I Went from the Couch to a Half Marathon and Learned to Embrace the Process

On Sunday April 28, 2019 I completed my first half-marathon. Before that day I had only run in a 5k “fun run” once before and other than that, I had not really run at all since middle school. Looking back at where I started 7 months earlier I’m sometimes amazed that I was able to achieve this goal. You see, when I first started I couldn’t even run 1.5 miles without feeling like a 300 lb. lineman who just ran back a fumble 80 yards.

The support of my family made all the difference. I couldn't let my kids see me give up!

Those early runs were really embarrassing. How was I THIS out of shape? Interestingly, I wasn’t even that upset with my fitness level until AFTER I started running and realized just how out-of-shape I was! So, I did some more running but it was still sporadic. I needed a goal, I needed a push. That push came one day at lunch out with some coworkers. Two of them were in the process of training for the Runner’s World half marathon and had joined a running group that was training together on the weekends. They were telling some funny stories about their adventures through the streets of Bethlehem, PA and I thought to myself: “that sounds like fun. If they can do that, why can’t I?” So, I decided that I wanted to get to the point where I could at least hang with them.

My first step was to push myself to the point where my usual run was up to 3 miles. It was around this time that I started thinking about running another 5k or maybe even a 10k. But, as I started putting the miles in and things started getting a bit easier something in me said that I needed to do something a little crazy. Running a 5k wasn’t going to be enough. I had to do something hard…something that seemed entirely out of reach. I needed to prove to myself that I could achieve something that I wasn’t sure was possible. I wanted to run a half marathon.

At this point running 3 miles was not necessarily easy, so the idea of running more than 4 times that far was daunting to say the least. But I knew I had to try. I was 38 years old and I couldn’t say that I had ever really pushed my limits in any meaninful way. I needed to do this for myself and I knew the only way to get there was going to be hard work, and trusting the process. Logging the miles, pushing little by little every day. So, that’s what I did. I ran at least 3 times a week and had a friend help me put together a training program that would increase my distance slowly over time until I hit my goal of 13.1 miles.

There were ups and downs of course. Around Christmas when I was pushing up towards 7 mile on my long runs I got such a bad case of shin splints that I had to stop entirely. This was REALLY hard and extremely discouraging. I had made such great progress and was feeling confident. Every day that I wasn’t running felt like a piece of that progress was eroding away. After about 2 weeks I went out and upgraded my shoes and began to ease my way back into things. The splints slowly vanished and things were looking up. I learned that you need to listen to your body and not push things too far too fast.

But at this point I had another problem. It was January…in Pennsylvania. My long runs were begining to stretch out to over 60 minutes in length and it was cold. I remember mornings when the thermometer was not even hitting 20 degrees and sometimes I’d return with a beard coated in ice or fingers so stiff that I couldn’t open my post run snack! As the miles picked up my joints rebelled, first my right knee would flare up with shooting pains that almost forced me to stop, then my hips were sore and stiff, then as my right knee cleared up my left knee started up as my IT band strained from the added miles.

But here’s the thing…I kept going. When my alarm went off at 5:30 AM every Sunday morning, I got up, put on my warmest clothes, put my headphones in and ran. I ran until my joints creaked like an old staircase and then I ran a little further. I ran during the week, sometimes on my lunch breaks, sometimes at the YMCA on the treadmills, whatever I needed to do to get my miles in. I started this philosophy that the days when I least wanted to go out and run were the days when I needed to do it the most. It was hard..and that’s the point.

I can say without question that this no-excuses approach to my running plan is what got me to my goal. You have to trust the process, you have to put the work in and not think about the long term. If you start thinking “No big deal if I miss one day” you’ll soon find yourself missing one, than 2, than 3… I focused on one run at a time. I listened to my body but I did not make excuses. Slowly, but surely my miles climbed. 9, 10, 11, 12..

Crossing the finish line was something that seemed impossible 6 months ago...

It’s interesting to think back about what kept me going. When everything in me wanted to stop I would think about my kids and that I needed to show them what was possible if you pushed through adversity. I needed to show them that you don’t give up but work through the ups and downs towards your goals. I thought of my friends who were cheering me on. I would always share my runs with them and this really held me accountable. I was not going to tell them that I stopped halfway through my long run just because my legs hurt. And I thought of my wife. I was asking a lot from her as I logged these hours pounding out miles on the pavement. I couldn’t let the sacrifices she was making for my sake go to waste.

