Sixty to Go – It Doesn’t Have to be One Way

“The happiness of life… is made up of minute fractions–the little, soon forgotten charities of a kiss, a smile, a kind look, a gentle word, a heartfelt compliment.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Entry to the Appalachian Trail at Port Clinton. The beginning of a 1,000 feet climb.

Entry to the Appalachian Trail at Port Clinton. The beginning of a 1,000 feet climb.

Marathon training programs help runners prepare for one of the most grueling endurance races imaginable. Most of the programs are twelve to sixteen weeks in duration and are full of workouts that include tempo runs, intervals and long runs. Had it not been for the rigor and discipline of a marathon training program, it’s likely I never would have qualified for Boston.

Now I am older, wiser (?), and no longer obsessed with finishing times. At sixty, I find satisfaction and appreciation to simply to cross the finish line at the end of 26.2 miles. Last November I ran my best marathon in a decade, and I didn’t follow a training program. My preparation consisted mostly of cycling, including a century cycle race (100 miles) with a cumulative 7,000’ elevation climb. I trained with a pair of wild men cyclists on the road and my golden retriever on the trail. Experience has taught me that one size doesn’t fit all. In other words, it all doesn’t have to be one way.

AT - Sign & BellaThat gets me to this year; in particular this past week. My buddy Ed and I trekked forty-miles on the Appalachian Trail. Mid-afternoon on the second day we hit a 1,000’ climb carrying backpacks with roughly thirty-five pounds of gear. When I got to the top, I was wiped. I don’t remember being half as exhausted running the Hills of Newton in the Boston Marathon. In fact, I remember chest-bumping a bunch of young guys at the top of Heartbreak Hill.

AT - White BlazeAt the top of the mountain, bent over, hands on knees, and sweating bullets, I asked Ed, “How the hell do you train to hike the Appalachian Trail?” After an hour or so of debate, we concluded there is no training program that would prepare you to hike 2,200 miles. Six grueling months along unforgiving mountain trails requires physical  and psychological preparation that comes from more than just being in great shape, but also possessing self-confidence, focus and an iron will.

AT - SignsAge has a way of reminding you to appreciate good health and maintaining it for as long as you can. After spending the first four months of 2014 nursing a nagging hip injury I’m more conscious of my health than ever. The injury forced me to abandon my first ultra-marathon that I had registered for in January. Recently I found another ultra I plan to run in November.

One reader emailed me and asked, How do you train for an ultra? Run a shitload of miles?

I wrote back: No. A shitload and a half.

My plan? A 30K trail run in September, marathon in October, and the ultra in November.

Like I said, it all doesn’t have to be one way.AT - Flowers

 

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Virtual Running

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss

When a virtual buddy of mine asked if I’d be interested in running a virtual 5K, I imagined strapping on a helmet with goggles that would stream a 3.1 mile course through kaleidoscope scenery from the Magical Mystery Tour before crossing the finish line without ever breaking a sweat. Then I received a packet in the mail with a bib number, medal and Thank You letter for participating in the Independence Day Virtual 5K Run/Walk, Relay for Life supporting the American Cancer Society. Hmmm… this is for real!

The Independence Day Virtual 5K Run/Walk, Relay for Life was a creation of Chuck Douros, a fellow-runner, writer and organic gardener from California. Chuck and I have a strong virtual relationship that evolved from our common interest and themes we write about in our blogs. Chuck contacted me several months ago with the idea to sponsor a 5K to raise money for cancer patient services, education, research and advocacy. I told him that I was in. When he asked if I’d donate a few copies of Twenty-four Years to Boston to raffle to the first runners who registered, I said, “Of course!”

The day of the race I was in Point Pleasant, New Jersey for a beach wedding of a friend’s daughter. I walked down to the lobby in the morning and bumped into another friend’s daughter who’d just returned from a run. When I told her I was on my way to run a virtual 5K, she asked, “What the hell is a virtual 5K?” Let me fill you in:

The concept of the virtual run is that you register and then run the distance wherever you want, so people who participated in the race literally ran in locations around the country on the same day for the same cause. Down the shore on July 4th for a wedding, you can imagine how happy I was that it was only a 5K. Anything longer would have been cruel and unusual punishment.

View pictures and messages the runners posted on the Virtual 5K Facebook Page. I didn’t have my iPhone with me for the run, so the best I could do was the picture below and Vine I shot at the wedding.

