Running Slowly

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I am starting this post about six weeks into my jogging experiment. I have never run. Until my mid-forties I had never worked out in a gym either, but I became addicted to weight lifting and my time at the gym is one of the things I miss most in these pandemic times, although I lift at home now with an ever-growing pile of hand weights. (A previous post on my quarantine time work out, can be found here.) However, I have never enjoyed, only endured, cardio – stuffing a good audio book in my ears and taking my medicine, working my way up to 20-30 minutes of increasingly difficult cardio on an elliptical machine over time like medicine. It seems to me that although when left to its own devices, my breathing is just fine, but once I start to fuss with it – be it to meditate or exert – it becomes resentful and turns recalcitrant.

While I continued to lift weights and work out with my trainer (shout out to Harris Cowan @livestrongernyc) via Facetime and Zoom throughout the pandemic, the first quarantine foray of walking to my office in Columbus Circle from 86th Street and York Avenue made it very clear that I had lost both my wind and my strength – albeit a long walk, one I used to do it without thinking.

Walking has always been my strong suit and life in New York City usually provides for enough unscheduled walking in our daily lives that I have never had to think about it, but now long workdays in our studio apartment often resulted in my not leaving my desk (sometimes it has seemed my chair!) for 12 hour stints. No trips across Columbus Circle to the hall or even a few blocks down for a lunch hour errand or to pick up food. Evidently stretching and lifting (and the occasional trip up sixteen flights of stairs) quite simply were not cutting it. Regretfully and doubtfully, I began a program of walking, just as it started to turn cold of course.

An impressive congregation of pigeons seen on one of my first ventures. They are there each morning and own that portion of the esplanade.

I have nothing against walking, in fact I have always been fond of it and have also enjoyed hiking when it was available to me, but it wasn’t really raising my heart rate which was one of the primary goals and sufficient distance to make a difference was just taking too much time, my work out time being constricted by my work hours. It wasn’t long before I realized that there was no reasonable solution, but to pick up the pace and see if I could jog a bit.

However, another issue that has long prevented me from impact exercise is that I have a form of arthritis, Psoriatic Arthritis, that impacts both my large and my small joints. (Lady Gaga is the most famous person I know of who has this disease, diagnosed about the same age as I was, early 20’s. There was also The Singing Detective who was fictional and the doppelganger of his creator Dennis Potter who alarmingly actually died from it.)

Since my diagnosis, now decades ago, I have taken an increasingly large number of pills which generally keep things going mostly unimpeded, but I have always been a bit ginger and thoughtful about introducing new exercise. A Pilates class taken without supervision or hopping on a new machine at the gym without proper guidance has landed me in stew of inflamed and swollen joints for days. My hands will sometimes even rebel and swell against weights lifted improperly or gripped too enthusiastically. I sometimes wonder how it compares to the soreness of anyone trying something new, but of course as we are trapped in our own bodies it is hard to guess or know. I have been warned that running will speed the need for joints that want replacing or repair.

Nevertheless, I am nothing if not stubborn and one morning in late October I started the process of jogging. I had read up about it and done some HIIT (high intensity interval training) to know that I could start by alternating between running and walking. At first I ran about a block for another two or three walked. Surprisingly my wind picked up first, within the first weeks, and my body memory for that kicked in better than I would have expected. Unfortunately my legs, my hips, knees and feet (okay, everything below my waist) have balked mightily at the experiment.

Instagram followers already had a chuckle with me over my discovery of mismatched sneakers when I went to stretch the other day – early mornings! I have already been pestering those IG folks with my outdoor work out all along! A thank you to them for helping to keep me honest.

Simultaneously and for better or worse, I figured I might as well resume some of my former workout our one room is too intimate for and so I added into these sessions with bands around my legs, deep squats, and lunges – I hop up from park benches and step up onto deserted pallets along the river’s edge or stone steps at the entrance to the park, turning it into an hour or more for the full regime. Before you start to think this is really admirable let me assure you that getting myself away from my toasty warm morning desk routine dosed with copious coffee and instead out into the park in the cold has been a sheer test of will. I deeply suspect that I am writing this so I will be ashamed to stop once I have told you all about it.

