What About Bob?

testman (2)I’ve had plenty of running rivals over the years. Hundreds, I’d say. Some names I remember. Most I’ve forgotten. A couple names are burned into my memory. Ask a lot of runners, and they’ll tell you that they are their own greatest rival. I get that. It’s about that post-race feeling that today we weren’t able to get out of our own way. But even when we say, “I beat myself today,” we are usually saying so with reference to some external benchmark: the clock, or a rival. How else would we know that we had beaten ourselves? And why would it matter? So until I see my name listed twice in the race results page (dismissing the occasional glitch), I’ll consider that I don’t really count as my rival.

So who are our real rivals? In a race, for 99% of us, 99% of the time, there will always be the runner just in front of us, and the runner just behind us. We paid entry fees to ensure that these rivals would be there. In every race, there are scores, sometimes hundreds, of races within the race. These are the best races because they are each products of a kind of natural selection. Forget waves. By the middle of a race, we know these few competitors actually qualify for this race-within-the-race (based on no wishful thinking, no soft qualifying race run eight months prior) because they’re running right beside us, just in front of us or just behind us. They are running our race, and we are running theirs. We may make the mistake, as I see it, of deeming some such rivals insignificant on the grounds of standard race divisions. She is a she. I am a he. He is young. I am not. We reason that it doesn’t matter what we do in relation to them. This may be true enough with regard to the results page. But it is not true with regard to our psyches. Intellectually, we may be dismissive of the opposite gendered runner on our heels. But viscerally, we know a true rival when we are in the company of one. And besides, what’s the point of making someone invisible, when they’re breathing that hard? Is that any way to honor their effort? (Incidentally, the rival who catalyzed my most transcendent 15 minutes ever in a race, whose name I’ll never forget, was 10 years my senior and always outside my age division.)

Sometimes we will know our rivals’ names. Most times we won’t. It doesn’t matter. This is a case where the psychological tactic called name it to tame it won’t work. Still, let’s call our nameless male rival Bob, both the one behind and in front of us: together, they’re the Bobs (see the film Office Space if you don’t get the Bobs reference). If it’s Bob’s day to best you, knowing his milquetoast name or even calling it out as he passes you, won’t help. But that’s not to say that Bob can’t help you. Whether you or he is aware of it, you just ran 30 seconds faster for the mile during which the hope of beating Bob floated. Of course there’s the possibility that in that burst you ran Bob’s race and not your own, and thus redlined to a degree that will come back to bite you in about 10 minutes. But probably not. Most recreational, mid-pack runners are not fully committed to the game of precision pacing (and may not even know what their perfect pace is); if that is their game, their rival is the urge to go out too fast or the siren song that features the feel good lyrics, “You’re looking strong today. Better ratchet up the pace.” If Bob is jockeying for the spot just ahead of you, he is probably no more than marginally better than you (at least today) and will have benefited in similar fashion in the attempt to overtake you. This synergy is well documented. We’ve seen it play out from Alberto Salazar’s and Dick Beardsley’s storied 1982 Boston Marathon “Duel in the Sun” to the high fives, thank yous and good jobs in the finishing chute banter of the local race.

Psychologists recognize these two types of people: those who are more interested in people and relationships; and those who are more interested in ideas and things. This is seen in racing. Observe the runner who rarely looks up from her sports watch. She is interested in—even obsessed with–the idea of time. Ironically, she has no time for the runners around her. One wonders why she didn’t opt to spend the morning with just a track and her sports watch. The irregularities of courses (especially in this region) will render the clock competitor a vexed soul, lashing out at herself for again failing to make her time on long courses, hilly trails, and winding pathways on which the phrases, “I got my time!” and, “I nailed my pr!” were said by no one, ever.

Competitiveness can be ugly; I needn’t supply examples. It’s true that racing the clock is a way to distance ourselves from all of that. Better, we reason, to proclaim, “I killed it today!” when that it is time, than to proclaim, “I killed Bob today!” But perhaps we might, in more carefully chosen words, gloat of besting a rival who, if he’s a true rival, was under no compulsion to go a bit easy on us by making the goal artificially attainable (comfortably hard as the oxymoronic saying has it). If we fail to give our best against the clock today, it will not feel disappointed in us nor will it experience the hollowness there is in having beat one who gave less than her best effort. We feel defeated, and it feels nothing. At least when we lose to a person, that person gets to feel elated for a bit, especially if they know we’ve turned in an honest effort. Our loss will have been someone’s gain. There’s all the time in the world to race time. The race one is having with Bob at this moment in time is fleeting. A cosmic eye blink. Bob is fleeting. You are fleeting. But at this very moment, the question is, which of you will be the most fleet of foot?

You, Bob and the present moment represent the opportunity for a human interaction that is immediate, primitive and genuine, with no time for the sort of overthinking and rule-book consultation that too often lead us into the superficial, exsanguinated dealings that characterize the most humdrum of our workaday interactions. Instead, trade leads with a fierce rival for the duration of a race-within-a-race, and your heart will literally not soon forget the experience; the two of you will end up blood siblings in a way that requires no open wounds and leaves no visible scars, just the memory of a muscle maxed out. I submit that nowhere else can one engage a perfect stranger so fully without hint of guile or impropriety. Thoreau lamented that, “…the laboring man…cannot sustain the manliest relations to men. He has no time (my emphasis) to be anything but a machine.” Here’s that word time again. And here’s the perfect way to kill it. Enter a race. Maybe even leave your timing device at home. Make a pact with yourself to be the nemesis of whoever is just in front of you, while fending off whoever is just behind you. Don’t worry, they’ll both be there (unless you are an outlier). And whether you beat Bob or not in your race within a race, you don’t want to make the mistake Dr. Marvin makes in the film What About Bob? In other words, do not let Bob follow you home.


Fifty-Seven Channels And Nothing On: The American Fitness Paradox

testman (2)“A message came back from the great beyond: There’s fifty-seven channels and nothing on.” –Bruce Springsteen

As a certified personal fitness trainer and long-distance running coach, I’m more doer than thinker. To me, most exercise-related cogitation is stalling for time. Sciencing one’s fitness is often code for I’m not really doing anything, just thinking about it. Overthinking may be nearer the truth. This article shouldn’t be part of your sciencing; I’d rather you be running, planking or standing on one leg than reading it. Twenty-five years of field experience has led me to think of fitness less as exercise science and more as found object art. Also, there’s an Eastern tradition of keeping a noble silence about things one thinks (or others think) he or she ought to know well enough to impart. If I had you in front of me, I’d literally go to the mat for you and demonstrate how a fitness routine looks to me. This would illustrate, better than my words, how my fitness philosophy differs from the type that currently holds sway over the American fitness landscape. As should already be evident, I’m ignoring my own counsel and writing anyway (in the tradition of every teacher who knows better). This concession I make to the straits we’re in as a nation regarding the general state of our physical (to say nothing of psychological) fitness, a condition recently brought to light (as commentators like Real Time host Bill Maher have rousingly pointed out) by the disproportionally heavy toll of the Coronavirus on an already under-healthy American population.

There’s something rotten in the state of American fitness. For anyone who wants fitness (and who doesn’t?), there are more channels for it than ever before: big and small box gyms, bootcamps, yoga studios, HIIT, fitness boutiques, fun runs, and the scores of YouTube and TikTok workouts that were released while we last ate breakfast. To list even a fraction of what’s on offer by name is to waste time drawing attention to branches when the trunk and roots are what we ought to be looking at. For as much as the latest drummed up fitness offering wants us to think it’s a new thing under the sun, it’s almost surely a recombining of rebranded modalities conforming to worn ideologies, a particular foliating branch of the tree under whose outspreading shade no new thing—or any other thing—can take root. Meanwhile—and here’s the rot–just down the proverbial road one encounters rising rates of obesity, metabolic syndrome, COPD, Type 2 Diabetes, and degenerative joint disease, collectively straining our healthcare and eldercare systems (the cynic in me thinks this strain might be institutional, leaving the demand for care artificially high).

As a rule, there’s more of everything in present-day America than anywhere else, than any-when else. What might be observed of the U.S. in general is no less true for its health and wellness scene: we’re a body politic of obscene plentitude juxtaposed with head-scratching poverty, and the rot is evident in whichever of our extremities comes under investigation. The net product is that average life expectancy, rising steadily for the past century in America, has flatlined, and is, by some predictive models, approaching decline, as obesity rates undercut gains in other areas. According to a dialog between biochemical gerontologist Aubrey DeGray and Dr. Rhonda Patrick of the Found My Fitness podcast, America sits at a disappointing 45th on the longevity tables, five years of average life expectancy behind world-leading Japan. We’re right to find this ludicrous, given the ubiquity of fitness outlets, the sheer outlay of funds in play. It’s the absurdity of starving at an all-you-can-eat buffet. “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” a poet once ironized over the counterintuitive realities of sailors perishing of thirst while afloat on an ocean of liquid water. To commit further to the analogy, there’s something saliferous about our present fitness fare.

We salivate for supersized meals. And supersized workouts. Marketed poison. Pitched purgation. Our diets aren’t sustainable. Neither are our workouts. Moderation is for wafflers and weaklings. We’re all-in foodies. And all-in, gut-busting, Tough Mudders. We’re extremophiles. We’re both sides of the same flipped coin; on any given day it’s anybody’s guess which side we’ll land on. We’re driven to excesses in consumption through emotional dysregulation: anxiety, depression. We’re lured by manipulative ads aimed at undercutting our impulse control. We’re driven to excesses in exercise by feelings of guilt and shame and worthlessness, and ad copy that parleys our inner turmoil into some fitness industry mogul’s gain. Workouts that leave us weak and sore for days lead to gorge-fests and play into the indulgence-feeding mantra that, “we’ve earned it,” a classic marketing ruse aimed at our psyche’s soft underbelly. We flee one form of gluttony and barrel full steam toward another on a hamster wheel whose axel is American Civilization itself. Our turning of the dynamo creates heat energy for two industries. Our bloat and our sweat are the engines, and we’re redlining.

There’s a word for it all. Madness isn’t the one I’ve got in mind, as apropos as that is. Bulimia is the word: a neurosis characterized by binge/purge dichotomous behavior.

Of course, the complete picture is more multifold and nuanced than finite words can relate. There’s the sedentariness of our jobs, and of our computer and TV time. There’s our modern age of anxiety, which keeps us humming for decades at a cellularly damaging frequency, our sympathetic nervous systems on perpetual orange alert. There’s the question of not just how much food we’re consuming but of its nutrient value and purity. And that’s just the beginning.

To notice the wheel is one thing. To work up a plan to stop its turning is another. Peddlers of American fitness culture won’t fancy the plan I’d put into place if it were up to me (not that they’ll care what a single dissenting voice has to say).

Preliminary to change, American culture will need to get on friendlier terms with what’s come to be the longest four-letter word in our vocabulary: moderation.

When did we begin to stigmatize moderation? Sociologically speaking, the revulsion to moderation may be a peristaltic reaction to the notion of a homogenized American life of anodyne conversation, kid-gloved sterilization (pervading our relationships and institutions), sell-out jobs, cookie-cutter abodes, and conformist patterns of consumption, and to the ennui that too frequently attends the suburban life. It turns out that it’s not, to riff on William Blake, such “an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity.” Consider the pathologically extreme reaction to the humdrum unexamined life as characterized by the 1998 cult classic film Fight Club. Soft, emasculated, milquetoast, the Narrator finds religious awakening in parking lot and cellar brawls that bring him face to face with a primal self, Tyler Durden. If the violence is nauseating, it’s no more sickening than the soporific daily rounds it seeks to annihilate. But does it really annihilate? Or does it merely give the wheel another turn? Doing the opposite of what is expected is still acting (albeit contrarily) on what is expected. If we are paying attention, we find that even our paths to “rebellion” are carefully prescribed. A billboard slogan entreats us to, “Go big or go home.” We hear and obey the bugle call of the weekend warrior. In the fitting words of Pink Floyd’s Welcome to The Machine: “What did you dream? It’s alright, we told you what to dream.” Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden is an overcorrection of Ed Norton’s Narrator, a photographic negative, just as gym rat Joe Rectus Abdominus is a compensatory avatar for noshing, dad-bodied Joe Six Pack. Both alter ego dyads are best represented by the Ouroboros, the serpent swallowing and simultaneously withdrawing its own tail in one interminable slithering round.

The ban on moderation is based on mistaken identity. The usual American suspects, the glut of rich food, alcoholic beverages, and prescription/recreational drugs, for example, do not belong to the lifeway prescribed by staid Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume in his essay, Of the Middle Station of Life, or, to quote Twentieth Century Zen popularizer Alan Watts, “The middle between the extremes of ascetic discipline and pleasure seeking.” We’ve confused routine with moderation. What we are is routinely decadent. It’s not less moderation we want, but less profligacy. Adding decadent workouts to an already rich lineup will never give us what we want most: distance from decadence.

Journalist Dan Buettner, describing the habits of the world’s longest-lived populations with the lengthiest health-spans, characterizes them as having no canonized conception of diet and fitness routines, but rather as the inheritors of lifestyles that are naturally replete with what we recognize as our own coveted best health practices. It’s naïve to think we can, in our modern urban and suburban context, easily appropriate peasant diets, farming/ranching work, and perambulations as our sole means of transit. But to believe, as a false alternative, that speed-eating the standard American diet (SAD) and sweating it out in climate controlled, artificially lit, sonically saturated gyms is our irrefusable cultural inheritance, is worse yet. What we require instead is a common-sense balance of modern and primitive, and an ever-present and easy-to-flip toggle switch between them.

