March 30, 2010: If the Shoe Fits...
The other day I was doing a bit of footwear inventory and discovered that things were, uh, piling up. Imelda Marcos ain't got nothin' on me - except, perhaps, for a better command of English grammar.
Never shy about making sure I am shod correctly for any endeavor, I now own a collection of shoes that can handle basketball, volleyball, bummin' around the house (slippers), tennis, baseball, skiing (XC and downhill), dressing up, dressing down, hiking, hunting, trekking, playing in the snow, diving (OK, they're fins... sue me), biking, and messing around in the water, just to name a few. Geez, I even have shoes for playing broomball, which I haven't done in years - and shoes sold specifically as “walking” shoes, which raises the question, “Aren't all shoes designed for walking?”
That list doesn't even include my running shoes - which include trail shoes, road shoes, backup trail shoes, backup road shoes, backups to the backup trail shoes... You get the idea.
With all of this footwear excess, one might think I should start a 12-Step Program (I confess, pun intended) to find a cure. So then, Step 1. Admit the problem. Done. Next... um, next... Buy another pair of shoes. YES!
Behold, the Shoes of Mercury:
They're beautiful things, aren't they? If you look at them closely, you'll see a halo of light shining down upon them from the heavens. It may look the flash from the camera, I know. You'll just have to trust me. These are New Balance MT 100's – a recent entry into the “minimal” shoe category that's all the rage these days. Minimal padding, low slung heel - almost like a racing flat for dirt.
Truth be told, I have no particular intention of donning the flowing robes of Running Zen-Minimalism and skittering off through the woods in bare feet. First of all, I'm not much into the chanting. I do recognize the ankle and lower leg strengthening benefits of the philosophy, for certain - useful to a trail runner. These shoes help in that regard. When the rubber meets the trail, however, my motives angle off in other directions.
Though I have no particular issue with well-padded, “motion control” shoes as such, I do believe the amount of material in most current models has gotten a bit out of hand, especially in the trail category. When I lift up many of the offerings on the market today, I can't imagine running with what feels like loaves of sourdough bread laced to my feet. The Mercury Shoes are definitely the lightest running shoes I have ever owned. I feel like I'm running in slippers. They're so light in fact, that when not weighted down they will actually start floating – which really frees up floor space in my front hallway.
The other area where I like to apply “minimalism” is in the number of dollars I have to pry out of my wallet to purchase said shoes. Recent issues of Running Times and Trail Runner magazines both feature 2010 shoe reviews – containing a vast array of options that average $110+ per pair, and range up to near $200. Since I assume my son would appreciate it if I didn't raid his college fund for running apparel, I'm looking to contain my yearly investment in what is essentially a disposable item. These togs ran me a shade over $50. I'm definitely not going to run in pain to save a few sheckles, but the overall qualities of the shoe merit the experiment.
So, I'm giving the MT 100's a try out. So far, so good. If they run comfortable and continue to meet my “minimalist” requirements in regards to physics (weight) and economics ($$$), I promise I'll definitely get back to that 12-Step Program.
It's all about baby steps... (Is there a shoe for that?)
March 2, 2010: The Air Up There
As I rolled into the gas station on Sunday for a quick fill on the way to the starting point of my run, I noted the box attached to the corner of the building. Silver, about the size of a bread box, and marked in large, plain block it read “Free Air”. The hose coming out the side belied its function, yet the silly node still fired in my head. “Well of course it's free,” I chuckled, “It's air.”
I suppose I probably shouldn't be so nonchalant about such things. After all this is America, where millions of people every day have no problem buying bottles of water at a going rate calculating to about $6.00 per gallon. It's probably only a matter of time before someone figures out how to market air as a commodity, perhaps sold in sealed designer baggies complete with a nasal cannula conveniently attached right to the package. I could see the town of Cloquet getting into the act, selling personal sized doses of its Sappi Plant flavor-enhanced air under the slogan, “See? It's air so chock full of nutrients, you can actually taste it!” Mmmm. But I kid... sort of.
Fact was, a short while later I could have used a bag or two of extra air, what with all the huffing and puffing going on as I trotted along on my run.
Last year, in the first blog I ever posted, I spoke of the “ritual argument” run used as a spring-time cathartic release for pent up running angst. Near the end of that post I mentioned doing a run up Hwy 210 through Jay Cooke State Park as a good candidate for this purpose. This weekend it was time to try that trek on for size.
