Tuesday, August 28

Running around "The Square"

Saturday morning, despite the orange level air quality warning for the area, I ran. Yes, for the first time in two weeks. (Thanks, asthma.) I'm so glad I didn't back out of the race. It was a blast and I know that I'll be running this one again. 

There's a lovely little neighborhood in Pittsburgh called Regent Square. It has some of my favorite restaurants and the atmosphere is very friendly. The amicable spirit was wholeheartedly translated into what is possibly the most enjoyable 5k I've ever run. It's the Run Around the Square, and this year was the 30th annual event. (The anniversary really meant that we got awesome tech shirts and sweet medals for finishing, among the other perks like the huge celebration at the end of the course!)

When we were weaving through the brick-laid streets, the route was lined with neighborhood folks cheering for us. Some people even set up their own impromptu water stations. Given how warm it got so early in the morning, the extra water was dearly appreciated!

Later on, when the race path drew us into Frick Park, there were musicians playing various upbeat tunes for us. We were serenaded by a young violinist, a talented preteen cellist, a pianist, a saxophone player, and a tuba. These kind people were spaced throughout the woods, near the tennis courts, and along some of the more challenging areas of the course--namely, the hill at the end of the second mile...

Locals had signs for us, encouraging us to keep going, push onward, "It's just a hill... Get over it!" They were delightful. I couldn't help myself. I yelled, "Thank you!" to every person I could as we swiftly passed.

My goal upon starting was just to finish. My asthma has been so debilitating over the last few weeks that I just wanted to complete the race. Once I started, I felt pretty good. I had my inhaler with me, so I decided that my goal was to finish in less than 36 minutes (that would put me at a 12 minute mile, and that would be the slowest I've ever run). When I got to mile one in 10'30", I decided that this was a good goal.

Mile two was the toughest. Sadly, I walked most of it and my second mile came in at just over 13'00". Disappointing. But I am grateful that I didn't have to stop altogether.

The last mile was mostly downhill, which helped for sure, but I still needed to push myself forward. I'm not thrilled with my race time, but it is decent considering the challenge of not breathing so well... I finished at 34'50".  It's my worst race time to date, but I'm trying to think of this as a baseline for what I can run when I'm at my worst... With this in mind, I should always be able to beat this time at the very least, and hopefully I'll crush it during another upcoming race.

This was my fifth 5k of the year. I've completed a race for each month from April to August. I have a 10k at the end of September, so I need to get in gear for that. Mostly, I think my nutrition is in need of a revamp, but I know I need to practice running longer distances (and downhill). Any advice?

What makes the difference in day to day air quality?

Yesterday and today are nearly identical end-of-summer days in Pittsburgh. In terms of weather, temperature, and wind, they were cut from the same mold. Yet the air quality index is significantly different from yesterday to today. Neither day is as awful as the orange action days from last week... What makes the difference?

It rained last evening. It was intensely foggy this morning. It is a Tuesday and therefore traffic patterns and weight might vary. But scientifically, what makes the difference?

Tuesday, August 28
Monday, August 27

I wish I knew.

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as looking at the numbers and doing simple math--a particulate matter pollution rate at 58 today (8/28) from a nice low 23 yesterday (8/27) means little to us non-scientist types except that the EPA has done the math and assigned a ranking to the level of pollution present in the air (seeing today as more hazardous because of a higher rate of PM). The National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) lists primary and secondary standards--primary for sensitive populations and secondary for the general public welfare.

There's some serious atmospheric science involved with these calculations and the regulations that apply, and I hope to understand more as I continue to read about them, but for now I'll take the AQI for what it's worth and adjust accordingly.

Friday, August 24

Toad for my birthday

And now for a less serious post!

It seems that nature has a way if reaching out to me on my birthday. Last year it was a praying mantis at my rendezvous. This year it was a toad greeting me and my dog in the twilight.

The picture isn't great, but he was a wonderful toad! He didn't pee on me (yay!) and he didn't get scared away by my dog.

You can't grow your lungs

When we're little kids, we're told to eat all our vegetables so we'll grow up to be big and strong. This coercion is about vitamins (and not eating junk food).

When we exercise regularly, our muscles have potential to grow in size and strength, and specialized muscles like our hearts have the potential to do this too. For many people, these are the reasons they exercise (besides the perk of looking good too).

But our lungs? They will be one size for your whole life. No matter how much you exercise and no matter how many carrots you eat, they will not grow.

Because I've been an endurance athlete for most of my life, my heart, like any muscle, has gotten stronger through regular sweat sessions. My left ventricle, the piston that pushes blood through my body, is larger than an untrained female's, so it can distribute a steady stream of blood over long physical efforts. My lungs, however, will never change size. Their job is to suck oxygen from the air; they're programmed to keep up with my body's O2 demand and with how fast my heart shuttles the oxygen-spiked blood to my muscles.- Dimity McDowell, Women's Health, This is your body on exercise

(And your left lung is smaller than your right lung so your heart has some living space inside your chest.) Moreover,for those of us with asthma, when we have asthma symptoms, it's because our airways are inflamed. When they're inflamed, they constrict, usually because of irritation of some kind (something in the air like pollution, pollen, perfumes, fumes, or dust; or cold or dry air). Swelling increases, and sometimes mucus production increases, causing the asthma symptoms to worsen. You are now having an asthma attack. Your lungs feel smaller (they're not), but the tubes to get air to your lungs are.

