Saturday, September 4, 2010


I ran tonight.

It's been a while. Back in high school, I enjoyed jogging in the evenings. Had me some good running shoes, light and airy with good padding in the sole, extra thick in the heel. And I ruined my legs. Shin splints like crazy. I had to give it up. In a way I was saddened by this, but running had become an endurance challenge. So I was a little relieved as well.

When my brother took up running, I cautioned him. After a few months, when he started running barefoot, I was perplexed, but he explained some things, and it made sense. Without shoes to reinforce all the incorrect mechanics of a heel-toe stride, the runner can attain a more natural gait, landing on the fore-foot (the ball of the foot), and then dropping the heel. This way, instead of the shock hammering the joints and bones, it is distributed evenly through the musculature of the legs. Your leg muscles are long and springy. Perfect for recoil. Perfect for running.

I'd always preferred going barefoot when indoors, and the last few years I have gone everywhere in sandals when at all possible (at first to help keep athlete's foot at bay, but now just because I love sandals), so I can understand feeling confined by shoes. But even sandals have padding under the heels and arches, so they still reinforce all the bad techniques.

Eventually I got curious. I wasn't ready to become a barefooter, but this minimalist shoe thing was intriguing. My brother told me about the huaraches made by They are a more modernized version of the traditional running sandals favored by the Tarahumara--the Running People. The kit comes with a thin mat of shoe-grade rubber, about 4mm thick. Aside from about twelve feet of laces, that's it. No added support, no unnecessary padding. You cut out some soles, punch some holes, and lace up.

It took me an hour to make my shoes, and for the next couple weeks I walked in them when I could. I had no intentions to run in them, I just wanted something that would be as close to barefoot as possible, so I could work myself into a more natural stride.

And then tonight my brother said he was going to run in the park, and he invited me. I didn't want to, as it's been so long since I last ran any significant distance, but after thinking about it I decided to give it a try. If I just couldn't do it I could sit it out.

He told me to keep the strides short and my back straight (walking with a fore-foot stride already seems to promote a straighter spine), and then he set the pace. After a couple hundred feet I was puffing and wheezing, and we slowed to a walk as I caught my wind. My first thought was this was a disaster. I would never be able to complete the circuit. I'm just too out-of-shape.

As we walked, however, I realized something. Aside from breathing hard, I felt fine. My lungs were not burning, nor were my trachea or throat, and most of all, my legs felt fine. The calf muscles were tightening, but that was it. After a hundred or so feet, I was ready to run again. We repeated this until we had made a complete lap.

The huaraches held up great. The laces got a little loose, but I still haven't found that sweet spot when tying them. That will happen the more I wear them. I did pause to completely re-lace them at one point, switching to an over-the-ankle method that had seemed too loose before. I was startled at how well that method worked now. Still a little too floppy, but again, once I get the laces figured out that should go away.

After the first lap I sat at a bench and sipped water. I told my brother I would wait on him if he wanted to run another lap. I knew it couldn't have been much fun for him to wait on me to catch my breath every couple hundred feet. While waiting, I realized something. I could have gone another lap. The only reason I did not was my left foot was feeling just a little odd (a knot would periodically work up in the muscle under my arch, strangely more noticeable when I was not running).

As we left the park, I thought. This run had not been like the runs I had done way back when. Then, I had fought for every step. This was very natural, relaxed. This "new" way of running was not about pushing yourself to a better time or longer course. It was simply about enjoying it while you were doing it.

Right now, my feet are barely sore (no pun intended). My calves will probably be lumps of rock in the morning, but I don't think that will be so bad. They'll toughen up. As far as aches go, I get worse daily at my job.

Best of all, my shins feel fine.

ADDENDUM: October 14, 2010

About a week after that run in September, I finally kicked off the shoes. And I realized I still had a lot to learn. While running with my brother, I still had atrocious form. I was bouncing all over the place, slamming down on my feet and exerting about three times the necessary energy.

Over the next several weeks, I suffered one frustration after another. Despite all the changes I was making, I still had a leaden soreness in my shins about twenty minutes after a run. Shin splints, my old enemy, had found me once again, and he was creeping up. Every video of runners I watched taunted. I was sure I was following the advice, but something was still wrong. I started reading the starter's tips at Barefoot Ken Bob's sight, The Running Barefoot. Even implementing them, the pain persisted.

