Monday, July 26, 2010

Substitutes and Alternatives

As an Orthodox Christian, I try to follow the Traditional Fasting Discipline on designated fasting days as well as during fasting seasons: with exceptions here and there, that discipline involves abstaining from all meat, dairy products, olive oil, and "wine" (really, all alcoholic beverages).

Generally speaking, keeping the fast is difficult, though not so burdensome that it's undoable. And it's supposed to be somewhat "uncomfortable"--we're not doing penance or trying to earn Divine favor, but we are attempting to practice self-denial, or at least avoid overindulgence, to remind ourselves that, ultimately, eating and drinking--and all other activities--are opportunities to give thanks to the One who provides for, sustains, and loves us.

That said, I've found that there are roughly two ways to abstain from certain food categories: eating foods outside of those categories for their own sake, and eating foods that technically don't violate the fast but that fool the taste buds (and eyes and nose) into thinking a "forbidden" food is actually being eaten. I'll call the former foods "alternatives," and this category (to oversimplify profoundly) includes vegetables, fruits, many breads, and most foods found in their "natural" or raw state. The latter foods, which I'll call "substitutes," include veggie burgers, soy dogs/nuggets/crumbles, soy milk, and other foods and beverages that mimic the look, smell, and flavor of non-vegan originals.

I'm not sure that the alternatives have any intrinsic spiritual superiority in comparison with the substitutes; I'm fairly certain that the use or negligence of moderation in eating from either category is of greater importance. But sometimes, I can't help but feel that I'm "cheating" when I allow the substitutes to dominate my diet, following the letter but not the spirit of the fast. Is there anything remotely ascetic about drinking vanilla soy milk--or, my favorite, "very vanilla" soy milk? Am I really "denying" myself anything when I eat that gourmet black bean burger?

Those questions have found a permanent home in my mind. Today, though, they also remind me of my present running-related dilemma: my Achilles tendons have forced me into another running "fast," or at least a time of running moderation. And the fast presents me with a choice of non-running activities: "alternatives" that I'd engage in for their own sake, such as bicycling or swimming, or else "substitutes" that more closely mimic running, such as using the elliptical or stair-step machines.

Because I've already started training for a fall marathon, I'm sorely (pun intended) tempted to do the latter, since I'd like to fool my muscles into thinking I'm still running, even when I'm not. Problem is, the substitutes force me to put weight on my tendons—the very thing I’m trying to avoid by cutting back my running. Conversely, swimming, probably the best form of exercise I could choose and the one that would put the least strain on my tender tendons, is not something I enjoy as exercise--it's the workout equivalent of beets and celery. Worst of all, I know that I'll be tempted to "cheat" outright--as I am in my food-fasting times--and run on days when I've planned to not do so; in fact, I’ve already done just that. Self-control is not a spiritual fruit I always cultivate with success.

By no means am I trying to equate the discipline of fasting with making choices based on exercise preferences. And, ultimately, it probably matters little what non-running activity I choose, over the next few weeks, or ever. It is, perhaps, a poor analogy.

But the analogy does cross my mind.


The obliquely spiritual nature of this post may, in part, stem from my thoughts about Fr. Matthew MacKay, an Orthodox priest serving in Houston, Texas, who reposed today. Only 54 years old, Fr. Matthew collapsed while running this morning.

I did not know Fr. Matthew, but several of my fellow parishioners did, and my pastor counted him as a close friend (and had just spent the past week with him at a clergy conference). My prayers are for his repose, and for strength for and mercy on his wife and two sons, the rest of his family, his friends, and his assisting clergy and parishioners.

May his Memory be Eternal.

And may I appreciate every run, not as an end in itself, but as a means of expressing thanks to the One who provides for, sustains, and loves me.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Achilles heel is my...


I mutter that word (or its equivalent) sotto voce (or louder) at some point during almost every run.

And that's really OK. My wife and I both take odd comfort in the fact that running is--per my buddy Glen--all about "managing discomfort." Neither of us is a teenager, and over the last nearly three years, I've learned that many aches and pains are not true injuries but simply the body's pouting at the loss of its cherished inertia. A little soreness, a little tiredness? No big worry.

Of course, our running is occasionally halted by actual injury: IT band pain kept me off the roads, trails, and treadmill for nearly two months early last year. Nagging knee and ankle injuries sometimes sideline my wife. But those setbacks have been rare and short-lived. Most of the discomfort we manage is more annoying than debilitating.

But what about discomfort that somehow falls between those poles?

I've been experiencing soreness in my Achilles tendons for several months now. Not every run, and not during the duration of any run...but it's there. I originally thought the pain was due to a switch to a softer-heeled shoe early this year, as I felt the pain more while wearing that pair than when wearing the older, slightly stiffer one. But despite a recent shoe upgrade, the tenderness persists. I've read horror stories of exacerbating Achilles tendon injuries; just the term rupture makes me shudder.

