Monday, November 5, 2012

Give 'Em the Finger!

No wait, it’s a good thing and runners know all about it.  When they encounter each other from opposing directions on the road, either too focused or too out of breath to shout a “Hey!” or a “Good Morning”, they give each other “The Finger”.  It’s a small gesture, usually not the middle one, though its meaning can be fluid and is completely user and context dependent.  Depending upon perspective, various, elaborate interpretations may be assigned to a seemingly simple use of body language.  Below are some sample interpretations of both, sending and receiving “finger” signals:

1.     Hey you! Fellow human being and runner, I acknowledge your presence and see that you and I are both of similar mind when it comes to getting up and out at 5 a.m. and making the most of our mornings.  This is cool!

2.     Wow, you are really moving fast; I wish I was as fast as you, but hey at least I’m out here running too while other folks are still in bed. Oh and look you gave me the finger too and acknowledged me even though you are one of the elite runners in town. Yes! That’s great!  Aren’t we cool? I feel so cool!

3.     Hey there struggling runner-good on ya! Good to see that you are out here even though it’s tough for you.  Keep up the hard work; trust me it will pay off. You are cool!

4.     Alright! I’m not the only crazy person in this neighborhood out at this hour.  Isn’t this fun? Hey, cool dog you got there!

5.     Good luck getting up this hill.  I’m on my way back now and I know it was tough! Stay cool in this heat!

When it comes to giving our fellow runners “The Finger” each of us adds our own particular panache to the gesture.  First of all “The Finger” is not necessarily limited to a single digit.  It is possible for it to be a full, open hand wave or greeting. More often there are a few fingers involved, some curled, slightly incorporated into a more complete “wave”.    Usually, the index finger is most prominent, but not always.  Sometimes, while offering “The Finger”, runners merely extend the index finger while simultaneously rotating their wrists 90 degrees in the direction of the other runner.  Hands usually remain at or by their side and may never actually rise above the runner’s waist.
Brief eye contact may also accompany “The Finger” for various time increments depending on the grade of the hill.  Subtle chin tilts up or in the direction of the approaching runner may substitute for, or combine with, “The Finger” gesture and is usually reserved for runners that frequently encounter each other.

The next time you are out running, pay close attention.  Observe the gestures that oncoming runners throw your way, and always, always, always, return the courtesy…
Give’em “The Finger”.  It is the considerate thing to do.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Nod To Rick Bragg

“Who are you for?” is usually one, of the first of two questions a person is asked, when they relocate to Alabama from out of state.  If you reply with an SEC team other than Alabama or Auburn, you may or may not meet with approval, but you are automatically granted a degree of respect.  Mentioning a team from up north like Syracuse, Nebraska or Oregon will get you a head tilt and some cocked eyebrows, but folks will at least know where you stand. 

Answering with “Well, I didn’t go to school in this state and I don’t really care much about football ”, is a common, though ill advised, answer.  Alabama folks have heard this before from multitudes of displaced Yankees, who seem to get some wicked thrill, pretending not to notice that down here, football is important.   It’s not an original answer.  It is, however, equivalent to declaring atheism when asked the second of the two questions, which is usually, “Where do you go to church”?

If you declare an SEC team, that’s at least like answering the church question with Baptist, Methodist or A.M.E.  It may not be their church, but they know where you stand and will honor your beliefs.  Proclaiming loyalty to a team from an “up North” conference will buy you slightly more suspicion, say on the order of claiming that you are either Jewish or Mormon,  but you will still be welcomed with open arms to the brotherhood of Monday morning quarterbacking.

I know this from personal experience.  I used to be that ugly Yankee that feigned ignorance to the phenomena of southern football.   After a while, it just becomes tiresome for everyone involved.  What I’ve also learned, is that it’s much more fun, to join in the fun. 

I’m going to pass along a little personal advice to any future Yankees that may be locating to Alabama in the future.

Pick a team. 

You don’t have to run out and buy season tickets; just be polite.  

Pick a team.  Any team.

 I know you probably don’t care, not yet anyway.  It doesn’t matter.   Watch a game, or at least pay attention to the highlights on the news at night.  Be able to name a player or two, and the coach.   Pick a team whose colors you wouldn’t mind adding to your wardrobe, then wear those colors to work on Friday with everyone else and talk a little trash.  Who knows, after a while, you might find yourself at a local sports bar watching the game with a bunch of rabid fans.

 You will tell yourself that you are not really there for the football. 

You will rationalize your presence by noting that the place does have a really good selection of your favorite microbrews. 

Oh and by the way, the game is on and you are wearing the right colors.

That’s how it starts…

Talking about football is the sacred, social, grease in the wheels, down here.  In most places, people talk about the weather when they need to break the ice with a stranger.  Down here, weather is no benign, neutral topic.  People live with constant, tragic reminders of deadly tornadoes and storms. No one opens a conversation with a stranger by saying, “nice weather we’re having lately?”.

No, they ask each other how they think their team is doing, they question whether or not the coach made the right decisions the previous week, or they may even ask for prayer to heal an injury to a key player.   I have seen shared football stories, memories of triumph on the gridiron, or even playful needling by rivals, create smiles, in the saddest of times and places.  

