health

Birthday!

1948 Limited Edition

Today’s my birthday. I’m now 66 years old.

Funnily enough, that doesn’t seem old. I’m aware of having lived for a (relatively) long time, but that’s not the same as feeling old. I’ve been through adventures and misadventures, good and bad health, smart moves and some very dumb ones, and I’ve got the scars (physical and psychological) to show for the journey. For all the ups and downs, though, I’ve ended up in a good space. I’m a happy man.

All in all, it seems to me that 66 is a nice number. What surprises me is how much I’m looking forward to 70. :-)

Hipaversary

X-ray, left hip

Nine years ago today, I was run over by a truck while cycling. Somebody called an ambulance, and I was taken away for emergency surgery. The result was that I had some stainless steel grafted into my femur. (Click on the above image to see it in all its detailed glory.) I think of it as my “hardware upgrade.”

The follow-up to the surgery was 14 months of intensive physiotherapy. That brought me to what my physiotherapist called “functional” movement. Getting to “dynamic” movement took a good while longer. But it was the beginning of my return – after an absence of thirty years – to running. So, in the end, it’s a happy story, because it’s brought me to where I am today.

Six days from today, I’m going to run a 50K trail race. Life is good.

Keto-Adaptation

Keto-adaptation is the process of shifting your metabolism from relying mostly on glucose for fuel to relying mostly on fat-based sources of fuel. Not only does that enhance fat oxidation, it also allows your body to start producing enough ketones that they can be used as a significant source of fuel.

This can be an important learning for any endurance athlete, and is one that I’ve used with great success. I’ve been keto-adapted for some months now, and am able to run long distances (30K and up) in a fasted state, fueling only with water, and with no energy depletion, no bonking, and no post-run hunger. It will be my fueling strategy for the Elk/Beaver 50 trail ultra that I’ll run on May 10.

In this video, Dr. Jeff Volek, associate professor at the University of Connecticut and co-author (with Dr. Steven Phinney) of The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance, offers one of the most comprehensive explanation of keto-adaptability I’ve come across. Highly recommended!

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.

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.

Low-Carb Treats

LCHF

Part of my ketogenic aka LCHF (Low Carb High Fat) journey is to look at new ways of fueling my runs and races. It’s a fascinating exploration, involving nutritional science, contrarian theories, and just plain good taste. I’ve made some interesting discoveries.

First, I’ve discovered that I don’t need to fuel at all for most of my runs. I now run fasted, that is, when I run in the morning, I don’t eat anything beforehand. Having eaten well the evening before (usually at about 6:30 PM), and having become used to burning fat instead glucose for fuel, I can happily run up to 32K without supplementary fueling. When I’m finished the run, I’ll have a nice big LCHF meal and be all set. I’ve also found that I don’t need an electrolyte supplement in my water bottle, even on very hot days (it’s occasionally been as high as 32C lately). I simply add the juice of half a lemon and a pinch of sea salt to a liter or so of water in my Nathan hydration vest.

I’ve also discovered four really good things I can use for fueling my long runs. I cooked two of them, my wife made one, and one is a commercial product.

First up, a really good low-carb trail mix. I bought all the ingredients at a local bulk food store, after carefully checking the ingredient labels to make sure they were sugar-free. It contains raw almonds, raw cashews, shredded unsweetened coconut, diced black mission figs, and raw hulled sunflower seeds. If I can figure out how to carry it easily and comfortably, it might be possible to carry some on an ultra.

Low-carb trail mix

Next, a “cake in a mug” that I made using coconut flour, unsweetened cocoa powder, an egg, baking powder, butter, and couple of tablespoons of kefir (a kind of yogurt). Since making my first first one, I’ve experimented with the ingredient mix, trying to get to a texture and consistency that will produce some thing dense enough to hold it together in a bag or pouch while I’m running. Not quite there yet, but it makes a marvelous cake!

Cake in a mug

One day recently, my wife made these low-carb, high fat mini egg, meat, and veg things. Don’t know quite what to call them, so I’ll just go with “egg cups” for now. She lined muffin cups with a slice of prosciutto, scrambled an egg, added some diced cooked onions and mushrooms, and baked the resulting mixture for about 30 minutes. (The lighter one was made without scrambling the egg.) You can vary the add-ins any way you want, with things like steamed broccoli, cheese, tomatoes, etc.

