Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Epilogue

In case you are wondering what has become of me since I stopped updating this blog, I thought I would write one last post...

When I started this blog 6 years ago, I gave it the sub-heading:
"Yet another blog chronicling the mid life crisis of some bloke. Only it is for a good cause and you might even learn something from my obsessive travails... Even if it is just what NOT to do."
A theme that has run through the blog since then is that of obsessive behaviour driven by a fear of becoming (or going back to being) a "slob"- sometimes leading to frustration, disappointment and even injury. But, along the way, there have been glorious moments, moments when I have felt very alive (and "craughed" = cry and laugh simultaneously) as well as achievements of which I am extremely proud.

But in parallel, another thread has weaved its way in and out of this blog and that is coming to terms with getting older. I have had this internal struggle between wanting to feel I am giving it my all and at the same time wanting to be able to continue to run into my old age. This year, with my slipped cervical disc, has felt like the final showdown between the two.

In some sense, I have found a way to encompass both aims by redefining what I mean by giving it my all and thus to find a dynamic balance between the two. I have no interesting race results to report this year and yet I feel prouder of myself than I have in a very long time. How can this be?

We spent our summer holidays in Norway where I very much enjoyed walking early in the morning, realizing that walking was anything but boring if, instead of deliberately trying to distract myself, I actually remembered to look around and drink in my surroundings. In September after 6 months off, I finally got the all clear from the spine doctor to go back to running (gently at first) and I am now able to run as much as I like without provoking any symptoms. In fact, the symptoms have all but disappeared - for all I know, they were already present at these levels for a long time before they flared up: I don't believe I would have noticed them if I had not become so intimate with them.

I am truly enjoying running more than I think I ever have, except perhaps when, aged 15, I very first started to go running with my friend, his brothers and their dad. Instead of thinking about the time or the pace, I am not really thinking about anything most of the time; I may be simply sensing how my body moves almost magically of its own accord, just with the small push of intention that I consciously give it. Instead of focusing on a small patch of ground just in front of my feet, I may be perceiving the whole movie as if it were filmed in Widescreen 3D Dolby Quadrophonic "Smelly-vision". Or perhaps I may be feeling how my breathing is going, all the while without me having to tell myself to breathe in a particular way. During the week I tend to run just 30 minutes around the football field, concentrating as best as I can on these sensations, as a mental and physical warm-up before doing my physiotherapy exercises; at the weekend I will just set off and run for as long (or short) and as fast (or slow) as I feel like. I'm not doing any high intensity workouts but, even so, my Garmin watch reckons I am as fit as I was at my peak. I'm not kidding myself into believing I could compete at my best if I wanted to, but I certainly feel as fit as I ever have and that is much more rewarding and enjoyable in the long run.

I have been very disciplined in following the excellent program that my amazing physiotherapist, Mónica, has been tailor making for me. Little muscles have popped up where I never knew they existed before. Thanks to Mónica (and my hard work), I have entered into a virtuous circle: strengthening muscles makes them easier to perceive, which, in turn, makes them easier to activate and strengthen. My posture has also improved when sitting, standing, walking and running by virtue of another virtuous circle: having enough strength in certain stabilizing muscles makes maintaining an equilibrium less of an effort than slouching which, in turn, strengthens those muscles (as well as preventing tightness and pain in others).

Lastly, but - I think - most importantly, I have been keeping up my Mindfulness practice. I have found that it helps me in many ways, especially in reducing stress. As a result I need much less sleep than before, and the extra time thus freed up more than covers the 45 minutes I spend practicing every morning. In fact, I now get up two hours before I have to leave the house for work, giving me ample time to prepare and eat my breakfast very mindfully as well as to shave with a cut-throat razor(!), which better damn-well be done mindfully otherwise I end up bleeding all over the place. I think that paying much more attention when I am eating leads to me enjoying my food more, eating less and more healthily (for example, I have discovered that vegetables are far more interesting than meat if you are actually aware of their tastes and textures while eating them). Accordingly, as a side-effect, I have lost quite a lot of weight and, in particular fat.

