Friday, August 31, 2012

Spoiling the magic

Went out on the river for my daily dose of nature wonderment: water, sky, woods, are always soothing and beautiful, familiar, yet slightly different every day. Yesterday turned out to be one of those days when the river is really magical. Maybe it was something about the angle at which the sun hit the water at this time of the year, maybe the air temperature, or something in the life cycle of the river creatures... I found myself gliding on an opalescent mirror reflecting hundreds of flickering silver dots jumping out of the water, a river version of exuberant fireflies. In the distance now and then a massive fish would pierce the unctuous liquid mirror without disturbing it and then fall back with a satisfied resounding splash. What a show!

Today I went back for an encore to the same place, at the same time of the day. The magic was gone! How could this be? Looked around, all the elements were there, but no live silver dancing above the water, no big fishes in sight. I finally realized that one element had been added to the mix: an ever so slight breeze was streaking the water surface creating tiny ruffles. Seems the presence of these tiny imperfections was all it took to blur small fishes’ vision, enough to make them stay put. The magic cycle of life was interrupted .

Today small and big fishes remained hungrier.
I was left wanting for the magic to happen.
The flies will live to see another day.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Of fathers

I went to the river on “Fathers’ day” because it was an especially hard day for me. I had lost my dear father exactly 3 months and 1 week before. It was as if when he vanished along with the hour we skipped when jumping ahead to the summer time... With all that has happened since in my life, I have not been able to row, which only made me feel worse. I have fallen again in the same trap many of us often fall into: when things get really rough, we let ourselves carried away and completely forget to take the time we needed to tap into our inner sources of strength.  Why did I deny myself for so long taking the time to be on the water, rowing my single scull at dawn, when it had helped me recover my peace and overall strength so many times before?
On this particular morning I went out on the river later than usual, so I was not very surprised to find myself surrounded by a large number of leisure boats. However, after passing a number of them I realized that the average age on the river was much lower than usual. Every boat carried an adult male and one or more children. Apparently paddling or fishing with one’s kids is a popular way to spend Fathers’ day. I rarely see such mixed age crews more often on the river - I wonder why?
We did not observe Fathers’ day as I was growing up in my native country. I thought of my dad, and tried to think about leisurely activities we had shared. My father used to be a very busy professional and I was a girl. I do remember the three of us (with mom) hiking and the many week-ends when he drove us, my mother and I, out of town to picnic into the nearby woods. He loved to grill and would gather the needed dry wood while I loved sauntering around him picking wild flowers (I gave up on helping with gathering the wood since it never seemed to pass his quality inspection).  Upon returning from the woods, on many Sunday afternoons, I would sit next to my dad and watch soccer together with him, I became a fan of his team – if he ever wished he had a son to watch with instead, he never mentioned it to me…
Actually I cannot remember my father taking me out on the water or participating to some fun activities only with me (mom seems to have been always included). However, I do remember him spending serious quality time with me so many times: explaining, rationalizing, sometimes disciplining, other times encouraging me.  So, where ever the tumultuous stream of my life has taken me, I knew my father was always in my boat. I hope he still is…

Friday, November 19, 2010

Starting to run for all the good reasons

Why can I not resist a worthy challenge, no matter how unsure I may be of my ability to successfully complete it? First, when the goal seems worthy to me, the pain and potential “humiliation” I might have to endure in the process seem insignificant by comparison. Then, I know from experience I had always gained at least some valuable lessons. To top it all, if I do succeed, I feel exhilarated and reinforced in my determination to continue to accept good challenges. This time my challenge was indeed related to participating in a 5K “fun run”. I had good reasons to accept this challenge and to believe I had the stamina to complete it, but I did not know how to actually do it. The lessons I learned are widely transferable.

