Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"My Run" documentary to be shown in Mankato

Running a marathon isn't an easy task no matter who you are.

There's countless hours of grueling training to endure, leg pains to work through and a race day to drain you of all your energy. Most people (myself included) take time off from running in the days following a marathon to let our joints, muscles and mental fortitude heal.

However, Terry Hitchcock isn't like most people. In 1996, Hitchcock not only kept running after completing a marathon, he actually completed another marathon the very next day. If that wasn't enough, he kept up with this marathon-a-day routine for 75 consecutive days.

26.2 miles a day for 75 days. That's 1,965 miles of racing, slightly more than the distance between Mankato and Mexico City. And Hitchcock, who was 57 years old at the time, kept running despite freezing rain, unbearable heat and stress fractures that developed along the way (I had plenty of physical pain to cope with after Grandma's last summer, so I can only imagine what he went through).

You're probably wondering what would possess a person to do this to themselves. Well, in Hitchcock's case, the feat is meant to be an inspiration to single parents out there struggling to support their families. Hitchcock himself lost his wife to breast cancer in 1984 and then lost his job shortly thereafter. With three young children to raise on his own, Hitchcock needed faith, hard work and mental strength to maintain a healthy environment for his kids.

Hitchcock's story is told in the award-winning documentary "My Run," which will be showing at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Movies 8 Theater in the River Hills Mall. Narrated by Billy Bob Thorton, "My Run" takes viewers through Hitchcock's personal struggles after his wife's death and the physical hell he put his body through during the "Mega-Marathon."

Cost of the event is $12.50. Tickets can either be purchased here or at the theater. Here is link to Hitchcock's website for more background on his incredible achievement.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A different kind of fitness goal

When it comes to setting goals, we all tend to aim for something tangible.

If you're saving money for a vacation or a new toy, you typically either have an amount in mind or a date in mind. If you're trying to lose weight like my co-worker currently is (you're doing great Amanda, keep it up!), you would typically shoot for a specific number of pounds you want to shed by a specific date. And so on and so forth.

We do this because it gives us a concrete answer as to whether we achieved our goal or not. If your goal is to simply get in better shape or read more books, the majority of the time it doesn't work out that way. Without a concrete objective constantly reminding you of what you're striving for, the human tendency is to push it aside when other items become more pressing.

In that regard, my new fitness goal is a little unique because, while it has a time frame, it doesn't have a concrete number that I'm shooting for. I'm not trying to lose X amount of pounds, run X amount of miles, bench press X amount of weight or complete a race in X amount of time. Instead, the goal is a race against myself and my reliance on modern convenience.

Confused? Let me explain.

My goal is to bike/run more miles than I drive in my car for the month of April. I will write down the mileage of my car at midnight on the 1st of April and keep track of my biking/running miles as if I was training for a race. At the end of the month, I'll compare the numbers to see whether I succeeded, failed or failed miserably.

On the surface, this seems pretty easy for me. I'm an exercise fanatic and I happen to have the good fortune of living within walking distance of my job, my bank, a grocery store, the post office and Erbs & Gerbs. I like to think that everything I need in life is just a stone throw away, and for the most part, that's probably true.

However, it's not that simple. Several regular destinations for me (the mall, BioLife's plasma donation center, ect.) are located on the other side of town, and the YMCA is located JUST far enough away (about 10 blocks or so) for me to justify driving there when I'm in a hurry. On top of that, most of my friends and family either live in the St. Cloud or Twin Cities areas, both of which are 150+ miles round trip for every visit. Not exactly an easy distance on a bike.

My reasons for setting this goal are pretty straightforward. I'm looking for a new challenge to get me out exercising more and I'm hoping to get away from having to rely on my car so much for transportation, which in turn will hopefully save some money on gas.

I wish I could give some grandiose meaning of wanting to promote a cleaner planet or get in the Earth Day spirit (happening on April 22nd, by the way), but that simply wouldn't be true. I'm as earth-conscious as the next person, but my means of conservation are more practical than making bold social statements. I'd rather keeps the lights off and recycle than buy a hybrid car and spend twice as much on organic food.

I've already told myself that I'm not going to cut myself off socially for the sake of this goal. If I feel compelled to visit family and friends during the month of April, I'm going to do it.

