Six-pack or soft belly, I am still okay

In my column I look at my journey to — and away from — peak fitness. Letting go of exercise addiction for the sake of my family has been one of the most humbling and terrifying journeys of the past few years of my life. Excerpt:

I won’t pretend it’s been easy to give up the kind of peak fitness I once had. There are days where I avoid seeing myself naked in the mirror, nights where I touch my body before bed and fight back a sudden wave of shame. When I drive to work, I see lean runners on long runs, water bottles and Camelpaks strapped to their bodies, and I’m momentarily overwhelmed by a mix of nostalgia and envy. Those moments pass. I know I’ve got a finite amount of time, and a finite amount of energy, and I’ve made a choice to use my body for others rather than myself. There’s no resentment of Eira and the kids. They didn’t take my four-hour workouts away from me. I gave them up to have something better.

There are seasons in life. In one season, I was an addict, a self-mutilator, a recklessly promiscuous man who loathed his body and his life and found solace in sex, self-harm, and drugs. In the next long season, my body became an ascetic’s temple, rigorously disciplined by sweat and self-denial. At 45, in what I’d like to think is the high summer of my life, my body is here to carry small children and to love an equally exhausted spouse. When our kids are older and our responsibilities different (if not entirely fewer), perhaps there will be another season in which Eira and I will go back to the racing, the boxing, the hours of happy sweating. But that season won’t come soon.

Read the whole thing here.

Pilates with the Orthodox: thoughts on modesty, compromises, and community standards

My wife and I have worked out with the same Pilates instructor, Stephanie, since 2005. She’s become a good friend of ours, and we’ve followed her around from studio to studio over the years. Happily enough, her main studio is now just four blocks from our home in the Pico-Robertson area of West Los Angeles. I can take a short walk to work out with her, and given my very tight schedule, that’s a real blessing.

We live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood one block south of Beverly Hills. Our neighbors are all Jewish; we’re the only goyim on the block. Most of those who live around us are religiously observant, and on Shabbat and on holidays (today is Sukkot) nary a car moves from its spot, and the sidewalks are filled with families walking to and from shul. Ethnically, the neighborhood is a mixture of Persian and Ashkenazi Jews, with plenty of Israelis of various backgrounds as well. One hears lots of Farsi, lots of Hebrew, and, a little less often, Yiddish. Since my wife and I are active in the Kabbalah Centre, we’re a source of bemused curiosity to most of our neighbors, who know that we’re not Jewish (the Christmas tree last year was one of many signs) but sometimes see me strolling on a Saturday with a tallit draped over my shoulders. Everyone gets along, however, and we feel very welcome. It helps that Heloise, my extroverted daughter, is a hit.

In any case, most of the clients at the local Pilates studio are Orthodox Jewish women. Besides Stephanie, the other instructors are Jewish as well. Many of the women who work out at the studio observe the traditional modesty restrictions of their sect, including wearing wigs, long skirts, and tops that are of at least “three-quarter sleeve” length. Because of the rules against wearing pants, some of the women do Pilates and yoga in floor-length skirts with workout tights underneath. The studio does their best to accomodate them.

Of course, many of these women are uncomfortable working out with a man present. There are very few male clients at the studio, much fewer than you would find at comparable Pilates and yoga facilities elsewhere in L.A. Orthodox Jewish men are not often raised in a culture that values fitness, after all. Many of the female clients at the studio will not lie on their backs or get into other poositions (such as reclining on a Pilates reformer) while a man can see them. The studio is one large room, and it’s thus impossible for me to work out while Orthodox clients are doing so as well.

Stephanie and the other instructors have worked to rearrange schedules so that I’m there only when I am either the sole client or sharing studio time with those whose interpretation of modesty regulations is more lax. But we still sometimes run into trouble. I’ve had a standing Wednesday 6:15AM workout time with Stephanie on the books for months; we do Pilates/yoga fusion for an hour. But yesterday, a traditional Orthodox female client showed up at 7:00 to do Pilates with another instructor. While Stephanie and I hastily finished up, the conservative woman did some arm band exercises which allowed her to remain upright. As soon as I could depart at quarter past seven, she was able to get on the reformer and start “working her core”, something she would not do with me anywhere in the room.

