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Breakdown at 5K. DNF.

It’s unfortunate for me to report that due to illness, related in part due to somewhat high heat at the race, I had to drop out of the Vancouver Marathon at about 5K.

I actually knew at around the 3K or 4K marker that I was in trouble and probably needed to drop out. The forecasted heat for Vancouver struck a little early, and within 3K I struggled badly with it. I also had struggled to sleep well the last couple nights and that compounded the issue. I was laboring badly at a level I expected would strike closer to 30K than 3K. I was suffering clear effects of heat exhaustion, and continuing past 5K seemed infathomable.

I walked past the 4K marker, and at the 2nd aid station (5K) I took a sizable quantity of water, stepped off-course, removed my bib and started a long walk back to the hotel. Within minutes of walking strategically under shade I already felt better and knew I had made the right decision.


The good news is that by DNFing early, I avoided the substantial wear and tear expected from the marathon, meaning if desired I can resume training as soon as I have good reason to do so, rather than needing to take weeks to recover.

I had netted a lottery spot in this October’s Chicago Marathon, and having planned to run it I was somewhat concerned about my ability to bounce back from Vancouver and begin training for that. But now that’s not a concern, and (after a bit of time off) I can begin training for that at my leisure.

It’s my first ever DNF in a race, and I figured if I ever did so at a marathon I’d have done so after 20 miles than after 2. But while disappointed I don’t feel bad… only that I made the right decision.

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Never mind running the marathon… can I even make it there?

I’ve probably been more concerned this week about whether or not my flight to Vancouver will make it out of this bad Midwestern weather than I’ve been about how the marathon’s going to go.

It’s not what kept me up all night Tuesday through Wednesday morning. That I haven’t figured out. I didn’t stay up late, I didn’t eat differently, I usually shut everything down by 10pm so it wasn’t a blue light thing, and I wasn’t particularly worried or anxious about anything, not even the marathon and not even what I’m about to describe. But despite being very tired my stomach turned over, couldn’t settle and I couldn’t get to sleep. I did eat around 4am and finally I passed out for a couple hours, but the lack of sleep left me a functional wreck for much of Wednesday.

Since it was my last day at work for a week and a half, I couldn’t call off, and with business to wrap up before leaving I didn’t want to anyway, so I went to work a full day before heading home, eating dinner and sleeping a good long while into this morning. Any plans I had to run Wednesday were mostly shelved due to my condition.

That all aside, the weather this past week suddenly became a cause for concern… not the weather on race day in Vancouver, which will be warm but clear… but the weather in Chicago on my departure date.

All through the last week the reliable Weather Underground forecast indicated that thunderstorms would hit Chicagoland with over an inch of rain all day Thursday, which as forecast would prevent my flight to Vancouver from leaving. I already won’t have a ton of time in Vancouver before the race… waiting another day could cause some problems.

On Tuesday I scrambled for a plan B. I booked a one way flight to Seattle for Wednesday night, booked overnight lodging near SeaTac and a BoltBus ticket into Vancouver for Thursday morning. The whole thing despite short notice only cost about $300. Of course, that accelerated my timetable to pack. Instead of having the evening after work Wednesday and all morning Thursday to finish up, I had to quickly get everything done Tuesday night. While perhaps that could have been a source of anxiety, I got it all done that evening before eating dinner and heading to bed.

But then the weather quickly turned! By Wednesday morning the thunderstorms that all week hadn’t been forecast to hit before overnight Wednesday/Thursday now were forecast to arrive during the evening commute on Wednesday, which subsequently would wipe out or uselessly delay that new flight I had scheduled. Plus, as mentioned, by that Wednesday morning I hadn’t slept much at all and I wasn’t convinced I could stay up until after midnight let alone competently drag myself from SeaTac to overnight lodging, then sleep a bit less than usual and try to transit to Vancouver Thursday morning. Plus, there were various boarding complications I won’t get into that offered a sizable chance I’d have to check my bags, and the risk of losing luggage isn’t one I want to take.

On top of all that… the forecast for Thursday had softened, and now there’s a decent chance my originally scheduled flight will be able to leave as scheduled.

So I cancelled the Plan B flight, which was easy and fully refundable. I wish I had taken my chances scrambling for lodging, because the lodging was non-refundable. And the bus ticket I bought was non-refundable. So I spent $100 for a backup plan that wasn’t necessary. Also, changing my storage parking arrangement did save me a few bucks.

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All of that never minds that I’m running a marathon in three days! It’s hard to stress about a marathon when you’re already dealing with a bunch of other issues, most notably just being able to get to the marathon site with enough time to spare to pick up the bib and get everything else I need in order.

This will all be behind me once my plane to Vancouver is in the air, over the clouds and out of the Great Lakes.

… if it can get there first!

A marathon dress rehearsal run, and discussing in-race fueling options

Yesterday’s 6 mile run wasn’t so much about training, because at this point of the taper I’m pretty much as trained as I’m going to get.

The goal of the run was to practice marathon fueling. Never minding that the Vancouver Marathon uses low-calorie Nuun as their electrolyte hydration at aid stations (which isn’t effective like Gatorade because Nuun is low calorie and the calories in Gatorade are important to avoid late-rate bonking)… even if they used a better solution, race mixed drinks are typically mixed on-site, often poorly so and leaving your cup short on the actual electrolyte solution.

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If I haven’t effectively implied it, one of my primary race goals is to avoid hitting The Wall, the moment of 100% glycogen depletion when you bonk and just have nothing left in energy. I’m obviously not a marathon expert by any means, but anyone who says it’s unavoidable is wrong.

For those wondering why they hit the wall late in a race… pretty much every resource points to a lack of effective in-race fueling. Your body burns mostly carbs when running at any pace beyond a recovery jog, and the faster/harder you’re running the more proportionally you burn carbs. At my size I burn about 120 calories per mile run, and at over 26 miles, that’s over 3200 calories burned.

Despite my weight loss and fitness, I still carry a good portion of fat. But fat burns glacially in exercise compared to carbs. While you can train your body to proportionally burn more fat, your fat will never burn anywhere close to as fast as carbs will during a run. Carbs become glycogen, which is your body’s primary fuel during a run. No matter how much fat you have… as soon as you tap out your available glycogen, you bonk. You’re running on auxiliary power and your body acts like it. So I have to make sure I get enough carb fuel to offer a chance of avoiding the wall in the final miles.

(Yes, your pacing and general hydration are also factors, but those are far easier to control. And all of this never minds that no matter what I’m absolutely going to be very sore and tired in the later miles. I accept that.)

According to the Hansons’ fueling formulas, my lower body stores around 1200 calories of glycogen, and should burn about 1000-1200 calories of fat throughout the race. If I properly pace myself I need about 600-750 calories in pure carbs to finish the marathon without hitting the wall. I also should ideally do it frequently in smaller portions rather than every half hour or when I pass the aid stations.

Even if courses provide nutrition, your best bet is to carry this nutrition yourself and consume it regularly throughout the marathon (which adds the benefit of allowing you to pick nutrition that works best for you). Plus, I still need to be able to physically get myself to a food resource and then back to the hotel, so I’m better off overkilling a little bit on what I carry and consume since my effort doesn’t end at the finish line.

Since I’m not Eliud Kipchoge with custom engineered drink bottles waiting for me every 5K, and point to point van service for transport… I’ve needed to figure out what to carry with me. I only have so much space in a belt pack, and carrying a 32oz bottle of Gatorade will obviously slow me down more than it’s worth, as every extra pound you carry adds 3-5 seconds to your mile time. What I use has to work effectively, and be portable.

