Saturday, May 30, 2009

Scott and Erin's Wedding Day 5k

After all the doom and gloom surrounding my last marathon, a fun 5k was just what I needed. So, I jumped in my first 5k since January. It was really fun.

Fun?! A race can be fun? Training for the marathon is like reading El Quixote (apologies to Mikey). Or Ulysses. Or Hegel's Logic. You have to become the work to get through it. There's this huge mass of meaning that lies in front of you and behind you. And there's this sense that somehow the task will make you a better person when you're done, a sense that keeps you going, but is never really cashed out completely. Sure you come out on the other side vaguely transformed and perhaps with a few inchoate insights into things. But you know that you could read the book a hundred times again and never get to the bottom of it. Even though you've given yourself over to it, completely. The marathon, like great art, is life: absurd, tragic, confusing, enlightening, difficult, meaningful, and dark.

The 5k is fun.

I didn't taper. I didn't have to wake up at 4am. I hadn't spent the last 6 months training for it. I didn't sweat my pre-run meal. I ran into my friend Chris before the race and we warmed up together, cruising along at 6:30 pace or so. I didn't worry I was wasting energy. We laughed and joked. At the starting line, folks were rambunctious and cheerful. Yelling to their friends, raring to go. It was sunny and hot. I just took off my shirt. Had it been that temperature for a marathon, I would have been cursing the fates.

The Race
After a short explanation of the course and congratulations for Scott and Erin, the gun went off. I found myself running with Chris and two recent Belmont College grads, one who'd recently run 14:11 on the track, another who told me after the race he'd gone 14:50. Fortunately, all three of those guys were content to let me set the pace; none was looking to run a PR. So, I just settled in to race. The course is three laps of Centennial Park. We came through the mile around 5:12, and I felt really comfortable, but I had a suspicion that things were about to heat up.

The second lap, the middle mile, I still felt strong, but Chris and one of the Belmont guys (you can guess which) started picking it up. They broke free on a little rise and were about 5 seconds up on me at the two mile. My split was around 5:12 again. I was happy I hadn't slowed, but starting to feel the pace. Those guys dropped the hammer, and I let them go. The other Belmont guy kept cruising, but I slowed a bit as the pain of racing came on. I tried to keep a quick turnover and just make it through.

This is the thing about the 5k: you hesitate once, and you lose 20 seconds. As soon as the finish line came into view, my legs felt a huge surge of energy and I was back to cruising, and kicking myself for slacking off for the last 4 minutes or so. But it's good to know there's more in the tank. I cruised across the line in 16:22. Chris was edged out by the first Belmont guy in 15:51, the second Belmont guy came in around 16:00. I was fourth. Before the race I had told myself to be happy with sub-17. I thought that 16:30 was possible. 16:22 was surprising. Plus, I won two movie tickets for 1st in my age group. See: fun!

I'm really looking forward to racing frequently this summer, and excited to see how low I can drag that 5k. Some light summer reading is in order. Put away Moby Dick and pick up Huck Finn. It's summer time. 5k time. Time to run for fun.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Medium of Running

I just finished Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman draws on McLuhan's idea that the media is the message, drawing connections between the notion of childhood and print media. He argues that childhood is a specific effect of a print-media culture and wonders what the effect of new media, centered around the image, will be on childhood.

Postman's account was written in 1982 and his main worry is the television, which is rapidly losing ground to the internet as the main communicative medium of public life. So, his analysis is a bit dated, but the crux of his main argument--that forms of media are not neutral conveyors of information but also work to set the conceptual and practical limits of culture--is still highly relevant, if yet to be applied to the internet. In other words, forms of media do not just communicate culture; they are the very conditions of culture, as culture is no more and no less the sum of forms of communication. A culture is what it communicates.

Anyhow, this is a long-winded way of getting to the point that I want to make, which is that one of the reasons I am drawn to running is that it resists two of the dominant modes of communication that make up our lives as middle class Americans. Let me explain.

1. The medium of running is not instantaneous. Think of running as an act of communication among three selves: your past self, your present self, and your future self. Today's run has been set up by a multitude of runs that act in conjunction over years of time to produce the act of running in the present. Today's run carries the shape and consistency of thousands of prior acts of the self. Just so, today's run will act in conjunction with those runs and with future runs to create the runner of tomorrow.

Here is a mode of communication that depends on repetition and duration to produce transmission. What is communicated is a richer self, one with a past, a present, and a future. Compare, for example, the communicative form of a text sent over cell-phone or an email. Here the act of communication is isolated, singlar, and transitory. It is as easily produced as it is forgotten. This sort of communication is a-temporal, and the sort of life it produces is one without a past or a future--and hence, without even a present. With running we are more present because running creates a rich and ongoing dialogue between past and future. It allows for communication between our past and future selves.

