar farm,” and this bit of double-track leads right to it.

The track runs along the west side of what seems to be research crop fields for the University, although that bit of it may be an easement to provide access to a recently constructed line of pylons for some high-tension power lines.

The solar farm seems to producing quite a bit of electricity on sunny days like today.

Having walked to the solar farm we turned east. Having come that far instead of having to walk a mile along First Street, we only had a quarter of that distance to cover before we reached Windsor and were able to get on a proper sidewalk.

We took a nice tour around the more obscure corners of the research park, including a little diversion past the Fire Service Institute’s training facilities. Then we crossed Route 45 and made our way down to Schnuck’s to pick up a couple of groceries and head on home.

Total walking was 7.7 miles, in my case added to a 3.5-mile morning run.

I had not done much running since settling into the low-carb thing. Together with the walk, it’s a bit of a test of whether I’m seeing any of the endurance benefits I’m hoping to see. (Answer: Maybe. I certainly didn’t get hungry or feel a need to fuel up during the walk. But then, neither did Jackie.)

Katy Bowman: The Michael Pollan of movement

I have always found “deconstructionist” models appealing. For example, I liked the idea that you could “figure out” all the nutrients that you need and then build up a diet that provides the right mix of carbs, proteins, fats (with proper mix between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), the right amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and so on.

Then Michael Pollan came along and (in his book In Defense of Food) completely destroyed that idea. First of all, it’s an impossible problem to solve—the different nutrients interact in the body (and biome) in ways that are intractably complex, plus there are so many micro-nutrients as to make it computationally infeasible (even if we knew what all of them were, which we don’t). More to the point, though, it’s a completely unnecessary problem to solve: our bodies solve it for us, as long as we eat a diet of diverse foods and minimize our consumption of manufactured food-like substances.

I’m not saying this is new news. In fact, this is common knowledge—everybody said this, right from the start. What I’m saying is that, for reasons no doubt having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, I liked the deconstructionist model for analyzing and then constructing a plan for what to eat, despite what everybody said. For some reason, again having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, Michael Pollan’s explanation of how the whole deconstructionist model of designing a plan for eating was fundamentally flawed suddenly made it clear to me (in a way that any number of people—including my third grade health teacher and both my parents—had not managed to do).

All that seems relevant because—I recently realized—for years now I’ve been making the exact same mistake with movement. I’ve been trying to “figure out” an exercise regime that would keep me fit. If you click on the Fitness category over in the sidebar, or the “exercise” tag on this post, you’ll be linked to a long list of my posts on the topic, many of which describe my latest attempt to find the right mix of walking, running, bicycling, lifting, stretching, and taiji to build and maintain optimal levels of aerobic capacity, strength, and flexibility.

Then I ran into the work of Katy Bowman, whose explanations of why exercise is no substitute for movement clicked for me in just the same way, and for roughly the same reason: The problem is intractably complex, and anyway our bodies solve the problem for us—as long as we engage in an ample amount of diverse movement and minimize things like sitting in chairs and wearing bad shoes. (See her book Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement.)

Again, this is not really new news; I’m just late to the party because I like the idea of designing an exercise regime that covers all the necessary categories.

However, I think I have come around. Appealing as it is to me to design the perfect exercise regime and then tick off each box as I reach my target for the week, I pretty much have to admit that the whole thing is a fool’s errand. I’d be much better off spending that time walking, stretching, hanging, squatting, climbing, balancing, jumping, throwing, catching, and so on.

I’ll still run (because I enjoy it, probably due to the endocannabinoids, and because being able to run is useful), but I’ll spend a lot less time on things like figuring out how much I can safely add to my weekly mileage. I’ll just run as much as I feel like—while being careful to do so mindfully, and to pay attention to my body, so that enjoying running doesn’t entice me to run more than should.

Still not new news.

Yesterday’s very long walk: 23 miles

jackie-phil-giant-rabbit
With giant rabbit sculpture in Meadowbrook Park.

We’re just about there. The Kal-Haven trail is 33.5 miles, and yesterday we walked 23.3.

My plan had been “more than 20,” and we managed that, although we went a bit over.

It turns out to be surprisingly hard to plan a route with a very specific distance, if you want the route to be interesting. (It would be easy enough if you were willing to just map about a 2-mile loop and walk it 10 times.)

We did pretty well in the past using Google Maps to plan a route, entering waypoints and then going in and tweaking Google’s suggested route to match what we knew we were going to want to do. I did that again, but with a walk this long, I ran into some limits I don’t remember hitting before. In particular, there seems to be a 10-waypoint limit, and those “tweaks” to the route seem to use up waypoints. I don’t know if that wasn’t true with the old Google maps, or if our earlier walks just didn’t need more waypoints than that.

