Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 by the numbers

2:35:54, a new marathon PR.
15:49, tied my post-college 5k PR on the track.
3372 miles.
402 hours.
118 miles in my biggest week.
64 days off.
42 blog posts.
11 races.
4 wins.
1 DNF.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Wanting to Want to Run

A guest contribution by Zach V, aspiring runner and one-time philosopher.
One of the things I like most about running is that there are as many reasons to run as there are runners. For those who like to geek out, there’s gear that will track your every move via satellite and automatically update your cloud-based running log, while minimalists can run without even buying shoes. There’s a 5k at a place near you whenever you are feeling competitive. If you want to lose weight, six miles at a ten-minute pace will burn 680 calories. If you can't catch a ball, you can still enjoy the experience of a team sport. At the same time, running is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to get away from it all.

I think running illuminates what Freud called the “polymorphous perversity” of desire. Maybe the word “perverse” is a little strong, but the idea is that people can get their jollies in lots of different ways. Forget your cartoon image of Freud—the uptight Austrian with a mother fixation. Freud was a genius because he was perhaps the first to understand that our deepest desires are not fixed. They change according to our upbringing, environment, relationships, experiences, and will. Humans are unique in that they can sublimate and repress their desires in lots of different ways.

"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." -- Sigmund Freud

I started running in college for a mixture of idiosyncratic reasons, or, in other words, to satisfy a number of desires: I was tired of lifting weights and wanted to try something else. I thought it would improve my cardiovascular fitness (and I was especially interested in decreasing my sweating while playing drums). I ran a miserable 5k after no preparation and had something to prove. And I wanted to share something with my little brother, who was proving to be an elite high school runner.

After a few months, I found that I enjoyed the experience of running (even though I seemed to be increasing my net amount of sweating). I gradually became someone who had to run—I feel restless and gross if I go more than a few days without running. My primary reasons for running have changed as well. Now, I am most driven to run in order to escape the office and use my body instead of my mind for a while. Throughout the years, I have also run in order to be closer with my good friend Jeff, to avoid the cost of joining a gym, and to have a stronger connection with nature.

I think one of the main reasons I have stuck with running is that it has satisfied so many of my desires. And the more I run, the more I seem to need it because it creates new desires in me. I never knew I needed a runner's high until I started running. I never realized how many ails running can cure, including a bad day at the office, a headache, or a hangover. And, of course, I never knew about all the cool running shoes I could buy.
"A man should not strive to eliminate his complexes but to get into
accord with them: they are legitimately what directs his conduct in
the world." -- Sigmund Freud
It seems to me that those we call Runners are those who are most fulfilled by running. This may seem obvious, but I often hear people say things like, "I want to run a marathon—I just don't like running that much." I don't think this is contradictory or laughable. It's actually profound. Such people have not yet become marathon-level runners because they haven't found enough holes in their lives for running to fill. Maybe they never will, either because running can't satisfy their desires or something else does the job better. For example, I have found that people who begin running purely out of self-hatred in order to lose weight tend not to stick with it very long. Self-hatred can be a pretty strong drive, but unless it is turned into something else, like joy, it is easily directed towards something else, like another slice of chocolate cake.

I think running can show us a lot about desire in general. You're not going to stick with something if your motivations are based on denial. Eating well, for example, is about finding things that you like—whether particular foods, the joy of cooking, or the way healthy eating makes you feel. Instead of denying your existing desires, it's about replacing your old desires with new ones. It's about becoming someone who wants to eat well, just as becoming a runner is about becoming someone who wants to run. If you want to change who you are, whether to be a better runner or a better person, you have to figure out how to replace the desires you don't want with the desires you do want. Running has shown me a lot about how to do that.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why Have Marathon Runners Gotten Slower?

A current hot topic of conversation on our local message boards as well as on letsrun is the decline of quality depth in local racing and in marathoning more generally. In the late 70s to mid 80s, there was a running boom, much like there is today. That boom had some different qualities, but in some ways I believe that it came from a similar source. In the late 70s to early 80s there was a sense of general unease. Economic conditions were uncertain, and the national mood was anxious. Perhaps these general social conditions put people on the move. They make us nomadic as a culture, looking for a better way of life.

Also, in running, the relationship between effort and results is clear. It is a good proxy for the American dream--you put work in and you get results out. When this dream is jeopardized by economic uncertainty and high unemployment, running offers, perhaps a way to remake the connection between effort and results.

Despite what I see as these general similarities in the motivating causes of the running boom, there are some real differences in the nature and shape of these two different booms. In the 70s the iconic figure of the distance runners was Steve Prefontaine. The representative runner was young, male, defiant, and individualistic. Running was a way to escape social pressure, a way to take individual control over one's life. The country was captured by folks like Prefontaine, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar. These were household names, iconic figures who were admired not just because of their achievements, but also because they helped a nation understand itself and perhaps remake for itself the connection between individual effort and results. They were also elite. They inspired, but their story was about individual achievement, perhaps in spite of mediocre social conditions.

Nowadays, the iconic figures of the running boom are folks like Oprah Winfrey, Dean Karnazes, and Chris MacDougall. They are concerned more with positive health effects than with wrenching another few seconds off of their 10k PR. They are also concerned more with how running is representative of a certain lifestyle rather than how to get faster. Today running for the most part is understood as a social event, connected with charity causes, and its value is taken in terms of its social benefits rather than in terms of the achievements of individuals. There is more of an attempt these days to cash out the value of running in terms of the other challenges we face in ordinary life. Perhaps this reflects a different, less elitist, notion of achievement. It is also, not incidentally, a notion of achievement that is more marketable to ordinary folks. Not everyone can be Prefontaine. His life is interesting because it is exceptional. Oprah, Dean K, MacDougall--these folks are more like us; at least this is how they present themselves. Their challenges are ours, broadly speaking--how to lose weight, how to run without injury. Not how to run fast, but how to keep on going. They inspire, but their stories are pitched as ordinary folks overcoming ordinary challenges, not as extraordinary folks overcoming a mediocre social milieu.

When this discussion comparing the two epochs arises, an assertion is often made that today's runners are softer than the runners of the past. The lack of 2:20 marathoners and 15:00 5kers is taken as evidence that somehow we have lost our will as a nation, or as a recent poster put it, "If Teddy Roosevelt came back and looked at this sad sack of America that we have today, he'd whip us into shape or start a revolution."

I was born in 1976, so I came of age in the 1990s when distance running was at its relative low point. I have no experience of what times were like for adults in the late 70s and early 80s. So, I cannot judge their toughness. I admit that I remain impressed by the old school attitude of those runners, the emphasis on simplicity, on training hard, and racing with guts. I esteem runners like Prefontaine and Bill Rodgers, and I look up to local folks like Terry Coker who was getting it done back in the day.

Maybe my generation is softer, but I believe that many of those who look to the past to denigrate the present make a fatal error. They take the standards of success and values of the past to be the measuring blocks of current conditions. This method of analysis always ends in a judgment of the decline of civilization. My view is that not only must each generation strive to be tough and strive for success, but we must also work to transform the values by which success and failure are judged so that they are more adequate to the actual problems that we face.

This means a few things, concretely:
1) It makes sense today, when we are encountering a major health crisis, that our running be thematized first and foremost in terms of the health of the runners who take up the practice. This is the problem many runners are trying to solve, unfortunately. This problem is not rooted in a lack of willpower, but in a food production and distribution system that encourages and rewards overconsumption. This problem was born in the 70s and 80s, but it has tremendously disrupted the bodies of the American people in the last decade. Running, and the effort it requires, is one way of taking on this problem--a way that many folks have access to and which is successful and inspiring in many ways.

2) Running as a social event. In a world in which human interaction more and more frequently takes place through screens and in a sedentary position, it is no odd thing that folks would seek out running as a cure for the problems that such interactions produce. Every runner knows that we speak more freely, with greater humor, and more truthfully when our bodies are in motion. Sport does not only exist to test the limits of human achievement or even personal achievement. It also exists because we are better people to each other when we exercise together. Running is more social today because this is a social need.