Point Pleasant, NJ, beach where I ran the Independence Day Virtual 5K

Point Pleasant, NJ, beach where I ran the Independence Day Virtual 5K

I want to thank Chuck for taking the initiative to coordinate the Virtual 5K. You are a true humanitarian, Chuck. You can visit his website at http://www.chuckdouros.com/Home.html and his blog at runwritedig.

 

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60 to Go – Fill Your Life with Positive and Optimistic People

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” – Albert Schweitzer

Since hitting a milestone recently—The Big Six-Oh—I thought instead of writing solely about running, health and fitness in my blog, I’d begin to share my thoughts and approach to living a long, vibrant and rewarding life. Following is the first in a series I will tentatively call 60 to Go:

Life is a series of decisions that affect our health and happiness—how we toil and play, what we eat and drink, people with whom we share our lives. The people we choose to spend our time with play perhaps the largest role in our outlook on life and our energy level. It’s an accepted fact that terminally negative people, those toxic souls, drain our energy. Conversely, people with a passion for life have a contagious effect and consequently fill us with energy; they are those folks with a Glimmer in the Eye.

Former Philadelphia Eagles, Saint Louis Rams, and Super Bowl winning coach Dick Vermeil, used to say, “Surround yourself with winners and you’ll be a winner.” You can take that to the bank, and I believe the same theory applies to surrounding yourself with positive and optimistic people who possess an unbridled passion for life.

I’m fortunate to have such people in my life, and I’ve crossed paths with others whose passion I carry with me years after brief encounters with them. Let me share a few examples:

-        Charlie (his name is changed to protect his identity) is a seventy-seven year old native Frenchman who came to America in his early twenties with no money and barely able to speak English. He lived the American dream building his business to the second largest documentary film maker in the world. His remarkable life touched the lives of icons including Marlon Brando, Robert Kennedy, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Salvatore Dali, to name a very few. During lunch recently, he enthusiastically shared with me his latest project, a screen play project he is collaborating with another writer.

-        When I was Stranded in Seattle during the week of 9-11 I trekked to seven thousand foot altitude on Mount Rainier where I encountered an older gentleman. We got talking and he pointed in the distance to Mount Hood in Oregon and told me he climbed to the summit in 1981. I asked him his age. He was eighty-one, which made him sixty-one when he climbed the 11,249-foot summit.

-        Some years ago I was skiing and shared a lift with an older black gentleman. It didn’t take long for me to recognize this guy wasn’t a typical senior. My fellow-skier was seventy-two, and started skiing when he was sixty. We passed one another on the slopes the remainder of the afternoon and shared many more lifts to the top of the mountain.

These are the type people I seek to share my life. Their passion overrides any inhibition about age; they have a blind spot for limitations. They are always looking on the horizon for the next adventure. Nothing is out of their grasp.

Before I finished this post I took a break to go for an hour run, and inadvertently encountered the perfect ending. I bumped into my buddy Bob, who suffered a stroke sometime before we became friends years ago. Bob struggles to get out of his pick-up truck, and then labors as far as his crippled body will carry him, but he never gives up. I told Bob his courage inspires me. It’s people like him who remind me how fortunate I am to do all the things I enjoy. Bob, Charlie, the eighty-one year old mountain climber, and seventy-two year old skier enrich my life.

Seek out people with that Glimmer in the Eye. They will fill you up with energy and the stuff needed to live a long and rewarding life. You can take that to the bank.

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At 60 – Man Still Plans and God Still Laughs

“What I look forward to is continued immaturity followed by death.” –Dave Barry

I remember my fiftieth birthday like it was last week. It’s incredible how fast ten years can pass by. A chapter in Twenty-four Years to Boston is about celebrating my fiftieth birthday with a thirteen-mile run along the Delaware Canal, and in the process I found the message for my first book—to motivate others to find their passion.

I had planned to hike the Camino de Santiago this summer to celebrate my sixtieth year of bumping around on this big rock, but life had a different idea for me. Instead I’ve been on this wild rollercoaster ride I can’t remember buying a ticket for. On the final dive from the highest ramp, two days before my birthday, I was lying on an operating table ten o’clock at night with a scope down my esophagus and in the deepest sleep I’d had been in for months–anesthesia induced sleep.

Hit the rewind button: I’m decked out in a hospital gown rolling down the corridor on a gurney toward the OR. A nurse reads me the riot act. “Only soft food and no strenuous activity for twenty-four hours after the operation.”

