Saturday, December 29, 2012

#416: Of Juice, Smoothies, and Life in the Food Chain.

Yes, I saw it. It seems like everyone has seen it. If you haven't, I recommend Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead for your holiday viewing. It is an inspiring story about a man who saved his own life, then set about helping others to save theirs. Mrs P and I were moved when we saw it, and it has stuck with us.

The means by which the film maker, Joe Cross, saved his life is juicing. Cross is a proponent of a whole foods, plant-based way of eating that uses juicing as a way of extracting nutrients from a large amount of vegetables without having to consume pounds and pounds of fiber in the process. My supper last night involved a mountain of produce that I could never have eaten whole in one sitting. Juicing is an approach to nutrition that makes a lot of sense, and we're giving it a try at our house as we wrap up the old year.

I have a couple of goals with the program. I want to clean out my system a little bit after a Christmas of guilt-free self indulgence. I gorged at Mum's table and pantry like there was no tomorrow. It was fun, but I know that I set myself back a little with all those candies and cookies. I also want to jump start my weight loss program. Coach Carrie and I will be working on getting me down to racing weight as I prepare for my Spring Marathon. I am confident that a juice based diet can help me get there.

So, what are we eating?

  • Breakfast yesterday was Carrot, Apple, Ginger Juice: a very simple start to the day. It was sweet and zingy. 
  • For lunch I had a Mean Green: a very intense beautifully dark green juice made with cucumber, celery, apples, kale, lemon, and ginger. This is a classic vegetable juice mix, and is a real energy booster. 
  • Supper was a unique combination called Sunset Blend. It contained sweet potato, carrot, red bell pepper, beets, apples, and oranges. At first it tasted very earthy, as if I hadn't really cleaned the roots thoroughly, but soon, the rich flavors of the beets and sweet potatoes won me over. I had two helpings of this rosy beauty.


This morning, I fell off the juice wagon a little. I mixed up a smoothie with pineapple, banana, raspberry, yogurt, chia, and almond milk. I was hankering for fiber, and this fruity cocktail should do the trick.

So here I am at day two of my liquid fast. Yesterday, I was feeling very run-down and had a head ache, but I'm not sure that wasn't a combination of fatigue from our long drive home and my body battling whatever the bug was that the family was incubating while we visited. The day after we left, many of them took to their beds, and yesterday, Mrs P hunkered down with the cats, some Kleenex, and a pile of library books for a long weekend under the covers. I feel a lot better today, but don't think I'll run outdoors, just in case I'm fighting that bug myself.

I'm going to stay off the scale until New Years. My weight when I returned home was obscene, and I want to get a little juice boost before I start measuring. In the mean time, my energy is good, my belly feels fine, and I'm not showing any signs of changing colors. All in all, a successful experiment so far.

Peace,
Pennsy

Friday, December 14, 2012

#415: Intervals: Just Keep Going

There are a lot of different kinds of runs. One of my favorites is the Long Slow one. I usually schedule one a week, at least 8 miles: longer if I'm training for a race. This is pure endurance training, miles for their own sake. I always record my time and pace from these runs, but I rarely pay much attention to them while I'm on the road. More often than not, I'm enjoying the scenery or the company if there is any.

A Recovery Run is great after a hard workout or race. 2-4 distance. Easy jogging. Lots of walk breaks. I use it to keep the joints moving and get the blood flowing. A Recovery Run is a healing run.

Tempo Runs are more aggressive. They're all about speed. If you have a time goal for an upcoming event, you might try to hit your goal pace for part of a run or even the majority of your workout. Tempo Runs can take you a little beyond your threshold of comfort.

Then there are Intervals. Intervals take you way past the threshold. Yesterday's was an interval workout. I jogged about a mile to warm up, then set my timer to go off every thirty seconds. For the next three miles, I tried to hit progressively faster speeds, for half a minute, with walk breaks in between. By mile 4, I was running at 8 MPH: that's a pace of 7:30 per mile. That's about as fast as I can go no the treadmill which makes it about as fast as I can go.I was pleased that I could keep the intervals up for the entire last mile.I guess the next step is to start making the quick ones a few seconds longer. In any case, yesterday had more than it's share of frustrations, so I was glad for the chance to blow off some steam out on the trail.

The run got me thinking about "intervals" in general. You know, the way life can sometimes feel like you're either going full speed or not moving at all? I'm sure everybody has times like that. During a depressive "spell," it seems like that's all there is. You're either frozen, not daring (or wanting) to move, or else everything around you seems to be moving at light speed and you don't see any way in the world of keeping up.

One of the hard lessons a runner has to learn is "Run Your Own Race" If you have a competitive bone in your body, you always feel a little tug when another runner passes you. You don't want to get left behind by that kid or that old guy or that pregnant lady pushing a stroller. But the truth is that sometimes, runners are just faster than you are. You have to learn to let them go. I guess that's how I manage my dark times nowadays. I remind myself that I'm running injured. I can't go as hard as I'm used to going. There are some parts of life that I just have to let run on past me. That's tough. I may not be a champion, but I'm pretty driven to always give my best. It's tough to take when your "best" only feels like 45%.

I started on the new, higher dose of "nerve pills" yesterday. The chemistry takes time to adjust. Time. It's just one more of those things that you have to let go at their own pace and trust that you'll catch up eventually. In the meantime, the people who love you suffer right along with you. Harsh words are spoken, promises are broken, plans fall through. At its worst, the disease tries to convince you that the only solution is to stop running and get out of the race. I know that voice well. It spoke to me with screams around mile 16 of my marathon when my legs started cramping at every stride. All I could think, all I could say was, "Just keep moving." Every time my watch beeped for another walk break, I just wanted to put my hands on my knees, fall to the curb, lay down in the gutter and quit. But I knew people were counting on me. I was counting on myself. "Just keep going."

On the track, you can make it through the intervals by reminding yourself that they don't last forever. Your lungs burn and your legs ache, but you know that the sprint only lasts for a few more seconds. You know that the hard part doesn't last. You can make it. You just keep going.

