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...
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