Sunday, March 29, 2020

To run or not to run, that is the question. More than ever...

This is a pressing question within our running community these days, in the midst of this behemoth pandemic and global health crisis our current generations are facing (I'm not saying it's the biggest, not to compare with so many wars or refugee crisis, but that's one which is "hitting home" around the world). And not just a metaphysical question, we have to make the right choices.

I'm not talking about the ongoing debate, is running is good for you or not in absolute. Surely, extreme running might have consequences. And no exercise at all, isn't good either. Some conditions also exclude running because of its pounding for instance.

First, a disclaimer, I'm not a doctor. Not even trained in the field of physiology. Worse, I'm probably reading too much, meaning too much uniformed opinions, creating all sort of bias. But since this blog is about running, and my personal experience of it... So here you are with the classic social media disclaimer, all my opinions and views are, well, my own... ;-)

Second disclaimer, I've never learned or practiced speech debate; there must be zillions more arguments to be made on both sides. Ok, maybe not zillions, but at least a dozen.

Third disclaimer, I don't even have time to spend hours aiming to create a complete thesis (or anti-thesis). I read on social media people complaining about all the time they get and how bored they get with confinement. For me, outside of, well, running... my life was already extremely digital, so it's just getting worse... Yet, it's an important topic and I felt important to at least spark a conversation about the issue.

With that, let's... ready... set... go!

Some of the benefits of running during our current fight against COVID-19

  1. "Mens sana in corpore sano" - At 79, Dr. Fauci exemplifies this Roman sentence by allegedly keeping running 3.5 miles every day, even while managing this overwhelming crisis, not just on the medical and scientific side by the way, but the political, communication and leadership issues too. This morning we learned about the German Finance Minister, Thomas Schaeffer, committing suicide apparently, or officially actually, on worries about the financial consequences of this coronavirus pandemic, falling in front of a train in despair.
  2. Breathing fresh air. Yes, I said, fresh, not contaminated. But also another fresher air than the place you are confined into. Of course, that assumes that you are able to keep enough distance from other people (I much prefer #PhysicalDistancing, as we actually need to remain caring for others and close socially).
  3. Getting some sun light. Our body needs a lot of it! Not to point of burning our skin of course but to synthesize Vitamin D from the cholesterol in our skin cells, an essential vitamin for our health. As much as I disagree with the father of Western States' political views, I fully respect Gordy Ainsleigh's radical position on the benefit of running in the sun (and I realize not everybody is blessed with our amount of sunlight in California, but light still goes through clouds!).
  4. Unplugging. Running outside is a great excuse to unplug from social medias, or from the extreme pressure of physical confinement. That's assuming you are not running while listening to the news. You can also unplug by walking, but then don't get your 
  5. Moving. Staying put at home, either because working for hours glued to your laptop and video conferences, or because you can't work at all, is really bad for our body. We can't all turn into couch potatoes, right? We need to get the blood flowing, the muscles to contract or stretch, solicit these healthy lungs. Running does all that at once!
  6. Sweating out. Sure, you can have a good sweat by jumping in front of your tv, but that's not the most natural way to do it. Although it was a while ago, men were born to run. To hunt for food. To move from one place to another. To escape danger. Too late to meet Caballo Blanco in person, but not to read or re-read... Born to Run as a great and entertaining reminder.
  7. Staying in shape. We don't know how long this is going to last. If it was only a few days, then we won't lose much of our conditioning
  8. Long-term immunity. I don't have a particular scientific proof or study on this but us, runners, are certainly reporting being more resistant to sickness over time. Closing the dots with the first point above, corpore sano...
A few cons of running during our current fight against this corona virus
  1. Virus effect acceleration. Second but even more importantly, exercising if you carry the virus and are about to show symptoms can kill you! One of my sisters, MD on the front light of the COVID-19 fight in France, warned me about this risk, last weekend. One of her colleagues, MD too, has a son in his 30s and he thought he would lose him to COVID this week. His son was coughing a bit and, like any runner, at least me, thought it would help to go for a run, that it would make him feel better afterwards. Well, the dormant virus literally exploded through his lungs and he had to get hospitalized that same night. This week we also heard about a pro cyclist in the US getting into critical conditions. The problem is that you/we don't know if we cary the virus or not. I certainly don't know for sure after flying to France, Austria, Israel, New York City this winter and coming back from a conference in Vegas, 3rd week of February, with a bad cough and inflamed lungs... I can't wait to be tested for the presence of antibodies, although I read about an inconclusive study conducted in Wuhan... 
  2. Immunity deficiency. How dare I to bring up this point while I finished the list of supporting arguments with the fact that running increases our immunity? It's a complicated matter and this article from the US National Library of Medicine for instance is not too conclusive either way. But it does mention, and it's common sense to believe it, that a strong and prolonged effort will eventually fatigue your body, including its immune system, during or right after it.  The lesson here is that, and it was well known before, strenuous exercise will likely first lower/weaken your immunity before boosting it. Not a good time to play with your immune system when going shopping for essential food for instance!
  3. Opportunity to breach #PhysicalDistancing. Sure, it's very noble to run alone but not everybody can do it without getting close to others in the process. Where I live, streets are always quiet and even more so now, side walks are large, so not much of a problem. But think of those who live in large and dense cities. Never seeing someone when you take the elevator? Not touching a door to go outside or come back? In Paris they had to close the city parks because there was no way people were walking or running always 6 feet or more away from other people. Should we mention that we, runners, exhale more than anyone else, so much than 6 feet aren't even enough? Guess what folks are doing in Paris? Running on the narrow sidewalk around the parks, even worse. In Italy, the authorities had to forbid all sort of exercise, period. And it was too late. Do we have too much freedom in a few of our societies preventing us from making the right call?
  4. Injury. Rarely, but bad things can happen when we run on remote and technical trails. When it doesn't, and assuming you can make it back to your car, it's usually no big deal for a trip to the hospital if blood is involved. Well, NOT NOW, bad idea.
  5. Breaching #PhysicalDistancing. To alleviate the risk of running alone in case something happens, we used to promote the social and safety benefits of running with buddies. Well, NOT NOW either!

