Why I am a de facto semi-vegetarian

The short answer is The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I was already generally aware of the atrocious ways of meat production in the United States: extreme cruelty to animals; adverse impacts on human health and on the environment. But the gory details were sufficient to compell me to decide not to participate any longer. There is no excuse for treating chickens, pigs, and cattle the way large industrial producers do, and I refuse to be complicit in a system of which I so strongly disapprove. Indeed, it would be hypocritical of me to do otherwise.grilling_veggies.jpg

That doesn’t mean I am a full-blown vegetarian. Homo sapiens is one of those animals that eat other animals in order to survive, and I have no problem with that in principle. If you can serve me a piece of pork that was once a pig who was raised and killed in as humane and environmentally sustainable a way as is reasonably possible, I will happily eat it, mindful of the pig’s sacrifice. A roasted rabbit, who led a natural bunny life hopping around and eating and fucking until dispatched so skillfully that Mr/Ms Bunny never knew what hit her or him? Bring it! But getting that kind of meat requires substantially more expense and effort than does the supermarket kind, and as of yet I haven’t made the effort, so I have gone without eating the flesh of cattle, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and so forth.

Fish is another matter. Figuring out which kinds are harvested in an environmentally responsible fashion also takes some homework, and they have faces, and they probably don’t like suffocating any more than you or I would. But I am content to rationalize that a sardine does not have the cognitive functioning to realize how bad it’s getting fucked before it ends up in a can. Maybe I will eventually change my position. For now, I need protein and don’t want to depend solely on nuts and tofu. So I eat fish with some qualification.

One might say, let’s see you kill and butcher that animal yourself, and then see how you feel — as Michael Pollan did. I would certainly be willing to give it a try some day — killing my own food sounds kind of cool, in fact. But for now I am a creature who lives in the suburbs, works in a city, and going hunting with my crossbow is not really a practical alternative. The idea is certainly not forever foreclosed, but for now I am content to allow someone else to kill my food animals for me.

Opting out of industrial meat has not required any difficult adjustments in my diet, because I was already eating a lot of vegetarian meals, rarely consuming red meat, and increasingly eating fresh and local food. I have had to renounce that Cambodian style noodle soup from a Cantonese place near my office, a delicious concoction made with sliced and ground pork as well as shrimp and egg noodles in broth probably made from ducks who undoubtedly fare no better than the pigs.

As for eggs, we generally buy the most environmentally correct ones available, and willingly pay a premium over the industrial kind (think of it as insurance against salmonella poisoning courtesy of a mass producer in Iowa who churns out millions of eggs a week — you don’t need to be a Slow Food connoisseur to see the problem inherent in production on that scale). But that’s also a tricky game, since what you read on the carton — “cage free,” for example — may be bullshit. But I eat salads from a deli near my workplace, sometimes containing a hard-boiled egg about whose origins I know nothing. I am not a purist; I compromise. When I eat my kids’ left-over pepperoni pizza, I peel off the pepperoni and eat it, unconcerned about the pizza being tainted with pepperoni residue. And maybe — maybe — when Thanksgiving rolls around I will decide to go along with the program and partake of the turkey. We’ll see.

The result of this modest dietary change is that I feel fine both ethically and physically. I like to burn a lot of calories running, and have kept on setting personal record times since quitting the meat. Over time, I suspect our family will be eating still more local and fresh, and adjusting our diet according to the seasons in New Jersey. The rest of the family might even phase out the industrial flesh consumption. For now, this is working well for me.

