Fame, Retirement, and Hoping to Make a Comeback

I have achieved fame as a run commuter. The simple act of traveling to work by a means almost all are capable of but few consider trying makes people take notice. However, I also am on hiatus due to health challenges. That is a function of hubris. I am determined to come back. I will not retire as a run commuter until I am rendered physically incapable of undertaking the pursuit. Please allow me to share the story.

A student where I teach wrote an article about our adventure on a Friday morning in San Francisco. He joined my run commute. We actually walked for the greater part of the route, as he duly reported. He had been commissioned for a magazine theme issue on how to address stress in law school. I was flattered by the profile. He approached me with the earnest outlook that I regret we seem to destroy most effectively through the rituals of Socratic dialogue. I attribute his attitude to walking. You cannot be disillusioned while walking. Cynicism is cured by a walk. You can be mad and stomp around. But, you are eased into a better state by a good ramble on a trail in the wild or trek on city sidewalks.

It wasn’t the first time this habit had been mentioned by the press. But, given the anxiety about law school and the animus toward deans of the institutions (which I once was), the earlier entries of media coverage might be forgiven the snarkiness of our era. The authors seemed to regard walking — with students! — as a ploy, like the scam they had deemed the JD degree to be. Perhaps an invitation to walk together will be suspected of an ulterior motive, since our effort to engage with other people meaningfully has been wrecked by swipe left-swipe right encounters and the prompts to connect to “friends” with whom we enjoy a commercial relationship at best. I associate walking, however, with conversations that are genuine, an exchange between equals, side by side, since you do not talk easily if one is ahead, another behind.

Run commuting is not about garnering publicity of course. I decided to turn myself into a run commuter because it is intrinsically good. Then I continued because I discovered it is fun. By good, I mean I had a belief, in a culture that scorns any sincere feeling, that it would be morally worthwhile — without aggrandizing, it is in daily details that we establish our true character. By fun, I do not mean a moment of exhilaration as when riding a roller coaster, but the sustained contentment of the body after the heart has been pumping vigorously, which calms the mind and ultimately the spirit.

What is remarkable is that moving along on your own two feet has become remarkable. Time was, for our ancestors, it would have been normal to hike to a dinner party, stroll with a colleague on the boulevard, or put in 10,000 steps doing chores around the farm without the confirmation of any fitness tracker. Our forebears would have journeyed to the market alongside an ox pulling a cart laden with the fruits of their labors. The pace of life, and even consciousness of the lands beyond the immediate neighborhood, would be set by the measure of the distance that could be covered on human power, or maybe horseback. To await the illumination of a full moon to light the path would be literally natural.

Yet for us, driving alone in motor vehicles and soon to be driven by automatons guided by algorithms that account for the dilemma of the fat man run over by the trolley car, the notion of run commuting verges on preposterous. I have made it integral to my life. Among the most important decisions I have made, ranking with choice of spouse, is to live near work. Without judging those who have consigned themselves to a three hour round trip door to door to find a suitable home and make a living, I have concluded that I do not need a suburban mansion. Contemporary Americans reside in single-family dwellings that are twice the size, on average, as those our grandparents accepted as comfortable enough, and that exceed the expectations of our peers around the world. Where our home is, and who our partner is, are related too, in a cause and effect cycle. Until technology assisted dating, the factor that best predicted whom we would romance was their proximity; then, in settling down, a couple would negotiate about where to do so, and the community would define their own identities. We traverse more miles than any but explorers would have dared. That means there is all that much more space between us to separate souls.

All that philosophy is fine, but I have experienced a practical setback. I deserve it. I had become too confident of my abilities, that I was exercising as I had done never before in fifty years, logging 75-mile weeks with the splits improving, even entering back to back half marathons and finishing without injury. I now am ill. I probably am able to cope better, for all that exertion, without which my former self would have been laid low without as much hope.

