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.
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