miscellaneous

everything else

Barefoot Running UK

Barefoot Running UK April 2014

The latest issue of Barefoot Running UK is available online here.

I can’t recommend this publication highly enough. If you’re at all interested in barefoot and/or minimalist running, movement and sports therapy, product reviews, this is a must read. If you’re still struggling along in foot coffins, well, this just might be the nudge you need.

Changes

What a difference a few years – and a lot of running – can make.

Niagara 50K 2009

Run4RKids 6 Hour 2014

The photo on the left was taken at the start of the Niagara 50K Ultra in June 2009. I’d come back to running in late 2008. Ran a half marathon in February 2009, DNFed in my first “return to glory” marathon in May 2009, and then decided I’d give the ultra a try. The photo on the right was taken about four hours into my first 6 hour ultra, in early January 2014. I’m 30 lbs. lighter than I was in 2009, a much better runner, and a much happier, healthier guy.

I love changes!

SportTracks Ambassador!

SportTracks logo I’m pleased to announce that I’m now a SportTracks Ambassador. I started using SportTracks about six months ago, and immediately found it to be a valuable tool for tracking and analyzing my running data. I’m now in a position to represent SportTracks to my local running community, and to encourage others runners to use it.

What is SportTracks?

SportTracks recognizes that, while athletes are recording more data than ever, this rapid accumulation of data can be overwhelming. SportTracks offers a good way to use the data to reflect and plan. It allows users to log workouts and provides detailed analytics.

The flagship of the SportTracks platform is SportTracks 3, a Windows application that’s been in development since 2006. ST3 has been translated into 22 languages, enjoys strong international (multi-language) support, and offers an impressive library of plugins.

SportTracks.mobi is the newest product on offer. It’s a mobile-friendly website with greater social interaction and an updated design. Users can easily share workouts with their friends, while still enjoying the “bells and whistles” aspects of SportTracks technical analysis.

SportTracks 3 and SportTracks.mobi are designed to work together through CloudSync. This service ensures that users can enjoy both the heavier analysis of ST3 and the convenience of accessing their data on their cloud-connected devices. (I use the SportTracks.mobi app on my Samsnug Galaxy tablet.)

As an ambassador, I’ll be a community liaison for SportTracks and will assist in local promotional events. I’ll also have some annual SportTracks.mobi subscriptions (each valued at US$35) to give away. Stay tuned for more news about that!

The Sound of Music

No, not that Sound of Music. A different one. My sound of music.

Yurbuds Inspire earphones

I’ve written previously about having Asperger’s Syndrome. It manifests differently for different Aspies, but for me a very large part of it is an extreme sensitivity to sensory input. Put simply, sometimes the world is just too bright and too noisy for me to bear. What would seem to others ordinary levels of sound and movement can make me retreat very far inside myself, and sometimes precipitate a complete meltdown. It’s not pretty, trust me.

About eight years ago, I stopped listening to music completely. That’s hard to do in our society (think, for example, of the music that’s constantly played in stores and other public places), but being in silence has kept me (mostly) sane, balanced, and happy.

All of that changed recently. For the past four months, I’ve been seeing a naturopathic doctor, who’s been treating me with homeopathic remedies for physical health issues around my thryoid and prostate. They’ve been remarkably effective, to the point where I’ve gone from being a complete skeptic to being a strong believer. But that’s another story…

Of course, I told my doctor that I have Asperger’s. Part of his treatment has been making it easier to deal with. To this point in my life, I’ve coped by doing what most adults with Asperger’s do, that is, condition myself to deal with crowds, noise, and busyness as best I can, and move away from them when I have to. Suddenly, things are different. I find that I can function better in social situations. I can tolerate multiple sources and levels of sound without going nuts. I’m not as rattled by, or fearful of, crowds. And I can listen to music again.

I got back to it gently, exploring YouTube for tunes I knew, then trying out new sounds. The link between the two was Terry Riley’s 1969 album A Rainbow in Curved Air, a pioneering piece of minimialist/experimental music and a favourite from my formative years. That led me to the ambient works of Brian Eno.

To celebrate all this good stuff, my wife gave me an iPod Shuffle, a pair of Yurbuds Inspire earphones, and an iTunes gift card for Christmas. (The buds are pictured in the photo at the top of this post.) That may seem like small stuff to you, but it’s monumental for me. I now have a very listenable playlist on the iPod of works by Riley and Eno that totals 6 hours and 42 minutes of listening groove.

