Handful of Health

Running in the Cold

I think I’ve finally hit on a combo I like for running in dry, not too windy conditions between 20-40 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a mix of stuff I’ve had in my closet (fleece tops from Christmases past, a summer running tank, a spring/fall running long sleeve) and a couple extras I had to get for colder conditions (breathable gloves, something to cover my ears).

Base layer: My favorite running bra; a long, sweat-wicking tank top; sweat-wicking running tights; Balaga socks; running shoes with enough tread to handle patches of snow.

A little extra warmth layer: A wicking, long-sleeved running shirt (preferably with thumb holes to keep the sleeves down over my wrists); baggy athletic pants (you know, the generic kind with the three stripes down the side).

Toasting toppings layer: A lightweight, long-sleeved fleece with a collar.

Warm accessories: Gloves that keep my hands warm but don’t get soggy with sweat (I got the Under Armour variety from Scheel’s on Saturday); a baseball-style running hat; a headband with a fleecy interior to cover my ears that still fits over my hat. A beanie with a brim could probably substitute for the hat plus ear warmers.

Gadgetry: An iFitness belt so I can easily carry my phone — which has pretty much replaced my Garmin thanks to the RunKeeper Pro app — and some chapstick.

If I got overheated in any of that stuff, it would have been pretty easy to peel off one layer at a time and tie it around my waist. I get cold easier than I overheat, so on my long run on Sunday I felt fine the whole time in that get-up, especially considering that all my technical base layers wicked the sweat away before it could make my clothes soggy and cold. It was in the low 30s.

If you do overheat, and you do loops, you could always drop each layer off at your point of origin (e.g. your car, your house) and it will be waiting there for you when you’re finished with all your laps.

If it was colder, windier, or wetter, I’d probably want to get a full-on balaclava (you know, like what bank robbers wear — keeps your face from going numb) and some wind- and water-proof pants and jacket, and substitute the the baggy athletic pants with a heavy pair of sweats that are nice and fleecy inside. You can also find warmer base layers than tights and a tank top if it routinely drops below 20 degrees where you live.

Of course, there’s always the treadmill! All you need are shorts and a t-shirt all year long. :)

Stay warm, friends!

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Eye of the Tiger

I spent two hours last night tearing through every bit of pack-rat nonsense I’ve hung onto since grade school. I found everything from my middle school BFF’s only squeaky-clean discipline card to my award-winning 4th grade short story about a poet and a dragon.

Why did I submit myself to dust, belly button lint and mouse droppings for two hours?

To find my inner tiger!

My senior year of high school, I decided that I wanted to get fit, learn some self defense and have a little fun. I joined what was then called Tiger Kung-Fu Academy (now Zai Martial Arts Academy). It was a huge part of my life until I started college the next year. I joined a leadership program that involved advanced classes, assisting instructors in beginner classes, and even teaching after-school programs for elementary school kids.

Kids are so awesome. I mean seriously, check out the horse stance on that kung-fu bunny rabbit!

I also did Chinese Lion Dancing (mostly the cymbals, but sometimes I got to be the lion’s butt) and weapons demos, such as the Golden Dragon Fan form.

I'm the only girl in the lineup. If you still can't tell -- I'm to the right of the drummer ;)

Yeah, that’s 18-year-old me in 2001. That was me ten years ago.

I’ve missed martial arts, so I decided to sign back up. It’s part of my quest for mastery, which is the same reason I’m training for a marathon. In a few years, I’m going to be 30, and I want to stick with something long enough to get really good at it. My brother used to say, “If I had spent half the time I wasted on World of Warcraft doing something productive, I could have a black belt by now.” (I think he’s redeemed himself, by the way — he’s a pretty kick-ass sheriff’s deputy with a beautiful family.)

Besides, who can argue with functional fitness — strength, flexibility and self defense?

I walked in today as they were starting their Little Tigers kids’ class, intending to sign my ass up for a white sash, start over from scratch.

“So, have you done martial arts before?” the instructor at the counter asked.

“Actually, I used to be a student here. Like, ten years ago.”

“Oh really? That’s pretty neat. What rank were you?”

“I think I had just started my purple sash*.” (Actually, I was about halfway through it — that’s why I had to dig through all my crap yesterday, I couldn’t remember for sure what rank I was!)

*Purple is like 3/8ths of the way to black, so it’s not terribly advanced or anything. In the words of the instructor at the counter, “That’s when you’re starting to think you know something about kung fu!”

I didn’t feel very purple at the time. I stuttered, and my hands were cold, and I was anxious about whether any of these guys were instructors 10 years ago and if they’d be offended if I didn’t remember their names. I couldn’t even remember what the first basic form was called, let alone how to do it.