Leaving alone the particulars of a primitivistic diet (as I’m not a certified nutritionist), I suggest we realign our notions about exercise around a few pre-modern concepts.

The first of these concepts is time-independence. The opposing idea, that there’s an ideal time and duration for exercise, must be jettisoned if we’re to break the wheel. Perhaps the worst thing to ever happen to exercise was our squeezing it into blocks of time ranging from, say, 15 minutes to an hour. Animals don’t take their exercise in intervals divisible by 15 minutes, and neither did our premodern ancestors. The practice of scheduling exercise is a modern human luxury. There’s nothing special about the use of a block of time. In fact, assigning exercise an arbitrary minimum duration for effectiveness combined with all-or-nothing thinking leads to excuse generation (e.g., I didn’t have the time, life got in the way).

The next concept is place-independence. Wherever you go, that’s where you are. That’s one of those “deepities” that doesn’t sound like it’s saying anything. Yet in this context, it’s saying everything. All you need is you. Oh, and one more thing: gravity. You and gravity, both of which are everywhere you go. “I couldn’t get to the gym,” is an excuse to which our pre-modern ancestors had no recourse. And neither should we. Nature is the most salubrious place to exercise. But even home and workplace can be handy “gyms” involving neither a commute nor monthly membership fees (pre-modern fitness was undoubtedly more egalitarian than the fitness boutique brand in ascendence).

A third concept is equipment-independence. Unless you consider a mat and running shoes equipment (and even these are negotiables), no kit is needed to get into top physical condition. Of course, manufacturers and distributors of barbells, squat racks and exercise machines, some of which can be purchased by gyms or private consumers for tens of thousands of dollars, have a vested interest in convincing us otherwise. Even minimal equipment such as exercise bands can be misplaced or forgotten, leading again to excuse generation. There’s no forgetting you and gravity. Of course, benches, ledges, poles, trees, and playground equipment are all fair game where available; remember, this is found object art.

Taken together with moderation, these three degrees of fitness freedom (i.e., time, place and equipment-independence) constitute that on-the-spot toggle switch I mentioned previously. To keep the switch well-oiled, I suggest routinely outfitting oneself in clothes conducive to exercise at the drop of a hat.

Modern American culture (Western industrial culture in general) makes mechanistic use of human beings as cogs and levers in building and maintaining its physical and social structures. Shearing forces that stress us as useful parts, have the effect of heating and grinding us down. We reach for fattening foods, recreational/prescription drugs, and alcohol to lower the temperature (except they don’t, really). Gyms and popular fitness programs are fractalated forms of modern American culture, again using humans as cogs and levers. We provide the energy that moves the stacks. Are we in service to big fitness? Or to our own bodies and minds? Does the wheel turn us? Or do we turn the wheel? Seize the wheel, and the question is moot.

Why We Need Running Now More Than Ever

testman (2)It doesn’t take the words of an evolutionary biologist to put us in mind of running’s central role in human evolution. I like how ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes says it in the telling of a race misadventure, “You don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the person next to you.” Survival of the, um, fitter than the next guy, I guess.

Except that’s far from the whole story; and not even its best part. Setting aside the devil take the hindmost attitude, running is, by and large, pro-social. Running raises all boats. If the metaphor sounds mixed, we’d do well to remember that many large races are run in waves. This isn’t just to keep order but also to promote an uplifting synergism among participants whose natural rhythms are easily synched. When picturing the action of a wave crossing a body of water, it’s meaningless to think in terms of individual drops of water. When we take the 10,000-foot view, the individual runner loses delineation; she and her fellow runners together form, say, the 7:30 per mile pace wave, rushing like human water along Main Streets, footpaths and single-track mountain trails.

Catch the right wave, and a runner may PR by a minute or more in a 10K race. “There is,” Shakespeare reveled, ”a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Don’t we runners know it!

But let’s return to the 10,000-foot view, where drop and wave, racer and race wave are perceived as one, without differentiation. A racer doesn’t literally have the 10,000-foot view, of course; his eyes are fixed on the runner ahead of him. But what about the 10,000-foot sense? A racer in the zone, a racer transcending, has it for sure. Who knew the runner’s high was a 10,000-foot high?

We run best with others, that’s a fact. Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge used professional pacers to bust through the 2-hour barrier. The winner of your last race had pacers too: every racer who showed up, you included.

Think you couldn’t possibly have paced the winner of your last race, a person who finished so far ahead of you that you never saw her? Did the stadium wave that originated in the nosebleed stands help rally the team of professional athletes to victory? Of course it did! You pushed the racer in front of you, who pushed the racer in front of him, and on and on, through tens or hundreds, up to the first finisher. And here’s something just as good: it worked the other way round, pulling runners up from the rear. A Pushmi-Pullyu with hundreds or thousands of feet pointing toward the finish. Many feet make light work, as the saying goes—or almost goes.

Every racer knows that the worst place to be on race day is “no man’s land,” without hope of catching or being caught. It’s like the doldrums to a sailor: windless, current-less, endless. When one is in the right race wave, one is always in good company.

If you’re thinking that this all sounds great, it gets even better. Running doesn’t just raise all boats, you see; it pulls them together. Yours with mine; yachts with junks; Lusitanias with U-20s: all rafted together and riding the Gulf Stream as one community. None are lost at sea.

In her book, Move, British science journalist Caroline Williams describes the phenomenon like this: “When we move in time with others … the line between self and other becomes blurred.” She goes on to suggest that moving with others, “could also provide a way of bringing people together who, on the surface of it, have very little in common, or have totally opposite world views.” Former US presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, though politically disparate, shared a genuine interest in recreational running. Every veteran runner has shared a mile or ten in the welcome company of another with whom, in the miasmatic air of internet anonymity, he or she might have shared a far less positive interaction. We are reminded of Chinese philosopher and general Sun Tsu’s 2,500-year-old words of advice: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Invite them all to your running group, I say! (Which brings me to an important point. Everything that applies to racing, applies to group running. And running in groups is safer, too.)

Dean Karnazes observed at the start of his latest Western States 100: “We were no longer accountants, teachers, and businessmen: orderly life was about to be abandoned. In a few short moments we would be stepping into the wild and becoming our untamed selves.” Run with an emperor, and his new clothes are a pair of shorts and a T shirt, just like your own. As for his shorts, he will have put on one leg at a time. The next best thing to walking a mile in another’s shoes, might be running in time with them.

American historian William McNeill, writing about his experience with repetitive marching drills in the U.S. Army in 1941, recalled their having provided him with, “a sense of pervasive well-being…a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.” He would go on to name this phenomenon, “muscular bonding,” and explain how, to quote social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “it was a mechanism that evolved long before the beginning of recorded history for shutting down the self and creating a temporary superorganism.” You mean like a Pushmi-Pullyu?

In cynical times it’s tempting to withdraw into the loner’s sanctuary we all know running can be, or to use running to make sure ours isn’t the hide the “bear” sinks its teeth into. (Think of Zombieland‘s rule #1: Cardio.) But now more than ever, we must resist such impulses and instead join running groups and register for races, remembering poet William Butler Yeats’s words as we do: “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”

Streaking Through The Quarantine

testman (2)First, please pause for this important public service announcement: nowhere in the following article am I suggesting that anyone sick with Covid-19 run or forego professional medical treatment. To the contrary, if that’s you, please ration your immunological resources, and go see a doctor. 

“You are my rock in times of trouble,” begins an old gospel song. For those who insist I’ve got to have a religion, especially nowadays, I guess running four to five miles every day is it. Personally, I’ve always thought of it more as my healthcare. And since gospel songs put me in the mood for confessions, I’ll make a few. For most of my adult life, I haven’t carried traditional health insurance, the Affordable Care Act, and its tax penalty notwithstanding. And when, at some employer’s behest, I have carried it, I haven’t used it, not even for elective procedures. I’ve preferred instead to take health matters into my own, um, shoes.

Ok, maybe preferred is misleading, making it sound as if I came into adulthood with a well-considered philosophy regarding my physical and psychological wellbeing (although as a college freshman, I did profit from the mentorship of a 65-year-old bicycle-commuting wellness instructor and longevity enthusiast). Friedrich Nietzsche once claimed that all philosophy is a form of unconscious autobiography. My own memoirs, had I thought to write any, would show that I frequently had no choice in matters of being insured; when I wasn’t a poor college student barely getting by with waiting tables, I was being left behind by corporate relocations, trudging through the slough of underemployment, or, to quote Pulp Fiction philosopher Jules Winnfield, “Walking the earth…like Caine in Kung Fu.” There were plentiful years here and there, yes, and lean years, plenty of lean years. This portrait of the runner as a young man, if we are being honest, could be the new American Gothic. Rather than preferring to provide my own healthcare, I simply had to, such was the extent of my precarity (yes, that’s a word, one that has, unfortunately, come into more regular use of late). Somewhere in my forties, I began to think that my apparent disadvantage might actually have been, and might continue to be, an advantage. Today, I’m quite certain it was and is.

By all accounts, my brand of healthcare has served me rather well. In my mid-fifties, I enjoy the physical health of someone in his thirties, neither reliant on nor even passingly familiar with the pharmaceuticals, screenings, and procedures that are synonymous with the American healthcare system. Of course, all forms of prosperity owe a lot to good fortune, and I’d be remiss not to mention the role luck has played in my bid to keep the doctor away. Also, with regard to my psychological wellbeing, it’s no secret I’ve relied on running as an anti-depressant for the past twenty years. Maybe my Covid-19 quarantine streak is just me adjusting my meds.

Rather than use the remaining paragraphs to rail against an already embattled American healthcare system, which I leave to work out its own problems (hoping it will), I’ll share a few thoughts about my own road (less traveled but laid down in well-worn ruts by more self-reliant generations), with an emphasis on the present stretch through the hot zone. Mind you, I’m not recommending my free-wheeling healthcare plan to any in particular, but for those who feel themselves outside the system either without choice or by philosophical inclination, I’m here to say that we can take our marginalization standing up (and leaning slightly forward in keeping with the tenets of good running form). This is no different than Thoreau’s attitude concerning his prescriptions on do-it-yourself living in Walden: “I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.” Ok, for mercy’s sake, please don’t try to run in a coat; winter is over.

In the new world order being dictated by the Covid-19 pandemic, running has never looked better, even if I’m told it may temporarily elevate one’s body temperature to as high as 103 degrees (the good kind of fever). Not only is it quarantine-friendly, it may be the only thing keeping me friendly in quarantine. One of the best things about running is that one can’t run out of it. Because it issues from a self-renewing local source, it relies on no supply chain to see it to market. If one must ration running at all, it is only in deference to how much of a good thing one can take all at once.

Since my healthcare has never been tied to my employment, I needn’t lose sleep for fear of losing both in one fell swoop. If anything, I should hope, in the event of being furloughed, to see even more from my benefits package. Though I see my “physician” and “psychotherapist” daily as it is, I wouldn’t balk at lengthier visits, at least not on the grounds of a heightened transmission risk. Since neither practitioner has ever hung out their shingle in a locale so well-trafficked as a healthcare plaza, I needn’t approach them with any new set of guidelines in view. When visiting them in the past, I had, it now occurs to me, always practiced social distancing, though I never had a name for it. From their waiting rooms (trailheads and doorsteps) I was always called straight away and never had to busy myself with the Readers Digest. My insurance card was my road ID (when I remembered to bring it), though none ever asked to see it. If ever I developed a sore patellar or Achilles’ tendon, I had only to see the doctor a bit less (instead of being referred to a physical therapist) to make it go away. There are times when, “just what the doctor ordered,” might be a bit less of what the doctor ordered. As to costs, only occasionally would my healthcare practitioners send a bill through the snail mail that is the gradual accumulation of aches signaling the end of a running shoe’s life.

As for actual MDs, I was once asked, twenty years ago, to consult my doctor before beginning an exercise program, the one I’m still on today. This vexed me a little until I remembered that grandmaster runner and bestselling fitness author George Sheehan was also a cardiologist. From that point on, Dr. Sheehan was my doctor, though there was nothing the matter with my heart. And there’s still nothing wrong with my heart; excellent work for a doctor who passed in 1993.

We can easily imagine runners putting cardiologists out of work. But epidemiologists?

If a five-hundred-headed, mouth-breathing mob squeezing into the funnel of a finishing chute, or crammed, post-race, cheek by jowl, ogling pages of printed results doesn’t give them nightmares, I can’t think of what will. It’s time they woke up to reality, virtual reality, that is. Races are now virtual events, bringing back the honor system and the practice of “showing up” in whatever the heck you feel like wearing or not wearing (wait, that’s the same as it always was). Not that racing and running have to be the same thing. Like religion, running can be as social or as solitary a practice as one wants it to be; the same cannot be said of a hospital visit. Alone or with company, being outdoors in the sun and the pine-infused air is the Eucharist of my running experience. If the treadmill is your bliss, good for you. Shelter-in-place and run-in-place is just too much in-place for me. Among the very best recommendations for running is that it has, as has been said of Buddhism especially, portable sanctity. Apropos of this brave new world of ours, portable is good. The runner does not shudder at shuttered establishments. No gym? No clubhouse fitness room? No sweat. There is no hastily-drawn statement taped to the inside of a glass door to thwart an hour meeting with the road or the trail.

