Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guest Post: Logging in the Pacific Northwest by Dan Clay McDowell

I am very happy to introduce you all to my friend, Dan Clay McDowell. Dan and I became fast friends as coworkers at Fleet Feet Sports Chicago due initially to our mutual love for running, similar running ability, and mutual friends (many of you are probably reading this). As I got to know Dan, I developed a great appreciation for his honesty and courage. You'll find these things liberally scattered throughout this piece on logging.

My wife and I recently moved across the country from Chicago, IL to Portland, OR.  When we were unpacking I found a binder that was labelled “Running Log” and looked inside curiously to find a running log, or more accurately, a comic strip, I had written and drawn in early 2010.  As is often the case when I find random things I've set aside long ago enough that I've forgotten they've existed, I was suddenly flooded with a strange nostalgia (*1) for that time in my life.  This strange onset of emotion led to a longer series of thoughts about my history of running logs and when Dan Kittaka graciously asked if I’d like to write something for his blog I thought maybe it would be a good opportunity to share the log and examine the thoughts I had after looking at it in hopes other runners might relate.

First, a bit more about the comic/log I briefly drew, which you can look at if you so choose, in its entirety here.  It had no name, and no plan.  I drew it solely for myself thinking it might eventually turn into something bigger.  It didn't.  Stylistically, it was largely influenced by my favorite comic, Jim’s Journal.  At the time, I had just moved to Portland, OR for the first time.  I was unemployed and living in the home of my then girlfriend’s parents with them and their wonderful dog, Shadow.  My girlfriend at the time was in her first year of law school, and thus she spent long hours each day away from home at the library.  I had just come off of one of the most disappointing performances of my running life and I was sort of re-calibrating my aims as a runner.  I share all of this to try to explain (to you, and to myself) why I felt compelled to draw the strip.  Ultimately, I’m not sure why, but I suppose to a certain extent I had a lot to get off of my chest and I was experimenting with new outlets.  

Each day of the log is represented by 1-6 frames and I sneaked in the date my daily mileage into each drawing.  The comic certainly isn't good, but I’m glad I drew it, because I remember more about those and runs and those weeks than I do about a lot of runs I did just this past year.  Obviously, the fact that these runs were in a new place geographically and a new phase of my life played a role in my enhanced memory, but I think the act of drawing and writing out the log helped me to remember them more.

The first page of Dan's Comic Log

The strip often references music and books I was into at the time.  It occasionally offers hints to what shoes I was wearing at the time (at least to me, probably not anyone else) (*2).  And, it even recaps a run I went on with Olympian Ian Dobson in which we stumbled upon world record holder, Paula Radcliffe.  I could spend time waxing on and on about specific runs from the strip, and someday I may just do that, but for now I’ll move on to the point of sharing all of this. (*3)

Finding the comic log made me think about the various methods I’d used to log since I first began to run in 2006.  I first started by writing by hand in a paperback book I picked up at Borders (*4).  I’d write the time, distance, weather, and rate how happy I felt.  The book was laid out chronologically.  At the end of each week and month it had a place to tally the totals of time and mileage.  It wasn't rocket science, but it helped immensely.  For instance, I realize how often I checked that I was sad or unhappy, and that I needed to make some changes in my life.  This is part led me to move to Chicago.  I continued off and on with this method for two years or so.  I’d go weeks without logging at a time, and when I’d start up again I remember of times realizing I wasn't running as many weekly miles as I thought.  By mid 2008 I was taking running much more seriously and was focused on getting as fast as I possibly could.  I never missed a day of logging and constantly wrote down my goals (as seen in a brief part of this time-warping video). (*5)

On New Years day of 2009 I went for a hungover run in the mid to late afternoon with my friend Verdo weaving through the farm fields of Reedley, CA.  It was a great run that I remember for many reason, mainly because it was good to see a friend I hadn't seen in a few months. (*6) I was fitter than I’d ever been, and living in a small town like I did at the time, I never got to run with friends.  After the run I saw Verdo logging his run on the Runners World website.  I asked him about it and he showed me the ins and outs.  When I returned to home I logged the run on the website and began doing so each day.  In 2009 I ran over 3,200 miles and logged every one just minutes after I got done.  I didn't share the log with many people and never imagined anyone looking at it other than myself.

