My Passion

The valedictorian at my high school gave a fiery graduation speech about her belief that life was about achievement. "Achievement is art!" she declared, and that statement has been burned into my memory ever since. Partly, this is because I shared that view with her, and partly because I had a huge crush on her at the time.

You can imagine my surprise when she turned out to have become a stay-at-home mom. What of the passion for achievement, I wondered? She explained later that she simply wasn't passionate about anything. Nothing. She does seem happy nowadays. I wish her well.

There is a good lesson in this for youths and adults everywhere: Passion is about as controllable as the tide at sea. There is no explanation for why some people throw themselves into the various activities they choose to pursue as passions. Some like to dance, others to read; some like to swim, others to learn languages; some love baseball, others gardening. 

Difficult as it is for me to fathom, some people really and truly enjoy being Business Analysts -- they go to all the conferences, pursue all the certifications, they wake up early and crank through JIRA tickets for nine, ten, eleven hours, skipping lunch to have meetings about "roadblocks," and so forth. Well, it's not for me to understand someone else's passion.

But it isn't for them to understand it, either. Few of us as toddlers knew that we would grow up one day to be fascinated by baseball... statistics. Maybe some of us always loved football, but none of us imagined that we'd grow up to be thrilled by fantasy football. Most people don't become avid bird-watchers until later than life and, well, how does that happen? Nobody knows. It does happen, though.

As a youth, I believed that my passion was music. I played a lot of guitar. The truth is, though, that I wasn't a good guitarist until much later, long after I had abandoned music as my passion and had embraced it as a mere hobby. After my passion for music started to wane (at least as the driving force of my direction in life), I threw myself into another passion: economics. I loved it, and I did well in my studies at school, but the higher I went in the economics world, the less it seemed to ignite me as it had in the beginning. I graduated and took on a less high-minded form of economics, office work. I've done it ever since.

I'm good at what I do. I have a somewhat narrow set of expertise that is often in high demand, and I have a complete skill set around that kind of work. This keeps me gainfully employed and assigned to projects that I can safely say I do enjoy, for the most part. But I punch in early and go home after I've worked my hours. I have no interest in overtime, I'd much rather be at home, doing something else. I don't hate my work, but I'm no fan of work in general. I prefer fun.

So, that raises the question: Am I like my valedictorian friend? Do I, too, lack a discernible passion? 

No. I do have a very fervent passion. It might sound cheesy, but my passion is love. From the moment I met my wife, I knew I wanted to love her; and from the moment we became committed to each other, I knew that our love was going to be the greatest project of my life. I have genuinely felt that way ever since. Moreover, upon the birth of my children, they became incorporated into this project as recipients and benefactors of my love, too. My project has expanded to include them.

The way other people describe their passions is how I describe my commitment to loving my family. I don't mean this in a "gosh, I love my family more than anything" sort of way. Everyone (who is sane) feels that. No, what I mean is that I drop everything I'm doing and forego all other aspects of my life for the opportunity to help my wife and children feel loved. They do feel loved, and they know how much I love them; but they also know how to receive love and, I certainly believe, are learning how to love the correct way, too. It's not merely an emotion to me or a stirring of the heart, it's a way of being. It's a way of treating people, a way of reaching out to them, a way of taking on their hardships as my own, and a way of relying on others when we need someone to rely on. It is a modus operandi, a manifesto. 

Well, I don't get paid for this. Some people are lucky enough to be passionate about their work, while others happen to be passionate about an outside interest that means a lot to them. Fortune has assigned me the passion of loving my family over and above what most people understand love to be, and has given me a keen interest in the acts of love and their accoutrement. 

Passion can be for anything, you just have to throw yourself into it. You won't always be paid for your passion; in fact, most of us never will be. But that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't pursue it, and it doesn't mean your life won't be infinitely better for having done so.


The Problem With Heroes

My four-year-old son loves cartoons, superheroes, books, and stories of all kind. If I start telling him stories, he will happily sit on my lap and listen to me for hours. He's never encountered a story he didn't want to hear; and if no one can or will tell him a story, he will make up his own. 

For as long as he's been able to hear stories, he has gravitated toward the villains. He thinks they're cool. He thinks they're tough. He always prefers the villains to the protagonists. As a parent, I would much rather he gravitated toward the heroes and model their behavior, but to my chagrin his interest is always strongly fixated on the villains of the stories.

