Monday, December 28, 2009

Training "Plan"

"Don't forget that the most important problem to solve is to make easy what is difficult, and for this goal we need to be very simple, natural in our approach, bringing our athletes to train more without too much pressure from hard workouts. That's the reason because too much hard training is a mistake, because athletics become a continuous examination, no more a pleasure. You can train hard preserving the ability of enjoying training, instead too many times athletes think that training is a must, and lose their nervous energies in fighting in training. Many runners leave good result in practice but have little energy for good result in races."
--Renato Canova

Here are some thoughts on my training over the next four months.

I don't write much about training, at least on this blog. I do act the expert on some running forums, but I try to keep my expertise as vague as my knowledge. Running being a simple act, training is also best kept simple. Push the limits of your ability to handle mileage, push the limits of your ability to handle intensity, and let your body rest and recover when it needs to. This is really all the runner needs to know to undertake the experiment of getting faster. The details have to be worked on the roads--and balanced with the rest of life.

If you're lucky, you'll also find two or three folks who know your strengths and weaknesses, your blind spots and your enthusiasms, both as a runner and as a person. You can count yourself even luckier if these folks have the good will to listen when you ramble on erratically about your half-formed training plans--and occasionally drop in a nugget of wisdom. That's about the most you can ask for in a coach. In fact, if a coach gives more than that, he threatens the singleminded stubborn autonomy that is the runner's greatest asset. When the race is on the line, there is no coach, there's just you. That's the beauty.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that the training plan I'm about to undertake is not based in much other than what I think will be best for me. It pretends to no universal applicability. I offer no keys or secrets. And it is not based on the latest physiological research, which I have not read. It's a training plan for me, by me. And it is simple.

Here it is:
Longer, steady-paced (MP-MP+60) singles will be the heart of my training. The idea is to shoot for 3-4 moderately paced runs of 60-100min every week. I will do this for two months. STRENGTH.

After this, I will drop the miles down and/or break them up into more doubles, and run easier, but twice a week I will be a demon on the track. SPEED.

The rationale here is as follows. Over the last year I've put in a lot of miles, and I've been conservative with my paces. I concentrated most on weekly mileage, and the best way to get that up was to run a bunch of easy doubles. This approach has been really great--it's kept me healthy, it's gotten me some good times, and it's kept me motivated and out on the road. That's about all you can ask for, really. But it's time to change things up.

Why go to longer, moderately paced, singles for a period of time? First, it's something new. Most of my runs over the last year were around an hour. I spent very little time on the road for over 90 minutes--and there's a reason for that. It's not my wheelhouse. Those runs are harder for me. They push me. Which means that they are doing some work.

Second, historically, moderate-paced running has been good for me, as long as I don't get caught in the trap of doing every run at a moderate pace. Very often runners are advised to "keep their easy runs easy." This is good advice. If given the choice of every run being easy or every run being moderate, I'd choose easy for long-term development. Fortunately, though, we get to be a bit more experimental than that. I believe that my body not only can handle 3-4 moderate paced runs per week but will thrive off of them, especially if I'm not doing any hard speed work, and if I do my fair share of easy running the other 3-4 days.

January and February will see this experiment unfold. If all goes well, I will have built the kind of base that "moves the line"--that makes me into a new kind of runner with new potentialities. Middle March, at the Tom King half-marathon, will be the first test of this base. But the real hope is that it will catapult me, after some specific training, into new territory: a late spring 5k perhaps, a fall marathon, possibly.

They say that ghosts will haunt us until we give them what they want. There is a runner-ghost that haunts me. It is a ragged beast, pieced together by flights of fancy, post-workout lightheadedness, late afternoons of invincibility, those rare perfect races. Time for an exorcism.

Yo llevo en el cuerpo un motor
Que nunca deja de rolar
Yo llevo en el alma un camino
Destinado a nunca llegar

Friday, December 18, 2009

I Am a Runner

I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient to all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. --Rilke

Running, like life, is an uncertain endeavor. It has the basic character of a question. The first reaction that we have to a question is, of course, to look for an answer. There are many instances in which this is a productive way to tackle a question. Google is useful for many things, as is wikipedia. They provide answers.

However, there are certain aspects of experience that, perhaps strangely, appear as questions without answers. These aspects are usually denoted with words that are simultaneously powerful and vague: love, death, sex, birth, friendship, vocation. These elements of experience have in common an essential relation to uncertainty. They take the form of a question as a part of their very animating essence. We don't know how they will come out, and this is what actually makes them so valuable, so joyful. And so horrifying and tragic, sometimes all at once.

Though it is perhaps silly to put running on the same plane as some of these other more profound elements of life, it is related to these other aspects in this intimate relation to uncertainty. Because it shares this aspect of experience, running can become a practice of freedom. As in the other vague areas of life, the meaning of running is a consequence of the choices we make in our relations to it.

See, running presents itself to us as an underdetermined phenomenon. Outside of the choices that are made with respect to it, running means nothing at all. This is why the non-runner will never understand the meaning of running: the non-runner has made no choice with respect to the activity. Or perhaps more accurately stated, the non-runner has made a single choice: not to run. And that has determined the meaning of running for him to be nothing at all.

Because of the fundamental indeterminacy of running, we are free to create its meaning. This does not mean that we are free in some absolute sense to make running what we please. Only that through our engagement with the essential openness of running, through the experimental and provisional answers that we give to the questions it poses, we create, slowly through the years and the miles a meaning for running that is intimately bound up with the meanings and practices of the rest of our lives.

Over time, through the series of irrevocable and often thoughtless choices made with respect to this act, we make sense out of running. The act becomes a metaphor that the runner can use to understand the rest of life. The effort, the consistency, the joy, the pain, the failures, the successes, the friendships, the sense of place, the monotony, the mountains, the sidewalks, the surges, the work, the heartache, the beauty, the simplicity, the confusion, the suffering--all of these experiences that the runner creates out of his act--become templates for understanding himself and the world around him. We runners develop a set of meanings which help us to experience the rest of life in a richer way. Running, for the runner, is a practice of meaning. That's why it is a practice of freedom. It gives us the freedom to make some sense out of the sometimes crushing confusion of life.

That's why we don't say that we do races. Or simply that we run. We say we are runners. The running makes us who we are, for better or for worse.

Over the last few years, more and more people have been taking up running, and the internet has given us an intimate look into the process of becoming a runner. At first, the tendency is to react to the fundamental uncertainty of running by treating it as a problem to be solved. The new runner wants a plan, a principle, an answer. These answers are out there, totally google-able. Many, perhaps most, take them, follow them, run their marathon, check it off the list. They don't become runners, although they run. Their answers prevent the act from becoming one of freedom and of meaning. And that's just fine, so long as they find something.

But some lonely souls give enough of themselves over to running that its problems and possibilities get all wrapped up with the rest of the problems and possibilities of these essentially uncertain lives we live. There, in that confusion, running comes alive. These are the ones who have no choice but to become runners. They begin just heading down the road for whatever reason--to lose weight, to get out of the house, to move their bodies, to see the city, to catch a blast of winter wind in the face--and then they wake up one distant day, miles and miles down the road, having lived their way into an answer that has nothing to do with plans, pace, or with training advice.

The answer has to do with identity. These are runners. Their answer is that old problematic question, the essential uncertainty of life, and the only response they can find that is adequate to it, that can keep it living is the lonely beauty, the taste of copper, the wild rhythms, the movement, the strength, the friends, the fire and holy sweat.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Walking in Memphis

Saw the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue...

Okay, a brief race report. The facts are straightforward. I went out at a pace just under 6:00 and held that until mile 13 (half split was 1:17:xx), mile 14 I had begun to slow, dropping to 6:15 pace--a difference that seems perhaps slight, but with 11 more miles to go, it was a harbinger of the coming death march. I dropped out of the race at mile 15, taking my 3rd lifetime DNF.

The best part of my race.

It was a gamble going in, as the cold that I've been fighting over the last three weeks continues to linger. I was hoping that it wouldn't affect my performance too much (I'd already ratcheted my goal back from low 2:30's to "anything better than 2:38:06"), but it did. A sick body will refuse to go to the well, and that's what mine did.

