When life was falling apart, it was running that put me back together

Me and Mike on Mount Elbert. I miss this dude.

I got into an online discussion with a friend who was trying to weigh her desire to join her running buddies in a longer road race versus the time commitment needed to train for it. She’s a busy gal, with a full-time job, lots of family around and plenty of things to worry about.

Something she said struck me. She said that when she runs, it clears her head. And that over the past year, it may have saved her. “I think I would have fallen apart without it,” she admitted.

That resonated with me. I’ve had similar thoughts, sometimes recently, and it became even more clear as a dreaded anniversary crept near.

Six years ago, my oldest brother died. And when everything settled down and I was left to my own thoughts, it was the alone time pounding the pavement or coursing through wooded trails that pulled me from an abyss.

Running may have saved me, too.

***

Mike and I were close. Some of it had to do with the fact that we shared a number of interests. We loved the mountains. Fishing for trout was a favorite, and later on, I got hooked on climbing Colorado’s high peaks after hearing his tales of high mountain summits. We climbed a few peaks together, including my first three 14,000-footers, and made a thing of it with all the brothers – Mike, Steve, and myself – are few years back.

From left, Mike, me and Steve on the summit of Quandary Peak, Colo.

Mike and I were also gym rats. I bumbled around the weight room with a little success while he mastered the art of weight training and bodybuilding. Naturally, we’d talk about all things lifting, and more often than not I’d be the one doing the listening as he offered tips and told of his experiences. Years later, I still can’t sniff the PRs he managed on the big lifts.

But I keep plugging away, and sometimes I’ll learn something new or set my own PR. Instinctively, I look around for my phone, thinking about shooting him a text or a phone call to talk about it. But that gets shot down pretty quick.

Shit. I can’t call Mike. I can’t call him because he’s gone.

***

Around the time when Mike was diagnosed with cancer (it was a blood disease similar to leukemia), other crises were afoot. My job was going down the crapper, and as he got sicker, my own prospects worsened. In January of 2011, I flew to Denver to visit him, not knowing if he’d make it for the next few days or if he’d pull through. A couple days after arriving, Mike grew stronger.

But then I got a call. My employer had a layoff, and I was caught in it. Twelve mostly good years there were over. It’s a hell of a thing to learn you’re on the street via a long-distance phone call from a hospital hallway.

The silver lining was being able to spend more time with Mike. I hoped he’d pull out of it, recover and then we’d be back at it, hiking up mountains and traveling the West. But it was not to be.

Mike’s condition eventually won. His death was slow – agonizingly so – and from everything I saw, miserable. Cruel, even. The whole family was there when he passed. The final moments unleashed our sorrows in a flood of tears and hugs, all of us hating the fact that he was gone yet glad he wasn’t suffering anymore. In the hours and days following Mike’s passing, we shuffled from here to there, buying clothes for the funeral, heading to the church to say our last good-byes, and then settling into the finality of it all.

A few days later, after being out of work for four months, I got a call. The guy who is now my boss, Tim, wondered if I’d like to interview for a job in Tulsa. I said yes, and we arranged for an interview time. I got the job, which necessitated a move. So I moved up to Tulsa while my wife Becca stayed in our soon-to-be ex-hometown east of Oklahoma City to get our house ready for sale. I’d come back on the weekends, then drive back to Tulsa before my Monday shift began.

During the week, I stayed at my sister-in-law’s house in a Tulsa suburb. She and her family had moved to Texas and were trying to sell their Oklahoma home, and they kindly let me stay there until we found a place of our own. The house, somewhere short of 3,000 square feet, was empty – no furniture, no TV, nothing. I made my home in the master bedroom, a cavernous space where I occupied a tiny sliver, sleeping on an air mattress and playing Angry Birds on my phone or reading a book when I got home from work. Aside from the job, I had a lot of alone time, time to worry about the future and mourn Mike’s death.

Before work, I’d head to the gym, and then two miles down the road I’d go to a local park that had a gravel trail a little over a mile long. Work was a great distraction, but my demons were there in that empty house on those long nights after work. I fought back on the trails. Running, it seemed, drove them away.

***

Running became a sorely needed habit — and refuge — during one of the more challenging periods of my life.

I’d gotten into a running habit before Mike got sick, but things took off once I moved to Tulsa. It was cheap – the price of shoes, socks and some tech clothes. It turned out to be a great way to explore my new hometown. Every slow, lumbering run was interesting. I’d see something new, work up my miles and get a little faster.

