A fitness goal

Jackie and I hiked at Allerton Park last Saturday. We walked for about two hours, covering about six miles. About midway through the hike, Jackie said, “We should stay in shape so that we can bicycle to Allerton, do a walk like this, and then bicycle back home.”

On the road during one of our 2005 training rides preparing for the Kalamazoo century. Jackie's lost a lot of weight since then. I haven't lost as much, but I am slimmer than here.

Jackie and I hiked at Allerton Park last Saturday. We walked for about two hours, covering about six miles.

About midway through the hike, Jackie said, “We should stay in shape so that we can bicycle to Allerton, do a walk like this, and then bicycle back home.” (For those of you who aren’t local, that’s roughly a fifty mile bike ride.)

Although that seemed like a great idea, I felt compelled to point out that we didn’t have the option to stay in that shape, because we weren’t in that shape.

We have been before. Back in 2005 we got in shape to do a century ride in Kalamazoo. Three of our longer training rides that summer were to Monticello, including one where we went all the way to Allerton Park. We didn’t hike six miles while we were there, but we did go on to do our century ride a few weeks later.

I think we have a shot at that level of fitness this year, mainly because we’re building our fitness over the winter. With a little luck (and plenty of long hikes this winter), we’ll be able to jump right in and do some longer training rides as soon as the weather permits. In that case, we can work up to fifty-mile round trips in just a month or two, meaning that we’ll be able to ride to Allerton as early as April or May.

I’m looking forward to doing long rides all summer, instead of just a few weeks at the end.

A fitness regimen that’s working

After years of getting into shape during the summer, only to gain weight and lose fitness over the winter, I think I’ve finally put together an exercise program that’s working year-round.

It’s pretty simple:

  • Three times a week we go to the Fitness Center and lift weights, then go to the Savoy Rec Center and do an hour of taiji.
  • The other four days of the week, I try to spend at least an hour walking.

We’ve been very good about the lifting and the taiji—we’ve scarcely missed a session for many months now. I’m a bit less consistent about the walking, but I’m hardly ever entirely sedentary, even for one day.

I often get the bulk of the walking just by running errands in the neighborhood—I can get 10 or 20 minutes of walking just by going by foot to the bank or the grocery store. When the weather is nice, it’s easy to get myself out to walk around Kaufman Lake.

On the grounds of the mansion at Allerton Park.

Even better is when we can get out someplace like Allerton and hike over some more interesting terrain.

At a minimum . . . . Well, it takes seven minutes to walk around the block here in the apartment complex. I can hardly ever get myself to do the eight or nine laps that would amount to a full hour, but I can almost always get out for at least one lap—and once I’m out, I can usually convince myself to do a second.

What’s great about this is that it’s working. For the first time in my adult life, I weigh less in January than I did in October. My usual metrics for aerobic conditioning (running time and distance) don’t really apply, but the ease with which I can do ordinary stuff like carry groceries up stairs suggests that I’m in adequately good condition.

I’m looking forward to summer, when I can get back to bicycling and running, but I’m not waiting for summer to work on my fitness. This is a huge improvement.

Bought new boots

I don’t hate shopping. I sometimes say I do, but it’s an inaccurate shorthand. What I hate are a cluster of things inextricably intertwined with shopping. I hate driving from store to store. I hate the mall. I hate agonizing about the tradeoffs between choice A and choice B, especially under time pressure, and especially under conditions of imperfect information.

I’m a lot happier buying stuff on-line. But not boots. I never buy shoes or boots without trying them on.

I also dislike spending money, especially spending largish sums of money, such as the $168 (including tax) that I just spent for a pair of boots.

I think I like the boots. I wanted a pair of waterproof, lightly insulated, hiking boots. This pair is all those things, plus they fit well and feel good on my feet. I’d had in my mind that I’d get GoreTex waterproofing and that the degree of insulation I wanted would probably be 200 gm Thinsulate, and I didn’t end up getting either of those. These are just “waterproof,” which probably means that the leather was treated with some sort of sealant—probably adequate for my purposes. And they’re insulated with 200 gm Primaloft, which is also probably at least as good as Thinsulate.