It’s Ng Lun Ma, by the way. This is the feet-only version:

Anyway, an awkward chat with Sifu (sifu is to Chinese martial arts what sensei is to Japanese ones; he’s the head instructor and owner of the school) and a few pages of paperwork later, and we’re pulling my uniform from the wall.

Sifu grabbed a purple sash.

“Uh, Sifu,” I protested, “it’s been ten years. I feel like a beginner. I don’t know if I deserve this.”

“You earned it,” he said. “Next week, let’s schedule some private lessons to get you up to speed. You’ll pick it back up fast.”

All I can say is, I’m glad I found my notes. I might spend most of this weekend practicing on my own so I don’t look like a total noob next week.

Also, how weird is it that I can refer to stuff I did 10 years ago, and I’m still more or less referring to my adult life? Getting older is strange.

PS, I got an email today saying that the RunKeeper Pro app (iPhone and Android) is free through January. It has a lot of useful features, and can be a fun way to stay motivated with any running-related resolutions you’ve planned for 2011.

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6 Reasons to Run in the Snow

I downloaded a nifty panorama app for my phone. Click to see the whole thing!

Hello, world! Have I ever told you that deadlines steal your soul? And your blogging schedule? And sometimes your wallet, those dirty bastards? Anyway, moving on…

The Big Sur Marathon is 16 weeks away, which means I am long overdue to start training! However, I’m really stoked about it, and feeling empowered, so I went out for a run today in near-blizzard conditions.*

*In Reno, “near-blizzard conditions” means a couple snow flurries and a lot of confused drivers.

Seriously, check out this snow accumulation. And also, remind me to cut armholes in a trash bag the next time I want to wear fleece out on a snow run.

Fleece shirt collecting snow

I actually started my running career as a sophomore in college during the one semester I spent in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reno snowfall can’t hold a candle to the real blizzards you get in the Midwest, and I ran in the snow wearing cheap sweats from Meijer, where I always checked out with a real cashier because the self checkout lane seemed so lonely. Ah, college.

Anyway, there are actually a lot of reasons to enjoy running in the snow, as long as you have the shoes and agility to prevent faceplanting into a block of ice.

  1. It’s cold. When it’s hot out, you tire more quickly and run more slowly overall. Just remember to stay hydrated (you’re still sweating!), and that you can’t rely on public water fountains if they turn the water off during the winter.
  2. However, you’re not cold. I’m the typical low-metabolism girl who has to wear a parka to the office when everyone else seems fine. You’d think running in snow would be cold, but that’s the beauty of the human body. Within a few minutes you’ve become your own mobile space heater. Just remember to wear warm, wicking layers. You’re no polar bear; your ability to create your own heat has limits.
  3. Hot chocolate. Remember that study that promoted chocolate milk as a post recovery drink? Pop it in the microwave and you’ve got hot chocolate! Score!
  4. It’s pretty. There’s something magical about running in fresh snowfall. It’s beautiful and different and everything is muted and quiet by the fluffy powder.
  5. Hardcore athlete creds. Every time a car goes by, you know that your neighbors think you are totally hardcore. Or maybe they just think you’re crazy. Just pump up the volume on Eye of the Tiger and think of Rocky.Rocky Balboa
  6. You’ve honored your training plan. If, like me, your choice was “run in the snow” or “don’t run at all,” you can be totally proud of yourself for having made the healthier decision. That said, the snow here is almost always mild. Let common sense win, and don’t expose yourself to dangerous weather conditions. I might eschew ye olde dreadmill, but but it’s always a better option than not running. Actually, so is the elliptical, the stationary bike, the rowing machine, the step machine, or even Dance Dance Revolution.

What are your favorite conditions for outdoor exercise?
What kind of whether do you refuse to exercise in?

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I ran a freaking half marathon.

Funny face

Hey guys. I’m still in shock here. It’s been several days — long enough for my muscles to recover from their rigor mortis-like stiffness — but I still can’t believe that I ran (jogged? pseudo-walked? nearly crawled?) an entire 13.1 miles. Yes, a half marathon.

Especially considering that my training took a serious nosedive way back in August, and my last run before the half was a 3.5 mile jog exactly one month in advance. I decided to think of it as a three-month taper period and see what happened.

I was partially expecting to collapse halfway through and wake up in a medical tent next to people who have no toenails left. Or collapse a few hours after from some bizarre sci-fi illness, like toxic overload from muscle breakdown due to an unusually huge increase in activity. I swear I saw something like that on House once.

On the other hand, I kept replaying the mythical stories of runners like the guy who got really depressed at a bar one day and ran 20 miles home in the middle of the night just because, or the guy on my first Odyssey team who ran Boston for the fun of it without bothering to train first, or the chick who would “reward” herself after a long day of hard work with a 30-mile jaunt on the trails.

