A locked-up track in the far corner of a public middle school’s grounds, going to waste. A fence-climbing 60-year-old runner who doesn’t realize his age. A long-overdue interval workout waiting to be performed, in need of just such an overlooked venue. Result: An affair between man and 400-meter oval.
It is winter in early February here on the windy Great Plains, and the last several weeks have been fierce, at least for running. Temperatures have turned unseasonably cold for long stretches, sprinkled with only a few warmer days to squeeze in key workouts — those either faster or longer.
To add to the difficulty, because of unfortunate coincidences recently, nearly two months have elapsed since my last track interval workout. Two consecutive respiratory colds of two weeks each, something that had never happened to me before, along with the harsh and unpredictable weather, have meant that for an entire month I have done only easy shorter or mid-distance runs for workouts while dealing with the sniffles, sneezing, congestion, and coughing.
Something that surprises most people is that continuing to run through respiratory sickness actually makes me feel better in most cases and weather things with less trouble. Still, beyond an easy pace and middling distance, it’s best to hold plenty in reserve and not risk overdoing during such periods.
A few times, energy level and lungs permitting, I’ve thrown in some 4 x 100m strides (that is, four very fast repeats of 100 meters each, just shy of a sprint) or 4 x 150m hill repeats here and there to try and keep the fires of speedier pace stoked a bit, but it hasn’t been much. Not enough to maintain the fitness level and more honed “edge” I seek, and that makes the training process as rewarding and enjoyable as it can and should be.
I am inside an old church with my handyman partner Paul, with whom I once worked as an assistant in his business on a part-time basis. We have been called in for a meeting, weeks or months later, after a consultation we provided the ministers and other elders of the church. In this case it was not handyman services we provided, but a recommendation for how to reprint their old Bibles and other holy books. They are unhappy with how things turned out and we have been brought back in for them to point out what they do not like.
On handyman jobs, Paul is my mentor, the one with a lifetime of experience, and takes the lead in consulting with customers. In this situation, however, our roles are reversed. Here, it is me who has decades of experience as a typographer in countless situations with all manner of clients. Paul is along for the ride on this one, but has a good eye. I am glad to have him along, even if just for the company and moral support.
The denomination of the church is unclear, but it has the feel of a very old-line religion, not a newer Protestant or evangelical church. The interior architecture is of old polished woods, with light-colored stucco walls in shades of muslin, tan, and taupe. Aside from the walls, everything consists of dark browns and sepias. There is not much lighting, so the ambience inside is dim and overall somewhat dark. The atmosphere weighs on my spirits a bit.
I rarely pay much attention to clothing, but the ministers and elders I am talking with are wearing old, traditional attire of some type, not from today’s era. The feel is perhaps 1800s, possibly even 1600s to 1700s, depending on the man. There are no suits and ties as would be the case today. There are no women among the group. Everything is completely old school.
An opportunity to connect with former university track and cross-country teammates from long ago does not go quite as hoped.
Names and a few identifying details have been changed out of respect for anonymity and personal privacy.
A white envelope
The envelope arrived in the mail unexpectedly one day this past summer. White and of regular correspondence size, with a computer-printed appearance of the type that suggested a mass-mailing, it appeared at first to be just another piece of junk mail.
With the flick of an eye, I glanced cursorily at the return name and address, which in part bore the acronym of my university alma mater. Probably another request to donate funds I did not have, I supposed. A plea from university boosters appealing to fellow former attendees now presumed to be economically prosperous.
A further glance, however, showed this normally on-target snap-judgment to be in error. I saw that the return address held the name of the man who had been coach of the university cross-country team for which I had competed my freshman year. On the line directly underneath his name were the words “XYU Track and Field Reunion.” And on the line beneath that, “Such-and-Such Place Assisted Living.”
