Monthly Archives: April 2014

Carnitine and athletic performance

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The molecular structure of carnitine. Public domain

This post is similar to the one I did on arginine not too long ago. Basically, omnivores generally get enough carnitine, but many vegetarians and vegans probably don’t, so in theory they may benefit from supplementation. This may be particularly true of vegetarian and vegan endurance athletes.

What is carnitine? It is a quaternary ammonium compound biosynthesized from the amino acids lysine and methionine. It is used for the transport and metabolism of fatty acids. High amounts are found in red meat and in dairy products to a lesser extent. Little to none occurs in plants. Since the body also synthesizes carnitine from lysine and methionine, getting enough of these amino acids can help ensure adequate amounts. Whatever you do, don’t confuse carnitine with carnosine!

Thing is, plant protein generally contains less lysine and methionine than meat protein, and this may be why(besides plants not containing carnitine) some studies show that the blood of vegetarians and vegans have lower amounts of carnitine – Correlation of carnitine levels to methionine and lysine intake:

An average carnitine level in vegans was significantly reduced with hypocarnitinemia present in 52.9% of probands. Similarly, the intake of methionine and lysine was significantly lower in this group due to the exclusive consumption of plant proteins with reduced content of these amino acids.

I don’t believe this should scare anyone into eating meat. After all, I am a vegan! But it may be helpful to be mindful of such things. Don’t forget that there are some vegans out there who, for whatever reason, fail to thrive on the diet. There are also a lot of former vegans. Maybe lack of carnitine and/or some minerals like iron or zinc are part of the reason why. Another reason is that there are, unfortunately, a lot of junk food vegans out there who consume way too much sugar and fat, and not enough fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. This could lead to a serious deficiency of one or more nutrients. Here is an old, though interesting carnitine study: Systemic carnitine deficiency exacerbated by a strict vegetarian diet.

Based on all this evidence, does it make sense for vegan or vegetarian athletes to supplement with carnitine? Once again, I couldn’t find anything specifically about vegan or vegetarian athletes and carnitine in the scientific literature, but did find a carnitine study done on marathon runners. According to, Effects of L-carnitine supplementation on physical performance and energy metabolism of endurance-trained athletes: a double-blind crossover field study:

In conclusion, acute administration of L-carnitine did not affect the metabolism or improve the physical performance of the endurance-trained athletes during the run and did not alter their recovery.

It did nothing! I do wonder though if the runners had been vegan if they would have benefited. Hopefully, researchers will do a study like this some day. At best, I could find a study which showed that Short-term carnitine supplementation does not augment LCPomega3 status of vegans and lacto-ovo-vegetarians. This means that supplemental carnitine in vegetarians doesn’t help convert one form of omega 3 fatty acid(ALA), to the other vital omega 3s, DHA and EPA. This conversion is important since vegans and vegetarians may sometimes be lacking in DHA and EPA. However, we are getting a little sidetracked here.

So is carnitine useless as a supplement? I don’t think there is strong evidence suggesting vegans should take it, and it doesn’t appear to be toxic in recommended amounts, however, one promising area of research involves carnitine in its acetylated form, acetyl-l-carnitine. There’s some evidence it may help with nerve regeneration. According to
Acetyl-L-carnitine improves pain, nerve regeneration, and vibratory perception in patients with chronic diabetic neuropathy: an analysis of two randomized placebo-controlled trials:

CONCLUSIONS:

These studies demonstrate that ALC treatment is efficacious in alleviating symptoms, particularly pain, and improves nerve fiber regeneration and vibration perception in patients with established diabetic neuropathy.

This sounds promising, though more research obviously needs to be done. If you’re a diabetic with nervous system problems, don’t take this as a recommendation to supplement with acetyl-l-carnitine. Speak with your doctor.

So where does this leave us with respect to carnitine? I don’t supplement with it, and I show no deficiency symptoms, and neither do most vegans I know. It’s possible the bodies of people who may be lacking in carnitine compensate somehow. After all, running 2 marathons while juggling and finishing in under 4 hours, while having been a vegan for years is pretty good evidence I’m not deficient in anything. The same goes for vegan super stars like Scott Jurek. All I take is a multi-vitamin.

