Pandemic pounds, body image, and why people are asking the wrong questions

I’m just saying, maybe we should ask different questions about our fitness during the pandemic.

There are two competing messages in regards to what has happened to people’s fitness during the pandemic.

The first goes something like, “Here’s how to lose all those pandemic pounds!” Or something like that.

The second is a stiff counter narrative, admonishing people to give themselves grace if they’ve added a few, and scolding those who, in their minds, are guilt-tripping people over their inability to uphold a body image ideal during a stressful time.

In both cases, the focus is more or less on appearance. What I’m going to suggest is scrapping both narratives for something more useful.

But first, let me tell you a personal story. It goes like this:

When the pandemic hit the U.S. in earnest about a year ago, my gym shut down. I did workouts from home for a couple of months until it reopened. I waited to see how serious the gym’s management would take COVID-19 safety protocols, was satisfied with their work and started up again. So I began lifting hard, eating to gain some muscle, and running less. Seeing that in-person races weren’t on the horizon, I figured I’d go all-in on the lifting and run just enough to keep up a measure of cardiovascular fitness.

The good news is that I got a lot stronger. I gained some muscle mass. And I was “fit” enough to do some of the more taxing things I love.

The bad news is that without the normal fall race season, I didn’t have that one piece of my training that kept my weight in check: long runs, speed work, and plenty of mileage. Once summer ended, I didn’t switch to race training. I just kept doing the same thing I’d been doing since May.

As my strength gains peaked in February, my body did what everyone’s will do: Plateau. It’s inevitable that any strength program has a shelf life, and the fact that I was able to use mine for nine months and see gains throughout that time is astonishing. But even then, a ceiling was reached.

I got stronger during the pandemic. But I let some things slide that are biting me in the butt right now.

And by consistently eating more than normal (sometimes by design, and sometimes because work-from-home = easy access to the fridge), my body did what a lot of people’s bodies will do: It stopped using those extra calories for muscle-building and started storing them as body fat. There’s a term for it: insulin resistance. And it’s a bad thing. So while I picked up a good amount of strength, I also gained a bunch of extra weight in all the wrong places: in my belly, around my waist, and very likely around my vital organs. Needless to say, that’s not healthy.

I found that as I got heavier, all the other things I liked doing – running, biking and hiking – all got harder, and not just in terms of being winded. My back, hips, knees, ankles and feet all let me know that carrying around a lot of extra weight was doing harm.

So I have a choice: live with my new pandemic pounds or get rid of them.

Going back to my original point about the two competing narratives: In both cases, the focus is on the wrong thing. On one side, you’ve got someone urging you to look your best, and on the other is one telling you to love your body as it is. On the surface, neither is necessarily wrong. But the question they pose is.

What should the focus be? Answer: How is my body performing?

How I see it, body “performance” is examined in two ways. I’m going to use really general terms to keep it easy. One way is “internal” and the other is “external.”

Internal includes things such as how well your cardiovascular system is oxygenating your body. Is your heart working harder than it should? How’s your blood pressure? Does your current physical condition compromise your immune system? Are the habits you picked up during the pandemic negatively affecting your metabolism? How well are you sleeping compared to pre-pandemic weight gain? Are your internal organs functioning properly? How does your blood work look? If the answers to these questions fall to the negative side, this isn’t a question of “body love.” This is a question of your short- and long-term health prospects.

External has to do with how your body moves. Are you more gassed from walking a flight of stairs? Are you finding that your back hurts more? How are your hips, knees and ankles feeling when you’re out for a longer walk? Or when you run? Or after a tennis match?

If you’re more athletically inclined, how are your times looking on your training runs? Or when you’re on the bike? Are you falling further behind your pre-pandemic athletic performance? If the answer is yes, then you’ve got work to do if you want to regain those abilities.

The fact is this: We beat ourselves up with false narratives on body image. BMI is a joke, but it’s still used. We look at “the ideal” and conclude we’re slacking if we don’t resemble fitness models or Instagram stars. All of that needs to go away if it’s undermining your mindset. I’ve seen plenty of people who don’t have the right “numbers,” whether it’s body composition, BMI, weight on the scale, and so on, but their bodies look just fine and they are physically capable of doing all the things they love (my fastest 5K time happened at a weight that was 15 pounds more than when I ran my second-fastest time). And often, they are internally very healthy people.

But if your body is not performing well – internally and externally – then now is not the time to hold back. If you can’t run or play a sport like you want to, or hike as far or as much as you used to, then the joy of those pursuits is stolen.

