Those Persistent, Perfidious and Profligate "I Can'ts"

Nineteen years ago this month, I went to the burial of the brother of a friend of mine who’d dropped dead from a heart attack in his early 50s. I was 40 at the time. A small gathering of relatives and friends tossed dirt on top of Peter’s casket in a cemetery that had a great view of the East River but little else to recommend it to a guy with two young kids. I resolved right there to get into better shape.

I’d already started recovering my body, actually, but I think I finally realized during that funeral service that there’s a difference between not being outright abusive to these bones, muscles and organs that bear us and giving them a shot at working with some grace and efficiency.

I’d given up drinking in 1985. I’d recently stopped smoking a pipe—a misguided transition from the cigarettes I’d stopped smoking several years before (I still inhaled). My new plan for truly recovering my body included running—something I’d assiduously avoided except for short bursts on  base paths—since I joined the cross county team as a freshman in high school.

Running in "Vanny"

“[Van Cortlandt’s] cross-country course is legendary—a grueling stretch of wide flats and twisting trails that has tested up-and-coming high school and college runners for nearly a century,” writes David Gonzalez in a New York Times “City Room” column that covers the established of the park’s Cross Country Hall of Fame last year. 

Gonzalez quotes Matt Centrowitz, an Olympian who ran the course in the early 1970s: “Van Cortlandt was the ultimate. Kids would come from Massachusetts and Maryland. The point was, if you were a star in any state, you came to Vannie like a gunslinger. Guys came ready for war.”

Adds Marty Liquori, the TV sports commentator and former 5,000 meters record-holder: “Even if you got to the Olympics, you developed the routine for handling stress at Van Cortlandt when you get off the bus and saw 10,000 kids there. You’re 15 years old, without a whole lot of belief in yourself thinking you’re going to be the 10,000th kid running that day. It was nerve-racking.”

I was that 10,000th kid, if memory serves.

I’m planning to return to the flats soon for the first time in more than 45 years to run with my buddy, Paco Lugovinã, who is 72 and training to participate in a half marathon. He needs to lose another seven pounds, he says, in order to do it. 

He will because he know he can.

In my first race across the flats at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx in the fall of 1966, I sprinted out to the forefront of the pack. But the time I hit the hills, though, I was fading. A couple of miles later, I was surely one of the last runners to cross the finish line. There’s nothing quite so de-exhilarating as having several hundred (thousand?—see sidebar, left) people run by you as if they possessed some magical energy within themselves that you lack. I became convinced that I “couldn’t” run long distances.

I have a clipboard with pages that record my outdoor runs over the years since that day in 1993. (Treadmills? Yeah, done them, too. Bor-ing. The quicker the better.  HIIT works for me, but be sure to check with your doctor if you're de-conditioned.) These pages provide a sketchy history of occasional yeoman efforts punctuated with a lot of “I can’ts.”

The log starts on June 1 with a purported mile run that took 12 minutes, including several stops to catch my breath. I still remember it — huffing and puffing on the Old Croton Aqueduct near my home as if I were an old man with emphysema and a death wish.

Fortunately, this time I didn’t use that experience as an excuse to say, “I can’t.” The next day, I did the same distance in 11:30 with four stops. Two days later, I booked 11:20 with two stops. By the end of the month, my records show I was running an unspecified distance for 20 minutes or so with no pauses or excessive wheezing. I continued to run religiously that year until the snows came in mid-December. By that time, I was frequently taking a 4.3 mile round-trip up past Mercy College into Ardsley-on-Hudson that I’d complete in around 40 minutes. On Sept. 12, I ran about six miles to Arthur Place in Yonkers and back in 52:46 — pretty good for a guy who was sputtering along to complete a lousy mile 101 days before.

I pretty much vanquished the “I can’t” syndrome in1993, just as I’d done when I’d finally stopped drinking for good (I was a junior in high school the first of many times I'd previously sworn off liquor), and just as I had when I gathered my kids and tossed my pipe collection into the roaring wood-burning stove in our family room after having “quit” smoking for various periods of times many, many times before.

The thing about “I can’t,” though, is that it’s persistent, perfidious and profligate. “I can’t” kind of reminds me of the Queen Anne’s Lace seeds I put in the corner of my backyard one year after seeing a field of the wildflowers in Vermont and thinking they would be a low-maintenance solution to my lack of a green thumb. (“I can’t grow a dandelion,” I'd say. But they grow themselves, of course. So now I juice them—mix a bunch of leaves with 3 cups of apple juice and a ripe mango and thank Victoria Boutenko, not me.)  

Back to those few seeds, which have created fibrous undergrounds tendrils all through our tiny patch of suburbia over the years. Now that I’m growing kale and salad greens and peppers and tomatoes—black thumb or not—I see them as the weeds they are. And damn if I can get rid of them. I dig deep and rip out the white strands that even wend under stone borders and bluestone pathways. But they seem to pop up in areas they’ve never been before. And remnants of once-thriving colonies of Queen Anne's Lace that I’d totally torn out with shovel and rake blithely poke though the inches of mulch I've put down. 

They're just like "I can't."

IMG 1102

Queen Anne's Lace: persistent, perfidious and profligate

I ran again in 1994 starting in late March — not every day but often enough through mid-September. 1995 saw a real resurgence. I ran from late April through early December, often for the 20 to 30 minutes that the experts told me were necessary to get a decent aerobic workout. I was beginning to suffer some injuries. Shin splints. Plantar fasciitis. Knee pains. It was around this time that I developed an excuse for not running that I thought was clever but which served me very poorly over the next decade and a half. 