Over the last few months I’ve worked on in-race fueling on various runs. I’ve experimented with gels (one packet is 100 calories), chews (one 6-chew packet is 200 calories), honey (a full 6oz flask is 568 calories), and for a while made a go with the minimally viscuous raw agave in a gel flask (6oz = 485 calories).

The agave is portable and easily consumable, but its simple sugars only replenish certain glycogen stores (albeit important ones for the body, like in the liver) and aren’t fully utilized by the body to run. I still found myself fading or even bonking late in 2.5+ hour runs despite consuming it every 10-15 minutes in-run… whereas the more engineered electrolyte sugars of Gatorade and similar drinks did keep me going.

I have found Clif Shot Bloks useful, but there’s an obvious problem: Trying to chew and swallow something while actively running at a decent pace makes it a little hard to breathe, which in turn makes it hard to effectively run until you’ve swallowed (and hopefully washed down) a given blok.

And, as I’ve found out the hard way, you definitely need to chase anything you consume with water or the issue will become much more difficult. In a race that will already be very taxing, those little aggravations could more quickly exhaust my energy stores before the end of the race… which defeats the purpose of fueling in the first place.

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So anyway, I sampled the shot bloks once again yesterday while carrying 20oz of water. Perhaps active water use after consumption would help. Perhaps practice would help. They are the easiest and least messy of my fueling options, and if I can make them work it’s a better solution than gel, which is not only really messy and tastes like flavored motor oil but doesn’t feel good in digestion. I took one blok every 10 minutes and washed it down after swallowing.

The good news is despite attacking Cricket Hill (up and down) three times during the run, I felt energized after the run as compared to tired (as I often am when I take a similar run after work). The issue remains that, even with water, the moments between the blok entering my mouth and when it finally goes down remain difficult for my breathing and in turn my running. My heart rate did spike the first 3 times I fueled but stayed level the subsequent times… but my pace wasn’t great relative to my active heart rate, and I suspect repeating this process 8-24 times could slow me down and further complicate an already complicated marathon situation.

Now, I could just do it anyway, which I think is not a bad Plan A given this is already going to be a difficult race, and having usable fuel for the haul that works is better than not having such fuel. I think no matter what I’m going to bring Shot Bloks for the race, and if no better method presents itself I will just suck it up and pop one every 10-15 minutes until I cross the finish line.

I can also consider loading up a gel flask with agave and carrying it as well, saving the Shot Bloks for every 30-60 minutes or so, and just taking the agave on the regular. Both sources are palatable and digest reasonably well, and (though I will want to attempt using them together at home or in training to make sure nothing happens) I think having an adequate supply of both will cover my fueling bases.

The race has an interesting (possibly Canadian?) wrinkle, supplying bananas to runners at an aid station around mile 19. Aside from the concern of runners recreating a Mario Kart course with discarded banana peels, I think taking and eating one at the opportunity would also help. Bananas are my most common post-run carb-replenish fuel, so digestion is no problem.

And of course I plan to stick to a pre-race ritual: Eating a breakfast sandwich and chasing it with a shot of espresso a couple hours before the race. The nutrition from this must be important: Every time I’ve done this, I’ve raced well.

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Admittedly, a lot of the above is talk-it-through thought process on my part. I’ve given this a lot of thought, because being able to finish the race with dignity regardless of finishing time is a high priority for me, and I know fueling in-race is vital to that happening.

Hot is not as hot as you think when you’re running

As the Vancouver Marathon approaches I’ve kept an eye on the 10 day forecast, not so much for any inclement weather on race day (Vancouver’s climate is mild and chances are good it’ll be clear), but to monitor the likely temperature. This marathon will already be difficult enough on its own, but the effect of any excessive heat will magnify multifold as I enter uncharted territory in the later miles.

The forecast already called for mostly clear skies and temps over 60, but as days pass the forecasted high temp for race day has grown and now sits at 71’F. The forecasted temp at gun time is currently 60’F, and given my anticipated pace I will likely finish during the 12pm-1pm hour, right as the heat begins to peak.

The London Marathon felled countless runners not too long ago as temps reached 73’F, and not a few people scoffed at runners collapsing in a temperature we’ve been so conditioned to believe is perfectly comfortable that we set thermostats there as a default. Such opinions are clearly the product of people who don’t run regularly.

A key reason we’re advised to dress in winter as if it’s 20 degrees warmer is because your core temperature while running will increase to a point where it feels at least 20 degrees warmer. This remains to some degree true once the weather warms up, and greatly exacerbates the effect of outdoor heat.

You are after all elevating your heart rate and burning about 90-120 calories per mile… and your body when in continuous motion produces heat. Cold can feel normal. Normal feels hot. And any temperature above normal can get dangerously hot.

The standard ideal temperature has been posited at around 50-55 degrees, though I find the ideal overall range for running is between 40 and 60 degrees. Jonathan Savage posits that outdoor temps can begin to slow you down from heat at as little as 50 degrees (you can see the calculated effect here). And of course, the bigger you are the better your body retains heat, which while great in a Chicago winter can feel brutal during a run in warmer weather. (It’s one of a bunch of reasons I worked on losing weight in recent years)

I recall running the Soldier Field 10 last year, and even though the temperature never got above 62, I began to feel overheated in the later miles. Pacing and other factors (plus the distance at the time) may have contributed, but I do recall feeling substantially hotter at the end than past races. I felt weak at the time for having been so affected by such seemingly mild temperatures, especially when racing calculators like the Daniels Tables indicate that’s barely above the threshold (60 degrees) at which heat begins to affect you.

Looking back now, knowing that heat can begin to affect you at 50 degrees, I now realize that I wasn’t too far out of line. If we follow the winter wear 20 degree postulate, my body by that point probably felt like it was about 80-85 degrees outside.

It’s little wonder that at last September’s Great Race 10K in Pittsburgh, where temperatures reached a race-historical high of 87, runners were collapsing and required medical attention at the finish line. I ran that race and had to physically stop between aid stations around mile 4 to avoid illness myself. I finished, but I passed many EMTs attending to fallen runners towards the end, and even watched another runner collapse to the ground amidst more EMTs at the finish line. For all of us racing, that 87 degree temperature felt a lot more like 105-110 degrees as we reached the finish.

What’s beautiful weather for a bystander can be dangerously hot weather for a runner. That 60 degree start time temp at Vancouver may or may not feel hot when we start. But by hour 2, the likely 65 degree temps will feel more like 85-90, and it’s going to get worse as we enter the 10K marathon badlands of miles 20-26 (or for Canadians, kilometers 32-42). As the temps hit 70, it’s going to feel like 90, and if they run out of water in Stanley Park it’s going to get real bad for slower runners.

So now my race planning requires another wrinkle. Never mind making sure I properly fuel and pace myself. I now need to figure contingencies for hydration in the later miles, just in case the compounding effects of marathon exhaustion and heat make the difficult potentially unworkable. Because the latter portion of the race will be at noon, there won’t be much shade as the sun will be directly overhead. And, because the later miles are along the Stanley Park Seawall, it’s not particularly easy to drop out if you must.

