Fitbit

FBApparently, bending over and tying my shoes is worth about 25-40 steps.

The act of leaning over to my left side while I’m sitting at my desk, unzipping my briefcase and pulling out a phone-charging cord and then plugging it in, is also worth about 25 steps.

Rubbing my wife’s shoulders while watching TV, about 30 steps per minute.

Steps, however, don’t always count as steps.

These are the kinds of things you think about when you get a Fitbit, one of those wristbands you wear that supposedly keep track of your fitness. It does this using a three-axis accelerometer that can detect when you’re taking steps, even if you’re swinging your arms, walking with your hands in your pocket or carrying something. The device also keeps track of the total mileage that you walk or run each day, how many flights of stairs you climb, and how long and how well you sleep. By pairing your Fitbit with a mobile device and/or a computer, you can track your steps and other metrics over time, which is great for a stat geek like me.

At my work, we started the year with a fitness program, which involves Fitbits for everybody in the office, twice-weekly group workouts during our lunch hours, and weekly competitions to see who can log the most steps, along with a three-month competition to see who can improve their body-fat percentage the most. All good stuff. And after the first quarter, in the office, we recorded modest improvements in weight, waist measurement and body-fat percentage.

Some observations on Fitbit:

•  I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the step counts, or the other metrics measured by the Fitbit. Sometimes, I can take the stairs to our office, and the number of “flights” of stairs can be different from day to day. Sometimes I’ll try counting steps, to compare with the Fitbit. It’s usually pretty close, but not right on. But hey, close works. And as I mentioned at the top, sometimes other activities will generate “steps,” but on the whole, it’s not enough to worry about.

•  The goal of a Fitbit isn’t necessarily “fitness,” so much as “movement.” Walking won’t really give you the kind of cardio workout that will make you “fit”: you need to do some kind of exercise that will get your heart rate up for that. BUT, there’s definitely something to be said for movement; you’re definitely better off walking than sitting.

•  The basic goal with a Fitbit is 10,000 steps per day. On days when I go for a run, that’s definitely a makable goal. Otherwise, I really have to make an effort to be up and walking if I want to reach 10,000. Which I guess is the whole idea, right? Unfortunately, though, I’m not running as much these days, and (warning: stat geek!) I’ve only reached 10,000 steps 27 times since we started in mid-January—that’s fewer than a third of the days.

•  However, a recent addition to the Fitbit app is that it will keep track of your steps per hour; the goal there is a much more obtainable 250 steps per hour. The app will tell you how many of the one-hour periods between in a given day you’ve gotten up and moved at least that much. So even if 10,000 steps for the day seems attainable, you can still go for 12 hours with 250 steps. Which, to be honest, might just be a better goal than 10,000 steps in a day.

•  I wish they had this technology for swimming, so I wouldn’t have to count laps.

USA Cross Country Championships

IMG_7697

IMG_7776The United States Cross Country Championships were held in Forest Park in St. Louis today. In addition to juniors races and a couple of local races, the big events were the men’s and women’s championships. The top six finishers of those races will travel to the World Cross Country Championships later this year in Poland.

The races were run on a 2K course just east of the Muny in Forest Park; four circuits for the women and six for the men. The weather was a little cool and breezy, but otherwise perfect for running.

The changing light—as well as the sheer speed of the runners—made it something of a photographic challenge for me, but I had fun walking around the course, grabbing what shots I could. Here’s a sampling of the pictures I captured today.

Suited Up

IMG_0448A pair of tights. A skin-tight shirt made of wicking material. Another shirt, also wicking, with long sleeves and an extended neck. A pair of running pants, or “loose tights” as some call them. A nylon windbreaker jacket. A pair of thick gloves. On my head, a thin knit balaclava as well as a running cap.

That’s my garb when the temperature dips below 20 degrees and I need to head out for a run. Today, the temperature was right at 20—not as cold as the 15 from a week or so ago—but there was a breeze, so the wind chill was reportedly down into the single digits.

And to be honest, I was plenty warm in this two-layers-on-bottom-and-three-layers-on-top getup. I probably could have gone without the inside layers, but it’s always better to have too much than too little, especially when you’re just out there to log three miles and call it good.