After living nearly 20 years down here, I’ve learned to fit in.  I love Alabama.  Nowadays, when someone asks me “who I’m for”, I tell them Auburn.  They don’t have to know I picked Auburn merely because their colors happen to be similar to one of the teams I left back home, the N.Y. Mets.  I like orange and blue more than I like crimson but that’s ok.    I suppose if any of the team uniforms in Alabama had pinstripes, this N.Y. Yankee would have to, “be for them”, as well.

In a recent article in ESPN magazine, Rick Bragg remarked that “In order to understand football’s place in the south, you first have to see it from the inside”. 

He’s right.

 I have also discovered that in order to understand Alabama’s place in the world, you have to see it from outside the United States.    

10,000 miles away at about 14,000 feet of elevation was where I caught that glimpse. On the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, 2 degrees of latitude below the equator, one of the Tanzanian guides asked me where, in America, I was from.  Back then, I wasn’t completely comfortable with the notion of saying that I was “from” Alabama, but I didn’t want to have to launch into a long, complicated explanation about the difference between where I was born, versus where I currently live.  I also figured he’d probably never heard of it and so it would be something unique to discuss.

I was wrong. 

The word “Alabama” had barely finished resonating, when the guide punched his hand in the air and yelled, "Rolllllllllll Tide!" with perfect inflection.  I was stunned and amazed as tears suddenly filled my eyes.  In that instant I became proud of my adopted home.  Several days later a security agent at the airport in Amsterdam, struck up a conversation with me at the gate access.  After asking me where I was heading, she sealed the deal for me right then and there by launching into a lovely, a cappella, version of Sweet Home Alabama.  

For outsiders, I could see that it might get a bit confusing, because sometimes the word “Alabama” refers to the State of Alabama, and at other times, it is a reference to the University of Alabama, and more specifically, the football team. 

In my travels around the world, I managed to learn what the rest of the world somehow already knew about Alabama.  It just took me a little longer than most, to figure out. The whole world knows that down here, Alabama is football, and football is Alabama.

Auburn fans understand about that.
They smile and forgive it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Barefoot Contestant- "Toeing the Line" Part IV

“There are many paths to the top of the mountain but the view is always the same”.
-Chinese Proverb

    I embarked upon this journey because I was seeking an end to my running pain. I had no intentions of joining a cult or of becoming some sort of running evangelist.
I have tried my best to keep an open, honest perspective, while reporting back the full range of my trials, trails and tribulations with the crazy toe shoes, known as Vibrams.

{Catch up on  Part 1Part 2 and Part 3}

Funny thing is, once I put them on my feet, people took notice.  Suddenly I was forced into a role akin to a clergy member.  Folks apparently felt free to unburden their questions and confessions upon me, a perfect stranger, regarding my feet, and in particular, my shoes. 

People would look down and ask, “Hey, are those things comfortable?”  “They look funky!”

“Yes, they are comfortable,” I would say enthusiastically, playing the role of the accidental advocate, regardless of what I was feeling about them at the moment.

It’s not like I had a choice.  What could I have said? 

“Oh, these things you see on my feet?  Pieces of crap actually, I hate them.”  I’m miserable in them and they have totally screwed up my training schedule and so on….

Of course not. 

Nor did they truly want to hear the full list of pros and cons I’d managed to tally up to this point.  The shoes merely caught their attention and they were responding to them.
“Wow those are cool shoes!  My daughter has been asking me to get her a pair, would you recommend them for a teenage girl?”

It required superhuman effort to suppress my overwhelming snark reflex at this moment.  While silently conceding my role as an involuntary Vibram promoter, I did NOT reply with the first thing that popped into my head:

“You mean, you want to know if they would serve as a fashion accessory for some ditzy, Justin Bieber fan? Why no, no I don’t recommend them at all.  Lock her in her room and let her  watch Twilight movies until she’s 21.  These are shoes for serious runners with a solemn commitment to the freedom and performance that comes from unleashing one’s more natural potential…”

Sadly, all I DID is say, was, “Uhmmm, well they come in some pretty cool colors, she would probably like them,” and walked away very quickly.

On other occasions, people would point at my feet, nudge their companions and proceed to  talk about me and my shoes, in the third person, utterly indifferent to the fact that I was standing right there, listening to every word.  

“Will you look at those things? I don’t know how she walks in them, I’d be afraid to step on something and get my toe cut off.  They can’t be good for her! I don’t know if I could wear anything with all that junk between my toes…”

It happened more than once.

More running savvy folks would ask better, more specific questions but they were all pretty much the same.

Frequently  I heard various versions of:

 “I’ve seen those shoes around and even thought about getting a pair, do you think I should? What about support?   Don’t your feet need some kind of support or cushioning or something?”

Vibram and Mr. McDougal should both be paying me commissions for my replies to these people.  I found myself explaining the entire theory behind why artificially supporting the natural structure of any arch weakens its inherent strength, both architecturally and anatomically speaking.   I’d mention the book, the research and refer them to the Vibram website, all as part of the “experiment.”  I repeated myself so many times, that I  started to feel like a broken record; while many of you reading this will not know exactly what that means, I felt that way just the same.

Despite the distractions,  I managed to increase my long run mileage up into the double digit range.  As the mileage increased, I found that I kept a constant pain or soreness in my left Achilles. It required a great deal of stretching and massage therapy to keep me on track for the Talladega Half.  I’m also quite a bit slower on the long distances. I am unsure if it is still a matter of acclimation to the shoes or if this is as good as it’s going to get for me.

