Running for my Life or 5 Tips to Help You Not Hate Running

When I was in fifth grade, I became fast.

I don’t know how or why it happened. If I had reflected on it more deeply back then, I probably would have thought that I was starting to develop my mutant power like the X-Men I was so thoroughly obsessed with at that point.

If you have to run, run in Ronald McDonald sweatpants.

But this mutant power only lasted a year, and it was very specific in its application. At my suburban Catholic school, there was a circular driveway around the grassy field behind the school. On days when it was seasonable enough for gym classes to be held outside, this driveway doubled as a running track, complete with speed bumps.

While the school has long since shuttered, the driveway remains intact, instantly transporting me back to the dreaded two laps that we were forced to run at the beginning of each class. Or worse yet, I’m reminded of the seven laps around the track that constituted the annual Running of The Mile. You always knew that The Mile awaited you eventually, and from the ages of about 8 through 18, it was one of the worst days of the school year for me.

But not in fifth grade.

When we would complete those two laps to kick off class, there I was near the front of the pack—waiting for the majority of my classmates to finish while I stood around victoriously regaining my wind and trying my best not to look cocky. “Yes, I used to be like you slow-pokes. Don’t worry, your day will come. My day just came quicker than yours. Because I’m so fast.”

When it came time to run The Mile, my latent mutant power kicked in again. I don’t remember my time—probably under eight minutes?—but I do remember being congratulated heartily by the other fast kids. I was standing with the athletic titans of my class: the girls who ran on the track team, the guy who was good at every sport he ever tried, and the incredibly short kid who parlayed his speed into a major source of social capital.

The point of this recollection is to assert that fifth grade was one of the only times in my life that I can remember not actively despising the act of running. Unfortunately, sixth grade rolled around and my mutant power regressed back to its customary place of being awkward around girls, and my love for running dissipated as quickly as my odds of snagging a partner at a school dance.

I’m happy to report, however, that almost 25 years later, I have once again made peace with running and have frequently paid money to run. I’m also married to a beautiful woman who loves to dance with me, which goes to show that nice mutants don’t always finish last…in love or races.

But this is about running and how I learned to un-hate it.

Somewhere around 2010, I realized that my slowing metabolism and life as an office-dwelling desk jockey were catching up to my waistline as well as my longterm cardiovascular health. While I don’t remember exactly what led me to choose my old foe of running as a plausible weapon in my battle against the bulge, it probably stemmed from the fact that I had read one too many of those “sitting all day is slowly killing you” articles. It also helped that I had coworkers and a brother who were also interested in running, which leads me to my first tip for learning to be OK with running:

1. Choose a running mate.

When it comes to exercise, I think it’s important to have a wingman. It’s not all that necessary that they even run alongside you—maybe they’re faster than you, or slower than you or just have a different schedule from you and can’t meet up to run. It doesn’t matter. The point is to find a training buddy who will listen to your sob stories about how hard your run was yesterday and how sore you are today, who will celebrate with you when you break a personal record, and who will inspire you to keep pushing yourself in those moments when you realize that you are now spending your free time willingly doing that thing you hated for so long. It’s also way more fun to sign up for a race with someone else, rather than just doing it by yourself. It gives you a common goal to strive for and someone to eat bananas with after you cross the finish line.

Once I had found my running mates, it was time to actually go for a run. I still remember the first time I went to the gym after work and ran a mile THAT I WAS CHOOSING TO RUN. It was exhausting, but also invigorating in a weird way. When I was eventually able to run an entire mile without stopping, it became less exhausting and even more invigorating.

first 5k.jpg
Running my first 5K with my brother

2. Sign up for a race.

Just because I’m OK with running, doesn’t mean that I love it. There are still plenty of times when I don’t feel like doing it, which makes me all the more proud of myself when I actually follow through. I’ve always been better about motivating myself to run when there is a date on my calendar when I know I’m going to run an organized 5K. My interest in and stamina for running has not led me to anything beyond a 5K in the last 5 years—and I’m not sure that I’ll ever tackle anything greater than that—but it’s been important for me to use races as a reason to run.

