Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sufficient Space

Human beings make a strange fauna and flora. From a distance they appear negligible; close up they are apt to appear ugly and malicious. More than anything they need to be surrounded with sufficient space--space even more than time. --Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

Ours is a hurried life. We seem never to have any time. This is what we tell ourselves: if only there were more hours in the day, if only I had more time to spend with my family, with my friends, out on the roads. We are quick to blame the anxieties of modern life, the stress we feel, on time. And perhaps it is true, perhaps life is moving too quickly.

If we had two extra hours in the day, what would we do with them? My guess is that we would fill them up as well with projects, use them to get started on things we will never finish, torment ourselves for two more hours a day about what we would finish if only we had 28 hours in a day. Our problem, it seems to me, is not a problem of time. Like Henry Miller says, it's a problem of space.

Einstein taught us that space (and time, for that matter) is opened and closed by the the objects that occupy it. Cars and planes started us down a path of acceleration, but now cell phones, the internet, facebook, and email have taken us to a limit point of travel. Making contact at the speed of light, we no longer cross space.

This elimination of space is precisely what has led to the acceleration of time. All of our friendships, our business contacts, our family responsibilities, our favorite websites, musicians, and television shows are with us at all moments. They pour into our minds all at once, immediately. There is no space. In reaction to this, we bustle about endlessly in search of a refuge from the torrent. We hurry here, hurry there, hoping for a resting point somewhere in sight, some sense of completion. We used to have one TV in the living room, and it was easy enough to escape its hollering and pleading screen. You would just go into the other room. Or turn it off.

Now we carry our screens with us, in our pockets. They are in the corner of every bar and restaurant. The wild world plummeting into every space, closing it up with the latest news from Washington, the latest sports score from Boston. Always, just before we relax and take a look around, there is a new interruption, a new thrill to be had, a new responsibility to be assumed.

Perhaps, then, what we need is not more time, but sufficient space. Seen from too far away, we teem like ants swarming on a spinning globe--moving, but without meaning. From too close, we are a bunch of hucksters and children, relentless in our needs, always peddling our wares, burning each other up with proximity. The fauna and flora of humanity are best appreciated from a proper distance.

The difficulty of life is in finding this sufficiency of space. I've reflected on the nomadic aspect of running before. A run can transform the crowded and angry city into a meandering path. It populates the morning commute with trees and birds, colors the hills with slight but real effort. It locates us in a world, but in its measured movement, it also gives us space. This space slows us down and returns us to a place where we are not measuring life in minutes, tasks, and a multitude of unfinished projects. This space is what we denote when we use the word "experience." We find ourselves here, for once, moving through a qualitative world, attentive and alive.

The hour spent running is a penumbral hour of the day, and the time of running is almost always a sort of stolen, hidden time. We run when others are sleeping, commuting, eating or watching TV. We are always squeezing the run into periods of time that are hidden from howling rush of ordinary life. I have done 15 mile runs that have taken no time at all. This is the thing that boggles the minds of non-runners. They ask: "How can you just run for an hour or two?" "How do you find the time to do it?" The answer is simple: if it did take time, running would be boring. If it took time, it would indeed keep us from our more important tasks. But runners know a secret: running takes no time at all. What it takes is space.

What if the problem of contemporary life were not one of making more time, but of finding sufficient space? That would mean that the solution to the hustle of life is not going faster or doing more. Instead it would be heading out somewhere, traversing terrain, and perhaps finding one's self in a world that is much more finished than one commonly imagines.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Interview: Candice Schneider

This interview is the third 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.

When I first met Candice Schneider, the only indication that she would become a serious road runner and a threat to win races was that, well, she was running with a bunch of folks she had no business running with. And keeping up. I remember talking with her about her 5k PR at the time and thinking, ummm, aren't we running that pace right now? Should I tell her that?

Since then, Candice has dropped almost an hour off of her marathon PR (yes, that's over two minutes a mile.) I think her answers in the interview below will illuminate the work and the mindset that it takes to accomplish such a feat. Candice also talks about living with another runner, her future goals in racing, and keys to being mentally tough in a marathon. Enjoy! (And check out her blog!)

