Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Running and the Homeless

After suffering through a pretty deep bone bruise from misuse of my new awesome shoes (only to be used on non-paved surfaces from now on), I'm back to running on treadmills during days when the conditions are icy, snowy, or the temperature is below 30 deg F. I run in one of our city's indoor athletic centers, usually in the afternoons, but sometimes in the mornings. The facilities that the city provides for its population are excellent, with treadmills, elipticals, stationary bikes, serious weight rooms, gyms, pools, and racquetball courts. All are free except for the pools. The locker rooms are cleaner than those found in many athletic clubs I've visited around the country, with good showers, ample storage, and clean floors (I hate walking through hair or unidentifiable detritus in public showers - it really grosses me out).

At the main center where I work out, on many days I have somewhere to be once I've concluded my run. So I use the showers. Since the building is located near a homeless shelter, many times I find myself sharing the locker room with members of our homeless community. For anyone who's image of the homeless is of a dirty, alcohol-soaked bum, that has not been my experience with the people I've come across in the course of my use of the Community Building. The people I see are uniformly clean and, in some cases, fastidious about their appearance.

The first time I began to notice the homeless came after repeatedly seeing a guy enter the building, but not doing a workout. He looks to be about 19 or 20, and I see him every time I run on the treadmill. He comes in carrying a plastic bag of clothing and toiletries, goes into the locker room where he remains for about 40 minutes, and then comes out clean. This routine, I'm assuming, happens every day, because I think I have seen him every time I've been there. But for the plastic bag, and his lack of use of the rest of the facility (only the showers, lockers and sinks), I don't think I would ever have guessed that he was homeless. I have never seen him talk to anyone while he's in the building. He tries not to make eye contact or interact with others around him. He seems to be totally alone. Yet somehow, each day, he works to maintain a routine that keeps himself looking as good as possible and must give him a sense of quiet dignity. I actually find my heart breaking when I think about him, because it must be very hard being that age and facing the difficulties that confront him each day.

After taking note of the young homeless guy, I started to notice others. There are plenty of young and middle-aged men (curiously though, very few who look to be over 55) who have much the same daily routine. Some are friendly, while others keep to themselves. Every now and then, like yesterday, I find myself toweling off across the narrow room from someone who is having a highly-motivated conversation with himself. In this particular instance (yesterday), the guy looked so 'normal' while conversing into the air that I had assumed he was using Bluetooth. It was only after several minutes that I realized there was no mobile device involved. I didn't feel threatened, but again, just sad that here was a person who has obvious issues, who's probably alone, and yet even in his troubled state, he's at least trying (and succeeding) to look good and stay clean and healthy.

If this blog entry sounds weird, it really is for me too. I lived in San Francisco in the early 90's, and still regularly travel to cities with large homeless populations across the US. I also have lived in or visited Asia, Europe, Central and South America - places where there are large immigrant or indigenous poor populations. In San Francisco (a city I love) and other metropolitan locations in the US, I will confess to being very uncomfortable around homeless persons. I have been yelled at, followed down streets by people asking for money, had a crazy lady try to burn me with a cigarette, and had a very scary incident on a bus involving a deranged man with a meat tenderizer. I will confess that homeless people, in general, scare me. Thanks to Reagan and his ilk, many people who should be institutionalized or getting some kind of assistance, have found themselves thrown onto the streets to face the elements without any kind of treatment or safety net. It is not uncommon to run into people who are obviously a danger to themselves or others as I walk through major US cities. So. like many people in the US, my perception of the homeless was always based on what I had seen on the streets, and had involved some of the worst examples of that population.

But having a behind-the-scenes view into the daily struggles and toils that other segments of our homeless citizens go through has challenged my thinking on the issue. I see people working hard to try to 'fit in,' and look like 'normal' Americans. Something as basic as taking a shower or doing laundry serves as a point of connection between them and everyone else with permanent shelter. And, in light of the recent economic problems, there are more and more people who are joining the ranks of those with no set place to live. People who have recently come from a stable environment (no matter how fragile the foundation), must crave normalcy, and embrace it anywhere they can find it.

I've spent the past several weeks thinking of things I can do to help. I don't think walking up to someone and handing out cash is the way to move forward. In the case of the people who use the Community Building for hygiene, I believe that directly offering money would embarrass them and rob them of their dignity. I do, however, plan to bring some nice gym bags to each workout. And if I see someone using a plastic bag, I'll offer one of mine. It seems that would allow for a conversation like - "Hey, I see you don't have a gym bag. I have an extra one with me that I'm not using. If you'd like it, its yours." The type of conversation that just acknowledges someone as a person who might have use for something, rather than a person looking for a handout, seems to me to be a better way to go.