Another contributing factor was the lack of company in the race. I ran the first half of the race with two half-marathoners, which was helpful until they started kicking it in, dropping me somewhere around mile 11. It never feels good to be dropped, even if the folks you are running with are in a different race. After they split off the course at mile 12, I was totally alone: no one in sight, for the half-mile ahead or behind me. It's a fact about our sport: as individualistic as running often seems, we run best in groups, working together. So, at the very moment that the race gets most difficult, I was running alone.

A silver lining: I'm not sore today--the day after. This indicates to me that my legs were ready and that the sickness was indeed the problem.

What to do from here? Get healthy, first--then...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Week to Go

My dear wife brought home a nasty cold from school. I've been blowing yards of dense snot out of my nose for about a week. It hit me hardest actually over a week ago, like I'd been hit by a train in the middle of the Thursday night before Thanksgiving.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that this cold arrived in my last full week of marathon training, which also happened to coincide with the end of the longest stretch of teaching, during which also I had been working on job applications for the next year. I was exhausted, mentally and physically, and the long days of work added to the 10-15 miles a day caught up to me. I took Friday and Saturday off like a good boy, but then rushed back when I felt better on Monday, piling up almost 30 miles in the first two days of the week--to "make up for" the two days I'd missed.

Bad idea.

Then there was Thanksgiving, which is the Christmas of the road-racing season. All the runners come out to race on Thanksgiving morning, and I was no exception. I lined up for one of my favorite Nashville races, the Boulevard Bolt, on a beautiful morning for racing: 40 degrees and sunny. This would be the final test of my legs before my goal marathon in Memphis. I wanted to run a hard effort but keep it just this side of all out. I took it out with new running buddy Alex Moore. We were looking for 5:20 effort, maybe 5:25 since the first mile is uphill a bit. I felt sluggish the first mile, and it took forever for the marker to swing into view: 5:35. My legs felt weak. I figured I'd hang in for another mile to see if I warmed up at all, and we were through 2 in 11:02, but I still felt bad. By this point Alex had gone on ahead and left me in my own misery. I hung on for another mile in 5:30 or so, coming through 3 in 16:3x, but by that point I could tell I was never going to be in the race. I did what I rarely do in races. I thought of Memphis and backed off.

The next mile was 6:00 or so--through 4 in 22:30. I put in another 5:30 on the last mile, picking it up over the last 600m or so to hold off a high school kid and to cross the line in 27:59, a full minute off my goal. Meh.

Racing on Thanksgiving, ten days out from my marathon, with a cold--probably another bad idea. By the end of the day, I'd lost my voice (but not my appetite, I'm proud to report). Since then, I've been coughing up nasty green bile, but slowly improving. The big question is whether or not I'll be well by next Saturday. I hope so.

The last couple of days have given me a bit of hope. Easy runs, to be sure, but I've felt my legs strong again, even though I've still got a scratchy voice and a bit of a cough. We will see.

At any rate, the week before a marathon, I usually get nostalgic about my running. Since I'm not out training--and especially not now with this damn cold--the training I've done stands out in relief. I think back to the good workouts, to the weary legs, to the long runs, to the steady grind almost as if it were another person entirely who did all of that running. I enjoy training. It's where the miracles happen: and you're always there to see them. This essay describes them pretty well.

Ah, the miracles: they're why we run, in the end. But there are no miracles in racing. What you do in a race is always only the result of what you've prepared for in training. The challenge is letting that training show: concentrating it, boiling it down, and producing two and a half hours of hard running. The race is when you show your cards. You take the runner you've been at work creating over the years and you reveal your creation. Spectacular, when all goes well, sublime even, but not miraculous, no. Races are natural creations--the result of work, hard, human, sweaty, painful, relentless, determined work.

A week to go until my marathon. No miracles expected, none needed.

Friday, November 20, 2009

On Wildness and Civilization

Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest trees. Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.
--H.D. Thoreau, "Walking"

Thoreau was often criticized for not being wild enough. His Walden Pond was not out in the rugged mountains of Alaska. He didn't live purely off the land. He had regular interactions with others, and his experience with wildness came through the mild act of walking--he called it "sauntering"--not through extreme mountain sports like rock climbing or ultra running or what have you.

These criticisms, though, do not understand Thoreau's intent. They miss what Thoreau saw: the relation between wildness and civilization is symbiotic. Thoreau chose where he lived very deliberately. He wanted to live on the border between civilization and wildness because he thought that experience needed both wildness and civilization. After all, Thoreau was a writer, a reader, and a philosopher--an active participant in the development of a long history of humanity. His writings are highly civilized--but their energy is wild. Let me see if I can show you what I mean.

Thoreau's belief was not that his contemporaries ought to abandon civilization for the wild. His complaint was that we miscontrue the relation between wildness and civilization by putting them into opposition, forcing us to choose one over the other. He saw his task--and the American experience along with it--as one of renewing civilization, making the lives in it stronger, better, more vibrant, and more alive by means of measured and civilized encounters with wildness. His essay "Walking" is a masterpiece in this respect. Listen to this thought--it is wild, radical even, yet expressed in such civilized language:

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, — when fences shall be multiplied, and man traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road; and walking over the surface of God’s earth, shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come.

The act of running crosses what's left of Thoreau's common ground. Running is a small act of resistance against private property. Where others see yards and business and property, we see pathways and openings. We just move through it. We exercise a kind of comparative freedom across our terrain--I step on grass, cross parking lots, follow sidewalks, the narrow shoulder of the road--none of it is my space or your space. It's not really space at all. The world does not appear to us as a collection of static properties, but as a series of paths through which to move. We saunter across land, forgetting completely questions of boundaries and borders. And by taking up this attitude, we see wildness.

I often head out around rush hour, and as I trot along barely dressed making my primitive motions, I pass through a veritable chaos. Most of the wildness of Nashville life today is encased in automobiles, but I know it's in there. I see the animals hunkered over in their man traps behind their steering wheels, eyes crazed or glazed over. They have the radio on and it's pounding out tribal rhythms or maybe they are listening to the medicine man rant and rave about the gods in Washington. I see it in the way the cars move, jerking out and around other cars, creeping as closely as they can to the back of the next. Everyone hustling with outrageous energy and yet going nowhere, confined to the public road, brake lights shining, a long red river flashing on and off. I see it in the fumes and smell the rich diesel and gasoline: smoke signals sent off like messages between Exxon and Mobil, Chavez and the Sheiks. My route takes me over the interstate on high bridges, and you can look down below and see a whole river of human beings roaring at 70 miles per hour, cutting through the air like terrestrial dolphins. The wildness is there.

It's there but oh it's hidden and locked up and expressed without intelligence: in road rage and boredom and the constant hustle. For us wildness is too wild. It's the three Starbucks a day that keeps the wildness just rolling on and on and never stopping to reflect on where or why how because it's now and then next and then this webpage click then outrage then work then family and dinner and bed and alarm then coffee and on and on a movement that has become so pure and direct and unstoppable that goes nowhere at all. It disperses itself as soon as it gets started. It can't be measured because it crosses no place. It's life as pure movement this tame and uncivilized existence, this ordered and stressed and monotonous life.

Running takes the pure movement and sets limits to it. It calms the spazmatic herking and jerking and gives it direction. This animal act, this simple sweating creature, this rhythmic striding, settles experience and slows it down. It brings wildness into play with order, goals, and destinations. The goals and orders and rhythms of running grow internally and organically out of experience itself. The wildness leads to an order, an order which points back into wildness.

I need running because it makes the dissociative blur of contemporary experience into a vital movement. It brings civilization to wildness and makes wild--in the vital sense--civilization. See, we think wildness is a type of limit experience, and that's where we misunderstand Thoreau. We think it's the pure adrenaline of the ski slope or the utter loneliness of the mountain hermit. But wildness is not best expressed by a wolf in the frenzy of the kill or the rolling eyes of the deer when pursued. This is wildness as violence, and these are images that we understand, being so close to the pure movement, the extreme wildness of the rat race. That's just fear, pain, adrenaline; it is not the wildness that nourishes and transforms civilized life into something better.

The wildness I want and need and which running sometimes gives me is a civilized experience of wildness. The wildness of the living organism. The wildness of vitality. Wildness expressed and made into an object of experience. That's what I want instead of this non-society, non-place, non-experience with its bored outrage, its detached violence, its dispersive experience, its movement that has no ends and no beginnings. Running ravels the obliterated experience of contemporary life back into a kind of integrated cloth. It gives life a distance, an order, and an end, however temporary.