That’s my game these days, to run three miles, at least every other day. By most serious runners’ standards, that’s not much, but it’s all I aspire to in these winter months. Come spring, when racing season rolls around, I’ll probably up it a little, if my knees are willing, but for now, I’m satisfied with just doing the minimum. I’m not planning to run a marathon this year. Ever, actually, but that could change.

Speaking of serious runners, for some of them, 20 degrees is the point where they actually put something on their legs. I saw a guy last week on one of those 15-degree days running in shorts. Not me. I’ll take the risk that I’m going to sweat during the last half of the run, over the risk of going numb from the cold.

List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 2

2. Christmas In Cape Town—by Randy Newman.

This is possibly the darkest, ugliest song that Randy Newman has ever written, and he’s written some ugly ones.

Consider yourself warned: Listen.

The thing you have to understand about Randy Newman, though, is that he often writes songs from the viewpoint of despicable characters—polar opposites from the way he feels—to get his point across.  This song, about a bigoted white South African who sees his country going through changes he doesn’t like, could not be more bleak. The protagonist describes the locals lining up for work at the diamond mine: “They were staring at us real hard with their big ugly yellow eyes. You could feel it. This time you could feel it.”

“What we gonna do, blow up the whole damn country?” he asks at the end.

The song reeks of desperation.

Which will seem strange, when you consider what I associate it with in this list of “story songs.”

On September 22, 1984, I ran in the Busch Stadium Run in St. Louis. It was a 10K (6.2 miles) that wound through the streets of downtown, starting outside the stadium and finishing inside on the field near second base. Another twist on this race was that it had a staggered start; the very old and very young would start first, and then, in 30-second increments, other age groups would start, women before men, until it was the mid-20s guys like me starting last; the idea was that, in theory, everyone would have an equal chance of crossing the finish line first. The upshot was that for me, young and healthy and in shape (those were the days, eh?), I was starting at the back of this pack of hundreds of people, and so for the entire race, I was catching people and passing them. For a runner in a race, that’s almost the perfect definition of fun.

Like most runners, before a big race, I’ll generally focus on a particular song, and listen to that song right before the race so it’s still in my head while I’m running. Now, there’s no way that I would have picked a song like Christmas in Cape Town for that purpose. What probably happened was that I was planning on running to Newman’s  “I Love L.A.,” a considerably more upbeat song, which is the first track on the album Trouble In Paradise. But something happened; either I lingered in the car a little too long and the cassette went on to the second track—which is Christmas in Cape Town—or I just made the jump in my mind. In any case, as I ran the race, it was that darkest-of-dark songs that was playing in my brain.

To add to the mood, it was raining; that was one of the few races I’ve taken part in that was actually run in a steady downpour.

But here’s the thing: after I’d watched all the older and younger and female-er runners start ahead of me, and I got to start with all of my prime-of-life compatriots, something clicked. Suddenly, I was really enjoying myself. And Randy Newman’s song, although dark in tone, seemed somehow to be the perfect tempo for my mood. I started reeling in the runners ahead of me, a dozen at a time. The rain? Sure, I was wet. But once I was wet, I wasn’t getting any wetter, so why not just keep running?

And the running felt great. Joyous, really. Puddles, crowds: nothing bothered me as I glided through the St. Louis streets on my way back to the stadium. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but at 25 years old, I really was in the athletic prime of my life. Actually, that day, I probably did realize it. I finished the race in 38:05, which was probably a minute faster than any previous 10K I’d run up to that point, and it still stands as my fastest 10K ever.*

So now when I hear the song Christmas in Cape Town, I’m not thinking about South Africa or Apartheid. Definitely not about Christmas. I’m thinking about that long-ago September morning, when nothing was slowing me down.

On Brotherly Love

Today, a story about my brother Phil, who celebrates yet another birthday on this 18th day of April.

Over the years, Phil has been just about anything that anyone could want in a big brother. He took me to my first concert (Linda Ronstadt), my first NFL game (Cardinals-Giants), my first World Series game (Game 1, 1982) and countless other major and minor events. He has of course been a huge influence on the music I listen to (although of late, his tastes have tended a little toward the twangy). He’s my perfect counterpart on the sociability scale; while I pretty much keep to myself, he knows everybody, everywhere—it’s impossible to be in public with him without him running into someone he knows. In conversation, he throws out straight lines like Tom Niedenfuer tossing gopher balls to the ’85 Cardinals. He’s perhaps the only person I know who is truly conversant in Formula 1. And it turns out, after all, that he was right about First Congregational Church.