“But I’m going hiking on the Appalachian Trail tomorrow.”

“Then I’ll tell your wife the post-op orders,” she growled.

“And I’ll find out where your car is parked and leave the air out of the tires.”AT - Sign w Bella

Long story short, I was on the AT the next day with Bella, my golden retriever. I did make a couple of concessions. I rode my bike to pick up my Jeep at the hospital parking lot the next morning and promised that if I didn’t feel well after the ride, I’d bag the hike.  And I didn’t head for the mountain until mid-afternoon, which wound up being about eighteen hours after the operation. That’s as close to following doctor’s orders I’d come my entire life.

Backpack - Fully Loaded

Backpack – Fully Loaded

I headed up the mountain at mid-day in ninety degree heat, backpack loaded with thirty-five pounds of gear. Drenched and exhausted, I arrived at the overlook at Pulpit Rock. I sat and watched eagles, hawks and raptures gliding all around–therapeutic. I pitched camp on the top of the mountain, opened both flaps of my tent to let the steady breeze blow across my bare chest. Nothing could feel better.

Bella and I at Pinnacle Point along the Appalachian Trail

Bella and I at Pinnacle Point along the Appalachian Trail

I woke at six on my sixtieth, did yoga, read The Sun, ate and broke camp. I started out to Pinnacle Point at eight o’clock. Pennsylvania has a reputation as the rockiest state along the Appalachian Trail, requiring deliberate navigation unless you want to find yourself on your face. Bella demonstrated remarkable dexterity with four legs and found a comfortable spot to sack out when we arrived at the summit. I pulled out my notebook and wrote while the sun burned the fog off the valley below. A hiker made his way across the boulders toward me. He was the first hiker I’d seen since I set out on the trail the day before.

Bella chilling at camp

Bella chilling at camp

My fellow hiker, Wing-it from Brooklyn, was a through-hiker, the name given to those who hike the entire 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. He was on day 104 and estimated he’d finish in mid-September, a six-month grueling trek. I’d met through-hikers on the trial before; they are a hearty breed—intense, determined, tough, fun. The thing about through-hiking the AT isn’t solely the physical demands, but the mental toughness as well. Imagine being alone in the wilderness for long periods of time over a six-month period.

I headed back down the mountain the following day and ran into Queen of Bartow, a fifty-two year old woman from Gettysburg. The Queen was hiking Pennsylvania portion of the AT. She used balance poles and apologized more than a few times for her speed, which I found to be a good pace. It was good to have company for an hour, exchanging stories, enjoying the outdoors with another passionate hiker.

Contemplating 60 on the Pinnacle

Contemplating 60 on the Pinnacle

So I’m feeling the kickoff into my sixties was a smashing success and I’m looking forward to more adventure. The hip is fully healed and all of the systems are in working order. I need only to stay out of the ER and OR for the next decade to experience some exciting times. That ultra by the end of 2014 would be a good start.

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Well, Since You Asked–I’m Running Again

“Man is rated the highest animal, at least among all the animals that returned the questionnaire.” – Robert Brault

A follower woke me up recently. Runner500 asked how my personal running was going. I looked back and was stunned I hadn’t written about my own running in six weeks. And this is supposed to be running blog? Those who follow me know they are as likely to read about art, cycling, hiking and writing as they are about running, though running and health the foundation of everything I do. So thanks for getting me back on track, Runner500, and here’s my running update.

To make a long story short, I sustained the worst injury I’d suffered in more than five years back in December. A slip on the ice (while running, of course) caused inflammation of the bone marrow in my hip. Every time I tried to come back, I’d get a sharp pain in my hip when my foot struck the ground. I was out of commission for nearly four months. Weird injury!

Three previous knee surgeries hadn’t been as painful or as frustrating as rehabbing the hip injury. In fact, I rehabbed my knee after surgery and qualified for the Boston Marathon the same year in 2004. Weeks before the injury, I finished my fastest marathon in ten years, and then registered for my first ultra-marathon on January 4th. I had to bail out because of my hip. An optimist by nature, I was getting freaked that my running days might be over.

Finally in mid-April I was able to tolerate a slow two-mile run, and by the end of the month I stretched it to five miles on the trails of the Wissahickon in Philly. I trained on hills three times a week and by the end of May I completed an excruciating seven hilly miles. Last week I upped the mileage to nine strong miles. Yesterday I got a little crazy and ran fourteen, on the hills. It was slow and I had to cheat the last three miles, nevertheless I finished fourteen. So I guess you could say I’m back.