It’s also just really fun participating in a race. Beyond the varying quality of the race swag (I highly recommend the Hot Chocolate 5K in Chicago!), there is a palpable energy at a race that calls you to be the best runner you can be and usually provokes me to run faster and last longer than I would when I’m running on my treadmill or around my neighborhood. It’s almost like you can feed off of the energy of the other runners to replenish your own reserves. It also helps that the race results will be posted online for eternity along with your full name and age at the time of the race, just a Google search away from being discovered by personal stalkers, blind dates or future employers. With those stakes, you want to put your fastest foot forward.

3. Track your progress.

Even before the days when I wore a FitBit that is perpetually telling me to get up and take some steps and smartly tracking my moments of exercise throughout the week (apparently my FitBit thinks mowing the lawn is a brisk bike ride), it was important for me to track my personal progress as a runner. Since the act of running is still not particularly diverting for me, the reward is the process of noticing improvement over time. How quickly can I run a mile? Can I run a full 5K without stopping to walk? Can I run a 5K in under 30 minutes? I always have a goal of some sort in mind, and completing one goal makes me want to tackle the next. It took years of on-again/off-again training, but I recently ran my first 5K without stopping, so now I’ll be moving on to improving my time. It’s also nice to have a device that will tell me exactly how far I’ve run and show me my mile time splits.

4. Make the conditions as perfect as possible.

Running is an investment of time as well as calories, so it’s important to make that time well spent, or you’ll never learn to tolerate it. Once I decided that running was something I wanted to commit to, I tried to make the conditions as conducive to running as possible. On a basic level, that meant buying some dry-fit clothes to combat my profuse sweating and getting new shoes to be used exclusively for running. (I actually started out using my old shoes and eventually hurt my knee, probably because the shoes weren’t giving me the cushioned support that I needed.) I also downloaded an app that could track my runs and eventually bought a FitBit. I like to listen to music or podcasts while I run, so I got an armband to hold my phone. When I was starting to see some progress and increasing my distance beyond The Mile, I paid some hard-earned money to sign up for my first race. (Again, find one with good swag so that it feels like you’re buying something beyond a runner’s high.) Most recently, I bought a treadmill so that I could continue to run over the winter without having to pay for a gym membership or deal with the hassle of driving to and from the gym to go for a run. To my immense surprise, I actually used it quite a bit and was able to maintain some of my running momentum even through the harsh Chicago winter. When spring rolled around, I wasn’t starting at zero, which was a great feeling.

5. Don’t stop believing.

hot chocolate 5k 2
I’ll pay for a race, but I won’t pay for race photos.

As I’ve hopefully made clear, I still don’t love running. I have yet to have a full epiphany on the joy of spending a half hour banging my legs into the ground as I travel short distances that humankind has invented better methods for traversing. (My bike stares back at me with disgust every time I go for a run.) I also encountered injury (that shoe-induced sore knee) that prevented me from running for a time and derailed the progress I had made. That wasn’t fun, and my break from running extended well beyond the healing of my injury, as I kept coming up with reasons why I couldn’t get back into it just yet. But the seed had been planted, and eventually a spring day came that made me say “This is running weather,” and I started pounding the pavement again.

It sounds cliche, but running is almost as much of a mental challenge as a physical one for me. Since it’s not my passion, there are mental hurdles I sometimes have to jump to maintain my motivation, but once I do, I never regret the run. I definitely like running more after I finish than before I start. And for now, chasing that feeling is enough to make it worthwhile.

If you’re like me and you’ve hated running for a long time, I’d encourage you to give it another try. If I could go back in time and tell my childhood self that I would grow up and frequently run of my own volition, he would never believe me, but that thought also inspires some pride that makes me glad I’m doing it.

And, who knows: If I keep this up, maybe I’ll magically become fast again someday.

The family that runs together, stays together.

A Blog About Beards

I’m currently participating in Blogging 201, a free online “class” run by WordPress (the company that hosts this blog), that offers daily tasks for bloggers to complete that hopefully will improve their writing or drive more readers to their site. Yesterday’s assignment was to delve into your web site’s stats and see which posts are the most popular. Once that’s been determined, you can think about developing more content that your audience would enjoy.

