Monday, November 30, 2009

Rolfing Redux

I said earlier that I would give periodic updates on my regimen of rolfing. I began the 10 session realignment about 6 sessions ago (it is actually going to be 11 sessions, because we spent one working exclusively on my right arm, where I have chronic tennis elbow).

The results of rolfing so far have been positive and noticeable. I still breathe much more easily than I did before beginning the series. I have also dramatically improved my PRs in running. I have knocked, no kidding, 2 + minutes off of my morning 2 and 3.5 mi runs - a feat that seems incredible particularly for the quick 2 mile runs. I have dropped my 10K time by 4-5 minutes. I do realize that the more I run, the better my times would potentially be. However, the drops have occurred literally the day after some of the sessions. And the time drops don't happen gradually, but dramatically. It is really impressive.

That being said, rolfing does hurt, and it is a major discomfort at times. I have lain on a table thinking that I just can't take any more pain. Just as I reach a pain threshold, however, a breakthrough happens as muscle pulls away from fascia, and an odd wave of relief and a new feeling of flexibility take over. This has happened repeatedly, and feels like a triumph when it occurs.

Rolfing, as I stated above, is attended by some uncomfortable moments. Last week for instance, after finishing work on my inner thighs (a bit disconcerting), my rolfer put her hand up my ass-crack so that there was only a thin layer of underwear between my vertical smile and her fingers. As one can imagine, I jumped a bit. She explained that she was working on the fascia that surrounded muscle around my tail bone. So for five or ten minutes, she dug away down there as I lay on my side and thought about the weather. It was very disconcerting, but I must say, when it was over, I felt great (and not just because her hand was no longer up my crack). There is such a nerve center around the base of one's spine, that any body work there is sensitive. But if it is done right, the movement and tightness that one may not even be aware of back there is alleviated. I, for instance, wasn't aware of it, but I was aware of it when it was gone.

So far, that's the best and worst of rolfing. I'm still very committed to the experience. I have worked with my rolfer to achieve the benefits that I have experienced. And while it is not for the faint of heart, if one perseveres, at minimum, there will be a greater awareness of how the human body fits and works together.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Running Monologue

I thought it'd be nice to expound once again on running and running-related issues and items. For any of those who do run, I have some course desriptions and two books to recommend. For those of you who don't run, I have one spectacular book to recommend. Recommending a book on running to non-runners is not my attempt to proselytize. In fact, I prefer that those of you who don't run keep on not running so that my favorite pathways and routes remain uncrowded and serene. But the book will interest anyone who's even slightly into cultural anthropology as well as those who like to run.

Before I list routes and tomes, I'll again try to capture the essence of what running means to me. The sport has really taken over much of my thoughts during the day, and more of my free hours each week. The time I spend running is the truest time I spend during any day. When I run, it is me in my complete self. My body makes the effort, but so does my mind. I run and feel the pains, fatigue, and exhilaration, and my mind notes those and adjusts to each feeling spurring me onward. Yet my mind also goes into a sort of stream of consciousness mode that I experience in no other endeavor. Thoughts are random and disjointed as my brain just goes where it will. Every now and then, this synaptic randomness coincides with euphoria - where the running becomes effortless - and I have what I can only describe as a transcendental experience that I wish could last longer than the 5-10 minutes of time it usually occupies. I realize that this experience is familiar to many runners, and is known as runner's high. And, while I may not have made the choice at 18 or 20 years of age, at 43, I'd take the high that comes from running over sex any day of the week. It is a much more profound and unique experience, and requires more effort to achieve.

Anyway let's start a list. I'll begin by saying that my list only includes places I've run in the past couple of years. I try to find good spots, and usually succeed. The biggest strike against a place is invariably traffic. And it usually isn't the number of cars passing by on a given route, but how much exhaust I am forced to swallow that creates a negative impression. The first three runs on the list are my current favorites. After that, I just picked a couple out of the other runs I do, where I thought either people wouldn't know how good a place could be (St Louis), or where my running partner would have given a city a higher ranking than did I (Boston). The ones that follow the top five are as good (or even better) in their own ways.