In short, I love my brother.

Except when I hate him.

And on the morning of October 1 last year, at exactly 8:29 a.m., I hated him.

That was the day of the “Ivory Crockett Run 4 Webster,” a four-mile running race through the streets of our hometown of Webster Groves, Mo. After a spring and summer of back problems, it was to be my first (and, as it turned out, my only) race of 2011, so I was already a little anxious about how things would go.

And then Phil showed up. He’d had a rough running year, too, primarily because of knee problems. Right up to that day, he’d been non-committal about whether or not he’d actually run, and when he wasn’t there as we started to line up, I figured he’d decided against it. But then, just seconds before the scheduled start, there he was, with a number pinned on, ready to go.

Looking at the totality of our races against each other over the years, Phil and I are probably fairly evenly matched. There have been times when I’ve been stronger, and times when he’s been stronger. I’m pretty sure I have faster PRs than his at most of the shorter distances, but he definitely has a better marathon PR. But it’s not like we’re competitive or anything.

OK, well, I guess maybe a little competitive…

Did I mention that Phil is eight years older than I am? It’s been that way all our lives, despite my efforts to catch up.

Anyway, as I said, it had been a rough year for both of us in terms of running, so neither one of us was really sure how the other was doing. But we both knew that whoever crossed the finish line first would have major bragging rights until the next time we met on a starting line. (For the record, the last time we’d raced together was 10 months earlier, at Pere Marquette, Ill., and I came in ahead of him. By a pretty good margin. Just in case you were wondering.)

The thing is, for my first race of the year, it would have been nice to not have any extra pressure, to just be able to run my own race according to how I felt, and not worry so much about the time. If I felt good, I could let it rip and try to nab an age-group award. If not, no big deal. But with my brother in the race, there was no choice.

Complicating matters on this day was a wildcard: Pastor Dave Denoon—Phil’s  and soon-to-be-my minister—was also running the race, and he and I were standing together at the start when Phil showed up. I had no idea about Dave’s running abilities, but to be honest, there was no pressure in that matchup; we had less than three months of mutual history, so the bragging rights were much, much less significant than between Phil and me, with more than 50 years of fraternal jousting behind us.

So the three of us toed the starting line, along with a couple of hundred other runners. There were pre-race ceremonies: Ivory Crockett himself said a few words. And then the starter’s horn, and we were off.

The course started out with a slight uphill, up Lockwood toward Phil’s and Dave’s—and soon-to-be-my—church, and for that first quarter mile or so the three of us ran together. Great, just great. I knew, though, that Phil’s knee problems and the resulting lack of fitness—not to mention his lack of a warmup—were eventually going to pull him backwards and I’d be able to relax a little bit. But as we ran down the next hill, and up the one after that by the YMCA, Phil was right there, matching me stride for stride. I could no longer see Dave, so I assumed he’d dropped back a little bit.

I generally don’t talk much when I run, and by the time we were through that first hilly mile I’m sure I wasn’t talking at all. Still, my brother was unshakable. The next mile was (relatively) flatter, but having taken the first mile out much faster than I would have otherwise, I was hurting severely. And of course trying desperately not to show it.

After two miles, it was clear to me that those “knee problems” were just a ruse. Gasping for breath, I was laboring to keep up with him.

And then, after a long, gentle downhill at about 2-1/2 miles, there was a gift from above: without warning, Phil pulled off to the side. I glanced back, and he was bending over to tie his shoe. I felt a little bad for him, and to be sporting, I probably should have slowed down so it wouldn’t have cost him too much in our friendly competition.

Did I say friendly? Had I been able, I would have stepped on the gas and buried him when I had the chance—think Contador/Schleck—but of course I had no gas left to step on. So I pretty much tried to keep up the same pace, but it was with a decidedly more relaxed mood. Relaxed … except that I knew that the race’s hardest segment was just ahead.