Egg cups

And lastly, some raw organic cocoa beans, which I bought at the Feast of Fields organic food and farmers market event yesterday. They’re fermented, sun-dried whole non-roasted cacao beans from Ecuador. They fit very nicely with my LCHF diet, as they’re low carb, high fat, with negligible fiber, and are perfect for carrying in a pocket or pouch. I think I’ve found a brand-new ultra fuel!

Cocoa beans

I’m having fun with this. All of the above recipes are easy and quick to make, and use ingredients that easy to find. Next up… a coconut flour banana bread. Stay tuned!

Ketogenic Training

Like most runners, I’m fascinated with the performance side of the sport. For me, though, that’s less about getting faster and setting new PBs than it is about learning how my body works and how to make it work better. Sure, that often translates into getting quicker, but, more importantly, it’s about running longer, stronger, and more easily. (It also informs the mental and psychological side of running, but that’s a topic for another post.) The result is that I always find myself engaged in an ongoing experiment to see what changes I can make in what I do and how I do it.

Currently, that means looking at how I can incorporate a ketogenic diet into my training. It’s a journey that’s already paid huge benefits, even though I’ve only been at it a short time. It’s a complex topic too, so there’s still much to learn, both about the nutritional science behind it and about how I can apply the learnings to my training.

A ketogenic diet, simply put, is a high-fat, adequate-protein, very low-carb diet. (You can find a lengthy article about it on Wikipedia.) A typical ketogenic meal includes a small amount of protein, a source of natural fats, and some green leafy vegetables. It’s a “good health” diet for anyone. For runners and other athletes, though, there’s a very big plus – reducing carbs and increasing fat and protein switches your body into fat burning mode. Burning fat rather than glucose results in more energy, greater endurance, and fewer (or no) bonks. As if that weren’t enough, keto means better overall health, effective weight loss and management, and building a muscular, healthy body. Hey, what’s not to like?

Keto Guys

These guys follow a ketogenic diet. (I’m not quite there yet, by the way…)

Eating ketogenic means keeping to a ratio of fat, protein, and carbs that looks like this:

Fat/Protein/Carb Ratios

It also, as a matter of course, means avoiding sugar. Sugar means insulin spikes, which initiate cravings for carbs. Insulin spikes also mean that fat isn’t used as fuel, but stored in the body. Include sugar in your diet, and you’re automatically putting on weight, however much exercise you get. Eliminate sugar from your diet, and you lose weight. It’s that simple.

Here’s what that looks like on a graph (taken from Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint):

Carbohydrate Curve

For runners, it’s also a matter of how your body fuels. Sugar means glycogens, and using glycogen as fuel means you’re on a constant energy roller-coaster. You get an energy spike, it drops, you do some more glycogen (a gel or a sports drink), it spikes again, it drops again, and so on and so on. If you start your run fasting, as I now do, you go quickly into using fat as fuel. It’s a more even-burning fuel, it lasts longer, and it doesn’t spike. Translation: I can run farther and more easily when I run on fat than when I run on glycogen. As a refinement of all this, I no longer use any sweeteners at all – not sugar, not honey, not even stevia. The only sugars I consume come from fruits, such as an occasional orange, apple, or banana – and I eat far fewer of those than I used to.

None of this means, though, that I’m depriving myself. (Trust me, I don’t do that.) I’m eating better than I ever have before. We now buy all our meat, chicken, and eggs from a small butcher shop called Marbled Meats in Oakville, Ontario. Tom Stasiuk, the shop’s owner, offers fresh product that is 100% natural, free range, and locally sourced from Ontario family farms. We buy some of our vegetables and fruit from a local farmer’s market, and the rest from a supermarket. We eat whole-fat butter, yogurt, cheese, and milk (goat milk for me, as I don’t like the taste of cow’s milk.) We eat no processed food at all. Consequently, our meals – all of them – are tasty, nutritious, and freshly-cooked.

