Friday, October 24, 2008

On Motivation

From a message board, a response to a buddy, looking for a reason to run.

Whatever. There are no tricks. Run because you have to. Run because you love it. Run because you want to be fast. Run because you want to be skinny. Run to find some quiet time. Run to sweat. Run to eat. Run hear your heart pound in your ears. Run because you're a runner. Run because you gotta keep the streak. Run because you don't know why the hell you're running. Run because you fought with your partner. Run because your job is shitty. Run because you got no money. Run for the sunrise. Run for a race. Run because it's impossible. Run because it's easy. Run instead of doing the laundry. Run instead of watching TV. Run because no one else understands. Run because the cool kids do it. Run because you're tired of talking. run for numbers. Run for feel. Run to prove something. Run because it fucking hurts.

Or don't run. If you got something better to do.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Run By Feel

What is "running by feel?" I think there are three related features to this approach to training:

1. "Primary experience" is privileged over "secondary experience." What does this mean? It means that when there is a conflict between the immediate experience of running and the reflective experience of thinking about running, the immediate experience is given priority. For example, I might decide after reflecting on my running that what's best for me to do tomorrow is to 8 x 800 at 10k pace. I head to the track and try the first one at 10k pace and struggle to make it. The immediate experience is telling me that this pace is too fast. Instead of clinging to the idea that I have to run 10k pace, I back off and listen to the primary experience of the workout. The reverse is sometimes, also, fortunately true. We can have good days and beat our expectations.

For running by feel, the "problem" of training is always to bring the secondary experience of reflecting about running in line with the primary experience of running. A physiological approach reverses this direction.

2. Running by feel is radically experimental. This is the sense in which running by feel is more scientific than physiological science. Physiology can only deal with the human species as a whole. Training requires a more radically experimental method because each runner is a singular individual. What works best for me, today, most likely won't work best for you--and might not even work well for me tomorrow. The runner must be willing to try new paces, new intervals, and new intensities on a daily basis. In order to measure the effects of this radical, ongoing experimentation, the runner needs an instrument that is as singular as his or her running. This instrument is "feel," and it is built up over time through experience with the multitude of possible sensations that running brings.

Training is an experiment of one and needs an instrument that is adapted to that singularity.

3. Running by feel is comfortable with uncertainty. The great attraction of physiological science is that it pretends to certainty. Everyone has a clearly defined and measurable VO2max. Easy running means keeping your heart rate at exactly 140. Tempo runs should be 20 minutes at 10k pace because that leads to the greatest gains in LT. However, because running is an experiment of one--and that one is constantly changing, sometimes developing, sometimes not--there is no certainty to be found in running, and for this reason any training methodology that pretends to certainty is a bad methodology. Paradoxically, running by feel more precisely measures progress in running because it is vaguer. What does an easy run feel like? How much should a 5k hurt? No one can tell you; it can't be done perfectly. But sometimes, by chance, we capture glimpses of how it feels when it's damn close to being right. We hold onto those glimpses and use them hopefully and uncertainly to guide our training.

Running by feel respects the mystery and risk of running by not demanding that it conform to the demands of certainty.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Education and Experience

Emerson wrote this in "The American Scholar":

The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle most engages. He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find, — so entire, so boundless. Far, too, as her splendors shine, system on system shooting like rays, upward, downward, without centre, without circumference, — in the mass and in the particle, nature hastens to render account of herself to the mind.

In these words, we find an early compelling account of the idea of experiential education. I'm sure it sounded as strange to Emerson's listeners as it does to us today to think that the scholar is the one most engaged with the wild spectacle of nature. The new scholar that Emerson dreamed would be like nature: "without beginning, without end...circular power returning into itself." So different from the notion that we have today, that the scholar must attach himself to his idea, no matter the cost, as if experience were a maelstrom and his thought a life-raft.

But has the stream of experience grown so violent and unpredictable that we are afraid to let loose of our idea-rafts? Is it possible to imagine a scholar who does not advocate a view, but instead demonstrates a mind as wide and as flexible as experience itself? We would, perhaps, say that such a scholar lacked intellectual rigor or integrity, but it is possible to make a distinction between rigor and the rigor mortis of academic prose.

My dissertation project worries about what we mean when we say we ought to engage experience. Emerson's experience here is wonderful, romantic, inspiring--but a far cry from our experience. Do we see stars or traffic lights? Sunsets or TV sets? Cycles of power or the daily grind? Men and women conversing or pundits preaching? We need a different aesthetic: perhaps Beckett or Foster Wallace...Emerson is too romantic--causing us to daydream, rather to engage. How would "The American Scholar" be written today? What words would inspire us to a richer life of the mind, today--one that does not build life rafts, but life itself?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Boltzmann's Brain

This NYTimes article on cosmology headed the "most emailed" list for a few hours this morning. I think that this graphic explains the view best. The article's position on this popularity list raises a couple of questions. First, how is it that scientists could hold such a strange view of the universe? And second, why do readers of the New York Times care so much (at least this morning) about this totally strange view?

My problem with Boltzmann's Brain theory (which basically suggests that the probability that we are brains in vats is much higher than the probability that our ordinary commonsense world exists) is that it is not an empirical theory, but a mathematical one. It starts with an idea, the notion that matter is basically a collection of atoms sitting in empty space, and then sets out to ask whether or not our current universe is consistent with that idea. Well, when it turns out that our universe and the original idea aren't too compatible, the reaction that these cosmologists have is to abandon the universe as we know it and hypothesize that our universe is mere appearance. To make this move is to step out of empirical science and into dogmatic idealism--to hold the view that ideas are truer than experience.

For the empirically minded, actuality trumps probability every time. That it is extremely unlikely (on a certain theory) that the universe would exist in its current form is no argument against its actually existing in its present form. In fact, the probability that the universe is as it is seems to me to be incredibly low, as many things are up to chance and could have been otherwise. Lottery winners understand this fact better than anyone else. That there was, in reality, only the most minute probability that they could have won is of no consequence to the winner who hold the million dollar check.

Why are these cosmological theories found so compelling if they replace a rich actuality with the pale image of mathematical probability? My sense is that a clean and clear image of particles floating in space is much more attractive to folks than the complicated, confused, vague, and shifting world in which we actually live. There is something in us that prefers to think of ourselves as brains in vats--because a brain in a vat doesn't have to makes sense of the complicated situations and events that surround us. But even this is an idle hope. If this world were mere illusion, and we were all figments of each others' imagination, then this illusion would be all that we have. Our image of ourselves would be just as valuable to maintain as our real selves now are. And the imagined sicknesses, deaths, joys, and triumphs would be just as heart-rending or fulfilling as the obstacles and pleasures we presently experience.

That we can even conceive of the possibility that we might all be brains in a vat speaks to the intensity with which modern life produces a sense of alienation. We want to take refuge from the hail of experience beneath the shelter of a clear and distinct mathematical idea. If we were just brains in a vat and had no responsibility, no decisions to make, no causes to serve, failure would finally be extinguished from the universe, and onwards we could roll, smoothly and without consequence.

Of course, with the elimination of failure and decay comes the elimination of practically everything else we care for: friends, family, and work. These most precious of relationships are valuable because they are contingent, because they grow and develop (and falter and fail), and because they will come to an end. It is out of this radical contingency, the unbearable lightness of being, that we craft our fragile lives. Because life is fraught with failure, we must respond with care, concern, and passion. Any view that denies this basic character of the universe--the actuality of responsibility--is one that I oppose.
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