Failure-proofing a 225-day streak

In a year when my running plans have been derailed by persistent injury, a ridiculously tiny fitness goal has taken on outsized importance.

In fact, I’m not even going to tell you what it is just yet, it’s so humiliatingly insignificant.

The point is not the project itself so much as the methodology involved in keeping the streak alive. Succeed at the small stuff, study the keys to your success, and maybe you can replicate your “win” on something larger. That’s my take on it, anyway.

Now, here’s where I admit that it doesn’t really matter very much on any given day whether I walk to the mailbox or stop the car at the end of the driveway and grab it on my way to or from some other errand.

On the 225th day of 2017, though, those 200 steps add up to 22.5 miles. More importantly, in a quality of life sense, that’s a lot less junk collecting in my car if I’m on my way somewhere else and don’t immediately bring the mail and newspapers into the house. Most importantly, this tiny task has become my version of Tim Ferriss’ “win the day” routine – goals so small and doable that you actually do them (and then benefit from feeling successful, on however small a scale).

But the key to making even a small goal happen is having an out – a safe way to fail without derailing the project.

In this case, that meant if something prevented me from fetching the mail, it was OK – so long as I didn’t use the car to retrieve it. In other words, it was fine to simply skip a day. (Believe me, there are plenty of times over the years when that’s happened.) I’d just get a double dose of mail and papers the next day instead.

One close call came this spring, when an impending storm jeopardized a paycheck I desperately hoped was waiting inside our leaky mailbox. I was leaving Ossian, on my way to a middle school soccer game due to start in less than five minutes, and my route took me right past our house. Tempting as it was to stop at the mailbox, I forced myself to drive around to the back door like I usually would and ran out to the road. I grabbed the mail and raced back to the car as lightning flashed and the monsoon began. By the time I got to the school approximately two minutes later, the game had been canceled. But my check was (mostly) dry, and my streak was intact.

The most recent would-be streak buster came last week, when Colleen begged me to stop the car so she could check if a package was in the mailbox.

“What about my streak?” I said.

(Insert 14-year-old’s whine here.)

I thought about making her run up to the house and back first, but we were in a hurry. In the end, I gave in. But here’s how I preserved my streak:

I refused to look at either the mail or the newspapers until the next morning, AFTER I went out to fetch the morning paper – at which point, under normal circumstances, I’d have been fetching the previous day’s mail as well.

I’m calling that a win. More importantly, the streak goes on: 140 days to go.



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A cool thing that happened when I hopped off the yoga treadmill

There’s a Chinese parable I read somewhere once about a farmer whose only horse ran away.

horse running away“What terrible news!” his neighbors said. But the farmer replied, “Who knows what’s good or bad? Only time will tell.”

The next day the horse returned with several wild horses, and the farmer’s neighbors  congratulated him on his good fortune. But his reply was the same.

Even if you’ve never heard this story, you can probably guess where it goes from here: The farmer’s son breaks his leg trying to tame one of the wild horses (“what terrible news!”) but then is spared when the Emperor’s troops come through the village demanding every able-bodied man join up.

When Colleen suddenly refused to go to yoga class last week, suggesting we try a youtube video instead, I feared our latest foray into yoga was over. We’d already missed two classes while on vacation, and needless to say we never got around to doing yoga on the beach.

Without other people in class noticing if we didn’t do the poses, would we bother to try anything difficult?

The answer, in my case, was no. I was grouchy and uncomfortable, unable to get over this shift in our routine.

But Colleen did, probably just to spite me. And once I got over my aggravation at starting in “easy seat” (with my hips, there’s nothing “easy” about sitting cross-legged), it turned out we both really liked the instructor.

Now, a week later, instead of never doing any yoga unless I’m at class, we find ourselves in the midst of a 30-Day Yoga Challenge.


Adriene is awesome!

We started out with Adriene. We both liked that she’s very real, neither perfect nor pretentious, encouraging you to explore, wriggling around within a pose to find what feels good or interesting to you.

But then one night, craving something short and simple, we found this 15-minute relaxing beginner’s series from Yoga Journal. Even though the narrator has a weird detached omniscient Star Trek voice, it really was both easy and relaxing. (It was also cool to watch the virtuoso on the screen. He wasn’t showing off being a human pretzel. Just the opposite, really – I loved the way he glided easily and efficiently from pose to pose, as if this is how the human body is supposed to work if you’re not all bound up by stress. When the video was over, I found myself watching the next one just to gawk.

But the highlight of the week was the night I was just goofing around while listening to one of Bob’s old classical records. Not surprisingly, I started out doing all the easy stuff I like best. But then, on kind of a mission now several days into this challenge, I decided to really explore this tight-hips problem.

In class, I’d gotten to the point that I just accepted my limitations and sat with my legs straight out in front of me, knowing the YMCA instructors are way too polite to object.  

But here, alone in our living room with my 52-year-old muscles and the timeless tunes of both composer and musicians long since dead, I leaned in to the knots and kinks and unresolved grudges at the intersection of hip and leg.