If I’m going to get back to this form, I’ve got some work to do. And body image has nothing to do with it.

More critically, if your body is not performing well internally, then you’re staring down a future filled with potentially expensive, painful and possibly debilitating health problems. Let that go on too long, and they can cascade. If your pandemic pounds aren’t hurting you and you’re fine with how you look, don’t let anyone guilt you into doing/feeling anything. But if those pandemic pounds are robbing you of your health, it’s time to act.

Bob Doucette

At the trailhead or on the starting line, the coronavirus may wreck your plans

Climbing Mount Everest has been canceled for the year because of COVID-19 concerns.

The news cycle tends to dominated these days by one thing: the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.

It’s going to affect pretty much all areas of life for us here in the United States, and from what I can see, things are just starting to ramp up. And “all areas” include those things that we love to do the most: live adventurously.

As an example, China took the extraordinary step to close the north face of Mount Everest for the season. Not long after, Nepal announced plans to close the south side. Himalayan mountaineering there and on the other peaks is pretty much shut down now.

I can imagine that’s going to be a similar story in a lot of places outside the Himalayas. Given the severity of the outbreak in northern Italy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a near-dead climbing season this spring and summer in the Alps. Certainly that will be the case in the Italian Alps, and as the disease progresses in neighboring countries, it may be a quiet year in European mountain towns for some time.

I don’t know what that means for us here in the States. For now, there haven’t been any restrictions on travel inside the country, but should we experience the level of outbreak seen in Italy, it could happen.

Local races can draw hundreds of competitors and thousands of spectators. Will these events still happen this year?

There’s something else, too. The same community that heads to the hills for adventure also tends to find itself on starting lines. From 5Ks to ultramarathons, and any number of cycling races, the spring usually brings on a ton of events that draw outdoor athletes from all over the place.

Close to my neck of the woods, we’ve got a local half marathon and full marathon coming up next month. In late April, the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon – a big event by most standards – is on deck. In my city, Tulsa, we’ve got an IRONMAN triathlon set for late May, and the annual three-day Tulsa Tough cycling race series in early June. All of these events draw anywhere from several hundred to several thousand people, be they competitors or spectators.

Will they still happen? It’s difficult to say, but the NBA just suspended its season indefinitely after two of its players came down with COVID-19. College and pro leagues initially looked at playing games with no fans as a way to salvage television revenues and not endanger the public, then came back and canceled events and postponed seasons. Some of the same conditions that are giving these organizations pause exist in running and cycling events, especially the big ones. Will there be a Boston Marathon this year? A summer Olympics? Should there be?

And what about us? Should we be out doing the adventure thing? Should we be racing? Some of that is personal, for sure. Foremost on our minds ought to be one group of people: those most likely to suffer the worst effects of the disease. You never know who might give it to you. And then, who you might bring it to. At this point, I’m playing it by ear. I want some mountain time, but no summit is worth someone else’s health.

One last thing: Don’t underestimate the financial impact all this mess is going to have on the businesses you know and love. People whose shops depend on adventure tourism and sports are going to be hurting. I’ve got friends who are race directors, and know a bunch of people in different outdoor industry circles. Their experiences are going to be a lot like those who count on fans showing up to regular sporting events. If you think canceling a race is no big deal, think about how many businesses in Austin lost out when South by Southwest got canned. It’s no different for businesses (hotels, restaurants, bars and gear shops, to name a few) that are connected to big city races, as well as all those mountain town enterprises that make or break their year by how well the high summer season goes.

Looking for advice from me? I don’t have much. Take care of the things you can control for you and those around you. And when the time comes, be there to support those who are going to take a hit from this outbreak. Aside from that, buckle up. It could be a bumpy ride.

Bob Doucette

2019 Route 66 Marathon half: Not a victory, not a defeat, just a race that… went

Not my fastest, not my slowest. Somewhere in between.

I’m a firm believer when it comes to accountability. When you write about running, and particularly about how you’re training for a race, I think you owe it to folks to say how that race went. Even if it’s not filled with PRs and awesome, glorious race photos. So here goes.

In terms of training for half marathons, I’m not sure I’ve had a season go this well. A couple of years ago I was doing well but got sick two weeks before the race and didn’t fully recover by race day. As you might guess, the results left me wanting.

This year, I seemed to be on track to improve on last year’s performance. Everything was coming together. I dropped weight, nailed my workouts and really pushed the speed work. My times were coming down and I went into race day at the Route 66 Marathon half healthy and feeling dang good.

