The Other Kind of Fencing


That’s Mrs. Homegrown on the left back in 2005.

It was with great sadness that we got the news of the passing of our fencing coach Amy Fortune in April. Both Kelly and I were lucky to have taken many lessons with Amy. She was one of those teachers that bring unexpected and valuable life lessons far beyond the topic at hand. She was patient, encouraging and always positive. We miss her very much and send our condolences to her husband Geoff, also an amazing fencing coach.

When I walked into my first lesson with Amy, many years ago, she said that if she were to build a fencing robot from scratch it would look like me: tall and gangly. Unfortunately, what Amy did not know is that I lacked even a shred of natural athletic talent. Which is precisely why I’ve become obsessed with this sport. It offers me a chance to work on things I’m terrible at: strategy, mindfulness, flexibility, speed and endurance.

Continue reading…

Easing the Pain of Runner’s Knee

Salvation in foam.

Update 4/20/13: Foam rollers can be useful, but you need to be careful. I believe that overuse of a foam roller caused a nerve entrapment issue that has resulted in some numbness to my right shin. Before using a roller I strongly advice reading Foam Roller–Friend or Foe, a blog post by manual trainer Adam Mentzell. Mentzell goes over possible unintended consequences as well as some common sense rules for using a foam roller.

First off, many thanks for all the suggestions Root Simple readers sent in when I asked for help fixing my runner’s knee (in my case caused by fencing). The comment thread on that post is now, I believe, a very useful resource for dealing with runner’s knee thanks to your contributions.

While I still have a lot of strengthening to do to fix the underlying causes of my runner’s knee, the pain is almost completely gone. Several things helped. First off was rest as suggested by my doctor. Rest does not mean taking long walks (for a person like me, addicted to cardiovascular exercise, walking seems like rest). Rest means, well, actually resting. It means taking the elevator or, as my doctor put it, “not being a hero” when going up and down stairs.

But the real miracle came in the form of a foam roller. Several commentators mentioned it and my friend Elon Schoenholz actually came over with one to show me how to use it. At first I was afraid that it would make the pain worse. But out of desperation I finally decided to give it a try. After two short sessions over the course of three days 95% of the pain went away. As several commentators mentioned, using it is pure torture. But I can’t believe how quickly it worked. A commenter left a link to this video, which shows how to use a roller.

The “RumbleRoller.” Ouch!

I found a tight knot of pain and tension in the iliotibial band (ITB) just above the knee. Rolling this spot, carefully at first, loosened the ITB and, I believe, eased the pain. Elon, in dealing with his knee pain odyssey, has moved on to a more intense RumbleRoller

But my work fixing my patella femoral syndrome is far from complete. I’ve got a lot of strengthening and flexibility work to do. To that end I’ve signed up again at my local YMCA. I had let my membership lapse thinking that I could do weight training at home and save some money. This was foolish. It’s hard, with a home gym, to do lower body exercises. While some people probably do fine hefting logs in the great outdoors, I need the structure and motivation that a gym provides. Plus I really like the mission and ethos of the YMCA.

To sum up these are the four steps that helped with my patella femoral syndrome:

  • rest
  • weight training
  • foam rolling the iliotibial band
  • gym membership

I have a feeling I’ll be running and fencing again soon.

Help Me Fix My Runner’s Knee

Exercise is my Prozac. No exercise and I’m an unhappy homesteader. For years I’ve battled runner’s knee, known to the medical profession as patella femoral pain syndrome. Runner’s knee is caused by muscle imbalances in the upper leg that lead to the bones in the knee not tracking correctly. This results in a painful irritation to the kneecap. Running barefoot decreased the problem, but I was still afraid to push the mileage beyond short distances.

A foolish return to fencing, after a four year absence, is what tipped me back into severe knee pain. Fencing requires agility, strength and flexibility all of which I lack. And I really want to go back to fencing–martial arts are a great workout for mind, body and soul and I think participation in one is a valuable part of the homesteader’s fitness toolkit.

As least during this encounter with knee pain I have better doctors than I did the last time–a few years ago the diagnosis was arthritis (incorrect as it turns out) and the treatment consisted of a bottle of ibuprofen. Right now the orthopedist has asked me to:

  • take it easy for six weeks (gonna be hard but I’ll do it)
  • perform quad strengthening exercises with ankle weights
  • take Cosamin DS, a glucosamine and chondroitin supplement

My question to you, dear readers: what have you done to deal with runner’s knee and how is it going?