The lesson from all of this is that the body doesn’t heal at sixty the way it did at thirty, or even fifty for that matter. The thing that helped me most rehabbing an injury? Yoga, cycling (non-impact cardio,) soft surface (trails,) and my mantra “make the hills your friend.”

I just found an ultra-marathon in November. Maybe I won’t have to scrap that 2014 ultra after all.

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The Lure of the Marathon

“The marathon is an endurance runner’s paradox—a physically and psychologically punishing test of the human spirit, yet runners return again and again.” – JBFinish Line_0001

To the distance runner, the marathon is the quintessential endurance race, and its lure is as strong as the gravitational pull. Once in a runner’s mind has locked onto the marathon, it becomes a fixation.Rite2Run

A typical scenario begins on the bathroom scale with some lonely soul watching the dial spin through tens, even scores, of unwanted pounds before deciding to go for a jog. At the local track, he jogs a quarter-mile lap, and then walks for fifteen minutes. Two days later the jog increases to two laps, followed by a fifteen-minute walk. By the end of the month, he is jogging one-mile before walking. Six weeks pass and the distance increases to a one and one-half mile jog, and before he knows it he’s running three miles at a comfortable pace. The beginner discovers newfound discipline with his diet along with increased energy. Remarkably, he begins looking forward to going to the track.

One day he’s out shopping for a new pair of running shoes, and a brochure for a 5K grabs his interest. Figuring he’d already conquered three miles, another tenth of a mile seems a cinch. After completing his first organized race he’s psyched and begins conversing with more experienced runners and reads about 10Ks and 15Ks on websites and blogs. Next thing he knows he’s teetering on the edge of a 10-miler, which is within grasp of a half-marathon. Before the year is out, the half-marathon is in the books and running is an obsession. He broadens his horizons when he finds out that marathon season is right around the corner and can’t hold himself back.Sketch - Running Man

The lure of the marathon pulls like a riptide and the beginner finds himself looking for a 30K to build confidence. After the 30K and a twenty-mile training run, he is still functional and thinks he has the marathon licked, which is a trap. A first-time marathoner can only learn from experience that the twenty-mile mark is the equivalent to the endurance halfway point of the race. In other words, the final six miles, 385 yards requires as much stamina, perseverance, and significantly more pain, as the first twenty. It is a lesson in humility.

After crossing the finish line, the first-time marathoner is faced with his hardest decision of his life—whether or not to run another. The answer typically evolves with time. Immediately after the race, the answer is, “No feckin’ way!” The following day it is, “Not likely.” A week later he is scouring websites for his next conquest, and begins training the following month.

The lure of the marathon endures, but the distance becomes a fascination rather than a rite of passage.Runner - Sketch

There comes a point at which the marathon no longer satisfies some endurance athletes’ appetite for suffering and they seek tougher challenges, thus the ultra-marathon and triathlon were born. Casual observers think marathoners are unstable, but consider the ultra-marathon—a race that exceeds 26.2 miles, some more than one hundred miles. The “Ironman” triathlon includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle and a full marathon. Incredibly, registration for some “Ironman” triathlons fill up in only hours and lines often form in the middle of the night for some popular races, reminiscent of camping out for Rolling Stones tickets back in the 1970s. The incomprehensible Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile California race, has grown from a single competitor in 1977 to ninety-six (eighty-one finishers) in 2013. Badwater competitors endure intense temperatures as they run from Death Valley to an elevation of 8,300 feet up Mount Whitney, past notorious places with names like Coffin Peak, Funeral Mountains, Dead Man Pass, and Hell’s Gate. As the great hockey goalie and Philadelphia legend Bernie Parent used to say, “Some fun, eh?”

Bernie in the Nets

Bernie in the Nets

Excerpt from Twenty-four Years to Boston–My Journey from the Vegetable Aisle to Boylston Street

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Glimmer in the Eye

“The eyes are the channel of the spirit.” – jbMount Blanc

“After traveling three thousand miles from home and climbing to almost seven thousand feet elevation, I finally figured it out. Every time I encountered someone with that distinctive “glimmer” in their eye, it was more than just a look. It was an energy, an aura with a captivating transference. It had nothing to do with age, sex, nationality, politics or interest—it had everything to do with passion. I’d found the key to detecting passion, and it held up every time.” – Twenty-four Years to Boston

If you want to see the spirit of a runner, step into the pack at the starting line of a marathon and look into the eyes of those around. Those eyes are a direct channel to the spirit; they are pure energy. I see it all the time at races, in the eyes of kids who look to be twelve, and in the eyes of seniors who have a decade or two on me. It is the glimmer of hope, promise, life.

