Friday, November 15, 2013

On the Feeling of Wisdom

Okay, check this article out from the Guardian.

The article talks about a short film that is a series of snippets of conversations with runners as they ran through a park in England. The film is only 11 minutes long and worth a watch.

So opines the Guardian article about the film: "These questions (Are you in love? Who do you care about most? What do you want to do with your life?) are hard to ask and are not often answered sincerely. Through their steps, their breaths and their focus, runners can answer them." I find this to be true, or at least it feels like it's true. But if it's so true, where do those answers go when the run finishes? I know a lot of runners, and they frankly seem just as screwed up as the rest of humanity.

Ed Whitlock, wise and fast.
What is this runner's consciousness that brings the feeling of answers? Studies have found that running produces endocannabinoids, of which the phytocannabinoids found in marijuana are a close cousin. So, yes, there is a runner's high. As with all altered states, the truths discovered therein seem somewhat difficult to take with us back to sobriety, and that's because altered states of consciousness can often give us the feeling that what we are saying is true without really bringing us any closer to the truth.  Anyone who has been around anyone in an altered state while sober knows this. 

[I googled "deep conversation while high," and this was the first website that came up. I think it proves my point. Folks with a more philosophical bent may also be interested in this William James essay, which relates the experience of truth that Hegel gives us to getting high on Nitrous Oxide: "The Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide.": "Something 'fades,' 'escapes;' and the feeling of insight is changed into an intense one of bewilderment, puzzle, confusion, astonishment: I know no more singular sensation than this intense bewilderment, with nothing particular left to be bewildered at save the bewilderment itself. It seems, indeed, a causa sui, or 'spirit become its own object.'"]

When I think about my own running, I want to tease apart the feeling of having answers to questions from the actual having of those answers, and at least leave that difference as an open question with respect to what's going on. The difference between the feeling of knowing and actually knowing would be the difference between running as getting high on endorphines and running as a spiritual practice. The one would be an escape, the other a form of insight.

A primary theme of this blog is that running is an avenue to truth, that traipsing down that long lonely road has something to do with pursuing wisdom. Recently a reader wrote me to say, "you seem to be able to put into words what we can only express in those fleeting moments of ceaseless pain and the ever-escaping "runner's high." That's high praise. But I always feel like I am talking around the insights that I get as a runner, gesticulating towards them, never quite grasping them, never quite remembering what it was that I almost understood. If I am so wise, why do I keep screwing shit up?

Every philosopher in history has noted the relationship between courage and truth. Socrates' great virtue was his parrhesia; his frank speech the direct sign of his wisdom. In running, we reach an less inhibited, more frank, way of being. The pounding and the rhythms, the brisk breeze and the endocannabinoids, sorta shake the truth out of us. This courage running gives us is not the sloppy courage of wine or the brash and belligerent whisky bravado. Our veritas comes in different flavors. The runner's courage is a relaxed and goofy sort of courage, founded less in our own confidence and more in trust of others. It makes us feel sane and connected, strangely vulnerable and also safe.

So maybe it's this: if there's truth or insight in running, it's less in the having of an answer and more in the bold confidence running gives us that someone out there -- a fellow running companion, the spouse back home, the boss, the colleague -- might hear us when we speak whatever answers we have. They might laugh at our jokes or feel our pain. We don't really find the answers out there on the road, but we feel a bit more confident that the half-reaches and guesses out of which we construct these experimental and half-baked lives might be worth sharing with someone else. We remember, in short, that we aren't alone -- or better, that we are alone, but alone along with everyone else.

Is that realization itself an answer or a key to life? No, not really. The pounding-drug-medicine wears off, and back in reality those half-worked out truths once spoken don't always find ears to hear. We return to life's hard questions. We find ourselves alone, alone. So it goes.

Or at least it goes like this until the next escape, when we find ourselves once more out there, running with the runner-geeks, alive and open and exposed, speaking frankly and sometimes even being heard.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Running in the Dark

First, a couple of links for the runner-geeks, then some rumination on night running.

A nice tribute to George Sheehan, the greatest runner/philosopher on the Writer's Almanac. (Nov. 5, 2013)

And, an interesting interview of Anthony Famiglietti (Fam) on Roads, Mills, Laps.

I hope you enjoy those.

The fall time change means one thing for me -- running in the dark. It feels somewhat shameful to admit it, but I am not a morning runner. This is strange because I am generally a morning person. I wake up in a good mood, get to work, do my things. My mind is ready to go, but my body is generally tight and achy. So, unless I am doubling (and it's been a while since then), I run in the evenings.

So, tonight I was out there running at my normal evening hour, and because of the time change, it was dark. For me, it's this way from November through February -- three months of running in the dark. I don't mind this.

When you are running, you become sort of invisible to most people. You are out there on the streets in the most public space, but in a way that makes you a part of the scenery, part of the architecture of the city. We are so familiar that we become somewhat hidden from view and interchangeable with anything else -- just part of someone's commute.

This feeling of invisibility is a part of all running, and night running amplifies it. I have never been one for reflectors or headlamps. I know the reasons for these -- they help the cars see us. But let me ask something: why do we have to be seen? I can't see the people in those cars; why do they need to see me? I would rather not be seen.

Further, there always seems to me to be something hostile about headlights. It's that they are so, well, outwards, so intent on illuminating everything that is outside of them. Riding in a car, we feel invulnerable, and through this invulnerability our senses are muted. Those headlights blind us when we are out on the road; as runners we realize their effect on experience is eliminatory as much as illuminating. In order to produce the effect of control, headlights have to blot out as much of the night as possible.

Running, in general, is a sport of exposure. In running we are exposed -- to weather, to our bodies, to pain, to effort, to our limits, to each other. And at night, we are exposed to the dark. This exposure and vulnerability is one of the most positive things about running. It's what gets our senses up and makes us watch and see and react. The night acts like a stimulant -- my eyes see everything that can be seen; my ears hear more, the footfalls and breathing rhythms come out of the background; I become myself, and I hear myself. I experience myself.

Running in the dark can remind us of all the different shades with which experience is colored. We say that we are "in the dark" because the dark envelopes us. We swim in it, we float through it. It is different than day and light -- quieter, closer, subtler. And, once enveloped, we become more sensitive, more inward, narrowed down to a thin and vulnerable core.

At night, in the dark, we see less, we feel more.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Marx was wrong about alienation, but also kinda right.

Marx was wrong about alienation.

He could never have predicted the extent to which we are not only willing to alienate ourselves from the products of our labor, our bodies, our minds, our location, etc., but will pay big money and renewable monthly fees to make it happen.

Marx was worried that the machines of the industrial revolution would create such a dislocation in experience that we could never recover. What would he say about iphones. Or jet planes. Or techno-music. Or corporate cubicles. Or this self-same internet on which you are reading these self-same words that spin out of a place you have never seen and come to you almost perfectly scraped clean of their origins.

He would say: the human capacity for alienation appears to have no limits. Even Marx would have to admit: his fundamental concept, the hinge to the revolution, was just plain wrong. We appear totally willing to dislocate ourselves from experience pretty much willy-nilly. Not only that, we actively push for more dislocation, more speed, more stuff, more money, more of everything. Such is the state of contemporary culture -- and it appears that no revolution or respite from either willy or nilly is in sight.