3) Running as anti-elitist. In the 70s and 80s running fast was held in greater esteem than it is today. Many folks today are skeptical of the faster running crowd, even hostile to their values. They see elites as narcissists, caught up in an absurd and highly individualistic effort that carries no social benefit. Who really cares if you are fast? How does that make you a better person? These are anti-elitist attitudes, and they are perhaps a consequences of a society today that is skeptical of achievement. And why not? When the rich and powerful in contemporary life use those spoils to work for their own interests instead of providing for the common welfare, an anti-elitist attitude is healthy. In a society in which upward mobility is threatened, in which the rich get richer while the middle class spins their wheels, a little resentment towards those who do manage to achieve is not only understandable; it is likely rational.

Whether these changes in values are good or bad most likely depends on your perspective. My perspective is this: I think it makes more sense to see the changes in values as responses to a social scene that is quite different than it was 30 years ago. Running has changed, and the past will not return. It is we runners who have changed it, often unconsciously and without regard for the effects of those changes. We understand our own age by comparing it to the times that came before us. This is the only way we can take its measure. But, when taking that measure, we ought also to be attentive to the current conditions in which our practice takes place--and be wary of denigrating present actions only because they do not line up so precisely with the achievements of those who came before.

To return to the question that is the title of this post. Why have runners gotten slower? Well, which runners? Some have gotten slower--mostly the young male 2:20 marathon types. Others have gotten faster; our national elites have broken all the old distance records. Many more women are running, and running much faster. High school runners are now running faster. East African runners are running incredible times (and some Americans like Solinsky, Ritz, and Hall are closing the gap.) And finally, so many more people are actually running, which means that they too are faster.

The history of running is complex, not simple. How we narrate social change is colored by our political values, our personal values, our own experiences, our age, our gender, and our own identities as runners. Running is now more corporate, more materialistic, more mainstream than it has ever been. It is also more open, more diverse, more available to women, minorities, and ordinary people than it has ever been. Social change is never wholly positive or entirely negative. It is specific, complex, and ongoing--good for some, damaging to others. So it goes.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Is Philosophy?

What is philosophy? Is it important?

I think it's pretty clear to all of us that our perception of reality is organized at least to some extent by the language we have inherited. This language structures and organizes the way we encounter the world. One thing that I appreciate about philosophy--which Deleuze defined as "the creation of concepts"--is that it takes as its task the critical reorganization of our habits of perceiving. When done well, this reorganization is in the service of better habits of living.

By this definition a guy like Einstein would be a natural philosopher. By rigorously describing the concept of relativity and introducing it into language, he opened up new orders of perception. We were able to understand the universe in a totally different way. This reorganization of our understanding of the universe literally gave us a new universe--new possibilities for technology, new avenues of control, new paths of exploration. It's important to remember, though, that in order for Einstein to make his discoveries, a number of material conditions had to be in place: namely an experimental apparatus delicate enough to find the limits of the Newtonian world view.

Another example would be W.E.B. Dubois. His concept of the double-vision of racial consciousness also opened up new avenues of racial criticism. It described in language that was available to academics and other fairly powerful folks the perspective of living in a racial minority. Dubois was also perfectly positioned in culture to make this point. He had a mainstream education and knew how to express himself in the language of the dominant culture. But he also had access to the world of black experience, and he worked from within the dominant philosophical position to open angles onto this other universe, just as Einstein also couched his explanation of relativity by reference to foundational Newtonian physics.

These two examples show us that the relevant question with respect to the relationship between human consciousness and the shape of the universe is not the Cartesian question of whether our mind truly grasps reality. Or whether the subjective self or the objective world is more Real with a capital R. The more important questions are the smaller ones. How do our current habits of consciousness shape and delimit our perception? What sort of experiences make it possible to reorganize those habits? And how can we develop and maintain the habit of critically reacting to the blindnesses and gaps that are a necessary feature of intelligent categorization of the world in which we live?

The word "philosophy" describes the general habit of reconstructing the categories and ways of thinking that structure our interactions with the world. To take up the task of philosophy explicitly is to work consciously on behalf of keeping this critical habit alive, both in ourselves and in our culture.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Friendship

" a friendship of good men all the qualities we have named belong in virtue of the nature of the friends themselves; for in the case of this kind of friendship the other qualities also are alike in both friends, and that which is good without qualification is also without qualification pleasant, and these are the most lovable qualities. Love and friendship therefore are found most and in their best form between such men." --Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

"And yet. Isn't the main reason we love this sport because it gives us an excuse to idle away an hour (or more) a day with the other skinny social rejects talking about who knows what and god knows why all the while fooling the rest of the world (and, admittedly, sometimes ourselves) into thinking that what we are really doing out there is suffering mercilessly and ascetically towards some impossible goal?"
--Some dude on a message board

In a world in which facebook is reconstructing the concept of friendship, it is interesting to return to Aristotle's writings on friendship. For the Greeks, friendship was the ideal form of association; it was at the heart of the good life of individuals, and it also gave shape to the ideal form of community. For Aristotle, particularly, the Good with a capital "G", had as its material earthly condition the qualities of friendship.

For the Greeks, friendship was a relationship that was always outward looking. Friendship was a name for the sort of relationship that pursued ends that were higher and nobler than the individuals who entered into that relationship. For the Greeks, friendship was not a state or a feeling or a title. It was essentially transformative, a relationship of growth towards the good. It was an activity: a name for a relationship that brought out a shared pursuit of the good life.

For the Greeks friendship was rare. It is the sort of relationship that points us towards our best qualities and teaches us how to become our ideal self.

I think Aristotle is essentially right in his conception of friendship, but sweet jesus he can make friendship sound as if it's such a drag, especially if we import our 21st century American vision of "the good life," which has basically come to mean racing around in an overcaffeinated blur trying to earn enough money to buy the one million things we are absolutely sure we need in the moment but turn out several weeks later to be outdated and, frankly, drab.

What we need from our friends today more than anything is help imagining a more expansive notion of the good life, one that includes not just working your ass off in a job that doesn't make much sense on good days and may actually be morally reprehensible on bad days but also things like laughter, leisure, pleasure, meaning, sunshine, and fresh air. Those things have more than a lot to do with excellence and achievement in life, especially if you are looking for the kind of life that's worth living.

We runners, being goal oriented and driven sorts of folk, have a tendency to get caught up reducing life to a very narrow set of goods. Like, say, the ability to run a 2:30 marathon. We pile all the eggs into that basket, not because there is much that is remarkable about that basket outside of its ability to hold a lot of eggs. This makes things simpler, you know, than having eggs all over the damn place. Who knows what might hatch?

So we need friends. We especially need the sort of friends who can laugh at our goals. The sort of friends who are not afraid to tip over the basket and break a few eggs. Let's face it, endurance training when it's done right is boring. The trial of miles has more to do with the relentless molecular grinding of shoe soles than anything else. We like to talk about the effort and the brain-bending fatigue of a hard interval session, but most of the work of training is as easy and simple as putting one foot in front of the other, getting it on down the road.

Running friends, training partners, remind us that life happens out there in those training runs, too. Their value is larger than the race they point towards, measured not only in minutes, miles, and average pace, but also in laughter, memories, tall tales, and big dreams. The best training partners do what the best friends do--they make our narrow vision wider and show us goods and possibilities where we could only see shadows. They enlarge our vision of what is possible. They slow down when our legs are dead. Push the pace when we want to fly. And most importantly, they'll meet us late at night or early in the morning, in blinding heat, rain, or bitter cold. Friends show up.

Maybe showing up is not quite meeting the Greek bar for friendship of pursuing the good life, but in this distracted world, when we could always be doing something else--and usually are--showing up is no small thing. You show up, your training partner shows up, and the next thing you know you are running. No guarantees that the good life lies at the end of any single one of those runs. In fact, each of them taken alone is almost absurd in its insignificance.

But, if you show up, they add up.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Different Sorts of Seriousness

"'s inevitable that we look at our worthiest goals and hopes with a seriousness which is difficult to maintain, [but] ... Another ideal runs before us, a peculiar, seductive, dangerous ideal to which we wouldn't want to persuade anyone: ... the ideal of a spirit that plays naively, i.e. not deliberately but from overflowing abundance and power, with everything that was hitherto called holy, good, untouchable, divine, ... it is only with this spirit that the great seriousness really emerges."                                                --Nietzsche, The Gay Science

My buddy Mike wrote a nice piece on how he started running, and I've been meaning to link to it for a couple weeks now. His experience was much like mine. I think it pairs nicely with this Runner's World piece on the tenth anniversary of the 2000 Footlocker, when Ritz, Webb, and Hall--three of the greatest runners of my generation--duked it out for the first time as high schoolers.