Granted, I’m sure that these folks didn’t sit on their asses writing lolcode all day either. But the bottom line was, I’d have my cell phone in my iFitness and family close by to pick me up if I needed to DNF. And besides, the route is like the double rainbow of footraces: the Pacific Ocean 100 yards to one side; adorable, old-style, likely multi-million dollar homes 100 yards to the other side; Cannery Row (hello, John Steinbeck!); the friendly denizens of the town of Pacific Grove; coastal bushes that look like something out of the mind of Dr. Seuss… The list goes on and on!

Racing by the sea

You can just barely make out the masses treading alongside the ocean

I had several double rainbow moments on that course. It was rather dangerous actually, as any sort of emotional overload while exercise immediately induces an asthma attack, which nearly happened to me three times.

The tunnel

The entrance to the mythical tunnel at Mile 2

First time was approaching the traffic tunnel that goes under Custom House Plaza at mile 2. Do you have any idea how freaking cool it is to run through a tunnel you’ve only ever been through in a car? The last thing I heard before going in was a girl behind me comment to her friend, “Ooh! This is my favorite part.” The entrance of the tunnel was lined by cheering spectators, who disappeared as we entered the tunnel like a herd of wildebeests, whooping and screaming and cheering out of sheer joy and listening to our echoes reverberate down the tunnel. Just when I didn’t think I could be any more overwhelmed, I heard the most triumphant yet loneliest sound in the world. A  bagpiper stood silhouetted against the bright exit of the tunnel, slowly pacing as runners thundered by, cheering, and giving him thumbs ups. I teared up, choked up, started hyperventilating, and realized I had to calm down immediately, or else. Deep breath, relax your shoulders, relax your face, shout approval at the bagpiper, and keep on flying.

Nearing the finish

Closing in on the finish... maybe a quarter mile to go?!

The second time I nearly had an asthma attack was about a mile before the finish. I had done pretty well through the 10K point, but miles 6 through 8 were becoming increasingly more difficult. Around mile 10, every time I slowed to a walk, my muscles shouted in protest as I muttered f-bombs and checked to make sure there weren’t any MarathonFoto photographers nearby. Only 5K left, and I still wasn’t sure I was going to finish. When I turned off the main drag onto the bike path that funneled into the finish at the wharf, I realized that I was really going to make it. I very consciously allowed myself exactly two sobs, then I pulled my shit together, locked myself in Chi Running mode, relaxed my face into the zen-like mask of a customer service representative, and ran like the wind (read: plodded like elephant) straight to the finish.


The third time was immediately after crossing the finish line. About ten feet to the finish, my heart and mind exploded with joy! excitement! terror! disbelief! exhaustion! transcendental meditation! and I literally leapt across that mythical paint stripe with a smile about 13.1 miles wide. I stumbled past the finish line medical tent in a haze, hearing shouting and beeping and god knows what other commotion that I couldn’t make heads nor tails of. Amongst other dazed finishers, I limped straight to the corral wall, put my elbows on the rail, my head on my elbows, and cried my eyes out.

So, yeah. I’d pretty much say that my first half marathon was the most epic experience ever. I had the luxury of recovering with a barefoot stroll on the beach in Carmel. To my utter astonishment, I only had two small blisters, both of which were gone in two days. I was sore from head to toe on Monday, and from abs to ankles on Tuesday. My knees were fine, a little tender on Sunday afternoon, but not excruciating.

I’ve said before that I can’t believe that I, Elaine, the chubby asthmatic kid who could barely run a mile, can run at all. One mile, three miles… thirteen miles?! You’ve got to be shitting me! However, I have the photos to prove it.

The only thing that I would change from the whole thing is the fact that they “lost” about a third of their finisher medallions, so I didn’t get my medal at the finish line. :( That was a bigger letdown than finding out about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. However, they apparently “found” them a few days ago and will be mailing me one, stat.

I also have a very healthy respect for my upcoming Big Sur Marathon in May of 2011. Look out, Big Sur! Here I come!

Click on a thumbnail to launch my mini half-marathon gallery.

I would like to thank my boyfriend’s mom for making this whole wonderful experience happen. She registered me, planned our entire trip from Reno to Monterey, got us incredible rooms, picked out a fantastic restaurant for a pre-race day dinner, looked up directions to the starting line, got me there promptly at 5:45 a.m., met me at the starting line for company and photo ops, took photos along the course, staked out a spot near the finish line for more photo ops, and got me back home in one piece. Love!

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Quantum Mechanics, Marshmallows, and Shutting The Hell Up

Something has been bugging me lately: Goals. Not the actual setting of goals, but the way we go about announcing and attempting to achieve them.

