Archive

Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Marathon Memories of Boston

April 15, 2011 2 comments

It was only one short year ago that I was in Boston on this very weekend, getting ready to run the marathons of all marathons on Monday. People have since asked me, “Was Boston really all that?” The answer is it IS that, and so much more.

From the moment you set foot in Boston for marathon weekend, you feel you are on holy ground. The city transforms itself into a sea of blue and yellow, and you would feel out of place if you had anything on your feet besides runners. Runners signify athleticism over geekiness, a welcome change of events.

People everywhere near the runners expo at the Hynes Convention Center have their recognizable blue and yellow race day packages slung over their shoulder. Workers are lining the street with barriers and building the finish line stands. People are photographing each other on the finish line, smiling today knowing they may not be smiling on Monday. It is a hub of activity and excitement.

As you walk around on this blue and yellow cloud, it’s hard to believe it is just a regular weekend in other parts of the world.

I was humbled by the people I was meeting, runners who have run not one or two but sixteen and seventeen Boston’s. I met a man who had traveled from New Zealand for the race. People from all corners of America who regularly make this pilgrimage. The camaraderie is non-stop and all-invasive – not the place for a quiet weekend of reflection. It’s a place to embrace, and be embraced, by our great sport.

It’s hard not feel like you’re a part of running history by simply being there. At the runner’s expo I brushed elbows with storied people like Kathrine Switzer, Amby Burfoot, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and David Willey. Heady with touches of greatness and cross-eyed by the massive amounts of people, I actually got lost in the expo and couldn’t find my way out.

Everywhere, people are helping people. It restores ones faith in humanity. My high-tech Garmin watch broke on Sunday, and the manager at their booth simply gave me her watch to use. I was traveling alone, but was invited by a fellow runner to have dinner with his large extended running family in Boston’s storied north end. Everywhere people are speaking the body language of helping. It is impossible to get lost, or not know something. The first person you ask will help you.

It was surreal to walk out of my hotel at 6 am on race day and see the street lined with yellow school buses as far as the eye could see. Making my way to the Commons it could have been rush hour, as long lines of people waited to get on the buses that would take us out to Hopkinton, 26.2 miles outside of Boston.

The athletes village, set up at the Hopkinton high school, housed gigantic tents, with food and beverages being served at several tables for pre-race nutrition. People milled around in large groups, music boomed from speakers, and runners nervously chatted about their strategy or lack thereof. It was like being at a gigantic party. I reluctantly tore myself away from it and made my way to the starting line.

Waiting in my corral at the starting line, excitement crackling in the air, I could feel the ghosts of past runners who had stood on this same spot; albeit with fewer participants. In widely varying weather conditions, snow, rain, draining sunshine, people had stood here on Patriot’s Day, waiting to begin the journey to Boylston Street.

If the entire weekend leading up to the race wasn’t incredible enough, the race itself is out of a dream sequence. The festivities continue long after the sound of the gun. I saw a runner down a beer at the biker bar just down the road from Hopkinton, to the delight of the bikers. A runner veered off course in Natick to play lawn bowling with residents. Several runners stopped to kiss students in the Wellesley tunnel of love. I ran beside Captain Canada for a while, decked out head to toe in maple leafs and flags. Along the way people are holding up signs with the latest Red Sox score. Thousands of people lined the route, high-fiving and screaming the entire time.

It was evident that this was a moment in time. Despite a nagging pain in my knee that started only 5 km in, the momentum of both the crowd and the runners carried me through long after I would typically thrown in the towel. Boston is far from typical.

After Wellesley there are the Newton Hills, of which Heartbreak Hill is only one. Looming even larger is the descent from Heartbreak Hill to the Cleveland Circle, for me infinitely more difficult on my legs that were by then searing in pain, complaining loudly that they had had enough.

But Cleveland Circle leads to Beacon Street, and that meant thousands upon thousands of spectators lining the route, in some places 8 people deep, people on rooftops and balconies, everywhere spectators cheering you on. The Citgo sign appears, a vision to shoot for, proof that the end is actually in sight. If you can only put one foot in front of the other for a few more miles.

Fenway Park and the Citgo sign are the the last mile markers that send you through the famous directions, right on Hereford, left on Boylston, the shortest turn on the course, and undoubtably the loudest. Rounding the corner, the finish line is a short sprint away. Or crawl, depending.

As for the finish, let’s just say it is an odd juxtaposition, feeling physically terrible but mentally high. Yet I very much recommend it. If you ever get the chance to run the Boston Marathon, just do it. The mountains you may have to move to get there will be waiting for you when you get back. The memories of the race will stay with you forever.