What has happened has been gruesome. I developed sores all over my body, open wounds the likes of which provoked even my primary care physician to make a face and exclaim out loud. In addition to the blood which stained the front and back of my t-shirt every morning, soaking through the pajama top, threatening to ruin my wife’s sheets (hers, not mine nor ours, in this context), such that she insisted we lay a towel beneath to protect the mattress, my scalp exuded a waxy paste that dried into a purulent crust of blazing pain. As these decorations spread over the territory of defenseless flesh, I was diagnosed with, successively, spider bites, an allergic reaction, severe eczema, and a staph infection. I was prescribed pills and creams, to which I added experiments in whatever the pharmacy had on its shelves, ointments with honey, silver, tar, and proprietary formulas promising relief. I affixed bandages of every brand and type, increasing size, over the stigmata that would not progress to scabs, but which shone to any observer as symbols of my rot.

The proper diagnosis was a relief. It is the prerequisite to recovery. The clue was the blistering in the mouth. I was starting to sound a bit drunk when I spoke, as I sought to avoid agitating the flaps hanging from my cheeks or loose inside my lips and tried to ignore the hard white nodules that had formed a line under my tongue.

My wife’s alarm compelled me to visit the doctor’s office on an urgent call; I should have acted sooner, and it could have been an emergency. The junior dermatologist took photographs with her smartphone, to send to her senior colleague, who telephoned immediately from his Latin American vacation. He informed me this was pemphigus vulgaris, a rare, serious autoimmune condition, among the most severe conditions a specialist such as he would treat, equivalent to cancer. I was to start a course of oral steroids at the maximum dosage that could be administered safely. A biopsy would ordered for confirmation.

The tests proved it. I had joined an exclusive club of suffering. Thanks to modern medicine, the ailment is no longer guaranteed fatal — according to reliable sources, it killed off approximately 75 percent of its victims within two years, in spectacular fashion the details of which should be spared any not already familiar. It remains what kids would deem a BFD. The doctor issued me a letter stating I had a “life threatening” problem, ordering me to cancel my planned trips, and while I was grateful his verification meant full refunds from the airline the plain language sent me the message as well.

My doctor has great bedside manner; he established rapport, which made him reassuring. I looked him in the eye and asked the question: “Am I going to die from this?” His answer was a perfect laugh, followed by a simple, “No.” He did caution me that the half marathon I had signed up for was not a good idea. I had not even mentioned the vertical gain. If we have no humor, we are dead. I appreciate that my odds are excellent. We are arresting the agent of my misery. I can look in the mirror to see my enemy. By definition, “autoimmune” refers to one’s self. By some mechanism, my body has been confused into attacking itself.

For the moment, my rest has been imposed against my will. I am past the worst of this outbreak, but I may have months or years before we declare remission. My regimen now includes a series of prescriptions. They are their own problem, with side effects that impair any running, such as unrelenting fatigue and severe sun sensitivity. I may be on methotrexate for the duration, with folic acid as a supplement. I have to adjust, as others have before me. Among the salutary consequences, more abundant than supposed of sickness, is my newfound empathy for my wife. She has managed lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune infirmities, relying on the same remedies.

Nonetheless, for the moment, I cannot not run commute. I have to reset. It’s back to the beginning. My very first attempt was an hour and twenty, 80 minutes, and my personal record is 47 minutes. It was a five-year effort to advance from the former to the latter, a saunter to a race against myself. I will be more toward the slow end of the scale, but I can do it. I deny that my attitude is denial. My home is the same as before, my work too, so nothing is farther off than in my memory not at all dim. All that has changed is my resolve is more robust.

Run Commute “Cheats”

Here is a typical week. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, were run commute days. Thursday was low in mileage, but in part because of a transcontinental flight that took up much of it.

As a run commuter, I happen to be a bit of a cheater. I don’t mean a fraud such as Rosie Ruiz, who was stripped of her Boston Marathon medal in 1980 for not completing all 26.2 miles of the course or even very many of them. I merely mean I am not a stickler for results to brag about on Strava. I want to get some exercise into my day and get to work. Those are straightforward goals. I’m not looking to impress anyone.

A preface before my confessions. I am no slouch. In January 2018, I ran to work a dozen times; February and March have continued similarly. That is 4.5 miles, or as much as 4.75 miles depending on the exact route and meandering, including days that rained. On a few occasions, I also ran with my coach. On at least one of those days, I exceeded 15 miles on foot (and I have provided the digital proof).