The most popular post on my blog leads the pack by a mile. It’s from relatively early in this blog’s history and it’s ranked highly in Google’s search results…for beards. The post is Fear the Beard: The Missing Manual for the Manliest Facial Hair. I wrote the post in 2012 when I was experimenting with a full beard for the first time in my life and discussed the various stages of beardedness that I went through to achieve a fully follicle’d face. It averages 4-7 views per day from complete strangers with questions about beards, especially those who Googled “beard growth stages” or some variation on that theme. I’m sure this post will only help my ranking as the search engine king of beards.

So in the spirit of Blogging 201, who am I to deny the public what they’re asking for? Let’s talk some more about beards!


No Evidence of Disease

After chronicling my cancer battle for the last eight months, maybe it’s a little ironic that this is one of the most difficult blog posts for me to write.

Yesterday I received the results from my third PET scan, and there is No Evidence of Disease. I am in remission.

I had lots of immediate thoughts. Among others: Hallelujah…Thank you, God…Time to celebrate…and Wow.


Done With Lumpy!

I don’t have the proper words to thank God for leading me into this storm and guiding me back to a safe and healthy harbor—feeling more loved, more grateful, and more compassionate for having taken the journey. I am blessed beyond measure.

I don’t have the proper words to thank the people—family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers—who took the time to wish me well, say a prayer, send me cards, make me food, knit me a blanket, light me a candle or otherwise support me. Their example has lit a fire within me to somehow pay this forward to those in my life who are in need. I am blessed beyond measure.

I don’t have the proper words to thank my wife for boldly stepping up to face a challenge that few couples encounter just four months after they eat their wedding cake. Day after day for the past eight months, she personified the marital vows she so recently agreed to. This trial and her self-giving, sacrificial response have made our marriage stronger than it ever possibly could have been if our first year as husband and wife had been smooth sailing. I am blessed beyond measure.

I don’t have the proper words to describe how so much good can come from something so seemingly bad, so I’m going to borrow words from J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen Colbert. In a recent interview, the Catholic comedian quoted Tolkien when talking about how he coped with the tragic death of his father and two brothers as a child. Reflecting on the purpose of something as seemingly awful as death, Tolkien wrote, “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Colbert expounded on this, saying,

“So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

Colbert’s line has been stuck in my head since I read it last week, and it bears repeating, since it’s incredibly appropriate given the last eight months of my life: “It would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude.” It makes me think back to my diagnosis. Was I grateful? Nah. Accepting? Eventually. But even my acceptance and understanding of why this had to happen to me has evolved significantly. I think my feelings are summed up rather perfectly by another favorite Catholic of mine, Fr. Robert Barron, who also found wisdom in Colbert’s interview and added a deeper layer to it:

“One of the most potent insights of the spiritual masters is that our lives are not about us, that they are, in fact, ingredient in God’s providential purposes, part of a story that stretches infinitely beyond what we can immediately grasp. Why are we suffering now? Well, it might be so that, in St. Paul’s language, we might comfort someone else with the same consolation we have received in our suffering.”

Blogging about my experience has been a great consolation to me on so many levels, and it makes my heart soar to hear that my oversharing of my experience has inspired others in some way or been informative to fellow cancer patients or made someone think or made someone laugh or made someone pray.

My treatment is over and the cancer is gone, but I want to keep driving the consolation train for those in my life. As I’ve previously mentioned, I have been blessed with an army of people who, by their example, have co-authored a manual on How To Respond. Browse my previous posts and you too will be overwhelmed by the simple (and not so simple!) gestures of support that helped me to endure countless hospital visits, incessant needles, annoying hospital stays, bouts of Chemo Chrappiness™ and more. Make no mistake, if I seemed optimistic and positive during these trials, most of that stemmed from the overwhelming power of my support and not my own indomitable spirit.