Not long after, I discovered a park that had a huge network of trails that ran wild through wooded hills that were left as close as possible to their natural state. I’d run plenty on pavement, but this trail running thing was brand new. I learned that trail runners were different. Most runners obsess over mile times, distances and splits. Trail runners get into vertical gain a little, but mostly run hard, have fun and replace all the calories they burned with burritos and beer. This was something I could get into.

For a brief period, I ran with a weekly run group, but most times I explored the trails by myself – in the furnace of the Oklahoma summer, in the rain and mud, and even in the snow. I’d run myself ragged on big hills, trip over tree roots and rocks and go through the painstaking process of tick-checks. I spied snakes, lizards, deer and hawks. Squirrels and rabbits, too. I watched sunsets through the trees, breathed in the scents of fresh redbud blooms and listened to cicadas blast their noisy calls on sweltering summer days. I loved running with friends, but these were experiences I mostly had on my own.

These were the times I’d think. Sometimes pray. I’d rage at God for how Mike died, then calm down and express gratitude that I was still healthy, and able to enjoy these runs on the trails when so many others couldn’t or wouldn’t.

I’d like to tell you that I found peace and healing inside the folds of a new church congregation, but it never worked out that way for me. Too many places of worship were too busy fighting the culture wars for my taste. But I found God anyway. God was in those woods, tolerating my griping, reminding me of my blessings, and listening in. Being there when I was unlovable. That sort of thing matters when you reach a point of being a jerk, something I can testify to rather well. Sometimes I’m not the easiest person to be around, prone to poor judgment and selfishness. Things that Mike wasn’t but I was.

Over time, running became bigger. Slow two-mile jaunts around the neighborhood turned into five-milers. And then 10. Or 12. Within a few years, I was knocking out half marathons, 25Ks, and on a bitterly cold November day, my first marathon. The process was one that required some mental toughening, sharpening your mind in the middle of 20-mile training runs, and the day-long recovery periods that followed.

But I found something out there. I found a rhythm, a meditative cadence that cleared my busy mind of the stresses and insecurities that confronted me daily. I’m not one of those crazies who pounds out 80 or more miles a week, or runs insanely long races, or any of that. But I miss it when I stop. Normally I come back from a run feeling spent, and in a good way, like I went to war with my demons, beat them back and stood atop a hill looking at the battlefield when it’s over, me still alive and my foes in retreat. I’m not one to make easy war metaphors; that dishonors real warriors. But when negativity and grief and self-loathing and worry rage at your gates, it feels like a fight. You use the tools at your disposal in order to win.

***

Sunset in the woods at the end of a fun trail run.

Mike wasn’t much of a runner, at least not in his final years. More of a cyclist, a hiker and a lifter. But I think he could appreciate it just the same, like he would after a long day in the mountains or right after coming off the saddle after a 30-mile ride through Denver. He’d get it. He battled through plenty of his own struggles and won them all except for the one that finally claimed him.

I was thinking of Mike at the end of my last trail run. It was a short trip, just a few miles on mostly empty trails near dusk. When I got through and reached the trailhead, the sun was dipping into the horizon, setting the skies and their clouds afire with hues of yellow, orange and red. I snapped a photo with my phone and suddenly got the urge to text it to Mike. Look how beautiful it is out here, dude! And then I’d remember.

But I grinned anyway. I knew that Mike would understand, that he knew running for me was a gift from God, the salve I needed – and still need – in this stage of life. I was sweaty, dirty and spent and more content than I’d ever be, even if only for a few minutes. I was at peace.

I hope my friend decides to do that longer race, mostly because I know where she’s at, and have felt that calming, inner-warmth that comes from a good run.

Bob Doucette

Should there be weight classes in running? Four arguments against it

I'm no lightweight runner, that's for sure. But I'm not going to seek special treatment because of it.

I’m no lightweight runner, that’s for sure. But I’m not going to seek special treatment because of it.

An interesting discussion popped up on the Trail and Ultra Running Facebook page, attached to a link that asked the question: Should marathons be divided into weight classes?

The reasoning was that many other sports have weight classes. So why not long-distance running? The writer used the analogy of boxing, and plenty of people who commented on the link also mentioned sports like mixed-martial arts, competitive weightlifting, wrestling, and so forth. Arguments for more weight classes seemed to go like this: Smaller, thinner people have a physical advantage over larger people in marathons. So why not split ‘em up?