This suggested something more worthy. While I had not cared that much for the coach, the lines on the envelope provided the telltale synopsis: An accomplished man now more frail, winding down his final years of life. Many former athletes whom he had coached, also aging, who had not seen him, or each other, for decades. A chance to get together, pay tribute, and catch up and relive old times with former teammates. And, perhaps, an opportunity to rekindle previous acquaintances, and see where things might lead.
I am out exploring the rural dirt roads northeast of the small hometown of my youth, where I logged thousands of miles as a distance runner then. I have returned to be here for a morning, perhaps a day, just to wander around and soak up the countryside on foot. Things have changed in the decades since, but I still recognize the roads and surrounding land.
This place of pastures and farmland and barbed-wire fences, and the back roads running between criss-crossing it all was the center of my universe. Halcyon days. It feels good to be here again, refamiliarizing myself with the terrain, getting to know the land as it now exists years later, at least in this dream.
Every now and then, as the morning passes, I can see a lean, sinewy runner striding along from a distance. They appear to be in their element, their form honed as if they have been at this for years, as if they know their way around this locale.
I continue meandering along, following my nose, enjoying the luxurious hours. Halfway through the day, I decide to begin the return home and get a workout in at the same time. Home is an indeterminate west or west-southwest somewhere, so I head generally that direction along the perpendicular grid of dirt roads and begin running.
Not far into the run, about a quarter of a mile after taking a turn from one road onto another, I happen to look back and see the lean runner heading the same way I am, toward me. It is rare to see a serious runner in the area, and I would like to meet this individual. Maybe talk to them a little bit, and get to know more about them if they are willing.
And now, the conclusion of our “Strava: The Awful Truth” rant (in so many words), wherein we wrap up our examination of the less-remarked-upon but often revealing aspects of participation in the popular social-media platform for endurance athletes.
Many runners who compete at the local level don’t follow any structured workout plan
This may be one of the more surprising things I found on Strava. I grew up as a competitive runner starting at age 14, and was immersed from day one in the debates about easy runs and long runs vs. interval work vs. tempo and threshold runs vs. VO2max work, or whether to follow an overall plan of higher-mileage/lower-intensity vs. lower-mileage/higher-intensity, and so forth.
No matter where you stood on these issues, if you knew anything at all, you followed a training program that incorporated at least some kind of planned approach. Even if you didn’t or couldn’t follow the plan consistently, or “went by feel” when deciding whether it might be better on any given day to substitute a different type of workout for what you might have originally planned, you usually tried to get in a certain number of faster miles vs. slower miles, a certain amount of tempo or interval work, and so forth. It might have been more of a loose plan or template rather than a set or scheduled one, but when you looked at examples of training programs, the details tended to reflect one approach or another.
What has surprised me on Strava (well, somewhat) is how little rhyme or reason there is to most runners’ approaches to training, at least if you assume the majority of runners on Strava are more competitive types. It isn’t clear to me whether many just run entirely by feel, whatever that’s supposed to mean in terms of what types of workouts might be performed when, or if they truly don’t have much conception of how or why they might want to structure their training in a certain way in the first place.
After having ripped at length on Strava’s “kudosing” silliness in Part 1, we turn now to the intriguing, odd, sometimes matter-of-fact, and occasionally mystifying things one can discover looking at other runners’ activities on Strava.
A confession to make here: I am one of those guys who likes to go around turning over rocks, looking at the underside of things, just to see what there is to see wriggling around in typically unobserved places. Mainly because I find that the more of reality one can be aware of — whatever that encompasses in its various aspects — the more meaningful and understandable it is, and the richer the experience. And, sometimes, the more power and control the added insight gives you in working with it.
For my money, it’s not what you see on the surface of things, up on top in the light of day, that’s the most interesting. What’s more fascinating is what you don’t necessarily notice at first: the things hidden in shadow that come to light only later once you’ve managed to flip that rock upside down.
