Saturday, December 22, 2012

Suzy Favor Hamilton -- An Attempt to Understand

It's with more than a bit of hesitation that I offer some thoughts on the news of the day in the running world. The tendency to analyze the lives of people we do not know seems to me to be one of the most odious tendencies in contemporary culture -- it reduces lives which are always more complex than they seem and usually more incomprehensible than we would like to admit to simple and usually quite stupid narratives.

But I guess at a certain point, famous people are reduced to simple narratives. This is the price of fame.

Before you read this, I'd encourage you to read this piece written by Brooks Johnson, "But for the gRACE OF GOD." He actually knew Suzy as a person and athlete.

*  *  *

"Fear? If I have gained anything at all by damning myself, it is that I no longer have anything to fear."
--J. P. Sartre

Can you imagine what it takes to be the top runner in the country? To stand on the line and beat all comers? To not just be good, but to be the best? What would it take?

Imagine having that sort of power in your body. Imagine having that sort of power in your mind. And knowing, some day -- any day -- you will lose it.

How would it feel?

I think it would feel like standing on the edge of a cliff and throwing yourself out into space, over and over again. It would feel like having everything to lose, and not being afraid of losing it.

What would you have to do in training to convince yourself that you deserved that type of talent? What sort of psychological walls would you have to build to maintain that position?

I think these are the sorts of questions we have to ask when we examine the situation of Suzy Favor Hamilton. She built a career out on the edge, going places and doing things that simply cannot be comprehended by ordinary folks.

Distance runners are a compulsive lot. We are driven by forces that often seem larger than we are. These forces make us want to suffer; they make us want to train; they make us want to win. In Susy Favor Hamilton, these forces were really, really large.

So, imagine that you had built a life that was modeled around and based on these forces, on giving into them, on letting them drive you in training and racing to the places that few have gone. Not only were you brave enough to acknowledge them, you were brave enough to let them overcome you and thereby make you great. And then, one day it was over, and all that was left for you was a life without those forces. A normal life, with normal responsibilities.

Can you just turn the switch off?

If Suzy had been able to turn the switch off, could she have done what she did?

I know that this line of thought romanticizes the choices that she made, to some extent, just as we often romanticize mental illness. And we have examples of great athletes, even runners, who seem capable of embracing normal life. But there have been quite a few who struggled with the normal perhaps because they had touched something else, or perhaps because they simply weren't normal and couldn't be normal: Henry Rono, Gerry Lindgren, perhaps even Prefontaine...

So, after her running career was over, Suzy Favor Hamilton made a choice that she has admitted was irresponsible. She took her body and once again made it into an object of power and fascination and risk and great feeling.

She gave herself over again to the forces, the large forces. This is always irresponsible. It's also what is required to be great. The leap to this kind of greatness is profound. We should not be surprised that some athletes have a tough time crossing the chasm back to normality; I imagine it takes just as much effort and patience and will that it took to cross the chasm the first time -- and the only reward is a life like everyone else's.

Everyone else is now happy to judge Suzy because they of course would never do such a thing. Such a thing would never cross their minds, actually.

And that probably has a lot to do with why they are everyone else.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hansons' Marathon Method and Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning -- the two aspects of marathon training

On the message boards at RunningAhead, there have been a ton of recent threads about the new Hanson's Marathon Method, most of them comparing it with Pfitz' "old reliable" Advanced Marathoning. One of the smartest posters on the board (the guy solves Rubik's Cubes while marathoning) bhearn put together a comparison of the different marathon approaches that is truly excellent. If you are looking to get more intelligent about your marathon training, bhearn's summary of the similarities and differences in these two fundamentally sound approaches wouldn't be the worst place to start.

The most interesting aspect of bhearn's analysis is his comparison of the total mileage done at various intensities in the two plans over the course of a training cycle. He breaks it down in terms of the classic physiological moments of VO2max, Lactic Threshold, and MP (sometimes called Aerobic Threshold.) I am stealing his chart and pasting it below:

VO2max 2817.25
race (8-15k) 0~18
LT 4231
MP 12044

Looking at the plan from this perspective, it's easy to see that the Hanson's method emphasizes specificity in training. While the "radical" approach of the Hanson's is to de-emphasize the long run (it is commonly said that Hanson's limit the long run to 16 miles, though this is a bit of a misconception), we can see that the purpose of that de-emphasis is to get more work in at one's GOAL MARATHON PACE. In many ways, Hanson's is more similar to a 5k training plan, where you simply try to maximize your overall training volume while also doing a lot of specific work at 5k pace. The goals are two: 1) to become as fit as possible and 2) to master a certain pace.

Pfitzinger has a more "traditional" approach, as he makes the MARATHON DISTANCE the primary specific target of training. This approach seems  at first blush to make more sense, as for most marathoners running goal marathon pace is relatively easy while the distance is what is most intimidating. But really such an approach flies in the face of most ordinary distance training, with its focus on the two goals above. By emphasizing the long run, you are de-emphasizing the general work of fitness and the specific work of pace.

But the quandary of every distance event is equally about pace and distance, and I think this is what the comparison of the two plans really brings forward.  The true difficulty of marathon training is that it is almost impossible to be prepared for both distance and pace. The length of the race becomes a challenge in itself, which multiplies the problem of training. Not only do you have to get yourself fit enough to run a certain pace a certain distance, you need to also be strong enough to simply tolerate the distance.

This "multiplication" of training creates a bind. You can take a Hanson's approach and emphasize a lot of overall volume at marathon pace. But doing so means sacrificing the longest runs that get you comfortable with the duration of the event. Or, you can follow Pfitzinger and work on making 20 mile runs comfortable -- but doing so means forgoing in large part the specific focus on sustained moderate running that is what you will be doing when racing the marathon.

Unless you are training at 100+ mpw and are basically an elite or sub-elite runner, it's impossible to do both of the crucial things that have to be done in marathon training adequately. You have to choose: long runs OR high volumes of moderate MP running. The differences between Hansons and Pfitz reflect this choice.

Which plan is "the right one" -- as always, this depends on the context and background of the runner. If you've been using one approach for a while, you are probably best switching to the other, as a new stimulus -- all things being equal -- is better than an old stimulus. But hopefully what the two plans show us, and what bhearn's excellent analysis highlights, is that good marathon training oscillates between preparing for the duration of the race and the intensity of the race. Trying to find this right balance without cooking ourselves in training is what keeps us coming back to the marathon, over and over again.

The answer, as always, is found out on the roads, hopefully with friends and perhaps a coach. And if we screw up the proper balance, well, that's a good excuse to get out there once more, but this time smarter!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Two Takes on the Newtown Tragedy

It seems to me that there have been two primary types of reactions to this week's school shooting in Newtown as people struggle to make sense of this awful event. The first is a secular reaction: many people look to make sense of it in terms of certain social, cultural, or psychological problems. The cause of the massacre is our access to and infatuation with guns. Or perhaps it was a case of a mental illness inappropriately diagnosed and dealt with. This sort of explanation of the event turns us to re-examine our failures as a society and leads us to political debates about how to restructure society or certain policies in order to eliminate or reduce the chance of this happening again.

The second sort of reaction is a religious reaction. I have seen just as many people speaking about this event as an instance of pure evil, as evidence of our fallen condition, and of the original sin that will always plague humanity. The cause of the massacre is explained as a consequence of human nature. This sort of explanation asks us to turn to the spiritual as a way of dealing with the recurrent evil in the world. On this take, the massacre is not framed as a problem to be solved, but as a reminder of evil as an ongoing condition of life that must be dealt with through spiritual or religious practice: faith, prayer, love, hope.

I'm not sure that we have to decide between these two approaches, but it does seem to me like we often do decide -- and judge those who take the different approach as having decided poorly. To a secular mind, painting this act as an instance of pure evil takes it out of the hands of human action and control and therefore denies the responsibility that we have to prevent future acts. This looks like a failure of will and self-determination. And responding through prayer and placing trust in a higher power seems to the secular mind to simply be neglecting the hard work of real and lasting social reform.

To the religious mind, taking such an event as an instance of poor social policies or social structures seems cold and politically motivated. To be struck by the event as an act of pure evil is to see the hollowness of human action in relation to such things. This almost metaphysical realization of the inadequacy of action in the face of evil leads the religiously minded to see policy debates surrounding the event as offensive in their superficiality. They seem trivial in relation to the deep loss that occurs and the horrible insights that we perceive about our nature and place in the universe.

My own mind oscillates feebly through these two different modes of "making sense." At moments I want to be angry with the people who make, distribute, buy, and play with the weapons that were used to shed the blood of 6 year olds. I want this industry shut down, and my anger makes me want to judge the people who are involved in this industry and who defend it on the basis of abstract constitutional arguments as complicit in this tragedy. At other moments, I realize that this reaction is based in resentment and revenge and tired political divisions rather than love and hope, that such reactions are a way for me to avoid the understanding that such events do not have explanations, that awful events can't be boiled down to the trite debates of the hour.

