Sunday, December 29, 2013

“I don't even have to think about it, I just do it”: An interview with runner David Haase

My cousin David Haase has run at least one mile a day every day since February 8, 2009. This past spring he began farming corn, soybeans, and sugar beets near Willmar, Minnesota, after a nine-year career as a medical device sales representative in the Twin Cities and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I often saw David run when I lived with him and his family in the summer of 2012, but we didn’t talk about it much at the time. Here he shares some thoughts about his running streak. 

What do you think about when you’re running?

It depends on what else is going on in my life at the time. When the weather's halfway decent, I run outside. Usually on these days it's on a five-mile route on mostly gravel roads outside my small town. I think about the weather, the crops coming in, and what we need to do next out on the farm. If it's an evening run it can get really pretty out there, and I'll see deer or pheasants, or a thunderstorm on the horizon. It's a peaceful time with a lot of reflection. I don't solve all the world’s problems, but I get a chance to chew some of them over pretty good.

In the winter, I run mainly on my treadmill, because I'm lazy. It's much, much easier to throw on a pair of shorts and just run, rather than suit up for the cold, though I think the dark gets to me more than the cold. Also, I prefer not to take the risk of twisting an ankle, if I can avoid it. So most of the time it's a treadmill run, accompanied by Netflix with subtitles. I get more entertainment, but less reflection.
David Haase, 2012

If you had to pick a different exercise besides running to do every day, what would it be?

If they were all equally feasible, I would probably pick swimming or road biking. I prefer individual activities, ones that have a decent intensity or are repetitive. I have never been a very consistent or strong swimmer, but I enjoy it whenever I do make it to the pool. I like that it's zero impact and a great workout. I think it's ironic that if you want to go faster, the worst thing you can do is work harder—you just thrash around. Instead, form matters so much, and your fastest swims are often also the easiest.

I also really like road biking. Eau Claire was a great place to bike—so many hills and great routes to explore. Here in west-central Minnesota it's a lot flatter. You have to go further to get to interesting features like the Minnesota River valley or the lake country. In July 2008 I did a long-distance bike trip with my friend Bill. We flew to Seattle and assembled our bikes within view of the Pacific. Then we headed east, for 10 days and 900 miles, through the Cascades and Rockies, and Glacier National Park. It was an amazing trip. If I had the chance, I could imagine myself just biking like that all over, every day.

Both swimming and biking have their attractions, but they are also limiting when you consider an every-day activity. If you're committed to never missing, ever, then you better pick a sport that you can do pretty much anywhere, any time. I am a member of the U.S. Running Streak Association (, and my nearly five-year streak is still pretty new compared to a lot of these people. Imagine running every single day for 40 years. I am friends with guys who have done it. They have run on 60 or 70 percent of the days they have been alive, overcoming so many obstacles to keep running. They have run through injuries, in airport terminals, through hurricanes and blizzards, in extreme temperatures, barefoot and shoed, at all hours, in all sorts of clothing. Most impressive to me are the guys who average 10 to 12 miles a day, for years. I don't think I could do that, both because I would probably injure myself, and because I can't imagine having that kind of time. I have enough of a challenge finding an hour a day. And I'll tell you right now, I could never do an every-day biking or swimming streak. It's just not logistically possible. So, in the absence of running, I guess I would have to walk every day or something dumb like that.  

What has surprised you about this pursuit?

Here is a list of things I have realized through running every day:

  • It's amazing how automatic and ingrained it becomes. It's actually so easy. I don't even have to think about it, I just do it.
  • I am just as dependent on my wife as I am on myself for my streak's continued success. She takes the kids, she lets me have the time, and I can never thank her enough.
  • Habits are so powerful. Make it every day, make it automatic, and you can accomplish just about anything. I think about the person I want to be. What would that person fill his time with? What would he choose to do? And then I try to build habits toward those things. You are what you do every day. (I think that's Aristotle.) I think what I love most about this running thing is this: like most people, I have a lot of goals, dreams, hopes, and aspirations. Most of them, I have come to realize, aren't going to happen. But here is one thing that I decided to do, and I have actually done it. Every day is an accomplishment, a victory. And that feels awesome.
  • I am surprised how robust my immune system is. My colds and illnesses are few and pretty low-intensity compared to many of the people around me.
  • Even though I run off 600-700 calories a day, it's still possible to eat that back and more. I can gain weight as easily as anyone, even though I run.
  • I am surprised at how I am never bored with running. There is always something to think about, something to work on, something to do.