I know for sure I’m bringing a water bottle, along with taking liquid at all the available aid stations. The best plan will be to:

  • Either dial back my overall planned pace by about a minute, or do the classic racing no-no of banking time at my original planned pace early, then dialing back the pace for good once the heat becomes noticeable, to minimize my exposure to the worst of the heat.
  • String to my running belt my running cap and perhaps a towel/cloth of some kind, for cover. The cap can be wet as needed. I could also pin my bib to my shorts, begin the race with a tech T over my singlet, and remove the T to use as a towel in lieu of a towel.
  • Aggressively top the water bottle off before entering the park at mile 20 (32K).
  • Absolutely stop and walk/rest through aid stations.

I’m still fairly confident I’ll finish Vancouver as expected. This is all just part of the planning that I was already setting in place for a tough race. But it speaks to a greater point: Don’t underestimate the effect of the heat on your running.

Taper madness, no. Taper dilemma, perhaps.

My biggest dilemma with the marathon taper is not the so-called taper madness. In fact, with as much volume and intensity as I put into runs and life each week I’m honestly thrilled with any chance I get to rest. So when you tell me to cut volume, I’ll cut all the volume I need to without a second thought.

No, the biggest dilemma was *how* to taper, not necessarily cutting runs because of course you ideally should run the same number of times each week (barring injury, not running as usual atrophies your growth and throws your body off)… but in shortening those runs figuring out if I should do shorter runs closer to goal pace and ditch any long runs, or just do a slightly reduced volume at easy pace, still do a (not as) long run, and focus more on promoting recovery.

You run as you train, and I should probably do some volume of running at my goal pace if I expect to run capably at that pace on marathon day. You can get away with hardly running at your desired pace and then nailing it in a shorter race. But in a marathon I realize your body is going to revert to habit over the final miles as you tire. If you’re used to running 10:00 miles in your everyday runs, your body’s going to have a real hard time nailing that 8:30 goal pace when you’re in hour 3+ fighting yourself not to slide into your everyday habit of running at 10:00 (or slower).

Plus, the Hansons say that adaptions to any given training usually kick in after 10 days, and anything done closer to the marathon than that typically isn’t going to grow your ability or do anything other than put more wear on your body.

At the same time, you don’t want to lose aerobic training benefits by not doing any running beyond short 3-5 mile runs. You may not develop any further adaptions in time for the marathon by doing a long run a week before… but you can certainly *lose* aerobic endurance capacity by not putting any such work in during the last two weeks before a race.

I know, because I have: I’ve heavily cut volume at times for recovery reasons, then found myself struggling to complete easy mid/long-range runs I used to finish with little trouble. Comfortably running my goal pace doesn’t help me if after 10-15 miles I’m so gassed from suddenly running much farther than I had in the last two weeks that I can’t keep up.

I wavered back and forth on how to approach this past week (because either way the last week before the race is going to be all shorter easy runs anyway). But I eventually decided to err towards being more aggressive on my regular runs early in this week, while easing up later in the week and finishing with a couple of longer runs… not terribly long of course.

I took today off after a team speed workout yesterday, and that was probably good to have that sequence of events breaking up the week. Tomorrow I’ll run a more typical 6ish mile run, and then Saturday I’ll knock out a comfortable 10-11 miles before taking Sunday off and making the final week-long descent towards Vancouver. For these last two runs I’ll be willing to go brisk but shorten my stride and go with quick easy steps if it starts to get a little tough.

That’s probably the best way to approach a taper, or at least the first week of a two week taper. Shorten up and do a little bit more with tempo early on, hit a quality workout, and then soften up on pace demands while getting in a couple of longer runs to end the week.

Things I wish I had done in marathon training

I’m running the Vancouver Marathon in Canada in less than two weeks. At this point I’m into the taper, and at the point where adaptions from any further quality training wouldn’t be manifested until after the day of the race. So making any dramatic changes to my training plan, aside from skipping a run if I’m feeling unduly worn out or sore, would not benefit me further. Beyond tomorrow, I’m basically as trained for the marathon as I am going to get.

I recognized the importance of developing and sticking to a single training plan, and feel good about having trained consistently over the past 3-4 months. I took days off and reduced volume as needed, but otherwise stuck to my overall basic plan cycles as intended.

– 45-50 miles max per week, with average around 35-40.
– One longer than everything else long run at least every other week
– 1-2 quality workouts per week (speedwork, tempo run, or at least a training run harder/faster than the others)
– 2-5 other easy or recovery runs per week surrounding those, with easy runs replacing quality workouts when applicable.
– At least one rest day per week, with others taken when needed due to soreness, substantial fatigue or other life events.
– If I ran a race, that always replaced the long run, or the long run was moved to at least 4 days before or after the race.
– Consume at least 20g of lean protein and an accordant amount of clean carbs (like fruit) as soon as possible after any workout longer than 30 minutes.

That said, I still throughout my training have read up on various training methodologies and ideas. I made a point not to implement anything new that would dramatically shift my existing schedule or training focus. But there are things that, looking back now, I would have implemented or explored given the chance to go back and start over… which of course I can do when I run another marathon!

12 THINGS I WANT TO DO NEXT TRAINING CYCLE:

1. Better defining phases of training

Most experienced runners who have followed training plans or worked with coaches know a quality training plan generally follows a series of phases: Base building, speed development, strength building (aka being able to hold existing and newly developed speed over long-distance), and then specific final-touch training/prep for your race.

Most of the training plans I examined admittedly didn’t itemize these phases. The closest any came was the Hanson Method, which differentiated between focusing on speed work before switching to “strength” work (longer training segments closer to your goal pace). All of them assume the trainee is beginning from a basic, reduced volume of running. Even the Daniels plans, while the plans for shorter races did break out training by phases, only listed plans as a single 18+ week block or a single repeatable 4-5 week cycle.

When I laid out my final plan, I basically did so the same way. As a result I jack-of-all-traded training on speed, tempo, endurance… mixing everything in on the regular but never really giving any single element the due focus that would have yielded better improvement. My training runs stagnated whether or not I took extra time to rest, whether I did reduced or higher volume. Prior to the recent Lakefront 10, I didn’t feel fully prepared for my prior tune-up races and the results showed that.

I think part of the problem was I didn’t break the plan into focused phases, where I’d spend four weeks building a base, four weeks focusing only on speed and running economy workouts, four weeks holding a closer-to-goal tempo over miles, etc. Like in life, I find when I focus on a main task or goal, my results are better. While the consistent volume of my training was a plus, the sameness of a lot of my training may have been a problem.

So, next time I will make sure my training plan has a clear base phase, a clear phase of speed workouts, a clear phase of longer tempo work, and then a ramp towards the race.

2. Spend quality time every week at your goal race pace

Jonathan Savage offers the taper recommendation of doing all your runs at your goal pace. However weird that sounds to you (and while intriguing I’m not totally sure about that recommendation myself)… the idea, to get used to the feel of your pace, is a good reminder of the importance of regularly practicing your goal pace. You are the product of your habits, you play like you practice, ten thousand hours blah blah blah. You get where I’m going with this.

I worked a single tempo run of varying moderate-long lengths into my training, a Hanson concept, once a week over an extended period of training. The Hansons had the right idea, but I think it would have been more productive to do more goal-tempo running at shorter distances, more often. Going from several days of easy running with maybe one other hard workout… to having to run at a moderately fast tempo for 5+ uninterrupted miles is a little excessive and tough.

But I recall how Hal Higdon would recommend new runners train for a 5K: Start with three short-ish runs a week, take all the other days off. Make those short-ish runs a bit longer each week, until finally you’re running 3 miles at a time around week 7. Boom, you’re ready for the 5K. It’s how I got into running, and I found his plan easy to implement.