Stephanie and I will now be working out Wednesday mornings at six, pushing back our start time fifteen minutes so I don’t overlap with those who cannot sweat or recline in my presence. I’ve also been asked to make sure I never enter early for an appointment at other times, as I might interrupt an Orthodox client in a “compromising position.” While female clients are welcome to sit and wait inside, I’m occasionally relegated to standing on the sidewalk, if only for a few moments. Continue reading

Quixotic yes; obtuse, no: on marathons, health care, and re-registering as a Democrat

I ran, if that’s the word for it, the Los Angeles Marathon again yesterday. I’m not trained the way I was in the past, so some friends and I jogged the course together, snapping photos and (at least in my case) providing live Facebook and Twitter updates as we moseyed from Dodger Stadium to the Santa Monica Pier. Slower than molasses, but lots of fun — and nice not to feel sore the next day, as I would have if I had actually put the proverbial pedal to the metal.

Last night, my wife was out and Heloise went down early. With my daughter asleep next to me, I sat on the couch and watched CNN and C-Span as the health care drama in the House of Representatives unfolded. During the race earlier in the day, I’d been keeping up to date on House negotiations via the iPhone, and knew about Bart Stupak’s decision to back reform before I finished the marathon. And I watched, fingers crossed and at times breath held, as the bill passed. When the number “216” flashed on the screen, I pumped my fist and mouthed “Yes!”, carefully avoiding disturbing the slumbering little one at my side.

I don’t blog a great deal about politics and health care, but do want to make it clear that I strongly support health care reform. Indeed, count me in the army of those who would like to see a single-payer system in place! I’ve lived abroad, and have personally known excellent care with the NHS — as have many members of my family. I bristle at the misrepresentations of European-style socialized medicine by those who haven’t ever experienced it. Totalitarianism it most certainly isn’t.

Since I’d spent the day connected on Facebook and Twitter, I kept at it during the health care vote. I have lots of friends on the former who represent the political spectrum from pole to pole, and I follow a fair number of folks on Twitter. My conservative acquaintances were as aghast as my liberal friends were ebullient; reading their posts and tweets there were very few reactions anywhere between the extremes of jubilation and despair. Either America had fulfilled a long lost dream or abandoned it; either the country was headed for increased prosperity or desperation and malaise. The rigidly dichotomized reactions were perhaps emblematic of our polarized political climate, and perhaps they were also warranted, given that for once, the hype about the significance of a piece of legislation wasn’t oversold. This did matter, and both sides knew it.

Several years ago, I re-registered as a Republican. I posted about my quixotic hope to participate in a revival of progressive influence within the GOP. But I’ve watched as the few Republican moderates (with the loss of Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island, we have no GOP liberals in elected office left in the USA) were either demonized or forced to toe the party line. There’s idealistic — and then there’s silly. And I think that staying a Republican in the hopes that the few dollars I threw at Republicans for Environmental Protection or the Republican Majority for Choice would make a difference is absurd. Last night’s debate, in which the GOP seemed monolithic not merely in its opposition to sensible reform but also hate-filled in its rhetoric, demonstrated to me that it’s time to give up the silliness. I’m re-registering as a Democrat this week.

Who are hares to condemn tortoises? Responding to the Times critique of slow marathoners

The New York Times revisited the issue of the “slow marathoner” today. Called by many the “Oprah effect” after the talk-show host walked/jogged through the Portland Marathon more than a decade ago, there’s no question that thousands of slower and less athletically able types have come to the marathoning world in recent years, often spending three times as long out on the course as the winners. Some are disgruntled by these torpid but determined newcomers, and the Times article tends to take the side of the woman quoted here:

“It’s a joke to run a marathon by walking every other mile or by finishing in six, seven, eight hours,” said Adrienne Wald, 54, the women’s cross-country coach at the College of New Rochelle, who ran her first marathon in 1984. “It used to be that running a marathon was worth something — there used to be a pride saying that you ran a marathon, but not anymore. Now it’s, ‘How low is the bar?’ ”