Like I said before, it is possible that carnitine is something vegans may be lacking in that may explain why some fail to thrive. If this applies to you, see if you can get your blood tested for carnitine or other compounds to see if you are deficient.

 

Barefoot running versus minimalist shoes

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Currently, the ever-present question in the running world is: to run barefoot or to not run barefoot? Barefoot running is all the rage these days, with many barefooters swearing it has helped improve their running. They claim that sneakers tend to distort our running, making us run in a less optimal manner. Some barefoot runners run barefoot all or most of the time, weather permitting. Others may do it occasionally as a form of cross-training.

While it is true that barefoot running has different biomechanics and running economy than running with sneakers, what little science we have doesn’t confirm most of the benefits barefooters regularly tout. Barefooters often claim that running sneaker-less encourages landing on the forefoot(as opposed to running with sneakers which encourages landing on the heel), which they claim reduces the risk of injury. This isn’t necessarily true, and there is little evidence of reduced injury due to barefoot running.

Of course, there are some rather obvious issues with running barefoot for more than a few miles, like callouses, and blisters, among other things. As a compromise, some people wear minimalist shoes while running. They are like socks but with extra padding for the soles of your feet. They are supposed to be just like barefoot running bio-mechanically, while providing just enough protection for your feet.

The point of this blog post though isn’t to answer the question of whether or not barefoot running is better, but if minimalist shoe running is bio-mechanically equivalent to running barefoot. According to
Running in a minimalist and lightweight shoe is not the same as running barefoot: a biomechanical study:

CONCLUSIONS:

Barefoot running was different to all shod conditions. Barefoot running changes the amount of work done at the knee and ankle joints and this may have therapeutic and performance implications for runners.

So it looks like minimalist shoe running is not the same as barefoot running, at least when it comes to bio-mechanics. As for me, I’ve never tried barefoot running for more than a few miles. The most common arguments for it are unpersuasive to me since they are almost always based on a very common logical fallacy I’m a bit tired of: The naturalistic fallacy – “it’s more natural, therefore it’s better!”. I did a post on this fallacy a while back: Radioactive Brazil nuts and the naturalistic fallacy

I will of course continue to look into this and I hope more good research is done on the bigger question of barefoot running, rather than how minimalist shoes compare with it. I may try doing it occasionally if I have the time, just as an experiment, even though I find the arguments for it unpersuasive at best.

Have you tried barefoot running or running in minimalist shoes? Have you experienced any benefits from it?

Perplexity

Escher's_Relativity

M.C Escher’s “Relativity”. Source: Wikipedia

“The tantalizing discomfort of perplexity is what inspires otherwise ordinary men and women to extraordinary feats of ingenuity and creativity; nothing quite focuses the mind like dissonant details awaiting harmonious resolution”

Brian Greene

Arginine and athletics

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One of my favorite running trails in the early spring.

When you’re a runner, you’re always looking for that special something to give you that “edge”, to improve speed and/or endurance. There’s no shortage of nutrients, herbs, and even drugs to choose from. Overwhelmingly, most are not proven to work, but that doesn’t stop many runners from taking even the ones that science shows are useless. Now this may be a little different for vegan runners. Some nutrients that meat-eating athletes take for granted like iron, zinc, or possibly creatine may help improve athletic performance in vegans since these nutrients aren’t as plentiful in plant foods or are harder to absorb from them.

It is possible that this is the case with arginine, a “conditionally” nonessential amino acid, which means it is essential for some people or essential some of the time for most people. I know, it’s a bit confusing! This is in contrast to the 9 essential amino acids that are essential no matter what. For more information on the differences between essential and non-essential amino acids please read: Amino Acids.

There’s some evidence that vegetarians tend to run a little low on arginine compared to meat-eaters: Plasma homocysteine levels in Taiwanese vegetarians are higher than those of omnivores.

Now like I said before, it is possible that some nutrients may benefit vegetarians, especially vegans, but not meat-eaters and this may be the case with arginine for reasons cited above. I tried to see if I could find any studies that looked into this specific question, if arginine could benefit vegetarian athletes. I couldn’t, but here are some studies that looked into arginine in general.