Without being able to tweak the route to match what we were going to do, I just entered points of interest for each of the corners of our walk, then fiddled with them a bit until I saw that we were at 20.1 miles. Then I figured we could just adjust it on the fly. It almost worked.

The route was pretty similar to our longest walk of last year, except that we’ve decided to carry our lunch on the trail, so we skipped the leg to Milo’s Restaurant. We walked to the Olympic Monument near Parkland College, then to Busey Woods (via downtown Champaign and Crystal Lake Park), then to Meadowbrook Park, where we had our lunch at the Prairie Viewing Platform. (We paused shortly after to get the above picture of us posing with the giant rabbit sculpture.)

The other place I particular thought we ought to stop was Triptych Brewery, which we’d never made it to before, even though they’ve been there for a year. (We go almost right past it several times a week—in particular, when she walks home from taiji class, Jackie passes just three or four blocks away—but always in the morning when it seems a little early for beer, and anyway they’re not open.)

It wouldn’t be a long walk from Meadowbrook to Triptych, if you wanted to walk along Windsor Road, but that sounded unpleasant. Instead we hiked north up Race and then cut across through married student housing and the arboretum, took Hawthorn through the research park, crossed the railroad tracks at St. Mary’s, and then headed back south on the Boulware Trail. That probably added a good mile to our route.

We made it to Triptych around 4:00 PM. The joint was hopping, which was good to see. They had about 10 beers on tap. Jackie had a honey basil blonde ale, which she liked very well. (The honey and basil were very subtle, she said.) I had their dry Irish stout, which was also excellent.

As we were passing through the research park, we’d calculated the distance we were going to end up walking (because of her walks from taiji, Jackie knew just how far it would be from Triptych to home), and we knew we were going to come out over our planned 20 miles. But we really wanted those beers, so we decided to just take the most direct routes and hope for the best. And it worked out fine.

The first 5 miles over our previous very long walk was no problem. After that, things got kinda tough—we were tired and footsore—but there was never a point where we worried that we might not make it. If you’re interested, Endomondo has the GPS track and details. (Ignore the altitude data. When the phone loses the GPS signal, it often inserts a point with an altitude of zero. However, no point in Champaign County is at sea level.)

In my report last week on our previous very long walk, I mentioned that my plan for after the 20-mile hike would be a 25-mile hike. Almost as soon as I’d posted that, I realized that obviously our next hike should be 26.2 miles. Duh.

The Illinois Marathon passes just a few blocks from our apartment. The closest point is very near the midpoint of the race.

I grabbed the map off their website, and figured we could just walk to the nearest point, pick up the route there, walk it until the finish line, cross over to the starting line (just a block or two from the start) and then carry on until we get back to the midpoint, and then go home.

It’s not a plan yet. More of an intention. Maybe just a notion.

Today we’re going to rest, have a mother’s day lunch with Jackie’s mom, and take her out for something fun. Maybe a walk in the woods, or maybe (if the predicted rain arrives) to the art museum.

Non-weekly training schedules

I got a great comment on my previous post (thanks Ilana!), and started to reply in a comment there, but realized that I was straying into something that I wanted to talk in a post—training cycles that aren’t a multiple of 7 days.

Rereading my post, I see that it does look like my only runs are my long run and my fast run. That’s not the case, though. I try to include two or three easy runs each week as well.

In years past, my training schedule was pretty ordinary. Each week would include a long run and a fast run, each followed by a rest day. The other three days would each be a chance for an easy run. I found that I could just about maintain my fitness if I ran three times a week, but that I had to run four or five times a week if I wanted to improve either my speed or my endurance.

This summer my training routine has been complexificated by these very long walks I’ve been doing. It turns out that I need about two days to recover from a walk that pushes beyond the farthest I’ve ever walked before. Adding a long walk and one or two recovery days to my usual schedule pushes it out to a 9 or 10 day cycle, instead of a 7-day cycle.

The obvious thing to do would be to create a 9-day cycle—something like this: long walk, rest day, easy run, easy run, long run, rest day, easy run, fast run, rest day. One obstacle to that is that the various tracking tools I’m aware of all provide summaries for weekly periods, not for 9-dayly periods. (If you know of an exercise tracking tool that can produce useful summaries for training cycles of arbitrary length, let me know.)

So, I’m just winging it as far as a training schedule goes. Since it became clear that we wouldn’t get to Kalamazoo for the Kal-Haven trail walk this summer (we’re now hoping to do it next summer), we’ve eased up a bit on lengthening our very long walks, although we’re still planning to do 17 miles shortly. At these distances, it seems like doing each “even longer” walk ought to happen only every other week (with the long walk on the alternate weeks being comfortably within our established capability).