In the end I ran over 360 miles between October 2018 and April 2019. I finished my 1st half marathon in 2:00:21. I lost 40 pounds, my resting heart rate sits in the 50s and I’m in better physical shape than I have been since…well, probably ever. And these are just the improvements I made to my physical health. I find myself more patient, and relaxed. I’ve slowed down and find myself appreciating the moment more than I have in the past. Now, don’t get me wrong things are not perfect by any means. I’ve got my issues just like anyone else. But I can say with certainty that this process has made me stronger, and more resilient. I’ve seen what I’m capable of and learned the power of embracing the process. I now hope to apply what I’ve learned in other aspects of my life and see how far I can go…


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What I Read - January 2019

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald (Format: audio) - Part of my Reading Bucket List. I found the writing to be superb (it was a pleasure to listen to on my daily commute) while the story itself I found to be just so-so. That being said, Fitzgerald makes a strong case for not living in the past and takes quite the stab at the frivolity of the upper class at the time. Clearly the elegance with which Fitzgerald uses the written word is the reason why this one is a classic though. - Recommended

Favorite Quote:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Born To Run - Christopher McDougall (Format: paperback) - I’ve recently gotten fairly serious about running and this book scratched me right where I itched. McDougall masterfully weaves running advice, human evolution, and the history of running shoes within a gripping story about a native Mexican tribe of super-athletes who compete in a secret race with some of the best utlra-marathoners in the world. A really gripping read. - Recommended, especially if you’re a runner.

Favorite Quotes:

“Ask nothing from your running…and you’ll get more than you ever imagined.”

“Suffering is humbling. It pays to know how to get your butt kicked..”

Believe It - Nick Foles (Format: hardcover) - I bought this book for my son and read it before he got a chance to! As a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan I was intrigued by the story behind Nick’s improbable run to the Super Bowl following the 2018 season. What I found, however, was the story of a man who figured out how to let go, persevere and do things for the right reasons and what resulted was pure magic. Although it was a little bit too religious for my personal taste there are very valuable lessons that any of us (especially young men and women) can learn from Nick’s story. - Recommended

“My philosophy is, in the 4th quarter, when the games on the line, when you trust the men next to you, you’re going to get it done more times than not. This team is a testament to that.”

The Jungle - Upton Sinclair (Format: audio) - Another book from my Reading Bucket List. This book is famous for the change it brought about in the U.S. meat packing industry soon after its release in the early 1900s and it’s easy to see why when you read Sinclair’s vivid descriptions of the atrocities that took place behind closed doors. Beyond that, the story of Jurgis and his immigrant family is one of pure, unadulterated misery serving as a scathing criticism of capitalism. The last 2 chapters reveal Sinclair’s ultimate goal with The Jungle when he tries to convince his reader that socialism is a much superior philosophy to capitalism. - Recommended for its historical significance.

Favorite Quote:

“To do that would mean, not merely to be defeated, but to acknowledge defeat- and the difference between these two things is what keeps the world going.”


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Fixing Facebook

When news of the Cambridge Analytics scandal broke I was all on board the #deletefacebook movement. I deactivated my account and started thinking about what I would do to replace the features I currently use on Facebook. What I discoverd is that it’s not as simple as I might have thought. Facebook is actually pretty useful. I like using my Facebook account as a defacto identity on other sites. I like connecting with friends that I may not see often or who may live far away from me. I enjoy looking at photos of what my friends and family are up to. I like the simplicity of sharing interesting things or small thoughts with my friends. All of these features make Facebook a really compelling product. All of this convienience comes at a high cost though. You really are selling yourself to Facebook and it’s advertisers by giving them a detailed account of your life. Is it worth it? I’m not so sure it is. Can it be fixed? I think it can and here are some ways we can try:

Let me pay for it

As I mentioned, I actually like a lot of the things Facebook offers me. I like it so much that if you told me I could have access to all these tools and all my interactions would remain private AND I was in control of my data I’d absolutely be willing to pay a monthly fee. This is a product that is worth paying for. Seems simple enough right? Provide a premium option with no ads and privacy as a priority. Here’s the problem with this: Facebook’s entire business model is built on selling you not selling to you. For them to completely change this model at this point would be a herculean task. Not to mention the complexities of how you handle privacy between users on different plan tiers. A lot of the most valuable data about you is the people you interact with and how you interact with them. If suddenly there are missing connetions in that data then it becomes much less valuable to potential partners and advertisers.

