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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Running Lines

I wish I were a multi-tasker.

Particularly for the last month, I've tried to fill my days with pastimes that I'm proud to talk about. Reading, writing and running are the chief goals, but there are plenty of others, such as music and theatre. In short, I have a lot of commitments, and there are times when it would serve me best to be able to accomplish multiple things at once.

So I try to multi-task A and B. The problem is, it's not that I can do thing A and thing B at the same time. It's that thing B is shiny and distracting, and thing A goes undone.

In general, I'm better served by buckling down on A and telling myself that B will wait until I'm done. Certainly, I'm not always good at doing that. The most common example is when I'm sitting at my desk, working on a project, with another eye on my email inbox. I pride myself at getting back to folks quickly, but when the email comes in, I cut off whatever I'm working on and change over my attention. Sometimes it's hours before I see the open window on my screen and think, "What was I doing in that program?"

I don't think I'm the only person who works like this. Every day, I hear from someone who "doesn't have time" to do this or that, wishing that there could be more hours in every day to get things done. Often, one of the first things to get sacrificed will be a workout.

Recently, I've realized that running is the one place where I can truly multi-task. Sure, I can't return emails or read a book (I have no idea how those people at the gym can read on treadmills), but there are a lot of parts of my life that can happen while I'm pounding the pavement, because a lot of my life happens quietly in my brain.

This morning, for example, after another battle with my sleep-fogged brain, I managed to make it out the door for my run. As usual, my mind started wandering pretty quickly, and I explored all the dark places of my doubt before finding a way to be proud of the fact that I'd actually made it out the door. At some point, I turned to my schedule for the day, remembering that there is a performance of the play I'm in tonight. My train of thought took it from there:

I'm kind of glad I'm not onstage tonight, after a bit of a break, it'll be nice to see it again - wait, when am I on next - right, Saturday, we don't have a show tomorrow - I should spend tomorrow going over my lines - hang on a minute... I've got time right now!

I began to run the play, beginning to end, in my mind on the road. It's surprisingly difficult to keep focused, especially as my mind wanders off into the comedic bits and improv that will happen throughout Saturday evening, but I ended up getting through about 90% of the lines I'll have to speak on the night. I'd accomplished two things at once, and perhaps even better, I hadn't even noticed the last two miles of the run.

Whether I'm working on a new song, prewriting one of these blog posts, or trying to remember whether it's "your" or "thy" in a particular scene, a lot of the effort of my day is cerebral. Tying that to my physical workout is proving to find me a little extra time throughout the rest of the day.

And then I can single-task to my heart's content.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Fragile

It doesn't take much to upset a delicate balance.

Now, delicate is not a word that I'd use to describe our boy dog. Floppy. That word is much more appropriate. Generally, he's pretty dumb and happy, and we like having him around. And in truth, even though we got him as a puppy, he's never been particularly destructive.

Of course, he does love peanut butter. And if the spatula head happens to be stuck to the peanut butter, well, he'll go ahead and take that down as well.

This lead to the wonderful adventure of puppy stomach surgery. Oddly enough, he had a very similar surgery to the one that I had almost exactly a year ago. They fortunately did not have to do anything on the same scale as they did with me, but he's stitched up with staples and drooling in his pain med sleep as we speak.

It's shocking normal activities suddenly become terrifying. The way he stretches his body is a concern for the staples. Whether or not he can reach his scar determines the necessity of a cone. Every outside trip is watched and mentally documented. He can't tell us if something is wrong, so it's up to us to determine for ourselves. The responsibility is heavy, and the worry can take your focus away in a heartbeat. The puppy body is off, and there goes all the balance in the world, it seems.

Certainly an overstatement, but it shocks me how fragile these little ecosystems can be. Four days of late nights and celebrations last week completely derailed me from a lot of the grounding efforts that I developed in January. I was finally able to get up and go for a run at my proper (read: early) time yesterday, only to choose, rather definitively, to stay in bed today. Besides that, schedules over which I have no control keep morphing without warning, our office is undergoing a slow, steady thump of construction, and the little stressors keep mounting, more and more, each day.

