Friday, July 24, 2015

Death, Singularity, and the Memory of Running

"... as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes …  I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow.” 
— Paul Harding, Tinkers

Injury has kept me from running for more than six months, and I finally decided last month to go under the knife, hoping that the surgeon could somehow make elastic again a right achilles tendon that had been chewed by my calcaneus over the course of thousands of miles into a ruptured mass of inchoate flesh. The surgery was a success; he took the flexor hallus longus — a tendon that runs the length of the bottom of the foot to flex the big toe — and somehow used it to reinforce and stabilize the achilles. Just yesterday I began to walk awkwardly without crutches. It will be a few more months until I can run. With luck, I will be able to train a year from now.

So for the last little while running — that faithful antidote to all the ideas in my head — has now become an idea. My relationship with running is no longer immediate. I am a runner, still, but in memory, in dreams.

Here are the things I remember: the acid first early steps of a run, the complaining legs falling like mules into halter, a steady rhythm, steamy breath, the shoulders loosening and legs warming. The second curve of the track, bending patiently around, the bodily humors surging and flowing, pain and pleasure mixing like ginger beer and whiskey. Mischievous thoughts, playing with the pace, baiting training partners into feeling too good, running too fast, until we are flowing and cranking and leaning into the curves.

When something in your life is lost: your father, a favorite shirt, an old habit, or a place, what is remembered is arbitrary: a collection of moments adding up to only so many particulars. So it is with running; away from the rhythm of training, away from the constant ache and hunger, the wooden legs and bird-chest, running comes back to me as scattered bits and impressions, never as the whole. The brain weakly assembles what in immediate experience is so much fuller: the symphony of experience played back by a solitary and sweet violin.

But I believe what Paul Harding is saying in Tinkers, as George ruminates on his father's death, is that in the re-assembling of memory, in the broken particularity, is a kind of connection. As particulars, as belt buckles and lunar dust and railroad spikes, we possess the kind of fractured density that Kant could only call the object =x. Singularity is the word for it in philosophy — as singularities we are not the same, we are absolutely other, as mute to each other as a pillow to a strand of hair, as the diamond to the orange peel, as every object is to every other. We are all made out of this soundlessness.

The logorrheic beings we are, we constantly bridge this soundless singularity through narrative, piecing together the separate nouns that clutter perception with verbs and syntax, holding the whole grammar together in the stories we tell. Narrative weaves together the disparate, fallen apart, and lost objects into a coherence that — done well — recreates the deep and immediate flow of experience.

But narrative itself only holds together in the moment of reading or the even more fragile moment of writing. Narrative, itself, is an experience, and does not last. We read and are captured in the grip, and then lost again. 

With running too: we run, are captured in the grip, and lost again. Like wrens, we flit from branch to branch, the perchings and the flights, lightly touching and grabbing and holding on, then falling into flight. 

That's what I miss from running, the catchings, the fallings, the effort to piece it together until it then comes together. The violins drop their piecemeal whining, the soundless objects cease their muteness, and -- the symphony begins, and it strains and flows and lasts the whole while, like life, until it ends.

Monday, July 20, 2015

"Running as Art: Tolerance, Temperament, and the Ineffable"

Here is an open access link to the post-prints of "Running as Art: Tolerance, Temperament, and the Ineffable." This essay was first written in response to a call for papers on the topic of the ineffable by the American Philosophies Forum.

I think that readers of this blog will enjoy it! Any institutional use of this work should credit the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

My Dad -- how I knew him

Untitled
Dad loved the Tennessee River Gorge
When my daughter was born, my Dad would look at her to try to gauge whether she was an Edmonds. He always concluded that she was. Lourdes and I saw it too: from the beginning the first person she looked like was my father. Panambi was a difficult infant. I remember looking down at her when she was just months old, and she stared back up at me with animal wildness in her eyes, twisting and straining in a body that didn't fully respond. That's when she looked like my Dad.

