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My life has been a series of obsessions.  The first was tennis, back in the late seventies when the sport was in its heyday.  I grew up across the street from a set of courts and my brother and I would be there everyday honing our skills and taking on all comers.  The only breaks we took during the summer were to watch Wimbledon on TV.

I was a huge Bjorn Borg fan and probably the only kid in my little western Pennsylvania town that had Fila clothes, Diadora shoes and a Donnay racket.  Borg would forego shaving during the tournament and would look so cool by the time he reached the finals.  I couldn’t wait to be old enough to shave, so then I could NOT shave during Wimbledon.

My brother and I are only 13 months apart and extremely competitive.  This intense rivalry pushed our games to new levels and it wasn’t until he started beating me regularly that I began to lose interest.  However, his love of tennis has continued and now he’s one of the head teaching pros at Family Circle Tennis Center in Charleston, South Carolina.

After tennis, my obsessions continued one after another through the years: Kurt Vonnegut, golf, Jack Kerouac, the Grateful Dead, snowboarding, Tom Waits, mountain climbing, Haruki Murakami, travel writing, and then for the last several years, running.  This parade of random obsessions has been a great source of fun.  Life is never boring while you’re in the grip of an all-consuming activity.

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I didn’t consciously choose any of these obsessions.  They chose me and would eventually pass just as mysteriously as they appeared.  I never used to worry when my interest in one of these activities started to wane because I knew that something else would soon appear to take its place.

At the end of last year, without any sort of warning, running started to lose its appeal.  It made me sad to think that this thing which has given me so much pleasure may no longer be a part of my life.

Looking back on 2014, I think of all the places running has taken me.  There were races in Texas hill country and in the mountains of Oregon and Washington.  While traveling I was able to do training runs though Sabino Canyon in southern Arizona, along the River Walk in San Antonio, around Central Park in New York, through O’Keeffe Country outside of Santa Fe and over a seven mile bridge linking the Florida Keys.

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One day I saw a bald eagle scoop a fish out of the Willamette during a morning run along the river and another day watched the sun rise and then set while circumnavigating Mount St. Helens.  I feel so lucky to have had these experiences and know that they wouldn’t have been possible without running being such a big part of my life.

So for the first time I decided to not sit back and let an obsession pass.  I tried instead to come up with a plan so running could remain my focus.  Initially the plan involved taking some time off and only running when the mood struck.  For a few months I only ran 2-3 times a week and some weeks not at all.  As time went on, I wanted to run less and less.

Running, they say, is addictive, but you want to know what else is addictive?  Not running.  As my fitness level decreased, running became harder and less enjoyable.  I understood for the first time why most people think of running as a chore, as something to be endured.

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So I started 2015 with a new plan.  Instead of running only when I felt like it, I would now run everyday, no excuses.  It doesn’t matter if it is cold, dark, or windy, I’ll be out there putting in the miles.

It really sucked at first, but then slowly my fitness level started to improve and it started to suck a bit less.  As it got less difficult, it became more enjoyable (funny how that works).  It was a solution so obvious I’m still shocked it actually worked.

Now that March has arrived and the days are getting brighter, I find myself obsessing about running again.  I’ve starting checking all my favorite websites and am now planning my summer racing schedule.  Recently I had a dream come true by having my photo appear in two different running magazines.

The first was in an issue of Ultrarunning and is somewhat embarrassing.

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The photographer caught me at a low point in the race and while the woman next to me appears to be out on a Sunday stroll, I look like a broken down old man with a walking stick.  Luckily in this photo from Trail Runner magazine, I’m looking a little more determined.

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These pictures appearing one after the other felt like fate.  I now know that it’s too soon for me to give up and move on to something new.  There’s still so much I want to see and do in this sport.  And even though this old man may sometimes need a walking stick to get up the hill, I’m going to keep plugging away no matter what.

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This is the time of year when many runners dial back the mileage, partake in a few too many holiday indulgences and look back on the year that was.  Even though I had my share of struggles, 2012 was my best year as a competitive runner.  Here are some of the highs and lows:

Injuries:  I came across a posting on letsrun.com recently asking readers to share their goals for the coming year.  By far the number one response was, “to be injury-free.”  In no other sport are injuries as common as they are in running.  I bet even pro football players are injured less than runners.  I started out the year with a stress fracture in my lower right leg.  In June, I broke my wrist in a cycling accident.  I also had a strained tibialis anterior in my shin, a pulled muscle in my abdomen, and a couple of twisted ankles.