Maybe deceptively good.

The first three miles flew by. I was running ahead of my goal pace, but not feeling the strain. I had to stop at a Porta-John at that point but was in and out quickly and still under my goal pace. Six miles in, I’d run my third-fastest 10K, and considering the hilliness of that part of the course, I figured I was on my way to a good finish. All I had to do was relax in the flats, regain my breath and coast to the hardest part of the course, those hilly Miles 11 and 12.

There was only a slight southern breeze, in this case, a tailwind. The temps were cool, skies were blue. Miles 7-10 were mostly flat. No problem, right?

Wrong. I never recovered after those first six miles and found myself struggling with my cardio at Mile 10, something that didn’t let up until it was over. There would be no PR, and by the time I’d crossed, I’d broken a three-year streak of cutting my finish times. I clocked in at 2:15:11, not my slowest and not my fastest, just somewhere right in between.

Folks will tell me that it’s impressive enough to train for and finish that half marathon, a sentiment I’d echoed in the last blog post I wrote. But it didn’t feel that way to me. Instead, I was left wondering what went wrong, why the fitness I felt I’d gained abandoned me, and so forth. Well, I know why. Like a rookie runner, I came out too fast and it bit me.

But that’s OK. Live and learn. I know where I need to improve. In any case, I got to run on a ridiculously beautiful day, enjoy some seriously good finish line brews at the end and hang out with a fellow runner and friend who placed 50th overall in the half marathon. Yeah, he’s fast. And while the results on the clock didn’t move the meter for me, I did gain from what I did over the past three months. Now the goal is not to lose that hard-earned conditioning.

How do you deal with a race that didn’t go as planned? Gimme a shout and let me know. I’d love to hear your story.

The look of a guy who is just glad to be done. This was a race to learn from.

Bob Doucette

Looking back on a season of race training

Race day is coming.

Right around the time when people are set to run their goal race, there’s a lot of looking ahead. And I’m doing that, too. I have expectations that I hope I’ll meet Sunday morning.

But what I really want to do, at least in the moment, is look back.

This has been an interesting training season. I run year-around, but the miles go up significantly in the fall. That’s just how I roll. Spring and summer races aren’t for me. So here are some random thoughts of what the last 16 or so weeks have looked like.

I remember the heat – and the humidity – of August and September. Lots of slow running, the sun baking me dry, and the most disgusting piles of dirty laundry you can imagine. Heat training pays off, but it’s no meadow of rainbow-farting unicorns, let me tell ya.

I remember seeing progress on 5Ks. A slow one in September. As faster one in October that actually earned me a second-place finish in my age group. That doesn’t happen often with me. By the way, I’m still not fast.

I remember seeing progress and disappointment at the Tulsa Run 15K. Progress in that I ran it faster than the year before. But I expected better.

I remember seeing an eagle soaring above me on a midweek training run, riding the air currents looking for some fresh fish in the river below. That NEVER gets old.

I remember runs in which I heard the beat from African drums and the strains of Mexican folk music. That also NEVER gets old.

I remember getting confronted by a mama pit bull last week. She backed off when I looked at her, but my guess is she had puppies nearby. I don’t fault her one bit.

I remember betting a college cross country runner I could beat him to the top of a hill, saying I’d give him all the cash on me if he won. He asked, “How much ya got?” I confessed, “Not a dime.” Levity, people. It matters in the midst of the grind.

I remember a bunch of cross-training bike rides on Sundays, and how all of them seemed more like play than training. And I’m good with that.

I remember the grueling weekly speed workouts. Oh man, those sucked. But they work.

I remember when my running went from zombie shuffle to a respectable clip, that moment when the switch gets flipped and my conditioning says, “I’m back!” Always a good feeling.

I remember what dinners were like after my weekend long run. Dude. All the calories were mine.

I remember going out for a 5-mile run when the winds were blowing out of the north at 25 mph, and the wind chill was 14 degrees, and noting that it was the best training run I had all fall. Funny how that works.

Lastly, I remember one really important fact. I don’t have to do this. I GET to do this. Health and fitness is a privilege, and it’s a privilege that’s earned. But never to be taken for granted. There are times when I’ve been sore, wiped out, and just over it. But in the end, I’m grateful that another year has passed and I can still run.

I don’t know how Sunday’s race will turn out. I’ve put the work in, and I think it should go well. The weather forecast looks good. I’m hoping for a happy finish line crossing.

