Ode to the locker room

Being a runner in Minnesota can be difficult, because it forces you to make one of three choices:

  1. Run outside in subzero weather.
  2. Get a gym membership and run on a track or treadmill for 4-5 months.
  3. Stop running altogether in the winter.

Since #3 is not a viable option, you’re left with either bundling up with many layers and tiptoeing hesitantly along icy sidewalks or park paths with blustery winds buffeting your face, or paying a monthly fee for the privilege of driving to a building and running indoors on a treadmill or (if you’re lucky) a track, a tedious but climate-controlled solution.

Being an uncharacteristically wimpy Minnesotan, I’ve gone with the gym membership. I’m very fortunate, I suppose, to live close to the Midtown YWCA in Minneapolis, where I have access to first-rate facilities including a 1/6 mile indoor track. I loathe running on a treadmill. The track can be tedious, but at least I’m actually moving. And if I pick the right soundtrack, I can even visualize running around Lake Nokomis instead. (I’ve run Nokomis to the sounds of my own The Long Run enough times that I know precisely where I am in relation to the lake as each of the 11 sections of the 40-minute piece comes on.)

But as much as I can trick myself into enjoying (or at least tolerating) indoor running in the winter, there’s one aspect of Y membership that I will never like or be able to reconcile with my desire to be outside and alone when I run: the locker room.

I was not a jock in school. In fact, I was pretty much exactly whatever the opposite of a jock is. So what little time I did spend in a locker room was an exercise in taunting and humiliation (real or imagined, and probably more imagined than I believed at the time). I’m no longer afraid of the locker room. I just don’t like it.

I don’t like how crowded it is. I don’t like having to find a space on a bench to put my stuff while I change, or coming back to the locker room after my run to see someone else has chosen bench space directly in front of my locker.

I don’t like listening to other people whistling in the showers. What is so great about this experience to make them want to whistle their tuneless little non-melodies?

I don’t like people who are too comfortable being naked in the locker room, and I also don’t like people who are too uncomfortable with it. Be naked in the shower, the sauna, and at your locker, but nowhere else. Don’t be afraid to take off your swim trunks in the shower. Conversely, don’t stand at the sink naked while you shave, or at the counter by the hair dryers, reading a newspaper. (It kind of just seems logical to me to cover up certain parts when you’re wielding a razor blade, electronics, or paper. Especially paper.)

I don’t like listening to other people’s conversations, even when I am deliberately eavesdropping. I don’t want to be eavesdropping. I especially don’t like listening to teenagers swear loudly. And get off my lawn.

I don’t like how hot it is in the locker room, and how by the time I’m done drying off after my shower, I’ve started sweating again before I can even put on my shirt.

Given my dislike of winter in general, and especially my dislike of the compromises it requires (like spending so much time on the corollary disliking of myriad characteristics of spending time in the Y locker room), I’ve been asked by certain individuals in my life why I want to live in Minnesota at all.

They just don’t understand.

I’m not sure if it’s the harsh conditions of life in the Upper Midwest, much like the harsh conditions in the Scandinavian countries where many of our ancestors came from, or whether we’re just resentful of how easily our existence is ignored by the rest of the country, but part of the joy of being Minnesotan is to be able to complain about being Minnesotan. For us, to love something is to feel comfortable complaining about it.

Of course, that would suggest that perhaps I really love the locker room. But love and hate are not opposites. The opposite of love is indifference. And whether I love the locker room, or hate it, the one thing I clearly am not is indifferent.

But whatever the reason for my strong feelings, there is one that is stronger than all. Spring can’t get here soon enough.

My year of running

Like most geeks, I was never athletic growing up. Aside from one feeble season playing left field for the school baseball team in 8th grade, and the twice-weekly exercise in mild psychological torture known as P.E. in high school, my childhood was fairly sedentary, and my adult life hasn’t been much better.

The only things that have kept me reasonably fit were a naturally slim physique and two to three miles of walking per day as part of my daily commute.

And then I started freelancing. My daily commute no longer involved a 9-block walk to the train station, but rather a 40-foot walk from my bedroom to my home office. Unsurprisingly, this took a toll. Whereas I had been a scrawny 120 pounds in high school, and a solid 160 pounds most of my adult life (thanks, college!), I eventually found myself peaking at 174 pounds in the spring of 2011. That may not sound like a lot, but for a small-boned, 5-foot-8 guy, it was.

I was 37. A few years earlier, when he was also 37, my brother-in-law started running. It transformed him. The difference was astounding, and has been lasting. And so, as the years went on and my own 37th birthday approached, I always felt, just somehow knew, that the necessary pieces would fall into place for me to become a runner at 37 too.

I’m sure planting that seed played a part, but I’m still not entirely sure what it was that compelled me to finally get into it one year ago today, on June 1, 2011, but it all came together, 2 1/2 months after my 37th birthday.

Couch-to-5K

Whatever the factors were that caused me on that Wednesday morning to finally put on the running shoes I had bought a few months earlier but never worn, it is perfectly clear to me what made me put them on again that Friday, and then on Sunday, and every other day for the next 9 weeks: the Couch-to-5K running program.