I also won't limit my entertainment options, meaning that I'm not going to bypass seeing a band or eating at a cool restaurant because it's too far to bike. The point of a goal is to challenge yourself, not become a hermit (unless in fact that is your goal, in which case more power to you).

Basically, my plan is to keep up with my regular exercise routine and to start using my bike as my main source of in-town transportation. My only exception for Mankato-area commuting will be for donating plasma, as I'm guessing the bike ride home from BioLife would be a little rough after being deprived of protein and water. If I drive up to St. Cloud or the Twin Cities, I will bring my bike with and try to use that to get around town there as well.

You might be wondering why I'm incorporating both biking AND running into this goal. After all, a car is used for commuting, and while a bike can be used for that purpose, running is pretty much exclusively exercise.

The reason for this is simple: So I'm not tempted to slant my cardio workouts to just biking. I plan on running in a race or two this year, and I don't want to take a month off from running if I can help it. Besides, this is really more of a fitness/commuting goal than it is one or the other.

So that's my goal for April. If you see me driving anywhere around Mankato, be sure to yell at me and tell me to stop being lazy.

One indulgence I'm not getting rid of

When it comes to dieting and fitness, everyone has certain items they give some leeway to.

In my case, that leeway is popcorn.

I won't lie, I'm a bit of a movie fanatic. I love watching them, whether it's action, comedy, drama, romance or Robert De Niro. I have a sizable collection at my apartment, I just signed up for Netflix two weeks ago (either the best or worst thing to happen to me recently) and I'm a regular at the Hy-Vee Red Box down the street. I also take full advantage of the fact that the Maverick 4 (cheap seats) theater in Mankato is within walking distance from my place.

With this love for movies comes a love for snack food to munch on while watching said movies. Like any other movie traditionalist, I enjoy my popcorn while indulging in cinema goodness.

Of course, as you can probably guess, popcorn doesn't exactly jive with my exercise-oriented lifestyle. Most bagged popcorn is pretty reasonable calorie-wise, but it's a high-carb treat and, depending on your need for butter, it can be pretty darn unhealthy. Movie theater popcorn -- and all it's salty, buttery glory -- can be downright artery clogging. (here is a link to the nutritional values of various types of popcorn, some are bad enough to make you gag).

Like anybody else, with summer (hopefully) around the corner, I'm conscious about keeping the weight off in the hopes of having a non-ghastly beach body come July. For the most part, I'm taking the necessary measures to do so. I've halted my late-night snacking habits, I've been avoiding fast foods, and I'm cutting down on trips to the bar (more so a cost-saving measure due to work furloughs, but still). I've also ramped up my exercise schedule lately (just signed up for the 7 at 7 trail race a couple weeks ago, that's keeping me motivated).

I will go to decent lengths to keep myself feeling healthy and fit. However, ditching popcorn isn't one of them. To me, a movie without popcorn is like a car without a radio: still serviceable, but not nearly as enjoyable.

Besides, being healthy doesn't mean much if you're not happy. And without a little indulgence here and there, it can get pretty tough to be happy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Minnesota featured in a Bicycling article

Figured I would pass this along to my readers.

While working out on the exercise bike at the Y the other day, I came across this article in Bicycling magazine.

Most editions of the popular cycling publication have a story or two about an interesting or scenic ride one of it's riders partook in. However, since it's a national magazine, most of the rides take place in far-away places that go well beyond the outer reaches of a typical day trip in southern Minnesota. As much as we Minnesotans love to read about scenic bike trips along the California coast, it's not exactly a ride we can experience unless it involves vacation time (or, in my case, furloughs).

That's not the case here. Not only does the ride take place in Minnesota, but it's in an area some would argue to be among the most scenic in the state: the Mississippi River valley along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.

The story is written by Frank Bures, a Minneapolis-based cyclist who decides that simply showing up at his 20-year high school reunion in Winona isn't a grand enough entrance. He instead decides to bike there all the way from Minneapolis, about a 200-mile trip along some pretty rocky terrain and brutal hills.

This particular stretch of the Mississippi River Trail is actually a pretty popular one among cyclists. Aside from its close proximity to a wealth of bikers residing in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, it offers an ideal mix of scenery and challenge for experienced riders. According to Bures, Greg LeMond trained for the Tour de France in that area.

Aside from Bures deep-seeded resentment for Winona (he portrays the community to be filled with crime and definitely wasn't thrilled about returning to his roots), it's a pretty fun read that will give you some inspiration for day trips to take on a bike this spring.