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor, possible text that says 'people normally people during quarantine'

My point of view...

  1. I still show more reasons for running than against it, please chime in to add to both sides.
  2. I'd say though that it's certainly not the right time to get into running! For many years, I did everything I could to promote the benefits of running and get more folks to join the movement. My rant of last weekend was about the timing. The very first weekend everybody was asked to respect #PhysicalDistancing, crowds of people usually staying inside (home, movies, bars, shopping malls) thought it was a smart idea to gather on single track trails... Duh! Hiking on remote trails require some skills too, to learn about the potential dangers (rattle snakes, poison oak, dehydration, orientation).
  3. We, runners, and most especially ultra runners, have to dial down. First personally, just don't run as much, don't go on remote trails, it's not the time to risk your lungs, an essential organ for running, and don't risk getting injured. Second, let's not brag about it socially. Sure, I get that pictures of flowers or hills can bring some fresh air to readers, but it's also an invitation to break the shelter-in-place orders. If some do it, why not me. For that, I apologize for my previous post. My only consolation or excuse is that I could see and write about the issue, which has then be relayed in the medias at the beginning of the week and led to the closure of most parking lots at local parks. But I still hear about people driving to parks and that's not what "essential travel" is meant for. Again, I got caught myself...
  4. For that, I will not race virtual events until the SIP orders are in effect, and not drive to run. I'm still running around the block, and much less than usual, hoping the excess of others won't lead our Governors to prevent even going out as it has been the case in China, Israel or Italy eventually.