 If I could meet with him, I’d like to ask McDougal  how long acclimation is supposed to take.  My calves are no longer cramping up, I can cover the distances, but after every long run, I’m still left with the same, achy soreness.  I can stretch and it eases up somewhat, but any time I sit still for any length of time, the soreness returns. I know “they say” that the Vibrams will convert me to being a toe or mid-foot runner but it still hasn’t happened.
Additionally, I have serious reservations about whether or not many runners would be willing to sacrifice the mileage from their regular training schedules and scale back to the extent that I have, merely to experiment with a new shoe.

While, philosophically, I agree with living more in accordance with our Paleolithic origins, I just don’t know that everyone’s anatomy is designed to run the exact same way.  The wear pattern on the bottom of my Vibrams still indicates I’m using my heels quite a bit.  

  There is one caveat regarding this experiment. Over 35 years ago I had a serious injury to this same left ankle.  It was badly broken in a skateboarding accident, and it required surgery to repair.  Then, several years later, I had a nasty sprain while waterskiing.  I had thought I’d recovered reasonably well from those injuries, and I’d never experienced ankle or Achilles issues from running before.  If the previous injuries constitute a part of my adjustment issues,  I’m not so sure that I’m grateful to the Vibrams for eliciting these particular muscle memories.  

I think I should also mention here that in the 5 months that I’ve owned the shoes, I have not yet washed them.  Not unusual perhaps, for a pair of running shoes, but for sock-like shoes??? They are fairly filthy at this point and yet, I’m afraid to wash them because it seems as though they’d fall apart.  Within the first month of wearing them, all the ornamental stripes and accents either came loose or fell off and the material inside the toe compartments  began to fray.  The inside sole has gotten worn and rough and sometimes it’s hard to tell if I have a rock in my shoe, or if it’s merely one of the jagged edges that is now a permanent part of the bottom of my shoe.

My experience with the Vibrams has led me to believe that, while Born to Run is a wonderful book and motivating story, I am not fully convinced that it qualifies as the ultimate, running “gospel.”  McDougal also made a few hopeful leaps; a bit of theorizing that didn’t exactly fit with some the science he was attempting to explain, but I will let that slide, if only because he at least got us all thinking about the subject.  I also refuse to become a convert to the belief that Vibrams are THE definitive running shoe for all people, in all situations, at all times.  They aren’t.   Since I’d like to remain true to the original product testing spirit that gave rise to this series of articles, here are the pros and cons as I see them:
1.     Great for sprinting, track events and short road race distances-- (in dry weather only!)-- I will probably continue to wear them for 5k’s, maybe 10k’s depending on the terrain.  For the future, I will consider them a training tool and perhaps use them for speed work while training for half and full marathons. However, I will probably not be wearing them on any trail or long distance runs.

2.     Great for any sport that requires agility and lateral stability-- I will definitely continue to wear them for plyometrics and agility training.  When it comes to box jumps and ladder drills, the extra control imparted from the flexibility of the shoe and individual toe compartments is very reassuring.

While I have not personally tried indoor or outdoor court sports such as tennis and racquetball, I suspect that the Vibrams would be good for those types of activities as well.   

1.     Need to avoid any situation with water--Puddles, mud and river crossings are not your friends with Vibrams unless you like pruned toes.  Many paddlers will also find them unsuitable for use on the water for the same reasons.

2.     Trail running--I’m sure Vibram makes a trail specific shoe, but as for me and my feet, I want more protection than any “toe shoe” can offer.

3.     They may not be suitable for all foot types--This includes people with Morton’s foot, ( a common anatomical variant where the second metatarsal is elongated and creates a situation where the second toe is significantly longer than the first toe) or people with range of motion issues dues to scar tissue or previous injuries.

4.     Not for triathlons…I’ve seen other folks wearing them at tri’s, so maybe I’m just a klutz, but it still takes me a while to get my feet in them.  I’m much better these days, after 5 months of practice, but I would end up cursing and fumbling around the transition area if I was in a hurry to get them on.

As with any philosophy, there will be varying degrees of orthodoxy.  I’ll buy into the theory that a low, or zero-drop, shoe is more natural for our feet.  I will concur with the concept than the constant flexion of our Achilles tendon, caused by shoes angled like jacked up muscle cars, be they running shoes or women’s high heels, is not healthy.    I’m not, however, sold on the idea that a little padding on our soles, or protection for our toes, is such a bad thing. And as far as being more “in touch with our Paleolithic origins,” I have yet to see any cave paintings depicting the virtues of compartmentalized shoes.

Addendum: Written after 9/16/12-Race Day!

