Category Archives: Fitness

Into the dark that was everything and nothing

Dublin shoreline. Pic: Peter Gerken

Dublin shoreline.
Pic: Peter Gerken

The dark hung above the marshland that ran from the road to the sea.

It was everything and it was nothing. It ran above the wetlands and over the dunes and on out into the water.

It moved in winter storms, or hung silent in the fog. The dawn banished it, but only slowly.

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In the morning he would wake, rising into the winter blackness.

Because the routine was the man, he believed, he would put on his clothes in the same order each time, trying not to wake her.

He had run his route so often he didn’t question why he did it anymore, or if he should change it, or stop doing it.

He would run when he felt good, rested, and when he was tired or sick. Injury would stop him but he would always, eventually, run through that too.

He knew when he didn’t do this, or if didn’t do it often enough, he felt empty, like he hadn’t engaged with what the morning or with what his life offered.

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He ran into the dark.

Ten minutes along the unlit causeway, the road linking the city’s edge to the dunes, he was alone.

He carried a headlamp and most mornings he used it, the thin blue light a comfort, though it barely showed the marshland’s edge.

But there were mornings he didn’t bring a light.

Then he ran by habit and experience, by guesswork and luck, facing ahead into the dark that was everything and nothing.

_____

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This happens to the best and to the worst

FullSizeRender (6)You sit and stare into space.

You change tack – by sitting and staring at a blank screen.

You’ll do it tomorrow, and tomorrow – you said yesterday, and the day before.

You take a morning trip to the city centre, walk around, drink coffee, get rained on, hope that something will strike.

You return home.

You reckon you could squeeze out something on Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra, or your sign-up to Spotify, or running in December. Or that plate of sprats you ate in London, unlike any other you’d had.

You don’t – the blank screen’s in the way.

You make lunch and eat it. You pack a bag for a trip to see your father. You dig out a Sonny Rollins CD you bought a month ago but haven’t listened to. You google details about the CD.

You text your wife, telling her you’re set to start. You check Facebook, again.

You want to finish a book of short stories but you’ve promised yourself that you’ll do this first.

You assure yourself that this happens to the best and to the worst of them.

In desperation you copy a trait from a novel you’re just finished, writing in the second person narrative.

You start.

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The sound of silence? It’s quiet good for you

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.
Pic: William P. Gottlieb

You know what’s the loudest noise in the world man? The loudest noise in the world is silence.”

So said Thelonius Monk.

How much time do you spend in silence each day?

Three minutes? Thirty? An hour? Not enough?

On average each of us encounters 52 noiseless minutes every day, according to a study published last week.

But that’s on average. The same survey also found that a third of us have less than a half hour’s silence a day – and one in six of us less than ten minutes.

‘That’s more like it,’ I thought to myself (silently) on reading about the study.

I don’t know exactly how much silence I encounter each day but I’d guess it’s around 30 minutes, usually late in the evening.

Even the time I spend alone – running in the morning or eating breakfast – is not silent. Traffic, the wind, background music, a boiling pan – there’s plenty of ambient sound around.

As the day passes this usually doesn’t bother me. With the exception of a construction drill or a ringing phone I don’t notice any ill effects.

A silent Loch Lomond. May 2010.

A silent Loch Lomond, May 2012.

But every couple of days my mind jerks me alert, demanding ten minutes of silent nothing. The next chance I get (which usually arrives hours later, at home that evening) I turn off my phone, laptop, sound system and just sit, embracing the quiet.

This silence principally fosters a sense of peace, a reason why it’s vital for practices like meditation.

But it’s not just the mind that benefits. Silence is good for your physical health. Absence of it (that is, the presence of noise) can lead to higher blood pressure, heart disease and heart attacks.

It’s also important for your cognitive function, specifically ‘right brain’ activities. It fosters creativity by filtering away daily sound, leaving focus and perspective.

When one focuses on silence it can – in the right circumstances – shift from being a passive absence of sound to being a presence, an active un-noise. The value of silence lies in this presence; the deeper one drifts into it the stronger the pull is.

Perhaps this is why Monk, a metropolis musician who spent many nights on stage alongside blaring brass, described silence as the loudest noise in the world.

Until your neighbour’s car alarm sounds.

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Japan is…(in pictures)

Describing Japan in 500 words is difficult.

A few weeks since I returned from my first visit I am still trying to process the sights and sounds, the hundreds of small impressions that make up the memory of my trip.

Having previously set down a take in words I figure that now it’s the turn of pictures. Here’s ten that sum up what I saw of the country over the course of a busy 12 days.

I’ll get back to Japan, sooner rather than later. These impressions are part of the reason why.

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10373736_10152908947622178_4745746173785539010_nThe Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is a major Shinto landmark in Kyoto. Like many such shrines it’s watched over by a fox – seen in the Shinto religion as a messenger.

