Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Anti-health food: Your window to weight gain

There's a wonderful episode of 'The Simpsons' where Homer effectively gains enough weight to go on work disability.

To do so, he resorts to everything from buying an industrial-sized tub of lard to eating Maggie's Play-Doh doughnuts. The episode ends with Homer becoming an overweight shut-in who wears a mumu and nearly blows up the town.

So what does this have to do with anything? Well, after seeing the the commercial for KFC's new Double Down "sandwich" (pictured right), my initial thought was: "This seems like the kind of sandwich Homer would've invented to be his 'window to weight gain.'"

On the surface, the Double Down seems like a completely ridiculous idea, doesn't it? Two slabs of fried chicken instead of a bun with bacon, cheese and sauce? Shouldn't they call something like this "The Artery Clogger?" Why would anybody want to eat this unless they have some kind of death wish?

Give KFC credit though: They know how to generate a buzz. Critiques have been rampant about the sandwich, ranging from outright horror to the consideration that it might be an acceptable low-carb alternative (remember, no bread). While most news sources aren't exactly praising the Double Down as a revolutionary fast food item, they are talking about it.

The sandwich also isn't any worse than some of it's fast food counterparts. The Double Down checks in at 540 calories and 32 grams of fat (460 and 26 respectively for the grilled version). By comparison, a Whopper from Burger King has 670 calories and 40 grams of fat, while a Big Mac from McDonalds has 540 calories and 29 grams of fat. The sodium is the real killer in the Double Down, with 1,380 mg in the fried version of it and 1,430 in the grilled version. The recommended daily intake of sodium is between 1,500 and 2,300.

If the Double Down weren't enough, IHOP got in on the anti-health food act with release of cheesecake pancakes. Essentially, it's two pancakes with cheesecake in the middle. The current calorie counts on the breakfast chain's new dessert (just the pancakes and cheesecake with no other sides) are relatively modest: 520 calories and 21 grams of fat. But the amount of carbohydrates (74 g) and sugars (71 g) in it doesn't scream "healthy eating habits."

I won't go off on a rant about how items like these are contributing to our nation's obesity. Save that for the President's State of the Union address. However, I will say that it doesn't exactly help either.

Fast food on a regular basis is bad enough for you as it is, and items like these only take it a step further. Rather than throwing dietary caution to the wind, you are instead shooting it out of a cannon.

I'm not sure what the next extreme fast food concoction (deep-fried chili cheese fries maybe?) will be. But one thing's for sure: Homer definitely would've approved of it as a "window to weight gain."

God help our arteries.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Is Heartbreak Hill really that big of a heartbreaker?

When it comes to marathon prestige, there's Boston and then there's every other race.

The 114th annual running of the storied Beantown road race took place on Monday, with Kenyan Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot taking first place and setting the course record with a time of 2:05:52 (averaging of a 4:49 mile, I think I just threw up a little). Ethiopian Teyba Erkesso took the women's title with a time of 2:26:11.

There are three things that set Boston apart from every other race. There's the tradition of being the world's oldest annual marathon, the exclusiveness of being the only American race with qualifying times that need to be met in order to compete in it (a time I'm currently trying for), and the distinction of its course having one of the more famous — and brutal — hills in all of running.

The hill I'm referring to is Heartbreak Hill, which features an 88-foot climb over the span of 0.4 miles in between miles 20 and 21 on the course. The hill is considered a figurative wasteland for runners, as many sound race strategies have gone up in smoke over the years as a result of it.

I'm not doubting the hill's difficulty. Any incline after 20 miles of running is going to feel like scaling a mountain of Everest proportions. The only things a runner wants to see after that many miles are water, cheering fans and the finish line.

However, is Heartbreak Hill any worse than some of the daunting climbs in the Mankato area? I'm sure anyone who's ever had to walk up Gage hill to get to class at MSU would retort with "Heartbreak schmartbreak, this hill sucks!"

Topographically, Heartbreak Hill is only a moderate climb compared to some of the area hills. It climbs 88 feet in 0.4 miles with an average slope that hovers somewhere in 3.5-4.0% range.