In September 2006, I posted my defense of slower runners. I’ve run a dozen marathons — and several longer ultra races — and have a lifetime marathon PR of a 3:13 (a 7:24 pace), but not even a frisson of contempt for those who need twice that time to finish. From my 2006 piece:

I’ve spent years and years around very competitive and talented athletes. I’ve worked with cross-country coaches and ultra-marathoners; I have friends who have qualified for the Olympic trials in distance events. To a man and to a woman, I’ve never heard them sneer at the slower recreational athletes who only long to finish. Real runners don’t judge and condemn others. Our reasons for running are myriad, and running to set a personal best time is never the only, or even the best, reason to run. If some folks want to trot and sweat for six hours so that they can say “I ran a marathon because I’ve always wanted to”, how does it diminish my accomplishment in running the same race significantly faster?

Running has brought me tremendous joy and fulfillment. It is a source of incredible pleasure in my life. I judge myself not by my weight, or whether my six-pack is defined, or by my latest time, but by the amount of delight I take in my workouts. I try and bring that peace and happiness home from the roads and the trails, and I try to make it manifest in my relationships with others. Running is like that for many people, whether or not they ever run a marathon, or whether or not they ever break four, five, or even seven hours.

Adrienne Wald, who takes more than four hours herself, ought to know that.

Perception, Intention, Pornography, and Competition

A few years ago, I wrote a post about healthy competitiveness, fantasy, and violence. I’m revisiting that post this morning in light of some of the recent posts I’ve had up about both relationships and pornography.

In July 2005, I wrote about running with my friend Mark:

When I race my friend Mark down the front stretch of the track at Arcadia High School, I’m not thinking “I’m going to kick his ass!” I’m thinking “Damnit, I’m going to keep up with you if it kills me!” Of course I love beating him (which happens one time in five, mind you), but after every hard interval together, we touch fists and say “Good job, brother.” I don’t want to dominate or humiliate him; our competition is a friendly rivalry. Deep friendship — even love — can comfortably co-exist with a real desire to defeat the very person one loves in a game or athletic competition.

The point I only made obliquely then, and would like to make more explicitly now, is about the way in which this anecdote displays that “love-of-self” and “love-of-other” can be fundamentally compatible. When I race Mark, I want to defeat him. I want to win, which will require him “not winning”. He and I have crossed the line together a time or two, and that feels great, but like most sports fans, I don’t consider a tie to be the grandest of accomplishments. What I want, when I race Mark, is to surpass him. He wants to do the same to me, of course. (It took me years to get comfortable with competition, and I still only fel safe being “ruthlessly competitive” with the folks whom I love and trust.)

Is it a failure of empathy on my part that leads me to want to beat Mark? If he is going to be disappointed even in the slightest by his failure to win, shouldn’t my regard for his feelings trump my own desire for victory? Of course not. After all, each of us has beaten the other many times in our workouts (he has the better record); each of us knows the disappointment of the loss is slight. But if one of us were to “throw” an interval to the other out of charity, the one who was the recipient of the gift would be angered and betrayed. To concede a race is not generosity, it is condescenscion at its most appalling. It says to the other “I think you’re too fragile to handle defeat.” It fails to honor the maturity and the dignity of the other. “Friendly competition” is that where each of us each believes three things about our rival:

1. He is playing by the same rules
2. He is capable of distinguishing between competition on the track and animoosity off of it
3. He is sufficiently emotionally resilient to handle defeat.

Unless I know these three things about the person I’m racing, I don’t feel I can give my maximum effort.

What on earth does this have to do with pornography? In my review yesterday of the Price of Pleasure, I noted that the anti-pornography documentary makes a compelling case that contemporary erotica is more and more likely to be focused on violence and degradation. (Even when I did regularly watch pornography, I found the harder, BDSM-oriented stuff to be distasteful. Without offering too much information about my own inner world, for all of the darkness I’ve put myself through, I’m clear that power imbalances are not particularly erotic for me. Power exchanges in the bedroom haven’t, in my experience, been either particularly healing or particularly interesting. Light-hearted reciprocity tends to be what makes my socks roll up and down. Your mileage may vary.) Continue reading

Kinder, gentler, softer, slower: on the shock of running a 2:04 half

Thoughtful posts will appear this week, I hope.