Conventional wisdom suggests that you shout your goals to the mountaintops. Tell your friends, tell total strangers. Post it on your blog, post it on your mirror. Hatch the baby chick of your wildest dreams and desires and fling it from the nest into the wide, wild world.

This — well, this doesn’t work too well for me. I’ve always thought it was some sort of personal flaw until I watched this TED Talk called “Keep Your Goals To Yourself”:

The idea is that the very announcement of your goal gives you enough of a psychological boost that you start to feel like you’ve already accomplished something — thus making you less likely to work your ass off to begin achieving it.

I very vaguely remember reading similar advice about writing fiction. I wish I could find it for you. The gist of it was to keep your stories to yourself. Every time you tell the story, it loses a bit of its magic, its momentum. It’s also a good procrastinating technique — another way of building Neil Gaiman’s gazebo.

As I’ve mulled this over, I’ve kept mum about most of my goals, which normally I’d be announcing and revising and rescinding, feeling all sorts of elation and hope and guilt because of it. I’d be worried if I was doing it right. I’d feel more inhibited about taking it more freestyle instead of in a super-structured way.

One night, as I was falling asleep pondering things such as announcing and tracking your goals, I got thinking about physics.

You see, what I really want for myself is to tap into my intuition and be able to live a healthy life without constantly being plugged into a tracking program.

What’s physics got to do with it? Let’s ask Schrodinger’s cat.

Schrodinger's lolcat

The Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment is a quantum mechanics take on observer effect, which more or less states that the act of observing something changes that which is observed.

Let’s put this in health and fitness terms:

  1. You’re keeping a food journal. You really want a handful of candy from the front desk, but you don’t want to ruin today’s page of totally healthy foods. So you have a handful of almonds instead.
  2. You finally got a Garmin to track you running workouts! You realize your usual route is 2.86 miles. You run just a wee bit further to make it an even 3.
  3. You started tracking calories. You have no idea how many calories are in your home-made spaghetti, so you don’t eat it. Instead, you choose a frozen dinner because the macro nutrients are clearly labeled on the back, which makes it far easier to track.
  4. You installed a bike computer, and like to keep your speed around 15 miles per hour. If your speed starts to drop below that, you force yourself to pick it up, whether you feel like it or not.
  5. The latest RunKeeper update keeps crashing, so you decide to skip your scheduled workout because you won’t be able to post your mileage on the web.

In some cases, you can use the observer effect to your advantage, like in the first two examples. But in the last three examples, what’s so healthy about eating the “easily tracked” (and likely highly processed) food, or obsessing over hitting a precise speed on your bike regardless of how you feel that day, or skipping an activity because you can’t accurately track it?

The more I observe and track myself, the more I fall into the negative aspects of the observer effect rather than making use of its benefits.

And, going back to my desire to live intuitively, the time-consuming habit of measuring everything you do becomes a crutch without which you’re unable to live the sort of life you desire.

Calorie counting is a great tool when you’re learning about the energy density of foods (there’s how many calories in a mere tablespoon of peanut butter?!) and appropriate portion sizes. But it’s not exactly a life skill. Keeping track of your pace and time is a great way to discover personal achievements, and even how your body responds to the weather or time of day, but those damn numbers are so loud they drown out your own body’s attempts to tell you what you need that day.

Aside from a handful of learnable skills — like measuring proper portions, cooking, meal planning, how to practice your sport of choice — a truly healthy lifestyle comes down to psychology. Psychology, and marshmallows.

The marshmallow test was an experiment studying kids and deferred gratification. (Read an in-depth article about it at the New Yorker.) You should watch the video, because it’s hilarious. But the gist of it is that these kids were sat down with a marshmallow and told that they could eat it right away, or they could wait and get a second marshmallow when the proctor returned. Some kids ate the marshmallow right away. Other kids struggled and ate it after a few minutes. About 30% of the kids were able to hold off and claim their reward. Incidentally, the kids who were able to ignore the marshmallow for 15 minutes showed better behavior and significantly higher SAT scores as teenagers.

The thing you ultimately learn from these kids — which you can read more about at You Are Not So Smart, along with cool terms like “hyperbolic discounting” and “present bias” — is that success lies in figuring out how to trick yourself into doing what’s good for you when all of your biological processes are screaming, “Eat that damn marshmallow, stat!” In other words, you need to somehow make sure your present self follows through on everything your past self wants you to do, and your future self wishes you had done.

Taken altogether, I think that the recipe for a healthy life includes: intuition, in the form of body awareness; life skills, as noted above; and good planning, to make the choices that lead you closer to your goals as easy and attractive as possible. With a healthy dollop of clever psychology and ninja-like secret plotting.

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