My happy transition to the Vibram FiveFingers

If you’re a runner, then you’ve undoubtedly heard a great deal of hype about the barefoot/minimalist running movement. Like countless others, I read Born to Run and was intrigued. The prose style is so dreadful that I was tempted to quit, but forced myself to suck it up for the sake of the content.
For context, here’s a quick running résumé. At 52 years of age, I have been running for about 23 years, but only casually for the first 20 — about three times a week, four or five miles at an easy pace. In January 2008 I ran my first half marathon, and loved it so much that I ran a marathon in October 2008 and another in November 2009, the latter fast enough to qualify for Boston. At present I am not formally training for any event, and I run as much as I can in light of my substantial commute, work and family responsibilities — about 120 miles per month.
After seeing some online discussions (at my local running club) about the Vibram FiveFingers miminalist foot-glove, I decided to order a pair. Scouring the web I found that my size was out of stock everywhere. It was clear that the VFF’s Warholian 15 minutes are in full swing. Vibram can’t make the damn things nearly fast enough to meet the demand, and one has to beware of scammers who have popped up selling counterfeit versions. I finally back-ordered some VFF Sprints from an outdoor gear place in Oregon, and they kept moving the shipping date back so that it took a full six months for mine to arrive at my door.
Under the influence of Born to Run, I had decided that rather than replacing my Mizuno Wave Elixir 4s, I would just continue to beat the cushioning out of them. They were pretty well-worn by the time I ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon in May 2010 (in NY Marathon-qualifying time, thank you very much), and had over 500 miles by the time I put them aside.
Put them aside, because I ran out of patience while waiting on my VFFs and got what seemed to be the next best thing that was readily available: the Mizuno Universe 3 racing flat. The things are so light they might as well be made of paper. The soles and heels are scant enough to qualify this shoe as minimal. I took them out for a easy-pace ten-mile spin on day one, and felt only minor soreness in my calves the following day. I adopted these Mizunos as my full-time shoe and perhaps not coincidentally, started running faster. Have I changed my stride? I think so, but I don’t know. I haven’t consciously done anything radical.
At last, three days ago, the VFFs showed up. The first time I put them on it took some doing to get my toes into their individual — whatever you call them, the counterparts of what we call fingers of a glove. But one learns quickly to become more toe-aware, and the VFF is a fascinating new sensation.
Now comes the potentially treacherous part. There are reports of a lot of people getting injured by transitioning too quickly into minimalist footwear, attempting too much too soon. Maybe I should have gone for a mile or two the first time out. But I like to run, so I went for five miles on a treadmill: the first three at an easy pace, the next couple moderately fast, the last .75 fast. It felt fine. I took the next day off, waiting to see if there were any ill effects. Experiencing none, I got on the treadmill again today for a 1-mile warmup followed by a 5-mile hill climb followed by a level half-mile to cool down, all at an easy pace. All good, and I was feeling strong the whole while. I plan on some more treadmill tomorrow, and will make my street debut the day after tomorrow for around 10 miles.
Thus it turns out that I have made a gradual transition into minimalism in three phases: (1) running in a conventional, fairly light shoe until it was beaten to hell; (2) running in racing flats full-time, then finally (3) running in the VFF. I should also mention that I am uncommonly fortunate and not prone to significant running injuries. But for me, this approach to VFF adoption seems to be working beautifully.

Running the 2009 New York Marathon


I had the privilege of running the 2009 New York Marathon on Sunday, November 1. This was my second marathon; the first was Philadelphia in 2008. I trained for 20 weeks using a program from runningplanet.com specifically designed for a 3:40:00 marathon. In the final week of training I decided to reset my goal to 3:35:59, which qualifies a male in my 50-something age bracket for the prestigious Boston Marathon.

The NY Marathon is a logistical tour de force, with its 40,000-plus runners. Organizers clearly went to great lengths to keep everything moving and avoid excess congestion. Thus the start was divided into three waves, and these in turn were further partitioned into separate routes that only merged several miles later, where the streets were wider and people were naturally spread out more than at the start.

The streets were lined with hordes of cheering people. The atmosphere was highly charged, and despite the fact that I knew better, and even as I knew what I was doing, I committed the classic marathoner’s mistake known as going out too fast. Instead of running around 8:14 per mile, my pace over the first 10K was 7:53.

Gradually I calmed down and ran the middle third of the race at a more reasonable pace. But you can’t change the past, and by mile 18 I knew I was going to have to pay for my earlier lack of discipline. I had taped to my left wrist a timetable showing how much time had to have elapsed at each mile if I was to attain my goal time, and from consulting it I knew I was ahead of the pace throughout the course. But by mile 20 I was fading and the margin of error was getting slimmer. I concluded that I had nothing left, therefore nothing to lose. I would ask myself, can you stand another six miles of this? Yes I can. At five miles to go: can you stand another five? Yes I can. And so on.

