Wednesday, February 29, 2012

From Adorno to Iten, Some Scattered Thoughts

I can't seem to settle on a topic today, so here are four quick things I've been thinking about.

1) I ran a really nice workout today. For the first time in a while, I didn't run it solo. I ran 800s with a buddy, and we traded the lead on each interval. After the 800s, we ran some 200s, and I surprised myself by finding some speed in these older legs, hitting 28s on a couple. The track is public, and there were some kids out playing soccer watching us old guys hammer around the track. One of them, a 16 year old, jumped in and tried to hang for one lap of one of the 800s, and he only kept contact for about 100 meters. I guess that made me appreciate the gift of being fast and strong.

Spiked up and psyched up, baby!

2) I have been reading some Adorno, just snatches here and there from Negative Dialectics. He's good for a pragmatist like me to read, because he reminds us that the task of a philosopher is not always to connect with culture; sometimes we have a duty to be misunderstood--especially when dominant forms of understanding are totally whacked. It takes courage to persistently seek misunderstanding.




3) A recurrent theme of this blog is the idea of reconnecting with experience through the organizing practice of running. I guess I am sort of discovering that this is the problem I am most interested in as a philosopher. It came up today in a conversation with a student. I only know how to put the claim in a grandiose way: it seems like the problem of contemporary, American, 21st century life, is the difficulty of even having an experience at all. Isn't this what we mean by the term "depression"--the fact that experience seems to come at us through a sort of gauzy haze, or does not even come at all?

DFW, greatest writer of the last 20 years, was all about the foot-note quality of experience:
frustrated, tedious, delayed, deferred. At his best, he made these qualities magical.
As you probably know, he was clinically depressed and killed himself a few years back.
[If you click on the comic, it gets bigger so you can read it.]


4) If you have an hour on your hands, I highly recommend this documentary featuring the Irish miler Eamon Coughlin in Iten, Kenya looking at the reasons behind Kenyan running success.


Man On A Mission from jamieleedalton on Vimeo.

In it, Brother Colm O'Connell details his approach to coaching some of the greatest Kenyan runners the world has seen. If you don't have an hour to watch the video, the guy talks about running as an individual practice of control, discipline, and virtue, and a community process of setting standards of excellence. Never once does he mention a physiological effect that he is trying to produce. He has a cool acronym for the basics of training:

F - Focus - the ability to concentrate the mind
A - Alignment - what you might call "body focus"
S - Stability - control of the core and the hips
T - Timing - the quick and well-placed footstrike

The video is very well done, and it is easy to see why the Kenyan athletes excel. It's also easy to see what makes Colm O'Connell a great coach; he instills calm confidence into his athletes and understands how to keep his athletes focused on the simple qualities of excellence.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Running as Intimacy

"Modern man is well aware of the obvious forms of repression and social affliction. Poverty, prejudice, and violence take their daily toll. We are less aware, however, of more subtle forms of dehumanization, namely, those brought on by the erosion of a genuinely human environment in aesthetic terms. ... We refer here not to the world of art but to the drama of our doing, undoing, celebrating, and suffering that comprises the rhythm of everyday ordinary living. Too often this rhythm is submerged in a bland environment, rendering us insensitive to differences, horizons, and crises. In time, we drift through life without variety or intimacy."
--John McDermott, "Feeling as Insight"

I resemble this person.
McDermott wrote these words in 1973, three years before I was born. There are aspects of the expression of his idea that seem dated now. The notion of repression has fallen out of favor. We are perhaps more skeptical now of appeals to the "genuinely human," and it is even hard to imagine what might be meant by "everyday ordinary  living." Has a genuinely human environment ever existed? Are we really in decline as a culture--and who gets to make these evaluations? Finally, is the great threat to aesthetic experience blandness--or is it the hyper-stimulation of a culture that is stuck in overdrive?

