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  • The Other Side of the Road

    Pedestrian musings in a world full of cars

    Comrades

    By Nina Russin

    comradesRunning the PF Chang’s half marathon this past weekend with Team Mazda gave me pause to think about racing and its role in my running career. After eighteen years, my best performances and fastest times are in the rearview mirror. Yet I continue to toe the line several times each year, with different objectives in mind.

    A race is an intense effort: the opportunity for athletes at all levels of ability to test their mettle. No matter how hard the workout, a race of the equivalent distance and intensity inevitably pushes the athlete harder.

    The term, competition comes from the Latin, competere, which means: to seek. In competition, we seek greatness together.

    As I sat at the team dinner the night before the race, I remembered my other reason for competing: to form bonds with fellow runners. Although our team members varied widely in ability, we shared a love of the sport that had brought us to that table to break bread.

    Running tears down the walls that society erects. We found ourselves talking about our favorite running routes, past races, our families and our dogs and cats. I, for one, will remember that pre-race dinner fondly, long after the shine on my finisher’s medal fades.

    Running is a life-long sport because it is life changing. The journey to the finish line is a reward unto itself.

    Motivation
    By Nina Russin

    I believe what separates a true runner from a want-to-be has less to do with speed and distance than motivation. In order to run well, a person has to run consistently. Since running is an outdoor sport, this means occasionally going out in unpleasant weather, and for most of us, making time for running in an already over-packed
    schedule.

    While some runners are motivated by a desire to improve their performance or
    personal image, I am not. Being in my late 50s, my fastest times are behind me. As a
    long-time runner, my weight is not a problem.

    What keeps me lacing up the shoes day after day is the fact that I’m a doer: always
    have been. I would rather be in the thick of things than watching from the sidelines.
    While I enjoy looking at art, I would rather be in the studio: the same with reading
    and writing.

    The older we get, the more we realize that life is frighteningly short. The time we
    have to life out our adventures, to explore, to love and enjoy the world doesn’t allow
    us to fulfill all of our dreams.

    There can be no wasted days. There simply isn’t time. Whether my morning run
    goes well or poorly, it is an accomplishment. I have started the day by doing
    something worthwhile. It is a bit of satisfaction I can count on.

    The Medal Box
    By Nina Russin

    Shortly after completing my first marathon, I purchased a wooden box to store the finisher’s medal in. Putting the medal in the box was symbolic: the closing ceremony for an adventure which had begun with the first day of training.

    For several years, I visited the box often as I accumulated medals for more marathons and the occasional local race in which I won my age group. Slowly but surely, the box filled up.

    Today I rarely add medals to the box. My serious racing days are behind me. When I do compete, it’s more for the scenery than time.

    Occasionally, I’ll revisit the box, not to look at the medals, but to think about what they signify. At the end of the day, it isn’t winning the 5K or qualifying for Boston that matters; it’s what happens in the miles between the start and finish lines.

    Racing entails a sizeable dose of pain: it isn’t what most people consider fun. Competitive runners understand that things worth doing can be hard, even uncomfortable.

    Those who never stray beyond their comfort zones miss opportunities for transcendence: fleeting moments which enable a person to see beyond the here and now. As runners, we have the opportunity to live large. It is what competition, a word which implies seeking greatness together, is all about.

    At the end of my days when I look back upon my life as one might a movie, I will remember magic moments; when everything seemed to be directed towards a single purpose. My box will remain for friends and family to remember me by. The bigger treasure is for me and me alone.

    Going Home
    By Nina Russin

    Recently, I returned to my hometown of Cincinnati to visit friends. As a college student, I had been anxious to leave the city and its conservative culture behind. Decades later, what once seemed limiting is now gracious. The city, like the Ohio River which borders it, has a rhythm all its own.

    On early morning runs around the University of Cincinnati campus and Burnet Woods to the south, I recall attending Bearcats football games, traversing the corridors of the medical school with my father, and feeding the ducks with my mother at the park.

    In September, late summer humidity softens the air. This is my intimate time, when I can commune with my surroundings undisturbed.

    It is also the time to test my mettle on hills which rival San Francisco. I always feel as if nine miles on Cincinnati’s hills is the equivalent of thirteen on flatter terrain.

    Cincinnati will never be a hot spot. Although its suburbs have expanded into former farmland, the heart of the city is much the same as it was in the mid-1970s. That’s part of its charm.

    Cincinnatians keep their noses down, work hard and love their families. They value friendship in ways other parts of the country do not.

    Which is why, no matter where I live, I will always be a Cincinnatian at heart. The Bearcats are my team. The hills are my training ground. I consider Graeter’s ice cream the best in the world. It’s true that you can’t go home again, but you can cherish your roots. I have found my own rhythm, and it’s very similar to the place where I grew up.

    Change of Seasons
    By Nina Russin

    At some point in September, softness descends upon early Phoenix mornings, signaling the change of seasons. Although hundred-degree weather lingers for several more weeks, the sun seems to lose its mid-summer bite. Residents emerge from their air-conditioned shells to revel in the cooler temperatures, and rediscover the magic of the Sonoran desert.

    The occasional morning runner I pass at the height of summer is replaced by large training groups getting ready for fall and winter marathons. Our community of athletes becomes a force to be reckoned with. There is strength in numbers.

    This past summer was one for the record books: beginning earlier and lasting longer. A string of 110 degree-plus days in August seemed unbearable. Despite the long days, it was the darkest night.

    But now we have come out the other end, just as residents of the northern states emerge from winter. People who live in areas with mild weather year-round wonder why anyone would voluntarily endure the brutish Arizona summer. Living here is not for everyone.

    Though I complain, often bitterly, about the summer heat, I realize that life is not one temperature. Homogeneity takes the color out of life. With change comes an awakening: a fresh pair of eyes through which to view the world.

    The sun softens and we are reborn, with renewed respect for the ferocity and unimaginable brilliance of the place in which we live.

    Supersize My Wheels
    By Nina Russin

    Recently, Automotive.com posted a story about the trend in the auto industry to upsize vehicles. It’s not just trucks and SUVs which are getting bigger. Put a current Ford Mustang next to a model from the 1960s. The current car dwarfs its predecessor.

    Since bigger cars use more gasoline and fuel isn’t getting any cheaper, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. While some might believe that supersizing is a way to make cars safer and more versatile, I think there’s a much simpler explanation. Automobiles have joined dozens of other products whose growing dimensions reflect a generation of super-obese Americans.

    Doctor Eric Manheimer, former medical director at Bellevue Hospital and a clinical professor at the New York University School of Medicine, wrote: “Every generation of physicians has a prototypical disease, the one that wreaks havoc with almost all the organs… For my father’s generation it was syphilis. For my generation it was alcoholism. For the current generation it would be obesity, hands down. It affected every organ.”

    Look around. For every person I see running his first 5K, there are ten who are overweight. Obesity has crippled our healthcare system, which can’t accommodate the growing numbers of type-one diabetics, heart attack and stroke victims. Unfortunately, healthcare advocates are grossly outnumbered and out-advertised by the fast food industry, which pours trillions of dollars into making youngsters life-long customers.

    Reversing this trend requires a nationwide effort, including everyone from the family members who shop for groceries, to healthcare professionals and legislators. For America to thrive, Americans need to get healthy, beginning with what, and how they eat.

    Training diary
    By Nina Russin

    One of the first gifts I received after I began running was a training diary. The friend who gave it to me added some inspirational words inside the front cover to make sure I used it. I have kept a training diary ever since, through 15 subsequent years of running.

    Training diaries don’t need to be complicated, though some of the more expensive models are. I like one with plenty of room to keep notes about the day’s workout, but I’m less concerned with charting my daily weight and stuff like that.

    In addition to being a good motivator, a training diary is a tool: a history of what has worked and what hasn’t. If I feel an injury coming on, old training diaries enable me to see what precipitated similar symptoms: too much mileage (or too much too soon), changes in training surface, speed workouts, etc.

