Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Drawing the Arrow, Some Reflections on our Historicity

"Consider the herd grazing before you. These animals do not know what yesterday and today are but leap about, eat, rest, digest, and leap again; and so from morning to night and from day to day, only briefly concerned with their pleasure and displeasure, enthralled by the moment and for that reason neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard for a man to see this, for he is proud of being human and not an animal and yet regards its happiness with envy because he wants nothing other than to live like the animal, neither bored nor in pain, yet wants it in vain because he does not want it like the animal. Man may well ask the animal: why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only look at me? The animal does want to answer and say: because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say--but then it already forgot this answer and remained silent: so man could only wonder."
--F. Nietzsche "On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life"

In this lovely passage, which is one of my favorite in all of philosophy, Nietzsche draws the line between the human and the animal in terms of the capacities of melancholy and boredom, linking them with remembering and forgetting. The human is the animal capable of leaving the moment--becoming melancholy, perhaps or bored, perhaps. This capacity of leaving the moment is closely tied to memory, of course, memory being the act of traveling with the mind, breaking the thrall of the moment and entering that dreamy realm of history, yesterday, and today.

When we run, we enter into the animal state--this is one of its allures. It allows us to escape our history and future with their attendant anxieties and enter into the protective thrall of the moment. Racing, particularly, is like this. Perhaps the reason we are able to find extra power in the race situation is that we have become animal for a short time. All of our capacities and powers are released into the present moment, and we are able to accomplish things that simply aren't possible in normal human consciousness--which always has some part of it reaching out of the moment in anticipation or memory.

When we train, however, we do so as humans. We place ourselves in a present that has a past and a future. John L. Parker described it as making yourself into an arrow in Again to Carthage. Animals race--they run down their quarry, they play together, dogs chase a frisbee or their owners. But animals don't train. Training requires a different order of intelligence because it requires memory--and out of that memory, imagination of a possible future. We make ourselves into an arrow that connects, or attempt to connect, the two.

Nietzsche worried that the confusion into which we are thrown by the vast and plural histories that fund our present would no longer allow us to imagine a future for ourselves. We wouldn't be able to intelligently draw an arrow from our multiple and divergent cultural memories to an imagined future. Perhaps this is a problem that plagues our current political process--we either regress to an overly simple view of America with a too-clearly-imagined-future or struggle to define a future because of over-sensitivity to all of the future's possibilities.

This is the disadvantage of memory: it imposes a burden upon you. It makes you draw an arrow. We remember, for example, being young and powerful and we dream of returning to that state. But is this an arrow that is possible to draw? Or is it simply melancholic nostalgia for a past that cannot be recreated. If the past is too powerful, too good, it can make us reject the future and create a melancholic temperament that mourns the loss of that idyllic past.

Of course this very burden of awareness of the past is also an advantage for humanity. It gives us a task, makes the future possible. These ghosts of memory can spur us to try to recreate them in the future. We remember our best races and wonder what it would feel like to run even faster. We think back on our failures and imagine what might have been--and work to bring what might have been into actuality.
The arrow upwards can be equally thrilling or demoralizing.

This idea that we are all arrows pointing from the stories we tell ourselves about who we were towards the stories we tell ourselves about who we might be, this relation to the past and future, is what philosophers call our "historicity." We are, fundamentally, historical beings--this is Nietzsche's point.

Perhaps Nietzsche's most important contribution to philosophy was to look at history not as a series of facts about what happens, but as a collection of stories that creates an arrow that points towards possible futures. Nietzsche urged in all of his work the idea that as human beings it was essential to intelligently recreate these stories on behalf of our lives. In other words, Nietzsche understood the truth of history in terms of its effect on our ability to draw an arrow to a possible future arising out of that history.

This is a remarkable idea. But I think it is one that runners can understand well if they reflect on their own training. We all have goals for the future based on our pasts. Our training is oriented by these arrows. But sometimes the stories we tell ourselves about our running history can limit our future development. After each race, we place that race into the narrative of our lives as a runner. We connect it to other events in a way that makes sense. We historicize it. The question that Nietzsche poses to us is how thoughtfully do we historicize these events? Do the stories we tell about our racing limit us in certain ways? What futures do they create for us? And what futures do these stories prevent?

By giving us these sorts of questions, Nietzsche allows us to make a critical inquiry into who we are as runners. This is something that animals don't do. It takes a lot of energy, and it is not always a productive enterprise. It has its advantages (the possibility of new goals) and disadvantages (melancholy and rumination). People will say that you think too much.

But, Nietzsche reminds us, this sort of engagement with the past--this wondering--is what makes us human. Perhaps if we give ourselves to it completely, we can find in certain moments the animal in the human, the joy in reflection. In these moments, we philosophize with neither melancholy nor boredom, but with something like the thrall of the reflective moment. It's in these rare moments that we find the unique power of human consciousness--the possibility that we can make ourselves anew.

Isn't this the possibility that drives our running and indeed our lives?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Rethinking How to Train, Continued

"The true romance which the world exists to realize is the transformation of genius to practical power." --R.W. Emerson, "Experience."

One of my fundamental philosophical convictions is that intelligence is primarily about attention. The reason why attention is so important is because we have limited "bandwidth" for processing. Sure, people who score high on the SAT maybe have a bit broader (or more intense) bandwidth than the rest. However, given the amount of information that we all have at our disposal for living, the relative difference in processing power among individual minds pales in comparison to the question of what those minds decide to process. This question of what we decide to devote our minds to is essentially the question of attention. Since this is such an important question, it's important that we turn a bit of our bandwidth to it every now and then.

Yeah, I'm basically talking about thinking outside the box. Or at least in a different box. [A thought to chew on: when we do philosophy, what we are doing is creating new modes of attention.]

Concepts are the means through which we focus our attention, which is why they are so important for analysis. They are basically names for the content our attention takes up. When we argue about the fundamental concepts of training, what we mean by "fundamental" is something like "that which we ought to turn our attention towards most fully." Quality, volume, variation, form, pace, long runs, weekly mileage, aerobic development, speed, interval training, specific fitness, general fitness, strength, VO2max, lactic threshold--each of these concepts turns our attention to some aspect of the training process. The invention of a new concept invites a new mode of attention for intelligence.

In a late October post, I talked about shifting the focus of my training away from the concept of mileage and more towards the concepts of recovery and development. Before this shift, my primary question when planning my week or my day was, "How many miles can I get in?" Sure, I also tried to get in a harder session a week, but this was an afterthought. Even races took a back seat to the mileage. I would "train through" both workouts and races, often doing a double the day before them. This was because I took weekly mileage to be the primary organizing concept of training. It's what I paid attention to: putting in the work.

Since I have turned my attention to recovery and development, the primary question I put to myself every week is something like: "How is my training progressing?" This question puts me in a very different mindset than the prior sort of question. Building on what came before may mean an easy week to absorb some prior work. It may mean pushing my tempo pace down 5 or 10 seconds. It may mean lengthening intervals or reducing recovery between them. But the primary difference between this sort of question and the prior question that oriented my training is that it requires that I position myself squarely in the "present" of my training. Instead of repeating a process mindlessly that could happen at any time to anybody, I have to imagine myself as a runner with a past and a future and ask, simply: "How does the present fit into that past and future in a progressive way?" Instead of looking for the final answer about The Right Way to Train, I ask smaller, melioristic, questions like, how can I get a little faster this week? The latter is a much more intelligent way of framing the attention.

In a recent message board post the Lydiard disciple Nobby Hashizume described training as a kind of wave: "Training and training effect is series of applying stress and your base fitness level going down; and taking recovery and let the base fitness to come up and go beyond. It's the wave of this activity." He's right; training is like riding a wave. You've got to constantly evaluate where you are on the wave, where you are headed, and try to figure out how to take that wave to the crest. Most fundamentally, Nobby reminds us, training is an interaction, a method of call and response.