What do you think? Well, I'm not asking what you think of the measures in place in general, if you are in the denier camp which is still so active in the US. To you, I'd say this: unfortunately, I don't see a win-win. If we don't act swiftly, what some people call over-reacting, then we can have a humanitarian catastrophe (I think we already have the proof we haven't done all we could have learned from other countries but let's see how worse this is potentially becoming). If we contain the pandemic then the deniers will say "see, there was nothing to brag about." If we don't, then we both lose anyway. That's what baffles me the most, that this pandemic still exacerbate so much division. I'm sad with the impact on our running world, but nothing in comparison with the gravity of this societal issue. Again, just asking for what you think about the limitation on running we need to exercise during such a pandemic.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Stevens (Patt) Creek 50K: crazy stir-craziness

I don't recall having heard about the word stir-crazy before Friday, when that was picked as the word of the day for our Amazon Cupertino Toastmaster club meeting (contact me if you want to join our club, we still meet weekly, albeit remotely of course right now). I had heard about cabin fever these past weeks, that was also a new concept to me. Which is ironic because, these past 20 years, nobody told me I must be suffering from these by spending so much time running in the outdoors...

This post was meant to be short, a simple virtual race report on a course I ran several times. It was meant to be a happy run, in the parks we love to run in all year round. A run to celebrate one of local ultra runners who has created this course and directed a race on it for 10 years or so, Steve.

We were 3 runners, not running together, not just because of staggered starts, but also because you typically run an ultra alone, at your own pace. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, it ended up creating a mess of mixed feelings in me, I managed to feel, on and after that single run... ashamed, grumpy, happy, sad, unhappy, disappointed, concerned, even more anxious, mad, revulsed, grouchy, dismayed, annoyed, excited, angry, irritated, glad, frustrated, guilty, more worried, distressed, embarrassed, bitted, amazed, compassionate, and, yes, not just stir-crazy, but simply crazy! Phew, I already feel slightly better getting all these out fo my chest!

That's a lot for one day, isn't it? Well, you can guess something got wrong and, of course, it has to see with the current coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis we are trying to survive from. Sincerely, I was hoping for a short post, because, unlike what I see on social medias that confinement gives more time to many, for me, it's the opposite, a deluge of online meetings. On Friday, I started at 6 am with Romania and finished at 9 pm with China, 15 hours non stop, not even a break to... exercise!

Speaking of exercise... Like Dr Fauci in the US who keeps promoting exercise during pandemics, and still run himself every day at 79 while managing this incredible crisis, the French Ministry of Sports had to describe what type of exercise was authorized in France, as of this Thursday (my translation): "Exercising outside means a walk or a short jog but respecting 3 key rules: stay within a short distance from your house, so within a few blocks, and keep it short and with absolutely no other contact than people you live with. You can go out with your children, or alone, but you cannot gather with friends. No biking unless it's to go to authorized/essential work, or to pickup essential goods. Running a 10K? No, not possible/allowed! The idea is just to get your legs moving." Adding with a pinch of humor (she is a former Olympian): "If you run a 10K under 20 minutes, contact the Guinness Book!"

Pretty explicit, right?

In Italy, facing an hecatomb, they purely banned any outdoor activity. When everybody knows someone who died, nobody needs to be convinced by more arguments!

Spain (text found in a fabulous article on Medium): Specific ban on taking kids out for a walk or seeing friends or family (except to take care of people who need help, but with hygiene and physical distance measures).

What about our local Santa Clara county order? Per 10.a.iii "To engage in outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements as defined in this Section, such as, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, or running." With social distancing defined in 10.j as "For purposes of this Order, "Social Distancing Requirements" includes maintaining at least six-foot social distancing from other individuals". That's pretty explicit too, right? No biking(*), right?