2. The medium of running is embodied. Just as running is an act that enriches our sense of time, it also enriches our sense of place by reminding us that we are bodies and can move. One of the predominant characteristics of internet communication is that we write from nowhere to nowhere. Emails appear in our inbox. Message boards compile comments like bottles washed up on sea-shores. Messages from nowhere to no-one.

Running, however, takes place somewhere. We runners have our magneto-loops, the paths that we repeatedly trod. On my regular routes, I know every rise and drop. I know the effort it takes to reach halfway. I know which ways the wind normally blows, when I will be running into the sun, which routes are too muddy when it rains, which routes have shade. I have long runs and short runs, flat runs and hilly runs, fast runs and slow runs. I know shortcuts and how to take the long way home. I can run on empty streets at rush hour in downtown Nashville.

We also cherish--and sometimes dread--new runs. Runs where we don't know what lies around the next bend. Or how high the hill will climb or which way to turn. We get lost, occasionally, or end up on a path that is hardly runnable. Or run into friends. Or meet strangers. Running does not just happen in a place: it restores our very sense of place, allowing all of the feelings that are associated with living somewhere and being someone.

The medium of running communicates to us that we are animals that can move--and this means becoming acquainted once again with space and time on a living scale. Contemporary modes of communication in their immediacy and transcendence of space are working to eliminate the richness of a life that covers ground. Running can wrest a little bit of that richness back. We give ourselves a past and a future and become present in a place. We communicate as we run.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On the body, natural training, and specificity

Running guru Tinman wrote this on a letsrun thread about Dathan Ritzenhein:

"When you are fit, you are fit; and you race well over variety of distances. To be fit, you have to train in accordance with your body's natural laws. If you race outside your natural range, all you have to do is "touch" on race-pace or tactical training for the event; not focus a great deal of time and energy on it."

This is a wise comment. As I look back over my last training cycle, it is very clear why I did not run my best in my marathon attempt. The reason was simply this: I focused for too long on marathon specificity and got away from the task of "training according to my body's natural laws."

What does this mean? We need to look at the relation between specificity and training that works according to the body's natural laws.

Training according to the body has less to do with the particular sorts of workouts that one does and more to do with the effects of those workouts. This training is sustainable and feeds the body over the long term. Like giving a plant sunshine and water: the main purpose of this sort of training is to grow and develop the body as a runner. The point of this sort of training is not to stress the body so that it produces new capabilities, but to strengthen and feed the runner within. This sort of training is not hard to accomplish: mostly it's a matter of getting out the door and doing the sort of running that is good for you and sustainable over the long haul. Water the plant.

Specific training has a different purpose. To extend our plant metaphor, the effect of specific training is not to feed and nourish the plant as a whole, but to produce a specific quality in the plant by stressing the plant in a certain way through processes of selection. For example, if we want a plant to grow as tall as possible, we may begin trimming its horizontal shoots and cultivating the shoots that tend in a vertical direction. Focusing our attention on this, we can see great results, fairly quickly. Our plant grows upwards. We achieve the quality that we want. But there is a downside here. We have gotten away from the natural laws of the plant's growth and have introduced an artificial exaggeration. The plant is now taller, for sure, but in general it is weaker. It is perhaps more susceptible to wind gusts, and if we continue to trim the horizontal shoots and let only vertical ones grow, our plant will reach its highest possible extension and then topple over, having reached an extension beyond its natural limits.

What's alluring about specific training is the rapid results that we get. We want to short-cut the process through the addition of harsh specific stresses. But too much attention to specificity leaves the body one-dimensional. As an organism, the body's dimensions are mutually beneficial, and even the one dimension that has been selected will suffer if it is not fed and maintained and strengthened by the other dimensions of the body.

A better approach is to train the body over a period of years, while it gradually and imperceptibly grows faster and stronger. Through gentle stresses we can transform our human bodies into runner's bodies, but we must be careful always to develop the body in a sustainable way so that it continues to grow. Quick results are transitory and do not reflect the full strength of the body. The challenge is to train a body that is naturally fast, one that is healthy and robust in its speed.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Got a Garmin, Have No Pride, etc.

"This is a first draft, last minute attempt to lash together a vague preamble, of sorts, with regard to the obvious question: what the fuck are we doing here in Elko, Nevada, in a corner of the Stockman's Hotel about 200 feet from the Burlington Northern Railroad tracks on a frozen weekend in late February?" --HST

Yeah, so I imagine that the rise in blogging as a literary form is one of the reasons that the good Dr. Thompson put 200 lead pellets through his brain a couple years ago. But if it wasn't that reason, it would have been another. So, WHY NOT?