Why might this be? I decided to find out. I asked him a barrage of questions over the course of many days and weeks to learn why he prefers villains. What he taught me was something we can all learn from.

Fundamentally, the reason is because villains are "cool." They're strong, confident, often witty, often depicted as much more capable than the protagonists. They speak in smooth, deep voices; they command attention and they exude strength and power. Seen from the lens of a four-year-old boy, what's not to like about villains?

The question really isn't why he prefers villains. No, the real question is why doesn't he see the heroes as cool, and from the above paragraph, the answer is obvious. Heroes are none of those things.

Except Batman. My son loves Batman.

In the 1800s, Romanticism was the literary order of the day. Heroes were perfect, villains pure evil, and stories were about heroes defeating evil villains. Eventually, writers began creating more complex stories, in which heroes had weaknesses and flaws that they had to overcome in order to defeat the villain. Every hero needed a "hero's journey." The battle between a hero and a villain became a battle between the hero and the weaker parts of himself.

From there, things just kept getting worse. Heroes weren't men anymore, they were boys, youths. Kids had to save the world from evil villains on their way to growing up. So every heroic story became a story about kids growing up. Eventually, girls wanted in on the action, and most modern tales of heroism are about girls growing up; or, as The Critical Drinker has repeatedly pointed out, girls growing up and learning that they've already been perfect all along. They just really needed to believe in themselves.

From this angle, is it any surprise that four-year-old boys are more interested in villains than heroes? Villains are fully formed characters, true Romanticist gods, ready and able to take what they want and enact their will on the world around them. And all the people who want to stop them are small, coed groups of weak little kids who haven't yet figured out how to be heroes.

God, who wants to be a hero in a story like this?

As a result of all of this, I am going to have to take more of a role in shaping my son's relationship to story time. He needs exposure to more heroes like Batman: Clint Eastwood's "man with no name," Jason Statham's various characters in all of his movies, Schwartzenegger's entire oeuvre, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, John Carter of Mars, Carson of Venus, and so on. 

My son is desperate for some good, old-fashioned literary Romanticism, and I'm going to give it to him. Shouldn't you do the same for your son?


I Can't Wait To Not See The New Superman Movie

 A social media connection of mine posted this photo:

I can't wait to not see that Superman movie. I'm really tired of Lois Lane being turned into a gritty, hard-hitting investigative journalist.

Time for a rant.

Women writers don't understand the appeal of Superman comics. (Women tend not to understand romance in general, but that is perhaps a topic for another day.) Men understand intuitively what's cool about a man who can perform awe-inspiring feats of strength and who can defeat any foe and overcome any challenge. Men also intuitively understand what it's like to be in love with a woman while, for various reasons, being unable to reveal to her the very best parts of who you are. And there is an instant human appeal to a story in which a person hopes that their personality is enough to win a romantic partner, without having to rely on tricks, fame, super-powers, etc. This is why Superman is a story that people enjoy.

But it's also a male-centric perspective. If a woman falls in love with Clark Kent... what's in it for her? To be sure, it's fun to be WANTED by someone at work, as long as he's not a creep, but if he's not handsome, powerful, and/or a man of great integrity, what exactly is the appeal? So, from the female side, the best part of the story is when Superman falls in love with an ordinary reporter. Not a beauty queen, not a rich debutante, just an ordinary girl who lives in an apartment and works for (what used to be) a humble newspaper. But, gasp, this creates an imbalance of power between the two characters, so now Lois Lane has to somehow "deserve" Superman and be equal to him in some way. She can't be beautiful or a rich debutante, though, or else women are going to hate her. So, she's gotta be a left-wing activist girl-boss. And you know what's really great about this? It proves that not only does Superman like girl-bosses, but he also likes left-wing activism! Now we're talking!

But wait, it gets worse. In this female-centric story, Clark Kent has nothing to reveal about himself to Lois Lane. Why would he want to? He's no longer an all-powerful hero with a vulnerable side he's seeking to share with the love of his life. No, in this story, Lois Lane must be the one who discovers Superman's true identity. So, Clark Kent doesn't seek to be vulnerable in the arms of the woman he loves; instead, the woman robs him of his anonymity by "figuring it all out by herself." Then she decides that he's the man for her. She takes him, and he lets her do it because, how could he not fall head-over-heels for such a girl-boss?