Of course, I feel sorry for the cyclists and mountain bikers who are excluded from the perimeter of authorized activities. I feel sorry for folks we used to meet friends to go out, or to the movies, or coffee shops, or even walks around the block. They can always lobby with their reasons to relax the current constraints, but that's not an excuse to break the current regulations and directive which, I'm sure where established with a lot of thoughts, based on facts. I do have a sister, MD, on the front line and, from the stress of seeing people sick and dying, she can't believe that people still don't... believe in the necessity of such measures.

This Sunday, as a frequent user and customer (!) of the County Parks, I received another invitation to "Reminder: County Park Trails Open - Exercise Outside" stating:
"Dear Customers, We believe connecting people to nature and outdoor open spaces is more important than ever during this unprecedented pandemic, as being in nature provides important personal physical and mental health benefits. Studies show outdoor activity helps reduce stress and anxiety. If you feel the need to reduce the stresses of sheltering in place, please enjoy the trails in a safe and healthy manner while practicing social distancing, and remember public gathering is not allowed during this Public Health Order."
Well, given the few usual customers, I was really happy to receive such confirmation. But they much has expanded their mailing list recently, or the medias leaked the invitation because, by mid day, park lots were full and, worse, many cars were parked on the side of Skyline Boulevard, in no parking allowed areas, at each trail head. Pure stir-craziness! I did so many runs on these trails these past 20 years and I've never seen so many people, at a time we should distance ourselves. Wrong move!

Now, let's switch to my anger... Of course, I love the fact that this humanitarian crisis finally made people realize that going outside, as a couple or a family, is healthy! Just frustrating that we had to crash our economy and social system to get there...

I wish I was wearing a side, front and back, stating that I had visited Israel (a week before they closed areas I visited there), France (total confinement), New York City (oops!), Las Vegas (I came back sick there, the worst place you can think of in terms of pandemic with boatloads of people coming in and out from all over the US and the world!), and other places hurt by the pandemic. Maybe others would have kept some distance... Maybe next time, I should run with a mask, that's scary. But it's so much harder to breath too...

Bottom line, this is not sustainable running at all. I'll find other places to run, mostly staying in my neighborhood per other countries' recommendations, sorry to let you down, local parks, but I think this will actually help you cope with a new local disaster. Think about it, the personnel in charge of maintenance of the restrooms at most parks have been deemed non essential. Leading to the closure of these facilities. With flocks coming in, not even used to behave outdoors. Any need to comment more on that...?

As the story develops this first weekend of the shelter-in-place order, my running buddies report the same issue from around the Bay and there are already talks about shutting down the Parks:

  1. SF Chronicle's report on East Bay Parks;
  2. Report of closure of Point Reyes because of too many visitors and the impossibility to enact #SocialDistancing;
  3. Chaos at Rancho San Antonio and Mt Umunhum parking lots;
  4. Overcrowded parking lots at other local parks;
  5. And more reports of the problem on Facebook.

Thinking more about the issue, I feel one of the biggest mistake was to call the health directive, #SocialDistancing. For many, the word social is now associated with (virtual) social medias. What about #PhysicalDistancing? Then maybe you get the 6 (horizontal) feet distance...

As for my run? Again, back to the mixed feelings and sentiments. It would be selfish to say that I was just happy to do a 50K. Sincerely, I didn't see the issue coming, and it really materialized much later in the day (I stayed home on Sunday, based on one I'm reading, I can only believe the issue got worse on Sunday). After winning three editions (2011-2013) I was really excited to give another try to that course, and respond to Steve's call to celebrate his birthday, St. (Steve) Pat(t)rick's and the Spring. And keep ramping up my return to training after 7 months off, last year. Besides, I was supposed to be in France for 4 weeks, starting last Sunday, to actually get a treatment on my hamstring injury, so it felt completely normal and reasonable to do this run. I didn't intend to push after last week's 50-mile National Championship, but it was too good of an opportunity to pass on, this non-group run, given all the circumstances.

