Thursday, March 25, 2010


Warning: this post may not be as deep as you might predict, given its title. The compromise on my mind, currently, is that relating to the perfect running shoe. However, finding the perfect running shoe could-- for some people-- be a metaphor for other more weighty issues. We shall see. . .

A brief history, then. My mother was a runner. As a small child she would get me settled on the linoleum floor with a roll of butcher paper and crayons (the tools with which I spent hours drawing roads, buildings, houses... basically a low-tech sim city) and head off for a run. She'd say "Honey, Momma's going running and she'll be back in one hour." And I would nod and continue with my city planning, and in one hour she'd be back. No big deal. Sometimes, on weekends, Dad and I got in the car and drove to specific intersections where we knew Mom would run by, and we'd stand on the corner holding out a water bottle. Dad would tell her the time elapsed, and then she'd be off again.

My mom never pushed me to run. For her, running was very personal and had little to do with the publicity or competition that consumes so many athletes. As a kid, I ran because I played sports, namely, soccer.

When I was in the sixth grade, my mom tore her ACL trying to rescue her hiking boots from their high perch in a cupboard. She lost her grip and fell backwards, hyper-extending her knee. Despite surgery and intensive PT, she never ran again. It was a tragic ending to a golden chapter of her life. About that same time, my book of running was just being opened. My middle school had a track team, and I figured I might as well join.

I can't say I loved it. Mom took me to her favorite store, Rainbow Sports, and we got a pair of Nike Pegasus running shoes with purple accents. I though they looked funny. (At that time, my footware preference was for white Reebok high-top sneakers and polka-dotted Keds.) Nonetheless, those simple Nikes faithfully carried me up and down the hills of Priest Point Park and around the Reeves Middle School track countless times.

I considered myself a soccer player, and I reached my peak-- or perhaps, my plateau-- at the humble age of 15 where I played some strong defense for my high schools' JV squad. It was a bumpy downward slope from there-- being a member of a select team in which I got 5 minutes of playing time per 90 minute game, and finally being on the Varsity squad but never being exactly a "lynch pin."

In the high school off-season I started running. It soon became one of the highlights of my day, so much so that I occasionally paused while doing my calculus homework to envision what my route would be on the next day. I still got stitches in my side and coughed when the air was really cold, but I felt SO GOOD when I'd finished my run, and above all else, I felt like my mom would be proud of what I'd accomplished. I wasn't running very far then, but even so my high school friends thought I was a little nuts for electively going out by myself to get in some mileage.

College: I ditched soccer. I rowed on the crew team. I ran to stay in shape. My favorite days were the land practice days where we got let loose to run for an hour. Woo-hoo, what freedom! By then I'd adjusted to the look of running shoes and knew there was nothing more comfortable. I ran in a fantastic pair of Asics for those first two years. I was being unofficially educated in the world of all things running because my boyfriend at the time was a devout runner. By my senior year I was convinced to try running for the team, and though I was never a particularly competitive entrant, I sure enjoyed the training and even the meets.

Somewhere, in all that, I began to consider myself a long-distance runner. That dedication and identity kept me sane throughout medical school. I learned how to get around Seattle because I ran those streets. Every couple of years, though the damn shoe companies would discontinue my model and I'd have to undergo the arduous process of finding a new make and model of suitable shoe.

Fast forward to my final year of residency. I'd been living in Albuquerque for three years and while I was liking my residency, our house, our life, etc, running was losing its appeal. I realized that in addition to the post-run euphoria, I loved the scenic experience of running to which I'd become accustomed in Seattle. There were no bridges to look over, boats to watch, and only one mountain range that basically looks the same all the time. Blah. My husband came to the rescue with a new book for me: Born To Run. In it, I read about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's Copper Canyon and the evolutionary evidence for running BAREFOOT. We both felt we needed to try out the Vibram 5 Finger experience of running. Picture aqua socks with toes and you've got the 5 fingers.

It changed my stride. I went from a heel strike to a forefoot landing. I built my calves in a couple of weeks. I felt lightweight and I had more stamina. But then I pulled a peroneal tendon on the top of my foot. It took 4 weeks to get better and allow me to run again. I went more gradually from then on, running on alternating days and only doing significant mileage on dirt trails. It became clear that the Vibrams were the perfect "shoe" for trails, but really imperfect for paved streets.