If I have a goal pace in mind and it’s do-able, it’s certainly easy to run it in shorter chunks several days a week, probably within other easy training runs. Running a bit faster for a couple miles in or at the end of a 6 mile run is not a big deal. Get used to it, then I can run it for 3 miles, then 4, etc. If I still want to do the long tempo run once a week or two, I can, but then at least I’m not doing it cold turkey every week. I’m just extending what I’ve already been practicing. Way easier to get accustomed to running at that pace.

3. Using the treadmill as a training gauge rather than a training tool

I hate the treadmill and have made no secret of this to anyone who knows me. It’s also practically not as effective a form of distance-run training as running outdoors. I will (and do) run all winter in sub zero temps before I’ll ever commit to running regularly on a treadmill.

But recently, while trying to internalize and hone my goal pace, as well as desired training paces, I discovered its obvious value: You can set the machine to that pace, and you’ll have no choice but to run at that pace.

Now, I’m not about to do a 4+ mile training run on a treadmill just because I want to make sure to run an 8:30 mile. But ahead of tempo training for that pace, I can certainly get on the treadmill and run some at the 8:30 pace (plus other related paces) to get a handle on how the cadence for that pace feels, if it’s feasible or too slow for me, etc., before I go out on the road and work to replicate that pace.

I’ve been doing this more over the last week or two after having figured this out, but now that I know I’ll make sure to use it early in training to help the rest of my training.

4. Strategically use compression gear

It’s a mother’s-love thing and a little funny to me. But I told my mother about my finish at last November’s Las Vegas Rock N Roll Half Marathon: I passed an older, struggling man dressed as Elvis just in sight of the finish line. I cheered him on with something like, “Keep it going, Elvis! You’re almost there!” As I turned to continue, both my calves seized up with cramps. Never minding this weird reverse-karma, I hobbled at pace and finished just fine.

I guess I could have hydrated a bit better but it was more amusing to me than anything. My mother responded to this by immediately mail-ordering me a pair of Zensah calf compression sleeves.

At first, I wore them a couple of times (including in a subsequent race) and found them constrictive. That’s what they’re for, right? So I said maybe I shouldn’t use them.

Except there were a lot of points where I struggled with sore, stiff calves, had to work on my feet all day before training that evening, and discovered wearing them was very helpful during those more-painful work/training days. They provided much needed support, helped circulate blood etc, and I found my calves would feel better after a day or three of use.

So now I do wear them somewhat regularly as needed. Thanks, Mom!

But next time, I can see wearing them on a more scheduled basis, such as the day or the Monday after a longer run, a race or other hard workout. They may not help me run faster, but they may help me accelerate recovery to those muscle fibers while also providing lower body support so I’m not overcompensating and risking injury elsewhere.

I also started doing the same with my compression pants and shorts. Aside from wearing them in workouts, I’ve also worn them to work under my work clothes. Sure, in part that was a product of wanting to layer against extreme cold, but after tough workouts I immediately saw a similar benefit in recovery. They can be of use beyond just workout days.

5. Worry less about hydration before a run, and worry more about it during the run

The key benefit I’ve seen from making a point to hydrate before going out on a training run is having the extra need to take a piss at multiple times during the run.

Yes, I get thirsty and dry during runs, and I’ve found that happens whether or not I hydrate before the run.

Not a lot to unpack there. I need to make sure to bring water or train near water, and of course if running a race that problem’s mostly solved. But unless I’m dry as the desert before going out, there’s no need to drink any extra water ahead of a training run. Whatever water I take in during the day is enough.

6. Use your big hills, whether or not your goal race has hills

On my longest runs I would go far south of my Wrigleyville home, as far south as Soldier Field… as I would want to run up the sledding hill before running back down the zig-zag ramp and heading back north. It was a good challenge in the middle of a 15+ mile run.

However, as I charged up and down Cricket Hill at the end of the recent Lakefront 10, I wished that I could have put in more hill work. I’ve had and taken my share of opportunities (which I needed since the early portion of Vancouver has some challenging hills), and my schedule did impose limits on how often I could access said hills for said hill work.

But given the opportunity to plan for it, you can definitely incorporate it. Next time I want to spend a lot more quality time with Cricket Hill, and to a lesser extent the slight uphill near Grant Monument in South Lincoln Park. Hills are an easy way to build lower body strength.

7. Implement downhill running workouts, early in training

The big thing though is that on top of your traditional uphill intervals… I wanted to take up Savage’s recommendation to do downhill intervals. Downhills really beat up your quads, but the quads heal substantially stronger and more durable after a few weeks.

Obviously it’s too late now to try this (and even if not you have to do so carefully + not too fast, as downhill running can be more dangerous). But it’s definitely worth a shot early in the next training cycle.

8. Keep cross training simple

During this training cycle I joined a gym and took advantage of two cross training cardio machines I like: The stationary bike and the rowing machine. The latter was a full-body substitute or rest day exercise, while the bike was often a cooldown bookend to my standard Northwestern-to-Loyola training runs.

I’m sure there was some slight training benefit, but I suspect the bike did little more than further aggravate the soreness and fatigue in my legs, while the rowing machine simply wore out muscles I could just as quickly and easily train with heavy weights (while also making my hands hurt). Plus, neither burned a substantial amount of calories, and part of the goal is to keep a calorie burn similar to training days. I would have accomplished just as much by walking another mile.

Hal Higdon always recommends walking as the primary form of cross training, and lately I put more time on running-days-off towards just taking a long walk. It’s relaxing and probably as effective. That said, there are still various hormonal and health benefits to basic weight training (I don’t push heavy weight or do a ton of reps), so I’ll continue to do that.

Next time around, if I need to cross train I’ll just take a long walk and do some light weight work a couple days a week.

9. A 20 miler is okay, as long as you get to and do several runs at 16

Almost every major training scribe slams the idea of a non-elite runner running more than 16 miles for their longest marathon run. The idea is that elites who swear by the 20 can finish it in 2.5 hours, which many cite as the longest period you should spend on a single training run (running longer isn’t believed to benefit your aerobic capacity but does damage your body, and may require you to miss training). For most to run 20 would take them 3-4 hours, which goes beyond that itemized threshold.

I did a lot of 15-16 mile runs leading up to the 20 I planned to do (anyway) about a couple weeks ago. I topped three hours on those runs, so I was already in theory beyond the aerobic-value threshold. But I found that I felt about the same after those runs as I did after other long runs, and was able to bounce back into regular training in the next day or two.

I ran 20 and though I hurt for various reasons (many totally within my control: I didn’t fuel and hydrate as effectively as I wanted to, and even bonked at mile 19), I got it done, was totally able to resume training normally two days later, and it was a valuable hurdle to clear.

Because here’s the thing with the 20: It’s not necessarily about physically prepping you for the marathon any more than a 16 would. It’s psychological, about stretching yourself to a long enough distance that the remaining miles don’t seem so daunting. If you physically get through 20, you can see yourself battling through another 6.2188 (just a hair over 10K). Some may like to argue that shouldn’t matter, and if you’re experienced at running the distance then it probably doesn’t. But to those who haven’t really run it, I say it does. It certainly did to me!

But a key to this, what I think made sure I passed the 20 with flying colors, is that I did a lot of longer runs in the weeks prior to attempting 20. If I did one 16 miler, and then tried to do 20, I probably would have broke… because my body wouldn’t have been accustomed to that kind of distance. I do wish I had done more than a couple, though: The 20 would have hurt a lot less.

So I think next time I’ll probably do a 20 again, and I’ll certainly make sure to get in several 16’s over a few fortnights leading up to it. And hopefully next time I hydrate and fuel well enough not to bonk at mile 19.