I would like to make a recommendation here, as if I have an answer. But I am afraid that the only--and maybe even best--answers that those of us witnessing these horrors from a distance will find are distraction and forgetting.

If between now and when we forget about the Newtown tragedy, we have gained little in bitterness and more in trust, care, and concern, is that enough? Probably not. But it would be something.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Baby News, and Some Reflections on Equality

First off, apologies for the delay in posting. I have a good excuse, maybe the best excuse, as my daughter was born a little over two weeks ago. Since then I've been too caught up in life to reflect on it. I have been able to get out for a few runs, and man is it nice.

 One of my philosophical friends who is a mother herself, sent me this John Dewey quote when she heard of our good news, which I thought was nice:

"A baby in the family is equal with others, not because of some antecedent and structural quality which is the same as that of others, but in so far as his needs for care and development are attended to without being sacrificed to the superior strength, possessions and matured abilities of others. Equality does not signify that kind of mathematical or physical equivalence in virtue of which any one element may be substituted for another. It denotes effective regard for whatever is distinctive and unique in each, irrespective of physical and psychological inequalities. It is not a natural possession but is a fruit of the community when its action is directed by its character as a community." - Dewey, The Public and Its Problems

For those not attuned to the philosophical code words, Dewey is taking on Kant in this paragraph, saying that what makes us equal is not some pre-existing, rationally deducted, and a-priori transcendental quality that is the same across all humans.  Equality is not founded in mathematical equivalence or in the higher reason of philosophers. It is instead an effect of human action; it is constructed by communities and individuals in effort together, and it is found wherever care is demonstrated. Dewey prefers to see equality as a fruit of labor rather than as a transcendent principle. It's the name that we give for care and concern.

That's the pragmatist take. I suppose the reply from Kantians and a-priorists would run something like this: "Sure equality requires care and effort from communities and is certainly a fruit of human action, but arguments are needed for providing that care, and the attempt to ground care and concern in shared human qualities provides the basis for argument. The value of equality needs arguments to support it and cannot be taken for granted or shown by an appeal to parochial experience." In other words, what philosophers ought to do is give arguments for why we should treat people with care and concern, and the best argument for that is our shared and universal human project and characteristics.

But to my mind, this is just as question-begging as the pragmatist take. It assumes that we need arguments for treating each other well and equally -- which assumes from the outset that equality is something desirable and worthy of being defended. How do we arrive at that idea? Probably through the experience of having been treated with care and concern.  To my mind it's that treatment--not an abstract argument--that leads us to even have the idea of a shared and universal human project. We don't come to this idea deductively, but inductively, on the basis of many disparate experiences of equality. Our best political and social ideas don't come prior to experience but are instead grounded in actual experiences of good will and regard. Capitalizing "Equality" and naming it as a right and locating it "prior to" experience is a way of honoring Equality, but such honorifics also devalue the hard work of making small-e experiences of equality.

I'm on the front lines of human care and concern right now, and I have the bags under my eyes to prove it! I can tell you that I am gaining daily a more intimate knowledge of the true effort that care and concern takes. I also am struck with a profound appreciation for the care and concern that has been shown to me by my parents, by friends and family, and by colleagues. It's these experiences that animate -- and re-animate again and again -- our moral and ethical life. The arguments of philosophers are pale shadows too far removed.

As for the blog going forward -- please don't worry. I haven't given up on it and hope to get back soon into the more or less weekly posting rhythm that is always my goal. Merleau-Ponty reminds us that philosophers are perpetual beginners, and I am excited to begin again.

As runners, too, we are always beginning again, and I wish you all the best as we head into that resolutionary season where we re-evaluate our goals and training and set out once more to become the runners-that-we-might-be.

Thanks as always for reading!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Listening to the Body: Neuroscience and the Art of Training

If you want to frustrate a new runner and come off as an elitist prick on message boards, there is a quick and easy path. Tell them to listen to their body. Long time runners are always offering this little nugget of wisdom, and new runners are always saying: what the heck does that mean!

I think that neuroscience can help explain.

Neuroscientists have confirmed what we have long known -- that there is an important difference between hearing and listening. In this nice little piece by Seth Horowitz, a Brown University neuroscientist, we learn that the auditory sense is quantitatively almost 10 times faster than the visual sense. In other words, our reactions to what we hear are less processed and more instinctive than our reactions to what we see. Horowitz describes the auditory sense as the human "alarm system" that operates constantly, even while asleep.

To balance that constant guardedness, we have something like "volume control" -- a way of turning up important sounds and diminishing less important sounds. This volume control is the attention. The philosopher/psychologist William James described it in the Principles of Psychology in the following way: "Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought...It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state."

The difference between hearing and listening is, of course, the quality of attention. Horowitz distinguishes between the startle, which is attention in its most attenuated, alarm-sounding, and reactive form and what he calls "stimulus directed attention." While the startle form of attending involves relatively little brain function and has been observed in every animal that has a spine, stimulus directed attention is much more complex and works through "temporoparietal and inferior frontal cortex regions, mostly in the right hemisphere." According to Horowitz, these are areas of the brain that are outwardly concerned; i.e. they are less interested in protecting the organism from danger and more interested in observing and understanding the stimulus received from the outside world. This is the sense in which they are "stimulus directed."

While hearing perhaps originated as a sort of alarm system, in the human brain it can be hooked up into a much more complex, outward oriented, and stimulus directed form of attention. When this happens, we say we are listening, rather than hearing.

Horowitz does a nice job of linking the neuroscience up with social concerns, particularly our interactions with media and with each other. It seems pretty clear that part of our political divisiveness has to do with the way our forms of attention are activated through media.

But I want to turn to running as another realm in which this distinction is important -- and as a realm in which the more complex modes of attention can be developed and trained. Experienced runners, to the chagrin and confusion of new runners, often speak of learning to listen to the body as a key, if not the key to proper training. I think that this Horowitz piece helps to articulate what exactly is meant here.

The art of listening to your body is really an art of developing more complex attention. When we start off in a sport or a new endeavor, we encounter all sorts of new "noises" in our environment, and the most natural reaction to these new stimuli is to be startled by them. The normal feelings of running -- because of their unfamiliarity -- get processed by the reptilian brain as startling, and they generate a fight or flight response. The "flight response" is usually the one activated in runners for obvious reasons, and so the new runner has a tendency to get out there and run to exhaustion on every single run.

But these runs are not the relaxed and confident runs of the well-trained experienced runner. They are painful and somewhat panicked. So, the new runner goes to the message boards and learns that they must slow down and run easy. This works for a time because it diminishes the sensations of running to the level that they can be processed and learned and hooked up to more complex modes of attention.

Once this has been accomplished, and the runner learns how to approach running in a relaxed way, new stimuli need to be introduced gradually and deliberately. This is where having a coach can be really helpful, as he or she can help the athlete distinguish between different modalities of effort and develop the organ of attention. And, in my opinion, this is where overuse or improper use of technologies like heart rate monitors or Garmin pace alerts can impede the development of attention -- in precisely the ways that new forms of media can inhibit the development of the sort of listening that leads to good communication.

I truly believe that in addition of course to genetic differences in talent, the ability to pay attention to one's effort while running in this richer and more complex sense of "listening" is what separates the best runners from the rest. Runners like to talk about pain tolerance and toughness as what makes a race effort full and complete, but the best way to tolerate pain is to understand it as a type of sensation that includes information. This is different from the traditional question of whether we should associate with the pain or disassociate from it to achieve a state of mental toughness.

True mental toughness is less rigid and inflexible than we often imagine it to be. It looks more like the complex attention that Horowitz describes. It looks like calm alertness in the face of the sensations of effort. That's what is meant by "listening to the body."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Just Run, Baby!

"He who lives as children live -- who does not struggle for his bread and does not believe that his actions possess any ultimate significance -- remains childlike. "

F. Nietzsche, "Daybreak"

"The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars." -- J. Cash

Back when I was in graduate school, one of my professors (a Freudian psychoanalyst whose primary mode of pedagogy was delicately nudging and spinning thoughts as, perhaps, a mineral collector does late at night, hopeful that an old crystal lit from just the right angle might gleam with a new shade of light) told me something that stuck with me. He said quite matter-of-factly after one of us had made some sort of comment about childhood: "Remember that childhood is an adult concept."

This professor's point was the relatively simple but often unthought truth that children have no need for the concept of childhood. Childhood is a concept constructed in response to adult life which therefore may in fact have more to do with adulthood than with the actual experience of being a child. When we think of childhood or watch children at play -- and especially when we long for a return to childhood -- often what we do is simply conjure up an image of what adulthood would feel like without its, well, adult responsibilities: the struggle for bread, the struggle for meaning.