I decided that I needed these boots, because last year I found myself staying indoors too much during the winter, because I didn’t have adequate footwear for cold and wet. (We get a lot of cold and wet in Central Illinois—slush, snow, rain changing to snow, melting snow, cold rain falling on snow or ice, freezing rain, freezing mist. If you can think of weather that’s cold and wet, we have it here.)

With the right boots, I’m hoping I’ll be able to get myself out to walk, even in inclement conditions. Plus, there’s the slight extra boost that comes from the novelty factor of new boots.

And, with that in mind, I’m heading out now to walk a mile or two, to start breaking them in.

Storytelling cycling class

Yesterday I heard something unique and fascinating: A group cycling class instructor fashioning a story around the cyclists’ workout.

The group cycling classes at the Fitness Center take place in a room that is reached by walking through the room with mats where I do my ab and back exercises and do my stretching. The arrangement is pretty unsatisfactory, because the cycling class’s music is not only far too loud, it’s also a poor match for my cool-down-and-stretch purposes. Still, it gave me the opportunity to hear this.

I only caught the end. Where I came in, the cyclists were carrying a backpack and were being pursued by someone faster but less nimble. They had to ride really hard for 20 seconds, then ease up and make a sharp turn just ahead of the pursuers, who blew on past and had to regroup. The cyclists got a short respite, then had to ride hard for another two minutes to reach the safe house.

I don’t know who the pursuers were—it sounded more like spies than like zombies (which would have been my choice, but then maybe the instructor had used zombies last week). And the cycling instructor sounded more like a coach than like a storyteller—a real writer could have included rather more telling detail and provided better characterization for the bad guys. But it was still cool.

I’ve seen a few attempts to turn exercise equipment into video games, and of course I build stories around my own workouts all the time. (I assume others who exercise do as well.) But this low-tech application of using old-fashioned storytelling to enhance a workout—using what was essentially a paid storyteller—was new to me.

If it catches on, maybe there’ll be some new job opportunities for writers, at least writers who are very fit.

On not overtraining

Overtraining is not my usual worry. Like most Americans, my big problem is undertraining. I never manage to get any serious aerobic exercise during the winter, because I don’t like exercising outdoors in the cold, and I don’t like any sort of indoor aerobic exercise I’ve ever tried. (Stationary bikes and treadmill running are both much too boring.) This past winter I did manage a regular routine of weight lifting and taiji practice. That stood me in good stead for maintaining some basic fitness, but wasn’t really enough.

Since the weather turned warm, I’ve been running and riding my bike a lot. My training log for this week shows:

  • three short (1.5 mile) runs
  • one long (3 mile) run
  • two short (11 mile) rides
  • one long (28 mile) ride

This is all great, but I’ve reached the point where I need to be careful. Up to now, the limitations of my fitness have made it impossible to overdo the exercise. If I ran too fast, I got out of breath and had to slow down. If I ran too far, I got tired and had to walk. Now, though, I’ve gotten fit enough that I could very easily push a little too hard and get hurt.

This is tough, because I’m just getting to the point where running is fun again. Today I finished up my short run and thought, “It’s over already?” Up to now, what’s been motivating me is my memory of how much fun it is to go for a run that’s well within (instead of barely within) my capabilities.

So, this post is mainly to remind me to be careful. My next long run shouldn’t be more than 3 miles. (If I’m smart, the long run after that should probably be 3 miles as well, but I’m probably not that smart.) When I do up the distance, it should probably only go up by half a mile, not by a mile.

If I am careful, I can probably have my long runs up to 4 miles by mid-July and 5 miles by mid-August. That gets me comfortably in shape for the 5.5 mile Allerton Park Trail Race in late October, giving me a couple of months to train at distance and on trails.

(And it wouldn’t be like I’d be stagnating on the endurance thing. I can pile on some real bicycling mileage without much risk of injuring myself.)

But I still need to be careful. The first time I was running seriously I increased the mileage too quickly—in fact, now that I think about it, in order to get into shape for the very same Allerton Park Trail Race—and hurt my Achilles tendon. It took more than six months to fully recover. I don’t want to do that again.