New longest walk

By merest happenstance, Jackie and I both had the same distance as the furthest we’d ever walked: 14 miles. She’d hiked hers at Yosemite. I’d hiked mine in the Uinta Mountains in Utah. On today’s hike, we topped that.

It’s not such a great accomplishment. Jackie had done her previous 14 mile hike carrying a full pack. My previous long effort was made with just a day pack, but was at least done in the mountains. Today’s walk was done on sidewalks, with almost no gear at all—water, sunblock, and my tablet for its GPS tracking. On the other hand, the distance this time (14.12 miles) is a lot more reliable than the distance of my previous long hike, which was probably eyeballed off a trail map—no GPS that time.

Speaking of GPS, here’s the info on today’s effort:

We walked to campus, then through the neighborhoods of southern Urbana to Meadowbrook Park, after which we headed north along Race Street and then back west along Florida. We stopped for lunch at the Yellowfin Restaurant, walked briefly through Hessel Park, along the short linear Harris Park, and then home.

It took almost exactly the same time as our last week’s shorter (12.1 mile) walk, most of the speedup due to not taking coffee breaks, but also walking a bit more briskly.

I’m feeling pretty good. After last week’s hike, my Achilles tendons felt (for a couple of hours) like I might have really injured them. This evening, although I’m pretty tired, I feel fine.

Thinking about paleo, with bonus anecdote

I have been on-and-off reading about “paleo” diet and exercise programs (also called “primal”).

I think there’s a lot to paleo, on an evolutionary basis. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of post-paleo lifestyles that have proven to be entirely successful, in the sense that generations of people have eaten all manner of particular diets and been healthy. (Native Americans ate corn, beans, and squash. Scots ate oats and kale. Lots of people ate rice and lentils.) Given that, and the fact that paleo diet programs doesn’t match well with what I like to eat, I’ve only paid a bit of attention to them. Basically, I’ve let them reinforce my preconceived notions.

I have a similarly divided appreciation of paleo exercise programs, but there I think I’ve worked out what was bugging me.

The half I agreed with is that very short bursts of very intense activity should be a key part of an exercise program. I’ve only made limited moves to incorporate this insight into my own workouts, but only because those sorts of intense bursts are hard.

I suspect it would be a really good change to compress my current 20-minute lifting workout into 10 minutes, which I could do if I really hustled between machines and counted the first set of the three leg exercises that I do as a warm-up.

To do so would require some additional mental toughness. It’s really hard to jump off the leg extension machine with your quads burning, and then jump on the leg curl machine and make your hamstrings feel the same way, and then hurry on to the leg press. Taking an extra thirty or forty seconds between machines to recover is a lot easier. (Not to mention inevitable, if you’re working out in a fitness center where you have to adjust the seat and set the weights on each machine.)

The half I disagreed with is the half that seems to dismiss endurance exercise.

Now, it may be that my reading of paleo exercise programs has simply been so cursory that I missed the paleo version of endurance exercise. But it sure seems to me like a large fraction of the paleo folks don’t merely dismiss endurance exercise, they actively disdain it.

That puzzled me, because it seems to me that the paleo human was the quintessential endurance machine.

As I say, I think I’ve come to understand the objection, which is that you can’t do high-intensity endurance exercise unless you eat loads of carbs. The paleo folks think you should do endurance exercise, as long as you keep the intensity level at a level where you can perform on a low-carb diet. Further, they seem to think that the appropriate level supports walking or hiking, but doesn’t support endurance running.

That’s crazy, although it’s understandable. The modern way of training to run is all about prompting the body to mobilize glycogen stores, by depleting those stores and then eating a high-carb diet to replenish and boost them.

That is not the only way to run. You can also engage in endurance activity powered mainly by fat stores.

Begin bonus anecdote:

When I was in high school, I decided to bicycle to Saugatuck, see a play, camp out overnight, and ride home the next day. I didn’t have a cyclometer in those days, and have always claimed that the distance was 75 miles each way. Google Maps tells me that my route (or very close to it) is 69.3 miles. Close enough.

I knew nothing about carb or fat metabolism. I made no plans to get food along the way, and in fact ate very little.

I headed out early in the morning, did just fine for a bit more than the 36 mile I was used to riding, and then bonked at about mile 40. (Bonking is what cyclists call it when you exhaust your body’s glycogen stores. It’s the same thing marathoners call “hitting the wall.”)

I was exhausted. My speed dropped from 14–17 mph down to 7–8 mph. And it stayed there.

That’s the important part of this anecdote. It stayed there. I rode another 30 miles or so that way. I rode it at less than 8 mph, but I rode it. I got up the next morning, still exhausted, got back on my bike, and rode a few miles to a breakfast spot and ate my only proper meal of the whole trip. It didn’t help much. I rode the whole way home at 7–8 mph.