I firmly believe that it was God’s plan for my life that I should go through this experience at exactly this moment and under these exact circumstances. Of course this means that it was also God’s will for me to get the “good kind of cancer” and live through the experience, when so many others were not so lucky.One tangible way this experience has changed me forever is that I am no longer capable of praying without offering one up for everyone who has or had cancer, living or dead. I’ve become so much more aware of this insidious disease and the havoc it’s wreaking somewhere every day–complicating lives or ending them too soon. While I trust that their deaths are as much a part of God’s plan as my survival, it doesn’t make it any easier to absorb. And it definitely makes Colbert and Tolkien’s gratitude more difficult to muster.

But here I am. I am alive. I am healthy. I am blessed beyond measure with gifts and talents and family and friends. I don’t know what God has in store for me, but I know it must be something special, and I stand ready to trust in the next stage of His plan.

The Problem of Too Many Oldies

Dave Clark Five

When I was growing up, listening to the radio in Chicago was a remarkably regimented experience. Turn to any station on the FM dial, and you knew exactly what you were getting. For example, there was a station for current top 40 and dance music. There were a couple stations for “light” adult contemporary hits. There was a station for alternative rock.

And there was a station for oldies.

For the majority of my childhood, my family’s radios alternated almost exclusively between “light” rock and oldies. To this day, I can authoritatively sing along to almost any rock or pop song from the late 1950s or 1960s, while many 1980s soft rock hits send me flashing back to my toddling days in a car seat in the back of my parents’ Buick.

The point is, the stations’ formats were straightforward, especially where the concept of “oldies” was concerned. “Oldies” meant longtime Chicago deejays like Dick Biondi spinning the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the best of the British Invasion, Dion, Chubby Checker and all points in between.

But in a chilling wake-up call over the past couple years, I’ve noticed that it’s increasingly difficult to find these oldies anywhere on traditional radio. In fact, some of the songs of my 1980s childhood days are starting to qualify as oldies. Even hits of the ’90s are starting to be peddled as a unique throwback for a weekend of radio programming. What is going on? And when did I get so old?

Tonight I heard John “Records” Landecker queuing up the “80s at 8” on 94.7, a channel that until very recently was a watered down last bastion of true “oldies” on the Chicago airwaves. As John Mellencamp (from his Cougar era) filled my eardrums, I came to a startling conclusion:

There are now simply too many oldies.

Maybe that’s always been the case. Maybe that’s why I didn’t really hear any 1970s music until a “timeless rock” station came on the air in Chicago in 2001. Maybe that’s why I didn’t really hear any pop standards from the 1930s-1950s until I stumbled upon an old Frank Sinatra cassette in high school and sought out more at the library.

The scary reality, however, is that the songs that were “oldies” to my generation are now no longer on the air, the same way Sinatra’s ilk were long since radio-silenced by the time I first tuned in.

If you were new to American music, the current state of Chicago radio stations would lead you to believe that nothing of musical note (puns!) came out of the 1960s beyond the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Some might try to argue that point academically, but the fact remains that my childhood would have been far more deficient of joy if I hadn’t been able to sing along to “Runaround Sue” and “It’s My Party.”

In the new world order of Pandora and Spotify and iTunes, building a personal, on-the-go music library has almost replaced the institution of being at the mercy of songs delivered via radio. But if I hadn’t had the static (more puns!) formula of radio stations to inform and form my musical tastes, any personal music collection I attempted to curate would be neither wide nor deep. If I hadn’t grown up hearing the Zombies or the Lovin’ Spoonful, chances are pretty good I wouldn’t be adding them to any Pandora stations or tuning in to the British Beats channel on a satellite radio. I cringe whenever I’m with someone young and musically uninformed who hears a hit by the Four Seasons and calls it “that song from ‘Jersey Boys.'”

Don’t get me wrong — I welcome a world in which the Chicago airwaves devote a single station or an entire weekend of music or even just an hour of airtime to the hits of the ’80s and ’90s. You can even call them oldies, if it’s already time to do that. But let’s not forget the musical building blocks that paved the way for everything we enjoy today. Besides, there were some dang catchy songs back in the day. It would be an awful shame if the radio continues to neglect entire eras of music and future generations of listeners are deprived of being into something good.

Friends and Networks and Friend Networks, Oh My!