But looking back, I see a lot of good already earned. Most of the hundreds of miles I ran were time spent outside. I dropped some junk pounds. I ran with friends, and I ran alone. I laughed at myself a lot, for putting myself through this, for lumbering along at my midpack pace, and generally looking like anything but an athlete. But when you hit that sweet spot, those training runs where you feel like you’re gliding through the air, flying over the pavement, slicing through the wind – ain’t that just the best? A PR would be sweet, but really, the feeling of being a runner is what makes it worth it.

Bob Doucette

Running the Tulsa Run, and learning to trust the process

Me and a coworker, Corey Jones, after the Tulsa Run 15K. He’s a lot faster than me.

I’m eight weeks into the fall training season, and the thing I need to keep telling myself is this: Trust the process.

I say this a little less than a week after running the annual Tulsa Run 15K. There’s a lot to like about this race — its long history, its penchant for attracting costumed runners, and the fact that some really fast runners come out every year (it’s the host race for the USATF Masters 15K championships).

The race goes through cool neighborhoods, into scenic parks and finishes on a long, uphill stretch that goes right into the heart of downtown. Tulsa firefighters park ladder trucks on either side of Boston Avenue, the race’s final stretch, and hang a huge American flag that you run under just a few blocks from the finish. The city embraces this run as it has for more than four decades, Tulsa’s first “long” distance endurance event, the race that all other local races are built on.

While the Tulsa Run doesn’t hold the place it once did in terms of distance (there are numerous half marathon, marathon and ultramarathon-length races in town now), thousands still come out for it. For those of us running the half and full races at the Route 66 Marathon, it’s the last tune-up before November’s big show.

I came into this one with high hopes. I’ve been training hard, not only with the distances, but also with speed work. I’m lighter and faster than I was at this time last year.

That doesn’t mean I’m fast, but I really thought I had a shot at breaking my 15K PR, a 1:28 showing in 2013 when I was training for a full marathon.

Long story short, that didn’t happen. Not even close, really. I clocked in at 1:34.33. Just two years ago, I was three minutes better than that.

When it comes to running — or anything, really — unmet goals are a good time to reassess. What went right? What went wrong? What could be different? As far as I can tell, I went out to fast and underestimated the course. It could also be true that on my training days I’m not pushing hard enough. My speed days are plenty hard — more strenuous than any speed workouts I’ve ever done. But those other runs? Maybe I need to pick it up a little.

But as is usually the case, there are silver linings. For starters, this year’s Tulsa Run finish was almost a minute-and-a-half faster than last year’s. That’s a great sign, seeing that last year I snagged my second-fastest half marathon ever. I’m way ahead of the game, by that standard.

And then there are the peripheral things that make it all worth it. There is satisfaction in doing hard things and seeing them through. Weekly bike rides — installed in the training program as cross-training — are a joy. Plus little things — running past parks as some dudes embark on a drum circle jam session, or a Mexican band throwing it down at a block party-style event, or spotting a bald eagle soaring above, searching the waters of the Arkansas River for a meal.

When you take up running, most people don’t quantify these as benefits, but they are.

And running has a way of making you laugh at its minor hardships. On Tuesday, I was set to pound out eight miles before work, but a cold front with scattered rain was in the mix. Fine mist fell on me most of the way, but for about a half hour on the back end of the run I got the indignity of running in the rain. A cold rain, mind you. By the time I got back to the house, I was soaked pretty good. I got a chuckle out of how much all my drenched clothes weighed once I stripped down. Part of the deal, I guess. A hot shower never felt so good.

Anyway, the end of Saturday’s race featured free beer and a massage, along with some conversation with a couple of coworkers who ran that day, too. Both faster than me, by the way.

But I guess we all run our own race, learn from it what we can, and move on to the next thing.

I’m in the heart of my training season, when the miles are piling up and the workouts are getting harder. The next thing, in three weeks, is that half marathon. Until then, it’s time to put in the work, enjoy the ride and see what happens on race day,

Bob Doucette

Regaining fitness: Hard work and a few wise words that did me some good

Near the finish line. I’ve dropped some weight and improved my times, but I can get faster. And as you can see, I could stand to lose a few more pounds.

I’m just over halfway through training for the Route 66 half marathon this fall, and let me tell ya, motivation is a funny thing.

Over the summer, I liked where I was going in terms of strength. But conditioning? Not so much. In late July, I made a change. A commitment to not just train for the race, but regain my fitness that I let lapse so badly over the year.

