Monthly Archives: July 2016

Trail running….

I was thinking about my last few posts, all of which reference “challenges” and then I started thinking about what I define as a challenge. I want to learn new things, but as I get older and older and older, there are things that just aren’t worth my time. I’m not going to go back to school and get another degree at this point, for example–although I might take some courses if that’s the best way to learn something new.

I do, however, like to find just-barely-accessible challenges. In that spirit, I signed up for the five-race Portland Trail series in Forest Park. The series is run entirely on Forest Park trails–which I wanted to learn more about but have been intimidated by–and it also meant a long hard run once a week for the five consecutive weeks. I always plan to do long hard runs, but really, I kind of wimp out. But I know myself well enough to know that if I pay money for something… I’ll show up.

The challenges of trail running turned out to be both more and less than I thought. More challenging? Staying on my feet. I fell hard and got bruised the first two weeks. You really have to watch where your feet are when you’re running trails. Roots leap up from the base of trees and attempt to catch hold of your shoes. That one moment where you glance up at the gorgeous woods surrounding you… can mean you’re lying in the dirt the next moment. More challenging? Running downhill on steep downhills. I was sure that would be easy, based on my running on the Mt. Tabor trails. I guess those aren’t as steep, or maybe it’s that I go slower when it’s not a race. Downhill is hard.

Less challenging? Showing up. Finishing. The Portland Trail series is well run and the people running it are nice. They welcomed me, the oldest runner most of the weeks, and actively encouraged me. When I said my goal was not to be the last person, they cheered me to my first finish with “you’re not last! you’re not last!”

I’ve learned a lot about trail running in the four races. Watching for roots and low spots is part of it. Learning to go back and forth between a fast walk and a slow run on the uphills is another skill. It turns out that I can walk uphill pretty quickly. Running downhill? It takes a rhythm and a bit of a spring. It helps to know that you can “paperboy” downhill to avoid the high impact on the knees of a straight downhill run. (“Paperboy” is bicycling slang for going back and forth across a hill–as if you’re delivering newspapers–to make an uphill ride easier.) I’ve gotten a lot stronger over the four weeks, too.

To everything, there is a season

I’ve written before about the cognitive dissonance I’m going through lately about whether to take agility seriously. Or running. Or biking. I thought about “focus seasons,” during which I could do just one and take that one thing seriously. Each one in turn. I thought about dropping one activity entirely.

And I decided.

In fact, I decided to take none of them seriously, at least for a while. I’m signing up for things that look like they’ll be a good challenge and a pleasure to do, and then I’m doing them. I’m giving myself permission to not do my best.

I’m maintaining my weight right now (although, like most Americans, I’d still like to lose ten more pounds) instead of counting and measuring. I’m allowing myself to end the day with fewer than 12000 steps (a goal which has had me “Cinderella fitbitting” for some years now). I’m not running every day. (I am still making sure I do something every day.) A few weeks ago, I scratched out of one day of a trial–that morning, when I woke up feeling tired and sore. (Then, I went back to sleep for three more hours, so… right decision.)

Right now, I’m at week four of a five-week trail race series. So far, I’m first, last, and only in my age group, and enjoying it a lot. I’m learning some of the Forest Park trails, and I’m much less intimidated by them. My pace is “slow but steady.” I don’t have another agility trial until the end of August–because I’ve learned, over the years, that hot August trials are just not that much fun for the dog or for me. I’m running and swimming most days and cycling some other days. This all feels pretty good. And relaxing.

Human rewards: challenge vs. fun

Back when I was a high school chemistry teacher, my students would fairly often come in and ask if we were going to “have fun” that day. I’m pretty sure I never answered “yes.” I’m not a big believer in the idea that education should be “fun.” I expect it to be challenging, exciting, rewarding, enjoyable… but not “fun.” That may be a distinction without a difference, but to me “fun” is a matter of moments, and moments that don’t much matter at that.

When people tell me they do agility just for “fun,” I’ll be honest: I cringe a bit. I love doing agility (most of the time, anyway) but I’m also pretty serious about it. I put time, effort, money, hard work into being good at agility. Sometimes I don’t meet my own standards, which is discouraging, but I’m fully present when I compete, and I want to do well.

All of that said, I do find agility rewarding. I find running rewarding, although sometimes running is very hard work indeed.

For me, creating a challenge and then meeting it and then trying to do better next time creates a reward cycle. Karen Pryor–whose book Don’t Shoot the Dog is a classic of modern dog training, puts it this way: “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” We reward our dogs for behaviors we want them to learn and repeat. Sit, lie down, run through a tunnel, stop at the bottom of the a-frame.

As humans, too, like other trained mammals, we repeat behaviors that have been rewarded in the past. Enjoy a bite of chocolate? That taste is its own reward, and we’ll eat chocolate again. Find brussels sprouts bitter? We don’t like them and don’t want to eat them. Run a 5K race and the volunteer puts a honking big medal around your neck? You’re more likely to run another one. Or maybe you run to try and run faster in the next race. Or farther. Or to see those numbers on the scale go down. Or to see that Q on the results sheet. Or to see that your dog placed ahead of your friend’s dog for the first time. The cliche of human rewards is “whatever floats your boat.” Humans are better than dogs at anticipating rewards; we all know people who’ve worked for years to get that huge ribbon and title that we call a MACH (or CATCH or CATE).

And yes, some people call agility “fun.” For me, agility is way more complex than fun. It’s about challenges: challenges that are hard–can I get to that blind cross?–challenges that require analysis and experience–how can I best handle that line?–challenges that require training–leaving Rush in the weaves while I peel off and get farther down the course. I find meeting challenges inherently rewarding.

Retraining Rush’s a-frame

A few trials ago, I noticed Rush was creeping down the a-frame, one step at a time, instead of going directly into position and waiting to be released. You can see what I mean in this video, starting at 13 seconds, and lasting through 24 seconds. Yes, Rush took eleven seconds to come down the a-frame, one itsy-bitsy questioning step at a time. Step. “Is this it, can I be released here?” No. Step. “How about here?” No. “Here?” No. “What about now?” No. I could hear people laughing behind me.

What caused this? I don’t know for sure, but my hunch is that at least once, and possibly more than once, I released before he reached the one-paw-in-the-dirt-and-stopped criterion that I’ve had for a-frame performance. Rush is very smart, and likes to keep moving, and thus I think he thinks (because I know him, and yes, he’s a dog, and how can I know what a dog is thinking?) that he should be released early, because it happened once.

So now I have to work on making sure he understands that I really expect to see one paw in the dirt–and a stop–before I release him. I’m training it in the barn. I’m counting one-two before I release at trials, and I’m regretting the need for it every single time he creeps down the a-frame again.

But we are making progress. His longest creep at the last trial was only about five seconds.