Top Runs:

#1 Griffith Park Observatory, Los Angeles - Start at Trails Restaurant on Fern Dell at the base of Griffith Park. You head uphill 2.1 miles until you reach the famed observatory. The uphill run is both challenging and beautiful. You're in the heart of LA, but also in a vast wilderness. You begin in a forested area that feels like northern Arizona, but quickly transition to a desert landscape coupled with a 10-15 degree rise in temperature. The road up is a winder, with cliff walls on one side, and valleys on the other. The views of the vast metropolis are spectacular throughout the run. The experience is repeated in reverse on the way down. You can also take trails that cut the distance, but are less scenic, and somewhat slick because they are steep and gravel-covered. I usually add a mile to the run by starting at the house where I stay when I'm in LA in the Hollywood Hills , and running down the hill to the starting point at the base of the park. This run is easily the most fun, one of the prettiest, and the most challenging of the runs I do. It is not really a run for beginners - there are exactly 0 flats. You are either going up continuously, or down continuously with no break. I ran the course three times last week with a friend who's getting back into running. Neither of us tired of the same route even after three straight days. It is just that beautiful of an experience.
Best time to run - early a.m. to avoid any traffic and higher levels of smog as the day progresses

#2 Town Lake, Austin, TX - Austin is just about the best spot in the world to run and bike. The main reason is the Town Lake area near Congress St. I've run there the past couple of years, and have greatly enjoyed being around so many others who share my passion for solo outdoor sports. There are dirt pathways, paved pathways, fun bridges (some of them solely for pedestrians and bicycles), and a natural spring to fall into midway through any run. I usually run early in the a.m., and am used to being one of the few out at that time of day. Not in Austin. Go running at 5 or 6 a.m. in the Summer, and you'll pass hundreds out on the trails welcoming the new day. I have run the trails both as a relative newbie to the sport, and as a more experienced runner, and found the experience to be joyful at any fitness level. Town Lake alone is worth the trip to Austin. While there, enjoy the weird cool vibe in shops along South Congress, the downtown on the other side of the river/lake, and try some of the various vegetarian-friendly places.
Best time to run - anytime, but in the Summer, afternoon heat gets brutal

#3 Provincetown, MA - Start by heading out of P-town on Race Point rd. After crossing the highway, look for a park on your left. Great trails emanate from this park. The trails can take you any distance you wish to go, but be warned, maps provided on the trails have absolutely no bearing to where you actually are, or the distances that remain. On my run with a friend through the trails, we had planned what looked like a 5 mile or so run. It turned into something between 7 and 9 miles. We're both college-educated, and have a cursory knowledge of simple maps, yet continuously had difficulty with those provided along the route. That being said, the run is so stinking good that it doesn't matter. You run from forest and lakes to rolling desert dunes, to seaside, to town. The flora and fauna are beautiful, and the running ranges from easy to slightly difficult (in the dunes). I almost gave this route the #2 spot, but it simply couldn't beat Austin.
Best time to run - Anytime

#4 Forest Park, St Louis - Surprise, surprise. What a nice place to run, with miles of both paved and gravel paths for runners and cyclists. I literally stumbled onto the park when I ran through an adjacent neighborhood where I was staying. Every day I went back for more. There are all distances and terrains in the park. Flat is good, and so are the rolling hills. You can even have a Rocky moment on the steps of the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM) - a world-class museum that is worth checking out after a shower.
Best time to run - Anytime (but if you're starting from outside the park, avoid rush hour traffic that clogs the roads around it during peak hours)

#5 Charles River and Pleasure Bay, Boston, MA - I can only write about one of these - the Pleasure Bay run, as a run that I have experienced. My main travel road-running companion, however has done both (I have only walked along the Charles, wishing that I was in a pair of Asics). I think my running partner would probably put the Charles at position one or two, and would probably agree with my placement of the Pleasure Bay run in South Boston. So, I'll merely say that the Charles is beautiful, and that running along it would be a privilege and an honor. The South Boston run that he and I did together started at The Renaissance Hotel near D Street. We set off through the industrial neighborhood near the convention center, and tuned left on Summer, and then left again on E Broadway. The Summer street portion of the run is what caused the precipitous fall from near the top of my list to position #5. The amount of exhaust the two of us inhaled on that portion of the run (both out and back) felt like the equivalent of simply wrapping one's lips around the tailpipe of an average car and breathing deeply for about 10 min. After some time, the two of us ran through a pretty nice neighborhood that ended at a waterfront park which had a trail that extended out into the water and wrapped around in a complete loop which forms what is known as Pleasure Bay. And the bay's name is appropriate. While the humidity made the overall experience anything but, Pleasure Bay's water trail proved to be just that - a pleasure. It is a surprisingly long run around the bay, but it is beautiful. We got to look at the fort which stands on the corner of the bay. And we got to see sea lions - always a treat.
Best time to run - Charles River - anytime. Pleasure Bay - only when traffic patterns are light