Sunrise on Lake Michigan
I was attending the annual meeting of the American Heart Association. In the spirit of the conference, the participants, professionals who work in the area of cardiovascular disease, are encouraged to “walk the talk” or rather, run it. My early career mentor, Peter, a dedicated runner, has been asking me on every eve of the run, for almost 20 yrs, if I was going to participate. I have been saying: “No, not this year… I am not a runner, I’ll need to prepare for it.” But that never happened. Not only do I not enjoy running, but by doctor’s orders after a bus accident that immobilized me for months in a hospital bed many years ago I am to avoid any physical activity pounding on my spine. Last year, my mentor finally wore me down. I thought: if I can compete in a 5K rowing race, I should have enough stamina to finish a 5K run, right? So, I ran it, felt good about finishing, but I was not sure I wanted to repeat the experience; however, it turns out that my mentor had asked the organizers to dedicate this year’s run to the memory of one of our colleagues who had been struck and killed by a car while running precisely during last year’s annual meeting. Peter enlisted all the runners who were current members or alumni of his institution, which included me, to wear a tee-shirt displaying the name of our lost colleague to honor his memory. How could I say no to running this year?

I got up really early and put on several layers as my iPhone indicated the temperature was 30 F. I was not sure what runners wear, I had put on a couple of layers, and now I got the extra tee-shirt, however while waiting for all the runners to show up, I was regretting being there so early (I was in the first bus that dropped people off at the site). In spite of the dark, we snapped pictures “before”, we heard some brief talk encouraging us to maintain healthy physical activities, then a couple of short speeches about the person we were commemorating and we held a moment of silence. We were then told to go to the start line by letting the competitive runners start first. In fact, I went around the crowd to snap some pictures of the competitive group, running in place impatient to catapult over the start line.  Only now, while writing this, did it occur to me that their puzzled looks may have been related to the fact that by walking over the start line to take the pictures, I had likely triggered my own timing device! Did I mention that I am “green?” Satisfied with the spectacle of their explosive start, I then walked to the back of the gathered crowd and started my own run from there.

So, here are the main learning points I selected from my (overall) experience of 2 x 5K runs, one year apart (with no training what so ever).

1. Accept a worthy challenge.
If the cause seems important to you, take a chance and do your very best. Worst case scenario, you will learn from it.

2. Seek and follow (some of the) advice.
I knew this would not be easy with no training, so I asked several experienced runners for some tips, “Should I try to touch down first with my toe or my heel? How should I pace a 5 K run?” Their face betrayed their amused incredulity: “You do not usually run??? Well, then… best just forget it!” Finally, Sonia, another of my mentors offered advice that unleashed for me the possibility of participating: “If you really, really want to do it, just take it easy and hang in there!” I decided to go with her advice.

3. Find a buddy (support system)
As I began to run at the end of the crowd, I was still getting passed by many! I felt very discouraged: I was slow even in the slow crowd… Judging by their toned and nice physiques, it seemed that the great majority of runners were fitter or younger, and many were both. Once more I doubted my decision to participate… Then, I finally spotted in front of me someone who was more like me, in fact she seemed heavier. I told myself, “If she can run I can run! I will just try to stick with her for as long as I can”. For a while, I only looked at her back and tried to keep up with her speed, ignoring all those passing us.

4. Enjoy your route, but don’t find excuses to give up/get off track.
The view was really amazing: the sun was beginning to rise over Lake Michigan, seemingly setting its calm waters on fire. If I did not come out here to run at this early hour, I would have not been able to see this remarkable scene from behind the tall city skyline. I kept thinking I may not be able to remember the splendid picture in its full glory. Besides, my legs were hurting, so I wanted really badly to stop, rest, and take some good pictures. I took my camera out of my pocket (I had thought I might need it), but realized that should I stop to take those good pictures, this might just turn into a photo safari. I was there for a different reason so, I stopped only long enough to snap several pictures in the low light. It turns out that many are not in focus, but I was still able to find a few that are good enough to jog my memory.

5. Learn, find ways to compensate for your shortcomings,adapt.
Since having my back injured in the bus accident many years ago, I have a deficit in my left leg that becomes noticeable (to me) with strenuous activity. I had learned over the years how to compensate for it while rowing: I decrease the force with which I push against the boat with my right (“good”) leg to match the weaker left leg. It is easy to tell if I am doing it right, any difference between left and right foot’s pressure makes my single boat veer… While running, I could not pound away with my left leg as vigorously as I could with my right. It took a while to figure out that I could not split differentially the gravitational pull on my two legs, so I resolved to run “softer” (and of course slower).