Candice winning the Rockford Half Marathon, just a week ago!

LLD: Briefly describe your running resume. What are the most important moments in your running career thus far?

CS: I have been running since the summer of 2005, but didn’t start taking it seriously until sometime in mid- 2006. Since 2007 I have run 14 marathons and countless races of other distances shorter than the marathon. My first marathon was a 4:03. I was not prepared after going out at 3:40 pace in an attempt to qualify for Boston. My best marathon so far has been 3:09. I’ve been able to take off almost an hour in the distance, and I hope to take off more. I hope to do it soon.

I have a few important moments in my career thus far that stand out to me. The first was running an almost 19 minute PR at the Boston Marathon in 2009. This took my PR of 3:39:17 down to 3:20:25. I still say that I talked myself into it. For months leading up to that race I woke up every morning looking at the post-it note on my bathroom mirror that read simply “3:20.” I trained harder than I ever had. I logged more miles than I ever had. It was the first time I ran weeks at a time without taking even a day off. It was the first time I ran over 80 miles in a week. My then boyfriend (now husband) Ben coached me, trained with me, and paced me on race day. I ran what the post-it note said. I ran it because I talked myself into it. Because every day that I trained for it, I talked myself into it a little bit more.

Ben and Candice, crossing the line at Boston, sub 3:20.

The biggest moment in my running career came later that year when I knocked 10 more minutes off of my marathon PR at the Chicago Marathon. 3:10:48. When I crossed the finish line, I couldn’t believe it. The feeling I had that day is the feeling that keeps me lacing up my shoes and heading out the door. People always jokingly ask if you’re running toward something, or away from something. I’m running toward that feeling. Chasing it down. When you get it, you only get to hold onto it for a little bit. It escapes you, and you have to run it down again. Sometimes it’s just within your reach and you miss as you grasp for it. This makes the day you get it back all the more special.

Had I talked myself into that 3:10, too? I don’t know. There was no post-it note that time. The plan was just to run 3:10. And so that’s what I ran. I have been able to take about 90 seconds off since then, at Twin Cities in the fall of 2010.

I’ve also been lucky enough to win a few 5ks and a couple of half marathons. My dream is to win a marathon. It’ll have to be a small one without a super elite field, of course… but there are plenty of those out there. The closest I’ve came is Flying Monkey in 2009, where I placed 2nd, And Paavo Nurmi in 2010, where I also placed 2nd. A better performance was this year at St. Louis where I was 7th in a more competitive field. I figure If I’m ever able to win a marathon- it will be one of the most important moments in my running career. I want to break the tape. It doesn’t mean a whole lot, but I bet it feels really good.

LLD: I know you run some pretty serious mileage. What's your general approach to training for a marathon?

CS: The key that unlocked the door to my potential as a runner was finding out that simply the more miles I ran, the faster I became. When I’m not training for a marathon I slack off on the mileage a little bit for the sake of recovery. But when I am training for one, I know that I have to go after it hard. I have to run far, I have to run a lot of miles, I have to run daily- most days twice. I also have to make sure I’m getting in enough quality running. Weekly tempos and intervals are a must to remind the legs of their ability to turn over. It all seems to fall into place pretty well. You do things over and over, repetitiveness becomes your comfort. If you feel comfortable, then you feel prepared. And if you feel prepared going into a marathon, mentally, not much can stand in your way.

LLD: Most of the runners that you are racing and competing against had some sort of formal background in running, either in high school or college. Your path has been different. How did you get into running?

CS: I started running as an added form of fitness to my already well established work-out regime. I was doing a lot of kick-boxing and gym-rat type activities just to stay in shape. I was able to start off running 3 or 4 miles at a time right off the bat. It was never a struggle, running came naturally. I think this was due to my background in other sports (soccer, probably). It was a long time before it ever occurred to me that there was a point in running more than 3 or 4 miles a day. Racing had never crossed my mind. Until the one day that I signed up for one, and never looked back.