It should be noted that some races offer “Clydesdale” and “Athena” classes for men and women who toe the line with more size than the smaller competitors. I fit nicely within the Clydesdale ranks, and my times show it. I’m mid-pack at best when I’m trim and in good shape. There’s no way I can compete with the front-pack runners who rarely weigh more than 135 pounds.

I fault the article for saying running and boxing are both “combative sports” (they’re not). But the general question is a decent one to ponder.

You’d think that someone like me, who usually enters races at 184-190 pounds, would embrace more weight divisions in endurance events. But I don’t. My thoughts:

Combat sports and weight lifting use different methods of athleticism to succeed than running. You might be thinking, “duh!”, but this needs to be explained. Boxing, wrestling, MMA and powerlifting use force and power against either an opponent (another fighter) or an object (a barbell). It takes mass to move mass, so naturally larger lifters can lift more weight, and when pitting two, equally skilled combatants against each other, the larger one has an advantage in terms of how much potential force can be behind a punch, kick or throw. With running, your energy is applied to moving only yourself against the friction of the road, an incline, or the wind. How well you do this is affected by your weight, but is more affected by your conditioning, and your build relative to your stature. If the latter two are adapted correctly for the sport, weight becomes a nonissue as it will automatically conform to the demands of high-level competition.

Weight-classed sports are designed in a way to accommodate a person’s genetics in terms of size. This matters less in running, because “size” is more under the athlete’s control. It would make no sense to put a 160-pound boxer in the ring with a dude who weighs 220. Similarly, you’d never expect a 120-pound powerlifter to lift as much as someone who weighs 250. These people’s sizes are often a component of their genetics. This happens with runners, too, but here’s the thing: If a runner wants to have a build that is conducive to running fast, a lot of that is under his or her control. Diet and training can make someone fast and efficient regardless of being 5-foot-4 or 6-foot-2. There are genetic and hormonal factors that can come into play for some people, but for most runners, your size relative to your sport are determined by you.

Distance running is already split up into numerous classes. Endurance sports don’t need to have a bunch of weight divisions because the fields are already broken up into age groups and gender. Go to any big-city marathon, and you have somewhere around 8 or more age groups per gender. Age makes some sense, as that is a major factor that the runner can’t change. Splitting up into even more categories seems to dilute what it means to be a “winner” and lessen the significance of podium finishes. If we do this, what’s next? Height classes to help shorter runners? We could keep going down this rabbit hole until we get a few dozen podium photo ops per race.

Running is already one of those sports that rewards far more than just winning. Many races give out medals just for crossing a finish line. I have no problem with that (I treasure my mid-pack finisher medals), but if we’re going to make the podium more accessible by adding new classifications, we’re watering down the significance of what it takes to win. Though I compare my times to friends, I mostly compete against myself. I realize that if I want to have a chance at winning, I’d need to drastically change my training, diet and lifestyle. I’d need to be about 60 pounds lighter to be fast enough to challenge high-performing runners. But I like barbecue and tacos, and I don’t want to lose so much muscle that my strength goes away. With that in mind, I know I’ll never be a podium finisher. And I’m OK with that. Along the same line, I do not and will never expect any race director and athletic organization to write up new rules to make it to where someone like me, who won’t commit to elite-level training, reaps the rewards of an elite-level finish by stepping on a platform and holding a trophy that looks and feels like that of someone who is actually elite.

So those are my thoughts. How about you? Yay or nay on weight classes? Holler in the comments.

Bob Doucette

Four ideas on dealing with injuries during training

My friends. But they don't care if I'm injured.

My friends. But they don’t care if I’m injured.

Tell me you’ve heard this one before…

You’re training hard, working toward a specific goal. Things are going great, progressing nicely, and then it hits: An injury.

Now what?

I’ve faced this a bunch over the years. A cranky back, tweaked neck, wonky shoulders and sprained ankles. Last spring it was a tweaked hamstring, and there have been elbow, wrist and foot problems, to boot.

Last week, it was something else.

I’ve been working hard on building strength for the past couple of months, dialing back my running and pushing hard in the weight room. I still run, but less frequently and shorter distances. The bike has taken over some workouts where running used to be.

But a little over a week ago, I was doing a deadlift workout and tweaked my right trapezius muscle. The trapezius is a long back muscle that starts at the top of your neck, widens and thickens on your upper back, and runs down the side of your spine.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

It is a crucial muscle in any lift where a hip-hinge movement is involved, and if it’s freaking out, you’ll know it every time you get out of bed, turn your head or try to pick something up.