But I do want to go for some long runs. I remember how good it felt.

Wildlife audience for our exercise

This is the grassy spot near the rear of our apartment complex where we do our taiji practice.

Today’s practice was special because we had an audience: a rabbit, a squirrel, three crows, and two juvenile groundhogs showed up to take an interest in our activity. They didn’t seem troubled (although when a guy came past with a dog on a leash, the rabbit most definitely took notice).

First thing in the morning I’d gone for a run and spotted a gazillion cedar waxwings. (Note: number of cedar waxwings approximate.) Actually, they would have been in this picture, too. Just past the little hill is the Copper Slough, and just across it is the path that runs around Kaufman lake, and it was just about here that I saw them.

I added a second lap to my usual run around Kaufman Lake, bringing the distance up to 2.41 miles—my longest run this season, and good progress toward getting back in shape.

After my run, Jackie and I went for a bike ride. We were testing both the route and ourselves for a possible ride to Philo in a few days. The ride to Philo, with a stop at the Philo Tavern for lunch, is our traditional first long ride of the year. Today’s ride covered the first half of the route to Philo, then headed back into town with a stop at Meadowbrook Park, making it a 17-mile loop. That went fine, so we figure the 28 mile round trip to Philo should be doable no problem.

We’re starting to get all sorts of wild ideas about possible long rides later in the summer. But our local wildlife audience is keeping things pretty wild right here at home.

Long runs and rides

Bicycle on the side of a country roadI miss being in shape for long runs and long rides, so it’s great to finally be making some progress.

Since I always get out of shape over the winter (I’ve never been able to get myself to run in the cold), I’m always having to ramp up in the spring.

I’ve got a nice 1.5 mile loop that I use for my early season runs. An important milestone is when I’m first able to do a “long” run of longer than that—this year a 2.12 mile run last Sunday. Not very long, but I know from experience that, once I can do a long run, I can ramp the distance up pretty quickly. If all goes well, by mid-summer my “short” runs will be 2.5 miles (same as my short loop, except adding a second lap around Kaufman Lake) and my long runs will be 5 or 6 miles. Still short by distance running standards, but long enough for me to feel like I’ve gotten a good workout.

The biggest obstacle to making proper progress is a pernicious habit I have of letting the weather tempt me into deferring my rest days: When the forecast is for rain tomorrow, I’m inclined to squeeze in a workout today, even if I ought to rest.

That can lead me seriously astray when—as is common on the prairie—we get into a weather pattern with several days in a row where the forecast is for rain tomorrow. Each day I think, “I’ll go ahead an get in one more run today, then take a rest day tomorrow when it’s rainy.” A few days of that, and pretty soon I’ve got sore knees or sore ankles—something that can blight a whole season.

Happily, the rain actually did arrive today, so I’m taking the rest day I should have taken Monday or Tuesday.

I follow much the same pattern with long bicycle rides. All the more so, really, because they’re even more dependent on the weather than a run. But the result doesn’t seem as pernicious. I can wear myself out with a few extra rides on what should be rest days, but so far the result hasn’t been the sort of injuries that set back my training.

So, rest day today. The forecast is for thunderstorms tomorrow as well, but we’ll still get in lifting and taiji, even if we can’t bicycle to them. Then, Friday, back to outdoor exercise. We’re just about ready for our first long ride of the season, traditionally to the center of the universe, for lunch at the Philo Tavern. (That link goes to a post from 2005 about that year’s first long ride.)

Illinois Marathon

Illinois Marathon runnings near mile 18
Lucie Mays-Sulewski in the lead near mile 18 of the Illinois Marathon

Several miles of the Illinois Marathon course run quite close to our apartment, so I thought I’d wander over and watch some of the elite runners go by.

The people who win a marathon run at about a 5-minute-mile pace. So, with the nearest point along the course being roughly mile 18, I figured they’d come past about an hour and a half after the start. My figuring was just about right, but I was a little slow getting out of the house, so the first two runners went by while we were still a block away.