If we don't attentively frame our training in the right way, we miss this interaction. That's what I called "training like a mule" or "taking shortcuts" in my last post. It's unintelligent training because it sees training as repetition, but ignores difference. Both repetition and difference must be balanced. Otherwise, we are simply applying a stimulus and hoping that it is the correct one, or that the body will respond in equal measure to the stimulus applied. This is stupidity masquerading as toughness, pig-headedness disguised as an iron will.

Since I reframed the basic questions with which I approached my training, I have had some success. I ran 26:53 for 5 miles in our local turkey trot, which is just about equivalent to my best racing at higher mileage levels. Plus, I closed my last mile in 5:04, which bodes well for future racing. Equally importantly, I have more energy for work during the day--as well as more excitement to RACE than I did when I was grinding out the miles. These are no small achievements, especially since running is only part of who I am.

Tomorrow I take a shot at running under 16 minutes on the road for the second time since college. It's going to be tough, and I'm not sure if I am ready for it just yet. But, if I don't make it, I already have in mind a few things I can do to keep riding the wave upwards. If I do run under 16 minutes, then I will find myself in a place I haven't been in quite some time: as fast as I've ever been and with possibilities for getting a little faster.

If this approach to training interests you, you might like this piece on how training for 5k can help your marathon.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Each Good Effort

The following is a guest post by new contributor Nader Abadir. He has his own blog, Sneakers and Books, which reflects on his religion and running. Check it out.

You will enjoy this one.

* * *

I don’t like to admit it, but I started running to lose weight. Worse yet, I got past the initial hurdles because I was captivated by the story of a famous “Ultramarathon Man.” Worst of all, I picked up that book because the dude on the cover was ripped.
I suppose these are “admissions” because I’d feel cooler if a Zenish statement -- like “Runners run.” -- had applied to me all along.

Like many new, middle-aged runners, I was active as a kid. I played organized baseball into my teens. I never hit for power, but was always proud of my speed. Mookie Wilson, Vince Coleman, Tim Raines, Lenny Dykstra, Rickey Henderson; these were the guys that got me excited. I had never heard the names Pre, Kennedy, or Rogers. “Salazar” evoked “Luis.” From about age 14, my afternoons, weekends and nights were consumed with pick-up basketball. At 5’ 6”, I wasn’t mixing it up in the low post (too much). But, I could race up and down the court with anyone.

As with many others, I put on a bunch of weight in college and grad school, mostly to impress a girl whose circle of friends included not a few football players. “You’re skinny,” she once said, poking my ribs. (I got the girl, the muscles and a lot more. Not a bad deal, on balance.)

Determined to return to my former fitness, I started running in my early 30s, first on a track. 1, 2, 7 and 9 miles, round and round. I am largely unaffected by cold (I warm up quickly) or the absence of external stimuli (To be out and moving and in presence of God; there is little sweeter to me.)

Like any other uncool newbie, my first race was the longest local race I could find: a half marathon which I completed in 2 hours and 14 minutes (!), in cotton (!!). My next big goal race was, of course, a marathon which I ran like a special ops mission. (Through the Hamptons. I know, right?)

About three years ago, I found my way to And, again -- romantic or not -- it was an Internet community that has made all the difference in my running. People on there started talking about running fast as well as far. A runner I admire a great deal, who goes by mikeymike, frequently emphasized training to race. I now realize that all that talk of racing sparked a connection with my first childhood loves: the intertwined joys of running fast and of competing. When we played hoops, we didn’t hate the other guys, but we sure wanted to beat them. We weren’t playing to get in shape or lose weight or “do cardio.” We played hard because, with nothing up for grabs, we wanted so badly to win. And, win or lose, we all went out for pizza afterwards.

Over the last year or so, my race times have really improved, thanks in very large part to Jeff (Yes, this Jeff.) I initially connected with him because, like me, he cares a lot about the relationships among running, spirituality, and philosophy. Under his (free and copious) guidance, I recently brought my half marathon time down to 1:29:51. This year, he admonished me to be more focused in my training and to do workouts in a logical order. I ran hills and drills. I sharpened. I treated races more like races and less like parades.

Nowadays, people ask me “When’s your next marathon?” I never get past “I’m actually trying to get faster at shorter-” before the person, visibly embarrassed for me, looks down and changes the subject. My need for approval (which sometimes feels pathological) notwithstanding, I won’t run a marathon any time soon. I may never run another marathon.

Like many of you, I do not really know why I run. Thankfully, I rarely have to answer that for anyone. I suspect it’s because television, magazines and pop-up ads have given them answers which they think are mine. Or maybe they just don’t care, which is just as well.

No matter what, I am firmly fixed in this thing called Running, which helps me forget at times, the thing in life that kills me most, that I spend most of my hours hunched over a desk, working for a living and not for something meaningful. But on many morning jogs -- snot dripping over my lips as I greet day laborers waiting and hoping to earn something for their families -- I have had time to think that maybe this elusive “meaningful work” is just a nonsensical name for an illusory castle. I have learned on those runs to find meaning in the now, in the presence of God and man.

And, with each good effort, I become a better version of myself. I feel younger, stronger, more secure and more free. I peel away another layer of slowness and weakness. I have reached the fast end of slow and I am grateful for that.

There are mornings I can’t get the legs moving. Then, in a low voice, “Runner’s run.” Yep. And, with a grunt, I am off.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Technological Devices and Focal Practices

LLD is happy to present a guest post from friend Zach VanderVeen, author of The Garden of Forking Paths blog on database design and philosophy. Zach has written a couple of posts before. Hope you enjoy!

The unity of achievement and enjoyment, of competence and consummation, is just one aspect of a central wholeness to which running restores us. Good running engages mind and body. Here the mind is more than an intelligence that happens to be housed in a body. Rather the mind is the sensitivity and the endurance of the body.
--Albert Borgmann
I recently wrote a post, in which I suggested that the problem with technology is that it can drown out important kinds of reflection. We often focus on how to get things done faster and more efficiently, not why we should do so. We separate the journey from the destination, or the means from the ends. But it's easy to complain about technology without showing how we can free ourselves from the tyranny of efficiency. Even if we were all able to retire to mountain cabins and live off the sweat of our own brow, it's probably not desirable for the majority of us. So how can we develop the right kind of relationship with technology? Borgmann suggests that running can show us the way.

Borgmann's main idea is captured by the distinction he makes between technological devices and what he calls 'focal practices.' Think about the difference between a cast iron stove in 1850's Montana and your modern ceramic induction range. The stove of yore touched upon almost every aspect of life and formed the focal point of a house. It had to be stoked early in the morning and gathered people together as its warmth slowly radiated throughout the house. It required splitting logs and maintaining tinder, and it made the smells of wood and food suffuse the air. It divided work amongst men, women, and children and oriented their daily activities from dawn to dusk.

Compare this with the stove of today, which, if used at all, hardly orients much of our daily lives--at least not for more than an hour or so. It turns on and off with the flick of a switch and is fed by gas or electricity piped in from who knows where. Its temperature is consistent, and any excess heat is whisked away by fans. It bakes cookies that burst from a tube and quickly boils water to reconstitute dehydrated meals.

These two stoves show that there are things that imbue our lives with meaning, because they provide focal points that direct what we do and how we do it. The cast iron stove structures both time and space. Technological devices like the induction range, on the other hand, have the tendency to remove these focal points and, consequently, the meaning that accompanies them. The mark of a good device, like the car or the telephone, is that you can forget about it to worry about more important matters. This isn't always a bad thing, as newer technologies freed people--especially women--from the drudgery of repetitive and time-consuming tasks. But now we have freed up so much time that we have trouble filling it in a meaningful way.