    Every runner has a breaking point. Knowing where to draw the line means less downtime, and more quality training.

    Training diaries are the athlete’s autobiography: as a writer, that appeals to me. Looking over race results from years past brings back memories which connect one part of my life to another. When I feel as if I haven’t done much with my life, I realize that I’ve travelled hundreds of miles in a manner most people wouldn’t even consider.

    Doctor Google
    By Nina Russin

    The summer after my junior year of college I worked for my father at the University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine. My job was to wade through stacks of periodicals looking for information relevant to a book he was writing on clinical toxicology.

    After three months, I had accumulated enough data from magazines and patient charts for him to write the section on tricyclic antidepressants. Today, thanks to the help of internet search engines, I could have compiled the same amount of information in about fifteen minutes.

    Today’s physicians struggle to provide quality healthcare, while adhering to insurance regulations regarding office visit duration. As athletes, we must assume the same responsibility for monitoring our health as we do our fitness, and be proactive when it comes to healing.

    While the internet cannot replace traditional medicine, using search engines can help patients determine which aches and pains warrant further attention. Is muscle soreness after a run simply the result of hours on our feet, or does it presage a serious injury?

    Internet sites such as Livestrong, Mayo Clinic and Web MD have tools which enable users to search conditions by symptom, ranging from heart disease to stress fractures. As patients, we have better access to information about our health than at any other time in history. Plato’s maxim, “Know thyself,” has taken on new meaning, thanks to Doctor Google.

    Water
    By Nina Russin

    Phoenix heat can be a formidable opponent. Although I’ve run outdoors for sixteen summers, it’s hard to match the quality of training in cooler weather.

    This year, a lingering injury forced me to take some time off my feet. I ran in the pool, using a training plan developed by Pete Pfitzinger. Workouts are variations on hard track intervals. Since water suppresses heart rate, the only way to get comparable aerobic benefit to land running is harder effort: around 95 percent. For those who don’t have a heart rate monitor, it is halfway between very unpleasant and the black cave of death.

    After a week with no land running, I alternated pool workouts with land runs. Since I use the summer to build endurance, I added intervals to Pfitzinger’s workouts until I peaked at 90 minutes: the equivalent of a long run.

    Pool workouts aren’t for everyone. They’re hard and tedious. They also require access to a pool with a reasonably large deep end. But they do work, and because there’s no impact, they enable the athlete to train longer and harder.

    After two months of pool workouts, I have noticed better core strength, with no loss of VO2 max. Getting in the water has moved me forward.

    Great Expectations
    By Nina Russin

     For athletes, capturing an Olympic gold medal is the ultimate achievement. The person who stands at the top of the podium has proved his supremacy on a global stage. As Vince Lombardi once said: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

    Or is it? Should the Olympics be a race for the gold, or a race for greatness? For those competing, there’s a fine line between pre-race jitters and anxiety. The first might help them break the tape; the latter will break their hearts.

    Perhaps the answer is to focus less on the outcome of a race, and more on the event itself. The word, competition comes from the Latin, competere, which means “to seek together.” In competition, athletes seek, and achieve greatness together.

    Racing is a zero-sum game. Even the greatest runners on the planet don’t win every time they toe the line. But every athlete who lines up at the start contributes to what the winner reaps. World records aren’t broken on solo training runs. They’re broken in competition.

    Medal ceremonies are not what make the Olympics memorable. It’s what happens before, when the world’s greatest athletes create magic worthy of the record books.

    Down, Not Out
    By Nina Russin

    There are years when the training is all good, and others when maintaining consistency is a struggle. It doesn’t really matter what has gotten in the way: work, family, injury or illness. A runner who isn’t running feels as if he’s jumped ship.

    I think what separates the true runner from the casual athlete has less to do with unexpected layoffs, than the way he copes with adversity. True runners understand that training is an ongoing process. There are bumps in the road. Those who stay in the sport know how to move beyond adversity.

    I’m not suggesting running through a serious injury or illness. Nor do I condone ignoring family or work obligations. But in most cases, it is possible to maintain a level of base fitness by cross-training.

    For example, running intervals in a pool isn’t fun, but scientific experiments have proved that doing so can maintain aerobic capacity for at least a month after the athlete stops running on land. Most hotels have gyms, many open 24 hours, to accommodate guests with busy schedules.

    Those of us with less than Olympic aspirations might not have access to a zero-gravity treadmill, or daily VO2 max monitoring. The key is to come up with a plan and stick with it. Do something every day, and make it count. Athletes at any level get out of training what they put into it, no matter where that journey takes them.

    Slowing Down
    By Nina Russin

    Nobody wants to be a slow runner. The whole point of running is to go fast. Any track workout which improves one’s chances on race day is worth doing, despite the pain and risk of injury.

    Unfortunately, nature has a different idea. No matter how hard we train, aging slows us down. What was once a slow jog becomes our race pace. Age groups keep us competitive among our peers, but those numbers are of little comfort when younger, stronger runners go sprinting past.

    At this point, my PRs are behind me. Although I don’t race as much as I used to, I continue to train just as hard.

    When I think back to my years of competitive running, I remember less about the races than I do the workouts. The real value of training isn’t getting faster, although it’s a nice bonus. Training teaches us to focus on the moment, to savor life for its diversity rather than waiting for the occasional sunny day, and to appreciate the meaning of time.

    Running introduced me to my husband and many of my closest friends. It got me out of bed to witness meteor showers and spectacular sunrises: even the occasional lunar eclipse. It made me realize that staying within one’s comfort zone is highly overrated. Taking the occasional risk is much more important.

    The Truth About Time
    By Nina Russin

    Runners are acutely aware of time’s passage, and its effect on performance. At some point, we move beyond personal bests. As our speed and agility declines, should we abandon goals and simply run for the pleasure of it, or seek new ways to measure ourselves?

    The decision is very personal, and one for which there is no right answer. While I rarely toe the line at races these days, I will never stop trying to make my body a more efficient machine. For me, running without goals grows stale. I need the big picture to wake up before dawn and hit the roads.

    Injuries prevented me from running a 3000 mile year in 2011. But I’m proud of the fact that I recognized my injury early, recuperated smartly and therefore managed to log 2700 miles. New strengthening exercises will hopefully prevent that injury from reoccurring.

    I plan to celebrate my 56th birthday with a new training plan. I haven’t used a coach or a fixed training plan for several years. It’s time to mix things up and add a new challenge. The training plan I’ve chosen is ambitious. My goal is to complete ninety percent of the workouts and arrive at the start line of my goal race healthy.

    With personal bests out of the picture, my focus is on the preparation. It’s as much a mental exercise as a physical one. At the time when I measure the days of my life in the rearview mirror, I hope not to have missed any chapters.

    Christmas Lights
    By Nina Russin

    Although I wasn’t raised in the Christian tradition, I’ve always enjoyed holiday lights. Since I started running, Christmas lights have taken on a new meaning: beacons of friendship on the cold, dark mornings near the winter solstice.

    For as long as I’ve run, I’ve done most of my workouts in the early hours. Part of the reason is weather. In the hot southwestern summers, the hour before dawn is the coolest part of the day. When I travel on business, the hour or two before my colleagues awaken is the only time I can count on for myself.

    None-the-less, I find it just as hard to get out of bed before sunrise today as I did fifteen years ago. But this time of year is special. My normally dark neighborhood is filled with light. I don’t care how corny the inflatable Santas might look during the day. Nor does it bother me to see icicle lights in a place where it never snows.

    Everybody has their own ideas about the spirit of the season. The important thing is the belief in basic human goodness, joy and hope for peace on earth.

    I never see most of the families whose holiday decorations light my way in the early morning hours. These few words are my thanks to them for sharing what this season is ultimately about.