My Talladega Half Marathon results were nothing to complain about.  In fact, my time was 1:49:32   Good enough for first place in the 45-49 age group!!!  I also got to give Bill Rogers a hug and had him sign my race result printout, thus making it “official”.
I was ecstatic about the race results but I attribute my recent improvement not so much to the Vibrams, but to my strength and agility workouts. In fact, I think I did well in spite of the Vibrams rather than because of them.  On the course, there was one stretch of a gravel road that I had to pick my way through carefully.  The small gravel was not an issue, but there were fist sized chunks that I knew I did not want to step on.  My ankles and Achilles were sore afterwards, as they typically were, during my long training runs.  Additionally, while this never happened in training, I not only “blistered up the track” with my new found, blazing speed, but I “blistered up on the track”.  Maybe it was because I raced faster than I trained, but I had to gut out the last 2 miles with some nasty blisters that formed in odd spots.  The undersides of both big toes, at the first joint.  In other words, the soft spot, in the bend of the toe, that would never normally even contact a shoe, was rubbed raw, in the Vibrams.  All the more reason for me to reiterate the fact that I will no longer be attempting any long distances in them.   

It’s been a great run and an interesting experiment for me.  I’ve learned a great deal about the shoes, but mostly about myself.  Thank you for following along with me on the journey.

Along the way I was frequently asked if I would recommend the Vibrams to others.

 My answer :
If you are enduring pain that no one can figure out how to fix, and are willing to cut back on your training, give them a try.  They may be exactly what you need.  For some people, they are a perfect fit.  We are all designed just a little bit differently, and life has taken different tolls on each of us, in different ways.

 If you aren’t in pain and you are merely seeking to improve your running performance, I would  suggest you cut down on your running and vary your workouts to include strength, agility and plyometric training.  It’s worked wonders for me; your mileage may vary.

What I do recommend for everyone is to do as Bill Rogers once suggested:

“This sport is the sport to see what you are made of, so use those expert’s advice, but be free to be your own champion runner, picking and choosing advice you enjoy and that works best for you”.

Friday, September 7, 2012


A Radiology Fairy Tale...


 - Adventures in Professional PACS Training and Customer Satisfaction

For my non medical or non imaging friends out there…
PACS stands for:
Picture Archiving and Communication Systems-PACS refers to all of the equipment and systems involved in viewing and storing your digitally acquired, medical images. (think Xrays, Ultrasounds, CT scans, MRi’s etc... )

 ON the viewing/clinical side we have the radiology technologists who generally acquire the images, while working in conjunction with the radiologists who subsequently interpret them. 

On the Archiving/Storage side of the equation, we have the IT/Computer/Technical folks who do their part to make the miracles of filmless viewing, virtual colonoscopies and 3D reconstruction a reality. 

Both sides of the house need each other and both sides often drive each other crazy while attempting to pull off the seemingly impossible. 
It should be noted however, that while it is common for individuals to transition from the clinical side of the house to the more technical, storage side, it is extremely rare for anyone innately technical, to make the clinical transition.

This speaks to the personality types involved, as well as the theory that data centers are probably similar in construction to The Hotel California…

Here we go with our story:

Once upon a time, there was a PACS.  This PACS was one of the finest in the entire kingdom.  Radiologists and technologists alike, spoke of it in hushed, reverent tones.  They were enchanted by its ability to enable physicians and healthcare professionals to manage, access and visualize multi-specialty medical content across the enterprise using advanced visualization tools, clinical content management and clinical workflow through a dynamic user interface.

As wonderful as this particular PACS was, it was also well established throughout the kingdom that the epoch of implementation, as it was referred to, was, at times, fraught with obstacles.  Many of these obstacles had nothing to do with the beauty and efficiency of the system.  Nay, it was often puzzling to the many Knights of the Implementation Council that the very radiologists who wanted and needed the system, were oftentimes, themselves the source of the conflict.  Many roundtable discussions were held in order to solve this mystery of conflict and customer dissatisfaction.

During these Roundtable discussions, legends and tales from Implementations throughout the land were shared in order that they might consult with one another to decipher the lessons contained within, such that quality solutions to problems could be revealed.

It was once upon a particularly illustrious Roundtable discussion, that the tale of the Mouse and the Keyboard was first told:

Legend has it, that it was during a session whereupon one of the Knights of the Implementation Council was bestowing upon a radiologist the wisdom and understanding of the PACS, that one particularly startling incident occurred.  

The PACS configuration contained 4, Grayscale, Resolution of the Highest Monitors, of the House of Siemens, in combination with a Color Monitor, descended from the Lordship of the House known as Dell.  It was this Dell, whereupon the exam list was displayed and the private healthcare information of the subjects’ of the PACS was made known. 

The cursor, which was the onscreen representation of the relative location of the mouse upon the desktop, had to travel vast distances across the 5 monitor expanse. 

{From the University of Rochester’s website}:
Here is what a typical workstation might look like:

 The critical moment of this story occurred when the radiologist, who had been disregarding the amount of desktop space necessary for mouse movement, caused a collision of the Mouse, upon the Keyboard.  The cursor, which he desired to situate upon the patient list,was trapped upon the landscape of monitor number 4.  No further leftward movement was possible due to the keyboard’s impedance upon the mouse’s leftward most pathway. 

Observers gaped in amazement at the transgression, yea, many fled the room, in fear of witnessing what horrors might befall the ensnared cursor. 

The radiologist registered a customer dissatisfaction issue with the Knight of the Implementation Council that such behavior was an unacceptable feature of the PACS, and that it would need to be corrected by the Knights of the Engineering Council before he would ever again lay his hands upon the PACS. 

Silence fell upon the darkened room. 