This all brings to mind the concept of the "minimum effective dose" that I read about in Timothy Ferriss' book, "The 4 Hour Body". The idea is along the lines that the best way to get a suntan is by exposing yourself to the sun just enough to make a minimal difference every day: any more and you run the risk of burning and the skin peeling off, setting you back to square one. I'm fairly convinced that the physiotherapy exercises have been so effective because they are very specific and I have been concentrating hard on performing them correctly and patiently (i.e., not while watching the TV - most of the time). Most of them have been with rubber bands or weights that are so light that they are only available in pink, and yet I have noticed a much larger improvement than when I was hefting huge loads.

So, in conclusion, I feel the fittest, lightest, trimmest, proudest and most relaxed than I have done in years. I literally feel as though I am ten years younger. Make that 15. On the other hand, this is not the end of a journey or a final stopping place as reading this post from 5 year's ago goes to show. I think the trick is to accept that this is the way things are now, but that everything changes...

Oh, and...

...HAPPY NEW YEAR!

San Silvestre Vallecana 2016: the year of the crab
(On a side note, I was surprised just now to see that the traffic to my site has increased significantly over the last few weeks and yet the only clues are the search phrases that appear in the "stats" section: "ballerina japanese" and "why don't i get intensity minutes on...".)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mission accomplished

The time has come, I think, to wind this blog down. "Aw no", I hear you cry (all two of you).

Seriously though. When I started this blog, my goal was clear - to be an Ironman - and then I went from goal to goal (sometimes lamenting that my goals seem to choose me, rather than the other way round) almost without stopping for breath. In the background, though, there has always been a single goal of continuing to keep fit into my old age - perhaps better characterized as a fear of the opposite, of going back to my sofa-lounging days.

It might seem a bit like calling victory too soon when I am currently unable to run (although I am still keeping reasonably fit). What has changed is my mental attitude and I don't think it is too soon to say this. I feel like I am where I have wanted to be for years, something that I always perceived other people to have attained - why could I not be satisfied to just enjoy being active and in good shape? Why did I have to be so hard on myself? What was I trying to prove or what was I afraid of?

So. If my blog has ever been interesting, I think it will become much less so from now on. And I don't want the blog itself to become the reason why I run. I have enjoyed writing all these posts and I know that I will enjoy reading them in the future, but this seems like a good place to stop.

Thanks to all my readers and especially those that have left comments (not including the spammers) and have supported me. If it has just helped one other person undertake their own version of the journey I have been on then it will have been worth it.

HASTA LA VISTA BABY!

Runscribe update

This isn't an update from me on the Runscribe, which I started using back in October last year, as I haven't been running - let alone running with my Runscribe - but rather an important update from the people who make it.


They have just launched a new website "Running Unraveled" which aims to use the anonymous crowdsourced data collected from all the users of Runscribes around the world. In particular, they have finally published the results of a study of those who ran the New York Marathon last year with one, in which I can count myself (I am the 3:02 data point).

The other interesting development is that they have added a couple of new metrics to the dashboard, as well as a comparison to the Runscribe community of where you stand in terms of "efficiency" and "shock". Shock is a total measure of the 3D G's you have undergone multiplied by the number of steps you have taken. Efficiency (I think) is comprised of some mix of step rate, contact time and flight ratio. This last - flight ratio - is an interesting addition which measures the ratio of the time in the air to the total time to take a step. The results from the New York Marathon appear to show a very strong correlation between (lower) race times and (higher) flight ratios, as one would expect. What is perhaps striking (if you'll forgive the pun), is how much variability there is in flight time between elites (50%), competitive runners (25%) and fun runners (10%-0%).

If I ever get back to running, it will be interesting to see how my "flight time" compares to last year. It will also be interesting to see how this metric differs between a similar paced run on the treadmill, on a track and on a trail.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Getting on my nerves

The spine doctor recommended me to do an EMG (ElectroMyoGraphy) test. I was unusually nervous (if you'll forgive the pun) beforehand, partly because I'd read something on the internet (not a good idea) that gave the impression the test itself would be horrendous, and partly because the results of this test would largely determine whether I would have to undergo surgery or not.

The test is designed to detect nerve damage and consists of inserting needle like probes into particularly sensitive parts (in my case) of the arm. In a relaxed state, the oscilloscope should show a flat line with no noise and, when the muscles are activated, it should be plain to see. By the way, it was nothing like as unpleasant as I was expecting, a doddle really.