    Aging Un-Gracefully
    By Nina Russin

    I have to believe that whoever invented the idea of aging gracefully had never grown old. As a member of the over-fifty set, I can say with certainty that there’s nothing graceful about aging.

    Let’s be honest: slowing down stinks. While age group categories enable us to remain competitive in races, we’d rather be leading the pack than bringing up the middle.

    If I were to truly listen to my body, I’d never get out of bed to go for a run. During those first few minutes of wakefulness, my joints have the flexibility of rebar. Frankenstein in his ugliest moments looked more graceful than me.

    Despite this, I continue to run six days per week. I have to warm up longer, and realize that my pace has slowed considerably. But neither of those factors makes the act of running less worthwhile.

    We have evolved from a nation of doers to one which seeks the path of least resistance. Why cook when we can get take-out, or walk when there’s a perfectly good car sitting in the driveway?

    I’m part of the minority who find this trend depressing. Curiosity and adventure are as much a part of being human as breathing and eating. In fact, movement is the essence of life, down to the very microscopic level.

    As long as there’s breath in my lungs, my feet will hit the ground in running shoes. Watch out Frankenstein: I might just want to toe the line with you.

    More Thoughts on Minimalism
    By Nina Russin

    A blog in The Economist about the surge in popularity of barefoot running is proof, as if we need it, that minimalism has gone mainstream. While there’s no doubt that Christopher McDougall’s best-selling “Born to Run” and some clever marketing by Vibram have contributed to the craze, I have to wonder if the move towards less cushioned footwear is part of a broader trend.

    It’s hard to avoid the foreclosure signs peppering suburban neighborhoods, reminding all of us that we need to downsize our aspirations. Automakers race to market with smaller, more fuel efficient cars, appealing to environmentalists who want to minimize their carbon footprints, and pragmatists concerned about the rising cost of gasoline.

    Families who, a few years back, jetted off to the tropics for holiday getaways now plan “stay-cations.” Parents encourage their college-aged kids to consider schools in-state, where tuitions are somewhat more reasonable.

    Even healthcare experts have gotten into the act. As the percentages of diabetes and severe obesity rise to frightening levels, doctors and health insurance companies encourage us to eat lighter, more healthful diets.

    I wonder if McDougall’s book and Vibram’s FiveFingers would have had the same effect on the athletic shoe market ten years ago, when full-sized sport-utility vehicles and McMansions were the rage. When a well-heeled woman felt naked without her Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses, would a story about the Tarahumara Indians been enough to knock the Asics Kayano running shoe off its well-cushioned throne?

    Perhaps Vibram’s success is simply the result of introducing the right product at the right time. People in America are paring down. Why should the shoes they put on their feet be any different?

    D’Aug Days
    By Nina Russin

    The late summer period between mid-July and September is known as Dog Days. The term originated with the ancient Romans, who observed that the constellation, Canis Major, rose and set with the summer sun. They believed that Sirius, the biggest star in that constellation, intensified the sun’s power, creating the exceptional heat during this timeframe.

    Arizonans regard August with the same disdain Minnesotans display towards February. During the third month of summer, the hundred-degree days drag on endlessly.

    After fifteen years of running in Phoenix, I’ve made my peace with the month of August. Treadmills are not my style. For me, running is about being out-of-doors, and the adventure of getting from here to there.

    I accept the fact that my pace will be slower, and overall mileage lower due to the heat. Having said that, I believe that running in the summer is as worthwhile as any other time of year, even if it can’t match the training benefit.

    I get through August by putting one foot in front of the other. Consistency becomes my mantra.

    Little things make the summer runs memorable: waving to a friend, watching a dog greet the day with its tail waving in the wind, or watching the sun peek over the Superstition Mountains to the east.

    Life is about moments. August is a reminder of that. Lacing the shoes up is where it starts.

    When Good Runs Go Bad
    By Nina Russin

    As someone who travels routinely for work, I find myself running in unfamiliar places. Early morning runs give me a feel for the cities I visit, beyond what the corporate bubble permits.

    Although I scope out safe routes prior to leaving the hotel, plans sometimes go awry, and I find myself in a dicey neighborhood. Over time, I’ve developed strategies to bail out safely.

    Being a runner, I can out-pace and outlast most people I encounter on the street. If possible, the best exit strategy is to turn around and run steadily back towards the point of origin.

    While safety experts recommend drivers make eye contact with fellow motorists, the opposite applies to pedestrians. Avoid any kind of confrontation, or acknowledgement of comments from people in the area.

    I always carry enough money for a taxi, and identification should the unthinkable happen. I don’t wear headphones running outside. Not only can they muffle an attacker’s footsteps, they also block vehicular noise.

    If pursued, change directions and look for the closest safe haven. When a police or fire station isn’t nearby, convenience stores or coffee shops will do. If necessary, stand behind the counter while calling for help.

    Most important, never show signs of fear. When a good run goes bad, the best exit strategy is to maintain control, have a plan and execute it efficiently.

    Friends on the Run
    By Nina Russin

    Friends of mine wonder why I persist running out of doors through the Arizona summers. What could be pleasurable about waking up an hour before dawn to run in the ninety-degree heat?

    The simple answer is that, being a runner, I find running pleasurable even if the temperature is less than ideal. Anybody who’s stuck with the sport for more than a few months knows that weather might be a nuisance, but is rarely life-threatening.

    In hot weather climates, early morning is the social hour. Crossing paths with friends on the run, and occasionally stopping for a short chat is part of the fun. By late morning, most of us seek refuge in an air conditioned building until the sun sets.

    I’ve always felt that running is a sport which separates the wheat from the chaff. My closest friends are also athletes, despite differences in political or religious beliefs. We agree that physical exercise is the ultimate form of self expression, and that some life’s greatest moments come from long training efforts.

    Running makes a person appreciate life for the gift it is. A sunrise is never just another sunrise. Flowers in bloom, mist over a river during the early morning hours, or an especially fragrant Ponderosa pine are all expressions of the miracle of nature. This is not a dress rehearsal.

    Tomorrow will be another hot Phoenix morning, and I’ll be out running in it simply because I can. At the end of my time on earth the story of my life will have very few idle moments.

    What’s In A Name?
    By Nina Russin

    Abebe Bikila

    Unusual weather in Phoenix this week reminded me how important a name can be in selling a story. The brown cloud which enveloped the city Tuesday night wasn’t a dust storm: it was a haboob. The term comes from the Arabic habb, meaning “wind.”

    The exotic name transformed the rather unpleasant occurrence into an event worthy of national network coverage. I’m sure there’s a line of “2011 Haboob” memorabilia in the making.

    The same strategy applies to running shoes, such as those designed for the recent barefoot running movement. From a marketing perspective, running shoeless is bad for business. But there’s lots of money to be made on shoes which mimic barefoot anatomy, especially when they have exotic names.

    Exotic names are sexy. For example, who wouldn’t want to run in a shoe called the “Bikila?”

    The running version of Vibram’s FiveFingers is named for Abebe Bikila: a 1960 Olympic marathoner hailing from Ethiopia. Bikila eschewed a pair of Adidas flats for the marathon event, preferring to compete barefoot as he had trained. He won the race in what was then a record time: a tick over 2:15.

    Bikila running shoes come in appealingly bright colors, which draw attention to the fact that the wearer has joined the legions of almost-barefoot runners. They give the runner cache, implying membership in an über-cool club.

    I know that I’ll never run as fast or efficiently as Abebe Bikila. But as poke my toes into a pair of anatomically-correct almost-barefoot shoes, I dream about running in his footsteps.

    New Shoes
    By Nina Russin

    Readers of this column know that I have a love/hate relationship with running shoes. I was a minimalist long before the trend became fashionable.

    Despite that, I can think of nothing comparable to the joy I feel donning a fresh pair of shoes and heading out the door. The first few footfalls are pure magic.