These thoughts occurred to me as I ran through the finally-crisp air of a blackening October evening, feeling that feeling that runners know. The simple feeling of being at home in a body that is unattached to any implements, barely clothed, feeling the earth beneath one's feet and the sky vaulting endlessly overhead. This is non-alienation.

I thought: Marx must have been a runner.

Running is a quite simple example of non-alienated labor. The work we do when we run does not disappear into the ether; it's not zipped off at the speed of electromagnetic waves and zipped around the earth. It doesn't look like emails or spreadsheets. It is not exchangeable for money. The work done by the subject comes back to the subject. We work our muscles and they become stronger. We move our body and it becomes leaner. After months and years of this running, it marks our bodies -- the way we walk, the clothes we wear, the thin and faraway look at the edges of the eyes. The work stays with us.

There is great satisfaction in that, especially in a culture in which alienation is pretty much a fact of life, something we enjoy and are comfortable in.

We are living in the middle of a running boom, and I must admit the thought has occurred to me that this boom is a consequence of a more extreme degree of alienation in culture. There is a sense in the wider culture these days that the relationship between work and reward, between labor and its fruits, is becoming more and more fragile.  It's this sense that spawns the bumperstickers about the 1% or the pushback against social welfare programs for freeloaders or even the general fatigue with politics and the sense that political work is simply vacuous. All of these forms of protest stem from a worry about alienation -- a worry that work is no longer valued, that we now sort out the fruit of labor according to a corrupt scheme (call it government; call it oligarchy of the rich and powerful; call it whatever boogeyman you like to dream of.)

Running is not really a protest against all of this. Running is not a form of revolt or political action. It's more like just simply opting out for a while from the system of willy-nilly appropriation and re-appropriation of labor. It's being in your body and doing work.

We go outside. We do work. We enjoy that work. It makes us healthier, happier, stronger, faster. We do it with friends, and laugh while we do it. What effect do we proletariats of running have on the wider culture? We don't know. We can't say. Certainly not revolutionary effects.

I think that lack of relation with the political is a positive in the end. Perhaps the strictest Marxists would want to see running as just another form of bourgeois alienation -- as the most selfish form of labor, as labor without results, without engaging in class war or what have you. Yet another simulacrum among all the rest.

But Marx himself? His beard gives him away. He was a dreamer, a poet, a wild man, a pamphleteer. He needed movement himself to write -- it was well known that he would do laps around his table when stuck on a concept, walking furiously around and around, until the ideas came.

It seems to me that our politics are always founded in certain typical experiences, and the absence of those experiences are what we would term alienation or lack of authenticity. There are certain experiences that we need, that we want, that we feel reflect our fullest selves, and that guide our political ideals.

I wonder what experiences gave Marx the content of the idea of alienation? Was it writing itself, for the prolific Marx? The way the words take even the clearest thoughts away, reduce them to meaning, make them stale, open them to misinterpretation, cliche, or confusion? The way even the best essays are only suggestive, never complete, never finished.


Our world gives us countless examples of alienation, countless moments in which we feel carried along by forces greater than ourselves and indifferent to us. Running gives a counter-example: in running, we carry ourselves. What do we do with this counter-example? What lesson does it teach? What duties does it impose?

Or are these questions just the return of alienation once more? A relatively feeble attempt to take those strides, that cool air, that night sky, that steady breath, that moving body, and ask that it be something more (or less) than simple satisfaction in activity: a body born to move, simply moving?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Daily Run

Runners are generally creatures of habit. We have our standard loop, our daily schedule, and we stick to it more or less. Though they always sounds nice in theory, runners know that exploratory runs in new directions or in different cities are fundamentally disruptive to the training schedule. We prefer to know every inch of our path; it makes getting around it easier mentally. Our hardest workouts are done on the most uniform surface possible -- a 400m oval, which in its simplicity and uniform nature is a striking metaphor for the habitual nature of the runner's activity.

The deeper the runner gets into heavy training, the more essential habit becomes. When the body begins to resist the miles, when the legs feel heavy, or the brain fogs from fatigue, the easiest thing to do is what one did yesterday -- hit the standard loop. We have run it so many times that it almost literally runs itself. We are responsible for a minute or two of effort, but once out the door and on the loop, the loop itself seems to carry us around.

In the same way, the rhythm of running imposes a sort of order of habit on daily life. We put our runs into place, then the rest of life falls in around that order. You see this rhythm carried to the extreme with the streakers. For the streaker, the run takes on an almost metaphysical quality -- it becomes not just a form of exercise or a way of moving the body, but a reality, a necessity, as real to that runner as the rising of the sun and as cold and hard a necessity as the stars that shine on a clear winter night.

These rituals and repetitive behaviors make runners seem obsessive or compulsive, and in a way we are -- some more than others. We worry that all of this running is a symptom of a loss of freedom, that we run like panthers pace a cage. But repetitive behaviors are not always obsessive or the mark of psychological damage, and routine or habit is not always dull. Indeed, some form of daily rhythm is essential to the health of every living organism. A life without routine of some sort is simply a disorganized life.

The older I get, the more I realize that freedom is about the establishment of routine. The very nature of meaningful and free action is bound up in repetition. To live a life with purpose is to make choices that lead us to develop and grow along certain channels. If we find the right channels, they deepen and grow more complex and variegated each time we return to them. This process is often imperceptible; our lives and personalities grow through a force that is similar to erosion.

Not to find these deep channels, not to return to them -- to live as if each day were brand new! This sounds lovely, and this advice is doled out often. But such a life would be a life of surfaces without depth, a life of noises and screens and words, but not music, not art, not meaning. The great musicians and the great athletes know what the runner knows: that talent is discovered and refined through the erosive force of habit.

It is true that ritual and repetition can easily give way to boredom and mechanical routine. Every runner experiences these things, perhaps just as often as the experience of strength or talent or identity. It is tempting to say that these things -- boredom and purpose, mechanical routine and deep meaning -- are two sides of the same coin, but I think such a statement avoids the problem we regularly face.

In its simplest form, the problem is this: control, order, and organization are necessary to life, but in their most rigid forms, they are the worst thing that can happen to life. As we face the challenge of becoming free and productive adults, we seek to impose some degree of control over our lives, but then chafe constantly at the way in which this control, once established, seems so quickly to turn against us -- to begin to control us.

Is there a way out of this bind? I don't think so. It's the bind that life puts us in: we must adapt to preserve ourselves. Running is both of these things, both adaptation and preservation. It's an attempt to adapt to life; an attempt to build strength and endurance, to learn to deal with pain, to enjoy our bodies, to live outside and in the world, to work alongside our friends. It's an attempt to preserve our life; an attempt to find calm, to escape the demands of contemporary life, to delay the onset of age, to heal minds made foggy by too much talking and not enough moving.

What's my point here? I think it's something like this: let's be careful not to call every routine a compulsion, characterize every rhythm as a type of monotony, or separate the idea of habitual action from the search for freedom. These things come together for us in the same way that the wooden legs and resistant mind of the early miles of the daily run almost magically transform themselves into free and full movement and refreshed consciousness. Just so, dull routine becomes deep experience, reminding us that beauty lies just beneath the gray tones of ordinary life, waiting always to erupt.