Ultimately, it was a combination of two things. Watching a video of Barefoot Ken Bob running, and rereading a section of Chris McDougall's Born to Run. Seeing Ken Bob run, I realized he was taking much shorter strides than many other barefoot runners I'd seen. He didn't use the exaggerated movements I saw in many of the other videos. He was elegant in the simplicity of his motion. Rereading McDougall's book, I finally hit upon a passage that hadn't sunk in the first time. He stressed the importance of starting off slowly. Most runners do their slow runs too fast. If you get recklessly fast, your shins would start screaming at you. Aha!

With those two tidbits in mind (short stride, slow pace), I set out the next day. It felt almost awkwardly slow, but more importantly, there were no twinges from my shins. If I could run pain free, I didn't care if it looked like I was speedwalking. I smiled all through that quarter-mile run. When I finished, I waited for the soreness that had been returning a little more each time, but there was nothing. I felt fantastic.

Even better, though, was what I gradually learned the next couple of weeks. The slow pace was helping me figure out my form. Once I got the good form locked in, I could run any speed I wanted (well, almost; full-out sprinting can still be awkward for me). I can now also run in minimalist shoes without my stride being affected (though the bulk of my running is still barefoot, of course).

Easy, light, smooth, and fast. Those were the words of Caballo Blanco, the gringo disciple and friend of the Tarahumara, to Chris McDougall while going for a run in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. You start with Easy because if that's as far as you get, that isn't so bad. I think I'm finally figuring out Easy. And I have no intention of stopping there.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Someone who keeps my hours is inevitably exposed to lots of late night television and the inescapable horrors therein: infomercials. The most odious by far are the diet/weight loss programs that bombard you with before-and-after photos. And my reason for hating these infomercials isn't due to self-esteem issues or anything like that.

It's the women.

It shows these skeletal waifs who I am expected to accept as attractive, though I could probably play their ribs like a xylophone. Frightfully thin, jump-around-in-the-shower-just-to-get-wet thin. And I don't buy it. For many of these women, the before photos are far more attractive. One woman bemoaned that she used to be a size sixteen. She complained how she always felt fat, but now she was so happy as a size three. They show the before image, and I think, "Damn! She used to look really good!" Lush body, full of curves, with the classic hourglass shape. Some women are blessed with a figure that bears a little extra weight proudly, even if the woman herself does not.

It's a complete and utter shame. Women should be made of curves, not angles.

Seeing all this size bullshit (and bullshit it is--why are most women so sensitive that they can't stand to see a measurement label on their clothes?), I realized that I don't really know how the whole sizing chart is broken down. So I Googled, and I found this. I thought about the measurements I generally prefer to see on women, and this is what I figured: my ideal woman falls within the range of sizes ten to sixteen.

Just one more bit of evidence supporting the fact that I was born in the wrong century.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My Old Nemesis

Mark this well, folks. It won't be too often you'll see poetry from me. The sophistication grieves me. It doesn't help that I naturally suspect pretension when faced with any form of poetry. Nor does it help that I have no capacity to judge poetry.


I love the places where breath shows in the crisp air,
the times when we dimly remember skins and furs
and mammoth-tallow campfires,
and looking up at brittle-edged stars.

You notice things, appreciate them,
like the press of a warm body against you,
heat like a line of fever,
scalding so nice.

You shiver, the little muscle-trick to bring warmth
and remind your blood to keep flowing.
You ignore the burn of ear and cheek and nose,
and you sniffle and snort and snerk,
and you pretend it's not a bother.

Because really, who braves the cold anymore,
who opens up to the bracing bite
and in surrendering, conquers?
Who cannot venture forth lest they be zipped,
head to toe?

Rejoice! Rejoice where others cringe!
Fling wide your arms and cast off your coat!
Let it fly in the northern wind.
Fill your lungs and rejoice,
and watch your breath in the crisp air.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

My pipe of briar, my open fire, a book that's not too new

Anyone who knows me personally will know also that I tend to gravitate towards the archaic. I prefer things of timeless style. Hence, my propensity toward wearing fedoras (not the stingy little trilby hats worn by today's wippersnappers), ivy caps in tweed patterns, and replica-WWII aviator jackets. Given all this, my newest fascination probably won't surprise too many.