    I used to buy most of my shoes at specialty running shops, but these days I frequently order them online. The “thunk” the box makes when it reaches my doorstep starts my spine tingling. A new adventure is about to begin.

    After fifteen years of running, the most exciting part about putting on new shoes is anticipating where they will take me. Will I run in an unfamiliar city, or discover a new route in my neighborhood? Perhaps I’ll even toe the line at a local race.

    For the next two months, these shoes will be my daily companions, as much a part of my life as family and friends. We will see good and bad together. Each morning we will problem solve so I can start the work day with a clean slate.

    As much as I love new shoes, I hate to retire the old ones. It seems disrespectful to toss my buddies into the trash like yesterday’s news. But the fact is that the world only has room for those who move through it.

    When our own lives draw to a close, we must move on, to make room for a new generation. Perhaps that’s why the smell of fresh rubber is so exhilarating.

    The Crazy Thing About Running
    By Nina Russin

    On the surface, there is nothing particularly crazy about running. What began as a way of hunting down food has become one of the most enduring and universal sports.

    Running has a way of making people do crazy things. For example, I would never get up at 4 am to do anything but run. However I rise at four every summer morning to get my runs in before it’s hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk of my Phoenix neighborhood.

    I obsess about how many millimeters the heel-to-toe drop is of a running shoe I’m considering buying, and walk around in shoes which make my toes look like fingers. Over my running career, I’ve probably consumed enough Gatorade to fill a small ocean, even though I’m not a great fan of its taste.

    Every staircase and piece of furniture in my house has at some time doubled as a piece of exercise equipment. I know which chairs are perfect for doing triceps dips, which bench I can jump on and off of without falling on my face, which doorways work best for hamstring stretches, and which rugs can double as yoga mats. I’m convinced that the staircase in our house has gotten squeakier over time because I use it for plyometrics.

    Since I realize this behavior is clearly not normal, why do I persist in doing it? Because running makes me happy, and being happy makes me a much nicer person to be around. So maybe being crazy isn’t so crazy after all.
    The Ouch Factor: Coming Back From Injury
    By Nina Russin

    I’ve spent the greater part of the past month coming back from a muscle strain in my right leg. As with many injuries, this one hit me out of the blue on a Sunday morning run. My right leg tightened up and for two days I couldn’t put any weight on it.

    Prior to this, I had run about 9000 miles injury-free: something which I am rather proud of. Still, there is the inevitable anger and depression of having to disrupt what I consider to be the most enjoyable part of my day.

    So I tried to look at the positive aspects of what had happened. After three straight years of high mileage running, the gams needed a rest. Psychologically, it’s been kind of nice to go for some shorter runs, especially at a time of year when the days are long and sunrise quite early.

    Most injuries are caused by asymmetry: this one included. I’ve added some strengthening to my daily routine, in an attempt to make those muscle imbalances less pronounced.

    Most important, I’ve gained new appreciation for what had become somewhat stale. Getting outside and putting one leg in front of the other isn’t a given; it’s a gift. The desert sunrise is even sweeter because nature stepped in and made me take a second look.

    Wake-up Call
    By Nina Russin

    Although I don’t consider myself a morning person, I have always been a morning runner. Work is one reason. If I get out the door before colleagues wake up, running doesn’t conflict with doing business.

    Living in a climate with excessively hot summers, early mornings are the only time of day when the temperatures sink below triple digits. It’s amazing how many fellow runner s and cyclists hit the roads at 4 am in July.

    Camaraderie within the active community sustains me through the long, hot summers. While I often struggle to get out of bed, everything changes once I’m out the door.

    Roads normally clogged with traffic are quiet, enabling runners and cyclists to truly enjoy their workouts. Sunrises in Arizona are spectacular, not matter what the temperature is. As the sun pops over the horizon, it bathes the landscape in a bright golden light, the equivalent of which I’ve not seen anywhere else in the country.

    There are friends I would rarely see if not on the roads and trails, early in the morning. Families and careers take us in different directions. Social media pales in comparison to friendly encounters, however brief, during the morning workouts.

    Best of all, I start my work day on a roll. I don’t need caffeine to wake up. The run has done a fine job of that. While the rest of the world was sleeping, I was greeting the morning with the best friends I’ll ever have.

    Grief
    By Nina Russin

    The recent death of a friend’s mother got me thinking about the grieving process. Grief, like death and taxes, is an inescapable part of life. While time may mitigate grief, the pain of loss never completely disappears.

    Since we cannot avoid grief, we must learn how to live with it. Resilience has enabled us to survive cataclysmic events, from wars to hurricanes. It is part of our survival instinct, and it is the faculty which inevitably helps us to cope with grief.

    The phrase, ‘Run for your life,’ comes to mind. Running, a skill we originally acquired to escape from danger, is also a form of escapism. It’s an activity which so completely engages the mind and body that it effectively blocks out all other emotions. A bit of escapism goes a long way in times of need.

    Physical activity stimulates endorphins: powerful ‘feel-good’ chemicals. A short run of two-to-three miles is sufficient to generate the mythical ‘runner’s high.’

    Any run, even around the neighborhood, is an adventure. Ordinary surroundings become extraordinary. A fresh perspective opens our eyes to life on the other side. While life after a loss will never be the same, it will continue.

    At the end of the day, the human spirit is indomitable. With wings on our feet, we will always race to discover what lies ahead.

    The Ninth Path
    By Nina Russin

    In Buddhism, the Eightfold Path is an ethical code consisting of right belief, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. Could running be the ninth path?

    It is for me. I’m by no means the first person to consider running transcendental. But equating the miles on my feet to religious meditation does explain why I cling to this habit with the tenacity of a swimmer about to go under.

    Greeting each morning on the run assures me that I will see the world with fresh eyes. It is a change to face adversity and address it properly, without inflicting pain upon those I care about.

    This is not to say that I won’t continue to fight the good fight, but only if it’s worth fighting for.

    Unlike many of my running friends, I rarely go out with a group. I prefer to run alone except for the occasional race. This is not because I eschew the company of others, but rather because I value my solitude. Being alone for part of each day makes me a better person.

    While I might not always get up on the right side of the bed, a morning run will likely send me in the right direction.

    What We Take Away:
    How 3000 miles of running got me through another year
    By Nina Russin

    My non-running friends wonder why I spend so much time and effort engaged in an activity which will never make me rich or famous and which in their minds, isn’t particularly fun. I suppose part of the answer depends on one’s definition of ‘fun.’ If having fun implies something which requires no effort and causes no physical discomfort, then running is not a fun activity.

    However, if having fun enriches one’s life on a daily basis, it’s easy to see how running makes it to the top of the list. Running gives me the alone time which I, as an only child, have always craved. It is the time during which I do my deepest thinking. It is cathartic and it is spiritual. Since I consider my daily run an accomplishment, it is also deeply satisfying.

    When I turned fifty, my physical therapist challenged me to average my age in weekly mileage. Five years later, I am proud to say that I have met that challenge and then some, logging 3000 annual miles for the past two years. Three thousand miles averages out to about 57 miles-per-week. This month, I’ll turn 55.

    Since I’m not particularly fast, running that kind of mileage involves a certain amount of selfishness. Unlike some high-mileage runners, I do take a day a week off, but only a day. I am willing to get up at three in the morning to run, but I am not willing to skip running.

    The reason is this: At the end of the year, running is what I take the most away from. It is the source of inspiration, my closest friendships, and my greatest epiphanies. It is the time of each day when I see the world at its best. Here are a few examples:

    The embarcadero in San Francisco before dawn; the water looks like a velvet shroud. As I run by the ferry building before dawn, it is silent. After I leave, it will be a hub of activity.

    On a crisp fall day the lakes in the middle of the Notre Dame campus reflect maple trees in brilliant hues of yellow, red and orange. Waving to fellow students, I remember that time in my own life.

