Category Archives: Fitness

As I walked out one Portland afternoon

Willamette River from the Broadway Bridge

Willamette River from the Broadway Bridge

Three months ago I arrived in Portland, Oregon, stepping out of a taxi at Glisan Street and 11th Avenue with my wife, both of us laden down with bags.

Since then I’ve walked. I’ve walked downtown, I’ve walked circuits of the bridges, I’ve walked up to the Pittock Mansion and down from the Japanese Gardens. I’ve walked in shorts, in temperatures of 100 or more, in the rain on gloomy Sundays, through the aisles of Powell’s bookstore and up the narrow path that leads to Multnomah Falls.

The reason for this constant perambulation is partly exercise-driven. Walking two or three miles is a lot easier on my body that pounding out the same distance running on the pavement.

But it’s also down to curiosity, to uncover the city from the ground level, from the veterans’ statues in the South Park Blocks to the skid row at their northern equivalent, from the moneyed glass towers of the Pearl to the dives along West Burnside.

First Avenue, Portland

First Avenue, Portland

The same impressions recur: the city is undergoing a rapid gentrification, Portland is a mecca for tourists, drivers here are more polite than in most other cities. Other things are also clear: the homelessness crisis is beyond anything I’ve witnessed in Europe, graffiti and stickers demanding rent freezes abound (“Keep Portland Weird” sounds more like “Keep Portland As It Was”).

And then, all about, there’s the fall. Putting complaints about the influx of rebuilding, prices and the decline of old Portland to one side, the city has looked and felt beautiful in recent days.

Last Friday I walked from Mississippi Avenue to downtown, across the Broadway bridge and down 2nd Avenue to the sunlit park at Lownsdale Square. In shirtsleeves too, despite it being early November.

The low light reminded me of walking in St Anne’s Park in Dublin at the same time of the year, the warmth October days spent visiting family in Los Angeles.

The onset of winter and its attendant rains will curb my outings, I imagine. Try as I might, I can’t warm to the Portland habit of venturing out into the rain without an umbrella. Last December I crossed the bridges on an icy mornings, braving northerly breezes down the Willamette River – not something I’ll repeat too often.

Until then though, you’ll find me out and about, crossing streets, dodging cyclists and checking signs, just walking.

Downtown Portland

New paths – downtown Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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What’s in my running bag

Don't leave home without it

It’s not a lot – but it works

When it comes to running I’m consistent. I don’t do bells or whistles. I don’t own a GPS watch – in fact I rarely run with any electronic device. Nor do I sport hi-tech socks or fancy layering.

Frugality is the name of the game. I like to keep my kit to five or six items.

This works well, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a lighter load. Secondly, packing is easier for runs in other places. Thirdly, there’s less stuff to lose – and it all fits in a 15 liter pack (a Berghaus Twentyfourseven bag).

Over the last decade of running I’ve boiled it down to a simple collection, pictured above. I have one duplicate of each clothing item and that’s it. (Did I mention I’m frugal on the track?)

This is the kit that gets me around the bridges in Portland, along the beach in Dublin, on the pavement in Toyko or through the park in New York City.

So, as they famously ask at Amoeba Music, what’s in my bag?

The kicks: Nike Vomero 8s. The most reliable running shoe I’ve owned. This pair are a couple of year old but a little TLC and a lot of avoiding cross country surfaces has kept them intact. Even after a solid drenching (Portland or Dublin-style rain) they’re dry in 24 hours.

Kit in action

Kit in action

The top: I’ve had plenty of running tees over the years. This New Balance sticks out for two reasons: it dries quickly and it was given to me by my fashion-forward sister. No doubt she noticed that it would match my Nikes.

The shorts: Every runner knows the feeling. You arrive in a city, unpack for a morning run, and spend ten minutes in the darkness trying not to wake your spouse and locate the running shorts you left in the laundry basket at home. This pair was picked up in the wake of one such morning, on a visit to Galway, Ireland.

The socks: Socks are socks are socks. Nothing fancy here. Black’s handy for hiding the mud stains though.

The outer layer: …And breathe. This North Face Flight Series has got plenty of ventilation and the green/yellow color means I’m less likely to become a road statistic. The downside is an unstorable hood which flaps demonically in the slightest wind (works well in the rain though – see above).

The glasses: A basic pair of Pepper’s, their Speedline brand. They’re polarized, which limits glare on early morning outings. Not too expensive because – inevitably – I will mislay them.

The watch: My only nod to the digital age. I bought this Polar AW200 nine years ago, ahead of an ascent of Mont Blanc. While barometers and altimeters are rarely required where I run the stopwatch is handy. No GPS or other workout tracking though – but then again I run for other reasons.

