Friday, June 19, 2015

The Standing Desktop Experiment

The idea of using a standing desktop had been on my mind for a while. I think it started when I read Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run where he noted that even active people could suffer adverse effects from sitting too long. This got my attention as I had assumed that my active lifestyle would mitigate less healthy things I do – such as eating any snacks that showed up in the office breakroom. The various articles that I looked into seemed to confirm this: while exercise was good, it did not quite make up for sitting all day.

Initial Research

Some folk at work had adjustable standing desktops and so I asked our HR about getting one. Unfortunately, I was told that this well had dried up – well, sort of. My company would provide a standing workstation if I had a doctor’s note for back pain. I could not bring myself to do this route - I like to think that I am too honest, but it was mostly pride.

My dream set-up that I could not sell our HR on (for me)
[Photo from Ergo Desktops]
So I looked into getting my own. I quickly learned why our company only got standing desktops for thosse medical conditions – they are expensive. I wanted one that could switch from sitting to standing plus accommodate my laptop monitor and a second one.  Desktops that met these criteria started at $400. . . and quickly went up. I guess the craze is still mostly in the realm of hip millennials. I assume that if it ever becomes big enough for Wal Mart to become interested then we will be able to find them for prices closer to $100. While my health is certainly worth more than $400 I felt there must be a better way.

A baseline adjustable desk - with the monitors still a little low
[Photo from Amazon]
Fortunately, the same quick internet research also revealed that I could build one for much less. One popular (and much referenced) site claimed that one could be “hacked” for $22 worth of parts from Ikea. However, at this point I was deploying to Kuwait rather soon, so I shelved this plan and just took my turns at one of the common standing desks that our company was cool enough to get.

Once I got my room in Kuwait though, I was pleased to find that I could stack two of the desk cubes together and make a reasonable standing desk for the evenings. This was much better than using either of them as a desks anyways since the height was not right and would have just strained my back hunching over a nightstand desk. 

Useful re-purposing of Army provided furniture
According to the Mayo clinic’s guide the keyboard was a bit low (should be at elbow height) and the laptop monitor was therefore much too low (the top should be at eye level).

Proper proportions
[Photo credit: Mayo clinic]


So the next round in the experiment came about trying to make one for work. We had a self-help wood-working shop on camp, but I was once again stymied by bureaucracy. The woodshop did not have a lot of storage space (to put projects in between work sessions) so there was a blanket policy again building furniture. As the organization that oversaw the woodshop I probably could have bullied my way through, but it did not seem like the right battle.

Initial designs

Testing things out in Sketch-up

But then I found a desktop that someone abandoned when they went home. I measured the height and cut it to the right length to put the tops of the monitors at eye level. I have to admit that this at first seemed too high (especially compared to the set-up I was using in the room) but I eventually realized this was probably because my other setups were just promoting bad posture.

Good on the monitor height, but two stacks of water bottles was too much. And one stack was not enough.
The final step was to get the keyboards right. This was a bit trickier to fine tune. I was quite happy to discover though that some O’Douls cans and cheap paperbacks did the trick. It was worth the effort through to get the keyboard at the right height as this made typing a lot easier.

Everyone appreciated the awesomeness that the O'Douls added to this set-up

Verdict. . . so far

It took about two to three weeks for my legs to adapt to the standing desktop. They would be pretty tired at the end of many days. The problem with DIY solutions is that you are kinda all in. Going back and forth between sitting and standing is an annoying effort – especially with a second monitor. Part of my research found that some of the same people who sang the praises of standing desktops still recommended being able to sit sometimes during the day. In a rare silver lining for meetings, I found that they provided nice sitting breaks.

Some physical pluses were very obvious. At one point I went back to the normal sitting set-up for one day (I wanted to rest my legs before a half-marathon that I was going to do the next day). I found that I could definitely feel it in my back (making me realize why my civilian company would pony up for a standing desktop if you have back issues). I was also annoyed that my monitors did not have the ability to adjust to the ideal ergonomically ideal height that I had become accustomed to.