    A rainy winter in Phoenix brings an unusually green spring, covering the trails with a riot of wildflowers. In Sedona, the red rocks are more beautiful than ever, covered with melting snow and cactus.

    A run through the University of Cincinnati campus brings back memories of my father who was a Dean at the College of Medicine. Running through nearby Burnet Woods, I remember my mother, and the times we spent by the duck pond when I was a child.

    On any given morning, I see my fellow running and cycling friends on the road. It is a community unto itself.

    As I look forward to 2011, I am grateful for my health, my family and my friends. I am happy to be able to head out the door each day, putting one foot in front of the other.

    While this may seem like a simple activity to many of you, remember that not everybody can do it. As the child of two disabled parents, I know what it means to go without. As long as I am able, I will take pride in my ability to run.

    The Crazy Business of Running
    By Nina Russin

    At a time of year when mornings are colder and darker than usual, getting out the door takes some fortitude. Logically I realize that the weather is no big deal: I have warm clothes.

    Still, I instictively clamber for the bed: warm, safe and comfortable. I wonder how I got into this crazy running business in the first place, and why I persist in continuing.

    The answer is simple. As silly as it sounds, running keeps me sane. It’s a productive way to start the day, and an effective method of venting frustrations. When I travel on business, morning runs are my only opportunity for solitude. Sightseeing is an added bonus.

    Our culture eschews discomfort. We tend to equate fun with relaxation rather than effort. Yet looking back, I can say that my most memorable days involved time outside my comfort zone.

    I remember every sight, smell and sound of the day I qualified for Boston. I came as close as I ever had to running the perfect race. Tactics which had previously eluded me came easily; by mile 20, I knew I had it in the bag.

    Today’s run wasn’t one for the record books. My pace was slow and by the end of ten miles, my fingers were starting to go numb. But somewhere in the middle, looking up at the sparkling sky, I felt as alive as I could possible feel. A fleeting glimpse of Nirvana was just outside my doorstep.

    More Thoughts on Shoes
    By Nina Russin

    Like most runners, I’m obsessed with shoes. Finding the right shoe keeps a runner healthy and therefore happy. If a shoe makes the runner more efficient, it can help him run faster. Running shoe manufacturers spend oodles of money researching and promoting new technologies that promise to deliver all of the aforementioned with a vengeance.

    When I started running fifteen years ago, the average pair of shoes cost about seventy dollars. Today, most training shoes cost a hundred or more.

    The price increase reflects inflation, as well as a trend towards more supportive footwear. The customer ultimately pays for shoe research and the advertising to promote it.

    Fortunately, change is in the air, thanks to the current barefoot running craze. Muscles in the feet need to work to stay healthy, and they can’t work properly in over-engineered shoes.

    This isn’t to suggest runners who train in stability shoes should ditch them for Vibram FiveFingers. Bodies don’t do well with drastic change either.

    But it behooves all of us to read the running shoe guides with a critical eye. Cheap shoes can work quite well, as long as they fit properly and match the runner’s biomechanics.

    Two months ago I found a really cool pair of cross-country flats in Niketown for forty-eight dollars. The saleswoman was afraid to sell them to me.

    “Do you know what those shoes are for?” she asked me.

    “I do,” I replied. “They’re for running, and they’re perfect.”

    Body and Soul
    By Nina Russin

    One of the reasons I run is to clear my head. When something upsets the equilibrium, a run will usually fix it.

    Lately, I find myself doing a lot of cathartic runs. I happen to be of the age at which death creeps closer to the doorstep. Last year I lost my mother; yesterday, it was a close friend.

    Running won’t bring these people back, but it does help me move forward and put our relationships into perspective.

    As distasteful as most of us find it, death is a part of life. It is one of the very few things every living creature can count on. I’m not sure avoiding the topic makes death more palatable, but that seems to be the path our culture has chosen.

    When confronting death is unavoidable, there is very little in our collective intelligence to fall back on. Each mourns in his or her own way, and waits for the pain to abate.

    Running is cathartic for a several reasons. Sweating is cleansing. Hard physical effort empties the mind. Putting one foot in front of the other is proof positive that my clock is still ticking.

    No matter what else happens during the course of the day, having started off with a run makes it better. I have accomplished something. I have centered myself. Before shifting into gear, I have spent some time in neutral.

    Change of Seasons
    By Nina Russin

    20091222090306_fall_virigin_riverAutumn is a latecomer in the Southwest, but signs of change are already in the air. Over the past week, I’ve noticed the first hints of fall: cooler mornings, a later sunrise and earlier sunset.

    Nothing makes me more excited than the onset of autumn. While most of the country hunkers down for winter, Phoenix residents celebrate life in paradise. For the next six months, no place in the country has better weather than we do.

    It’s almost as if the holiday season starts early: cool mornings, followed by sunny, temperate days, are the first Christmas present. The city comes alive with the return of college students, football games at the local high school, and groups of runners training for the January marathon.

    Those of us who have trained through the long, hot summer can pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. As others transition from the gym to the streets, we welcome them. Nothing makes athletes happier than new members of the community.

    Soon the mornings will be crisp: on occasion, I’ll smell smoke in the air from wood-burning fireplaces. People will hustle and bustle about, getting ready for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

    Time well spent moves at the speed of light. In the blink of an eye, we’ll be sailing through the Cactus League baseball games, contemplating the approach of another summer.

    When I head outside this Labor Day weekend, I’ll take the time to look at the stars and enjoy what the morning has brought. For all of us who share the streets on these early autumn days, it’s a special gift. Celebrating life on one’s own terms is never something to take for granted.

    Winning
    By Nina Russin

    090412_p20_marathonWinning means different things to different athletes. For elite runners it means breaking the tape. For the rest of us, the term connotes personal improvement: a PR, however small, is a big victory.

    The word competition comes from the Latin, competere, which means “to strive together.” The competitive pack gives athletes the ability to perform better than they could individually.

    Anyone who has ever toed the line knows that there is a point in the race when the body wants to quit. It’s the third lap of the mile, and the third mile of the 5K. In a marathon, the wheels can come lose anywhere between miles 16 and 26.

    Those who make it to the finish line and continue to run another day are the athletes who don’t quit. Not quitting plays a bigger role in winning than personal pride, and in some cases, more than raw talent.

    I’ve finished marathons with fists in the air, and I’ve crossed the finish line on all fours. I’m equally proud of both. There’s something to be said for being stubborn: sticking it out, even when the outcome seems dismal.

    Staying the course in the face of adversity has led to scientific breakthroughs, great art, literature and architecture. Sixty years ago, it enabled the allied troops to win the battle at Omaha Beach, changing the course of history.

    Breaking the tape may be glamorous, but the process behind it is not. Racing at any level is a duel between the angel on the right shoulder and the devil on the left. It is the ultimate challenge to the human spirit: mind against body, until the job is done.

    Maiden in the Mist
    By Nina Russin

    bay-bridgeOver the past couple weeks, I’ve spent time in San Francisco for the day job. The best place to run downtown is the Embarcadero: it’s flat and there are no traffic lights. Before commuters start pouring out of the ferry terminal, groups of runners dominate the four-mile path that stretches from the baseball park on the south end to Fort Mason to the north.

    Running along the waterfront on a typically foggy morning conjures up thoughts of Tony Bennett’s lyrics, Jack Kerouac’s prose and John Coltrain’s tenor sax. More than any other west coast town, San Francisco is a melting pot: of art, music, ethnicity and religious beliefs.

    Even the landscape is exotic. Mountains to the north shrouded in mist remind me strongly of Mount Fuji in Japan.

    Running amidst packs of fellow runners and cyclists early on a weekday makes me think about what it means to be American. No matter where we came from, or how we happened to arrive on San Francisco’s waterfront in the pre-dawn hours, we all share a love of freedom, and the desire to explore every inch of what this country has to offer.