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10334277_10152908952182178_4149215068209749102_nTen minutes from the busy Umeda commercial district of Osaka lies the river Yudo. Despite being on the cusp of a city of 2.6m people only a few runners hit the riverside running trails in the morning.

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10300116_10152908952012178_2493308882644777009_nFrom the Toyko subway to the famed Shinkansen to a tiny local in Kamakura we rode the rails all over. With every train on time.

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10308451_10152908962772178_1072611473128084820_nYamakazi single malt and dried shrimp from the 24 hour konbini store – is there a better way to end the night?

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10261961_10152871147301562_4664971002810964931_nWe ate big, we ate small, we ate sushi, we ate yakatori, but we always ate together. This was at an izakaya in Osaka, one of a number we visited.

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10380303_10152896397587178_8632450224177713798_nThe Japanese love their dogs, and their dogs must love them. The famous Hachiko landmark at Shibuya Station in Tokyo commemorates Hachiko, a Akita dog who famously turned up daily to greet his deceased master for nine years after his owner‘s death.

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10388120_10152871153751562_4689159811570022304_nAttention to detail is taken for granted. Whether it’s street sweeping, ticket collecting or making simple store-bought sandwiches.

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10369194_10152871156011562_3277657691173660722_nThere are 6,000 people per square kilometre in Tokyo. And it feels like most of them are waiting by the lights at the famed Shibuya Crossing. People, people, people: up, down, left, right, forward, back.

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IMG_4095Amazingly we had little sushi during our visit. An hour before we flew home we rectified this, at breakfast, at Narita Airport.

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10370440_10152898596932178_7926672014977243993_nThe language: I wish I could read it. But part of me wonders how I’d ever manage to comprehend the bewildering array of symbols used. Maybe one day I’ll tackle this translation.

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Japan is…

IMG_3938

Iced coffee above Osaka.

– my wife’s birthplace
– rice
– sake (cold)
– sun (rising early)
– Kinosaki onsen
– turning to my patient sister-, mother- or father-in-law every time my gaijin gesturing failed (ie all the time)
– the Shinkansen
– bento
– Shibuyu crossing at night
izakaya
– family
– compact
– Kamakura
– dancing to Brubeck’s Osaka Blues, in an Osaka hotel room

Family.

Family.

– clean
– efficient
– zen rock gardens in Kyoto
– food, all good, everywhere
– progressive
– regimented
yukate
geta 
– dry Asahi beer
– Yamakazi 12-year-old single malt
– running in the morning on the banks of the Yudo river
– polite
– Murakami and his writings on Manchuria
– Paul McCartney and his drummer Abe Laboriel Jr.

Bento.

Bento.

– cans of Emerald Mountain coffee
– protein
– Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works 1 on my iPod
– Cigarettes in restaurants
– French white wines
– okonomiyaki
– New friends (and old ones)
– the intake of breath when stepping into the 44 C hotspring water
– drinking
sashimi for breakfast
– ‘what’s the wi-fi code?’
– a city from a dozen stories up
– cavernous department stores
– tiny Family Mart konbini stores
– coffee: iced in the morning, hot in the evening
– eye-opening
– gift giving
– different trains, different lines, different tickets
– the last two spectacular weeks

Rock garden at the Tōfuku-ji zen Buddhist Temple, Kyoto. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Rock garden at the Tōfuku-ji zen Buddhist Temple, Kyoto.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

 

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What a dead Romantic taught me about running

Percy Shelley. Not known for his jogging prowess.

Percy Shelley. Not known for his jogging prowess.

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like an exhausted jogger,
Dodging dog deposits on Amiens Street.

Percy Shelley didn’t write those last two lines. But his Ode To The West Wind is just about histrionic enough to cover most runners’ reaction to the gusts that blew through Dublin earlier this week.

Which one of us, buffeted with the breeze while dodging the wing mirror of a passing bus, hasn’t lifet out face to the heavens and proclaimed:

Thou dirge of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O hear!

No? Maybe it’s just me.

A summer of relative jogging calm came to a breezy end this week when the arrival of the first winds of Autumn, something I dread.

O uncontrollable!

O uncontrollable!

Hail? Fire? Black rain? I’ll take all of that – anything but wind. And much of my running is done near the coast, meaning I get the full, squally whack of it each morning.

This has transformed the gentle draughts of summer to blustery, gait-wrecking bursts. It’s a breath of Autumn that lingers through winter to Spring. And sometimes beyond.

It chills the bones (and more), adds minutes to my times and, over 10k, helps deliver rain to every last crevice.

But, like Canute manically ranting at the surf, shaking my sweaty fist at the latest passing Atlantic low pressure is pointless.

Shelley, not noted for his jogging prowess, nonetheless has advice.

