Friday, December 30, 2011

2012: The Year of the Do-Over

I’m determined to start this year out right. That’s why, if all goes as planned, on Sunday I’ll be bundled up at the start of the Millennium Mile.

Although I’ve never run the race before, I’ve heard plenty about it. The New Hampshire Union Leader has been a sponsor of the race, which supports a scholarship in memory of John Mortimer’s parents, since before our sponsorships fell under my purview.

That was before I was even “a runner.” (I use the quotation marks because I’m not sure I’ll ever completely feel like a runner.) Back then, the idea of a New Year’s race just seemed plain crazy to me. I mean, it’s usually cold and sometimes snowy.

After I started running a few years ago, I found the idea of a New Year’s race intriguing. It was indeed a great way to start the year. However, by then I’d made my own personal rule not to run races in which it would take me longer to park and register than to run the race (see also: Cigna’s 5K in downtown Manchester) so I routinely skipped the Millennium Mile in favor of a New Year’s 10K in Massachusetts.

Not this year – although the way I made it to the starting line is really just an accident.

A few weeks ago, at Mortimer’s urging, I signed up for the MVP Millennium Running Series. I had let my running slip so much during the second half of 2011 that I needed something to keep me going. A series of seven races - some really fun races, I might add - of various distances, spread out throughout the year seemed like a perfect way to get my focus back.

I thought I had until the
Shamrock Shuffle in March to mentally prepare for my year-long commitment. That is, until a friend asked me about the Millennium Mile race. Most years, it falls in December. This year, it falls on New Year’s Day. Turns out, signing up for the 2012 series meant that I’d be starting on the very first day of 2012.

Oh well, no time like the present.

My friend’s 9-year-old son assures me the Millennium Mile will be the fastest mile I run all year. No offense to the little guy, but I hope he’s wrong. I hope that today’s mile-long race is the beginning of a year of improvement.

You see, as we launch this new year, I find myself in unfamiliar territory. At this time of year, I’m usually celebrating my accomplishments and thinking of how to be even better next year. But this year I find myself dealing with the self-inflicted failure of not meeting my goals. When it comes to running (and most other things), I tend to set the bar high for myself, so it was no surprise last year that I gave myself a pretty lofty to-do list. (See them over there on the right side of this page?)

I wanted to run the Boston Marathon and raise $5,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society –
and I did. What I didn’t do was pretty much everything else on the list, like, complete a century ride or log 3,000 miles of running and riding. (I’m closing out the year at 2,500-something.)

What’s most frustrating is that everything on the list was completely attainable, and I was on the fast-track to success by mid-year coming off the Boston Marathon and logging some serious miles. My cycling improved immensely and I was in better shape than I’d ever been. I had my highest mileage months ever in both running and cycling this year.

Don't believe that I totally slacked off? I'm including graphic evidence at the end of this post. What the heck happened to me in the second half of the year?

If I must be honest, I kind of gave up - mentally. I got burned out. I stopped checking my mileage stats every day. I didn’t care how far or fast I went. I put my iPod and Garmin watch in the drawer and let them gather dust. My weekly group runs with friends disappeared. Running became something that I didn't even think about. I began to question whether I even liked it anymore.

I got mad at myself. I made excuses. I tried to restart my motivation engine. And couldn’t.

I never even attmpted the Century Ride, even though during the height of the summer and early into the fall the miles would not have been a problem. Heck, I didn't even bother to sign up for a 10K to see what I could do.

So I’ve decided to give myself a do-over this year. I toyed with the idea of lowering the expectations on myself, perhaps reducing the mileage or cutting back on the things I want to accomplish. But I don’t want to go backward. I need to finish what I started.

Seems like a one-mile, downhill race on New Year's Day is a pretty good start.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My Biggest Loser Beef

As much as I hate to admit it, one of my guilty pleasures is quasi-reality television - not the Bachelor or Jersey Shore or the Real World (is that sill on?) or other nails-on-a-chalkboard shows like that.

For better or worse, I get a kick out of watching other people's dysfunction. I'm talking about shows like Hoarders, the new Monster In-Laws, Intervention and the jaw-dropping, brow-furrowing one I recently stumbled upon, I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant. (There are still so many questions I have about that last one.)

Although it's one step up from A&E's new dysfunctional program line-up, I kind of throw The Biggest Loser into that mix, too - even though it's different.

It's not like I'm watching an out-of-control train wreck (is there any other kind?) like those other shows. Instead, I watch them work hard, succeed, get fit and get healthy. I'm happy for them. I'm inspired.