Yet, I want to be honest and humble. I am not the run commuter I aspire to be. I did not run another eight mornings when I could have. There are various reasons. The least common among them, only through self-flagellation (figurative, not literal) is laziness. There usually was an impediment, and the most aggravating among them was the need to put on a business suit, followed by the disruption of airplane travel and ensuing jet lag.

What I fail at most often is in fact to run. The truth is, as I admit freely, I am technically a run-walker, not a true runner. I am a fast walker though. So I figure my run-walk routine satisfies whatever is the abstract, agreed-upon standard for what constitutes “running.” I am constantly striving to increase the speed and the length of the run portion of the cycle. I am seeing modest gains. At 51 years old very soon, but only three years into the sport on a serious basis, I figure the inevitable effects of aging — as they say, better than the alternative — will offset the progress of discipline. I cannot seem to break 45 minutes (10 per mile) over the distance I must cover, though I can make it just under 8 minutes for a single mile.

I have discovered a new tactic though. I feel good about this maneuver. Bike sharing is the latest trend. But it will be, I predict, more than a fad. I have now done a part-run, part-bike trip that allows me to indulge the fantasy I could do a biathlon or triathlon. (I grew up with a swimming pool, and I must be about the worst swimmer for someone who had that luxury, so there is more work to be done.) In San Francisco, they are rolling out undocked, electric-assist bikes! That means you can leave them anywhere within the authorized zone, and they offer a boost for the hills. The dual workout is wonderful. I am using different leg muscles, while also exerting the lungs to greater capacity. Run, then bike, and see the city as you could not enclosed in a vehicle.

Even my most obvious dishonesty is defensible. I have more than once hopped on the bus. The reason is keeping to a schedule despite the sauntering for a spell. I have competed against myself. All out, I am pretty sure I’d beat the bus. But at the run-walk pace (see above), I can save a couple of minutes with mass transit. Since in contemporary America, we suffer what has been called “bus stigma” — in the hit movie Speed, which made action stars of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, her character is compelled to explain why she is stuck with the other losers who are aboard a bus in Southern California — I feel I am engaging in a worthwhile protest against the One Percent by boarding the MUNI; I can proclaim that I am a man of the people. Besides, the bus line I take travels through the historic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the home of the “Summer of Love” that transformed our culture.

Like everyone else who doesn’t quite live up to their aspirations, I suppose, I am compelled to rationalize. The point of run commuting is to get the blood flowing and accomplish the task of traveling from home to office, while being better to the environment. I figure if I have something of a shortcut, I am still better off than if I drove a car by myself, both to me and toward the world. My point is that the run commute is intended to be pleasurable and practical. It is supposed to decrease stress, not increase it. It’s not a sanctioned competition. Easygoing is fine. Most of the rest of my day is intense. People who do not run commute misunderstand. A good run commute is relaxing. It adds rather than subtracts to the energy I have. The psychological benefit turns into a physical one.

Nonetheless, every time I do not complete a run commute on strict terms, I feel guilty. And if I can set a new PR, even if it is only for my own satisfaction, I feel I am a better person.

The New Run Commuters – April 2018

Spring is here and it is the perfect season to start run commuting! The temperatures are finally warming up and the snow is going away. Maybe you are bored with your current running routine, too. Variety and extra mileage is what lured Lionel Adams, TRC’s New Run Commuter for April, into becoming a run commuter himself. And, as a long-distance runner and running coach, Lionel knows that changing things up can help keep you motivated to achieve your goals. Read more about Lionel below, and fill out the form at the end of the post if you are interested in being featured on our site. 

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Runner Basics

  • Name: Lionel Adams

  • Age: 31

  • City/State: Charleston, South Carolina, USA

  • Profession/Employer: Dietetic and Nutrition Administrator at Charleston VA Medical Center

  • Number of years running:5

  • Number of races you participate in a year:12

  • Do you prefer road or trail? I prefer road running, however I’m not against trail running. When road running, I don’t have to worry about roots, branches, etc. This yields the freedom to focus on breathing and form. I usually throw in trail runs to mix things up in my training.

 

Lionel Adams

 

Run Commuting Gear

  • Backpack: Quest 2L Hydration Pack (without the hydration bladder)

  • Shoes: Nike Free Runs

  • Clothing: A regular quick-drying shirt and running shorts.