The ketogenic diet isn’t new. Far from it, in fact. Our ancestors ate a ketogenic diet, or one very like it. The fellows in the photo above certainly do, and our grandparents probably did too. Dr. Robert Atkins first wrote about a low-carb diet in 1958. More recently, Dr. Tim Noakes, the famed author of Lore of Running, has converted to a ketogenic diet, and has espoused its effectiveness. Mike Morton, Ultra Running magazine’s Ultra Runner of the year, a 24-Hour World Champion, winner of the 2012 Badwater 135 miler, and the winner of the Western States 100 miler in 1997, is a ketogenic runner.

And there’s growing evidence of the benefits of a ketogenic diet for overall health, ranging from prevention/slowing of Alheimer’s to effectiveness in dealing with cancer to weight loss/management. For more info on these topics, see the very informative Ketogenic Diet Resource site. For more about a ketogenic approach to general health, check out Mark Sisson’s Daily Apple or The Harcombe Diet. (The latter is ketogenic in all but name. It offers the added twist of advising that – for weight loss, anyway – not to mix fat meals and carb meals. Trust me, it’s good advice!) And for something keto that relates specifically to running, have a look at RunKeto, which chronicles the ketogenic training of four ultra runners. It’s all good, believe me. Very, very good indeed.

I’ll post more about my ketogenic training program, as I continue to train for my 2013 goal race, the Vulture Bait 50K Trail Race. For now, I’ll continue to run fasted, eat ketogenic, and build up my distances. Stay tuned!

Barefoot Spring Run Off 8K

HSRO 8K - leading the pack

Leading the pack

This was a good race, for all kinds of reasons. To start, it was a return to a race that I did five years ago, after getting back to running after an absence of almost thirty years.

Second, it was a chance to pay back. Late in 2005, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Since then, I’ve had very good care from the good folks at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital. For this year’s Spring Run Off, I raised just over C$1,500 to support PMH’s research and treatment programs. It’s only a drop in the bucket, given the prevalence of prostate cancer these days, but it’s something.

As if that weren’t enough, I managed to set a new personal best time for the 8K. My chip time was 44:12.8. That’s a 6 minute improvement over my finishing time in 2008. I placed 6/21 in my age category, 649/1173 in my gender group, and 917/2244 overall. It’s a good result, and one I’m very pleased with.

Just before the race start, I had the pleasure of meeting with some fellow dailymilers. It was a very pleasant way to start race day. The weather was good, though a touch on the cold side to start: 2C, sunny, 11 km/h wind, and 55% humidity.

The Spring Run Off course is interesting, and a tough one if you’re trying to do it quickly. As you can see from the map below, it’s a double loop, with a smaller one within the larger. The roadways are narrow, which can make mid-pack running somewhat crowded, especially as many runners optimistically start well ahead of where they should. The route includes two rather steep descents and two comparable climbs. The second climb, a short but brutal 400m, occurs just before the finish line. This is where elite runners make their final strong kick – for the rest of us, it’s a bit of a slog. In either case, it’s a great location for spectators, and makes for a very exciting finish line atmosphere.

Spring Run Off 8K map

The man's alright!

The man’s alright!

I ran this one well. (No false modesty here!) I knew that if I kept to an average pace of 5:30 min/km or so (which, given my recent training, was eminently doable), I’d be able to finish in a respectable time. So I pushed the pace a little on the flat bits, took the descents fairly gently (not so easy to go downhill quickly when barefoot, and my left hip doesn’t like downhills), and did my best on the climbs. As I was running slightly ahead of mid-pack, I didn’t feel as crowded as I had five years ago. Also, I’m much more confident than I was then, so could move through the crowd fairly easily. In fact, except for the descents, I managed to pass other people quite steadily throughout the race. An unusual occurrence for me, and a very pleasant one! Overall, it was a good strategy, and one that worked well.

A confident finish, for all the toughness of that last climb, and all that was left was to bask in some spring sunshine.

Mission accomplished

A heartfelt thank you goes to everyone who supported me to raise funds for this event. That’s the real cause for the great feelings and the celebration!

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.