Building a Makeshift Treadmill Desk

In what I hope will be a regular feature, here’s the first in a series of interviews of other homesteaders about interesting low tech home tech projects they’ve taken on. In this interview we talk to writer and homesteader Charlotte McGuinn Freeman about her DIY treadmill desk–a project I’m considering at the Root Simple compound. Charlotte blogs at and lives in Livingston, Montana.

Why did you build a treadmill desk?

Because as I entered my late 40s, after working a steady day job for 10 years, I was gaining weight and having trouble getting it off. Also, was having incipient carpal tunnel issues which I thought standing might help (it did). Oh — and my dogs got too old and arthritic to walk twice a day — that was probably as much a precipitating event as anything — I’d been walking 3-5 miles a day with them, but it was no fun walking around town or out in the mountains without them. So, the treadmill desk solved a couple of problems — I could fit exercise in around my day job and during the winters, which typically blow 30-50 mph. I’d gotten lazy about going out for a walk. I hate gyms, walking has always been my exercise of choice, and usually marks the transition between my work day and my writing day . . . so, the treadmill desk has become quite useful for that. I’ll usually surf, answer emails, post a blog or do some other sort of light writing/reading while I’m on it.

You put the desk together in 2010. How has it worked for you since?

It’s worked out great — I’ve found I don’t use it while working as much as I now use it as a sort of ordinary treadmill with a nice desktop for my laptop — I surf, watch movies, get a workout. I’ve gone to a standing desk for my corporate day job computer though, and I like the combo a lot. It’s cleared up the issues I was having with my wrists and shoulders falling asleep, and I’ve dropped and kept off some weight. I’m glad I bought a used one, it wasn’t expensive and it works well enough for me.

Is it hard to type and walk at the same time?

If you run the treadmill slowly it’s not a problem at all. I’ll use the treadmill desk for work when I have an extensive publishing issue — publishing for my corporate job is largely a matter of keeping track of a lot of variables and clicking through a lot of screens. The treadmill desk works great for that. It’s a little noisy though, so I can’t really use it while on web meetings.

Do you have any suggestions? Anything you would do differently?

I like it a lot — in combination with going to a standing desk, I feel much better, and I can feel when hiking with my partner that my stamina is much better (hiking with Himself usually involves walking straight up some local ridge, off trail, for a couple of hours before wandering around on the way down searching for mushrooms or shed antlers). It’s convenient and since I hate gyms, it means I actually get some exercise on a regular basis.

Are you using it to type this?

Yes, although I’m standing on the side rails …

Say something about your blog/homestead/books . . .

I’m the author of the novel Place Last Seen (Picador USA, 2000), and have been blogging at since 2002. I’ve written for, and have a cookbook review column at I’ve been published in the Best Food Writing of 2010, and am currently working on a book proposal for a nonfiction book about finding and building a home saw me through and got me past some devastating personal losses.

Here’s’s first treadmill desk post. And an update here.

Thanks Christine! If you have a project you’d like to share in an interview, drop us a line at [email protected]

Is Cycling Too Dangerous?

Photo by Dru Marland.

I’ve been hit by cars twice cycling around Los Angeles. In the first accident a medical delivery driver made a left turn in front of me and I collided with the rear panel of his car. It was his fault but, initially, the driver’s employer tried to come after me for $900 worth of damage. Fortunately, their insurance company took my side in the matter and even replaced my bent fork. In the second accident, a motorist bumped me from the right. I’m not sure what happened, but I think he was merging out of a parking space and didn’t see me. Thankfully, they were minor collisions and I walked away from both without a scratch. But the cycling death of an acquaintance and the serious accidents of several friends has caused me to consider the risks of cycling, particularly in this less than bike friendly city.

An excellent blog post on the Guardian takes up the question of the costs and benefits of cycling. Author Peter Walker does the right thing, in my opinion, by seeking the opinion of public health experts. One, Dr. Harry Rutter, has this to say:

All activities carry a risk. For some reason there seems to be strong focus on the risk of injury associated with cycling. Clearly, when deaths do takes place that’s tragic, and we need to do all we can to avoid them. But I think there is a perception that cycling is much more dangerous than it really is.