I also am sending a donation to the homeless shelter. I checked it out on line, and the conditions there are pretty grim. On any given night, the shelter has 75 + people sleeping side by side on mats on the floor of their basement. It is not a large basement, and it looks pretty cramped. With flu and cold season upon us, it also is probably an easy way for a person to catch a bug from someone else in the room. Knowing that has given me a new respect for the people who come into the Community Building to groom. I can't imagine having to sleep in those conditions each night, waking each morning to a world with decreased opportunities, and having to fill the daylight hours with no real friends and no place to call your own.

An unforeseen consequence to my habit of running has been to have my eyes really opened on the issue of homelessness in my city. I am not an expert, nor even particularly an advocate about the issue. I still bring, I'm sure, misconceptions and long-hardened prejudices to the table when thinking about the issue. Running, however, has brought me face to face with real people suffering real consequences of homelessness. And I plan to do more to help them in the future.

If you want to donate to a good shelter, please think about using this link, and then click on donate - http://www.lawrenceshelter.org/

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Free for $85 - addendum

OK, after waxing poetic about my new pair of Frees, I do have a couple of things to report. The minor ache in the side of my foot that occurred after I went for a 9 mile run, turned into a pretty major deep bruise - I had x-rays taken at the Dr's office yesterday. I spent last evening having a discussion with another friend who owns a pair. He said that he uses his pretty exclusively on trails and not on the harder surfaces (where I mainly run). He also just wears them as everyday shoes to walk around in.

So, in a week or so (when my foot chills out), he and I are going to hit the trails and I'll try them out on a more forgiving surface.

So now my thoughts on the shoe: Like anything else that represents a major change in your life, try to ease into it and grow accustomed to it before going full bore. I am still in love with the Nike Free. I do, however, plan to use the shoe a bit less on the roads and more on trails, paths, and everyday activities.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Free for $85.00

So, while waiting for Vibram glove-type shoes to become available in the US, I thought I'd try out the Nike Free running shoes. The Vibram and the Frees were mentioned in the book, Born To Run (which hasn't become my bible - but has taken on a Kaballah-esque role in my life). What is interesting about both types of shoes is that they are designed to allow your foot to be a foot. The Vibrams are basically a foot glove with a thin rubber sole, while the Frees have a sock-type foot covering up top sitting over thicker individually movable squares of rubber that are cut out almost up to the sole of your foot.

So one day last week I popped over to our great local running store, Gary Gribbel's Running Sports, and inquired if they had a pair of the Frees in size 9 or 9.5. As it turns out, they did. The color was a puke-inducing baby blue (I think Nike calls it University Blue - something that would only be true if your university was North Carolina). But, since they were one of only two pairs the store had, the other being a size 13, I tried them on. To my disappointment I found that they were too small. I was informed by several friends that this type of shoe does seem to run small. So the clerk called around to see if any of their other stores had a size 10. When he informed me that they didn't, I should've figured out that getting a pair would be difficult, but I didn't.

The next day I awoke and got on line to grab a pair of 10s from 1) Nike - they were out of my size in gray/green/yellow (my fav), orange, and University Blue, 2) Hollabird - same story, 3) Ebay - same story, 4) Amazon - same story, 5) Dick's Sporting Goods - same story, 6) Zappos - not quite the same story. Zappos had one pair of 10s left in (you guessed it) University Blue. So, I bought the pair from Zappos, feeling pretty stinking lucky by that point to even have found the shoes in the Northern and Western Hemispheres. I also requested an email alert from Zappos when the gray/green/yellow shoe becomes available in my size- if it ever does.

As you can tell by the title of this blog, even free isn't always free. The cost of this Free was $85. Oddly, like iPods and other things Apple, the cost of this shoe didn't seem to vary a lot from one retailer to another. They were pretty much $85-ish everywhere. I actually kind of like that, because there is nothing worse than buying something and then finding it a heckuva lot cheaper somewhere else the next day. Zappos shot me the pair overnight and didn't charge for the shipping (which was pretty cool). I pulled my baby blues out of the box and admired them before heading to the gym.

Because we're in the middle of Winter in the flyover states (this is a particularly good time of year to fly over these states btw), I've been doing a lot of running on treadmills. I'm not a fan of running machines, and never do more than 4-5 miles on a machine before calling it a day. But I was thrilled to be trying out the new shoes. Over the next couple of days I did 8 miles on the mill. I really couldn't tell a major difference between the Frees and my Asics. Since treadmills all have the shock absorbing platforms, you could probably run in stilettos and not notice much difference in shoe quality.