Well, before that, why? I blame Mikey. And anyways, I just wore a Garmin and a heart rate monitor for the first time on a run. I've been wearing an ipod now for the last couple of months. All of these instruments and contraptions I have mocked mercilessly and endlessly.

Why not forsake all pride then and make this shit-show public? Hell, times change, why can't I?

Here comes the strange philosopher-quote. It's Paul Virilio, worrying about virtual forms of communication and the elimination of physical space. "If being present really does mean being close, physically speaking, the microphysical proximity of interactive telecommunication will surely see us staying away in droves, not being there anymore for anyone, locked up, as we shall be, in a geophysical environment reduced to less than nothing." The blogosphere does this. A million monkeys sharing their narcissism without space or time: the zero-point of proximity. More than shoved up against each other, closeness seems like a distant dream. So, I'd say welcome in if I knew how the fuck I'd ended up here in Elko [which is not where I am].

But this post is supposed to be about Garmins. I won a Garmin 405 for my role as pacer in the Country Music Half-Marathon a week ago. It took me a while to figure it out, charge it up, make sure that it could communicate with both the satellites and that lump of flesh quivering in my chest. But not so long considering the task. I slapped it, wrapped it around my wrist and headed out the door. It was a normal day.

And as I ran along, I watched my heart rate bounce around. The sun was hot--it was noon before I was out the door--and the recent rains has made normally gray Nashville verdant and steamy. When I'd run a mile, the thing beeped at me. It let me know that I had company. It was the same run that I'd done many times before. But now the satellites tracked me. And as proof, each step I took was pictured on the world-wide web. There it was: tangible, verifiable, quantifiable PROOF that I'd gone for a run. A little red line that wound around. I'd been watched, and recorded, from a God's-eye-view.

I showed it to my wife, who pretended gamely to be interested.

I'm not sure what to make of it all. This morning I didn't wear the Garmin. I went for a run with Jamie. It was sloppy-muddy. I had that slick stuff all over my hard legs. I ran without my shirt, too, and felt late spring sunshine. We chatted, Jamie and I, about this and that. His upcoming 100 miler. My recent marathon. How to get faster, mowing the grass, the cliffs and high falls behind the house where I grew up. After the run we sat down in the creek. The water numbed my legs and sand washed down into my shoes. It was cold enough to take your breath away.

A cold like Elko, Nevada. Not the cold that satellites know, up above, off the earth, out in space.

Welcome to my blog, yo.

On Running and Progress: A Report from the Flip-Side

"But there was one thing I did miss, and when I realized what it was, and thought about it, it became something of an obsession. ... What it was was this: When you're a competitive runner in training, you are constantly in a process of ascending." --Q. Cassidy

"We do not know what a body can do." --Spinoza

I had decided to run Avenue of the Giants because, well, it is beautiful [yes, it was] out there on the Northern California coast. Also, it was located close to one of my oldest running friends, a fellow named Andy. Another high school buddy, Jamey, would be running the first 15 with us. It would be a chance to visit him, to run together. We were both as fit as we'd been in a long time and thought it would be great to pace each other through to a couple of PR's. We would run fast, like we had when we were young. Such was the plan.

I'd been doing everything right. Running a lot. Mostly easy. Sometimes hard. I'd run more mileage than ever in my life. Averaged 80 miles a week for 6 months straight. Hit a lifetime half-marathon PR (1:12:51) in the buildup to the race. The internet is a great tool for convincing yourself that you know something. I'd convinced myself that I was something of an expert on this whole marathoning thing. Dispensing advice like lollipops. My training log backed up all this advice. Living proof that I knew what the hell I was talking about: I was putting my ideas into action.

I was training--giving myself over to a process of ascending. The numbers did not lie. They were big and bold. The work was done. And here it is: the TRUTH that every runner must not question. The SECRET behind all secrets. The lynchpin of the runner's whole way of life. This we believe: a straight line can be drawn between work and results. This is the justice, the meaning of the quixotic quest. We are runners, and while the world might fall to hell around us, we will wring out of that vast and swirling entropy a small slice of order. Things fall apart. Runners improve. We are constantly in a process of ascending.

Well, let me let you in on a little secret. What your daddy told you--that if you work hard, you'll get ahead--that was just him hoping that the universe would turn out differently, better, for you. We repeat this lie to ourselves just to get out of bed, to get out the door. We do not know what a body can do.

None of this, of course, was running through my head at the starting line. I was thinking the same things I always think. Relax. Let the pace come to you. Trust in your training. [This last mantra might have given me pause: why should I have to trust my training? Might it betray me?] The gun, and we're off. My friend and I soon find ourselves at the crest of the wave, running easy. We hold back, grinning. Looks like it's just gonna be us, I say.

First mile: 6:14. Not too fast. But here the first doubt...too slow?