All eyes were upon the Knight of the Implementation Council, whereupon, she most bravely and fortuitously reached towards the keyboard, with utter disregard for her own personal safety, slid it forward, in such a manner, as to disrupt the keyboard’s negative interference upon the Pathway of the Mouse. This swift action created more usable surface area, whereupon,the Mouse and the Cursor were then both easily returned to the first monitor, that of Dell.  

The radiologist nodded in satisfaction and the Project Manager, He of the Highest Order, confirmed that the solution was one of both quality and genius.   
The PACS was saved and the Dominion of the PACS Company prospered ever after. (Until such time as it was sold and the name was changed)

There are many notable and almost seemingly comical stories and fairy tales in the world of PACS Implementation.  The above story, while thematically framed, recalls an actual incident and challenge in the field. 

All fairy tales have something to teach us.  The mouse and the keyboard were functioning properly; there was nothing wrong with the application.  The doctor merely ran out of mouse manipulation room and did not know that he could simply pick the mouse up, move it several inches to the right, and recover his cursor. 
To those of us familiar with computers, this seems like such a simple and intuitive thing to do. It was not intuitive for this doctor. Covering for his embarrassment, he lashed out at everyone in the room and declared the system a failure. Immediate intervention was required, in order to convert a potentially sales killing, customer experience, to a more positive encounter.

The lessons in this, and the challenge to all of us, is to be prepared to take a creative approach, in order to be able to train people to utilize any system, regardless of the current level of computer literacy in which we find them.  

There have been times when I have had to start from the beginning and teach a radiologist how to point and click with a mouse.  I would start them off with solitaire and work my way back to the medical applications.
Conversely, many radiologists are very skilled and comfortable with computers and have presented me with different sorts of challenges.  Hyper-light speed mouse clicks, borne of impatience and the need for rapid throughput, can create unwanted situations and give the appearance of poor system performance as well.

 “Semper Gumby”- Always Flexible has been my guiding philosophy in this arena.

While I maintain a general lesson plan that I like to follow in order to ensure thoroughness, oftentimes the needs of the radiologist will dictate that the script needs to be abandoned, and spontaneity becomes the order of the day.  The less we, as trainers, regard this not as a threat, but more as an opportunity to shine, the greater the likelihood of high, customer satisfaction, regardless of industry.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Barefoot Contestant- Change Afoot Part 3

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.
--Charles Darwin

Yes dear readers, if you are still with me and wondering when I was going to get around to describing my experience actually wearing the Vibrams, you are in luck. 

Catch up here for those that missed Part 1 or Part 2.

Thanks to some great training tips from Coach Carl, things eased up a bit on the pain.  After several months and some major life events (new job, moving etc…) I had started working out at Carport Crossfit, in Irondale, and was trying to decide what to wear on my feet.  I knew most regular running shoes weren’t optimal for the type of training they did.  Crossfit style workouts call for a shoe that gives an accurate feel or close grip on the ground for balance as well as lateral stability.   Hoisting heavy barbells, slinging kettle bells, tossing wall balls and pushing sleds around will put the traction of any shoe to the test.  

Additionally, I also needed the ability to run the shorter, more intense distances that were often a part of the workouts.  Most were a mile or less. Ever so slowly, akin to the designated last finisher at a marathon, it occurred to me that the running distances that usually comprised their workouts were exactly what a newly minted, Vibram wearing soul such as myself should be running.   


Decision made.

At the gym the next morning the WOD (Workout Of the Day) required that we run a full mile, to be followed by a round of one legged squats and thanks to an induced state of delirium, I can no longer recall what followed.  As our 5:30am group took off along the railroad tracks, I suddenly found myself at the front of the pack.   My steps were initially tentative since I wasn’t sure what to expect. After a few hundred meters I did a full body “check-in”.  My feet were comfortable and my legs were moving smoothly.  Nothing hurt.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually run “only” a mile.  I had no idea what my time would be. 

I could hear the footfalls of people behind me. 

The chase was on!

I could feel that there was some gravel beneath my feet, but it didn’t stab or feel “sharp” through the Vibram sole.  I paid close attention to the road surface and avoided large chunks of broken asphalt or rocks.   I tried to focus on my form and pour on a little of what passed for Master’s division speed.  The noise behind me faded, and my mind drifted back to assessing how the shoes were doing.  They were certainly different.  My calves weren’t screaming at me like they had previously, and I envisioned that every step taken was restoring strength to muscles that too much civilization had weakened.  Distracted by my thoughts I once again realized that I was hearing the footsteps approaching.  I kicked it into another gear I didn’t even know I had.  As the footsteps faded, I once again focused on my legs and feet.  The pain I kept anticipating never materialized.

I finished that mile in 7:11.  Not an Olympic qualifier by far, but pretty darn good for someone whose normal race pace is anywhere from 8:15-9:00 depending on the distance. 

After that performance I decided to give the Vibrams another full-fledged trial.  Perhaps I’d been hasty in my initial assessment.  Wearing them to my Crossfit workouts was part of the plan.  The running distances were optimal for acclimating myself to the shoes.  Additionally, I thought my adjustment would be further enhanced by wearing the shoes as many hours a day as I could reasonably fit in. I bought an additional, colorful new pair of Vibrams: Women's Komodo Sport, and began wearing them to work as often as possible. This allowed me to spend many more hours per day in them, presumably helping my calf muscles and tendons adjust more gradually.   