On my way up Highway 9, it stared raining and the temperature kept going down. It was even chillier than last week but, thankfully, only drizzling. Well, I had said the same last week, before the rain turned to heavy pour... I got to the parking lot at 9:05 and was surprised not to see Steve's car (you can't miss it with his custom plate!). He arrived shortly after and left around 9:10 or 9:15. Not in a hurry, at least I thought, I started at 9:42.


50 yards in the steep downhill, I stopped to adjust my pack and thought, "if I stop every 50 yards, it's going to be a long day!" 200 yards later, the trail became slippery and I realized how foolish I had picked a pair of overused road shoes (1,322 miles in these Brooks Launch, and they are still so comfortable, especially on trails!):

Thankfully, most of the remainder of the course was just humid after some rain last week, and actually super soft and smooth to run on!

3 miles in, the rain had stopped and I was getting really hot under my jacket so one more stop to take it off. And a few other stops to get my phone out of the pack to check if I was still on the right course (I get so confused between all races, and orienteering isn't my specialty... And no ribbons today for a change!). With that, I was slow and it took me 5 miles to catch Steve. As opposed to the three official races back then, I walked some of the uphill to Saratoga Gap Trail. Partly because of the lack of motivation to push, partly because of the lack of training and conditioning, partly because of physical and mental fatigue (I knew coming back from injury was going to be challenging, and the injury isn't even over yet...). Instead of reaching the Saratoga Gap turnaround in 1:30, I got there after 1:54. I had left a can of Pepsi when driving back in the morning and drank 1/3 of it. Someone would have done a good movie: because Steve was interested in the rest of the can, I was holding the can with my rain jacket and was trying to pour the coke without touching it with my mouth. It gat rather messy, spilling such a sugary liquid all over me, I'm glad I was outdoor! Don't try that at home... ;-)

I actually crossed path with Steve again, about 0.8 miles from the Gap (I had lost 6 minutes over there). We stopped, carefully trying to keep as much distance as possible on a single track, keeping #PhysicalDistancing on a trail is really challenging. Really, it feels like people think they are distancing with their social connections if they go out (and/or off Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, ...). And, then, outside it's like we aren't socially connected to strangers on the trail, so what the heck? Again, the concept of distancing is... physical, not about social connections in the modern sense of it.

I didn't see Steve again, but he was able to finish the whole distance. A feat as a septuagenarian, green hats off, please! As miles were passing, or rather time in the day, I was getting into more people. And more people. For the past 15 years I've never seen this except on weekends at Rancho of course, the last place I'd go to these days. Couples on fire roads were not much of an issue, with proper announcing, but families and groups weren't all respectful of the directives. When I got back to the car at mile 20, I considered calling it a day. If I had known what was ahead, that is the number of people on the trails from there, I would have.

Well, I would have missed Jeremy, so I'm glad I continued. I thought Jeremy was finishing the 50K but he had no idea what I was talking about. Oh, and if Jeremy appears too close on that selfie, well it's just an optical illusion, a matter of perspective, after all he is taller than... 6 feet. We kept our distance to catch up after not seeing each other since I dropped out of track workouts a year ago.

For the rest of the run to Rapley Ranch Road and back, not only was I tired physically, but my mind was fried by the lack of civic sense of many hikers. If it was a competition I'd give the following prizes:

  1. First place to a family of 3 which I had to pass on a downhill single trail down to Alpine Pond. I announced myself once; not a move off the middle of the trail; a second time; not a single attempt to make room; so here I went, less than 1 foot on the side...
  2. Another family, of 5 that time: I was going up Ancient Oaks Trail, another single track, without much extra breath to spare. They were going down with no intent to try going on the side so I went off the trail, below it, lowering my head and covering my mouth. There was this cute girl behind who said after passing behind me, in French (!): "look, Dad, this guys is going to die!" Really funny indeed.
  3. To wrap-up the podium, a 8-year boy, his dad and grand-pa. I arrive at an intersection between a fire road and the last single track to the finish. I stop and show my intent to go on the single track which the little boy was blocking the entry of. The dad was already on the fire road so I mention the 6-ft distance requirement, once, then twice, hoping they would understand the situation. At that point, the boy excited to see me rushes toward me, dang!
I'm skipping crossing couples on fire roads, with them staying side by side and giving me a weird look as I was getting off the road in the grass. I know, this is a strange period, but didn't they get the memo? Sorry but not sorry, it's not me who was rude in that situation...

