It’s New Year’s Day

Happy New Year! May 2017 move us all toward better health and greater happiness.

And I haven’t written a post in a month and a half. November and December have been devastating this year. I didn’t sleep well for about a month after the election. Deena, who is my barn training partner, has been busy with her work and so I’ve been bagging on getting to the barn at all. In short: poor motivation. I have been getting to a few dog things–Sarah Stremming‘s Perfect Patient seminar and my lessons with Daisy–but I’ve also been reading a ton of books, looking for answers in memoirs, mostly. For a bit I was even reading WW2 history, but that was just too depressing for words. (I will say, though, that the parallels with Nazi era Germany really aren’t that huge; the economy is mostly doing well and we do have Constitutional protections.)

So my summary for 2016 goes like this:

  • I neither gained nor lost weight. While I still haven’t lost those last few (13) pounds, I have maintained. This is excellent, since I haveĀ not been being obsessive.
  • I ran 639 miles, biked a lot, did two sprint (short distance) triathlons (3rd in my age group in both, although one was 3rd of 3 and the other was 3rd of 10), and learned more about trail running. Over the last four years, I’ve lowered my time in the Mt. Tabor Tar N Trail 5K from 45 minutes to just under 34. I did my best 5K of the year in January, though, in very flat Palm Springs (29:56). I’m hoping to better that this year.
  • I did a lot of dog agility with Rush. I had a 35% Q rate in AKC and a 61% Q rate in CPE. 3 double Qs and a lot of points toward a MaCH in AKC (we’re somewhere around 600 points now). About 2/3rds of the way to Rush’s C-ATE in CPE. Yesterday was our last day of agility for 2016 and we finished with a first and ten points in Time to Beat and a 4th in Jumpers in a very fast group of about 15 dogs.
  • I knit a few hats. I forgot to take pictures, though, with the exception of this one. Yes, it has a weird little who-ville thing going on the top. I was feeling silly.

pink-hat-12-2016So whither 2017?

Dare I write “lose those last 13 pounds”? It’s been a theme for some years now. Oh, what the hell, maybe this is the year.

Run more. I want to try to average 20 miles a week when I’m not doing an agility trial over the weekend. As I run more, I enjoy it more. I have been having moments almost every run where I find my inner 25-year-old and feel light and fast. It’s a joy.

 

I think that covers it. Happy New Year again.

(Oh wait! Someone told me yesterday that one of my hat photos inspired her to learn how to knit and make a hat of her own. Made me feel all warm and fuzzy.)

 

My three-stride theory

In his never-ending quest to make me into the handler he wants, Rush has always been very vocal about when he needs his cues. He barks at me if I’m late, or if I’m in his way. As a consequence, starting very early on, I have worked hard to understand exactly what Rush considers a timely cue. I have come to understand that he wants his cue three strides before he has to make a turn. He can make a turn with two strides’ warning, but then it might be a bit wide and I might get a bark.

As I realized this, I started watching what other dogs do and when other dogs need their cues, and I realized that–at least in my observation–pretty much all dogs want information three strides early. Now, with a smaller dog, the dog might take three strides between jumps, and in that case the handler can wait until the dog lands a jump before cuing the next jump. Most border collies take two strides between jumps–and those dogs want to know where they’re going after the jump before they take off. Rush–with his huge stride–mostly takes just a single stride between jumps, and so his cues need to be very early in comparison with the smaller dogs.

Now, once I developed this theory, I started (kind of obsessively) counting strides as I watch dogs run. I see dogs put in extra strides to accommodate their handlers really often. It’s easiest to see when you watch dogs run jumpers. In this video of Rush running AKC Jumpers with Weaves, you can see Rush take an extra stride between jumps–going wide once and taking a stride toward me the other time–twice. Why? Because I was late with the cue. Hint: watch the striding across the back of the arena (before and after the double) and compare that to the striding before the bright yellow jump on the left side of the video.

This theory–that Rush (and possibly other dogs too) needs three strides to make a turn without having to throw in an extra stride–informs my choices in handling a course. How do I give Rush the information he needs without confusing him?

Progress takes time….