To the usual hecklers of my running, I now have some answers. You’re right, I don’t have a social life (CDC guidelines are my excuse). Yes, I am running from something: the house. I’m not saying I wouldn’t love some company, though. But if I see you out there, know this: I’m not trying to goad you into running faster. I’m just trying to stay six feet ahead of you.

Child’s Play

testman (2)I missed my calling. Or, you might say I never found a way to parley a childhood avocation into a vocation. And no, I’m not talking about my interest in running–not yet, anyway. As a child, I had a thing—a big thing—for geography, cartography and exploration. On every family trip, I played, from the earliest age, the role of navigator, sometimes taking advantage of my uncontested position and my parents’ distractedness to recommend the “scenic route” as a secret means of slaking my thirst for adventure. “Aren’t we there yet?” was a question frequently put to me, turning the usual order of things on its head. In the days before the GPS, I was a global positioning ragamuffin.

The title to the next chapter of this narrative might sound familiar: “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” Aside from a few college courses in geography, I followed the advice that Jim Carey’s character in the Truman Show would not: “I’m afraid no one’s going to pay you to [be an explorer], Truman. You might have to find something a little more practical. Besides, you’re too late. There’s really nothing left to explore.”

Except that there is something left to explore. Plenty of somethings, in fact. And some age-regressed part of me never needed to be reminded of it. What I needed was an excuse to liberate my wanderlust, a way to tie it to some more practical pursuit. That came at 35, with another awakening. Was it a sublimated desire to blaze trails that led me to running? Or was it a happy coincidence that running paired so perfectly with my fondness for the expeditioner’s art? I suppose it doesn’t matter. What matters is that, once again, running was there to show the way. Not that I realized my good fortune immediately. In the beginning I was too concerned with the workings of my changing body to take much notice of where I was. There was also a new social landscape—the running culture–to map and to navigate. It’s probably no coincidence that at about the time I had, by frequent expeditions (or races, as we runners know them) mapped my own physical frontiers, I began to give into the urge to scratch a new–and at the same time old–itch. This came a few years into my running journey. At first timidly, I began increasingly to yield to my impulse to run beyond my usual neighborhood routes or the nearest high school track. At about this time, I was goaded on by two further developments: firstly, a move from the Denver suburbs of my youth to the ponderosa pine/scrub oak-studded foothills of Northern El Paso County; and secondly, the widespread availability of GPS sports watches, making it possible to measure runs on “trails” that often appeared on no map.

But it would still be years before I would consider myself a bona fidetrail runner, logging the majority of my miles over challenging and sparsely-trafficked terrain. This shift didn’t come without growing pains. I had to survive many embarrassing faceplants (mostly before the eyes of my dog and no one else) before learning to lift my feet high enough to clear rocks and exposed tree roots. I had to plummet headlong into stands of eye-impaling scrub oak (when sunglasses become safety goggles) before establishing proper boundaries against gravity’s seductive wiles. Scree and ice were foils for all seasons. And I had to get lost in the gloaming a few times while I scraped the rust off my boyhood knack for orienteering. Then there was the matter of outfitting and planning. In terms of challenge, the shift from road running to trail running represented an additional dimension. Like the character A Square in the geometry primer/novella Flatland, I was learning to think in three dimensions. But unlike the heretical A Square, I was in good company. Trail running and trail racing was experiencing its own vertiginous ascent, gaining, by frequent media exposure, a heady popularity. And why not? Sure it’s a little riskier than two-dimensional running. There are wild animals (yes, I have seen a mountain lion), ankle-twisting hazards, and the prospect of cloud-bursts without a sheltering eve in sight. But if ever there were a master key to a hundred secret gardens, it is the trail that one is running for the first time.  And in the likely event that that trail should come to a fork, odds are good that the tine one takes will return eventually as the tine one didn’t take, occasioning on this day no Robert Frost-like regret over one’s not taking both.

Running is sometimes touted as the “Fountain of Youth.” Five hundred years after the legend of Ponce De Leon, we understand that, to varying degrees, all such platitudinous claims are suspect. We may run faster than anyone our age has a right to run, but that’s about it. Or is it? Simply put, scientific studies repeatedly demonstrate that runners enjoy lower mortality rates, and slower rates of age-related brain shrinkage than non-runners. Reared on the lofty promises of tall tales (the infomercials of his day), Ponce would probably be underwhelmed by the understated findings of modern gerontology. But we runners know a good (and true) thing when we see it. Still, the scientific literature isn’t telling the whole story. Which is why I brought up my own.

We are likely to be reminded of running’s payouts every time our doctor gives us the good news. But it is running’s intangible assets by which we should be most heartened. As we age, our culture is very good—too good, in fact–at reminding us of our dwindling bone density, range of motion, testosterone and muscle mass. What it is not so good at drawing attention to is the shrinking sense of wonder that is apt (for cultural more than natural reasons, I think) to beset us in middle age, inclining us to pass, for the rest of our earthly tenure, on paths less traveled. Running flies in the face of all of this ill wind. What is running, if not child’s play? And why do children love to run? Because they can, of course. But also to get to wherever it is they are going that much faster. And why should they want to do that? To get to the next “wherever” faster. And so it goes. These frenetic and at the same time formless perambulations are, literally, embodiments of the sense of wonder.

As ageing runners we are at our best in those stretches when we lose track of the “why” of the thing, and are aware only of the “where” of it. Running a trail for the first time just to see where it goes (let that sink in) is—aside from running for one’s life–the purest form of running. That makes it the purest form of enjoyable running, anyway. In such moods, we might yet “see” cloud animals swimming, lumbering or slithering along our blue zodiac. Or the profiles of our folk heroes in the rocks we pass with a sidelong glance. These, to say nothing of the treefolk, are a trailrunner’s imaginary friends. Hours later we might, if we like, analyze our run’s data downloaded from our TomToms. We might also trace our steps on a topographical map. These activities too are child’s play, come to think of it. To enter the magical realms of Narnia one passed through a secret door in a wardrobe, but only if one were sufficiently young. Running is no less a door to youthful adventure, on whose threshold ageism holds no sway.

The Pokemon Go phenomenon (which already has that “so last year” feel) is aimed at having us play our way to fitness. Except that it is superfluous. Who would follow an anime critter, when there are real ones to see? For my part, I’ll follow my dog to fitness–and if he happens to be giving chase to a rabbit or a deer, so much the better.

The man or woman who grows up without growing old is an accomplished funambulist–a master of the sociogerontological tight rope. The perfect balance between age-appropriate maturity and a childlike joie de vivre leads to graceful aging. Who says one has to walk that tightrope? See you on the other side.

Try, Try A Zen

testman (2)Running is a monastery. That’s what fitness philosopher George Sheehan called it. He didn’t say what kind it ought to be, leaving each runner to build it in the style that speaks loudest to him or her. For many committed runners that’s going to be the thing that’s farthest away. For Western runners seeking guidance to the next level, once we’ve listened to the hallow ring of every contradicting set of directions in every local dialect, the East calls in a tongue that doesn’t give us tinnitus. We don’t know what the words mean. All the better; this makes for the sweetest interpretations. “Be a better runner. Go East.” That’s the gist of it. I heard the voice over twenty-three thousand miles ago. Before running, I knew nothing of Zen. Then came the books, the video courses and documentaries, the guided meditations, and podcasts by the score. 

Twenty-three thousand miles ago! Probably more. Or approximately two thousand fewer miles than are measured in the Earth’s equator. That’s twenty-one years of running. Twenty-one years of studying Zen. Twenty-one years of mashing up the two. So, what’s the good news? What profound truths have I grasped along the way? Let me tell you all about it. Better yet, I’ll let Bodhidharma, Buddhism’s first Chinese master, tell it; he does it better. Asked by the Emperor Wu to hold forth about the merits of the Zen stuff he’d been teaching, he answered that it was, “All Emptiness. Nothing Holy.” Talk about a nothingburger! 

So what had I been thinking? China isn’t Kenya. Japan isn’t Ethiopia. Even the Copper Canyons (where the Tarahumara sometimes run 50 miles a day) are in the Western hemisphere. I know Zen monks walk a lot, but do they even run? I was just another Westerner looking for an Eastern hack, a shortcut to take my running to the next level (so that after reveling for a minute in the joy of my arrival, I might begin to pine for the next level beyond that). 

Here’s how it usually goes when a Western runner gets the Zen itch. We Google a few articles (21 years ago, we found books and magazines at a bookstore) that insist on smooshing modern Western performance running and the ancient practice of Zen together in a box, never mind that they’re very different animals. “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should,” was Ian Malcom’s warning minutes before the mashup of old and new that was Jurassic Park went off the rails. Next, armed with a few pithy Zen or Taoist quotes, and the thought that we ought to be in the moment and more mindful (whatever those things mean) we set off, like modern Marco Polos, along the Silk Road. We ditch the sports watch, forego the streamed music, soften the inner voice telling us to pick it up. We try to rise earlier. Try to get into the right headspace. Try to take our breakfast lighter and dress ourselves more deliberately. We try to transform our pre-run ritual into the perfect tea ceremony. When we finally get around to running, we try with all speed to get into the zone. We do what most Westerners do when we mean to get more Zen about anything: we TRY. And there’s the rub. Any deep dive into Zen reveals that if there’s one thing that kills Zen where it stands, it’s trying. Zen is nothing if not natural. Without affectation. Without self-consciousness.

Once we Westerners learn that trying isn’t Zen, what’s the next thing we do? We try not to try. We can’t help ourselves. It gets worse. If we’re dead set on getting Zen, we try not to try not to try. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, a-Zen! With each new effortwe dig a bigger hole that, however deep, is never coming out in China. By the time we get hip to our futility, we’re exhausted. The way we Westerners go about Zen, it becomes just anotheralbeit, more exotic—way for us to get in our own way.

So, if trying is toxic to Zen, can there be no Zen in our running? Are we Westerners stuck on the cosmic treadmill of becoming, going round and round forever but never arriving? The news isn’t good. If we’re trying for Zen, we’ll find none. Period. But the news isn’t all bad either. Discouraged by the paradox of trying to be Zen, we move on and forget about Zen altogether. That’s the most Zen thing we can do. It’s often quoted, by Zen writers, that, “Our everyday mind is our Zen mind.” It follows then that our everyday run is our Zen run. But again, we must forget the Zen part. There are countless Zen phrases to make this point; some strike us Westerners as sacrilegious, blasphemous. “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” is one. We do well to forget we ever heard the word. Zen is a kind of scrub brush that once it’s scrubbed the mind clean must be tossed in the waste basket; the practitioner who continues to cling to the brush is said to, “stink of Zen.” (As if we runners didn’t already worry enough about stinking.) Indeed, a Zen Buddhist’s attitude to his “holy books” is best summarized by the Western expression, “burn after reading.” Remember, nothing holy, not in the words, not in the teachings. It’s considered a dirty business that the natural life energy described by the word Zen should ever need to be translated into words, concepts or, especially, a method. The problem isn’t with the content of any one set of directions, Western or Eastern. The problem is with directions.

We are never more (that word we must forget) than when, caught off guard by a fast-breaking thunderstorm, we are running to the shelter of our home or car. Do words like composure or relaxation come to mind when describing such moments? Certainly not, and this underscores another misapprehension of Zen (ok, we’ll try to forget the word after this article). Rather than meeting every challenge in life with blissed-out composure, responding to life’s slings and arrows in the most automatic and appropriate way (right action) is the essence of Zen. Our bodies carry the code of right action; it kicks in every time our sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Here’s how it works in a thunderstorm. We’re running. We see lightning. We hear thunder. We feel the wind bite. We know our car is safe. We make a run for it. Minutes later we press unlock on our key fob. We hear the affirming click. Safe in our car, the tension drains from our body, and we are a laughing Buddha. East or West, home’s best. 

Our GPS watch records that we ran a six-minute mile pace fleeing the storm. We haven’t run that fast in years; we were sure we were no longer capable of it. How’d we do it? We weren’t trying to hit any kind of time; we didn’t once look at our watch. We didn’t check our running form. We didn’t count our steps for cadence. And we didn’t think of Zen. “Superior work,” the Western ambassador of Zen, Alan Watts, tells us, “has the quality of an accident.” The pace we ran—and the lack of conscious effort required to do it—with the lightning flashing all around us is the way we’d like Zen to work for us, whenever we ask it to. Except we can’t ask it. Zen is the lightning that can’t be bottled.

The fewer metathoughts (thoughts about thoughts) we have, the more Zen we are. Fretting about how badly we’re relaxing and how we ought to do better in the future is Zen’s opposite. Fretting about fretting is worse still. Being grumpy over an uncomfortable stretch in a run is realistic, and natural. Rough spots come and go. Being even grumpier because we got grumpy in the first place is a burdensome overlay, a brain state that may persist even after our body has begun feeling better. Thinking consumes energy in the form of calories, something we need to fuel our running muscles. Negative self-talk is, literally, a brain drain; it’s nothing less than carrying on a hot argument while running. This is all bioenergetic, homeostatic ballast we should cast overboard. Summed up in running coach Matt Fitzgerald’s Western drawl, “The more you think about something while you do it, the less efficiently you do it.” 