You can strengthen your breathing muscles, though. Cardiovascular activity can help ease asthma symptoms over time. That's why I run. :-)

You only get one set of lungs. Better take care of them!

*Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor or a nurse or anything like that. I'm writing this as a way to communicate about asthma, what it's like to be asthmatic, and ways that I deal with my asthma. I work with my doctors to make sure that my treatment and activity level are right for me. You should too.*

Thursday, August 23

The effects of air quality warnings

Today is one of those "action days" in Pittsburgh. You know, when the weather person mentions that people with lung illnesses or the elderly should probably stay indoors. Then there's those numbers--particulates and ozone. What do they mean? And how do those numbers affect us?

Particulates are bits of solid matter or liquid pollution in the air. (Also known as particulate matter.) Sounds great, doesn't it? So today's a yellow day for particulate matter. Not fantastic, but not awful. Overall, though, Pittsburgh is ranked #6 for long term particulate matter pollution.

The ranking system (Air Quality Index, or AQI) goes from green (0-50) to maroon (301-500). If red is bad and purple is worse, I think maroon probably means that you're inhaling a pile of ash or maybe just straight acid fumes.

But ozone--something we've heard about in the news for years--is also dangerous to breathe. It's a little more complicated to explain than particulate matter, though. Ozone is the result of a chemical reaction between oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of sunlight.

 Either one--particulate matter or ozone--is not really good for us to be breathing in. It's worse for people like me with asthma (it's also bad for people with other pulmonary diseases).

 Air quality alerts are issued to warn people about the quality of the air outside and its potential to harm them or make them sick. Even healthy people (without asthma or other respiratory problems) can be affected by the air quality.

To me, the AQI suggests that I ought to keep my air conditioner on so I can breathe, not run outside, and try to not do anything strenuous outside. I keep my rescue inhaler with me all of the time. I've had to use it a lot lately, even on decent air quality days, so I'm working with my doctor to try to get my asthma under control. It's tough, but I'm hopeful we'll find something that works. In the meantime, paying attention to how I feel with whatever the AQI is for the day helps me prepare for days in the future with similar AQI ratings.

Ultimately, we need to cut down pollution to improve the AQI nationally and internationally, but perhaps more people will be convinced of that when they learn how ozone and particulate matter affect the people in their lives and the ones they love...

Wednesday, August 22

From seeds: sunflowers

I have a real sense of pride when I look at my sunflower. It was one of the first plants to differentiate itself among my seedlings that, ahem, were unlabeled, so I knew a little more about what to expect in terms of development. I knew I wouldn't get a flower head until it was pretty tall. This one is about four and a half feet tall. Because I have a raised bed for my garden, this put the flower at nearly eye level for six foot tall Karissa!
The bumble bees in my yard have kept busy in this one flower. Every day I see at least two bees in there covering themselves in pollen. I snapped a picture just the other day, even though the flower head itself is a little worse for the wear at this stage (petals are falling off, the seeds in the center are being pecked away). 

I'm excited to see how my other sunflowers turn out. I have another stalk with at least three flower heads on it. I think it's a different variety of the flower. (I used seeds from a variety pack, adding more suspense to the "secret garden.")

Knowing my success with sunflowers this year makes me want to plant a bunch of them next year. Perhaps the wall along the back of my house, facing sunrise, would do well lined with these beauties.

Tuesday, August 21

Pride in zinnias

When I decided to plant seeds this year, I didn't really have a plan. I never tried growing anything from a seed...

My little labels got rubbed off in my mini greenhouse early on, prompting me to regard my experiment as "The Secret Garden," since I had no idea what anything was. All the seedlings looked alike and until they grew and had differentiating characteristics, I couldn't tell a cucumber from a sunflower.

The last plant to really give me clues to its identity was the zinnia. I didn't have much experience with zinnias anyway, so identifying one in its infancy was not happening.

But now they're in full bloom and they're the visual pride of my garden. The colors and sizes thrill me, and they're attracting the bees too! (My cucumbers hadn't been producing any fruit and I was worried, but I think the zinnias drew the bees towards my cucumbers because now I have a plethora of cucumbers-in-progress!.)

Monday, August 20

Return of the Bloginator

Okay, okay, okay. I am really bad at not having a blog. I'm still not sure I can maintain one with working full time, commuting, and the actual living of life... but I'm going to try. If I have any readers left, I guess I'll find out soon.

So in prior posts I was going on about my nature encounters. I think I'd still like to do that. Since I last posted, I've become obsessed with birds--field guides, binoculars, multiple bird feeders with multiple kinds of feed... and photos of as many birds as I can capture with my iPhone. Of course, I'll have nature encounters that don't include birds, and I plan to post those too. I grew my first garden this year, and it's been a bit crazy to keep up with, but I'm enjoying it. It's like one morning I washed my hands after watering my plants and discovered a green thumb attached to my own hand.

Nature won't be my only topic, though. I recently took up running and I'm quite passionate about it. There's something about the sport that drives me. I hope to make this a little bit of a diary about my running.

Unfortunately, writing about running means that I will also have to include some discussions of my asthma. Yes, what I thought was a childhood pulmonary pest has surfaced again and with vengeance. Currently I haven't run for a week and a half because my asthma has been so bad. I'm being treated, but it's difficult to know if something will work because, as we all know, everyone is different. Oh joy.

I'm Karissa a.k.a. Grammarissa. This is my blog and these are my adventures.