Needless to say I’ve spared you some less glamorous elements of my kit – the underwear, the sunblock, the Vaseline, the blood, the sweat and the tears.

But what you see is what gets me around. It’s enough to push out a 44 minute 10k in the park or around northeast Portland – which is all I need for now (just don’t ask me to do it every day though, or I’ll have to add a jumbo bottle of ibuprofen to my bag).
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The running advice that keeps me on track

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

One of the best insights I’ve encountered about running came not from a coach, or a sub-three hour marathon runner, or an athlete interviewed with a new medal.

Instead it came from a (then) 56-year-old man who I’d never met, and who’d made his name writing stories about – among other things – talking cats and alternate realities accessed through wells.

When Haruki Murkami wasn’t dreaming up his postmodern fables, he spent a lot of time running. And a lot of that time was spent running marathons (Murakami’s tackled the Boston Marathon six times).

His experiences led to his 2007 book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir which recounts how the Murakami-the-writer became Murakami-the-writer-and-obsessive-runner.

In his mid-50s at the time, Murakami was familiar with the highs all runners know. Given his age, and the strain marathons place on joints approaching their sixth decade, he knew the lows too, the tough days on the track.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional…The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself,” Murakami writes.

When you’re running well – in my case 75% of the time – such thoughts never cross your mind.  But Murakami’s advice has become a critical mantra to get me through the hard sessions, the mornings when my plantar faciitis kicks off, or my shins begin to splint, or I simply find myself slogging through 45 minutes of steady wind and rain.

And pulling through those sessions is, to me, what the spirit of running is all about.

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

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What I learned from a towering wall of Alpine ice

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Mountaineer Joe Simpson called it ‘the beckoning silence of high places’ – the lure that pulls people to the mountains, often to their most dangerous spots.

I’ve been to few places higher, or more silent, than the icy glacier that sits atop the Monte Rosa massif, the mountain chain which borders Switzerland and Italy, a sea of ice flowing down a frozen valley beneath the peaks of the Dufourspitze, Zumsteinspitze and Parrotspitze.

Six years ago this week I traversed the massif, climbing eight peaks in five days and pushing myself to limits I wasn’t even aware of.

Over the course of the week I came dangerously close to losing a glove in high winds on the Zumsteinspitze, assisted in bringing a fellow climber down after he was struck with altitude sickness, and – the payoff for repeated endurance tests – witnessed a series of incredible summit vistas.

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

I also took not-insignificant risks, one of which is pictured above. The picture was snapped as I descended from the Signalkuppe (4,554m), travelling by a hanging serac wall under the Parrotspitze (4,432m).

At the time the huge mass of ice above barely registered, despite it being mid-afternoon and a dangerous time for avalanches. I’d been climbing for 12 hours. Like the other members of the small group I was with, I just wanted to get down – and the route under the Parrotspitze was the most direct way.

In fact, given my tiredness, light supplies and the hour of the day it was the only option.

Perhaps that’s why the danger never registered at the time – when you’ve a single route forward and no way back it’s pointless to dwell on a concept like risk (or tiredness, or freezing feet, or an unquenchable thirst and a very finite amount of water in your flask).

Afterwards – if there’s an afterwards – you applaud yourself for your bravery, or dig up your photograph and write about it all.

I’m reluctant to draw life lessons from trips to the mountains, but when the Monte Rosa picture popped up on a social media feed this week it occurred to me that risk is a phenomenon that takes up as much space as you allow it to.

If you’re on a single path, to a single destination, it becomes – as it was under the Parrotspitze – simply part of the landscape.

Under the mountain - Parrotspitze, 2010

Under the mountain – Parrotspitze, 2010

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Running into the City of the Roses

The Willamette River

The Willamette River, August 2016

After 8,000 kilometers, a number of farewell parties and all the work that’s involved in packing two lives into two dozen cardboard crates, I arrived in Portland this week in dire need of a mind cleanse.

When I’m jetlagged or feeling the strain of a heavy schedule one thing works for me – running. It doesn’t have to be a long distance or a great pace, or even a particularly enjoyable session. I just need to get out the door and start pounding it out.

My wife and I woke at 6am last Wednesday morning to a crystal clear sky over the City of the Roses. This was it, the first day of the Next Step, and the next step was getting outdoors.

We are staying in The Pearl district, close to the waterfront along the Willamette River – a circuit of which provides a spectacular dawn run. I had done this loop, around two of the 12 bridges which span the waterway, when we visited the city last December.