I think this is the reason a lot of people turn to running. Running is a focal practice. It unites sun and rain, spring and fall, the trail and the pavement, health and excess, pleasure and pain, competition and leisure, gadgets and nature, teamwork and isolation, mind and body, reflection and zen-like thoughtlessness. Borgmann says, "Running is simply to move through time and space, step-by-step. But there is splendor in that simplicity." Experiencing your neighborhood at 6 miles an hour is completely different from driving through it at 35. And running doesn't just structure time and space while you're running. Running orients my days and nights, my weeks and weekends, my diet, and my understanding of how places are connected.

Furthermore, focal practices like running help us figure out what to do with the rest of our lives. They provide a baseline by which we can judge what we really need and what we don't, and they show us how to use devices in the right way. iPods in themselves provide our lives with little meaning. It's the runs, the meals, the parties, the drives, and the work that provide an orientation for their use. You need a good place to run, friends to eat with, events to celebrate, destinations to drive to, and meaningful work in order for the iPod to do its work. Don't let the iPod replace those reasons to run.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Runner's Take on Occupy Wall Street

"Let us then place belief midway between certitude and nihilism. Let us see it characterized by trust, by affection, by a sense of novelty and by hope. Those traditions, especially religious, which have told us through the centuries that we know, for sure, the objects of our belief, have violated not only the character of genuine belief but also the mysterious openness of genuine religious experience. It is a deep tragedy that so much of our energy is expended in explicating and defending caricatures of our once viable traditions. ... [S]elf righteous interpretations of what is fundamentally inexplicable have divided us one from the other and cut us off from the human quest. In sociological terms, belief must cease its relationship to finality; it must turn to the future instead of the past." --John McDermott, The Community of Experience
John McDermott

I do not often write directly about politics on this blog, primarily because philosophy and running are escapes for me from an overwrought and underthought political scene. The connections between these three things--running, politics, and philosophy--are not obvious. They must be actively made, as the subtitle of the blog indicates. Something that is made can be unmade, and can be made poorly or well. Then, even if it is made well, it might be useful for some purposes and not others. At any rate, before beginning a political post, I just thought a sort of disclaimer might be in order--neither running nor philosophy necessarily lead in any logical way to certain political positions. The logical connections are always held and made through our thoughts, actions, temperaments, circumstances, efforts, and reflection. This is the "logic" of politics--the logic of ordinary life.

The above quote by John McDermott holds that belief is a midway sort of state. Running provides excellent examples of this. When we step to the starting line of a race, we have to believe in ourselves, believe that we are capable of running a certain time. This belief is something like a frame of mind that takes effort to hold and construct, and it guides our actions, gives us comfort, provides us hope, and--sometimes--allows us to achieve our goals. McDermott reminds us in this passage that we know beliefs by their function in experience. Their meaning and truth is found in how we hold them, and what they do for us. When we believe that we can run a certain time, we do not know it with certainty. Instead, we hold it with an attitude of trust and faith in our abilities to achieve. The race experience reminds us that the crucial quality of belief is not its having been determined to be true in the past, but the determination it gives us to fight for a possible future.

The beliefs that we hold at the starting lines of races are forged out of experience and effort. They are not arbitrary, and they are more likely to be realistic and serve their purpose of calling forth new capacities if they have been carefully and attentively made. The undertrained marathoner holds his belief in his ability to run a certain time in a very different way than the marathoner who has been through the trials of miles, and rightfully so. While the undertrained marathoner may be more certain of his ability to achieve his goal (depending on his ambitions), the well-trained runner has more faith in his belief--it means more to him; he holds his belief with affection and may call on this affect in times of distress.

As citizens of a democracy, we are asked to carry with us certain beliefs as well. These beliefs are well-known to all of us. We believe in equality, justice, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. We are asked to hold these political beliefs together as a community, with affection. None of these ideals are certain; when we believe in these things, we are asked to do so in order that we bring them into being and hold them in place with our effort.

It is cheesy to suggest it, but the ideals of democracy are similar in form to race goals. They are not certainties that we accept because they have already been achieved. They are, instead, dreams that we will have to work towards with much effort.The important point, here, is that beliefs are not possessed; they possess us and move us. The marathoner proves his belief in his goal by being affected by it in the last miles of the race, by drawing on it to give him strength to continue to fight. So, too, do we prove our belief in democracy.

This is where McDermott's take on religion is helpful as well. We can practice politics as "explicating and defending caricatures of our once viable traditions," and we can give "self-righteous interpretations" of the meaning of democracy, intended to divide us. Or, we can abandon our relationship with finality in politics and offer ourselves up to democratic experience, which like religious experience is vague, indeterminate, and fundamentally open. McDermott's point is that we live into and with our beliefs; they are not made through argument. We can talk politics all we like, but in the end we have to run the race; we have to live together.

The analogy to running is limited, however, because a race is an individual endeavor in an artificial context while democracy is a community endeavor in a real and messy world. One of these things is much harder than the other. When we believe in democracy, we have to form common beliefs. We have to share experience. To create a deeply rooted faith in democratic life, we have to pass through experiences together, and we cannot control these experiences with a watch or break them into intervals. Often times these experiences break us down instead of making us stronger.

However, we can practice democracy. I believe this is the challenge that the Occupy Wall Street protests puts to us. It asks us how well we have been occupying our democratic ideals. As Matt Taibbi puts it in his excellent Rolling Stone article:

That, to me, is what Occupy Wall Street is addressing. People don't know exactly what they want, but as one friend of mine put it, they know one thing: FUCK THIS SHIT! We want something different: a different life, with different values, or at least a chance at different values.

There was a lot of snickering in media circles, even by me, when I heard the protesters talking about how Liberty Square was offering a model for a new society, with free food and health care and so on. Obviously, a bunch of kids taking donations and giving away free food is not a long-term model for a new economic system.

But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it's at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned "democracy," tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.
The idea of occupying our democracy resonates with old American ideas. It reminds us that our beliefs are not precious gems to be fondled and protected or weapons with which we destroy our ideological opponents. Our beliefs are our deliberate ways of living; they are ways of occupying the world. When Thoreau wrote that he went to the woods to live deliberately, he was, in a sense, trying to occupy his life. This is what it means to be a free individual, to occupy your life, to occupy a place, to occupy a community, and to occupy your beliefs. The Wall Street protesters have chosen a different sort of wilderness to test their capacity for deliberation. They are not looking to take control of a single life, but simply asking whether it is possible to live together without fear in very heart of the democratic experiment.

Running provides me a space apart from the chatter and difficulty of contemporary life. It helps me carve out time away from screens and chairs, walls and air-conditioned spaces. It reminds me of my capacity for pleasure and pain. For these reasons, I choose to believe that it is a practice of hope and self-development. But it can be equally argued that running is also a naive escape, a waste of energy, an self-satisfied act of leisure. I could see it this way, and if I did for long, I would stop believing in its transformative potential.

Like running and everything else in life, Occupy Wall Street is not perfect. It is both a challenge to genuine politics and an escape from it. Like running, it can be construed positively or negatively, and that choice will have consequences for its continuation. I make the choice deliberately to believe in it, to advocate and articulate its metaphors and vision, and to see it as a challenge to my own practice of democracy and the choices I make in living it out.

The challenge that Occupy Wall Street poses to us is both simple and extraordinarily difficult. It asks us this question: Can we form a society in which we are able to live together in a dignified, joyful, and deliberate manner?

I don't know the answer to these question with any degree of certainty, but as a runner and a human being I am well practiced in the living form of belief that works outside of the range of the certain.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Richland Creek Loop

Bridge across Richland Creek
I run the same five miles pretty much every morning.

The beginning of the loop takes me through my neighborhood in West Nashville. Our part of town is half-industrial, half residential. Colonial-style houses from the 1920s mix with warehouses and rebuilt ranches from the late 70s. I start south on the road just west of the busiest street, 52nd Ave. It is straight, and though there are a few stop signs the traffic is light enough for me to keep my rhythm through the intersections.