This is the lesson of the daily run.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Role of the Attention in Racing

I ran a workout last Saturday with Lanni Marchant. She was tuning up for the upcoming track and field World Championships in Moscow, where she will be competing in the marathon, looking to improve on her 2:31 personal best, and hoping to make a run at the Canadian national record (which is 2:28.)

The workout was more about pace-feel than about building endurance or suffering -- the total volume of work was only 4.5 miles at marathon pace -- but like all good marathon workouts, what it primarily required was concentration. By the end of the workout, with warmup and cooldown, we ran almost 10 miles on the track, and much of it was at specified pace.

It ended up being harder than I expected, and the reason was that marathon pace is slow enough to require only minimal concentration, but it's fast enough to require some concentration. Put another way, the pace is not hard enough to draw the mind to it by itself. I found myself having to remind myself to pay attention, and this in turn reminded me just how important this quality of attention is in our sport. (I should also say that watching Lanni's focus on these intervals and in her racing may have had something to do with this.)

Lanni running 2:31 at Rotterdam

Paying attention is crucial to the sport of distance running. I think we all know this intuitively: so much of racing and even training is sustaining a hard effort, and what sustaining requires is attention, first and foremost. You might even say that at a very fundamental level, attention and endurance are the same thing: as goes our attention, so we go.

Attention is a trainable quality -- like the rest of our lives, it has an aspect that is inborn or genetic, but it is also governed to a great extent by habit. When we examine human attention carefully, we see two things immediately. First, it it is always directed somewhere. Common expression says that sometimes we aren't paying attention at all -- but this is never true. It's more accurate to say that the attention is turned elsewhere than that it goes away entirely. Consciousness can be distracted or dissipated. It can lose focus and intensity, but it never quite goes away so long as we are conscious -- even in sleep the attention conjures its own images to keep itself occupied. Second, we notice that the attention only rests on one thing at a time. Although these days many of us are "multi-taskers," this multi-tasking is performed through rapid shifts of the attention from one object to another. We never actually attend to two things simultaneously.

How frequently we switch the attention, how concentrated or diffuse it is, and what it chooses as its objects varies depending on the time of day, how much coffee we've had, our own basic temperament, the relative calm or chaos of our environment, and finally our life-long habits of attending.

So, when it comes to attention in the sport of running, the question becomes how can we optimally occupy the attention, given that it is firing constantly? How often should the attention shift? And to what should it switch when it does? Once we've answered these questions, we can then turn to the question of how to train these habits of attention.

In my experience, in analyzing attention in a race, its best to break the race into 3 different parts: early, middle, and late. Each of these difference stages of racing requires different modes of attention because they make different demands on the athlete.

The early part of the race requires relaxation, patience, and control. The challenges of the early segment of racing are primarily ones of restraint. The body and mind, being fresh, have loads of available energies that must be marshaled. Here it is important to keep the attention somewhat diffusely organized. It's okay and maybe even positive to let the mind wander a bit. Minimal attention ought to be paid to the most basic aspects of positioning: Am I in contact with the folks I am competing against? Is the body relaxed and flowing? And are my emotions calm and stoic? If the answer is a general yes to these questions, the attention can be allowed to wander to any non-stressful topic, and disassociate itself from the stresses that will soon demand its full energies.

Your blogger doing a less than ideal job of marshaling early race energies.

The middle part of the race requires rhythm, confidence, and increasing aggression. The challenges of the middle part of the race are primarily ones of staying positive and active in racing, avoiding doubt, and maintaining a strong competitive rhythm. The middle stage of racing begins with the onset of fatigue. Fatigue brings its close companion, doubt and hesitation. As the athlete becomes fatigued, naturally the attention will be drawn into a narrower circle. The body will occupy more of the attention as balance and coordinated form and the integrated motion of running begins to require active labor.

With this increasing focus of the attention comes the risk of mental fatigue. It's in this stage of the race that mental confidence is extremely important. As the mind examines the body and its state of fatigue, it will surely suggest the possibility that it will no longer be able to maintain the effort. The confident runner anticipates these thoughts and knows not to let his attention linger on them, instead refocusing on the rhythm of running, the tactics of racing, and the important task of not slowing down. The middle stage of racing requires great bodily attunement and a cold willingness to let signals of its possible breakdown pass quickly out of consciousness. It's precisely here that the attention has its toughest challenge to stay on task.

Your blogger demonstrating mid-race attention.

The final part of the race requires an abandonment of restraint, and outward focus on the finish line and one's competitors, and a refusal to listen to the body. The end of the race begins when shifting into the final kick for home, and it is characterized by extreme competitiveness and self-abandonment. If the middle stage is one of intense internal bodily association, the end of a race requires a 180 degree shift in focus. The best athlete will have an almost out-of-body experience where the attention is fully shifted to the competitive goals of racing: running a certain time, beating a certain competitor, or in the case of extremely long distances: merely finishing the race. The athlete ceases to identify himself with his body and becomes fully identified with whatever counts for victory in the situation. This is an act of total attentional immersion, and it requires an almost transcendent level of focus.

Your blogger demonstrating late-race transcendivity.

If it has not already become abundantly clear in this analysis, being able to control the attention, to shift it to the appropriate center at the right time, and to harness and conserve it -- and then release its full power -- is essential to the art of racing. Identifying the necessary moves of attention and watching the attention as it moves in racing is obviously a key aspect of training the attention, but it is also useful to look at classic workouts in terms of how they teach attention.

1. Interval work at 5k pace and faster. Intermediate length intervals are the perfect tool for training the attention for the middle stages of racing. Interval training induces the fatigue of the middle stage of racing, but breaks it up into chunks that are mentally manageable. When running intervals, it is always important to practice relaxation, even pacing, and most importantly in terms of the mental aspects of racing dealing with the small doubts that will arise and learning to let them pass by without distracting the mind.

2. Sustained tempo runs. These runs are great for training the attention for the first stage of racing and the transition into the second stage. The early moments of a tempo run require discipline, restraint, and relaxation. It could be said that tempo running is an attempt to extend the first stage of racing as far as possible, delaying the onset of fatigue and the mental intensity that is necessary to deal with it.

3. Hard and fast speedwork. In addition to their physiological effects, 200 and 300m intervals run at a very fast pace help develop the mode of attention needed for the final stage of racing. When done relatively fresh, these intervals create little fatigue in the early moments of the interval, allowing the runner to concentrate on giving his full attention to the act of running fast and hard. The later stages of the interval, with intense fatigue settling in quickly but not really limiting power, prepare the runner to disassociate completely from the feeling of his body and focus on charging fast.

None of this is earth-shattering insight, but in an age of distraction, I think it's exciting to think of running as a tool a somewhat counter-cultural practice of the development of attention. Although this was a mechanical post focused on basic ideas of training, I think its philosophical dimensions are also important to note, at least in passing.

Our ethics, our politics, family, love, friendships -- even happiness itself -- depend keenly upon our qualities of attention. "We are what we eat," but even more, we are what we attend to. That being the case, I'm not sure there's a more direct path to wisdom than analysis of and care for habits of attention.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Being There

You know how part of what runners love about running is just the sheer fact of being outside?
Once in every dozen runs or so, I have these moments where I lift my head up for just a second or two and I'm like: damn -- just LOOK at those trees. Oh, and the sky: it's still blue as all get-out. Or I will see a buzzard drifting on an up-current and think: he and I are the same, in a deeply inarticulate way. We're just here in the world, without much more to it. He, buzzarding about in his (yes, somewhat nasty) buzzardly way; and I, down here below looking up at the buzzard, running along doing my thing.