The prudent decision would simply be to replace running with, say, cycling for a few weeks. But because I'm a stubborn ass, I've refused to simply take an extended break from running, especially now that I've "officially" begun training for my fall marathon. Fortunately, increasing distance (I ran my first official long training run this morning) doesn't seem to irritate the tendons; running fast, however--and especially running fast up hills--does.

So while I've committed to a training plan that includes more speedwork than previous plans I've followed, I think I'm just going to have to focus more on the distances themselves than on the specialized speed training (intervals, hill repeats) that seem to hurt more than help right now. Maybe I can reintroduce those runs in a couple of weeks. But the short-term goal is to prevent discomfort from degenerating into something more sinister.

Running log: 10.3 sweaty miles: 4.8 alone and 5.5 with the Breakaway training group

Thursday, July 15, 2010

At the Cutting Edge of the Interface of Stout and Whisky. And Burnt Stinky Pork.

The second of the two BrewDog Paradox Whisky Barrel Aged stouts I received as a Joe's Beer Nutz member, Smokehead--on paper--followed the same formula used in making the Isle of Arran stout, which I really enjoyed. Raving about the latter to my brother, I brought the bottle of Smokehead to his house last weekend to share it with him. It poured a thick, opaque black, and I just knew it'd be at least as good as the Isle of Arran.


I know that some folks like the essence of smoked pork products infused into their beers, and I know that Smokehead has garnered rave reviews among beer enthusiasts, but I found it nearly undrinkable. My brother (no beer sissy) was able to stomach only a couple of sips as well before giving up on it. And my wife, who is not a beer drinker but is a cook, compared it to Kikkoman soy sauce; it's just too bad that we didn't have a stir-fry going, I guess.

No ham-beer for me. Call me a weenie. (Or don't.)

Much more enjoyable that night, though, was the Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale, which we also shared. Hoppy and malty, it was a thoroughly tasty brew.


(For a spirited take on the madness of BrewDog's methods, go here.)

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Tulsa Time!

After planning to do so for a few weeks, I finally registered for the Williams Route 66 Marathon, to be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this November. This will be my third marathon, but my first outside Memphis. (Since the Memphis race takes place only 13 days after the Tulsa marathon, I’m not planning to run the full marathon here this year, though I am hoping to at least jog the Half Marathon.)

Why Tulsa?

My Dad lives there; running in this race gives me a nice excuse to go see him and my stepmom for a long weekend.

Do you know anything about the course?

The length—26.2 miles! Nah. From what I’ve read about it, the only relatively hilly sections come in the first 14 or 15 miles. The race ends with a several-mile out-and-back along the Arkansas River (which bisects the city), which, while perhaps not offering much in the way of scenic variety, should at least be nice and flat.

Do you have a goal finishing time?

Sure—3:15, which would qualify me for Boston. But since I’ve yet to even finish under 3:30, I’m really hoping to do at least that this time. In my first marathon, I was probably prepared to finish in about 3:30 to 3:35 but got greedy on race day—after 16 miles or so at the pace for 3:15, my legs completely wore out and I struggled to reach 3:42; last year, I ran at a 3:30 pace but experienced a leg cramp at the 22.5-mile mark and had to run/walk to the finish (at just under 3:39).

Any strategies for improving your time and experience from the first two?

First of all, I’m going to build in a little more speedwork into my marathon training. Hal Higdon’s Advanced training schedule does just that, substituting some focused speed- and hill-related running for a few of the “regular” runs. The actual total mileage should be about the same as in the Intermediate plan (which I followed last year).

Second, I’m going to go back to my less-is-more preference regarding clothing and such. Last year, I bought compression pants and also wore an IT band strap above both knees; the pants were fine, I suppose, but the strap on the left leg may have been the culprit for my cramping. This year, even if it’s cold outside, I’m planning to stick with regular running shorts, a single technical shirt (hopefully short-sleeved), familiar shoes and socks, a thermal headband to keep my ears warm (if needed), and light gloves (if needed).

Any other thoughts as you get ready to start your “official” training?

A couple of things. I think I’ll experiment more with hydration and energy/food options during the long runs. My wife has leant me her Camelbak, which I’ve already started using on longer runs in the heat. I also might give Gu (and similar products) a go, though I’d prefer to find something that more closely resembles actual food. Also, I'm going to try to get my weight down just a little lower than it was for the other two races--not too much lower, but just low enough to make a little less work for my joints and muscles (hence, the beer-post-to-running-post ratio may need to decrease!).

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A (Star-Spangled) Banner Day

The photo shown above was taken at the Firecracker 5K. As usual, the Breakaway folks were there to support the runners--they even provided the shower through which I ran at about the 2-mile mark. (They also gave me the shirt.)

But the real highlight of the race was the fact that I ran it beginning to end with my brother, Stephen. In his first race in years, Stephen not only ran the entire race without a walk break but even sprinted to the finish line. Hopefully, this will be the first of many races I'll get to run with him. Way to go!