Today my daughter Stacia and I ran the Mt. Tabor Tar ‘n’ Trail 5K run for the fourth year in a row, which is very cool. I ran a little less than two minutes faster this year than last year–and was first (last, only) in my age group. My progression over the four years is 46 minutes, 43 minutes, a little less than 36 minutes, and this year, just a bit under 34 minutes. That’s on a 5K course with 477 feet of elevation gain over the 5K, with trails, sidewalks, roads, stairs, and rocks. It’s not an easy 5K.

Afterwards, Stacia sent me this composite photo:

Finish photos from 2013 (top left), 2014 (top right), 2015 (bottom left), and 2016 (bottom right).

Finish photos from 2013 (top left), 2014 (top right), 2015 (bottom left), and 2016 (bottom right).

It’s an interesting photo to me because I like seeing how I’ve changed over the years. In October of 2013, I’d already lost about thirty pounds. I’d started walking the dogs longer and faster, but I wasn’t really ready to run yet–it was just too hard on my feet! By October of 2014, I discovered that Hoka shoes allowed me to run without hurting my knees too badly… but I was still only about 30 pounds down. October 2015, I was down a total of 50 pounds–and right now (October 2016), I’m down 60 pounds. Stacia and I are amused that we’re both wearing the same shirts we wore last year.

Shoes

Everyone who knows me knows that I am completely obsessive about shoes and am always searching for better shoes for agility. Currently I am wearing and loving the Skora Core, but they’re not a shoe for everyone–very minimal structure, zero drop, no padding. A few days ago, I was at a trail running shoe event and got to try two different shoes for short runs (a mile each). I took both pairs for a test over concrete, muddy dirt trail, wet grass.

The Hoka Speed Instinct really surprised me. I could NOT make it slip on the mud or wet grass; the traction was amazing. It had great padding in the heel–really comfortable running on the concrete–and was still comfortable in the snug forefoot (I have a slight bunion, so that’s often an issue). It was lightweight, comfortable. The one problem–it was completely NOT waterproof. It wasn’t even trying to be water resistant. My socks got completely soaked, immediately. (Hey, but look at the wonderful brilliant pink and orange shoe! What’s not to love?)

The other shoe I tried was the Altra Lone Peak 3.0. I’ve been running in the Lone Peak 2.5 for a lot of my trail runs and like it a lot. Nice roomy toe box, good traction, zero drop (which I like, but it’s not for everyone). The 3.0 version is better. They’ve managed to improve a great shoe. Still has good traction, but they’ve snugged up the mid-foot around the arch without getting rid of the nice big toe box. It’s a heavy shoe, though. You certainly won’t feel rocks through the sole.

Agility ladder…. for humans

I went to trail running skills clinic #4 this morning (at 6:30 AM… in the dark… in the cold (45 degrees F)… but not rainy, thankfully!) and wow was this one revelatory! We did technical-trail skills, up and down a rocky little section of trail, after warming up by doing agility-ladder drills–stuff like the drills in this video (ignore the ads, sorry about that, but the video is actually pretty good).

Anyway, doing the drills really revealed to me just how weak my left knee is and how much I favor my right knee. I could move right well but not so much on the left side. I’d heard that from Daisy, but I thought I’d been working on it… apparently not. Or at least, not enough.

The drills also made it abundantly clear to me just how much I routinely lead with my right foot. When we did a drill that was left foot out, right foot in–I could do that, but I really struggled with right foot out, left foot in, and in fact I tripped over the tape a few times.

While I enjoyed the drills and immediately found them useful for the trail running part–I ran down a bit of “technical trail” (which means: lots of rocks and roots) much more easily by thinking about “light feet, left foot, right foot” and so on–I can also see where they’d be very useful for dog agility training. We all use ladders to help teach our dogs to understand where their feet are; the drills helped me understand how my own footwork could be improved.

One of the other exercises we did was skipping down the trail. I surprised the coach who’s leading the skills clinic by being quite good at skipping; that’s because it’s my usual warmup for an agility run. I find skipping really gets all those muscles firing and ready to go. It’s a lot more fun on a soft trail, though, than in the concrete areas outside the arena!

Non-food rewards

I spent a lot of time this morning thinking about non-food rewards. All dog trainers know our mantra: “what gets rewarded gets repeated” and its corollary: “the dog decides what’s a reward and what isn’t.” Let me give an example. My dog adores chicken livers but he spits out apple chunks. The chicken livers are a reward; the apple chunks are not. For me, apples are a reward–but not for Rush. He gets to decide, if he’s the one getting rewarded. Dog trainers also spend time developing rewards that aren’t food. Rush loves to play tug with me; Dancer likes to have her hips massaged while she hides her head between my thighs. But Dancer doesn’t like tug that much–although she does like to be chased while she runs around with the tug toy in her mouth. The dog decides what’s rewarding.