Ringing in my ears were the words of my friend Bill, who under somewhat similar circumstances called it a “forced refocus.” I liked the sound of that.

A lot of it has been things that are familiar to me: Intermediate runs, long runs, bike rides and strength training. But I’m taking speed work more seriously now. It used to be that I dreaded the long run the most in any given week. Now? It’s definitely the speed days.

What I’ve been doing: Run a specific distance at a goal race pace, then take it down to a slow jog for 400 meters. The workout is called a ladder, or in this case, a “baby ladder,” because it’s not quite the whole enchilada. I warm up for a quarter mile, then get going: 400 meters at race pace, then 400 meters at a slow jog. Then 800 meters at race pace, 400 meter jog. Followed by 1,200 meters at race pace, and a 400 meter jog. After that, it goes down to 800 meters, then 400 meters, then a quarter mile cool-down run. You get the drift.

It’s tougher than I imagined, and any time I add speed or another race pace interval, it trashes me.

But it’s also paying off. For starters: I’ve lost about 10 pounds since summer. This is good, considering I’m still eating a bunch. And my speed is improving. I’ve never been a fast runner, so take these numbers for what they are.

Back in September, my gym did a treadmill 5K fundraiser. I signed up, got a T-shirt, and finished it in 28:48. Not a great time, but faster than what I did last year.

Last weekend, my training schedule called for a 5K race. I entered this thing called The Wizarding Run — a Harry Potter-themed 5K that drew a bunch of people dressed in Hogwarts garb who were there for the theme as much as for the race. It made for a mellower field, so when I crossed the line at 27:30, it was good enough for second in my age group.

A rarity for me: Placing in my age division. I took second.

I took it with a grain of salt, but the improved time in a course where the last 2K was almost all uphill was a win in my book. And the slower field gave the mid-pack runner that I am the chance to see what it’s like to hang out for the awards portion of the event to hear my name called, collect a medal, and snap a celebratory photo. Runners like me don’t get this pleasure often.

All the while, I took some wise words to heart. Des Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon champion, said that training is the building of fitness while racing is the test of fitness. And really, that’s how I took it. I’ve got goals for the half marathon, and I can honestly say I haven’t worked this hard at a race since the 2013 Route 66 Marathon. The little gains — the weight loss, the improved training pace, the better race results — are encouraging. It’s also a good reminder of how bad off I was in July, and how difficult it’s been to come back from the consequences of my own making.

That’s the thing I love about training. A lot of it isn’t fun, but the juice worth the squeeze. You make a plan, follow the plan and test the plan. And barring injuries or illness, the results of hard work are usually positive.

So for another five weeks, I’ll follow the schedule and its five runs per week. I’ll do the speed work and endure the long run. I’ll lift some weights and do a weekly bike ride. My mid-pack quest for speed will continue.

Why? Because for now, I can. We’re not promised tomorrow. May as well make the best of it now.

Time on the bike. It counts for half marathon training.

Bob Doucette

Switching things up for a new season

My master for the next 12 weeks.

The start of September tells me a couple of things.

First, it’s not really fall. Not here, not now. I’m looking at sunny skies, high temps in the mid- to upper-90s, and no sign of that alleged crisp cool air of autumn anytime soon. So that means I’ll be sweating plenty on any given run for at least a few more weeks, if not longer.

Second, it’s the beginning of the fall race season. I don’t race much in the spring or summer, because frankly, I don’t do fast when it’s hot. I like it cool to cold. But getting ready for longer races takes time, so training for those distances (a half marathon in this case) takes a little time.

I was stung a bit by my underwhelming performance in the Rockies back in July. My pride took a hit from not being able to manage even one alpine summit. Just the nudge I needed to jump on that fall schedule and get cracking.

It’s nerdy, but I really got into making up my training schedule. Figuring out distances, where to schedule races, and when that blessed taper week rolls around just before my goal race. I made a grid of sorts, with each day’s workout planned to the exact mile, and even included a weight training schedule with specific exercises to be performed. I’m experimenting with speed workouts. Basically throwing myself into this thing, temperatures be damned, because I don’t want the year to end having accomplished nothing.

I know I shouldn’t let a leisure activity define me. No one cares if I summited zero peaks this summer or a hundred. They don’t care about how fast or far I run, or how much I lift. But it still drives me. I suppose the things I do in my free time just matter to me more, at least internally. Goals are useful if they make you better in some way, either by achieving them or at least trying.