According to Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Jul in No effect of acute L-arginine supplementation on O₂ cost or exercise tolerance:

In conclusion, acute dietary supplementation with ARG or ARG + CHO did not alter biomarkers of NO synthesis, O₂ cost of exercise or exercise tolerance in healthy subjects.

It doesn’t appear to be useful based on this.

This study came to a different conclusion. According to J Strength Cond Res. 2010 May;24 in: Effects of arginine-based supplements on the physical working capacity at the fatigue threshold:

These findings supported the use of arginine-based supplements, at the dosages examined in the present investigation, as an ergogenic aid for untrained individuals.

According to the second study, it did help, although they may have been measuring things a little different. Both studies were small studies, though the second was the larger study.

What to make of this? I don’t think anyone should take arginine based on the evidence, and more research obviously needs to be done. Now it is possible that vegans could benefit more from arginine supplementation, but this is speculation on my part. Based on my readings, it may be potentially harmful to take one isolated amino acid in large amounts since this could displace other important amino acids.

Since there’s plenty of vegan runners out there that take no arginine supplements and show no acute arginine deficiency symptoms, I really do not believe supplemental arginine is necessary. If you’re a vegan, eat as many different types of legumes, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains as you can, to make sure you are getting optimal amounts of all the necessary nutrients. A vegan multi-vitamin that has iron, zinc and B-12 may also be a good idea, just in case.

From Lemons to Glory

Screenshot from 2014-04-12 09:57:28

Incredibly, it looks like joggling lemons may have improved my joggling. Sometimes the road to glory is paved by ridiculousness. Yesterday, the day after joggling lemons for a few miles, I managed to break my previous record and joggled for 23.3 miles without dropping my juggling balls even once.  Still, this is my longest interrupted(both running and juggling interrupted) run without drops, not my longest uninterrupted(continuous non-stop running and non-stop juggling) run without drops – that is still 15 miles. Without stops(of juggling or running), or with stops(due to traffic, quick bathroom breaks, water breaks) 15 miles without dropping has been my record.

The weather was perfect yesterday, with temperatures in the upper 60s, and mostly cloudy. I ran north on the Putnam trail, then ran east to White Plains to get to the Bronx river trail which I used to run back south, doing a big oval. It took me 3 hours and 37 minutes to run 23.3 miles, at a 9:18 pace. The upper body exercises like push-ups and curls I did on the same day I joggled lemons may have also helped. I also kept tricks to a minimum, since I often drop while doing them.

Like I said before, this wasn’t uninterrupted joggling, since I did carry them a few times for a few seconds when crossing busy streets, and I stopped to get some juice up in Elmsford, but still, I didn’t drop them even once while joggling. It feels miraculous. This shows how doing something ridiculous can improve athleticism. The challenge of joggling with irregularly shaped lemons may have improved my precision, so it was easier to joggle with my regular balls.

It has taken me years to get to this point. Juggling/joggling is like playing a musical instrument, it requires a lot of practice to achieve proficiency. But don’t let this intimidate you. I remember when I couldn’t juggle at all, and when I finally could, I frequently dropped. When I first learned to joggle I couldn’t run more than 50 feet without dropping the balls. After finally going beyond 50 feet, for many months I couldn’t break the 0.3 mile barrier. I finally broke through 0.3 mile, and next thing I knew 1 mile was the new barrier. Then 2 miles. Then 5. Then 8. Then 10. Then 15. And now 23.

Years ago, I never would have imagined being able run 23 miles while juggling and not dropping the balls even once. You never know what you’re capable of until you try it. Truth be told, and this isn’t the first time I am saying this but I am not innately well-coordinated. In fact, I still think I am closer to a clutz than a well-coordinated person. This is largely why I didn’t play any sports in high school, not even the track team. I was the kid in gym class everyone laughed at because I couldn’t catch or throw.

I hope this inspires you to be more creative with your fitness routine. Try new things, be ridiculous. You may be astonished by the results!

Joggling lemons

IMG_2477What’s next after joggling oranges? Why joggling lemons, of course! I managed to do this for 4.8 miles yesterday, dropping them a bunch of times. Although they weighed less than the oranges I joggled a few weeks ago, their shape makes them a little more difficult to handle. The protruding ends of the lemons would sometimes stab the palms of my hands a bit, causing a little pain. This isn’t an issue with most oranges. The lemons averaged about 4.75 ounces each, just slightly more than my usual Sil-X juggling balls(a little more than 4 ounces). The oranges I juggled a few weeks ago were nearly twice as heavy, and because of this, they really slowed me down.