Beyond these moments of difference between 1973 and today, what interests me about this small paragraph is the distinction McDermott draws between the more easily recognized but more remote problems of political life and more subtle and intimate problems in our personal environments that may go unseen but affect us just as deeply.

These are anxious times, indeed, and our anxieties are pitched at a national, even global level. There's the job market and foreign wars and rising gas prices. There's a presidential horse race that seems intent on dredging up every issue that has divided us over the last umpteen years just to see if it's possible to make every single American the enemy of every single other American. It's true that "poverty, prejudice, and violence take their daily toll," and I imagine that even if you are--like me--somewhat insulated from that toll, the ongoing fucked-upness of life bothers you and nags at you. Each of these issues affects us in some way, but it is hard to grasp exactly how and to what extent these huge and overwhelming problems are related to the smaller problems I have as a person just trying to, well, live.

What is a human being is supposed to do in the face of all this? Most of the time I content myself with the idea that I'm doing enough in life if I've got something to eat and something to do and I'm putting something away for a future day. But there come moments--like this one, I guess--when I start to wonder: is that story what keeps you drifting through life? Isn't there some deeper rhythm that I'm supposed to be grasping now? Have I grown indifferent to possible differences in my own way of living? Should the horizons of my life be shifted? Is there something more to life than eating and crapping and showing up for work and putting money away in retirement accounts? And if so, what the hell is it and how would I know it if I saw it?

There is something in the rhythm of life today--its highly charged, rapidly accelerating, frenetic attention span--that feels simply manic. It's as if we are trying to squeeze every ounce of energy out of our bodies and minds. We get on the internet, and it carries our minds from site to site to site, without ever offering the possibility of arrival at any single place. And so, we glance off of the issues of the day, ever onward: the economy, global warming, presidential politics, Greek debt, Whitney Houston, Jeremy Lin... tweeting and twittering and reading and processing and chattering and arguing without every really touching ground. Is it because if we touch ground, the persistent and kinda horrible questions of the preceding paragraph might rise up and grab us by the throat and demand an answer?

We used to worry that we would be annihilated by someone pushing the button.
Now we annihilate ourselves, slowly, quietly, and much less dramatically through the clicking of a mouse.

Um, maybe. I'll just kinda let that question speak for itself. At any rate, over time, after relentless clicking and moving from site to site, from meme to meme we find ourselves drifting through life without any intimate connection to it. Like the internet, we become everywhere and nowhere, distracted. The media becomes the message: click, click, click, reload. This sort of life is not bland because it is filled with infinite variety and infinite perspective, but the purity of that variety and the pace at which it comes strips it of intimacy. In the same way that a cup of coffee can cure your awareness of your boredom by amplifying your awareness of other things, this sort of life mutes the awareness of life by filling life with awareness of its infinite dimensions.

Perhaps, like all manias that do not end in insanity, this distraction is a transitional stage, a sort of wild release of energy that has been stored up for too long. It's as if we are daring life to come back to us, to make itself known. We want to see if it can still shock us and slap us. Maybe if we get shook down, something better, realer, calmer, more centered will coming down the pike. Let's hope.

Until then, we have to recreate intimacy with life in conscious practices of care. We have to fake it until we make it.

We runners know one of these practices. Our runs have beginnings, middles, and ends. We begin sorta tight and awkward. In the middle we are loose and flowing. By the end, we are tired and headed for home. It's a simple and aesthetically pleasing unity. The rhythms of the run are intimate. We feel them directly in our organs, through our bones. These rhythms gather our attention and hold it during that time, which is what allows us to notice the experience of running as complete and unified.

I can't help but be bothered, though, by one problem. Isn't the relief from distraction that the run offers us simply another distraction? Running offers aesthetic unity, but is the only consequence of that unity the ability to bear a few more hours of the distracted maelstrom of contemporary life?