By comparison, the hill along County Road 90 that the Mankato Marathon runs on (and sloping downward for, thank goodness) has almost twice as much elevation change over roughly the same amount of distance. For slope comparison, both Lookout Drive and Lee Blvd. are noted for having steeper grades (Lookout at 5.0% and Lee at 9.0%, according to the street signs at the top of their respective hills). Lookout Drive also has the added difficulty of being a much longer hill (more than a mile pretty much anyway you slice it).

Mankato also has it's own claim-to-fame hill-wise for the Main Street ascent in the Nature Valley Grand Prix, where professional cyclist climb the brutal downtown hill FOUR TIMES at the tail end of a 130 km race. My car has trouble getting up that hill after a fresh tune-up. I don't even want to imagine attacking it with a bike after a day of cycling at top speeds.

Does this diminish the significance of Heartbreak Hill? Of course not. As stated before, the hill isn't difficult because of how steep it is; it's difficult because of where it is in the race. Most marathon runners hit the proverbial "wall" between miles 18 and 23. This is the point where their glycogen is depleted and they're basically running on fumes. Just trying to maintain a steady pace is hard enough to do at that point, let alone trying to climb a hill.

Try to imagine jogging up Main Street hill after putting in 20 miles of running. Would you make it up the hill without stopping? If you can, I can almost guarantee you're in the extreme minority.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

My first road race this year and welcome to it

A few scattered thoughts about the Earth Day Half Marathon I competed in on Saturday morning in St. Cloud:
  • Although it's not a full marathon like Grandma's or Minneapolis, the Earth Day race has an atmosphere to savor in its own right. This is my second time competing in the race and more than likely won't be the last. It's just a first-class event that's well organized and generates a lot of interest from runners, community members and local businesses alike. The three races of the weekend (5k, half marathon and 20-mile run) drew nearly 2,000 total competitors and featured copious amounts of spectators at every turn. If the Mankato Marathon organizers are looking for examples of races that draw great community involvement, the Earth Day run wouldn't be a bad one to look at.
  • The first photo (courtesy of the St. Cloud Times) is at the start of the half marathon and 20-mile races. It takes place on the bridge near St. Cloud State University. It's a pretty cool spot for a race start because it's a great viewing area for spectators (note the walking bridge above the runners) and the walled-off sides of the road give it a cavernous-like feel to runners. It's a little crowded at the start, but what race isn't? The finish line of the race (mid-field of the college's football stadium) is also a sight to behold. There's nothing like cheering spectators in an arena to get the adrenaline going for road-weary runners.
  • The second photo (also courtesy of the St. Cloud Times) features yours truly (red t-shirt, red sweat band and black shorts) near the start of the race. Contrary to my prior beliefs, the Flash t-shirt did not help me run faster, nor did it give me any superhero powers during the race. At least not that I know of.
  • This was the first race I ever ran in that featured pace setters. God bless whoever invented this concept. For the road-racing novices out there, pace setters are volunteers assigned to run the race in a specific time (the times generally vary in 5-10-minute increments) that identify themselves with signs or other markers. The volunteers at the Earth Day race each had GPS watches that tracked their distance and time down to the most meticulous detail. This made race-day strategy a much easier thought process for me. Instead of having to depend on my watch's split timing and the unreliable course mile markers, I simply picked out my target time (in this case, the guy volunteering as the 1:30:00 pace setter) early on and tried to keep up with him throughout the race. Hopefully this is something the Mankato Marathon adopts for its inaugural race.
  • Two things surprised me about that race. First of all, I did not see myself doing as well as I did. I wound up with a time of 1:29:01; certainly nothing special compared to some of the serious runners out there, but it's an improvement of 10 minutes over the time I got last year and a definite sign that my training for Grandma's Marathon is coming along nicely. Good training runs are one thing, seeing your improvement on the results sheet is an entirely different kind of motivation. Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come in Duluth.
  • The other thing that surprised me: the general lack of post-race aches and pains I'm feeling. I spent the first 30 minutes struggling to move after last year's race because I was in so much pain. I limped for several days after the race and went through enough ice to build an igloo. This year? I walked around the finish line area in little-to-no pain and went for a short bike ride the day after the race. Aside for a quick icing session and mild hip pains, I'm no worse for the ware. Perhaps this is a sign that my body is getting used to the grind of running.
In case anybody's curious, the results of the race can be found here. Since my joints held up so well in the race, I plan on getting back on the running trail as soon as possible. Grandma's Marathon will be here before I know it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A fine line between tapering and training

Anyone who's ever dared to don a pair of running shoes has their own opinion about tapering.