I am trying these days to develop reward systems for myself, because humans (like dogs) also experience the same training effect: “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” Chocolate, for many of us, is a reward because chocolate releases a whole sequence of chemical responses. Same with caffeine. Sugar–well, sugar has massive effects on the brain. But… I’m trying to lose weight, run faster and more often, and develop other healthy habits. How do I reward myself in such a way that I want to repeat healthy behaviors? Non-food rewards are essential. So I’ve been trying out various behavioral rewards. I have a lemon creme body wash I use only when I run; I love it, but it’s pricey. I get a pedicure in the last few days before a race, as a reward for all the training (and because short toenails are way more comfortable during races). I bought a nice bathing suit to swim my laps in. I buy socks with cute designs to wear running. For a while, I tried paying myself a dollar for every mile run, but that was not (it turned out) an effective reward. It was just too abstract.

The power of your thoughts

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of thought. There’s been some research showing that the mind is more of a limit, athletically, than the body. People who believe they can go faster do, in fact, go faster. (How do you measure that? You put the person on a treadmill that lies.) (One example of such research can be found here. Here is another one.)

As a consequence of my reading on this, I’ve been experimenting with what I think while I’m running. When I run and think “light long float along” (it has a rhythm that works for me), I am about 10% faster than when I “just run.” I seriously felt like an idiot humming my little mantra to myself–it’s so new-age-bullshit I can barely stand it–but there the evidence was in my Garmin splits. Now when I start to get tired, I start thinking about floating and just touching down occasionally to propel myself along. It seems to be working.

For years now, I’ve been saying “oooohhh! this will be a challenge!” when I encounter an agility course of a certain kind (you know, the kind where you hear other people say “this is hard”). I say to myself “it’s a chance to test my training.” Lately though, I say “this will be fun!” and, intriguingly, I’m enjoying agility a lot more and feeling a lot less frustrated when things don’t go quite the way I wanted them to. Apparently, my brain–and I expect everyone’s brain feels differently about this–wants to have fun more than it wants to Q. This is good to know.

This isn’t about agility, either. Well, mostly not.

I haven’t written much about dog agility in recent months. Yes, I’m still competing with Rush, but our last trial was early July, and I spent July doing trail running, and I just completed a sprint triathlon last weekend–and next weekend is our next trial. I’ve been training contacts and weave entries and we’ll see what we get. I’m trial chair, so it mostly won’t be about me.

The triathlon was much more fun than I expected. The night before I had my usual stomach fluttering dreads. I was worried about the heat, the distance, the bike ride, flat tires, everything. That’s normal for me. I get the flutters every time, no matter what. In agility, I get the flutters in a more minor way after twelve years of competition, but I still get them. I don’t sleep well when I have an event in the morning.

This triathlon was the Girlfriends Triathlon, a women-only event in Vancouver (Washington). A half-mile down-current swim in the mighty Columbia River at Frenchman’s Bar (Park); a 11.5 mile bike ride on the local road at Frenchman’s Bar, and a 5K run on the bike path. The water temperature was 69 degrees (F); the air temp at 9:14 AM, when I started, was 71 degrees. It got hotter and hotter as we progressed through the triathlon, and the run was utterly without shade.

Why? Racing (yes, there’s a question mark as part of their name) was the event organizer. (They had signs up saying “what’s your why?” and it seemed most people weren’t answering “for fun.” I don’t know if my answer would be “for fun” but I didn’t see “because I can’t resist an accessible challenge” either.) Anyway, they are good at what they do! The race was well-organized, they’d planned for the heat, everything was thought out–they had mats so you didn’t have to run through sand coming up from the river, for example). As we all finished, they handed you a medal (a huge heavy thing) and a wet towel fresh out of a bucket of ice water. That’s planning.

I loved the down-current swim. Fast! My half-mile time was 17:09. The flat bike ride was 42:18, and the run was 32:36. I wasted a lot of time in the first transition–4:14–and less in the second (1:43), but my total was 1:37:59.9, I was 3/10 in my age group (60-64 women) and 79/143 overall. Not too shabby.

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.