These pieces got me thinking about what it means to take your running seriously. Since those high school days, Ritz, Webb, and Hall have become professional runners, which means that in a certain sense they have become very serious about their running. This seriousness manifests itself in different ways.

Ritz's running is serious enough to have his form recently profiled in the New Yorker. From this piece we learn that Ritz's approach to running is detail oriented and work-oriented. His seriousness manifests itself in his exemplary work ethic, his constant striving to improve and increase his training. The New Yorker profile is a look not only at Ritz, but at a certain take on what it means to train seriously. To train is to employ science rigorously, knowledgeably, and with great effort to aim at maximizing performance.

Webb is a different sort of animal. He is a picture of pure talent. He ran 3:53 for the full mile in high school, a record that will not likely soon fall. His racing is erratic, and he has been known to be a junk food aficionado. He falls out of shape often, only to hammer himself back into shape with mind-numbing workouts. When he races, it is with an acid intensity, nostrils blaring, screaming as he crosses the line. When he is off, his is miserable. When he is on, he can't be beaten. Webb's seriousness is not the steady, methodical, relentless seriousness of a Ritz. His seriousness is the white-hot passion of a born racer. It is best represented visually.

Then there is Hall. Ryan Hall is deeply religious, and his seriousness about running gets filtered through God. Recently, after a season of subpar training, he announced that he would no longer have a coach and that he would be depend on prayer for training guidance, along with his experience as an elite runner.  Hall has explicitly thematized God as a motivator for his running, and he sees the value of his racing in terms of a larger life purpose to glorify God. If Ritz runs to reach his human potential and Webb runs out of an unharnessed and erratic competitiveness, Hall runs for spiritual enlightenment. That's some serious stuff right there.

Chances are that each of these runners has been caricatured by their time in the spotlight. Like the rest of us, Ritz, Hall, and Webb probably run for a variety of reasons, and the way in which we view their motivations probably says more about the culture of running than it does the reality of their situations. I know that I find a little bit of each of these characters within myself . The obsessive tinkerer, the intense competitor, the seeker of spiritual ecstasies. Our own temperaments as runners, most likely, have varying doses of each of these personae.

All of this is interesting enough, as far as it goes. But what Mike's piece and the Footlocker piece got me thinking about was that adolescent high school seriousness, which is a different sort of seriousness entirely from the adult, professional serious seriousness that I've been talking about. I was serious in high school, no doubt. Every race seemed like the end of the world. I would have died out there on the course if that's what it took to help the team. We were perhaps in some ways more serious than even these professional runners.

Andy, my brother Philip, me, and John

The reason, though, that we could be so serious was because that seriousness was motivated and driven by the enormously good time we were having. The thing about adult seriousness is that, well, it gets to be a drag. So heavy, sometimes, chasing these PRs, training just right, racing as hard as you can. Too often, the seriousness comes first in adult life. In adolescence, the seriousness was secondary. We were serious because we loved it. We loved our friends. We loved to compete. We loved the feeling of being strong, of running hard. It was a seriousness born out of play--the most genuine sort of seriousness because it was a natural consequence of the sheer joy of being on a team, competing, doing your best, or just running.

In the retrospective on Footlocker, Ritz describes the seriousness like this:
I was hurting so bad the last two miles. I kept going by telling myself, You only have to hurt another 10 minutes. If you don't keep pushing, you'll regret it the rest of your life. It was my last high-school cross-country race. My last Foot Locker. It was so important. It seemed like the biggest thing in the world. 
This is not the seriousness of the obsessive compulsive, the out of control intensity of the racer, or the spiritual bliss of the running sage. It is the seriousness that we find when we leave all those other seriousnesses behind, when we compete because we are strong, because we can, because this is life. A seriousness that is not a reason for but a consequence of the simple joy of being a runner.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Running, Philosophy, and an Ethics of Faith

In an April post on his blog Requiem for Certainty, friend and fellow traveler Colin Koopman writes about the need to find room for faith in the contemporary cultural scene. In the wake of the confrontation between science (which puts too little value in faith in unverifiable propositions) and religion (which puts too much faith in unverifiable propositions), we have become a culture bifurcated between camps that believe too much in faith and camps that believe too little in it.

In response to this situation, Koopman calls for a working faith that grows out of a realization of the contingency and fragility of the world. This faith is not traditionally religious; it is not founded on the idea of an ever-present and all-powerful creator, nor would it be backed by powerful institutions. Instead, it is the sort of faith that grows out of a strenuous confrontation with the facts of change and uncertainty--a faith that is a working hope that change and fragility, as frightening and dangerous as they might be, might with some effort be turned towards the good. Koopman finds this sort of faith in the ethical writings of William James, and I find it there myself.

Another place where philosophers might look for a model for this sort of faith is the working attitude of the distance runner. As a friend and I ran down the road last night, we talked about how training always requires a delicate balance between one's ideal plans and the contingencies that life throws at you. It is easy enough to chart out a course to a certain goal. The difficulty is not conceiving an ideal; we all know what it takes to become a better runner, just as it is likely that we know how to become a better person. The difficulty comes in the interaction with the contingencies that life throws at you. The difficulty is in the execution of the ideal, and it is here that we see in action the flexible melioristic faith, the sort of working hope, that Koopman and James are talking about.

The runner has to dream big in order to achieve. We all have a picture of the runner we could be if everything went right. This picture is, of course, a pure figment of imagination. Its function is to provide a range of working possibility, a sort of center of gravity that keeps us in orbit, pushes us out the door. We make steady progress towards that ideal. Along the way, in the execution, we learn what keeps us back and make efforts to transform ourselves. Slowly, over the course of time, we refashion our habits against the rough edges of the obstacles we encounter. We eat differently. We sleep differently. We try different sorts of workouts. Our bodies change, cell by cell. Capillaries bloom. Muscles grow lean and striated. The creases of long effort work their way onto our faces. Our tendons become steely cords. Our minds learn the rhythm of a hard pace, our mouths the tangy flavor of lactic acid. Incrementally, intangibly, with multiple setbacks along the way, through frustration and effort, we edge closer to that picture of the runner we want to be.

 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a first-rate philosopher of democratic faith.

It is this slow process of self-transformation through ongoing effort towards an ideal that James means to denote by the simple word "faith." This is the only thing faith has ever meant for actual people living on and in the world. This, it seems to me, is a vision of faith worth believing in, a faith worth working for. Running has value beyond itself because it shows this faith in action; it shows that this human form of faith is possible. Philosophers can find it alive and well in the working attitude of the distance runner.

We runners can learn from philosophers how to dream bigger dreams. We can learn to inculcate this sort of faith beyond our sport, in our communities, in our friendships, in our wider ethical selves. Such a faith will be necessary to continue working towards the worlds that we desire. And, just as importantly in a pluralistic and democratic culture, such a faith will be necessary to do the work to understand and live with those who have faith in different worlds. This is the work of a strenuous democratic faith--the ongoing reconstruction of our minds, our habits, our communities, our selves--to be able to live together, with our differences, without violence and indignity, hopefully, perhaps, someday.

Friday, December 3, 2010

What Does It Mean to Run Naturally?

Aristotle, in the Physics, opposes the natural to the artificial. He says that natural things have "their principle of motion or of standstill" in themselves, whereas the artificial is dependent on something else for its "principle." Understanding what he means takes a little unpacking, but I think doing so will shed light on some current movements that are motivated by the idea of running more naturally.

Aristotle describes the difference between the natural and the artificial using the example of a tree and a wooden bed frame. He notes that a tree's principle of growth is located within itself. It naturally follows the form of a tree, given the proper conditions, and it grows itself into a tree on its own. A wooden bedframe, notes Aristotle in one of the few moments of humor in his texts, will not grow into a bed when planted in the ground. In order that it take shape, the bed needs someone else to conceive of its idea. For this reason, we say that a bed is not natural, but artificial. It is a work of human art--it had to be conceived in the imagination and did not come into its own naturally but through the effort and mind of something outside of itself. The natural, therefore, is self-subsisting. The artificial is dependent in its very essence on something outside of itself.