Back to the same old question: why do we run? Here's another insufficient answer to throw on the pile: it's because running is a practice of presence. Though the new-agers are all a little loopy and smoked way too much dope back in the day and tend to be over the top with their purple colors, etc., they are right about one thing. We have a tendency to live almost everywhere but in the present.

I have a new daughter and among many other things, this is a lesson that she teaches. To be with her is to be in the present because the present is simply where she lives, in her animal way. (Incidentally, this must be why so much of early childhood parenting is obsessively centered on scheduling. Almost every question we get about our daughter is posed in terms of time -- when is she sleeping? when will she crawl? what time does she eat? and the biggie: what's her schedule?) Our world runs on time, and time is almost never about presence. It's most often about what anxiety causing event is about to get here, and it's about the crap that happened. Sometimes it's about the awesome thing that we have planned to make happen if everything goes right, and it's about the sweet things that we once did back in the day when things were different. Time is delaying and deferring, hurrying and rushing, or pacing and holding on.

But presence is of course about none of these things. It's about just being. And, as I was saying, running is a practice of presence. I find when I am out on a run, time can quite literally not happen. I get into a timeless state that I believe is somewhat like the state of a hovering buzzard, or perhaps the state that my infant daughter occupies. Running, I am not in time, but I am present to the world.

The little one and I at MoonPie this weekend. (Thanks, Rafal.)
Being present is a mode of consciousness that is diminished in some ways and amplified in others. The stream of ideas and thoughts happens as always, but it is not inflected with or shaded by the atmosphere of temporality. I guess this is what I am realizing, as I write: time is not a thing or an idea -- it is a quality of experience. So, when we run the world comes to us washed of the quality of time and immediacies strike us more regularly. Time tends to blur the details of things. It shadows every sensation with its possible futures and pasts. When we are present, we see the world more as it is, and we realize upon entering this sort of timeless state that the world in which we live is extraordinarily detailed and vibrant. It is full of things waiting eternally to be noticed, like, for example, the number of petals in a black-eyed suzy or the way in which the thinnest puddle of water can reflect a deep and entire landscape.

In the timeless state of mind, details are amplified, but a sense of order and purpose is diminished. More ordinary states of consciousness are highly purposive -- they are states of mind that have beginnings, middles, and ends. They are involved in projects that carve the world into a set of goals to be accomplished. This purposiveness strips experience of its nuanced and complicated quality and thereby mutes the world of the true wildness of its possibility -- the point of most of conscious life not being to render all worlds possible, but to actually make something singular happen. I think, for example, of my drive home and the way its severe intentionality renders almost all of its experienced qualities into the simplest of categories: the idiots in front of me and the jerks behind me. But of course the blindness of intentionality is one of our most cherished resources. It's how we get 'er done.

These thoughts came to me I suppose because of the race I ran this weekend. It was the Bell Buckle RC-Cola Moon Pie 10 mile race, and I won it. This is pretty much my favorite race -- the hills, the heat, the country roads, the atmosphere, all of these things combine to diminish the temporal and purposive dimensions of running. There is always a point in that race where plans fall away, and you have to tune into the atemporal animal presence (whoah dude) that I have been describing.

I thought about this as I ran out in front of the field. I had chosen not to wear a watch for this race for precisely all of these reasons, but of course being the leader I ran behind a pace truck that had a giant red clock staring me right in the face. Although I was winning, although I was running across beautiful terrain in Middle Tennessee, although I was enjoying being fit and outside and in the world, I could not help but find myself tormented by that clock. Its digital numbers stared at me coldly, reminding me incessantly of the inescapability of time, how it would tick away and be lost forever, and that it could never, in the end, be outrun.

Those same thoughts about the ceaseless passing of time occur to me occasionally when I am with my little one. But then she will smile or cry or just reach towards me, and the world narrows and intensifies and time is lost for a moment, and I am there, without memory or anticipation, an animal once more.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Time Moves Differently: a report from the 145 mile Grand Union Canal Race

Editor’s note: This piece was written by one of the toughest people I know, and it’s one of the best race reports I’ve read. Jen (aka Wrigleygirl) takes us deeply into the experience of running 145 miles. Jen has run around 80 marathons and ultramarathons and has also run 128.13 miles in 24 hours. The report is long (appropriately for the distance,) but make sure you have your schedule cleared before you start reading – because you won’t stop. Thanks to her for allowing me to publish this!

*  *  *

Friday night before the race it is very cold and extremely windy, but the temps and conditions on Saturday are perfect. The race starts in the center of Birmingham. I've been promised drunks spilling out from the bars at 6 am, but someone has lied and the drunks fail to do their part. I'm disappointed.

The paths are all cobblestone, and on any incline or decline every third one is raised, presumably for traction when it is wet, or to trip klutzy runners. I was warned about these earlier, and I'm especially careful. I walk up all the bridges. I fail to see the point in running inclines in the first mile of a 145 mile race. There are a bunch of bridges, but more often than not we are running below them, along extremely narrow paths alongside the canal.  These were obviously built in the Middle Ages when everyone was four feet tall.  Every 400m I have to fold myself in half and run single-file through a narrow opening while trying not to trip on cobblestones. 

Despite extremely conservative pacing, I am the first woman until about a mile and a half when a German woman passes me. With 143.5 miles to go, this throws me into a full blown panic. I am the worst racer ever. This always happens.  Two more women pass and I tell myself to let them go. I end up behind them and we enter an area with just woods and the canal. The women in front of me talk more than two women have ever talked in the history of woman kind. I don't know how they hear each other or can breathe. They should be on the British women's Olympic talking team. When a woman can astonish me with talking, you have really got something there. Good. Let them wear themselves out. I'm saving my energy for the race.

They eventually duck out to pee. I have had to pee for miles and miles now. The plan is to wait until I can't anymore, and then head into the woods. A few miles later it can't wait anymore and I duck in on one of the narrow singletrack paths that have been made. It opens up into a collection of empty Carling and Kronenbourg cans like I have never imagined in my life. I understand the little paths now. I'm relieved to pee but only a little trickle comes out. Wtf? 

I run on. The women that I dropped when they went to the bathroom are now in front of me, and I still have to pee like mad.

I ignore it and blow through the aid station at 10.7 miles. I am "unsupported" aka I don't have a crew, so I paid a little more (still crazy cheap, regular entrance to this race was $45), so that the race would provide me with food at a few checkpoints as well as haul two small drop bags to each of the nine aid stations so I can replenish Gu, have warm and dry clothes, headlamp/sunglasses, my drink mix for my hydration pack (half Perpetuem/half Gatorade), and a few other things. I am perfectly on my targeted time. I have made a pace band for 32 hours, I wanted 31 hours pre injury, and I set a public goal of 35 hours, only because people keep telling me that this race is so much harder than it appears on paper. 

This is the canal. You can read more about it here.