End bonus anecdote.

If you haven’t trained your body to use fat stores for endurance activity, you’ll be pretty slow—as I was on my ride. And you’ll never be fast the way someone who has trained to build up glycogen stores can be. But with a modest amount of training, you can be plenty fast enough to run.

There are times when it is convenient to be able to run for an extended period. If you want to have that capability, you need to run—and not just occasional short sprints during your walks.

We don’t have much direct evidence of what paleolithic humans actually did, but I have no doubt that, in addition to walking a lot, they ran a lot. The human body is just too well adapted for long-distance running for it not to have been a key capability over an evolutionarily long period.

An open-ended run

Yesterday, I went on my first open-ended run of the season.

On earlier runs, I pretty much knew how far I was going to go and what route I’d follow. Occasionally there’d be a bit of room for variation—I might think, “If I’m feeling good, maybe I’ll add a second lap around Kaufman Lake,” or “Maybe I’ll add the leg out to Bradley and back.” But by and large, I knew to within a few tenths of a mile how far I’d run before I took my first step.

The reason was that every run would take me a large fraction of as far as I could run. There was no chance I’d just decide on a whim to go a few miles further, because I couldn’t run a few miles further.

So, it was a great treat yesterday, to head out for a run with only a general idea of where I’d be running, and with no specific plan how far I’d go.

I knew I’d run halfway down O’Malley’s Alley (the short bit of rail trail that I call McNalley’s Alley), and then cut over into the neighborhood south of there. But I’d had only a vague, somewhat aspirational notion that I’d continue on as far as the trail through Robeson Park. But I knew that the trail would cross several different roads, and that I’d be able to head for home on any one of them, if I decided that I’d run as far as made sense.

In the end, I headed home when I got to Crescent. On some future run, I’ll push on as far as Mattis, and maybe continue on down the Simon trail before heading home.

This run, according to my GPS thingy, came to 4.84 miles, which I ran in 54:15, for an average pace of a bit over 11 minutes per mile. And it was a great run. My feet didn’t hurt, nor did my ankles, knees, hips, or any other bits. I did get pretty tired by the end, but not over-tired. In fact, after a bit of a rest and rehydration, I had enough energy to bicycle 9 miles, lift weights, and do an hour of taiji. (The lifting, I must admit, was a rather feeble effort.)

At over 50 minutes, it was definitely a long-enough endurance effort to produce significant levels of endocannabinoids, which I presume is the reason that my memory of the run is mainly just a strong sense that I was having fun and feeling good. There are only a few spots where specific details are sharp and clear—the spot where I had to back up and run on the grass next to the trail, to avoid a muddy patch, the spot where I thought, “There’s a hill here? How did I not know there was a hill here?” and the spot where I slowed to a walk so I could look back over my shoulder and read a street sign, so I’d be able to make a map.

Speaking of which, here’s a map of the run:

The wrong class of euphoria-inducing chemicals

Chuck McCaffery and me, after finishing the Allerton Park Trail Race in 2003
Chuck McCaffery and me, after finishing the 5.5 mile Allerton Park Trail Race in 2003. Photo by Jackie Brewer.

I remember back in the late 1970s and early 1980s people were speculating that endorphins might be the source of runners high—and I remember how disappointed they were when experiments showed that exercise-induced levels of endorphins were much too low to produce the reported levels of euphoria.

They may simply have been looking for the wrong class of euphoria-inducing chemicals—it now looks like runners high may be produced not by endorphins but by endocannabinoids. Further, according to a paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology, there’s reason to believe that this euphoria is important enough in improving reproductive fitness that it is broadly selected for in cursorial mammals (that is, those with bodies suited for running). See Endocannabinoids motivated exercise evolution for an overview. (The paper itself is behind an annoying paywall for people without some sort of university affiliation.)

This could explain a lot of otherwise hard-to-explain behavior:

. . . a neurobiological reward for endurance exercise may explain why humans and other cursorial mammals habitually engage in aerobic exercise despite the higher associated energy costs and injury risks, and why non-cursorial mammals avoid such locomotor behaviors.

Sadly, the evolved system does not show much promise for turning couch potatoes into endurance athletes:

. . . couch potatoes are not about to leap suddenly out of their comfy chairs and experience the pleasurable effects of exercise, because they probably cannot produce enough endocannabinoids. . . . Inactive people may not be fit enough to hit the exercise intensity that leads to this sort of rewarding sensation.

This is why I’m so pleased at having come up with an exercise regimen that I can persist with over the winter—I enter spring already able to enjoy the euphoric joys of exercise without having to first get in shape.