A half mile ahead, 52nd Ave is cross cut somewhat violently by the mad and throbbing whirl of concrete overpasses that is I-40. I duck left one block, then head under a pigeon shit encrusted overpass. Usually I can cross the next couple of streets without breaking stride, and a quarter mile later I am at the intersection with Charlotte Ave. Here, I stop and wait for the cross lights. By this point the creakiness of early morning has worn off, and I've adjusted to the early morning chill.

When the light changes, I dart across the road, past the Catholic Church on the right, down a slight incline and up a short steep hill. Another 3 or 4 minutes down the road, just past the mile mark, I make a quick right turn onto the bike path that winds around the edge of the public golf course. The first part of this path dives down steeply into a pocket of night air that settles coldly in the small valley carved out by Richland Creek.

It's somewhere in here, maybe 10 minutes into the run, when all of the movements settle into their rhythms and consciousness changes. Running thoughts are somewhat like dreams. They drift in and out of the mind without leaving a deep trace, perhaps something like the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. They are not the sorts of thoughts we argue about on the internet or in the classroom. They don't compose a narrative or story or argument. They certainly do not aspire to the category of truth. Rather, they are on the order of appearance. One feels the mind without using it, like a Gary Snider poem or one of those rambling Dylan songs. Appearance, but not mere appearance.

I cross the creek over a bridge and take care to look at its levels. Lately we haven't had much rain, so the creek is calm, more interested in reflecting fall leaves than moving water. There is a hill after the creek which wakes me back up to the effort of my legs, reminds me to control the pace. Once crested, we wind back down through the woods to cross the creek again on a wooden bridge, my legs, the path, and I.

The second half of the loop takes me up a grade along the train tracks, then up again, and around the front side of the golf course. I nod to the early morning golfers and consider their arcing swings. There are maple trees scattered through the small parking lot, and on fall mornings like this one their leaves burn red and orange. Once past them, I am suddenly into the last two miles of the run. There is a long and gentle section of path that weaves downwards. If I am feeling good, I often remember past races or imagine future ones, and the pace approaches six minutes a mile. Like a horse, I smell the barn.

At four miles, I complete the lollipop section of the loop and cross a section of grass back onto the road. From here, it is a straight shot back to the house, with Charlotte Ave marking a sort of halfway point. It is a net downhill, and on crisp mornings I hope to hit a green light so that I can keep the rhythm going. Usually it doesn't work out, and so I stand at the corner, watching the morning commuters in their steel and plastic, shaking out the electricity in my legs until whatever mechanical timer runs its course and releases me across the street. I dart back under the hum of I-40, make a quick left, and a quick right back onto 52nd Ave.

The last section is literally a home stretch. Home is half a mile straight ahead. The street rolls ever so gently. I play with effort on the uphills and relaxation on the downhills, enjoying these last few moments. When I reach the corner across from my house, I stop. In a few seconds, my breath falls away and my heart returns to its quiet and quotidian rhythm.

This is how my days begin. The same run, every morning.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

On Art, Intelligence, and Training

John Dewey, American philosopher
"In art as experience, actuality and possibility or ideality, the new and the old, objective material and personal response, the individual and the universal, surface and depth, sense and meaning, are integrated in an experience in which they are all transfigured from the significance that belongs to them when isolated in reflection. 'Nature,' said Goethe, 'has neither kernel nor shell.' Only in esthetic experience is it also true that nature has neither subjective nor objective being; is neither individual nor universal, sensuous nor rational. The significance of art as experience is, therefore, incomparable for the adventure of philosophic thought."
 --John Dewey, Art as Experience

For Dewey and the pragmatists, analytic reflection, however necessary, is insufficient for intelligence because analytic reflection is always dissociative. Analysis always selects from experience, cutting it open by attending to this and not that. It makes progress by fixing certain variables with the attention and ignoring others. This way of slicing the universe up is absolutely essential to growth and progress, but if we confuse the distinctions that analysis makes for the nature of reality itself, then analytic reflection can stifle philosophical thought--the intelligent pursuit of wisdom.

Perhaps this is less of a problem for non-philosophers than it is for philosophers, who because of their commitment to the value of intelligence are uniquely prone to intellectual fallacies. The classic problems in philosophy, Dewey thought, committed a similar intellectual fallacy in the attempt to reduce all of experience to one analytic concept. So, for example, "objectivists" believe that the real world exists completely independent of any mind that would attempt to know it, while "subjectivists" argue that each of us can make our own reality simply by thinking it. The truth, as common sense tells us, is that neither position adequately grasps the relationship between reality and the mind. The history of philosophy has been a long wrangle between varieties of these sorts of reductive claims, neither side ever winning because both of them were essentially committing the same intellectualist error. They attempted to reduce all of experience to a single and one-sided idea that is perfectly useful for analysis, but wrongheaded when it comes to metaphysical speculation.

This is why Dewey wrote that "the significance of art as experience was incomparable for the adventure of philosophic thought." While analysis breaks the world apart, the experience of art is integrative. Art, both as product and as process of production, brings a divided world together. It is the sort of doing and experiencing that attempts to bring us into a more intimate and full relationship with reality. It takes a world that has been parceled out by our reflective capacities into various entities -- corporations, classes, races, nationalities, religions, political persuasions, friends, families, and enemies -- and attempts to bring these things into relation with each other. Art as an experience reminds us that the most essential task in living is not to divide our lives into parts through the understanding, but to learn how to balance in action its separate tasks in harmonious relation.

Here, as always, training provides a useful example. In order to be intelligent in training, we have to learn how to divide it up into its components. General concepts like variety, consistency, volume, periodization, recovery, frequency help us focus on various aspects of the training process. Physiological concepts like aerobic, anaerobic, lactic threshold, heart rate, perceived effort, cadence, etc. also allow us to break the effects of training on the body apart and look at its development from various angles. All of these concepts can help us to understand training.

However, understanding how training works from a variety of angles is very different from having a training philosophy. Producing a philosophy requires not only analytic intelligence, but also creative and synthetic intelligence. After the act of running has been broken apart into its various components, the runner must put the pieces back together in a particular way and create something like a philosophy--or at the very minimum, a plan.

I prefer the term "philosophy" to plan because as every runner knows plans have to be modified according to circumstances. Much more essential to proper training is having a way of approaching your running life that is balanced, flexible, and responsive--in short, living. This is the only form in which intelligence comes, as the only meaning of intelligence is nothing more or less than a way of living life that is in balance and growing and adapting to its environment.

Constructing such a philosophy is not something that happens overnight, but I suppose what Dewey would tell us is that when we are considering how to train well, we ought to extend our research beyond training manuals and old training logs. We also ought to also read novels, listen to music, and watch artists of other endeavors for signs of how to construct our own vision.

There is one trait that all of my best coaches had in common. They were all characters. They were quirky, bright, and different from the rest of the people that I met, each in their own way. I think this is because they realized that the secret to showing people the path to success was much less about understanding and more about deliberate and conscious attention to the unities that experience offers. They practiced coaching as an art.

Perhaps if you pay close attention to experience, you are bound turn out a little strange. That strangeness is a reflection of a simple fact: that one has learned how to extract from the world a secret or two that no one else has learned to see. These coaches were characters because there was something in them that tended to unity. You saw that they had fashioned for themselves a whole person, and even though that wholeness was quirky and couldn't really be understood, it was there, constructed out of a lifetime of attention and art.

This quirky integrity made you do a simple thing: pay attention. Which turned out to be the difference.

Bonus clip, from the Flying Monkey Marathon:

'Think Monkey' from Funky Umbrella on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rethinking How to Train

My training philosophy is shifting.