With all the drops, and stopping to take photos, my timing is irrelevant. Besides, this was also a strength-training day, and I usually can’t run fast on strength days. I had Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song” playing in my head during this run.

One of the things that I like the most about joggling fruits is the novelty of it. I am so used to joggling with the same old balls, it gets a little boring at times. It’s no longer as challenging as it used to be. So it’s nice to be able to joggle with something different for a change. It feels like it is more brain stimulating, to juggle fruits that are each slightly different in shape, weight, and texture, unlike a set of balls which are uniform. So I have to focus a little more on my juggling pattern while running, and make the proper calculations and adjustments. This may help improve my joggling.

As the old saying among jogglers goes, “When life throws you lemons, joggle them!”. In case you’re wondering, I am not sure who was the first to say this.

I’m also not sure what I am going to do with the lemons. Make lemonade? Lemon pie? I appreciate any suggestions!

Besides being a lot of fun, lemons are an excellent source of vitamin C. For more nutrition facts about lemons, check out: Nutrition Data on Lemons

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Birds of lower Westchester celebrate spring

IMG_2437Now that the weather is getting warmer, the birds are coming out to play, to sing, and to search for food. Lower Westchester county in New York has numerous wild bird species, each with its own unique bird call, and unique resplendent plumage. Like I sometimes say to visiting friends, if you want to see a fantastic fashion show in New York, you can’t beat going bird-watching.

Now I am not very good at recognizing bird species, either by their call or by sight, but I believe the above is a robin. I could be wrong though. If it is a robin, it is most likely an American Robin or Turdus migratorius, which is a species of the Thrush family. If it isn’t an American Robin, it must be another type of Thrush.

This is one of the most common bird species in North America, and according to Wikipedia there are 7 sub-species of American Robin. If you want to take a stab at guessing the sub-species of the bird above, be my guest.

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The noisy bird in the above photo is a member of the Woodpecker or Picidae family, or near passerine birds. This woodpecker sure made a lot of noise pecking into the trunk of that tree to search for insects. This was how I became alerted to its presence. I rarely see them.

I’m guessing that it is a Hairy Woodpecker or Picoides villosus, based on its black and white plumage and size. They live throughout North America, but particularly in deciduous forests.

It’s always wonderful seeing and hearing all these unique species while running or walking. Besides woodpeckers and robins, I also often see cardinals, hawks, and some other species I have trouble identifying. The unidentifiable species add a bit of mystery to the local forests, as I try to figure out at least which bird family they belong to. They are difficult to photograph.

I hope all you northern hemisphereans are enjoying the spring, and if you’re a southern hemispherean, autumn!

Chi Running

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To the outside world, the running community may look cohesive and monolithic. But this is deceptive. Look a little closer, and there’s a startling number of different schools and types of running. It’s like Christianity with all its sects and sub-sects, which may not be so obvious to many non-Christians.

There’s barefoot runners, there’s trail runners, jogglers, ultra-runners, track-runners, backwards runners, and there are also countless approaches when it comes to marathon training. Different dietary approaches among runners further divide us. Besides this, there are runners who love running in the rain, and runners who hate it.

In spite of all these differences, us runners generally do manage to get along, usually quite well, and we never go to war with each other. We settle our differences by racing.

Just when you thought the running world had more than enough sects, along comes Chi Running. What is Chi Running? It is an approach to running that borrows ideas from T’ai Chi, and is said to help improve running and decrease injury risk. T’ai Chi is a martial art that emphasizes proper posture, balance, breathing technique, and “aligning the body with the mind”. It is a very meditative and gentle kind of martial art, so it can help the mind relax.

Of course, the core concepts of T’ai Chi aren’t all that unique to it since they are used in many other martial arts, it’s just that T’ai Chi isn’t generally used for rigorous self-defense training, it is done for therapeutic purposes. The concept of “chi” is central to T’ai Chi, and roughly translates as “vital life force”. This concept, which is also used in traditional Chinese medicine, and is supposed to be some kind of subtle “energy” that can supposedly can be manipulated to treat disease or improve our athleticism is pseudo-science. The “Force” from Star Wars is roughly similar to “chi”. However, this doesn’t mean T’ai Chi isn’t a good exercise, in my opinion.