The nurse told me that I was "como un pollo" or, that's what I thought she said, until I looked it up on the aforementioned internet. What she must have said was "estás como un toro" - I am like a bull or, in other words, there's nothing wrong with me. The doctor was slightly less enthusiastic and explained that there was very light nerve damage, but that surgery was not on the cards (yet) and there was every reason to believe that the nerves would repair themselves, with the help of a vitamin B1, B6 and B12 supplement.

Next step is to go back in three weeks' time, to see how things have been progressing. I am still pretty optimistic but it is a bit like watching paint dry or hair grow. I think the symptoms are getting better when I compare myself to a week ago, but from day to day it is a bit up and down. My home alone physio sessions are getting longer and longer as Mónica includes more and more exercises, but I believe that they are helping.

Poquito a poco...

In other news, I was going to the gym the other day to do my uninspiring workout of 40 minutes on the elliptic machine (without arms) when one of the monitors proposed for me to join in the special activities going on outside. I had the chance to see what it was like being in a wheelchair - in particular, playing basketball in a wheelchair, something I am so bad anyway at that the wheelchair didn't make much difference. It was a lot of fun, especially seeing how people who are unable to do things that I take for granted were able to enjoy the simplest of pleasures.

The guy shooting genuinely needed a wheelchair and ran circles (literally) around the rest of us

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Slipping Jimmy

I had my appointment with the spine specialist yesterday. Do you want the bad news first, or the good news? (Of course, he didn't say it this way to me.)

The bad news is that it is a herniated (or "slipped") disc, not just a protruding (or "bulging") disc. This means that some of the liquid in the disc has leaked out of disc into the medulla, and is compressing the nerves there. I always wondered what a "hernia" was, as it seemed to refer to all sorts of different complaints - it appears to be a medical term for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I believe that this is harder for the body to fix with the help of physiotherapy than a simple protruding disc.

So what's the good news? Well, according to the doctor, about 80% of patients in my condition manage to improve without the need for surgery; the remaining 20% end up going under the knife. And this coming from a surgeon who presumably has a natural inclination to surgery. If I think that that 80% includes people of all shapes and sizes, ages and levels of fitness, it makes me think that I have a pretty good chance of making that 80%. After all, I am in good shape and, when I put my mind to something (like following the exercises my excellent physiotherapist recommends me), I take it very seriously.

So how did this happen? The doctor said it could just have been down to bad posture. I can't help wondering if one of the sessions with an osteopath was the straw to break the donkey's back (or Rob's neck). It doesn't really matter. The point is that, until the symptoms have gone away, I am to avoid any impacts (no running), avoid lifting heavy weights (no more painting of sheds and, in general, a great excuse not to do anything I don't feel like doing ha ha) and avoid bad postures. I have to have a EMG (Electromygraphy) test to see if I have any nerve damage and to monitor my progress.

Meanwhile, my physiotherapy is focusing on strengthening my shoulders and neck, as well as stabilizing my pelvis. It's been a few weeks since I last bought a gadget, so let me introduce the latest in my collection: The Stabilizer.
By inflating the cushion and placing it under your lower back as you lie face up with the legs bent, you can make very controlled movements monitoring all the while the pressure gauge. This allows you to - say - practice lifting the legs while focusing on keeping the pelvis perfectly stable. I bet my wife I could do it better than her (based on her poor posture when running) but I had underestimated the power of Pilates, and she absolutely trounced me. When we got married she still had a "six pack" and was able to support my entire weight standing on her stomach. Having two kids meant that these muscles separated but I think some of her postural problems come from having overworked the exterior core muscles (doing crunches and the like) and ignoring the internal core muscles (by not doing "planks" etc.). As you know, I love anything that is measurable, especially something like this that gives you instant feedback on how well you are doing.

I've also been losing weight more rapidly even than when I have been training for a Marathon. In this graph you can see the first dip as I started my training for New York City Marathon, reaching a minimum on the date of the Marathon itself, then climbing back up to when I started up my training again, this time for the Madrid Marathon. Then, when I got injured, my weight naturally went back up until the last few weeks in which it has gone into a nose dive. People tend to put on weight with steroids (even with the non anabolic kind I have been taking because you get the "munchies").


I've been off the steroids for over a week now and I have been continuing with my Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course (now in week 6 out of 8). I am still getting away with 1-2 hours less sleep a night than before, feeling much more awake and infinitely less stressed. Of course, I still feel stress from time to time but being more aware of it helps not to fall into that vicious circle of getting stressed about being stressed.

Here's to making the 80% cut (or should I say "no cut"?)!

