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 runningahead.com. 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.

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