Am I doing something wrong?  Is running more than 50 miles a week bad for our bodies?  And the big question, why do we keep running if we’re just hurting ourselves?  Sometimes I feel like an unwilling participant in an abusive relationship and too much in love to ever consider leaving.

Want to know my number one goal for 2013?  To be injury-free.

Friends and Family:   My favorite races this year were not necessarily my best races, but ones where I ran with and had the support of good friends and family members.  In January, my brother Colin and I ran a half marathon in Florida.  He’s new to running (one of those Born To Run converts) and to see him set a new personal best was pretty awesome.  Also in January I ran a race in Forest Grove with Chuck, an old climbing buddy.  On the way home we stopped off for a well-deserved pint and a couple of our usual bacon blue cheese burgers.

Another friend, Greg was with me when I ran my first ultra in 2011.  This year I was lucky to have him as my support team at the Siskiyou Out Back (SOB) 50K and at the McKenzie River 50 miler.  In April, I fulfilled a lifelong dream to run in the Boston Marathon.  It was extra special having Yoshimi there to share a pre-race lobster dinner and a post-race Red Sox game at Fenway.  Running long distances is solitary pursuit.  Races should be used as an excuse to socialize with those we most enjoy spending time with.

Second goal for 2013: More races with familiar faces.

Adventures:  For me races serve several purposes.  They’re a competitive outlet, a motivator for everyday training and a setting to see how far and how fast I can run.  This year, however, I realized that you don’t necessarily need an organized race to have those same goals met.  You could just pick one of the hundreds of beautiful trails here in the Pacific Northwest and set off on a self-supported run of your own.

This past summer I did 30+ mile solo runs on the Wildwood Trail in Forest Park, the Eagle Creek/Wahtum Lake loop in the Columbia Gorge and around Mt. Hood on the Timberline Trail with my ultra running mentor, Jon.  On these self-supported runs there’s no pressure or expectations, just a full on wilderness adventure buzz.

Another goal for 2013: Less races, more adventure runs.

The Big One:  Last year on New Years Day it was cool and crisp with a rare winter appearance of that great fiery ball in the sky.  As I circled my way up Mt. Tabor I decided that my big goal for the year, the Mack Daddy, would be to run a 100 mile race.  From that point on, all the training I did over the course of the year was in support of that single goal.  My race schedule was structured systematically (10k, half marathon, 25k, 30k, marathon, trail marathon, 50k, 50 miler, in exactly that order) to slowly build towards the Javelina 100.  That may seem a bit anal, but I knew that running that far should not be taken lightly.  Everything went according to plan, expect for one aspect, the post-race recovery.  Afterwards I was both physically and psychologically spent.

To work towards one goal for so long and to accomplish it is truly a wonderful thing, but it also leaves you with a certain emptiness after the fact.  For most of November I completely lost the desire to run.  I didn’t want to think about running, talk about running or write about running.  I realize now that my body and mind needed a break.  The exact same thing happened last year around this time.  The mind has a curious way of turning up or down our desires to suit the needs of our bodies.  But not to worry, my friends, the brain has started pumping up the volume once again and my passion for running has now returned.

Reminder to 2013 self: Set big goals and then take big breaks.

Miles and Miles:  Three weeks ago I realized I was just 150 miles away from hitting 2000 miles for the year.  It hadn’t really been a goal of mine to run 2000 miles this year, but it’d be a shame to finish just short of that oh-so-sexy 2000 mile breakpoint.  So I decided to run everyday until the end of the year.  Some days were brutal: cold, wet and windy.  Others were pure joy.  The good being so much better after a bit of the bad.

Today is the last day of the year and I’m just a couple miles short of 2000.  It feels great to be so close and to have run so far.  Maybe I’ll wait until 11:30 and then do a few victory laps around the neighborhood.  Yoshimi can join be for the last 100 yards.  We’ll run with beers in hand and finish just as the clock strikes midnight.

Final goal for next year:  2013 miles in 2013, a 0.65% increase!

Happy New Year.

Every January, countless magazines, newspapers and blogs devote many a column inch to the practice of making New Year’s resolutions.  I don’t know how the concept got started, but I love the idea of creating voluntary challenges for the betterment of our lives.  What’s surprising, however, is that rarely do you see a follow up several months down the road.  I guess the not-so-surprising reason is that most resolutions are broken soon after they’re made.