What do the things I do as a runner have to do with the rest of my life? This is the sort of question that makes me want to browse my favorites, click reload, or, if I have time and energy, head on down the road for another, yes another, run.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Confidence

Last October, I promised that I would be smarter. Tired of feeling somewhat stagnant in my training and racing, with nothing much to lose since I hadn't been improving much, I decided to move away from the concentration on loads of easy mileage and tempos. You can read the linked post for details, but basically instead of thinking of my training in terms of maximizing work, I decided to think of it in terms of maximizing the right kinds of stimuli.

I also have been working with a coach to get some distance from my own training and basically give me the confidence I needed to trust my training, to back off at times and to push harder at the right moment.

Since then, I've been running less (50-60mpw, no runs longer than 10-12 miles) and doing different sorts of workouts, with an emphasis on practicing fast paces rather than the kind of heavy aerobic tempoing that I'd been doing in the past.

This training has worked well for me. I feel sharper and more race-ready when I get to the line. I spend very little time grinding on tired legs. I've got more energy during the day and more excitement about racing. Sure, I kinda screwed up my first indoor race by freaking out about the intensity of it all. But Friday night, in my second indoor race, I was able to run 15:51 for 5k off of an opening 4:53 mile (I was in a faster heat and came through the mile in last place!) Though I ran 15:49 on an outdoor track in June of 2010, this was at least an equivalent performance. And--this is the good news--unlike in 2010, I don't feel like I am training at the limit, and I am hopeful that I can take more time off this spring.


As you know, the point of this blog is to try to do some meta-cognizing about running and training, and the philosopher in me is tempted to draw general conclusions from this small success. I could make some sort of statement about how intelligent training is better than just training hard. Part of me wants to write a controversial piece about how maybe all of this hoopla about high mileage is overblown. My own pride wants me to think that I've made some real breakthroughs and have actually gotten smarter and know more about the right way to train. Heck, some of these things may even be true.

I don't want to go there, though. I'll leave the training advice to the actual experts for once. I am less interested than ever about being right about training. Or being right at all. I want to talk about something else.

Today I ran the most intense workout I've done in years. It was simple and short: 2 x 2400m cutdown, each 800 slightly faster than the one before. The last 800 of each piece was hard, and it put me in this mental place that I had kinda forgotten about somehow in the grind of training, over the last few years.

I'm not sure I know how to describe this place, so bear with me a bit. Maybe the best way to get at it is to begin where my bad race left off, with the discussion of fear. That fear came back in the middle of my 5000 on Friday, but I reacted differently to it. I was able to acknowledge it, then ignore it, and just keep running. I was indifferent. That's the space I am talking about. I guess the word we have for that indifferent space is "confidence."

I hesitate to even use the concept of confidence because it is a word that is overused and under-analyzed. Confidence is not about ego. It's not cultivated through attention and praise. Its most basic meaning is simply "trust," as in the expression "take someone into your confidence." This indifferent place I went today in the workout, the place I found in the middle of the race on Friday, was a place of trust. Even if it hurt and although the effort was hard, I simply trusted that I could keep going, that I could execute.

These last four months of training and racing have been--more than anything else--about developing this trust, believing not just that I can train harder (anyone can do that), but that I can race faster, that I can be faster. If we want to give birth to new capacities, if we want to make ourselves anew, if we want to become better than we were before, we have to put in the work, that's for sure. But that hard work means nothing without the confidence to reap the results. In fact, the work can even blind us to our own power of trust--we want the work to make us faster, when actually it is something else that shifts things.

Although the elites can make it look easy, running faster is never easier. We get in better shape, sure. But what that shape allows us to do is to reach higher levels of intensity and to sustain them. It's never easier. It's harder, even if you are fitter. But if you want it enough, if you are fit enough, if you are strong enough... if you trust yourself enough to handle all those multiplying ifs, then something happens.

The shift is this: it is harder, but you are tougher. So you take it.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Running as Romanticism

"Many is the mirage I chased. Always I was overreaching myself. The oftener I touched reality, the harder I bounced back to the world of illusion, which is the name for everyday life. 'Experience! More experience!' I clamored.