Running log: In addition to the race, the weekend included a long (12-mile) run at Stanky Creek with my running buddy Glen, with whom I trained last fall for the St. Jude Marathon. It was my first time to run at Stanky, and despite being fatigued from a full week of running, I enjoyed it very much--shadier overall than either the Tour de Wolf or the Wolf River Trails. I hope to make it back soon!

Beer log: To celebrate our finish, we eschewed the draft macros provided at the post-race party and instead treated ourselves to a fresh pint each of Boscos Isle of Skye Scottish Ale. (I also enjoyed a second pint later at home.)

Saturday, July 03, 2010


After several months of forcing running and beer to coexist as skew lines on this blog, I finally allowed them to intersect this past Thursday at the weekly Breakaway Group Run. After a run that ranged from 4 to 7 miles (5.4 for me) Ghost River Golden was enjoyed by all, including Yours Truly.

Have I mentioned that I love the Breakaway folks?

On the Banks of Embarcadero Skies

San Francisco is a vibrant, beautiful, walkable, and utterly charming city. I loved that I could run either up and down hills of the sort that I can only imagine here in Memphis or for miles on end along the Embarcadero (I logged a healthy 12 miles Monday morning, seeing both AT&T Park and the Marina as well as all of the expanse between them). I was thrilled at how easily I could navigate the city by bus, even making it completely across town Sunday morning for Liturgy at the Holy Virgin "Joy of All Who Sorrow" Cathedral and the chance to venerate St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco--and be able to meet back up with the rest of our group before lunchtime.

Oh, and I loved the beer.

My sister-in-law Mandy completely came through for me, securing not one but two bottles of Wilco Tango Foxtrot from Lagunitas Brewing. I bookended our trip with one each on our first and last nights in town.

I'd waited two months from when I first read about this brew till the moment I tasted it. Was it worth the wait?

Entirely. Imagine the hop flavor of a top-notch pale ale balanced against the maltiness of a darker ale--rich, crisp, and hearty.

And WTF was only the beginning of a great few days of beer tasting. Although we were ultimately unable to visit any of the many breweries in the SF area, I was able to try several beers indigenous to Califormia:

Pliny the Elder (Russian River Brewing Co) at the Rehearsal Dinner at Park Chow

Stone IPA at the Wedding Night feast at Foreign Cinema

As well as a delicious house Amber Ale at Betelnut with my aunt Suzanne, cousin Chris, his wife, Julie, and their children (and my second cousins) Ellie and Erik. 

Many Years, Mandy and Brad!

Where Everybody Knows Your Name, Even if it Isn't Yours

Probably owing to its utter lack of pretentiousness, and despite my smelling like a cigarette butt by the end of every visit there, I really enjoy the P&H Cafe. Maybe I just have good associations with the place, the home of our almost-weekly trivia outings. Maybe I like the fact that Jo, the main waitress and bartender, always remembers our names and what we usually have to drink; well, she remembers my wife's name incorrectly--"How's April?" she asks every week Cindy does not accompany me--but at least she's remembered it incorrectly the same way for more than 5 years now.

And last week, I really liked the fact that they hosted a beer tasting by Schlafly, makers of the best St. Louis-brewed beer I've had.

I didn't even know about the event before I walked in that night and nearly bumped into the tasting table. Not only were the Schlafly folks there, but also Amy, the wife of one of one of my brother's best friends and an employee of A.S. Barbaro Distributors. In the company of a friend and surrounded by good beer, I nearly forgot to meet up with my good friend Chase, who nearly gave up on me before I finally left the tasting area and entered the main dining room. Fortunately, I caught him before he left, and we experienced the beer tasting event together.

Beers tasted:
  • Pale Ale
  • Dry Hopped IPA
  • Hefeweizen
  • Oatmeal Stout
  • Raspberry Hefeweizen
(Chase also tried the Kolsch, though I refrained since I'd enjoyed one only a few days beforehand)

All of the above were at least good (even the raspberry hefe, and I'm not generally a fan of fruity beers), and the Dry Hopped IPA and Oatmeal Stout were excellent (as was the Kolsch I had earlier). As a bonus, once the tasting proper ended, all leftover bottles were made available to P&H patrons for $1 each--another epic win even though our trivia team placed in the middle of the pack.

"April" and I are definitely planning to stop by either the Schlafly Bottleworks or Tap Room during our upcoming trip to St. Louis.

Rapid Eye Movement

I'm not one to sit and spin...

That said, I'm typing this chiefly to prepare myself for what will most likely be a rapid-fire succession of beer- and/or running-related posts. I've had an eventful couple of weeks on both of those fronts (as well as others), so even though I used to ask my English 1010 students to synthesize and summarize their thoughts in a single essay, I'm not going to try to do that here.