Now I think that borrowing ideas from T’ai Chi to help improve running is not necessarily a bad idea(except for the mysticism). However, it’s not like there is anything novel about this. Any good running training program teaches proper breathing, posture, and balance. Chi Running proponents claim their program can help you run more efficiently, as well as focus your mind to improve your running, among other things. This sounds great, but it seems to be a mere repackaging of basic running technique. It’s not like Chi Running experts just “discovered” these things!

At least Chi Running proponents don’t claim you have to learn T’ai Chi to practice Chi Running. You just have to understand the concepts, and incorporate them into running. Since the emphasis on balance and posture isn’t new, the eastern mysticism that underpins much of Chi Running may be what draws many people in. But the thing is, you can improve your posture, balance, and focus without believing in any of the mystical esoterica of Chi Running.

Because it is so new(it got started in 1999, and has become much more popular the past several years), there have been no good scientific studies done on it to see if it is beneficial for runners. Try it out if you want, but unless you need your posture or balance improved, it probably won’t improve your running. Proper posture, balance, foot-strike, and mind focus are all important for running – you don’t need a Chi Runner to tell you this.

Went for a nice run along the water earlier today, no "chi" involved!

Went for a nice run along the water earlier today, no “chi” involved!

 

Running too Much & Oil Pulling your Legs

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Tirumala Temple, India

I thought I would post 2 articles on 2 subjects a lot health-conscious people are talking about these days.

First, there’s the subject of “oil-pulling”. This “alternative” health practice, which involves swishing edible oils in the mouth is apparently becoming more popular. It is derived from Ayurveda, and is said to not only help improve oral health, but to help the body “detoxify”, and help improve various health conditions like migraines, or asthma. As I’ve said before, beware of any product that says it can help you “detoxify”. It is almost certainly quackery. The word “detox” is essentially meaningless outside of treatment for people who have been poisoned or are in drug treatment.

Dr. Novella at Science Based Medicine examines Oil Pulling from a skeptical perspective, and the various claims made for it don’t stand up to scrutiny: Oil Pulling Your Leg. It is within the realm of plausibility that it may benefit oral health, and swishing any fluid around your mouth is probably better than nothing if for some reason you can’t brush your teeth, but none of the other health claims have any scientific evidence for them.

Also much talked about these days is a recent study which claims running too much can kill you. I occasionally revisit this issue on my blog since as an avid distance runner, I’m curious to know what is “too much” when it comes to running. Alex Hutchinson(a biased source which even he admits) in Runner’s World closely examines the science to see what the data actually says, and for the most part, the data doesn’t support the headlines: Will Running Too Much Kill You?

Hutchinson takes apart the recent studies, revealing that, contrary to the alarmist media hype, those who ran the most miles did not have the shortest lifespans. There are so many confounding factors that are being ignored, and the conclusions drawn by those claiming high mileage running is unhealthy have no strong evidence supporting them. This doesn’t mean that it’s implausible that high mileage running can lead to a shorter lifespan, it’s just that those claiming this haven’t backed up their claims with any strong evidence. And these studies said nothing about high mileage jogglers!

So I see no reason to stop running 50 or more miles per week.

 

Another long run into Connecticut

Screenshot from 2014-04-02 07:38:10To me, running interstate is a lot more exciting than running entirely in New York. Upon crossing a state border, it’s like entering a Land of Mystery, where you never know what to expect. Of course, since I’ve run to Connecticut before and been there countless times by car, I usually know what to expect, but I kind of like to pretend that I don’t. And sometimes I do see some interesting things I didn’t know about before, especially if I run really far like yesterday.

Although it feels “different” at first, Connecticut isn’t so dissimilar from New York. This is especially true of Fairfield county in south-eastern Connecticut, most of which is within the New York City metropolitan area. Though some areas feel like New England since Connecticut is part of New England, it is really just a continuation of New York City’s northern suburbs, so it doesn’t feel like another planet.