I did a lot of rehab exercises to try to work out the kinks, but by late last week, it was still angry. The workout I had planned included Romanian deadlifts – a great hamstring and glute move that also works the back, and therefore, the trapezius. Additionally, I’d also be lifting a barbell off the floor to the front squat position for another exercise. Same deal, and my back was saying no.

The rest of my body was fine. But one ticked-off muscle can throw you for a loop.

I ended up doing two things. First, I modified that day’s workout to a lighter-weight circuit that included back squats, calf raises and reverse lunges. Six rounds of that, with minimal stress on the traps. Second, I skipped the next day’s shoulder workout entirely and just ran trails.

By Saturday, I was good to go for another deadlift workout (which also included farmer’s walks, cable pulls and pull-ups, all of which recruit the trapezius). I slayed that workout.

There are some important lessons here, and to be frank, sometimes you have to learn this the hard way, like me. Whether you’re training to get strong, for a long-distance race, or preparing for a major physical challenge (say, climbing a mountain), injuries are going to happen.

How do you handle them? Here are some ideas:

Sometimes you have to suck it up and train through it, but work around the problem. Not every injury requires you to shut it down and wait it out. Think it through and find ways to keep up your training without aggravating the problem. What I described above is a good example. Another: runners facing roadblocks can hop on a bike or swim for their conditioning needs until their bodies are well enough to hit the road.

Many injuries are caused by overuse and imbalances. These in turn put undue stress on others parts of your body, leading to injury. Diagnose that, and find ways to train those weak areas so other parts of your body aren’t overcompensating for the weakness and leaving you sidelined. For runners, “dead-butt syndrome” is a perfect example (lack of glute strength). Many lifters suffer from shoulder impingements (poor postural alignment, or underdeveloped back musculature are common there). The fixes are simple, but they will take time. Commit to it.

Your “form” in your training sucks. Fix it. So many runners I know pound their knees into oblivion by hard heel-striking. Others bounce too much, putting a ton of stress on the Achilles tendons. In strength training, poor form – especially on compound exercises, Olympic lifts and explosive movements – lead to potentially serious problems (and don’t get me started on doing these lifts in a fatigued state). My ongoing back issues can be traced back to piss-poor squat form over a decade ago that left me injured. I’ve had to work on that diligently to keep myself from getting hurt again. Proper form in any athletic pursuit mitigates injury. It’s usually pride that keeps people from fixing the problem, and ultimately leads the prideful to the sidelines, bemoaning a fate that could have been avoided.

Sometimes, you really do need to stop and heal. Injuries happen. If you rip your knee up, wrench your shoulder, suffer a stress fracture or hurt your back, there may not be enough chiro work, at-home rehab, Ibuprofen, inner toughness or other tricks to keep you moving forward. When that happens, you need rest, time to heal, and a plan for rehab and recovery. Whether it’s something as relatively minor as an ankle sprain before a big race or something major like a blown disk or ligament/muscle tear, there are definitely times when you need to swallow your pride, shut it down and get well.

If you're like me, you don't want to stop. But we have to be smart about it.

If you’re like me, you don’t want to stop. But we have to be smart about it.

I was fortunate that I knew what I could and couldn’t do in terms of what was a minor physical setback, but one that was big enough to potentially derail my training. I could do my squats; but the overhead presses the next day? Nope. And it all worked out in the end.

Bob Doucette

Moving beyond New Year’s resolutions

weights

It’s that time of year.

You’re going to see two types of people in the gym and on the trails: The New Year’s resolutioner and the people who have moved past resolutions. There is nothing right or wrong about being either. But there is merit to moving from the former to the latter.

You’ve got two kinds of resolutioners. The first type are the people who are getting in shape for the first time in their lives. This is a good place to be, because this person is a blank slate, ready to learn, and ready to improve his or her health. The second type includes those who have made more than one resolution to get fit, but come December find themselves where they were a year ago. The silver lining is you can look back on mistakes and learn from them, but it also means there is the possibility of learning and entrenching bad habits.

The folks who have moved past resolutions have a few common traits. They’re consistent. They’re patient. And they’re willing to learn new ways of doing things to achieve their goals. The new year presents new challenges instead of starting over. Most importantly, their health has become a priority in their lives. They make time to do the things needed to be healthy, fit and strong. Their achievements are built over years of putting in the work.