For the last four years, I trained like a mule. I focused on two things: piling up weekly mileage and tempo runs. The virtue of my plan was that it was simple. Run as much as you can and then do some faster stuff on tired legs. Every now and then I would make a half-hearted foray into hills or some mile repeats, but mostly I just piled up easy volume and moderate tempos and fartleks, week after week.

Ain't nothing wrong with a mule.
This approach got me post-collegiate PRs at every distance. I got stronger and faster. It worked, in a way. But a few things began to bother me.

First, my marathon only improved a little over 2 minutes--a mere 4 seconds a mile--over the course of 4 years [if you are doing the math, that is one second per mile per year!], even though I had essentially doubled the volume of running that I was doing. Second, I wasn't making legitimate progress towards the two goals I had when I started this whole project back in 2007: beat my college PRs and run under 2:30 in the marathon. Third, I was dealing with a series of nagging injuries and daily fatigue that was at levels that didn't make me feel great. Fourth and finally, there was the sinking revelation that if I was going to take my marathon PR to another level I would have to do MORE than what I had done before. Yikes!

So, for the first time in way too long, I listened to my body (and mind) and shut it down. I stopped worrying about my weekly volume. I took days off. I stopped thinking so much about my racing goals or fitness and slipped back gently into the steady thirty or so mile per week routine of the runner who runs because, well, he enjoys it.

I stayed there for about 9 months. Then, out of the blue, a couple of months ago, I was invited to race in a cross-country race. Turns out it didn't go great, but it didn't go too badly either for a guy who wasn't really training. More importantly, it ignited once more The Itch.

But this time around, I am going to be smarter. I swear.

Training, like living, is an art and a science, with both quantitative and qualitative dimensions.
A quick word about my dumbness: Like many of you, the internet resources on running were a revelation to me. I got on sites like and and saw what others were doing--elites and normal runners--and it literally blew my mind. I saw that I could be working harder, smarter, better. Doing things differently.

But I also believe that I over-reacted a bit to the prevailing internet wisdom, which was that running volume is the key to success. 100 mile weeks. Or at least I misunderstood what that meant. I read it as a shortcut, which is a sort of strange way to put it because you wouldn't normally think of running 100mpw as a shortcut. It sounds like something that takes a lot of discipline and hard work.

It was a shortcut, though, because what I proceeded to do was throw most of what I had learned in 12-15 years of running out of my mind and just try to get to where I could run 100mpw, mostly in easy mileage, because that was the sum of internet wisdom (or at least how I read it.)

I had some success doing this, but one fact haunted me--the simple fact that I ran quite a bit faster on 60mpw in college. Not just that, but this training felt different than it did when I was making progress as a young runner. I felt tired a lot. I felt slow. I did not feel sharp. I did not want to race frequently. It took me a while (maybe too long because I am a stubborn person and also because I wanted to see the experiment through) to come to the realization that this was a shortcut. That maybe it would take me 5 years of time to get to where I could run 100mpw and feel sharp doing it. That even though I ran in college and was a "good" runner, did not mean that I could just do the 100mpw thing. Even though the key to running fast is aerobic fitness, that the method to becoming aerobically fit meant paying more attention to development than to volume.

Sounds good in the abstract, but what does this mean in the concrete? I am trying a few new things.
1) Short doubles. My easy days are broken into two 5 mile runs. This gets me to a sweet spot in volume for me (70ish mpw) with minimal stress.
2) A regular day off. I am shooting for the 8th day or so. I get in a full "week" of 75miles, then take a day to absorb it.
3) For now, limiting the long run to 10-11 miles.
4) Running two workouts a week. Thus far, these have been aerobically oriented, but one workout does include a hard mile. Workout #1: 6 x mile w/90s easy run (hitting 5:45-5:30). Workout #2: One mile w/u, 5 miles tempo (~HM-MP effort), 1 mile easy, 1 mile hard (under 5:30).

I am about 6 weeks into this training, and I am going to race a 5 miler this weekend, so we will see how it goes. I have been feeling strong on my runs and have noticed a few things that are promising. It takes me almost no time to feel warmed up (I can run 7:00 pace out the door), and my nagging injuries are gone. I feel perfectly healthy for the first time in 4 years. Perhaps most promising, I can begin to feel a little power back in my stride.

It feels good to feel good again, if you know what I mean.

(For a three month update on this, read: Rethinking How to Train, Continued and a six month update, read 5 thoughts on how training for a 5k can help your marathon.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Looking Back

I've never done one of these sorts of posts, but I've had a chance lately to go back through the logic to think about some of the better pieces I've written over the last couple of years. Since I started writing the blog, I've written 130+ posts--most of them over the last two years--and run over 5000 miles.

Anyhow, here are some of what I consider the highlights:

How it works
This is how it works:

Training is doing your homework. It's not exciting. More often than not it's tedious. There is certainly no glory in it. But you stick with it, over time, and incrementally through no specific session, your body changes. Your mind becomes calloused to effort. You stop thinking of running as difficult or interesting or magical. It just becomes what you do. It becomes a habit.

Workouts too become like this. Intervals, tempos, strides, hills. You go to the track, to the bottom of a hill, and your body finds the effort. You do your homework. That's training. Repetition--building deep habits, building a runner's body and a runner's mind. You do your homework, not obsessively, just regularly. Over time you grow to realize that the most important workout that you will do is the easy hour run. That's the run that makes everything else possible. You live like a clock.

After weeks of this, you will have a month of it. After months of it, you will have a year of it.

Then, after you have done this for maybe three or four years, you will wake up one morning in a hotel room at about 4:30am and do the things you have always done. You eat some instant oatmeal. Drink some Gatorade. Put on your shorts, socks, shoes, your watch. This time, though, instead of heading out alone for a solitary hour, you will head towards a big crowd of people. A few of them will be like you: they will have a lean, hungry look around their eyes, wooden legs. You will nod in their direction. Most of the rest will be distracted, talking among their friends, smiling like they are at the mall, unaware of the great and magical event that is about to take place.

You'll find your way to a tiny little space of solitude and wait anxiously, feeling the tang of adrenaline in your legs. You'll stand there and take a deep breath, like it's your last. An anthem will play. A gun will sound.

Then you will run.

Why I Run
I can't speak for anyone else, but at a certain point the experience of running surpassed in value, and by a pretty wide margin, my desire to make sense out of it.

I don't know why I run. I don't know why I race. I don't know why I compete. I don't need to know. Because running means more to me than curiosity. It goes deeper than knowledge. I run. I compete. I move on down the line. I'm a runner.

For us runners, the question of “why” is pretty moot. Not because it may not be interesting, or important, from a certain point of view, but because we’ve left the question of the meaning of running behind. After all the questions have been asked, and all the answers given, in spite of the disagreement on essences, physiology, rationales, training strategies, trail running, road racing, i-pod wearing, mid-foot striking, turnover cadences, arm carriages, Jack Daniels, Arthur Lydiard, 20 miles a week or 100, 5k or the 50k, whether it's really the Miles of Trials or the Trial of Miles, after all the words have been spoken and keyboards have been pounded, meanings given and ideologies subverted... After all this, we runners bend down and tighten the laces, open the door, brace for the cold and are renewed: another godawful, glorious, and meaningless 8 miler.

Lords of the Sidewalk

The Tempo Run as Art

The Sickness of Running
We have the health of endurance, the ability to go on, the strength to not only run for hours, but toenjoy our bodies and the sensations they give us when they are working. We need almost nothing at all to find our happiness: only a few hours, a stretch of road, perhaps a friend, or even better a competitor. We hide in our spindled chests an unusually large and heaving heart--and in our heads a warbled tune, a song, as we move on down the road. Do you know the feeling I know? When your legs have disappeared, and there is only your heart, your lungs, and your eyes skimming disembodied through the air? We are Aristotle's featherless bipeds, we runners. Though we have no wings, we have taught ourselves to fly.