For now, it’s a quiet Sunday night, and I’ve got the chinchillas out in their “nursery.” I ran a half marathon this morning, the Valley Crest trail race out in the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s a tough dirt course, very hilly, but I’m still disappointed in my time. Though I pushed myself up each and every hill as best I could, I managed only a 2:04 — thirty-five minutes slower than what I was running less than a decade ago. I finished in the middle of the pack, and though I felt fine at the end, I was incredibly frustrated at my inability to generate more “leg turnover” — or speed.

Yes, it’s harder to be fast in one’s forties than in one’s thirties. But I’m also running so much less than I was in the late ’90s, when I was single, newly sober, and trading one set of addictions for another. I haven’t stepped onto a track to do speed workouts of any kind in more than five years, but it wasn’t so long ago that I was pounding out 10×800 repeats on a local track before dawn. I was never as fast as I wanted to be, but could usually manage to finish in the top 10% of the men in most of the races I entered.

And yet, as slow as I am these days, I wouldn’t go back to that old way of living. For me, that kind of training was monumentally self-centered. Yes, I was very fit. Yes, I was sober (and at my fastest, celibate), and it was clearly important that I go through a process of replacing one set of addictions (sex, alcohol, etc.) with another (running). I still run, but four days a week instead of six and 25-30 miles a week instead of 60-70. And I finish well back in the pack in the races I run these days instead of contending for, if not an overall win, at least an age-group placement.

I’m reminded again that my wife, my animals, my students, my friends, my colleagues, my mentees, and my large and wonderful extended family don’t need me to be fast. They certainly don’t need me to go back to 4% body fat, and they don’t need me to excuse myself from function after function because I’ve got training or recovery to do. I still make time for running, because running keeps me sane and happy; the addiction to endorphins continues. But I’ve learned that athletic pursuits must take a back seat to other obligations. I have no intention of ever ceasing to exercise regularly, but I also have no intention of having my wife or my future children become “running widows.”

I wrote a long post with a long title about endurance sports and communal obligations here: Tennyson and Sharon Olds, Ulysses and Telemachus: a very long post about endurance athletes, independence, and the single body alone in the universe against its own best time. I note that my inner Telemachus is winning out over my Ulysses these days. And I am kinder, I am gentler — and, I note with rueful acceptance, softer and slower.

Knees, feminism, and young warriors: the relief of Michael Sokolove’s new book

Back on May 8, I wrote about The Uneven Playing Field, a long article by Michael Sokolove that appeared in the New York Times magazine. The piece was excerpted from his then-forthcoming book, Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports. The book has been published; my copy came last week and I finished it this morning, just moments ago.

I was anxious to read the book, particularly because I was more than a bit troubled by the title. Historically, when a man talks about the need to “protect our daughters”, you know trouble’s coming. “We’ve got to protect our daughters from the lesbian menace, boys!” “We’ve got to protect our daughters from abortion-promoting, Wicca practicing, bra-less, unshaven, radical feminists!” Though I know some paternalistic language creeps into my own writing, I do make a conscious effort to avoid obvious tropes like the need to “protect daughters”, recognizing that very phrase has been associated with everything from homophobia to the lynching of young black men. One wishes Sokolove had chosen a different subtitle for what ends up being a terrific, pro-feminist book. (I suspect, but have no evidence, that it was his publishing house who came up with the “protecting our daughters” line as a marketing ploy. Nothing sells like anxiety, after all.)

I love women’s sports. I’m married to a former high school soccer star who, like many of the women profiled in Sokolove’s book, suffered a career-ending knee injury. In my wife’s case, that knee injury cost her what had been the promise of a division-one scholarship. I’m particularly passionate about soccer — for its purity, its deceptive simplicity, its abhorrence of timeouts, and its endless capacity to surprise. Sokolove’s book is mainly about soccer, the sport that more American girls play than any other, and about the epidemic of knee injuries that has brought so much pain and devastation.