Monday, May 23, 2016

IV Carrera Popular Ciudad de Pozuelo

This year, all four of us (me, my wife and both my kids) "ran" the 5K race. I put "ran" in quotes because, of course, I am not yet allowed to run anywhere in my condition, so I decided I would power walk it with my youngest. As he was too young to officially take part in the race, I signed him up for a shorter race and he entered the 5K race with a race number for the shorter distance.

I had had to get up early to go the hospital to get my (last) steroid jab before the race. As we were the slowest in the race, the coche escoba (the car that marks the end of the race) - which was, in fact, a police car - was in hot pursuit of a guy who was doping accompanied by an underage boy who had not paid the entry fee. Just as well I didn't get drug tested at the finish line.

I enjoyed walking and talking with my son, while my wife and other son were running ahead. In the end, they didn't have to wait all that long for us but, for some reason, my chip didn't register so I'm not even sure what time we did. Not that it matters.

Enjoying it was the main thing, but I couldn't help feeling pangs of competition. The last two times I have run it I have been 4th in my category and fairly high up the overall rankings. This year, much less people were running because it coincided with a very popular 10K in the centre of town. This would have been the year to get on the podium! Still, if I ask myself what that would have meant, I would say that I would have liked for my kids to be proud of their dad. I think they are more proud of me spending good quality time with them and not being in such a bad mood.

I do miss running though. A week today I have my appointment with the spine specialist. It will also be a week without medication, so it will be interesting to see how both my symptoms and my sleep patterns evolve, not to mention my mood.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

MBSR / Mindfulness on steroids

I'm now starting my forth week of the 8 week MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Relief) online course that my wife got me for my birthday. I don't want to come across all gushing or - worse - tell you that you HAVE to do this because it will change your life. After all, the proof will be in how I am, not in how I say I am and, everyone is different. But as this is a blog that started life as a document of my journey from a midlife crisis to becoming an Ironman, there are a few things that I want to share as well as writing them down so that I can refer to them later.

Remembering back to when I started this stage of my life, I had realized that I had invested all my self-esteem into my work so that, when something happened that was out of my control, it threw me completely off-balance. Most jobs have a large component that is out of one's control and so it might seem surprising that I should not have been used to this, but I was writing mathematical models and, as far as I was concerned, my yardstick was an unbending but utterly rational and objective one. I scrabbled around desperately for something to plug the self-esteem gap and, after a few un-recommendable attempts I found that running was an excellent complement. It took me several years to get it under control, going through the typical boom-bust injury cycles that I've written about at length, until I was recently forced to stop for an extended period of time. Unlike the previous time - when I got a stress fracture in my foot in 2009 - this has been more insidious. When I started building up to running again after my stress fracture I used the opportunity to retrain my running gait; this time I am retraining my mind - or, if you like, my mind-body relationship. (It's hard to say this without sounding all mystical but, if you think about it, the mind and body are all part of the same organism.) Most significantly, I am deriving a source of self-esteem just from being able to react differently to situations that normally drive me crazy - from things as stupid as headphone wires getting tangled up, to having to wait in a queue. And, consequently, the need I have to run or compete has diminished (but not the desire).

The other thing that I have noticed and already commented here is a tremendous increase in energy and decrease in need to sleep. I'm beginning to wonder if it is possible that the energy I am saving from not going over and over things, not getting frustrated or, indeed, not trying to sleep mean that I need less of it. Or it could just be the steroids - I will have my last dose this Sunday, so I'll soon know (although my mum says they stay in your bloodstream for a couple of weeks). Having said that, I am not aware of one of the secondary effects of steroids being a dramatic reduction in stress - so dramatic that I have only just begun to appreciate how stressed out I was. My family almost don't recognize me (my son said this morning "Rob Smith 2016"). Hell, I almost don't recognize myself. I am just a little scared that this is only temporary. We'll see in a few month's time whether the effects are lasting or not!

One thing to be "mindful" of is not to get too obsessed with the whole thing. I have a tendency to do this. If I find something works then I tend to take it to such an extreme that it stops working. In some sense, it is almost impossible to be obsessively mindful by definition, as the whole practice is one of being in the moment. I think the only danger is becoming obsessed about analyzing and talking about the effects of practicing it... So if I get boring please tell me.

For now, my objective is not to enjoy life, but to experience it as fully as I can.