Category Archives: Health

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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A running lesson from a 70-something hiker

On Croagh Patrick

On Croagh Patrick

“It’s good for the soul.”

Not the words I expected to hear from a 70-something hiker as he ascended the tough scree slopes of Croagh Patrick, a mountain on Ireland’s western seaboard, on a rain and wind-lashed November afternoon.

The light was falling and I was coming off the mountain as quickly as my sodden boots could carry me. As I descended I was surprised to see, emerging from the mist ten minutes below the summit, a couple of men making their way up.

As they got closer I expected a brief conversation, above the howling wind, about conditions on top or how much longer they had to hike to get there. That’s if I even wanted to engage in conversation – my summit high had quickly faded and I was dreaming of taking off every piece of wet clothing once I got back to my car.

The lead climber, now just meters away, was 40 years older than me, moving slower than I was and clearly feeling the impact of a 700 meter ascent up a wet rock path.

Seconds before we passed he looked up and grimaced, before smiling briefly and giving me his words of advice. A second later we parted. I think we managed a mutual ‘best of luck’ – but I doubt either of us heard it above the wind.

This morning I awoke more than 4,400 miles from Croagh Patrick, to the sight of rain pouring down on the September streets of Portland, Oregon. It was before dawn, I was tired, my legs were sore, my rain-gear packed in a box still in transit from Ireland.

I could’ve provided myself with a dozen more excuses not to go for a morning run. But something in the rising light or the hanging clouds on the West Hills kicked me back to November 2008, to the slopes of Croagh Patrick and an old hiker who refused to quit on a hard mountain day.

My three miler was little compared to his daylong climb, though we probably wound up equally drenched afterwards.

Eight years on, the Croagh Patrick climber’s advice has stayed with me. Whether it’s climbing a weather-lashed mountain or pounding city streets through the rain, don’t think it, just do it – and keeping doing it. If nothing else, your soul will be fit.

A climber through the mist, Croagh Patrick, November 2008

A climber through the mist, Croagh Patrick, November 2008

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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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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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You’ll never beat the Irish (breakfast)

800px-Full_irish_breakfast

“It’s survived recessions and depressions, world and civil wars.” Pic: Gus-DLC

First things first. There’s a great deal I like about being Irish.

An appreciation of the underdog, the mental ability to handle days and weeks of rain at a time, a healthy bulls***meter.

But more than once over the years I’ve felt that it’s time to hand my passport in.

It’s not the old post-colonial self-loathing (blaming the Brits being a national sport), but there are times, when I spot a news story or overhear a remark, that I wonder: what the hell is this place?

Like when I see this.

FullSizeRender

Because the first question you ask, when you discover that you’ve spent your life eating carcinogens is: ‘can I still eat carcinogens? Two or three types fried up together?’

Of all the gifts Ireland’s bestowed on the world the ‘Irish breakfast’ is the one that leaves me the coldest.

It’s ‘wrap the green flag round me’ on a plate. It’s traditional (but don’t the Brits, and the Ulstermen, have their versions too?), it’s salt of the earth, it patriotically supports the Irish meat industry, and it’s washed down by that other Irish morning staple – tea.

It’s eaten by all ages, from cradle to grave; and served everywhere, from the overpriced, tears-in-your- ketchup nostalgia version at departures in Dublin Airport, to the under-heated, shrivelled apology-on-a-plate passed off to you at your mid-range b and b. And in a thousand sad breakfast buffets in between.

The bacon’s either see-through or incinerated (occasionally both), the sausage an emaciated Denny Gold medal, the tomato cold and the eggs rubbery – but not as rubbery as those tumorous button mushrooms you try (and fail) to spear.

Porridge - carcinogen-free. And grey. Pic: Nillerdk

Porridge – carcinogen-free. And grey. Pic: Nillerdk

At least the baked beans are edible – but that’s probably because they’ve come from a tin.

Now it’s under threat. The World Health Organisation has advised that processed meat causes cancer, prompting panicked warnings of ‘the end of breakfast-as-we-know it’ and fuelling vox pops in greasy spoons with red-faced, recalcitrant diners who pledge a dying loyalty to their daily sausage.

Irish civilisation  – or that part of it that exists between 8 and 10am and is collecting its cholesterol medication afterwards – is under threat.

But fear not. Given that the Irish are among the most prolific drinkers in the world, and that one-in-five of us still smoke, one or two other cancers are likely to have first call on our national mortality.

Much as it disturbs me, the Irish breakfast always endures. It’s survived recessions and depressions, world and civil wars. Even dioxins in pork couldn’t stop it. When the last Irishman drags his wearied, ragged frame across what remains of post-apocalyptic Dublin his final words will be: “what time does Matt The Rashers open at?”

As for me, I’ll stick to a couple of the other things the Irish are famous for. Like porridge. And complaining.
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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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The silence of the yams

IMG_5462I was a little late to the feast when it came to In Defence Of Food.

My secondhand edition of Michael Pollan’s healthy eating treatise is garnished with words like ‘bestseller’, ‘must-read’ and ‘Book of the Year’.

The year in question was 2008 and – though time and food fads may have moved on since then – common sense hasn’t. Pollan’s recipe for eating holds true.

A bit like the ‘whole foods’ that he repeatedly praises, Pollan’s central thesis is served fully formed: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

It’s simple. And it’s a theory that frees you from focusing (or obsessing) on vitamins, saturated fats, free radicals, metabolic syndrome or any other effects of the foods or food-like products you eat – the ones that may or may not cause obesity, cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

Pollan’s advice won’t work for everyone. In fact it’s unlikely to work for most. Food producers make money from industrially growing their produce, food companies from refining it, doctors from treating the effects of eating it, and Big Pharma from making new drugs to better treat the diseases caused by the effects of eating it.

'Mostly plants.' Borough Market, London Pic: Clare Kleinedler

‘Mostly plants.’ Borough Market, London
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

And our brains, which crave glucose, don’t complain when we give them more and more of the stuff, usually from refined carbohydrates.

This is the food industry that whole foods (described by Pollan as ‘food that your grandmother would recognise’) are up against, and have been for the past 50 years. Not as profitable as processed foods, a simple vegetable can appear mute in the face of the multi-billion euro marketing yell of the food industry.

It’s ‘the silence of the yams’, as Pollan puts it.

There may have been a time when we regarded processed food as better for us (margarine, conveyor of spreadable trans fats, was marketed in the 1950s as healthier than butter) but that Atomic Age attitude has long since disappeared. Now we eat it because it’s cheap and there’s lots of it.

And it’s there too, in your face. Walk into any supermarket and compare the screaming colours of the centre aisles to the vegetables around the outside.  Away from the supermarket watch TV, browse social media, go to a sports’ event or a gig – and count the ads.

Amidst the noise, the claims, claims and more claims, the appeal of simple, non-scientific advice is strong.

Does it work? I’ve no idea. Neither does anyone else, definitively at least.

But I’ll err on the side of the Neolithic people whose tomb I visited last week, and the hundreds of generations since, up to the mid-20th century, by eating food, not too much, mostly plants.

Washed down by a little wine.
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