  • Outergear: When the weather is cold, I wear my Brooks Running Jacket and my Under Armour Cold Gear Tights.

  • Headgear: When I do wear headgear, I wear my Under Armour Dri-Fit Cap.

  • Lights: If needed, I use my cellphone to light my path. It is also good for warning oncoming cars. 

  • Hydration: None. My journey is only five miles. I rehydrate once I change and prepare for work.

 

Run commuting pack and contents

 

On Run Commuting

Why did you decide to start run commuting?

I decided to run commute to add some color and variety to my run weeks. It is an easy way to add mileage during a hefty work week. I love being able to watch the sun rise on my way to work. Equally, I love passing the ridiculous traffic on the way home.

How often do you run commute?

I run commute 2-3 times per week.

How far is your commute?

Depending on the route, my run commute is approximately 5 miles.

Do you pack or buy a lunch?

No matter the day, I consistently pack a lunch. I am keenly interested in the amount and nutritional content of the food I eat. I want to know exactly what ingredients are in my meal.

 

Lionel, about to head out on his commute

What do you like the most about run commuting?

I love being able to sneak in mileage just by commuting to work. I can complete 10 miles on any given work day. As a marathoner and long distance running coach, I’m always searching for innovative ways to get in mileage. I also love the bewilderment of my coworkers upon learning of my run commuting.

Do you know of anyone else in your area who runs to work?

Unfortunately, I know no one else who runs to work.

When not run commuting, how do you get to work?

When not run commuting, I conform with societal norms and drive to work.

If you could give one piece of advice to anyone who was considering run commuting, what would it be?

Be sure to pack and plan ahead. Being able to wake up, shower and go will make the run commuting day so much easier. Also, be sure your backpack works for you. There is nothing worse than an inadequate backpack while running.

 

Are you interested in being featured on The New Run Commuters? If so, fill out the form below and we’ll send you more details.

The New Run Commuters Submission Form

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Tell us a little about your run commute! (required)

Am I a Runner?

A few medals

 

“You’re not a runner. You’re a racer.”

That was what my coach said to me. She was neither complimenting nor criticizing me. She was describing me.

This is the story of my running career, such as it is. In 2015, I ran my first half marathon. My cousin and her husband had come to visit. He was running the San Francisco marathon. He told me if he could do it, I could too. I have since repeated that sentiment to many others, because it is true.

Inspired by casual conversation, I signed up. I figured I would try a half marathon. That is 13.1 miles. It seemed just within reach.

I finished. It took just under three hours. I was stiff and sore for two days. But I had found myself. The experience was that combination of joyful and miserable that compels repeating — I was once in the San Francisco Chinese New Year’s parade, riding a convertible at night in the cold rain, waving nonstop while trying not to fall off the back of the vehicle; that was the perfect combination of fun and discomfort that should have a name.

That year, I did another ten races. I did not train. I didn’t do anything in between. Except I regularly walked to work. I didn’t taper in that routine.

Perhaps I am obsessive. In 2016, I ran a total of 36 half marathons. I had set a goal of 24, but I got carried away. I brought my personal record down to 2:30. I looked for events wherever I went. In 2017, I managed approximately 27 half marathons. I am not quite sure because I stopped keeping track with care. I ran at altitude, above one mile, in Fort Collins, Colorado. I added different distances. There were multiple night races carrying lights. I achieved a 2:17 in the San Jose Rock ‘n Roll. But I also learned I couldn’t fly coast to coast, arrive late at night, and perform the next morning.

At some point, my wife decided I needed professional help. She concludes that about various aspects of my life. So, she hired a trainer for an assessment.

When we met, Angela put me on a treadmill and filmed my butt. She informed me my stride was asymmetrical and inefficient. I bought a package of sessions.

We are working on making me more of a runner. I’m not a runner in another sense. I am a run walker. I alternate. I have thought I ought to learn race walking. That sport may be just my speed literally. I admire its quirkiness. It has that punctiliousness about rules that appeals to me as a law professor.