For myself, his story about climbing Barn's Bluff in Red Wing (apprently a climb Henry David Thoreau made way back when as well) just served as further proof that I really should have spent more time in that town when I visited last fall.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bike Snob review: He's not so snobby after all

Admittedly, I'm a late bloomer when it comes to Bike Snob.

The popular, NYC-centered cycling blogger remained off my radar until I came across a review of his book last year. The book, titled "Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling," came in response to his hugely successful blog that has been drawing readership in droves since 2007. Likewise, his book has also been a huge seller.

Unlike health & fitness-centered cycling blogs, the Bike Snob pokes and prods at the cultural aspects of cycling. He's critical of all types of bikes (matter of fact, I'm a little scared to think of what he'd say about my 2-wheeled transport, probably nothing good), rips on hipsters and basically holds nothing back when it comes to daily nuisances that annoy him. The result of which is a rant-filled blog that covers a rainbow of societal topics and makes more movie references than one would care to keep track of.

I don't know how it took me so long to discover this cycling-centric gem (I'm guessing it's because I live in Minnesota and because I do enough reading at work), but I've grown to enjoy the Bike Snob's blogosphere ramblings (check out his blog here). His cultural jabs can be rather biting, but for the most part, it's all good-natured ribbing.

However, a lot of his topics are difficult for me to relate to, as his blog is very urban-oriented and Mankato isn't exactly a sprawling metropolis. He can write about bike messengers all he wants, but I doubt I'm going to spot one cruising on Madison Avenue anytime soon.

By comparison, his book turned out to have a much more positive tone. Instead of poking fun at the foibles of others, he actually does a great deal of poking fun at himself, talking about his early cycling experiences with his BMX bike as a kid and his early career as a bike messenger.

His personal experiences help establish that, at the core of things, the Bike Snob is really a huge cycling enthusiast. He loves bikes and clearly feels strongly about them being one of the world's great inventions. As the Bike Snob puts it, a bike:

"can give you the feeling of freedom and speed you get from riding a motorcycle, the sense of well-being and peace you get from meditating, the health benefits you get from an afternoon in the gym, the sense of self-expression you get from learning to play guitar, and the feeling of victory you get from completing a marathon." (page 11)

In that regard, the book is considerably more accessible than the Snob's blog. Rather than worrying if his social commentary is going to hit close to home, you can sit back and enjoy the writing of a man who loves his bike.

For the novice cyclist, the book serves as an introductory guide for anybody looking to get into biking. There's a brief, wonderfully-lampooned history lesson on the bicycle, a section on the essential repairs all cyclist should be able to do themselves and a few safety tips everyone should adhere to (like looking around for stuff you don't want to run into).

That's not to say the book reads like a "Cycling for Dummies" guide. Instead, the Bike Snob's book seeks to take away some of the fear surrounding cycling by pointing out that bikes are user-friendly machines that everyone can use. You might use the wrong chain lube or fall off the bike a time or two (Lord knows I have), but those are learning experiences you can build off of.

For the experienced cyclist, the book is a reaffirmation of why we love cycling to begin with. It also serves as a wake-up call for people who take themselves too seriously on a bike.

Which brings me to the social commentary aspects of the book. Like his blog, the Bike Snob's book is full of em. However, he keeps his rants brief and the reading pace brisk. There's still a healthy dose of pop culture tidbits (he may have hit max capacity for "Forrest Gump" references and even referenced "Krippindorf's Tribe" at one point), but they never get convoluted to the point of bogging down the points he's trying to make.

Some of his points were pretty thought-provoking as well. I found myself spending the most time on his chapter breaking down all the different types of cyclists, mostly just because I wanted to see which category I fit into.

Like any other well-written, opinion-based work, I found myself disagreeing with the Snob from time to time. He claims cyclists never have the feeling of impotency a motorist has being stuck in traffic, whereas I can attest from my sunburn-filled trip to Blue Earth last summer that it's very possible to feel impotent on a bike. I also take exception with the Snob saying that there's no such thing as a "biking culture." If a cycling-centric event like RAGBRAI isn't a cultural experience, then I don't know what is.

But really, that's half the fun of reading his book if you're an avid cyclist: finding things to disagree on. The Bike Snob has built a name for himself in the blogosphere by expressing his opinion.