This applies equally both to the mechanical side of things and the psychological. If you’re a guy at least, for most of us there is always a certain fascination with what makes things function as far as the nitty-gritty “nuts and bolts” of it.
But even more fascinating, for me anyway, is the psychological underbelly. Why? Because what’s up on the surface is often just what people want you to see or, alternatively, perhaps only what they are conscious of communicating, which doesn’t necessarily gibe with what’s actually going on underneath. And any discrepancy between the two usually tells you a lot.
Think that the most interesting things about Strava are the cool maps, graphs, and charts of your own and other athletes’ running, biking, and swimming workouts? Nope, not for me. What I have found more intriguing are all the things you eventually notice by reading “between the lines” that no one seems to talk about.
Part 1 here gives the backstory about how I got involved with Strava in the first place, and also looks at what I consider the “Kudos trap” — kudosing being similar to liking someone on Facebook — that one can get sucked into there. (Yep, as usual, Wardolfski gets sidetracked composing what was intended to be a fairly brief intro, but then it really gets away from him.) The things I’ve learned from following other runners are covered in Parts 2and 3.
Social media is not something I’ve ever been much interested in participating in, with rare exceptions. At least not Facebook or Twitter, both of which strike me as high school all over again. Not to mention that both are also just a cacophony of poor web design and poor usability — they’re frustrating to wade through and simply ugly to look at. I do understand that for certain groups of people or organizations or families, Facebook serves as the main clearinghouse for information, and can be valuable.
But for me, none of that applies. I tend not to be a joiner, if for no other reason than just because I don’t like the peer pressure, even if subtle, to behave a certain way that tends to come with participating in most groups.
Also, in groups, behavior tends to come down to the lowest common denominator, so things degenerate into either: (a) online flame- or slag-fests, or (b) the opposite, a bunch of meaningless Kumbaya or Pollyanna praise to whomever or whatever, or failing those, (c) people trying to top each other with clever one-liners, or (d) the feed gets polluted with too many jerks promoting either themselves or their wares. Or, (e) most common of all, the comments are just plain mundane, vapid, and uninteresting the majority of the time — a huge waste of attention span.
My response to all that is usually: No thanks. I’d rather go my own way in my own independent fashion. And then with Facebook, there are the privacy issues, which we needn’t get into here.
That said, I do have a fake Facebook account so that when needed I can log in anonymously to obtain needed info posted by someone there, but generally don’t bother with it other than that. I also signed up for a Twitter account a few years ago in an aborted attempt to try and help promote my self-employed work, but after a few tweets, the account has sat there silently since.
Once in a great while, though, I’ll make an exception for some online group or forum, if there’s enough meaningful “meat” to it to pull me in without too many of the above-mentioned cons. One of the online communities that has meant something to me has been Strava, the popular workout-logging and social-media site for endurance athletes — though perhaps not for the usual reasons many Strava users join, as it turns out.
I am seemingly outdoors, but yet inside our house. It does not quite make sense, because there is a tree overhead directly shading the floor inside. Be that as it may, however, there is a commotion going on: Our cats are chasing around under the tree, either after each other or something else — I am not quite sure which.
Then I see it: some kind of animal they are attempting to get at and toy with, standing on the floor. It is injured, but this time I do not think the cats are the ones who have been the cause, as they usually are with a small animal they have cornered.
I go over to see what kind of animal it is, and cannot tell at first. But somehow it has found its way just inside our back door. I try to take hold of it and carefully shoo it out the door away from the cats for its own protection, but am unable to get a grip on the animal. It is mangled and struggles to come back through the door. However, doing so will continue attracting the cats who will want to play with and kill it. Despite my shooing, the animal keeps trying to come back in the door for shelter, either unaware of or despite the cats.
Though I am unsuccessful trying to herd the animal out, I manage to find a way to keep it protected from the cats by stooping over and loosely cupping my hands around its body to create a shield, my fingers lightly brushing against it as I do. And as my hands make this contact, now my eyes become enabled to see the animal more clearly: I recognize it is a wild but hurt and grounded falcon that has walked its way, not flown, into our house in its injured state.