Most of these irritations are minor. On a normal day (or to a normal person) they might completely bounce off, but pile them on and they're suddenly some multi-Transformer machine of misery. Today, my last straw came when I wasn't sure if I could get my run in after work (which I totally dropped this morning in favor of laziness), having allowed a lot of steam to build. I reminded myself of those Snickers commercials where someone is behaving horrendously to those around them. Luckily for me (and I suppose for the Snickers folks) the answer is not far away. I ran.

In my case, things can be put back together almost as quickly as they fall apart. All it takes is a few good choices. Had I made the right choice this morning, it would not have been a problem at all. The difference is that a quick fix does not necessarily mean an easy fix. It is not easy to leave the house before the sun comes up, but it does solve a whole lot of other problems in my day before I even have to face them. And it may not be perfect, but it certainly beats trying to piece my life back together with little bits of chewing gum.

Or surgical staples.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Groundhog Day

"That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I have that day over and over and over?"

-Bill Murray, Groundhog Day

Some brilliant soul on the internet recently suggested that the studio announce a sequel to Bill Murray's 1993 (I'm gonna say it) masterpiece.

Then they should just re-release the original movie.

I love that film, and can probably quote a good 70-80% of it from memory. It's one of those that I'll watch over and over again, seemingly appropriate given the plot. For me, it was always a story about what you could do with unlimited do-overs. Who hasn't wanted a chance to fix every mistake in a day? To absolutely get it perfect?

Of course, that's only the second half of the movie. The first half is getting everything wrong.

Today, I had a first half kind of day. Nothing big, nothing terrible, just lots of little things that added up to a huge pile of crud. In particular, there were several things that could have gone well, but ended up taking the wrong turn. Just a bad day. They happen.

Flipping through the channels this evening, I came across the movie being shown again and again on some cable channel. I watched for a few minutes, but wasn't much in the mood for silly comedy. I turned off the TV and returned to my current book, The Odyssey. Talk about a bad day.

My mind wandered, as it often does, and I thought about whether I'd be willing to live this day over and over again to try and get it right. I started to think back about what I would change.

And here's the thing: I got nothing.

I woke up on time. I went for my run. I took some time to cook breakfast and read in the morning, and was at work on time. Then, I worked hard, and answered some important questions at my job. I maintained focus better than usual, and got done with everything I needed. All the frustrations were from outside sources, and all were dealt with. In each case, if my immediate reaction was not constructive, I didn't give it out to someone else. I took my step back and reassessed, and everything that could be dealt with was. Everything that can't be fixed yet can wait.

And that's the best part about bad days. They end. Control what can be controlled now, and the uncontrollable takes less out of you. Punxsutawney Phil didn't see his shadow today, which I guess is meant to give us hope for an early spring. I'm not quite sure about that.

But I do know that tomorrow won't be today.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Checking In

As advertised, I've been a bit busy the last couple weeks.

I began rehearsing a new play on January 21, the same night that I learned I'd be performing an additional role. I performed in that role 9 days and 5 rehearsals later. This was all while continuing to do my daily yoga, my 5 weekly runs, my day job, and all the other engagements in which I've found myself so far this year. To be honest, it's been a bit much.

Janu-water ended a few days early, which had more to do with my own lack of resolve than any outside force. Still, I did 25 of the 30 days, which isn't a bad percentage at all, and I certainly had a healthier month than normal.

Plus, I did all 30 days of yoga, a fact that I'm far more proud of than perhaps I should be. The final day was free-form, and I tried to keep up with what she was doing in the video, but honestly, it wasn't a great practice for me. Still, the important thing was that I got out my mat and I did the work. Totally counts.

At the end of a month like this, I have to ask what I've learned and what can I gain from the experience. This last weekend was a very good example for me of how quickly I can drop back into old habits. I stayed out very late on Saturday night to celebrate my first show, which I really enjoyed. The trouble was, I then did not get up and do my run on Sunday, and had no interest in doing so again this morning. Suddenly, I'm two runs down on the week one day out from my crazy healthy month. It doesn't take much to start the slide.