If you’re part of the resolutioner crowd, there are some simple things you can do to evolve past that. Here are a few:

Understand that becoming fit is a long-term process. You’re not going to magically sport a six-pack after a month of hitting the gym. Or two months. And there are no pills, devices or other shortcuts that actually work. Getting in shape, becoming strong, getting lean — all these outcomes take time and discipline. Be prepared to spend a good number of months putting in the work, and don’t get let down if you’re not seeing results after a few weeks. Keep at it. With that in mind…

Go into your fitness journey with a plan. Some exercise is better than none, but playing around with the weights and slogging away aimlessly on an elliptical won’t get you very far. Do you want to run a 5K? Find a training plan for it and stick to it. Are you seeking to get stronger? Talk to a trainer, do some internet research or consult with people in the know and learn how to do this. Create a training schedule, follow it and track your progress. Failing to plan is planning to fail. Figure out what you want, find a plan to achieve it, and then execute. It’s that simple.

Leave the phone in your locker. I cannot begin to tell you how many people I see wasting time farting around on their phones texting, updating social media or otherwise staring at their device and not training. You say you use it for music? Fine. If you’re disciplined enough to press play, slip on the earbuds and not do anything else with your phone until your workout is done, go for it. Otherwise, don’t bring it with you. It’s a distraction that prevents you from getting the work done.

Pay attention to what you put in your body. What you eat matters. What you drink matters. Eat real food, and not the fried, sugared or overly processed variety. Sugary drinks and alcohol pile on tons of mostly useless calories that get stored as fat and play havoc with your metabolism. Eat clean, get the right amount of protein and watch those liquid calories closely. An occasional beer or two on the weekends is not a problem, but much more than that and you’re probably going to undermine your efforts.

Set a tangible goal. Amazing things happen when you say, “I’m going to do this,” and then commit to it. When I ran a marathon, I told people beforehand I was going to do it. The result was transformative, and I learned a lot. My nephew Jordan chose a Spartan race as his goal, and now having done a couple of them, he’s in the best shape of his life. People I know have competed in bodybuilding, power lifting, mixed martial arts and more, while others have run ultramarathons, climbed big mountains or completed ambitious through-hikes. Their fitness was honed in on a goal, giving their efforts purpose. You don’t even have to be that dramatic. Maybe it’s competing in (or finishing) a shorter race, or perhaps being able to deadlift twice your body weight. Whatever it is, having a target helps measure progress during the process and success when it’s done.

When January 1 rolls around, where are you going to be? Are you ready to evolve? Get your mind right first, make a plan and make your health part of your daily lifestyle.

Bob Doucette

Running in the cold: Five things to consider

Too cold to run? Nonsense. You can still get out there.

Too cold to run? Nonsense. You can still get out there.

If last week reminds of us anything, it’s that cold weather season is here. One good cold snap plunged our nightly lows into single digits, and any thoughts of a mild winter have gone out the window. Gone are the days of those balmy runs where shorts and a T-shirt were all you needed.

But if you’re like me, the thought of relegating yourself to the treadmill or some hamster-wheel indoor track isn’t going to cut it. And neither will mailing it in on the couch. But, man, it’s really cold out there!

So what do you do?

You get out there. But you get out there prepared to deal with the elements. The truth is, you can get your training done and get your outside fix even when the temps drop to freezing or lower. In fact, you should get outside. So here are some ideas to help you get outside and get your training in…

First, prepare your mind. You can dread the cold, or you can look at it as a challenge. I prefer the latter. If you can force your mind to being OK with enduring cold temps, your training calendar opens up. Mental toughness is part of the process of becoming a better athlete, and part of that is being able to tackle a wider variety of conditions. If you’re constantly looking for the Goldilocks zone of training, you’ll only get outside for a few of weeks of the year. So get your mind right, saddle up and go.

Keep in mind, you’ll warm up as you go. If you’re standing around outside when it’s cold, you’ll feel cold. But when you’re moving, things change. I once heard marathon coach and Runners World contributing editor Bart Yasso tell athletes that you can expect to feel 20 degrees warmer than the actual outside temps during exercise. I can attest to this. At last month’s Route 66 Half Marathon, I stayed good and warm throughout the race despite temperatures that started in the lower 30s. There were two constants in that. The first, I was moving. The second leads me to the next point…

Dress for success. No, you won’t be able to train comfortably in sub-freezing temperatures dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. You’ve got to plan better than that. When it’s really cold, you need to keep warmth in your extremities, so that means a hat, decent socks and, if cold enough, gloves. But you also don’t want to get too warm. All that sweat could chill you further and counteract your desire to be warm (remember Bart Yasso’s 20-degree rule). So with that in mind, Runners World came up with a handy guide to clothing for the cold for runners. I’ll list it here rather than reinvent the wheel:

30 degrees: 2 tops, 1 bottom. Long-sleeve base layer and a vest keep your core warm. Tights (or shorts, for polar bears).