As I corral the falcon inside the lattice of my hands and outstretched fingers to protect it, it warms to my presence and begins quieting down and struggling less. Now I can also see that the falcon is no longer able to fly because something has stripped off too many of its feathers.
There’s no doubt that email is very functional in today’s world of e-commerce. Like others with businesses to run, I rely on it heavily. Even though many of us now use texting and other forms of direct or private messaging or chat for many communications, email is still the lingua franca — the all-inclusive, lowest common denominator of electronic communications for conducting official business. The rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.
But that said, for me the number of unsolicited, unwanted email intrusions from non-work-related companies I’ve made purchases from at some point or other over the years has recently reached epidemic proportions. Several months ago it had gotten to the point where almost every day I was besieged with “news” or “special deals” or solicitations that I never signed up for from these companies. Legal companies, I should add, but nonetheless behaving badly.
Since I work in a deadline-oriented field where prompt responses are expected, by necessity I’ve set up my computer to notify me whenever a new email arrives that I need to know about. These alerts go beyond incoming business email from customers, and also include that from personal friends, billing notices, etc.
(I should note that these alerts only apply to a fraction of the email I receive, much of which consists of other types of email, such as recurring newsletters, notifications of website security scans and successful online backups of computer data, or discussion-forum emails. For these, I’ve set up rules to automatically filter or archive them sight unseen into separate mailboxes for later scanning or reference, should that become necessary.)
Over time, the number of unsolicited emails had become an ongoing burden that I increasingly came to resent, because of the Chinese-water-torture-like drip, drip, drip of unwanted interruptions that, cumulatively, were stealing my time — and therefore life — away from me on the installment plan.
A tale wherein our intrepid protagonist, who in the past has eagerly tried all manner of high technologies, becomes grumpy at the failure of newer entrants in the lineup to live up to expectations. With examples of his sacrilege in returning to lesser methods of doing things, and pontifications regarding the follies of the tool-using species known as homo sapiens.
I am someone who has always enjoyed new technology. Most of my life, I’ve typically been among the first of my friends and family to try out what’s new on the horizon when it comes to higher-tech offerings. Or at least those that are affordable to people like myself of modest means.
This inclination is actually more than just a technological leaning, and extends to other new things as well: I became a distance runner in the early 1970s, at age 14, when we skinny dudes (and it was in fact mostly guys) running along the side of the road were thought to be odd and sometimes harassed because of it. At age 16, I became a vegetarian when it was considered countercultural and effete (but which I abandoned 18 years later after it began taking a serious toll on my health, despite my best efforts). Following in succession after that were also yoga and meditation.
Later, I became aware of and got involved with the internet in the late 1980s before most people had heard of it. At this time, email and email list forums (plus a few walled-garden forums like America Online, The WELL, ECHO, and CompuServe) were “the only game in town” on the internet for the most part. The Worldwide Web had yet to be invented, which meant no blogs, e-commerce, news sites, or social media. So with the internet still something of a desert in those days except for a few such oases here and there, I was then moved to explore the alternative realm of underground zines and M2Ms (many-to-manys) — the paper-based forerunners of today’s online blogs and message boards, respectively— before moving back to the internet once it began taking off for good in the mid-1990s.
None of this was because of any desire to be “up” on what was in vogue (all of the above pursuits were very much regarded as fringe at the time), but just because I’ve always been one to periodically cast about for interesting or challenging horizons to explore.
For example, I’ve also been keen on the latest research findings in science my whole life — something which most of the American public is anything but interested in, to judge by our students’ abysmal science scores and general avoidance of elective science classes in school compared to those in other countries. (Except, of course, when it comes to the fruits of science in the form of catchy, often frivolous new consumer gadgets, which the United States is the undisputed heavyweight champion of.)