Thursday, December 2, 2010

Running With FiveFingers

In the running world these days, minimalist footwear and barefoot running are all the rage. And I have to say that I am an unapologetic bandwagon-jumper. Like many, I read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and bought in wholesale to its philosophical proposition: that human beings are designed to be able to run long distances very efficiently and that the bare human foot is a quite capable instrument on its own…without the aid of Nike, New Balance, Saucony, over- and under-pronation support, medial support, cushioning, and rigid orthotics, to name a few.

I was a fairly easy target to convert to the new religion of minimalism. My first marathon, run in the finest of running shoes, with more-than-ample training, left my feet and ankles crippled. A visit to the foot doctor followed and so did rigid orthotics. Add those to the finest running shoes money can buy and what do you get? In my case, three marathons later, it left me with feet that ached so badly they had to be iced after any run longer than 10 miles. Sure, the ankle problem was fixed, but my feet were still crippled after distance of any significance.

After the 2009 Chicago Marathon, I took some time away from long distance to work on my running form (assuming it to be the culprit) and then came across McDougall’s book. I was so inspired by it that I took off out the door unshod before I ever finished. My first barefoot run was on a whim. I went three miles (way too long on my tender pads) but it still stands out as one of the top three runs of my life.

I can’t express the freedom I felt barefoot.

Let me offer that, on a very fundamental level, I am not “born to run” particularly quickly or well. At only 5’11”, I tip the scales at around 220 pounds. I’m made of wet red clay. Every time I take a step, whether running or walking, gravity is not in my favor. I hit the ground hard. I have short legs. My genes are suited to tending sheep on a grassy hillside in Scotland and not to running across the plains of Kenya.

All that to say that I probably have more trouble than most avid runners in getting my feet to land under my body and provide for a smooth, non-impact-producing stride. As hard as I may try to the contrary, when I am in “regular” running shoes, my foot lands way out in front of my body, heel-first, and jars the rest of my body. I’m not sure the exact amount of impact in pounds-per-square-foot, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of “ouch, dammit, my feet hurt, fatass.”

Without shoes, however (and in the Vibram FiveFingers), my feet feel free. I run with an ease that I have never come close to finding otherwise. I have rediscovered running. I am still as slow as constipation, but I feel like a real runner. My foot lands just under my body, on the mid and forefoot, and quickly glides backwards, minimizing impact. The fact that the FiveFingers has no cushioning whatsoever is irrelevant. I don’t need it. My foot pain is gone.

On Thanksgiving morning, on a bit of whim, I decided to run a half-marathon. It would be, by far, the longest distance I’d run in the FF and I wondered how my feet would hold up. Generally speaking, I’m a big proponent of the Galloway Run-Walk-Run method – especially for long distances. But with these shoes, it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t want to stop. Save for a couple of hills toward the end of the race (when my lack of cardiovascular training caught up to me), I ran the whole distance.

For me, for now, it’s back to basics. No fancy engineering, no rejuvenating moisture-wicking socks, no fuel belts, no Gu, no heart rate GPS watch (hell, no watch at all), no fartleks, no hill repeats, no lactate threshold training, no VO2 max workouts…just running.

With some very funny looking shoes.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Of Lightbulbs Dying

A lightbulb rarely dies of natural causes, at least in my experience. It’s usually the seemingly innocuous flip of a switch, followed by a momentary flash of light, concomitant with the audible “tzzzt” of the bulb’s final breath…and then darkness.

A violent death – the last gasp of a supernova. Think about it: when was the last time you were, for example, lounging in the armchair, tidying up the loose ends to “Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban,” the pleasing glow of the Sylvania Summer Daylight 60-Watt illuminating your studies, when suddenly, but ever-so-eloquently, you are cast into darkness as the bulb silently lets loose the last of its lumens, the 10,000th of its promised hours having been fulfilled?