The program takes many forms, but the key to it is that it allows you to build up gradually. Don’t expect to run 3 miles on the first day. I think the biggest reason why it’s so hard for many people, myself included, to get started running when they’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle is that they think they just have to go out and run. But they get tired quickly, and either stop and give up, or push through it and hurt themselves. Either way, it doesn’t last.

With Couch-to-5K, over a period of 9 weeks, for 30-40 minutes at a time, 3 times a week, you gradually build up by alternating walking and running. On the first day of week one, you do a 5-minute warmup walk, then alternate running for 60 seconds and walking for 90 seconds, for a total of 20 minutes, and follow with a 5-minute cooldown walk. By day three of week nine, you are running for a solid 30 minutes.

That first day is key, and it was magic. I could actually do it! It felt like a workout, but it was manageable. And it left me so energized and excited about the program that I couldn’t wait to get out and do it again!

I did have some setbacks in those first few weeks. One of the big problems I’ve always had when I ran was shin splints. I got them a lot in these first few weeks, eventually getting to the point where I was afraid I had a stress fracture. I didn’t, but I needed to lay off the running for a week. So, during that week I biked and walked instead. I also worked on changing my running stride, lifting my legs more so my thighs were doing the work instead of my lower legs. This made a big difference, as did altering my walking stride during the warm-up in a way that loosened up my ankles.

As I mentioned before, the Couch-to-5K program takes many forms. The page I linked to above was how it originally appeared online, and for a long time the best way to follow it was to use a prerecorded podcast.

And then the iPhone came along. Couch-to-5K is trademarked, and now has an official app (which, honestly, I haven’t tried, because it just looks kind of amateurish in the screenshots), but a year ago when I started running they hadn’t cracked down on the trademark and a number of competing apps, using the exact Couch-to-5K nine-week schedule, were available. The developers of these competing apps have since been forced to rename them and to make (somewhat arbitrary, and, I think, less effective) changes to the program schedule itself. Still, it’s worth acknowledging the apps that made this happen for me, even if they’re slightly different now.

At first I used an app by Felt Tip Software that is now called Run 5K. This one drew me in immediately because I was already aware of its developer as the creator of Sound Studio, one of my favorite sound editing apps for the Mac. I used Felt Tip’s 5K app for a few weeks, until I discovered one I liked even better, Bluefin Software’s app now known as Ease into 5K. Like Felt Tip’s app, it guides you through the program (speaking over your music to tell you when to run or walk), and lets you keep a journal of your progress. But what I really loved about it that Felt Tip’s software lacked (at least at the time) was that it had GPS integration to both map your run and track your distance and speed. I still use this app’s “big brother,” Bridge to 10K regularly to time my runs and to work on extending my distance beyond 5K.

One year later

It is now a year since I first started running with the Couch-to-5K program. SLP started the next day, and although we don’t run together — I enjoy running as a solitary activity, and she runs too fast for me to keep up with — we do continue to encourage and inspire each other. We’ve both lost a bunch of weight: I’m currently hovering in the 145-150 range, and although I’ll leave it to her to choose whether to divulge a number, it’s safe to say that we’re both easily in the best shape of our adult lives. And we feel great. Getting in shape has a subtle but real impact on your daily life in countless little ways that add up to a big difference in your attitude and outlook.

It’s been fun to watch my running times get faster as I’ve progressed, too. In those first early runs that were long enough to even count, late last summer, I was averaging around 11 minutes per mile. (It’s probably worth noting, too, that prior to last summer I had only ever run a mile once in my life, for the Presidential Fitness Test in high school, and I did it in 11:30 then.)

By the winter (when we were running on the indoor track at the Midtown YWCA), I was regularly running 9:25 miles, and I even clocked my fastest-ever mile at 7:54.

In September we ran our first (and, to date, only, but that will change soon) real 5K race. I finished in 31:34. Since then I’ve recorded a personal best 5K of 27:32.

I haven’t logged every run, and I haven’t kept a tally of my overall miles, but if you were to estimate 3 miles per run, 3 times per week, for 52 weeks, that works out to a total of 468 miles. That kind of distance requires a good pair of shoes, which are the only specialized gear I have ever bothered with. (Well, almost… more on that in a minute.) You don’t need super-expensive running shoes, but you do need decent running shoes. I typically wear Converse All-Stars, and they are not for running. There is no way I could have accomplished what I’ve done with that kind of footwear. So for running I wear a pair of New Balance 623’s. They’re nothing fancy, but they’ve held up great and have made running (relatively) easy. And, most importantly, they’ve kept me from injuring my feet and legs.

As for any other specialized gear, like I said, I don’t bother. I don’t have special running shorts or shirts. You just need to be comfortable, and don’t feel like you have to look a certain way to prove anything to anyone. The one exception I have made, for a very specific reason, is that I wear two pairs of underwear when I run. I was finding that as my run times increased, I started to get chafing on my upper/inner thighs. No fun. Initially I started coating my thighs with baby powder, but eventually I realized all I really needed to do was double up my underwear. I wear boxer briefs, so I suppose this recommendation is only valid in that context, but, as they say, it worked for me!