And in the end, what's left is the strength. Your heart comes through stronger. You recover faster. You move a little quicker. That's why you run intervals on the track. And I guess, I do them in life for the same reason. I just have to trust that they'll be over eventually and I'll be stronger for having gotten through them.

Just gotta keep going.

Peace,
Pennsy

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

#414: Warm Thoughts on a Frigid Morning

Lord, but it's cold out this morning. 24° when I turned on the defrosters in the Honda at 4:45. My little girl is 12 years old now, but she still fires up like a dream. The stars were breathtaking, or maybe it was the temperature that stopped my heart for just a second.

I spent years as an evening person. Show business and all. Many times my friend Noah and I watched the sun come up as we wandered the streets of Manhattan after a long night of music, billiards, beers, and smoke. Now, my bed time is much earlier, but the payoff is these pre-dawn hours to reflect on yesterday, plan today, and enjoy the peaceful breathing of Mrs P, Kizzie, or the pack, depending on who's sleeping where.

Yesterday was not a bad one. I got to work early, then enjoyed my regular running date with my friend, Christy. It really helps having a partner to run with. I can talk myself out of almost any other workout, but knowing that my friend is going to be there, counting on me... it makes my Tuesday run one that I really look forward to. We did four fairly quick miles on the Legacy Trail. "Too cold to dawdle," is my mantra this time of year. Once my own workout was done, I met with a client and we had an hour in the gymnasium doing indoor laps, banging the medicine ball around, and learning some fundamental kettlebell skills. By the time I got home, I was ready to pass out.

I wake with a start. Pitch black. Kizzie purring softly beside me. What time is it? 7:30!!! Oh no! I was supposed to open the gym at 5:15! Why didn't anybody call? My phone! It's charging in the den! I didn't hear Coach Melissa's call. She probably had to get up and drive to the Y in the dark to open up. Damn. Pull on some pants. Shoes? Where? Damn. Go find my phone. Call Coach. Where's Mrs P? The lights are on in the den. The dogs are awake. Mrs P is watching Netflix. "What are you doing up? Why didn't you wake me?" A light blinks on in my head. I lean against the wall, panic subsiding. "It's not morning, is it?" My wife smiles the tender smile of a woman who knows that she's in love with an idiot and she's come to accept the fact. "No, honey. It's Tuesday night. You were so tired, I let you sleep. There's tuna on the stove." I skip the casserole, pour a bowl of cereal, watch half an episode of Lie to Me, and go back to bed.

I have a long day planned today. After my morning shift, I'll take a water aerobics class, then find a quiet corner to swing the kettlebell for a while. I have an idea that I may start my group exercise career teaching water fitness, so I'm trying to observe and pick the brains of the more experienced teachers so I'll be ready if the opportunity comes. I'll see the shrink this afternoon, then for the rest of the day and evening, I'll do intake interviews for the January LIVESTRONG at the YMCA class.

I'm eager to see the Psychiatrist, too. We're tapering in a new medication, and so far, it isn't making much of a difference. Still edgy. Still irritable. Still angry at nothing and everything. The only thing I'm noticing is that I've gained about 5 pounds since starting it. That's not OK. I hope we can get the meds and my brain stabilized soon, so I can figure out what other changes I need to make to keep my girlish figure intact. My goal for the winter is to drop some pounds so I'm ready for the spring racing season. I'm moving in exactly the wrong direction, but like Cool Hand Luke, I got to get my mind right or the rest of my wellness is going to come apart. First things first.

I've been writing this in the gym, which is against the rules, but the Y is pretty low maintenance in the early morning hours. Keep the coffee hot and the non-members out of the locker room. Men come in to use the bathroom and warm their hands for a bit in the wee hours. When there are kids around, I have zero tolerance for such goings on, but at this hour and at these temps I don't have the heart to run them off without a little bit of hospitality. You never know when an angel is going to wander in looking for a cup of coffee. Christmas is not the time for "no room at the inn."

Peace,
Pennsy

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

#413: Same Goal, Different Foe

Been quite a hiatus since my last post. My bad. I've let a lot of things distract me from my center. Some important, some irrelevant, some seemingly insurmountable. There have been other priorities: getting the taxes done, (finally); increasing my workouts to build strength and speed; dealing with finances and paperwork; blah, blah, blah, etc. There have been time wasters: solitaire and Words with Friends; way too many hours spent on Facebook; Netflix. Then there's my old friend, depression. I've said that cancer was easier to live with than depression, and I meant it. Both are potentially fatal diseases. But only one is curable. I'll spend the rest of my life as someone who had cancer once, but I'll always be a man living with depression. It's never going to beat me. I'm not going to let that happen. But it's going to keep trying.

Depression is a cruel disease. The things that help the most are exactly the things that depression tried to keep you from doing. Get out of bed. Remember your meds. Exercise. Tell a friend you're hurting. See the doctor. Visit the therapist. Fighting cancer is a pretty passive process by comparison. Mostly, it's about enduring. You suffer and you take it. You know that cancer will either kill you or it won't and you just hang on for as long as you can until that resolution comes. But fighting depression requires action. Getting this blog back in motion is one of the actions I think I want to take as part of my own fight. I'm not going to let the darkness win. Ever.

There's been lots of good news since summer. Maybe the best is that I've taken one more step toward a dream that was born even before I got sick. Two weeks ago, I signed a contract as a Personal Trainer for the YMCA. I got a little misty as I put my signature at the bottom of the page. I flashed back to the day during radiation treatments when tried to make it to the bathroom and couldn't get out of bed. I threw up all over the floor and sat there weeping as Mrs P cleaned me and the bedroom up. I thought of how weak I felt that day, and how her faith in me was often the only reason I had to keep fighting. Her love kept me alive through the worst of times, and now it felt like the best of times were ready to begin. I'm still a rookie trainer. I'm studying hard to earn that NCSM certification that will be my real credential, but for now, I'm doing the work I love: helping people to fight for their lives.

I ran two Half Marathons this fall: the beautiful Iron Horse Half in Midway KY and the Monumental in Indianapolis. The Monumental was particularly special because I got a chance to finally meet and run with a friend and inspiration: Charlie the Javarunner. His blog, Running With Coffee is an informative and authentic telling of his own journey and struggles as a runner. We've been friends for over a decade online, but never met before my trip to Indy this November. It was a joy and an honor to meet him and spend 13.1 flat Indiana miles together.