Passion and Discipline

Half-Steppers, etc

Understanding the Body, Becoming a Body

And, one that I did not write--written by Guest Blogger Scout7, which remains uber-popular:
How to Run Like a Stoic

Thanks for reading! And keep running!


Monday, October 17, 2011

Staying Motivated

Something I wrote a while ago on staying motivated on our local message board is being passed around online (just recently on the I <3 to run facebook page.) Thought I would claim it for posterity, though of course like all good thoughts, this is not just mine.

* * *

There are no tricks. Run because you have to. Run because you love it. Run because you want to be fast. Run because you want to be skinny. Run to find some quiet time. Run to sweat. Run to eat. Run to hear your heart pound in your ears. Run because you're a runner. Run because you gotta keep the streak. Run because you don't know why the hell you're running. Run because you fought with your partner. Run because your job is shitty. Run because you got no money. Run for the sunrise. Run for a race. Run because it's impossible. Run because it's easy. Run instead of doing the laundry. Run instead of watching TV. Run because no one else understands. Run because the cool kids do it. Run because you're tired of talking. Run for numbers. Run for feel. Run to prove something. Run because it f***ing hurts. Or don't run. If you got something better to do.

* * *

As for me, right now I am in a groove and can find many reasons to run. Hope you are running well too!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Good Run.

Good runs happen when you least expect them, and sometimes when you most need them. Tonight was a good one.

Lately I have been feeling knotted up in my running. My body seems to be working at cross-purposes, the muscles creaking, inflexible, and out of order. I can sense strength beneath all the struggle, but it rarely shows itself. My psyche gets like this, too, its different parts at war with itself. So much energy is wasted on unseen and absurd battles, inchoate and internal strife.

The incredible thing about a great run is that the body simply loosens up and begins to go. The feeling is effortless because there is no internal resistance. These are the moments in which we feel as if we are born to run. What we mean by this is simply that running can be a state in which living is not a chore or a task, but simply a happening. Instead of fighting against life, we are born into it and "borne" by it, floating upon it. Experience responds to effort in harmony, as in a song. Effort is rewarded by speed, life gives back what we put into it, and we capture a glimpse of what it means to be free.

It is tempting in these moments to say: this is why I run.

But I guess I also want to think that these moments are created by the blockages. As we are blocked up, energy is being held in reserve, like water in a reservoir. Suddenly, these dams can break, and we are caught up in the exhilaration of flow. Tonight I could roll because I had been getting out there on weary legs, despite being tired and less full of running. Because of the fight, I was able to be free. I'm not sure how far the analogy can be extended beyond running. Do the difficult moments in life prepare us for happiness? Is joy funded by torment, anger, and despair? Is the faith that we place in life deepened and enriched by our deepest doubts?

In an essay I read this morning, Jonathan Lear describes Socratic irony as a practice of wisdom. He says its function is to reveal the difference between pretense and aspiration. In each activity that we undertake, we carry some sort of pretense. We act as if we are intelligent. We act as if we want justice and truth. We act as if we are happy, strong, and in control. We act as if we love our friends and companions. This is pretense. Of course, we also aspire to these things, and to take up a philosophical attitude is to inquire into whether we really are intelligent, whether we really do want justice and truth, whether we really are happy, strong, and in control. Whether we really are capable of love. Philosophy checks our pretenses against our aspirations: it tries to find the reality beneath appearances, and to release it.

This is difficult. The aspirational attitude of philosophy is difficult to maintain, and it can wear us down in its constant scrutiny of pretense. And even when we uncover our own pretenses, it can be more difficult to change them. Fortunately, the rawness of experience sometimes bubbles through in its glorious and sometimes painful intimacy and reminds us that there is something beyond the difficult and ideal dialectic of pretense and aspiration. The good run shatters the distance between the runner we pretend to be and the runner we aspire to be, and we simply find ourselves as the runner we are.

Afterwards, perhaps, the traces of power that we felt during the gift of the good run can rekindle the spark of aspiration. These traces challenge us to fashion a gift of our own to return to life: a body and mind capable of enjoying more fully the unexpected gifts of experience.

The good run is a blessing. If it could speak, it would say: "May your as ifs turn into really ares."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Running and Two Aspects of the Body

ESPN recently published its body issue, which has some pretty amazing photos of athletes in the nude. The pictures are a reminder of how the activities that we do form and shape our bodies--and how our bodies also move us to certain activities.

Runners are pretty body-conscious folks. This can be positive and negative. Being more attuned to our bodies means that we are more reflective about what we put into them, how they are resting, whether they are gaining or losing weight, how they look in a mirror, etc. This attentiveness to the body can be healthy. It can also be unhealthy, as the high incidence of eating disorders among competitive runners sadly attests.

One way to frame this attention to the body is through the concept of control. Distance runners are, in a certain sense, making an effort to control their bodies. Through training we sculpt and shape the body around a very particular purpose: running fast over a long distance. As every runner knows, the body is not always a compliant partner in this task. Like every object, it rebels to a certain extent from our efforts to control it, "liberating" itself from our attempt to dominate it and turn it to our purposes through injury, fatigue, depletion, and weakness.

We cannot dominate our bodies, this is one thing that running teaches. We have to interact with them, perhaps as an artist interacts with a piece of wood. (Incidentally, in this prefab world, this sort of intimate relationship with objects is increasingly rare, and the chance to regain this relation may be one reason we love to run.) Through this interaction, we don't precisely control the body, but perhaps we organize it along certain lines and through certain habits.

Gilles Deleuze helps us think about this notion of bodily organization through his concept of the "body without organs." This concept struck me as totally strange when I first encountered it. What could he possibly mean by a body without organs?

Deleuze is drawing on the Greek etymology of organ, from organon, which means something like "tool" or "instrument." "Organs" and "organization" both derive from this prior root. An organ is essentially an object that has been organized by nature or habit along certain lines for a particular function. The actuality of the body is its present organizational structure; its habits, traits, feelings, and emotions that it normally presents. This is the body with organs, the body as we see and understand it, the normal body with its normal organization.

The body without organs refers to the virtual dimension of the body. This is the part of the body that is the bodies we might become, the things it is possible for us to feel, the not-yet-organized parts of ourselves. It is strange to think of the body along these lines because we are so used to seeing our bodies and the bodies of others as clearly demarcated objects with very particular capacities. Our bodies seem very concrete to us, but Deleuze's concept reminds us that they are in-formation and in-decay at all moments. We have at every instant both an actual body and a virtual body. A body that is organized and a body that is becoming, in movement and in a kind of fertile or dangerous disarray.

Here, perhaps, you can see the body without organs emerge.
In my last post, I wrote about how racing tough requires breaking out of our preconceptions. There is a connection to be drawn here to Deleuze's concept of the body without organs. I think that in the latter stages of a race, we encounter our bodies in just this way: disorganized, dispersive, vague, whirling, and utterly strange. The virtual aspect of the body, the body without organs, overwhelms in a certain way the actual aspect. This is a pretty rare occurrence in everyday life, as normally we monitor the edges of our bodies cautiously so that their smells, movements, and functions do not bother us or other people. The community event of the race is a rare social moment when the task is not to monitor, but to let go of the body, to see if it could be something else, something different than it was before.

To return to the ESPN body images, these strike me as very classical shots. They present the body in various ideal forms and to a large degree present the body as an object that can be controlled and organized along very precise lines. However, these images disguise the virtuality of all of these bodies. We don't see the grimaces, the ice baths, the pain, the pills, the effort that went into the making of these bodies. We don't see the decline that they are bound to pass through. They are bodies that are perfect in their actuality, but invisible in their becoming.