I guess that means that running is an escape, mostly, for me. Maybe someday more of my ordinary experience will be imbued with real and living vitality. Maybe someday. Until then, I'll spin it up myself for an hour or so a day. I'll twist and dodge the steel buffaloes, swim the asphalt streams, saunter through the gasoline air. Find impervious and quaking swamps in the urban scene. I'll go for a run.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Human Animal

I saw this video a couple of years ago and forgot to bookmark it. Got it now. You should watch it. It would be neat to hear your comments.

So, still been busy with job applications and classes and conferences and writing "real" philosophy instead of philosophizing about running. But, I've been running, and I learned today that I am IN for the Memphis marathon on December 5th. I'm in shape to run a PR--I don't need to do too much from here on out. As Mike the Hobbyjogger (internet friend and coach/spiritual guide--how strange is that?) told me: You're piloting a Boeing 777 on a trans-Atlantic flight right now. You just want to bring it in on target. You don't want to overshoot the runway and put in in a cornfield in Pennsylvania and you obviously don't want to plop it in Long Island Sound.

This means for me: no hero workouts. Just run a bunch for the next couple of weeks. Run some marathon pace if I feel good. It's nice not to be in a position where I have to swing for the fences in training.

What else? Well, after three or four days of feeling crappy at the end of last week (I'd been pushing my training too much), I got my legs back after some easy running and decided to run steady for the last 4 miles of my run and covered it in 22:16, with a 5:15 last mile, just rolling. Yes, another good run.

May you have one, too.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It's Quicksilver


Been busy and with little time to update the blog. My running is still going well. I had a nice run this evening, just a plain old easy run, but the night was crisp like early November ought to be and the moon was full and the maple leaves bright orange beneath the black of the sky.

I ran 6:10's on the way home, and they were some of the easiest miles I've run in a while. I'm light and fast, having transformed my body quite a bit over the last year or so. Anyhow, I thought I'd post a link to this article from the New Yorker in celebration of Meb's win in the New York Marathon. The last paragraph of the article rings true.

I asked him if he had any advice for Hall in Beijing. When Keflezighi responded, I thought I heard the wistful tone of an athlete in decline. It wasn’t until much later that I realized he was saying something different—he had learned to accept the quicksilver nature of the sport, the way it feels to catch lightning in a bottle, and he was determined to try once more.

“Cherish it,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing, when you can click the miles along. It’s a beautiful thing, and you better cherish it.”

I've been thinking just this thought on a lot of my runs lately. Hope your running is going well, and that you have found a few quicksilver moments yourself.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Body and Our Obsessions

Life today pays too much attention to the body and therefore, too little.

We are acutely aware of how our bodies are perceived by others. We know and obsess over whether our bodies are fat or skinny. We compare them to images in popular media. How we occupy our bodies determines our social position. We hold ourselves upright, or we slouch. We feel intensely whether bodies are beautiful or ugly, young or old. Our bodies mark our social class, our sexuality, our race, our gender. We worry about how they smell, what size clothes they wear, how wrinkled they are, and what they say about us. Our bodies tell others whether we are disciplined or lazy, conventional or rebellious, athletes or couch potatoes.

For all of these reasons, we obsess over our bodies and the bodies of others. Our bodies, perhaps more than our voices, our thoughts, or even our families and friends are the great communicators of our selves. Lulu and I went to see Giselle at the Nashville Ballet this weekend and witnessed the body's full possibilities as a work of art. As Wittgenstein wrote, "The human body is the best picture of the human soul."

Despite the great power of the body to communicate--or perhaps because of this power-- we think of the body as an object to be controlled, disciplined, trained, shaped. We treat it as a slave to the needs of consciousness and attempt to organize it, to dominate it, to put it to work for us.

This attitude towards the body has a long history. But the present purposes of these attitudes are easy to see. They feed and fund a large segment of the economy that teaches us that the body is a site for the application of products. It needs to be shod and fed. It needs to go on a diet. It needs to be monitored, measured, and watched. It needs to be covered, enhanced, relaxed. Its pains need to be soothed. Its anxieties comforted. There is a bodily need for every product. The body is a privileged site in our culture of corporate consumerism.

A thought-experiment for you: how many of the interactions that you make with your body are mediated by a product? How many are named by a corporate brand? How is your idea of what your body is, how it operates, its problems and possibilities, educated into you by the products that you buy?

There is a product for every aspect of running. In fact, corporate culture is actively making running more and more complicated, giving it more and more aspects, so that there will be more and more possibilities for products associated with running. For example, 10 years ago there was no such thing as trail running. Trail running was just running through the woods. There were no special shoes for it. No hydration paks. No trail-running shorts. No trail-running gaiters. Twenty years ago there was no such thing as marathon training. Marathon training was just running a lot. We didn't know there were thresholds in the body that had special devices to monitor them. We didn't know that there were optimum heart-rates to be measured. We didn't know that our feet over or under pronated, whether our arches are high or low. In short, we did not conceive of our bodies as systems to be controlled and manipulated in the most efficient way possible through the use of multiple consumer products. To get in shape so that I can be an effective 3:10 pacer for the Nike Pace Team in the Bank of America (Chicago) Marathon.

Today, however, this is the first lesson that the new runner learns. He learns that the body is complicated, inarticulate, and unintelligent and therefore dependent upon a multitude of products that will help him or her contain, control, and train the body toward the goal. The first essential lesson in exercise consumption: the body is confusing. We don't know our bodies, says Polar and Garmin and Nike and Jack Daniels, PhD, so therefore we must turn to products and experts to educate ourselves about them. Ignorance is not bliss. It's money in the bank. And this ignorance and confusion is actively and consciously educated into us by corporations intended on profiting from it.

"So what?" I hear you saying. "I enjoy geeking out." "I enjoy my new shoes--they're part of the pleasure of running." Good enough, if it floats your boat. But know this, too. The pleasure of treating the body as a site of consumption and as a site of technological mastery is different from finding the pleasures of the runner's body. The thrills we get from this sort of mastery have very little to do with running. Further, treating the body in this way makes training unintelligent. It mistakes a body that is produced for the purposes of marketing for YOUR body, the one you live in and with.

If you don't believe me, then listen to British marathon record holder Steve Jones: "What I do is make it simple. There's no science in it – no heart-rate monitors. It's just running – running instinctively. Anyone who saw Steve Jones run in the Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties knew that he ran by the seat of his pants nearly all the time. You don't see that any more and that's what I'm trying to teach these guys. None of it comes out of a book. It all comes out of my own experience."

The body can be controlled, measured, trained, and covered with gear. But it can be more than that, too. Your running body is a spontaneous and productive and free site of experience. Intelligent training begins from this principle. It knows that we run and train with the body. We don't use the body to train, to accomplish a goal, or to check something or other off a life-time list. We live in the body.

In opposition to the body as marketplace, I want to affirm a simple point. We can have direct and unmediated experiences of our bodies. We can feel them as they are. There is a body beyond how it appears to other people, beyond its being sliced and diced into possibilities for buying and selling, beyond its capacity to be disciplined and trained, measured and controlled.

How to find this body? How to make this contact, this way of paying attention? It's the simplest thing in the world. You quit treating your body in terms of efficiency. You quit treating it as an excuse to buy one more thing. You stop covering it with gadgets. You stop paying attention to the experts, the internet pundits, the marketers.

Here's what you do. You go for a run. And there, on a blue morning, with a few friends, under brilliant October leaves: the body.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Tempo Run as Art

A tempo run is a balancing act. The challenge that a tempo run demands is simple: find the fastest pace you can run with the least effort. The best description of the effort is an oxymoron. You go "comfortably hard."

Some more tough-minded folk try to take the art out of tempo running by linking it to heart rate (160 or so) or certain physiological thresholds in the body (the favorite here is lactic threshold, but sometimes aerobic threshold is mentioned), or even a pace: 10 mile race pace is a favorite. But the tempo run does not denote a concrete object or measurable event that takes place in the body. The tempo run is a discipline. Tempo is an art of balancing pace with effort.

It is precisely for this reason that the tempo run is the most important workout that a runner can do. The tempo teaches you to pay attention. A runner can do one of two things when approaching the paradoxical state of comfortably hard. There are two ways to keep the effort from spinning out of control.