On the waterfront. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

On the waterfront. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Back then the weather was cold, with a freezing breeze off the river which blew away any jetlag cobwebs. This week it was warm, 19c at 7am, but a gentle late summer wind was just enough to ensure a comfortable run.

And so I started the next stage of my life much as I’d finished the last one, jogging along an expanse water as the day dawned. When much else is changing there’s comfort in maintaining some routines.

In busy and stressful times, periods of bereavement, heavy workloads, on days when it’s all gone right and others when I’ve hit a speedbump, up to this most recent move, to a new country, running has been a staple. At times it’s been easy, the 10k flying by; other times, every kilometer has been hard fought.

But every time the end result is the same. I walk back in the door in a better frame of  body and mind than when I stepped out.

Last Wednesday I entered our rented apartment, sweating and thirsty, tired and happy, dropped my keys and hat and told my wife something we already knew, “this is a great place”.

It is, and it’s best seen at 7am on a summer morning, crossing the Hawthorne Bridge with the sun on your face, the wind to your back, and the road rising to meet you.

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Taking away some of that Bull Island zen

Dawn over Bull Island

Dawn over Howth Head, August 2016

My physiotherapist better look away now. Because this is a post about something that I really shouldn’t be doing much of but, despite all advice to the contrary, can’t give up.

It’s running. Or jogging, or slogging, or the next best word that describes my morning efforts around Bull Island.

On the mornings I can run that is. A burgeoning case of hallux limitus, a fairly common arthritic disorder that’s struck the big toe of my left foot.

A year ago I wrote about how the condition could eventually end my running altogether. Twelve months on and a canny regime of ice/walking/bicycling/rest has ensured that I can still get out for 5k twice a week. If I’m feeling utterly reckless I’ll stretch that to 10 – and pay for it afterwards.

But stopping is not an option. Most runners know the empty, distracted feeling when they miss a planned outing. Those who are injured know that they will do anything – make whatever time sacrifice, take whatever supplement, stretch whatever muscle – to get back out again.

Why? It’s not to get a physical workout – there are less painful ways to do that. It’s mental – or it certainly is in my case. When I’m off the track I miss the calming, clearing effect of a good run.

Running man

Running man

Over the years I’ve tried many things to quiet my mind. But nothing even comes close to the effect of 25 minutes running in the outdoors.

In recent weeks I’ve needed this more than ever. Planning, packing and preparing to leave Ireland has been exciting – but the flipside of the excitement, the anticipation and the bittersweet series of goodbyes has been my mind’s switch is jammed to ‘on’.

And so I’ve turned – despite the pain, which is manageable – back to jogging. Not just any jogging either, but a workout on Bull Island and Dollymount Strand, the sandspit that sits to the north of Dublin city centre.

This has been my gym in recent years, and it’s one I’ll miss. When my running ban was in effect I’d walk there, in any season and any weather.

But the best time to run in the area is on an August morning, shortly after a 6am sunrise. If you’re lucky you’ll catch dawn breaking over Howth Head, on one side, and over the city of a million slowly waking souls on the other. Most likely you’ll be alone, blank before the heavens, while your thoughts will have the decency not to intrude.

I’ve no idea where I’ll be running next month but – physios be damned – I will be. Whatever the location I do know one thing – I’ll take some of the Bull Island zen with me.

Dublin from Dollymount Strand

Dublin from Dollymount Strand, August 2016

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The five stages of runner’s grief

The foot

The foot

“The waiting is the hardest part,” sang Tom Petty in his 1981 hit, a song written as he recovered from a hand injury which limited his guitar playing. Or so I once heard.

At least Petty got back to the fretboard. My own experience with injury of late has been more along the lines of The Long and Winding Road, most of which has been pedalled.

For the past three years I’ve suffered with a running injury that worsened from an annoying niggle to a painful case of plantar fasciitis to a diagnosis of osteoarthritis in my big toe.

The result has witnessed a collapse in my mileage, from around 50k a week in 2013 to a pitiful five (10 if I push it) at present.

A programme of physiotherapy, along with exercises, x-rays and shoe inserts, was followed by a medical consultation and, finally, an appointment to an orthopaedic surgeon next month. While I wait on the latter my exercise regime has been confined to static, dull hours on a stationary bike, broken up by long walks (tantilisingly along my old running route).

The ongoing big toe saga also led me to google ‘how to cope with running injuries’, which brought me in turn to a Runner’s World article documenting five stages of ‘runner’s grief’.