For now, I run about a mile at a time. Then I walk a bit. I goad myself. Others use the same technique. I say when I cross that intersection or pass that tree, I have to get going again, then I have to make it at least to the next similar marker and so on. I pick a personal pacer. I remind myself not to be creepy about following someone.

So, I still am not fast, but I am persistent. I have never not finished. I have run back-to-back races, Saturday and Sunday, more than once. This past New Year’s Eve, I ran with a friend who is faster. I finished at the top of the bottom tenth. The next day, I ran with her sister who is even faster. I finished at the top of the bottom sixth. Considering the earlier excursion and the elevation gain of the route, I was satisfied to see the improvement relative to the field even if I remained at the back of the pack.

Along the way, I became not a runner, but a run commuter. I was I delighted to discover that to be a run commuter, as kids say nowadays, “is a thing.” I want to make progress in this pastime. My coach assures me I am ready for a full marathon, especially having completed the final warm up for the New York City marathon, an 18 miler that consisted of three loops of Central Park. She also tells me I can be considerably faster if I were disciplined, running more often and actually running when I “run.”

Thus, I turned the stroll to work into a jog, and, now, a run-walk. There are two long, gentle downhills, at the beginning from my home into the park and at the end through Hayes Valley toward City Hall. On both these stretches, I really move. Ever so briefly, I am a real runner. Yet I can report that through all this I have not once laced up my shoes to run, other than to a destination or in an organized event. I don’t just go out to run. It doesn’t interest me. I love running. I simply don’t do it for it’s own sake.

There are many types of runners. I guess I have created a category for myself. I’m an anti-runner who happens to run. There must be others out there.

The Math of Run Commuting

Twin Peaks, San Francisco, where my morning run commute starts

Here are my calculations that turned me into a run commuter. I concluded that I could invest twenty minutes of time per day for a full workout. I was already considering the idea. But I was persuaded by the argument from efficiency.

I live in San Francisco. That is an advantage. People travel by every conveyance in the Bay Area: cable car, ferry, bicycle, motorcycle, and powered skateboard are acceptable means of arriving at the office. There is no judgment, and what you wear, or even if you are clothed, is not regulated as would be true most other places. The city also is compact. It is seven miles by seven miles. My home is on the “other” side of Twin Peaks. My office is near City Hall.

My primary mode of transit was either the MUNI train or my vintage Honda Hawk GT V-twin cafe racer. By the former, it was about 25 to 30 minutes door to door; by the latter, perhaps 90 seconds faster, but with the tasks of putting on and taking off a high visibility riding suit over street clothes. I actually tracked it for these purposes.

I was walking everywhere anyway. So I did a test. On foot, without too much exertion, I could make it in under an hour. It is a 4.5 mile route with the option of a modest hill, through the park overlooking the famous “Painted Ladies,” the Victorians seen on postcards with the skyline in the background. With a bit of training, and considerable sweat, I have brought my PR down to 47 minutes. It is realistic to believe that I could achieve 45 minutes.

Painted Ladies, Alamo Square via Wikimedia Commons

At that rate, the run is an incremental increase of 20 minutes over the alternatives. That seemed to be a worthwhile investment for the benefit of clearing my head and exercising my heart.

The mornings are almost always cool, sometimes foggy. I have quite a bit of company along the route, especially in popular areas such as the “panhandle” of Golden Gate Park. Every now and then, I will double the distance by returning in the afternoon with a slightly slower jog. If I am feeling like a bit of leisure, I will take my camera for a photo stroll. On the occasions I fall behind, I allow myself to cheat. I will catch a bus through the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. I figure I’m still better off having done a couple of miles under my own locomotion, than if I hadn’t bothered at all. I’m not trying to impress anybody.

The most important social science finding to report is borne out by research. You can form a habit quite easily. Laziness is a habit, as is its opposite. I could have been accustomed to, and probably was, staring at my smartphone while on the short train ride from the Forest Hill Station (said to be the first such subway stop with a building in the West) to the Civic Center Station. After finishing my first run commute, however, I became addicted to it, and as a consequence, if I take too long of a break my body protests the withdrawal into inactivity.

Before I tried this experiment, I would not have believed it was possible for me to do it. But it has worked better than I could have imagined. I run commute about three days per week. No doubt others can best that if they try.

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