Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

And I won a towel, too...

All scenes, whether actual or created, depict authenticated facts.
(Fame and recognition to the first commenter who
correctly identifies the TV show that line is from.)

One of the great things about becoming a runner is that it seems to lead you into trying new things. Races are just the beginning. There are training routes to discover, running groups to join, volunteer opportunities. There are stretches and exercises to be learned to help keep the body in good shape so one can continue to run. There are self-massage techniques.

When those latter things fail you there are new people in other new settings for you to meet. I'd never been to a podiatrist before I started running, nor a physical therapist, nor a chiropractor, nor an orthopedist, nor a cardiologist. I'd never had acupuncture before.

One of the biggest leaps for me was when I started wondering if real massage therapy from a real massage therapist might be a good thing for me. I'm not exactly the epitome of a "man's man" (or I'd be a construction worker or maybe a truck driver instead of a 'software guy') but I certainly didn't see myself as a spa kind of guy either (let alone an 'organic spa' kind of guy). Now walking into Terra Organic Spa to let Rachel work me over seems almost as normal as walking into the grocery store.

None of this prepared me to be any less hesitant about what I did last night though.

Two years ago I was exchanging email with another runner about crewing her for the Vol State. I hadn't even run an ultra yet, but I wanted so much to go and experience that race! Sadly, the opportunity fell through, but an offhand remark by my runner stuck with me. She was talking about her preparation for the race when she mentioned that she was going to do 'hot yoga' to help her with heat acclimation.

"Hot yoga?" I thought, "What the heck is that?" Google was reliably enlightening on the topic, and I filed the new information away in my memory banks, under 'huh' (quite a few things are kept in there).

Now it is 'spring' 2014, and as you can see in the picture of my front yard, below, opportunities for heat acclimation have been few in Central New York so far this year. Usually by this time even Syracuse has started having some warmish days when a runner could maybe get on at least a little sweat, but not this year - and this year I'm running the Vol State!
The challenge of heat acclimation in CNY this March

Back in February I saw this problem coming, and I got an immediate notification from my 'huh' bank telling me that it was holding some potentially useful information. Also, since that info had been stored I'd seen many endorsements for yoga in general as beneficial for runners (and some of those had even been filed under 'hmmm' - the next higher priority category).

This time I googled "hot yoga Syracuse." I knew I was in trouble. My far-too-often-ignored 'dude, what are you doing now' alarm was ringing like crazy.

It took me from February 9th (when I got a very kind and welcoming reply from Kim, the proprietor of Lotus Life Yoga Center, encouraging me to give it a try) until March 31st to screw up enough courage to actually do it. But there I stood, my brand new (heavily discounted) yoga mat under one arm, my Strolling Jim gym bag in hand, once again trying not to look like a complete rube while discreetly sizing up a foreign environment to decide whether I would be ok - or whether I should bolt for the door while I still had a good chance.

They always seem to strategically position a nice person in the front office to catch customers like me when they notice the impulse to flee building up in our eyes. "Hi," she said. (The devious witch!) In short order, Heather had checked me in, issued me my very own Lotus Life keytag to speed future check-ins, and informed me that I could go right into the studio and set up. Fight or flight response short circuited, I took off my shoes and headed in.

Have I mentioned that there was a distinct lack of testosterone in this place? I could feel my own level dropping in response.

There were a few ladies from the previous session coming out, a few going in, and a few standing together just inside the door conversing. I walked in and stood there, looking clueless, until one of them made eye contact and said something to me that sounded like she might want to be helpful. "I'm clueless," I replied. It was the best description I could think of for what she might be able to help me with.

It turned out it was Kim. I told her it was nice to meet her, while secretly wishing she hadn't been so kind and welcoming back then.

"I've got a mat," I said, proudly holding it up as proof positive that I wasn't totally unprepared for this.

"That's a nice one," she said, then she explained that I could choose a spot on the floor anywhere I felt comfortable and roll out my mat from the wall in toward the center of the room. She also pointed out that there were blankets in one corner of the room and blocks in the other in case I wanted them. I wasn't sure what I'd want a blanket for (it was, after all, hot in there) and I had no idea what I would do with the blocks (having only just then come to a neophyte's understanding of mats).

I thanked Kim and then moved on to the challenge she had set before me: finding a place on the floor where I felt 'comfortable.' Quickly recognizing that as a hopeless goal, I opted for trying to locate the warmest part of the room, since heat was my primary purpose in being there after all. That turned out to be about midway down the narrow studio. I rolled out my mat (for the very first time) without major incident, took off my jacket and sweats and stuffed them into my bag (remembering to first pull out the towel I'd brought with me - never go anywhere without your towel) then I sat down with my back to the wall - both literally and figuratively.

I was then faced with a new problem: what to do for the next ten or fifteen minutes before class would start. I figured probably I was supposed to do some 'yoga things' while I was waiting but I really didn't know many yoga things and was sure most of the ones I did know I couldn't do right anyway and wouldn't that just be the most embarrassing thing - to be sitting in the middle of the studio doing bad yoga things as additional students gathered? (I was beginning to question the wisdom of my spot selection in the middle - not that I thought there was any smooth way I could relocate at this point - and at least I was a long way from the front where the instructor would be). I got up and stretched out my calves a little bit, figuring that couldn't hurt, then sat down again.

Have I mentioned that there was a distinct lack of testosterone in this place?