That said, like a lot of places, it feels different if I run there instead of taking the car. There’s a bit more mystique to an area if you spend a lot of time and effort getting there on foot than by machine. This is as true of non-interstate runs as it is for interstate runs.

Last time I ran to Connecticut it was cold, and it was snowing during almost half of the journey. Yesterday’s run was on a glorious spring day, very sunny with temperatures in the upper 50s. I was sweating, though not profusely. This is perfect running weather, and occasionally a sweet sea breeze coming off the Long Island Sound would help cool me off. Last time I ran 20 miles to Stamford. This time I ran 27 miles as far east as the outskirts of the city of Norwalk. It took me 5 hours and 33 minutes to complete this run, and my average pace was 12:20. I dropped the balls about 5 times. I wanted this to be a leisurely run, and I stopped at many stores along the way to refuel, so this is why my pace was slow(among other reasons explained below).

There are so many historical sites and mansions along this route. Like the Whitby Castle in Rye, New York, and the Putnam Cottage in Greenwich, Connecticut, and countless other places. Many of the neighborhoods route 1 goes through in Connecticut are very affluent, so a lot of the homes are very large architectural marvels. Though this may be pleasing to the eyes, you can overdose on this while running through Connecticut’s “Gold Coast” if you’re not used to it. Just as I was starting to get a little tired of seeing nothing but opulence everywhere I looked, it came as a relief to run through the poor slummy areas of Stamford around mile 19. By mile 23, after passing through the hustle and bustle of downtown Stamford, I was joggling through Lifestyles of the Rich And Famous kind of neighborhoods again.

While my last Connecticut run was pleasant from beginning to end, I had some unfortunate problems toward and after the end of yesterday’s run. Due to eating 2 Cliff Bars while running(I’m trying to get my body to adapt so I can run longer distances), and washing them down with large amounts of Gatorade at around mile 15 to 16, I developed a nasty stomach ache after about mile 18. My legs were also feeling increasingly fatigued by then, and this seemed to be linked to the stomach ache, since on my 23 mile run several days ago I didn’t feel this fatigued even during the last mile of my run. The stomach ache eventually turned into nausea.

The last few miles were like torture to me, but I kept pushing myself, I wanted to run at least a marathon distance(26.2). Near and after the end, the nausea kept getting worse and I couldn’t hold it anymore and threw up several times. I felt better afterwards and luckily most of the nausea was gone by the time I got on the train to go home. Usually train or car rides make my nausea feel worse, but luckily it didn’t this time. As far as being in a mysterious land goes, when I ended my run, I was only vaguely familiar with the area, but had no idea where the train station was, but quickly noticed the arrow signs along the road pointing to its location. I also used the map program on my Android phone to help locate the Rowayton(a sub-section of Norwalk) station, which was a long walk south from where I officially ended the run.

If it hadn’t been for the nausea, stomach ache, and fatigue, I would have run a lot farther, at least 30 miles(my all time record), and possibly as much as 35. By the time I got home I felt much better after drinking a lot of water and juice, but unfortunately I soon discovered I got sun-burned. I sometimes forget how sensitive my skin is. Will have to start applying  sunscreen again.

Other than the negative experiences toward the end, this was still a wonderful experience. I got a lot of support along the way, and I noticed many people taking my picture, though hopefully not when I was vomiting(I tried hiding by then). It’s great to introduce veganism through joggling to a new audience.

I’m thinking that to avoid stomach issues in the future, I should drink a lot of probiotic juice before long runs, or eat kimchi or sauerkraut. I haven’t been consuming these things as much as I used to, and maybe this is part of the reason I got sick, though I also don’t usually eat so much during runs. I just hope that not being able to eat or drink anything for 2 hours after the run due to my stomach issues didn’t hinder my recovery. Upon my appetite’s return, I had a full dinner of soy nuggets with bread and vegetables.

Since I was wearing my vegan T-shirt, this run was both for activism and for fitness. It is so much fun combining the two. And one of the coolest things about endurance running or cycling for that matter, is that our “comfort zone” can be measured in terms of geography. 30 miles is my all time record, and I hope to break through it in the near future. Maybe I will run to the town of Fairfield, Connecticut next time.

What kind of runs or races do you have planned for the spring? Or if you’re in the southern hemisphere, for the autumn?