I logged roughly the same way I had on paper, but the website had a few advantages.  For one, the runs were presented in a lot of great visual ways with charts and graphs.  But even better, the runs were automatically databased in such a way that I could choose to call up a collection of workouts based on several different criteria.  For example, in a matter of seconds I could pull up every speed workout I’d ever done that included mile repeats at an elevation between 6,000 and 9,000 ft.  This caused me to frequently look back over my notes of previous runs and helped to me to understand if I was improving or not.

I continued logging runs this way through the beginning of 2012.  Even when I was drawing a comic, writing a blog about running, or sharing workouts on Garmin Connect, I always took the time to keep my Runners World log up-to-date as well.  While my logging practice was consistent, my enjoyment of running was not.  For a variety of factors I’ll save for another essay running was beginning to make me feel miserable.

It was time to make some changes to make running enjoyable again.  In some ways I felt running was taking up too much of my time, so I decided one easy way to cut back would be to log in fewer places.  Beginning on January 1, 2012 I only logged on dailymile which a few friends had convinced me to try.  From time to time I’d check back into my Runners World log to see how I’d performed various workouts in the past, but only recorded new info in one place.  One day when I went to check out some old workouts after a few weeks without looking at the Runners World’s website, I found that my log was gone.  It seemed 3 years of data I’d only kept online, and never exported, was gone forever. (*7)  Of course, losing the data doesn't mean the miles come off of my legs and lungs, but I still feel a sadness about losing the info as I used it as a diary of sorts on occasion.

Now its been nearly two years that I've been logging only on dailymile.  It’s simpler than the other online logs I’ve used in terms of what I input after each run, which means it eats up less time.  However, it also makes it harder to find useful information when I’m looking over previous workouts.  dailymile does have one aspect that all other logs I've used didn't.  It’s social.  I see workouts for friends and they see mine in a scrolling timeline.    Sometimes this is very helpful.  Seeing friends’ workouts can inspire me to get out and run when I’m lacking motivation.  Other times, friends are able to notice something about my workout, or offer perspective that changes how I perceive my own running, and how I plan for future runs.  And I suppose, it also has helped me to stay in touch with people I’d like to be closer to.

Unfortunately, it seems that over the years I've lost track of why I’m logging these runs in the first place.  Finding the comic log helped me to realize this (I’m finally getting around to the point here).  As I thought to myself, “why did I draw this?”, I realized I couldn't even answer why I had logged that very day on dailymile. 

So, what is the purpose of keeping this online log?  If I’m being honest, it seems to me that I often am censoring my thoughts about a run because I don’t want people to feel like I’m asking them to take pity on me, or other various reasons.  The problem with this, is that after weeks or months pass, when I look back at the old workouts, will I remember them truthfully?  If not, am I just wasting even more time than I did when I was logging in seemingly three or four different methods?  

While I was fortunate to make a lot of improvement as a runner in the first 5 years of my running, I've been stagnating or regressing for the last two years, and I think its time I reboot again (or perhaps more accurately, I've been in the process of rebooting for several months now, and I’m struggling to decide if I even still want to be a runner) (*8).  One of the major question I’m asking myself is:  What do I hope to gain by keeping a log?  What pieces of data will I need to record to do this?  Where and how should I keep them?  I doubt the answer will be to start writing a comic strip, but I’m sure glad I tried it once.  Even if this whole line of thought has been boring for the reader and pointless for myself, I’ll never forget the run I did along the Pacific Ocean while listening to Passion Pit and watching Sea Lions bark at me from just yards away.  I’ll never forget how much they looked like Shadow.  And I have it written down that I ran 10.3 miles that day and 62 miles that week.

What is your favorite way to log your runs?  Why do you log them?  

*1 I’m not sure nostalgia is really the correct word to use here.  I’m searching for a word that represents that emotion one feels when a memory resurfaces suddenly and it feels equal parts ancient and very recent. 

*2 Saucony Fastwitch 4 anyone?

*3 Or at least get a little closer to the point. Ha.

*4 At one time before I moved to Chicago I worked at Borders in Bloomington, IN and it was picking up a few books during my break about running that caused me to consider training for a  marathon, not just going out for a run now and then.

*5 Remember CD’s?

*6 In October of 2008 I moved to Mammoth Lakes, CA.

*7 I’d be grateful if someone knew how to recover these logs, although it might depress me to see how much slower I am now.

*8 Yikes.  That’s a whole different subject… Anyone know a good shrink?