Tuesday, May 29, 2012

6 kinds of 5k workouts, a training summary

From the sublime to the nitty-gritty, running gives us a chance to talk about it all. This is a nitty-gritty summary of my training over the last 6 months or so.

Since way back in December, I've been working on my 5k time with the help of my coach Van Townsend (more on him, soon.) Over the course of these six months, I've done a ton of workouts. Here's a quick summary of the workouts I've done, in order of importance.

1) Lots of easy runs, from 35 min to an hour. I don't usually log the pace of these runs or even keep track of it. That's because I am a nut and if I keep track, then I start trying to push the pace a bit. If I had to estimate, I'd say the average pace of these runs is 7:15 or so. They usually start with an 8 minute mile and then settle into 7 flat pace or so. I've been aiming for 55-75 miles on 8 or 9 runs per week. This is a moderately high volume that I know I can handle without accumulating fatigue.

2) Race pace intervals w/short rest. I've done a lot of different combinations of intervals, but the most common interval work I've done has been a total of 3-4 miles of work at or very close to goal 5k race pace. Most of the time the rest between the intervals has been relatively short. Something like half the time of the interval. This keeps me from running too hard during the rep and also keeps the whole interval set feeling continuous. You might think of it as tempo running combined with interval running. As I have gotten fitter, I've increased the pace of my recovery jogs and cut recovery rather than picking up the pace of the intervals.

Some representative workouts:
a) 3 x (400-800-400) @ 5k pace, 30s after the 400s, 60s after the 800s, jog a lap between sets.
b) 2-4 x (600-400-300-200-100) @ 3k - 5k pace, jog a 200 after the 6, 4, and 3, jog 100m after the 200 and 100.
c) 3 x (800-1200-800) @ 10k pace, 60s after the 800, 90s after the 1200, jog a lap between sets.
d) 1200-800-800-800-1200, odd intervals at 5k pace, even intervals at MP. This is a late season workout--not much volume, but a kind of combo tempo/interval workout.

3) Tempo runs. I did more of these early in the season. My favorite was the 5 + 1 tempo, which was a 2 mile warmup, 5 miles of steady running (slightly faster than MP), one mile easy, 1 mile hard (approaching 5k pace), one mile cool down.

4) Tempo intervals. This was good early season, effort-based training. 8 x 3min w/ 90s easy running in between.

5) Long run. My long run was generally 12-15 miles, run at a progressive, steady clip (avg. 7:00, usually some 6:30s or quicker in the last miles). I'm not sure how much this helped, but this is an enjoyable distance for me, and it gave me confidence to be able to run strong over 15 miles.

6) Strides, longer intervals, 200s. I put these last because I'm not sure how much they helped in this cycle. I mostly did strides as warm-up for the interval work. I tried a few difficult longer, harder workouts this cycle, but was only able to complete them erratically, mostly because I was doing them solo. One of these was 2 x 2400m cutdown (800m @ 10k pace - 800m @ 5k pace - 800m @ 3k pace). 10 minutes jog between the two sets. This is a very hard workout, as a 2400m interval at an average of 5k pace is no joke, especially if you are accelerating. Completing it gave me some confidence, and certainly some practice running race effort. Maybe in the next cycle I will be more prepared to do some of these very difficult workouts.

"Frequent racing" is not really a workout, but it should be slotted in importance right along with the race pace intervals as a key to 5k training. I did a good job of racing every 2 or 3 weeks. Obviously, this is the most specific form of training, as maybe the most important part of 5k racing is getting the effort level right and getting comfortable with the sort of effort required. Van and I did a good job of staying sharp enough to race well but also training hard enough to see improvement. I backed off of training for races more than I had in previous cycles and resisted the urge to "train through" and race on tired legs.

Most weeks I would do one workout and a long run or race. Occasionally, if the next race was a couple weeks out, I would do two workouts and a long run. My biggest weeks this cycle were a couple 75-80 mile weeks with two workouts and a steady long run. Though I had run consistent 80 mile weeks in the past, I had never really put that sort of volume together with interval work. So, I felt like those weeks marked genuine progress in my training capacity.

Finally, I'm happy with how I kept my training efforts under control. I never really felt like I was pushing the envelope in training, which perhaps kept me from peaking too early (a prior problem), and hopefully has put me in a place where I can continue to build on the work I've done.