When we would talk about how difficult Panambi was as an infant with my family, everyone would say that Dad was the most difficult infant they had ever seen. I of course didn't see that up close but I saw it in my own daughter. She came into the world restless and straining at its limits, just like my Dad.

When I think about who he is, that's the first thing I think of -- a sort of unsettled, straining, and restless energy that was the quality of his soul. My Dad was a little bit crazy and very much alive.

That restless energy made some people uncomfortable. My Dad was not good in polite company. He headed straight in conversation for the most taboo topics. He could size up a complete stranger in an instant and would center in on what made them uncomfortable and unsettled. This sounds mean and aggressive when I write it, and I think that he came off that way to some people. But what he was doing was inviting people into the way that he lived in the world, which was open and unsettled and vulnerable and chaotic. He wanted to dispense with the guards we put around us and meet on terrain that was more open. He felt most comfortable there.

Although my Dad loved to provoke people he was never calculating -- it was instinctual. He never controlled fully the energy that coursed through him. The closest he came was as a young man, a state champion pole vaulter who also loved to party and dance. He couldn't control the energy but as a young athlete, he could vibrate with its frequencies.

The purity of my Dad's energy is something that those closer to him knew. Once you got past his provocations, a different man emerged. My father was almost totally selfless. Perhaps because he could never build a self around all of that instinct and spirit, he just never demanded much from anyone. He was also deeply sensitive and capable of deep emotion. Though he never said it much, I knew how much he loved me and my brother, along with his mother and his own father and his brother and sister. His life centered on a small circle of people who he would do anything for, without complaint and without judgment.

My Dad died suddenly and it appears he left without suffering, at least in that moment. In the later years of his life, my Dad suffered quite a bit. His body rebelled at the energy of his spirit, tightening and tensing up on itself. Sometimes the energy was too much for him to bear, and his way to deal with it wasn’t always healthy. But he took it all on himself and didn't want to bother anyone with it.

The memory that flashes before me now is of me and him fishing on Santeelah Lake up in the North Carolina mountains. It was sunset, the lake reflecting brown and orange sky. All of a sudden, the smallmouth started biting, and it was total chaos. I was probably 10 years old, and my Dad and I reeled them in, one after another, these tight wriggling fish pulled like electricity out of those clear cold waters. That's when my Dad was at peace, with his son, in nature, with forces as wild and clean and wriggling as that soul-stuff that ran through him.


That night is 25 years gone and now so is my Dad, gone with it, but he was never here to stay anyways. He was unsettled and vibrant and now he is gone.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Eulogy for a Great Coach: Van Townsend

"...if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and a fourth "wind" may supervene. Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, — sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points." --William James, "The Energies of Men"

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
-- Will Shakespeare

My good friend, training partner, and coach Van Townsend died on Monday, too young, of cancer.

Great coaches are gifted with an ability to unlock what is bound up in others, and of course if they themselves could explain this gift, great coaching could be learned and perhaps we'd have more of them. This gift is as obvious and basic in great coaches as other fundamental character traits. You perceive it immediately, once in their presence, a sort of magnetic effect of personality. Coaches are born, not made.

Really the best way to understand great coaching is indirectly through looking at what athletes need. Athletes are people who are driven to pour immense amounts of energy into a single pursuit of excellence . The best athletes must be able to tune out distraction, find poise and relaxation under extreme conditions, tap into wells of motivation and endurance long after the wells of others have run dry. The athlete is the person who knows how to access the strengths and capacities of the human that are, as James puts it, "habitually untaxed."

For this reason athletes are fundamentally solitary beings. They function at their best in small clans, apart from the untaxed habits of ordinary life and in tune with different values and expectations. The athletic life is a counter-cultural life.

A great coach know how to cultivate and maintain this counter-culture. He or she is able through the magnetism of the coaching gift to create a world within a world (and even against the world) that moves according to different laws. Van Townsend was a master at this.

