Showing posts from 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.

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 fixati…

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 moti…

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 importan…

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 friends…

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 piec…

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…

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 n…

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…

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. Tha…

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…

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 ha…

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 ali…


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 extraordin…

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…

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 ex…

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?