 The tree did this naturally, all by itself. The photograph, however, is a product of human artifice.

Proponents of naturalism in running, then, see running as something we are born to do: read Born to Run, yet? On this view, we run as naturally as a tree develops branches and grows roots. Running is not a learned skill like medicine or architecture (do we naturally build skyscrapers or airplanes or MRI machines?), but something that is as native to the human condition as, say, having ears and toes. To rephrase Aristotle in terms of contemporary scientific discourse, you could say running is in our DNA.

As for me, I think running is a natural human activity, as far as this goes. We don't have to be taught how to run; running, like crawling and walking and speaking, emerges as a natural human capacity just like leaves grow on trees. But, in order to understand the implications of this for life today in 21st century America, we need to begin to look more carefully at the kind of running that we are talking about.

Running is a natural activity. Maybe even competitive distance running is natural. But the specific practice of racing 5ks and marathons that emerged in the 20th century seems to me to place the natural capacity of running in a set of very artificial circumstances. One characteristic of the natural is that it is seamlessly integrated with the rest of the world.  A leaf grows out of a branch as part of a well-ordered organism. Competitive running and racing is not so integrated with the rest of life. It is something we do on the side, bearing only tangential relationships to the rest of our lives.

Few of us today in America use running as it emerged--as a means of locomotion, a way of getting from one place to another. We have other more advanced forms of travel now: automobiles, email, airplanes, trains, bicycles. So, running has this sort of strange position in contemporary life. It is a natural capacity of the human body, but our environment produces no demand to run. So, we have to artificially produce situations to run in our environment. We do this through racing and training. We would do the same thing tomorrow if, for example, the sun refused to shine. We would light the world with artificial bulbs because our eyes naturally want to see.

We already have built environments when artificial light replaces natural light completely.

From an Aristotelian perspective, then, running more naturally is really an almost impossible task in the contemporary world. It is a natural need that will have to be satisfied artificially. But in order to construct better artificial running situations it is useful to remember the natural situation in which we run. This situation has less to do with the type of shoe that one wears, or whether one forsakes shoes at all, and much more to do with remembering that just as a tree sends its roots downward and its branches upward, the human body is constructed to be in a fairly constant state of locomotion. This is the natural situation. Getting back to nature, then, is less about footstrike and minimalism and more about finding ways to let the body move, constructing situations where we are forced to run in a variety of ways.

I think that this is what accounts for the current popularity of the marathon. Though the marathon is an artificial institution, it is a great way to reproduce a natural situation of a human body in constant motion. It compensates for the lack of natural stimulus to run in contemporary culture. It does so by producing a training situation, which is really just a plain old running situation. But the downside of a marathon is its status as a "bucket list" type of event. Insofar as the value of the marathon is conceived solely as an "accomplishment of willpower," its specific connection to the natural need for locomotion is erased. Under the sign of spiritual effort or willpower, the material needs of the body are lost as a primary justification for the event. The fact that completing a marathon is seen as an extraordinary thing is a sign of the way in which running is not naturally integrated into the rest of life.

 Natural or unnatural?

This is the way culture seems to be trending in general. The demands of the mind--intellectual stimulation, bright flashing images, strange noises, the need to communicate--all of these needs are being met through the rise of virtual technologies. But the heady flights, the sense of being ungrounded, the dizziness and vertigo we feel after too much time spent in the virtual world are all effects of an overstimulated mind and an understimulated body. Why have certain aspects of human nature been stimulated to the point of grotesqueness while others have been understimulated? How have the institutions that we have built neglected certain aspects of our nature when they obviously care so much for other aspects (take, for example, the natural desire to hoard things)? Whose interests do these sorts of artificial institutions serve? And whose interests do they ignore?

These are the sorts of questions that come to my when I think about the desire to run naturally. The question is broad and complex, and we ought not reduce it to something that can be marketed as easily as a pair of Vibram Five-Fingers.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Training, Playing, Running

In his thoughts on art and experience, John Dewey distinguishes between three forms of human activity. The distinctions are as follows: labor, play, and work. The differences between these three kinds of activity are qualitative and immanent to experience, and they each are distinguished by the relationship between effort and ends. Bear with me here as I lay out the differences between these three related concepts.

Labor is experience that is instrumental. We are in a state of labor when there is no real connection in experience between the activity we undertake and the final product of that activity. We have all participated in this sort of activity: it is effort that takes us nowhere, does not develop or enrich experience. It is effort that is spent without return, or perhaps co-opted by interests that are actually opposed to the one who is putting forth effort. Labor is effort that is organized around certain ends, but the ends are in opposition or at the very least unrelated to the effort that is put forward.

Play is experience that is spontaneous and not organized around any specific purpose at all. The efforts that we put forth in play are enjoyed immediately, without reference to any overriding purpose. Play is full and sufficient in itself, but for that very reason it is not intelligently linked to the development of life. The enjoyments of play are momentary and often rich, but whether they are carried forward into future enjoyments is a matter of chance because it is not intelligently directed.

Work is experience that combines and completes the two other modes of human activity. Work consciously takes the spontaneous joys of play and links them explicitly, intelligently, and with some effort to future ends. Work is activity that links the spontaneous elements of experience with organizing ideals, drawing a straight line between the ideals, needs, and desires of a living organism and the spontaneous efforts that it puts forth.

For Dewey, work is the most complete form of human experience, combining the spontaneity of play with the directed intelligence of labor in order that the living organism develop itself freely towards its imagined ideal. It is in work that experience gains its full aesthetic promise. This is what we see in the great work of art: the ideals of human imagination expressed through spontaneous and highly refined labor. The work of art shows us the promise of human intelligence, that our dreams can be made real through the careful and often strenuous working through of the materials of experience.

I did not set out in this post to set out an abstract and probably difficult three-fold philosophical distinction. I set out to elaborate on the difference between running and training. I wasn't quite sure how to form this distinction, and my thoughts kept drifting to extremes. I wanted to juxtapose "running," a type of absolute free play with "training," a type of labor in which the joy of running is subordinated to the goal of the athlete. But Dewey helped me to see that this is the wrong way to think about the different modalities of running experience.

After having spent 9 months training--preparing myself specifically for the goal of running a PR at Baystate--the goal had begun to diminish the running experience. Just as my running had been motivated and driven in large part by the possibility of running faster, it has been equally nice this last month to just be running without any particular goals, to be closer to the state of play, further from the state of labor. So, I had the temptation to write a post in praise the play of just running at the expense of the sometimes grueling and definitely tiring labor of preparing for a goal race. But this impulse would really be unfair to that former self who was cranking out the miles this summer, not because he was at play, but because he had something he wanted to achieve.

Dewey showed me that I was thinking about it the wrong way. The alternatives are not as simple as labor or play. The real difficulty of taking up running intelligently is making it into a practice of work.

There are moments when we will be caught up in the delightful rapture of a training run or race, when thoughts of training are chased from the mind by the immediate experience of the run: powerful limbs, skating feet, the mild rush of endorphins, the effortless effort.

There are other moments when the act of running seems mechanical and uninspired. We run sometimes without any idea why, or for distant goals that frustratingly haunt us. There are moments when it only seems like so much meaningless plodding, wasted effort.

These are the two extremes between which we alternate, the extremes of labor and play. Neither of these is enough, however, to make sense of why we run; as extremes of the running experience, they both distort its meaning. We run because it is a practice in which the joys of play can be linked up with the efforts of labor. We don't run for pure play, and we don't run solely for the sake of our training goals. We run in order to work our experience, our bodies, our selves, into an integrated and consummated whole. We run to prove that improvement can be joyful, that effort can be appreciated, that the goals that sometimes tyrannize us are also the dreams and fantasies that motivate us.

We run because we like to work. If we stay at this work long enough, we develop into the selves we want to become. We learn to appreciate both the spontaneous joys that running offers as well as the hard tasks that it sets us, and sometimes we become artists of the running experience. We become able with our legs, our imagination, our will, our guts, to channel the loose ends of experience into and through fixed purposes. Or, sometimes, to loosen up our fixation on purposes in order that there be room for their creative reconstruction.