The first 6.5 miles winds gradually and relentlessly uphill. The plan was to run 6:10's and that's what we did, more or less, arriving at the turn-around in 39:54. It wasn't hard, but it wasn't easy. And dark thoughts began to rumble through my brain around mile 5: is this effort sustainable? Should I be feeling "effort" at all?

The next 6.5 were supposed to be easy, as the course reversed itself and tumbled gently back down. But as we started down the hill, I began to be struck by waves of effort and fatigue. The plan had been to run 5:50's, but I told my buddy let's take it easy, run 6:00's and just recover. But the effort kept building. At mile 11, I was struggling and gasping. My rhythm was totally off. We would pass the car again soon at 13. I was frustrated: the thought began to nag at me: Should I drop out?

No. Stick with it. Maybe this will pass. The lead bicyclist for the half marathon comes around a curve at us and yells out: "Watch out! Here comes the half marathon!" We had no lead cyclist, and around the next bend, the road filled with half marathoners, heading the opposite direction. We were left with a sliver of space. I was brushing up against an oblivious pack (why are they all dressed in purple?), nauseated by their disregard, frustrated by having to fight for an inch of space. Jamey surged to the lead and broke a small path for us. It was a mile, or so of running against this steady stream, then we broke out to the starting area, halfway done. Andy's wife, Rebecca, handed us some water bottles and we headed out for the second half.

At this point, I was still on pace but struggling. Andy felt better, but he suggested we back off, run a mile at 7:00 pace, and try to regroup for the second half. I said okay, but I was unable to do so. I had reached a strange point: either hold on all the way or let go completely. If I let my effort down at all, I would be running 10:00 pace, not 7:00 pace. So, onwards.

The course had cleared out and I was able to relax a bit. Mile 14 dropped by in 6:10 or so. Mile 15, I even started to feel good, thinking: finally! this is how I should be feeling. We ran 6:00 for that mile. I had found a bit of a rhythm. Jamey finished up his run, and Andy and I sojourned on.

Everything was rolling along okay, then Andy's hamstring blew at mile 17. He was done. And just like that I was alone in front, 9 miles to go. Let's get it done. I took a deep breath.

The next three miles I let my effort down slightly, now running those 7 minute miles. I was feeling more confident. 8 miles to go. I run this distance every day. I hit 20 in 2:04. After the war that was the race thus far, this seemed a small miracle. 6.2 miles to go. It was a long 6.2 miles.The unique pain of the marathon set in around mile 21. When it settles on you, the mind drifts up and away from the body. I remember mostly that the body was just running and I was watching it run, slightly bemused by the fact that it would continue. On it ran, on a rhythm that was almost purely unconscious. The body doing only what it had been doing for the last 2 hours, what it had been taught to do for the last 6 months. I would notice sounds, a gentle rasping. Who was that? It must be me. I was running past marathoners, still on their way out. They had been saying: looking good! but they stopped saying anything around mile 22. I was not looking good.

But the miles clicked off, steadily, somehow. I began to pass walkers. The 10k, I realized, and this was the back of the pack. I was a pale and listing haint, a rasping specter watching my body move past these people. They were from a different dimension. They would glance over at me and look away, just as quickly. They said nothing. Mile 23. The crowd of 10k runners thickened. Some were running. I was just another of them, stumbling through a strange and indifferent crowd. My stomach tightened to a knot. I wretched, violently. Then felt better. Mile 24. I would make it. Mile 25. I saw Andy, Rebecca, and Jamey: the first ones brave enough to cheer this stumbling and grimacing being. Reb told me: just around the curve and over the bridge. Not far to go.

Mile 26. Footsteps coming up behind me. I thought it was the 2nd place marathoner. I had been expecting him for a while; I turned and no it was a 10k participant, trying to outkick me. No. The footsteps faded. I finished at 52 minutes in the 10k, 2:47:51 in the marathon. No one noticed that I had won. A gasping ghost stumbling anonymously through a crowd of jubilant finishers. I felt no joy, only relief.

Since then, I have had many congratulations, and I do understand that it comes off as strange and not to be pleased with a winning race and with a time that is faster than most dream of running. I get this. We want to believe that every story finishes well. That we make progress. And that all victories ought to be celebrated. In this manner we make sense of the world. But it was not meaning or sense or desire for victory that propelled me those last few miles. It was blind habit, demons, and dread that pushed me forward. The runners I passed as I neared the finish could not stand to watch me. They do not want to see despair on the face of the leader. They want running to be victory and progress.

What sense is left if the winner can finish a race defeated?

Today, again, I head out for another run. I have to make the numbers change. Go longer. Get faster. Make true the lie that our daddies tell us: with hard work, we will make progress. Forget the death march. Recreate the myth of the process of ascending. Go further. What else?
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