That's the thing about ultras. They always are. Look at paces and you wonder what the hell people are doing that takes them so long, then do it yourself and you understand that time moves differently during a long race. It doesn't make sense, and I can't explain it to non-ultrarunners. I don't understand myself. I end up using a similar plan as I use for my 24 hour races. After 2.5 hours I ran for 26 minutes and walked for 4. It pays off down the road because the race is broken up into manageable chunks and the body loves the change in gait. During the stretch between the first aid station and the aid station at 22.5 I feel a blister forming. Crap. 99% of the time I would let it go. 100% of the time I’m not running 145 miles. I stop at the aid station. New Gu packets (I have been a rock star with taking a Gu exactly every 40 mins), mix up more drink (I've made it too weak again, and I worry about calories), get rid of garbage, drink some Coke which I despise but it works, get out a handkerchief which gets soaked with cold water because it is starting to get toasty out, and tend to my feet. My trusty go-to race socks have two holes in them. Fuck. I can't find the other pair just like them. I go to higher socks and bandage and body glide the feet up. Back to running. 

There is a major problem. I have had to urinate so badly that it is supremely uncomfortable to run. My lower abdomen is distended and it is hard and painful to the touch. My bladder is completely full, but every time I stop to pee I only get out a trickle.  It never stops feeling like I have to piss like mad. Into the 35.9 aid station I go. Back in the chair I go to fix the feet. Dammit. "Beware the chair" is the number one advice I give ultrarunners. I am in the chair at   least ten to fifteen minutes at each aid station taking care of stuff. I am still below target pace. Everything is ok. I run on.

At the next unavoidable and useless pee stop, I duck into the woods. Upon squatting an insane fire shoots throughout my inner thighs. It has to be the plant I'm on. I brush it away with my hand and an insane fire shoots on my hand. Holy shit. I get far away from this plant while the burning continues (and the stupid trickling continues).  It must be some kind of stinging nettle that left its barbs in me. Stinging nettle back home doesn't do that to this degree. I rub aquaphor on my inner thighs. It is the only thing I can think to do. In the meantime welts are forming on my hand.

I run on. There is a lot more walking than I anticipated. Mostly because my bladder is in such bad shape. I debate just relaxing the muscles, but if I piss myself the chafing from wet shorts will be debilitating in the long run.

I run on. The canal is lined with really long, narrow boats. They are beautiful. They are all topped with various plants and herbs on top as well as bikes, wheelbarrows and various junk. In great boat tradition, the majority are named after women. The boat owners and the other people that are out all have dogs.  Great dogs.  Big dogs.  Dogs that pay me no heed and are quiet, mellow, and happy to be alongside their masters enjoying a beautiful day. It is a beautiful day and everyone is on their boat or working on it.  It is weird, but for going by so many people, no one pays attention to the race, no one says hi.  They go about their own business. For most of the rest of the race I decide they are my only amusement, and fuck it, I am going to be one bubbly-assed sonofabitch, and for my own pleasure I will get every one of these people to say hello. I wave, I say good afternoon, I compliment the beautiful boats. They never initiate, but they always reciprocate.

The boats move so slowly that you beat them down the canal, especially when they get to the locks. The locks are very frequent in some parts and require running up and down hills. This course is hillier than advertised with all the locks and frequent crossings of bridges, but still could definitely be described as flat. The course on the canal path for the most part is remote except for rare stretches through towns where there are beautiful pubs with outdoor seating. Lord, I would have loved to be sitting outside having a pint.  We go through rolling areas dotted with grazing sheep and patched with bright yellow fields of mustard. The best word for it would be bucolic. With the exception of the more developed sections, the course was just running in grass, single-track, or to my mild annoyance, a very thin path that developed when the boaters ride their bikes ahead to start preparing the locks for the person on their boat. It is exactly as narrow as one Hoka'd foot and requires that one foot be placed directly in front of the other. I'm too uncoordinated for that shit.

The running in grass takes a lot out of you. I lose time.  Pee (barely), run (uncomfortably with a bladder that might burst), walk too much. I am mainly alone.  When I leave the 53.0 aid station a woman who has done the race twice but never finished is right on my ass. She falls badly. I gather her bottle and map and keep asking her if she is ok. She insists that she is fine and tells me to go on. I feel awful. I understand. I'm a frequent faller. It takes a few minutes to get the sting out. I feel awful though. I hope she is ok. I never want to beat anyone due to injury.  I am so happy to see her later, we leapfrog a little, and she goes on to beat me.

I run on. I get lost twice before the next aid station. The course is unmarked and I have two of my three huge laminated maps from the RD in my drop bags.  Twice during this event we climb England's equivalent of Mt Everest.  There are long tunnels where the boats used to be pushed through with some kind of a pole. While the boat is underground, we have a mile or so to run. I made a wristband with mileages and directions for the bridges (R or L).  If something was too confusing, I just wrote "map" and knew I had to consult the map.  I didn't have the second map on me and ended up having to walk slowly for a mile or more with another racer who knew the course in order not to get messed up.  

The next aid station at 70.5 is only memorable because it is one more aid station before I get to meet Hoppity, her husband Brian, and my pacer James in person.  The people there inform me that I have a nice sunburn going on. I am losing speed and realize that I am going to be a hour late off of my estimated arrival to meet them (they understand how this works though, I could be three hours early or three hours late by the time I get to 84.5). I start to really hustle because I feel bad. I go by weird stretches that involve a super short section of cobbled path near bridges the long stretches of grass. Cooking smells are coming from the boats. It smells wonderful.

I just think this is a cool shot. This is a picture of a racer from 2006.

I know what the race time is, but I don't know what it is in "real time".  You never want to know this. I can live with it being 21:00 on a race clock, but once you understand that is three in the morning, you become more tired. People are going to bed. The lights on the houseboats are going off. I go by a pub and hear raucous laughter and the sounds of bottles being smashed. I've decided between that and what I saw in Birmingham, that the British are all piss poor drinkers and soccer hooligans at heart. This thought amuses me. 

I get my hustle on because I feel bad for Hoppity. I am moving the best I have for hours when I finally fall. I am shaken up and limping very badly. I know the drill. This ain't my first rodeo. Two minutes of thinking I will never run (or walk) again in my life, jog a little, and then everything is magically ok. I bleed. No big deal. I just opened up an area that I tore open on one of my super early Wednesday morning runs a month ago.  I eventually make it into the aid station. I meet my pacer James and Hoppity's husband Brian. Hoppity is sleeping in the car, preparing for a full night of pacing Purdey. Hoppity and Brian will take turns pacing and crewing Purdey, taking over the crewing from Ian and Purdey's wife.

They go to wake her, and I finally get to see the infamous cankles. My pacer looks antsy and ready to go while I spend an ungodly amount of time refilling liquids, restocking Gus, putting some warm layers on, cleaning up the knee a bit, and tending to my feet. Finally we are off. James had run a 50 mile race the weekend before, and I requested that he not tell me anything about it until we were out running together. We spent most of our time together talking about various races in the UK and US, he asked me some questions about longer races, and we discussed future racing plans.

He was good company. I was worried that I would get a pacer that yammered nonstop and drove me batty. We had a perfect combination of talk and silence. It began to get cold and I wished I had thrown my tights on. In addition, a cold, thick mist was coming off the canal. At some points I couldn't see in front of me. Another reason to walk. Two good things happened when James joined me. I gave him the maps, and he started navigating and finding out what bridges we were supposed to cross over. If there was any question about the route, he would run ahead and scope it out. Also, finally, blessedly, I was able to pee like a normal human being. It had been so miserable that I was thrilled to have that pressure gone. Of course now I was peeing blood, but it's not the first time that has happened, and I wasn't worried.