The split times over the last six tell a tale of alternately fading, then fighting back. Mile 20, 8:22 — too slow. Mile 21, 8:28 — even slower! Mile 22, 8:12 — excellent, two seconds ahead of the goal pace. Mile 23, 8:10 — great. Mile 24 which is largely uphill, 8:49 — despair! Mile 25, 8:04 — heroic. Mile 26, 8:22 — too slow, but we’re almost home. For the last 0.2 I was running at an 8:35 pace — definitely fading fast.

When at long last the great sign that said Finish came into view, I was so spent that it took me a couple of beats to comprehend what it meant. I crossed the finish line and stopped my watch at 3:34:44: success.

Weaving and unsteady on my feet, I was accosted by a volunteer who led me to the medical tent, where I ended up lying on a cot recovering for about 25 minutes. On the adjacent cot was a guy named John from New Zealand, apparently in his 40s, who had also nailed his BQ (Boston qualifier) at 3:17 — and who had likewise spent everything he had and then some, and landed in the medical tent like me. In a shared state of total exhaustion and elation, we had a wonderful conversation about the nature of this amazing thing known as marathon running. It was a highlight of the whole experience.

During this conversation with John I had an insight: a marathon is at once both a communal, public event — a grand party, an orgy of thousands running through the streets! — and at the same time, as intensely personal and intimate an experience as you can have. It is absolutely solitary, but in a way that is neither good or bad. You drop down into ever deeper realms of your own consciousness and find out about who you really are. Think ten years of psychotherapy compressed into a few hours. Or, for you Zen practitioners, think of a week sesshin crammed into a single morning. No wonder the marathon game isn’t for everyone. I believe that many marathon runners are motivated by nothing other than a search for the Truth. We intuitively understand what Master Bassui teaches: the Great Question cannot be resolved by the discursive mind.

Second-guessing myself, I speculate that I could well have attained the same result or better if I had run a more disciplined, strategic race. It would have been more elegant if I had conserved energy in the first half and had a powerful finish, running the last miles faster, not slower, than any of the preceding. But as experiences go, what actually did happen cannot be surpassed. It was a marvelous adventure.

Training for the NY Marathon

This afternoon I was doing speed work on a treadmill as part of my training for the New York Marathon on November 1. I am preparing to run the 26.2 mile course in 3 hours and 40 minutes, or 8:23 per mile, and this is the 16th of 20 weeks of training. Today’s assignment, according to the program I am using, was to run seven one-mile repeats at 7:28 per mile, alternating with .25-mile periods of recovery at an easy pace, then finishing heroically with a final quarter mile at nearly full pace.
The magnificent thing about this program is that it works. It gets gradually more demanding, calling on you to run farther and farther, run fast for progressively longer periods, run uphill for miles at a stretch, and so forth. And you do it. How? With your feet, one step at a time. Left right left right left right. At the end of week 17 there is a 23-mile run, then you taper off into a more merciful and gentle regime designed to let you recover from that exertion while staying well tuned until race day.
Cranking out the one-mile repeats on the treadmill I experience a remarkable sensation of freedom and power. Sure, it’s hard work, but this body — miraculously — rises to the occasion and not only does it, but does with confidence and relative ease. When the third and fourth repeats feel lighter and easier than the first and second, it seems as though one is getting stronger even while expending energy.
Today I had a weird and moving experience while banging out the last quarter mile at something close to as fast as possible. As I heard my feet drumming and felt my lungs working, there came to mind an image of a virtuoso pianist performing the closing measures of some fabulous show piece, perhaps Franz Liszt. The pianist dressed in formal concert attire, hands flying everywhere, her whole being absorbed in concentration, the music filling the darkened hall like thunder, the audience absolutely entranced. Nobody even thinks a thought, there is nothing other than music. I had the feeling that there was no difference whatsoever between that and this, this and that. Tears came to my eyes.
And the music was over. I pressed the “Cool Down” button, finished sweating for a few quiet minutes, then went and took a shower.

Philadelphia Marathon 2008: Woo hoo!