I've got my goal race this weekend at the Music City Distance Carnival. I've been feeling pretty good, and my hope is to be able to run in the 15:30s, which would be faster than I ran in college except for one season... whatever the outcome, this has been my most consistent and best racing since college, and I am excited to build on this work this summer towards some longer races.

Gratuitous Wilco clip:

Friday, May 25, 2012

Zoopy-zoop and the quest for uncertainty

"Running is a simple sport. You don't need all the zoopy-zoop." --Bill Squires

On the first day of my philosophy classes, I tell my students that the object of philosophy is fundamentally different from the object of their other classes. In the other disciplines, the point of study is to acquire specific and concrete knowledge and skills. The proper expectation is to leave with more than you came with. There will be tests and quizzes and things of this sort that measure more or less what you have learned. Most of academic life simply takes the value of the quest for certainty and knowledge for granted and sets about getting it done.

The aim of my class is almost entirely opposite. A philosophy class is successful when after a semester's work, the student feels less knowledgeable, less sure of himself and of his capabilities. Uncertain of himself and even his most precious values. Sure, philosophy has a set of knowledge and skills--certainly we have terminology and methods of inquiry and a history of the discipline, etc. But fundamentally philosophy is an attempt to see things freshly, and the main impediment to seeing freshly is the assurance of certainty. It's for this reason that philosophers hold up Socrates as their hero. He was a genius of ignorance; a philosopher.

So, I tell these students that in their academic careers philosophy will be an exception. For the vast majority of their time at the university, they will be gaining knowledge, skills, and habits that will be invaluable in their lives. But, for the three hours a week you are subject to philosophy, you will leave behind this noble and useful task of learning and try your best to do some unlearning.

I justify these three hours by making a distinction between wisdom and knowledge and saying we are after wisdom. But if you've spent much time with philosophy, you know that the idea of wisdom is really an embarrassment for philosophers. First of all, who knows what it means? It's vague and wishy-washy and pretentious to even assume that one might have it, much less teach it. Second, have you ever met a philosopher in real life? Usually not the paragon of wisdom. Third, shouldn't wisdom and knowledge go hand in hand?

But really it is precisely these embarrassing aspects of the idea of wisdom that make it such a useful tool. Philosophers appear to be unwise--even are unwise--precisely because they are busy making experiments into different forms of wisdom. Imagine taking experimentation so seriously, that you model your life after it--instead of, say, a set of rules or principles or commandments. This is a huge risk: to live your life as if you do not know its purpose or meaning. This is the atmosphere of philosophy.

Really, this atmosphere shouldn't be so hard to imagine. Everything we do is a quite radical experiment, even if we rarely reflect on this fact. Getting married, committing to a career, having children, buying a house--each of these decisions are made without full knowledge of their consequences. Every commitment we choose butchers a thousand other possibilities, murders a host of unlived lives, some of which might have turned out better. Indeed, what gives a choice its character as a commitment is the very fact that it might lead to failure. Commitment to a sure thing is no commitment at all. We hold these various experiments into life together with guts, elbow grease, and lots of help from family and friends--and yes, even occasionally some knowledge. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, things fall apart.

To take up philosophy is to affirm this precarious and experimental nature of life. It tries to practice living with the fact that we don't know. Embracing that ignorance and affirming its connection to wisdom may allow for unimagined successes, even if it is also sure to bring unanticipated failures.

The famous marathon coach Renato Canova describes the value of that affirmation for runners in the June issue of Running Times. "I think, in past, coaching may have been [a] big limiting factor on runners," he told Scott Douglas. "When I was national coach of Italy, we measured everything. We had a very precise idea of controlling everything. I think this created limits for athletes in their minds. What is better, athletes and coaches must have the mentality of explorers, so that you can overtake your limitations. You take one step into the darkness. If it's a mistake, you step back. If not a mistake, step again. Only in this way can you increase your knowledge.

"I think this is true not just of marathoning, but for every situation in life, no?"

Sometimes the primary impediment to wisdom is all the zoopy-zoop that allows us to forget that we don't know. Philosophy looks past the zoopy-zoop to the simple darkness that lies at the horizon of every life. It reminds us that there is always some darkness into which we might step, and in its best moments, it gives us the courage to actually take that step.