Let someone else do it

Facebook is so ingrained in their current business model that it may be more feasable for someone else, preferably a non-profit, to come along and re-build it. The platform itself is not really all that complicated from an implemtation standpoint. The hardest part is scalability but even this is a problem that’s been solved multiple times. A company like Wikimedia who already runs an incredibly high-traffic website could easily rebuild the core functionality of Facebook and architect it to be equally as scalable. A donation model works for Wikipedia I don’t see why it couldn’t work for a new Facebook. Of course, one of the biggest issues with this is that of any new social media platform. Namely, you need people. If I log on and can’t find a single one of my friends chances are I’m leaving and never coming back. This is probably what is holding back geek darling Mastodon from putting a dent in Twitter’s dominance even though it offers all the benefits of Twitter while being decentralized. You’re talking to a mostly empty room.

Stop using it altogether (#deletefacebook)

If you’re impatient or you just don’t trust Facebook at all you can go ahead and delete it entirely. It’s a bit difficult to replace all that convienience but it’s not impossible and the funny thing is that you can do it with technology that’s been around for years. Group discussion? Try sending a good ol’ email to the group. Direct messaging? Again, email or straight-up text messages work great. Posting stuff to the world? Try creating your own site (much like this one). It’s really simple these days and you get the added benefit of owning all of your content. When you add an interesting post or photo to your site you’re adding value to your own platform and not simply helping to line the pockets of some large corporation. What about following friends, news etc.? Well, there’s this old technology called RSS that solved that problem years ago. Facebook didn’t invent these technologies, they just consolodated them to make it easier. Remember that old adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”? It holds true here as well. By putting all of your online activity essentially in one place you are providing a wealth of valuable data to them that can be used to manipulate you without you even realizing it. With RSS I build my own feed directly from the sources without having to worry about what the algorithm is showing me or hiding from me. If you’re looking for curated content consider subscribing to some email newsletters. They have been making a comeback of late and althought I was skeptical at first I’ve come to really look forward to my daily and weekly newsletter deliveries. Humans do a much better job of finding quality content than algorithms do. I consistently find great articles and interesting tidbits in my newsletters each week.

Give them a chance to fix it themselves

Maybe they’ll learn some hard lessons with this whole Cambridge Analytics mess. They could tighten privacy and give us all the tools we need to make sure our data isn’t being used without our permission. This would mean that data sharing would almost certainly have to be opt-in which would decimate their current business model so this idea seems unlikely but hey, let’s see what happens.


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Samsung Galaxy S8+: A Review

I’ve been using Android phones for about 5 years now and they’ve come a long way in that time. When I got my first Android phone (an HTC One) there was little doubt that the comparative iPhone of the time was the superior product. It’s now 2017 and that is no longer the case. Today, flagship Android phones stand side-by-side with iPhone and often come out on top. For a long time I shied away from Samsung phones for various reasons that I’ll get into later but this year after reading a lot of reviews I thought it was time to give them a shot. I’ve had the device for a few months now and here are my thoughts.

Hardware

The newest trend in smartphones seems to be the bezel-less display and the Samsung GS8+ is no exception. The screen goes from one side to the other with nary a bezel to be seen. It has a slight curve on each side which gives the illusion that the display disappears over the edge. The top and bottom bezels are minimal in order to avoid the “notch” issue that the upcoming iPhone X suffers from. I must say that the screen is, in a word, excellent. The edge-to-edge design really makes it feel like the entire device is screen (unfortunately putting it in a case pretty much destroys this illusion) It begs to be used as a tiny TV and videos look fantastic. There’s a big caveat here, however. Because the entire front of the device is display it leaves no room for front facing speakers and I have found that the speaker location can be very problematic when you are watching videos. My hand tends to cover up the speaker and I have to adjust my grip to hear the sound clearly. This may seem like a trivial issue but it begs the question: is the bezel-free display actually better for users or is it just a marketing ploy to make the phone look more unique compared to its competitors. That screen does looks fantastic on the poster:

The new Pixel 2 by Google was announced last week and it takes a more pragmatic approach by leaving large bezels on the top and bottom but using that space for front facing speakers. Now, I haven’t had the opportunity to use this device but I can imagine that the overall experience of watching video on the Pixel 2 is more enjoyable than the S8+. Once you’re engaged in what you’re watching do you really notice the bezels anyway? Probably not. You will, however, notice if you suddenly can’t hear anything because your hand is covering the speaker.

The other major flaw which has been well documented is the location of the fingerprint sensor. Generally speaking I think the fingerprint sensor works a little better on the back than the front of a device since it’s where your finger tends to rest naturally. However, in this case, Samsung really dropped the ball placing the sensor right next to the camera near the top of the back panel. This is a problem for 2 main reasons: 1.) It’s hard to reach, especially on a tall device like this one and 2.) You end up smudging the camera with your finger all the time. I imagine there was a valid reason for the decision whether it be technical issues or efficiency reasons but it just feels like a major miss on hardware that gets lots of other things right. I suspect this will be remedied in the GS9.

There is a headphone jack. I use it a lot. Thank you Samsung. Do me a favor and keep it moving forward.

Battery Life

Battery life so far has been very good. I usually go to bed with between 40 and 50% power remaining and have forgotten to charge it overnight a few times without worrying that it would die out the next day. Check back in a few months though as my experience with Android phones and battery life is that it falls off rather quickly and, in the case of my LG G3 took a total nosedive when I upgraded from Lollipop to Marshmallow.

Software

This is the first Samsung device I’ve owned but I’ve known a bunch of people that have had other Galaxy phones and I’ve always been critical of the amount of crapware, redundant apps, and extraneous features that Samsung tends to ship. With the GS8 I feel like they’re getting better but there are still a ton of duplicate apps that are just Samsung versions of existing Google apps. That being said, the Samsung apps that I do use seem fine. There is one piece of software that Samsung insisted on adding that does need some discussion:

Bixby. Samsung…seriously just stop. There is just no reason for Bixby. It tries to do the things that Google Assistant already does but it doesn’t do them as well. They even went as far as adding a hardware button on the side of the phone entirely dedicated to launching Bixby. Thankfully, they recently rolled out an update that allows you to turn this off because it was so easy to accidentally hit this button and find yourself staring at the Bixby Home screen instead of your actual home screen. It’s very clear that Samsung wishes they controlled the entire ecosystem but since they’re tied to Android and Google, the only way to do that is re-invent the wheel in the hopes that no one will notice. They try so hard to make everything feel like a “Samsung” experience instead of an Android experience. Now, maybe this makes good business sense. Separate yourself from the pack of other Android devices so that customers don’t realize that they can get virtually the same experience on any one of Samsung’s competitor’s phones. Unfortunately, this means that the customer gets an inferior experience because no matter how hard they try, Samsung can’t out-Google Google. So, users who aren’t as tech-savvy as myself will use Bixby, as well as Samsung’s apps and they’ll sync their data with Samsung’s cloud and they won’t realize that they don’t need any of that stuff.

Another software feature that I feel needs to be mentioned is Face Recognition. Apple is making a big deal about face recognition on the iPhone X because they have to. By removing the fingerprint sensor, face recognition becomes the only viable option for unlocking the device securely using biometrics. Here’s the thing, face unlock has been available on Android for a few years now. That being said, I would have expected it to work much, much better than it does on the S8+. It is extremely unreliable. Sometimes it works almost instantaneously and the next time just not at all and I’m forced to use my fingerprint or my unlock code. I seriously hope that Apple has figured this one out because this inconsistency make the technology essentially useless in my opinion. If you can’t rely on it to unlock your phone every time it just becomes an annoyance rather than feature.

Other than that the skinning that has been done to the OS and the overall feel of the phone is very polished and slick. There are some nice little touches here and there that are actually welcome additions to the stock Android experience. I especially like the always on display and the “swipe up” gesture that brings up the app drawer from the home screen.