To be fair, it is an important part of race-day preparation. Nobody wants to burn themselves out before they even get to the starting line, right?

However, the difference in techniques for scaling back cardio workload is enough to give a runner a headache. Some people train hard up until the last few days before their race. Some give themselves a week to recover. Others, as advised in this Runner's World article, take up to three weeks to taper their training for race day.

I'm still relatively new to long-distance running, so I won't even pretend to come off as an expert on tapering. The week before my lone marathon, I did a 9-mile training run at lord-knows-what pace in an attempt get used to the effects of Gu Energy Gel on my stomach. When I told this to a seasoned marathon runner, he flipped out on me to the point that I thought I had failed at life.

I've been known to over-practice when it comes to athletics. I get nervous about the race, I feel like I haven't trained hard enough and I start to panic about what my strategy should be. This nervousness entices me to log heavy training miles even when I shouldn't, as I reason that I'll at least have peace of mind and be able to rest easy the night before the race.

(side note: I slept a grand total of four hours the night before the marathon. I was less nervous about asking a girl out for high school homecoming that I was about running that race, and that's saying something.)

I wouldn't necessarily advocate tapering for a full three weeks leading up to race day. However, after reading a variety of articles about tapering techniques (here's a link to the search I ran on Runner's World), there are a few general strategies to be mindful of. I'm trying to incorporate these pointers into my routine this week, as I will be running a half marathon in my hometown of St. Cloud on Saturday (also the inspiration behind this post):

  • Stock up on protein, carbs and Vitamin C in the week leading up to race day. It is not the time to start dieting in order to lose a few pounds. Your body is going to need all the strength it can get.
  • If you're going to do longer runs during the last week or so before the race, do them at a relaxed pace compared to what your target pace is during the race. Shorter runs can be used for race-pace training, but interval training and other high-difficulty runs should be avoided. Remember, you're trying to let your body recover.
  • Rather than focusing on speed, focus on flexibility. Do longer stretch routines after short jogs and get your body feeling comfortable.
  • Focus on your mental preparation for the race rather than physical preparation. Figure out your pace, play out scenarios and how you'll deal with them on the race course (i.e. What if this starts to hurt? What if there's a head wind? What attire is weather-appropriate?) think about how you'll keep yourself calm and sticking to your plan.
  • Drink water, lots of it, in the days leading up to the race. Fairly obvious, but not something to forget about.
  • If you've been weightlifting as part of your training, stop doing it. It's only going to sap your muscles of energy needed for the race (a tough one for me to adhere to because I love weightlifting).

On that note, I'm going to head out for a light jog and get some good stretching in afterward. Hopefully I can calm my nerves a bit before race day.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Running inspiration? More like life inspiration

Anyone who stuck around at the Men's Health Forum Tuesday night got treated to hearing Dick Beardsley speak about running, life and overcoming adversity and drug addiction.

As an avid runner, I can honestly say that his running career alone would've been enough to draw me in. However, Beardsley's overall life story is the kind of stuff you'd only expect to find in movies. Like everyone else at the forum, I was hooked immediately.

This is a guy whose start in running came from joining the football his junior year of high school (as a way to meet women, no less) and quitting before the first day of practice was finished. He fell into cross country from there, fell in love with running and was competing in marathons by the age of 21.

After that, he ran personal best times in a record 13 consecutive marathons, established the course record at Grandma's (I checked, it's still there and I'm not beating it) and battled Alberto Salazar in the famous "Duel in the Sun" Boston Marathon of 1982. The two of them battled back and forth for the last leg of the race before Salazar pulled ahead at the end and beat Beardsley by less than 2 seconds; 2:08:51 to 2:08:52.6. Just watching video of the race (he showed it at the start of the speech, complete with vintage '80's TV graphics and thick Boston accents) was enough to give you the chills.