There were also subtler benefits. I found that it was easier to justify going over to talk to people when I did not have to overcome the comfort of sitting. It was also easier to stay alert after lunch (or at least easier to fight nodding off).

One ultra-runner that I follow claimed that his standing desktop had let him really bump up his weekly mileage without suffering his usual injuries. I did not significantly increase my mileage during this time though and I did not find amazing or immediate results in my running. I did however manage to shave four seconds off my 5k PR though, so the standing desk at least correlated with good running and did no harm.

I ended up using the standing desktop for three months in Kuwait. Overall, it was a success and I plan to try and implement some form of it when I am back at my civilian job. So far, it is an experiment worth continuing.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Kuwait Running Mafia

Even if one is blessed with a good job (as I was) during a deployment, having weekly milestones give you something to look forward to that is closer than the return home. During my first deployment I was fortunate to find a group that did long runs at 0430 every Sunday and finished with drinks at the Green Bean. I met some great people and even got to run on the 101st 10-Miler Team as a result of meeting these folks.

Camp Stryker Striders after a Sunday Run

With memories of these good times, I determined at the start of this deployment that I would find or start a running club. So I was very pleased when I discovered a flyer for the Kuwait Running Mafia in the USO of Camp Arifjan in my first week.

At some point a few months into the deployment, though no real maneuvering or planning, I found myself as one of the leaders of the club. These are some of the lessons and history for those that come after or want to start their own deployed running club.


The Kuwait Running Mafia, or KRM, was founded in October 2012 by four members of the 38th Sustainment Brigade from the Indiana National Guard:

W01 Moriah Addington (Running Queen)
1SG Jeramie Baty (Coach)
CW4 Chris Jennings (Godfather)
Cw2 Darren Minnemann (Instigator)

According Facebook, some of the original members
[Credit: Kuwait Running Mafia facebook page]
From the founding memo: “The KMR is about fun. It is about setting and achieving goals and helping others to do the same. It's about inspiring and being inspired through others and running. It is just a small community of runners deployed to Kuwait that want to get together and share their love for running or just want someone to run with to push themselves a little harder.”

Original membership requirements included
  1. running 100 miles;
  2. doing a marathon of volunteer work (26 hours); and,
  3. running a race or training run of at least 13.1 miles.

The requirements had been dropped or forgotten by the time that I started running with the KRM although I would say that most of our core members have more than met them. We do not do as many volunteer races as the original crew did because the MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) office does a great job of putting on 3 -4 races every month (although we still snuck a few in).

Vigil and Sam handing out fruit at the Bataan Death March


The good news about deployments is that they come to an end. Depending on your service this can be from six months to a year. This presents a challenge though for a loose knit running club that seeks to have membership across many different units.

I decided that the key was to be continuously on the lookout for other leaders. You cannot do this club with just one person. Military jobs are unpredictable both daily (in making it to the runs) and overall (Surprise, you’re going to Iraq!) . I suspect I used a similar checklist to my predecessor:

  1. Shows up regularly at the runs: You need someone who can be counted on to bring shirts, water, etc.
  2. Come to you with ideas for things the club can do: Fair warning, if you came to me with a good idea, you were in danger of being recruited to the Dons of the KRM.

Volunteer to organize a pasta dinner = KRM Don
Another challenge was continuity of emails. When I arrived the KRM distro list was just “replying all” to the last weekly email. With more than one person in charge this was a challenge with people who wanted to be added or dropped. It also made it hard to keep records of folks that we talked to back in the states for shadow runs and ordering team t-shirts. So I created a gmail account, put in that week’s distro list and gave out the password to the fellow dons.

A common folder was a bit of a challenge too. The previous one was in the sustainment brigades’ server – which I could read but not edit. So I made a folder on the common drive that I hope everyone can get edit access to. Something like dropbox would have been ideal, but it cannot be accessed on military networks.