The most straightforward thing to do is to slow down--to modulate pace. But there is a different technique. Mastery of this skill is what separates the best runners from the rest. The skill is one of maintaining pace while modulating effort.

The discipline that tempo runs train into us is not to give more effort than is necessary. Often, strangely, trying to run fast gets in the way of running fast. So, when the effort begins to spin up out of comfortably hard, the first thing the experienced runner checks is his relaxation. Am I wasting effort? Am I pushing when I could be rolling? Are my arms tight? Did I forget to relax after the last hill? The tempo run is practice making fast easy--convincing the body and the mind not to be frightened of fast paces, and not to convert that fear into wasted energy, exaggerated effort.

I ran a tempo tonight in the dark. It's harder to measure pace in the dark, as the dark throws off visual perception. This blindness is actually an asset for tempo running because it allows you to forget how fast you are running, not to fear the speed, and just concentrate on the effort, on running fast and controlled and easy.

Before the run, as I jogged to the park, I wondered if the 5:40 miles I hoped to run would be hard. They sounded hard. And I was prepared to give an effort. But there in the dark, I just focused on running strong, as fast as I could go without pushing, and the miles fell off: 5:42, 5:38, 5:37, and then grinning to no one in the pitch black, an easy 5:25.

John Dewey writes in Art as Experience that "Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reinforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is." A tempo run, when done right, qualifies as a sort of intimate art. Not the kind of art that is hung in museums and watched, but art as experience. The tempo run takes legs and heart and body that have been molded in training. It takes the sum of these past experiences and, with peculiar intensity, it produces a brief present in which the accumulated strength and power and grace of one's history as a runner is felt and lived.

This glimpse, this balance, this art portends a future as well--indeed, a quickening of what now is. If I can run this fast, without effort, then...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Is Running Logical?

Is running logical? Well, it depends on what we mean by logical.

Logic has come to connote a kind of hard and cold objectivity. Computers are logical. Arguments are logical. College professors are logical. Political blowhards are illogical. Young children are illogical. And spouses are either too damn logical or totally irrational.

This conception of logic takes it to be something that operates independent of passion and emotion. Logic uses universal and objective reasons, which are ordered under the laws of thought and do not allow for absurd conclusions or the possibility of contradiction. On this conception of logic, to write on "the logic of long distance" means spelling out in reasons that are universally available, clear, and well ordered, an account of why it is that long-distance runners do what they do.

If you've been following this blog with the hope of finding such an account, it is likely that you have been disappointed. This is because I am alluding to a different, older conception of logic. "Logic" for the Greeks meant, simply, speech. For the Greeks, to use logic meant to make an attempt to articulate. Its deeper roots mean something like to gather and to collect.

The logic of long distance, then, is an attempt to gather together some of the attributes, challenges, obstacles, qualities, and characteristics of the encounters we make with long distance in order to articulate them in speech. These attributes and the way they hang together in language constitute the logic of long distance. On this way of understanding logic, every activity and every thing in the world has its own peculiar logic: its way that it presents itself to speech, the way it allows itself to be articulated before a community of listeners.

To think logically, on this way of understanding logic, means to enter into the peculiar logic of a particular perspective and to attempt to share that perspective in a way that invites others in. Too often we take logic to mean exactly the opposite of this: to think logically is to attempt to explain why the logic of a a single point of view necessarily trumps all other points of view. I find it interesting that to use logic now means to attempt to persuade or to convince someone with speech. We use terms like logic and reason as epithets to police the border between sane and intelligible speech and the sort of speech that is crazy or unintelligible. This is an old habit, built up over long years of authoritarian and fascist religious and political propaganda.

Logic is a leap, yo!

From my perspective this old habit is illogical: it does not invite us to gather and share our own logics, but instead attempts to shut down the varieties of logics of life in the name of a single Logic. If you do not see things from my point of view, then you must be illogical or irrational. And of course from the point of view of the non-runner--and even from the point of view of the runner--the logic of long distance is often illogical: like the rest of life, it often resists articulation in speech.

So, is running logical? Not entirely. It cannot be captured in speech, entirely. But, it makes sense to me in particular ways that I can begin to articulate. Through running I understand things that a stricter form of logic wouldn't allow me to understand. I am both a reptile and a philosophy professor, for example. Or, there is a place where pain and pleasure meet. There exist times in human experience in which putting forth the hugest of efforts demands not trying at all. There exist processes whose meaning can't be reduced to their ends. Intelligence sometimes means thinking less. Feelings can be more precise than concepts. The highest form of discipline is fed by joy and pleasure, not sacrifice and pain.

Such is the logic of long distance. William James puts it like this: "Sustaining, persevering, striving, paying with effort as we go, hanging on, and finally achieving our intention -- this is action, this is effectuation... Here is creation in its first intention, here is causality at work." The logic of long distance is not cold and hard. It doesn't tend toward unity or clear explanation. It's loaded with passion, emotion, effort, failure, fortune, chance, risk, and hope. It's a logic that plunges down into life. It is all partialities and unfinished business.

That other logic, the pure, rational, and complete one, is funded by the attempt to escape from these things into another realm entirely. The realm of pure reason is one in which we all share the same perspective, and we are all in control of our speech. In that world, we know what life is, we know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, true and false. There's no need for experimentation because it's all been worked out in advance according to the rules of reason.

The discipline of long distance, the logic of running, demands resisting the pull of the realm of pure reason. It means escaping the awful and oppressive clarity and finishedness of that world by plunging into the vagaries and open windows of life. Our logic is one of experimentation, not deduction. Runs are not arguments. They are encounters with the limits of our bodies, with friends, with the concrete sensations of lived experience. It's this leap into life, not the principle of non-contradiction, that governs the logic of running. That's logic enough, reason enough, for me.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Reptilian Brain

"Run with your reptilian brain, run with your reptilian brain."

These were the only thoughts I could manage. It was 25 miles into the race, and I was facing 6 more--which happened to be uphill, up a mountain. Not so bad: this is what I'd signed up for. What was bad was that I didn't have any more sugar in my system. Glucose, they call it, is the sweet fuel that is the material condition of all those thoughts running through your brain. And it had all been burned out of my system in the previous three hours of rocks, roots, hills, trail.

Before that point, the race had gone exceptionally well. Running with long-time friend Andy, we had maintained a steady effort at around 4:10 pace, letting three runners go off the front. At the first check in, 6 miles into the race, they had a 5 minute lead on us--but we were at 4:00 pace. Either they were running 3:30, or they'd be coming back quick.

Rolling into Indian Rockhouse the first time.

At the next check in, mile 11 or so, their lead was down to three minutes, and we felt strong. Running steady, chatting easily, we rolled on. About 45 minutes later--right around the halfway point of the race, we caught Bryan Dayton and eventual winner Josh Wheeler. The hot early pace had clearly affected Bryan, as he dropped off. Josh was energized by our presence, and he charged ahead. Andy and I grinned--he'll be coming back. It's a long race--be steady.

So, we rolled on. I felt great through the rock garden--moving nimbly over the rocks. A good sign that the legs would be there for a second-half charge. Andy was tiring a bit, but I stayed behind him up the hill to mile 20, taking it conservatively. I would make my move at the next aid station. I was still on pace for a 4:10, which I was convinced would win the race. (But in the excitement an hour had passed since I'd eaten anything.)

Through the rock garden. Was I red from a yellow jacket sting?

At the next aid station, mile 20 or so, Jamie Dial helped me fill my water bottle with powerade, and I charged ahead. It was a little more than 4 miles downhill to the next aid station. I was feeling great in the legs, but each sip of powerade made me nauseated. I was cruising pretty good, but began to lose peripheral vision a bit. My nausea increased. The world slowly receded. I was alone on the trail, suddenly heedless of everything, only the steady pace, the rocks, a rising sense of dread.

Then, the aid station at mile 25. All I wanted was water, as my nausea was intense. What I should have done here was stop and eat and get my glucose levels back up. But of course, they were so low that I wasn't thinking coherently. I was in third by a good margin--I had it locked down. But for some reason, I just rushed through the aid station, taking only water. The needle was on empty. I was at the bottom of the mountain, six miles to go.

