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.
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