In doing so, I thought about how I’m always pushing these muscles along in relentless forward motion, rarely giving them an opportunity for a sideways meander.

Even going to yoga class had been something I’d approached like doing time on some taskmaster’s treadmill. It was time to step off and go exploring.


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Consistent also-ran persists despite 1-43 record in friendly rivalry


Doug Bauman, center, and Barry Humble, right, have both run in all 44 Swiss Days Races since 1974. But it wasn’t until last year that Humble beat Bauman for the first time. At left is my dad, one of the original co-founders of the race. 

How does it feel to get beat by the same guy 42 years in a row?

I’ve been to many a Swiss Days Race over the years, but this was a plot line that eluded me until my dad, who helped start the race back in 1974, happened to mention it one day while we were working on a book about tales from his life as a banker in Amish country.

I knew about Doug Bauman’s race streak because he was a frequent age group winner and for years also helped announce the awards afterward. At the 40th running of the race back in 2013, he’d brought all of his trophies as part of a historical display.

But I never knew about Barry Humble, who’s also run all 44 races – and until last year, had never beaten Bauman, though both are former cross country runners and coaches who are roughly the same age.

I interviewed both runners earlier this summer so I’d be prepared to write a newspaper column on their long-running friendly rivalry on deadline after Saturday’s race, which took place less than 24 hours after our return from visiting my daughter in Charleston.

Though Bauman was clearly the more competitive of the two – a real go-getter as a former Marine and high school record holder – back surgery had made running so difficult that he basically doesn’t do it anymore. He was lacing up his shoes just to keep his race streak alive.

That made it seem likely that Humble, a longtime pastor and retired teacher who runs regularly and appears to be in relatively good health, had a good shot at beating Bauman for only the second time in 44 years.

That’s not how it played out. You can get the details from my column here, if you’re curious, but what really struck me afterward was how these guys both seem like sports heroes, albeit of two dramatically different mindsets.

Bauman clearly saw this as a major challenge, and he did wind up doing a bit of training ahead of time, but his performance in this race was more about having a warrior’s mindset, even at age 71.

Humble takes a more philosophical approach to running. As the fifth or sixth guy on his high school cross country team, and around the 10th guy on the squad at Taylor University, he learned to focus on improving his time without being jealous of the runners higher in the pecking order.

He runs because it makes him feel better, allows him to enjoy the occasional elephant ear without putting on weight, and because it’s fun to socialize with other runners – including a couple of guys he used to coach whom he now sees regularly in a 12-race county 5K challenge. He also enjoys using running stories in his sermons. 

Could he have dug deep and matched Bauman’s pace when his rival caught and then passed him with about a mile to go in Saturday’s race? It’s certainly possible. But Humble, who rarely finishes higher than third in his age group in the county challenge races yet leads his division overall due to his consistency, was hoping to beat 27 minutes for the first time this year, and he likely didn’t want to get caught up in a chase that might wear him out.

In the end he achieved his goal – by less than a second – but that was good enough for him.


Barry Humble finishes the Swiss Days Race in 26:59.3, meeting his goal by less than a second. 

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Charleston tackles climate change



Wading into the Atlantic over the weekend off Sullivan’s Island, S.C., I was stunned by the warmth of the water. At times the waves crashing over us felt almost … hot.

I wasn’t just imagining things. The water temperature was 86 degrees, according to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Another website I consulted suggested that ocean temperatures near Charleston get up to around 82 degrees in the summer, so that’s not too much above normal. But what’s considered “normal” in any given year has been edging upward in recent decades, according to a report by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Later, walking along the waterfront in Charleston Harbor, taking in all that glorious history and architecture, I couldn’t help wondering how things will look here a few decades from now as the water level rises. They don’t call this the “low country” for nothing; driving around town our GPS had often indicated we were below sea level. Our daughter’s friend A.J., who was giving us a rundown of all the historical sites he’s explored this summer, noted that large sections of Fort Johnson, which fired the shots on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War, were mostly underwater when he visited.

It’s encouraging to discover that while some people continue to deny climate change, this coastal city is aggressively tackling the problem head on. Its residents have no choice: The sea level here has risen a foot over the last century, according to a 2015 document outlining the city’s Sea Level Rise Strategy. Flooding which used to occur twice a year in the 1970s is now averaging 11 times per year. But the sea wall protecting the Battery has been shored up and raised, stormwater drainage enhancements are underway and other projects are planned as the city prepares for a rise of up to 2.5 feet over the next 50 years.

I didn’t expect to find such progressive thinking down here, in the “sleepy old conservative South.” That’s what I get for believing in stereotypes.



These three lovely ladies enjoyed a stroll along the Waterfront in Charleston on Sunday, beginning in the gazebo in Battery Park. My nieces Madison (left) and Monroe (right) are helping my oldest daughter Rowan (center) at a camp for autistic children this week. (Colleen is helping out as well, but must have been wandering around the park reading historical inscriptions while this photo was taken).