This focus on the dangers of cycling is something to do with the visibility of them, and the attention it’s given. What we don’t notice is that if you were to spend an hour a day riding a bike rather than being sedentary and driving a car there’s a cost to that sedentary time. It’s silent, it doesn’t get noticed. What we’re talking about here is shifting the balance from that invisible danger of sitting still towards the positive health benefits of cycling.

Having volunteered on the board the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition for a few years, I’m well aware of how hard it is to make our cities more bike and pedestrian friendly. Another expert Walker talks to compared the struggle for safer cycling and walking infrastructure to efforts to curb smoking, noting that the anti-tobacco struggle took 60 years to get going.

The article concludes with a provocative conclusion, “There are two interventions that we know increase walking and cycling: living in the Netherlands and living in Denmark.”

So what do you readers think? Is cycling worth the risk?

Barefoot Running With Ken Bob Saxton

Kelly discovered a barefoot running website, many years ago. When she showed it to me I thought the idea was crazy. Then I had a series of running related injuries: plantar fasciitis, and arthritis in the knee. In desperation (I’m addicted to running) I gave going barefoot a try. The plantar fasciitis went away. Knee pain was greatly, but not entirely, reduced.

Old habits are hard to give up. When you spend your whole life in shoes it’s difficult to adjust your running form. Thankfully, the proprietor of, Ken Bob Saxton, lives in Southern California and just so happens to give what he calls “play-fun-shops” at least once a month. Ken Bob doesn’t believe in charging people to teach them how to run, so the play-fun-shops are free (and fun).

His message is simple–listen to what the soles of your feet are telling you, relax and keep your knees bent as you run. It’s the knees bent part that was new to me. Ken Bob videotaped me running and then played it back in slow-motion. The video showed me running with straight knees, leading to heel striking. Heel striking leads to injuries.

The video above shows Ken Bob running with his distinctive bent-knee style (the music reflects his sense of humor). I gave the Keb Bob running style a try this Sunday and it was pretty amazing. I had less knee pain and I found myself booking along. It will take me some time to get used to, so I’m going to take it slow for a few weeks.

Bending the knee also, according to Ken Bob, applies to walking. I gave walking with a gently bent knee a try this morning too, and it seemed to help with the knee pain, particularly when going uphill.

I bought a copy of Ken Bob’s book Barefoot Running Step by Step which describes his ideas in detail and has a chapter of drills to get the hang of the method.

Ken Bob travels occasionally and offers funshops elsewhere in the country–watch his calendar to see if he’s coming your way. 

Even if you’re not a runner, the barefoot running debate is a profound one in terms of the way in which technological or economic innovations (the production and marketing of complex running and walking shoes for instance) can have unintended consequences. Two quotes in Ken Bob’s books neatly sum up this debate:

“I do think [barefoot running is] a fad. In fact, I don’t think it exists; no one in my universe in eastern Pennsylvania runs barefoot. In terms of minimalist shoes and Vibrams–yes, possibly a tectonic shift there. But in terms of running without shoes, I don’t see it.” – Amby Burfoot, editor of Runner’s World Magazine.

“If barefoot running is a fad, then it’s a 2 million-year-old fad. From the perspective of evolutionary biology, I can assure you that running in cushioned, high-heeled, motion control shoes is the real fad.” – Daniel Lieberman, Ph.D., Professor of human evolutionary biology, Harvard University.

Feiyue Shoes: The Poor Man’s Vibrams

I’m cheap and just don’t want to pay $100 to run “barefoot” in those funny Vibram shoes even if everyone I know swears by them. So, I run . . . barefoot. In two years of actual rather than Vibram-mediated “barefoot” running, on both concrete and dirt paths, I have yet to even get a scratch.

But there have been a few times when I’ve encountered a particularly gravely path. Ouch. On those occasions I’ve been experimenting with slipping on a kind of Chinese martial arts shoe called Feiyue. Think of them as the poor man’s Vibrams as they cost less than $20.

Are they durable? More than you’d expect for a $15 shoe, but they won’t last forever. Are they attractive? Not particularly. And wearing them around makes me want to bust out a few parkour moves for our next book signing.

Thanks to Elon Shoenholz for the tip on the shoes and parkour moves. 

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