10 to 20 degrees: 2 tops, 2 bottoms. A jacket over your base layer, and wind pants over the tights.

0 to 10 degrees: 3 tops, 2 bottoms. Two tops (fleece for the cold-prone) and a jacket.

Minus 10 to 0 degrees: 3 tops, 2 bottoms, extra pair of mittens, 1 scarf wrapped around mouth or a balaclava.

Minus 20 degrees: 3 tops, 3 bottoms, 2 extra pairs of mittens, 1 balaclava, sunglasses. Or, in other words, “Stay inside.”

Sounds like good advice to me.

If you dress for it, cold weather runs can be awesome.

If you dress for it, cold weather runs can be awesome.

Think about precipitation. If it’s snowing or raining, be sure to have some sort of rain gear to keep your body dry. Wear moisture-wicking socks. And if possible, the most water-resistant shoe you have. You’ll probably still get a little wet, but do the things that will mitigate weather-related moisture on your body.

Fuel and hydrate properly. Just because it’s cold does not mean your hydration needs won’t be high. Colder months are often drier months, so proper hydration is still very important. Also, your body burns more calories when it’s cold than when it does when it’s warm. How so? Your body has to work harder just to keep its core temperature up. It’s a battle in which your body is resisting the outside temperatures’ pressure to bring your body temperature down. Stoking your inner furnace costs calories, and if you’re not properly fueled, you can bonk pretty hard in the cold. It happens. So fuel up and hydrate.

So there are five things you can do to get ready for cold weather training. What other tips to you have? Feel free to comment and give me your advice!

Bob Doucette

Freedom on two wheels

Hello, darlin'.

Hello, darlin’.

It was shortly after another holiday eat-fest that I felt too flubbery to stand it any longer. As much as I savored the food on the table and the brews from the fridge, all that consumption and sitting around had finally worn me down.

I needed to get out.

I guess I could go run. Or take a walk. But I looked in the corner of the sun room by the front door of my house and saw it there, like an expectant puppy, just waiting to be taken out: My old 1998 Trek, a mountain bike built in the days before mountain biking got fancy.

Let’s go, it beckoned. Let’s take a ride, feel the wind in your face, and breeze by some scenery before the sun goes down…

It didn’t take much convincing.

***

I come from a family of cyclists. All the kids learned to ride at an early age, usually on some sort of entry-level machine with a banana seat and a place to fly a flag. We’d clip playing cards on the frame so they’d make that cool sound on the spokes, helping us imagine we were on a motorcycle, getting ready to jump over a row of buses like Evel Knieval.

My dad was a little more serious about it. He had this big, steel-frame Schwinn 10-speed that weighed a ton but could fly with the right sort of rider in its saddle. My dad was that sort of rider. He could make that lime-green chunk of metal go, and whenever he wished to take a break somewhere along his route, he’d dig into a little leather pouch attached below the seat, light up a Kool menthol and soak in the day.

My oldest brother Mike also made cycling a lifelong habit. As an adult, he’d do epic rides from his house in suburban Denver all the way into town and back, cruising up and down sizable hills that most of us weren’t ready to handle.

As for me, the bike was a tool to get me from my house to a friend’s place — fast transportation that would expedite whatever childhood hijinks was on tap that day.

Beyond that, it was also an escape pod of sorts. Imagine some sci-fi movie where people need to get off the ship and onto the surface of some strange, alien world. They step in, buckle up and jettison themselves straight outta there and into whatever adventure awaited. The bike’s not much different: Wheel it out on your driveway, hop on the saddle and go.

Where you go doesn’t really matter. The fact that you can zip your way down the street toward whatever destination awaited is the real trick, cruising as fast as your legs and its gears will take you.

In that way, a bike is liberating: A simple, go-anywhere tool to take you somewhere else on the spur of the moment. When you think about it, it’s pretty liberating.

A bike is freedom.

***

My road bike is in a bad way right now, so if I want to ride anywhere, it’s on my seriously outdated mountain bike, knobby tires and all. I definitely don’t look like one of the cool kids in their $5,000 road bikes, decked out in skin-tight cycling uniforms bedecked with company logos and whatnot. Not that I care. My bike’s got 21 speeds, is mechanically sound and does the job. And unlike the cool kids and their pricey get-ups, I can take mine across grass, rocks, pavement, mud and anything else and not fear a thing.