Relieved to be finished

Did You Say Honey and Nuts?

March 17, 2011 6 comments

I live a somewhat healthy lifestyle.  Kale smoothies, whole grains, vegetables and lean proteins make up the bulk of my diet. But lurking in that qualifier, “somewhat,” amongst chocolate, wine, and coffee, is my guilty pleasure that I start the day with, and have ever since I was a child: I’m addicted to Honey Nut Cheerios. High in sugar and sodium and low in protein and fiber, I doubt Jillian Michaels would be enthusiastic.

It’s all my mother’s fault.

Easy going on most issues, my mother was staunchly opposed to sugar cereals. When Lucky Charm and Honeycomb commercials came on during the Saturday cartoons, making breakfast look as fun as a trip an amusement park complete with leprechauns and Flintstones, I salivated over my Shreddies (which added a little flavor).

But for some reason – likely fatigue – when General Mills introduced Honey Nut Cheerios, they made the grade for my mother. I took to that buzzing bee on their box like a fish to water, and have not looked back since. They have seen me through grade school, university, and now adulthood. My faithful companion. The ideal complement for my simple palate, the perfect combination of honey sweetness and crunch.

They are the low-water mark for groceries: I can substitute canned pears for fresh fruit, and whip up vegetarian concoctions when there is no meat to be found in my fridge, but when we’re low on Honey Nut Cheerios, I give in and hit the grocery store. I get panicky when the last cheerio and all of that dust falls into my bowl.

I have avoided studying the nutrition chart on its brown and yellow box for years; ignorance is bliss. But a friend recently pointed out that there was almost as much sugar and sodium in this cereal as Cocoa Puffs, forcing me to reconsider my favorite breakfast choice.

In search of better nutrition for my morning meal, I have gone through stints with various healthier options like steel cut oats and Kashi Go Lean Crunch. The steel-cut oats take too long to make and the Kashi Go Lean necessitates so much chewing it hurts my jaw. After a week I invariably retreat back to my old standby.

I’m trying another cereal this week. My health-freak dentist sold me on Nature’s Path version of Cheerios made with quinoa flour. He enthusiastically bade me to try it last time I was in for a cleaning. “Not bad,” I told him. “Revolting!” I thought. Yet every morning this week, I have reluctantly reached past my super-sized Honey Nut Cheerio box for an eco-packaged, nutritional version of my favorite cereal.

They have a much better nutritional score: no sugar, low sodium, higher fiber, more protein, all organic ingredients. Paired with skim milk, they are not quite as revolting, but still taste more like cardboard than food. I tell myself I’m doing my body a favor, but my heart is not in this change.

I console myself with the thought that when life gives me lemons, I will pour myself a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and let their sweetness override any of life’s sour taste. In an effort to eat healthier I have replaced white rice with brown, plain pasta with whole wheat, mashed potatoes with quinoa. I need to draw the line somewhere.

SnowShoe Running: Try, Try Again

March 11, 2011 2 comments

There’s a new trend in town, and it involves running and mountains, a Vancouverite’s dream. As it happens, I love running and mountains. How could this go wrong?

Well, it sort of did. But if at first you don’t succeed, they say to try, try again. So I will try again, but first, a little tale of woe.

Grouse Mountain hosts Snowshoe drop ins every Monday and Wednesday night, so after hearing several people tell me how amazing it is, you will absolutely love it I believe were the exact words, I took the tram up the mountain to check it out. They had just received a dump of great snow, so despite poor visibility and low temperatures it held the promise of a snowy adventure.

I wedged into the dark tram alongside snowboarders and skiers, amazed at people’s stamina after 6 pm, when I’m usually thinking about going to bed. Stifling my yawns at the thought of curling up with a good book, I tried to draw from their energy and enthusiasm as we ascended to the base of my favorite local mountain.

After signing in with about seventy other night owls, they split up into groups of varying abilities. Because of high avalanche risk, the back country was closed, which meant the runners would be sticking to Paper Trail. I heard some groans, but it sounded innocent enough.

From the word go, the runners were off at a break neck speed down a steep pitch, powder flying up the back of my jacket as I frantically tried to keep pace with fading voices and fainter headlamps. The last time I sprinted downhill was never, so I tried to go as fast as I could without breaking my ankle, or worse, neck, as I navigated between dark forms that I hoped were trees.

I managed to barely keep them in sight, when suddenly, several beams of light were coming towards me. The sound of labored breathing – other than my own – was approaching me.  Having come to the bottom of the steep pitch, they had abruptly turned and were now trudging back up. Obediently I turned and brought up the tail end of the group as they made their way back up.