Camera

As an amateur photographer I would love to do a more in-depth review of the camera some time but for now I’ll just say this: The camera on the GS8+ is excellent. Is it the best camera on any smartphone right now? I have no idea. But it takes sharp pictures, performs admirably in low light, and is packed with all of the software features you would expect in a modern smartphone camera like: HDR, manual controls, Instagram-like filters, portrait mode, and even some Snapchat-esque augmented reality filters. I haven’t played around with a lot of these features but I will say that the portrait filter, while rather impressive technologically seems a bit heavy-handed.

Speaking of those software features: It’s starting to become clear that smartphone cameras have begun to reach the maximum of what can be done from a hardware perspective. I mean, there is only so much you can do with a sensor that small. Because of these limitations companies are moving more and more to software in an effort to provide higher quality photographs. In recent years we’ve seen the addition of dynamic HDR, cameras that take multiple photos and merge them, real-time software filters that provide blurred backgrounds (portrait mode), and now, with the newest iPhone, even dynamic lighting control all done by AI powered software. As I mentioned above, these features are very new and are only pretty good at the moment. That being said, it’s very easy to project a couple of years into the future and imagine improvements to this software that would make it possible for these devices to compete toe-to-toe with much more expensive mirrorless cameras. It will be interesting to see how far the can push those boundries in the coming years.

Verdict

It’s interesting, because when I started writing this review I generally felt as though this was an excellent phone with very few flaws and, in many ways, it IS a great phone. The screen is beautiful, it’s fast, the battery life is very good, and the camera is excellent. However, the more I wrote about the devices flaws, the more I realized that Samsung is trading the best user experience for the best profit experience. They are building phones that are designed to lock people into an virtual walled garden that doesn’t need to exist. Even the hardware is optimized for commercials and posters and not for actual use. I bit the bullet on this phone and I’m stuck with it for at least the next 2 years. Now, honestly, I’m fine with that. It does all the things I need it to do, it looks good, and I’m savvy enough to ignore all the Samsung nonsense and use the phone the way I want to use it. But barring a major change in how Samsung approaches the way it builds phones, this will probably be my last phone made by them.


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Reading Bucket List: A Confederacy of Dunces

Reading Bucket List is an ongoing series in which I read a classic book and share my notes and thoughts about it. This is the second post in the series

This book is considered a modern classic by many and, although highly entertaining, I found it difficult to deduce exactly what the author was trying to tell us beyond “here’s how not to live your life” The book’s protagonist, one Ignatious J. Reilly is a rotund individual of questionable sanity and even more questionable morals. He spends the majority of his misadventures blaming his plight on the mythical Fortuna, his mother, some “mongoloid’ or another, or even his misbehaving pyloric valve. Ignatious is the model of fecklessness. Constantly pointing blame at anyone or anything but himself.

Much of the story centers around Ignatious attempting to hold down a steady job to help his mother pay back a small debt she owes. The absurdity that ensues is no doubt some of the more ridiculous and creative (mis)adventure ever put down on paper. It is a cautionary tale about what happens when a person has an unyielding world-view, has no regard for how his actions impact the people around him, is willing lie to protect himself, and refuses to take responsibility for his own actions. In many ways he is the worst manifestation of a human being that you can possibly think of. That being said, I think everyone will probably be able to find a little bit of themselves somewhere in Ignatious. And once you see it you’ll almost certainly be motivated to make some changes so as not find Ignatious so relatable.

One interesting fact about the book that I didn’t pick up on initially is that it’s really all about money. Ignatious needs to work because his mother owes money. Jones needs a job because he doesn’t want to be picked up for vagrancy but is constantly complaining about only making $20 an hour. Ignatious is always trying to squeeze an extra dollar here and there to pay for his movie habit. Mr. and Mrs. Levy are sued for $500,000 due to Ignatious’s actions. Really, the only part of the book that isn’t about money is the ill-fated attempt to create a political party.

Overall I found the book extremely readable, amusing, entertaining and insightful in many ways. It is, without question, one of the most creative and unique books I’ve ever read and it’s because of this that I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat.


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