I have never run this road stretch before, though I have biked it a number of times. In MapMyRide.com I have the out-and-back route lovingly titled “To Hill and Back”. It's rolling and relentless, working 8 miles largely uphill from Fond Du Lac to Thomson, then cascading 8 miles back down. The first half mile starts out with a bang, the road arching rapidly upward at about a 9% to 10% grade. Barely out of the starting gate and there I was already breathing like a prank phone caller.
Things did settle down a bit from there, though the route bobbed and weaved constantly, asking for some muscle on the uphills and demanding that quads keep their head in the game on downhills; definitely a good test for early season legs that needed a bit of the rust knocked off. A couple of sneaky uphills on the (supposedly) downhill return trip also keep one honest, serving as a "humorous" poke in the ribs by the glacial comedians of the last ice age. After all was said and done, I was tired – but a good tired.
If you're ever in the neighborhood, I highly recommend the Hwy 210 trip through Jay Cooke as a challenging but satisfying run. The route is quiet, with very little traffic and offers great views of the St. Louis River valley and its surrounding hills. And then, of course, there's all that fresh air – free for the taking.
January 10, 2010: The Learning Never Stops
If you've have ever played organized basketball in your life you will remember them. The drill went by a simple but apt name, “Killers”. They are perhaps the least favorite drill at any practice. Ostensibly, Killers are designed to improve stamina and footwork, though many might argue they were created just to satisfy the sadistic nature of youth basketball coaches.
For the uninitiated, they go something like this. Line up on the baseline. On go, you run to the first free throw line, bending down and touching it, then run back to the baseline. Touch that and immediately run out again, this time to the half court line. Touch it, and back. Back out to the other free throw line at the far end, and then the other baseline, each time returning to the starting point - all at a full out, lung searing sprint with an audience of coaches offering useful “encouragement”. Repeat as necessary, and you've got yourself a set of Killers.
Killers are a right of passage for any aspiring young basketball player, and loads of good, clean fun – provided you're not actually that aspiring young basketball player. Which is why I and the other 3rd grade basketball coaches introduced them to our kids this year. I guess we figure it'll give them something to talk about when they are in their 40's, just like we do. The drill shows up periodically during each practice, met by a low murmur of language kept strategically out of earshot of any authority figure.
A couple weeks ago, in an effort to motivate the players to practice their free throw shooting, one of the coaches came up with a bright idea. Let's line the kids up and let them each shoot a single free throw at the end of practice. If more than half hit their shot, the coaches would do the practice-ending set of Killers instead of the boys. The youngsters seemed quite enthused at the whole idea. Some of the coaches, less so.
Truth be told, the bet was a pretty safe one. 3rd graders, for all their effort, are still slight of frame and learning the form; making free throws is more an act of faith than anything. So, we would run the shooting drill, then watch as they ran their ensuing Killers, falling down wasted at the end. But we did see the desired effect - as they routinely took extra free throws during each practice, improving their skills and hoping for that magic moment.
Today the challenge started out in standard fashion, with the first few shots bouncing off the rim. The small cadre of coaches visibly relaxed. Then, it started happening – shots began falling in and the tally started to climb. There were still some misses, but the nervous energy transferred slowly from kid to coach as the count of each made shot was shouted out in a loud chorus.
They needed two more shots – with two kids remaining; the gym was buzzing. The first, my son Colter, drained his shot like a pro. (Good job there, son. He he.) Then his buddy Curtis toed the line. He sent the ball toward the basket. We watched it arc gracefully as it flew, until it nestled itself comfortably through the net – a perfect swish. The kids erupted like pre-teens at a Jonas Brothers concert.
I am here to tell you, after sweating through a rather vigorous set of Killers, that I have learned four things:
1. Killers still suck.
2. I am definitely a distance runner*. Sprinter? Not so much.
3. I will never make another hair-brained coaching suggestion like that again.
4. I owe my fellow coaches – big time.
* See, it's a running story, not just a cute kid story...
December 24, 2009: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas
'Twas the night before Christmas, and in the North Land
The runners were all gathered, a race was at hand.
The watches were set, to be started with care,
In hopes that a PR might hang in the air.
The crowd was a rainbow of synthetic threads,
From Capilene base layer to the caps on their heads;
With New Balance tech Ts, and cool racing flats,
They were primed and ready to get off the line fast.
When up at the start there arose such a clatter,
It seemed a late entry had fostered great chatter.
Through the stunned crowd I nudged left and right,
Stopping up short, I beheld a grand sight.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Revealed a runner dressed red from his head to his toe.