Someone has to be last, I told myself, as I again tried to keep pace with these jackrabbits. After fifteen minutes of a heart pounding, calf searing climb, I was relieved to see they were taking a breather. I joined their circle as someone yelled “Let’s go!”. I bent over to take a full breath into my lungs, but they were off, screaming down the hill that I had just labored up.

Surely, this is a joke.

Wondering what was going on, I trailed these inhumane people. Once again, I just caught up to them at the bottom of the hill when they turned and headed up. “How many times do you do this?” I managed to ask between breaths, meaning it took a long time to get out that sentence. “Four or five,” a snowshoer called over his shoulder.

I never did see any of their faces, just clouds of snow as they ran downhill.

Ronald McDonald Has Lost His Golden Touch

March 10, 2011 6 comments

A curious thing happened the other day: my daughter refused to bring McDonald’s to school for lunch. So not cool, mom. The negative stigma associated with fast food has trickled down to today’s youth.

I was one part proud, one part annoyed.

Since I’m writing this on the heels of admitting my Honey Nut Cheerio addiction, I hasten to tell you we very rarely eat McDonald’s, but it happens to be conveniently located next door to my dentist. The superstar mother I am managed to get all three of my children in for their 8 am cleaning appointments, minus their lunches. I fell from glory when I couldn’t convince my child to walk into class wielding a golden arch emblazoned bag.

Put it in your lunch kit for heaven’s sake – no one will be any the wiser! No dice. The smell, she said, would surely tip them off.

Interestingly, we had this conversation over muffins and juice inside McDonald’s – breakfast was also sacrificed to arrive at that early appointment (fine, so I was more drill sergeant than super mother). She has no trouble eating the food, she just didn’t want to be seen eating the food by anyone she knew.

My other two children could not believe what had just come out of their mother’s mouth – they were being offered the jackpot of all lunches, would be the envy of their classmates. I couldn’t go back on this offer. In the same way I refuse to be a short order cook when they all don’t like the dinner I’m serving, I wouldn’t be running to different restaurants for their lunch that day. It was McDonald’s or nothing.

I was in a position I never dreamed of: singing the praises of the fast food chain that in previous conversations I had proclaimed as evil, trying to cajole her into a quick and easy lunch. My words were coming back to haunt me, I had been too convincing in my earlier life, when I had more time for nutrition.

Other kids get Whole Foods, and I get McDonald’s? The high water mark for lunches is now the over-priced organic grocery store, incidentally. While undeniably full of healthier options, Whole Foods was not at my disposal.

We settled on a fruit and yogurt parfait and a couple of biscuits with jam, taken out of their packaging and disguised by her lunch kit. Hardly a lunch of champions, but under the rushed circumstances it would suffice.

Another day, another life lesson: be careful what you wish for.

Get well, Big Brother

February 26, 2011 4 comments

John and my sister, Marybeth

We all know that bad things happen to good people; but it never makes it easier.

My brother, John, who is way too young and sparkling with life to have any sort of affliction has battled a rare cancer in his leg for the last six months, and is battling still in ICU this weekend as he recuperates from a fourth surgery.

Finally, we can keep up with him. Normally he will have played eighteen holes of golf and gone for a run before most people roll out of bed.

If people were awarded celebrity status based on character alone, John would be more famous than Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber combined. He is kind, generous, intelligent, and funny; a dedicated teacher and vice-principal who has made a positive difference in many lives as a coach, mentor, and friend. He is the person we all strive to be.

I know this first hand. All of my life my claim to fame has been that I am John’s sister. Once people realize this I am granted special status in their eyes, and they tell me how John was their favorite teacher, how he was responsible for their child’s success, how he was the best paddling coach they ever had, how wonderful he is. I have become adept at excusing myself from conversations where people sing his praises; they are usually lengthy and rambling.

These tendrils of respect are far reaching and hard to escape. I was in San Diego recently, and I had a conversation with a man from Nova Scotia who told me his family was indebted to John. Instead of showing his teenage boy heavy handed discipline, John had offered him creative solutions and support, which enabled a troubled child to grow into a productive person.

It’s not easy to keep the most active, energetic and athletic person I know down, but the recent past has put him through the ringer.

It’s been a year filled with medical surprises. His swollen knee was first thought to be a torn meniscus, and he waited for months to have this surgically fixed. During this surgery his doctor realized this was something different, and biopsied the swollen tissue. The next week they told him he had a rare type of cancer in the fat cells of his knee. They prescribed a course of radiology followed by another surgery to remove the mass. He endured the major surgery in January, where doctors removed the affected tissue and replaced it with John’s calf muscle and donor ligaments. The incision ran the length of his entire leg.