I think this is why I find the pictures quite fragile in their beauty. If we remember the body without organs as we gaze upon these perfectly organized bodies, we become aware of the fact that a strong and able body is actually one of the rarest things in the world. When it is possessed, it is only for moments and instants, in the freeze frame of a camera. The rest is the wild and relentless urge, the body without organs, a teeming and pushing potentiality beneath the frozen frame of the actual.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Toughness as an Act of Imagination

"When watching for that distant clock to strike, our mind is so filled with its image that at every moment we think we hear the longed-for or dreaded sound. So of an awaited footstep. Every stir in the woods is for the hunter his game; for the fugitive his pursuers. Every bonnet in the street is momentarily taken by the lover to enshroud the head of his idol. The image in the mind is the attention; the preperception ... is half the perception of the looked-for thing." 
--William James, Principles of Psychology

When we talk about being mentally tough in running and racing, it is often unclear exactly what we mean. Most commonly we seem to imagine the tough individual as the one who can endure the most pain. Ascetic philosophers and religious figures through history have seen the encounter with pain as purifying in a certain way. Pain allows us to test the strength of our will by providing an obstacle to it, allowing us to distinguish the actions we choose from what has become ingrained habit. Through this test we learn to what extent we are in control of ourselves, and perhaps these lessons can be extended to other areas of life. This ascetic picture tends to draw a tidy relation between the quantity of pain that one endures and the quantity of willpower that one possesses. The more pain that one can endure, the stronger the will, the tougher the competitor.

Makau on his way to the WR.
However, runners know that the encounter with pain is not so straightforward as this picture assumes. Debilitating pain is, to borrow from the quote above, "the distant clock" that is bound to strike in every racing attempt. The early moments of every race are shaded by the effort that is to come--this is what allows us to pace properly; we anticipate--we preperceive the pain, and it colors our action in the early stages of racing. This is intelligence in racing, and in many ways the precise preperception of pain is what distinguishes experienced racers from new racers, allowing them to "ride the line" that will lead directly to a maximum effort. (The Science of Sport's recent analysis of Patrick Makau's marathon WR does a great job of showing how thin that line can be.)

While the runner must monitor his effort closely and be very attuned to sensation and impending or present pain in the early stages of the race, James helps us understand how attention to pain can be detrimental in the later stages of the race. If, as he writes, "the preperception is half the perception of the looked-for thing," then the runner has to be wary of projecting onto his experience more pain than is actually felt. As pain rises up in the latter part of the race, attending to the pain actually magnifies its quantity, adding to the "actual pain" the image of pain in the mind's eye. The psychology behind this is exactly the same as the psychology of "ripping off a band-aid;" we rip it off quickly before the mind has a chance to pay much attention to the site of pain. Pain that we haven't prepared the mind to perceive is, actually, less pain.

Thinking about the role of attention and preperception in pain allows us to understand more clearly the role that attention plays in toughness. Being mentally tough is less about confronting pain and more about controlling the attention. The toughest racers are those who allow their attention to be "consumed by the race," as a friend recently described it. Being tough, paradoxically, doesn't mean confronting the largest amount of pain. What it demands is literally not feeling the pain at all--keeping the attention absorbed in other things, like controlling the body, competing with rivals, maintaining the rhythms of the running motion. When we achieve a race like this, we usually call it a breakthrough. What has been "broken through" is an old preperception, an old habit of attending to an image of the self or of pain that was supposed to come but didn't.

The attention is the greatest tool of the human mind because it allows us to select from the world the stimuli to which we would like to respond. Intelligence, it seems to me, is a matter of selection; more about tuning things out than opening the mind. The great geniuses of history created a world that made some sense through acts of attention--selecting a single problem so that progress could be made, setting up the world as intelligible when apprehended along very particular lines. Great thinkers help us frame our vision--by telling us what to see or how to see, they also tell us what not to see.

Tunnel vision is at the core of human intelligence.
It is always difficult to quantify the mental aspect of training and racing, and often this aspect is overplayed. However, our preperceptions about the sort of runner that we are, the kinds of paces that we can handle, our strengths and weaknesses as a runner can hold us back and keep us from experiencing our power. They prepare us to pay attention to certain things and not others. A good training plan, then, shouldn't just look to train the heart and legs. It also has to work to train the mind to pay attention to new capacities as they unfold, altering our preperceptions, reimagining ourselves so that we can actually see ourselves more clearly.

Perhaps it is counter-intuitive, but it seems to me that mental toughness is more about imagination than brute willpower. The toughest thing in life is breaking out of old habits of attention. This breaking out requires the imaginative invention of a better self--and the willingness to trust that preperception once imagined.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Interview: Andy Anderson on Breaking the Longs Peak Speed Record

Andy in the Keyhole on Longs
[Editor's note]: Andy broke this record again in August of 2012, taking an additional 4 minutes off the time. You can read his account of that run here.

*  *  *
At some level, it is possible to claim that every race is equally difficult. After all, every race is run to exhaustion. However, imagine that the effort you were about to undertake was an all-out run up and down the highest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. Not only that, the race would involve scrambling up 5.4 grade climbing with thousands of feet of direct exposure. Finally, the race would take approximately the same amount of time as a world-class marathon. Such an attempt might make you think that indeed some races are harder than others.

At any rate, this was precisely the situation that Andy Anderson faced as he attempted to match Chris Reveley's 1979 Longs Peak round-trip speed record on August 23rd. Here's a thread from Fastest Known Time that gives the statistics on Andy's record (2:02:54 - 1:18:32 up, 44:22 down) and also tells a little about Chris' Reveley's record and Mike Sullivan's ascent record (which Andy missed by one second!)

Before we get to the interview, you should know that Andy Anderson was my first running partner, and he's such a close friend that I count him practically as a brother. Though our friendship goes far beyond running, it always comes back to it. We ran and raced together in high school in Chattanooga, then ended up on the team together at Williams College as well. We've run in many places: off an interstate on a moonlit night in the middle of Wyoming, on the Hood to Coast relay (Andy took the infamous first leg), up Mt. Greylock in Massachusetts, across both rims of the Grand Canyon, and through the deserts of Southern Utah. I did the hardest workout of my life with him: 10 times up a hill on the trails behind my house in Signal Mountain, Tennessee.

Obviously, this effort was more challenging than those 10 hills. (That Andy claims that they were harder than this speed record tells you a little about Andy.) He has been kind enough to answer a few questions about the race, how to train for something like this, and his general approach towards running in the outdoors. Enjoy!

*  *  *

LLD: I believe I was with you the first time either of us had seen Longs Peak. We were 14 years old, a couple of Tennessee boys our first time out West with our cross-country coach Larry Hale. Why did you choose Long's Peak for this attempt?

Just before the Epic Snow Battle
AA: If I remember right, our view of Longs was from a hotel room across the valley where we were both lying sick in bed racing each other to the bathroom every so often. We had contracted some sort of godawful stomach bug, and we didn't get to climb Longs Peak that trip; it would have to wait for another day. The second time we tried to climb Longs Peak was four years later, just after our high school graduation in June. It snowed a few feet on the mountain that day. Even though we did not get to climb Longs, we did have the best snowball fight in the history of teenage boys on the top of Twin Sisters, a neighboring peak. Why Longs you ask? I have always liked running through the mountains, and I love combining running and climbing. Since I started working as a climbing ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park four summers ago, I have thought that it would be fun to try to run up the North Face of Longs. I knew the record was from 1979, and I knew some folks who had tried to break it unsuccessfully. It seemed like this summer was a good time to see if I could come close to the '79 record.

LLD: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the speed record on Longs? 

AA: Chris Reveley set the previous record of 2:04:30 in 1979. Before him Roger Briggs held the record of 2:09. Each of these gentlemen have a long and storied history with Longs Peak as technical climbers and runners. Chris worked as a climbing ranger on Longs for 4 years before he set the record. The same year he set the speed record he also won the Pikes Peak Marathon. Roger has probably been up Longs by more different routes than any other person, and he pioneered many of the routes on the Diamond. He coached a cross country team in Boulder for many years. Both of these guys still climb and run on Longs.