I wouldn’t say that the runners that I race and compete against necessarily have an advantage with their formal background. I would say that both types of backgrounds have their pros and cons. I can’t speak for runners who do have the high school/college team background . . . I don’t know what that was like or what they have taken away from that that helped shaped them to be the runners they are today. Personally, I find running to be about self. Nobody suffers if I race poorly. Nobody benefits aside from me if I race well. Self is all that I know. It is me, me, and me out there. Would I be a better runner if I had the same background in running as some of the people I race against? Maybe. Maybe not.

I do sometimes wish that Cross Country had been the “cool” sport at my school so that maybe I would have an answer to that. I do think that something I missed out on was the speed base that it would have given me. The marathon is my self-proclaimed distance. My marathon PR is my best. It predicts much faster times for most of my shorter distances. Times that I have not run. Had I run cross country or track, I highly doubt this would be the case. No doubt I would be faster than I am at the moment at every distance.

Some of the ladies who do have this formal background might be able to hand my ass to me in a 5 or 10k, but I’m faster than a lot of them in the marathon. Would I trade? No. And sometimes, yes.

LLD: Building off of your answer to question #3, how did you make the jump from better-than-average midpack runner to the type of runner that wins races? Did it take a shift in mindset or training, or was it just a matter of staying with training over several years? So many people want to make this jump, but relatively few succeed, especially without that team context. Any secrets that you can share?

CS: I have always heard that many people who lose a significant amount of weight at some point in their life tend to look in the mirror and instead of seeing a skinny person- they see a reflection of their former fat self. I have never been overweight myself but I think the same can be applied toward my success with running. I look in the mirror, I see someone who is not fast enough. Every race time is too slow, every workout wasn’t hard enough and every week there just were not enough miles ran. Every race. Every workout. Every week. This is just how my mind works. What does an overweight person do if they really want to lose the weight? They try like hell. Every day, I try like hell. It is the only thing I know to do. I believe the accumulation of miles ran, workouts done, and race experiences have contributed to the jump I have been able to make to the type of runner you speak of who occasionally wins a race or two.

I have always applied this “nothing is ever good enough” approach to life. I think it comes from the way I grew up, and the personalities of the family members I was close to. I once said to someone “I do not come from a long line of athletes, but I come from a long line of people who would have made excellent athletes.” A long line of stubborn, tough, and competitive people who just didn’t accept mediocrity. People who taught me, sometimes unknowingly, that you work hard for what you want. And if you do, you get it.

There is no real secret to getting better. There is no fast track plan for success. Run less, run more, run fast, run slow… You find what makes you your best and you either stick to it and see it through, or you don’t. This is all that I have done. If you wake up one morning and realize that what you’re doing isn’t working anymore, find a new way that works even better.

If you stop believing that you’re slow, you start believing that you don’t have to be. The problem is that most people don’t take the time. They don’t make the effort. And they’re filled with excuses. Otherwise, in most cases they could at least be a hometown hero. Cherry pick a race or two.

LLD: Your position as a competitive runner but also as the wife of a 2:28 marathoner must give you some unique insights into different challenges that men and women face in racing and training. How does your training differ from Ben's? Are you motivated and driven by the same things? Do you race in the same way?

CS: Ben is a completely different beast than I am. The training load he is able to withstand is beyond me. As is his capacity for food intake. Living with Ben is sort of like owning a horse, and I know, because I’ve owned a horse or two. The man was born to do this. His body accepts, responds, and rarely if ever breaks. His will and his mind are equally strong to his body. Actually living with someone and seeing how consecutive 120+ mile weeks affect them really drives home the statement I previously made. You really want to do something, you try like hell. If he’s ever tired from training, it rarely shows. I think that’s the thing that amazes me about him the most. He never lets on. It doesn’t seem to ever affect his life outside of running. I on the other hand get whiny and complain a lot when my mileage is peaking. The girl comes out a bit. But like me, Ben believes. Similar build to that of Chris Solinsky, it just works for him. Solinsky was quoted once saying “Nobody ever told the bumble bee he couldn’t fly.” I don’t think anyone ever told Ben that either.