I've been training with Coach Carrie for most of the running season this year and it has paid off. This year I set personal records in the 5K, the 10K, and the Half. She encourages me to work hard, and inspires me to keep going through the pain and fatigue that comes when I approach my own limits. More than once, I have heard her voice on the road or in the weight room when she isn't even there, pushing me to finish that last mile or pull that last rep.

It's funny. I've never been very big on combat metaphors. I was very competitive when I was a kid, and since I wasn't really very good at any of the sports we played in the neighborhood, that hunger to win produced a lot of anger and frustration in me. I tried to give up fighting for anything, but cancer taught me that some battles are worth taking on. Today, my battle is against another disease: one that hurts a lot of people I love. It is relentless and insidious. It wants to take my life.

And it's gonna find the Fat Man and Mrs P to be a formidable team.

Peace,
Pennsy

Sunday, August 26, 2012

#412: Cross Training (Bells, Bands, and Balls)


Water jogging: zero gravity = zero impact
Cross training for a runner is the fitness work you do outside of running. Maybe you do it on an off day while your running engine is recovering. Maybe it's another form of cardio exercise like cycling or water jogging (my latest obsession and one of Mrs P's favorites.) Then there's always the weight room. Strength training for runners is a little controversial. There are concerns that too much muscle mass will slow a runner down and that too much lower body strength work will keep the most important running muscles from recovering before your next time on the road. 

I respect my body's need for recovery, and rarely run two days in a row. If I want to hit my lower body with the weights, I try to to it on running days, after my road work. I can't lift as much weight this way, but I feel like it gives my old wheels the best workout and the best chance to get ready for my next run. I'm always interested in learning about new modes of cross training, and Coach Carrie is introducing me to a whole bucket load of them.

RING DEM BELLS
Barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells: they're all iron weights that you swing, press, lift, or pull to build muscle strength and endurance. I've always liked the first two, but am just learning about the beauty of the kettlebell.


The kettlebell is a primitive looking gizmo of cast iron with a with a flat bottom and a heavy handle on top. Russian athletes have been using them for centuries. In the 1960s, they were introduced to the United States, and are gradually becoming a part of every serious trainer's arsenal. Coach uses them as part of a brutal High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout that involves sets of kettlebell exercises punctuated by hill sprints to build speed and strength while keeping the heart rate pounding for 20-30 minutes. Believe me, if you're doing it right, that's all you can take. There's a lot of technique involved in using the kettleball, so I strongly suggest you get help from someone who knows what they're doing before you plunge in.

STRIKE UP THE BAND
 I learned about resistance bands and tubes at PROMATX, my first gym, and I even have a rig set up on the back porch for one. You might think pulling on a big rubber band is a pretty wussy workout. You would be wrong.

It's a gym you can carry in your pocket.
Resistance bands are inexpensive, portable, and more versatile than any other exercise mode I can think of, (other than pure body weight exercises.) You can use hook them to a wall, wrap them around your foot, pull with them, push against them,  and stretch with them. You can create workouts that give you a real pump and burn based on hundreds of reps, not just dozens. They are a great switch from the other more macho workouts, and they will leave you panting and pumped. They're also less likely to hurt you when you get tired, but the still need to be respected. Form is just as important with a resistance tube as it is with a 300# squat.

IN THE BALLROOM
Balls, specifically the Swiss Ball and the classic medicine ball, are especially good for building core strength and flexibility. 
An illustration of the importance of form...

Swiss balls are ubiquitous. This big bouncy beauties turn up in the weight room, the yoga studio, and the Pilates classroom. They can provide an inexpensive home workout, but be warned, they take up a lot of space, and your dogs may find them irresistible. Also called "fitness balls," they can be used to intensify almost any exercise or stretch by forcing you to engage your core to keep your balance on top of the thing. Careful though: They are not indestructible, and putting too much weight on one can result in a catastrophic failure that sends you crashing to the floor. 


Grandaddy about to bite it in some old-school dodge ball.
When I heard the words "Medicine Ball," I always thought of those big leather balls with the stitching on the side that people used to throw back and forth in the Gay 'Nineties. Today, Medicine balls are tough, resilient, heavy buggers that you can throw, swing, press, bounce against the wall, carry while you run, and balance on top off while you do pushups. They come in different weights, sizes, and designs. Some look like basketballs, and others have handles molded in. 

Not your father's medicine ball
Coach likes to add them into other exercises. One day, she had me out in the sun doing step ups on the bleachers while pressing a Medicine Ball over my head each time I got to the top. I was a little bit delirious after 25 reps of that one. But pressing through to the end taught me just how much fatigue and adversity I could overcome. That's a lesson every runner needs.


WATER, WHEELS, AND WALKING
Cardio cross training is about maintaining conditioning in your heart and lungs without overtraining the muscles you need for your primary sport. I try everything. I encourage you to do the same. Get in the pool. Catch a group exercise class. Check out Zumba or TRX, or spinning. Or hit the road for a good strong walk or a bike ride. There are endorphins out there to be had, and you can get them flowing lots of ways. I'm finding that cross training isn't just fun and a great way to meet new people, it's also making me a stronger, faster, more mentally tough runner. 

Peace,
Pennsy

Full Disclosure: Pennsy is a member and
 employee at the North Lexington Family YMCA
Unsolicited commercial announcement: here's a great place to cross train in the Bluegrass, if you're interested... Just sayin'.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

#411: Summer of Changes

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” ― Andy WarholThe Philosophy of Andy Warhol


TURN AND FACE THE STRAIN
I've been making some changes this summer. New goals. New priorities. New approaches to my own fitness. I've changed because of all the goals I achieved in the past year. And I've made a couple of changes in response to circumstances. 


Ouch!
I started the summer wanting to get faster. A six and a half hour marathon is an achievement to be sure, but it sure is a long time to run. I tried adding some speed drills into my program, and started seeing some results, but somewhere along the way, I strained some muscles in my groin and they are taking a long time to mend. It was frustrating at first, not being able to run or swim without pain, but I took the injury as a challenge. Instead of holding on to my frustration, I decided to discover what I could do. 