Finally, yesterday, the temperature got to about 40 F and I decided to give the shoes a real test outdoors. I went for a 9 mile run mainly on asphalt and concrete, but with a little bit of hard-packed gravel thrown in. Initially the wind was strong, and blowing right through my sweatshirt, so I couldn't really concentrate on the performance aspects of my new shoes. Once I turned perpendicular to the gusts, however, I did begin to really take note of the way they feel. The Frees are lighter than my Asics by a few ounces. They are also firmer in a way. I found that I wanted to run lighter, and was aware that my foot strikes were gentler than in my more padded running shoes. I also noticed that the Frees are a bit less-forgiving than a padded pair. Some foot strikes were not as comfortable as others. The Frees dictated a bit as to how I would run - form, hardness of foot strike, position/location of foot strike. It was very interesting and made me think a lot more about my form. The shoes were very comfortable. And with less padding, my running felt very connected to the ground. The push offs as each foot alternately propelled me forward felt very solid. I was pleased with that.

The only mixed review I would give the shoes came on a downhill at about 8 miles. I hadn't mastered how to chill out the jolt of going down a slope in shoes that are less padded. The result was something I had never really noticed before - I actually could feel my skeleton. With each connection with the pavement, I could feel the bones in my legs, and my knee joint working. It was an odd sensation that I had never experienced. I've been very aware of muscles, tendons, and ligaments before, but not of skeletal structure. It wasn't a bad feeling, but it was a new sensation.

After the run, I had no ill effects to report from yesterday. Today when I awoke and stumbled to the kitchen, I did note a slight tenderness on the outside base of my left foot. That has now gone away.

So the verdict on the Nike Free: The shoe takes a bit of getting used to, but I plan to keep running in my pair. I like the solidness and connection with the ground that it gives. I like its flexibility. I love its weight. While I do wish the Free came in more traditional shoe colors, I can live with the selections offered by Nike (as I said, I am hoping to get another pair in a more palatable color). For runs in the immediate future I think that I will slowly add downhill segments until I am fully used to the shoe. All in all I would highly recommend the Free as a shoe that will connect you to the ground and allow your foot to move more in the way it would if you were to run barefoot.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bidness Closure and, of Course, Running

I shut down my company this week. It was a bittersweet few days as I packed, stacked, and loaded pallets for shipping products to the new distributor's warehouse. I had worked pretty stinking hard for four years to build the company in North and South America. And, while I could have easily continued importing and distributing the products, I realized that my heart wasn't in it. I enjoyed meeting people, working to solve problems, and fill their product needs. But I really didn't like the crazy amount of time spent working on bookkeeping, invoicing, bill-paying, taxes, packing orders, cleaning the warehouse, and crazy phone hours (the manufacturer's HQ is in Australia - making the middle of my night the middle of their day). In the end, it was better to drop the distributorship and pass it on to a company already set up for that type of work. All in all, I learned a lot, made some great friends, and had some pretty amazing travel experiences. I wouldn't do it all again in the same way if I had to do it over, but I'd certainly take another stab at this type of business in the future - note to self - Use a fulfillment company next time around.

To take the stresses associated with business away, I've been increasing my mileage on runs lately. Running at this time of year, though, has been an odd mixture of indoor/outdoor. I had my friend Joe in town from LA last weekend, and we ran a 6.2 mi loop that was alternately freezing cold and sweat-inducing. Joe, a native Kansan, hung in there pretty well. But afterward he confessed that he doesn't hit the kinds of wind we ran through on his daily runs through the Hollywood Hills. That night I went out and bought some cheap running tights which breathe a bit better than the sweat pants I had been running in during cold snaps. I'll be trying those out this afternoon when the temp is supposed to be in the upper 40s.

With very few outdoor running days, I've been sticking to the dreaded treadmill. I hate running on treadmills, although you wouldn't guess it by how often I seem to do it. But they (treadmills) are a necessary evil when you live in the central or northern flyover states. At least the treadmills in the Lawrence, KS Community Building (one of three great public athletic centers in town) face out through a large plate-glass window onto a basketball court. So there is something to watch while your legs move quickly taking you nowhere. Most of the hotels I stay in have workout rooms with either a blank wall to look at, or a tv tuned to a program I'd never watch, with treadmills outfitted with inoperative headphone jacks. In most treadmill cases, I take my MP3 player and just listen to NPR or random songs while I run. I do pretty well, but I absolutely hate having every calorie, tenth of a mile, second, and watt (whatever the hell that is) constantly flashing in front of me when I run. It is soul-sucking, and takes the joy out of the experience.

