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!
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