When Van first arrived at my high school, he was strikingly counter-cultural. In a world of mid-90's George Herbert Walker Bush Southern values and prep-school ties, he sported an earring, wore garishly colored running jackets, and dwelled always within a clutter of enormous adidas running shoes (he had size 11 feet.) His shorts were incredibly short, revealing legs hardened by a word that when spoken seemed magical: mileage. It was hard to tell how old he was -- the wrinkles around his eyes, the gaunt cheeks were marks of old age. But his eyes were twinkling and bright and mischievous as if he'd just turned 17. He was into weird British punk rock.

He was immediately different, and that difference itself made us curious -- what sort of world did this guy live in? Where did he come from? And what the heck was he doing here, in Chattanooga?

Turns out that Van had come to Chattanooga to create a running dynasty in a place that didn't even know what running was. Van had trained at the center of the running universe under the legendary Bill Squires. He was a running purist; he believed in running easy, in weekly mileage numbers that made young kids heads whirl: 80, 90, 100. He believed in doubles, in running during lunch, in running in the middle of the night. He urged us to be different, to be weird.

Running, for Van, was not training or doing a sport. It was a way of being, a radical counter-culture for a chosen few. He didn't coach a team or build training plans. He created a world of values and mystery, and invited you in. Those who crossed the threshold would be forever fundamentally changed.

Van's world unlocked runners. How do you take an adolescent boy and convince him to run 80 miles per week? How do you create a band of brothers, willing to pour themselves out, day after day, under the hot sun? How do you take 20 or so young men from a small town in Tennessee and craft a team that is able to compete with the best teams in the nation? These are the things that Van did.

Van's gift was that he urged and fostered intensity. He modeled what it meant to be energetically alive. His life avoided the plain, the ordinary, and the routine and instead focused on the wild, the spontaneous, and the reckless. For Van's runners, training and competing wasn't about glory or even victory, but about intensity of living purposefully and sharing in sacrifice with others.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Van was that it was so easy to be a part of his team. Van was always recruiting--which is to say, he was always reaching out and finding people. As soon as you met Van, he was coaching you, like it or not, peering into what made you tick, and filling that ticker with his enthusiasm which poured out of him in a wild spray of language. His world was for the precious few, but it was an open world. He would train runners from all the schools in the region over the summer, then relentlessly compete against them in the fall, then bring them back together to train in the winter. His world was the runner's world, in which your rival is your greatest friend. He could fuse opposites.

I am sad that Van is dead. Really, it's hard to believe that he could die. But I am not as sad as I thought I would be. For those of us who knew Van, we carry so much of him within us that in a way he had already accomplished a kind of spiritual leaving. Great coaches are there with their athletes, in their moment of greatest struggle, and that's because they've figured out a way into the athlete's heart, so that the athlete doesn't have to be alone in his solitude of striving, in his moment of greatest fatigue and pain.

Yes, -- these are hard words -- Van has died. But more than that, he has become more fully what he always was: a man able to give a part of himself to everyone he met. Now he is only that, a beating pulse in the center of every person he touched, unlocking us, giving us strength and joy and life.

Van Townsend was a great coach. He runs on, in the heart of runners everywhere.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Body as Ethical Compass

A good friend of mine wrote me today that he is restless and uncertain of the value of his work, both in terms of its immediate effect on his mental health and also its larger effects on society. In a complicated world in which effects of most everything seem divergent and diffuse, few have escaped these sorts of thoughts. They come to us most directly in the early afternoon lag, when the third cup of coffee has no more vital effect but instead sends our thoughts scattering out wildly. Mostly, however, we avoid pondering these imponderables and know them only as, say, a growing waistline or creeping insomnia or an endless distraction that cannot be shaken.

For these things, we need renewal. There are times when I marvel at nature's capacity for renewal: how many barrels of oil could there possibly be? How many cucumbers can this world provide? How is it possible that all the worlds forests have not yet been cut and processed into paper?