Insignificant anecdotes but, multiplied by 20 or more, not only that slows you down, but that's not the point, it just shows there are still many people not believing. I bet these two families are not living under the same roof for instance:

Or that group not only not keeping their distance but also blocking the entrance of the trail (the incognito picture doesn't do justice as it missed two other members in the group, but you can still see the baby)!
Did I mention that biking was not authorized. Well, I saw more mountain bikers than I saw runners this Saturday!

(*) Post update after a few comments on Facebook about my understanding that biking was banned. In paragraph 5 of the order, biking is not authorized. In 10.a.iii, biking is not included in the examples of activities excluded from the order restrictions (walking, hiking, running). Yet, that FAQ page, which provides great clarification, states that recreational biking is ok. So confusing... Starting with the fact that this FAQ page comes from the San Mateo County, not Santa Clara. Unfortunately, the equivalent page from Santa Clara isn't as good and doesn't mention biking... One thing I had not mentioned in my first version of this post is that, by any mean, it is not the time to get injured while exercising anywhere, but even less on remote trails. Not the right time to learn about safety on these remote trails. It's not that you would do it at your own risk, if you get injured and require hospitalization, you are doing it at the risk of others.

And so on and so on... Until the parks have to close as well. Then the beaches maybe? And the streets at the end... Some people have suggested fines to enforce distancing, surely there aren't enough Rangers out there to monitor hundreds of miles of trails!

Anyway, overall, a sluggish elapsed time of 5:55:26. In the spirit of the virtual race, I didn't stop my watch for my numerous stops (checking the course on the map, taking pictures, refilling my bottles, stopping at the car, handling or mitigating #SocialDistancing, chatting with Jeremy, adjusting my pack, taking my jacket off, retying my shoe lace, ...). In a race, I often skip aid stations or I stop for less than a minute to get water because every minute count, even in an ultra. This Saturday? My Garmin says I spent 33 minutes not moving at all, wow! That still leaves me with 5:21 of running, with too much walking. Comparing to Leor's 3:56 course record, or my 4:15, 4:17 and 4:32 wins, that looks embarrassing... Oh well, that was a virtual race with only three entrants...

At least it wasn't time wasted at the aid station to eat. I ran the 32 miles on 2 pouches of Vespa, 4 GU Energy gels, 1.5 bottles of GU Energy Brew and 5 S!Caps.
Also, I'm glad Steve shared his tip of using maps.me to track the progress versus a KML trace. That worked very well, and saved me the trouble of getting lost.
And the after the fact Relive fly over (click on the image or this link):

To conclude on a lighter note, since I wasn't in usual race rush and I took the time to stop here and there, here are a few pictures from this great 50K course with trails in perfect conditions.

Christmas Tree Farm (funny how, running through this section in the summer heat, my mind didn't print this reference to the winter Holidays... ;-) )
 Through the redwoods:
First return to Horseshoe Lake:
Poor guy, good luck to survive the new crowd on the trails, another likely collateral damage of #covid19...
 This time I stopped to enjoy the view, and learn about George Sheean:

 Stanford in the foreground and Mt Diablo in the distance:
 Ted Norton's rock:

 BART (Bay Area Ridge Trail) toward Rapley Ranch Road:



The gate at Rapley Ranch Road:
The view of the Pacific Ocean, from Ridge Trail, on Hawk Ridge Trail:

 I was glad there was nobody while I passed through this, back to Alpine Pond!
 Getting back to the finish, at Horseshoe Lake:
 Definitely a horseshoe shape!