“I used to play tackle football without any equipment, and I routinely dive for balls playing softball," I tell anybody who asked why I wasn't running, "but the sport that has given me the most injuries is running.”

You should know by now where this is going. 

Mind Over Matter

A review copy of a new book, Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom, was in my mailbox when I returned from my run Wednesday (see last paragraph of the main story). The enclosed press release contains a Q&A with the authors, Shlomo Breznitz and Collins Hemingway. Here's one that certainly applies to what I'm saying:

Q. One of Dr. Breznitz's experiments effectively disabled entire platoons of healthy well-trained soldiers. What does this tell us about the brain?

A. Mind over matter turns out to be true. We manipulated the soldiers' mental state through disinformation. Based on the disinformation, their bodies broke down. Their bodies reacted according to their minds, not their actual physical condition. Soldiers from the same units, who had the right information, succeeded in the same physical tests. The brain will not let the body expend energy unless it believes success is possible, because the worst possible thing would be for us to expend all of our resources and fail.

The opposite is true, too: the moment we believe that success is possible, the brain unleashes a flood of energy. Both hope and despair are self-fulfilling prophecies. This is why hope is so important to patients facing difficult medical conditions. Hope itself if a healing agent.

“I can’t …”

My sheet for 1996 has one entry: a 25:00 run on April 22. There’s an undated year between then and 2002 (when I ran an even-dozen times) that shows a noble effort for September—19 runs—but only a handful for the rest of the year. I got out on the trail five times in 2005. By then, I’d been introduced to racquetball and figured it was amply fulfilling my quota for aerobic activity. It probably was, but it’s a different type of activity than running—okay, jogging.

Whoa! 190 Pounds
The truth of the matter is that by 2007 I was tipping the scales in the high 180s— almost 30 pounds more than my ideal weight. I was doing some half-assed resistance training, too, but not nearly enough to keep my body- fat percentage at the point that it should have been, which is below 20% by my reckoning. Then one day after the Thanksgiving weekend, I saw 190 on the scale and knew I had to reverse course, pronto.

I took a nutrition course with Saufung Mukta Yeung-Blaufox and, in the process of learning what to eat and how to cook it deliciously, lost about 10 pounds. My family was delighted at my refined culinary skills, by the way. Turns out they preferred quinoa salads and broccoli with cumin seeds to London broil, medium rare.

In 2009, when I decided to become a National Academy of Sports Medicine  personal trainer, I started diligently exercising, primarily using routines at FitnessBuilder.com. I lost another 10 pounds. I figured that was good enough. I “can’t” expect a 59-year-old to fit into the 32-inch-waist jeans I wore when I was in my 20s now, could I? (Ignoring the fact that when I was battling incipient prostate cancer in the early '90s with "natural" remedies, a diet devoid of fatty vices such as ice cream, and exercise, I'd done just that.) The net result of my thinking was that I pretty much stayed stayed at about 170 pounds, yo-yoing up to 175 or so at times.

I began running again last year, more joyfully than I ever have. Going barefoot had a lot to do with it, as I’ve written about elsewhere. Although I still play racquetball barefoot, and spend as much of the day walking around without shoes as I can, I’ve found that running in Leming Footwear is better than barefoot, particularly when I hit gravelly patches on the aqueduct. And, yes, I wear cleats playing softball.

In March, while talking with a friend who wants to lose a lot of weight, I decided I can fit into those 32-inch jeans again. If I couldn't, I told myself, how could I help other people realize their own goals?

I used Fitness Builder to craft NASM OPT-model workouts for myself and, rather than haphazardly picking up dumbbells or tubes or a medicine ball when the spirit moves me, I've stuck to an at-least-thrice-weekly routine. I've been running at least once a week, mostly twice, in addition to my racquetball and other calorie-burning activities (such as ripping Queen Anne's Lace out of the garden). And I'm keeping track of calories in/calories out with a great app on my iPhone, Lose It. There are other, similar apps for all of the major mobile and Web operating systems out there. 

Beyond helping me keep better track of where I stand day by day, I've leaned a lot about what I'm eating from Lose It and another app, Fooducate. For example, in the past, I'd think nothing of noshing on a fistful or almonds or raisins. Better yet, fists full of almonds and raisins. Natural foods, right? What could be bad about that? Well, two tablespoons of raw almonds are 101 calories; two tablespoons of raisins (which are loaded with sugar, actually) are 64 calories. I haven't done the math on fistfuls. I'm just mindful of what I eat now, tablespoon (about seven almonds, I reckon) by tablespoon.

The Lesson I'm Teaching Myself
The best lesson I’ve been learning over the years is one most us start hearing at an early age but refuse, for diverse reasons, to believe at some point in our lives. 

“You can do it, Tommy. You can do it.” 

Maybe we all struck out too many times instead of getting that big hit to believe, really, that we can do it.  

You can do it, Janey. You can do it!”

Maybe we failed to lose the 20 pounds a friend or family member assured us was within our power to do if we simply put our minds to it.

There are a few things that you have to take other people’s word for, of course. No matter what I think personally, it has been made very clear to me that I can’t sing worth a damn and never will in this lifetime. (Probably.)

But the obvious truth, and point of this post, is that we often don’t do what we can do, which leads us to the subject of the next blog post, which I'll get around to soon: “The Debilitating, Defeatist and Dilatory 'I didn’ts.'” 

In the meantime, I am very pleased that I went out to take a four- or five-mile run Wednesday afternoon and felt so great cruising with the breeze a few hundred yards above the glorious Hudson River that I wound up doing nine miles. That's the longest I've ever run. More important than the distance, of course, is the ongoing lesson of what I can do.


© Copyright Thom Forbes, 2016