It was a hugely long six miles. The only thing that kept me going was the thought of the finish line. About halfway home or a bit more, Bryan Dayton came by me. I gamely tried to hold him off for a few minutes, but that was mere instinct. I had nothing. When I was running, it was maybe 10 minute pace. When the hills were steep, I would walk.

The last few miles cruelly circles the finish line. It's always just around the next bend. But never there. Never there. Never there. Then, finally, the road and the parking lot. I was pretty incoherent as I crossed the line. My dear wife brought me a cool rag, fed me cookies and water. Andy came across cheerfully 10 minutes later and peeled me a couple of oranges, which finally revived me.

Did I underestimate the difficulty of running 50k on tough trails? Perhaps. I definitely didn't put enough attention towards my nutrition. The winner, Josh, ran a great race, setting a new course record at 4:15, running down Nick Selbo over the last 6 miles.

As is always the case with Rock/Creek events, the volunteers, the race coordination, the other racers, were exceptional. After the race, I had fried chicken with family and friends. That hit the spot. The legs are still sore today, but I think I'll be ready to run a bit this afternoon.

A lot about this race went right, and I'm proud of finishing the dadgum thing. It was a lot harder than last week's 5k PR. Last week I pushed back my limits a bit. This week, I stepped over them entirely. What sort of runner am I? The one able to run three 5 minute miles back to back, then charge tirelessly to the finish line? Or the one unable to sustain a 10 minute per mile jog? Am I a philosophy professor, comfortable amid the most abstract concepts? Or a reptile, scooting without purpose, without any higher thought, across the broken ground?

Both, it turns out.

Results: 4th overall, 4:38:25

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Quick Shift in Focus

What does your 100m time tell you about your ability to run a mile?

Not much.

What does your 800 meter time tell you about your ability to run 5 miles?

A little more, but basically, not much.

What does your 5k time tell you about your ability to run a trail 50k?

Not too much either.

On the other hand, as I opined way back in February, if you train in a balanced way you can be ready for both. At least that's the hope as I put last week's effort behind me and turn towards the task that lies before me on Saturday: the Stumpjump 50k. The Stumpjump is a pretty special race for me.

First, it's held on trails that I used to run and mountain bike as a kid. My old stomping grounds. I remember my first 20 mile run was in Prentice Cooper. My long time training partner Andy Anderson and I stashed a couple of quarts of gatorade back on the old four wheel drive roads. We were just done with high school--I think it was the summer before college--and Andy was trying to convince me to run a marathon. I told him that if I could run 20 miles at 7:00 pace, I'd do it.

Andy and I never gave the terrain of our runs too much thought. For us, the roads or the trails, the ups and downs or the flats, hell it was all just running. So, we headed out on this rugged run and I remember early on thinking-for the first time as a cocky high school stud--damn, 7:00 pace is fast. We rolled together for a while, stumbled across the gatorade we'd hidden, talked some, but mostly just ran. I have a memory, an old one, of running the last few miles on what felt like concrete legs. I think I made the run in under 2:20. But it was unpleasant enough to make me realize I didn't want any part of a marathon. Andy, the fool, went on and ran it--breaking 3 hours that fall, I believe, on that one long run and thirty miles a week.

Andy and I ran together again there a couple years later in a 10 mile trail race, just when trail racing was beginning to be popular. We were both fit as hell, coming off of college training. Andy was struggling a bit with some IT problems. We wore XC spikes in the race, and the two of us dropped the field like it was nothing and just cruised through. Andy had to stop a few times and stretch his IT band every now and then, so we'd just take a quick break, then get back to hammering. We ran it like all the other runs we did together--cruising, feeding off each other, sharing whatever pain that was there.

The next time I ran these trails was in the 50k in 2005. This race marks the beginning of my second running career. I had been teaching and coaching at the time and running very little. I was in my late twenties, still close enough to college training to remember how to run fast, but not close enough to actually do it. I went to the front of course and ran with a couple of trail veterans, Jamie Dial and Dewayne Satterfield. I didn't know anything. Didn't carry water or fuel. Wore a big old cotton shirt. And was wondering why these guys were walking the damn hills. At 16 miles, I took off, thinking, I'm done walking with these old dudes. Dewayne covered my move and then some, putting the hammer down. My vision got blurry, and I started to go places in my mind I'd never been. Jamie came flying by a few minutes later, yelling out, "On your left!"

I ran as hard as I could, chasing him, but I was so disoriented I ended up off the trail and halfway down the mountain. All I knew was to go downhill, that there would be a road down there. Some relief for my misery. I found it, but had to walk/jog about a mile back up the road to the aid station. I gamely got back on the trail and made it about 100 meters or so, but my legs seized up, hamstrings, then quads. I walked--if that's what you can call it--defeated, back to the aid station. I had been intent on dropping out there, but 20 minutes in a chair, about 6 powerades and 5 bananas later, I decided hell it's be quicker to run out of here than wait for a ride. That last 6 miles was hell. But I learned some things about myself. And I swore I'd be back to get the damn thing right.

The next year, I had a good run, but not a great run. Andy, his brother John, and I ran together. It was fun, but none of us were in great shape. But I proved to myself that I could cover the distance feeling good.

In 2007, I was back and--I thought--ready to roll. But my training hadn't been going well, and the heat plus the frustration of getting off course and running a couple extra miles, and the tired legs I was running on just got to me. I DNF'd at 11 miles.

So, here I am a week away, headed back once again. This time, I know I'm fit. Andy's gonna be there too. And a few others. Maybe this time I'll be able to say afterwards: I got the damn thing right.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Arrow Flew--5k PR!

I ran 15:49 on Saturday morning at the Shelby Bottoms Boogie 5k. It was a breakthrough race in a couple of ways. Those who have been following my blog know that I've had a sub-16 5k on my mind for the last month or so. I'd taken several shots, but the closest I'd come was pretty far off. The progression went like this:

16:50, Howl at the Moon, 8/14
16:39, Run for Recovery, 8/22
16:29, Great Prostate Challenge, 9/5
15:49! Shelby Bottoms, 9/25

In 5 weeks, I dropped 71 seconds off my 5k and ran a lifetime road PR. Pretty snazzy. It's sort of hard to know what to say. Since I've been focused lately on the experience of running, and since the experience of running a PR--what it felt like during the race--is still fairly fresh in my mind, I thought I'd try to get it down in words.

Elly Foster got a couple of great shots of me coming through the last 200 meters toward the finish--they are posted down below. I am surprised to see just how intense I am. Or, rather, it is strange to see what that intensity looks like from the outside. I remember it, quite vividly, from the inside.

When the gun went off, I felt a strong surge of adrenaline and I was clear of the field in my first three strides. I had been hoping to find a group to roll with today, as it's a flat fast course and a fairly big Nashville race. But I was not distressed to be alone. I felt the same power in my legs that I had been feeling during the prior week of rest. I knew then, 15 seconds into the race, that the body was ready to race.

The goal for the first mile was 5:05. Just let the pace come to me and settle into a steady rhythm. Not too hard. But hard. Turn off the brain and run. The mile marker wheeled into view. I feel so good--what if it's 5:20? A glance at the watch: 4:59. Okay, I thought, here we go.

The second mile included a slick bridge (did I mention it was DUMPING rain?), and the lead biker went down on it. I dodged him and slowed down across it, then was right back in the race. I plowed through a few deep puddles and must have been hammering pretty good as I was down the road a half a mile before the biker got back on his bike and was back in front.

The last half of the second mile included a couple of hills. I was conservative on these, thinking stay on the line, don't press. The second mile split came up and I was still feeling strong. 10:03. I knew I had it.

The last mile, I tried to enjoy it. I concentrated on staying strong, and running hard, and I never felt fatigued. There was no one around. Just me, the lead biker way out front, and second place nowhere in sight. It was rain, effort, pace, body, legs--consciousness an afterthought. I looked for it, but couldn't find any pain. Three miles: 15:18.

The clock came into view, and it read fifteen twenty something. I charged for the finish, through the line and kept on going like a wild animal. I think I almost knocked a few people down in the chute. I don't think they minded. A sound hollered out of me--joy.