Except now there's nothing in the story that appeals to men. Or rather it only appeals to the kind of men who dream of falling in love with a left-wing activist girl-boss, which is... not very many men. And certainly zero young boys. And also, as it turns out, even most women don't particularly care for a story like this, because there's nothing interesting about it. The whole plot is, "Once upon a time, Lois Lane was awesome." Why was she awesome? Because she was good at being a reporter.

Look! Over there! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's--aw, who gives a fuck? There's a girl-boss over here girl-bossing! Who has time for superheroes?


My Daily Bread

A short while ago, I grew tired of paying in excess of four dollars for a loaf of bread that no one in my household actually enjoyed eating. My wife gave up eating all but the seediest, crumbliest multigrain bread on the shelf, but I was unable to eat that for blood sugar control reasons. Meanwhile, my children enjoyed only the sweetest, most cake-like white bread, and even then would refuse to eat the crusts. You can likewise imagine what impact that bread had on my blood sugar. The bread that did work for me tasted... fine. When I first discovered it, it was about $2.50 per loaf (even then, expensive by my standards), but the price has increased quite a bit over the years.

All this adds up to: bread was a problem at my house. It was expensive, and it didn't taste good. Some people in my position would just give up eating bread at all. I took a different tack: I decided to buy the fanciest, most expensive bread machine I could find and commit to baking my own bread at home.

As I've tried to explain, this was a decision made out of necessity. Baking, and cooking in general, gives me no great pleasure. I don't hate it, but I consider it the same as any other chore I would rather do than not do: I'm glad to do it, but it doesn't make me happy.

Thus, my needs as a home-baked-bread man were as follows: I need the bread to be cheap, good-tasting, easy to make, requiring no great thought, finesse, or strategy on my end for baking it, and I would like it to be consistent. 

After baking a number of the standard recipes that came with the bread machine, I settled into a white bread loaf that met my needs. I have adjusted the recipe to improve its taste more to my liking: not so sweet, and a fair bit saltier. Now, I don't buy bread at the store anymore at all. I bake it exclusively at home.

Here's what I've learned and how I've benefited from this change:

First, I now spend less than half as much money to get a loaf of bread about twice as large. That's a win for home economics.

Second, my bread has no preservatives. It's made only of water, wheat, sugar, salt, butter, milk, and yeast. This matters a lot more to my wife, who has developed a bit of a fear of chemicals. Even so, the bread I bake lasts long enough for us to eat it, so the preservatives aren't necessary.

Third, and possibly as a result of the above, the bread tastes a lot better. It tastes normal, as bread should taste. It tastes so much better than my kids now prefer to eat a slice of bread for a snack to some of the other snack food garbage kids tend to develop a taste for. And they eat the bread crusts; even the heels! My wife happily eats the bread I bake, and she had all but given up eating bread at all. And, of course, it tastes better to me, personally, because I've adjusted the recipe to match my own flavor preferences.

Fourth, it works with my blood sugar. It is admittedly not quite as good on that level as the other bread I was eating, but it's viable. 

Finally, it is incredibly easy to bake - I don't have to think about it, or knead it, or jump through special hoops and techniques to get it to come out correctly. I don't have to add seven thousand special ingredients to make it better in one way or another. It is almost thoughtless. I just add the ingredients to the machine, and in about three hours' time, I have a perfectly baked loaf of bread with great texture.

So, I achieved all my goals and solved my household's "bread problem." I recommend this solution to any of my readers who can afford an expensive bread machine and who have similar issues with store-bought bread. 


My Running (Training) Philosophy

It's been two years. I'd offer an explanation for why I haven't posted in so long, but there is no need to do that since, after all, no one's reading this, anyway.

First, some recent context: I spent last year training very hard and dedicating myself to discovering the ins and outs of "Zone 2 training." This, of course, is very vogue now - and especially so last year - but all it really amounts to is undertaking a large volume of slow training, in pursuit of a higher VO2 max and better "metabolic fitness." I'll say more on that in a moment. What I want to say here is that I found Zone 2 training to be a very useful intervention for me, personally. I needed it, and lots of it. 

Unlike the dogmatists, however, I do not see Zone 2 training as a panacea or a way to unlock secret potential you haven't yet tapped. I see it more or less the same way Dr. Inigo San Millan sees it: as an important intervention for those who require an endurance correction. I needed that, and I got it.