Being a much slower runner than Ben I have to train a little differently. It doesn’t make sense for me to log 120 mile weeks. I’m not fast enough and it would be a little too much wear and tear on my body as I’d log more hours than him. Running around ~90 miles per week, I’m putting in a similar amount of time in training as he is when he’s just over ~100, probably also putting in a similar amount of tread on the tires. Obviously I’m smaller, more compact, different skeletal and musculoskeletal system. Built entirely different. My body just has different needs and responds differently.

Ben is my biggest inspiration. Knowing that he got out the door for 1 or 2 runs that day is just another motivator for me to do the same. There are no excuses for not getting a run in in our house. You either run, or you don’t. Most likely, the other person ran twice so you’re going to feel lazy if you didn’t at least run once. We’re both super competitive, and that’s what makes us work. It’s what makes our running work. We need to be somewhere in a couple of hours but we need to get a run in… well that’s why we have a couple of hours, right? I know in some relationships where one person is a runner, and the other is not, the non-runner rarely understands the importance or need to bother with a second run or squeezing a run in when there isn’t much time. Or even, running at all! We get it though, because we both hold our running as a priority. If Ben was not a runner, I would be a lot less successful as one.

I think we are similarly motivated and driven. Both being competitive by nature we seek out to “kill and destroy” when racing. I obviously do not know the thoughts that go through Bens head when he’s racing, but I do know that we make similar comments about how we’re going to approach a race, or how we felt about what it was like to battle with someone. Being a much faster runner than I am, Ben typically places or makes a good showing at even the most competitive of races and I know it is often his motivation to do so. We both like to prove ourselves, if only to ourselves. The Twin Cities are home to many top runners, home to Team USA Minnesota and a very competitive team circuit. The fields of the bigger races around here are just brutal. Absolutely brutal! It reminds me of my place, keeping me grounded. I tend to have to focus more on time at races like this more than anything. Whereas when I’m in a smaller race, I like to focus on placement. Focusing on and actually getting to race a human being instead of a clock is always more fun. It feeds the competitive hunger a little more. Something Ben and I both have a huge appetite for.

LLD: I've always thought that your strength as a runner was your toughness on race day. It was an awesome experience running with you for the first miles of your breakthrough race in Chicago. I remember being uncertain as to whether you would make it--you were running hard in the early miles--then shocked to turn around and find you crossing the finish line just after me. What approach do you take for mentally preparing for the marathon?

CS: I think you would be right in saying that typically race day toughness is my biggest strength. I don’t know what it’s like inside the head of other runners, but for me race day toughness comes from the practice of logging a lot of miles, a lot of excruciating long workouts and a lot of long runs. Just getting out there day after day no matter how terrible you feel, and shutting down mentally because of it. Shutting down is just something that comes naturally to me. Your body knows what to do. It knows how fast it can run and for how long it can run that fast. It knows if it can pick it up, or if it needs to slow it down. It doesn’t need your thoughts clouding its judgment.

My best runs are days where I went out for hours but couldn’t tell you anything that I thought about during the run when I returned. Running is primal. Racing a marathon is the most primal. You don’t need to think about it. As humans, we start to overthink when we’re out there. Have I drunk enough Gatorade? Too much water? Do I need to take another gel? Was that ten seconds too slow? Too fast?? I try to save my overthinking for my easy runs. Those are used for writing my blog entries.

The race you’re talking about, Chicago of ’09 (my breakthrough) stood as my PR until last fall. You were the 3:10 pacer and I fell off the pace group when I had to make a pit stop at a port-a-potty somewhere around mile 10. I think this setback only served to make my race a stronger one. After I returned to the course I set my sights on your pace sign up ahead, and for the rest of the race that was the only thought in my head.