WALK BEFORE YOU RUN
Every Wednesday at the Y, a group of seniors gathers to walk on the Legacy trail. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed these less intense sessions, and decided to try walking instead of running. Last Saturday, while the rest of John's Striders were running the Iron Horse Half Marathon course, I joined a group of walkers who planned to cover the first half. The pace was vigorous, the conversation stimulating, and the sweat was real. By the time we finished the 6 miles, I was convinced that power walking is going to be part of my program from now on.




GET ON YOUR BIKE AND RIDE
A slightly newer model than mine,
but you get the idea.
My $25 yard sale mountain bike has been standing in the garage for several years now. It's a steel framed beauty, a 1995 Trek 800 Sport. I knew it was a waste for it to just lie there unused, and I remembered how much I enjoyed riding it to work a couple of lifetimes ago. I wondered if the less demanding requirements of cycling would be easier on my sore muscles. After pulling the old girl out of the carport, applying a little soap, a little grease, and some new tires, I discovered that I could ride quite comfortably. I now commute to work on my bike, and the extra hour of cardio every day has helped me to break through a weight plateau where I've been stuck for quite a while. I love riding and working on this machine. Mrs P blanches at all the trips to the bike shop for tools and parts, but when she sees how much I'm saving on gas, it softens the blow a little.


FINDING YODA
MUCH tougher than she looks!
Just before the marathon, I asked Coach Carrie if she would be my personal trainer and she agreed. Before we started, she asked me what my goals were.

  • To run a 1 hour 10K
  • To build strength in my core and upper body
  • To get my Body Fat down to 20% and my weight to 240
  • To pick her brain about the art of Personal Training
Coach designs each workout with these goals in mind. Since my injury, we've been focusing more on rehab than speed, giving special attention to strengthening the muscles around the hurt ones, and gently stretching to keep my legs from knotting up, (particularly my wood-like hamstrings.) Along the way she is teaching me to use a variety of apparatus like the Swiss ball, the medicine ball, weighted bars, resistance tubes, kettlebells, TRX, and the medicine ball. From time to time, when she is giving me a correction, she'll say, "When you're training someone, you have to look out for this." She is teaching me how to organize workouts and how to help a trainee progress toward their goals. I decided to make myself her apprentice. It was an excellent choice.

TELL THE STORY
I haven't been blogging much, and I don't really know why. This week, my friend Kim came back to Lexington for a visit, and thanked me for inspiring her to get fit. She's stronger, faster, and lighter than she's been in a long time. Kim told me that when she has trouble getting going, she remembers that I'm out there on the road, and it motivates her. Could any writer have a higher honor?

I resolved to be more faithful to FMR. Not to promote myself or to brag. Lord knows, my achievements aren't exactly record-breaking. But reminding people that they have the strength to keep going, to reach their goals, to exceed their hopes - that's my mission in life. I believe that's why God saved me. That's why I need to keep writing: because every now and then, someone is going to find hope in my story, and the courage to believe in themselves. What greater gift could you give to the world?

Peace,
Pennsy

My friend Charlie is running the Chicago Rock'n'Roll Half Marathon as I'm typing this. Here's wishing him good speed, light legs, and pretty young things to hand him Gatorade along the way. Rockit, brother!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

#410: Bleeding, Burning, and a Visit From Dr Rubber Fingers

See, this is the kind of post Mrs P is always warning me not to write. Mum hates it when I talk about this stuff. We are going deep into the realm of Too Much Information here. Why write about it? Because you might find yourself in the same spot I did, and I want you to deal with it. Prepare yourself. It's a loooong story. Make a sandwich. On second though, you may not want to eat just yet. Here's how it all started.
Forgive the indelicate nature of this post, but I have a medical question. Anybody else have painful, bloody pee after a run? I noticed a spot on my white shorts at the gym today, and more after my workout. Obviously, I have some unique risk factors, and intend to call the doc first thing Tuesday morning, but should I be in the ER instead? I've done a little research and understand this is fairly common among runners, but if anyone on the board has had it, what did you do about it?


I posted that on May 26th in the John's Striders Facebook page. That's where my running group gets together online to share wisdom, experience, and humor (my specialty.) The consensus of the group was that this was definitely not humorous. Here was the most direct response.


I've been running for 25 years, I've run marathons and in the past 3 years I have logged thousands of long miles preparing for ultramarathons. I have lost toenails, had some pretty gnarly chaffing, puked my guts out and had all manor of GI upset. I have never seen blood in my urine and if I did my next stop would be my doctor or the ER. Respect your kidneys, have them checked out.


When a runner you respect tells you to quit screwing around and get to the doc, you do it. And so began one of my spookiest adventures since my cancer diagnosis. Cancer, and the treatment that kills it, can compromise your body in some dramatic ways, and you can never take symptoms lightly again. Blood in your urine is a big one. The condition is called Hematuria, and it means just what it sounds like... Hema (blood) in the Urea (pee). According to the American Kidney Fund, it can be caused by

  • Strenuous exercise
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Kidney stones
  • Kidney injury
  • Cancer in the urinary tract
Anybody else hearing alarm bells for Pennsy in that list? Yeah, me too. So I went back to see the Doc who first palpated my neck back in 2010. I told her about my symptoms and the events of the past few weeks. I ran a Marathon on May 6th. After a couple weeks rest, I had a good hard 6 miles on Saturday, and came home with painful, bloody urination. Although everything seemed to have returned to normal, my specimen on Wednesday still showed microscopic traces of blood. She poked and prodded for a while, then ordered a CT scan and referred me to the urologist. I hate visiting the urologist. No matter how nice a guy he is, sooner or later you end up with a rubber finger up your butt. I grimaced and made the appointments.

The CT scan was simple, compared to what I'm used to. No injections. No complex prep. Just plop down on the table, hold your breath, and you're done. We were looking for kidney stones, an easy catch, but the scans came back clear. When you're looking for cancer, clear scans are good news. When you're trying to find something wrong, clear scans just mean you don't have an answer yet. It was time to visit Dr Rubber Fingers.

READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.

Ladies, if you don't want to know about this, just skip this section. Gentlemen, tough it out. You may need to hear this. The nurse took my vitals, and sent me to the bathroom to execute what's called a clean catch. You wash your hands and wipe the little man off with an antiseptic towelette. You start the "flow," then pinch it off. This flushes out the pipes in case you have any lint or dust or spiders or anything up there. Then you point the wee fellow into a cup that is about the size of a juice glass (unfortunate but true,) and fill 'er up. When you finish, you screw a cap on the cup and wash again. Depending on the local customs, you either leave the cup on the sink, or else muster up as much dignity as you can and carry your golden vessel out to the nurse's station. While you avoid making eye contact, she takes it and sends it off to be tested. She then walks you to the exam room. 

You sit alone for a while, staring at lovely multicolored posters illustrating a giant urinary system with a massive bladder, vast urethra, and testes the size of kiwi fruit. You stare at the exam table, shivering with anticipation. You  look over the instruments, wondering how cold they are. When the Doc comes in, you have a distracted conversation about your symptoms and the current state of things. Then he pulls on a pair of gloves, and asks you to stand up and shuck down your drawers. 

And there you are. Standing in the middle of a linoleum floor with your shorts around your ankles while a man in a lab coat studies your privates like a jeweler assessing an old engagement ring. Been a long time since anyone looked at me like that. I thing The Best of Bread was playing.

Does this mean we're going steady?
Then come the words you've been dreading. "OK, go ahead and just put your elbows on the exam table for me." He appologizes, "Sorry, the jelly is going to be a little cold." Figures. And then, before you know it, it happens.

OK, I have a confession. Don't you dare tell a soul. I'll deny it, and everyone will believe me because I'm a cancer survivor and a minor local celebrity and I've never ever heard anyone else dare to say it out loud. Here it is. I don't care how strait you are. There are bejillions of pleasure receptors down there. When someone touches your prostate... it feels kind of nice. That's probably the creepiest part of the exam. Not that there's a guy's finger poking in the back door, but that you don't completely hate it. Don't get me wrong, you're glad when it's done. But it does rattle your cage in ways nothing else can. 

The weirdest part of all? My Doc... and I have since learned that med students are strictly instructed never to do this... but my Doc says, "OK, that feels pretty good." As I'm cleaning the lube off with a paper towel, I'm hoping he keeps that to himself. A gentleman doesn't tell.

We discuss my apparently healthy prostate. We've ruled out a couple more scary possibilities, but the remaining ones are worse. He schedules two more tests, designed to look for tumors in my plumbing. He wishes me well, and leaves. We don't shake hands. On the way back down the hall to the nurse's station, I have the same feeling I used to get when leaving a Times Square peep show. I am certain everyone is looking at me and knows exactly what I've been up to. I make a joke about it to the nurses, and their good humor makes it a little easier to get to the elevator, though I am certain that the lady who rides to the lobby with me is judging me the whole time.

OK, LADIES, YOU CAN START READING HERE AGAIN.

The next test is called IVP. That stands for intravenous pyelogram and it involves a series of x-rays that follow some contrast fluid as it makes its way through your bloodstream, kidneys, and bladder. It's a pretty simple procedure for the patient, although you do have to go through the same cleansing ritual required by a colonoscopy. That means consuming only clear liquids the day before, and spending the evening reluctantly drinking and explosively eliminating some industrial strength laxative brew that leaves you clean as a whistle. In fact, it actually makes you whistle by morning.

The IVP showed no signs of cancer, so there was only one test left. I had done a little research, but I was not really prepared for what was to come.

Cystoscopy: even weirder than it looks.
The picture on the left kind of says it all. You pee in a cup. You go to a waiting room. You undress and put on a robe. They put you on a gurney and roll you into a large exam room. There are three people there waiting for you. The doc tells you your x-rays look fine. The nurse who rolled your gurney locks the wheels and adjusts your pillow. The second nurse flips down your sheet, flips up your robe, and smears little Pennsy with antiseptic goo with all the tenderness of a Jiffy Lube technician checking your antifreeze. You make a little joke about the scope looking just like the one the surgeon uses to look down your throat. The doc assures you that it's the same instrument. You can't help thinking that it ought to be a lot smaller. The Jiffy Lube nurse lifts up your boy and says "this is just going to numb you a little bit, but it may burn at first." She is holding a really big syringe in her hand and you whimper without shame until you realize that the thing doesn't have a needle. It's just a little cone that she's gonna slip inside your... Whoa... OK... that puts the O in OMG. I have never felt anything like that before in my life. She pumps the stuff into me and it feels like... nope... it doesn't feel LIKE anything. I'm experiencing a completely new kind of discomfort. It doesn't hurt, exactly, but it has none of the secret, shameful pleasure of a visit from Dr. Rubber Fingers. The doc is laughing it up now. He is running with a nervous joke I made about garden hose, and starts telling me about the primitive versions of this exam, which involved metal tubes, mirrors, and presumably very tiny candles. All the while, he's holding my Johnson straight up with his left hand so the numbing goo can trickle down. He takes the scope from the nurse. It looks just a little smaller than a vacuum cleaner hose. I watch the tip as it disappears down past the sheet bunched up on my belly. And together we cross over a whole new frontier. 

Now look. There are more painful things. Nearly every trip you'll ever make to the dentist will hurt more than this at one time or another. I've had ingrown toenails removed, and that hurts like anything. I once had swimmer's ear, and I wanted to die it hurt so bad. This isn't as bad as any of those things. It doesn't make you cry. But you will make faces. "OK, we're at the prostate, now. This is the hardest part," says the doc. And yeah, it is. At this point, I am positive that he should be using a smaller camera. "Great," he assures me, "I'm in the bladder now. The worst part is over." Says you, wiener man. Who the hell makes a career of doing this to people? I suddenly notice that the guy isn't watching through a monitor like my throat surgeon does. He's peeping through the back of the scope like the guy in the picture above. His face inches from me, peeping around inside my pee-pee, and I want him to be as thorough as he has to be because I never ever want to do this again. "All right," he smiles, using the same poor language choice he made when visiting the back porch, "that looks really good." Am I supposed to blush, or just smile and say "Thank You?"