What I’ve learned over the years is that runners don’t have a monopoly on that “glimmer.” I see the same look in they eyes of a musician, woodworker, mason, artist, writer. I feel the enthusiasm of a runner when I talk to people who are passionate about hiking, tuning an engine, or playing the piano. It’s all relative.

Mount Blanc, Chamonix, France

Mount Blanc, Chamonix, France

The reference in the opening paragraph of this post is to an eighty-one year old man I’d met just below seven thousand feet elevation of Mount Rainier. He pointed south into the distance, and said, “Rainier is the best vantage point to see why they call these the Cascade Mountains. Follow that string of mountain peaks. Do you see that peak sticking up way out there?” he asked.

“I sure do,” I said.

“That’s Mount Hood in Oregon. I climbed to the summit in 1981.”

That year struck a chord—it was the same year I ran my first marathon. The excitement in his voice was contagious. “Do you mind if I ask your age?” I asked.

“Not at all,” he said with a hint of swagger and that distinctive glimmer in his eye. “I’m eighty-one.”

The math was easy. I was in the presence of an adventurer who climbed an 11,249-foot summit at the young age of sixty-one. I reached out, firmly held his forearm and said, “Don’t mind me. I just need to hold onto you for a minute and get a transfusion of energy and passion.” His smile was ageless.

As I drove back down the mountain that day, I was lured to the side of the road by a spectacular waterfall. I no sooner got out of the car when a BMW motorcycle pulled into the parking space next to me. A couple who appeared well into their sixties dismounted and began to remove their riding gear. The driver had a silver goatee, matching long hair and a gold earring. His mate unzipped her leather jacket to expose a T-shirt decorated with a clown and the words “Clown Camp” inscribed. “Where did you folks travel from?” I asked.

“Orange County, California,” the guy answered. His face radiated, they both brimmed with enthusiasm as they described their thousand-mile journey up the West Coast. I was inspired by the two seniors’ zest for life, and couldn’t help notice they had the same look in their eyes I’d seen an hour earlier in the elder adventurer’s eyes at sixty-eight hundred feet.

Town Lake trail in Austin, Texas, popular with runners and cyclists.

Town Lake trail in Austin, Texas, popular with runners and cyclists.

Later that summer I was in Austin, Texas for a conference. Afer I ran Town Lake one afternoon, I stopped into a funky little blues bar on Sixth Street for a beer and to listen to some music. A band wailed as I made our way across the bar. A heavyset, middle-aged guy played harmonica and a tall, lanky drummer was in the background. A young lady on bass had a set of steel vocal cords that reminded me of Janice Joplin. But the lead guitarist grabbed my attention.

He was an older guy with a cowboy hat down to the tip of his nose and an eternal cigarette dangling from his lips. He appeared the quintessential lifer, committed to his craft and so completely in tune with the rhythm, that he was the music. He jumped up and down, though the tips of his cowboy boots barely left the floor, picked the strings with his teeth like Jimi Hendrix, played it behind his head, and when he took off solo the other band members followed his lead.

I stood at the bar sipping a cold beer, watching the guitarist, and thought about the similarities between a lifer lead guitarist lost in a solo and a runner absorbed in the Zone. It seemed to me that anyone who reaches such a state of being, whether a musician, runner, carpenter, or writer, transcends their vocation, or avocation, to a higher level of consciousness and fulfillment. The guitar player was in a zone of his own, but a Zone nonetheless. He had that same look in his eye that I saw in the old-timer on Mount Rainier, and in the eyes of the two seasoned bikers who rode one thousand miles from Orange County, California to Washington State. It was the unmistakable glimmer I saw in the eyes of bikers I’d pass on weekends on River Road in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I knew that look because I’d seen it in the eyes of so many runners after they crossed the finish line at long distance races.

Keep an eye out for that unmistakable glimmer in the eye. You will find it in the most surprising places.

River Road from atop the Delaware Water Gap

River Road from atop the Delaware Water Gap

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