A final piece was the Facebook page. For reason known only to them, the founding members did not let us become administrators of their original page. So Charles made another Facebook page. It’s a bit confusing, but it's clear which one is the more active page.

Spreading the Good Word

At first I stuck with what worked for me: posters at the gym, USO, Post Exchange, MWR community center and USO. We also found advertising of the Camp Arifjan Craigslist (a Facebook page) to be effective.

Drawing them in at the Resiliency Expo
But what really worked was in-person events. The first boost came when we teamed up with the 13th Sustainment Brigade to host a shadow run of the Army Marathon. Then fortune smiled again when we were able to get a booth at the Resiliency Expo. This was a day-long event where various organizations put up booths talking about how their organizations played a part in reducing or dealing with stress - and as many KRM members have said: Running, because hitting people is frowned upon.

Weekly Run Numbers

Fun Over Speed

I was fortunate to become part of a running club instead of founding it. Coming from Boulder and before, running clubs to me were mostly speedworks and long runs. Had I tried that, the "Arifjan Track Club" would have had 2-6 regular members and been a low-grade affair. Fortunately, the folks before me realized that a mellow 3 – 6 miles was a much better way to bring people in. I started up a Tuesday speedwork (and stole the name Track Trashing Tuesday from the Rocky Mountain Runners) but it never got more than a half-dozen folks and was often just two or three of us.

Two key parts of the fun was the weekly emails. Again, the KRM was fortunate to have folks other than myself who were more skilled in writing witty and fun emails with good humor and (for a while) cat facts.

Chris "Cat Man" Cruise. KRM Don. Saver of catz.
The pizza after the runs was one of the best additions that happened while I was at the KRM. One of leaders, Chief Bolan, started getting pizza and having it at the finish of our runs. In my favorite KRM quote, one of members noted “this whole time I had though my body wanted water at the ends of runs, it turns out it really wanted pizza.” Then one day Chris was taking a while to get the pizza and so we went down  to help him by standing over him and watching until he got the pizza. Thus was born the tradition of taking over the pavilion and sitting down like civilized starving runners.

It's not just an excuse for pizza. . . but that's part of it

Fun Experiments

Even a running club does not live on simple runs alone. We started branch out with a movie night (Run Fat Boy Run), a talk from the post dietician and a cookout. If someone had an idea we usually, well, ran with it.

End of some more good feasting
Two fun experiments that would be worth repeating at some point was the first Camp Arifjan Chem Light Hash and the Near-Beer Near-Mile. Both are fun running traditions that we adapted for the realities of Kuwait.

I wanted to show folks the fun of a good hash run but I was leary of using the traditional hashing trail marker of flour. Even though most of us have all sorts of great shots thanks to the military, I was worried that some folks just would not take a bit of Anthrax humor.  Our runs, even in the summer, are in the dark so we decided to try chem lights. I laid a weaving trail through the less inhabited parts of Camp Arifjan and folks followed as best they could. We learned that you need a LOT of chem lights – probably 15 -20 a mile. And that local workers like to pick up your hard laid trail. But since there was no real beer involved I was not punished too much for laying the trail.

Before I left I decided to do a near-beer mile. While we could not follow the rules precisely, I figured we would still suffer the carbonation and volume. It turned out even mentioning near-beer can double the attendance of a track workout – a useful thing to keep in mind I guess. It was an experiment worth repeating.

JD starts as lap as others nurse their O'Douls

Final Thanks

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably involved in the KRM and know I would be remiss in not thanking a few key folks.

Charles Noble – for keeping the club together after the founders left and even bringing in a stray engineer  running club.
Jack Bolan – for taking over from Charles and starting the pizza tradition.
Chris “cat man” Cruise – for starting the witty and amusing emails and keeping things fun.
Sam – For taking over the emails and setting us up at the resiliency expo. And taking the torch for the club.
Tom – for taking the KRM gear and part of the leadership mantle.

Good luck, run strong, and