He looked quite familiar, I knew that face;
But no bowl full of jelly, just a 30 inch waist.
The little old runner looked lively and quick,
I leaned in with caution, said “Are you St. Nick?”.
He winked and replied, “You've got that right, son.
Just a bit more svelte, since I started to run...”
“No cookies! No pastries! I'm out of the kitchen!
I've cut out those things that made my waist thicken!
5K's to marathons, I'm running them all!
On trails! On roadways! I'm having a ball!”
Then, as if on cue, I heard a man exclaim,
“On your mark! Get set!”, and I heard the gun bang.
As I drew my first step, and was looking around
Past me flew St. Nicholas, in one mighty bound.
His stride was efficient, very light of foot,
There was no wasted motion in each step he put.
I had to get moving, so as not to fall back,
As he set a brisk pace breaking off from the pack.
His eyes -- how they twinkled! He even seemed merry!
So I turned up the gas, not wishing to get buried.
I rejoined his shoulder, and like that we did go,
Tearing down the race course, and kicking up snow.
No more chubby and plump, no more jolly old elf,
I laughed at the memory, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know just where we would tread.
The time is now, I thought, make St. Nick chase;
I stepped on the pedal, there was no time to waste.
But I heard a small chuckle, and he quickened his stride,
You don't mess with Santa, he has magic on his side.
Kindly, he said, “Son, you set a nice pace...
But I have work to get to at the end of this race.”
And laying a finger aside of his nose,
Down went the hammer, negative splits he strode.
Dropped like a hot rock, I watched as he flew,
Past the finish, not stopping, he had big things to do;
But I heard him exclaim, as he ran out of sight,
"Merry Christmas to all! I won my age group, right?"
November 28, 2009: Here's to Running Partners
Friday. Yet another beautiful running day - so much so that I had to take back all of the bad things I said about November. As I ambled down the White Pine Trail from the Swinging Bridge in Jay Cooke State Park, everything seemed perfect. Only one thing was missing, my running buddy.
Ken moved to Esko at about the same time as I, and upon meeting we became fast friends. I was not unique in this regard. Outgoing and incredibly likable, Ken made friends faster than Betty Crocker made biscuits. Not that it would have been any kind of prerequisite, but the two of us also shared some common interests. Each enjoying biking, running and skiing, the circles on our fitness Venn diagrams had significant overlap. All of this, of course, made Ken a great workout partner.
We each had different areas of emphasis. Ken was an avid biker – the kind that spends all winter on a trainer in the basement in order to hit the road blazing come spring. Running was more of a filler. I was the opposite, preferring footwork over skinny wheels. So we had different strengths, which engendered kind of an unspoken (or maybe it was spoken) agreement - Ken would not ride me into the pavement, and I would not run him out of his shoes. Truth be told, this was largely self-preservation on my part. After watching the man launch himself up hills on his Trek like the Space Shuttle lifting off, I realized I would end up with a good beat down should any cross-discipline test of wills occur. In the end, we could each hang with each other well enough to provide good solid workouts no matter the transportation method.
Anytime Ken called he would punctuate the workout offer with a quick "No pressure.", which simply meant "no problem if you can't make it, we'll catch ya' on the next one". More often than not we'd be hitting the roads (or trails) in short order. This run through Jay Cooke the past few years during the Thanksgiving weekend had been part of the repertoire. We'd trot along and his springer spaniel would bound happily around us, running to and fro thinking we were on an incredibly fast hunting excursion.
But life doesn't stand still – and the skill and hard work Ken applied to his U.S. Forest Service job resulted in his being offered a dream position managing a National Forest out near Enterprise, OR. With heartfelt goodbyes on all sides, he and his family headed off on their next adventure. We still keep in touch, and our families will spend some time skiing together in Utah this winter – but alas, the regular runs, rides and XC ski workouts are over.
So here I was running my way through the park on a beautiful day, keeping this nascent tradition alive, albeit solo. Ken came to mind accompanied not by melancholy, but more so a smile. I miss ya', buddy - but I wish you and your family only the best.
I was thinking, however, that I might know a few people who might be interested in joining me for this run going forward; some new friends and perhaps some friends yet to be. I believe next year I'll put out an open invite to all NMTC and Northland area runners that wish to join me for a Thanksgiving weekend run in the park. Perhaps we can dedicate it to great running partners past, present and future.
I hope some of you will join me. But... No pressure.