The body as natural object, delicate as it is, shares in this fertile power of renewal. Like the world, it can be abused thoughtlessly and yet still give without desire for gratitude. There is no need to describe the particularly gruesome forms of bodily abuse that are a natural effect of culture in the 21st century. The evidence, like the evidence of environmental abuse, is so ordinary that it is almost invisible.

But still -- and this is why I was always an afternoon runner -- there is so much that even a damaged body can give us. After exercise we are refreshed and centered. When we use our bodies they envelope us within a field of intimacy and causality that is an antidote to the restless dispersion of 21st century life. Deleuze called this dispersiveness a kind of schizoid flow, and in his analyses always pushed the questions of ethics as the question of channeling these flows. The body has a non-dispersive flow. Its rhythms are regular and can be learned like a musical instrument.

When we say "the body" we refer to a lush flow of experience that we are able to tap into, habituate, and if not control at least find a way to flow along with it. The joy of regular exercise and training is the joy of mastering a type of flow, of being able to turn it on and turn it off, of being able to ride its waters even as they rush.

Any attempt to thoroughly organize the body is an attempt to shut down its flows -- to kill it. There is always an animal side to exercise, a side that is beyond reflection or control. If we are lucky enough to have a healthy relationship with our body, we are able to find a way of interacting with it that is vital, playful, and beyond questions of control. We develop trust in it and with it, and the body becomes a constant and reliable companion.

To return to my friend's difficult imponderables: the body's critical power can be used not only to endure difficult life situations but also as an ethical compass of sorts. Those of us who know the intimacy of the body, the power of its vitality, and the freedom and joy it can give cannot help but use that knowledge as a counterpoint to a life frittered away in small things. A run in a well-trained body shows us what life can be.

Training the body does not make one ethical, as the endless scrutiny into the personal life of athletes reminds us. That said, the question of how we respond to the fullness of experience that athletics gives us is an ethical question that continues to challenge the athlete, long after his best running is done.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Andy Anderson Snags Mt. Whitney FKT

Andy Anderson has been kind enough to share his account of breaking the Mt. Whitney FKT (Fastest Known Time.) Andy is also the owner of the Long's Peak FKT and the Grand Teton FKT (see those links for his accounts of those records.) Nice work, Andy! The words below are his:


*  *  *


“Those look like old man shoes,” joked my friend Ann as she printed out my day permit for Mt. Whitney.  