The sign. Track down the sign. I don’t recall what I did, or how fast I ran to make up, I don’t even remember how it felt, if it hurt or if it didn’t. I only remember the overwhelming sense of calm. From the splits of that race, it shows that I slowly increased the pace which eventually closed our gap between each other to about a minute (since you brought the rest of the group in about 3:09:40ish if I recall correctly?) and when that happened, I stayed steady. I remember telling you afterward that I wanted to write about that race. I was never able to, because I didn’t know what to write about. There was nothing to say of any interest aside from “I ran a 3:10:48, and it was my best race ever. A 10 minute PR.” Since then, I ran a 3:09:18 which is my current PR. I don’t really have many memories from that race either.

Candice and yours truly after her Chicago breakthrough.

I always have the most memories from the races that went wrong. The “fails.” Those are the ones where I can tell you how bad my hip hurt, or the exact mile I took a gel, what a spectator yelled out to me, or how many kids I high-fived . After the good races I remember only these things: breath, the lub dub of my heart, the footfalls, the feeling of floating above and outside of my body. I don’t remember thoughts or words. I don’t remember if there was wind, or heat, or cold. If you have been to this place of no thought, you will believe in magic. And as a runner, as a marathoner, you need to believe in magic.

LLD: The runners I have interviewed thus far were at the end of their careers looking back. You are at the beginning of yours, looking forward. I know breaking 3 hours is a big goal of yours. What's it going to take to get there?

CS: Well, I think it’s going to take another shift. I’ve had success for the past two and a half years off of the same kind of training, and a LOT of the same kind of training. In the marathon I have gone from 3:39, to 3:20, to 3:10… to my current PR of 3:09. And now, I’m stuck. It’s time for a change. One of Bens favorite things to say is “Doing what you’ve always done will get you what you’ve always got.”

I recently started working with Luke Humphrey who runs for Brooks-Hanson ODP as my coach for the next 6 months (longer, if it works out) and we’re taking a slightly different approach with my training in hopes of reaching my sub 3 goal. I’m looking at the New York City Marathon this fall for my attempt. Probably not the best choice of courses for a PR, but something I’ve learned about myself through running is that I don’t ever take the easy way out of anything. I set high standards, lofty goals, and I do what I can to get the things I want. That above all else is what keeps me at it. If I were to set more reasonable goals for myself, I can’t imagine it would be half the fun. I enjoy the challenge, the pain that makes you feel alive, the distraught feelings of defeat that come with failure, and the pure joy that comes with success. Running has taught me above all else that anything you set your mind to really is possible. It has also taught me not to fear failure. Inevitably failure will happen over and over on the route to success, and it will happen more often. It is supposed to. It must be expected and learned from.

You asked what it will take for me to get there. Aside from the training approach- just believing and doing what it takes to follow through on that belief.

I will break 3 hours.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wanjiru and Domestic Violence: the greater tragedy

A friend of mine just sent me the following email, asking a couple of important questions:

Are people extremely sympathetic about Sammy Wanjiru's death simply because he was an amazing runner, one of the best runners ever? You are such a voice of reason and I respect what you have to say. That's why I read your blog. Where is the sympathy for someone who likely was abused? Nobody has mentioned that he may have been an abuser and may have been trying, yet again, to hurt his wife, maybe even kill her.

If his wife had been beaten in the past, and if he was about to go for another round of beating, isn't she a little better off right now?

My last post was a tribute to Wanjiru, and in that post, I wrapped the violence of his life up with his greatness, preferring to see them together rather than apart. While I mentioned that such a move was dangerous, perhaps glossing over unconscionable acts of spousal abuse and violence, the primary purpose of the post was to lionize Wanjiru, to remember his greatness in spite of his demons.

My friend's email helped me understand that this reaction is insufficient. While the details of what happened that night are still unknown, sadly abuse of women in East Africa and around the world (including here in the US) continues to be a persistent problem. While there are always exceptions to statistics, the statistics show that it is likely that Wanjiru's wife (and perhaps also his multiple lovers) were victims of abuse. The global statistics are staggering. In every country where reliable, large-scale studies have been conducted, between 10 and 69 per cent of women report they have been physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetime. East Africa, unfortunately, is worse than many other places.