Western runners and Eastern Zen monastics have more in common than we at first realize. Our learning curves are not unalike. We are wisest at both the outset and, if we stay with it long enough, nearer the terminus of our careers. In the words of Zen Master Dogen, “Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.” The runner’s journey begins with his doing nothing more complicated than putting one foot in front of the other. Then comes all the trying, the years and decades of trying: training programs, performance diets, minimalist and maximalist footwear, biomechanical tweaks, you name it. Then, if he isn’t put off by all the trying, he returns, with a kind of Taoist resignation, to putting one foot in front of the other. Except that now there’s a difference. What Dogen didn’t say about enlightenment, Zen author D.T. Suzuki did: “It’s just like ordinary everyday experience but about two inches off the ground.” Does this elevated feeling translate to faster running? It might. But let’s be honest. It usually doesn’t. That’s not the point. As ultra-running popularizer and notoriously joyful runner Dean Karnazes points out in a 2021 Trail Runner Nation podcast, the best runner is not necessarily the fastest runner, but she is necessarily the happiest. The contentment is the two inches off the ground. But if we insist on calling it Zen,the bubble is burst, and we fall back to earth.

This isn’t to say that all the try sandwiched between the happy was wasted effort. If there was anything to be gained by it, best believe our bodyever on the lookout for the most efficient way—osmosed the lesson. “Once [the brain] learns something, it knows,” says Dr. Joe Uhan of Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon. Just as our body knows to breath, circulate blood and digest food without our conscious intervention, it figures how best to run while our conscious mind is off doing its thing and just letting us run. Once our muscle memory adopts a pattern it finds useful, further retention of it in our conscious memory isn’t just redundant but increases the probability that a destructive interference pattern will arise. This gives deeper meaning to a quote attributed to Ingrid Bergman: “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.” So, the next time a master of anything claims to have forgotten more than you’ll ever know, consider that they may have just given away their most precious secret.

The Dark Night of the Sole

I went, none seeing me/Forth from my house, where all things quiet be

So runs a few lines of St. John of the Cross’s poem, “The Dark Night,” out of which arose the expression on which I now riff: “The dark night of the soul.” Where it comes to the dark night, and especially to running in it, I confess that most of my musings have been less poetic, and more profane. For years I loathed lacing up in the dark, whether that dark preceded dawn or followed dusk. But why? Was it because the night is “dark and full of terrors,” as screen characters who have known their share of murk and horror remind us? Thoreau muses, rightly, I think, that, “men are generally still a little afraid of the dark.” There is in many of us something visceral and primal, an intuition, that dims our view of the unilluminated hours. In fact, my earliest introduction to running was from the darkness that descended on basement rooms whose pull-string fixtures were situated 25 feet and a flight of stairs from the safe zone of the nearest 60-watt bulb. From what my child-self ran, I cannot say. From what I run today, in darkness and in light, I still cannot say (though my ad hoc reasons are constructed with more sophistication now). That there is something connecting the two, I have no reason to doubt.

But fear of the night is not to be counted among my reasons for, “raging against the dying of the light.” (Really, it isn’t.) Simply, it is in winter that I need most to run in the dark (when the hours of civil daylight are anything but). And winter nights are cold: a thing I have disliked more than, well, the dark. Beneath the stars, 35 degrees feels somehow more frigid than 20 degrees in sunlight, though I suspect the difference has more to do with psychology than either physiology or meteorology. As for terrors, I at least feared no nocturnal predators; my neighborhood had been cleared of them a century ago, save for the coyote or fox (eyes ablaze in the hi beams of passing cars) whose skulking presence grows scarcer by the year. Additionally, in this age of high alert, I had no fear of my fellow man’s malevolence, up to nothing more menacing (as far as I could ever tell) than wheeling his recycling bins to the curb. And speaking of curbs, that brings me to the actual crux of the matter: tripping (with no connection to the light fantastic). Think now of sidewalk partitions that put one in mind of plate tectonics, potholes as matte as the lacunae between stars, rogue sprinkler heads locked in the upright position, dismasted rebar and wooden landscaping stakes, stones strewn like caltrops. Talk about running the gauntlet! Ranking just behind these nemeses is the vista-wide blind spot into which we runners fall with respect to the evening or early-morning motorist, famished from his day labors or not yet having mustered her workaday wherewithal.

And in case it be supposed that the author hasn’t the good sense to outfit himself with a light, of which the modern world offers many varieties that are not your father’s flashlight, well, this brings me to all that is good and wholesome about night running, and especially running sans illumination: Man is a visual animal, sometimes to his detriment. It is a stock cliché of film that a blind master of the martial arts is a higher master than any. Such a one has learned to grow her “lesser” senses as a means of compensating for the loss of her uppermost faculty. In doing so, a sightless master comes to experience the world in a unique way. The night runner is a listening runner in a way that his diurnal counterpart is unlikely to be. Not only does his survival sometimes depend upon it (not all night-motorists remember to turn their headlights on, after all) but late evenings and early mornings produce far less noise pollution than is drummed up by the bumptious activities of the day, leaving behind a less jagged soundscape in which it is possible to hear one’s footfalls (a more telling story than one usually imagines). A Robert Frost poem begins with the words, “I am one acquainted with the night.” A week ago, as the snow still melted from pavements warm with the imprint of earlier hours, it occurred to me as I ran that I had learned to recognize which of several storm drains I passed by the noise the runoff made gurgling down its concrete throat. I knew then that I was beginning to get on familiar enough terms with the night, though I claim nothing like Frost’s mastery.

So what of it? Is a night runner to derive nothing more useful from his pains than a quaint ability to identify a few local aqueducts by their sonic signatures? We are thinking too narrowly if we can imagine no more than this. If the experience of night running can alter, even subtly, one’s understanding of external landscapes, why shouldn’t it also alter one’s consciousness in ways that make it possible, with repetition, to explore features of his own mind ordinarily hidden in plain sight? Mercury was the runner par excellence of the Roman pantheon of gods. Seen by us mostly as a “star” at dusk and dawn, the planet bearing that name (speedy in his laps around the sun) no longer hides his light in the sun’s corona, as he has all day long. Of the night runner, we should say that more than just her clothes ought to be reflective. And as for clothes, let her wear just what she wants; none will see whether they match or whose label they bear. And if any are impertinent enough to ask her, she should answer that, yes, she did dress herself in the dark. Furthermore, she ought not laugh too loudly if that same one observes that her headlamp is reminiscent of the third eye of a mystic seer.

Modern life is awash in artificial light; physicians recommend that we reduce light stimuli in the evening hours to ready one’s brain for sleep. Evening running may act as a mild form or sensory deprivation therapy, or, for that matter, as age regression therapy as it ought to have been conceived. Most of us began, after all, as entities who could hear but not see. For the early morning riser, there too is the opportunity for these therapies: it is darkest, as the expression has it, just before the dawn. “Out of the womb of the morning, you have the dew of your youth,” claims Psalm 110:3.

To keep my own youth, my favorite dark running play is what I call, to borrow an expression from philosopher Alan Watts, the game of black and white. This requires a greenbelt trail or road lit at intervals with street lamps. Carefully and slowly, I jog the dark intervals, the lacunae, between lights. As you might have guessed, I take the well-lit portions at race pace. Certain nights I am grateful that the county is remiss in its deployment of maintenance personnel.

And before I am thought irresponsible for talking up the dark side (with its risks), allow me to suggest a compromise that is neither strictly black nor white: carry or wear a source of light, and use it on particularly dark or perilous stretches, but do yourself the favor of sometimes switching it off. Any glance at a light-pollution map reminds one that even the darkest night in these parts is not so very dark. Sometimes add to that a three-quarter or full moon, and we might read a newspaper (does anyone still?) as we run. If your non-running neighbors didn’t think you insane before, they may now rightly dub you a lunatic if they are anything of an etymologist. But who is the unwise one when melanoma and macular degeneration are on the rise? And in the summer heat, advantages accrue to the night runner that are too obvious to state.

Finally, ask yourself this: Has the shine worn off my day running routine? In his book Eat & Run, Ultra legend Scott Jurek offers a short list of change-up suggestions for when one’s running is in a funk. They include: run with a dog, run a new trail, run in jeans (that’s right). I have something to add to this list: Run at night. Heck, run in jeans at night, if that’ll keep you in the game. Nobody ever need know.

Our Sunday Best

As veteran runners you’ve perhaps heard the suggestion that running is a religion. Even if you’re not buying it, the idea is out there: just consult the modern oracle that is the internet, where scores of clever memes make the point more entertainingly than I can. Or consider the message in a 2016 holiday-season Asics ad depicting runners in winter conditions: “In this religion, there are no holidays.”

So is running really a religion?

A simple semantics test casts doubt on the notion. We find Christian runners, Jewish runners, Muslim runners, Buddhist runners, etc. If running really were a religion, one could be, for example, a Christian or a runner but not both at once. Religions just don’t mix that way. That’s the short and neat negation, if you like. But being a long-distance runner, used to slogging through the gray and the mud, I’ll leave short and neat to the sprinters.

I can imagine that the idea of a running religion first occurred to some dithering Christian runner who, faced with the dilemma of a Sunday morning service or an important race, chose the latter, and resignedly exclaimed, “Well, I guess running is my religion.”

We can agree, I think, that running isn’t “that old time religion”; nevertheless, for me and for a number of secularists, agnostics, and atheists it may perform some of the work of religion in our lives. A Christian, Jewish or Muslim runner might prefer to view running as George Sheehan (a committed Catholic) did: “Running is not a religion, it is a place.” A place of silent worship. A place to offer thanks. A place to enjoy God’s gifts among what John Muir refered to as, “nature’s cathedrals.”

Like all religions, running has the potential to redeem (in this life, obviously). Popular running magazines abound in testimonials. Running has saved the lives of alcoholics, depressives, and drug and food addicts. It has provided meaning and structure to young lives on paths of self-destruction or gang involvement. Short of these stories of nearly miraculous intervention, is the more typical existential-crisis narrative, summed up in veteran trail runner Buzz Burell’s words: “…I had no idea what was true or what was false. But I knew when I moved and breathed and perspired, that was real. And so running became the first real thing in my life.”

For the person who has trafficked too much in the wide array of vices on offer in the modern world, running, like religion and self-improvement programs, offers the promise of rebirth and a platform for those purgations, mortifications and ablutions associated with repentance. The repentant forswears old beliefs and practices, and is born, as it were, into a new life, often to include even a new circle of friends and acquaintances, certainly to include new rituals and sabbaths. These conversions are often treated as watersheds and defining moments in one’s life history. Runners often talk of the time before they were runners with the same sense of estrangement and disassociation as the devout speak of the time before they were saved to new lives. Dean Karnazes’s story of conversion in UltraMarathon Man and John Bingham’s saved-a-wretch-like-me yarn in An Accidental Athlete contain many of the same dramatic elements as may be found in Saint Augustine’s Confessions. It is not just the flight from cigarettes and fried food–the usual gluttonies, in other words–that deliver world-weary souls to running’s doorstep. It is as often the flight from ennui, an urgency to fill a running-shaped hole (to borrow an expression from the devout), that calls that most wretched and lost of creatures, the middle-aged schlep in baggy bluejeans, to purchase his first pair of running shoes.

Religions, we know, offer prayer and meditation as means of obtaining states of mind in which one’s attention is diverted away from the clutter of bodily and mental concerns and trained upon a spiritual focal point (i.e., the love of a deity, oneness, the contemplation of perfection, etc.). Religious ecstasy and enlightenment are the sorts of names we sometimes give to such states of mind. Not surprisingly, we find a fertile analog in running. Mantras, visualization, and focused breathing are used to gain a purchase on “the zone.” The fabled runner’s high refers to a transcendent state beyond discomfort’s jurisdiction, where running becomes as effortless as drawing breath, a place where all previous sacrifice and doubt dissipate into bliss, quietism and perfect understanding. How is a runner describing the runner’s high different than a believer describing the act of receiving communion? At the very least the runner’s high can be likened to the enlightenment that is sometimes glimpsed by the spiritual seeker in Buddhist traditions. Practiced sincerely and mindfully, both running and religion can leave their practitioners with a sense of personal well-being and a feeling of interconnectedness with all that is good and wholesome.

While both religion and running may be practiced as solitary endeavors, both reach their fullest expression where they intersect with the social milieu. Even for the running hermit and the closet prayer, he or she must occasionally re-establish ties to the community as a periodic source of renewal and reorientation. Community is not so much a watering hole into which it is healthful to sometimes dip our ladle (for the nourishment that fresh perspectives and new knowledge bring), as it is an oxygen-rich rush of roiling water, into whose unremitting currents we may mix the various contrarian eddies that we are, to get us going with the flow again, so as not to finish in stagnation or to disappear completely down a sinkhole. Hydrodynamics is at bottom a study of energy; anyone acquainted with mass-participation running or religion will appreciate that these endeavors are no less bound than water to natural law. The runner who has never felt herself swept up in a race (like a droplet of H2O in a rushing torrent) has neglected a tenth and maybe more of her performance potential. One who stands aloof from group worship or communal meditation eschews the synergism that has for ages recommended the religious congregation. The hermit always risks loosing his way and developing idiosyncrasies in his vision and his practice. When lost in the mountainous wilds, one does well to find and subsequently keep to the river that follows the valley floor. The river leads back to civilization. Though his “rivers” were mostly desiccated creek beds, even Micah True knew the way to Urique.