He slips the scope out smoothly, and some sort of goo gushes out of me. I don't care if it's antiseptic, lube, or pee, I'm just glad the thing is out. I ask him, "so what's the deal? Why was there blood after my run?" He explains that I have some prominent blood vessels in my bladder that probably were irritated when I ran without drinking enough water. "We'll check you again in a year." I nod, while thinking, "the hell you will, pal." The gurney rolling nurse kicks off the brakes and rolls me out into the hall. Everyone is looking at me. Judging me. They know what I've been up to.

Don't judge me...
We roll down the hall to a restroom and I wrap the sheet around myself as I hop through the door. The nurse encourages me to clean myself up, urinate, and get dressed. More paper towels. One more trip to the toilet. There is a little pink in my stream, which they've told me is normal. It hurts a little, which they've also warned me about. What they didn't prepare me for was this... All that plunging and pumping and filling with goo seems to have forced some air into my thingee. For the first time in my long, experience filled life, I learn what it is like to fart through your penis. For reason's I can not explain, I find this hysterically funny. I'm standing there, naked from the waist down, peeing and tooting, tooting and peeing and laughing like an idiot.. I don't care if you believe me. That's what happened. It almost made the whole ordeal worthwhile.

So that's my long, long story. I had a very serious symptom after a run, and it turned out to be no big deal. Happy ending. But if I had ignored that blood and something HAD been wrong... like an infection or stones or cancer... the damn thing could have killed me before I got up the nerve to check it out.

Ladies and Gentlemen, sometimes fighting for your life means going uncomfortable places. Go there anyway. Take your courage. Take your sense of humor. And take some dark glasses. You really don't want to be recognized in the elevator when your willy farts.

Peace,
Pennsy

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

#409: Help That Helps

There are so many reasons to ask for help. Two of my favorites are because I don't know how to get where I want to be, and because I can't get there by myself. I was once afraid to ask for help. I didn't want to bother people. I guess I was afraid they would say "No." I also wanted to be the kind of special, self-reliant soul who knew how to take care of himself: a guy who gets things done on his own. My cancer battle beat that pride right out of me. Cancer humbles you. When you have to ask someone to come feed you four times a day, or mop your vomit up off the floor, you come to terms with needing help. When your goal is staying alive, your image becomes a lot less important.

Hill work with Jake and Clare
I still love my solitude. That is one of the things I love about endurance sports. Yeah, you can meet up with a group in the parking lot, and go out for breakfast together after a run or a race, but when you're pumping up the millionth hill of the morning, just trying to keep your feet moving, no one can do that work for you. You're on your own. Asking for help as a runner usually happens when you're not running. I've found help in some wonderful people.

A proud Mom doesn't care how sweaty the post-race hugs are.
If you follow FMR, you already know that Mum and Mrs P are my biggest fans and my strongest supporters. Mum is always proud when I have a new breakthrough, and she lets me know it. She is a woman who doesn't give up, and she teaches me how to be that way through her words and her example. Mrs P endures the early morning alarm clocks, the mountains of sweaty laundry, the expenses of race registrations and $11 socks because she believes in me. The last few yards of my marathon, my feet never touched the ground, because I could see her at the finish line, weeping.

John's Striders pose in the middle of a training run in front of
the Run the Bluegrass "Chicken House."
There's a community of runners in Lexington called John's Striders. We're associated with John's Run/Walk Shop. There are a couple of good running stores in the Bluegrass, but John's is the runners' Mecca in these parts. The Striders meet up several times a week, all over town, and we also have our own page on Facebook. We celebrate one another's achievements, support one another's struggles, and learn the art and science of running from people who have been on the road for decades. I can't imagine why any runner would not benefit from being a part of a group like the Striders.

Coaches Melissa, Carrie, and Chelsea, front and center
Then there's Coach Carrie. When I started at LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, I met some amazing trainers, my "Coaches," each with their special level of expertise. All of them knew their business, all of them could motivate me to walk through fire or run through walls, and all of them agreed on one thing: Carrie is something special. Coach has been training and teaching for a long time. She runs three or four group exercise classes every day. She doesn't have one of those willowy, long legged, slim hipped bodies that one associates with group exercise instructors. Her muscles are thick and strong as steel cables. Trying to keep up with her in a Pilates or TRX class can leave me gasping on the floor in a pond of my own sweat. Coach has something in common with my Dad. She doesn't give away her smiles lightly. When you get one from her, you really feel like you've earned it. And as of last week, Coach Carrie is my personal trainer.

I have several goals for this summer. The LexRunLadies, another running group in town, have declared 2012 to be the "Summer of Speed," and getting faster is a biggie for me. That's going to require two things: building a house of strength on top of the foundation of endurance I've spent the last year and a half laying down, and losing more weight to lighten the load those new stronger muscles have to move down the road. Coach is helping me do that. She has designed a program of high intensity interval training (HITT) that involves a circuit of strength and power exercises that are already showing me results. I set a new PR in a 5 mile race this weekend, and I'm already losing weight. Something tells me Coach is gonna rock my world.

Another of my goals is to earn a Personal Trainer certification from the American College of Sports Medicine, (ACSM.) Coach is helping me there, too. She doesn't just bark orders and chirp "Good Job," when you finish a set, she teaches. "This is what this exercise is designed to do." "Here is a way to put a program together for a client." "When you're training someone, this is what you need to be paying attention to." She isn't just a trainer, she's a mentor. Coach isn't just a trainer, she's a mentor.

There are a lot of places to ask for help, even for a lonely, long-distance athlete. The asking takes humility and the good judgement to know if you're tapping into a reliable source. Thanks to these men and women, these helpers, I may still have to run my own race, but I will never have to run it alone. That's what I mean by "Help that helps." That's the kind of helper I want to be.