LLD: I imagine there are many ways to get to the top of the peak. How did you plan your route? Obviously the peak is the turn-around, but where do you start? How many miles is the route? What's the vertical gain?

The North Face of Longs Peak
AA: The Longs Peak Trailhead at 9450 ft is the start. The routes to the top vary from a 3rd class scramble to 5.13 alpine routes on the Diamond. The North Face represents the shortest way to the top. I used this route for my run. The route has about 200 ft of 5.4 climbing on it. This section of the climb hangs on the north edge of the Diamond. Looking out over this wall you get to see down a few thousand feet to Chasm Lake. It feels like you are climbing through the sky. The technical climbing starts at about 13,400 ft. To get there I pieced together old trails below treeline and scree fields above treeline into the straightest, most runnable, route for me. The terrain has so many options that everyone who tries this run choses a different route that plays to their strengths. Both Chris and Roger used different routes than I did. I found my route through experimenting with various ways up to the base of the North Face over the last 4 years. All in all, the route I used gained about 4800 ft over the course of about 4.5 miles one way.

LLD: Did you worry about falling off the mountain?

AA: Someone once told me you can't fall off a mountain. 

LLD: For a successful ultrarunner, I know you don't run a ton of miles. What's your training like? Do you have a training philosophy?

AA: Its all about reindeer milk :)

Andy running in the Tetons
For work I hike, climb, and ski up and down big mountains 10 months of the year. While I am working, I feel lucky to get 30-50 miles of running in a week. The added time on my feet climbing, hiking, and skiing seems to keep my endurance intact. Speed – well that's another matter. I can do ok in longer, slower races over challenging terrain. I get worked in the shorter or more even terrain races where speed starts to matter. I tried to change my training this summer to actually get more miles in. I ran five miles to and from work, then ran 15-30 miles on my three days off. This schedule allowed me to get in 45-70 miles a week plus the time spent on my feet at work.

I could say something deep and philosophical about how running rejuvenates my soul, provides me solace in times of need, or how it grants me spiritual enlightenment and allows me to see beauty in the world, but really I run because it is just plain fun. My training philosophy revolves around two central premises:

Train enough to be faster than Jeff.

Train enough to be faster than my little brother John. [Andy's brother John is an established ultra runner on the scene, you can read about him here at the Rock/Creek Race Team website.]

LLD: Did you carry anything or just go? Were you supported in any way?

AA: I carried a handheld waterbottle with a caffeinated Clif Shot dissolved in the water. I did not have any outside support. I did have a deadline to be back at home before 9am so that I could watch my son Huck and my wife Rebecca could get to work.

LLD: Do you think you could beat me in a 50k? 5k? Marathon?

AA: HA! See my training philosophy.

LLD: You've got a pretty nice resume on the trails (Winner of Rucky Chucky 50k, Woodside 50k, Pacifica 50k (CR), Muir Woods Marathon (CR), Timberline Marathon (CR), 13th at Way Too Cool 50k, 6th and 3rd in Stumpjump 50k, 8th and 5th at Zane Grey 50 miler). How did this compare with other really hard efforts you’ve had?

Andy and brother John in the Zane Grey 50m.
AA: Running up Longs Peak doesn't really compare to racing in organized events. No aid stations, no official course, no hordes of cheering fans, no other racers. I could only imagine chasing the others who had tried to get this record or imagine the ghosts of Chris or Roger springing from boulder to boulder just ahead of me. An event like this forces me to stay focused for the entire run. If I get distracted, I slow down or I fall. In other hard races I could “get into a groove” or lock onto someone else or focus on the mole on the back of my brother's leg and keep running a decent pace without having to concentrate on my running. As far as the physical effort, I just as tired after this run as I am after other two hour races.

LLD: How long before someone else comes along and breaks your record?

AA: Tomorrow?

LLD: What's next for you?

I get to be a stay at home Dad till I start work for the avalanche center in November. Hopefully I will get to run a lot this fall and get some speed back. I am planning on running the Stumpjump 50k on October 1st and the California International Marathon this December.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Expertise, Politics, and Problem Solving

The passage  below is an excerpt from Paul Goodman's "Applied Science and Superstition," written in 1951. It is both quaint and prescient. He gets the problem quite right, but sixty years later, the scale of the problem has been incredibly transformed:

In the century-old debate between Science and the Humanities, the humanities are now a weak opponent. They are not sure of what they are and they do not seem to have much of use to offer; whereas science looms in the fullness of success, it has made new advances in theory, and its technological applications have transformed the modern world. Yet sadly, perhaps just because our humanities are so weak, we have been losing the basic humane values of science itself. Having lost our firm credulity about what man 'is' and what society is 'for,' we have become confused about what is relevant, useful, or efficient. Thomas Huxley and Thorstein Veblen were thinking of a 'scientific society' where people were critical and modest, accurate and objective; where they shared in an international community of inquiry; where they lived 'naturally' without superstitions or taboos; and they hoped to make this come to be for every child. Is anybody saying anything like this? With us the idea of a 'scientific society' seems to have degenerated to applying the latest findings of professional experts to solve problems for an ignorant mass, problems often created by the ignorance of the mass, including the scientists. This is neither noble, nor very practical. To give the tone of it (at its worst), let me quote from the pitch of an International Business Machines [IBM] demonstrator:
The demands that will be placed on us [to sell our machines] can be met, for one must never forget that we are the masters. We alone have that great instrument called the human mind. It weighs 2 pounds. It only takes this much space. It can store 15 billion bits of information. It can be fed on less than 1/2 and apple a day. If man were to build this mighty instrument, it would take all the power supplied in the city of Rome and require a space as large as the Palazzo dei Congressi. All of us have such a machine. We are the masters and not the servants. We can keep pace. Yes, and ahead of the pace if we wish.
*  *  *

IBM's world view and general way of advertising continues to frame social problems as ones that ought to be solved for the mass by a small group of professional (and obviously not 'everyman') experts. Here's one of many "I'm an IBMer" commercials. Note that the solutions that are offered are expressed in ways that are intentionally intellectually obscure and for the "few" not the "many."

This way of thinking seems have also influenced our way of talking about economic problems. Instead of framing them in terms of concepts like power and justice, our economic problems are conceived technically. In order to be taken seriously in an economic debate, it is not enough to talk about the common good, greed, or power-interests. One has to use the Beltway vocabulary of "debt-ceilings" and "stimulus packages." Ordinary folks who don't have the time for a PhD in economics still feel like they should have an opinion on whether Keynes or Friedman had the correct economic theory in order for their voice to be heard. Your man on the street now talks about mortgage-backed securities, capital gains taxes, and studies pie charts on wealth distributions, as if our problems weren't abundantly clear and had to be demonstrated "technically" through a kind of rough and Googled expertise. (I am guilty of just this sort of behavior.)

Education has also fallen prey to this sort of technical view of problem solving, both in terms of its means and ends. Means: more and more we are reliant on the testimony of education professors who study schools to solve the problems of schools, instead of inviting the people who live in schools--students, teachers, and parents--to articulate their concerns. Ends: again and again, we theorize the proper ends of education in terms of creating technical experts in math and science instead of the humane and scientific ideals of Huxley, Veblen, and Goodman. These ideals do not apply science to human problems. They see science as a humane attitude and practical method of working out human problems. The goal is not to create a class of experts, but a community of people who can live together and work on their problems without superstition or taboo.

It seems too simple for our whiz-kid age: The proper end of education is the good life. The proper end of economics is the good life. The proper end of politics is the good life. This was Aristotle's answer 2400 years ago.

It is an ancient and classic view, simply expressed. 

We should remind ourselves of this as we enter a new political cycle: simple answers are not always easy to achieve, and complex answers are not always right.
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