“Gentle downhills” always come at a price. On this race course, the price is the long, steep climb up Swon Ave. This unrelenting hill comes at just before three miles, and seems, itself, to be about three miles long. When the Ivory Crockett race approaches each fall, I try to run the hill in training a few times, but it never, ever, gets any easier, no matter how many times I scale it. On this day, even though I no longer had to worry about Phil, I was still worried about that Swon hill.

And my worries were justified. After trashing my cardiovascular system in the first 2-1/2 miles of the race, I had nothing left for the hill. I tried my best to persevere, and to talk myself into persevering, and to force my legs to keep running, but about two-thirds of the way up the hill I just … failed. If I’d been in better shape, and maybe if I’d had a few races under my belt for the season, I could have found the willpower to keep going despite my complete physical depletion, but I just ran out of arguments with my body, and slowed for a walk-break. Just enough, I told myself, to get my breath back, and then I’d have something in the tank for the last mile of the race.

First of all, though, going up a hill like that, you don’t “get your breath back,” even when you stop to walk. Secondly, I knew that Phil was still behind me, and now rapidly gaining on me. Worse, I figured that he had probably joined up with Dave, and they were undoubtedly conspiring to pass me together, just as, I suspected, they had conspired to get me back into the church.

Perhaps it was that thought that got me going again. In any case, after a short stint of walking (15 seconds? 10 minutes? It’s impossible to judge time in a situation like that), I managed to get my legs running again, and crested the hill. There followed a short but regenerating downhill, and then another slow uphill, before a long, flat straightaway to the finish. Despite my walking break, I hadn’t seen Phil and Dave pass me, but I knew they were now just behind … unless they had found the Swon hill just as difficult as I had. I could swear, though, that I heard their voices behind me, and it sounded like they were laughing.

But still, they didn’t pass me, and as I made it up that next uphill, I was starting to think that maybe I had this one in the bag.

You might think that I could just turn around and look behind me to see if they were there, but turning around is always a dangerous proposition while running, especially in a race when your faculties are already diminished by oxygen debt. About the only chance you get to look back is when you turn a corner, and then you can take a quick peek to see what might be coming up behind you. As I swung wide on that last corner before the final stretch, I turned my head, and there was Phil—galloping around the corner and sprinting past me. Uh-oh, here we go again.

At this point we had maybe a third of a mile to go to the finish line. I knew that he must have expended a lot of energy to catch up to me after stopping to tie his shoe. But he had managed to slingshot past me after that corner, and had opened up about a 10-yard lead. With my legs and my lungs screaming at me, I slowly reeled him in, so that with about two blocks to go I was almost up to his shoulder, but it was all I could do. There was nothing left, and he slipped away again, and he sprinted across the finish line seven seconds before I staggered across. A few seconds later, Pastor Dave made his way to the finish, smiling as always.

Phil, it turned out, was the victor in his age group. Since he’s so much older than I am, we are in different classifications, and in my more youthful and vibrant age group I was a mere fourth place, one spot out of the money, so to speak. Age groups don’t mean a thing, though; what’s important is those bragging rights, and Phil gets to hold those until we race again. And with those “knee problems,” he might just be able to put off that meeting indefinitely.

Anyway, a big Happy Birthday to my big brother. And I was just kidding about that hate thing. Sort of.

Just Three Miles

I’m almost to the point where I can say “just three miles” again.

After an excellent running year in 2010, last year was an abject disappointment. I had a bout with bronchitis in the early spring, followed by back problems (herniated disc) that kept my mileage way down all summer. I went to physical therapy for what seems like forever, and the back, although much improved, continued to give me problems well into the fall. By then, it was too late to make a real effort to get back into shape for the best racing season, so I just kind of coasted through the rest of the year.

I entered five races in 2011. I actually ran in only …Keep reading

Gluttony & Sloth

I set a personal record this morning.

For several years now, I’ve been irregularly keeping track of my weight. When I think of it, I weigh myself. And when I think of it again, I jot down the number in a file in my gmail “drafts” folder. That file goes back more than four years, and  the numbers tell a story of the changes in my fitness level over that time. Sort of like Santa’s list: it knows when I’ve been bad or good.

I won’t get into specifics here, but there’s a certain number that I would consider my “ideal” weight for running. If I’m at that number, I’m in either pretty darn good shape, or I’m very, very hungry. If we were to plot all of the …Keep reading