First off, I’m aware that there are bigger problems in the world that a painful toe. But anyone who’s been injured will have encountered one or more of the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and – the fabled holy grail – acceptance.

Run or walk? Jogging in Porto, 2015

Run or walk? Jogging in Porto, 2015

In my case the first two, denial and anger, were one and the same, signifiers of a period when I’d run 40 and 50 kilometres and then lose my temper when I could barely walk for three days afterwards. Being as stubborn as most runners, this pattern of jog-wobble-hobble repeated itself for a year.

Then, with the onset of physiotherapy, I shifted to the third stage. I’d trade a dull, 45 minutes on the exercise bike for a 5k run. Then it became an hour for 2.5k and a handful of Vitamin I.

Was I depressed at this point? If I was I buried it in sweat and episodes of Deadliest Catch – still my stationary bike show of choice, mainly because the Bering Sea looks like the only place less enjoyable thank the tedious pedalzone I set up in our living room.

Then, one afternoon last December I walked into a radiology department at a Dublin hospital and, at long last and by way of my doctor, received a diagnosis. And now I’m awaiting the surgeon’s appointment.

Cue acceptance.

But not so fast (a bit like my 5k times). While I convince myself that I’m at ease with my injury and assure myself that I’ve learned lessons of limitation, ageing and common sense, the first question I’ll pleadingly ask the surgeon will be “can you help me run 50k a week again?”

To which he’ll likely laugh – and then recommend a stationary bike. Petty was wrong. The waiting’s been easy – the accepting’s the hard part.
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Sole survivor – adventures in male pedicures

Salon savvy.

Nailing it

It wasn’t until she pulled out the razor and smiled that I asked myself “what the hell am I doing here?”

I froze, the woman stared and my wife, seated next to me in the salon, laughed.

As a 30-something Irishman with no previous experience of pedicures, to say that I was out of my comfort zone – despite the luxurious massage chair and complimentary coffee – was an understatement.

So began my first – and to this day, only – such treatment, at Vietnamese nail salon favoured by my wife in her hometown of Los Angeles.

We were visiting for Christmas and I, on a heady whim fuelled by days of hot December sun and evenings of whiskey cocktails, had decided to embrace the male pedi-revolution. This was a significant move – for most Irish males ‘pedicure’ means a hasty toe-clipping and a quick visual once-over.

I was ahead of the curve. In the 18 months since, according to a Guardian report this week, sportsmen like David Beckham and LeBron James have inspired “average blokes” to pamper their toes.

As someone who knows his share of “average blokes” I’m not so sure. But perhaps, a bit like a sockless yours truly that morning in LA, they’ll try anything once.

At the time of my salon venture I was running 50k a week, with the feet and toes to prove it. My default home treatment was a handheld scraping device, which was crude but effective. When things got really out of hand I’d head to my podiatrist.

Of course he’d used a blade too. That said, maybe it was the clinical surroundings, the latex gloves, or (more likely) his stiff fee, but I never felt nervous when I turned to me bearing a scalpel.

Male pedicures before Beckham. Pic: Wellcome Trust

Male pedicures before Beckham.
Pic: Wellcome Trust

It was a different matter amid the magazines, cushions and foot baths of a disconcertingly female-focused salon – or so I thought.

Idiot me, however. Twenty minutes of clipping, scraping and buffing – the latter with a furiously-applied pumice stone – had restored my feet to a presentable standard. There was even some not-unpleasant tickling.

What’s more, my Dublin podiatrist had never given me a post-treatment foot-rub – my toes hadn’t felt this good since I first stepped out of my cot three decades earlier.

Little wonder men had been enjoying pedicures from back before Beckham donned a sarong – 4,000 years back, to be accurate.

So this story ends with me becoming a regular salon visitor, right? Well, not quite.

Oddly enough I haven’t been for a single pedicure since that first experience, in Dublin, Los Angeles or anywhere else. I’ve come close to walking into one of Asian salons on Capel Street, on my wife’s recommendation, but I’ve always pulled out at the last minute, too busy, or self-conscious or downright Irish to follow through.

Call it cold feet.

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New York City – five ways

Warning #1: all lists are subjective.

Warning #2: lists about New York City are more subjective than most.

So, unless you’re a 37-year-old Irishman with a MetroCard, good walking shoes, an empty stomach and a day to fill, what follows seem a little subjective.

But whatever. Here’s five ways into New York, five standout experiences among the dozens I encountered on a short visit to the city last week. And, helpfully, five photographs.

And no, there’s no particular order (though I’d leave the pizza until after the run).