In other words, the immaturity of childhood is simply a negation of the idea of the maturity of adulthood, which required hundreds of educable moments, more than a few punishments and setbacks, and a lot of fucking hard work to achieve. When we look at children, we look at a being who has not yet undergone the more-difficult-than-you-might-think process of becoming civilized. And we kind of envy them for that, while also forgetting the fears, lack of control, confusion, injustice, weakness, and unpredictability that is also part of the life of a child.

The concept of childhood is the reason for adulthood, as our primary responsibility as citizens and parents and simply as adults is to create a better world for the children who are about to grow up into it. And, paradoxically, it is also the dream of an escape and relief from adulthood.

I guess these thoughts came back to me now because the high school team I help out with is about to run at the state meet, and one thing that we've been struggling with as coaches is how to get these young folks back to childhood, for at least a moment. These are good kids, from a good school, and their main problem is that they are too good -- too much like adults already. Too stressed, too conscious, too analytical. They've been racing tight, and battling themselves too much, instead of battling the competition.

Running is simple, and we run best when we find a kind of animal state of innocence that is akin to childhood. The good race has none of those adult feelings: no shame, no anxiety, no stress. If we get ourselves in the right mood, we perhaps recall an ancient memory of ourselves before we became civilized. We get natural; we get intuitive; we get cruel and competitive; and we release the beast. We run simply, we run dumb, and we are able to inflict pain upon ourselves without relenting.

"Wait!" you are probably saying. Childhood is a type of beastliness? Of course it is! I think any parents could tell you that. But beastliness is not all bad, just as civilization is not all good. When Johnny Cash speaks of a war within, he is being literal. Our civilized selves tame the beast and train the beast, and this is not without consequence or loss. In fact, our civilized selves have to become quite beastly towards our inner beast in order to cage it in those frail and fragile bars. They make it cower, hold it into a corner, and even make it feel itself to be something shameful and unnatural. These are the tactics of adulthood.

You can see this in a competitive situation when the athlete "gets tight." He or she begins running consciously and becomes so intent on running according to a plan or meeting a certain goal, that she forgets that she needs actually the help of the beast to get there. The runner tries to shame himself into a good performance or berate himself into a good performance. But this never works. The controlled and civilized part of us is, after all, only part of us. To reach our full potential, the beast and the controller, the child and the adult, have to figure out how to join forces and run together.

This is difficult to do, probably impossible to completely accomplish. But we can do better. Most of us denizens of late modernity (or whatever they are calling us today) and especially the readers of a blog like this one are overcivilized. The tendency to control, tame, organize, and understand has run wild, become somewhat beastly and needs, itself, to be tamed. Our enemy on race day is clear. It's not childhood or childishness; it's not ignorance and uncontrolled power. It's the forces of civilization; i.e. knowledge and control. To run and race well, we have to become more child-like, more beastly. We have to let go, which means letting the animal inside us lead us.

So, in your next race, give your adult self a break. Let the kid tow him along for a little while, do some of the work. Because after all, it's children, not adults, who have all the energy these days. Their power and work ethic is tremendous, but too often we miss this aspect of childhood. We miss it because the child's goal is different from ours. It's not to become civilized. It's to play.

Children have no need for the concept of childhood because they are too focused on just being to reflect about who they are. For overanalytical runners in an overanalyzed times, our best race strategy might be no strategy at all.

Just run, baby!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mile Repeats as Religious Experience

"There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. In this state of mind, what we most dreaded has become the habitation of our safety, and the hour of our moral death has turned into our spiritual birthday. The time for tension in the soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about, has arrived. Fear is not held in abeyance as it is by mere morality, it is positively expunged and washed away."

-- William James, "Circumscription of the [Religious] Topic"

Last Wednesday, around 6:15pm at Rose Park track, as the long shadows of the afternoon had just faded into the half-light of evening, I had a religious experience.

Or at least I think I did.

The Rose Park track is a brand new state of the art red mondo rubber track. In the middle of the track is a soccer field that I suppose some material engineers also figured out how to make out of rubber. As far as I can tell, it's all the same thing. The green "grass" and black "dirt" are basically different colors and shapes of rubber.

The track was built by the city of Nashville and is also Belmont University's home track. The surrounding neighborhood is rough and centered on public housing. It lies about a kilometer from the university of Cornelius Vanderbilt (the 2nd or 3rd wealthiest person in American history), where I work and which now sports a 3.4 billion dollar endowment and in addition to educating their students, funding the research of academics, and fielding mediocre football teams is also in the process of building some high rise dormitories that look like something out of a Peter Jackson movie.

Rose Park, in short, is a strange type of place. It is glitteringly new in a neighborhood that is decidedly run down. Even though it is open to the public, you still feel like you are trespassing when you go there, as if something that nice must be owned by someone very wealthy. But it's not. It's owned by us. You kinda feel like one of those kids who doesn't want to play with a new toy on Christmas morning because he knows that it won't be new for long. The general decay of the surrounding neighborhood is a constant reminder that someday Rose Park track like all earthly things will be old and used up.

But last Wednesday, under late autumn skies, Rose Park track sat on the top of its hill as it has for the last year in its full and fragile rubber splendor. The Nashville skyline rising below it, rolling down to the Cumberland River.

When we started the workout, it was early evening. Soccer players were scattered across the infield, passing the ball around before their game. We warmed up, jogging loose laps clockwise (the wrong way). It had been a long day at work, and I was happy to be outside in the open air. The workout was the classic runner's workout -- mile repeats. None of us were training for anything in particular, just training. We would do six of them, jog a lap for recovery. The agreed on pace was 5:20, 80 second laps.

I led the first 800m of the first interval, then Ted came swinging by and I settled in behind him for the last half. The first one is always rougher than you expect, as it takes a little while to get warm. But I could tell that Ted was feeling good, as he wasn't really breathing hard when we crossed the line. Our other partner Hunter had gotten a little out of shape, and he dropped at the 1200 and would just try to hang in on the rest.

We jogged the first 400 pretty quick, getting around before 2:00 even, and were into the second. I let Ted lead the first half, then came up beside him and asked if he wanted me to lead. He said he would take it, and so I just tucked in, knowing that that he liked to lead when he felt good. Night was falling quickly, and as we swung around the back curve on the track, the sunset over the city skyline glowed a dull red.

Somewhere in the middle of the second mile, I realized that it was going to be a good one. It's odd how you just know, but you just do. The body feels light, the legs feel quick, the breathing controlled and relaxed. You know. When you feel this way, you can go one of two ways. You can choose to run faster than the plan -- a choice I probably make too often for training purposes -- or you can choose to settle into that feeling, to flow with it, to kinda cultivate that feeling. This is the choice I made, and it's what opened the door to what I still think that I want to call a religious experience.

In the passage up there at the top, James contrasts religious experience with moral experience. He explains that moral experience is draining effort. The moral realm is a struggle -- to be good, to be better, to conquer our fears. It is ultimately tiring. Religious experience on the contrary is "a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God." It is "happy relaxation," "calm breathing," an "eternal present." As I ran along, tucked behind my running partner, feeling the intertwined rhythms of footfalls, the circling scenery, the deep breaths, the gently building fatigue, the sweet stretches of recovery, watching the evening light spill away into dark, I felt simultaneously present and removed. My daily worries and fear simply vanished--not because I fought them off but because I felt at peace.

That's when I thought: this is almost religious.

I say "almost" for two reasons. First, it didn't feel like it was about God. It just felt like being alive and taking pleasure in being alive. I mean, maybe it was about God, if God simply means something like "the direct pleasure of life," but I guess that definition of God just seems like a stretch to me. Second, it didn't really feel transcendental. I didn't feel like I was touching a great truth or uncovering the essence of anything. It didn't feel like Truth -- if anything it felt like Art. I just felt like I was blown away by experience, while actually being in experience. As if the entirety of that particular moment were the finished product of undoubted genius.

This awareness lasted for probably the last 4 mile repeats. By the last one, I felt so relaxed that I just took off on the last lap and ran a 70 for the last quarter like it was nothing.

After the workout, we stripped off our flats and jogged a lap or two. Ted ribbed me gently for tucking in and using him, then running away from him. Turns out he was suffering the last couple of repeats while I had been spinning off on my little trip. It was totally dark out now, and the soccer players were huddled in clumps. I looked over at Ted and grinned and said the only thing I knew to say: "That was a good workout."

In that instant, the stadium lights flickered on, bright and fluorescent. The muted night lit up like a truck station bathroom stall, and the soccer players let out a cheer. The spell was broken. Ted and Hunter trotted off to their cars. I had parked on the other side. I collected my shirt and walked down the hill, feeling the familiar ache of hard effort in my legs.

For a moment, I just sat there in the car. What happened up there? Did I see God while doing mile repeats as the sun went down?

It's hard to remember exactly. But it's also hard to forget.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Blood in the Heartland: The Adidas Invite

[Editor's note:]  I had just put on my flats for that most glorious of runner's runs, the October morning tempo. The brilliant fall leaves out my window brought to mind the flashing of spikes and the copper taste of hard effort that we runners associate with the season. I opened the door and was slammed by the stench of stale whisky. There was a bottle laying there with a note stuffed inside. In the bushes were scattered loose papers. Apparently the good doctor RVT had dropped by during his daily stupor and left me a gift.