In order to be fair to the process expounded by McDougal, I resolved to be more patient with the acclimation period.

After two weeks of Crossfit workouts and all day wear, I figured I’d accumulated enough “time in Vibram” to try running more than a mile. 
I gradually worked up through routes of 3 to 4 miles in my hilly, Crestwood neighborhood.   For some reason, completing the Wednesday night 5 miler in Homewood, loomed large.  Perhaps because it took me “away from home” it seemed more challenging.  I’d be out there in the world, practically barefoot and I’d have to run my way back to relative safety.

It all worked out pretty well, and I had just a little nagging soreness in my left calf.  I hoped that with further adjustment it would resolve itself. 

I challenged myself with my regular, 10k neighborhood route.  A couple of slow morning runs followed by a PR had me completely rethinking my attitude towards the Vibrams. 
It was time to bump the mileage up another notch.  Conveniently, another running group here in town had a 7 miler leaving from Pepper Place on Saturday mornings.  More success followed but the soreness from my calf migrated south to my Achilles tendon and has been lingering there ever since.  
It’s tolerable but not optimal.

It should be mentioned here that I do not wear flip flops.  I do not wear them because I truly loathe (putting it mildly) crap anywhere between my toes.  Wearing shoes that isolated each toe was quite a personal stretch for me, but the journey down the path of minimalist conformity required that I tolerate it.  After a period of time, I would stop noticing the material jabbing my toes, but once the shoes were off, it took quite a while before the deep lines and creases smoothed themselves out.  I dismissed “prune toe syndrome” as “part of the acclimation process” and mentally steeled my feet against all onslaughts.

As I wore them more frequently, I also began to notice that, while they seemed to be well-suited for smooth surface, road running, they were less than perfect in other situations.  Small pebbles, gravel and even small bits of broken glass were not an issue.  The Vibram sole was good protection against those, and I felt less likely to twist my ankle if I did step on something.  Larger rocks and big shards of glass were something else entirely.  I was also uncomfortable with the idea of using them as trail shoes.  Smacking toes on rocks and roots is a common occurrence in trail running.  Add in to the equation the possibility that an obstruction could get jammed BETWEEN my toes, smashing AND parting them simultaneously was too much to bear, so I reverted to my trusty, Adidas Adizero’s, for the Xterra half, at Oak Mtn.

I did indeed smack into a few obstacles which caused me to trip and fall a few times.  My toes were bruised, but the solid front of my “real” shoes protected me from severe injury.  Zealots in the barefoot movement would probably have made the argument that, had I been running more “naturally”, more “in touch” with where the end of my foot was, I might not have hit the obstacles at all.  It is quite possible they may be right, in theory, but I prefer that the rocks be less “in touch” with me.   I’ve had too many broken bones over the years, and I am not willing to sacrifice the sanctity of my feet on this point. 

Additionally, I find that the Vibrams don’t seem to “breathe” or drain water very well.  After a long run, the Vibrams always seem to be sodden with sweat when I remove them from my feet. Since they serve as both sock and shoe, this makes sense. As a reformed triathlete I can tell you exactly where I stand on the socks and/or shoes debate. My personal preference: shoes-no socks.  Given my preference,it stands  to reason why I'm still playing pedestrian gymnastics with the  "shoe that is a sock".  Rainy days and puddles turn them into squishy, noisy messes in close contact with my skin.  After one rain-soaked, puddle-hopping adventure, I couldn’t wait to get the soggy things off of my feet.  When I removed them, I fully expected to see that trench foot had set in.  If it is a rainy day at Talladega, I will rip these things off my feet at the finish line faster than you can say Dale Earnhardt!

Despite pointing out a few imperfections, I can honestly report that my progress has been mostly positive. I fully expect to be able to gradually nudge up my long distance runs to pull off a reasonable half marathon training schedule. 
In the name of science, come rain or shine, I will see you all out at the Talladega Half Marathon

Promotional Considerations:
Under the category of "shameless promotion" I'd like to give a shout out to everyone at Carport Crossfit, especially the 5:30 a.m. crew.
Thanks for putting up with me while simultaneously getting all of me, not just my feet, back in shape.  
Also, Bill, next time we run a mile, "It's On"!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

When More Is Less

“Real difficulties can be overcome. It’s the imaginary ones that are unconquerable.” -Theodore Vail

There's a trend now for parents NOT to immunize children because some famous celebrity decided, that some shady research proved, that vaccines cause autism.
Immunizations happen to be one of the numerous, scientific innovations we are fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of in this country. Many in the 3rd world are not so lucky. Thanks to a former Playboy bunny, some biased “research” and the general public’s willingness to believe in the most far-fetched conspiracy theories…somehow life saving vaccines have become modern society's new bogeymen.  

 The fact that there is NO scientific data that establishes a cause and effect relationship between immunization and autism doesn't seem to faze anyone.  In fact, what comprises an autism diagnosis itself, has undergone wildly shifting parameters.  What is and isn't considered autism has become a moving target.    It is particularly interesting to note, that not only has the bar for an autism diagnosis been lowered, but once it qualified a child for "disability status" the diagnosis rate skyrocketed.  What was once thought of as rude and obnoxious behavior is now excused away with a diagnosis and medicated.  There’s been a big run on getting kids that cherished “disability” status now, because there are so many advantages to being disadvantaged.  In addition to the financial subsidies, parents push family physicians hard for autism and A.D.D. diagnoses just so their children may partake in all of the perks a diagnosis provides. 