Your humble servant Professor B had the privilege of running the Philadelphia Marathon on Sunday, November 23, 2008. The bottom line: 3:51:51, average pace per mile 8:50.7. In relative terms, that’s 2529th out of a field of 7261 finishers.

For those who like to look at pictures, I have a couple over here.

If you like both pictures and sound, feel free to download this clip of me expressing my gratitude to runner and running guru Rick Morris of runningplanet.com, and while you’re at it don’t forget to view the incomparably profound postscript to that message. (My watch said a couple minutes less than my chip time, most likely because I accidentally stopped my timer for a while while fumbling with the splits. I was deluded when I was bragging about 8:49:something in the video clip.)

If you like textual narrative, please read on while you wait for those fat-ass AVI videos to download.

* * * * *

As I mentioned in a previous post, I signed up for my first marathon and began training in earnest last summer, following a program intended to prepare you to run a four-hour marathon. It usually called for six training days per week — though I was not able to fit in more than five — and mixed various types of workouts. With precise instructions as to speeds and distances, the program is highly scientific and technical, designed to develop speed, endurance, lactate acid processing, oxygen uptake, and so forth. The treadmill was more a necessity than a convenience for accurately regulating speed, so I did a mix of treadmill and outdoor running.

The coolest thing about this training regime is that it works. My wheels got a little beaten up at times, but my engine kept getting stronger. It was also highly addictive. Crack pipe became my nickname for the treadmill. The “easy” runs, at slower than marathon goal pace, were times of soothing relaxation and enjoyment.

I did my last of a series of progressively longer “long” runs on Election Day, November 4. I cast my vote for Barack and ran my 23 miles, and was more than pleased with the outcome of both contests. Per the program, there followed a sort of holy period where you run relatively little, concentrating instead on recovery from the last long run while staying tuned up for the great day.

My girlfriend — let’s call her Amy, to protect the innocent — was phenomenally supportive throughout this project. Empathic and generous by nature, she also knows from experience what it’s like to train and run races. We made arrangements for the care of our respective children and drove together to Philadelphia on Saturday to stay overnight a downtown hotel.

Also lodged at the hotel were our friends, whom we’ll call Jennifer and Alain. The latter, an experienced marathoner, is the one who encouraged me to get into this endeavor (i.e., it’s all his fault). He was not wedded to meeting or beating a 4-hour goal, so we agreed to run together for as much or as little of the way as felt comfortable, and he encouraged me to move ahead whenever I felt the need.

I made a point of sleeping adequately Friday into Saturday because having known myself for a full 50 years, I expected the jitters might keep me up Saturday night. Indeed, I slept maybe 3.5 hours, but I didn’t worry too much about that. Hey, you can always take a nap after the race, right?

My anxiety level was moderate to low the day and night before. But in the morning, as the final minutes ticked off before I was due to meet Alain in the lobby and head over to the site, I was a basket case, anxiously buzzing around the room looking for things that I should have arranged neatly the night before. I thought I had allowed plenty of time, but this was a valuable lesson for next time: organize all your stuff, attach your chip and your bib, set out your clothing and accessories the night before rather than the morning of.

Temperatures at 6:30 a.m. were in the upper 20’s. Cold. I did what my marathon-experienced friend recommended: wore a couple outer layers of cotton things that should have been donated to charity long ago, and discarded them in the street once I warmed up.

Within the first few miles Alain checked a mile marker against his watch, and announced that either the mile marker was substantially off or else we were going way too fast. I have since heard rumors that some of the early mile markers were in fact misplaced. A little later, by my calculation we were behind schedule by more than two minutes. We probably slowed down too much, overcompensating for the miles we wrongly thought we had run too fast.

In the days before the race I had gotten the idea of printing out a timetable indicating what time should have elapsed at each mile, laminating it, punching two holes in the lower corners and pinning it upside down to my windbreaker for reference. I actually had this laminated thing ready to go in my hotel room, then discarded the idea because at the last moment I didn’t have time or inclination to fool around with any more safety pins. It wasn’t till dinner the night before that I heard from Alain that the idea has already been thought of, in the form of a bracelet that you can fashion out of paper and tape, and rotate around your wrist. Duh. That’s another lesson for next time: if you’re the obsessive sort who likes to know where he is and you’re not a savant whose glucose-starved brain can perform hour-minute-second arithmetic on the fly, then carry your little reference thingy if it makes you happy.