I picked up the bottle, shook out the note, and deciphered the scrawl:

"If Weldon and Robert are too shaken by our Fear fiasco where we had to tell Various lawyers to climb back in their ambulances and read up on Defamation law, we can always shop this piece down our Purple Cow pipeline to fellow Eph Tim Layden at Sports Illustrated.  I'm sure they have a battery of lawyers bigger than Penn State's attorneys in the Paterno pool."

It took me a few days and a few drinks, but I was able to get the pages together in rough order. It was a report from Dr. RVT's recent trip to the Adidas Invite -- the pre-eminent college XC meet. As always, it is difficult to separate the mad ravings from the actual facts. But that's life. The truth doesn't take its hold direct.

*  *  *

Here we go again.  I was 30,000 feet above Mad City when the Adderall began to take hold.  This was gonna be a blitzkrieg of a trip - in and out within 24 hours- but little did I know what a war zone it would turn out to be when the spike dust cleared.  For such a lightning strike trip where I knew sleep was not an option, I needed to call in the Panzer Division of drugs that my cancer doc was willing to deal me: amphetamine salts.  Yes, concerned parents, that is the real name for the learning meds you foist upon your children.

My bosses, the Texas Twinkletoes Twins couldn't be bothered to personally cover The Biggest Meet of the Collegiate Cross Country Season, so they mumbled some excuse about Rojo's wedding the next day and also wanting to get press passes to the VP debate to ask Paul Ryan if he really said, "I coulda beat that midget Ethiopian at the Chicago Marathon if I hadn't followed Kip Litton and taken a wrong turn shortcut."

As my usual per diem request, they provided me with provisions of whiskey and dope.  But it wasn't the weed that caused my head to spin as I stepped off the plane in Wisconsin.  It was the smell of cheese.  One of the fun side effects of the 10,000 dollar a month chemo pills I swallow each day is an ultra-heightened sense of smell.  I could hire myself out as a sniffer dog for the customs officers at airports.  It'd probably pay more than this crummy journo gig.

I needed to get to the bar that my buddy and creator of this ungodly meet, Mick Bryne, had reserved to entertain his guests, the best cross country coaches in the nation.  The joint is called Brocach's which is Gaelic for "Badger's Den."  The pub is owned by two Dartmouth guys and it's a safe bet they are not gonna let that loser Andrew Lohse past the bouncer to throw up on people like he bragged about doing in his Poser frat at Hanover.

 What drew me out here was Mick's brainchild, the Adidas Invite, where every cross team worth its oxygen comes to test itself against the best and brightest.  The fookin course is a dream, a true "Dedicated" XC course: spectator friendly, wide open, perfectly groomed.  Although Pre-Nats, a chance to preview the National Championship course in Louisville “nowhere” Kentucky is this exact same weekend, most programs snub the affair or send their B teams to Kentucky.  Wouldn't you?  I wouldn't let a healthy athlete enter that state if I could help it.  But perhaps my distaste stems from their distilleries as much as it has to do with a bitter and twisted series of events at the Derby that has sourmashed my mind. But that was another story.

Yes, anyone with any real brains goes to Wisco.  Why, you ask?  To chase points, you fool.  Yes, CHASE POINTS.  That is the name of the NCAA game.  That governing body, in all their infinitesimally small wisdom, has devised a process by which teams can get invited to the 31 slots available to the National Meet.  Forget March Madness selection.  That is child's play compared to Cross Nationals inclusion.  This method will make your head spin.  It requires the mind of a Wall Street derivatives broker to explain it to a normal person.  Even CEO's at Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan , and Morgan Uceny (no Yank too Big to Fall) are at a loss to when you confront them with this NCAA algorithm.  It would take a footnote the size of USADA 's 202 page indictment of Lance Armstrong to bring you up to speed on this equation, but suffice it to say that it took 32 hours after the last NCAA XC Regional to determine the final invites to The Big Dance.   

Screw this math, let's get to the bar.  We were all awaiting the Big Questions for the weekend: will coach A arrive with a new tattoo?  Will coach B show up with jailbait on his arm?  Will coach C finally change his name so his moniker doesn't sound like a Harry Potter house elf?

Of course no coaches that I can name drank anything containing alcohol.  So if you are a collegiate Compliance officer, you can stop reading now and go back to your cubicle hovel and continue looking for ways to punish your school's distance runners just because you are pissed that the University's star quarterback drunkenly drove his alumni-bought BMW through your living room wall, killing your Golden Retriever in the process and the college told you keep it hushed.  Over Cokes and Sprites, a collection of the best minds in the business laid down bets in the Points For Pints game.  If my guys beat your five and you end up auto-Q at your Regional, I'll owe you a pint at Nationals.  God, I hope no compliance cranks show up at the Louisville bars.  There'll be hell to pay -- and it might be for throwing a comp-nerd through a window.

There are other compelling reasons to make a pilgrimage to Madison.  Reason number one: Suzy.  Reason number two: Favor.  Reason number three: Hamilton. Forget the multiple National Cross Country titles throughout several decades.  Forget that former Badger mentor, Jerry Schumacher, now has a stable of Wisco pros to drool over: Solinsky, Teggencamp, Bairu, and Jager.  Forget all that.  But don't forget Suzy Favor Hamilton.  This Battling Badger may have looked for all the world like a blonde Homecoming Queen, but on the track she would break your ribs and puncture your lungs.  She brought Euro-style barging and full body contact to the US college scene.  Lots of people were not happy, especially the Emergency Rooms.  Long live Suzy!

In my sober moments, which aren't often, I tell myself the real reason I'm here is to witness one of the last pure sports available in college athletics.  We are not counting water polo, wrestling, golf and other sports where the object of the event is to put spectators to sleep.  In Cross, there are no fatcat alums to give these harriers a Cadillac, no pushy dads getting kickbacks as signing bonuses, and certainly no hookers provided on recruiting trips. Shame about the last bit.  Skinny high school distance geeks get no action and they darn well deserve some! Lastly, there sure ain't any One-and-Done clowns.  Ok, we won't count Webb and Jager.

Gratefully, Mick knows what he is doing and schedules the meet to go off at noon so we can sleep off our Cokes and Sprites.  In the hotel breakfast room, I gulp coffee with all the Ivy grads who are doing a fifth year at Texas.  Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth, pick your Ivy; they all end up In Austin, where they get those dime-sized ear plug earrings.  I guess if you are a nerd all your life, you bust loose by listening to ZZ Top and dreaming of going to Texas and piercing like a badass.  Then you go make triple figures on Wall Street.  But how are you going to explain those gaping holes in your lobes in your Goldman Sachs interview? Our HEPS reunion reverie is broken by Defense Secretary Lou Panetta coming on the news and warning us of cyber attack on America the scale of Pearl Harbor. Yeah, yeah, blah, blah.  We had more important worries: who would garner golden points today?

The course is a fan's wet dream.  You can watch all the moves from the "Spectator Burm." You hear announcer updates, informing you of team scores as they fly across timing mats in their electronic chips strapped on to their spikes.  Whatever happened to handing out numbered Popsicle sticks at the finish?  I was about to find out. In a big way.  But that comes after the flawless femme fĂȘte.

For all those Letsrun chicks, all two of them that read those puerile wanker boards, who decried me as a male chauvinist pig, I will say something about the girls'...I mean Women's meet.  A true freshman... Er, I mean frosh or freshwoman ... From Cal Poly went out hard, looked over her shoulder and screamed, " Fetch this, bitches!" and blew away the loaded field.  The announcer told us she was a "true frosh." What is a False Frosh?  Or would she be an Untrue Frosh, meaning she cheated on her boyfriend?  My favorite team was Vanderbilt who wore pink singlets in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month.  How cool is that?  I cajoled a dumb-struck boy to snap a picture of me with one of the Vandy gals after she picked herself up off the ground in the carnage of the finish line paddock.  I got her cell phone number.

I readied myself for the next race, arguably bigger, badder, and more bloated than the National meet.  There would be teams here that won't make it to Nats but would rip your head off in some D1 Conference champs affair.  We are talking Braveheart.  The ground literally shakes as four hundred horses thunder off the line.  Problem was today, they didn't thunder; they dawdled slower than the Olympic 5k Final that resembled a bad d D3 women's meet.  We are talking 4:55 thru the mile.  It was such a slow start, the fastest miler in the field, Kyle Merber, couldn't run that slow.  His body got confused and he fell over himself.  Other guys were stepping on one another, punching opponents, swearing revenge at a later date.  The Suzy Favor Hamilton effect.