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free Than thou, O Uncontrollable!

In others words run with the wind.

Who said the Romantics have nothing to teach us in the post-industrial age?

Next week – Wordsworth’s top five stretching tips.

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Postscript: He may not have been a runner but Shelley’s outdoor pursuits, combined with the wind, eventually proved his undoing. Three years after he wrote Ode To The West Wind his sailing boat encountered a storm in the Ligurian Sea, off northern Italy, in July 1822. The poet and two companions were drowned.

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How it took me 93 days to run 10k

Back on track.

Back on track.

THE REALISATION came 40 minutes in, just after the service station and before the yelping terrier.

After 93 days of pain, rest, stretching, rolling, cursing and – slowly, slowly – running again it struck me: I was going to complete the 10k.

Thirteen weeks after I limped into my physiotherapist’s clinic I was finally back to my regular running distance.

I’ve written before on how I was injured. A sprained toe broke the camel’s back of my bad habit of not stretching, which kicked off plantar fasciitis (PT) in both feet.

I was ordered off running and onto foam rolling, with a shot of dry needling thrown in for a bit of variety.

In the weeks after I moved from walks to 5k jogs to 7.5k runs. I even hiked Lugnaquilla on a 13k loop.

But, until last Saturday I hadn’t attempted my usual distance in a run.

The final couple of kilometres weren’t easy, and running half the route on concrete was foolhardy, but I made it over the line.

Initially I felt good. Twenty-fours hours later darts of pain through my soles warned me not to overdo it.

That’s the odd thing about this habit. I spent the summer recovering and re-training to reach a position where I could easily injure myself again.

The plantar fascia, on the sole of the foot. Pic: Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body

The plantar fascia, on the sole of the foot. PT causes it to swell.
Pic: Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body

Strangely, the risk of another serious injury doesn’t bother me like I thought it would. Perhaps the hours of stretching, glute lifts and other tedious exercises have finally taught me patience.

But there’s something else.

As I’ve gotten older the spectre of pain has loomed larger in physical exercise, be it running or hiking.

If it’s not to the fore it’s always out there somewhere, 10 or 50 or 100k down the road, at the bottom of the next hill.

When I first blogged on my injury back in May my friend C wrote to me, observing that many runners, as they age, appear to be hooked on battling pain.

This is somewhat true, I think. My youthful 20s are a distant memory and I’ve now factored discomfort into my running routine; it’s another element, like weather or time of day.

Writer Haruki Murakami, in his running memoir, recounts advice he once came across in an interview with a successful marathon competitor. “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”.*

Good advice, but still I didn’t repeat last weekend’s 10k the following day. Not wanting to take a chance with pain, or suffering, I jogged out a cautious 7.5k.

I’m still not fully recovered. But I have that fresh 10k in my back pocket.

That’ll do – for now.

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*Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Vintage, 2009), p vii

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Sprains cost. And you start paying…in sweat

A grand stretch in the mornings.

A grand stretch in the mornings.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

I don’t listen to Joni Mitchell when I’m running.

Her light-as-air voice and folk-jazz stylings jar with the lung-exploding, grunting, existential trauma that characterises my regular circuit.

But if I did I might have paid attention to her Big Yellow Taxi warning: we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone. I certainly should have in the lead-up to a recent injury.

Neglecting to listen to my body (until, eventually, it grabbed me by the collar, shrieking in pain) saw me out of running shoes and onto the physiotherapist’s bench. It also introduced me to cruel, unusual and wholly necessary punishment of foam rolling. More of that below.

The background to all this goes back three years to a New York Times’ article I read on the pointlessness of stretching before a run. My mistake was extending this advice to after my run too.

The result was chalking up five 10km runs a week with minimal (read: zero) warm-down stretching. Maybe a dozen times in three years, and just hams and calves to boot.

The eventual outcome of this should have been apparent in advance – not least when I found myself crawling off the table in agony after a couple of leg massage sessions last year.

But no. I jogged on and on, approaching the painful reckoning one 10k at a time. It eventually occurred when I stubbed my toe on a crack in a concrete pavement in early May.

That was painful, but still not enough of a wake-up call. So for two weeks I continued to run on a big toe which, I later discovered, was sprained.

A day after I blogged about my injury I attended my physiotherapist who, deftly masking her horror at the condition of my feet and legs, ordered me off running for a month.

Like a pulling a piece of muscular string the toe sprain had kicked off plantar fascisitis (swelling of tendon on the sole of the foot) in both feet, strained my peroneal muscles (on either side of the shin) and my vastus medialis (the muscles above the knee).

My gait had wrenched my overworked muscles so tight that I could barely walk.

And so began a programme involving various types of stretching, golf balls under the feet, leg strengthening exercises and the foam roller. Oh – and having steel needles inserted directly into my knotted leg muscles, which feels exactly as it reads.