10. EAT CLEAN ALL THE TIME

My diet overall has been about 60-80% healthy, built around baked chicken, vegetables, rice and plain pasta, and I do all my cooking with unrefined coconut oil. I still have eaten my share of processed food, not necessarily as cheat meals but as protein-dense fill-ins for the self-prepared whole foods I should have eaten instead (Eastside Cafe sausage pizzas are allegedly a terrific source of protein, by the way).

During last year, running regularly, I got my weight down to about 160 from about 170 (I originally weighed as much as 193 but worked that down beforehand). Then suddenly in autumn it began creeping up again, and recently topped out at 170-172 again. I tinkered with elements of my diet, managed my calorie intake against my burn, and of course ran a lot, but I just couldn’t get my weight to trend back down. In fact it took effort just to keep it even.

I noticed that when I ate most processed food for dinner I either woke up strangely hungry or didn’t feel as rebuilt/rested/fulfilled as someone who ate 180 grams of protein should. I realized that maybe the metric load of processed nutrients might not be as useful to a busy, rebuilding body as more natural whole foods.

I ate more green vegetables, more home-cooked baked chicken, lighter snacks like popcorn, etc. Suddenly the weight began peeling off again, without any adverse effects. I suspect in the short run the loss of water weight from eliminating processed sodium is a factor, but I also suspect the more nutrient-dense food is having its effect.

So, aside from any celebratory meals after Vancouver, and a beer or two during random events, I’m probably going to stick to cleaner whole food at home and at work. I don’t think I can healthily peel much weight before Vancouver, but I can definitely shed a few more pounds before the next race.

11. Strategically use intermittent fasting to moderate body fat and calorie intake

I used to intermittent fast (the process of eating all your meals in an 8ish hour window, so that you go 16ish hours without eating… the easiest way to do this is to skip breakfast), and it worked well for me, especially with losing weight in a healthy way. But this was before I began running. When you need to make sure you’re well fed and not catabolically broken down in any way before a 6 mile run that will catabolically break you down even more, it’s more important to ensure you’re properly fed than to torch fat. So I religiously avoided it… until recently.

With the above mentioned weight problem, I decided to experiment with fasting in the morning on off days, and on a select basis before some lighter training sessions. Any other day (or even any day where I wake up unusually hungry), I just eat breakfast as normal. I found I have better energy overall, and this is something I’ll probably want to do on a touch and go basis going forward.

12. Know how to start ANY race, let alone the marathon

Everyone knows but few actually do it: You want to start races conservatively instead of going out hard. You want to start slower, build to your tempo, and then finish fast. I knew this, but only in my last race (the Lakefront 10) did I actually apply it to the letter.

In my previous races I struggled to keep a fast pace (often slowing badly down the stretch, especially in anything beyond the 8K distance). This last time, I went out very deliberately and let everyone who wanted to pass me. I eventually settled into a comfortable pace that turns out was a bit faster than I expected, and over the final 5 miles I ended up passing a lot of people while comfortably maintaining my improved pace en route to a smashing PR.

This was a vital happy accident, as the key to not crashing and burning in this upcoming marathon will be to go out slow and patient as everyone else around you gets too excited for their own good, so that I can find my pace on my own time and finish on my own terms. It was important for me to experience what it felt like to successfully do it right.

And of course it’s something I will want to do in order shorter races going forward, including tune up races. In the Lakefront I crossed the 10K marker in what would have been my PR at 10K. If I apply it effectively to every other race, I anticipate I’ll be able to smash other PR’s, even if I’m not training for those distances.

————–

Better luck next time, obviously. But for now, I need to focus on THIS time. I run Vancouver in 11 days!

On sleeping in summer, and sleeping after night workouts

A couple good not-so-known nuggets in here on why we don’t sleep well, and some not-so-known ideas for how to sleep better.

– This points to why I usually haven’t slept as well in summer, and it’s not neighbors blasting music at parties: My core body temperature was often too high to sleep effectively. The hot bath idea is a good trick to attempt.
– According to my Fitbit tracker I also have a lower resting heart rate during warmer months, and my weight tends to be lower during those months (regardless of how I eat). While I definitely want to make sure I work on getting better sleep in summer, it’ll be interesting to see if my resting heart rate and weight take the corresponding turn anyway.
– Though I currently follow a better sleep schedule than I have before, and have been getting decent sleep, I’m still prone to waking up super early, occasionally being unable to get to sleep, or waking up having logged little REM or deep sleep. This trick may be worth a shot:

If you’re only able to sleep 6 hours a night, then restrict yourself to 5. You’ll feel like poop the next day and crash hard…

But then only let yourself sleep 5 hours and 15 minutes. Now you feel like double poop and will be out before your head hits the pillow. So go to 5 hours and 30 minutes… And as long as you meet your designated quota, incrementally increase the amount of sleep you allow yourself. No naps.

You’ll be a zombie for a while but this is actually a core part of what is now quickly becoming the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia: CBT-I. The application of cognitive behavioral therapy to sleep issues.

One of the more paradoxical CBT-I methods used to help insomniacs sleep is to restrict their time spent in bed, perhaps even to just six hours of sleep or less to begin with. By keeping patients awake for longer, we build up a strong sleep pressure—a greater abundance of adenosine. Under this heavier weight of sleep pressure, patients fall asleep faster, and achieve a more stable, solid form of sleep across the night. In this way, a patient can regain their psychological confidence in being able to self-generate and sustain healthy, rapid, and sound sleep, night after night: something that has eluded them for months if not years. Upon reestablishing a patient’s confidence in this regard, time in bed is gradually increased.

 

Though on most weeknights I finish my running no later than 7pm… I do log group workouts on Monday and Wednesday later than is ideal, ending around 8pm. By the general rule, you want to get to sleep at least 3 hours after your last workout or you’ll have trouble sleeping well. This is probably more of an issue for older people, but guess who’s pushing 40? 😉

So, let’s say instead of trying to go to bed after a racing team workout or a Monday group run at 9-10 pm and hoping for the best, only to end up with screwed up sleep… I actively short my sleep on those nights by turning in three hours after the end of the run, then afford myself the option of turning in 15 minutes earlier than last night’s time, such as:

Wed: 11:00pm
Thu: 10:45pm
Fri: 10:30pm
Sat: 10:15pm
Sun: 10:00pm

If on Thursday or afterward I’m definitely tired enough to pass out at 9pm, then great I’ll do that. Unless of course I keep waking up early, in which case I’ll make myself stay up until the listed time and then pass out. Note that my typical shut-down time these days is somewhere between 9:00-10:00pm, so by Sunday I would in theory be back to my “normal” schedule.

If I skip the Monday run I would just turn in for bed normally until Wednesday. But if I do the Monday run, which due to a cooldown run home usually concludes my running around 7:45pm or so, then I would turn in per the following schedule.

Mon: 10:45pm
Tue: 10:30pm

Then once Wednesday comes, I once again turn in later per the above Wed-Sun schedule, and repeat. Obviously, if I skip the Wednesday workout and don’t do a later run, then I can follow my normal sleep schedule as usual.

———-

Thinking about this with such a level of detail may seem excessive to many, but this is the depths to which I’ve gone to fine tune my day to day habits and life to improve my training and recovery. It’s not only paid dividends over time, but it’s been vital to keeping me upright, let alone in good health.

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Random things I learned over my time running, with no explanation

The harder your feet hit the ground, the quicker you’ll get tired and the more you will hurt.