Basically, if you're looking for results, here's what happened.  Some good teams ran well.  Some other good teams shit the bed.  And some teams didn't even belong in the meet.  For all I know, the Nebraska team is still out on the course.  As for individuals, we have a similar situation; a couple of Kenyans who were airlifted into Arizona chatted one another up as they ran away from everyone.  Several promising studs fell down and turned tits up.  A few Ivy Leaguers questioned their Wall Street worth as they wondered aloud, "what the fuck am I doing at this meet?!"

The race rolled, the runners ran. Everything seemed white bread normal in the Heartland.  Then the terrorist struck.

 Lou Panetta was right.  I've always thought Al-Queda leaders were dumber than a stick.  They think, "America...New York, New York, New York." Stupid.  Hit the Heartland instead. Strike fear into the seemingly safest meat and crops of America.  It happened at Wisco and the media missed it.  A compu-code hacker assaulted the most important meet of the season.  This cyber- villain short-circuited the timing chip system.  Haywire is not the right word for the confusion that broke out in the scoring.  Greece would be a better word.

When you have twenty runners crossing the line within a two second span and Big Dance points on the line, you have a problem.  Coaches had to ask their athletes to try and remember or guess their finishing time.  Some poor sod had to go to the video and try and match those marks with visual shots.  The huge and beautiful digital scoreboard was spitting out "unofficial results" for teams that had as much truth to them as Paul Ryan's claimed marathon time.

What most spectators and Letsrun "pundits" missed was the strategic mid-season gamesmanship going down.  Quite a few coaches held out several runners.  In doing so, they wouldn't reveal their full hand till the Conference or Regional meets.  Even the Cover Story on Letsrun bemoaned, "Oh My Gawd, Number One Ranked Wisconsin Finishes 17th!" I can't give away the workout that Mick's Canadian 10k Olympian Mo Ahmed did that very morning, but it was not for the squeamish of feint-hearted.  Let's put it this way, the Arizona Kalenjin duo won't be holding down a conversation at Nationals. 

Essentially, this race sets us up for a heckuva smackdown in Louisville.  Even some teams that chose to risk Redneck Flu by entering the state of Kentucky, look to be threats at Nats. Guru Ponytail Philosopher Wetmore has his Boulder Buffs ready.  OSU's Smith has once again distilled the waters of Stillwater, making his guys potent proof.  BYU's Eyestone is riding a Romney Mormon surge at the Prize.  [I can't resist a codicil here: if some proselytizing Mission Year Mormons sweetly knock on your door and want to talk, tell them you will give them all the time in the world if they can name Three Great Mormon Distance Runners.  I actually did this.  I'm not kidding.  Can you name them?  Olympians, big dog college coaches and a former Steeplechase record holder.]

Back in Mad City, everything was getting weird. Despite the fact that I was on a prescribed learning disability drug, I didn't have the wherewithal to figure out this scoring madness. Gaunt men with bad tempers were yelling at each other, and I was tweaking bad. I got outta Dodge before someone killed someone.

Mick texted me as I was at the airport. Said, "bad day at da office.  Do you have a couch I can sleep on and hide out at your place for a while?"

Always, my brother. Just bring our friend Glenn.  Fidditch.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Race Report: 2007 Flying Monkey Marathon

In anticipation of the best (and toughest) marathon around, the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon, which takes place in about five weeks, I thought I would publish an old race report that never made it up on the blog. If you don't know about this marathon, you have to visit the website and check it out. The marathon takes place in my favorite place to train in Nashville -- Percy Warner Park. It is sublimely hilly, nicely shaded, and a kind of shelter from the two things we deal with as runners in the city -- heat and traffic. 

These things are great, but what makes the race truly special is the community of runners that attend the race, the great potluck, the local beer. Race director Trent Rosenbloom pours a ton of energy into doing it the right way. It's a celebration of what we love about running -- namely, working hard then eating and drinking with friends afterwards. This report was not from my best race or fastest race -- just from an ordinary plain old race. Hope you enjoy!

* * *

Flying Monkey Marathon, 2007

I told myself before the race that I would "run easy" and be happy with anything under 3:00. Well, why I thought that it would be possible to run 26.2 miles "easy" in PWP is beyond me. Especially at 6:50 pace. As most of you know, my training hasn't been great since this spring, so I thought it would be pointless to get into a battle with Chuck Engle. However, I figured that 2nd place was wide open. So, these were the goals I had coming into the race. 

1) Run easy and enjoy the park. 
2) Run under 3 hours. 
3) Get 2nd place. 

Looking back at them now, I realize that goal #1 and goals #2 and #3 are kind of in intellectual tension with each other. The ideas don't overlap completely. The marathon would write this tension all over my body over the last six miles. It would inject it into my calves, wash over my stomach, deaden my mind, settle in the joints of my hips. Whoever doubted the relation between body and mind has never run a marathon (are you listening, Descartes?). 

The hills had their say.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I did a good job of going out easy. Steve Gordon (a friend who bandited the first 20 miles as a last hard effort before his goal marathon in Huntsville) and I ran the first few miles over 7 minute pace. Chuck and a couple other guys--Pete Mueller and a guy from Colorado running his 87th marathon headed out a little quicker. I figured the other two would come back (see goal #3), and it is a long race, so no worries (see goal #1). After a few miles, Steve and I settled into race-pace rhythm (see goal #2), and it felt faster than I expected (try not to think about goal #1). We passed the Colorado guy going up 9-mile hill the first time. Steve and I chatted, enjoying the early miles of the marathon, the fog in the fall leaves, the perfect temps for running. 

We came through halfway in 1:29:18. I was starting to feel a bit better and was happy to be on sub-3:00 pace. I thought to myself--once more! And picked up the pace a bit. Pretty soon I could see Pete ahead through the trees. Goal #3 in sight. I think I let my competitive juices outrun my notions about taking it easy (I also thought back to last year, about how I ran this section of the course hard, and it worked well for me), so I started clicking off the miles a bit faster. I caught Pete and passed him around the 17 mile mark and began to have visions of running a monster negative split. 

Then came the hill at mile 19. Trent. You bastard. It sapped my momentum, sucked my verve, destroyed my enthusiasm, and instantly transformed my pleasant run through the park into a marathon-death march. (It wasn't just the hill--it was how hard I'd been running since mile 13. I hit mile 20--at the top of the hill--in 2:10, which means I'd averaged 6:00 pace from miles 13-20. You have every right to ask me--what happened to goal #1?). 

So, there I was. Hurting. With 6.2 miles to go and 50 minutes to break three. What pace is that? 8 minute miles, or thereabouts. I would use almost all of those 50 minutes to get home. It wasn't pretty, but I didn't walk, for whatever that's worth. There were waves of fatigue that I fought through. Pete slowly made up ground on me, but his fast start doomed him to a miserable last few miles as well. Goal #1 was out the window. All that were left were numbers 2 and 3, and frankly I didn't care too much about them either. I counted the miles, put one foot in front of the other, and made it home in 2:58:17. 

Lesson learned. Marathons are not easy. Especially in Percy Warner. It's better if you train for them. But I felt proud for pushing through. It was great hanging out after the race, and awesome to see Trent finishing after all the hard work and crappy asthma he's had to deal with. I even had a good talk with Chuck, who had graciously broken my course record. 

Now, it's time to rest, work on the dissertation [Yes, I have finished it now, thanks for asking!], and let this body of mine heal.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Racing Season, Election Season, and the Role of Intuition in Making Some Sense Out of It All

"In the great boardinghouse of nature, the cakes and the butter and the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so clean. Indeed, we should view them with scientific suspicion if they do." --William James, "The Will to Believe"

One of the reasons I so admire James' view on things is that I think he's got his epistemology right. He understands that as knowers, thinkers, and understanders of reality we are vastly limited. Experience is pretty much chock full of uncertainty, vagueness, chance, and openness. Things hardly ever come out even or add up exactly. The truest confirmation of this fact is the feeling of pleasure that we get when our preconceptions about what's about to happen are actually fulfilled. If we were good predictors of the future and had a clear and firm grasp on reality, that satisfaction would be unwarranted.

The attitude of science -- by which I mean no more and no less than the attitude of intelligent inquiry -- is therefore suspicious from the outset of neat conclusions. In a prior life, I was a physics teacher, and the best sign that students were fudging their lab numbers was that they came out too well. In the lab, we left the realm of theory, where F always equalled (ma) and entered that great boarding house of nature with its marvelous multitude of variables, most of which seem especially placed to muck up the data.

At the time I was more focused on the outcome of each lab, whether the students made connections between the equipment and the concepts, and whether they could follow the instructions. I see more clearly now that much of what I was doing in that lab with those high school students was introducing them to the true difficulty involved in drawing conclusions in the real world. It's often said that the best thinkers rely on facts and evidence for their arguments. But isn't it the other way around? Aren't the best thinkers the ones who start out suspicious of settled conclusions and intent on remaking the facts?