I'd been working myself into a funk, feeling as if I couldn't run like I used to (basically right out of my front door in the day or night) because I was wearing these flimsy toe shoes that reeked like you'd never imagine in which I was liable to step on sharp objects in the dark and hurt my feet if I went over 4 miles on the pavement. Ugh. Why couldn't I just return to running the way it was before? Well, because I"d become convinced that classical running shoes and a heel strike really are detrimental to joint health and the body's natural running form.

So today, I went to the local running store. I told them my dilemma, and not surprisingly, they'd heard it before. I found a pair of lightweight racing flats with cushioning in the forefoot that allow me to land like I do in the Vibrams, but with some cushioning and a thicker sole. My run this afternoon was the most liberating I've experienced in months: I strode out, I took quick steps, I leaped over branches. "I'm back!" I found myself saying.

What does this all mean? For me, being able to run-- in rain or shine, light or dark, on pavement or trails-- is the key. And while I believe that running au natural (or nearly so in the Vibrams ) is probably ideal, I cannot go find myself a soft grassy field or rock-free dirt trail to run every day. I run from my house, in the few minutes I can spare every day, and I need that to be enough.

So, I've compromised. I'm back in a shoe- at least if on pavement- but so excited am I that I can get up tomorrow morning and run in the dark and not fear the goat-heads or broken glass that may line my path!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain- a reflection

My eyes are starting to dry, my breathing is becoming more regular, and I'm left with a stuffy nose. But as soon as I allow my thoughts to return to scenes from the story I just finished, my eyes prickle and my inhalation stutters. This book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, was beautiful, tragic and uplifting. In short, I wish I could have written it. Or perhaps more realistically, I hope that some day I might find in myself a story to tell that can also be an homage to my home, the Pacific Northwest, as well as a tribute to the family, friends (both human and animal!), and experiences that give life its meaning.

I will refrain from attempting to summarize the book. It would only be a cheap rendition of the real thing.

I would like to reflect, though, on a few of the novel's components that have resonated so deeply that stomach still feels upside down.

The setting: the often drizzly Pacific Northwest, with the scent of roasted coffee beans, the views you seek out every day just because they're available. . . the whole experience of living in Seattle was romanticized through its realism. It was often cold, wet, and expensive. But for people like me, who already are in love with the hills, the rain, the neighborhoods, the people, and the surroundings, it was a heart-wrenching true story. What's more, told from a dog's perspective, the entire depiction was sensual. . . visceral. When I am home in the Pacific Northwest, I feel complete and grounded, and I can love the gray rainy days as much as the unexpected sunny day in February when suddenly everyone is outside with a smile on. As soon as my eyes hit the pate I was instantly there, in the Central District or on 15th Ave, effortlessly, and loathe to leave.

And then the narrator, a dog named Enzo. He tells the story in a first-person nearly omniscient voice. He is the dream of all devoted dog-owners. He listens, understands, and is frustrated by his inability to communicate with the humans around him. He effectively foreshadows to the reader because his senses, being more honed than a human's, pick up on subtle cues lost on those around him. For the most part, he can recognize the instinctual animal urges he experiences and has the willpower to do what he knows is more acceptable in the domesticated life he leads. Yet when necessary, he will indulge his inner dog and let loose for a few moments when he knows the gesture will make an impression. He unconditionally loves his master and in the midst of the chaos and tragedy that befalls Denny, Enzo knows he is the one constant thread to which Denny can cling, as long as he doesn't let old age get the best of him.

The primary antagonists in the book- Denny's in-laws- prove themselves to be awful people, and despicably believable too. They contort the truth and manipulate people and nearly ruin Denny's life. Yet, Denny is a strong man who is made even stronger by having the loyal Enzo by his side.

Periodically, Enzo reflects on the recent events, or on Denny's ability to navigate through treacherous conditions, by telling stories of great race-car drivers. A driver's skills, mistakes and achievements on the track are metaphors for human experiences on the outside. The reader hopes that Denny, an expert driver in the most difficult of conditions, will allow that professional expertise to carryover into his personal life and bring him triumph, once and for all.

I spent the last several pages of the book with tears streaming down my face, both out of sadness and out of joy. I do love a good, satisfying ending.