6. Hang in there.
 I was following the advice, running only up to where it felt hard but not uncomfortable, and keeping the hope that I will not run out of steam before the official finish line. I was making steady progress, albeit many had passed me by. At some point I began to notice people slowing down, and then I began to pass some, including the woman I had resolved to follow. A quick corner of the eye look when passing her revealed she was many years my junior.

7. Aim for a strong finish.
With the finish line in plain view, I tried to gather all my remaining energy to sprint. Someone decided that we needed encouragement and shouted in a megaphone: “Looking good! You need to smile for the finish.” I thought, how could I possibly smile, everything hurts. At the exact moment when my brain rebelled, I felt a violent cramp in my left leg. In a strange way it was reassuring as just moments ago I could not feel my leg anymore, and was wondering if it was still bending correctly or was about to buckle. I thought: “Oh no, I am not going to be able to finish!” My response was to run even faster to make sure I do make it across the finish line, so I pushed my chest forward and hoped my legs will rotate fast enough to keep up with it. I could not believe it, but here it was: the finish arch. After going under it, my first thought was: ”I did it!” Second thought: “Is this real or am I dreaming?” For one, the speakers were still blasting (appropriately?) "Forever young, I want to be forever young" as when I had started running, it felt like a "Groundhog day" type of situation. Then,  a couple of guys watching my finish exclaimed loudly: “Oh wow, that was really impressive!”

8. Pass it on: challenge/encourage someone else!
The reason I wrote about how I was able to overcome this challenge is because I hope that at least one other person will find it inspiring enough to tackle a challenge new to them (not necessarily taking up running), anything worthwhile they currently think they are not capable of achieving…

“If I can run, YOU can run!”  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A case of mind over matter?

Yes, absolutely: If you don’t mind, it does not matter!’ replied Reuben, the Dolphin Club’s boat captain, who was giving me a tour of the swimming and boating club in San Francisco Bay. What a treat! The visit to the Dolphin opened my eyes to a whole new level of physical and mental fitness needed to swim in the Bay waters and the harmonious cooperation between people who love making headway (moving) in or over the water.

At the end of a business trip to San Francisco, I decided to see if I might be able to row at one of the local clubs. One of the wonderful things I had discovered about becoming a rower is that it creates an invisible but real connection with many other like minded people worldwide. I have yet to find a place that would not extend the invite to visit and possibly row at the local facilities. Googling “rowing in San Francisco” brought up info on several Bay Area clubs. The closest to my location carried the additional designation of “swimming” in its name. I had seen boating, sailing, paddling, and kayaking added to the rowing, but the notion that rowers and swimmers shared a club was puzzling to me. While the e-mail reply warned me that I won’t be allowed to row because I could not claim open water experience, I was nevertheless cordially invited to visit the club.

On a beautiful but chilly early November morning I eagerly walked down Nob Hill to the edge of the Bay. I found myself in front of a building that from the street looked itself as a large white and blue boat. Once inside, I was transported in time! The club, founded in 1877, (see history) boasts in its great wood paneled room a full size wooden bar similar to those I’ve discovered in the old boat houses of Philadelphia – apparently a feature required by boaters till the 19th century… A fleet of large, carefully maintained, wooden boats still used for open water rowing reminded me of other antique boating equipment I had used at the Roskilde Roklub, that is built on a fjord next to the Viking museum in Denmark. Many pictures and trophies documenting a long and proud history were also on display. However, the most impressive discovery occurred when I exited toward the water side of the boat house: people, several older than me, in their bathing suits cheerfully greeting each other while coming out or waddling into the frigid water. My feeling of confidence, gained from sporting only a light leather jacket that morning when most passersby were shivering in puffy jackets and huddling paper cups of hot coffee, quickly gave way to humility! A stunning view of the bay with pink fog rolling in and out over the Golden Gate Bridge added to my awe. It turned out to be a very good day to observe these people whose determination made them not only able to but actually willing to brave the chilly open waters of the Bay. I was shown pictures of 80+ yo members who still swam the Golden Gate Bridge route or had crossed the English Channel.