In a life that is fundamentally uncertain, confusion and hesitation is the mark of honesty and deep insight, not a sign of weakness. The best coaches and athletes never eliminate uncertainty from their training. The small miracle is that they train with great passion, full vigor, and deep attention, despite the fact that in every experiment failure will eventually come. Life is a simple sport; it leads onwards, ever, into the darkness.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Habit of Thinking about your Habits of Thinking

One role that philosophers play is we take ways of thinking and we amplify them, codify them, play with them, tweak them, and follow them to their (often absurd) conclusions. One of my grad school professors used to joke that he would tell people that he was a "conceptual engineer" by trade so that people (or at least the women he was trying to pick up) would take him more seriously. It wasn't really a lie: that's part of what we do. We tinker with ways of thinking in order to try to improve them.

This is one reason why philosophers always behave so strangely. It's because by long practice we have learned a habit of disassociating ourselves from our thoughts. The more native and natural way to think of ideas is that they are personal--you yourself have them. Common sense talks about our opinions and reasons as if they are our own, and we get emotionally attached to our ideas. An attack on our way of thinking is an attack on us. Philosophers, though, see opinions and modes of thinking the way that engineers see bridges and roads. They don't see them as the possessions of a single person or reflective of a personality with a set of commitments. They tend to see thoughts and ideas as objects constructed by communities for certain purposes. Like engineers, they want to tinker with them, to make them serve their purposes better, and they tend to develop a sort of engineer's distance from the objects of their analysis.

Philosophers are just like engineers, except less optimistic.

Philosophers are trained to be this way, but we are probably drawn to philosophy because of some sort of natural proclivity to treat thinking in this manner. One of the downsides of this sort of technical view of the nature of philosophy is that after a while, for philosophers, almost all thinking gets abstract and distant. We become like engineers or architects who are fascinated by the structure of bridges, their beauty, their mathematical form, etc., but who perhaps forget that the purpose of a bridge is not to be intellectually pleasing or perfect or precise, but to get people across the river. Philosophy can sort of mess up your mind because the habit of philosophizing makes us turn our minds towards analyzing its own structures. This is fine, except that the mind, like a bridge, is not best understood on its own terms, but in terms of its actual function in practical conditions. The common sense way of thinking about thoughts has some truth to it. Our thoughts are personal. They influence the way we interact with the world. It would be strange not to become attached to them because they are important--really important--to us.

When philosophers forget the personal nature of thought, we tend to get caught up in a particular "ism." We forget the vital common sense questions that drove us to philosophy: how to think better, how to live more fully, how to experience more deeply, how to think more truly and honestly, etc. In their place, we begin slowly to substitute specialized philosophical questions like: how is this "ism" better than that "ism"? What would this "ism" say about this particular subject? Is this part of this "ism" logically consistent with this other part of the "ism"?  It happens to most every philosopher. My "ism" is pragmatism.

I bring this up because this problem is, of course, not unique to philosophers. All of us are forced to specialize in one way or another. We rely on patterns of thought, shorthand labels, political parties, etc. This is not out of laziness; doing this is actually a sign of intelligence. The world taken without shortcuts would be simply an unintelligible blooming buzz of sensation. Think, for example, of the experience of a newborn baby. This baby is unable to discern the patterns of pretty much anything; it can't selectively attend to its environment, and pick things out. The same thing happens to us when we play a new game or have a totally new experience. Everyone else seems to understand what's going on, but to us the world seems to be flying around chaotically. Being able to play the game means being able to recognize patterns and repeat them or anticipate them. In other words, thinking requires using shortcuts that allow us to ignore certain aspects of experience and concentrate on others.

In life, through time, we settle on the shortcuts that work work for us. We adopt a number of "isms" that become precious to us because they help us sort out the world. We begin to cherish them, and in certain cases even worship and fetishize them. In my view, this is the truest way to understand religious life. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism etc., all provide ways of shortcutting experience, by turning us toward this sort of thing instead of that, emphasizing a certain arrangement of concepts over another.

Politicians understand this all too well. They know that winning a vote is more about selling a certain framework of concepts that make the world appear in a certain way than it is about winning an argument. Democrats' favorite concepts are race, poverty, equality, society, justice, and fairness. Republicans prefer concepts like competition, the market, personal responsibility, and the economy. Once you buy that framework, you learn to attend to certain things and ignore other things, and over time your habits of attending to experience inform the way you see things, perhaps so much so that those who do not share your point of view seem totally alien to you, as if they are living in another world. Which, in some ways, they actually are, if your world is merely the sum of your experiences.