So far, I’ve only used the iPod while running. A few times while at the indoor track at my local YMCA, and for the entirety of the 6 Hour track ultra I did a little over a week ago. The iPod, the Yurbuds and the playlist were perfect for the ultra. I wanted to complement my physical preparedness with something that would help me realize the attentiveness and mindfulness that would support running for six hours around a 200m track. It worked a charm.

I’ve turned another huge corner in my life. Psychologically, mentally, and perhaps even cognitively, I’m ahead of where I was before. That’s always a good thing. And I continue to discover new music. The latest is the work of drone-based ambient duo Stars of the Lid. They’re about to go on my playlist.

2013 in Review

The old year has gone, and a new one has begun. Here’s a report of what happened on this blog in 2013.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 20,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Running to Enlightenment

Enlightenment

The title of this post may sound a tad pretentious. My apologies for that. But, as much as running has a physical side. it also has a psychological side. (I won’t call it a spiritual side, because I’m not a spiritual person. Instead, I want to look at enlightenment through the lens of neuroscience.)

Here’s a good working definition of the word that I found in a book called Power Up Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, by Dr. David Perlmutter and Dr. Alberto Villoldo.

“In the language of neuroscience, enlightenment is the condition of of optimal mitochondrial and brain functioning that allows us to experience both well-being and inner peace and the the urge to create and innovate.”

What exactly does that mean? And what does it have to do with running?

I ran my first marathon in 1980, and, since then, have run five more marathons, three 50K ultras, and numerous shorter distance races. At first, I’d joke that running offered the only glimpse I’d ever get of enlightenment. When I started running ultra races, though, I started taking that seriously. Why did running do for me what other forms of study and meditation didn’t do? What were the physical and psychological elements that made running do what it did? And, perhaps most importantly, what could I do that would enhance my approach to enlightenment through running?

Let’s look briefly at the brain and how it works.

The Triune or Reptilian Brain

The first level of the brain, the triune or reptilian brain is all about the basics – instinct and survival. It governs the body’s autonomic functions, as well as species-specific instinctual behaviors involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays. When we get seized by a “fight or flight” response to external stimuli, it’s the reptilian brain that owns us.

As you can see in the image below, the reptilian brain is buried deep inside the brain. It goes all the way back to the beginnings of our evolutionary history.

Triune brain

The Limbic or Mammalian Brain

The next level of the brain is the limbic or mammalian brain, which includes includes the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus. It’s all about instinct and emotion, particularly the 4Fs – fear feeding, fighting, and fornication. More politely, the limbic brain is said to be responsible for the motivation and emotion involved in feeding, reproductive behavior, and parental behavior.

Brain map

The Neocortex

Next up is the neocortex, which is about the higher functions of the brain, the ones that make us human. The neocortex processes environment signals into coherent messages, enabling speech, writing, and higher-order thinking. In evolutionary terms, it’s the most recent step in the evolution of the mammilian brain, conferring the ability for language, abstraction, planning, and perception.

Neocortex

The Pre-Frontal Cortex

The pre-frontal cortex is where the human brain gets all fancy and high falutin’. It’s where reasoning, personal initiative, and the ability to project future scenarios takes place. It’s where we develop and own our individuality and our sense of self. This is where self-realization happens.

In the image below, the pre-frontal cortex is green.

Pre-frontal Cortex

Now, let’s look at how the four-circuit brain/mind relates to running. (Remember always that “minds are what brains do,” as in Marvin Minsky’s famous phrase.)

Coming to Enlightenment

When we run, we use – at the very least – the first three levels of our brains, the reptilian, mammalian, and neocortex levels. When we run well – whatever that may mean for each of us – the pre-frontal cortex gets involved. When a run goes really well, or when we involve ourselves in a lengthy training or racing series, and so get a “long view,” the pre-frontal cortex comes into play. And when we “hit the wall” or go through the “dark night of the soul” that inevitably comes when both the body and mind are completely exhausted, we go down deep into the reptilian brain, where we touch – or even stay for a time – in the place where “fight or flight” (or even survival itself) are the issues we have to struggle with.

It’s my feeling that only when we experience and integrate all four levels of the brain – from basic survival to self-realization – do we touch the “optimal mitochondrial and brain functioning that allows us to experience both well-being and inner peace and the the urge to create and innovate” that Dr’s Perlmutter and Villoldo describe as enlightenment.