Monet combines the joy of perception with the skill of genuine reproduction. He's an artist.

In short, we produce the kind of control that the great masters of experience have always had: the ability to link up the wildest of human passions with the discipline of intelligence. We run, in short, because running shows us how to make our experience into a work of art--and through this process we grow and learn.

We play, we train. We do both. We run.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Honest Work

My grandfather died last night.

He was the son of a muleskinner and watermelon farmer. His family were tenant farmers, and he grew up on the banks of the Nolichucky river, upper East Tennessee. They worked for a place to stay and the food they ate. My grandfather was a boy during the Great Depression, and he used to tell me stories about cleaning a riverbank for a nickel a day. There were a lot of brothers and sisters, and they all raised each other up. We talk about the nuclear family these days, but their family unit was more like a patch of blackberries, thorny and wild.

The 'Chucky.

So, my grandfather learned to be independent from an early age. One summer day when he was 12, he rode his bike to Knoxville about 40 miles just to see what he could find. He'd fish the rivers with his brothers and talk about walking down the frozen creeks sometimes to school. He didn't go to school much.

In World War II, he went into the Navy and rode a big boat into the South Pacific. That's what got him out of the back Appalachian hollows tenant farming. He saw a big world, met people from all over, and he came back to Tennessee after his tour and became a vacuum cleaner salesman. He met my grandmother, too.

From there, he wound his way down to Chattanooga. He must have saved a little cash or got a loan or something, but he bought land where no one else wanted it and he put some trailers on it. He rented them out to folks like him. Poor, hard folks who moved to follow work. He was good at it because he knew them. He could get them to pay the rent before they bought whiskey. He also bought an old motel on the side of a hill: Glendale Courts. It had tiny rooms he would rent out. When my brother and I were young, we would spend hours in the office, watching the people come in, playing with Grandma's typewriter.

He always drove a Datsun that was about as beat up as he was. It looked like this one.

With the money he made, he sent his three children to college, and they all earned degrees, one earned a masters, and another a Ph.D. He told me that the most important thing in life to have was an education. He didn't have an education.

But of course he had an education. That wild and hard youth he had taught him to be independent, to be stubborn, to take what he could. It taught him the dimensions of things, the effort that things take. He never learned to live easily.

It was his lungs that killed him. He'd worked in an aluminum plant sometime back early in his life, and since then his lungs had always bothered him. He was always spitting up something. So his last days were spent with lungs failing, dependent on oxygen. When he would feel strong, he'd always ask to go out to the job site. He wanted to see people working, wanted to be part of the action, wanted to continue carving out his stubborn place in the world.

Everything he built, even his home, was on the side of a steep hill. That's where he liked it--the places that other folks thought weren't good enough.

He had the brightest blue eyes. He was five feet tall. His hands were knobby and hard, like old wood. His right shoulder was all bunched up from jerking on things. I've heard that he was hard on his boys--he made them dig the sewer lines in the trailer park. I did my family duty over there, too, mostly weed-eating the steep banks on hot days. But when I knew him he was the gentlest man you'd ever meet. After Grandma died, he'd go out dancing at the VA about every chance he could. His favorite music was Motown, and he'd turn it up loud in the kitchen. He was 89 years old.

What I love most about my grandfather is that he loved to work, and I think in small ways my running comes from the same place he came from. The simple need to work. Work is like a watermelon seed. You'd never know such a sweet, rich, and heavy life could come out of a small simple thing.

It can.

Friday, November 5, 2010

On Vulnerability

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has done some really interesting work on human subjectivity. Instead of locating the essence of the individual inside the self and calling the project of that self "freedom," Levinas writes of the subject as de-centered and vulnerable, and located outside of the self. Its project is not to free itself into authenticity but to be responsible to others.

Emmanuel Levinas

In her book "Levinas and James: Towards a Pragmatic Phenomenology," Megan Craig puts it like this:
"The Levinasian subject has her center of gravity outside herself. Orbiting against her will, she is caught, like a planet, in the gravitational pull of a distant star. In 1514 Copernicus scandalously threatened the geocentric theory of the universe by suggesting that the sun, not the earth, occupies the center of the universe. Similarly (and also scandalously), Levinas dethrones the "I," the "ego," and "consciousness" from their privileged positions in the center of subjectivity. Unseating the "self" and replacing it with the "other," Levinas replaces freedom and the subject/object relation with responsibility and the intersubjective relation as the problems driving philosophy, making ethics the preeminent philosophical domain."

The self, on this view, is not singular and freedom-seeking. It is multiple, fractured, relational, and fundamentally exposed. Its primary characteristic is not its strong will, but its vulnerability and sensitivity.

Something like this thought occurred to me two nights ago as I churned along on a hard 10 miler. It had been a rough day in general, one of those days that you set out to get a lot of things done, but end up frittering away all that energy on worthless tasks. I was anxious and my will was scattered, unable to communicate with other people or to appreciate much at all. So I did what I often do to collect myself. I laced up the shoes and headed out the door.

It was raining and dark, the kind of night where everything is blacked out, and everything moves through the world in a kind of ghostly hush. Most days I ease into my runs, but I headed out hard and impatient, looking to brush the limits of effort early, needing to touch something firm and real. To put it into Levinas' language, I needed to take control of my vulnerability.

Runners talk a lot about pain, and when they do so they often talk about overcoming it, pushing through it, like it is something that we have to free ourselves from or master. Sometimes we take this relationship to it, to be sure. But the other night I needed the pain. I wanted the pain, like I wanted an old friend. Am I being clear? I ran hard out the door, at a pace that I knew I would have difficulty sustaining over 10 miles, and I achieved what I was looking for. By 10 minutes into the run, all of the various selves that had been battling each other over the course of the day, all of the anxious and unharnessed sensitivities that had been tearing at me, were exposed to a familiar old vulnerability. I ran hard and blind, not trying at all to free myself from the pain; I ran into it, playing with it, brushing up against its borders, and then pulling back when it became too much.

By doing so, I reminded myself of the way in which my strength and my vulnerability are intimately tied together, not at odds with each other. The criterion of the strength of the self is its ability to respond to exposure, not its ability to stay intact. My long practice with running has given me a way of caring for myself, not by making myself tough and inured to pain, but actually giving me a space in which I can practice being exposed to pain, responding to pain, living with pain, and actually finding joy and power through the encounter with pain.

To live in the world fully does not mean freeing one's self from suffering. It means being able to find joy through suffering. It means being able to locate the self precisely in moments of great vulnerability. We are at our best when we are responsive to others, and this means risking having one's self broken, bound, and placed into relationships of dependency to other people, things, places, and practices. I find strength in my running precisely because through running I am able to break myself open and expose myself to weakness. I find control by brushing up against the limits of myself, not by overcoming the pain, but by succumbing to its wild and living intensities.

As I pounded across the black pavement among the mute and indifferent traffic, raging quietly, skimming lightly, I was haunted by the thought of being alone. But the run did wind its way, as they all do, back to my doorstep. I stood outside and stretched my calves. My chest stopped heaving, the blood drained from my rushing ears. Then, I opened the door.

"How was the run?" called my wife from the back room. The house was well-lit and she had turned on the heat. "It was a good one," I called back. "I had a long day, but I feel better now." "It's good to see you." "You, too." And like that I returned to more familiar tasks, happy to be warm, happy to be home. Free wasn't the way I'd describe myself. More open is perhaps the way I'd put it--happy to be able to help prepare dinner, wanting to listen to my wife, able to respond, responsible.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dull Training Post

The last 9 months I've learned a lot about how to run high mileage--its benefits and its drawbacks. You could describe the last three years of my training life as one of trying to figure out how to run 100 plus miles per week.

It seems easy, right--you just go out the door and average 14 miles a day.

But the problem of course is that training only works if you are well-trained enough to absorb it. Although I've been running on and off for 20 (gulp!) years, these last 3 years were really my first attempt to push the envelope of the volume of miles that I've run. Even in college, I would never run much more than 65 miles per week for an extended period.