I pass a woman. I hadn't seen another runner in hours. When I pass, I pass like I mean it and I keep up a long stretch of running (ummm...that's probably "long" and "running").  James laughs at me and says he can see the competitive thing coming out. The sun starts coming up slowly. The nice thing about this race is that there was so much sunlight. I think it will really help me when there is sun. Even though it may be getting lighter, I'm getting considerably colder. I'm downright freezing. When I roll in to the 100 mile aid station, I take a huge amount of time getting myself ready. I have some hot coffee, put on tights, change my shoes and socks, and resupply.  Race time was 22:30. My previous 100 mile split of a long race had been 17:32. Yikes.

The next stretch has twenty miles before the next aid station. My bag that I am using for the trip is there. Purdey's crew had taken it with them so that I could get it in London. Purdey was now out of it. I feel bad. No more of Sara and her husband then. The race people are nice enough to haul the bag to the end for me. I had changed from the Hoka's to a pair of Saucony Guides, just to mix things up for a bit because my arches were beginning to feel like there were little mini daggers going through them. Not horrible, but uncomfortable enough that I thought a 20 mile change of shoe might be nice.

This ends up being my biggest mistake of the race. All hell breaks loose in the next section. It is covered with stones. I feel each and every one of them. The bottom feet become brutally sore and sensitive. Then I feel the sleepiness coming on. I am usually ok once the sun rises, but something is happening despite my use of caffeinated Gu and 5 hour energy. My eyes start feeling weird, like they are rolling around in two different directions. Then they start closing. I am doing my best to keep them open just so I can see what I'm doing, because I have started staggering around like a drunk. I'm making more sideways movement than forward progress. I'm pretty sure that I'm going to end up falling in the canal.

 I feel bad doing this to my pacer, but I ask a favor. "Can you wake me up in five minutes?"  I have heard of runners taking a nap during a long race, but I always thought it was nuts. They usually go down for 30-45 minutes during the night. I don't understand how they could wake up and run. I'd be groggy and very stiff. This time I have to do something. I'm not going to make it any other way. I lay down in the grass next to the path.

Within 30 seconds I am asleep. It absolutely enveloped me, and I was happy that I was able to actually fall asleep. I have a terrible time sleeping after these races, and I was worried once I laid down, that I would just be unable to snooze, while wasting time. Right before my five minutes were up, I popped up. James was surprised that I had woken up on my own, right at five minutes. I felt great. My feet hurt less and I was totally energized. I started running again. Wide, wide awake and chipper.  Best decision of the race was to blow that five minutes. I wouldn't have been able to finish without it.

The feet stopped feeling good pretty quick, though. It took an eternity to get to 110. Over three hours. I don't even understand how that is possible. I start thinking of small mileage segments, and realizing how long each one will take me. I think about the average morning where I can roll out of bed and blam out ten miles before breakfast. It feels like I am a completely different person and a totally different runner. All miles are not made equal.  The next ten took a long time and were punctuated by another nap, where houseboat residents came over to ask James if I was ok. Twice more before the end of the race I went down for five minutes, always at a point that I thought it was absolutely necessary and essential if I was to finish. None of the stops were as satisfying as the first.

I run on. The second half of the stretch to 120 miles goes slowly.  I am counting the steps until I can get into my Hokas. The bottoms of my feet are destroyed, and every step is murder. At 120 I take too long, and I am cranky. Endless volunteers come up to me and ask me if I want anything. No. I am fine. I just need to take care of my shit. They list all the items they have to eat and drink. No. Am I sure?  Yes. Next one comes up and does the same. They are being awesome and doing their job, but I'm not feeling good. I have stopped eating on a regular basis long ago. I take a rare Gu for the caffeine. I'm not running. I don't think I need to fuel for running. I gather my stuff. I won't see my drop bags again until the end. There is an aid station at 133.  This whole section is unremarkable. I walk slowly. Can't I even walk fast if I'm going to be walking?  No. Christ, my feet hurt.

The middle of this section also starts the time where the rest of the race becomes an attempt to avoid all the cyclists (commuter types, not spandexy freaks with aerobars).  At one point I ask James what mile we are at. He tells me a little over 129. My longest distance ever. It is supremely anti-climactic. I tell James for the millionth time that he doesn't have to stay with me. Things are bad and they are going downhill fast.  I want him to get to experience the finish if that is what he wants. He's earned it. But it is going to take so many hours that it is ridiculous, and I already feel bad that he has had to spend hour after hour at a crawl. He kept saying that he would decide later.  He finally tells me he is going to break off at 132. His parents live close to there. I am relieved. I feel bad, and frankly, it is just embarrassing having someone witness your failure for so damn long. I give him a gross hug goodbye. I really appreciated everything he did. I know my race would have been much worse if he hasn't been there. He was good company, and he kept me out of my own head with good conversation.

The next mile has to be much longer than a mile. It takes a really long time, even for me. Once I get to the aid station I have them throw a mix of lemon squash (lemonade) and water into my hydration pack.  The people are funny, and I tell them (like I told all the volunteers) how excited I was, and how I told everyone in the States that they had squash at the aid stations in the UK. I was excited to hear there would be something different, and disappointed to hear it meant juice. I also told them that the terms "torch/head torch" always made me smile because back home that is what we storm castles with (along with our trusty pitchforks). 

Wrigleygirl and her pitchfork.

Enough goofing around, time to move forward. I think I can see other people about to head into the aid station, and I want to stay ahead of them. Two miles later a passerby says "ten miles left".  Woo-hoo. I can smell the barn. I start running. Then I stop and go back to walking. Horrible pain is shooting through my feet. I pull out my iPod for the first time this race. Music will make it better. I tell myself that I just have to make it five songs before I can put my feet up to alleviate the pain. I make it two and a half. I put the stupid iPod away.

I can't walk any further. I lay down in some tall weeds. A really nice runner who I met on Friday night and got to spend some time talking to, comes by. He checks that I'm ok. He is ready to finish and runs off. A woman passes by with her four children. One of her children stops in front of me on their scooter and she calls to all of them, hurriedly gathers them, and gets them as far away from me as possible, while shooting panicked looks my way. I realize that normally you wouldn't want an unbathed stranger who is lying bleeding in the weeds near your children, but I have a race bib on, dammit. I see a woman and her pacer coming.  I have to get up and hurry. I'm not letting any women pass me. Each time I sit or lay down it makes my feet a million times better...for a little bit. Attempting to jog is useless and just results in having to put my feet up sooner.

I continue on and go into a section that is a bit on the industrial side. I am trying to stay in front of the woman behind me, but the pain becomes unbearable again.   I have to sit down. She passes me with her pacer. I recognize her as the woman that was attempting an out and back of this course. She finished the 145 miles to Birmingham the night before the race started. I can't believe it. It is the most humiliating and demoralizing point in my running life. I still feel that way a week and a half later. Humiliated and demoralized are the only words that fit. She cheers me on and leaves me in her dust.
I get up and start walking again. I have to sit down, and luckily I see a bench. It is mile 138 and I decided that it is over. I can barely walk ten minute stretches, and I'm walking so slowly that pedestrians are blowing by me.  I don't know what to do. I don't know where I have to go or what I have to do to get a cab. All I know is that I have seven miles left, and I can't walk them. That's over two hours at my pace. I don't care about finishing, I just don't want to walk any more.