There's plenty of opinion in his book, but the joy in reading it doesn't come from his usual social commentary. It comes from his refreshingly-open profession about his love for cycling.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Knee pains = hip problems? You betcha

While running on a treadmill at the Y the other, I overheard a conversation one gym member was having with another about how knee pains had developed since he recently started running. Even more troublesome: icing his knees seemed to do little to alleviate the pain.

The other person told him that the pains likely weren't from his knees at all, but rather from his hip. More specifically, his IT band (also known as the iliotibial band).

This seemed to confuse the novice runner, and frankly I don't blame him. After all, the pain was in his knees, not his hip.
However, as the photo at right indicates, the IT band indeed connects with the lateral part of your knee, and also goes all the way up to your outer pelvis. Pains associated with IT band syndrome can either be in your hip or your knee, making it a difficult injury to diagnose.
The band, which serves as a connective tissue for your fascia lata (outer thigh muscle), gets utilized during the abduction process of your thigh muscle, an action that occurs with every stride you take while running. IT band syndrome typically occur when athletes suddenly increase their workload without keeping their body (more specifically, their hip) properly limbered up.
Of course, this type of information is hardly common knowledge to the average runner. Matter of fact, the conversation brought back memories of my own struggles early on with marathon training.

For a moment, travel back with me to early 2009. I had just registered for my first marathon in January, which was set to take place in early May.

To put it bluntly, I didn't know what the hell I was doing training-wise. I wasn't necessarily starting from scratch -- jogging had been a hobby of mine long before that -- but my body simply wasn't used to the rigors of 10-12-mile runs. Which, in my great wisdom (not!) was the distance I started running pretty much right away.
As you can probably guess, my legs weren't happy with me. I developed terrible knee pains within the first few weeks and all the icing in the world couldn't dull the pain. I started wondering if my body would ever be able to hold up for 26.2 miles (actually, I still wonder that from time to time, even after two marathons).

So I did what any sensible person would do when they were in pain: I went to the doctor. Aside from the x-rays, the exam took all of 10 minutes for the doctor to tell me that there was nothing structurally wrong with my knees and that it was likely my IT band flaring up.

I had no idea what he was talking about (my first thought was that IT band was some sort of class offered at the college), so he referred me to a physical therapist who basically showed me this and this for stretches to perform on a daily basis. Literally, the physical therapy session took less than 20 minutes. Within a couple weeks, the knee pains were gone and haven't been a big issue since.

While I'm grateful for the information I learned from that experience, I would have preferred learning about it BEFORE accumulating medical/physical therapy bills. I won't go into details, but I will say that it was a hefty sum for a person of my modest earnings.

Which brings me to the point of this post: To help save the novice runners in my readership the time (and money) of going to the doctor. Most injuries suffered by athletes -- IT band syndrome included -- stem from not taking the time to limber up.

So do yourself a favor and don't skimp on stretching. You legs (and your wallet) will thank you for it.

For more on IT band syndrome, here is a link to a sports injury website on the topic. If that wasn't enough for you, here is another website dedicated specifically to the IT band.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Who needs a stairmaster when you've got this?!

I have a confession to make: I've never used a stairmaster.

It seems a little odd, given the health benefits stair climbing has and how I've probably used just about every other machine at the gym at one point or another. But for some reason, I've never felt compelled to give it a go on the bulky cardio machine.

For one thing, the lone stairmaster at the Y is a popular item among gym users; it seems to be in use almost constantly. I've also observed it to be a fairly awkward exercise to get used. More than once, I've seen a stairmaster user take a tumble off the machine as if it were covered in grease. And though I'm fairly confident I have the coordination to handle a simple stairmaster, I'd rather not risk the embarrassment with other people around.

Besides, there are other ways to get a good stair-climbing workout without using the stairmaster. As I've written in the past, Mankato's a wonderful community for hill running. As it turns out, it's also a good town for stair climbing.

At right is a photo of the stairway leading up to Bethany Lutheran College. It begins on 6th St. in Mankato travels up 188 steps (at least by my count) to the campus' Old Main building. And as BLC students can probably attest, it's a doozy of a climb.

I've recently started implementing the stairway into my running routine, reasoning that it's getting nicer outside and that it's good to mix things up once in awhile. It's pretty comparable to that section of Main Street hill for climb difficulty, plus it has all the benefits (improved balance, coordination and leg strength) that a step workout provides.