What milestone do you look forward to the most?

There are many, many milestones to celebrate along the way. I'm about six weeks away from my five-year anniversary. I think the big ones for me will be 10 years, 20 years, and ultimately my 30-year “streakiversary,” as I call it. Also, mileage goals can be fun. I'm at about 8,800 miles so far. It will be fun when I reach 10,000. Some guys have 100,000, 140,000, and over 200,000 miles. I can't image reaching those levels. When and if I do, that will be pretty special.
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What can other people—those who would be able to try what you are doing and those who wouldn’t—learn from your experience?

The central lesson I keep coming back to is about the importance of habits in achieving your goals. Life is made up of a series of moments, a series of choices. So much of the time, we do things automatically, out of habit. An examined life—a life lived on purpose—is one where you choose your habits purposefully. And when you do that, you can achieve amazing things.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Non-Gift Guide

(Author's Note: A shorter version of this post appears in the Dec. 2013 issue of Fargo-Moorhead Stride magazine.)

Virtually every magazine has holiday gift guides this time of year, and health and fitness magazines are no exception. “The runner on your list will love this fleece pullover!” “For your friend obsessed with bling, there’s a new line of Swarovski resistance bands.” (No, that is not a real product—probably.) Stocking stuffers, fitness gifts for pets, gifts for you, too, because you deserve it—there are products galore to give and receive, whomever you’re shopping for.

I sound cynical, I’m sure. The truth is, I love reading gift guides. I love to give and receive presents, and there are several fitness-related gifts I covet. But I also grow weary of consumerism, even when it is a means to an end like getting in shape. I am not against buying frivolous items from time to time, and I’m certainly not against buying basics. I consider things like a gym membership and quality footwear to be basics, at least for people of a certain income level. Still, the “buy, buy, buy” message we hear every day, in forms blatant and subtle, is a cause of much misery. You’re unhappy if you can’t have that shiny new toy. If you do get the toy, you realize more often than not that it really doesn’t make you happy. But there’s that other shiny new toy...

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To say that you can’t buy intangible things like health, strength, and flexibility is putting things too simplistically, I suppose. You can buy a set of dumbbells that will make you stronger if you use them. You can hire a personal trainer. You can pay a heart surgeon to give you a heart transplant. And so on. You can give these things to others as gifts, too. But there are some things money really can’t buy, things that will never be on anyone’s Ultimate Gift Guide or list of 10 Frugal but Fabulous Secret Santa Presents. For the sake of fitting in, let’s give them their own list.

The Little Mouse Non-Gift Guide: Four Fitness Benefits You Just Can’t Buy

1. Muscle tone. It is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve overall muscle tone without exercise. Taking anabolic steroids might help a bit, but they provide negligible benefits if you don’t also exercise while taking them. Also, the side effects are horrifying. Also, they’re illegal. Then there’s the Shake Weight. Though I’m unqualified to evaluate the company’s claim of “scientifically proven results,” I can point out that it’s designed to tone the upper body only. Exercise is the clear winner here.

2. Resting heart rate. The Mayo Clinic website points out that in addition to fitness level, several other factors can affect your heart rate, including medications and body position. Stress reduction techniques and weight loss through diet can improve your resting heart weight, too, so exercise is not the only solution. But many sources agree that cardiovascular exercise is the best way to lower your resting heart rate. Even if you achieve this by adding meditation and dropping medications, for instance, you can’t buy any of these other methods either.

3. A sense of accomplishment. I am in the mood to keep playing devil’s advocate, so let’s acknowledge that some people can buy something like a sense of accomplishment relating to fitness. For instance, you could feel like you’ve accomplished something after a shopping spree of workout gear and clothing. Or you could vicariously feel achievement by watching an exercise class or sporting event. But we all know these “accomplishments” pale in comparison to the real thing, that glowy good feeling you get after a workout.

4. Holistic physical and mental health benefits. For weight loss, you can buy liposuction. For a better sex life, you can buy sex toys. For more energy, you can buy colorful little bottles of fruit-flavored taurine. In fact, there aren’t many single benefits of exercise that can’t be replicated in one way or another by buying something. However, cobbling together a suite of products is a poor proxy for the holistic health and well-being that exercise provides. Panaceas may not exist in this world, but exercise sure seems a lot like one. During the holiday season and every other time of year, it may be the best gift you can give yourself.