Thursday, January 3, 2008

On the Mortification of the Flesh


A Short Essay and Memoir on the Infliction of Moderate Physical Suffering Ostensibly for the Improvement of the Health and Strength of the Body
This is gonna hurt...ahhhh, so what? It's time to go
Pray not for the task to be easier. Rather train to be strong enough for the task.

At the beginning of last year, I determined to achieve a number of goals, affecting various areas of my life. I bailed on a few, came close to hitting some others, and achieved a few quite neatly. As the year began to draw toward a close, I reviewed my list and found a few that were not complete, but still within my grasp. These were physical goals, involving feats of strength and endurance. The purpose of setting these goals was to challenge myself to train my body to a higher level of conditioning.
So, you may ask, how did I do?
Strangely enough, I did complete the goals I set (mostly), but as for the higher level of conditioning, I can’t claim that I made it. My actual training has been inconsistent throughout the year. There were times when I trained hard for weeks, or even months, and saw some good gains. There were also stretches where I was pulled away by other concerns for long periods of time. As I came into October, however, I realized it was crunch time. Do it or don’t do it. I determined to do it regardless.
So here’s what I determined to do.
The first of these two goals was to complete 500 consecutive Kettlebell swings. A kettlebell is a solid iron ball with an integrated loop handle. It is a traditional training tool in Russia, and has a reputation for being the domain of a strange type of weird hardass athletes (if the shoe fits). The standard kettlebell is about 36 lbs. That may not seem like much, but it’s skewed center of gravity, and the dynamic movements made possible by the handle give it the ability to work the body in ways that other exercise tools do not.
The Swing is the fundamental kettlebell movement. The idea is to hold the KB with both hands, bending the knees into a slight squat. Then snapping the hips forward, you raise the kettlebell up to head height, letting it fall back down again as you drop back into the squat position. This compound movement is deceptively simple, but you will find that it works the entire “posterior chain” of muscle groups very effectively. Most of the muscles we use to actually do real work are along the back side of our bodies -- the calves, hamstrings, glutes, the girdle of the lumbar and abdomen, the latissimus dorsi, trapezoids and deltoids. The Swing works these muscles marvelously, not in isolation, but in harmony, the way you will actually use them in all manner of everyday and strenuous activities.
I usually find that at 50 I’m starting to sweat. 100 is a brisk refresher. At 200 I’m getting blown. I’ve only ever done 300 once or twice. 500 is a real stretch. It’s rather like the question on the test that cannot be fudged. You either know it, or you don’t. Cramming right before the test does not help. In the same way, trying to cram training into my muscles in the last 2 weeks was not going to help. I simply had to suck it up, grit my teeth, start throwing iron and hope for the best.
The short version is that by modifying my pace somewhat, I was able to make it to 410 before stopping. I took about a 10 second rest and cranked out another 50. I took another 10 second rest and finished the set with 501 total.
I discovered something that I have experienced before, but tend to forget in between times. I can push my body further than I think, if I simply come to terms with the pain. I’m not talking about the pain of injury, although I’m sure this is true as well. I’m talking more about the pain of effort. I may well have been capable physically of making those last hundred swings without stopping, but I was having trouble at that point pushing aside the pain, and was beginning to fear that I would lose my grip. Compounding the problem was that my back deck was not fully cleared of recent snow and ice and I found my left foot slipping in a most distracting way. One does not want to slip sideways while tossing 35 pounds of cold steel in the air – at least not without intending to and having a plan. I also found that afterwards, although my shoulders, back and legs were sore, some of the worst of the soreness was in my forearms and wrists. If the chain is only as strong as the weakest link, then it may be a good idea for my to begin training my grip.
So, it was uncomfortable, but it was done. I completed this on Monday morning the day before Christmas. As usual I found the real muscular soreness setting in on Thursday, two days after the event. This caused me a little concern, as I had set aside Saturday for event two in my personal party of pain. The next challenge was to run 14 miles in 2 ½ hours.
14 miles is a half marathon. In 2000 I ran the 1st Green Bay Marathon, 26.2 miles in 4 hours and 46 minutes. I had intended to run it in 4:30, but the combination of eating the too much for breakfast, and 85 degree heat caused me to have to slow down at a few spots. I have been running on and off since, but never that kind of distance. I wanted to increase my distance training, but not to the level of commitment required for a full marathon. I figured a half marathon would be about right.
Again, the fact that I really didn’t train for it made the endeavor a dubious one. I obviously failed to achieve the underlying purpose of my goal which was to insure that I would train consistently. No matter. I figured I could still run it, and if I came up short, so be it. I had actually planned to run an actual race, but the only two half marathons I had set my sights on came and went, superseded by more urgent matters. I decided to forego the official race, and simply plan out my own route. After all, the purpose of running had nothing to do with qualifying for another race, or impressing anyone. It was simply about doing it. My original plan then was to run home from church one Sunday. It’s about 18 miles from my church to my house. I planned to change into my running togs after services and hit the road. I figured if I stopped near the old Pine Self Storage center, that was about 14 miles. I could then either call for a pickup, or if I was feeling good, finish the run all the way home. Well, events and weather (blizzards) intervened, and pretty soon it was do or die. So, on the last Saturday of the year, I got in the car and drove around the back roads of my home town and mapped out a nice 13.7 mile loop. I went back around to drop off a couple bottles of sports drink at 5 mile intervals and bought a couple of snickers bars to fortify me. Then I finished getting dressed, had another big cup of coffee (my preferred sports drink) and hit the road.
It was messy. The sky had just dropped a 8 inches of new snow the night before. The roads were slushy and wet. There is one section of the route that is pretty much a 4 mile climb. It seemed to me like a 1000 foot climb, but the topo map shows that it’s about a 500 foot increase in elevation. I noticed a definite drop in temperature about the half way point, as I was running along the ridgeline, and a cold front was just coming in shredding the clouds to reveal a little blue sky and a lowering winter sun. By the time I reached the last 2 miles, I was pretty beat, and the rest was mostly just hobbling along. I finished in 2:48, about 18 minutes behind my intended pace. Nevertheless, what with having never run the route before, and the rough weather, I’m reasonably happy with the result.
On finishing, I partook liberally of Tylenol and vitamin C in a effort to mitigate the pain and damage from those nasty free radicals. I think this may have actually been very helpful, as I had very little soreness in the following days.
Again, I found that I was able to push much farther than I thought I could. My weakness this time was my legs. My heart and lungs were relatively good throughout, but my legs were definitely struggling toward the end of the run.
A few days later, I’m feeling pretty good. No soreness to speak of. I haven’t set my new goals for this year. I’ll be posting later on my goals for the year in general. It was still worth it, just knowing that this 44 year old body can still be called upon to do the work necessary.

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