In my May 8 post and the Times excerpt, you can read about some of the research that explores both why young women suffer more frequent catastrophic knee injuries than men, as well as about the many proposed solutions to the problem. I’m happy to say, after reading the book cover-to-cover, that Sokolove repudiates the idea that girls are less interested in or less able to play sports than boys. The troglodytes seeking to repeal Title IX will find no comfort within the pages of “Warrior Girls.” Sokolove, whose previous books have all been about male athletes, including a much-admired sociological study of baseball and young black men, writes as someone passionately committed to athletic competition — but even more passionately committed to the well-being of the athletes themselves. Continue reading

On “Warrior Girls”, knee injuries, and the tangible costs of adolescent perfectionism: some thoughts on Michael Sokolove’s article

The New York Times has a preview up today of a long article coming out on Sunday in their magazine: The Uneven Playing Field. It’s by Michael Sokolove, and based on his forthcoming book Warrior Girls: Protecting our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports. (I’ve pre-ordered the book, and will review it this summer when it comes out.)

In this lengthy adaptation on the Times website, Sokolove writes about what he sees as the extraordinary number of knee (ACL) injuries that are being sustained by female athletes, soccer players in particular. His thesis:

(the epidemic is) part of a national trend in the wake of Title IX and the explosion of sports participation among girls and young women. From travel teams up through some of the signature programs in women’s college sports, women are suffering injuries that take them off the field for weeks or seasons at a time, or sometimes forever.

Girls and boys diverge in their physical abilities as they enter puberty and move through adolescence. Higher levels of testosterone allow boys to add muscle and, even without much effort on their part, get stronger. In turn, they become less flexible. Girls, as their estrogen levels increase, tend to add fat rather than muscle. They must train rigorously to get significantly stronger. The influence of estrogen makes girls’ ligaments lax, and they outperform boys in tests of overall body flexibility — a performance advantage in many sports, but also an injury risk when not accompanied by sufficient muscle to keep joints in stable, safe positions. Girls tend to run differently than boys — in a less-flexed, more-upright posture — which may put them at greater risk when changing directions and landing from jumps. Because of their wider hips, they are more likely to be knock-kneed — yet another suspected risk factor.

The rate (of ACL injury) for women’s soccer is 0.25 per 1,000, or 1 in 4,000, compared with 0.10 for male soccer players. The rate for women’s basketball is 0.24, more than three times the rate of 0.07 for the men. The A.C.L. injury rate for girls may be higher — perhaps much higher — than it is for college-age women because of a spike that seems to occur as girls hit puberty.

At this point, my heart was sinking. Was this going to be anti-feminist ideology dressed up as professed concern for the health of young women? Was Sokolove trying to scare parents into pulling their daughters out of competitive sports? I even wondered if Sokolove was some sort of shill for the anti-Title IX crowd, trying a new tactic in their never-ending crusade to roll back a policy of equal funding for women’s sports. As a passionate sports fan, married to a former club soccer star, I have a deep and abiding commitment to women’s athletics — particularly the “beautiful game” of what the rest of the world calls football.

Happily, reading the article to the end (it is ten pages long) makes it at least fairly apparent that Sokolove is committed to women’s sports. Rather than imploring parents to pull their daughters off soccer teams, he writes sensibly and knowledgeably about the causes of what is undeniably a common problem: catastrophic ACL injuries among young female soccer players. The chief culprits have nothing to do with inherent feminine weakness. Rather, they are two-fold: poor bio-mechanics and the exhausting “club” system in high school and college that leaves many talented girls playing a demanding sport literally year-round. Continue reading

Learning to rest within the run: on mindfulness, the mountains, and taking a tumble on El Prieto

For the first time in a year and a half, I had a good hard fall while running this afternoon. (For those who know the area, I ran from the Windsor road parking lot up to the Sunset trail on Mt. Lowe via the El Prieto trail and the Millard campground.) Flying down El Prieto, my mind wandering on to a variety of topics, I caught my right foot on a rock and went sprawling. I had just enough time to twist over to absorb most of the impact on my right shoulder, but my right wrist and knee also hit the ground very hard.