What happened next for me was that I angered the Zone 2 gods (i.e. triathlon gurus on Twitter) by suggesting that too much Zone 2 training is a bad thing, by making note of the fact that many, many fast 5K and 10K runners are successful at much lower training volumes (e.g. Parker Valby winning the NCAA cross-country championship on 30 miles per week), and by emphasizing that quality miles matter far more than an enormous quantity of Zone 2 miles.

No, the gods didn't like that much, and banished me to the outer darkness. So here I am, back on my blog, where I can write whatever I want to, and no one reads it anyway. And today, I'd like to write about how I see training for running, in a sort of philosophical way.

Long-time readers will remember that that's kind of where this blog started, so I've come full circle. Let's begin now.

The Three Axes of Running Development

As I see it, a runner develops along three distinct "axes" as he trains:
  1. Muscular development
  2. Bio-energetic development, i.e. cardiovascular and metabolic fitness
  3. Biomechanical development, i.e. running form
Let me introduce these three concepts in a way that you might have recognized as you yourself have run over the years.

As you train, you may have found that, during some kinds of workouts, you can't go any faster because your muscles are burning and they won't move your body any faster than it's currently moving. Strengthening these muscles and conditioning them through running will address this problem, and over time, you should find that muscular development is no longer the obstacle it once was.

During other workouts, you may have noticed that you can't go any faster because you're gasping for breath, your heart is pounding, or you've spent all your energy already and now you're totally cooked. In this case, you need more "bio-energetic development." In other words, you need a healthier cardiovascular system and/or more Zone 2 training to improve your metabolic efficiency. Once having done this, you'll find that you can almost run forever without getting tired, provided your muscles can do the work (see above).

At other times, you may find that your muscles and your cardiovascular fitness seem fine, but you can't seem to keep up with other runners who are just inexplicably faster than you. They're not just faster in Zone 2 or Zone 4 or in a sprint. They're faster at all levels of effort. No matter how hard you train, you can't seem to access that extra gear that other people seem to have. Why not? Likely because your running form is preventing you from really striding out like you need to. Addressing your running form issues will put you on a level you never thought you would be.

Now that you know what my "running axes" are, let's talk briefly about how to improve along each individual axis.

Improving Your Muscular Development

I'll keep this short.

Improving your "muscular development," or in other words, conditioning your running muscles, typically happens one of two ways: Lifting weights and running fast.

The faster you run, the more the effort shifts away from your calves and quads and into your hamstrings and glutes. You can see this easily by comparing running injuries between distance runners and sprinters. Sprinters more frequently pull their hamstrings, often right there during the race; distance-runners more often pull their calves, hips, Achilles tendons, etc. But even if you're distance-running, the faster you run, the more engaged your glutes and hamstrings will be.

Thus, many runners who are seeking to get faster need to ensure that their glutes and hamstrings are stronger. That is, these muscles must be stronger than they have become merely by Zone 2 jogging around for 100 miles per week. More jogging won't get you this kind of strength. What you need is a direct intervention via training.

Resistance training is infamously under-utilized among runners, but it's probably the best place to start. Just doing some squats, lunges, bridges, and leg curls once or twice a week, progressively increasing the weight until you feel different about your muscles will go a long way toward improving your muscular development. A tremendous benefit of lifting weights is that it doesn't count as "running miles," so you're not over-training in terms of running by adding a strength workout to your training regimen.

While you're at it, don't forget to train the rest of your running muscles, too: quads and calves, especially. You don't want to create muscle or form imbalances by focusing too much on one part of your leg and not training the other part at all.

That said, lifting weights will only work if you put your newly strengthened muscles to good use on the road. That's when we come to running fast, i.e. sprint intervals. Sprint intervals, "anaerobic training," "Zone 5 training," etc., all these terms amount to the same thing. What you want to do is spend a good, solid amount of time running as fast as you possibly can. Think about running 10-20 repetitions of 100-400 meters each. And it will be all the better for your muscles if you do these intervals uphill

Sprinting and weight-lifting will also make positive changes to your running form, your metabolic efficiency, and in some cases also your VO2 max. But remember that the primary goal of muscular development is to build your running muscles so that they're strong enough to be faster.

Improving Your Bio-Energetic Profile

If you find yourself gasping for breath when trying to finish a big workout (especially a tempo run), it might be time to improve your bio-energetic profile. If you find that you can't complete an easy long run without your heart rate steadily drifting up into Zone 3 / Zone 4 territory, then it is definitely time to improve your bio-energetic profile. How do you do it?