As we mourn Wanjiru's death, then, we ought also to mourn the ongoing violence towards women in Africa and across the globe. His death shows that this is not only problem for feminism, but a problem for marathoning, a problem for all of us.

It is likely that in upcoming weeks, blame for his death with be placed somewhere. Maybe we will find out that he abused his wife and she killed him out of fear for her own. Likely blame will be placed at her feet as well. Although we should not overlook the power that individuals have to control their own destiny and their violent reactions, we should also not forget that this tragedy is reflective of a much greater and sadly persistent social problem: Wanjiru, his wife, and now all of us, have become victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence and abuse took a beautiful runner from the world last weekend. It damages the lives of countless women and families across the world. It will continue to rob us of our future so as long as this side of the story remains untold and unremembered.

Read more about violence towards women in Kenya here.
Global factsheet on violence against women.

Fortunately, there are tremendous folks like the Somali activist Dekha Ibrahim Abdi working on these problems in Kenya directly. While we should remember Sammy Wanjiru for his athletic accomplishments, we should never forget that athletics is a game that takes place in a larger world with greater heroes.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Wanjiru, Death, the Demons

"You must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star."
-- F. Nietzsche

"Looking back now, I think I had a lot on my mind and was pretty nervous, but as soon as I started I forgot about it all. The only thing I thought was, 'Who cares, let's go!' I'm not the type of guy who runs behind someone else. I was going to run up front no matter what the pace was."
--Wanjiru on his Olympic record gold medal run in Beijing, fall, 2008 (from Japan Running News)

The running community has been shocked by the death of Sammy Wanjiru. You can read about Wanjiru's accomplishments in this Letsrun obituary; it calls him the greatest marathon ever to live. He was 24 years old, just about to enter his running prime.

The details of his death are still emerging, but Wanjiru had been hanging out with a tough crowd and had recently been arrested and not charged for a domestic disturbance. He was a troubled soul, and his death is sad.

Our sport has an intimate relationship with death. The first marathoner was dead on arrival. When a race goes badly, we say bluntly that we died, and everyone knows exactly what we mean. As early as junior high, I used to describe the best race to myself as one in which I died just as I crossed the line. I would "kill myself" in speed workouts, sometimes take off in races on purpose at a "suicidal" pace. The language of running is the language of death. To run my best, it intuitively seemed to me that the first fear that I needed to overcome was the fear of death.

A friend of mine recently told me that he began rock climbing as a teenager because it was the only thing that seemed real to him. The decisions he made mattered; they literally determined the difference between life and death. Was Wanjiru's brilliance as a runner bound up with a darker death wish? Is this the face of competitive determination and the haunted face of a man seeking death?

Wanjiru during his transcendent Chicago run.

The sad thing is that we will never know. The other greatest marathoner ever, Haile Gebrselassie, runs with what appears to be total joy. Outside of running, he is cheerful, bright, and optimistic. His greatness is light and carefree.

We always try to make sense of tragedies. Some have offered the theory that it was the fame that did Sammy in. I'm not sure that I agree. My guess is that Sammy lived with demons that neither running nor fame could touch. Perhaps it was his battle against those demons, his fight against the chaos within that gave him his tough, bold, and intense spirit as a racer. It's a hypothesis, and the truth is we will never know what motivated Sammy; he probably didn't know either.

I suppose I like this way of making sense of Sammy's death because it makes the dark part of existence inseparable from its most thrilling heights. That's the way it's been for me--running towards death has been the same as living as hard as I could.

Maybe the impulse to romanticize death and the demons is wrong-headed and a way of redeeming the unredeemable--Sammy's drunkenness, his violence, and his womanizing. Perhaps if these were not elements of Wanjiru's character, he would still have been great and would still be with us.

The answers to these question will likely be known to no one. But there is one general truth that Sammy's life shows us: human greatness is not incompatible with human frailty.