    We are doers as opposed to observers. We subscribe to the theory that reaching outside the nine-to-five bubble is what makes life worth living. We believe that a little uncertainty is good for the soul, so we look our fears in the eye and move forward.

    Although San Francisco mornings can be cold and damp, I never feel cold when I’m running. The wind off the water that normally chills me to the bone feels like a gentle breeze. I am warmed by the feeling of comradeship with so many strangers who share the same dreams that I do. San Francisco- the maiden in the mist- reaches out and embraces all of us.

    Mystery Runs
    By Nina Russin

    forestnightI have a love/hate affair with mystery runs: routes I map out on Google for places I’m headed on business travel. While the map program will tell me the distance from point A to point B, it says nothing about road conditions, elevation changes and traffic.

    Travel for business adds the additional challenge of running very early in the morning: often before sunrise. I usually ask the people at the hotel for their opinion about my prospective route and hope that somebody in the group is a runner.

    I have to admit that mystery runs make me nervous. I always wonder if the run I embark on will take me through a dicey neighborhood or dangerous traffic. Sometimes the runs go a little longer than expected, and sometimes shorter. But they make my life as a runner more interesting, and I always come away feeling richer for that.

    Mystery runs are a window to what lies outside the box. Away from the orchestrated landscape of hotels and business functions, I get to experience the unedited versions of places I visit. I may encounter a person down on his luck, grabbing some shut-eye on a park bench, or a farm hand bicycling to work on the highway.

    I see fellow runners and cyclists out on the roads, who train regularly on the routes I’m experiencing for the first time. There’s always camaraderie among athletes out in the pre-dawn hours.

    When I return to the hotel, I feel grateful for all of this. Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone may be a challenge, but the rewards usually outweigh the challenges.

    Altitude
    By Nina Russin

    running1The fastest way to escape the Phoenix summer heat is to head for the mountains. Phoenicians are fortunate to have mountainous areas within driving range in almost every direction: Flagstaff, Prescott, Sedona and Payson to the north, the White Mountains to the east, and Mount Lemmon, just outside Tucson, to the south.

    Running at altitude is a lesson in humility for runners who normally train at sea level. The smallest grade seems epic in rarified air.

    We are products of our physiology: those without the opportunity to acclimate must slow down the pace, and accept their limitations. Such limitations don’t sit well with a group of athletes notorious for being over-achievers.

    I’ve found that the best way to control the negative emotions that running at altitude triggers is to view those runs as a completely different type of training. It’s no different than the way we compare long, slow distance with hill repeats or track workouts. Each is a piece of the overall puzzle.

    Science has proved that runners who train regularly at altitude have a competitive advantage when they come down to sea level. Even for those who don’t live at altitude, the occasional mountain run can be beneficial.

    First, it forces the runner to be more efficient and plan ahead. Starting out the run slowly makes a big difference. Once the lungs and muscles are warmed up, the job of adapting to less oxygenated air is easier on the body. Efficient form also helps, especially when it comes to endurance.

    Perhaps the biggest benefit of training at altitude is that it teaches us to accept our limitations, and celebrate our strengths. A runner at altitude is still a runner: fitter than most of the people around him.

    Running slowly doesn’t detract from one’s ability to enjoy a cool, crisp morning, or to explore wilderness areas where cars can’t travel. Serenity is not time sensitive.

    Small Victories
    By Nina Russin

    spiralstairsLife is a series of small victories. Those of us not born with tremendous talent or wealth seek betterment through diligent effort.

    Running is a metaphor for that. The athletes who win races aren’t necessarily the most talented runners: they have evolved through diligent training.

    Richard Dawkins explains evolution is his book called “Climbing Mount Improbable.” Dawkins compares evolution to a mountain, with a gradual grade on one side and a steep cliff on the other. A person may not be able to leap from the bottom of the cliff to the top, but he can easily make the journey up the gradual slope on the opposite side.

    Evolution is really a series of mistakes occurring at the same time as a few notable successes: a process that takes millions of years.

    Evolving as a runner is similar: a slow process with imperceptible changes. We might not notice the improvements in running efficiency from training, gradual increases in speed or weekly volume.

    We, who look at ourselves in the mirror every day, don’t see changes in our appearance, as muscles develop and fat disappears. It’s not until somebody we haven’t seen recently makes a comment, which forces us to take a closer look.

    Training is a golden egg, camouflaged in a series of small victories.

    Does Time Exist?
    By Nina Russin

    1clockRunning makes me wonder about the nature of time. Some runs seem to go on forever, while others of equal length pass in the blink of an eye.

    In his writings, the philosopher Joseph Campbell describes two theories: the linear measurement of time which the modern calendar is based on, and a non-linear concept that he calls eternity.

    If we are to believe Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, time can move both forward and backwards. Our linear system is therefore a subjective rather than objective method of measuring it.

    Which perception of time is more correct? My belief is that both theories have merit. Linear time is a practical, though imperfect way for people to synthesize their schedules. We take arbitrary adjustments, such as the transition from standard to daylight savings time, and the extra day in February during a leap year, for granted.

    My purpose in writing this is to suggest that runners who consistently train with a watch consider occasionally leaving it behind. Pace does not define running: its benefits extend beyond the quest for speed.

    Running is an opportunity to escape the confines of the daily schedule, however briefly. It is a chance to reflect backwards and look forward: to experience the universe outside the bubble. Running can’t turn back the clock, but occasionally, it can transcend it.

    The Art of Acclimating
    By Nina Russin

    phoenixEvery summer, I face the challenge of acclimating to the brutal Arizona heat. The process usually takes a couple of weeks. Once acclimated, I can maintain my average volume, albeit at a slower pace, through the hot weather.

    Acclimating isn’t just a physical process: there’s a mental component as well. Most runners face seasons of unpleasant weather. While northern winters and southwestern summers drive some runners indoors, others prefer to brave the elements rather than enduring the monotony of a treadmill.

    Mental acclimatization requires two things: first, to accept that which we cannot change, and second, to find the good in it.

    While I don’t especially enjoy getting up at four in the morning, running early has its advantages. A big one is lack of traffic: having the roads to oneself provides a measure of safety and solitude that don’t exist at other times of the day.

    The hour before dawn is precious and sweet: the world appears refreshed. There’s a comradeship between early-morning runners based largely upon respect. Getting up before dawn is a sign of commitment. Although our running skills vary, we share the same fire in our hearts.

    As short as life is, a person can’t afford to write off four months out of the year. Imperfect days are opportunities, none-the-less. As we age and time seems to pass with increasing speed, life becomes an end game. Thinking about the future as a limitless parade is something for the salad years.

    When I rub the sleep from my eyes early tomorrow morning, I’ll be thinking about the precious hours waiting to be filled.

    Running and Wind
    By Nina Russin

    animals-in-windMost runners dislike running in the wind: me included. Running into the wind creates resistance, much like running uphill. But unlike hills, wind is invisible: robbing the runner of a certain sense of accomplishment.

    Which is a lot like life: some days are good days, and some are not. As my mother used to say, there are days when we feel as if we got up on the wrong side of the bed. Little things go wrong and sabotage our best-laid plans.

    There’s nothing wrong about getting irritated running on a windy day. Getting angry is part of being human. But when anger consumes us, we start the slippery slope downhill.

    If I learned anything from my mother’s death last summer, it’s that life is very, very short: a blink really in the parade of history. This isn’t a dress rehearsal: it’s our one and only chance to drink it all in.

    Wind in the face reminds us of what it means to be alive: breathing hard, driving our knees into the air, and pumping our arms with all of our might. To be alive is to fight to live another day. The fact that something demands effort doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing. Being tired is always better than being bored.

    Running on a windy day might be hard work, but staying inside is a lot less interesting.

    Self Actualization
    By Nina Russin

    runnerswebsmallThe late twentieth century philosopher, Joseph Campbell, spoke often of finding one’s bliss. Campbell equated the lives of mythic heroes to our own journey through life, and each individual’s quest to discover true happiness.

