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.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Interview: John Ramsay, King of Beasts

This interview is the fourth in a series of exchanges with local elite runners. These are the men and women who train hard, take their running seriously, and work to compete--and win--on a local and national level. For all of these folks, running is a hobby. None of them make a living doing it. They continue to represent the best of amateurism, the idea that excellence in athletic endeavor is valuable for many reasons beyond financial compensation.

Most of these folks are friends that I have met during my time as a runner. They have offered me untold amounts of training advice, motivated me to get out the door, whipped my butt in races, and shared many a post-run beverage. Though this sort of runner is not famous at a national level, they are often locally known and help establish and maintain local standards of racing and training.

John Ramsay's race times are very good, but they are not exceptional. He has met the benchmarks that separate out the top local runners from the rest: sub 17 in the 5k, 34 something in the 10k, solidly under 3 hours in the marathon. He recently earned a sub 25 hour belt buckle at Leadville, and he competes regularly in ultramarathons. All of this is notable, in its own right.

However, John is best known around town and beyond for the way he has achieved these times. An admitted "fat kid" in his teens and early 20s, John came to the sport late and has approached it with a peculiar and inspiring intensity. Over the last two years, John has run a stunning volume of miles, regularly stringing together 400 and 500 mile months. His log tells the story pretty plain.

This devotion to training, his relentless drive, and willingness to hurt has earned him the nickname of "King of Beasts." He also happens to be an excellent training partner and a close friend. I had him in mind when I wrote this post. Enjoy the interview!

*   *   *

LLD: You just got back from a runner's dream--a full summer of training in Leadville, CO. Can you describe your daily routine? 

KOB: Wake up at about 7:30-9, walk down to Provin’ Grounds coffee shop, walk back, get a few hours of work done, run, work, run, work, then sleep. Long run [30+ miles] most weekends, if I was not doing a single really long run I would do a triple long run [back-to-back-to-back days] of 21 miles over some good hills. I spent 10 weeks in Leadville and ran just over 1300 miles. [Yes, that’s an average of 130 miles per week on trails at 9,000 feet of altitude.]

LLD: So, yeah, you've run more miles in the last two years than I've thought possible--right at 10,000, averaging something like 96 miles per week. This sort of commitment to running so much seems to me to be about more than training. What keeps you out there running? 

John smiles every now and then.
KOB: Most of my running is about the next goal race, or because my friends are running, and sometimes I guess because of the demons. But I’d rather not discuss all that.

LLD: I think that a lot of people relate to you because in a weird way you represent "the everyman's" approach to running. Have you seen this? Why do you think that people are attracted to your style of training and racing? 

KOB: That is something I have noticed. I think it’s because I did not run in high school or college, I am not exactly runnerly in build, and I run a bunch. People might be attracted to my style of running because I don’t do many workouts that are worth bragging about - just lots of miles per week / month / year and sometimes I can do well in races.

LLD: For the running geeks: How do you manage to absorb the volume of training that you do? I find that when I try to run sustained mileage, I start breaking down. Any tips on recovery for the masses?

KOB: From experimenting, and we are all an experiment of one, I seem to run well when there is a large disparity between my easy run pace and my workout paces. For example – easy run pace at about 8 mm and run tempos at 6-6:15 and mile repeats at 5:25 – 5:40. That gap and the actually easy pace of my easy runs might help me absorb the workload.

Tips on recovery, nothing new I am afraid, I don’t have any big secrets:

Your blogger and two dudes who run A Lot.

  • Start your easy runs Very easy, and then settle into your easy pace. 
  • Get lots of sleep. 
  • Eat enough. 
  • Drink enough water. 
  •  Get massages by a person who knows their stuff. If you are in Tennessee go see Juliana
  • Ice bath after a hard workout. 
  • Hot bath the night of a massage. 

LLD: What's your take on the old question of quantity vs. quality in running? Do you worry that the mileage you do comes at the expense of quality? 

KOB: I think you need both, quality and quantity. Variety in pace is important. Depending on the person of course I am not sure you can have one without the other and stay healthy in the long term. I think we run the workouts not in spite of the high weekly mileage but because the miles. The easy miles give you the ability to recover and the durability to complete the workouts, and the change in pace and effort give your body a different stimulus than easy running.

So, I don’t worry too much that the quantity of miles I run affects the quality, so long as the day before a workout I run easy. It’s a bad idea to run with the half steppers or hammer heads in your running crew the night before a workout.