So, over the last three years, more often than not, I've run too much too quickly, and in the wrong ways. This is the primary reason that it took me so long to improve on my first real marathon attempt. I would have moments where the miles would really work well for me, and I would do things in training that I never could have done on lower mileage. But I couldn't time those moments--and I had just as many moments when my legs were totally dead, and my races unreflective of the work I'd put in. On 65 miles a week, I could race consistently. Upwards of 80 miles per week, I was on and off--occasionally popping an extra-fast performance, but more often finding myself dead-legged--no pop--in the middle of a race.

Two things made the difference this time:
1) I didn't run too much for too long. About 6 weeks out from my marathon, I began to bump my miles, but I peaked my mileage at three weeks prior to the race--at the point that my body was still absorbing the extra work, not rebelling from it.
2) I was in familiar territory. I didn't go higher than I'd ever been, and I started my build from a comfortable place. The last three years of work--though they hadn't produced a good marathon performance--had made my body familiar with 80+mpw.

Those are the things that helped me run a PR.

However, I do think that I made some mistakes that kept me from totally capitalizing on my fitness. (At least I hope I did, because I think I can run faster.)

1) I put too much emphasis on weekly mileage in final phase of training. In order to run 5:45 pace instead of 6:00 pace, I'm going to need to do more quality work. This doesn't mean that I shouldn't run upwards of 100mpw before my next marathon, but only that I shouldn't be so worried about losing fitness by dropping the miles down to 60 or 70 at times in the 6 weeks prior to the race so that I can get the freshness back in my legs that is necessary to do the long MP tempos I'll need to make the jump.

2) Along the same lines, as a guy who has been running for a long time, it's going to take big workouts to make changes in my fitness. One "big workout" is a 110 mile week, for sure. But as I get closer to a marathon, I shouldn't worry about taking a couple of low mileage days (or heaven forbid, days off) in order to rest up to run a 15 mile MP workout, or a set of mile repeats at 10k pace, or a steady 24 miler--and a couple of days afterwards to soak up the benefits.

3) Finally, I could do more pure speed work. Speed has always been my strength as a runner, but in marathon training I have a tendency to get away from that strength. Some short workouts like 6 x 400 @ 3k-5k pace or 8 x 200 a little faster will make MP that much easier and help me maintain power in my stride.

One thing I finally learned, however, is how to run consecutive 100+ mile weeks and really benefit from it. The key (duh) is to stay conservative with the pace and also with the workouts. Oh yeah, and also get more than 7 hours of sleep. The temptation, when we're really motivated to train, is always to ramp everything up. This is a recipe for burn-out for me. I've found a lot of good training partners who keep me easy on easy days, and that's the key there.

So, there's the dull training post. No philosophical speculation. Just some down-home pragmatic reflection.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Baystate Marathon

The usual race report begins at the beginning of the race, and it tells the race in chronological order. But anyone who has raced hard and raced well knows that a race does not unfold chronologically. The beginning of the race happened long before the gun. But it also happened at mile 21. And it began again at somewhere between mile 24 and 25. Or did it begin long ago, with that very first race, or that first 6 minute mile, the first time I dreamed of being fast, faster, the fastest?

The beginning of the race is multiple, really. Each race has many beginnings.

The beginning at mile 25.2. There was a clock there with a mile to go, and it read 2:30:00, as I passed it. Anyone who has been reading this blog with consistency knows that this is a number with great weight for me. All runners have their totemic numbers. This is one. Another is 6, as in 6 minutes, the pace I had been struggling to hold since mile 20. At mile 25.2, I raced to run the last mile under 6 minutes. This would keep alive on of the primary goals of this race, which was to run the full marathon distance at a clip under 6:00, a dream I can distinctly remember dreaming over 15 years ago, on a fall run down one of my childhood running routes. I know exactly where I was, and how I was feeling when this idea occurred to me as a possibility. I ran 5:54 for that last mile, that clear fall day 15 years past swirling in front of me, leading me on.

The beginning at mile 4. I came through the fourth mile in 23:59. Too slow, really. I was running with a group there, and there was no one in front of me--the next group up being the sub 2:30 group, a pace I will run some day, but which I did not plan to take on that day. So, I struck out on my own, as every marathoner is loathe to do, but has to do at some point. I had to run my race. Miles 4 through 13, I just clipped along in the low 5:50s, no one to see in front of me, not looking back. This was probably my favorite moment in the race, feeling strong and just running. There is something about marathon pace in those early miles that really speaks to the runner's soul. After all the months of holding back in training, we get to show off a little, run strong, finally, almost recklessly, but still easily.

The beginning, just before the beginning. I arrived at the starting line around 30 minutes before the race, and the very first person I saw was one of my very best friends from college, Dan. I hadn't seen Dan since my wedding, almost seven years ago. I knew he was running, taking his shot at sub2:30 (he nailed it, with a 6 minute PR, running 2:28!) We jogged around together, just like we had over a decade ago as college teammates, chattering, anticipating, happy to race. At the start, I met up with Andrew and Mikey, two more training partners, and the four of us stood together, ready for the run. Due to a speaker malfunction, the national anthem couldn't be played, so the runners together, spontaneously sang it. Which is the way the anthem ought to be sung, always. The gun fired, and away...

The beginning at mile 3. My wife was crewing for me--she was strategically located at the Rourke Bridge with Gatorade and Gu. I'd told her to position herself past the crowd so I could be sure to see her. As I came through 3, I started looking--where--where--where, the crowd thinned to nothing. Then -- there! Jumping and waving: ¡Fuerza! Relajate... The crowds for this race were great, knowledgeable and passionate, but seeing someone that is there just for you is so huge. I relaxed and ran on.

The early group (Tim, the guy behind me, would roll with me later)

The beginning at mile 13. After flying solo for 7 miles, a young runner named Tim came up on my shoulder and gave me a huge grin: "Let's go get 'em." A couple of runners from the front pack were beginning to falter, and we ran together, hunting them down. This was a huge help to me, as I could relax and let Tim set the pace. We were both feeling good, and these were my fastest miles, some of them in the high 5:40s, most in the low 5:50s. We rolled together like we'd known each other our whole lives, and in one sense we did. At that point in the race, there really is nothing more to you than a runner. Everything drops away entirely: it's just a steady and strong rhythm, footfalls and breathing. It's impersonal and intimate, simultaneously, something human beings have done for millenia, running together. We rolled.

The beginning at 5am. I was up before my alarm, and I hopped out of bed. I was eager to race, to put my body to the test: it was going to be a special day. I ate a few things, drank coffee and Gatorade, took a shower. I wasn't nervous; the anxiety of the previous week just faded away to the clarity of race morning. Nothing to do now, but run.

The beginning at mile 23. My pace was slipping. For two and a half miles, the easy and strong gait, the runner's gait, had become a struggle. I'd gone from holding back to running strong, to the end of the race: the fight to maintain. At mile 20, the race was no longer run in large chunks, but now would be pieced out in horizons, mile markers, minutes, seconds. I was hurting. For the last three miles, I'd had the thought that I would see my wife at mile 23, and I just ran to her, not thinking of the three miles beyond that. As I ran through the crowd at the bridge, people kept telling me I looked strong, but I knew it was a noble lie. I was hurting. Mile 22 had been the slowest of the race, a 6:10. I saw her, and she gave me water and the last Gu. I drank, cool liquid. Ate, sweet and sticky, drank a bit more, and ran ahead, away from her, away from the crowd. The last miles of a marathon are always run alone. This was the hardest beginning.

Running hard at mile 26

The beginning at the end. The end is always surprising because by that point, if you've run the race right, you've committed yourself to endless suffering. So, when I entered the stadium, I had to convince myself with what was left of my dying brain that this truly was the end. Kick you bastard. And I did, awkwardly, and the legs responded out of long habit and almost against my will at the sight of the finish clock whirling into view: 2:35:54. Mylar, a medal, staggering. Out in the field was Dan, grinning. I grinned too.

(Yes, I really did finish.)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


One more cup of coffee for the road,
One more cup of coffee before I go,
To the valley below.
-- Dylan

The anticipation is both sweet and sickening, and it colors the normality of life with a kind of filmy sheen. I'm not just talking about tapering, which is known for inducing madness in the marathoner. The cutting back does cause a strain, to be sure. A mind accustomed to pressing, focused intently on a goal, freely working as hard as it can, suffers a bit when asked to pull back. It tugs like a dog on a short leash.