I suppose my mind settled on these thoughts this morning for two reasons. The first is that it's racing season, and runners everywhere are all a-flutter trying to determine in advance what the training they have done this summer really means. We want to draw clear conclusions from the cold facts of training. So, we pore over our running logs looking for signs and indications, a few solid facts that can peg marathon pace for us. It's a doomed project from the start because as we all know, we had good days and bad, and we weren't really racing those workouts anyways. In the end race pace is an intuition, not a conception. What the work does is add up to a feeling that I can hold this effort for this sort of race. That feeling is not the result of an argument; it's more like a built capacity, the product of work and experience not conscious reflection. The very best racers--Sammy Wanjiru comes to mind--run intuitively. [Definitely check out this piece on Wanjiru from Toni Reavis.]

The second reason I've been mulling these things is that it's political season. The last debate was a total snooze-fest, and I think it's because both Romney and Obama overestimated the role of facts and evidence in decision-making. Their responses to each other and to the questions were, in a sense, too heavily loaded with facts, and too often the evidence for their views was presented in a way that made their argument too neat. Like James, my tendency was to view all the numbers with suspicion because I know that in reality the political process will disrupt all plans--as it should! Our political choices are very rarely a consequences of weighing arguments or evidence. They are, instead, the culmination of many experiences. We choose, in other words, on the basis of intuition rather than reason.

That our intuitions are not wholly rational does not mean that they are ill-informed. On the contrary. Political intuitions are a consequence of our temperaments, but they are also formed through direct experience, through habits and encounters, and indeed through the work of living. Jonathan Haidt describes this well. We know who we will vote for in the way that we know what pace to run in the early stages of a marathon. The choice is not conscious and reflective; it is deep and intuitive. It is not based on reasons or arguments, but on effort, choices, and experiences.

None of this means that we shouldn't try to find facts, give evidence for our claims, or scrutinize the rational basis of our decisions. These are all essential ways of developing good intuitions. But we shouldn't neglect the role of intuition in intelligence when considering the important choices we make this fall -- and also, as we are forced to come to terms with the fact that half of America, more or less, will make a different choice than the one our own intuition says is the smart one.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Philosophy, Running, and Life Beyond Justification

The question "what is philosophy?" is perhaps most expressive of the temperament and ambitions of philosophers. We are simultaneously proud of our ability to ask this question and ashamed that we have to ask it. We are proud of the question because it shows that we take critical inquiry so seriously that we apply it even to the very task of critical inquiry. And we are ashamed of the question because it implies that we don't really know what the heck we are doing, that philosophy is simply an expression of confusion. Which, of course, it is.

Like most questions, this one has many different answers. Speaking personally, I love reading and engaging in philosophy because it gives me a chance to think newly and differently. So, I tend to think of the task of philosophy as primarily imaginative and speculative. My favorite philosophers challenge ordinary ways of seeing, and give us new ways of approaching problems. This has probably been apparent in my writings on this blog.

The view that philosophy is about argumentative justification is more common among professional philosophers. This mode of philosophy is also creative, but it puts a higher value on conceptual clarity and argumentative rigor. It sees philosophy as an attempt to justify the way we think about things through clear argumentation and reason giving.

Obviously, good thinking requires both clear-headed and rigorous exchange of reasons as well as creative insight and intuition. In the very best philosophers profound and world-altering insights are delivered in a clear and graceful style that does not shirk the work of justification (Plato, Descartes, Rousseau, and Nietzsche come to mind as exemplary in terms of balancing creativity and argumentative rigor.) But most of us workaday philosophers tend to err on one side or the other -- so much so, in fact that intradisciplinary squabbles about which is the "real" or "true" form of philosophy occupy too much philosophical bandwidth. (Ah, but we love that question, "what is philosophy?" AND, even more, we love to argue!)

All of this is familiar and not too insightful, I imagine, for professional philosophers. These squabbles over the meaning and most basic values of philosophy have a long history and are also influenced by forces from outside philosophy -- i.e. the prestige and influence of math and science, and the more general ways that academics have to justify their own funding, etc. These are larger topics for a different audience.

At any rate, I was prompted to return to these questions on the nature of philosophy and what it might have to do with running when I ran across this advertisement for a conference on the philosophy of running and realized that I hardly wrote about any of the questions that they briefly posed.

Why run? How would I reply to this? Does my running require justification? Well, sometimes it does -- like when I should be doing something else.

What sort of value does running have? Here we get into the reasons for the first question -- Enjoyment comes to mind, first. Psychological stability. Health. Friendship. And then vaguer and more suspicious reasons: control, competitiveness, obsessiveness. Most of the value that running has is directly individual, but there are also community aspects: the race, the friends, even the simple act of being out in public spaces and on sidewalks seems to me to have social/political implications.

What does running tell us about intentions and effort? There are fascinating crannies to explore here. Marathon training and racing is an ongoing lesson in the limits of intentionality and goal setting. And runners are connoisseurs of effort--one of the great pleasures of running is in sampling different efforts and playing with them, as if the body were wine, and we were tasters!

What is philosophically distinctive about running? There is a lot to say here (this topic needs its own blog post), but I think the answer boils down to the fact that running is a freely chosen activity. I think for this reason, we see running as something we are -- we are runners -- rather than something we simply do. We don't run out of necessity, and running is not useful, and yet we choose it anyways.

This takes us back to the first question. What exactly is philosophical inquiry? I think it is best expressed as freedom of thought. This freedom forces certain responsibilities--that we practice it well, that we do it clearly, and that we respect the rights of others to think. But thinking is also like running. There is a dimension of the pure freedom of thought that pushes beyond justification, responsibility, necessity, and usefulness. To my mind, it's this dimension of thought -- a dimension that is itself exceedingly difficult and rewarding to think -- that we indicate by the concept of philosophy. We know we are in a philosophical dimension when our thoughts get confused and jumbled, but also appear new and alien.

Perhaps thinking philosophically and running are analogous activities. Though they each have positive and useful effects, they are activities that are not primarily useful and resist justification. But we choose them anyways, quite freely, despite their dubious use-value, and perhaps in doing so express something about the nature of human freedom. When Socrates said that "The unexamined life is not worth living," he drew a straight line connecting free inquiry and the value of life itself. But there is a subtler thought there as well. If the value of life is in the inquiry, it is also in the part of life that is not yet settled, not yet justified, still to be explored, not quite determined.

Time for a run.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On Running and Habit

"The greatest thing, in all education, is to make the nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. ... For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague." --William James, Principles of Psychology, "Habit"

Runners are creatures of habit. What looks like tremendous willpower to the non-runner is (we secretly know) simply routine for us. We get ourselves caught up in the rhythm of training, and all of the habits we have set up carry us almost inexorably towards our goals. The difficulty of training is always only beginning and maintaining -- once we are out the door, we are guided by habit. In this sense, habit is the runner's best friend, especially as we embark on a project toward goals. To become a runner means establishing habits.

On the other hand, habit is the runner's worst enemy. Most of the adult runners that I work with in training share a problem that I have -- which is that we get stuck in certain habits as a runner. These habits can be mental habits: such as setting too ambitious race or training goals, getting too excited when workouts go well (or too upset when they go poorly), reducing all the various purposes of training to "mileage," or obsessing too much about the details of training. The habits are also physical: we return to the same workouts, month after month, year after year, forgetful of the fact that teaching the body to grow in new ways means that we must train not just harder, but differently!

Running well requires a routine. As James reminds us--as the Stoics did long before him--the most necessary thing in life is to develop good unconscious habits so that we don't waste mental energy or willpower on basic things. I firmly believe that the most important workout we do is the simple easy run that we do almost unconsciously every day. That run establishes the routine that makes you into a runner.

But within that routine, we need variation. Not everything can be unconscious. The way to reach your potential as a runner is to think as clearly as you can about your own strengths and weaknesses as a runner and then work specifically and purposefully over a period of months to address those strengths and weaknesses. Yes, this means changing our habits and making them better. Those could be mental habits (like goal setting, controlling your reaction to workouts, racing more confidently, or believing that you can race well without training at the absolute limit) or they could be physiological habits (like developing speed, form issues, handling a certain mileage level without breaking down, etc.)

The deep philosophical point that James is driving at is that we are creatures of habit. Which means that we are always in danger of becoming mere automatons, driven by our habits. The only way to resist that fate is to create the habit of refreshing, renewing, and critically examining our habits. We need to be creatures of good habits. This is especially the case for older, adult runners who have been at this gig for a while.

Routine is not a bad thing in itself, just as habits are not always bad. Willpower is in short supply; it has its limits, which is why we need habit. The essential thing in intelligent training is to set up a habit of reflecting on your own habits as a runner. Else, you risk getting caught up in the cycle of suffering.

Establishing good habits as runners doesn't mean we won't hit injuries or setbacks or just simply get tired of running and move onto different things. Intelligence has its limits, and sometimes we don't even know what habits we need to improve. The most important habit of all may be the habit of remembering that we run for enjoyment -- which seems to me to be something entirely unlike "habit" or "intelligence" or "will power" or "purpose." So, if you are someone who thinks about your habits all the time, may this post cause you to examine the value of that very habit!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Paul Ryan's Marathon Lie -- Should We Care?