Peace,
Pennsy

Saturday, May 26, 2012

#408: One for Homer

Yes, I had to move to Kentucky to meet a man named "Homer." But I haven't met many like my friend. I call him "friend," because we knew one another and worked together. We liked each other and  he bucked me up a couple of times when I was having a rough time with a part or a play I was directing. He was a great guy, but we weren't really all that close. We did have a couple things in common. We both loved theatre. We both loved Mrs P, (they went to college together in Bowling Green.) And we both had cancer. His was bad. Much worse than mine. I visited him in the hospital. Tried to call a couple of times to let him know I was thinking of him. I sent him my copy of It's Not About the Bike and some other books that helped me when I was sick. But the truth is, he had much closer friends than I. I stayed where I belonged. on the outer circle, respecting his privacy while trying to get word to him that I was here if he needed me. I hope he knew that.


When he died last weekend, I had the strangest feelings. Sadness at the death of a good man. Guilt that I hadn't been more present for him. Happiness that his painful battle was over and that he had died mercifully in his sleep. Anger at the disease I have come to hate so much that words fail me when I try to express it. There was also a sense of resolve. Fighting cancer isn't a metaphor for me any more. It is a real battle, a full time job, a holy vocation. 


I felt great at the end of this morning's run.



70° 6.01 mi/1:1:25 @ 6:07 AM. John's with Striders. Lime Pegasus. BPM 146 (161 max). Tempo Run. Splits: 11:00, 10:38, 9:53,(31:31) 9:51, 9:50, 10:09.(29:50)
As I walked around the block to cool down, I saw two raggedy looking men sitting on a bench, waiting for a bus, I guess. One of them called out to me. "You been jogging?"


"Yep."


"How far?"


"Six miles."


"Wish I could run."


"You can," I told him with a smile, turning and trotting backwards for a few steps.


"Nah," he grinned sheepishly, holding up his cigarette. I felt something rise up inside me. I was mad. I stopped, and walked toward him, pointing my finger in a manner that could only be described as rude.


"Listen. Two years ago I weighed 400 pounds. They told me I had cancer, and gave me a 50% chance to live. Two weeks ago I ran a marathon. Don't tell me you can't run."


Then I turned and walked back to my car. I wasn't even a little bit ashamed of myself. As I drove home, I remembered Homer. I thought of all the people I love who smoke; who work too many hours; who abuse their bodies. I wish i had told them all what I told that stranger on the street. Maybe losing such a good man to cancer will give me the courage to do that. 


I smiled and thought of his beautiful deep voice and his heart-warming laughter. I remembered how thin and frightened he looked the last time we hugged one another good bye.


"That one was for you, Homer."


And God help me, it won't be the last.


Peace,
Pennsy 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

#407: 2012 Pittsburgh Marathon

A friend asked me, "How long does it take to train for a marathon?" I didn't hesitate. "51 years." This race report could be a novel, but I'll try to spare you that. Still, there's a lot to say.


ANTICI..... PATION


The 7 days before the marathon were verrrry long. Once the calender said "7 days," my obsession kicked into high gear. I wore shoes all the time so I wouldn't stub my toes. I questioned every bite of food. I saw myself running every time I closed my eyes. I promoted my fundraiser relentlessly. Monday night, I ran with the Run This Town kids from the Y and we did speed work: exactly what I should not have been doing the week before a marathon. That night, I lay in bed fretting over my sore quads. Had I hurt myself? Had I burned up too much energy? Would I recover in time for the race? 



By Wednesday, I was stone crazy. After a couple of hours of checking the clock, I got up at 4:30 and wrote out my agenda for the race weekend. Travel time. Sightseeing with Mrs P. Time at the race expo. Rest days. Race day. Then I wrote my packing list. Race clothes. Spare clothes. Street clothes.By the time I went to work, I was packed and ready to go. I ran 4 easy miles on the Legacy Trail to work off some nerves, then did my shift at the desk at the Y. Our LIVESTRONG at the YMCA class was particularly sweet that night. We had a good workout, then during stretch and reflect time, everyone wished me good luck. Rehearsal that night was long, but productive. Our directrix, the Mad Russian told me to win my marathon, and I assured her that I intended to do so.


Thursday was travel day. Mrs P packed and told me when she was finished so I could load the bags into the car. On the way out of town, I stopped to say goodbye to the gang at the Y, and to add my brother PP to our membership. He had driven up from Florida to watch the dogs, and wanted a place to exercise while he was in town. The lunchroom gang all wished me well, and I insisted on a big hug from Coach Melissa. Then we were off. The drive was lovely. Not even the great flat plains of central Ohio could dampen my spirits. We arrived at Mum's house just after dark, only to discover that I had packed everything except our suitcase. I had all my race clothes and spare gear. Nothing else. We added trips to Walmart and Goodwill to our itinerary...


Which way to the wharf?

Ran a marathon and all I got...
Friday morning, Mrs P and I drove the 2 hours to Pittsburgh in about 1:30. I got completely lost trying to find the entrance to the Monongahela parking wharf, and we wound up on the North Side, two rivers away, in the shadow of Heinz Field. A friendly waitress at a street cafe (something unheard of during the sooty days of my childhood in Pittsburgh) gave us directions, and we parked by the river. We explored the streets where my starting corral would be, and traced the route to the starting line. Hiked to the convention center to pick up my bib (number 4952), my race shirt, and my swag bag. The expo was a big trade show with booths representing gear manufacturers, retailers, charities associated with the race, and runner services. I spent as little money as possible, and we headed back home, stopping on Liberty avenue for a slice of the best pizza either of us had tasted since we moved from Brooklyn. That night, we bought some clothes at Goodwill in New Bethlehem, and underwear at the Walmart in Clarion. 