I have never witnessed a lightbulb go gently into that good night; it rages, it rages, as out goes the light.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Broken, or "I'm Audi"

When I was about 23 years old, round about 1992, I bought a 1985 Audi 5000 Turbo Diesel from B. Don Massey, my good friend and major professor at UGA. At $2,000, it was, by far, the finest automobile I had ever owned. Although in those days, passenger diesel cars were not as common as they are now and as a result, diesel fuel was a little harder to come by and I often found myself fueling up my little Krautmobile next to a long-haul Peterbilt. Good memories, nonetheless. One thing that a poor college student does not need, however, is a cantankerous German automobile with a parts scarcity not yet alleviated by free global trade. When my brake master cylinder went bad, I was faced with a dire predicament: (1) I needed to be able to stop the Audi and could not do so without the assistance of the hydraulic braking power supplied by said part; and (2) having decided that said repair was necessary, locating the funds to make it possible.

A brand-new master cylinder priced at no less than $500. And that was just the part, no help included. Pricing the job from the local stoner Audi mechanic specialist (every town has one) was close to a thousand bucks. After a thorough search of the yellow pages and a not-yet-fully-developed execution of personal resourcefulness, I found a rebuild kit for $187. It was still a huge kick in the teeth. $200 was no joke to a college student. And I still had to figure out how to get a rebuild kit into the part that it was designed to rebuild.

Thoroughly flummoxed, I talked to B. Don, who can fix damn near anything. Honestly, I (selfishly) assumed (hoped?) that he would feel badly about my situation and offer to do it for me; because, frankly, the prospect of rebuilding a master cylinder sounded like something a mechanic did…certainly not a schlep with a drama degree who was working on a Spanish degree because he was too afraid to leave college. I couldn’t fathom how it could be done without years of training. But B. Don was having none of it. He told me that I should just do it myself. He’d lend me the tools I needed and I would just do it.

After an endless barrage of frantic questioning, he finally became sufficiently frustrated and said to me – in a tone that only those who know B. Don will fully understand – “Now, Doug, goddamit, you just take all the old shit out and put the new one back where it was.”

How f*In right he was.

Just take out what was bad and put in what’s not in its place.

A simple and substantial poetry that I failed to grasp at the time. However, left with no other options, I meticulously, yet clumsily, disassembled the faulty master cylinder and started piecing it back together with the kit, using only the rough illustration contained therein. Making notes along the way, I finally got it all to fit back the way it was (theoretically) intended and slapped the reconstructed part back on the brake booster.

After several failed attempts at bleeding the brake system, I brought the Audi to a shadetree mechanic who easily performed the task for about $40. And damn! Wouldn’t you know it - my brakes worked! My rebuilt part held. I can’t tell you how immensely proud of myself I was. I started listening to country music to celebrate my backwoods artistry. I told anyone who would listen, and many more that would not, about my newly-found skills. One would think it would be difficult to weave the rebuilding of a brake master cylinder into a coffee-shop conversation about Dostoevsky (and under normal circumstances, it would be), but forcing it proved to be quite easy.

What a lesson I learned from B. Don in those simple words. Just take it apart and put it back the way you found it.

I can’t quite express why this success with a menial mechanical task was so meaningful to me. Perhaps it’s because I’d been raised in theater, certain that my talents lay only in the realm of ethereal artistry. Perhaps it was a first step in asserting my independence as an adult. As a capable man, ready to accept the challenges of the world. Perhaps it was just a man thing, like masturbating for the first time. I just don’t know.

Years later, in 2001, after my wife and I were engaged and moved in together, we had a weekend visit from my best friend Steven Uhles and his wife Jo. Sometime that night, a distinct electrical burning odor came from the guest bathroom. With apartment maintenance iffy at best, and a clear electrical danger at hand, I decided to try and trace the source of the issue. Eventually, Steven and I realized the odor was coming from the bathroom’s wall outlet. After a short trip to Home Depot, a closing of the proper circuit on the breaker, and some clumsy splicing and cutting, a new wall outlet, sans odor, was operational.

Wow, now I was really proud of myself. I felt the need to strip to loin cloth and beat my chest. Maybe it was a man thing after all.

But wait! This was me: helpless, hopeless, sheltered, scared, timid Doug Elser – taking command of a situation and thinking my way thought it, even though it wasn’t at all familiar. Braving the unknown with a sense of adventure, curiosity, and confidence. Wow, sounds like maturity to me. Getting shit done.