You’ve got to eat like a bodybuilder: A whole food minimally processed diet anchored by lots of clean protein.

Sleeping well matters a LOT more.

The quicker your feet can step during a run, the easier keeping a faster pace will be.

In cold weather you will warm up after 20 minutes of running.

To race great you have to go out slower than everyone else wants to, and resist keeping up with them.

If you take advantage, life will give you lots of opportunity to practice running in little bursts.

If you can comfortably run in them, lighter and less-cushioned shoes feel better.

If your body can handle it, walking and weight training will not only make you stronger but help you heal between workouts.

You’ll know by feel when you shouldn’t use a pair of shoes for training anymore.

Perfect temperatures can actually be too hot for running.

Most people don’t understand the importance of fueling during long runs.

Most people over-fuel on shorter regular runs.

Big races are overrated, and consistent high-volume training is underrated.

Most people do their easy/regular/recovery running way too fast and hard.

If someone runs or bikes close to you on an empty path, they’re intentionally harrassing you.

Beginning runners try to do too much right away.

Hello again.

In February 2017 I quit my improv commitments and decided to stop performing for a while. A while has become 14 months, and to be honest I don’t miss it at all. I never thought of the decision as permanent, and as with all things never say never. But as of now I have no interest in going back.

There’s no need to get into all the reasons why I left performing behind, but the main point is what I decided to focus on instead since has felt far more rewarding. I not only focused primarily on my distance running, but also worked on my overall health and self improvement: Improving my diet, getting better sleep, carving out and enjoying my free time, not drinking except for occasions, sourcing and improving my attitude and outlook, etc.

To get into why improv and performance art didn’t serve those things only serves to dwell (probably, admittedly, with some salt) on the past, on a lot of externally sourced factors I honestly cannot change… instead of building on the present towards the future. I liked a lot of what I did as a performer and regret none of it. And I like my decision to leave it behind, as well as who I am and continue to become now. What I’m doing now is a lot more rewarding than what I was doing before.

Despite having left it behind I kept this weblog and left up all the previous posts, which I still stand behind even today. What I wrote is still true and worthwhile, so I’ll leave it for those who can use it.

Going forward, however, I am repurposing the weblog to be more personal and about the things I work on today, my running, my health and associated matters.

  • I still run a lot, still take it seriously, have learned a lot about myself and running, and would like to write more about what I know and have learned.
  • I’ve worked on improving my diet, sleep habits and general health. I’m no doctor, nutritionist or anything else certified, but I have learned a lot and would like to write more about that as well.
  • I have various observations on both of the above, among other things, and want to write about that as well.

I may also backdate some posts based on previous experiences over the past year, that I think may lend some insight.

Hope you enjoy what’s to come.

I have decided to stop improvising

After over two years of improvising in Chicago (and quite a few years before that in Seattle), I have decided to stop improvising on stage for a while.

I actually made the decision a couple weeks ago, but needed to complete some official business before it was practical to announce it. I have officially left One Group Mind, the organization I had been practicing with since 2015 and the one organization I was still currently committed to, and as of last night am no longer committed to anything improv-related going forward. My last show with my team Sosa Mimosa was 2/24, and I coached my last rehearsal for Flynn Tin Tin last night (2/26). I didn’t want to make a big deal out of goodbyes, so (though the org and teams knew) I kept it quiet until now.

This was not a painful, ‘Mike Schmidt or Lou Piniella crying on TV’ sort of decision. I’m actually quite relieved. My life over the last few months has changed in many ways, and demands on my time and energy outside of improv (demands I mostly want) also increased. While free time and other interests have become more important, improv gradually became little more to me than an obligation… one I realized I did not need to keep.

——

Over the last six months I got seriously into distance running. I’ve run regularly (to a lesser extent) over the years, but wanted to get more serious about it. I run most days of the week, and now regularly run races on some weekends. For a lot of reasons I really enjoy it, and of course I’ve gotten in pretty good shape and health doing so.

Because of this, rest and recovery becomes much more important. As a Chicago resident rest is very hard to get since doing anything at all requires some walking and other physical effort (plus I also have to commute to/from work, like everyone else). Add in an improv commitment that requires going to and from Wicker Park one or more nights a week, and I just wasn’t getting a lot of time to rest. (And improv culture, of course, does not lend itself to a restful and healthy lifestyle in general)

Of course, your body as a runner punishes you when you don’t rest, and I don’t want to risk long term injury from exhaustion, let alone deal with exhaustion’s negative effects on my running performance. Plus, I have other errands and responsibilities I need to find time to do, things you take for granted like laundry, grocery shopping and preparing meals. Removing any unnecessary late nights or commutes from my schedule became a huge priority. During a stressful week a couple weeks ago, it became clear how much improv had gotten in the way of the rest of my life, more than adding to it.

——

I still generally enjoy improv, watching it and doing it. At my last performance and my last coaching rehearsal, I still had fun. But everything surrounding getting to that space and carving out time for it is what really sucks, and at this point it just sucks too much.

I don’t (unlike a lot of people in the scene) have any delusions or ambitions of channeling fame or fortune through improv, and did it solely as a serious interest. Since improv’s not a serious interest for me anymore, I should stop. I have finite energy and time, and I now realize improv’s eating away at too much of it. I want to get to a point where I once again have a impassioned, active interest in improv… and realize I need substantial time away for that to return.

I still believe One Group Mind and The Comedy Clubhouse are the sneaky-best places for improv fans and performers in the city of Chicago. I gladly endorse the organization as a place to practice, and gladly endorse the Clubhouse as a great place to enjoy improv on the weekends. It’s my hope that if/when I want to return that I can return (from our communications I’m told they’d welcome me back). I still believe that anyone who ignores the Clubhouse or the organization, or looks down upon it as a lesser improv house, is making a substantial mistake. Yes, that’s just my opinion, albeit an informed one (as someone with more experience than he ever wanted with all the local Chicago improv theaters), and a lot more coldly objective than it ought to be given my allegiances with the theater.

I may or may not come and see improv or other comedy shows over time, but I do want to spend time away, so I probably will not during the foreseeable future.

For now, I want to focus on running and enjoying the rest of what life has to offer. Some people get into improv as an escape from a life they don’t care for. Personally, I like my life, and I want to create all the space I need to get the most of what I want out of it.


 

One notable point is that I originally moved to Chicago at the end of 2014 for the explicit purpose of doing improv. And now I’m no longer doing the thing I moved here for.

Now, I could come back to improv in time. There’s also the possibility I just don’t. But if I’m not going to do improv, then what am I doing here in Chicago?

Well, for as many issues as I have had with this corrupt and troubled city… it turns out Chicago is a great city for running. Along with many running groups and organizations, and countless local races throughout the year… the Lakefront Trail and Lincoln Park are two accessible and massively inviting places to run. Training for me has been very easy since instead of dodging cars, I can jog a few blocks to a trail and then not have to worry about vehicle traffic throughout a long run. I realize very few other livable locales for me could offer that.

Obviously, if for some reason I was economically or logistically forced out of living in Lakeview my situation could change, and maybe then I consider a move out of Chicago. But for now, Chicago is actually a really good city to run in. So even if I moved here for improv and don’t do that anymore, I can still live here for the valuable running experience.

It’s not the school that makes people famous

I had written a longish piece that was basically an extension of this Mick Napier “Laying Claim to Fame or Acclaim” piece.

Rather than post another wall of text most won’t read. I’ll just ask you to read Mick’s words, since you’re more likely to read and respect those. He says what I’d just restate.