We got to see the rest of the top men go by. They were pretty spread out—it doesn’t look like this is going to be a tactical race at all.

It was a grey, cool day. A bit windy for anyone hoping to get a great time, but otherwise perfect for running a marathon. It was, however, just a bit chilly for standing still. We watched runners go by in ones and twos until we saw the first of the women go by, then headed back home.

[Update: Checking the results, I see that the woman in the picture is Lucie Mays-Sulewski who went on to finish first among the women (and 24th overall) with a time of 2:52:54.]

Doing Taiji backwards

The Taiji form that we’re learning is handed. That is, many of the moves are not symmetrical left versus right. That seemed odd to me. In Aikido, each move has a left version and a right version and we always learned them both ways. My instructor says that some schools of Taiji do learn all asymmetrical moves as both left- and right- handed, but that most, including the version he’d learned, do not.

He told us a while ago that he’d added some mirror-image work to his own practice, and we even did a little bit in class. Many of the students resisted this, and we only did it a couple of times. Still, doing a mirror-image of the form seems like an obvious win to me, so I’ve just recently started to do so in my own practice.

What’s most interesting to me so far is the way doing mirror-image work makes me a beginner again. Not that my study of Taiji is at all advanced, but I had progressed beyond beginner—until this.

It’s a very different sort of being a beginner. When I was learning this form the first time, the hard part was simply learning how the moves went. In the time it took to learn what I was supposed to do, I worked through my coordination issues for executing the move. Doing the moves backwards, my experience is quite otherwise. I know how the move is supposed to go, but executing it backwards requires developing a whole new set of muscle memories. The practice exposes a part of the learning experience that was largely masked before—hidden by not knowing quite what I was supposed to do.

The whole thing is interesting enough that I’m sure I’m going to want to repeat this exercise on the long form, once I’ve gotten reasonably good at doing our short (9-movement) form backwards. I’m also going to have to think about other variations that might let me rediscover being a beginner in other ways.

The obvious varient would be to reverse the form in time—do it from the end back to the beginning. I’m not quite sure what the reverse of the kicks and stomps would be, but for the rest of it, working each form backwards would be straightforward enough. It’d certainly make me a beginner again.

Writing—and exercising—daily

Theodora Goss has a good post about writing every day, comparing it to exercising every day. She makes the point that, when you’re used to exercising every day, missing a day makes you feel crappy.

My own experience has been different, perhaps because my choices of preferred exercise include lifting weights and running, which both tend to wear your body down. They make you fitter, but only if you give your body a chance to recover.

When I exercise several days in a row, I gradually feel more and more beat up. I get sorer and sorer, weaker and weaker. Then, when I take a day off, I feel great. The next day I feel even better. I’ve often joked that it was like the old joke: “Why are you hitting your head on the wall?” “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

It’s actually pernicious. Some stupid bit in the back of my brain notices that feeling great is associated with skipping workouts. It conspires with the parts of my brain that would rather I sleep in and then sit around. It’s not smart enough to understand that I only feel great on a rest day if I had a couple of hard workouts in the days leading up to it.

Despite my particular experience with exercise, though, my opinion on writing matches hers—I do much better when I write every day. It keeps me in the flow of my work. When I write every day, I don’t need to spend as much time warming up, getting started. I definitely don’t need to spend as much time getting back up to speed on an on-going project, but I think it helps even when I’m switching between projects.

Like Dora, I’ve pondered the parallels between daily exercise and daily writing. In some ways they’re the same—there’s a discipline involved that’s definitely self-reinforcing—but in other ways I’m not so sure.

I’ve sometimes overdone the writing—written too many words or for too many hours. When I do that, it’s tough to write the next day. I don’t know what I want to say next, and when I figure it out, it’s harder to find the words. I need to take a day or two off—do some non-verbal work, mull things over for a bit—before I’m ready to get back to work writing. And by then, something has often gone missing. The carefully maintained mental construct of what I’m working on deteriorates very quickly, if I’m not writing every day.

And there, I think, is why exercise is sometimes different. Exercise is all about stress followed by recovery. Writing is about inhabiting the world I’m writing about—something that works best if I do it every day.