But we all hold this one thing in common — we can get places quickly, kind of like a car, but we can also stop and have a look around on a moment’s notice, just like you could on foot. It’s rather frowned upon to stop your car in the middle of the street to gawk at something you find interesting.

Anyway, I found myself in such a spot barely a mile into my ride. I was crossing a bridge over the Arkansas River, the sun sinking lower and giving the sky that soft, low-light glow of approaching dusk, right when the shadows are getting long. The river was fairly full, surrounding a small, tree-covered island. High-rise apartments and commercial buildings towered over the river in the distance. Reflections off the water were a rippled, tinted orange. Most of the trees still held on to their fall colors, matching the sun’s mellowing glow.

I lingered for a bit, taking it in. I wish I had a camera, but in my rush to ride, I left the electronics behind. No matter. I hopped back on the seat and pedaled on, crossing the river and ripping by a group of apartments overlooking the Arkansas’ west bank.

What it looked like on another ride.

What it looked like on another ride.

***

Some of my fondest memories growing up surrounding fishing. When I lived in Colorado, it was for trout. For the one year I lived in rural Illinois, it was bass.

And what a sweet year that was.

An 11-year-old kid in a small Illinois farm town has no excuse to be bored. None. I know this because I found plenty to do. Sometimes that involved getting into trouble, but most of the time, when the weather was good, it started with me grabbing a pole, a tackle box and a red 10-speed and jetting out of my wooded neighborhood down dusty farm roads to a friend’s house where there were a few well-stocked farm ponds.

I cut my angler’s teeth on those ponds, reeling in small bass and bluegills by the dozens during the summer months. Sometimes I’d meet up with friends, other times I’d go by myself. That suited me just fine.

I reeled in my first “big” bass on one such trip, happily riding home to show off the trophy I hauled out of that one-acre pond. A few weeks later, I bested the feat, coaxing a fat largemouth out of the weeds with a carefully retrieved plastic worm. I felt like an expert that day, that maybe there was a long-term future in this fishing thing for me. That’s what 11-year-olds think, anyway. I know better now, but no matter. The memory is a sweet one.

But getting to that prized fishing hole would have been a whole lot harder had I not had that steel-frame 10-speed. Without it, I might have been tempted to sulk around the house during those long summer days, waiting for the next thing to happen. Who knows? Maybe life in that small town would have been pretty boring after all, if not for the escape I found on two wheels.

***

I must admit, I fell out of love with the bike for many years. As soon as I got old enough to drive, I didn’t see the point.

I can remember a couple failed attempts at mountain biking. It seemed cool, and the people who were doing it seemed cool. I guess I wasn’t. Being out of shape and riding a borrowed (and rather crappy) bike didn’t help.

But moving from my apartment to a new place farther away from work got me thinking. I used to be able to walk to work, which I loved. I spent more than 20 years driving anywhere from 70 to 100 miles a day on my daily commute, so spending a few minutes walking to work was an eye-opener. Leaving that luxury behind left me a little blue.

But what if I could live close enough where I could bike to work? Surely, I could find a cheap ride that would do the job. I found a place close enough to my job to do just that, and within a month, I purchased two used bikes for dirt cheap, fixed them up, and became a bike commuter.

Bike commuting is sort of a pain. Walking to work is far simpler, and driving to work is more convenient. But a year later, it’s become normal.

But something else happened. I rediscovered what I’d lost when I got my driver’s license, that simple pleasure of feeling the wind in your face and the smell of fresh air on a casual ride around town. Or the satisfaction of being able to hop on my ride and go pretty much anywhere, and do it without spending a dime in gas money. People ride around town, on trails, across the country and even over frozen wildernesses and high mountain passes on bikes, you know.

It was nice to ponder that as I rounded out my loop, riding a few miles in the cool autumn air, then climbing the big hill toward home, out of breath but feeling good. No, not just feeling good. Feeling right. I’d gotten reacquainted with a long-lost love, and discovered that even after such a long time, things could be good again.

It feels good to be free. To go on a whim. To ride for miles, wondering what I might see, how much ground I might cover. To escape lethargy and feel the burning in your lungs and legs, payment for seeing how fast I could rip the straightaways in a high gear.

We often wonder what it would be like to go back in time, to be a kid again, with a chance to start anew.

Well, get on a saddle, point your ride down the road and find out.

Bob Doucette

Recapping the 2016 Route 66 half marathon

Pre-race running stoke. Me and my nasty beard.

Pre-race running stoke. Me and my nasty beard.