A new home

I just moved into a new studio apartment. It’s about the same cost as my share of the 2-bed I just left, and not only do I get the benefit of my own space but the quality of the new place is MUCH better in just about every way. It’s not a luxury condo or anything, but everything’s clean, working and well maintained. I’m closer to supermarkets than I was before, closer to the Lakefront than I was before, farther from the craziness of Wrigleyville and Boystown, my new neighbors are relatively chill adults who don’t throw late night ragers like my former neighbors, the management and maintenance staff are readily available and easy to work with, and the parking isn’t any more difficult than it was before.

It helped me realize that for the last 20 months I never really felt comfortable at home. Problems kept arising at home time and again regarding things breaking or not working, never minding any roommate issues. And that had a substantial effect in the pursuit of projects, ambitions and other endeavors. I pushed ahead for about a year after arriving, but even towards the end of my training anything outside of home and work felt like a grating chore, something that was getting in the way of the few moments I had to breathe. A big part of that is that being at home never provided much comfort or relaxation. There was a constant waiting for the other shoe to drop. And that can wear you down after a while.

I’m currently worn out for a different reason: A week of packing, moving boxes/bags/furniture, and dealing with logistics has left me physically tired. Everything is done save for receiving my items from storage, which I can do anytime before December. Though I had hoped this Labor Day weekend to start a workout regimen I was interested in, the weariness and bruises throughout my body tell me I need to rest this weekend. So, probably Monday!

But mentally, emotionally, ambition-wise, I’m looking forward to getting back to work this fall on things I left behind last spring. Along with a new start in a new home, I feel like I now have a comfortable home base from which to pursue everything.

Crossroads, or why I haven’t had anything to say in a while

A couple months ago I started playing poker tournaments again (a cash game here or there, but mostly tournaments), not on the regular but once every few weeks or so. I even took a few road trips in part to play poker in different Midwestern locales. I’m still a pretty good tournament poker player, and on the whole (I track my wins and losses) I’m in the black by a couple hundred dollars.

Obviously, walking away after winning feels good and walking away after busting doesn’t feel good. But much like what happened the last couple times I gave up poker… I walked away from the last two or three poker tournaments I played feeling dirty, like I hated some part of myself after doing it.

I don’t have any moral opposition to playing poker, obviously. I don’t feel I’m committing any mortal sin in playing poker. The issue goes back to a point I made in Drawn Dead: It’s a game played mostly by shitty people or at least by people who behave badly when around poker tables. And it’s not just the nature of the game requiring you be cold and calculating. The people in general are people you would not want to be around in general. People get surly and even occasionally fight. Other than playing the game and sometimes making money, poker is not a particularly enjoyable life experience. In getting back into poker I’ve learned that I’m good enough to make money, and that I’d usually rather spend my time doing something else around other (more friendly and trustworthy) people.

After entertaining the possibility of playing regularly again, I decided that poker’s best left as something I do now and then, whenever I’m in the mood for it. It’s an expensive hobby, even if you’re good enough at it to consistently make money (since you need a bankroll for it), and it takes hours away from your day every time you play. If I don’t enjoy it, why do it?

——

Right now overall in my life I’m at another crossroads. I basically took a break from performing after finishing my training at iO Chicago and Annoyance. I do still play and practice weekly with Sosa Mimosa, but otherwise don’t work on anything else. Many of my colleagues have moved on and work on other things.

I’m not being pulled in any particular direction, especially given all the possibilities require a substantial personal investment of time, money and effort. Shows require an audience that isn’t necessarily there. Projects require willing participants who aren’t necessarily interested in what I want to do. If your successes are met with the same silences as your failures, then what aside from personal satisfaction was the point? I can get mere personal satisfaction from a myriad of other activities that don’t require nearly as much investment.

I long since reached a point in my life where any effort I put towards theatrical practice needs to lead to meaningful results. Morally, financially and otherwise personally, I can’t pump money into classes and attending or producing shows that aren’t going to allow me to do anything substantial. My plan all along from the moment I arrived in Chicago was to train for a year and then work on my own to develop further. I’ve long since passed the peak of the bell curve on the useful volume of training. The only way I can effectively develop now is active and productive practice. I have more than enough information on what I do well and what I need to work on.

What I lack right now is a drive towards something that 1) I want and 2) that I have the ability and opportunity to do. I have vague interests in multiple possibilities that would require substantial effort and practice, but right now I don’t have the ambition to pursue them. There’s little to no foreseen reward on top of doing them for their own sake, and at this stage of my life doing it for its own sake is nowhere near enough reward for me.

I don’t need personal reward from a creative project or performing so much as I need to know my input and work is rewarding and fruitful for others beyond its own sake. And I don’t think any of my peers are in a place where the work I’d want to do is aligned with or rewarding for them… never minding their own current schedules and needs. I’ve worked too much on furthering other people’s ambitions, projects and messages to keep doing that at my own expense. I feel like there’s no give and take, that to keep going was to keep giving and for everyone to keep taking without anything in return.

I admittedly don’t want to continue performing unless I can do the stuff I want to do. I’d rather do nothing than expend time, money and effort on someone else’s ambitions with no personal return.

——

This is not to say I’ve done nothing with my life. I started running on a not-quite-weekly basis and can consistently run 3.5 miles… not bad for someone who couldn’t fathom running a 5K three years ago.

I did put aside my intermittent fasting (though I still have 16 hour fasts a couple times a week) to implement two new dietary concepts: Bulletproof eating and a ketogenic diet. A bulletproof diet is a strictly clean diet focused around organic meat and vegetables as well as eschewing carbs for healthy organic fats. It is what inspired Bulletproof Coffee, coffee combined with clean butters and fats (I drink coffee and tea with coconut oil). Ketogenic dieting of course is cutting virtually all carbs from your diet and setting a max on protein intake, filling the rest of your diet with healthy fats. This induces ketosis, where your body’s digestion and energy use switches from carbs to burning fats, as well as eliminating body-bloating inflammation that results from consuming carbs and other processed garbage.

When I started 2016 at 185 lb, I set a goal to drop to 160 lb by year’s end. I had done well with intermittent fasting, quickly dropping to 170-175 lb, but I stalled at around 171-174 lbs and couldn’t get below 170 for more than a day. But, after a week of keto, I quickly dropped to 166 lb and even after reintroducing carbs and other occasional garbage, I managed a cruising weight of 167-168. I also find myself sleeping better… not even more hours sleep, but the sleep is deeper and more restful. I also feel less on edge in day to day working life.

Because of cravings and available foods, it’s pretty hard to stick to straight keto for extended periods. With a ‘ride the wave’ approach I’m hoping to extend the periods where I can suitably manage it. I now think I can hit 160 lb easily before the fall.

I am also moving to a new studio apartment near my current Wrigleyville place, which will not only be a life upgrade, but puts me closer to the lake shore, which will better allow me to go for runs and perhaps practice some sports, the latter which I haven’t had the chance to do much of since moving here.

If I’m not going to produce any artistic results, I might as well produce some personal results from improving myself.

——

I’ve been asked time and again if I have any projects on the horizon and for the last few months I’ve told people a highly condensed version of what you read above, that I’m taking time off for now and at a crossroads as to what I want to do next. I have alluded to resuming active work in the fall, and that is my intention, though I don’t know exactly what will come next. I am glad I’m no longer training and can make time for whatever will come next.

I have some vague artistic ideas, with things I’ve worked on as well as new ideas, but am not interested in sharing them unless I’ve actively decided to work on them and have something to share with people.