I also have no doubt that (and assuming anyone cares, although I am pretty sure these days they don’t) I look like an absolute fool – an overweight middle aged woman, in brightly printed leggings (I’ve always had a weakness for bright workout clothes) showing every inch I need to lose before we resume our post-pandemic lives, and a top layer piled on for warm. However, that is of course the beauty of the now time rather than the before time – everyone in that park is there for their own kind of escape. People reading, smoking, on their phones, staring off into space – a few young couples canoodling, but not so often early in the morning. I often think there are probably all sorts of life’s dramas unfolding, secretly around me there each day.

Carl Schurz Park on New Year’s Day morning.

And of course, there are other people working out. There is a group that boxes and I must say that looks like great fun and is sort of tempting to try one day. (Yes, my aforementioned arthritic hands balk at the idea.) A variety of trainers have taken to the park, with its benches, fences and even some handy scaffolding along the waterfront to train individuals. Groups gather in the basketball court for a work out to blaring music. As I say, these days everyone is there to do their own thing and no one is giving me a second look – except dogs fascinated by my workout with the band (not sure why but they want to investigate) and the occasional trainer sizing me up to see if they can add me to their roster. Luckily for me I am not deeply troubled by embarrassing myself in public in this particular way anyway.

Like going to a gym, familiar faces and characters emerge to populate the ongoing drama of the park. In addition to the boxers and the trainers there is the elderly woman volunteer who picks up garbage each day and makes sure the storm drains are clear of garbage and leaves, the other nascent runners, an elderly woman in a down jacket who I always think is looking at me like I’m nuts. (Masks mean that normal cordial attempts to smile at someone is impossible so unless one wants to shout a hearty greeting – which I’ve started doing to the volunteer – we all largely pass without acknowledgment.)

As to the running, we should call it jogging really, it has been a slog. I reached a pinnacle of pain about two weeks ago and thought I would have to stop. However, I reduced the number of days I do the outdoor workout (now generally 3) rotating with the other days to do my indoor regime of lifting and apartment friendly exercise, or off to rest muscles. With the advice of my trainer (yay Harris!) I added more stretching on the front end (roller on the most offended leg muscles and joints before I leave the house), have pushed the non-running portion of my workout to the beginning to give myself a maximum warm up and have reduced some of that as well – step ups are on hold for awhile, and my post-workout stretching is more fulsome. It is not perfect, but it seems to be working well enough to keep me in the game.

I now jog with only short a few short periods of walking. I look on with frank envy at people of all ages and both sexes who appear to do this so much better than me, appearing effortless as they pass me by. However, I am determined to continue to just push that bit further each time – setting a new goal by at least mere yards beyond where I thought I could go. I tell myself that I should not criticize my body for what it is not doing well, but to be grateful for what it is able to accomplish. Patience and kindness works better and will be part of the ongoing lesson. No, I have not reached the fabled endorphin producing stage – I’ll let you know about that. Meanwhile, I have switched from listening to books to music that encourages swifter movement, as does the morning chill. I am always warm when I finish.

A jolly tug that could be out of a children’s book.

One unexpected pleasure has been seeing the East River in all its moods. As Pictorama readers know, I grew up on the Shrewsbury River in New Jersey and while the East River is technically visible from our apartment, I have been largely removed from the nuanced shifts in it. Now I am always surprised by the strength of the current and some days small, curled waves are even lapping at the bulkhead along the path. On stormy or very windy days it threatens to overtake the esplanade, gurgling up from storm drains below, which I know from experience it does, ultimately flooding the adjoining FDR drive. It brings my childhood watching of the water and the way it was a part of daily life back to me though. The river is home to a surprising amount of boat traffic, largely tugs, freighters and ferries this time of the year – some creating a ferocious wake in their path.

I try to remember, as I grumble and leave the toasty warm apartment, that I am generally happy to be outside once I get there and always feel better for having done the workout than not; that and a daily dollop of determination get me out the door more often than not. Busy workdays might mean only a part of the workout gets accomplished, but better some than none I remind myself and I try not to engage in work email or texts while on my breaks between sets.

I have recently adopted an oversized sweatshirt from my alma mater (Connecticut College – go Camels) the first I have ever owned. Seemed to me though that the college might as well get my money as anyone else and if I am to have some logo emblazoned on me, further adding to the ridiculousness of my appearance, why not at least one legitimately own. I commend the sweatshirt for being roomy and warm and exactly what was wanted, logo not withstanding.