The difference between this race and the ones before? This one didn't hurt. The good ones never do.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

cruel fitness

"The art of the great rhythm..." --Nietzsche

I am resting now. This is the hardest part of training, something I've always struggled to do. You work yourself into a cruel fitness, the sense that you can run forever. You have these new capacities at your fingertips. The eight mile runs, the ten mile runs, the twelve mile runs, even the long runs do not leave your weary. The workouts reveal strength behind strength, and speed where there was only acid before and empty effort.

It's at that very moment that the runner has to be careful. Having pulled the bow taught, the feeling of that tension, that power, is so great and pleasureable that the temptation is to fritter it away in small releases, in the joys of the tireless state and the effortless 6 minute miles. We want to luxuriate in this power. To squander that shape in those private moments, on the private joy of training fast, of working out. But this is not the point, no. Having built a heart that is ready to pump gallons and strong legs unwilling to tire, the runner must do what is most unnatural: mezquinar, as they say in Spanish. Hoard and store and save.

The tension of the bow is to make the arrow fly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Senses of Running

"Boil the beast" she said, "what else?"

"But it's not dead" protested Belacqua "you can't boil it like that."

She looked at him in astonishment. Had he taken leave of his senses?

"Have sense" she said sharply, "lobsters are always boiled alive. They must be." She caught up the lobster and laid it on its back. It trembled. "They feel nothing" she said.

In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman's cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.

Belacqua looked at the old parchment of her face, grey in the dim kitchen.

"You make a fuss" she said angrily "and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner."

She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.

Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all.

It is not.

--Samuel Beckett, "Dante and the Lobster"

Had Belacqua taken leave of his senses?

What if running were this: practice at not taking leave of our senses? What if it were a kind of discipline of sensation?

We speak so often of running in a goal-oriented way. I was flipping today through Running and Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind, which is the only serious attempt that has been made to bring together academic philosophers to write about running. What's nice about the book is that it reflects the plurality that is our relation to running. Many of us run for many different reasons. And a book like this is good for articulating some of those reasons.

But I was also struck on moving through the essays again--as I am when I read running message boards or talk to friends--by the overbearing need to make sense of our running. We want this activity that we love to have meaning. I suppose this is natural. We want to feel as though our lives tie together and that this thing we do nearly daily plays an integral role in the plan of our lives. Since we run so often, running must be something we learn from, right? We do it to test our limits. Or to teach ourselves to work. Or to become free through a process of self-overcoming. Quentin Cassidy seems to be considering just this point in Again to Carthage when he tells his girlfriend in a sappy love letter that running makes him happy because it makes him feel like an arrow. And it's true: we runners point, aim, make plans, direct ourselves. Running gives life direction, and in this sense it makes life meaningful.

But I wonder if all this obsession over goals and plans and techniques of achievement may also betray a sort of anxiety that running doesn't make much sense at all. Or at least it doesn't add up to the sort of existential "sense" that we desire out of life: the "sense" of progress, success, victory.

So, what if running was about developing a different sort of sense? What if what is essential to the discipline of running is not the ability to make sense, but the ability to feel, to sense.

I write this thinking of my workout today, how in the last mile I was overcome with sensation. The body alive and alert. My eyes wide open, feeling almost everything: pain, pleasure, the bright green of the grass, the slight incline of the path, my running partner on my shoulder, the songs of birds, the fall of my feet, the copper-taste of adrenaline, the sweat on my chest, wind on cheek, rasping breath. It was a long five minutes, that mile, an interval of time marked out by a nearly overwhelming intensity of sensation. It is this intensity that makes running so difficult. It's not the pain, no. It is the full plunge of consciousness into an overload of sensation that we cannot bear: life that has become too much. Running--particularly hard running--offers a glimpse into moments in which we do not make sense, but are sense. Absolutely brimmingly full, overflowing with, sensation.

The best runners are connoisseurs of this experience. It is this experience that we call "effort." What makes effort difficult is not pain at all. It's the influx of a life that breaks down all the barriers of good sense and common sense that we put up to keep life's sensations from overwhelming us. These sensations are too rich to bear, really. We are lobsters in a boiling pot, and the five senses are really the tiniest portals of life, letting in just enough that our sanity be preserved. When we run, we play with these portals, we let life flood in, as long as we can stand it.

It is a quick death, thought Belacqua.

The runner knows--his effort tells him--it is not.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

We Nomads

"The nomad has a territory; he follows customary paths; he goes from one point to another; he is not ignorant of points (water points, dwelling points, assembly points, etc.). But the question is what in nomad life is a principle and what is only a consequence. To begin with, although the points determine paths, they are strictly subordinated to the paths they determine, the reverse of which happens with the sedentary. The water point is reached only to be left behind; every point is a relay and exists only as a relay. ... The life of the nomad is the intermezzo. Even the elements of his dwelling are conceived in terms of the trajectory that is forever mobilizing them." --Gilles Deleuze

I had a good run today, 30k on a hilly course with the last five miles under 6:00 pace.

There are two aspects of a good run. One of them is articulated in a language that grounds the run in a type of analytic fact. I ran this distance and it occurred at this pace on this course which happens to be my marathon pace or lactic threshold or faster than I ran it last year. Most of what we talk about when we talk about running occurs in this register. The purpose of this sort of analysis is to literally capture the run in concepts that do not move. It is to translate a nomadic act into a set of sedentary concepts.

But the other aspect of a run is its nomadic aspect. Here, the run itself, as a singularity, is the primary object. It does not occur as a means of traversing a certain distance in a certain amount of time marked out between two points. In this aspect, the duration of the run itself is taken as primary and the ways of measuring it, marking it, classifying it under a variety of types of workout, for example, are secondary to the primary experience of the run. This aspect of running is "nomadic" because it does not seek to stabilize its meaning. It looks to capture running as an act of becoming, as a line of flight prior to the resting points that mark its beginning or end.

The nomadic aspect of running is an experience of absolute movement, a movement in which the self loses all interiority. Here the running is prior to the subject who runs. The running is prior to the pace at which he runs. The running is lifted out and separated from a measure of the distance covered. The runner does not move in this case from point to point, but instead occupies a sort of space without time, a kind of pure flow that can be cut apart and analyzed into known objects, but which can never be captured through this analysis.

When we speak of a good run we usually are pointing to this nomadic aspect of running. What makes it "good" is the relative dearth of this sort of experience in contemporary life. And when we cut our running down into the categories of pace, heart rate, workout type, even terms like "hard" "moderate" or "easy," we reduce this element of experience to the mundane and the communicable. It is common to think of running as a temporary respite from a sedentary world. But to think of running this way makes it into a means that serves the ends of sedentary life. It puts the nomadic dimension of life in service of the sedentary dimension.

But it seems to me--and Deleuze makes this point as well--that the nomadic and the sedentary, while complementary, can never be put into a relation of support or service. The two are absolutely different, and life consists of a blend of these two elements, one usually more dominant than the other. When we run, we enter into a nomadic realm, one that is not defined by stationary points, but by the movement between those points. We conceive life, however briefly, not in terms of its known markers (our names, our homes, our places, our jobs, our dinner-times), but "in terms of the trajectory that is forever mobilizing" those markers. The good run, in its nomadic aspect, is a small act of rebellion against the known. We ought to be careful not to carelessly reduce its meaning to the role it plays in training.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Okay, another post about numbers.

Yesterday I passed the 3650 miles for the last 365 days. It was this week last year that I recovered from my achilles tendinitis enough to begin training. (It's almost totally healed now.)

Some stats from the 365 days:

Lowest mileage week: 25, week of Dec. 1. (I only ran two days that week, as my left quad was bothering me.) This was the only week I didn't hit at least 40 miles.
Highest mileage week: 111, week of Feb 2. That's an all-time high for me. I had four weeks over 100 miles this year.
Weeks above 80 miles: 19
Weeks above 60 miles: 36
Doubles: 73
Days off: 21
Highest Monthly Mileage: January, 09: 360 miles
Lowest Monthly Mileage: June, 09: 231 miles
# of races: 15
# of PRs: 2 (HM 1:12:51, 50k trail 3:51:33)


Sunday, September 6, 2009


I took my shot on Saturday at a local 5k and ran 16:29.

After the race I was disappointed, but only for about 5 minutes. I walked backwards on the course and watched as the runners came in. It's impossible to stay blue when you see folks working it that last half mile of a 5k. I stood and watched, offering words of encouragement. But I was the one encouraged. Cheesy, but true.