LLD: What's the most beautiful spot on the Leadville course? 

KOB: The finish line, haha. For real, the downhill inbound section of Hope Pass. From the top of the pass you have about 10 minutes till the aid station and you can see the Llamas, Twin Lakes, and every other running fool that is around you. I also enjoyed the last aid station before the finish line, May Queen, this year. I saw the lights and heard the people cheering, and I was pretty sure I could hold a strong pace the last 13.5 miles.

LLD: You race at distances from the mile to the marathon to the 100 mile, on roads and trails. This sort of variety of racing is really rare. Having some experience at all of these distances, can you give your opinion on the debate about which race is the most difficult? 

KOB: In terms of muscle trauma and the odds of ending up in the hospital, the 100 mile is the most difficult. If you are looking for the classic legs filled with lactic acid lungs searing type of running pain the last 2k of a 10k, 5k of a half marathon, and 3 miles of a marathon are pretty special.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Belmont XC Opener

Ted, Justin, and I got together for a run sometime in mid-August. As we headed out, Ted tossed out the suggestion to form a team and run a series of local college cross-country races. Considering that I'd been running but not really training, I gave him some non-committal answer like, "Sounds cool, I'll think about it." We ran on.

It was a brutally hot day, and we were all struggling a bit. None of us was in great shape, drained physically and psychologically by the Nashville summer. By the end of the run, I was just glad to be done, feeling totally flattened by an easy 6 miler. Afterwards, Ted asked again if I was up for racing. "Maybe," I said.

Ted just sorta looked at me for a few moments, then he said this: "When your college coach told you there was a race coming up, did you tell him that 'maybe' you'd be ready? Hell no, you got on the line and raced."

Put it on the line.
 So, this was how I found myself two weeks later dressed in a white singlet and black shorts, sporting a glaringly new pair of XC spikes, standing on a white line in a huge dusty field with a bunch of kids approximately half my age. It was 95 degrees at 6pm. We had cobbled together four friends who regularly train together: me, Ted, Dan, and Ryan. Justin's flight had been delayed, so we scrambled to find a 5th man to round out the team. One of Ryan's former college teammates agreed. I gave him a singlet and a number. He took them, saying "Thank you, sir."

 "Sir?" Really? The kid did look pretty young, I guess.

 The usual feelings returned standing in the box waiting for the gun. Nervousness, acid in the legs, thoughts about pacing. The starter gave a set of instructions. It would be a two-count start; the old familiar words: "Runners set!" The gun. We were off.

 Most everybody took off quicker than I did, although I set out quicker than I usually do, trying to stay in contact. I could smell the bodies as we trampled through the first 600m, across a narrow bridge, around the first turn. It had been forever really, since I had found myself in this situation: in a thick pack of runners. I let myself be carried along, and in an instant we were through the first mile. Somebody yelled out: "5:25!"

The pace felt fast, but I felt good. I concentrated on moving up, since I knew many runners would have gone out too fast in this first race--particularly the new freshmen trying to impress their teammates and coach. Sure enough, I steadily passed people the whole second mile, kept running hard. I was at the back of the middle pack of runners, moving up closer to the middle. The front runners were kicking up the light layer of clay and dirt that covered the summer-baked ground. I was literally eating their dust.

 I missed the second mile split, but it didn't matter. Nothing left to do but run hard. The last mile heads downhill and through the crowd. I did what I usually do: faked feeling strong, faked running hard, convincing myself over and over again despite all evidence to the contrary--dust caked throat, burning quads, cramping calves, hollowed vision--that I was feeling great.

A half mile to go.
A quick left turn left us 400m to the finish. I was back with the 800m runners who were just doing XC to stay in shape. A couple of them hurtled past me, kicking outrageously hard. I shoulda kicked harder: the clock turned to 17:00 as it swung into view, 17:01 as I crossed the line. I finished 60th out of 100 runners.
Ted kicking hard.
In the chute, there was the gasping and jostling, the ripping of tags, the whirl of oxygen depletion. We staggered out into the crowd. Ted had finished 30 seconds ago and was still doubled over. My sweet wife brought us cool water. The race was run. It was really fun. 

Our team finished 8th out of 11 teams. I was 4th runner. I'm hoping that over the next month or so I can get in shape and close the gap to Ted. That's the story of my first college XC race since 1999.
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