I started out the year with three goals:  to live a more balanced life, to become a more patient person and to learn how to swim long distances.  We’re now almost halfway through 2012 and I’m happy to report that I’m two for three (who cares about that stupid patience thing anyway).

My resolution to learn to swim is the one I still can’t believe worked out.  Like most people I know “how” to swim, however there’s no way I could do a proper freestyle stoke for any extended period.  This has always been something that has bothered me, especially after my interest in triathlons was peaked while reading Iron War.  At the beginning of the year when I set this goal, I had no idea that learning to swim would be so difficult…or so enjoyable.

On January 3rd, I was full of confidence as I slipped into the water at the lap pool in my gym.  But less than a minute later and just halfway through the first lap, I had to stop and catch my breath.  It felt like I was drowning and full-on panic mode kicked in.  It’s a horrible feeling.  After flailing through a few other pathetic attempts, I decided that this just wasn’t going to work out.  Luckily, I hadn’t told anyone about this resolution yet.

The next day I did some research and discovered that water is almost a thousand times more dense than air.  While most anyone with average fitness could jog a mile, there’s no way that same person could swim continuously for 100 yards with poor technique.  The good news is that even small improvements in swimming technique will lead to huge increases in efficiency.  The bad news is that I would definitely need to seek out some help.

A local triathlon shop recommended a swim coach who works with lots of runners and cyclists who are struggling with this tricky third discipline.  Dennis Baker was a top collegiate swimmer at the University of Arizona and twice qualified for the Olympic Trials.  He still competes regularly and coaches swimming full time.  This guy’s got chlorine running through his veins.  During my first lesson, he gave me several drills to work on and encouraged me to buy a pair of fins.  The purpose of the fins is to help with propulsion, so you are better able to focus on proper technique.  I felt like Aquaman cruising through the water with my new royal blue Zoomers.

Dennis suggested I practice on my own three days a week and work specifically on the drills he gave me.  I used the fins most of the time and intentionally never swam more than a single lap at a time.  My first breakthrough came after stumbling across a swimming program called Total Immersion.  Check out this guy effortlessly gliding through the water (gotta love that cheesy 90’s background music).

This video inspired me to pick up the book, Total Immersion-The Revolutionary Way To Swim Better, Faster, and Easier.    Its basic premise is that a streamlined body position is the key to swimming well.  The book and the accompanying videos on YouTube laid out a series of drills to help you achieve the desired “fish-like” body position.

So, for three months all I did was work on the drills Dennis gave me, along with the ones in the book.  Never once did I swim a single lap with a regular freestyle stroke.  It was just drills, drills, drills for one hour every other day at the pool.  The goal was to commit to muscle memory the proper technique.  Once a month, I’d meet with Dennis for another lesson.  He’d videotape me, analyze my stroke, and then give me more drills to work on.  I think I was improving, but it was hard to say because I never swam more than a single lap at a time.

Once April rolled around, I felt like I was finally ready to start swimming (or maybe I was just sick of all the drilling).  Either way, I stopped doing the drills and took off the fins.  Do you remember what it’s like to learn a musical instrument or a foreign language?  After months of struggling you just want to give up, but then a moment comes when suddenly, inexplicably, you’re playing music or speaking another language.  It feels like a miracle.  That’s exactly what I experienced that first day.  I swam 40 laps, slow, smooth and steady, only stopping occasionally to catch my breath.  I felt like a bird that just learned to fly and I didn’t want to stop.

Swimming had always seemed so boring–the endless back-and-forth across a giant chlorinated bath tub with nothing to look at except the black line painted along the bottom.  But it is those exact qualities that have proved to be most appealing.  While in a pool swimming, there is nothing to see, nothing to hear.  It’s almost like being in a sensory deprivation chamber with the only motion a light flutter kick and the rhythmic stroke-stroke-breathe cycle.  Running has always been extremely meditative for me, but swimming, with its forced focus on breathing and lack of sensory stimuli, has allowed me to go even deeper, sometimes to a point where I completely lose my sense of self.

I feel so lucky to have acquired this ability to swim.  While it required a fair amount of discipline, all in all it only took three hours a week for several months.  Even if you’re not a “water person,” it’s still a life skill everyone should have.  My only regret is that it took me 42 years to finally master it.  In two weeks, I’ll be putting my new-found swimming ability to the test at a triathlon in McMinnville.  It’s just a sprint triathlon (the shortest possible distance), but it’s a start and one step closer to becoming an Ironman.