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Saturday, June 22, 2013

My adventures with running (and my personal advice for beginners)

Before I talk about my new-found running program, I want to let all my cyber-friends and cyber-readers (all three or four of you) know that we're bouncing back from Shadow's death. The first few days were tough, but we're getting back to normal. I've even warned my wife that I may get the itch to get another cat. (Not immediately, but maybe in another year or so. We'll see).

I still worry about our other cat, Stella. Shadow was her friend, and she spends most of her time in our basement. She's petrified of our poodle, and slightly less frightened of our two sons. But I suppose that it just her personality. She's a solitary creature and as close to autistic as a cat can get. At least she has free reign of the basement, since the dog doesn't venture down there.

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I've ventured into the world of running. In my case, calling it "running" might be a stretch, since I move at a pace that could generously be called a "jog."

The source of my inspiration is my brother, who has been a serious runner for the last few years and only a few months ago ran the Lansing Marathon. (I think I mentioned that in my earlier post. Sorry for the repetition). As I think I mentioned in that old post, I have no illusions or aspirations of running in a marathon, but I think a 5K is certainly a possibility.

My primary reason for running is health-related. Though I have been walking regularly for about three years, I wasn't happy with my appearance or health. My cholesterol level has been fairly high for several years, and I never seemed able to lose those extra pounds I've been trying to get rid of for years. It was time to up the ante and attempt a more aerobically challenging exercise routine. One that would actually make a dent. At my age, 45, it's become especially urgent that I get into better condition.

So in late April, after my brother's accomplishment so impressed me, I started a "Couch to 5K" program. For those unfamiliar, the program is nine weeks long (though it is flexible and can be increased or decreased at the runner's discretion). The first few workouts are fairly light, and the program gradually gets one to point where a 5K run is a definite possibility. I never thought I'd get there, but I seriously think that a 5K run is in my sights. The program works brilliantly.

The main point I want to impart is: If I can do it, you can too.

Here are some pointers that I feel comfortably passing on for those who are considering a running program:

1. Have realistic goals and expectations. You will not look like an Olympic athlete after the first week or two. You will not be running at Steve Prefontaine-like speeds in a matter of a few workouts. (To be completely blunt about it, you will NEVER run at world-class speed. That is NOT your goal, anyway). Your manta should be: "It's about getting healthier, stupid!" If you stick with the program, you will eventually see results. Just be patient.

2. Don't overdo it. This is especially important for runners who are either middle-aged (or older), or have been couch potatoes for a long period of time. I don't subscribe to the "no pain, no gain" philosophy. If your body is telling you it's worn out or you are in pain, then slow down. The idea is to enjoy this exercise, not kill yourself and become discouraged. Now, I don't mean to suggest that you should give up the second you have to breath harder than usual, or you feel a little pain in your hip or knee. If it's something you can tolerate, than keep going. If it's something excruciating, than by all means slow down or end your work out. Which leads me to...

3. Don't get discouraged. Not every run will be better than the previous one. Depending on factors such as your mood, the time of day, or the weather, you may find that your run that day is a slog. Your time may be worse than it was the last time you ran. It's okay. Remember that what you're doing is much better than sitting on the couch watching TV, and that the more you keep at it, the healthier and more fit you will become.

4. Give your body time to recover. The Couch to 5K program recommends three runs per week, and this seems quite reasonable to me. Especially for older runners like myself, it's natural for your legs/knees/hips to ache a little after you run. You need to give your body a day (or two) to recover. On the days you're not running, take a brisk walk or engage in some other low-impact cross-training activity.

Another important reason for giving yourself a day or two between runs is the "burnout factor." You want running to be an enjoyable exercise, not a daily chore.