This blog is predicated on the idea that there is some bleed-over between the values and practices of running and the values and practices of life. This bleed-over has now caught the nation's attention with the whole Paul Ryan marathon controversy. Even Nobel-Laureate and (let's face it) Democratic party shill Paul Krugman, who I doubt has much experience with running, has weighed in with his opinion.

All of my readers will be familiar by now with Paul Ryan's lopping an hour off of his marathon time. Runners don't like this, especially because Ryan laid claim to the holy grail of recreational running -- the three hour marathon. We know what it takes to run under three hours in the marathon. It's a pretty sacred line to cross as flippantly as Ryan did.

Whether Ryan was oblivious to the sacredness of that line or whether he chose to say he ran in the 2:50s because of that sacredness is something we will never know for sure.

But here's the question that's been nagging at me about this whole thing. There seems to me to be something false about the attempt to deduce a larger claim about Ryan's propensity to the truth in general from this simple statement. Is Ryan's statement a window into his soul or not? Krugman seems to think it is. I am less sure about that.

I've been around enough runners and competitive athletes to want to give Ryan the benefit of the doubt. There is something about overly competitive male individuals (and Ryan does seem to be one of these) that makes them go literally insane when sports are discussed -- much less competed in. I've known many a mild-mannered conscientious dude in ordinary life, who when put into a competitive situation becomes a strange kind of monster, willing to do pretty much anything to WIN. It seems to me that in most cases this sort of character flaw (and it is a flaw, and an odious one) seems to be isolated to the game or sport situation.

Perhaps the classic example of this is John McEnroe. As a sports announcer, the guy is witty, intelligent, nuanced, funny. As an athlete, he was a first class a-hole.

I spoke about this in my last post on Lance Armstrong. For the most part, it's best to keep the lines between sport and life as clear as possible. When they get muddied up all sorts of bad things happen. We start imagining life as a sort of competitive game about accumulating points. And, from the other side, we tend to idolize and hold up athletes as paragons of human behavior. Neither of these ways of thinking are wise.

So, on behalf of the sport/life distinction, I am going to give Ryan a pass on this one as a politician and as a human being. The athlete in me is still pissed that Ryan even considers associating himself with those who take the 3 hour marathon seriously and wonders a bit about his claim to have ascended forty 14ers in Colorado.

But is Ryan a "liar" now? Naw. I'm not ready to go there. I just wouldn't want to play ping-pong with the guy.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lydiard, Thoreau, and Training as Vision

Two quick things to draw your attention to, then some remarks on the role of vision in training.

1) A quote from Thoreau: "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.

"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.

"Now put the foundations under them."

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The quote and the film are related. The quote, of course, speaks to the fact that in order to be successful, you have to have a vision. How can you do something well if you don't even know what you want to do? Vision has two moments. The first and most essential aspect of vision is imagination. So much of life involves chasing a mental image. There is a cliche which speaks to this: "Whatever you can dream, you can achieve." What the cliche doesn't say, however, is that dreaming is not so easy. In order to achieve, we have to be able to dream clearly, else we end up chasing vaguely defined ghosts like "success" or "happiness" or "security." The successful imagination is always concrete.

old skool, baby!
The second moment of vision is that it is decisive. A vision says "Yes" to some things, and it says "No" to others. As Thoreau explains, dreams are directive. The field of life itself is large and muddled but the present that we live always narrows the field down to something singular.  Vision is an attempt to choose that singularity intelligently. When Thoreau urges us to choose simplicity, it's because he knows that in the end our lives will have been simplified for us, through the sieve of the present. Better that we embrace this simplicity.

The Lydiard film nicely expresses his vision as a coach. You see training as he saw it, in three parts: 1) It is an endurance activity, which requires a lot of running. 2) It is a sport that requires a dynamic and limber stride. 3) It also takes a certain type of temperament that combines two qualities. His athletes have the confidence to choose winning as their goal. And they also have the spirit to choose to see training as something fun and even joyful.

Keeping focus on these three things can simplify and solve a lot of problems--the laws of running will appear much less complex, and you will have a shot of living among that "higher order of being," the well trained, tireless runner.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Interview: Andy Anderson on his Grand Teton Speed Record

Andy Anderson surprised the small world of speed mountaineering by setting two classic FKT marks in a period of two weeks, first on Long's Peak, then on the Grand Teton--just days after Kilian Jornet had taken almost 8 minutes off the mark. Make sure you read his account of his Long's Peak run. This interview focuses on his background as a runner and climber and his Grand Teton ascent.

Special thanks to Christian Beckwith of and Meghan Hicks of for contributing questions to this interview. A huge thanks to Andy. Enjoy!

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LLD: What's your background with speed mountaineering/climbing/scrambling and trail running, the two disciplines required for a Grand Teton FKT?

AA: I started running in middle school and loved running and racing cross country in middle school, high school, and college. I was a terrible runner on the track. In reality I don't have that much speed, as Jeff, who out-kicked me in pretty much every race we ever ran, can attest to. Luckily, growing up in Chattanooga and then going to college at Williams College, I was able to do most of my training on trails and in the woods. So, I have been running trails for the last 20 years or so.

I began climbing back then also, starting on the sandstone crags of Tennessee in high school. I was fortunate enough to land a job at the local gear store – Rock/Creek Outfitters, where I spent most of my paycheck on the gear I needed and was surrounded by other climbers at work. Climbing still had a speed component to it back then for me, just because I loved it so much. My first speed climbing adventures were racing to and from the Tennessee Wall with my buddy Sam Davis after high school to try to get in as much climbing as possible between the end of class and 2 ½ hours later when we had to pick our younger siblings up after “real” sports practice.

Combining running and scrambling/climbing seems like a natural synthesis for me. I am not very good at carrying heavy packs and I like to sleep at night, so I have to try to get things done without needing much stuff or time. Of course this has also resulting in some pretty epic, cold miserable, uh, adventures.

Although I love both sports, when taken separately, I am pretty mediocre at climbing and running. I guess for some reason I am able to combine them well, probably because I have always done them together and because most climbers don't really like running and most runners don't really do much rock climbing. When it comes to actual speed climbing long difficult routes like you might find in Yosemite, I am pretty much terrible at that. What I am okay at is scrambling around mountains and moving efficiently over rugged terrain.

LLD: Do you race trail races/ultramarathons? If so, which have you previously run?

AA: Yes – I love racing: road races, trail races, ultras, etc, but I am not actually that fast. I am usually lucky enough to finish in the top few places. One of my favorite races is actually Rock/Creek's Stumpjump 50k especially when I can talk Jeff or my brother John (both of whom are actually faster than me, but don't tell them I admitted that). I also really enjoy racing in the coast range of CA during the winter and spring races like the Muir Woods Marathon or the Pacifica 50k or Way Too Cool are great fun. The Zane Grey 50 miler with my brother also holds some great memories for me. I would love to get to race more but I have to work on the weekends for most of the year and for some reason people don't really put on races on on Wednesdays.

Andy and your blogger at our first -- and one of Rock Creek's first -- trail race.

LLD: What inspired you to go after this record at this time? Was it coincidental that you went for speed just a week or so after another mountain runner, Kilian Jornet, re-set Thatcher's record?

AA:  Total coincidence, although it certainly helped to try and chase Kilian's time. Ever since I volunteered in the Tetons in the early 2000's I have wanted to go back and try to break 3 hours – My wife and I were able to get some days off together last week, and I had been planning on going up there and to try to run the Grand all summer. I have to admit I really wanted to be the first one to break three hours, but kudos to Kilian for getting up there and breaking that barrier! As I said earlier having his shadow out in front of me definitely pushed me to run faster.

LLD: I'm sure you've spent time on this route. How many times have you been up and down the Grand? Did you practice on the route immediately before going for the record?

AA: I volunteered for the Jenny Lake Rangers (the climbing rangers) in 2000, 2001, 2002. During that time I did get to climb the Grand quite a few times. It has been 10 years since then and I have not been back up the peak in that time. I only had time and the energy for one shot at it on this trip so I figured I could remember the route well enough from 10 years ago – turns out I am old and forgetful and got a bit off route near the top, but I don't think it really cost me any time. It just made me pay more attention on the way down.

LLD: What was the biggest challenge for you and your body/mind that day?

AA: Trying to motivate to drive home after running. It didn't happen. I was too tired, sore, and old to jump in the car and drive 9 hours back to Estes Park. I ended up having to miss a day of work. Ironically, 2 hours after finishing the Grand for the first time back in 1997 my brother John and I drove for 36 hours straight to make it college just in time for our first day of class and afternoon cross country practice. Of course our climb was quite a bit more epic as well. We camped at the Caves in Granet Canyon and started climbing in the wee hours of the morning. To make a long, long, long climb into a short story, we ended up on the top around 14 hours later and got back to our camp by about 1 am. We packed up and walked out to the trailhead by around 4 am. A solid 24hr epic climb of the Grand. After about 2 hours of sleep we got some breakfast and started that epic drive. That is a feat I will probably never repeat. Chalk up a point for “ghost of my former self”. 