Other Great Runs -

San Francisco, CA - Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach, Marina Green. All three are great places to go and run. All three are close enough to be combined on a mammoth run if you're so inclined. SF will probably hit the top of a future list, but for time constraints, I'll leave it here.

West New York, NJ - Run along Kennedy Blvd East. The sidewalks and trails are nice. But really, this is the single best vantage point (and it's the length of the whole run) to see Manhattan and the Hudson. Very few runners or walkers use this walkway, so it is one of the best kept secrets on the eastern seaboard. Spectacular.

Las Vegas, NV - Hit the Strip in the early a.m. after the gamblers, LA party-people, and booze hounds are back in their rooms. Cruising along the relatively empty Strip at 6 in the morning is kind of a wonderous thing. You get to experience the glitz and super-sized architecture without the distractions of traffic and congestion that plague the area all other times of the day. I used to hide out in hotel exercise rooms running on treadmills until I bumped into a fellow runner in the elevator who suggested the Strip. He was absolutely right.

Denver, CO (actually Aurora) - Cherry Creek State Park is a great place to run. Nice trails, nice lake, golf (if you're into that), and altitude training for we low-landers. I was struck actually, with how easy it was to run in the Mile High area. There are many other great runs in Denver. This is just the one with which I am most familiar.

Lawrence, KS - My home turf with great places to run. In the northeast, by the Kansas River (aka the Kaw) there are miles of graveled levee trails. There are also much more rustic trails in between the levee and the river. Be careful on these, because you will be sharing these with avid mountain bikers, and it seems as though every other plant along the trail is poison ivy. On the southern and western edges of the city is the SLT Trail. It runs for many miles and has plenty of good access points. All of the major east/west roads (with the exception of 15th st) also have wide paved sidewalks that will hook up to the trail It is mainly in the country along its western and northernmost miles. At Clinton lake, it turns back southeast toward the city, but still provides great running and biking with minimal traffic crossings. The levees are flat, but practically nowhere else in the town is. So come to Kansas and run some hills.


Finally, I have to mention a couple of books I've read recently. The first, for runners, is called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami. This is a thoughtful book that runners will enjoy, but I really can't see the allure for anyone else other than fans of this author. It is an autobiographical account of his running, and how his life has evolved around it. I found the most interesting ideas in the book centered around the issue of aging. His thoughts about awareness of the process and its effects (and how to deal with these) were new to me. I hadn't really given aging much thought on a personal running level prior to reading the book.

The final book is entitled Born To Run, by Christopher McDougall. It reminds me a bit of the book (not the movie) The Orchid Thief, in tone. It follows a cast of real-life characters around the Taruhumara people who live in the Copper Canyon area of Mexico. The Taruhumara are the stars of the book. They are reclusive super-athletes who will unteach you a lot about what you think you know in terms of training and equipment. An aside - I actually have a friend who told me his niece read the book, and now only runs in stockinged feet. For those of you who are not into running, the book is a fascinating look at this reclusive tribe (many of whom still live in caves today), of athletic, yet gentle people. I find it most interesting that they live so close to those of us in the US, yet they may be some of the most exotic people we have never heard of. If you're going to read a book this year, this is the one you should get.

Whew - I feel as though I just ran a marathon...with my typing fingers. More later. Thank you for reading!!

Monday, November 2, 2009

SAD songs say so much

I took a week off from postings because I was struck by a mixture of fatigue, slight seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and unchanneled restlessness. I don't get hit with that too often, but every now and then some sort of minor mental affliction takes up occupancy in my head for a few days, and holds on until I can shake it off with a combination of friends, exercise, reading, and a couple of good nights of sleep.

I hadn't planned to write this blog about SAD or depression, but after the above brief intro, I think I'll continue.