He thought he was on the road to recovery, only to be knocked down again: his leg wasn’t healing properly, so another surgery determined more muscle had to be taken from his abdomen to surround exposed bone. Another six hour surgery landed him in ICU, a high risk of infection rendering him immobile.

Can you imagine going through hell and back, only to return to its fiery depths so soon?

As he lies still, exhausted by medical intervention and dashed hopes, all of us – his wife, children, family and friends, are sending positive thoughts and prayers through the airwaves, thoughts that say stay strong, get well, breathe deep, hold on, be safe, my brave big brother. We love you so much; you are our star.

Study Shows Cell Phones Mess With Your Brain

February 26, 2011 2 comments

photo courtesy of mtsofan, Flickr

My eleven-year-old daughter has been begging me to buy her a cell phone.

I have solidly stood my ground – it seems wrong on so many levels, not least of which are the risk factors. I’ve put a lot of time and energy into her health and safety, it seems counterproductive to me to let her put an electromagnetic field next to her developing brain.

Finally, some backup for my mother’s instinct: a study published this week in the Journal of American Medical Association shows conversations of less than an hour produce an increase in brain activity. Guess what we will be discussing at dinner tonight?

The study is small, but its results prove that further testing is warranted on the long term effects of cell phone use. Most importantly, it adds fuel to my fire: cell phones can be a dangerous tool for developing organs.

47 participants were tested between January and December of 2009. Cell phones were placed on each ear; on one occasion the cell phones were off, on the other they were muted but would receive calls and texts. After the 50-minute exposure period, each person was given a PET scan to measure their brain activity.

The resulting scans showed that when the phones were turned on, there were significant increases in the brain glucose – the main fuel source for the brain – closest to the phone antenna.

The researchers were led by Dr. Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She noted that whether cell phone radiation actually causes brain tumors is unresolved. “Further studies are needed to assess if the effects we observed could have potential long-term consequences.”

It is early days on these studies, I’m sure we will be bombarded by many more in days to come. And from what I witness, most kids use their phones for texting more than speaking. Nevertheless, when it comes to my child’s brain, better safe than sorry seems to be a fitting motto.

The other potentially bad news that could result from this study is an increase in the army of people who walk around talking to themselves. It always takes me a minute to determine they are actually using minute headsets…I’ll admit, it looks weird, but I’m buying one anyway.

Article first published as Study Shows Cell Phones Cause Changes in Brain on Technorati.

Baby Gyms – Now I’ve Heard Everything.

February 22, 2011 7 comments

Ann Johansson for The New York Times

At first glance, I thought the term “baby gym” referred to gyms where a superb level of childcare was provided for members intent on rediscovering muscles that had been largely ignored during baby making phases.

Silly me.

Baby gyms – where indeed the participants are babies and toddlers, and indeed the main purpose is exercise – are popping up all over the United States and Canada, with big plans for hitting China next. Someone needs to capitalize on the growing 35% obesity rate in America. You can imagine fears of extra pounds being put to rest as parents sign up their unsuspecting offspring for aerobics, never mind the small fact that they can’t yet stand.

Today on my favorite radio show, Q, host Jian Ghomeshi interviewed Darlene Bolhuis, the creator of Gymtrix, a library of videos designed to put your toddler through the paces of exercise. Its website lists potential benefits of these videos as accelerated physical activity and the prevention of obesity. Ms. Bolhuis told Ghomeshi she believes in physical literacy, in the same way regular literacy should be encouraged from an early age. If you teach a baby how to kick a balloon with his foot, the idea is he will have a better idea of what to do when he walks onto the soccer pitch.

Read: give your kid an advantage! This concept preys on those parents desiring Tiger Woods or Sidney Crosby proteges to fund their retirement.

In his New York Times article, Sports Training Has Begun for Babies and Toddlers, Mark Hyman highlights this is not an isolated incident – there are other companies making similar DVD’s, such as athleticBaby and Baby Goes Pro, not to mention a plethora of gyms set up under the guise of altering skyrocketing obesity rates. They encourage parents to  start the gym habit with infants as young as four months old.

All this on the heels of the outrageous Baby Yoga video that made headlines in January, showcasing a Russian woman carelessly handling an infant as though it were a yo-yo, the premise being this is actually beneficial for babies. What is this world coming to?

Encouraging a healthy generation of children can be accomplished by good eating habits and normal, age-appropriate exercise. Think fewer Doritos, more hiking. Leave the infants to discovering their fingers and toes, and the toddlers to doing what they do best: playing.