So, I guess what I learned is that it never gets easy to make these choices. I'll always have days when I don't want to run. Water is never going to be my favorite beverage. And it is unlikely that I'll suddenly be flexible any time soon. It takes work, and for me in particular, this will be difficult a lot of the time.

But I also learned that I'm strong enough to do it. When I try, when I focus, when I want it, I can do anything. I just need to keep myself in check and remain accountable to my goals. The fact that I'm "allowed" to drink whatever I want shouldn't mean that I never choose water. I'm not required to do yoga, but I can still decide to when the mood strikes, and I don't necessarily need someone to talk me through it. I know what it feels like to have pride in the things I do every day. It all comes down to making the right choices most of the time.

And celebrating every now and then.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Know When to Fold 'Em

I can play three pretty good hours of poker.

The problem is, I usually play four-hour games.

It's been a while since I've sat around a poker table. It used to be a fairly regular occurrence, back in my college days. We'd get together with some beer and a buddy's carefully-guarded chip set and spend hours trading one another's money back and forth. At some point in the game, I'd usually get ahead, playing very conservatively through the first couple hours and making my move when the moment was right. And then, unless I was able to get lucky with another big hand right away, I'd start my downward spiral.

As Kenny Rogers says, you've got to know when to walk away and know when to run. In poker, I don't. In running, however, I'm learning.

Yesterday, I decided it was not a day for me to run. My calf had been acting up on the 13-miler I did on Sunday, and throughout the rest of the day, it was fairly well on fire. I stretched, rested, and did all the things I'm supposed to do, but as I was heading to bed, I told myself that when I put my feet on the ground the next morning, if I had any concerns about my calf, I would not run.

The next morning came, and I could have run. I'm sure of it. Tuesday is a rest day anyway, so I would still have gotten a day without too much wear and tear. Still, I knew it wasn't 100%. I knew that I've been running very well the last few weeks and I'm ahead of the pace required for my January mileage goal. And most importantly, I knew that thinking you're ready before you are is the best way to give yourself a long-term injury that requires weeks, not days, to heal. Plus, I was really tired, so I decided not to run.

Unfortunately, I also decided that I did not want to do my yoga that morning. It was a 35-minute video, one of the longest in the 30 day challenge, and I just did not have the motivation after a night of fitful and sporadic sleep. Instead, I sat around doing nothing for an hour or so, and then got ready for work.

This is not the way to start a week. Every email with any bad news irritated me to high heaven. I could not focus. I didn't want to do anything. Quite frankly, anything that required any motivation from me was done without joy or drive. By doing nothing at all first thing in the morning, I set up my day to model that behavior. While I did a lot, I don't feel like I accomplished anything at all. Until, that is, I got home and did my yoga.

Even my wife commented on how focused I seemed during the practice (and how straight I'm managing to keep my back). There's something very centering about yoga that I really enjoy. While I don't think I'll stick to 7 days a week when February rolls around, I do still want to keep it as part of my fitness lifestyle, so I'll have to figure out the best way to do that. Today's yoga was similarly empowering, hence my ability to write a blog post before the sun's even up. I still didn't run, because it's a planned rest day, but I'm feeling much stronger and more positive than yesterday.

This morning, I'm all in.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Halfway

The halfway point can be deceiving.

Recently, I touted the virtues of an out-and-back training course, but this style comes with its challenges as well. For one thing, when the scenery doesn't change, you have fewer distractions from any pain or discomfort you might find, the usual complaint against races that follow this format.

My bigger problem, however, is the halfway point. You finally get to that point as far from home as you'll get, and you have no choice but to go back. I usually get energized for a moment. I've made it this far, so I know I can make it that far in the other direction. There's a brief rush that propels me forward as though I can take on the world.

And then I hit the 60% mark. Between 60-80% of whatever I'm doing, I always start to get shaky. The first half is fresh and exciting, that midpoint such a great goal, but then I have to keep going, and of course, the back half is going to be more difficult, because you've got the collected weight of the first half pulling you down. On today's run, I was feeling it something fierce on way home. My quads were tightening up, and my calf started screaming. It's not until I hit that last 20%, when I can tell myself I'm almost done, that I can stop fighting my brain and just let my legs work. Today was just a harder run.