"In a frantic effort to arrive at some kind of order, some tentative working program, I would sit down quietly now and then and spend long, long hours mapping out a plan of procedure. Plans, such as architects and engineers sweat over, were never my forte. But I could always visualize my dreams in a cosmogonic pattern. Though I could never formulate a plot I could balance and weigh opposing forces, characters, situations, events, distribute them in a sort of heavenly lay-out, always with plenty of space between, always with the certitude that there is no end, only worlds within worlds ad infinitum, and that wherever one left off one had created a world, a world finite, total, complete."
--Henry Miller, The Rosy Crucifixion II

Runners, in general, are romantics.

We value emotion over calculation, aesthetic feeling over controlled inquiry, messiness over clarity, epiphany over argument, transcendence over facts, insight over pragmatism.

Running and racing is a way of leaving the ordinary behind. To speak romantically, we transcend the ordinary by plunging deeper into it, finding out what the limit is through surpassing it. Running and racing gives us a chance to talk about what we think matters: heart and effort, courage and fear, hope, suffering, and determination.

We take to heart Quixote's epitaph: "For if he like a madman lived, / At least he like a wise one died."

We believe in wasted energy, so long as it is energetic. Running in circles is no flaw or fallacy, so long as you do it relentlessly.

We chase mirages.

We believe in "knacks" and "deep sympathetic listening," in unlocking hidden stores of power.

Like Henry Miller, though it is not our forte, we are willing to spend long hours mapping out a plan of procedure, weighing the pros and cons of just about anything, scheming and scheduling and dreaming. Of course, these plans, these "tentative working programs," are hardly ever carried out. They are more like incantations or offerings to the running gods, "visualizing our dreams in a cosmogenic manner." Trying to unlock it. Unlock what?

Peter Snell described it as "running without restraint."

Hunter S. Thompson's metaphysical motorcycle perhaps comes closer:
But with the throttle screwed on, there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right... and that's when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are the wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it... howling through a turn to the right, then to the left, and down the long hill to Pacifica... letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge... The Edge... There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others- the living- are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it's In.

Like Catholics with their rosaries, we go through the motions and the rituals, bead by bead: tempo, interval, long run, easy run. We stay at them, hoping that our piety will be rewarded with a glimpse of what? -- that which cannot be seen or articulated, but can only be felt.

Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment idea that the Age of Reason was upon us. It was an expression of the fear that everything would be worked out, schematized, organized, and implemented like universal health care, say, or democracy in Afghanistan. It resisted the industrialization and mechanization of processes. It was cynical of the whole, the social good, more concerned with flashes of genius and lines of poetry than with peace and goodwill. It was a flight away from the hardness of the world into the softness of imagination. It glorified wonder, horror, loneliness, fear, power, weather, chaos, boredom, animality, joy, and absurdity.

Running allows us access to the romantic mood. It is an escape from the ordinary understood world. But here's the thing. When we are in that flow of the romantic mood, that escape from the world becomes more than an escape. It reveals the world as having worlds-within-worlds, loosely connected realities-within-realities. At least while we run, the escape from reality becomes just as real as the reality escaped. It becomes reality-escaped.

Wallace Stevens was talking about poetry, but if running could write, it would say the same thing:

We keep coming back and coming back
To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns
That fall upon it out of the wind. We seek
The poem of pure reality, untouched
By trope or deviation, straight to the word,
Straight to the transfixing object, to the object
At the exactest point at which it is itself,
Transfixing by being purely what it is
A view of New Haven, say, through the certain eye,
The eye made clear of uncertainty, with the sight
Of simple seeing, without reflection. We seek
Nothing beyond reality.

Hard black road beneath our feet, torn breath, "the poem of pure reality."

"The oftener I touched reality, the harder I bounced back to the world of illusion, which is the name for everyday life."
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