“Well, I'm almost 40, my forehead keeps getting bigger, and my beard is turning grey. I am an old man,” I replied.
This was my third trip to Mt. Whitney this summer. When I ran up it for the first time in July, I spent a little more than five hours exploring the Mountaineer's Route looking for the fastest variations. On my second trip, on August 6th, I tried to go fast and ended up at the summit in 1:50 and back at the car in 3:13. While I managed to get the ascent record, my downhill time remained too slow for the overall record.
This time I hoped I could actually run fast enough down the mountain to break Brett Maune’s existing record of 3:06. While I am pretty sure-footed when climbing and scrambling through steep technical terrain, I am also adept at crashing when cruising down seemingly benign terrain. On my second attempt at Whitney, I sprained my ankle coming down a smooth section of trail and had to hobble for a while; and just 11 days ago, I crashed hard enough to possibly have broken a rib during the Marlette 50k Trail Race here in Tahoe (Ed. Note: Andy won by 10 minutes). During the race it didn’t really hurt. The next day after a short run and some hard rock climbing (maybe not the best idea - but hey, I thought a little cragging would loosen up my sore rib), everything I did - breathing, sitting up, rolling over, everything - hurt. I haven’t gotten it x-rayed, but I figure if it heals in two weeks, it was just bruised. If it takes six weeks to heal, it was probably broken.  
Due to the rib injury, I ended up with a week of rest. On Tuesday, nine days after that 50k, I ran a bit, and my rib felt ok. It still hurt, but I could ignore the pain. More important, it did not seem to slow me down. I decided that I could give Whitney another try. If my rib hurt too much, it would just be a training run. If not, maybe I could break three hours. I drove down Hwy 395 the night before listening to Meb Keflezighi’s inspiring autobiography, Run to Overcome. 
In the morning I went to the ranger station and got a Mt. Whitney day permit. After chatting with Ann, I headed up to the Whitney Portal Trailhead where the Mountaineer's Route starts. I had to stop at McDonalds to use their Wifi and download some exciting music for the drive to the trailhead. Meb’s high school exploits reminded me of high school cross country and those memories meant cranking Jane’s Addiction. I pulled into a parking spot at the trailhead, filled my pockets with Clif Bloks and Clif shots, did a warm up lap and a few strides, and headed up the old Mt. Whitney trail.
Some might think that the loose, scree-filled, oh-so-steep gully above Iceberg Lake is the hardest part of the run, but the first 30 minutes of the climb up to Lower Boy Scout Lake works me over. There’s scrambling, route finding, and it is unrelenting. In addition, old men like me take longer to warm up so the first part of a run is always harder. Each of the three times I have done this climb, I have thought about turning back somewhere in those first 30 minutes. Luckily there are usually some people in this section who think I’m crazy, and well, crazy people don’t turn around -- they are too crazy.
By the time I scrambled past the ledges and up to Lower Boy Scout Lake, I settled into a rhythm: just running across the scree and rocks and climbers trails until I whacked a large rock with my knee. Needless to say the rock did not notice. At least it wasn’t my rib or my still swollen ankle.
Running up the granite slabs towards Upper Boy Scout Lake, inspiring scenes from Last of the Mohicans flashed through my head. I made it past the lake and across the scree and sand to Iceberg Lake in about 1:13. Then came 1600 feet up that steep, scree-filled gully. Did I say this gully wasn’t as hard as the start? Uh, yeah, well, maybe I was wrong. It’s steep. After climbing up this gully, I made it to the col just below the summit and scrambled as quickly as I could up the final mostly-3rd-and-sometimes-4th-class chute to the summit plateau. A quick tag of the summit at 1:49:10, and I started back down.
I am not a speedy down-climber. Consistently my downhill splits are slower than those of others who try these things. I knew I would lose time on the downhill. I down-climbed the upper couloir and started screeing down the loose gully back towards Iceberg Lake. For those unfamiliar with screeing, it’s akin to skiing except in running shoes on loose gravel, dirt, and rocks instead of on snow. Falls hurt a little more, and it is a bit more out of control… but it is a speedy way to descend a scree filled gully.
Back down at Iceberg Lake, I stopped and spent two minutes emptying rocks from my shoes and socks. With lighter and more comfortable shoes I ran down the climbers trails, through the boulder fields, and down the slabs. Time was running out for the sub three hour mark.
Just above Lower Boy Scout Lake I slowed down as my quad started to cramp. I had forgotten to eat and drink enough, focusing too much on running faster and not falling, and not enough on fueling. After consuming a package of Clif Bloks, a Clif Shot, some water, and an electrolyte pill, I sped up and my legs felt fine.
2:40 - 20 minutes to go. I was back at that first steep section of the route where I thought about turning back. I heard Johnny Cash’s deep sonorous voice in my head singing “20 more minutes to go” over and over again. People thought I was really crazy now: a sweat and salt streaked, shirtless runner with a lopsided smile and crazy eyes careening down a mountain muttering “come on, Andy, faster, faster, faster,” to himself as he goes by. At least that’s how I pictured myself. The reality probably looked more like a middle aged, balding, uncoordinated, gangly, skinny guy muttering to himself while picking his way clumsily down the mountain with a lopsided smile and a crazy gleam in his eyes. The smile and the crazy eyes are consistent.