That means that enlightenment’s not going to come easily, or come often. The ability to run to the limit of our abilities – and then beyond them – requires a rigorous training program. It requires meticulous attention to nutrition, to pace, to breathing. It requires a time and place where optimization can happen. It also requires the courage to give ourselves to previously unknown physical and emotional depths. The good news – and it’s very good news – is that all of those particulars are available to all runners, at least potentially.

The task we face as athletes is to apply ourselves to the journey of running to enlightenment. The rewards for addressing that challenge are immense and invaluable.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

I was born in South Africa in 1948, the same year that the country’s National Party came to power. By 1954, when my family left South Africa for Canada, the apartheid system was already beginning its long and savage history. In 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested, convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was finally released on February 2, 1990.

When I was in high school and university, South Africa was a pariah state in the world’s eyes. That was also a time when the civil rights and Black Power movements in the U.S. were having a profound effect on me. I was ashamed of where I’d been born.

When Mandela came out of captivity in 1990 to lead his country to freedom, I was, for the first time in my life, proud to have been born in South Africa. I owe him a great deal. Not as much, to be sure, as the millions of South Africans who lived and died under tyranny, but something precious and strong.

RIP, Mandiba.

(The poster at the top of this post was created for the Liberation Support Movement, which was founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, and had branches in California and New York. It appeared in 1981, as part of a widespread North American campaign for Mandela’s release from prison.)

Update on Asperger’s

A couple of years ago, I posted an article on Running and Asperger’s, in which I tried to describe what it’s like to have Asperger’s Syndrome and how running helps me deal with it.

Part of having Asperger’s for me is that I’m extremely sensitive to sensory input, specifically sound. Loud environments (and to me almost all environments are extremely loud) bring on confusion, disorientation, and can result in a general neurological “system crash.” Not only is that experience unpleasant in itself, the after-effects are lengthy and grim. The spillover from my last Asperger’s-related auditory-overload meltdown lasted a week. I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t nice to be with, to say the least.

I recently came across a computer simulation called Auti-Sim which gives so-called “normal” folks an idea of what such an experience feels like. It’s presented as a game, in which you, the subject, are in a playground full of other children. Moving towards any of those other children increases the level of auditory stimulation. Move closer and it gets worse. Get closer still – or stay in that over-stimulated space – and you break down.

I urge you to give Auti-Sim a try. If you know a child or adult who is anywhere on the autism spectrum (which includes Asperger’s), it’ll help you understand what that person goes through on a daily basis.

Warning! Auti-Sim is not fun. It’s not enjoyable. I’ve only watched it once, and will never do so again. But that’s partly because I can experience the real thing by going to a bar, a movie, or a concert. I can get a minor version of it simply by watching television, or even by going to the supermarket. To get some idea of what it’s like, check out this review of Auti-Sim, from game site Rock, Paper, Shotgun:

“Auti-Sim is a very short experience. But then, so is having a railroad spike driven into your ear. That’s the basic idea behind the horrifyingly overwhelming dose of auditory hypersensitivity disorder, which was put together as part of the Hacking Health Vancouver 2013 hackathon. The short version is, you’re an autistic child on a playground, and everything seems perfectly normal. Then more sounds start creeping in. Voices, whispers, screams, footsteps, swingsets creaking, merry-go-’rounds whirring. All distinct, yet inseparable, like the whole world is trying to stampede its way into your head, trampling your eyes and ears. Auti-Sim hurts. But it hurts for a reason.

Obviously, this isn’t a literal interpretation of what it’s like to have auditory hypersensitivity disorder. Rather, Auti-Sim draws on horror game tropes juxtaposed against a bright, idyllic playground environment, to rather brilliant effect. It’s more or less an approximation of what debilitating sensory overload would feel like, designed so that people who’ve never experienced it can come to grips with just how difficult seemingly mundane situations can be for autistic kids and adults.

For me, it started very slowly. I approached the playground, and then – little by little – my vision blurred and sounds bled together. Louder. Louder. LOUDER. I couldn’t take it. I had to escape. I stumbled and lunged for reprieve, eventually sighting a swingset way off in the distance, free from the faceless crowds. Only there was I able to get my bearings. It was quiet. It was nice. So I just sort of hunkered down. Alone.”

I’m not looking for sympathy here. I’ve learned to deal with auditory overload, and most of the time do quite well. It’s just that it’s very hard to describe what it feels like. Auti-Sim isn’t the real thing (the real thing is much, much worse), but, if it helps one “neurotypical” person understand what life is like for those of us who have to endure this, then this post will have done its job.

Your comments would be greatly appreciated.