I consider a few things:  I spent a lot of fucking money to come all this way, I have had about a trillion DNF's this year, all in races where I just didn't feel like doing the whole thing, and most importantly, it would probably be more of a hassle to try to find my way and get to the finish, than just to finish.  I continue on. I stop and sit frequently when I just can't walk. People look at my leg and ask if I'm ok. Apparently I'm the first person in England to ever skin their knee. Interesting. Maybe they will name the condition after me. I will be the Lou Gehrig of uncoordinated people.

With three miles left I say no sitting down. Fuck the feet. I just want to be done so badly. The bridges are numbered. I have to finish at bridge number 4, around Little Venice. I start staring at all the numbers, praying that they start going down in a hurry. Sometimes they are close, sometimes they are a mile apart, and sometimes an asshole was allowed to number them. 7A?  7B?  7AB?  God help me, if I had the energy I would throw rocks at the bridges. I keep looking at my watch.  I want to get this done before hour 37 hits. I don't know if I can do it, but I will try. I attempt stretches of jogging again. They are comically short and awkward. At this time I realize that on the bottom of my left foot a giant blister has formed. Right on the ball of the foot. Well, that's a first. I keep up with the run/walk, the running becoming more frantic, and my gait even goofier from the blister (if that is possible). 

This is Little Venice.
I have been thinking a long time about the end of the race. Everyone is gone.  I am not all out spent the way I am after a 24 hour. This feels different. But I know after the 24 hours, I can't take care of myself. I'm fully incapacitated, and for someone that is totally independent and self-reliant, this is always terrifying. Plus I know what is coming after the race. I am dreading all of it. 

I get to bridge number four. There is more to go. And Ian is there. I am so happy to see him. He is in jeans, dress shoes, and has a 70lb camera around his neck but he starts running with me. When I ask him how much further he tells me 600 meters. Oh God. I can't run that far.  My watch has me in a panic and there is no goddamn way I am walking in a finish of a race. It keeps going, I keep running. The finish. They said it would be low-key, and it was. As I run to the sign I feel my face crumple up. Oh shit, I'm going to start crying. Dumb girl.

The race director gives me a hug (and the heaviest medal I own).  I called him a bastard and he just laughed. While I sit, Ian and his lovely girlfriend are gathering my bags. Ian goes to find a cab and his girlfriend is making sure I was ok.  She was so nice. To sit around all day to help out some stinky stranger that her boyfriend has talked to one or twice on the internet?  Some people are just good people. They get in the cab with me and help me out at the hotel.  They won't let me carry any of my bags, and they even carry them up the four floors (!) to my room. This part of the race I got very lucky.

No, I don't shower. I never do right after these races.  I'm unable to stand that long.  Where there is a shower with a tub I still have to wait because I can't get down and back up out of the tub. Plus once you get in the shower the chafing spots scream at you. I've had enough for one day. I climb into bed with all my race clothes on.  I am very cold and can't stop shaking. The expected leg cramps kick in. I don't fall asleep until late that night, and it is for brief 20-30 minute naps.

In the morning I force myself to shower and leave the room so I can see Mo Farah race. I've actually been really excited about this. The blister on the bottom of my foot has gotten huge, and I walk with a major limp. Someone in London deserves a big award. They can apparently see stupid coming from far away. Every crosswalk has "Look Left" and "Look Right" written on it. I need it. I start walking through Hyde Park and get turned around. I end up in Kensington Gardens where I think a little stroll would be good for me. A minute later I am lying in the grass sleeping. Mo is going to have to wait for another time.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Two Kinds of Races

Martin, my brother-in-law, approached me with a proposition.

He is a banker in the Caribbean, and we were down there for a family vacation (and yes, the beach!) The way he put it to me was like this. 

He explained: "One of my co-workers at the bank was a good 800 meter runner in high school, a sub-2 guy, and he was talking in the lunch room about how he would love to race again. So, I told him you were a runner and that you were coming down."

"Yeah," I said. (Sub-2 is pretty fast, but hey I did that, too.)

"Anyways," goes Martin, "We put together a group of five guys. A relay. We thought they could each run 1000m and you could run 5000m. You could take them on. What do you think? This guy wants to run against someone fast."

"Sure," I said, without thinking about it too much, not really ever being one to turn down a race.

This was one kind of race. A runner against five untrained non-runners. I would come to learn before the race that they were all young (4 in their early or mid-20s and one my age) and that they had athletic backgrounds, if not running backgrounds. 

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been concerned, but as the day of the race grew closer something happened to me that I suppose is a reflection of the narrowness of human vision. I began to worry. I thought irrational thoughts: like "1000m isn't really that far" and "5:30 pace really isn't that fast." It's not really that these are irrational thoughts for a runner like me -- in fact, these are truths that my whole running experience is built on. A thousand meters is not even a warm-up. Or, it's one of a half dozen intervals. Five-thirty pace is a tempo effort; it's controlled. This is my world, the world of a half-way talented runner who has been at this gig for 20 or so years.

But in the larger world, which includes Caribbean bankers and many many other things, those are highly irrational thoughts. A thousand meters is a hella-long way to run. And five-thirty pace is a wild and uncontrollable rhythm. To the world at large these things are as foreign as, say, dunking a basketball is to this five-foot seven-inch guy with toothpick arms. The pleasure I take in running hard is as strange as, well, the life of a Caribbean banker might be to an academic in the humanities. What's totally reasonable in one sphere looks like wild-eyed lunacy in another. What we mistake for reasonableness is the habit-worn cut and cloth of our own comfortable lives. 

So on a fateful day, last month, in Barbados two worlds collided -- or put better, they missed each other entirely. The race was over as soon as it began. There was actually no race at all. The runner ran and enjoyed himself. He went quickly. The non-runners ran and suffered. They went less quickly. Such is the nature of things.

Afterwards we embraced somewhat awkwardly and posed for a picture. As if we had run together, as if the difference between the reasonable and the strange could be eliminated so easily.

Good guys who had no idea what they were getting into.

This is why competition is so different from domination. Competition is about equality of power, much more than it is about difference. This last weekend I raced at the Music City Distance Carnival. It was another kind of race. I was among my people -- they were everywhere. 

Thin wrists, rippling quads, hungry eyes, gaunt faces, we all milled about the place together, we unique breed of human beings. Most of the runners there were actually much faster than me. But the meet -- like all meets -- was organized according to seed times. People of similar abilities got together and raced. We all knew what to do: we hurtled ourselves around the 400 meter loop until the dark edges crowded in and the legs burned and the lungs heaved and a bell rang. With 200 meters to go, we kicked like devils, honoring the man closest to us by doing our best to beat him.

After the race we stumbled around, caught our breath, and then were happy. Then later, we talked to the others about precious seconds squandered, about moves made and not made, about who beat us and by how many fractions of a minute. At the end of the meet, we ran back and forth across the infield, yelling as a group of ten or so of the best of our breed hurtled around the track. We gasped as Matt Elliott crushed the last 200 of the mile run, grimacing as he cut through the Nashville night on his way to a 3:57. 