But nothing in his running career could compare to the challenges he faced after he retired as a professional runner. Beardsley had more bad luck in a five-year stretch than any of us would hope to have in an entire lifetime. He got in a farming accident, got in a car accident, got hit by a truck while running, fell off a cliff and rolled his truck. The guy getting struck by lightning in "The Great Outdoors" had better luck than this.

If that's not enough, Beardsley developed a dependency to pain medication during that time that culminated with him forging perscriptions and taking what he described to be around "90 pills a day." His addiction then led him getting caught, going through drug treatment and having to go through painful withdrawls to methadone. Beardsley has since started a charity foundation, became a motivational speaker and wrote an autobiography "Staying the Course." Oh, and he still runs a little bit too, clocking in at 2:43:58 at the Napa Valley Marathon in 2004.

Simply put, Beardsley's speech was the highlight of the forum. His storytelling and ability to poke fun at himself (the story of his first cross country practice had everyone in stitches) separates him from gimmicky speakers who would otherwise use the time to promote their foundation or some other cause.

There was nothing gimmicky about Beardsley. He spoke with passion and he spoke from the heart. After hearing him speak, his race-day story about the '82 Boston Marathon made me go straight to the YMCA and put in 6 miles on the treadmill. He perfectly captured the emotion and doubt that surrounds a race and had a quote that everyone should adhere to: "No matter how difficult life gets. No matter how tough things are, don't give up. Have faith that you will get through it."

A simple lesson, but one that carries tremendous weight when you think about the adversity Beardsley's overcome in his life.

And to think, all of this started because a skinny high school kid wanted to earn a letterman jacket to impress girls.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Take that, Portland! Minneapolis finishes first in national bike rankings

Minnesota might be known for its cold winters and "Ya, you betcha!" accents, but it's beginning to get some recognition for biking as well.

Minneapolis unseated Portland, Ore. as the most bike-friendly city in the country, according to an article in the Star Tribune. The rankings were determined by Bicycling magazine and compared 49 different cities in the country based on a city's number of bike lanes, municipal bike racks, bike boulevards, government interest in cycling improvements and local bike culture.

Minneapolis also scored high because of its pledge to instill a bike share program and the city's spike in bike commuters in recent years (almost tripled in the last three years alone!). Other high-ranking cities were Seattle, Boulder, Eugene and Madison.

As most Mankato-area residents probably know, South Central Minnesota is littered with good bike trails and all sorts of fun routes to take day trips on. Bike trails and low-traffic back roads can be used to get to anywhere from Faribault to New Ulm and back.

However, I was unaware our in-state metropolitan to the north was such an advocate for two-wheeled travel. I always figured that since the Minneapolis/St. Paul area was such a pain in the neck to drive through, it couldn't possibly be accommodating to cyclists.

I sense a road trip to the cities coming on. I'm going to have to see this cities biking culture first-hand to get a full grasp of it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Men's Health forum with a running inspiration on the side

It's one thing to run a marathon or climb a mountain. It's an entirely different thing to overcome what Dick Beardsley has been through in his lifetime.

As mentioned in Monday's story in the Valley section of the Free Press, Beardsley has had his fair share of adversity. A second-place finisher at Boston Marathon in 1982, Beardsley has since been in an auger accident, two severe car accidents, was hit by a truck while running and, last but not least, fought through an addiction to pain killers. Through it all, Beardsley has maintained an active lifestyle and even continues to run on a recreational basis.

Inspiring stuff.

Beardsley will be the keynote speaker at the Men's Health Forum tonight at the Madison East Center. The forum goes from 5-8:30 p.m. and will be roughly be divided up into the following time-wise (the information came from a Facebook event invitation, so trust it at your own peril):

  • 5:00-6:30 p.m. -- Informational booths, health screenings, interactive breakouts
  • 6:30-8:30 p.m. -- Panel Discussion with Mankato Clinic health care providers, prize drawings

There is no cost to attend the event.