Habit is two-sided. Without its ability to concentrate and narrow experience to its most important elements, we would be totally lost. On the other hand, if we get too stuck in our habits, we run the risk of shutting ourselves off from renewing experiences. Habit can be a great friend; at its best it is determination, consistency, and fidelity. When it turns bad, we call it addiction, dogmatism, close-mindedness, and xenophobia.

Philosophy is the habit of constantly re-evaluating our habits of thinking. This habit can be taken too far; it can lead to paralysis, confusion, over-analysis and lack of commitment. But when it is measured and appropriately applied, it is perhaps the most important habit that we have. How do we find the appropriate measure of philosophy? How do we know when we are thinking too little or too much?

I am not sure that these questions can be answered once and for all. Different temperaments will be comfortable with different doses of reflection, and different historical moments will be better suited to reflection on our fundamental habits of living. Socrates reminded us two thousand years ago that we know that we don't know. For all the changes that we have undergone since Socrates was hanging around, it strikes me that this is still true. Language, culture, and simply our ways of living organize our experience in ways that make inquiry into the limits and possibility of experience difficult.

To be philosophical is to take that difficulty seriously--but not too seriously--because after all our seriousness itself might be the very habit that prevents genuine critical reflection.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Somewhat Cranky Defense of Democratic Elitism

First off, check out this stellar 2008 review of the cult classic Once a Runner by Marc Tracy.

The book was given to me when I was 17. It was a gift from a girl. Back then (before the internet when things were harder to replicate and books were physical objects) the book was out of print. This copy had obviously been handed around from person to person before it got to me. It felt like the book found me as much as I found it. The writing is cheesy and adolescent, but I was cheesy and adolescent, and it spoke to me.

It's set in the late 70s and the book paints runners as neither hippies nor squares, but folks who simply opt out of the stale culture wars. By then everyone knew that the hippy movement was going nowhere and that the square mainstream culture was pretty much going nowhere either. Both the culture and the counterculture were sorta dead. The culture war was over; nobody won.

So what's a young person with energy supposed to do with himself, without politics, without drugs; even rock and roll was dead. How could he be American? How could he balance work ethic with fun, desire for progress with satisfaction in the moment, opt out of consumerism and commercialism and all the betrayed dreams of capitalism? Why not just run?

So, that's what Quenton Cassidy did, along with a bunch of other runners from a time when sponsors and marketers and all of that stuff wasn't all up in your face. They formed small communities and clans, and they got together and ran. In the review, Tracy calls these clans "cults," and the behavior was somewhat cult-like. What made Once a Runner so special was that is was a book for the few: those that "got it." As Tracy puts it:

The forthcoming edition is by far the handsomest copy of Once a Runner I've seen, but a part of me wishes the novel had stayed out-of-print. Not everyone is up for the running life, and not everyone should be able to get their hands on this book. It should take effort, whether that means borrowing (or stealing) it from someone or saving up $77.98. Once a Runner's portrait of running may smack of elitism, but it is a democratic elitism: Not everyone can be a runner, but a runner can come from anywhere.

Those last two lines are worth chewing on. The culture of running has--or at least had--its own view of democracy, one that praised a certain equality and fairness, but put itself in opposition to democracy as mass culture.  Running was something that resisted commodification, embraced an order of rank and heirarchy, and praised a form of work that couldn't be monetized. It was a community of friends who wanted to do something different from everyone else: namely run a ton and have fun and do it with like minded weirdos.

I've been thinking about this lately because the Country Music [Half] Marathon just came through town [35,000+ ran the half, fewer than 3000 ran the full marathon.] If you want to be cynical, you could say that the organizers of CMM are intent on destroying these cult values in order to produce a business model that has something more than cult appeal. The CEO of Competitor Group, Peter Englehardt, is hoping to make the Rock 'N Roll race series a $100 million dollar business, and the only way he can get there is through maximizing the scale of the event: appealing to as many people as possible.

In short, Competitor Group is interested in producing a commodified product that appeals to the very mass of people that runners used to set themselves apart from. In order to do this, they have cut the distance in half (though everyone still calls it a marathon.) They pitch it not as an alternative way of life, but as a one-time (or perhaps annual) "bucket list" event. They focus on the health benefits and the charity benefits and the business benefits. They make it less about a small community of like minded people who are kinda weird and don't share the same values as everyone else and more a celebration of the most superficial form of togetherness that we share: country music and the "city of Nashville"--a strategic path reduced to a few (white, upperclass) neighborhoods and the businesses they frequent.