That added to my difficulty as I sat there deciding what to do. Other students had chosen to roll their mats out against the wall opposite me, and all of the other students were women dressed for yoga in a hot studio. So in addition to everything else, I was faced with figuring out where to look so that I wouldn't seem to be staring at anyone while discreetly looking to see what sort of 'yoga things' other students might be doing that I should be doing too. Fortunately another nice woman across the room gave me something to do to keep me busy for a minute.

"You should probably get a blanket and two blocks. She usually makes us do that."

"Oh... thanks."

I picked out two nice purple blocks and a blanket with a lot of nice purple in it too. I'm not all that fond of purple, but it's my wife's favorite color so when the choices are all colorful I go with purple (I'm not actually much of a fan of color in general you see). When I had returned to my spot and fiddled around a bit with just where one should put one's blocks and one's blanket in one's yoga space I think a full two minutes had gone by. Then I was right back to the former problem.

There were several students doing real yoga things across the room. I recognized 'downward dog' and then there were several varieties of stretchy things done lying on the floor, and several women were doing half handstand things that I had no shot at accomplishing with any grace whatsoever. Then I noticed a couple of the students were just sitting on their mats (not even in the classic 'lotus' position) and waiting. "Hey, it's ok to just sit," I thought, so I just sat for a bit - until I remembered that didn't help me with the where to look problem.

Suddenly I had a brainstorm. Corpse pose! That was one I knew and was fairly sure I could do, and one blog post on yoga for noobs had suggested it as something appropriate to do while quietly waiting for class to start! Quickly I made like a corpse! That did pass a good bit of time as I lay there with my eyes closed, wondering if I was really supposed to be using my blanket as a pillow and noticing that my mat was a few inches too short and my feet were sticking out past the end of it and possibly into the walkway down the middle of the room and hoping I wasn't going to trip anyone and listening to people unrolling mats to either side of me and wondering whether they thought it was weird there was a dead guy in the middle of the room and...

Screw it. I sat up again, looked at the floor and wiggled my toes to the eastern music that was playing until, mercifully, I heard the instructor calling for attention up at the front of the room. Just to complete the impression that I was indeed violating a testosterone-free zone, Meghann, the instructor, was quite pregnant and looking very Buddha-like seated cross-legged on the dais facing the class.

There were certainly a few awkward moments during the session after it started, but at least I and everyone else in the class was preoccupied with doing (or trying to do) what Meghann told us to do. I routinely had trouble when we were supposed to do things with our eyes closed - because I had to keep peeking to see how other students were doing the movements to be sure I was trying to do them right. Some of it was danged hard and I did get a good sweat on, just like I'd hoped to do.

Oh, and by the way, where in a yoga studio is the best place for the instructor to stand to demonstrate the movement she wants the class to do? In the middle of the studio, right in front of me, obviously! It did help me better see what to do.

Some of it was familiar exercises with unfamiliar names. 'Doing a vinyasa' was very much like doing kettlebell guru Pavel Tsatsouline's 'pump stretch.' Planks were planks. An intermediate movement from a plank into a lunge was reminiscent of a 'spider man' crawl. We did a piriformis stretch that I've done many times before. Meghann offered helpful advice and pointers on form and breathing throughout. I enjoyed the movements and the workout very much, and I would venture to say that I probably was the most warrior-looking person in the room during the 'warrior pose.' (Have I mentioned that there was a distinct... oh, never mind.)

The only time it got very awkward for me again was at the end of the savasana (yes, I speak some yoga now) when we were supposed to end with one 'om.' Uh... I don't really om, thank you. I just sat there centered while the entire room resonated to the sound of om. I expected at some point there would be something like this, but I still felt a bit like a heretic sitting in a roomful of monks. I also kind of screwed up 'bowing to the light that is in each of us' - not that I have anything against showing respect to another person. I just didn't quite get the instruction and before I had it figured out it was over. Oh well, I can do better next week.

That's right, next week. I can do this - and it will be good for me. One day rolling out my mat on the floor any old place in there will be just as normal as going to the grocery store.

Before the class was dismissed Heather came in and Meghann informed us that she (Heather) had some announcements for us. She started naming the winners of some contest. Somebody won a free session, somebody else won some sort of beads. Then somebody named "Patrick" won a yoga towel. I had slightly zoned out, thinking I hadn't been around to enter any contests, when it occurred to me that there was no other man in the room and that my name was "Patrick." As the third round of polite applause broke out I said, "Oh, I didn't even know I had entered."

So now I have a 'yoga towel.' It's purple.

I think I've figured out that what I'm supposed to do with a yoga towel is roll it out on top of my mat and it will both absorb sweat and help to keep me from slipping on the mat when I'm sweaty - which is an actual problem that I actually had during my yoga class, and I am quite happy to have a possible solution for it. I'm gonna look like a real pro rolling out that towel next week!

On my way out I thanked Meghann and told her that she'd been my best yoga instructor ever. I just hope she doesn't go out on maternity leave too soon. It would seem weird if I took yoga from anyone else.

The producers wish to gratefully acknowledge the photographic assistance of Kimberly McHenry in the making of this blog post.


  1. Loved this! Thank you for such a detailed post.

  2. Wonderful! Look at you going for it!!!

  3. Wow, great piece. I actually have been in transition! I too no longer want to be "sitting on my butt", in the safety of my home. I am a massage therapist (own my own business) and it's time to do more studying of my trade and wake up the energy that is in me. It's time to venture out. Namaste

  4. I just finished taking a class on Deep Tissue Massage and one on Ethics. Have a blessed day.