But every year there's something cringe-inducing about the The Biggest Loser: the marathon.

I don't mean "marathon" in the usual TV-jargon sense, meaning a series of back-to-back-to-back-to-back episodes. (That use of the word marathon, by the way, must have been coined by a non-runner. Anyone who's ever run a marathon would not allow hours of watching television to share the same name as the distance running event.)

Yes, the contestants on the The Biggest Loser actually complete a marathon. Twenty-six-point-two-miles. I love it. And I hate it.

Before you go jumping to conclusions about why I hate it, let me say with the utmost sincerity that I truly, honestly and whole-heartedly believe that anyone can run a marathon. Of course, I say that with a one huge qualification. It would be better to say that anyone with proper training can run a marathon.

That's where The Biggest Loser gets under my skin.

The contestants undoubtedly work hard at getting fit and losing weight, spending hours in the gym - face-to-face with a trainer, no less. But, as far as I can tell from the show that airs, they do not train for a marathon. Sure, you see them from time-to-time on the treadmill, but they certainly don't have a marathon training program.

In fact, some of them even admit that they haven't run more than 10 or 12 (or fewer!) miles before toeing the line for the show's 26.2 event.

What's wrong with that? A lot.

Most of them do finish. And it's great. They smile, they cry, they can't believe they've done it. It's the same feeling that anyone who's crossed the finish line of their first marathon has felt - only magnified because of where they've come. It truly is inspiring.

It's also unsettling. At most, they've had 60 days of "training" - which by most standards is not nearly suffificent to prepare the body for a marathon. In fact, only a few short months before their marathon, these contestants were on a downward spiral of health-issues and most were admitted food addicts and couch potatoes. They're on The Biggest Loser, after all.

Thanks to the disclaimer at the end of the show, I know the contestants are monitored. And kudos for this year's show-doctor for pulling a couple of the contestants off the course this year and for not letting one, who was scheduled for knee surgery the following week, even attempt it.

What bothers me about The Biggest Loser marathon is that is isn't really accurate. Anyone who's ever been to a marathon (or even a half marathon) has surely seen fuel belts, water stations, aid stations - heck, even porta-potties. These contestants run in the desert, for Pete's sake.

And while I'm sure that the contestants hydrate and fuel along the way, why isn't any of this shown to the viewing audience? We never see one drop of water given to a contestant. Not one energy gel. Hyrdation and proper fueling are critical parts of marathon running - the healthy way - and if this show inspires others to try (which I assume - and hope that it does), it should send the right message.

We never hear about a training plan, long runs or anything else that goes into proper marathon training. If anything, we hear the opposite. Some contestants seem proud that they finished with essentially no running training.

Sounds like a recipe for injury, if you ask me. And there's nothing like an injury to give someone a reason to stop exercising and fall back into old habits.

Aside from the training and the nutrition shortfalls, another twist to this year's The Biggest Loser marathon was a the addition of a competitve element. They brought back all of the contestants that had left the show during the season and they competed for one spot in the final contest. All they had to do is win the marathon.

It certainly made for interesting television, at the very least. But for most runners, unless you're one of the elite, front-of-the-pack runners, you don't run a marathon to beat other people. You race against yourself. You run your own race. At some point, it doesn't matter who's ahead or behind you. It's about you and your goals. It's about celebrating the finish line - whenever you get there.

For these contestants, in particular, the show should have highlighted the huge sense of accomplishment it would be just to finish. Because it is a huge accomplishment - no matter who "beat" you in the race. Instead, they ranked the contestants and awarded prize money depending on where they placed.

Because of the competitive element (I get it - it's a show about competition), we saw contestants sprinting from the starting line, trying to get ahead of the pack. No "go out slow and steady" training plan here. No pacing. No plans.

My previous rant aside, I really do love the idea of having The Biggest Loser contestants run a marathon. It shows that anyone can do it - and anyone can. If they do it the right way.

I'm not afraid to admit that I got a little teary-eyed watching the contestants cross the finish line. It's a great feeling after all - something that can't really be described. Heck, last night's show even gave me a little kick in the butt. It started my mind going. What's the next big thing I'm going to do?

As the on-air marathon started, I half-jokingly declared that if any of the contestants beat my PR, I'd be signing up for a marathon today. Luckily, the first runner crossed in 5:04, so I'm not obligated to do so.

But who knows, maybe the show's convinced me to give it another try - with a solid training plan and plenty of water stops, of course.