We all knew what we had seen.

This was Matt Elliott breaking 4 for the first time, at the Music City Distance Carnival in 2011.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thoreau as Runner: Some thoughts on "Life Without Principle"

Here is the last paragraph of Thoreau's "Life Without Principle." It's a little long -- Thoreau takes his sauntering seriously -- but worth the attention:

Those things which now most engage the attention of men, as politics and the daily routine, are, it is true, vital functions of human society, but should be unconsciously performed, like the corresponding functions of the physical body. They are infra-human, a kind of vegetation. I sometimes awake to a half-consciousness of them going on about me, as a man may become conscious of some of the processes of digestion in a morbid state, and so have the dyspepsia, as it is called. It is as if a thinker submitted himself to be rasped by the great gizzard of creation. Politics is, as it were, the gizzard of society, full of grit and gravel, and the two political parties are its two opposite halves, — sometimes split into quarters, it may be, which grind on each other. Not only individuals, but states, have thus a confirmed dyspepsia, which expresses itself, you can imagine by what sort of eloquence. Thus our life is not altogether a forgetting, but also, alas! to a great extent, a remembering, of that which we should never have been conscious of, certainly not in our waking hours. Why should we not meet, not always as dyspeptics, to tell our bad dreams, but sometimes as eupeptics, to congratulate each other on the ever-glorious morning? I do not make an exorbitant demand, surely.

It is easy for the runner to see the influence of Thoreau's habitual walking (or "sauntering" as he preferred to call it) on his philosophical orientation. I do not want to reduce his philosophy to the fact that he was a walker, but I also do not want to minimize the role that this simple human activity might have taken in developing his philosophy. There is wisdom in regular movement. I'll put it like this: the title of this essay might as easily been "Life Without Walking."

Thoreau's profession was surveying, but he made his living with the less precise great art of  sauntering.

Thoreau never really tells us what his Principle is. He simply notes the absence of principle in so much of living. The absence is noted in a specific effect: namely, too much remembering of the underbrush of life -- politics, routine, gossip. The unprincipled life is the life that lets its consciousness be dominated by things that might be made into unconscious habits. In other words, the unprincipled life is the life that wastes effort on things that ought to require no effort -- and therefore squanders this most precious of human resources.

A life of principle, then, is a life that conserves effort for the things that are worthy of effort. To be principled is not so much to be hardworking or to live one's life according to a rule. To be principled is to recognize the relationship between effort and choice, to deliberate on this relationship, and to take responsibility for it. We often confuse being principled with having a rule for choosing and applying it. But of course rules and values can be applied without any application of intelligence. The difficulty is not in possessing or acquiring a principle or values, but in being principled. These are two different things entirely.

I want to think that this notion of life without principle and the relationship between conscious and unconscious effort came to Thoreau as he was walking. As we runners know, the act of running itself is mostly unconscious. The habitual runner has trained himself to do a thing which would require immense effort and concentration for the non-runner. A ten miler for the well-trained runner is a chance for his mind to wander and reflect, a time for genuine companionship among a select crew, a time for escape from busyness and routine. We do not have to reflect on how to move our legs, on the pace we need to run, or even on the route we take. Such reflection would make the run worse, not better. Many a good run, even the best runs, have slipped underneath my feet without any consciousness at all -- the road simply stretching out, my legs simply churning, my feet lightly falling, my chest gently heaving, my heart beating as always.

It's paradoxical, but true -- the well trained runner can forget his body in ways that the non-runner must remember. Being in shape is a feeling almost like being disembodied. The body runs on its own; we reach the runner's grail: the tireless state, the unconscious body. This is such an exhilarating feeling because the mind is then liberated to float freely above and beyond. Having acquired the unconscious habits of the runner, we are in many ways liberated from the body.

My sense is that Thoreau knows this feeling from his daily walks and uses it as a critical threshold for this, his most concise and direct philosophical statement. A principled life would be one in which we have become well-trained in the underbrush of life such that we can perform the routine tasks of daily life almost unconsciously, saving the precious resource of effort for more noble endeavors. As the well-trained runner lives in his body, using his attention and effort only to keep it on the path and to get it out the door, so would the principled life save its attention and effort for its larger and wider vision, avoiding getting bogged down in the thistles and muck of petty politics.

In many ways the discipline of a principled life is the opposite of the pale shadow that goes by "discipline" in education -- where we teach students that discipline is about the effort of completing the daily assignment. The goal ought to be to produce the sorts of people who can handle the the daily assignment with little effort at all. Then, effort, the stuff of life, can be directed towards more expansive projects, like poetry, philosophy, love -- the things of genuine value.

Such discipline would look almost exactly like the discipline of the well-trained runner, who manages to smile and even laugh at paces that would make the rest shudder. This laughter is the mark of a principled life: not dyspeptic sacrifice but eupeptic joy.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Hard Memory

I want to talk about John Freeman today.

On a horribly beautiful April morning, not unlike this Monday, the top runner and team captain of the cross-country team that I coached was hit by a train and killed. Running had saved his life before he lost it. As a ninth grader, like many, John had been struggling in school. The running helped him with his attention, and it gave him an identity at the school. By his senior year, he was one of the school's best athletes, an honor roll student, and had been accepted to a top university in the Northeast. He was going to try to walk-on the team.

When I heard of the bombing at the Boston marathon, thoughts of John surged up from the deep places.

The memories are too clear. His family invited me to the hospital to say goodbye before they stopped the respirator. I stood there with his mother and his father and thought of how the runner's heart in his chest continued to beat blood through his damaged brain. Running had made me a part of his family. The next summer, the hottest summer I remember, his father and I laid out a XC course through the school. We lined it with flat sandstone that we hauled on a rickety trailer from Crab Orchard. It felt good to work and sweat, but not as good as running with John. This was almost a decade ago.

It's a cliche, but we repeat it anyways: we don't know what we've lost until it's gone. I didn't realize how powerful my connection to John was until my knees buckled when I heard the news. I didn't know how deeply I could be affected by an athlete until I tried to speak about him to the school in the days after his death and found that my voice could not sound.
On Monday afternoon, the running community felt some of the power of our connection. We all shared a common experience: that of the possible loss of our friends. Some of us experienced real loss. Those of us who avoided that real loss on Monday were brought to reflect, as I do now, on other losses that we have experienced.

As I sit here overwhelmed by the reception of the piece I wrote on Monday, its themes come back to me. Vulnerability. Exposure. Pain. Endurance. Love. Risking being open. -- and how those things are the essence of non-violence. One of the things that I love most about running is the feeling of moving with a stripped-down body across open ground. We do feel exposed when we run, and I think that's somehow wrapped up in the freedom we feel when we do it.

Acts of terror exploit this freedom. Their consequences almost always result in the erection of walls, monitors, checkpoints. These are physical reactions to basic human vulnerability and the way it exposes us to risk--and to each other, and therefore unfortunately to the possibility of violence.

The pain I felt when John died was truly awful. By becoming so close to him, by allowing our lives to intertwine, I unwittingly exposed myself to trauma. I don't like to revisit that pain, but sometimes it visits me. When it does, I try to remind myself that this pain is the mark of companionship, even though it doesn't feel like it. Not at all.
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