Enough for now. I'll have a bit more to write about rolfing next week when we start work on my mouth and nose.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Beach, Bok, Running & Rolfing

I just flew in from Florida last night, and boy are my arms tired!?! Actually, my great friend and co-worker, Marisa and I flew out and back in first class on Airtran - an airline that does not suck as much as its name would imply. They have a stunning rewards program and upgrades are cheap. This blog is not about airlines, but since I fly more than anyone I know (2-3 trips/mo), I'll do a quick list of my favs. #1 - Midwest - the absolute best treatment in the air. I know people who will fly this airline with stops over direct flights on other airlines. If you have a chance to fly Midwest, do it. #2 - Airtran - for the reasons listed above. They are also the best at notifying you if there is a cancellation, fixing the problem, and giving you real comps (like free food and flight vouchers) if the problem isn't corrected immediately. #3 American - I don't fly them too often, but always enjoy it when I do. Good first class, and not too expensive to upgrade. #4 - Continental and Frontier - Clean planes and decent staff. Avoid NWA, Delta, and United like the plague. I used to be a United Premier, but got lousy service even at a high level of miles. I never fly these airlines. Southwest is the middle of the road airline. It always is on time, but the amount of work you have to remember to perform in order to get a decent seat is excessive. I'll fly Southwest, but it doesn't make the cut of the top airlines.

Anyway, back to Florida. Marisa and I left our flyover state last week to have some business meetings with our brokers as well as to staff our company's booth at a natural products trade show. As those of you who know me know, I am not a fan of the sunshine state. I always think of the place as being full of rednecks or crotchety oldsters. On this trip, however, we experienced none of that. Everyone was truly nice (I hate that word). People were friendly, and, in some cases, even overly helpful. We hit Cocoa Beach one morning before the rains descended (it rained every day we were there). The beach was long, lovely, and devoid of people. We picked shells, watched sandpipers, and walked a mile or so in the sand and waves. Marisa even spotted a dolphin.

The best quick trip we did, though, was to a place my rolfer had recommended. Bok Tower Gardens is the best inland place in the state. It sits atop the highest point in Florida, with views over orange groves and flat expanses in every direction. At its summit is an imposing and beautiful carillon which was dedicated by Calvin Coolidge. The gardens were designed by the son of Frederick Law Olmsted (of NYC's Central Park fame) who was, like his dad, no slouch in the design department. The gardens are too stunning for words. We arrived early, and pretty much had the place to ourselves. The staff is so outgoing that we probably could've been adopted by a docent at the welcome center had we been so inclined. I'll leave the description at that. But if you're in Florida, this place is really worth the trip. Bring a picnic - it is a lovely spot. They also have a decent restaurant on site. Here's a link: www.boktowergardens.org

Outside of the beach, gardens, and a couple of kitschy orange stands, the Orlando/Kissimmee area didn't have a lot going for it unless you're really into Disney. And I should point out that both places we went to required having a car, and, mercifully, leaving the immediate vicinity of the house of mouse. I wanted to take advantage of being somewhere warm to go running each morning, but a total lack of sidewalks and a bit of rain blocked any forays past the treadmills in the hotel's spa until the last day. After 4 days of running on a revolving rubber mat, I'd had it. On Sunday morning I shot out the front door of the resort, past the bellmen and parking guys, down the needlessly circuitous drive, and onto a sand/dirt path sandwiched between a highway and a cow pasture. And actually, the run was nice (there's that word again). I followed the path (probably created by underpaid hotel workers going to and from the nearest bus stop a mile away) until it went under a major highway and came out onto a touristy street with huge sidewalks that are obviously never used, but which pass in front of all sorts of gift shops, camera stores, buffets, hotels, and carnival rides. I had the whole place to myself in the early a.m., and Florida is flat enough to make Kansas look like Colorado, so I covered a lot of ground quickly. All in all, I wish there had been more opportunity to run through the area. It was one of those surreal mixtures of highway, grassland, and tourist trap that made the run so enjoyable.

I did want to make one comment about our trade show (I hate writing about work). At the show, an old guy stopped by our booth. He's familiar to me, because he visits us at a few shows a year. He no longer owns a health food store, but somehow manages to get in to the trade shows. I always hand him a bottle of our wheat grass tablets or powder and he leaves. He's a good enough fellow, but we're not going to make any money talking to him, so I'd never taken the time to get to know him. At this show though he stopped by during a lull. So we started to chat. It turns out that he's a 73 y/o ultra-distance runner. He's done all of the races that I've ever dreamed of doing (many every year since their inceptions). He knows most of the people who are mentioned in the book I've been raving about - Born To Run. He gave me some pointers (which I took to heart), and some words of encouragement. The conversation I had with him (for 10-15 minutes) was one of the best I've had with someone I didn't know in a very long time. It really reminded me to try to be more present and (to really go for a platitude here) live more in the moment.

I'll end this post with a plug for another blogger. I've had a bunch of people ask me about rolfing since I started the 10 series. I checked out a blogger who is a rolfer who has a really good blog (with photos) which explains rolfing a lot better than I have. The site also talks about foot wear - something I hope to do in a future blog - particularly Vibram (I have to try Vibram and Nike Frees out for a longer period before writing about them). Anyway, for those of you with an interest in rolfing please visit http://fasciabalance.blogspot.com/. I think you'll like it.