Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Give me strength

About my only contribution to the U.S. Army as a reserve officer two decades ago was scoring very high on the APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test). In 1995, at Fort Sam Houston, I achieved a scaled score of 371 points, good for second in my unit behind a former Navy SEAL. This meant about 105 push-ups and sit-ups, each in a two-minute period, and close to 10:00 in the two-mile run (not even a decent time for a 15:30 5K guy, but this was after the other two events and on a crowded half-mile track in the sweltering July heat of San Antonio). I was always fairly dedicated when it came to basic body-weight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups and crunches. and working hard to prepare for the strength aspect of the test came naturally, this wasn't terribly long after high school, when I took up regular, if not exactly killer, weight-lifting in an effort to become a better runner starting at age 16. (I do think this helped.)

I offer this background not only to brag and demonstrate that my strikingly burly physique is not merely for show, but also to establish that I was once fairly serious about strength work.

When I turned 40, I decided it was time to return to some kind of regular gym work, even if I had no intention of running seriously again, and even if it actually didn't occur in a gym. Along with about 93.5 percent of the maybe 5.8 billion 40-year-old men nationwide who made this same silent pledge, I did no such thing. It didn't help that I spent much of the first half of my forties drunk, disillusioned, notably short on money, or moving around, factors which typically do not connote a dedicated or lasting exercise regimen.

I have now been back running "seriously" for almost two years. I first raced 16 months ago and started racing regularly four months ago. I have had a modicum of success, at least by permissive definitions of "success." I love the group I'm in. I'm willing to do "extra" things to improve, and spend some money in the process, until I finally crash against the improvement ceiling Father Time (an abusive parent) has constructed at some indeterminate point over my head.

And so it was that I was recently talked into joining a rather pricey gym less than three-quarters of a mile away. I committed to three months. The thing that tipped me into handing over the dough was not the dozens of treadmills and other high-end equipment, or the indoor pool, or the indoor 8-1/2-laps-to-the-mile running track. It was the option of working with a specific personal trainer at a sharply discounted rate, one who specializes in helping older runners and whose personal bests are similar to my own. (She, however, has participated in four more Olympics than I have.) She is also recovering from a meniscus tear, a more serious version of my one injury since cranking up my training at the end of 2016 (I missed five weeks in July and August of 2016 with a right meniscus issue).

My first session with Colleen, which was last Monday, was diagnostic. It was also unequivocal, as I found out I have a significant amount of work to do in a few trivial areas. These include, in no special order, coordination, flexibility, balance, strength, symmetry, fluidity of motion, grace, tact, class, basic manners, personal hygiene, self-esteem, and expanding my singing range upward at least a half-octave. Only some of the things on that list are meant facetiously.

My second session two days later was an actual exercise session and lasted almost an hour. It involved foam objects, elastic bands, a medicine ball, and a variety of forms of humiliation. Not really, but considering how scornful I am these days of my physical capabilities, it doesn't help to see exactly how far I have slid in non-running areas. But I did my best and vowed to improve, and I must have been tired from the exercises because my second run that day, an eight-miler, was a hell of a lot slower than my morning run, a four-miler, despite comparable perceived effort.

I will get into more detail about the actual exercises after my second full session with Colleen on Wednesday. In the meantime, I think I have my plans for the next four months or so figured out. I want to take sea-level shots at a 5K, a 10K, a half-marathon and a marathon before I give up trying to be competitive and use running as a means of spending quality time with my dog and being able to tolerate the world with marginally more humor than I would otherwise, which is almost none. I know when and where these races will happen and have registered for one of them. But no matter how these races go, my performances will almost certainly not leave me hankering for opportunities to improve them. It's just not a lot of fun going from someone who was never very good at running in the first place to a "runner" who looks, feels and probably sounds like someone who had an anvil fall on his head from a considerable distance sometime in the previous six to twelve hours.

I did manage 18.19 miles today, as planned. This brought me to 66.5 miles for the week, which is probably the highest I have logged in years with a day off in the mix (I am supposed to take Mondays off now that I'm doing legitimate long runs, and so far I have managed to honor this). But 66 miles is not marathon training. At best, it's preparing to get ready for marathon training.

I ran 7:10 pace, including about 7:15s for the first 10 (which I ran with Rosie, mostly on a four-fifths-of-a-mile dirt loop conveniently located near a drinking and swimming area for dogs) and about 6:40s for the last four. The whole thing seemed to pass with startling speed, especially considering that I stopped for around 10 minutes when I dropped Rosie at home just after halfway because I got to gabbing.

I have to admit, though, that the ennui sometimes grows very strong out there. I'm doing the work, but am having a hard time getting excited about it. I didn't go more than five minutes today wondering, even aloud, "Why the fuck am I even bothering with this?" and considering just stopping and calling a cab for no good reason at all. That goes for almost everything I do nowadays, by the way, other than being a good "dad" to Rosie and as good a companion as I can be to a couple of locals I deeply care about. It's simultaneously a relief and a bane to acknowledge and fully embrace the fact that my life is pointless -- not markedly more so than other people's, but I lack the capacity to feign otherwise. I was never enough of an eco-terrorist to consider inflicting more humans on the world, but if I'd had kids, at least I'd have something to be interested in other than bullshit like the Red Sox or Ozark or learning another '80s song on my keyboard. It's weird to know, or at least believe, that I wouldn't change anything significant about my present circumstances (I'm in the black every month, I have great people in my life, I enjoy solid general health, etc.) even though whatever I've done to get here hasn't exactly left me feeling content.

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