Foam roller

Foam roller. Agonised roar not included.

The icing on the rehabilitation cake though is my foam roller, a piece of molded plastic that I roll under my knotted leg muscles, producing fist-chewing levels of discomfort and instant sweats. The roller’s improved the condition of my legs considerably, and my lexicon of swearwords.

The treatment’s ongoing and the pain’s still present. But the physio’s allowed me three 5k runs a week at this stage, which has saved me from losing my mind (and my ever-patient wife from losing hers). I’m getting back from the sofa to the street, slowly but surely.

And I’m loathe to see a moral in all this, other than ‘don’t be an idiot, you idiot’.

As Joni Mitchell might say, I’ve seen toes from both sides now.

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The aching is the hardest part

Here’s two things all runners hate.

ibuprofen

Runners’ little helper.

Anti-inflammatory meds and empty shoes. One of these is bad enough, both means you’ve either overdone it or been unlucky.

And so it’s been for me this week.

What started as a careless impact onto a piece of cracked pavement three weeks ago became, by last weekend, a darting pain in the joint of the big toe of my left foot.

The two weeks in between were where, as they say in the west of Ireland, Aughrim was lost.

I continued to run on the sore toe, and this led to a sore foot, which led to a second sore foot (as one overcompensated for the other), a sore leg and, eventually, (there’s a pattern developing) two sore legs.

There’s a simple question here, of course, that you don’t even need to ask.

But why couldn’t I stop running? Despite the darts of pain, the dull ache afterwards, the stiffness, the interrupted sleep and the frustration of all of the above, I kept it up.

Shoes

Kicked to the kerb.

So, 120k later and in considerable discomfort I eventually decided to take a week off.

It’s my first week’s break in 21 months, a period which encompassed two Irish winters, one Irish summer (indistinguishable from an Irish winter, for the most part), my wedding and a couple of transatlantic and other trips.

It also covered a couple of weeks of shin splints and sundry bloodied toes.

So I’m probably due a break before I suffer one – at least that’s what I tell myself. But, as most runners know, a short-term injury spells at best boredom, at worst outright frustration.

In my case it’s constantly checking my foot and counting down the days to the end of my time off (having self-diagnosed the injury as a minor toe sprain).

As I’ve waited this week, fidgeting, glancing at my running shoes and thumbing through my albums, I’ve wondered why no-one’s written a suite of songs about sport injuries.

Perhaps they have. I vaguely recall seeing a Tom Petty interview in which he spoke of writing his song The Waiting while he recovered from a broken arm, unable to play his guitar.

Beyond that though there’s no Chariots Of Fire for the hobbled set.

Maybe it’s time to write one.

Or crank up Blood on the Tracks.

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What I Talk About When I Talk About Runners

Got sole?

Got sole?

Until I reached the age of 30 I had never ran further than 200 metres at any one time. When I did it was at a stretch – one which often involved my hamstring.

That changed when I decided to climb Mont Blanc in 2008. I wasn’t fit enough so, one spring evening in that year, I ran five kilometres for the first time.

What followed was a reality check of the severest nature, and a gut-wrenching realisation that I had to change the way I lived.

So I started running. Almost five years have passed and – allowing for a six month lazy wobble after that Alpine trip – I am still going. Five times a week, regardless of weather, location, state of mind, tiredness or any other factor that conspires to trip me up.

Most of it happens in my hometown of Dublin, but sometimes it’s further afield. In the past two years I’ve pounded pavements and parks in Los Angeles and London, New York and San Francisco, Killarney and Tuscany.

I’ve run on the morning of my wedding and the nights when jetlag ruled out sleep in Manhattan.
My first thoughts on hitting any new place are a little like George Clooney’s secret agent in Burn After Reading.

I’ve done most of those runs in my Nike Zooms (above). And this week, after two and a half years, they’ve finally began to fall apart.

Dawn run, Central Park, 2010.

Dawn run, Central Park, 2010.

I estimate I’ve clocked up around 5,000km in these runners since I bought them, a stat which would horrify most orthopaedic surgeons. (Common advice is to change running shoes every 700km, I’ve discovered.) For the record over all that time I’ve lost four or five days to shin splints, but suffered no other injury.

Despite the crumbling soles, the ripped fabric and the ratty laces even at this late stage I am loathe to bin my shoes. They’re a beat-up symbol of how far I’ve come. But now they gotta go.

– Haruki Murakami readers will have spotted the hat-tip in the title of this post. Murakami’s book is full of on-the-mark observations about running. One of his best is one of the simplest: “You don’t need anyone else to do it, and [there’s] no need for special equipment. You don’t have to go to any special place to do it. As long as you have running shoes and a good road you can run to your heart’s content.”

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