And maybe that’s the real value. I’ve met awesome people in the running community and on the trail. Some real bosses at the gym. People who inspire me, who teach me, who push me to do better and be a little more.

The only negative of the fall for me is that as I run more, I have to lift less. Again, no one else really cares about this, but I’ve been a gym rat for decades now, and strength training is a familiar discipline to me, a companion that has been as faithful as any other. I’ll still lift over these next 12 weeks, just not as much. That puts strength gains on hold for a bit.

I picked this up. It was heavy. 10/10 recommend.

But I did get a last hurrah in. While I’m not where I want to be, I’ve been able to load up the bar pretty good lately. A couple of buddies at the gym were doing their deadlifts and pulling some decent weight. It lit a fire under me.

So a few days later, I did the same. I warmed up, loaded the bar and did my lifts. I pulled a moderately heavy weight just fine. Then loaded it with what was, to that point, the heaviest deadlift I’d ever done, 350 pounds. It popped right up. So I added 20 more pounds, just to see if I could. Sure enough, after an initial grind, I stood with the bar in my hands, the rep complete. It wasn’t too far from twice my body weight. I’m not going to brag on a 370-pound deadlift – it’s OK, but not great. But it’s a PR for me. And a win during a year that’s been mostly devoid of them. It gave me a pick-me-up just as the fall race season ramps up.

The truth is I love this stuff. I bitch about running miles when it’s blazing hot, or walking funny after leg day. I cuss myself in the middle of some epic Type 2 fun. But I’m not getting any younger. Time is slipping away. I can still do hard things, and maybe get a little better, and it’s best to make hay when the sun’s still shining. Maybe by the end of the year I’ll have a few more in the win column. I’ll just have to keep grinding and see.

Bob Doucette

Tulsa’s triathlon win: IRONMAN picks T-town for three-year deal, and here’s why

Cyclists race by as crowds cheer – and drink- at the Riverside Criterium of Tulsa Tough on Cry Baby Hill. The success of events like Tulsa Tough is likely one of the reasons IRONMAN picked Tulsa to host its Midwestern race.

When I moved to Tulsa eight years ago, the city surprised me. I was more or less expecting all the stereotypes that go with a metropolitan area smack in the middle of stroke alley: it would be flat, hot, and not much going on in terms of fitness or outdoor recreation.

I was proven wrong. It’s not that my city or state is the healthiest place on the planet, but as it turns out, there’s an active cycling community here, a bunch of road and trail runners and loads of events catering to these crowds that have only grown over time.

So I found myself surprised, yet not that surprised, when the organizers of the IRONMAN triathlon series announced that Tulsa would be the site of its next three Midwestern races.

WHY TULSA

IRONMAN, if you don’t know, is the lead dog when it comes to triathlons. The race includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon road race. The two biggies include one race in Florida, and the premier triathlon event held annually in Kona, Hawaii. IRONMAN has sought to stage races elsewhere in the country and settled on Tulsa as that place.

I was surprised, mostly because of that whole stroke alley image Oklahoma has. We’re talking about one of the most high-profile endurance sports events anywhere is doing its thing right here in T-town. I’m not saying big stuff doesn’t happen here, but when it comes to endurance sports, this is big. Real big.

But why I’m not that surprised takes a little explaining.

As I said, Tulsa has some active endurance sports communities. Folks love their bikes. They love their mountain bikes, too. And both are used frequently inside our city limits and in nearby communities.

The city hosts Tulsa Tough, a three-day racing event that started out as a hopeful endeavor on the cycling circuit that has grown into a must-stop race for cyclists nationally. Upwards of 10,000 people show up to watch that last day’s race (and party a lot) every year now. That kind of support probably meant something to the IRONMAN crew.

In long-distance running, the Route 66 Marathon started out modestly and has grown into one of the finer marathon and half marathon events in the country. People from every state and several countries run in it every year, and it grows yearly. The Tulsa Run, the city’s venerable 15K road race, has been the USTAF Masters 15K championship race for a few years now. And the city hosts another marathon in the spring (Golden Driller) plus numerous other half marathon, marathon and ultramarathon races on both road and trail.

Open water swimming may not be big here, but northeastern Oklahoma has no shortage of lakes, with a big one – Lake Keystone – conveniently within riding distance for all those IRONMAN competitors.

All of these things, plus the amenities the city offers visitors (I had one guy from Texas tell me that Tulsa is being talked about as “the next Austin”) provided just the right mix. In that vein, I can see what IRONMAN chose my city.