Those perks include things like more time allotted to take the S.A.T. and other college entrance exams.  Parents ferret out any nugget that might give their kid an edge when it comes to the collegiate acceptance Olympics, without considering the long term side effects of a drugged childhood.   Bestowing a diagnosis on kids because they may occasionally exhibit unacceptable or anti-social behavior is not doing anyone any favors.  Perhaps a dose of discipline would provide healthier long term results?

So back to the original premise... parents are no longer immunizing children against diseases that the industrialized world worked so hard to conquer.  They think their kids are safe because "We don't have those diseases in this country anymore".  That is until they travel to or bump into someone from one of those 3rd world nations that do not have the immunizations in place to keep those "old" diseases in check.

 There are still places in the world where diseases like polio exist.  We take for granted that measles (rubella and rubeola) diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) are no longer around.  They are.  Thanks to air travel no country can ever be completely isolated anymore.  

 In fact, children in this country are once again dying of diseases that could easily be avoided by a simple vaccination.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  It’s a terrible shame that people are more willing to believe a celebrity’s opinion about science than the actual scientists themselves.  People apparently are under the impression that these diseases no longer exist because they are relatively rare.  The reason they are rare in this country is... 

Wait for it... 


 Currently the percentage of immunized children is still high enough to provide what is known as "herd immunity" so the non-vaccinated still benefit from the high percentage of those around them that are disease free. This is “the herd”, so to speak, that helps keep diseases in check.  When the percentages of the non-immunized begin to outweigh the immunized, there is a significant shift and the herd immunity greatly diminishes.  This puts all of the non-vaccinated children, including those too young for certain vaccinations, at much greater risk. 

Why on earth would a parent subject their child to the very real consequences of not being immunized against very serious diseases because some airhead celebrity, who doesn't even play a doctor on TV, got it in her head that somehow vaccinations were bad?  Children IN THIS COUNTRY are once again dying of diseases that are completely preventable.  Children are dying, because the fear of something imaginary, is overriding what should be a healthy respect for what is real.  

While I am not a physician, I do believe strongly in the scientific method. 
I will not claim to know the actual reasons why the autism rate has gone up so much, even when filtering the diagnosis roster for the more severe cases.

 If I had to venture a wild guess as to why we have more "real" cases of autism in the past 20 years I wouldn't blame it on immunization.  I could make a correlational case for prenatal vitamins... crazy right?
It is also something found predominantly in industrialized nations, so why not look there? Their increased use has paralleled the dramatic rise in the incidence of autism much more closely than the use of vaccines. 

Here's the thought process: We know that a lack of folic acid in the diet of pregnant women can cause spina bifida, a nasty neurological defect… Folic acid is one of the big ticket items found in prenatal vitamins to support the prevention of spina bifida.  Maybe, just maybe, it might be possible... and I'm making a leap here but I think it is possible that too much folic acid, particularly in the highly concentrated doses found in the vitamins, particularly in the bloodstream of some moms that think if some is good, more is better, contributes to other neurological issues such as autism.

 In this world where the law of unintended consequences abounds, I think it could be quite possible that our "more is better" approach to having perfect babies is creating more problems than it solves.

I fully admit I do not have any hard evidence, just a gut feeling. I'd like to the see unbiased research done so we could figure it out with some degree of certainty.

Therein also illustrates the danger of publishing findings based on conjecture and correlation again. What if someone reads my wild guess and "decides" that I'm right.  It even has the potentially popular undercurrent of "evil pharmaceutical companies create vitamins that cause birth defects".  Pretty soon there will be some celebrity somewhere that picks up on the idea, likes it, hypes it and poof... another cause célèbre' is born.   I wonder if it too, will have autism.

Supporting documentation:

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The "Barefoot Contestant"-A Long Running Series…The Next Leg…Part 2

If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.  ~Kurt Lewin

We resume our story where we left off last month…(for those that missed it, here's Part I:

 “Eventually, I lost patience with the entire process and the Vibrams ended up somewhere in the back of the closet where they remained, until….”

 …until I began, no, wait.  Allow me to back up a bit in the timeline.  Prior to resurrecting the Vibrams I was still searching for a way to run with less pain.  The Vibrams weren’t doing it for me but they did make it agonizingly clear that I was doing something wrong.  If the shoes were not going to magically correct my running motion I figured I would try a different device.  A running coach.  At the time I was not living in Birmingham.   Thanks to Google, I found a Big, University Level, track coach who also condescended to work with us mere mortal runners for an hourly fee.  I called him and explained my situation and he agreed to meet and work with me.  He told me to meet him by the Track at the Big University Gym at 4:00pm the next day.  I was excited and thrilled.  I had never been a runner as a kid and certainly never been professionally coached. As for organized sports, I played softball and competed in martial arts.  I was a pretty good athlete, but if you had told me to go run a mile just for the heck of it, I would have resisted.  Running, or being told to take a lap, was punishment for a misdeed, not something you did for fun!
 It wasn’t until I was 25 years old and in the Air Force that I learned to run for running’s sake.  In order to pass our PT test we had to run a mile and a half in under 15 minutes.  I had no idea about how fast that might be or whether or not I could even run that far in the prescribed time.  A few months before I left for basic training, I got in the car, measured out a course of a mile and a half on the odometer and tested myself.  It wasn’t pretty, but I finished in less than 15 minutes and that was all I cared about. 
After basic training I found myself stationed at the Presidio of Monterey, in California.  There was so much awe-inspiring scenery to take in and I had such limited time that I found myself running up and down the insane hills and along the waterfront just so I could take it all in.   Looking back, I can easily say that my time in Monterey was when running ceased being punishment and became my personal delight.   It wasn’t until recently, that mysterious, frustrating pain was causing me to reconsider the punishment aspect, which was why I found myself in search of a cure.  So here I was, excited for the opportunity to be at a Big University Track hoping for some athletic enlightenment from a Big University Track Coach.