The easiest and most practical way to improve your cardiovascular system is to just do more running. That's right - more Zone 2 miles. While I do not that "Zone 2 training" is a special, magic thing, I do of course understand that there is no replacement for a good "endurance base," and that's precisely what Zone 2 training is all about.

Ideally, as you craft your training cycle, you will start out with a few months dedicated to improving your endurance base. That will mean focusing mainly on Zone 2 miles for months at a time, with a few threshold runs sprinkled in for good measure. How many miles? As many as you can reasonably tolerate. As many as your schedule allows. As many as you can run without injury. You may even find it highly beneficial to stop running and just do hours of low-impact cycling or swimming to develop your cardiovascular and metabolic fitness.

All these Zone 2 miles do come at a cost, of course. When you're not running fast, you're conditioning your body to run slow. That's why we typically do our base buildup in anticipation of our next big training cycle. If you're in the middle of training cycle and you don't think your base is what it needs to be, I recommend finishing out the cycle and then going back to a buildup phase.

Now, sprint intervals will also help you improve your VO2 max. Additionally, weight training will build peripheral muscles that will be able to process lactate and thus improve your metabolic fitness. So Zone 2 is not the one and only way to improve your bio-energetic profile; it is simply the main, most efficient way to do so, and in my view, represents the most reasonable intervention to use if your goal is better endurance. But all of these training strategies should be used by all runners at some point during their training.

Improving Your Running Form

Bio-mechanical improvements to running are the most difficult to teach. To some extent, I think they have to be observed first, and then internalized, and finally the runner has to do some experimentation to find new comfortable ways to run faster. However, if you've ever read my blog, you know how important I think running form is. To me, it is the great differentiator between a recreational hobbyist and a runner who actually has a chance of winning something.

There are a number of exercises one can do to develop better running form. This now being the "TikTok Age," you've probably seen all of these exercises on short little videos set to music: A-skips, B-skips, butt-kicks, high-knees, cariocas, and various hurdle drills. All of these exercises will help you improve your range of motion, which is necessary for great running form.

...But these exercises won't teach you great running form. For that, I know of no other substitute than looking at great runners like Paul Chelimo or Connor Mantz, observing what their running form looks like, and then trying it out yourself. Go out and try to make your legs look like their legs. Try to do with your arms what you see them do. The more you look like them, the more likely it is that your running form is good. Take video footage of yourself and make notes for possible improvements. Then, start making those improvements.

I have found the best success working on my form during easy runs, where there is no pressure to perform and I can simply direct my thoughts to whatever form issue I think needs to be addressed. Over time, you will start to feel faster, and that's a beautiful feeling.

In Practice

As you train and improve, you will probably go through many (infinitely many) iterations of needing to develop one thing or another. It's not as if every one runner just has to work on one thing. I'll work to address one thing for a month and then notice that something else now feels like the biggest obstacle; so, I'll start tackling that one.

For beginners especially, it's not common to be completely out-of-breath during the first few weeks of running. Then, as your cardiovascular system starts to adjust to the new workload, you'll likely find that your muscles aren't up to the tasks you want to give them. And as you continue to alternate between building better endurance and better legs, you'll start to notice form becoming an issue.

So we just work on things as they come up - especially if you're not engaged in any kind of formal training cycle. As you chip away at one thing, another takes precedence and you chip away at it instead. Forever. This is the running journey. 

Closing Thoughts

The last point I want to make here is that, because these three running axes exist, and often interact with each other, this explains why there is no "magic workout," no "perfect training approach" for all runners everywhere. You can study the Twitter running gurus if you want to, but eventually you will come to realize that although two runners with equal marathon times may both want to improve, one of them might best be served with more tempo runs while the other might best be served with more mileage. One of them might need to lift more weights while the other might need to improve his form.

In short, not only is there no one-size-fits-all intervention to make us all better runners, but even the same intervention won't work for the same runner at different times in his "career." The key to training is understanding which intervention to apply at which time to succeed. Unfortunately, that kind of wisdom only comes from experience.

But you can gain that experience! You just have to get out there, start running, and start chipping away at your biggest weakness until your next biggest weakness reveals itself. And I wish you the best of luck in your pursuit.