But to identify a change in training as a source of madness is to miss the madness entirely. The key to understanding it is the fact that the madness is worst when everything has been done well. You've got these legs like coiled vipers, a heart thumping deep like a cantaloupe. You inhabit a world that spins about blissfully ignorant of the singular powers you have created. It's out of that peculiar dissonance between the ordinariness of life and the extraordinariness of the person that you have become that the madness rises. Madness always being an effect of singularity.

The fitness of the marathon runner is extraordinary, and it therefore demands extraordinary things from the person who possesses it. Can you take such a body that is brimming with strength and ride it delicately to utter exhaustion? Can you turn its strength against itself, use that strength surgically and witheringly to destroy that self-same body? You have to be singularly mad to perform such a task. The sane try to preserve themselves. The mad destroy themselves. It is not sane to reach for total exhaustion, but it's what singularity demands.

And so, the week before a marathon, one gives oneself the task of becoming quite mad.

After it is over, the whole event will be analyzed, dissected, discussed, praised, or grieved. It will be, in short, normalized. But until then, the runner is able to savor his captivation to a maddening anticipation that quite deliciously refuses to be shared. In the race, this madness finds its full expression and its utter and singular isolation.

Good luck to the fall marathoners. My prayer for you is this: may you each be touched, on race day, with a bit of madness. And may you be courageous enough to embrace it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Physical Education and Democratic Virtue

I thought this was a nice article on education in America as well as on the way to approach problems in a democracy. One of the thing that bothers me most about the current political scene is its strange radicalism. You have middle class folks who are enmeshed in all of these various systems, none of which are perfect but all of which are at the very least functioning--some of them functioning quite well--and the most complex criticism that folks have is that the system must be absolutely broken and has to be radically reformed.

This way of thinking leads to the two primary vices of our political discourse: ideological blindness and naive utopianism. It's behind the push from the right to undermine government as such, the attacks on taxation as such or any idea that smacks of social concern. It's behind radicalism on the left that boils all objections down to greed, racism or class conflict. These bankrupt forms of political discourse are grounded, uncannily, in the most moderate forms of life: the middle class folks who are living fairly well, saving some money, working a job, more or less carrying out an ordinary life in, historically speaking, an extraordinary social scene: a democratic country.

How to account for the emergence of a radical political discourse among the benign form of life that makes up the majority of 21st century living in America? I have my theories. We're not so well built for banality. We need war and sacrifice and all that. So, the best way to get it is to watch it on the TV screen, get it vicariously through the popular theatre of political campaign. Yeah, we need that art. The political theater: a way to release the sour aggression of banal life. However, so long as politics remains theater, it will serve a mere psychological function--not a political one.

Ideological blindness and naive utopianism are vicious because they are impediments to thinking through difficult issues where multiple conflicting values are at stake. Living in a democracy requires understanding that my view, the way I see things, the way I would like the world to be, has to coexist with a variety of other views that are in direct tension with what I want. That's what it means to live in a democracy, and it is from this position that political discussion begins and ends. (Here I show my cards as a militant moderate; others will say, for example, that political discussion ought to begin and end with a strict and literal interpretation of the founding documents or that it ought to begin and end with a discussion of the racism and coloniality embedded in the American experiment, etc. etc.--pluralism will always rear its head.)

Ideological blindness denies the deep pluralism that is the hallmark of a democratic social scene: it claims to know the truth, absolutely, and pretends not to see that there are multiple world views that are internally consistent and yet fundamentally at odds with other points of view.

Naive utopianism also denies the pluralism of democratic life because it imagines a single form of life as "American" (say, the white middle class from the '50s or a kind of Jeffersonian agrarianism or a cowboy rugged individualism or Berkeleyan multiculturalism) as being the form of life that everyone is striving for, then pretends that the problem of politics is that no one else is working towards that ideal. The reality for most people is simply that, as the Talking Heads sing, "I wouldn't live there, if you paid me."

These two vices lead to a kind of "crisis" form of politics--a paranoid revolutionary politics intent on discovering the conspiracy behind the reasons why one particular agenda is not being carried forward. There must be an enemy keeping me from my utopia: it can't just be the fact that other people don't want to live there! Why don't other people agree with my ideas: they must be insane or have a mental disorder! And so, to go back to the article, you get teachers unions vs. reformers. Or KIPP schools vs. plain old public schools. Or elite liberal arts schools vs. public state schools. In other words, we find comfort in the same old battles: you get war, not problem solving.

Democratic problem solving requires coalition and compromise. It means tweaking, regulating, relaxing. It takes imagination, critical imagination. It is slow, and you never get everything you want. in short, it demands growing up, being an adult, realizing briefly and sporadically that you are one of many, not quite the center of the universe. That's what it's going to take to solve all of the real problems that you mention. Not just anger, more than that. Maybe that's my own naive utopia, my own radical politics. But as Bob Dylan put it: "I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours."

These are political issues, mostly, and it's hard to think that sport has a place in settling these issues, but a recent article in the New York Times by the philosopher/boxer Gordon Marino on the sweet science of boxing is helpful for thinking about how sports might serve an indirect political function. At stake in this article is exactly what to do with what seems like a natural need for aggression and what William James called "the strenuous mood" that sometimes accompanies it.

So, let's put the question out there. Do we have natural tendencies to aggression that sports can help us sublimate? Or do these activities teach us to be violent, as I am alleging that the contemporary political theater does? I think they can do either one, depending on how they are taught, and to what ends. Is the end of athletic endeavor the development of virtue or is its function one of winning at all costs? There you have the difference between physical education and the education of violence.

Experience and figures like Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson, Marion Jones, and Floyd Landis shows that there is no necessary relationship between sports and virtue. So much depends on what we are using sport for. I've been lucky to have great coaches who taught me to think of running as a skill of personal development; they gave me the gift of a lifelong activity that I can return to as a mode of self care. When I am running, I am calmer, more relaxed, less prone to misbehave. While my running appears from the outside to be grueling and ascetic, I find it quite pleasurable, relaxing, and calming, and I think it's because of a key point that Dr. Marino mentions. Running gives me courage by helping me separate out actual pain from anxiety about pain. Marino puts it like this: "If they stick with it for a few months, their fears diminish; they can begin to see things in the ring that their emotions blinded them to before. More importantly, they become more at home with feeling afraid. Fear is painful, but it can be faced, and in time a boxer learns not to panic about the blows that will be coming his way."

I would teach this point explicitly to my runners as a coach. Our mantra for races was "the worst pain is the imagined pain." To run well, you can't be thinking of the pain to come: you have to relax and run through whatever pain is there. This takes courage. The immediacy of sport, where courage brings real consequences, is something that our virtually connected culture misses. You can make comments online anonymously--you can inflict pain, without courage, with no consequences. A sport like boxing, cross country, football, can bring courage into clear view because the effects of courage are immediately seen.

On effect of an overly mediated virtual culture is the elimination of immediacy from the way we experience politics, so that the effects of our words and actions are not immediately felt. Is it possible to apply the lessons that sport can teach us about virtue--the courage to relax in fearful states, the patience and adaptability of method that is a cornerstone of proper training, the attunement to the effects of our action in immediate experience--to the political realm?

It seems unlikely, unless concrete bridges between sport and politics are drawn, unless a real physical education is developed. This would be a physical education not just concerned with the health of our bodies, but one interested in drawing connections between the practices of self care and the practices of community care. My sense is that the health of our political communities is written on our bodies, that these healths are profoundly and deeply connected. Unfortunately, today, for a variety of reasons, we have too few coaches who are philosophers--and too few philosophers who would be coaches. It is up to coaches, athletes, and educational administrators, and also ordinary folks to begin to make these connections explicit and thereby make them more intelligent.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Philosophy, Running, and Synthesis

"That first feeling of something violent and resistless happening in the world at large, is accompanied by a hardly less primitive sense of something gently seething within me, a smouldering life which that alien energy blows upon me and causes to start into flame. If this be not the inmost texture of experience, I do not know what experience is."
--George Santayana, "Belief in Substance"

The American philosophers, folks like Emerson, James, Santayana, Dewey and their inheritors, took as one of their primary philosophical goals the articulation of the meaning of experience. They thought that much of modern philosophy thus far had been based on a false presumption, namely that there is a yawning metaphysical gap between the individual mind and the world that it perceives, and they thought that they could articulate a new way of doing philosophy based in and on a new way of viewing experience.