Consider running’s religiosity as akin to that of the internet congregation known as the Church of Body Modification. This small collection of individuals recognize ritualized privation and discomfort as means of strengthening the connection between mind, body, and soul. Consider their Statement of Faith, “We promise to always grow as individuals through body modification and what it can teach us about who we are and what we can do.” Substitute the term running for body modification and we are left with a sentiment with which we can comfortably relate. Compare these words to those of Saint John of the Cross’s: “Let your soul therefore turn always…not to what is easy, but to what is hardest…not to rest, but to labor.”

The word religion calls to mind, for many, the various rituals and observances associated with the major world religions. This contains the crux, I believe, of the comparisons of running to religion. To the religiously committed, few if any worldly distractions warrant ducking any part of the set of rituals deemed essential for his/her chosen degree of involvement in the faith. To observe a runner “in training” is to behold an individual bent on the strictest adherence to a set of ritualized behaviors, worldly distractions be damned. The deeper his involvement in the sport, the more likely it is that he will doggedly resist temptations to make exceptions to an absolute adherence to the prescribed way. And who will have mandated the way? Usually a coach or an author. It is no stretch to say that these individuals play a role similar to that of priests in consulting the canonical works of running (and applying an individualized pedagogy), and fashioning them into inspirational sermons as well as courses of study and ritualized practice.

There may come a Sunday morning when you’ll face the dilemma of whether to show up at church or to race. Either way, you can view it as a chance to put on your Sunday best.

Is your next PR just a matter of course?


Personal records aren’t just for elite runners. Even the most adamant of competition-averse health and fitness runners can, with enough prodding, give you their PR time (or an approximation) at a given distance or over a given course. At the very least, they’ll remember when they ran that neighborhood course and everything came together just right: when they and the temperature, humidity, wind and traffic were on the same page; when they were able to wring just a little more sweat from their body and a little more oomph from their will; and when the music on their iPod or the encouragement of their training partner was just what they needed without being too much. They’ll remember thinking that had they been wearing a watch, that watch would have given a favorable report. They’ll acknowledge still not having been fast enough to best most serious runners. But on that special day they’ll remember having been fast enough to best themselves, which for most of us is the point.

So what’s the big aversion many runners have–at least publicly–to chasing PRs (or even claiming to know theirs)? How did these two innocent letters earn such a seedy reputation among fitness-running purists? To establish one’s benchmark, and then to surpass it can be character-building. It’s not often one gets to objectively measure one’s advancement in their play. Of course, some argue that statistics are best left to statisticians, and that our play should be as unfettered as nature intended it. I see it differently. The discovery of a primitive counting app, the Ishango Bone, suggests that humans have been counting stuff for at least 20,000 years; counting looks no less natural to anthropologists than running. And speaking of natural, seeing how long one can bear discomfort is central to more rites of passage than one can shake a notched stick at; testing one’s meddle is a primal urge. What child hasn’t some time or another counted how long he could hold his breath, making such playful masochism the sport of a summer hour among friends? We love counting. And we love suffering (the character-building kind, any way). It makes perfect sense that we should love counting the minutes and seconds of our suffering. Is it any wonder then that many runners go through a stage where the PR becomes an unrelenting quest? Sure, the idea is to get the suffering over in as few seconds as possible, which can only be accomplished by packing more suffering into each second. Doesn’t it make you want to go out and PR right now?

A runner on a PR quest will stop at nothing to recruit everything and everyone to his monomaniacal cause, setting some arbitrary goal (i.e., a sub-3 hour marathon, a sub-20 minute 5k) and then pursuing it from course to course like Ahab pursuing the white whale through all the seven seas. Speedwork follows. Training partners are recruited. Track clubs are joined. Coaches are sought. Books and magazines are read. Diets are adhered to. Racing flats are broken in. Clothes are shed (except the essentials). Hair may even be cropped closely in the reductionist’s quest for the sleekest lines.

In short, a PR seeker will have done everything to ready herself for a  PR bid. She’s in peak condition. Time to strike. While a PR isn’t guaranteed, it’s probably just a matter of course–quite literally. Think about it. A PR is an event that requires a runner and–here’s the thing (apart from time with family and friends) that often gets lost in all the minutiae –a course. Choosing the course that will yield a PR before one’s peak fitness window closes, is an art one can’t afford to neglect.

Here are some pointers that most veteran PR chasers will have committed to memory. Most of us will have learned all of this the hard way, having tallied far more personal realizations (regrets?) than personal records.

Make sure the course is certified. Obviously one doesn’t want to run a long course when chasing a PR. Less obviously, one doesn’t want to run a short course. Nothing takes the wind out of a PR quicker than the niggling chatter of post-race, GPS-aided speculation that a course was short. Certification by a governing body is necessary to ensure an accurate distance. And even then there’s no guarantee. I once ran a “certified” course that ended up being a tenth of a mile short owing to an honest mistake made by a single race marshal. Extrapolating what one’s finishing time would have been isn’t nearly as fun as gloating over one’s actual PR time. As a PR chaser, it will behoove you to find, if possible, a standard certified course on which races are frequently run, and to use that as your proving grounds.

Make sure the course has a neutral elevation gain. Net downhill courses, while they are often accepted as qualifiers for entrance into subsequent races or race waves, carry the stigma of an asterisk. Make sure the course is as flat as possible. While it is true that what goes up must come down, even the presence of gently rolling hills may have a negative effect on one’s PR bid. Failing that, choose the course that plays to your personal strengths. I’ve discovered repeatedly that courses that begin downhill and finish uphill augment my natural tendency to go out fast and fade toward the end. I’ve always PRd by positively splitting on courses that encouraged positive splitting. You may be fortunate enough to PR the prescribed way: by negatively splitting.

Make sure the course is at the lowest elevation you can find. Training high and racing low may not be in most of our budgets. However, if one lives in a region where considerable elevation differences exist (such as the Colorado Front Range), it behooves one to train in the foothills and race in the cities and river valleys.

Choose a course with a fast surface. Trailrunning is out when it comes to an all-out PR.  Concrete and asphalt surfaces are the fastest. Even groomed gravel is a relatively slow surface.

Choose a course with few twists and turns. Wide loops and point-to-points are the best. Out-and-back courses with tight turn-arounds take seconds off one’s bid. Each tight corner makes it a bit more difficult to turn in a PR performance. Additionally, when trying to set a PR it is a good thing to be able to see who is in front of one. One wants to see that runner up ahead, focus on him and take heart while experiencing the thrill of steadily reeling him in. If one keeps loosing sight of him behind blind corners and stands of trees, one just might loose contact with him and with one’s PR pace. And while this may have more to do with the race than the course, I’ll throw it out there anyway: choose a race where you are likely to find talent slightly above your level, giving you the advantage that being pulled or pushed along can confer.

Choose a well-marked course. Ambiguities require energy and time to resolve on the run. One wrong turn and one’s PR bid is blown.

Narrow courses are to be avoided. Say our PR chaser gets stuck behind a pack of slower runners running three abreast or even one runner with a stroller: she is loosing precious seconds while getting frustrated. Every second spent running someone else’s race is a second spent out-of-sync with one’s most efficient pace.

Chip timing is essential unless one is willing to toe the line with the front runners. Without chip timing one may start the timer on his sports watch the second he steps over the starting line, but his official time will add every second it took him to get to the starting line. “I ran even three seconds faster than my PR,” may be a true statement, but the results page is the final word.

Choose a course that avoids wind. Loops and out-and-back courses usually avoid the trouble of running with or against a prevailing wind. Running into a wind kills a PR bid. Running with a tailwind results in an asterisk. Not only are they a bit difficult to pronounce; they’re a bit difficult to live with.

As long as one’s running doesn’t become all about chasing PRs all the time (don’t be that guy), a little PR chasing might be just the thing one’s running needs to jolt it out of the doldrums. Like most rational adults, you’ve probably figured out that as far as the world is concerned, your half marathon PR will mean little. But that shouldn’t stop your inner child from acting as if your PR meant the world. Family, friends, and bosses may chafe at your weekend-warrior quest. I say PR now, and ask for forgiveness later.

Run Through The Jungle

Angkor-Wat-run-RichardStJohn5Running is an English verb. Running is also an English noun, a gerund. As a gerund, running refers to the subculture consisting of every person who identifies him or herself as a runner or, gulp, a jogger, and every activity associated with the verbs running and jogging, including their countless mash-ups with marketing, sports apparel, sports gadgetry, sports medicine, sports psychology, magazines, books, and blogs. To say that running refers to a lot doesn’t begin to cut it. Running is a jungle.

Like the word running, the word jungle is loaded with meaning. Apart from representing a specific kind of habitat, jungle denotes the following: 1.) Any confused mass or agglomeration of objects; jumble. 2.) Something that baffles or perplexes; maze. 3.) A scene of violence and struggle for survival. 4.) A place or situation of ruthless competition. If the metaphor fits, lace it up.

Running wasn’t built on the plan of a single master architect. There is no father of running, Pheidippides notwithstanding. Running did, however, have a primordial mother. Her name was necessity. Before there were settled communities, man sometimes ran from trouble and for his dinner. He sometimes ran on the battlefield. He sometimes still does. Running for sport didn’t properly begin until man no longer–as a rule–needed to run. That men and women are actually running more when there is less apparent need than ever is a phenomenon worthy of contemplation; it is the very thing that non runners find weird about running. Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild, believed that the code of one’s ancestral appetites and capacities is saved in a kind of system restore file in the brain. By “going back into the womb of time,” or heeding the call, London believed it possible to unzip this file and run its script. London’s “science” was at best dubious, but it is still intriguing to think that the fun run one finished last month may have involved digging in the survival tool kit of a remote uncle stalking a Kudu or a deer. “Thought I heard a rumbling/calling to my name,” sings John Fogerty in the song for which this article is named. Eleven million American runners make quite a rumble, indeed.

Running is a curious mishmash of survival equipment and leisure pastime. With few exceptions, people today don’t actually need to run. So are the rest doing it just for fun? At every race and in every neighborhood, one can observe someone who is running yet obviously not having fun. And not every one of these folks is under doctor’s orders. Running is as complicated as one might expect of something that grew at hazard along with cultures that are themselves unplanned agglomerations, jumbles of incongruous institutions sometimes at odds with one another. Running too is a jumble as well as a jungle. Just as the jungle is home to a staggering range of biodiversity, so is the modern running jungle; it shows no more regard for national, political and religious boundary lines than do the most expansive jungles on the planet. A man can run in all manner of headdress and in all manner of costume and with whatever ideas knocking about his head. Our various ideas all weigh the same, and disadvantage none. One’s formal education or lack thereof count for nothing in the running jungle. Until recently, running was said to be a poor man’s sport. The first running boom abounded with fringe eccentrics, survivalists, and George-Sheehan-esque cheapskates who balked at shelling out $40.00 every three months for a pair of running shoes and who raised a racket when a race began charging an admission. Today, not so much. The second and third running booms have drawn the affluent into our realms: the safari crowd.

A skilled tracker can tell you all you’ll ever want to know about a runner by his or her running shoe prints alone. In the beginning there wasn’t much to the business: there were waffle-soled tracks that stopped at 6.2 miles (10Ks were once the thing), and waffle-soled tracks that stopped at 26.2 miles. Training distances were “measured” with the precision of a car odometer, or the accuracy of a lace-on pedometer. Nowadays there’s no end to what one sees, from plodding, heavy footfalls that cover 3.1 miles to aggressive-soled tracks that go on and on until our tracker gives up. Under our canopy, there are sometimes tracks in the shape of bare feet; sometimes the floor is littered with colored powder, ticker-tape, and spilled beer; there may even be flaming hurdles, causing a tracker to wonder whether he has been led from the jungle to a circus.

Our tracker might also say whether the tracks one makes in the running jungle penetrate no deeper than the periphery, or push on to running’s innermost sanctum.  They might suggest whether a runner draws courage from the bustle and din of the villages, the enchanted music of the Khmer temples, or from the stark solitude of realms beyond the compass of the heartiest and most dauntless mail runner.

Running resounds with the chatter of riddles, written in hieroglyphs on oozing, mossy walls. They’re sometimes as incomprehensible as zen koans: Train slower to race faster. Run barefoot when your feet hurt. Take walk breaks to “run” a faster marathon.

Viewed edge-on and from the outside, jungles belie their enormity. It is the same with running. “I never knew you could have an hour long lecture on running,” a woman remarks of a 55 minute YouTube video on ultrarunning. A greater wonder would be if she gleaned any positive instruction from so brief a primer as that. An hour-long Youtube running video is to running what the Disney Jungle Cruise is to the genuine article.

One hears that running is a metaphor for life. This is very different than saying that running is life. Remain too long in the jungle and one may lose perspective, go blind to both the forest and the trees, go native. In very different jungles, the explorers Percy Fawcett and Caballo Blanco embraced similar fates. But most have been less intrepid, or less immoderate, if you like. Read the journals of the great jungle adventurers: observe that they emerged from the jungle at intervals to convalesce and renew their thirst for the jungle.

Jungles cover a lot of ground. And so does running. Nevertheless, an atlas offers perspective; however large a jungle one finds in the pages of a Rand McNally, they’ll note that its green expanse is bounded on all sides by other hues, some belonging to the natural palette, some symbolizing the handiwork of man. Our world is far from all jungle. In this age of exoplanets, we may be on the brink of discovering an all-jungle planet, but we’d be certain to wither in its heat, homogeneity, and unremitting peril. Refer to the atlas’s legend if you must; it is a reminder of our world’s variety. Analogously, running must be bounded with what is not running if it is to remain meaningful and not simply run together with all the other humors of life to form an undifferentiated muddy patch, a cartographer’s mistake rather than the art that imitates nature.