BIGGER PICTURE

One thing I’ve told people is that Tulsa is underrated in terms of outdoor recreation. The city’s road and dirt bike paths are plentiful, and we even have some local crags for bouldering enthusiasts. I joked that Outdoor Retailer should have given the city a look back when it was looking for a new home.

But on a more serious note, consider this: There is a nexus between endurance sports and outdoor recreation. Many runners, cyclists and triathletes are also people who enjoy other outdoor activities. Trail runners in particular end up crossing paths with hikers, backpackers and mountaineers. Killian Jornet comes to mind as the most famous of them, but beyond the elites, there are legions of people who, when they’re not racing or training, are making the most of their time outdoors.

The city and the state are in the midst of a big tourism push, focusing in things to do and places to see along Route 66 — the Mother Road of old that stretched from Chicago to California and winds its way through Oklahoma. It’s a good theme, and I’m sure a lot of cities and towns will be able to take advantage of this.

But what I’d say is don’t sleep on the state’s outdoor recreation potential. People are interested in this stuff. The cycling community is active statewide. Trail running is booming, and road running is strong. The same people who run in the Route 66 Marathon, ride in Tulsa Tough or await their shot at IRONMAN will be looking around the state for other ways to get their outdoor fix, which includes plenty of hiking, backpacking, water sports and climbing. The folks looking for such activities include people from outside the state.

IRONMAN gives the city and the state another opportunity to keep that outdoor recreation momentum moving. Frankly, it’s low-hanging fruit and an opportunity to help the region shed its stroke alley reputation. Tell your story. Go get it. If you do, don’t be surprised if the city and the state cash in on another big win.

Bob Doucette

Running, and, er, power hiking, the Post Oak Challenge

Body built by burritos. (Phillip J. Davis/Post Oak Lodge photo)

If you remember, a couple of weeks back I confessed to falling off the wagon as a trail runner. It had been awhile since my feet ran on dirt, and I expected the price for my sins to be high at last month’s Post Oak Challenge. I signed up for the 10K on a course that’s known for being difficult, regardless of distance.

I also mentioned that the forecast for the weekend’s races looked like rubbish – lots of rain, which would make a course known for holding water that much tougher.

Boy, was I right on that one.

It was a rainy January and February – Tulsa is already a couple of inches of rain above normal for the year, and the folks at Post Oak Lodge had to cancel Sunday training runs at the site because the trails were too muddy. And then it rained the week before the races. And then on each of the first two days of the three-day race series, including a nice dump the morning of my race.

Post Oak’s course runs through a series of dirt-and-grass trails that undulate on the sides of hills and in the bottoms of valleys and ravines of the Osage Hills northwest of Tulsa. Toward the end of the race, you make two climbs – one that goes most of the way up Holmes Peak (the highest point in a four-county area), then another that meanders up and down what’s dubbed as the Hill from Hell. We’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve run here before, so I know how muddy it can get. Well, at least I thought I did.

Things started well enough. Everything was nice and runnable. The route took us downhill, things got muddier, but we all plowed through it. Somewhere down there was a creek crossing. No big deal.

And then it started. For the next couple of miles, the trail consisted of a viscous mix of mud and water that resembled lubricant. It wouldn’t stick to your shoes, but it gave you little to no traction. Suddenly this “run” turned into a hike.

There were briefs moments of respite: a dried-out section here, rockier trails there, even a farm road that drained nicely and actually allowed me to run. But then we’d head uphill, the slop would resume, and it was three feet forward, two feet back. Power-hiking resumed.

This wasn’t true for everyone. Fleet-footed runners ahead of me somehow found a way to keep surging ahead, and one of my coworkers in the race actually won the damn thing while clocking in at an 8:30 pace. How, I don’t know.

I groused to myself every now and then, complaining about what had turned into an $80 hike, but eventually got over it and made the best of things. I ran where I could. I hiked when needed. I chatted up fellow sufferers and kept things moving.

Probably my favorite part of the race started on a long downhill on the side of Holmes Peak. I shortened my steps (some of us call it “logrolling”) and zig-zagged downhill, piecing together a nice, long, enjoyable stretch of technical trail running that made me feel like I wasn’t a lost cause after all. But eventually we bottomed out and the slop-fest resumed.

The Post Oak Challenge pins its reputation on another one of its big hills, the Hill from Hell I mentioned earlier. I vaguely remembered its trials, but I figured the worst of it was behind me.