I looked back today on athlinks through some of my old road racing. Though I've done it several times on the track, in my entire life I've broken 16 minutes for 5k on the roads exactly twice. Once the course was short--I ran 14:47, supposedly. Ha! Unfortunately, I think that race would have been my road PR. The other time I squeaked under with a 15:55, a road race I ran in April after track season while home visiting from college, more than 10 years ago.

So, that puts this goal into some perspective for me. The fact that I'm considering it is pretty meaningful. On Saturday, I took it out hard with a buddy pacing me through the mile. Both of us thought we were taking it too hard, that we would come through too fast, but the split was 5:14, 5 seconds off of the pace I needed. (Looking later at course maps, it's conceivable that the marker was 10-15 seconds off.) My buddy dropped out of the race and I put the hammer down on the second mile, running 5:03 to come through two miles right on pace: 10:17. Unfortunately, that hard solo mile took too much out of me. About halfway into the last mile I started rigging hard. I staggered home in 5:39, when I needed 5:10.

But I'm happy. This is the first 5k in a while where I really raced it. In that second mile, I took the risk of running too hard over the risk of running too easy. That makes me feel good.

On the other hand I was reminded just how hard racing is. You hear it all the time: push yourself to the limit. It's true, but when you're really fit, the challenge is a bit different. It's about finding that limit and staying goddamn right on top of it, riding it like you're trying to break a wild horse. That's the brutal skill of racing. I've been able to do it a couple of times pretty well in this second racing career: CMM 2007, Tom King this spring. It hasn't happened yet in the 5k. But I'm strong enough to do it. It's just a matter of dusting myself off, jumping back on the horse, and teaching that wild animal to ride.

Monday, August 31, 2009


"The Edge... There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others- the living- are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it's In." --HST

We philosophers and runners (pardon the inference if you do not count yourself as one or the other) tread a thin line. We both seek a sort of pure experience. In running--most particularly in racing--the experience is one of the run consuming you. It is an intense and highly private experience, something like what Hunter S. Thompson describes as pursuing the edge: the place of total commitment, say two miles into a 5k or 20 miles into a marathon, in which a choice is forced upon the runner. The choice, broadly, is this. To drive on quite madly, face grimacing into the raging inferno, with courage. Or to jump back into the game that we are accustomed to play, that one where we are sane and in control and having the sort of experience of gently moving safety that modern life calls fun. "I could have approached the edge," we tell ourselves, "but there was the fact of my training lately and the heat not to mention the ugly rotten fear of Putting It All On The Line."

The same goes for philosophy. What we are up to, we philosophers, is the articulation of what Bergson called "elan vital." There are many tricks to this trade. We have at our disposal a vast compendium of concepts, a wide range of historical figures, and schools upon schools of thought. But whatever concepts we choose to employ, whatever philosophical camp we choose to align ourselves with, this is a matter of little importance. What is important is that the philosophy be borne out of a pure experience. Listen to Bergson:

A great impulse carries beings and things along. We feel ourselves uplifted, carried away, borne along by it. We are more fully alive and this increase of life brings with it the conviction that grave philosophical enigmas can be resolved or even perhaps that they need not be raised, since they arise from a frozen vision of the real and are only the translation, in terms of thought, of a certain artificial weakening of our vitality. In fact, the more we accustom ourselves to think and to perceive all things sub specie durationis, the more we plunge into real duration.

James says elsewhere something to the effect that our philosophy expresses our dumb sense of the world. The urgent direction of our vitality. It is only rarely that this gets articulated: language is not the sharpest of tools. When we read philosophy, then, what we are seeing articulated are the vague and plural outlines of specific vitalities. Philosophies are monuments to these passing visions, ruins of old civilizations that buzzed in their times but now lie dead on abandoned hills. They are signs of a life that affirms its overabundance, that says: I can solve unanswerable problems. Thus philosophy must be read. It is only in this context, the context of a life bravely attempting an answer in the face of its own clear absurdity, that the ridiculousness of philosophy becomes sublime.

This is, of course, a happy fact. It means that philosophy in its purest form, like all living things, can never be completed. It is not in the answering of puzzles, in the response to classic questions, or in rational analysis of cultural problems that philosophy finds what is peculiar to itself. Philosophy in its pure form, when it is done well, is like a race fully run. It is a full plunge of the intellect into waters that threaten to drown it, a thrashing about, the finding of the edge, a wild cry: "yes, here I am, a voice, fighting to make some sense, still alive."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Good Workout

I met up with Ted this morning in Centennial Park. He Garmined out a half mile path on the more or less level grass in front of the Parthenon. The plan was to hit 8 intervals, taking 90 seconds rest. We had to improvise the first one as a huge flock of geese decided to camp out in the path, so it got cut a little short, 1:53. The next three I felt great and finished feeling strong at 2:30. The last four I had to work a little in the middle section (there was a little rise at somewhere between 300 and 450 meters), but I was cruising: 2:24, 2:25, 2:26.

A good workout. Four miles of running at an average of sub 5 minute pace. It's been ten years since I did something like that. Thanks, Ted.

Classes start tomorrow!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Pushing the Envelope

One of my favorite passages from William James speaks to the double nature of habit. He writes,

Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. ... You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices, the ways of the 'shop,' in a word, from which the man can by-and-by no more escape than his coat-sleeve can suddenly fall into a new set of folds. On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

I am past the age of thirty, and I can vouch for what James here writes. The gross outlines of my character have been largely set; it is too late to begin again. This is a sad fact. I wonder often about the beginnings that were lost, the other people I might have been. But on the other hand, to have these outlines set is to have a starting point and a direction. It is to be someone, to have a project. Life offers no choice; we must trade a multitude of small beginnings for one large one. We begin as a scattering of seeds and end, if all goes well, as a tree, firmly rooted.

We have a habit of telling this story nostalgically, as if wild and luxurious possibility were the primary characteristic of youth. Adult life, by contrast, plays the part of all-too-determined, rigid and cold actuality. But we should be careful not to have the wrong conception of roots, or of the sort of growth that a tree undertakes. Perhaps an example from my running can help to tease apart the more subtle form of possibility that is characteristic of adulthood.

Running is one of my deepest habits, one set over the course of more than a decade. It is a habit that is deeply interwoven with the other strands of my life: friendship, work, love, health--the forms that these essential aspects of living take for me are inextricably bound up with the habit of running. Running is a deep root for me. Perhaps other aspects of my life are more important, but these aspects depend, perhaps strangely, on this simple and ordinary bodily habit.

This past year, more than ever, as I worked through the end of my Ph.D., I have relied on running. It gave structure and a sense of progress to a process that was frighteningly open-ended and full of new challenges. This reliance was reflected in the new attitude I took towards training. I became much more conservative and consistent, an every day runner for the first time in my life. I hardly ever pushed my workouts. I ran easy most days. I worked cautiously and carefully to strengthen and deepen this sustaining root. Consequently, I had the longest stretch of uninterrupted training of my life.

This recent training has given my running a whole new aspect. I'm strong as an ox. I can run ten miles with as little thought as I can make the bed. My running has become, strangely, as dependable as I am on it. I've built what we used to call "man-strength." Lydiard called it achieving "a nearly tireless state." It's the sort of strength that blends the human and the natural, like John Henry swinging his hammer, like the muddy Mississippi, it just rolls on.

And what this means is that my running is full of the richest sort of possibility. Not the sort of possibility that we think of when we think of youth. The scattering of dandelion seeds in the wind. This is heavy, ponderous, possibility. The kind that can float heavy grain barges without a thought. Or the sort of possibility that a tree has, once its tap root has found the water table.

I'm looking at this sort of tree outside my window right now. It is teeming with life. It's a whole world for the insects that live there. A resting place for birds, a romping ground for squirrels. It's cool underneath, and its wild and lush tangle of branches reach up, out, and down. A tree deeply rooted is not a static thing. Its possibility is the adult kind, complex, rich, and sustaining. Its habits have been set, so that when it does grow, that growth has the power to make a difference.

"The character has set like plaster, and will never soften again." That's okay. A hard edge is good for cutting. It's time to push the envelope.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lords of the Sidewalk

I run with a guy that calls himself The Thunder.