I always hated and despised the approach of Winter. I still do. But over the past few years, the advent of cold and darkness doesn't instill the same sense of dread and hopelessness that it used to. In 1991 and 1992, living in San Francisco and Dallas, respectively, I had a brief respite from the absolute terror I felt each year at the onset of Winter. When I returned to Kansas in 1993, after the two years of freedom from SAD, the symptoms only became worse. I would fall into serious depression, gain weight, have a terrible time sleeping, have troubled interactions with friends and family, and have inward-turning violent fantasies. Over the mid to late 90's, I honestly couldn't estimate the number of times I wanted to die - at my own hand, at the hand of others, or by accident. Every single night (and often during the day) for years, I would think for hours about how I no longer wanted to be around and participate in anything having to do with life.

And the SAD only got worse. It finally overflowed into the rest of the year as depression set in throughout the calendar. I also started suffering from terrible heartburn. It was so bad that I slept with a bottle of Tums (backwards, I always found funny, Tums spells smuT) by my bedside. I'd take a couple before bed, then once or twice as well during the night as heartburn pain would tear my from a usually restless slumber. And the depression hurt in other ways too. As the psychic pain became physical pain, I would regularly feel continuous sharp pains in my chest - the kind you feel when you are about to cry. Except in my case, whether or not I burst into tears, there was no subsidence to the pain. Finally, I knew my depression was coming to a head when on a flight, I looked out of the plane's window and thought, I could give less than a shit if this bird fell out of the sky. Or rather I thought that I thought it, because my traveling companion heard me utter the thought and was very uncomfortable the rest of the flight.

In 2001, I got invited to bike around the southern portion of France with a few friends. I started training for the ride. I was heavy, but not particularly out of shape. What followed the training was one of the greatest two weeks of my life, as five of us rode our bicycles on a self-contained tour which began in the dirt-bag city of Marseilles, and then went in a broad circle through wonderful places like Avignon, Aix, and Cassis. Sometime during the ride, the five of us were sitting at dinner and having a discussion that touched on mental health. It turned out that each person on the trip had been to see a shrink at some point in their lives. Three, in fact, had been to see the same shrink. All felt as though the visits had helped them very much. So, when I returned to Kansas (sadly just a few days before 9/11), I called and made an appointment.

I won't go through the whole experience, but some thousands of dollars later, and following some teary psychiatrist couch scenes worthy of a Hallmark movie, I was on the road to recovery. In the sessions, we did therapy that was both traditional as well as a newer type of treatment known as EMDR (see link below). I also started taking Zoloft. I knew that I only wanted to take a drug such as this for a couple of years, and then it would (I hoped) keep working after I had been weaned off of it. Prior to taking any anti-depressant, I had been very leery of them. I was worried that the drugs would turn me into an emotionless corpse, walking though the world with little feeling for anything. But I was desperate to get better. And the lows were so low that I felt I needed to do something. And curiously, Zoloft worked for me. It is true that while on the drug, the highs I had previously experienced when something wonderful happened, weren't as high. But the lows were also definitely not as low. It really took the edge off of everything. While the life experience may have been slightly dulled during the time I was on the anti-depressant, I found that I could walk along the edge of the depression precipice without ever actually falling in.

A couple of years after starting the combination of therapy and modern medicinal cures for the depression, I stopped doing both. And now, years later, the effects of the combo are still evident. While I'm still a bit OCD, and still have some swings of mood and temperament, I am much more able to control the lows when they spring forth on cold Winter days, and darkest of nights. It isn't a picnic on the lawn, but it is manageable. I have many friends who have taken a variety of anti-depressants, and most (not all) have done very well with them. Many too have gone to therapists. And most (not all) have had good experiences there as well.

I think that SAD and depression are pretty easily diagnosed by those around the person experiencing the symptoms. It seems much harder to diagnose yourself, because you don't have any frame of reference to how you should actually be feeling. It is much like getting a first pair of glasses. Until you get them, you don't have any realization that the world beyond a certain point isn't blurry. Once you do have a pair, you see what you have been missing - how the other half lives.

So, as we again approach the crappiest of all seasons, think about anyone you care about near you who may be feeling the effects in a more extreme manner than normal. If you do see the signs, take a moment to see if the person is aware of it, and if he/she is taking steps to work through it. While they may not want or take your help, you will have at least done your part to help make them aware that there may be a problem that they should be addressing.