Taking it easy

After quitting training programs in March, I decided to scale back my improv commitments and focus on one improv commitment (Sosa Mimosa, which meets or performs once a week), allowing time for the rest of my life. While that amount of commitment will change at some unforeseen point down the road, I feel very good about that decision.

It’s the first time I haven’t been regularly investing money in improv training, and I see it in my bottom line. I went from struggling and treading water to having disposable income. Of course, I’ve also tightened up my spending and diet and that has helped (another benefit of paring back my schedule is it makes following a meal plan easier). But not throwing $200+ a month down the hatch to take classes makes a big difference.

It’s the first time since shortly after I moved here that I have free time to do other stuff. Not too long after Drawn Dead’s Crowd run, I felt like getting back into poker again and have since spent most of that time studying and practicing for non/micro-stakes online. Quickly I saw an improvement in my cash game play, and during a recent vacation I played two poker tournaments and did very well in both, plus did fairly well in cash play. Yes, there was some good luck involved, but I saw definite improvement in my strategy and confidence. Poker is not something I want to do all the time or invest a lot of money in right now, but I have fun doing it and will seek opportunities to do it as long as I enjoy it.

I also started running again. I stopped during a busy period last year, and of course winter conditions made it difficult to start again until recently. My employer held a 5K as part of an event and on a whim I signed up to do it. During my previous running I never quite maxed out at 5K distance, but managed to quickly work up to 3.5 miles before the event and, while doing so slowly, managed to run the 5K without problems.

Now, I have a regular routine where after Sosa rehearsal I run from the Clubhouse to my home, a distance of about 3.4 miles. The run is arduous after a lengthy day but great exercise and I’ve been able to finish it each time without problems. Also, when I have weekend commitments in Wicker Park, I walk the 3.4 or so miles there, sometimes back. After gaining some weight during my vacation, the substantial exercise along with redoubled diet has helped me lose the weight back. By only doing it on excursion weekends and every other Thursday, I also allow my body ample time to rest and recover between sessions.

I still like improv and still intend to coach at some point. The last 1.5 years offered great perspective on the realistic prospects of putting work into improv, and the bell curve of effort vs reward. I now have found a good level of immersion in improv, that allows me to explore the other things in my life important to me.

Poker Dealers and the value of observation

If a regularly employed poker dealer works at his/her job for long enough, they see thousands upon thousands of Texas Hold’Em hands, and from their observation many can’t help but become better at reading everyone at the table… even if they can’t see the players’ cards unless the hands are shown down after the river. A lot of these dealers, after a while, can tell you who has what hand by the river of most pots, despite not seeing anyone’s cards, just based on how they played the hand… similar to how legendary poker star Daniel Negreanu can tell opponents what cards they have despite not seeing them.

Those dealers watch the same betting and playing patterns play out so many times that it’s akin to Mick Napier watching improv students or auditionees get a suggestion, and knowing exactly what they’re going to say or do to open a scene.

This isn’t some psychic or mentalist skill, so much as it’s the development of understanding the one thing common to all humanity: Behavior patterns. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we tend to follow similar behavior patterns in similar situations. Even when we deviate from the norm, we still fall into some sets of behavior patterns. And from learning those patterns, we also recognize deviations from those patterns, and can clue in to what they indicate.

What does this have to do with improv? Obviously, with poker, a deviation from a player’s normal pattern of betting, checking or folding can indicate a difference in the strength of one’s hand. It can indicate a bluff, or a monster hand, and an astute player can read into this observation and either call down a bluff or weak hand… or fold and avoid losing money to a stronger hand.

In improv, the benefit of watching a high volume of shows is that you recognize the patterns players fall into, what happens to the show when those patterns are followed, and can read into whether deviating from those patterns can benefit or harm the show. I’ve practiced a lot of improv, but I’ve also watched a lot of improv. I’ve heard of students who took time off and just watched shows without any expectation of participating… then came back to improv much better performers. Having seen time and again what works and what doesn’t, the player (even if rusty) has a better sense of what drives a fun and entertaining scene.

I’m not about to say that an experienced poker dealer can walk into the World Series of Poker and crush it, any more than a long time compulsive improv viewer can walk into Second City and kill it on the Mainstage. You still must practice and gain practical experience and ability, then work on demonstrating improvement.

But the road to get better becomes easier to follow when you spend extended time watching how others get there.

Revisiting ruts (and how to get out of them)

I had a friend mention being in a rut. I wrote about this almost a year ago, and a lot of that stuff is true. But since then I’ve found that a lot of the following activities I’ve learned are also helpful:

– Start the scene with a basic statement. Then respond to the scene partners’ next line by restating that statement in a different way. Notice how you restated the point, what words you used, how you said it, and follow whatever patterns emerge in how you subsequently respond to the scene. This is a Mick Napier exercise that often is quite fun.

– Be ridiculously specific. What will usually happen is that you will merely come across as specific to your audience. This is because we tend to be vague in our improv scenes. Forcing ourselves to go over the top with specificity makes our choices specific, and thus interesting.

– No one cares about the plot or narrative. Be okay with the scene being about nothing. Instead, find something (the other character, something in the room, a task) to focus on or filter the scene through, and do so to a ridiculous degree, much more so than is necessary.

– An old Kevin Mullaney exercise: Try to respond without any gaps in the dialogue. As soon as the other person finishes speaking, immediately respond off the top of your head. This is very Meisner Technique inspired, and it works. It gets you out of your head and present in the scene, because you don’t have much of a choice. And the dialogue flows the way a normal conversation would flow, which engages the audience.

– Decide immediately, the moment before you begin the scene, that you have a POV about your scene partner’s character. You love that person, you hate that person, you’re hiding something from that person’s view, you can’t get more than three steps away from that person, etc. Do the scene from that perspective and filter everything introduced through that. This is one example of what some improv schools call a “game”. You give yourself a game and then filter everything that happens through it.

– A Farrell Walsh exercise: Take a suggestion, or perhaps a word or phrase from the end of the previous scene. Quickly think of a personal memory that evokes some sort of emotional sense memory in you. Obviously don’t overthink it, since you have a split second to get in the scene, but find that emotional state and begin the next scene with that state of being. For example, I hear “greyhound” and quickly think of a horrid cross country bus ride I once took where the large dude next to me fell asleep on top of me. I remember how constricted and shitty that felt, and begin the next scene from that place.

– Declare a point of view that you believe to be true or an opinion on something you can talk about. “Nachos are always better at a Mexican restaurant” or “We should tax the rich 50% income tax with no deductions” or “The Mariners should probably play Dae Ho Lee more often.” Or take the opposite view of what you believe. Immediately make a statement about that and do the scene from that place. I sometimes start scenes by making some sort of statement I believe about some inane subject. Everything that comes after is filtered either through whatever I stated, or whatever character qualities I exuded when I started.

– Finally, and while I hope this goes without saying for many, it is crucial: Do not under any circumstances drop whatever the hell you came in with. Find a way to fit it into the scene, because that’s going to go way better than changing into whatever you think the scene is supposed to be about. If you come in thinking you’re a gruff cop, and the others in the scene establish you’re all kids on a playground, it’s way more fun for you to act like a kid who acts with the quality of a gruff cop, or maybe a cop who wants to be a kid again, or whatever. Commit hard to what you brought in while accepting whatever reality is created, and the resulting scene is probably going to be real funny.

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I think any or all of this can be quite helpful for working through and busting out of an improv rut.