I asked Reuben what it takes to be able to brave the cold open waters of the Bay? He told me about needing to persevere to gradually withstand water’s low temperature, having the metabolism to sustain the swim, and staying fit into old age. And I learned that this club holds… hypothermia classes. Above all, I was told it’s about a state of mind. As Reuben put it, “We do not have to swim in these waters, we chose – and love- to!” My visit was a revelation. When swimming clubs will be mentioned from now on, I will not automatically picture a pool, inevitably limited in length, with water warmed at a comfortable temperature. I now understood why I was not allowed to rowI needed to be able to swim in those waters should the wake of a passing tanker flip my boat.

I had to leave to catch my return flight, but I had trouble extracting myself from the scene. I had taken dozens of pictures (still hard to find one that does justice to the real thing). One last look: wide sky above blue and gold open waters. Pink fog. The Golden Gate Bridge, SausalitoAngel Island and Alcatraz. Tankers passing and honking in the distance. Boats and flocks of swimmers crossing in various directions. The smell of bacon. What a morning!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A sure way to get my heart rate up

My heart beats per minute (BPM)
The media published yet another story in its quest for mass-appeal with the potential for huge public disservice…  Is it me, or is media defeating the essential reasons for its very existence?

The other day, I received an email message from my son. In his usual succinct style, the subject line said: ”Well, so much for that plan” and it included a link to story published in “The Observer” (/the guardian/UK) entitled “Why exercise won’t make you thin.”  He is a bright young man (as illustrated by his reading on a variety of subjects including in the foreign press), who has been likely looking, like many others, for an “intelligent ,“ seemingly science-backed, excuse to skip on exercise. The effect of this story hit close enough to shock me out of my writing hiatus. No worries, I waited till I had pondered on the article while rowing and my heart beat came back close to its regular rhythm (as demonstrated by the picture - talk about exercise not having positive effects...) before starting to write.

The article contains the following executive summary: “A result for couch potatoes, yes, but also one that could have serious implications for the government's long-term health strategy.” By the number of tweets and Facebook shares it seems this was quite a popular story; I am sure the couch potatoes “ate” it up (no apologies, the pun is intended!) The coup de grace is questioning the government strategy on regular exercise.  Surely the British, as well as other, governments that came up with recommendations are not interested in how their citizens “look” but in their health status.  There is a massive amount of scientific data showing how regular exercise improves people’s health. By publicly questioning the benefits of exercise in such misleadingly written articles, the mass media is doing a huge disservice to people looking for “evidence” to avoid the effort that may be needed to make healthy choices.

I will not repeat what the article says, so you could have the pleasure of reading it yourself, but it contains a lot of statements like these: “More and more research in both the UK and the US is emerging to show that exercise has a negligible impact on weight loss. Almost worthless, as far as fitting into your bikini is concerned.” And supposedly backs up the perception of “worthless” with studies from reputable sources such as The Mayo Clinic. The problem is that one has to read carefully to fully understand the implication of their quoted conclusion: "an exercise regimen… is unlikely to result in short-term weight loss beyond what is achieved with dietary change." But of course! There are no magic bullets for losing weight. As someone who spent more than 20 yrs trying to understand how our body functions, I can tell that it is too complex and resilient (thankfully!) to undergo lasting changes due to any crash-style regimen, either diet of exercise. 

