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
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