Colonial hunters returned from the world’s jungles bearing trophies. We runners have our trophies, without ever needing the services of a taxidermist to preserve and to mount them. According to a recent poll on the Website Houzz, the majority of us are accepting of trophies displayed in a single room, though not throughout an entire house. Like a good house, a good life has many rooms devoted to each of the various facets–practical and expressive–of he or she who lays claim to it. The idea is to make running but one of the many rooms in your mansion, however humble that may be. No one ever said it can’t be your favorite room.








The Bad Dog Workout

wantedTo riff on a popular marketing meme, personal trainers hate my dog. Which is probably better than anything Caesar Millan would have to say about him. If you’re a dog owner–and why wouldn’t you be?–you may find yourself shaking your head at much of what follows. But if you’re an extreme fitness enthusiast, you’ll have already guessed the silver lining in this story of a boy–ok, a middle-aged boy–and his dog.

For me, the intersection between long-distance running and dog ownership stretches back seven years. It started with a border collie named Meg. Then Meg became Meg and Levitt the border-collie combo, tethered both by their affection for one another, and by a double-dog leash. Meg weighed 35 lbs. soaking wet, and Levitt wasn’t a great deal bigger at, maybe, 38 lbs. Those were my salad days. Then came a divorce and the decision to never put asunder what a double-dog leash had joined. The pair stayed with the yard and the ex.

Having already taken the double dog dare, one would think I’d have been more than adequately prepared for the challenges of running with one dog. That’s what I thought. And then I met Dakota. Tall, skinny and filthy from weeks of playing roughly in his foster-dad’s back “yard” (actually a sand-lot), I was nevertheless smitten with him from the get-go, though I had to admit that he looked a little mangy and feral, more coyote than McNabb border collie, which is what a dog breeder has since claimed him to be. Since the day we two met, Northern El Paso County’s trails haven’t been safe (at least not for me).

A rescue from a New Mexico reservation, Dakota was “one or two years old” when I adopted him. He has since filled out to 60 pounds of strikingly-handsome, muscular, Tasmanian-Devil-spinning badness. Combine the standard border collie’s legendary high energy with a rangy, well-muscled frame bred to herd cattle rather than sheep, add an industrial-strength leash, and what you have is the world’s most portable–or at least most huggable–gym.

The Bad Dog Workout offers challenges from the get go. There is no warm-up with this fitness program. With Dakota, at least, every start is a race-pace start; while my bumper sticker may claim that my border collie is smarter than your honor student, I’ll bet your honor student has better pacing sense. To any who happen to be watching us at the outset of a run, he and I might come across as a comedy double act rather than partners in a buddy workout. Mercifully, I’ve never been photographed at the moment of launch. If I were, I suspect the outcome would look something like that photo of me on the Disney roller coaster ride. The Bad Dog Workout offers a special challenge to proper running form: one must remain constantly on guard against the far-forward lean, as well as the exaggerated backward lean, continually engaging the core to maintain equilibrium between the two naturally reactive but errant tendencies. Being a foil to Dakota’s antics, I have unique insight into just how difficult Jonah Hill has it when he plays the straight man in a Russel Brand comedy.

At one time or another Dakota has had me doing every exercise I swore I’d never do either because of how ridiculous I thought it looked or how grueling I knew it was. Awkward exercises are often invented on the fly: such as yard skiing in running shoes on rain-soaked grass, replete with a recumbent conclusion in full view of the neighbors.

Predictably, every territorial marking opportunity is the scene of a new skirmish of the wills.  The scent or sight of a field mouse, rabbit, deer or crow is the catalyst for a resource-exhausting tug of war that sometimes lasts minutes and may involve abrupt changes of course and unexpected climbs or plunges. Imagine performing cable flys, overhead cable extensions or bicep curls while simultaneously running forwards, sideways or backwards on a treadmill, and you may begin to appreciate the challenges of the Bad Dog Workout. And to think that I used to proclaim those masochistic runners who drag tires up hills crazy; at least they don’t sleep with their muddy exercise equipment. And just how does a bad dog usually get muddy? By insisting on it. How else? Try digging in your heels against the attraction of a furry-faced divining rod to its usually non-potable element (the slimier, the more attractive, evidently). You’ll be lucky if you are somehow able to sidestep the muck yourself.

When Dakota has a mind to amp up my strength-training workout, he’ll stop dead in his tracks (and mine), and burrow for field mice, challenging me to forcefully exhume him using bicep curls or bent rows from the surprisingly large hole he has managed to dig in mere seconds. Forced (after several attempts) to disengage pursuing his subterranean squeaky-toy, Dakota will literally run circles around me in protest, offering in the bargain a rotator cuff workout that even the most rogue personal trainer would decline to endorse. Take it from me: love really does hurt.

Oh, and with the Bad Dog Workout, there are hurdles–random hurdles–especially on single-track trail where one’s already narrow way is barred by a firmly planted fuzzy obstacle that definitely wasn’t there just a second before. The Dakota level of the Bad Dog Workout also includes evasive maneuver drills, as this bad dog is apt–with timing only he understands–to abruptly reverse direction and playfully deliver gut and groin punches.

If I knew any videographers, I could post one of our runs on YouTube. It might even go viral and turn into the next extreme-fitness craze. Imagine thousands of extreme fitness enthusiasts trying to adopt half-wild Border Collies, Wolf Hybrids and Dalmatians just to get buff. As one who on certain days finds himself unequal to the Bad Dog Workout’s challenges, I recommend fostering a beagle before committing to the extreme fitness lifestyle. The Bad Dog Workout comes with a binding membership.

A bad dog’s energy should never be cooped up indoors. A couple days without running and a bad dog is like a loaded spring. On snow days it spins in frustration and whines at the door. It goes out of its mind with smiling excitement when it sees running shoes, running attire and GPS watches. When it finally gets out the door, it’s even more difficult to handle than usual. After a layoff, there is no easing into a Bad Dog program. You will pay for your indolence. No workout partner or coach ever held you so accountable.

In Bad Dog Workouts, it is always a good thing to let one’s right hand know what one’s left hand is doing, and vice versa. If one always employs the same hand for leash holding, one runs the risk of overdeveloping the leash-hand side of his or her body. Unless a Picasso-esque asymmetry is the look one is going for, they’d better change it up every mile. By ignoring this recommendation, one may also end up with arms that differ in length. While I say this jokingly, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that it actually happens; it certainly feels like it could happen. Best not to chance it. And best to have two hands ready to take the leash at particularly demanding junctures.

I can’t speak for all bad dogs, but Dakota at least is a big fan of the tempo run. Tempo runs happen whenever we round a corner to find ourselves behind a distant but visible (or olfactible) runner, mountain biker, hiker or walked dog. Like Achilles in Zeno’s Paradox, Dakota relentlessly seeks to reduce the distance between us and the “tortoise”, creating a labored frothing-at-the-mouth sound as he strains to pull along 140 lbs of weight that is usually insisting on a slower pace.

It is tempting to think of the Bad Dog Workout as a multi-tasker ‘s dream. But be careful that the time you save combining cardio and strength training (and getting the dog out) doesn’t subsequently go down the drain in hour-long Epsom salt baths.

If, after all of this, you think running with Dakota sounds difficult, you should try not running with him.

Ultra Touristy

doc6gmgvjhjvitjqmxbdi0Everyone loathes a tourist. Everyone except marketers, that is. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Beginning in the early 1980s the recreational running world had its first unfortunate encounter with what exercise physiologists have since termed exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH), a potentially life-threatening state of water intoxication caused by excessive pre hydration. At first blush, it is tempting to want to blame irresponsible marketing for the nascent malady. Though in fairness, marketers were only happily amplifying exercise physiology’s abrupt hyper-awareness of hydration’s alleged leading role in exercise performance. If exercise physiologists (frequently on the sports nutrition industry’s payroll) and the evening news were energetically imploring endurance athletes to drink more, the advertising departments of sports drink companies grew giddy urging runners to double whatever “more” was. The consequences occasionally turned fatal, resulting in at least 13 EAH-diagnosed deaths.1

Could marketers be going too far once again? In the late 1960s, Marshall McLuhan wrote this prescient line in The Medium is the Massage (here McLuhan plays on the word Message): “Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.” While McLuhan’s phrase, like the quadruple entendre of his book’s title (i.e., message, massage, mass-age and mess-age), is pregnant with a litter of alternate meanings, one thing it surely suggests is that those who employ advertising media are bound to repeat past mistakes, and that we, as the “official culture,” are going to have something to do with it. Where before the mess-age was “drink more,” today it’s “run more,” using seductive ads smattered across a wide range of digital and print media forms to encourage milephiles to go completely around the bend while consuming pricey sponsored races, online training plans, running camps, apps, apparel, nutritional supplements, and even automobiles to fit the ultra image.

Henry David Thoreau, one of the greatest architects of the sustainable life, objected to “coarse labors long continued” on the grounds that they required that he consume coarsely in support of them. For runners of 50 and 100 mile races, a voracious appetite for life keeps pace with as great an appetite for gel packs (or some such highly concentrated and portable food source). And with higher average training volumes than any other recreational running cohort, ultrarunners join puppies as a running shoe manufacturer’s best friend.

Sure the corporate entities who sell these products would love it if everyone became a life-long ultrarunner, but marketing psychologists know that isn’t likely to happen. Still, over the short haul, an ultra tourist’s money spends as well as a lifelong runner’s money does. In fact, tourists are targeted the world over for the ease with which they can be separated from the fun money they’ve laid aside for “must-sees” like the DaVinci Code walking tour. Take it from the ultimate tourist, Beldar Conehead: what tourists do best is “consume mass quantities.”

In these litigious times, advertising departments are more savvy than they used to be. Taking refuge behind accident waiver and release of liability forms, and the ever-tightening and oft-maligned qualifying standards of high-profile ultras, marketers are free to employ every trick of psychological manipulation to peddle these extreme experiences. Consider the stock memes of ultrarunning culture: the alpine “trail” without a power line in sight; the youthful, ultra-hardened body (which may actually belong to a weight-trained fitness model); the cool-kid aesthetic; the pithy, ego-affirming quote; and the panoply of top-dollar accessories on full display. Amid a confusing lack of scientific consensus, advertising is aggressively pushing the cult of more is more and all the gadgetry that goes with it. Tim Noakes’ book Waterlogged, an in-depth examination of the EAH epidemic, exposes the dangerous fallacy of that way of thinking. Too much profit-motivated “more” and too little buyer sense always results in more disaster. Significantly, it was running tourists and not veterans who took EAH’s brunt.

Like sodium serum concentrations, ultrarunning is nothing to play around with. Isn’t it time that advertising departments backed off pitching ultras as hip weekend getaways guaranteed to improve one’s life and augment one’s image? (I’m surprised they haven’t claimed that ultras regrow hair.) The least race promoters should be required to do is to list contraindications just as pharmaceutical advertisers must. What we should want is a glossy ad that doesn’t look as if it were trying to gloss over the truth (maybe the medium really is the message). In her blog Wild Defined, ultra veteran Candace Burt lists “not having fun anymore” as one of the excuses runners most frequently give for dropping out of an ultra. “I’m not sure why we think that ultras will be ‘fun,'” Burt asks? I have a one word answer for her: advertising. As buyers, isn’t it time we revisited the ages-old warning to beware? Otherwise parties on all sides of the exchange are in danger of playing a starring role in a classic cautionary tale. To the unwary and overconfident newbie, a first ultra (usually a 50k or 50-miler with no qualifying standard) is likely to wind up resembling Westworld after the live bullets start flying, or Jurassic Park after the electric fences fail. If you think that either Yule Brenner as a gunslinging android or a pack of ravenous velociraptors were tough mudders, try hitting your third wall, experiencing hallucinations and suffering rhabdomyolysis–in the middle of nowhere. In the movies, we know who chokes hardest on their just deserts. It’s usually the naïve and profiteering promoter or the vicariously liable lawyer. That’s entertainment. But in reality, it’s the impulse buyer who is most likely to get plucked off the outhouse commode by the figurative T-Rex. The woefully underprepared ultra tourist may find that an ultra-gone-south is more vengeful than even Montezuma.

I suppose all of this caution makes me the Ian Malcolm of this script. In that case I’ll paraphrase my favorite naysaying movie mathematician attired in somber hues: we were so preoccupied with whether we could that we didn’t stop to think whether we should.

So what is it with tourists, anyway? What makes them so ridiculous, and apparently so easy to spot? Mostly it’s that they’re too eager–eager to the point, in fact, of forcing experiences. “The way to kill a feeling is to insist on it,” writes D.H. Lawrence. It’s as if the finished memory, the t-shirt and the finish-line selfie had become more important than the experience itself and especially the patient preparation required for its proper “enjoyment.” And sometimes tourists are just nuisances, like when, Bill Porter reports in his book Zen Baggage, their guided tours introduce bullhorns to Zen monasteries.