I’ve often contended that if I ever went back to pursue a doctoral degree in something, it might be to study how relationships–casual acquaintances, business associations, deeper friendships, romantic relationships, etc.–are affected by technology. Aside from the personal fun of social networking sites, I find the whole concept academically enthralling because these platforms simply didn’t exist a relatively short time ago. Everyone knows how social networks have changed the way they communicate and the people they communicate with, but it’s also given us minute control over how we share and how we present ourselves to others. On the flip side, social networks work their societal spell by controlling what we know or might find out about others–even those that we don’t know very well (if at all) in real life–and instantly influencing how we perceive these people.

The point is, there’s plenty to think about and it seems like investigation of how technology is changing human relationships and social interaction should have some practical application toward making the world a better place. Until I can clearly see that useful end, however, my research into this subject will remain casual and anecdotal.

That said, I saw a very intriguing talk a couple weeks ago by Kellogg Professor PJ Lamberson, who works with the Northwestern University Institute on Complex Systems to study social dynamics and networks. The talk was about how to use social networks–the actual circles of people you know, not the websites you log into every day–to be successful. There’s all kinds of math and statistics supporting Lamberson’s assertion that people with diverse social networks tend to achieve more professional success. The “diversity” of your social network is defined by its level of closure: Are all of your friends also friends with each other? Are all of your friends involved in the same activities/careers/politics/clubs/religion/etc.? If not, your friend group is more diverse, and you have achieved the status of being a social “broker.” The brokers are more successful because they have social circles that are wide and divergent. For example, if you have friends in many different occupational fields and you have a problem at work, these friends can use their unique outside perspectives to give you ideas from their own fields that are perhaps applicable to yours.

The talk also taught me a new vocabulary word–heuristic–which is the perspective you have that helps you to solve a problem. If you and I are working together to solve a problem, we have three heuristics: yours, mine and our two heuristics combined. If you’re a social broker and have enough friends to get 20 heuristics into your problem-solving soup, that allows for more than a million different heuristic combinations. If you have a problem to solve and a diverse network willing to help you, the odds of finding new ideas and creative solutions are ever in your favor. This is also why crowd-sourcing can be such a useful endeavor.

So maybe this is obvious stuff, but the way Lamberson presented it really made me stop and think about my own circles. At a glance, I would say that I have more closure in my social network than a successful broker would. When I reflect on it a bit more though, I realize that I’ve been able to connect strangers with each other, help others solve problems and solve my own problems by tapping into the heuristic diversity of my family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances. As you get older, you almost can’t help but increasingly go for broke(r), as life experiences take you to new places, lead you to new careers, introduce you to new interests and shuffle up your circle of friends.

Speaking of circles of friends, I received a blast from the pre-social networking past on Facebook this week, when a friend from grade school posted an artifact from sixth grade that he recently found in his mom’s address book.

The Chain

Before there was Facebook to digitally document them, cliques were alive and well at my small Catholic grade school in the 1990s. I actually remember more about the world-changing-at-the-time sixth grade clique warfare than I care to recount here (gotta save something juicy for historians to dig up on their own), but I had definitely forgotten that someone immortalized our fellowship of coolness in business card form. Clearly the clique grew after the card had gone to the publisher, and I think I remember some shifting alliances that would have necessitated the addition of names in pen. I guess we had closed Facebook groups before there was Facebook. How hipster!

Even though my top billing indicates that I was The Chain’s ringleader, I have not kept in touch with my previous band of brothers in any meaningful way, aside from being Facebook friends with the majority of them and occasionally seeing their updates. Nevertheless, I would claim that Facebook’s existence (and our limited association with each other on the site) is still a net gain. We are no longer card-carrying members of The Chain (maybe Mark will start, now that he found his card?), but Facebook allowed us to all share a laugh at our own expense and briefly reconnect in the comment field.

This–and other more useful experiences related to solving problems, crowd-sourcing and seeking diverse heuristics–are part of what keep me bellying up to the Facebook bar. It’s a digital recreation and reminder of the divergent and convergent networks of people that I’ve had the privilege to meet, maintain and impact over time.

Whether I’m actually a “successful” broker or just a guy with a lot of social “closure,” I find it all incredibly fascinating and love living at a time when technology is making this discussion even easier to visualize and analyze.