Last July and August I managed to combine running with one of my other major interests: music. I wanted a long-form piece to accompany my 5K runs, and as much as I wanted it to, LCD Soundsystem’s 45:33 just didn’t do it for me. So I composed my own: The Long Run. It’s 40:37 of electronica with an energized beat, with gradually shifting moods and atmospheres that I find serves as a great mental landscape to accompany the physical scenery of the run.

Update: If you’d like to hear — yes, hear — more — yes, a lot more — on this topic from SLP and me, be sure to check out this week’s episode of our podcast, The Undisciplined Room, where this is pretty much all we talk about for the better part of an hour.

M83: Midnight City

Normally (in a rather narcissistic fashion, I suppose), I listen to my own music when I run. But today I listened to one of my favorite albums of 2011, by one of my favorite bands around today, M83: Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. It turned out to be pretty great to run to.

I’m not a hardcore runner. I’ve rarely, if ever, gotten a “runner’s high,” but I think it happened today, about 2 miles into my run, while listening to “Raconte-moi une histoire.” Is the fact that the song’s lyrics are spoken word, by a child, describing (I think) psychoactive toads? Perhaps. Whatever it was, the music was a perfect tempo for me to lock into, and as the music built up, I lost all sense of physical limitations. My limbs were tingling and I felt like I was floating up off the ground.

Then as soon as the music faded and I rounded a corner, I crashed back to earth and was slogging along again, but at least I kept at it.

Anyway, there’s no official video for “Raconte-moi une histoire,” but here’s a live performance of “Midnight City,” the big single from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. It first aired on Carson Daly’s extremely-late-night show. Enjoy!

The Long Run

As I’ve been posting frequently on Twitter and occasionally here, on June 1 I started running. I’ve never been athletic or even particularly physically active, but at 37 I was beginning to feel the effects of my sedentary lifestyle. Thanks to the Couch-to-5K running plan and the fantastic C25K iPhone app, I’ve been able to finally get off my lazy ass and do something about it.

I had to take a break at one point due to shin problems and I ended up repeating a couple of weeks, but in the end I stuck with it and this week I finally finished the program. I hate to use the tired cliché “If I can do it, anyone can,” but it seems apropos. Couch-to-5K is really amazing, especially when an app makes it so easy to do. Now I’m regularly running 30-plus minutes every other day, and I’m looking forward to participating in my first 5K race next month.

The biggest challenge for me with the running lately has been finding interesting music to listen to while running. Combine that with the “itch” to record some new music, and the answer was obvious: I wanted to record an extended piece of music suitable for listening to while running. Over the past week I’ve worked on it in every spare moment, and now it’s finished. So, here I present “The Long Run,” clocking in at 40:37. Later in the week I’ll be posting it on my music site, both as an uninterrupted track and divided into 11 separate (but “gapless”) tracks. I’ll also be releasing it on CD in the 11-track form. But in the meantime you can hear (and download) it all right now on Alonetone:

alonetone.com/room34/playlists/the-long-run

For most of my longer runs I’ve chosen a route around Lake Nokomis, which I’ve commemorated with the album’s cover art, a collage of photos taken at and around the main beach this afternoon. (Yeah, I work fast with this stuff.)

Update: The album is now posted on my music site as well, and the CD is available for purchase. Full MP3 downloads (including the fabled, long-awaited single-track version) coming soon.

Couch to 5K week 4 playlist

If you follow me on Twitter (and if not, well…) you know that for the past few weeks I’ve been trying to conquer decades of sedentary lifestyle by way of the Couch to 5K iPhone app. It’s been working out very well so far!

One thing I have yet to do is consciously plan out a playlist to correspond to the cycles of walking and running that are a key to the Couch to 5K program. Well, on Thursday I will be running the final day of week 4, nearing the halfway point (what??!!) in the program, so it’s time to remedy that situation.

Here then is my Couch to 5K week 4 playlist, for your consideration:

Action Song Artist Time
Warm up One More Robot / Sympathy 3000-21 The Flaming Lips 5:00
Run The Distance Cake 3:01
Walk Little Fishes Brian Eno 1:30
Run Smells Like Teen Spirit Nirvana 5:01
Walk And I Love Her The Beatles
Run Highly Suspicious My Morning Jacket 3:05
Walk Pigs on the Wing (Part One) Pink Floyd 1:25
Run Uprising Muse 5:05
Cool down Computerworld Kraftwerk 5:08

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Clearly I focused primarily on the timing and general mood of the songs when programming this playlist, giving… well… absolutely no consideration whatsoever to the transitions between the songs. But I think it will still be successful. It helps me a lot when running to focus on the music and to think, “OK… I run until the end of this song.”

And yes, when I get to running for the entire time, I will have a song for that. I have 14 songs in the library on my iPhone that are over 20 minutes long.