At the base of the hill was the last aid station, where local trail legend Ken “TZ” Childress was serving up Fireball along with the more traditional water and Gatorade. Usually I don’t slam booze during a race unless I’m tanking hard. Just Gatorade for me, being the serious runner and all.

Anyway, the Fireball was particularly tasty. We clicked plastic cups for a short toast and I rumbled up the hill to tackle the last of it.

What I remember of the Hill from Hell is that you meander uphill a ways, then go downhill, and regain all that precious lost elevation one more time before you end the race. The reality is you go up the hill, back down some, up a little, down some more, back up, top out, then do down, circle its upper flanks and finally emerge from the woods to go run in the grass, around a pond and across the finish line.

Making things more fun was the trail was about as slick and treacherous as anywhere else in the race. I bit it hard once, landing on my butt with a heavy splat before regaining my feet and sliding my way forward. Running/hiking in conditions like this looks hilarious because your body is twisted one way while your feet are going somewhere else. It’s a great core workout for sure. But utterly absent of grace or any other appearance of athleticism. Or maybe that’s just me.

When I left the horrors of the hill behind and started the last grassy loop toward the finish, I surmised that now I’d finally be able to run again, but was somewhat disappointed to find that the grass was mostly a shoe-sucking bog that, again, undermined any attempt at speed.

The race ended with 80-something people finishing ahead of me, 60-something folks behind. In my age group, I finished 19th out of 22.

Ouch.

It could have been worse. I had one friend who fell hard enough that she thought she may have busted her jaw. And I did accomplish both of my goals: to finish and not finish last.

Success!

I look like someone who just got away with something.

Post-race, we all gathered for free grub and a couple of beers while talking about the race, the trail conditions, and the strategies used to cope with it all. I was informed by perennial Post Oak competitors that the course conditions were actually worse the year before.

So I suppose the trail gods did show me a little mercy. My long absence required penance, but it could have been more severe.

And I got the last laugh. Despite the conditions, my miserable finish time, the over-abundance of power hiking, the mud caked in all the wrong crevices, I had fun. You heard me right. This was a good time. I embraced the suck and was rewarded not with hardware, glory or any sense of achievement, but with something simpler – a grin on my face akin to a little kid who did something wrong and got away with it.

Bob Doucette

Confessions of a backslidden trail runner

A scene from the last time I did a trail race. It’s been awhile. (Clint Green photo)

It’s no secret that I like to hit the trails whenever I can. Hiking has been a passion of mine for a while now, and when I moved to Tulsa I found an urban trail area that is built for not just hiking, but trail running.

It didn’t take long for me to dive deep into that. I’d been running some by that point, but trail running was a whole other animal, something that I took to within weeks. I bought trail shoes, joined a trail running group and spent whatever free time I had learning the park’s trail system. Hell, I ran a 25K trail race before I completed by first half marathon. I quickly – and proudly – identified as a trail runner.

Fast forward to the present day. Between those early days of excitement, when getting my dirt on was fresh and new, to now, I’ve put on some miles. Raced a bunch of races. Tripped over who knows how many rocks, roots and stumps while winding my way through the woods. Even repped a manufacturer of trail running shoes for a couple of years.

This brings up the need to confess something. I haven’t been in a trail race in nearly two years.

For that matter, I haven’t run on trails since last summer.

Scandalous, right?

It’s not like I haven’t been running. And it’s not like I haven’t been on the trails. I just haven’t run on the trails. It made me feel like a phony for a while, but then I got busy with other things and didn’t think about it much.

But this weekend, I’m breaking this unfortunate streak. I entered a 10K trail race close to home. I’ve run it before – the 10K and the 25K – and both races kicked my ass. And I’m sure it will again.

I also believe the trail running gods are seeing this as bit of revenge toward me for my lack of fealty. I’m not in great shape, and the weather forecast looks absolutely terrible: low 30s to start, with rain all morning. This, on a course known to hold a lot of water when it rains even the slightest. I predict a lot of slipping, shivering, falling and humiliation on my part. The trail gods’ judgment will be severe for this backslidden acolyte.

So be it. I’ve missed the trail running race scene. Road runners are great, as are their races. But the flavor of a trail race gathering is its own thing – admirable, fun, weird and always a party, even under the most miserable circumstances.

My goals are simple. First, finish the damn thing. And second, try not to finish last. So wish me luck. It’s been awhile since I’ve raced in the dirt. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten how.

Bob Doucette