Outside the Big Dog Run in Carl Schurz Park.

The sun rising over the park and the water, the various guises of the clouds and water, have an allure – even when they turn dark and threatening. I would say I am at least well on my way to walking to Columbus Circle unimpeded when the time comes. I can honestly say I do not know how far my ambition and grit will take me. I guess it is a New Year’s resolution come early and we’ll see if I can stick with it through the coldest, and then ultimately the hottest, days of the New Year ahead.

Early morning walk to the park in November, sun rising over the East River.

Working It Out

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Deitch Studio followers may already know that Kim is well-documented for his commitment to a daily work out routine. On the other hand, I think I have only touched lightly at best on my own devotion to a work out regime which I am reflecting on a bit today.

Let me start by stating that my interest in anything athletic was desultory at best growing up. If I swam, it was never laps; I might hit a tennis ball around with someone, but rarely really played a game; I would walk to get somewhere, but never was a runner. Like many little girls in the suburbs, I took ballet lessons when little, but while interested was not promising in this area and my parents deftly moved me on from it.

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Loren’s rugby trophies from Princeton.

 

Was it because I grew up in the shadow of my older sister who was captain of every team, winning a myriad of varsity letters? Loren did it all – swim team, tennis, and track in particular, but the only thing that precluded her from joining a team was another that took place at the same time. She was a restless bundle of energy and needed to blow off steam daily and it was a rare day when she didn’t have workouts of one kind or another morning and evening. (I wrote about her rugby adventures here.)

In my early twenties I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and I began a program of yoga, developed specifically for me, that was a daily constant in my life for many years. It did a fairly good job at keeping my joints functioning. (My workout was designed by a brilliant man named Allen Bateman who appears to have disappeared entirely off the face of the earth, Google cannot find him.) I turned Kim onto it and he incorporated some of it into his workout, some things that he continues with today. There came a time however when some of the practice was getting a little risky with the advance of the arthritis and gradually I fell away from it. A few years later a sore shoulder which blew up into a frozen shoulder lead me ultimately to Pilates. I loved Pilates and it always makes me feel good about myself and my body.

However, at some point I wanted more exercise than I could afford via Pilates and the instructor of that studio sent me to Harris Cowan, personal trainer (@livestrongernyc), who I have seen pretty much every single week of my life (a few work trips notwithstanding) for the past 9 years. I have followed him to a myriad of private gym spaces – some nice, some just not – over the years. In many ways, I would have considered myself the least likely person to enlist the help of a personal trainer, but the arthritis meant certain concerns if not actual limitations, and as I had never walked into a gym in my life I wouldn’t have known what the heck to do. I joined what passed for an inexpensive gym in Manhattan and set a commitment to myself of a minimum of three days a week in addition to seeing Harris on a fourth.

Harris probably deserves his own future post as a regular and important feature in my life, but for now I will just say that he has always been superb at pushing me just beyond comfort. I am rarely actually sore the next day, yet progress is achieved. He is sensitive to the issues my body has, but generally has a can do no nonsense approach. When setbacks (such as foot surgery) occur he has helped me reset and again we build and move forward. He slowly restored first one shoulder, and then eventually the other, to full usability.

No one could be more surprised than me that it turns out I love lifting weights. Left to my own devices it is all I would ever do in a gym, eschewing cardio (back in the pre-quarantine days when I actually did some), and tedious but necessary things like squats. Actually, I adore the gym. I relax immediately upon walking into a gym. I find that if you are going to hold weights over your head you had better focus your mind on that and nothing else which means it is a method to clear my mind of the constant demanding chatter of work and life.

When I traveled for work it was always the most centering thing I can do. No matter where I am in the country or the world, if I can drag myself out of bed early and to the gym I am the better for it. The first thing I check about every hotel in advance and when I check in is the gym.

I happily stuff earphones with a bit of contemporary fiction via Audible playing in my ears and I am in a blissfully focused, quiet place for 60 to 90 minutes. Exercise does as much (if not more) for my mental state as for my physical one. (Strangely, passages of those novels replayed, bring me right back to where I heard them first, either my own gym here on the east side of Manhattan, or a hotel in San Francisco where I traveled down the block to use a gym for a workout, back when I was still at the Met.) I have a mental image of hotel gyms across the world (they are lousy in most of Europe) and the country – some that were quite nice and others a bit less so. Some crowded, many (most) fairly empty.