Yesterday was a typical run. We started out easy. For a guy who calls himself The Thunder, T. T. is actually pretty chilled out about his running. He likes to keep the pace easy and conversational. When you run with T. T., it's never a hammerfest. And that's alright because T. T. knows how to keep things interesting.

Our easy run departed from its usual course. Normally we do an easy 12 out Belmont, back into town, and around Vandy. This time we just lapped Vandy. The run started off as it usually does. Runners know that there is a strange side-effect of distance running. Something about the ease of the motion, the increased heart rate, perhaps a surfeit (or maybe it's a lack) of oxygen to the brain breaks down the barrier between brain and mouth. Runners are gabbers. We gab on about just about anything like drunks around a table. So, we headed off at Thunder easy pace, gabbing on about who knows what and just about everything. Laughing, joking, even talking about serious stuff like how fast we ought to run the first mile of our next race.

T. T. is a great guy. Easy-going, funny, self-deprecating. But there's one other thing you should know about T. T. He is Lord of the Sidewalk.

You see, to run in Nashville at rush-hour is to face a gauntlet of frazzled and inattentive drivers, sidewalks packed with (sometimes quite large) pedestrians, the occasional speeding hipster on his multi-colored bicycle, pretty coeds hanging dreamily on the arms of their dates, and dog lovers being dragged around by their goofy pets. T. T. has one tried and true strategy for dealing with this variety of obstacles. He runs straight ahead, unflinchingly. Erect, determined, and relentless, he radiates his Lord of the Sidewalk status for all to see. Would be obstacles avert their eyes and slam on their brakes. Dogs slink away. Hipsters swerve to the side. People get out of the way. T. T. strides right on by. Woe to he or she who would challenge the Lord of the Sidewalk.

Well, yesterday, some idiots did.

They were the lowest of the low. Teenagers piled into a car. Just as runners have to gab as they roll on down the road, there is something in the physiology of teenagers that makes them holler and make faces at runners as we do our thing. They were victims, I suppose, of their chemistry.

The drama unfolded as it always does. As they rolled by with their windows down, they yelled out various funny noises and made strange movements with their hands while scrunching up their faces. The meaning was inscrutable, but the intent was clear: they were mocking us. I played my part in this tired drama, sending them back a one-fingered salute, completing once more (or so I thought) this tiresome ritual.

As every runner knows, one of the great pleasures of hitting busy streets during rush hour is that we get a chance to show off the virtues of our more primitive form of locomotion. While enraged motorists hunker down within their hermetic chunks of steel, herking and jerking their way forward, we glide by fluidly and effortlessly. As the fates would have it, our teenagers were trapped in traffic. They thought they would make one pass and be free of us. But the standard ritual of cat-calls and fingers was about to be extended. There was a lot of traffic. We were gaining on them.

They began, frantically, to roll up their windows.

This was when T. T. made his move. The Lord of the Sidewalk strode straight into the street. Windows were being rolled up faster and faster. I kept a safe, nervous distance and watched. The teenagers were crowded up against each other, their derisive faces now transformed into masks of fear. T. T. took a few strides beside the car and did what runners do countless times over the course of their runs.

He spit.

It was a beautiful loogie. It hung glistening and stretching in the air in orbit for seconds against the sky. The teenagers shrunk below, mouths agape. The loogie came splatting down, square in the center of the windshield of the teenagers' car. The Thunder didn't break stride. He just hopped back over to the sidewalk and we cruised onwards.

Behind us, all kinds of commotion was being raised. Windows were unrolled and epithets hurled. We paid them no mind. But slowly and inexorably, the traffic became slightly less jammed. Cars were passing again. The teenagers caught back up. But the closer they came the quieter they became. They drifted past us, the braver of the few staring out the car. One of them tried to return fire, but the wind caught his feeble spittle and dribbled it down on his own door.

As they passed by, we surged and matched their car with our strides, rolling down the hill, literally flying. High on a goofy sort of feeling. You know, you don't get to be boss of much in this world. But yesterday, running with The Thunder, for a brief moment, I was boss of just about everything.

I was a Lord of the Sidewalk.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Sickness of Running

A typically morbid being cannot become healthy, much less make itself healthy. For a typically healthy person, conversely, being sick can even become an energetic stimulus for life, for living more. This, in fact, is how that long period of sickness appears to me now: as it were, I discovered life anew, including myself; I tasted all good and even little things, as others cannot easily taste them--I turned my will to health, to life, into a philosophy.
--F. Nietzsche

In this short passage from his philosophical autobiography Ecce Homo, the last book he wrote before succumbing to insanity, Nietzsche gives us the story of how his philosophical vision was born. It is the product of a convalescence, the remainder of a battle for survival against the depression and physical pain that Nietzsche battled his entire adult life. He turned his will to health, to life, into a philosophy. 

Indeed, Nietzsche is often proclaimed as a great philosopher of life, of power, of overcoming. But just as essential to the Nietzschean corpus--or should we say corpse?--is the sickness and death that ultimately prevented him from completing his master work. Sickness and pain created the silences between his productive years and probably forced upon him the aphoristic style for which he is famous. The boundless ideas, short and intense gems, scattered about in disarray, dew on morning grass, are left for future philosophers to develop and use. Nietzsche was too sick to develop them himself. The silences that appear throughout his texts testify not only to the incapacity of language to account for the richness of lived experience, but also to the incapacity of the ailing body and mind to concentrate, to fill in the gaps, to communicate fully.

This sickness and death is a gift to us, his inheritors. The raw and unfinished looseness of his texts is a stimulus to the imagination, his half-formed aphorisms future books bequeathed to students he will never meet. But his sickness has also left Nietzsche weak and vulnerable, open to violent misinterpretation and abuse. 

The Nietzschean quip: "What does not kill us makes us stronger," is used flippantly by amateur athletes. We take it to mean that suffering leads to greatness, something equivalent to "No pain, no gain." We tell it to ourselves after hard workouts or great races: we use it to motivate ourselves to drive into the pain of training. It was also used to motivate Nazi troops. 

But say it again, without thinking of a tanned and muscular body in the youthful prime of life. Say it and think of Nietzsche, a skinny intellectual with no audience, ravaged by intestinal pain, facing the immediate decline of his faculties of concentration, staring out at a world that, for all its intense beauty and possibility, remains indifferent to his suffering. What does not kill us makes us stronger--and how many things make us stronger? And how many things do not?

The uneven dialectic of sickness and health occurred to me today as I ran once more on an achilles that has pained me for almost two years now. We runners say that we run for health, as Nietzsche philosophized for health. And it is true that we do. But this means that we also run out of sickness. We run to stave off mental and physical demons. We run from the specter of the decrepit or obese body. We run from a society intent upon making all acts of pleasure into sellable commodities. We run from the duties and responsibilities imposed upon us. Running is a respite from darker neuroses and emergent insanities. It is a cure for loneliness. And if we cannot escape these large brains that pain us, we can at a minimum control the pain, funnel the sicknesses, channel our weaknesses together so that they become health from a certain perspective.

I imagine myself from the non-runner's perspective.  A lean and leathery body. A face carved with lines of effort. I move down the road, hardly anything at all among the unceasing flow of steel cars, the black asphalt, the buzzing on-and-on of the world. We are the least of human beings. Our muscles are long and wiry, the skin pulled taut over not much more than bone and gristle, we stride forward among a humanity that grows larger every year as we grow smaller, lighter, leaner, sick and frail relics of times long past. The act of running produces nothing at all. We arrive, incessantly, from where we begin. We are sick from this perspective.

But out of that sickness we runners, like Nietzsche, carve a peculiar sort of health. We have the health of endurance, the ability to go on, the strength to not only run for hours, but to enjoy our bodies and the sensations they give us when they are working. We need almost nothing at all to find our happiness: only a few hours, a stretch of road, perhaps a friend, or even better a competitor. We hide in our spindled chests an unusually large and heaving heart--and in our heads a warbled tune, a song, as we move on down the road. Do you know the feeling I know? When your legs have disappeared, and there is only your heart, your lungs, and your eyes skimming disembodied through the air? We are Aristotle's featherless bipeds, we runners. Though we have no wings, we have taught ourselves to fly. 

Like this, running from our sickness, as far as we can, through the pain of injury, the endless repetition of footfalls, and the loneliness of the open road, we run on, drawing on what strength we have, making ourselves healthy.
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