I met Coach Carl at the track and we introduced ourselves.    He wanted me to warm up first. Rather than run around in circles on the track we took off slowly along the campus road.  I had no idea where we were going and figured we would do a loop around and return to the track.  Instead, we ended up at a huge open meadow that contained the Big University Soccer fields and practice area.  Coach Carl had me run a lap around the perimeter of the field so he could watch my form.  When I got back to where he was standing, he explained some running fundamentals to me and it all made sense.  I was running completely wrong with respect to the way the human body was designed.  I knew that much from reading McDougal’s book but had no idea what I was doing wrong or how to change it.  We have a great shock absorption system, but it doesn’t work if it’s out of position.  He explained it to me in much better scientific language than I will use here, but basically it was that the important components of running take place beneath and behind us rather than out in front of us.
Coach Carl showed me that my feet were hitting the ground way too far in front of my body, rather than underneath it. Or rather, he had me demonstrate to myself that my feet were too far in front.  As I ran he told me to keep my head straight and level and to glance down by only moving my eyes.  If I could see my feet when I looked down, they were too far forward. I peaked down.

Yep, there they were. 


Time for a few drills. Each one had a purpose with respect to running form, but I was clueless. He made me skip. And skip some more.  We did a lot of skipping. 
Skipping was hard!

Jump, bring the front knee up high, let the back leg scoot and catch your weight underneath, over and over… until you don’t think you can pick your legs up anymore.

Time for a break.

That’s when he imparted the secret of “The Butt Kick”.   He ran me through butt kick drills.

“When you run, he said, “Don’t think about sending your foot forward but focus more on getting your heel up off the ground behind you”. He sent me out for another lap around the field. First, I want you to skip slowly then pick up speed.  When I thought I was about to pass out, he told me to slow down and add in
 “The Butt Kicks”.  In my mind I equated the heel height to a volume knob for my feet.  The higher I cranked up the volume knob or heel height, the faster I went.  I briefly wondered if it went up to 11.  The more I thought about what needed to be going on behind me the less I found my feet out in front.  I got about halfway around the field and he was yelling at me… That’s it!  You’ve got it, you’ve got it”! “Whatever you are doing now, however it feels to you- just keep doing THAT!  It was exhilarating, pain free and tiring as hell!  I could push myself for hours to slog in poor form through the pain of a marathon, but a few minutes of running “properly” had me gasping for air. 

 I was beginning to see a pattern…Coach Carl’s advice dovetailed nicely into much of what I read about in Born to Run, but on a much more practical level for me.  He didn’t care about the finer points of what shoes I was or was not wearing.  His advice was focused at the gross anatomy level of running rather than the microscopic break down of what I put on my feet.  I had to get the big things right in order for the little things to make a difference.  I made the decision to focus on my form first. The Vibrams remained in the closet for a little while longer…

Monday, July 30, 2012

Garden and Gun

Dear Garden and Gun Magazine,

Years ago as a member of the U.S. Air Force we would have fun breaking in the newbies by asking them to fetch some “special” items.  We gave them names that made them seem as though they were tangible objects but were actually imaginary and impossible to find.  We would have them running all over the base asking people where they might find a “box of grid squares” or a “spool of flight line”.  The joke was always on them but provided an opportunity for some fun at minimal expense to anyone’s ego.

I am obligated to inform you that you now bear the distinct honor of creating a new item for similar amusement. A true and new oxymoron indeed.  The recipe for Strawberry Moonshine Fried Pies from your  Fried and True article, calls for 3 teaspoons of   “commercial moonshine”.  By its very definition “moonshine” is an illicit distillation so throwing the word “commercial” on it is an affront to the heritage of all of those Appalachian distillers who produced and distributed their whisky by the light of the moon.   I realize you probably meant the legal product that would be similar in proof to the high percentage generally found in moonshine.  You could have mentioned it rather that over extend yourselves in an attempt to make a proud, off the grid product more accessible to the masses.  You extend the outrage further once you listed grappa as a possible substitute.  Grape residue could never stand in for corn squeezin’s!  As a magazine that seeks to uncover the best of the south and southern heritage, I hereby formally wag my finger at you for it even being mentioned.   I’m sure there is a good story behind the reasons for it, and I’m happy to listen.  To quote your editor in chief from the same issue, “Because as any good Southerner knows, some of the best stories get told in the kitchen”.  I dare David DiBenedetto to find “commercial moonshine” or grappa in a traditional southern kitchen.

That would be some story!
-- Keep up the otherwise stellar work!