About a month-and-a-half ago (the week before Christmas), I bought my first pipe. I'd been curious about it for awhile, but I never really planned on making the step. As far as smoking went, I was generally opposed, mostly out of my loathing for cigarettes. I had tried cigarettes before, and I found them somewhat disagreeable. The tobacco was so chemically treated that it left a residue in my mouth, the smoke was too harsh, and the only effect of the nicotine was to irritate my throat. I gave it an honest try, but decided it was not for me. (I'd almost decided the same for cigars, but I found that actual hand-rolled cigars are quite pleasant, whereas the machine-made ones are almost as bad as cigarettes.) Another reason was that I enjoy singing, and I know too many people who have affected their voices for the worse due to cigarettes.

With all this, I probably never would have considered pipes had I not started reading the Wheel of Time series. It presented the idea of smoking a pipe as an occasional treat, something indulged in every so often, but not done to excess. It made sense. I reasoned, with all the pollutants in the air and chemicals in our food, how much worse, really, would an occasional pipe be? (I've since read a study by the Surgeon-General's office which stated that a person smoking one pipe every two to three days actually has the same, if not better, life expectancy of the average non-smoker. Go figure.) And I didn't even have to worry about what the smoke would do to my voice. You don't inhale pipe smoke.

So I bought a pipe. I've bought a few more since. I've tried a few different kinds of tobacco. English blends seem to be my favorite; the smoky flavor of latakia is a true delight. And through the trial, I've discovered the differences between smokers. Those who smoke cigarettes always seem so harried to me. They get the nic fix their bodies crave and then they move on. Cigar smokers are more relaxed; there is technique required in properly smoking a cigar, and it teaches patience. Smoking a pipe, however, goes even further. It is a ritual. Fill the pipe (many different methods to choose from, three-pinch being most popular), perform a charring light, tamp down the tobacco, perform a true light, and then sip gently at the stem. Maybe you have to relight a few times; finishing a pipe can take an hour or more. Once the pipe has been smoked, you can refill or you can break the pipe down and clean it. The entire endeavor is calming, relaxing. It's a shame that it has fallen so to the wayside. Most of the time, when I go into a tobacco shop and ask for pipe tobacco, the clerk will point at a solitary bag on a barren stretch of shelf. Even then, it isn't really pipe tobacco. It's a bag of Roll Your Own cigarette tobacco--the companies label this stuff as pipe tobacco to avoid taxes.

So one more tally to mark me as an old fogey. I don't really care. In fact, I prefer it. There is vast, rich culture out there for those who are not afraid to fall behind the times. One more thing before I go. One of my managers asked me to carry a case of cigarettes from receiving up to the tobacco counter. Before I left on the errand, she asked if I smoked. "A pipe," I said. She shook her head. "I should have known."

"To walk peacefully with oneself in the woods. To boil one's coffee and fill one's pipe, and to think idly and slowly as one does it." Knut Hamsun

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Further Misadventures

Sometimes my lunch breaks get a tad predictable. Whenever I'm stuck on a shift that only allows me thirty minutes to eat, I go for the quickest, cheapest stuff I can get. My current favorite is Asian chicken bites from the deli and a chow mein bowl. Because I had run out of chopsticks, I had to buy another packet (I swear, this is leading up to something).

When I got to the checkout lane, the girl there asked me if I really preferred chopsticks to plastic forks (my ability to eat with chopsticks has awarded me celebrity/freak status in the associate lounge). I said that yes, I liked using chopsticks. I paid for the items and, feeling it would be rude to walk off without saying anything else, said, "Chopsticks are fun."

She shook her head, saying, "I just don't think I could get the hang of using them." She closed out the register and began to walk away. Then she stopped. "I do like a big stick, though." Her friend at the next register started laughing.

Fortunately (?) my brain had shut down before I could say that I always did believe in the adage "Speak softly and carry a big stick."