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New York1

A dawn run in Central Park

Get out of bed and get to one of the West 59th Street entrances just before the sun rises over the Upper East Side. Join the other early birds and start heading north. After seven or eight minutes you’ll come upon the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. It might be oddly-named but its 2.2km add up to one of the world’s finest urban runs – pure shuffling, sweating tranquility in the midst of Manhattan. You may never live in a West Side mansion but you will see the dawn break over one.

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NewYork2

Grab some crab 

Done with the run? This is your breakfast. Get it from Artichoke Basille’s on East 14th Street, a tiny pizzeria which offers just four types of pie. Ignore (if you can) the sicilian or the artichoke and go for the crab. I’m not sure how they make it and, once I bite in, I don’t care. It’s the best slice I’ve had in the city, and best eaten standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other punters on the street outside. Can’t handle pizza at 10am? You’re in the wrong town.

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NewYork3

Browse a (very, very large) bookstore

Yes, booksellers still exist – even in Manhattan. Strand Book Store, two blocks south of Union Square, is a bibliophile’s heaven; or hell, as you’ll amass a dozen books in an hour’s browsing, only to leave half of them because your suitcase isn’t big enough. That said, they had me at ’18 miles of books’.

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NewYork4

‘A mug or two of your finest’

Famous for its policy of ‘Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies’ (until the 1970s at least) McSorley’s is what you expect of an old-school New York boozer – sawdust on the floor, exposed pipes, beer-rings on wooden tables and Irish barmen. Packed at nights (must be the onion-loving ladies) it’s best hit in the early afternoon, when the bar’s half-empty and the sun is shining through the tobacco-stained glass doors. Why does the ale come in two mugs? Who knows? Who cares?

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NewYork5

The meating place of the world

New York’s famous for its steakhouses, and Keens is famous among them. This is the land of dark wood, low lights, chest-bursting T-bones, mutton chops and creamed spinach. Time slows, the city (and the world) outside the pipe-strewn roof and picture-clad walls ceases to exist. Your New York day ends with you, 16ozs of striploin and a huge cab sav. If you can finish it there, you’ll finish it anywhere.

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The two words that will stop me running

http://www.parkrun.com/

Running in Tokyo, 2014

In the beginning was the burn – and the burn was sore.

A sharp, annoying type of sore, which radiated through the joint of my left big toe. First I felt it while running, then while walking. Eventually I couldn’t shake it off, it stabbed at me as I lay in bed at night.

So what did I do?

I ignored it, at first. Until it got so bad that – in a chain reaction of injury that doctors warn about but those who know better, like me, disregard – it kicked off a bout of plantar fasciitis.

That was over two years ago. At the time I reckoned – as did my then physio – that I’d sprained my toe and that rest, stretching and incorporating some cycling, would be fix me.

It didn’t. After two years of stretching, bathing, ibuprofen, heat rubs and an increasing sense of annoyance, all the while running less and less, I found myself with a new physio and the same old pain.

This time the news wasn’t good. She didn’t need an X-ray to diagnose hallux limitus, a form of early onset arthritis which leads to (the far more debilitating) hallux rigidus (two words that may eventually stop me running). Fun fact: ‘hallux’ is Latin for big toe. Less fun fact: ‘limitus’ translates as ‘oh dear’. (‘Rigidus’ is unprintable.)

Now that we had a diagnosis for the sharp needle jolt through my joint we could go about trying to stop it. But hallux limitus goes beyond just physical discomfort.

Big toe, big joint, big niggle.

Big toe, big joint, big niggle

As I started treatment I found (correction: I still find) myself looking at 40 and 50-something runners in the park now and thinking – jealously – how can you still do that?

Of course, they may ache too. They may, while lacing up, wince and curse God, or their antecedents, for handing them shaky knee joints, tight hamstrings or a weak left ankle. But still I look at their feet, particularly their big toes, enviously.

And so began the last six months – a period of painful massage, podiatrist appointments, endless fiddling with inserts and, finally, the arrival of spanking new orthotics.

This culminated in a command from my physio – no running for 10 days.

Did I feel better? Am I limiting the limitus? It’s too early to say. My mandated 10 day break ended this week with a meekly-jogged 5k.

Of course this is the point at which I feel duty bound to warn of the dangers of not seeking treatment quickly for running injuries, the benefits of rest and the advantages of gentle walks.

But I can’t. In the past 18 months I’ve been lucky enough to experience solitary, mind-clearing dawns break over some wonderful places – Tokyo, Bordeaux, London, New York City, even Galway – something I could never have experienced without running – or without feeling that old familiar burn.

Lesson learned? Not yet, I’m afraid.

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

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