All races have the same finish line. Sammy got there first.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fear & Running

LLD: The following is another guest post from Scout. His first post, How to Run Like a Stoic, remains one of the most popular on the blog. Here, Scout takes up some of the same themes but looks more explicitly at some common issues in training. I think you will enjoy his straightforward and clear-thinking style and find his advice useful. Without further ado... 

I see the same questions come up again and again...

- "What pace should I run my race/training at?"
- "How do I avoid bonking in training/racing?"
- "Am I going to slow/fast/hard/easy?"

It seems to me that a number of people seem to base their racing and training plans on some sort of fear, and this fear stems from a perception of failure. People are afraid of failing in their training and racing. Which makes me wonder, what exactly constitutes this fear of failure in training and racing?

Fear of injury is most obvious; people hold back in training and racing out of a concern of getting injured. They relate injury with a failure to train properly, and I would tend to agree. However, I don’t consider this situation a failure; a mistake, sure, but not a failure, and not necessarily something that can always be avoided.

Fear of not finishing (or not finishing strong) also seems to be a major concern. People are obsessed with bonking, and how to avoid it, almost to the point where I don’t think most people even know what bonking really is. Cramping is more common. Nutrition during the event itself is almost always going to receive the blame for these situations, at least initially. The other root cause would be “running over your head”, which basically means going too hard for your current fitness level.

I have always taken the path of telling people that they need to slow down, train more, and give themselves time. “Run lots, mostly easy, sometimes hard” has been my mantra to new and experienced people alike. It’s simple, it’s pithy, and it encompasses the basic truths of training for pretty much anything. And people hate it for all those reasons, I’m sure. People want concrete answers, without having to think too much about it. Plans are great because they take away the responsibility of coming up with your own training, which is the third fear: fear of not knowing what to do.

At this point, I think I have discovered what the true root cause of these fears really is. It’s not really earth-shattering, but I do believe that it is rather instructive. The root of all these fears is goal-setting.

Fear of failure is essentially a fear of not meeting a goal. The aforementioned fears all relate to not being successful at running a certain time, or hitting a certain mile goal, or not finishing a specific race. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think goals are good; they provide a useful way to keep us motivated and to track progress. However, the goal has to be developed through careful thought. People seem to come up with rather arbitrary goals, that they thought sounded good. This arbitrariness is a recipe for dissatisfaction. If your goal is completely random, then what good is it? How can you chart a course to meeting it if you have no idea why you picked it in the first place?

Along with the arbitrary goal-setting is basing goals on things that you do not exercise full control over. I cannot control who my competitors are, or the weather, or the course (once I have picked a race, that is). What I can control is how I race that day. For example, many people pick a time goal for a race, and plan their race around that now sacrosanct goal. Instead of setting a time goal for a specific race, I plan on putting forth the best effort I can. My plan consists of putting forth my best effort, based on my current knowledge, training, and abilities. If I hit a certain time, it’s a bonus. But if I do not, then I can still be satisfied with how I ran the race. I have not failed, because my goal was completely within my control, and my grasp.

This concept of internally-based goals will seem completely counter-intuitive to many people. It’s nigh impossible to create a race plan with splits when you don’t have a goal based on time. The beauty, however, is the fact that you don’t need splits. You just race. You race by what you know about yourself. And that means that every race, every one, is a learning experience. You learn what effort levels feel like; you learn how well you climb hills or run flats; you learn how to finish strong. And if every race is a learning opportunity, then your day-to-day training provides you a wealth of information. Every time you step out that door, you have a chance to discover something about yourself.

Which leads me to my final point: your training and racing are your education, and you use that education to create realizable, internal goals, and those goals will lead to joy. Focus on setting goals that really matter. Running a certain time feels great, for a while. Then you start focusing on people who are faster or running more or running less, and you get caught up in the chase. Instead, consider focusing on doing your best, on learning something about yourself. If you bonk, so what? You learned something useful for next time. Can’t finish a run? No big deal.

