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.