Most fitness fanatics consider running to be a cardiovascular exercise and stair running to be a combination of cardio and strength training. Thanks to stairways like this, you can get both in during an average outdoor run.

Plus, if you have a Slinky handy, you can also do this when you get to the top of the steps.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads

Fresh off the resounding success of the inaugural Mankato Marathon, Mark Bongers and the staff at Final Stretch decided to add another race for Mankato-area runners to sink their teeth into.

Their newest creation is the 7 at 7 Trail Race, a trail run which will take place on May 15 at Seven Mile Creek Park, which is located off of Highway 169 between Mankato and St. Peter. The race will be ran entirely on the park's trails (though it's unclear which trails will be utilized, or what the course map is) and participants will have the option of running a 7-mile or 5k race. A Kid's 1k will also take place.

Cost for the 7-mile race is $30 until March 15, at which point it goes up to $35. The 5k race is $25/$30 with the same registration deadlines.

This won't be the first time a race has graced the trails of Seven Mile Creek. A 5 at 7 Trail Race took place there in 2008, with Chaun Cox winning the 5.1-mile race in 40:36. (Free Press story here)

Although nobody expects this year's version of the trail race to rival the Mankato Marathon for participation (seriously, can you imagine 5,000 runners in the Seven Mile Creek parking lot?), I'm guessing it will attract more runners than the 22 it drew in 2008. Road races have been growing big-time in popularity over the last few years, and groups like the Mankato Multisport Club have helped establish a healthy running culture (no pun intended) in the area.

Count me in as one of the excited runners for this race. Trail runs in general are a lot easier on the body (more cushion than the road) and Seven Mile Creek seems like the perfect place to hold a race. The honeycomb of river valley trails there are beautiful to walk through, so I imagine they'd be just as beautiful to run through. I've always wanted to run in a trail race, and this event provides a convenient avenue to do so.

If that's not enough, it's going toward a good cause. The race is being done to help raise money for the BackPack Food Program, a Mankato United Way initiative to help ensure that underprivileged kids get nutritious meals when they're not at school.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Morning runs: Who needs sleep when you've got jogging?!

Despite being an avid runner, I've never been a big fan of the early-morning jog.

It might be the late nights at work; it also might be the fact that "early morning" is a loose term when it comes to my sleep schedule. Whatever the case, my first instinct when I wake up in the morning is to make breakfast, not lace up the running shoes.

Most of my running gets done during the middle of the day or the evening. Not exactly optimal during the dog days of summer (can those please get here soon? Enough of this winter business), but it works for my schedule.

Today would prove to be an exception to the rule.

I knew today was going to be long one. Morning work, plasma donation, and a Friday sports night at the copy desk were all on the agenda. I knew the chances of me sneaking a quick run in before heading to the Free Press were pretty remote. Heck, I'd be lucky just to get a decent nap in somewhere during the day.

So, rather than writing off today as a lost cause exercise-wise, I took the initiative and planned a run at the one time of day it would work in my schedule: Early morning. I set my alarm for 5 a.m., laid out an outfit, and kept my fingers crossed that my mp3 player would hold up in cold weather.

I went to bed feeling excited that I was going to be ambitious with my day. However, when my alarm went off, the excitement was replaced with sheer anger toward the beeping time box.

I attempted to turn the alarm off with my feet and tried to sleep through it, both to no avail. In the end, I decided I might as well do what I set out to accomplish with the morning. I was going on about 4 hours of sleep, but I figured the run would wake me up.

I will say this about the run itself: There was no shortage of points where I thought to myself "You could be sleeping right now in your warm bed, but you're out here. Idiot." There was also numerous occasions where my feet would find themselves splashing in puddles on the sidewalk and getting my feet wet. Add that to having to run through some pretty sizable ice patches along the way, and I can definitely say that I've had better runs in my time.

However, all the resentment about waking up early turned into satisfaction by the end of the run. I ran long enough to feel an ample "runner's high" (nothing too special for a route, just a shade over 5 miles, map here) and my nervousness for the day instead turned into optimism.

They say running is the best form of therapy on a stressful day. Well, it's also the best wake-up call. You might hate yourself for doing it when the alarm first goes off, but you'll be thanking yourself by the end of the run.

I might have to do this more often.