    Creativity is inherent to the process of self discovery. So is spirituality. Creative thinking is circular, as opposed to the linear process involved in logic. Creativity involves all of the senses, and it also involves movement.

    From a biological perspective, movement defines what it means to be alive. Movement is also a metaphor for the process of self actualization that begins at birth and lasts a lifetime.

    While we often think about the healthful benefits of running, we rarely think of its role in the creative process. Running brings the spirit and universe together: it opens the eyes, the mind and heart to a world of limitless possibilities. Running makes us discoverers in our own back yards.

    It is no surprise that Joseph Campbell was a miler, and that his wife was a dancer. Campbell’s love of exploration is his legacy to mankind. As runners, we all share Joseph Campbell’s bliss.

    The Mystique of Hills
    By Nina Russin

    killie_10kOlympic marathoner, Frank Shorter once described hills as speedwork in disguise. Running uphill builds muscle mass. Downhill grades teach the runner to use his legs and feet as shock absorbers, reducing the risk of injury.

    Many runners shy away from hilly races, since a hilly course translates to slower times. But those who have the mental toughness to conquer such courses can use them as a great strategic advantage. My one and only Boston qualifier was on a hilly course. By pacing myself on the uphills, I was able to take full advantage of the downhill grades at the end of the race.

    Hills force the runner to focus on the task at hand, keeping him engaged during longer efforts. I would much rather run three hours on a course with lots of hills, twists and turns than a relatively flat, straight route. Since running up and downhill uses slightly different muscles, a hilly course can reduce the runner’s overall muscle fatigue.

    A long-term benefit of hill training is its utilization of smaller muscles, which assist the prime movers at the end of a long effort. Running hills is also a good marker of fitness. When the long, steep hills in a route start to feel easy, the runner knows that he or she is pretty close to race ready.

    While nothing can compare to the thrill of a new PR, running an exceptionally hilly course brings its own sense of accomplishment. Embrace hills as your friend, and you will be a happier runner.

    Spring’s Sweet Smells
    By Nina Russin

    daffodilThis week, I had the chance to experience spring in two places: Cincinnati where I grew up, and my current home in Phoenix. In the Midwest, spring is a harbinger of good things to come after a long, hard, winter. Here in Phoenix, it’s just the opposite, since spring heralds the onset of summer heat.

    In both places, spring is one of the nicest times of the year: a transitional period when the earth seems more alive than in any other season. I remember watching the crocuses pop their heads through the late winter mud in Cincinnati, several weeks ahead of when the grass and trees turned green. This week, the daffodils had joined them: bright pops of yellow in an otherwise barren landscape.

    This has been an especially lush spring in Phoenix, thanks to an abundance of rain over the winter. South Mountain is alive with wildflowers and flowering cacti. A rain yesterday afternoon sent the smell from those flowers wafting through the neighborhoods. It’s hard to have a bad run when every breath smells like perfume.

    Today is my aunt Sonia’s birthday. At ninety, she is the only one of my mother’s sisters who is still alive. I thought about Sonia today on my run: the epic times she has lived through included the Great Depression, World War II, the baby boom, the race to the moon and the Civil Rights movement, to name a few.

    While my own life experience pales in comparison, I still consider myself first and foremost an explorer. I run for the joy of discovering new secrets in my own backyard: the anticipation is enough to rouse me from bed each day before the sun comes up.

    Spring is the greatest season for exploration, as well as a time for those who’ve been through winter to reconnect with their friends and neighbors. It’s a time to shed the heavy clothing, and with it, the layers of isolation that winter seems to bring. Rain or shine, spring is the greatest season for running.

    Are We Ageless?

    By Nina Russin

    20070609001628_wall20runners2A visiting friend this week set me thinking about exercise and its effect on age. My friend, Fran, came to visit from Ohio this week. A former neighbor, I went to school with her kids.

    If there was ever any doubt that exercise limits the effects of aging, Fran would put those doubts to rest. Over the course of our visit, we hiked the trails around Phoenix and Sedona, went in search of pictographs at the Indian ruins, trekked through art museums and botanical gardens. I wondered at times if she would ever run out of energy.

    Fran’s appetite for learning is as insatiable as her hunger for exercise, making her an intellectual in the truest sense of the word.

    Thinking about this brought on an epiphany. For all of its value as exercise, running’s bigger impact is on the mind. Running turns all of us into explorers, whether we like it or not. Whether our daily runs take us down unfamiliar trails or along very familiar neighborhood roads, the daily run never fails to bring about new discoveries and insights.

    Running teaches us that there is nothing common about commonplace events. A daily routine can be a constant source of discoveries. Running is an opportunity to look inward as well as outward; to see ourselves reflected in a different kind of mirror.

    Running teaches us that hard efforts can be fun, and that getting lost can be its own reward. We learn to accept self-doubt as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle to success.

    While it may seem like a fountain of youth, running is not a panacea. Certainly, it cannot prevent or cure disease. In fact, training too hard makes one more susceptible to the common cold.

    Ultimately, running teaches us what Fran already knows: that life, while far from perfect, is worth squeezing every ounce from.

    To quote the 20th century philosopher, Mahatma Gandhi: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

    Time Off

    By Nina Russin

    barefootThere are as many theories about taking time off as there are runners. Some athletes train seven days a week, but take a couple of weeks off after the racing season to recover. Others take a day or two off each week. “Streakers” run seven days a week as long as their bodies allow, and consider their ability to do so a badge of honor.

    At one time, I rarely took regular training days off. A once-a-week recovery run of a few easy miles seemed to keep the injury wolf at bay.

    Now I take a day off each week. If my training volume is light, I’ll cross train. More often than not, I prefer a day of complete rest: a chance to get some extra sleep, catch up on work, and refill the emotional well.

    During a hard training cycle I look forward to my day off like a kid looks forward to summer vacation. But just as summer vacation never quite lives up to one’s expectations, the day off doesn’t either. Once the thrill of some extra sleep wears off, I find myself missing the feeling of accomplishment the run brings.

    Scientists might blame endorphins: the “happy chemicals” we generate when we exercise. But I think the answer is simpler than that. I’m a creature of habit, and I don’t like having my daily ritual disturbed.

    I’ve learned from hard experience what skipping the rest day can do. Injuries that started as no more than minor aches required months of recovery. The emotional toll from months without running is much worse than the physical symptoms. A rest day seems easy by comparison.

    I’m not suggesting that my ideas about time off fit every athlete’s needs. But in a world that’s already overrun with schedules and stress, a little extra rest is probably a good idea.

    Mental Toughness
     

    By Nina Russin

    time2run_shoes1Of all the challenges runners face, the biggest is training the mind. It’s my belief that the body is capable of more than most imagine. What prevents runners from reaching their goals is over-thinking, not overtraining.

    Picture the final hundred meters of a race. With the finish line in sight, fatigue is overcome by adrenaline. The mind tells the body that the end is within reach; the rest is intuitive.

    The same applies to training. The more familiar one is with a hill, the easier it becomes to run up it. The body can usually finish what the mind perceives as doable.

    What’s the best way to keep negative thinking from undermining a workout? For me, it’s learning to focus on the moment.

    Reprogramming the psyche isn’t as easy as it sounds. The mind likes to carry on multiple conversations at once. Learning to appreciate each moment for what it has to offer is one of the greatest benefits of training as a runner.

    The best way to build mental toughness is by taking the workout one step at a time.

    Less is Not More

    By Nina Russin

    5402232N IAAF GLD LG GP NGENYI suppose it’s in the best interest of race promoters to convince anyone who will listen that running is easy. Running is intuitive: children learn to run short distances almost as soon as they can walk.

    But when it comes to training for distance events, especially the marathon, volume is the key ingredient. The body learns to do what it practices. Runners who want to excel in a 26.2 mile race need to include similarly long runs as part of a high-mileage training regimen.