It's appropriate that this challenge occurred today, one day after the halfway point of my 30-day challenges. Since January 1st doesn't count, yesterday was day 15 of yoga and Janu-water. The first has been extremely rewarding, and the latter has been surprisingly difficult. Still, I've made it halfway, which should mean that it gets easier, right?

Well, no. Of course not. Because I start rehearsals for my next show on Wednesday, which is going to make it difficult to find time to complete yoga a challenge, and what's more, the show necessarily involves drinking things other than water. I still intend to hold to my plan as long as possible and at all times when not at rehearsal, but I recognize what an incredible challenge this is going to be. Until I hit that last week of the month (80%), things are going to be a little rough for me.

Recognizing this pattern is a big part of the solution. Just knowing that I approach all of my challenges this way helps me to rationalize and fight through that 20% where I start questioning why I'm doing any of this at all. The changes that I'm trying to make are not just for January, and I need to be able to hold over my healthy choices in the face of adversity. It's been great to have a little buffer to get my rhythm while I got started, but the real challenge starts now.

Of course, as of this morning, I've run more miles this month than in any month last year, so I have to think I'm heading in the right direction.

A good start to the second half.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Underdog

Sometimes I think that Underdog was poorly named.


"There's no need to fear," he would say. "UNDERDOG is here!"But here's the thing about being an underdog: it means you're supposed to lose. If I found myself in great peril against an animated evildoer, I'm not going to get that excited about the guy who is named after the team that will be commended for "making a game of it." Bring me Mighty Mouse. It's right in his name. Mighty.

We love the underdog, don't we? Unless you're already a fan of whatever Dynasty team is currently ruling the sport, all things being equal, many (if not most) of us will cheer for the upstart, and in many cases, we're not disappointed.

There are countless reasons why an underdog takes down the power, but for me, it usually comes down to two things. First, the underdogs get incredibly psyched up and perform at a level beyond anything they've done before; and second, the power underestimates the opponent. In sports, they'll talk about a team "looking ahead" to the next game. For example, the number one team is playing number two next week, but this week they get trounced by the JV squad, because they didn't bother to prepare. It's an old, familiar story.

In times of great stress and pressure, we can often rise above our expectations and perform like we always dreamed, but when our guard is down, everything can unravel in a moment.

I was thinking about this during my short run this morning. With my time constraints, I found myself pushing the pace a little more than I should have. Not fast, mind you, but still a level up from my standard runs these days. I considered this for a moment, and had to decide if I wanted to really go for a good, fast run, or stay in my recent groove of middle effort. I'm doing 13 mile runs on the weekends, so this would be my only chance this week at driving speed.

Then it occurred to me that I was underestimating this run. My long runs on Sunday are the Goliath to my David, when I'm the underdog who shouldn't be able to defeat the giant (but I have, two weeks in a row). These short runs in the middle of the week don't seem like much, but I could be walking (running) into a trap. Three miles is still a good distance, and I'm a long way from the days when it was basically a sprint. When I decided, at the end of December, that I was ready to push myself into speed work, I messed up a whole collection of muscles and I'm still feeling the effects. I'm not the underdog on Thursday morning, I'm the favorite. And if I'm not careful, these are the runs that can beat me.

Of course, I know I can do these runs. In a month when I've already done 12- and 13-mile runs and survived reading Ulysses (seriously, that book is tough), a little 5K isn't going to undo me, as long as I pay attention. So, I kept a healthy pace, driving a little more than some of my other runs. I did not let it get to the point of losing my breath, and I focused carefully on my form, checking in constantly for any aches or pains arising. I had none.

The lesson is to stay mindful of the moment in which you find yourself, something else I'm learning from yoga. Losing focus can mean losing a whole lot more. Don't get ahead of yourself. Rather, enjoy the moment you're in, and make it as productive and positive a moment as you can, and you can conquer anything.

There's no need to fear.