“12 more minutes to go” sang Johnny. Down, down, down. I made it across the main trail and over to the old trail. “Two more minutes to go.” Go, go, go. Making tire screeching noises around the switchbacks (playing cars with my four year old has reminded me just how much fun sound effects are), I hit the three hour mark with a little more than a quarter mile to go. One lap to go. A quarter mile takes fast runners only about a minute on the track. My last quarter mile took a little under three minutes even with the sound effects. I rolled into parking lot and stopped my watch: 3:03:05. Not under three hours, but it is a new record. I jogged around a little, changed clothes, and drove back down the hill to have lunch with my ranger friend. She treated me to a burrito at the local taco truck, then I headed back home to my family in Truckee listening to Meb.
Splits:
Trailhead: 0:00:00
Lower Boy Scout: 31:00
Iceberg Lake: 1:13:20
Summit: 1:49:10
Iceberg Lake: 2:10:43
Lower Boy Scout Lake:  2:40:14
Trailhead 3:03:05
Gear:
Food:
  • Clif Bloks
  • Clif Shots
  • Hammer Endurolytes
  • Creek water - Hope I don’t get Giardia.
Link to my run on Movescount: http://www.movescount.com/moves/move39367473
Link to a shaky video of me screeing down a slope in the Dolomites several years ago with my sound effects: http://youtu.be/UaVjxlKJIGE
photo of me and the post run burrito taken by Ann Piersall:


Thursday, August 21, 2014

On the Runner's Dissatisfaction

Looking back upon the time that I was running hard, the thing that strikes me most was how little satisfaction I took in my fitness.

The drive to train can be cast in a positive light as a sort of drive to athletic perfection, a noble quest to be better today than we were yesterday. Each run a testament to the high-school coach's simple minded but effective euphemisms about work, practice, effort, will. Yes, we take pride in our discipline, and the lean and honed body of the runner reflects it and displays it.

But -- but, every runner who has really given himself over to the sport knows that the intensity and effort of training is also fed by darker and wilder motives and impulses. Driving through a set of quarters in the dripping August humidity, rolling steadily on tired legs through yet-another 10 miler -- this is not the stuff of cheery euphemism. If I remember correctly, it was hardly ever the thought of improvement that got me out the door. Dissatisfaction, though -- that did the trick.

Indeed, it is possible to generalize on this point. Runners are a dissatisfied lot. We want more, almost always. Yes, PRs or the occasional great race brings feelings of joy and accomplishment. We use these moments as justification for all our suffering, and perhaps spouses and friends over for dinner parties see the occasional running trophy or marathon medal as evidence that we do it for the moments of triumph. There is a reason, though, that running trophies are made out of cheap plastic: they reflect the value of satisfaction in relation to the rest.

Nice as they are, these moments of satisfaction are fleeting in relation to the time spent brooding and pondering, mulling workouts and strategies, wracking our brains for what went wrong in the last training cycle and what might, this time, go a bit better. We run a great workout and then want the next one to be even better. We run a great race and within the hour have ramped up expectations for the next outing. Yesterday's dream hollows out into the bare fact of what we've done, which is not enough.

For me there have always been two well-springs of motivation. The first is simple bodily immediacy: the joy of being outside, the glut of sensation, the intimacies of cold and heat and rain and breeze, the tireless and animal feelings of the well-trained body -- all of these immediacies that every runner knows. These feed and fund us as runners, outside of any thought of purpose or goal.

The second spring of motivation is the more consistent, and it this feeling of dissatisfaction I've been discussing. The thought that I could always be better was not the reason I ran; it was a reflection of an even deeper, almost metaphysical dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction is no choice or attitude, no thought or mantra: it was the reason for, not the consequence of, my choices and attitudes towards running.

Please don't be confused: it's not that I was unhappy. Dissatisfaction is quite different from unhappiness. Unhappiness is not an active state: its pain is passivity. That said, to be dissatisfied is not a pleasant feeling, and I am not even sure it leads to pleasant feelings or can be justified that way. The dissatisfaction I remember lies outside this sort of economy of exchange.

This sort of motivating dissatisfaction is more like the drive or hum of a heavy diesel engine. It works and hums and labors in us without end, like the beating of waves against the sand and the bee hives that have buzzed a single note since the beginning of time, connecting the runner to the endless churning dissatisfaction of the world itself.
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