In the end, if you let your fears dictate your goals, achieving your goals will never be truly rewarding.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Running and Social Hope

To exercise an art one must begin by procuring for oneself the instruments for it; and, to be able to employ these instruments usefully one has to make them strong enough to resist wear. To learn to think, therefore, it is necessary to exercise our limbs, our senses, our organs, which are the instruments of our intelligence. And, to get the greatest possible advantage from these instruments, the body which provides them must be strong and healthy. Thus, far from man's true reason being formed independently of body, it is the body's good constitution which makes the mind's operation easy and sure.
J.J. Rousseau

These words were written two and a half centuries ago. They are taken from Rousseau's great treatise on education, Emile. Rousseau wrote the book as an attempt to imagine a free education; it was a thought experiment on what it would take in order to educate a human being to flourish in all of its capacities.

Rousseau was thinking about these things because he was concerned with a social scene that he thought was essentially miseducative. Everywhere he looked, he saw stunted human beings: people whose minds were divorced from their bodies, whose emotions were unhinged from a capacity to reason, whose fears were unconnected with the capacity for courage, whose imaginations had no relation to the realities in which they lived. He saw society as essentially sick, the human attempt to build a world within the world having produced an environment that was hostile to human happiness.

Rousseau's radical and utopian thought was that we could build a world that was amenable to human life, a civilization that did not depend on the sacrifice of human capacities for its maintenance, but was constructed in accord with the development of those capacities.

This utopia was based in Rousseau's faith; he begins Emile with the idea that the world is the product of a divine creation and thus has at least the potential to be perfect. So we therefore have a divine duty to carry this perfection out. This faith comes off as hollow--or even dangerous--to contemporary ears. We have been chastened by the utopian projects of the 20th century. 

Rousseau's Emile or 'On Education'

Communism, fascism, and American democracy have been stained by totalitarianism, racism, and imperialism. Religious faith has turned out in many instances to be hostile to intelligence, tolerance, and peace. Technology has led to consumerism, environmental degradation, and hollow entertainment as much as it has enriched human life and enhanced our powers. We are as likely to be moved to cynicism by the idea that the world could be made more amenable to human life as we are to hope and melioristic action.

Now, when we look around and we see human beings who have been stunted by their miseducations, or when we peer into the stunted forms of our own selves, it is hard to know what to do.  It's hard to summon the attitude that we could be better, that things might be different. And when we do summon it, we have to do it critically--make sure it is not simply the totalitarian or the fascist or the imperialist within us who is excited about that idea. 

Well, by the time we've gone through all these processes of reflection, whatever duty or drive to improve the self or improve society is a pale image of itself. So it goes--we can add one more way in which contemporary life stunts us; it stunts our faith in the human capacity to make the world a better place.

What does any of this have to do with running? Well, I guess the idea is that running (or practices like it) can renew our hope and faith in ourselves, help us become a little less stunted. It shows us how to do this. We don't get better at running by clinging on to a dogmatic idea about our potential. We don't get faster by proclaiming the truth of a particular training philosophy. We do it by heading out the door, every day, with a small purpose in mind. We want to get a little better at something. Or at least not fall back. We don't have to know ahead of time where it's all headed. But along the way, if we stay at it, if we trust that small efforts over time add up, we find ourselves a little stronger at the end of the day. A little more capable of heading out the door the next day. More capable of putting effort towards good things.

That's the mystery of this activity: it appears that we are working on the body, on making this machine of sinew, veins, bone and heart faster. We appear to be engaged in merely polishing our bodies. But we stay at it because making the instrument better actually ends up making the soul a little better. We make the body a little more amenable to the life that lives in it. 

Buoyed by small victories we end up capable, perhaps, of seeing things differently. It is possible to see the two centuries or so since Rousseau wrote as a relatively short time in the grand scheme of human history. Perhaps the 20th century didn't exhaust the experiment into better forms of social organization. Maybe we can allow ourselves to be a little more utopian, a little more positive about the possibility of human progress. After all, running shows one point that Rousseau made to be as true today as it was then: "it is the body's good constitution which makes the mind's operation easy and sure."

Maybe hope is a kind of endurance sport; maybe it, too, operates according to the logic of long distance.
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