That's a runner's leg?
Love all up and down my arms

The girls over my heart
The Strong Eight
 Saturday, we relaxed on Mum's porch. Mrs P got out the Sharpies and wrote the names of all my sponsors on my arms, legs, and chest. My sister B came down to the house with a $20 bill and said she wanted to write her own name. "I want to write it on your butt," she joked. I was too tired to resist, and dropped trou right there on the porch. "Now I'll be riding your ass the whole way." Then it was time to go to bed. I did my final gear check, then turned out the lights, only to wake up every hour until 3:30 when the alarm sounded. 
One more for the 5
What I won't do for 20 bucks
 


Race day started with a toasted bagel and strawberry jelly. I didn't think my stomach would tolerate coffee, so I drank a couple of bottles of water. Checked the numbers on the fundraiser. Took in the love from my friends on Facebook. Rubbed on Mum's poodle, Cujo for a while. Then it was time to wake Mrs P, collect B, and hit the road. They slept while I drove the dark country roads under a gigantic full moon. It was so bright, it looked like the sun was about to come up. We twisted and turned through the night and I did my best to think about anything but the race. Fat chance. In the city, I took the wrong ramp off the Veterans Bridge, and we somehow wound up on top of Mt Washington, across the river from town and our parking spot. B managed to get me back, and we finally parked on the wharf. We walked along the river for a while, then climbed the old, concrete steps to Stanwix street.


MARATHON



Anybody got a light?
What's it like to line up with 25,000 runners? It isn't like anything at all. We walked up to Gateway Center, where the crowd curved around the bend toward the starting line. B wondered if there had ever been this many non-smokers downtown before. I could tell she was jonesing for one, but suspected she might have been beaten to death if she had tried to light up. Back at corral "E" where I would be starting, we found my pace group. I was shooting for 11:30/mile. I turned back and realized that there were about 40 runners behind me. I didn't bother doing the math. I was at the back of the biggest pack I had ever seen. Mrs P put her hand on my chest and confirmed what I felt: my heart was pounding. Just before the gun, we hugged and kissed and they left me to hop and stretch in the street. At 7:30 there was a great cheer, and the throng started shuffling toward the starting line. The race had begun.
Only 24,960 runners to beat


I had occasional running partners, curious about the names scrawled all over me, or the "Survivor" tag the folks at the LIVESTRONG booth had given me to wear. There were the people encouraging us through every neighborhood with water, fruit slices, and cowbells. We crossed the Allegheny three times, then went down the North Side to the West End Bridge over the Ohio. I was feeling great as we started up Carson Street, the main drag through the South Side: my family's first home when Gramma Johnson's parents brought her here from Ukraine in 1904. As we approached the Birmingham bridge and the 11 mile mark, I felt strong and confident. I had trained hard and was ready to begin the 5 mile climb to the Frick mansion in Shadyside. 


Wrong.


Uhhh... Keeneland's hills look nothing like this
I thought there were hills in the Bluegrass. I really did. They felt like hills to me. They were not hills. THIS was a hill. My form broke down quickly. My head dipped, my shoulders fell forward, and my upper back started to ache. Walk breaks became longer and more frequent. People on the side of the road would clap and encourage me, then ask if I was OK. Starting around mile 15, every step I took involved a cramp in my upper calves. Over and over I wanted to stop. Over and over I told myself aloud "Just keep moving." I stretched my neck up, trying to run tall. The angle of the climb was torture on my calves and hamstrings. The dreaded sweep bus pulled up beside me the first of many times and a ghoulish Samaritan stuck his head out the front window. "You want a ride?" I would rather have finished on bloody stumps than to get on that bus. I smiled, clenched my fists, and waved him on again and again. My heart and lungs were strong, but my muscles were failing me. I couldn't believe a person could hurt so much in so many places at once. Again and again, I looked down at the sweat smeared names written on my legs and arms. Donors. Lost loved ones. Fellow cancer fighters. They were the ones who got me through. There was no way I could have stayed off that bus on my own.
The dreaded "Sweep Bus"
Marathon: Robert Parks Johnson - FINISH in 6:21:53. Pace: 14:34. At 14:14:03.
In the shadow of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette,
 where my father, uncle and grandfather worked
Mrs P and B had managed to sneak into the VIP grandstands. It wasn't too hard, since the winners had finished over 4 hours earlier. I saw them cheering and snapping pictures just as I passed and their smiles gave me the last boost I needed to run across the finish line. A lady handed me my medal. Two young girls doused me with water. I staggered to a photo area where a man snapped my picture and handed me a business card. I guzzled Gatorade and water and grabbed a banana before wandering to a bench at the entrance of Point Park and prayed that the girls would somehow stumble across me. We embraced. "We did it," I said to Mrs P. "YOU did it," she corrected me. "WE did it," I insisted. "We kicked cancer's ass." My sister looked at the two of us and said, "You sure did." "We did it," I repeated. "F**k cancer."
WE did it


Polly, Marmaduke, and Mrs P
Riding back to Mum's was agony. My legs were seized with little cramps from my ankles to my hips. My seat was tipped all the way back and I slept most of the way, waking up from time to time as one spasm or another stabbed me. Mrs P sat in the back seat petting my head. B drove, singing along to country music on the radio. "When did my sister turn into a redneck?" I wondered sleepily. At Mums, the family greeted us. Hugs and congratulations all around. We ate something, I don't remember what. We opened a case of Iron City Beer and I drank three or four while kids and dogs played in the yard. I had stretched and used my foam roller as soon as we got home, and now I sat on the chaise lounge, my legs punishing me every time I tried to move them. My medal was still hanging around my neck. I looked around and thought to myself, "This just might be the happiest day of my life."




Mrs P and me before the race
My niece and a buddy
Nobody loves you like your little sister





The next morning, I checked my fundraiser page. $3490. I still have a few pledges coming in, so we'll be rounding that up a little. 


WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?


Survivor? Damn right, I am
  • The Pittsburgh was a very reckless choice for a first marathon.
  • I need to spend a lot more time building up my core and leg strength.
  • I want to be several pounds lighter before I take on my next 26.2.
  • A four week taper might be just a little too long.
  • I missed a lot of early walk breaks, and need a louder alarm so I can hear it in heavy traffic.
  • I need a lot more speed and hill work if I'm going to enjoy my next big race.
  • I have the best, most supportive, loving friends and family in the universe.
  • God is great.
  • Cancer is a wussy.
  • There really is no place like home.
  • I am a by-God marathoner.


My God, what a great day for a run.


Peace,
Pennsy


Oh by the way, Living Strong at the Y will be accepting donations until Sunday, May 13. You know, just in case you were waiting to see if I would actually do it! 

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