I got the wind knocked out of me, and I lay there, alone, for a stunned moment. The ritual after a fall is always the same: turn off my stopwatch (always the first thing, as we must have a proper time for the run at the end), then start checking for injuries. There’s always that moment of great fear that I have seriously hurt myself, and will be stuck on a trail until someone comes along. And of course, the greatest and most immediate anxiety is that I won’t be able to run again for a while.

Since I started serious trail running ten years ago, I’ve had maybe a dozen minor falls and four or five fairly serious ones. A serious fall is one which causes me to miss at least one day of running as a consequence. I’m not unaware of the far more significant dangers. I was raised on the legend of my grandfather’s beloved first cousin, Walter “Pete” Starr, who famously died from a fall in the Sierras in 1933 after authoring a still-serviceable guide to those mountains. In April 2000, my running buddy Dave Trinkle died in a fall off the Mt. Wilson trail after (typically) ignoring warning signs about a decaying area of trail. These men are often in my mind when I’m running, especially by myself, in remote or dangerous areas. Mind you, I don’t take major risks! But there are dangers in the mountains that I love, and both family lore and my own memories of Dave remind me constantly that I have an obligation to balance that passion for running on dirt with some common sense.

I wasn’t hurt at all today, other than some scrapes and bruises. I did take the lesson of the fall seriously, however. I usually fall going uphill, when I’m less attentive; normally, I’m very careful on descents (which is normally when serious accidents occur.) Today, I fell because my mind was elsewhere. And as I got up gingerly and brushed myself off, I said “Okay, God, I get it. I need to pay attention.” I’m a good pray-er and a lousy meditator. As I ran the final three miles back to the car, I watched my foot placement very carefully. I also recited the one meditation that consistently works for me, from Psalm 46: Be Still and Know I am God. I say the line three times, and then drop the last word, repeat the shortened line three times, and so forth until in the end I’m just reciting, over and over again, “Be.” (I dispense with the “and” and the “know” at the same time.) It works when I’m quiet on the couch, and yes, it works when I’m running.

In one of his most famous poems, former U.S. poet Laureate Richard Wilbur wrote about the legendary Boston marathoner Johnny Kelley. His description of how Kelley worked the course was perfect, a reminder of how it is that I want to run — and indeed must run, if I am to stay safe, sane, healthy, and alive:

Legs driving, fists at port, clenched faces, men,
And in amongst them, stamping on the sun,
Our champion Kelley, who would win again,
Rocked in his will, at rest within his run.

I long for nothing more than to be rocked in my will, and at rest within my run. To remember how to do that well, I apparently need the occasional fall.

Of sweat and scent: in defense of infrequent bathing

I will be posting on various things in the week to come. I’ve got reviews of a couple of books to put up (including Men Speak Out), and will try and say something intelligent about Planned Parenthood, race, and the complex legacy of Margaret Sanger.

But it’s Saturday, and if I post at all on the weekends, it can’t be about anything too serious. My wife has been in Europe (doing various volunteer things) since last Sunday, and I miss her. She’ll be home in two days time. The stereotype of the generally neat married man who reverts to appalling slobbery when his spouse goes off for a few days is a time-honored one: yes, things are looking a little chaotic around the homestead these days. Newspapers and magazines on the floor; laundry arranged in sensible; adequately folded piles; coffee cups resting on any ledge they can find. And Hugo, unbathed as yet today.

I’ve let go of so many bad habits over the last few years. An earlier incarnation of Hugo on his own would have seen me in a home littered with filled ashtrays. Liquor bottles would have poked their heads out of the trash as well. Bits of clothing and long strands of hair, forgotten and discarded by those whose visit had had but one purpose, would have lingered under chairs for weeks or months. On these scores, all is different now. Continue reading