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About a month ago I went to my 20th year college reunion (yes, I’m that old).  To kick the festivities off, a few fraternity brothers and I decided to take to the links for 18 holes of golf.  I suck at golf.  I mean, really, really suck.  I’m so bad that I tell people that I essentially get to play twice as much golf as your regular hacker for the price of admission.

Yeah, I’m bad.  I’ve got this wicked slice that essentially means I lose at least one ball off the tee on every hole.  It’s so bad that I  play to my weakness on short par-3’s.  While everyone else is pulling out 7- or 9-irons for the short shot to the green, I pull out my driver, place the ball on a tee, line up the shot…and then turn 45° to 60° to the right (I’m left handed).

Last month initially my friends looked at me like I was crazy, but when the ball flew off the tee, began to turn to the left about 50 yards out and then land mere feet from the cup, they were dumbstruck (of course, I ended up 2 putting it missing my opportunity for my first ever birdie, but that’s my golf game).

Short par-3’s – essentially my only opportunity to keep up with anybody.

But then on the last hole we were presented with a situation where we needed to hit the ball off of the tee over a deep ravine to the fairway a good 100+ yards away.  The guys I was playing with could all easily make the distance, but with my awful slice off of the tee, I was pretty convinced I had no shot – the distance was too far for me to play to my weakness.  Even if I line up at a 45° angle, the ball was not going to cover the straight distance.  So I tried to relax.  I loosened my grip and just the club swing itself.  To my (and everybody else’s) surprise, my ball went straight and long, past everyone else’s save one (and it was close).

At that moment I realized that I had played to my weaknesses too long and that if I wanted to improve as a golfer, I would have to simply get back to basics and start all over again.

***

This past week I ran twice for a grand total 6 miles.

6 miles? Isn’t that a little short for you Luau? I mean even for like one run?

Yes, it is, but I feel like these two short runs may have been the most meaningful 6 miles I’ve run in a very long time.  Those two runs were done in my bare feet, on the sidewalks and roads of my neighborhood.  Because of the hard surface and complete nakedness of my feet, I was forced to run very carefully, more specifically, more correctly.  To say that the experience was totally painless would be a blatant lie – pebbles, hot asphalt, twigs; they all hurt when you step on them just so.  But what didn’t hurt were the arches of my feet, the joints in my knees and hips, my back or my neck.  The reason?  Because I was running with proper form – I had no choice.

A few years back when I first started this running thing, I made the early adoption to the Vibram Five Finger trend.  I was so gung-ho about it that my wife got me this as my birthday cake:

Yes, that is a Vibram Five Finger KSO Cake

I would end up running several marathons in some version the VFF product line including Boston 2010.  Eventually however, I moved away from the VFF’s.  I migrated to Saucony’s minimalist shoe, the Kinvara, and immediately took 11 minutes off of my marathon PR and qualified for Boston 2011.  The Saucony, though minimal in spirit and design, still afforded me some decent protection when my form would break down in the later miles.  They allowed me to to extend my stride forward when I was tiring without causing pain to my heel.

I happily ran in them for almost 2 years, even coming close to re-qualifying for Boston under the new standards this past May.

But something has been off.  Something has been wrong.

I love my Kinvara’s but they have allowed me to play back toward my weakness, which is the heel-strike many of us have grown up into with the over-sized bricks we grew up with as children of the 80’s and 90’s.

I recently watched this (courtesy of my good friend Pete over at runblogger.com)

And then I saw this (also courtesy of Pete over at runblogger.com)

One thing became clear to me, it was time to go back to basics.  Much like I was able to improve my golf stroke by going back to basics, I plan on improving my running and running form by going back to basics and starting all over again.  The 6 miles of barefoot running I did last week brought me back to the basics of running.  Stripping away all of the technology (and as much as I love my Kinvara, they are still a thick soled shoe) at least two or three times a weeks and going naked I believe is going to make me a better runner in the long run.

I will not be as fast immediately.  I will still probably do my longer runs in either my Saucony’s or my VFF’s, but this stripping down, this completely natural running I believe is the key to making me better, stronger, and eventually, faster.

I feel like someone who has just discovered running for the very first time…again.

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Shortly after Thanksgiving, my friend Pete posted a challenge via the dailymile. Could each of us run 120 miles in the month of December? If 10 of us could, he would donate a decent chunk of change to charity. Truth is, whether 10 of us make it or not, he’ll probably give to his charity anyway, but I loved the idea of a group challenge.

Several day later, my friend Michelle sent out a cry for help via Twitter. She had set a goal back in December of last year to try to run 1000 miles in 2009. She was 105 miles short and was looking at trying to cover that distance in 25 days. She asked if we could help by running with her.

She is in New York. The rest of us are scattered all over the country, so she knows that we will not be able to literally run with her. However, the idea that each day, many of us will be running to accomplish 105 miles in 25 days is giving her the incentive and strength to accomplish her goal.

“We” are a group of runners loosely tied together through our associations with the daily mile, runkeeper street teams, Twitter and other social networks. Do I know these people? Not really. I have met Pete once (at the Manchester Marathon) and have never met Michelle. We’ve found each other through these networks looking for advice, information and motivation. We have found a bond in running and all (and I mean ALL) are welcome. I love that these social networks are using the emerging technology of today to bring together people who love the most ancient of all sports.

I hear over and over again that our dependence on technology has made us a nation of couch potatoes – a nation of obese, lazy people. We no longer have to get up to change the channel on the TV. With smartphone technology we don’t even have to go to our home offices to check email. We can do it right from the couch with the TV remote in the other hand. Dinner? A phone call away. Video games have taken our young and not so young off the playgrounds and streets and sucked them right back to the couch.

Well I’m here to tell you it’s time to re-frame it. Technology is what you make of it and the emergence of social networks can make us a fit nation again. Both Pete and Michelle are using technology to get people to run; to do some serious running. 120 miles in a month or 105 in 25 days is nothing to sneeze at. Before you non-runners tune out and say, “you speedsters don’t get it!” I would like to point out that “we” are runners of all speeds, shapes and sizes, ranging from the beginner who runs a 20-25 minute mile (most of you can walk at that pace) to the racer who is in the mid-5’s. We all cheer each other on. Your challenge doesn’t have to be 120 miles. How about 7 miles this week. Go walk a mile a day. Start where you can and then build on it. But don’t do it alone. Join a network and get motivated!

The point is that all of these people are here and they are together, using technology to improve their health.

In addition to the social networks, there are other technologies that are helping me and others run and stay fit. Runkeeper Pro is an app for the iPhone that I have been using since July 1st. It uses the GPS in your iPhone and helps track your route, pace, elevation and calories burned. You can program it to give you audio cues as you run so you can zone out and just enjoy your adventure. After your run it automatically sends your data to your web profile so you can review it later. One of the things I like most about Runkeeper is that the designer of the program is always looking to improve the app, which he has done time and time again. And, he has incorporated the social network concept into the web side of it. He gets it. The convergence of these technologies can make us strong again. But you don’t have to have an iPhone or a Garmin “watch” to map and keep track of your run/walks. Google has a perfectly good mapping program that allows you to input your routes yourself.

In this day and age, when most of us are trying to negotiate our way through tough economic times and the Congress debates the pro’s and con’s of health reform, running could be considered a patriotic thing to do. Raise the health index of our nation – lower the cost of care. And depending on your running style (barefoot anyone?), it doesn’t cost a lot.

Come join the party!

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