Capitalizing on the tourist’s eagerness to own a memory, many ultra promoters are acting like the archetype for Rekall, Incorporated, the fictional retailer of custom memory implants from the sci-fi film Total Recall. “Have you always wanted to climb the mountains of Mars, but now you’re over the hill?” the ad asks. “For the memory of a lifetime, Rekall, Rekall, Rekall.” Hearing the jingle, Quaid considers purchasing the memory of a Martian vacation. Harry intervenes: “A friend of mine tried it. Nearly Got himself lobotomized.” Now imagine opening a magazine in 2015 and reading the words, “Want to run far, but you’re far from ready?” While a running tourist may not end up lobotomized, the portion of her brain that loved running is likely to suffer serious trauma.

Despite all of my admonitions I think that the chances of an ultra tourist making it home in one piece (I say nothing of finishing) are still pretty good. My concern is this. Unpreparedness unscrupulously lured into reckless action most often leads to deeply negative experiences. And deeply negative experiences lead to aversions—lifelong aversions or one-and-done burnout.

As a crusader for the running lifestyle, I’ll weigh in any day on the side of a well-measured, sustainable and lifelong participation in the sport. I shrug my shoulders at the tourist who rides a zipline through our sport on a tragically misguided “tour de force” that, if one could hear it, would sound as harried as the “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Locals often sigh in relief when they overhear tourists say, with a thinly-veiled mixture of contempt and patronization, “Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here.” For my part, I’d rather they did want to live here (without the bullhorn). A neighborhood doesn’t need a living dinosaur theme park to be a great place to bring up the kids. If more miles is what one really wants, then one ought to try being a runner for 20, 30 or 40 years. To any who’d consider it, I leave this Zen phrase: “The Road has two rules only: Begin and Continue.”

1. (The Doctor Mol Show, season 3, episode 15. “Dr. Noakes on Water.” Online video clip. https://youtu.be/8dFlV-Rn1yw. September 25, 2012).

Are Two-Faced Runners Pulling A Fast One?

old+runnersLike flotsam that won’t go out to sea, vinyl LPs are back again whether we like it or not. And they’re not the only throwback performing improbably well these days. With a pair of running shoes and Internet access, jogging boomers are too. With Al Gore’s “invention” at their fingertips, the results page of the next masters track meet can be rewritten to read like Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Stay with me, and I’ll explain.

As an unapologetic runner, I’m not usually quick to cast a cold eye on my sport and on those who fill out its roster, but in this uncharacteristic essay I see that an ego-salving practice takes its share of heat. If you’ve ever participated in roasting an old friend, you’ll know how to take this piece: with more than a grain of salt in the baste.

Making aging boomers feel better about aging is more than a cottage industry in Western culture. Peer into the driver’s seat of a Western nation’s economy, and you’ll see who’s well-heeled foot is on the accelerator: a graying boomer who’s forgotten to switch the turn-signal off. From sports cars to cosmetic surgery, boomers refuse to go gentle into that good night. And why should they when they’ve got the clout and the capital to keep turning the tables to whatever side suites them best?

The aging are quick to remind us that age is just a number. And in the case of aging runners, they hasten to add that it’s actually two numbers. One of these numbers–their age-adjusted time–has literally been calculated to make them feel better about aging. And again, why not? If boomers invented the jogging boom to stay young, is it any wonder that it’s still keeping them artificially ageless today? Jogging seemed innocent enough. Who knew it was really a Patrick Nagel-esque portrait of Dorian Gray fabricated to absorb year upon year of entropy while joggers in striped knee-socks project (or at least harbor) the illusion of conserving energy like some perpetual-motion machine they bought at The Sharper Image?

Age-adjusted times have become the funny money of the running world. It’s the idealized portrait that gives the counterfeit away. What began as an algorithm in the brains of white-coated sports science wizards has become common coin on a dozen Web calculators. For Me generation runners, the best weapon in the war against aging may be to keep denying it–even when the writing is on the wall (or wherever a given race’s results are posted). The next best weapon may be having recourse to a number that makes that denial plausible. Who needs cosmetic operations when arithmetic operations cost nothing and carry no risk of infection?

For the runner not yet in his or her second childhood, I’ll explain how it works: a 65-year-old man runs a 10k in 50:00, and the calculator tells him it’s like a 30-year-old man’s running a 10k in 38:27. A sub-40 minute 10k! Go figure. As running super foods go, I’ll put cooked data up against chia seeds any day of the week.

Here’s an additional example. At her present age of 62, race bandit Rosie Ruiz would need to run a time of 3:33:36 to match her 1980 Boston Marathon “winning” time of 2:31:56. I’ll bet that even with the aid of age-adjusting, she’d still need a lift.

Imagine what would happen if the majority of races began adopting an age-adjusted format. With an age-adjusted time following one’s name, it would be hard not to cut a fine figure. But this bonfire of the vanities could have an unintended victim. With age-adjusted times, age-group awards would become moot, signaling hard times ahead for the plastic trophy industry. If a 59-year-old’s age-adjusted 16:15 5k (a very respectable 20:02 in reality) is better than a 26-year-old’s actual 16:20 5k, the 59-year-old “wins” the race outright, never mind that the 59-year-old was too far behind the 26-year-old to see him finish. (I knew there had to be a practical use for imaginary numbers.) Three trophies for each gender, and race announcers could stop going hoarse calling out 30 names, half of which they’ll never be able to pronounce.

It used to be thought that nothing short of cryonics would enable a man to run a 4:30 mile in 1982 and again in 2015. That was before boomers discovered the one weird trick to running faster: live long enough and any mile you can slog through is world class. Doesn’t this make some centuries-old Methuselah, and not Roger Bannister, the first sub 4-minute miler?

old-woman-yong-woman-optical-illusionAnother way to look at age-adjusted times is to envision the famous ambiguous line-drawing that represents either the portrait of a young or of an aged woman depending on one’s viewpoint. Once a brain has learned to see both faces, it may switch from the old to the young and back again with ease. But why would it want to?

If I’ve been a little hard on boomers, I have an excuse. You see, I myself am approaching the age where, I’m told, I can get away with more. And now it’s time to fess up. I’ve used the age-adjusted calculator. Stick with running long enough and you will too. Heck, stick with running long enough, and your “29 and holding” will break the calculator! Flattery may not get flatterers everywhere, but it may get aging runners to keep lacing up. Eventually the sobering numbers may find every running lifer reaching for something with which to spike his drink; think of it as a little splash to keep the cocktail party interesting as the evening winds down.

Before getting the hang of it, an age-adjusted runner may feel like Alice in the Red Queen’s race. “Here,” the Red Queen says, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Run as hard as one can for decades, and one’s age-adjusted times remain roughly the same. Or do they? In the past 12 years, this aging runner has lost a little over a minute in the 5k. And at the same time, using the age-adjusted calculator, I’ve “gained” a minute at the same distance. How’s that for saving face? And how’s that even possible? It looks like someone thought to slip the Ghost of Christmas Future into the machine. Maybe jogging boomers planned the calculator to be a kind of time capsule, a medium through which to reconnect with hopes they deferred while Cocoon was playing to packed theaters. Who said the aging population doesn’t know how to use the Internet?

To loosely paraphrase Mark Twain and Benjamin Disraeli, there are lies, damn lies, and age-adjusted times. Even octogenarian running phenomenon Ed Whitlock, whose age-adjusted times place him on par with the world’s best marathoners, is on record as saying that he suspects there’s something wrong with the age-adjusted tables.

Defenders of the calculator tell me that while spending a good portion of the past 12 years running, I’ve improved my running economy. (Weren’t we saying something like that about the Ford Pinto just before it was recalled?) It’s going to take a better argument than that to buy off the skeptic in me. Calculating equivalent times as a thought experiment to amuse oneself and one’s running buddies is one thing, but parleying them into a token of running “progress” veers uncomfortably close to pulling a fast one.

What the age-adjusted calculator does is create a pocket universe of decreasing entropy in a real universe where things, as a matter of course, fall apart (resulting in the sort of paradox that Doctor Who wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot sonic screwdriver). In thermodynamics, the lost entropy always creates chaos somewhere else; it’s the law (think of Dorian’s ageless low entropy and of the accumulating havoc wreaked on his portrait). But where, in the case of an “improving” age-adjusted runner, does the chaos end up?

Could it be that while we’re running “better” than we did in 1982, the truth is taking a beating?

Fortnightly Training

log2Recently a fellow writer and runner got me–and several years earlier, half the nation–to thinking. Malcolm Gladwell, a bestselling author with an eye for the arbitrary (and a former 1500-meter hopeful and current recreational runner) put me in mind of an idea I first got hold of several years ago during a volume-padding run undertaken to build to my weekly mileage quota. Having made a very strong case in the book Outliers that something as arbitrary as the date on which an academic or athletic year begins can keep a culture from effectively spotting and subsequently grooming talent born in the second half of the calendar year, Gladwell emboldened me to speak out about my own crazy–if considerably less ambitious and important–idea.

Just as Gladwell’s revelation was right there under our noses, so is mine–every time we start a training journal or begin a training plan.

Virtually every running journal and every training program fits neatly into the seven tabular columns of the monthly calendar, one for each day of the week; taken conceptually, they stand like Doric columns atop which the pediment of Western athletic training rests, as revered a structure as the Parthenon. Every veteran runner knows by rote the blueprint for virtually all such plans: one day of intervals, one tempo run, and one long run per week, with easy or rest days between. The volume of such plans is almost invariably expressed in weekly miles.

Here’s where I–like the impertinent tourist on the scripted Acropolis walking tour–come in. I’m the wise guy who summons the gall to ask, ‘Why?” That is to say, why are the overwhelming majority of athletic training plans based on a calendar week?

From an exercise physiology perspective, is there really anything sacred–or even particularly special–about a calendar week? Or is it that we’re so used to breaking our lives into repeating weekly units that we’ve merely defaulted to weekly training cycles as the convention nearest to hand?

The anthropologist Roy Rappaport once said that, “To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity.” Bring up the term calendar reform in polite conversation, and observe the hush that follows: that’s how sacred we hold calendrical conventions like the magic 7. And no, I’m not suggesting calendar reform. No petition will follow. I’m instead suggesting that the organizational basis of our training should be informed (or is it constrained?) by more scientific considerations than conformation to the calendar.

Why should 21st century exercise physiology continue to take its cue from conventions first codified in ancient Greece? We wouldn’t think to measure a race course in stadia, and yet not an eyebrow is raised to the practice of basing our training on a unit no less Greek. Thoreau–a man whose heartening quotes would be the perfect inspirational margin-filler for a new kind of running journal–was certainly infected by the reforming spirit. “My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity,” he wrote, referring to the Odins and Thors for whom our Old English Wednesdays and Thursdays are named.

Speaking of Old English, what I suggest instead of weekly training is fortnightly training. Though it may sound antiquated, as a training matrix its architecture would be anything but foursquare. And if as ungainly a word as the Swedish fartlek can take root in running parlance, what is to bar the less foreign fortnight? Or why not use week and fortnight alternately. As runners, we take for granted the fact that we toggle between miles and kilometers with a laudable fluency to which most of the non-running world can’t begin to keep pace.

And as long as we’re on the subject of alternating, if you’ve ever tried to alternate running and rest or, say, running and swimming or cycling, you’ve quickly run into the dilemma of how to treat the extra day that occurs in the weekly round. Seven is not a multiple of two. Fourteen is. In fortnight training there is no difficulty because there is no extra day.

The idea behind fortnight training would not be to recreate another arbitrary unit of measurement merely twice as long as the first, but to use the concept to create a more expansive bracket in which to express a greater number of training variables. The idea behind the fortnight is greater freedom, more possibilities.

For the aging runner the fortnightly training cycle may better match his or her need for additional recovery. Nearly all coaches pay lip service to the master runner’s slower recovery rate. Yet nearly all training plans for masters runners continue to be based on a calendar week. If a 50-year-old runner requires more than a day of recovery from a quality session, how is he or she to work three such quality runs into a week? There simply are not enough days. But if that 50-year-old runner has 14 days with which to work, he or she may now insert two and sometimes three rest days between quality sessions, adapting to a less-harried rhythm that may also flow more naturally with the well-documented changing perception of time that aging adults experience. If, as one ages, weeks seem to fly by as if they contained far fewer hours, it may feel overwhelming not only to the body but to the mind to have to squeeze three quality sessions into what feels like an increasingly narrow space of time.

A brief scan of the Web reveals that there are a few scattered grumblings made sotto voce about the shortness of the training week, a few isolated musings advancing such heretical ideas as 10, 14 and 21-day cycles. Many is the paradigm shift that began as a heresy. Many is the revelation experienced in the instant of seeing something so obvious and so ubiquitous that it had remained invisible. Am I dismayed to find that others have had “my” idea? Not at all. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. When the time is ripe for something new under the sun, many will discover it simultaneously and independently.

For elite runners whose work week is their running, a weekly training schedule may serve them as well as any. Life may sometimes still get in the way of their work. But work will never get in the way of their work.

Then there’s the rest of us. As a mortal with a job and family life, can you imagine having 14 days in which to meet your volume quota? For a 56-mile-per-week runner, his average run is eight miles per day. Miss a single day due to work or life getting in the way and now he must run one 16-mile day or, say, two 12-mile days to make up the difference. But what if he were a 112-mile-a-fortnight runner and had 13 possible days over which to distribute that eight miles? Wouldn’t that take a load off? In this sense, a fortnight is more forgiving, better able to absorb the chaos liable to creep into even the most orderly of lives. And as long as one doesn’t race every weekend, one could spend the first half of a fortnight tapering for a race, only to make up the volume with several long slow runs over the second half. In fact one could systematically front load a fortnight with higher-quality, lower-volume work while back loading it with higher-volume, moderately-paced work, thus alternating and possibly reaping the rewards of both training modes simultaneously.