After about the first third or so, I moved on ahead of my friend because I was interested in getting back on schedule. Later I calculated that I had overcompensated again and was a couple minutes ahead of schedule, and slowed back down. Meanwhile my friend picked it up a little and we met again about half way through. Amy positioned herself somewhere near the half-way point at a strategic time and waited to greet us as we came around a turn and down a hill. It was well worth stopping for a mid-race hug and a kiss.

At some point I became uncertain whether I was ahead of schedule or behind, but thought most of the miles had probably been fast enough. I focused on the individual mile splits and maintaining a decent pace, staying around 8:45 to 9:00. I monitored my fatigue level, wondering if I was running stupid or smart. I enjoyed the scenery and the rhythm of the feet, and had a good time. The atmosphere was pleasant and convivial, the spectators and volunteers enthusiastic.

Alain and I ran together till around mile 18 or so and then I decided to pick up the pace, as I had planned to do. I went ahead, telling him he might see me later weeping by the side of the road.

After mile 20 I was looking for signs of serious fatigue, wondering again if I was going to crash into the dreaded wall about which I have heard so many horror stories. But the last several miles went by fast and I felt remarkably comfortable. I was passing people all over the place, as if walking through a room full of people standing still. Soon we were almost home and I stepped on the gas a little harder. I ran the last 200 meters at a dead run.

It really was glorious, an incredible thrill, busting it across the finish line with crowds of cheering people left and right. Without question, the whole race was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life. I am astonished that this body was able to do what it did, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for being healthy enough and having a sufficently lucky and privileged life to accomodate the training.

The wall must have been somewhere beyond 26.2 because I never hit it. Since the race I have been tempted to second-guess myself, thinking I might have run more aggressively, but that’s stupid. Which mistake would you rather regret? It’s a delicate balance between fuel conservation and performance.

And it’s interesting, is it not, how gratitude and greed can exist side by side. On the one hand you have tears of gratitude welling up in your eyes, and in next instant you’re demanding more, scheming and planning to beat this performance next time. Who’s up for the New York Marathon in 2009?

PS: my gratitude to the good people at the downtown branch of Urban Athletics for providing excellent advice, apparel and shoes.

Feet and ground: the Zen of long distance running

I spent a few minutes googling around for online literature — is that an oxymoron? — on the subject of Zen and running. Though it surely exists, I found but little. Mostly I found the word Zen misused, as so frequently happens, as a synonym for bliss. According to what I have learned about Zen (admittedly, not much), the heart of the practice is meditation, and meditation in turn is fundamentally not so much about vegging out, escape, self-improvement, or even stress reduction, but rather the practice of sitting with what is. Yes, there are occasional moments of what I call shocking clarity and calm. Perhaps for the experienced, skilled meditator these moments occur more often and for longer periods — ask me in 20 years and I will tell you. But for the most part, it’s about disciplined repetition. Inhaling and exhaling. The attention wandering off, and coming back, wandering off and coming back again. Again and again, minute after minute, day after day, sitting with what is: that dog yapping, a pain in your back, some car passing by in the distance, thoughts swimming around in your head, the movement of the breath. Stilling the mind and ever so gradually getting acquainted with reality.
So it is for the runner. While training for a marathon I have been struck by the strange and fascinating comparison of running and zazen. At first glance they seem utterly different from each other, located at the opposite extremes of activity and inactivity: running your ass off for miles, versus sitting absolutely still staring at the paint for 30 minutes. But both are disciplined repetition; both involve paying attention and then wandering off. Paying attention: feet and ground. Breathing in and out. The stride. The breath. The surroundings. Monitoring body and mind. Feet and ground. Breathing in and out. Then wandering off: following thoughts. Reviewing and editing the past, scripting the future, having a grand old time. Then coming back to what is: feet and ground. Left right left right…. One foot after another, mile after mile: this is reality not delusion.
Many runners are fond of running with digital audio players and the like. I don’t believe in that. Yes I have enjoyed using a radio or iPod on occasion. But for serious running I suggest we should eschew such distractions. It’s not about entertainment, or trying to make the running something other than what it is, or making it somehow more palatable, or less boring. No. Embrace the boredom, if that’s what it is. It’s about paying attention to feet and ground.
The Sandokai by Master Shitou says:

When you do not see the Way, you do not see it even as you walk on it.