If your ultimate goal is "looks,” then the question is: do you just want to ”look good” for some specific upcoming event or do you want to look the best you possibly could for the rest of your life? More importantly, one should plan to lose pounds to reach their healthy weight not just to fit in a specific dress on one special occasion or even in their favorite “skinny” jeans. We should all aim for our healthy weight – we have a pretty good idea of what that is. For faster but fleeting changes, you could go ahead starve or poison yourself with some crazy diet, but for a sustained effect, you will have to be diligent and determined, and possibly even call upon some of your math abilities! The article suggests people who exercise do not lose weigh because they (over)compensate, i.e. feel entitled to eat more because they exercise. Well, there is a simple equation each of us has to solve out every day: “Did I eat more than I burned?” No worries, there are many free websites that will help you approximate calories for food and exercise, and now many fast food and restaurants have to show calories to you as soon as you are ready to decide what to order. And there is plenty of help teaching you what and how to cook healthy (I wrote another time on that strategy for weight loss “Winning the race against gravity and inertia”). It’s a lifestyle change!

I made that healthy lifestyle choice myself and have been working at it for a while. However it is nothing like the discouraging statement made by the article that says: “From a practical perspective, then, exercise is never going to be an effective way of slimming, unless you have the training schedule – and the willpower – of an Olympic athlete.” Not true! The biggest challenge is to make a little time each day (no Olympic athlete works out less than an hour!) and to use a combination of exercises. What worked for me was identifying  and adding some “body weight lifting” type exercises that I enjoy (I do not like working with machines). One quote I liked from the article was: “We know that dietary behavior is quite a negative behavior – we're having to deny ourselves something. There aren't any diets out there that people enjoy. But people do enjoy being physically active." So why is the Observer article discouraging people from exercising??? And yes, I am also paying attention to what I eat, but I can’t diet: I love food too much! Luckily not donuts, but I love and occasionally eat French fries and two portions of desert (especially if the option of trying different ones is presented to me). I just know that I will have to burn these off in the next couple of days and I don’t give up every time after, as if I had already blown it and there is 'no hope anyway.' Oh yes, I also eat chocolate every day (but I do limit the amount). Some of my friends attending food-themed events have complained saying that “it’s not fair” that I can eat this much. My frequent reply: “so, see you tomorrow for an early morning row?” The secret is that muscle needs more energy, but is also better at burning it (IF you use your muscles!)

Let me tell you how the last couple of years have been for me, and I promise I am not an exception (I recommend reading Mayo Clinic's  7 benefits of regular physical activity” and the American Heart Association scientific position on physical activity). Every day I do exercises that I enjoy (I picked them based on that!) and I resist at all costs the temptation to skip exercise because of a time crunch (there are other things that could be cut, sometimes sleep time for me!). Nevertheless, overall I have more energy than ever; I even have more time to think (away from other distractions). My physician was astounded (again) after my yearly physical: “What have you been doing???” he asked, “You have the vitals of a 30 yr old hard core athlete!”  Only that… I’m not. Also, I’m not so light, but I’m tight! Muscle weighs more than an equal volume of fat. Imagine my surprise the first time I could not find my size for some clothing item I liked because I was… too small?!?! It happened to me more than once since, and instead of getting upset, I am still (pleasantly) surprised every time. So although the effort/compliments ratio is not exactly one to one (I exercise every day!), people who know me and people I had not met before compliment me all the time about how healthy and good I look. Every week someone asks for specific advice on how they could obtain the same results. Here is my advice if you want to enjoy and benefit from exercise: 1) pick physical activities you like best so that you will want to do them regularly, and 2) make a commitment to find time for it every day… for the foreseeable future. It's that simple! If other circumstances require some exercises that you normally do not enjoy - try my strategy to get those done ("Start with the end in sight"). But the most important advice I have in response to the Observer's story is, regardless of your weight: if you are considering giving up on exercising or on starting to exercise regularly, DON’T!

I went back to check for other reactions to this article: I was hoping people would speak up. I would have been surprised to see publicly expressed cheers from self-acknowledged couch potatoes (especially if that might have involved getting up from the couch ;-) My favorite comment summarizing this article? “Dreadful Sunday fodder article, shame on you. However, wonderful picture of a lean gonzesse doing sit-ups on a doughnut, well done, keep it up.” Certainly a better use for the large doughnut if you plan to look like the girl in that picture!

 p.s. wondering if anybody already did a study examining the effects on weight and overall health status of a group giving up their daily exercise routine for extra time to read the newspaper?!?