The false presumption of modern philosophy, like all false presumptions, has a lot going for it. We do seem to carry around this "I" that is with us wherever we go. Kant had a fancy name for it: the transcendental unity of apperception. The world comes to us, at almost all moments, as owned by a very particular person, by a very particular perspective. I do not see all the world, but only a very small and select part of it. My eyes at any one moment carve out a cone of vision, and what I do not see only exists in my imagination, which is a paltry thing indeed. The perceptive mind--these ethereal cones of vision supplemented by imagination--seems so unlike what we've come to know of as the world--that hard and raging and enormous and deadly whirl of solid objects, open spaces, gravity and fire, wolves and buffalo, water and wind--that to the modern mind they seemed to be made of absolutely different metaphysical substances. The mind one thing, the world something absolutely different and mysteriously irreconcilable.

The Americans took a different approach. They posited a world of pure experience, noting that the word can be taken in two senses. The first is the subjective sense, which tracks the qualities of mind. The second is the objective sense, which tracks the qualities of the world. The problem was not to reconcile these, to somehow figure out how one could be reduced to the other, but to look at the interaction between them. The problem of philosophy was how to make the interactions between our minds--those limited cones of vision and fantastic realms of imagination--and the world--that seething and powerful realm of objects, animals, weather, and others--better. This was their philosophical method, the method of pragmatism, which did not look to reduce one side of the equation to the other, but took the practical question of how to relate these sides, one to the other, more fully. The pragmatists didn't look for answers or for truth about which side of the equation was more fundamental. Their attitude was melioristic and fundamentally ethical, not metaphysical: they wanted to know how we could make better the lives that are forged out of interactions between self and world.

The key to this task was articulating a concept of experience that was essentially synthetic. Both self and world occur in experience. Experience includes both mind and body. Experience includes the feelings of pain, the rhythms of running, the calculations of effort as well as the long and winding road, your fellow competitors, hills, and the hot sun. The runner engaged in his task does not get caught up in metaphysical questions about whether his mind is more real than the pavement beneath his feet. The runner is attentive to all of the modes of experience, and as he moves down the road, the subjective and objective modes mingle and mix. The road itself takes on the qualities of the effort. It becomes long and hot. Hills become hard, measured in burning paces. A breeze takes on the qualities of freshness, winds become stiff. A primary reason that I value running is just this capacity that running has to integrate experience.

When we take up a skill with something approaching expertise, breaking the qualities of the task down into their subjective and objective aspects becomes increasingly artificial because we know these are always mixed. I suppose this is part of the reason that I resist so many of the new technologies that are meant to help us analyze our running. Analysis is important and intelligence depends on it. But equally important to intelligence is synthesis. Running logs, watches, garmins, and heart rate monitors teach us to break a run up into its component parts. But they do not teach us how to put it together.

Someone asked me the other day why I write this blog. What's the point? I suppose that it is an attempt to put things back together, at least momentarily. This, in the end, is the discipline of philosophy, the last synthetic mode of intelligence. Among all of the disciplines intent upon ripping the world apart in the search of nuggets of knowledge and information, mining it for gold, like the catacombed mountain of Potosi, philosophy stands alone in its synthetic quest.

The moderns thought that it was possible to unite world and mind, to reduce the one to the other with tricks of logic. They hoped for a total synthesis. For us postmoderns, that seems an impossible task. For us philosophy is a noble and tragic sort of thing, not a search for final and transcendent perceptions, but a temporal process of living. To take up philosophy is to give one's self a synthetic task among an over-analyzed life. It is to try to see life as a whole, to try to live it as a unity, amid and among all of its moving and sometimes divergent parts. This seems like a task worth trying, to me, even if the final destiny of both minds and body is to end up scattered and vacant, dispersed to the four winds, returned to the wild and seething violence of the world. Like the runs we embark upon daily, whatever insights we attain into life, are temporal, hard won, and doomed someday to disappear.

It takes courage to head out the door anyways, to confront the violent and resistless happening and to glimpse against that backdrop that primitive and febrile vitality that is me.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Gurus, Toads, Earthquakes, and Training

People conceptualize conditioning in different ways. ... Some think it's a ladder straight up. Others see plateaus, blockages, ceilings. I see it as a geometric spiraling upward, with each spin of the circle taking you a different distance upward. Some spins may even take you downward, just gathering momentum for the next upswing. Sometimes you will work your fanny off and see very little gain, other times you will amaze yourself and not really know why. Training is training, it all seems to blend together after a while. What is going on inside is just a big puzzle...
--Bruce Denton, from Once a Runner

On the running message boards, training theories proliferate. Once you've read them for long enough, you begin to see that it's always the same sorts of questions: how best should I train? How should I combine my workouts? What kind of mileage should I be running? What's a tempo run? How fast should it be? How long should I taper? What about strides? Easy pace? Long runs?

The questions recur, new runners plying the wisdom of the experienced and usually coming away disappointed. Experienced runners hardly ever answer training questions directly. They usually either criticize the question or they offer up vague aphorisms. "Run more." "Go by feel." Or, "You are sweating the small stuff." "Just run, baby."

The experienced runner gives non-answers because he knows he doesn't know. One of my favorite internet running board gurus is a guy named Nobby. He's a Japanese guy who loves Arthur Lydiard and has coached a number of elite runners in Japan and in the U.S. His English is sort of perfectly second language, and it adds a type of guru charm to his posts. But the very best thing about Nobby's posts is that they will take a seemingly straightforward question and make it multiply and variegate and shift into a fractured and spiraling narrative replete with digressions about topics as varied as nutrition, cultural differences, running shoe construction, "famous" unknown female Japanese marathoners from the 70s, etc., etc. His posts are tomes by message board standards,often running upwards of 500 words, sometimes in a single paragraph. He is a master at deconstructing running questions. He's basically the Jacques Derrida of the running scene. (Here's a more or less typical Nobby reply.)

The mastery of Nobby's responses has nothing to do with the information he gives. You are as likely to find concrete information about how to train from Nobby's posts are as you are to find concrete strategies for business success in Of Grammatology. (Here's a more or less typical excerpt from Derrida.) What Nobby does supply is the right attitude for training. His replies about training mirror training itself, just as the wild and dispersive weave of Derrida's philosophy can also track life. There are no bullet points, just an endless flow of words masking themselves as understanding.

We want training to be a ladder, like Denton says. We wish life were as simple as Stephen Covey makes it out to be: able to be mastered through the acquisition of seven essential habits, like seven steps to the top of the world. But training is not like this. It is like Denton's spiral. Its effects are mostly hidden, its logic a-linear and irrational, its magic dark. Training works like Nobby's internet posts: often long and dull, seemingly leading nowhere, but occasionally yielding diamonds when we least expect them. Nobby doesn't know how to tell you to train. He can only write about training. And in precisely the same fashion, we don't ever know how to train. This is what's so hard to tell the new runner who comes to you with a question. I've been doing this for 20 years. I don't know. Really the main struggle is only how to keep training.

All this analysis of message board chatter is grounded in a thought I've been turning over lately. I've been in the training spiral pretty deeply for the last three years, and most of the swings of my fitness have been of the mundane sort. It's been a while since I've surprised myself in my racing. This thought had been bothering me a bit because like the rest of you runners I want the work in to lead directly to results out. I want the ladder, most of the time, because that's the simplest image of progress, the most familiar paradigm.

But I'm also familiar enough with the peculiar logic of long distance to know that Denton's picture is closer to the way training works. These slow and all too predictable movements in fitness are like "foreshocks," signals of an earthquake to come. I don't know when the event will come. I don't even know that it is coming. But, just as toads can predict earthquakes better than scientists, I've got a sense that thus far the few results I've had are really only harbingers, superficial indicators. I've sent the spiral down deep, and I'm not sure when it will come up. I hope I'll be ready when it does.

Six weeks to the marathon.
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