To top it all off, they've stopped offering prize money to the top finishers, pretty much depleting the front of the race. My guess is that this decision was as much symbolic as it was financial. The payouts to elites are a rounding error in the CMM budget. I suspect that the organizers have come to realize that payouts to the top runners are actually bad for marketing, as they reinforce the old "cult" hierarchy that Competitor group is trying to undo in order to generate mass appeal. See, the old sport used to admire the talented, the swift, the best. But the new sport finds the idea of rewarding talent to be elitist. Which, of course, it is.

This shift has allowed them to make a lot of money (and also take advantage of tax money.) As they say, it's brought a lot of new people into the sport. But it's also made the sport somewhat unrecognizable to the weirdos who started it all.

I don't really want to say that this is necessarily negative, as there are still events that cater to the traditional crowd (track meets, the ultra trail scene perhaps, the local Flying Monkey Marathon in a different way, etc.) But I guess the effect is sort of like seeing your local coffee shop turn into a Starbucks (which shouldn't be surprising since Englehardt is modeling Competitor after Starbucks.) Sure, Starbucks is more attractive to the general consumer who doesn't really care about coffee more than the energy it provides. It's convenient, and it's awesome that you can find them everywhere. But a Starbucks will never give the sense of intimacy or community of the sorts of places that it replaced, simply because that's not it's purpose. In the end, its purpose is to appeal to as many people as possible in order to make as much money as possible.

Such is the case with an event like CMM. The traditional marathon race respected and valued people who devoted their life (or at least a large part of it) to a somewhat absurd and definitely not profitable hobby of running endlessly down the road with your friends in an attempt to get as fast as possible. It valued a form of democracy that sometimes gets buried in our mass/big box/corporate culture. The idea that sometimes people want to get together and just do something different. Or better. Not for money or profit or fame, but just because they want to. An event like CMM doesn't care much about these people. It cares about your bucket list (half) marathoner, who will run it or walk it once or twice, and spend a lot of money on memorabilia. It cares about the people who find Once a Runner cultish, childish, elitist and frankly incomprehensible.

There are times when Once a Runner looks like that to me, too. Competitor Group has a right to make their money. If I had run the half, I would have had a great time (too hot for the full marathon!) It would have been really fun. Just like Starbucks coffee is actually pretty good. I even feel bad for writing this post, like a grumpy old man who just isn't with the times. Like a fast kid who looks down his nose at the slower kids. Maybe some of that less attractive form of elitism motivates this piece.

But that's not all there is to it. Sometimes I think we are too quick to just accept change, forget how things used to be, resign them to the dustbin of history, and move on. Are we ready for a culture that is pitched at every moment to the mass? For business models are more about appealing to numbers than to quality? Is this the culture we want for ourselves? A culture in which everyone participates, everyone understands, but no one does anything special?

Once a Runner is built around a still magical idea: the goal of running under 4:00 in the mile. It's a goal that only a few can dream of, and that even fewer can accomplish. It takes everything: natural talent, commitment, heart, courage, relentlessness, character. It can only be achieved through an extreme form of excellence, and therefore is simply logically unavailable to the mass of people.

Idealizing excellence runs counter in some ways to our democratic intuitions that culture ought to be for everyone. But maybe those intuitions are itself just a marketing scheme. Maybe that culture is okay for everyone, but excellent for no one, with the exception perhaps of the shareholders of large corporations and their stupendous and stupefying bottom lines.

Listen to the voice of the cultists: isn't this also the voice of democracy?
"It is simply that we can all be good boys and wear our letter sweaters around and get our little degrees and find some nice girl to settle, you know, down with...Or we can blaze! Become legends in our own time, strike fear in the heart of mediocre talent everywhere! We can scald dogs, put records out of reach! Make the stands gasp as we blow into an unearthly kick from three hundred yards out! We can become God's own messengers delivering the dreaded scrolls! We can race black Satan himself till he wheezes fiery cinders down the back straightaway....They'll speak our names in hushed tones, 'those guys are animals' they'll say! We can lay it on the line, bust a gut, show them a clean pair of heels. We can sprint the turn on a spring breeze and feel the winter leave our feet! We can, by God, let our demons loose and just wail on!"
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