5. Get fitted for proper running shoes. This is the most important advice I can give, and yet I almost forgot!

Before you venture too far into your running program, go to a sporting goods store (preferably one that specializes in running equipment and apparel) and have one of the employees fit you for proper shoes. At the better running stores (like Playmakers here in the Lansing, Michigan area) the employees are often experienced runners who know what they're talking about. Tell them about the type of exercise you will be embarking upon. They will study your gait and running style and fit you accordingly. Good running shoes generally cost between $100 to $150 dollars, but it's money well spent. The only other equipment you may need is a pair of running shorts (easily obtained at places like WalMart or Meijer for less than $10) and possibly a stopwatch. (If you have a smartphone, I highly recommend downloading the free app, MayMyRun. It's a GPS and timer all-in-one, and also logs your workouts).

That's about all I have for now. If you stick with running, you may discover what is known as the "runner's high." It's the endorphin rush one gets from good exercise. You may not necessarily feel it while you run, but there's a darned good possibility you feel it afterwards. Running can become so addictive that soon after you finish a run, you'll be planning your next run.

I'll periodically keep everyone posted on how my running program is progressing, and offer more advice as I think of it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

R.I.P., Shadow (October 25, 1994-June 11, 2013); farewell dear friend

Shadow sitting in a window of my old apartment, summer 1995. One of his favorite places to cool off on a warm night.

If someone had told me, eighteen years (or more) ago, that I’d be writing an obituary for a cat, I’d have laughed. But here it is…and I’ve been practically crying my eyes out while writing this.

Shadow's health had been declining for several months, but took a precipitous dip in the last few days. He was a mere shell of his former self and was clearly dying, probably of cancer. We had him euthanized late yesterday afternoon.

Shadow entered my life in the summer of 1995, when I—as a reluctant pet owner—took him in at my mother’s suggestion. My mom had a friend who desperately needed to find this nine month-old cat a home. His first two situations had not worked out for a variety of reasons, and he was in a precarious predicament. I couldn’t bear the thought of this cat having to be placed at in a shelter, so I took him in.

As I said, I was reluctant. It seemed like more “hard work” than a bachelor like me wanted to take on, but from the moment I saw him, I fell in love. The truth was, I was lonely and needed him as much as he needed me. We quickly became best buddies, or at least the best pals a human and cat can be.

Originally, I liked "Malcolm" as a cat’s name and was dead set on using it, but when my new feline and I were together on that first day, I noticed that he followed me around wherever I went, just like, drum roll please...a shadow. "Shadow" seemed like such a corny and over-used name for a pet, but it just fit perfectly. Not only did he follow me all over the house, being black in color, he literally looked like a shadow.

Shadow was unlike any cat I've ever known. His personality was more like that of a dog, owing perhaps to the fact he was at least part Maine Coon. Once he got to know you, he was your devoted friend. He enjoyed sleeping on my chest or under the crook of my arm. He also had a habit of "grooming" me by excessively licking me with his sandpaper tongue. When he scraped my skin raw, this ceased to be fun, but looking back on it now, I really miss those licking sessions.

In his youth, Shadow was a skilled mouser, and this came in handy in the early days when I lived in an apartment with a rodent problem. I clearly remember one morning when I found a furry little "gift" in my book bag before I headed off to work. There was also a memorable evening when Shadow cornered a hapless mouse in my bathroom and was batting it around like a hockey puck.

Shadow’s greatest trait may have been his adaptability. Not including the few moves he endured before I obtained him, he endured six more moves, my engagement and marriage, the birth of two children, and the introduction of two other animals (Stella the cat in 2003 and Bodhi the dog in 2010). For the most part, he took it all in stride, and got along extremely well with both Stella and Bodhi AND our two sons. Even when the boys were toddlers and not-so-gentle with pets, Shadow endured their many pokes and prods with admirable patience.

I’ve been trying to prepare myself for Shadow’s decline, but nothing can quite prepare you for the loss of a companion animal, and Shadow truly was a “companion animal” and not merely a “pet.” I never saw him as my toy, or merely a cute cuddly object, he was my friend who loved me unconditionally through good times and bad.

So, farewell dear Shadow. I will never forget you, and I will hold a place for you in my heart for the rest of my life.

Shadow and my oldest son, summer 2009.