And although a common – and familiar – malady followed (ManWhoThinksHeCanFixAnything-Itis), the decision to follow and trust instincts had begun to take hold in my life.

I’ll skip all the painful starts and stumbles in developing that skill from 2001 to 2010. I will say, however, that B. Don’s grand and (perhaps) unintentional metaphor guides me now at age 40 as a husband, father, and friend.

Take a good look at what’s broken. Make note of it. Think of how it should look. Use a manual if necessary. But then, without fear (rather, with a sense of wonder!), set out to putting that shit back together so it ain’t broke anymore.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A feeling I had twenty six years ago

Even as I write this, I'm hesitating to share something so intimate in so public a setting. Part of me thinks it's too private, part of me thinks I'm being an exhibitionist. But the truth is, I think I'm just a plain ol' narcissist and that I'm certain that everyone wants to know everything about me. Hee.

Spring is wonderful and hard for me. When the seasons change, I always feel a little blue, at least for a while. But spring is different. It's a marvelous season. But it's also the time of year that my mom died back in 1984. She was buried right around easter. So, it's this strange mix for me; I'm generally very energized by the longer days, the warmth, the beauty (as are most people), but some days this "funk" just appears. After so many years, I've finally come to understand what it's all about.

And it's OK. I mean, it really is. I think some wounds are there for a lifetime. And it's only when we let them cripple us or dictate how we live that they become an issue.

So, every now and then, I put pen to paper and let rip with a good-ol' angst-filled poem. So here it goes. Don't read this if you're in a good mood. But, hey, it makes me feel better...and that's all that matters, right? :)

Twenty Six Years

a feeling that I had

about twenty six years ago visits me

every year about this time.

as another spring brings

energy and light and rebirth

and people again start to smile,

a feeling that I had

twenty six years ago

stirs from a place that I don’t quite understand

and it wipes spring from my face

and smells and senses and blush and bloom

and a flush of warmth

and a coat of pollen

and a sweet musty scent

span twenty six years,

linked across time by a memory

so that every year,

it all feels as though

those twenty six years never passed

and that this spring bears the fruits

of the last and the last and the last

as if the spring itself never brought happiness

or life

or rebirth

to earth

and as if everyone else must feel the same as I

in what is

for me

a season of death

and the feeling I had twenty six years ago

is a scream and a wail

for a mother who left too soon

and drew her fingernails across my memory

as she slid down to death

scratching and scarring

all memory

so spring itself, you see,

is never a season of birth,

as the memory of twenty six years

coats all blooms.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


When we lived in caves, we were hunters, gatherers, foragers, pillagers, and, at times, we became prey ourselves. The “daily grind” consisted of getting to the point of laying our head on the cave floor alive at the end of the day. I wonder how we slept back then, without Tempurpedic pillows and white noise machines. I suspect we slept well. Even without a fleece blankie or a nice glass or two of Shiraz.

I think of this because I woke up this morning with a gnawing anxiety in my stomach. And I couldn’t think of a single specific thing to be anxious about. Sure, I had things to do. Sure, I have a toddler at home and that’s work. Sure, I have obligations, duties, societal pressures, oil changes and the need to make sure I choose the right deductible on my car insurance to spread risk accordingly. But I had no bad news awaiting me. I didn’t have to go into the hospital for chemo, nor did I have to finagle myself into a wheelchair in order to go to the bathroom. My house was warm, my bills were paid, my wife loves me and my child adores me.

It’s precisely the absence of real drama that has me so nervous.

If a sabertoothed tiger came at Anne and Anton, I’d have no problem with knowing what to do. I’d instinctively attack, defend, perhaps die. But there would be no ambiguity.

In the mundane – meaning, the civilized, routinized world in which I live – there is an abundance of ambiguity. I suspect by the time I finish my coffee and crank up the Chevy, I’ve faced more choices than my caveman ancestor did in a year. I don’t like all these damn choices.

There is terror in the mastery of the mundane. And that’s why my stomach hurts.