John and Andy at the summit of the Grand, back in the day.

LLD: You stayed on the defined trail where it exists, I hear. There's been some hype about shortcuts. Did you do any shortcutting, anywhere?

AA: I did stay on the trail. I think it is actually faster for me. Even though shortcuts may save a little distance, they probably don't save me any time because I just cannot run that fast on such steep downhills. On the other hand the trails are so nice and well maintained that blasting down them as fast as you can run is great fun. Plus, people look at you funny when you are careening down a trail like a mad man. I also knew that Bryce Thatcher did not use shortcuts, nor did I in previous attempts at the 3 hour mark, and the park does not like folks to use them. In different areas shortcuts are not as frowned on as they are in this park. In Europe, for example, where most of Kilian's experience comes from it, it is not a big deal. Without knowing the history of the ethics and the local customs, you have to make your decision within your own experience. Ironically, even though shortcutting a trail may be a bigger issue for us than it is on the other side of the Atlantic, we don't seem to be able to pass comprehensive climate change legislation, hmmm. I bet that if/when Kilian comes back he can go just as fast if not faster using the trail. He is a pretty darn speedy guy. Who knows, he might be able to do it even faster on skis!

LLD: You're a climbing ranger, what exactly is your job? You work at Rocky Mountain National Park? Are you permanent or seasonal? If seasonal, what do you do in the off-season? What are some of your other hobbies? How long have you been a climbing ranger?

AA: As a climbing ranger, I get to climb and hike in the mountains 40 hours a week. While we move around the mountains we try to talk to climbers and hikers and give them good advice/beta. Hopefully they can use the info to have a great time enjoying the mountains in a safe way. We also make sure that these wild places stay wild and scenic by helping people understand how to treat the mountains and take care of them as a resource. Another large part of our job is helping people out when they get hurt or stranded in park. As climbing rangers we serve as part of the National Park's Search and Rescue team. My climbing ranger job is a seasonal one. I have been working/volunteering as a climbing ranger for the past 13 summers – 3 as a volunteer in the Tetons, 5 as a paid ranger at Rainier, and 5 as a paid ranger at Rocky. In the winter, I work as an avalanche forecaster for the Tahoe National Forest / Sierra Avalanche Center in Lake Tahoe. Let's see hobbies, well I like long sunset walks on the beach, no wait I actually don't really like the beach. I love hanging out with my two-year old Huck and my wife, I love climbing, running, and skiing. I like to dabble in computer programming and other generally dorky sciencey sorts of things.

Andy's wife Rebecca took these sweet pics.

LLD: You also broke the Long's Peak round trip record just a couple weeks earlier. How is this run different than Long's? Was the extra 2000 vertical feet a lot tougher?

AA: They are very different mountains and a very different runs. An extra 2000 vertical and about an extra hour of running represent the most obvious differences. The approach to the climbing section of the Grand requires less route finding than on Longs, but it is significantly longer and more runnable. On the Grand I just stayed on the trail till the Lower Saddle. On Longs I pieced together old trails and talus fields into the most runnable and direct route to the base of the North Face. Once you hit the climbing section on the Grand, the route becomes more complex and route finding becomes trickier. As I said earlier, I lost the main route on the way up and ended up staying left of the standard summit route above the chimneys of the Owen Spalding route. On Longs the technical climbing on the North Face is shorter and much more obvious. As for effort, I was really tired after both of them. 

LLD: For those who are not familiar with the FKT protocols, how do you time something like this?

AA: I am not sure that there are any real protocols. It is truly an honor system that it seems like everyone respects. A ranger friend of mine and I were joking after I got back that we would have to install a chip timing system at the trailhead with a split pad on the summit to make these things legit. Some people have GPS watches or take photos along the way but I don't have a GPS watch and carrying a camera would definitely slow me down, as there are always too many beautiful scenes in the mountains that I would love photograph. For me I start my watch when I leave the trailhead and then stop it when I get back. Hopefully it doesn't break or fall off along the way. I also look at the clock time as a sort of backup. On this run I started and stopped my watch at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead sign, and the clock time was a little after 9am when I left and around noon when I got back.

LLD: What was the most out-of-control part? The most fun part? Were they the same?

AA: The whole thing is fun. It is just great to feel like you can move fast through the mountains. This time I think that the last four miles of trail were the most fun because they reminded me of racing in college. I had to focus every step of the way to maintain speed or else I would have slowed down. And I knew I was going to be close so I was running as fast as I could. It has been a while since I ran 4 miles at 5:30 pace which will sound pretty slow to all of the fast runners out there. Still for me it felt like I was flying.

LLD: There's a backstory here... didn't you unknowingly have the record once before and then not tell anyone about it?

AA: During the summers that I volunteered for the Jenny Lake rangers, I saw folks like Rolo sailing through the Tetons linking up all of the major mountains before lunch and watched the Jenny Lake crew modestly go about their business of saving lives. It was all pretty inspiring for a 23yr old kid. My second summer of volunteering I decided to try my hand at running some of the peaks. I would run up Teewinot after work and ran up the Grand a few times. Somehow I had heard a rumor that Rolo ran the Grand in 2:58. The closest I ever got to breaking the 3 hour mark back then was one day late in August of 2001 when I ran the Owen Spalding in 3:04 and change car to car. I thought this time was a solid 6 minutes away from the record so I didn't really mention it to anyone. I figured I needed to train more and try harder. I also was too in awe of Rolo to actually ask him how fast he went up the Grand. About three years ago I heard the the actual record on the Grand during that time was Bryce's 3:06. At that point, 7 years after my run, I did not feel comfortable piping and saying something like, “Hey guys, guess what? 7 years ago I ran it in 3:04!” Learning this fact actually just inspired me to try to do it again both to see if I could actually beat my 20-something self and to maybe have a legitimate claim on the record. I guess old man Andy gets the point this time. Of course knowing this story it makes me think that there is probably some random person out there who has actually done it faster than all of us.

LLD: How do runs like this compare to road races, trail, races, or other more "normal" runs?

AA: Totally different. Parts of the course may be undefined so there are always route finding issues. There are times when you are not running at all, and of course there is the fact that falling in certain places would result in much more than a few scrapes; i.e., death after falling thousands of feet. Of course those consequences also tend to help you maintain your focus. It requires ability to move efficiently over all kinds of terrain. It combines the two things I love: running and climbing. Even though I am mediocre at both, there just aren't that many people who combine the two. Once it becomes more popular I bet most of these times will become old pieces of trivia.

LLD: What did you take with you?

AA: My old employer Rock/Creek started a trail racing series years ago. The first trail race I ran was actually the first on they put on back in 1997. Jeff and I ran the 10 miler together and had a great time. This has grown into a series of incredible trail races in the Chattanooga area including one of my favorites: The Stumpjump 50k. To go with these race they now sponsor a team and are generous enough to give me some stuff to run in through out the year. 

For the Grand I used the following gear:
Patagonia Airflow Shirt (Thank you Rock/Creek)
Patagonia Strider Shorts (Thank you Rock/Creek)
Scarpa Epic Shoes
Patagonia Lightweight Merino Run Anklet Socks
Scrawny, funny-looking, extra-long, chicken legs enabling a looooongg stride length (just ask Jeff) courtesy of Yogi and Joli Anderson

As for food I took, one pack of caffinated Clif Shot Bloks, 4 packs of caffinated Clif Shots, 3 electrolyte pills, and no water. I drank water along the way. My wife asked if I was worried about giardia, my reply, “Well, if I can run fast, getting sick in two weeks will be worth it.” So far so good, but maybe I will change my mind in another week if I am sitting on the toilet with the trash can in front of me.

LLD: Did you have a plan?I heard you had a friend who climbed from the upper saddle to the summit with you? Who was your friend? Why did he join you there?

I had a pretty simple plan: run up as fast as I could then haul ass back down. I figured if I gave it my best shot I could get close to the record. Lucky for me another one of the climbing rangers from Rocky, Jess Asmussen came up to the Tetons with us. He really wanted to run the Grand as well. He left the trailhead a while before me and met me at the Upper Saddle just before the techincal climbing. Like me he was hoping that I remembered the route to the summit. I ended up off route to the left of the catwalk, and he ended up following the standard route. We both hit the summit benchmark at about the same time where some other climbers nochanlantly asked, “So what are you guys doing tomorrow?” What they did not know was that after running the Grand in close to 4 hours, Jess was planning on climbing the CMC route on Mt. Moran the next day. As for me I was hoping to be able to walk at all. Then we headed down the technical section together. It was pretty awesome to be able to share that part of the climb/run with a good friend. Once we hit the upper saddle we parted ways again, and I took off downhill.

LLD: What were your splits?

AA: 1:48:02 up
1:05:00 down 
Overall 2:53:02

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