My first gym was a small local chain of a few gyms. I went from feeling like an alien there to slowly becoming a fixture there, among a small devoted clutch of folks who were there upwards of four days every week. In the first years of working out I often found myself there six days a week. Because I often only found time to work out before going to the office, I kept a locker at the gym and would shower and get ready for work there. I considered a locker essential as not only did it mean that I could carry less on those mornings, but it also meant I could leave clothes and sneakers there, enabling me to stop by for a workout I had not planned. When the gym eventually did away with lockers as part of a renovation, I somewhat regretfully moved a few blocks up to the more upscale Equinox.

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In Manhattan Equinox is somewhat in the upper echelon of gym chains. While I had enjoyed the decidedly low rent aspect of my first gym, I ultimately felt that for someone who spent as much time at the gym as I did I probably could pay more and I sunk happily into the relative luxury of it, although I admittedly missed some of the regulars at my old establishment.

Not that I ever much spoke to them. In my mind I had names for them such as Man Who Reads the Paper on the Bike, but Never Pedals or Woman With Red Hair Who Runs. I never felt the need to really talk to people, although after a few years some of us might nod at each other. One day I ran into one of these folks on the crosstown bus and we actually had a conversation. We commented on how strange it was to see each other fully clothed, ours was a locker room acquaintance and I’m sure the other passengers thought we were very odd. One of them (Thin Man Who Lifts While Biking) turned up at Equinox and we had a happy nod hello to acknowledge the reacquaintance.

Starting three years ago my job at Jazz at Lincoln Center took a ferocious bite out of my time and it has been harder to make it to the gym on weekdays in the past few years. My six and seven day habit became more of a three and four day one with work being a starting very early and ending very late sort of thing. I was still very relieved to get there and let everything else fall away.

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My view of Cookie from the floor while working out the other day.

 

So, of course, living our quarantine lives has meant no gym and I miss it very much. (So much that I dreamed about working out on machines last night – probably the inspiration for this post.) Even the gym in our building (which I also belong to in order to grab more workouts on the fly, yes, I belong to two gyms) is closed by order of state law, unable to open until some future post-phase 4 re-opening. (I occasionally fantasize about breaking into the one in the basement and making off with a few weights and the Bosu ball.) Gyms in New York are in a suspended state in much the same state as our concert hall, awaiting such a time as it is safe for us to return.

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Cookie looking a bit critical during a recent workout, perched on Kim’s work chair.

 

On the other hand, exercise continues at Deitch Studio as a daily ritual. Like so many people these days my new work wardrobe consists primarily of workout clothes – mine starting to get a bit ragged from the constant rotation. Kim and I vie early each morning for time on our 10’x 4′ (or so) space on yoga mats, our designated work out area in front of the flat files and blocking the entrance to the bedroom.

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Yep, gym equipment piled up next to DVD stacks and some of Kim’s comics reading.

 

I have slowly accumulated a variety of weights (luckily I had some from a former period of at home rehab which was a good thing because there was a shortage of them and price gauging online if you could get them at all), a ball, some bands, a foam roller. Cookie in particular is interested in this daily ritual (she is wildly fond of a paint pole we use for shoulder exercises and also comes running if I am using the green band). Blackie, ham that he is, only shows up to say hello to Harris during my Facetime workout however. (Blackie has discovered his inner actor and extrovert tendencies as a video call cat star during these work at home days.)

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Yummy corn muffins in progress last weekend.

 

Harris appears on my iPad weekly, where he watches some random portion of me visible to him, and I work out to his instruction. Not ideal, but it works. And despite missing the gym and a broad variety of equipment there, the good news is that I am back up to five or more workouts a week, biceps gaining ground and abs attempting to keep up with my renewed interest in cooking. (See prior posts herehere and here.) As mentioned above, cardio is a bit of disaster despite the occasional trip up the 16 flights of stairs here; I find myself huffing and puffing when I attempt to walk more than a mile. I am slowly adding in daily walks to offset this until such time that more walking and even elliptical machines are a part of my life again.

However, I often joke that I will emerge from the bunker days with a prison pallor, oddly buff, but a bit puffy and overweight – perhaps sporting a Deitch designed cat tats on each bicep. Perhaps I will work some of that good cooking weight off biking to work in the coming new post-Covid world. I will let you know.