It’s been a funky year in running for me. The beginning of the year saw me get pretty lazy on that front as I spent most of the first seven or so months working on strength. I did work on some speed, ran for six hours on trails in March and did a few 5Ks in search of a PR (to no avail). Even during the fall race season, I didn’t enter much.

So going into the Route 66 half marathon, I didn’t have very high expectations. I spent the bulk of my time building up a base, working my long runs into double-digit miles and trying to get my body used to running on pavement for a couple of hours. Considering where I was starting from, I felt good about being as strong at the end of my long runs, in terms of pace, as I did in the beginning. I also made sure to run plenty of hills, remembering hilliness that the Route 66 course presents every year.

The problem, however, came from this fall’s weather. When the fall training cycle starts up, I’m mentally ready for lots of hot-weather runs. It’s part of the deal in the Southern Plains. But I expect that by October, things should be cooling down enough to really work on pushing the pace throughout the week. Unfortunately, Oklahoma went through its warmest October on record, with only a couple of days where highs didn’t reach the 80s. Often, those highs were near 90.

To race faster, you must be able to train faster. Throughout the fall, that didn’t happen for me. Throw in a couple of interruptions in my training schedule, and I went into my fifth half marathon with low expectations. I was heavier than I needed to be and slow. While my workouts were ahead of where they were a year ago, I had a feeling that this race might be my slowest half to date.

THE COURSE

If you’ve done this race before, you know that it fools a lot of people. Oklahoma is a relatively flat state, and newcomers arrive thinking this will be a fast, flat course.

And a good chunk of it is. Just not the majority of it.

You run downhill for most of the first mile, then spend the next four battling a series of rolling hills through a residential area. It’s scenic — the old neighborhoods of midtown are filled with big trees and stately homes, and the fall foliage was in its full glory. It was gorgeous to view with a bright sun and blue skies on what started out as a crisp, cool day.

After five miles, runners spill out into Brookside to begin about three miles of flat ground. The course ducks back into a neighborhood for a couple of miles and a long, deceptive uphill that can zap the unwary. It then goes back out onto the flats of Riverside Drive before taking the long uphill slog back into downtown.

HOW IT WENT DOWN

I made sure to start out at a measured pace, and for those first four miles, I was fairly slow. It looked like I might match or exceed the previous year’s 2:20 finish.

One thing that worked in my favor (besides the cooler temps): All that hill training. Every Monday, I’d run three miles on one of the hilliest streets in Tulsa. That, combined with plenty of strength training in my glutes and hamstrings, really helped me feel fresh by the time I hit the flat part of the course at Mile 6.

It was here where I noticed that my mile times were getting faster. After nine miles, I was only a couple of minutes off my 15K personal record. By Mile 10, I passed the pacer who was holding a 2:15 pace.

Let me say, first off, that I am not fast. At all. But around this time, I knew I was starting to close in on my half marathon PR, a 2:11 split I hit in 2013 when doing Route 66’s full marathon. Back then, I was running 20 more miles per week and weighed about 13 pounds less. I didn’t foresee breaking that mark, but of one thing I was sure: I wouldn’t bomb like I had the previous year.

And then came the race’s great equalizer. Once you’re 11 miles in, you must go back into downtown, which is atop a hill. Southwest Boulevard is what takes you there, and it’s the biggest hill on the course. My cardio to that point had been taxed but was solid. That is, until that hill.

That’s where I cratered. The hill got me again, just like it had in here previous races. The 2:15 gal breezed by. No shot at a PR.

But getting past that, I recovered. And the last mile flew by. I sprinted the last hundred yards, and crossed the finish at 2:15:04, my second-fastest half.

Race bling.

Race bling.

WHAT TO MAKE OF IT

I see a lot of what-ifs. What if I’d been a little more disciplined on the diet? What if I had pushed my training a little harder? And so on.

That’s my nature. I tend to look at what I could have done better, and achieved better results. A lot of the reasons I do this (and I know it’s true for many of you) is to test myself, to see if I can improve my fitness and performance, to see what this ole body can do.

And that’s all fine. But some of the things I did worked, and I do believe that training in warm to hot weather for most of the season paid off in November.

But most of all, it’s always nice to exceed your expectations. Putting up a 2:15 in a half marathon isn’t the pinnacle of long-distance running, but I didn’t believe it would happen this year. And then it did. It’s a sweet reward, almost as sweet as the post-run feast, which is really the best part of race day.

How did you do in your last race? Gimme a shout in the comments.

Bob Doucette