You could study this text for years and still keep learning more about it. I wouldn’t presume to explain what it means. But! (You saw that but coming.) But for me, running is more than just running. It is, in fact, just running. I am convinced that all those who ever put on a running shoe experience this truth whether they realize it or not.
Distance running and zazen: two activities some might call weird, each a wonderful complement and support to the other.


Fast forward to nearly two years later. I am now 52 instead of 50, still sitting every day, and running considerably faster than when I posted the above. I have no means of proving that the practice of sitting has made me a better runner than I would otherwise be. Life is not a controlled experiment: if you do this, you can only speculate as to what would have happened if you’d done that instead. Still, there is little doubt that the sitting practice enriches one’s life. It teaches you to pay attention to what is happening rather than just being dragged around by it. This in turn serves you well when you need discipline, self-control, and the ability to tolerate a certain amount of pain and/or exhaustion in an equanimous, non-reactive way. Skills such as these are essential to runners who push themselves to achieve their goals.

Why run a marathon?

For over 20 years I have been running for recreation and fitness, anywhere from about .8 to three or four times a week for distances of 4 to 6 miles. I have rarely been concerned about performance or proving anything. I was in it for fun and fitness. Suddenly, at age 50, I am signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon on November 23, 2008, and training seriously. How did this happen?
The influence of a running-fanatic friend was a factor. He encouraged me to try a half-marathon organized by the New York Road Runners back in January. This was the longest distance I had ever run and I was not properly trained for it. I was sore as hell for days afterwards, but I loved it. Five thousand pairs of feet trotting through the cold air of Central Park, a kin-hin line writ extremely large. I decided I would meet the NYYR requirement for entry into the New York Marathon in 2009 by running in at least nine races in 2008, and thus open the option of doing a marathon.
Then my running friend got into my head again: Why don’t you do Philadelphia in the fall? It’s open to anyone who pays the registration fee. I thought this over for a couple weeks, fretting over the difficulty of fitting training into an already busy life. Then just said fuck it, hit the website and did the deed.
Now I am embarked on a formal training program (from the Running Planet) that prepares you to complete a marathon in four hours. I felt irrationally attached to the four hour number even before arriving at it rationally. It’s a nice round figure, and four hours of continuous running is quite enough, thank you, so let’s get it over with. It’s a fortunate coincidence that my running history is such that the four hour goal does appear to be reasonable and attainable. So I am going at it five or six days a week, getting up before dawn to trod the pavement and run around Liberty State Park as the sun comes up, hitting the treadmill at work, exerting myself like never before in my life.
Why do this? I have long been vaguely curious about the experience of completing a marathon and thought it might be interesting to try it some day and find out if I could do it. Then I noticed I was 50 years old. Now seems like a pretty good time to get started, rather than waiting until 60 or 70.
Yes, but that’s doesn’t answer the question: why do this? I read some place that there are as many reasons as there are runners, but that’s another evasion.
Am I trying to outrun the grim reaper? Well, no, I fully expect to die. But first I would like to run a marathon.
But why? Am I trying to prove that I am disciplined and tough? Maybe a little. I don’t think I need to prove that I am fit, it’s a pretty simple and uncontroversial fact. But I will rather enjoy showing my medal to people. I guess that would be about ego gratification.
Why? Why go to so much trouble for ego gratification, or whatever it is? I don’t know. Yesterday I was in Urban Athletics buying gear, and had a chat with one of the co-owners. When I raised this question with him, he simply said, cross the finish line and you’ll know why.
I am reminded of something my Zen teacher once said to me: Ultimate truth cannot be known. But it can be experienced. Perhaps Jerry from Urban Athletics was saying the same thing.
Update: A few days later, Sensei was not impressed when I told him this story about the above remark from the guy at Urban Athletics. Ever the consummate Zen dude, he said: why ask why?