    Running high volume makes the athlete more efficient, both in terms of gait, and in the utilization of glycogen: fuel derived from food. Long runs train the body to make slight adjustments in stride length and foot strike as it fatigues, to finish the distance without injury.

    Unfortunately, some runners have an easier time adapting to high mileage than others. While strategies such as running on soft surfaces, choosing the proper footwear and in some cases orthotics can help to minimize the risk of injury, the fact is that some people are better adapted to be distance runners than others. Life is not an even playing field.

    Suggesting this is not a good way to promote race attendance. But I don’t think it’s fair to mislead people into thinking that marathon training and racing is easy. To do so not only misrepresents the task ahead of the novice; it fails to recognize the accomplishment of those runners who make it to the finish line.

    If Phidippides hadn’t died on his way back to Athens, there probably wouldn’t be a race named after the town of Marathon. Finishing a marathon is an arduous task. Even those who train hard and well occasionally need to drop out of a race. Those who finish with their heads up should take pride in an accomplishment that sets them ahead of the pack.

    History in the Making
    Bernard Lagat’s win at the 103rd Millrose Games is a feat of heroic proportions

    By Nina Russin

    Bernard Lagat

    Bernard Lagat

    Friday night, Bernard Lagat raced past the competition to win his eighth Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games, securing himself a spot in track and field history. Lagat’s victory broke Eamonn Coghlan’s longstanding record for the most wins of the Millrose Games’ marquis event.

    Despite Lagat’s ranking among the world’s top milers, winning the race was anything but a given. Lagat, who is now 35 years of age, was pitted against some formidable opponents: many younger than himself.

    Among them was Asbel Kiprop of Kenya, who was making his indoor debut after winning Olympic gold in Beijing, as well as the Englishman, Andy Baddley. Lagat knew that in order to beat these opponents, he would have to run the perfect race. That’s exactly what he did.

    At the start, Lagat settled into third place behind David Krummenacker, the pace setter, and Asbel Kiprop. He bided his time: not an easy thing to do on a track one-eleventh of a mile long. When Krummenacker  pulled out, Lagat stayed tucked in behind Kiprop, who was now leading the race.

    Just before the bell lap, Lagat made his move, passing Kiprop in the turn, and out-kicking his opponent to a convincing victory. His winning time of 3:56.34 was a second and a half faster than Kiprop’s 3:58.03, which won him second place.

    It’s a shame that track and field isn’t more popular here in the US. I would guess that most of those in the viewing audience Friday night were runners themselves.

    Friday night’s race had implications that extend beyond the sport. Bernard Lagat proved that he was more than a gifted runner: he had, in a sense, perfected the art of war.

    Lagat’s victory is a textbook example of what it takes to be a winner. Winning isn’t about being the leader of the pack. Ego must take a second seat to strategy. To win on the track, at war and in life, a person must choose his battles carefully. He must study his opponents from the inside out, because winning involves the mind as much as the heart.

    Bernard Lagat, a man of slight build with an oversized heart, is a hero of epic proportions.

     

     

     

    Wet weather runs

    By Nina Russin

    runinrain1It’s my belief that nothing is more boring than running on a treadmill. Watching paint dry is entertaining by comparison.

    While others may head to the gym when the weather turns cold, wet or icy, I continue to run out of doors.

    I have run through fourteen Phoenix summers, countless monsoons, and a bit of snow. Each has given me a new perspective on the sport.

    This morning, I awoke to the sound of wind and rain pounding on our tile roof. Despite the urge to stay in bed, I laced up my running shoes and headed outside.

    Because running warms the body, running through a cold rainstorm isn’t nearly as unpleasant as it might seem. I like a nice shower as much as the next guy. Running in the rain is like taking a shower with scenery.

    Rain makes the desert smell good. It clears the air of dust and pollution. Puddles are fun to splash through.

    Running in the rain reminds me that anticipation evokes different emotions than experience. To enjoy life, we must push aside our preconceptions of what should be, and be open our minds up to happy accidents.

    A rainy morning run makes the cup of tea with breakfast more enjoyable. Not only do I have a jump on the day; I feel that I have lived more fully. Running has allowed me to step outside myself, to indulge my senses as nature intended.

    Following the run, my cat looks at the water dripping off my hat, sneezes, and slinks off in disgust. Cats don’t like water in any form. They don’t appreciate a warm shower. For all we share, we don’t share my love of running in the rain.

    Why I Hate Shoes

    By Nina Russin

    Vibram Fivefingers

    Vibram Fivefingers

    Right now, I have 21 pairs of running shoes in my closet. A couple are still in boxes: shoes I’ll transition into when the current ones wear out. Most of the rest I still run in. I also have a few “happy pairs:” retired shoes from significant races.

    I’m not loyal to any particular brand of shoes. The one thing my shoes have in common is that they’re minimal: they come as close as possible to barefoot running.

    It’s my belief that no matter how good a shoe design is, it’s not as good as the human foot. The foot is an amazing piece of anatomy: dozens of bones, muscles, tendons and connective tissue working in concert with one goal: to move the body forward.

    Unfortunately, most of the surfaces we find ourselves running on aren’t foot-friendly. Not only are concrete and asphalt hard; debris such as gravel, broken glass and other types of litter can cause puncture wounds and possibly infection. Shoes are the best way to prevent those sorts of injuries.

    The problem is that shoes interfere with the foot’s proprioception: the ability of nerves to read the surface of the road, and send the appropriate signals to the muscles. The more cushioned, corrective or stiff shoes are, the more they interfere with this very important function.

    What begins with the feet travels up the legs. Many common running injuries, including tendonitis in major leg muscles and certain knee problems begin with the feet.

    Yet the shoe industry persists in marketing shoes that are, in most cases, over-engineered. Much of the stimulus for this trend comes from non-runners, who are entering marathons in unprecedented numbers.

    Shoe designers try to give these first-time marathoners their best chance of success with shoes that correct common gait problems, and provide extraordinary amounts of cushioning.

    In writing this, I’m not suggesting that running shoe companies stop making products there’s an obvious market for. My concern is that simple minimal running shoes seem to be going the way of the typewriter.

    My request to the running shoe companies is simple: keep a few pairs of thin-soled models in your line-up for me.
     

    The Simple Truth: Running and the meaning of life

    By Nina Russin

    Flying Pig Marathon

    Flying Pig Marathon

    Over the past fourteen years, I’ve occasionally wondered what significance running has in the grand scheme of things. Running at won’t change the world, nor will running at the non-elite level change the sport.

    While its health benefits are significant, they can’t account for the time and passion I’ve put into this sport for over a quarter of my life.

    Nothing makes a person think more seriously about the meaning of life than death. Seeing my mother’s ashes at the gravesite last June caused me to reflect upon my own life: to wonder what, if anything will remain of my life’s work after I’m gone.

    It’s possible decades of work as an automotive journalist will have some significance, at least in a historical sense. Family members will remember me, but those memories fade over time.

    What I took away from my mother’s death is an appreciation for how short life is. A human being’s lifetime is a blink on the screen of history: over almost before it has begun.

    Movement is the essence of life: not just muscular movement, but the movement of fluids through the body, and electrical currents through the brain. When movement stops, the body dies.

    Running is instinctual, although running well requires training and practice. Running satisfies the basic human need to move: to explore the unfamiliar, stimulate the senses, and learn from the experience.

    Running teaches us that there is an adventure around every corner, which in turn helps us to appreciate the comfort that lies in familiarity.

    I have always been a morning runner, in part because it is the time I can count on as my own, before other obligations take precedence. When I start the day with a run, I can count on the feeling of accomplishment that running brings. I like to run until I’m tired: to feel as if I’ve taken every advantage being alive for another day.

    The muscles are warm, the mind more focused. The body is ready to accomplish the tasks and challenges that lie ahead.

    I run because it keeps me moving: that’s the simple truth.