Still think the seven-day training cycle is unassailable? Remember, even the Parthenon is crumbling.

Project Ultramayhem

dsc_4418Life, we’re told, imitates art. The formula works equally well in reverse: art anticipates life. Just as our planet’s atmosphere acts as a lense through which one may view the sun or moon minutes before they’ve actually risen, art is capable of creating atmospheres through which one receives his or her first glimpse of things to come. Squint just right at a work of art and one sometimes catches an impression of the near future, a fact confirmed only in retrospect.

Through which of art’s back-to-front looking-glasses were we to have seen the ultrarunning boom of the 2000s? What work of late-90s surrealism predicted that by 2015 over 70,000 people–most of them middle aged with day jobs–would in a single year be signing up to run 31, 50, 100, 135 mile distances and beyond, with brutal conditions frequently added to ratchet up the challenge? Even science-fiction (which is art that hopes we’ll be fooled by the word science) would have demurred to make so bold a prediction as that.

Before I offer an answer that might strike you unexpectedly, remember that life need only imitate, not precisely mirror art. When life mirrors something too precisely, that something is probably journalism or film documentary. Running on the Sun: The Badwater 135 is film documentary. What we are looking for needn’t even be about running per se. As a running parable, it could ostensibly be about anything, maybe even, um, fighting. (The remainder of this article contains spoilers and obscure film references–unless of course you’ve seen the film.)

You heard it here first: 1999’s cult classic film Fight Club was an oracle that foreshadowed the ultrarunning boom of the 2000s. That’s right, “we’ve just lost cabin pressure.” Oh, and if the title of this article gave the punchline away, my apologies; at least now you’ve got a great excuse to use the line, I am Jack’s total lack of surprise.

Hey, if Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery could attract a sizable following among runners, I see no reason why Fight Club can’t make ultrarunning’s list of must-sees. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you may recognize a few snippets of dialogue that have survived as pop-culture catchphrases, beginning with the first two of its rules. The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club. Yes, that’s two gag rules. But that’s not ultrarunners. Not at all. They talk about their races. They talk about them a lot, in fact. They talk at water coolers, in blogs, in magazine articles, at the barber shop, on dates and at funerals. Like that matters. You see, just as “the Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao,” the ultra that can be spoken of is not the eternal ultra. Observe the blank faces of those who’ve listened at the water cooler but not heard. To them your blow-by-blow account sounds like lines out of “Jabberwocky.” All the stuff about splits and pacers, fueling and crewing sounds like galumphing, gyring and gimbling in the wabe. Ultrarunners can talk all they want; they’ve given none of the show away. There are those in the know, and those who wear their ignorance like a bumper sticker that reads 13.1. But as with Fight Club, the meme is spreading in spite of its being ineffable. “I look around and see a lot of new faces. Which means a lot of you are breaking the first two rules…” In other words, ultrarunning has moved out of the basement.

Back to the manifesto. Third rule: If someone says “stop’” or goes limp, taps out, the fight is over. The only thing I’ll add for ultrarunning is that if a runner fails to clear a medical checkpoint because, say, he’s lost a Chihuahua’s worth of water weight, the fight is over. I am Jack’s impending renal failure.

Fourth rule: Only two guys to a fight. While there may be, say, 369 people to a race (e.g., The Western States 100), the fight will come down to just two: the ultrarunner one will be at the finish line, and the one she is at mile 70, with 30 miles to go and wanting only to retreat into her cave. “You don’t know what this feels like,” her 70-mile self cries in the throes of a torment from which she begs to be released. Her 100-mile self flashes the scar, the finishing medal and the knowledge that her 70-mile self has everything she needs to pull through. In Fight Club the immediate source of torment is a self-inflicted chemical burn. Fight Club‘s prescription has no room for palliatives: whether one’s crucible is a lye burn or a lactic acid burn (also self-inflicted), here’s the Rx: “Deal with it like a living person does. Come back to the pain. Don’t shut this out.” Fight Club alludes to changeovers, single-frames in which it wants you to think it has spliced subliminal messages into the film, probably illicit in nature. In the end the embedded messages prove to be neither subliminal nor illicit. They’re spiritual. The Buddhist message in Fight Club‘s prescription couldn’t be more clear: “To live is to suffer.” Mile 71. “Congratulations. You’re a step closer to hitting bottom.”

At mile 70, a 100-mile self is a projection; with 30 additional miles, a 70-mile self is an actualized 100-mile self, enjoying all the advantages of reality over illusion; in other words, the projection becomes redundant and expendable, merely a scaffolding for the stone pillar one was constructing. Ok, since you’re a pillar, now’s probably a good time to stop talking to yourself.

Fifth rule: One fight at a time, fellas. That’s exactly what ultramarathoners do when they break ultras into more mentally manageable chunks. By thinking of a 100 mile event as four marathons (of 25 miles each), they seek to avoid taking on four opponents at once. In tournament style, each fight gets tougher. By mile 80, each mile may be a fight. By mile 90, each step.

Sixth rule: No shirt, no shoes. Invite Tony (naked man) Krupica and Barefoot Ted and an ultra starts to resemble the basement of Lou’s Tavern. While the norm is to have several shirts and a couple pairs of shoes on hand, these articles are optional. Sports bras (compulsory) do not count as shirts. I wonder: do Tarahumara huaraches and Vibram FiveFingers count as shoes?

Seventh rule. Fights will go on as long as they have to. Surely even for Fight Club this rule had limits. Guys had jobs. Lou had to run a “respectable” business that didn’t involve triage patients stumbling around and frightening the clientele. At the Leadville Trail 100 fights will go on for 30 hours if necessary, then Leadville returns to, um, business. In something like a 24-hour race, fights will go on as far as they have to.

Eighth rule: If it’s your first night at Fight Club, you have to fight. Admit it, in your first ultra you felt like a “space monkey…ready to be shot into space.” But at least you had re-entry options, also known as aid stations. A third of ultra first-timers DNF. It’s ok. It was in the homework you were given. “You are going to pick a fight. And you are going to lose…Now, this is not as easy as it sounds.” Albert I, the first space monkey, DNFd at 39 miles. Twenty-one years later, Apollo 11‘s astronauts snapped photos from 240,000 miles in space. I am Albert’s smirking revenge.

While Project Mayhem devoted nights to carrying out acts of guerilla terrorism aimed at unbalancing the corporate and financial infrastructure, ultrarunning’s most sinister plot seems to involve putting comfortable distance between itself and mainstream road racing and its ties to huge corporate sponsors. Filmmaking includes a lot of fantasy. Art may run seriously afoul of the law in the name of entertainment. Reality may bend rules, but it isn’t usually felonious. This isn’t to say that ultrarunners aren’t still the guerilla rebels of the sports world. And while its reasons for running in the dark may not be blatantly subversive, Project Ultramayhem involves plenty of it.

You may experience hallucinations. You will get beat up. Your boss and coworkers will begin to wonder about you (especially if you forget to take the race flyer off the printer). “Yes, these are bruises from fighting. Yes, I’m comfortable with that. I’m enlightened.” You will have detailed and contentious conversations with yourself. Others will wonder whether you’ve gone insane. You will wonder whether you’ve gone insane. And while you’re unlikely to hear ultrarunners bonding over the hallowed name of Robert Paulson, be prepared to hear the name Caballo Blanco a lot.

Still not sold on Fight Club‘s being an ultrarunning film? Here’s a line that may help you decide. “I ran. I ran until my muscles burned and my veins pumped battery acid. Then I ran some more.” Sound like anyone you know?

Oh, and at $20.00 a bar, Fight Club will sell you something to wash up with when you’re done with all that running.

Unlike one of Jack’s haiku poems, an article about ultrarunners might go on and on, especially when it’s having this much fun. But what is the serious point to my saying that Fight Club is an ultrarunning film?

With its out-of-joint finger on the pulse of an age, Fight Club declares the waning millennium’s heartbeat to be unhealthfully high, ineffectually feeble. Defibrillation is not to be had from half measures. Enter Fight Club, enter Project Mayhem (Fight Club’s evolving cohort): stand-in actors, both. Ultramarathoning, crossfit, fitness boot camps: these are the actors who turned up for the actual casting call. Project Ultramayhem is no sequel; instead think of Project Mayhem as the pilot, and of Ultramayhem as the currently airing series.

Fight Club points to a malaise that, while it has always stalked us, descends on us like sitting ducks in the sterile, humdrum, consumerist, suburban milieu that looks to TV and advertising for its values. It has been supposed by some historians and sociologists (and apparently Andrew Nichol, who wrote the screenplay for The Truman Show, another piece of late-90s filmmaking that, with Fight Club, tag-teams the same suburban blight) that the existence of an open frontier is essential to the vibrant health of a culture and its constituents. In Fight Club, the frontiers are closed for business. Fight Club is not above trespassing to find a back way in. Fight Club is about living–really living–beyond the pale of the mundane. Clearly ultrarunning sets the stage (by legal permit) for a reenactment of our primitive frontier battles (where the catch is a gold belt buckle instead of a kudu or an impala). But as with great performance art (and avant garde cult films), the subplot’s the thing. The real borderlands refer to the undiscovered country just beyond one’s former physiological boundaries and to states of consciousness that are the exclusive reserve of those willing to venture far–very far–from the everyday world. So that’s what it means to realign one’s perception.

To see the world from outer space, one technically must travel 62 miles, beyond the Kármán line. In like manner, each ultrarunner finds a line that bears his or her own name, from beyond which everything–political entities, institutions, concepts, headlines–that looked big yesterday look small today and may continue to look small for however long it takes one’s consciousness to come back to earth. That’s a lot for a spacemonkey to wrap its brain around.

Both Project Mayhem and Project Ultramayhem have answers for a culture that assumes all of us ought to be content with running the rat race. Project Mayhem answers with hyperbole. Project Ultramayhem sounds as if it ought to be hyperbole, but it’s not–not to those willing to throw their hat into its ring. ‘How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight.” I am Jack’s near life experience.

This article may also be viewed in The Good Men Project at http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/project-ultramayhem-mkdn/

Because It’s Here (appeared in The Good Men Project, June, 22, 2015)

ManRunningNearMountainsThe longer one runs, the more fluent one becomes in the use of its spare language. Whether rooted in English, Tarahumaran or Kalenjin, running talk does not usually hold audience with conundrums; it answers most puzzles by earnestly suggesting, what else but a run? Between runners, all of this passes for shorthand; as long as there are routes and races to run, it matters little to us whether there is a translatable answer to the question most frequently put to us by non-runners: in a word, “Why?”Asked why he cared to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.” With those three words he became a poet of mountaineering and of all sports; wisely, he answered the question with a clever dodge; he let the mountain speak to the mystery. He needed only to allude to the famous pinnacle, nature’s ultimate pièce de résistance, and others were able to form a clear mental picture of the thing he hungered to overcome, whether or not they cared to add its overcoming to their own bucket lists. Had he any words to add to his perfect utterance, the result would have been a subtraction.

But utramarathons, marathons, 10ks and neighborhood routes are not “there” in the same sense that Everest is, as a conspicuous, imposing terrestrial feature calling out to some universally human (if latent) spirit of adventure. The proving grounds of the runner are human inventions superimposed on a neutral geography, a compact agreed on by us and our GPSs or a few race marshals.

Yet make no mistake: there is a mountain. For each runner the contour lines and stratigraphy differ. Though the runner’s obstacles exist mostly in the realms of metaphor, they are in the end no less real than Mallory’s mountain. For some there is an encircling range, the ascent of which is the sole means of escape from poverty and prospects best described as mean, brutish and short. One hears this in the interviews of the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes who have, against all odds, clambered up a steep path that carried them through a narrow pass and down a leeward side. This seems appropriate somehow for a people who occupy—literally–the Great Rift Valley. Others have it more like Rasselas, the story-book prince whose only release from a life of courtly extravagance and unwholesome entertainments lay beyond the earthly ramparts insulating the Utopian valley of his boyhood. Picture Bruce Dern, gifted actor and fortunate son, with his streak of 17 years of daily running to blunt the toxicity of Hollywood’s fickle fame and a decade’s-long Vicodin addiction.

To each his own mountain, raised from unseen forces and pressures, formed of what complex aggregates others may only imagine. The bedrock is laid early. Assay the runner’s psyche and read his history in the strata. And don’t be surprised to unearth a skeleton or two. Who can know the story of Billy Mills and not know in his heart that it was the catastrophic tectonics of cultures in collision that raised the mountain up which he had to run? During a harangue by his college coach over a disappointing race, the fiery half Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian with the “white man’s haircut” is reported to have shot back, “What half do you suppose lost today?” We may be sure that Mills stood atop much more than three podium steps when, in 1964, he was awarded the U.S.’s first 10,000 meter Olympic Gold in one of running’s greatest upsets. The mountain wouldn’t come to Billy, so Billy went to the mountain.

Of our uplands, the greater part perhaps is rooted in accidents of our prehistory: the where and the when into which we are born, the lot we draw at birth, including the industrial diseases that are now part of the modern runner’s inheritance. A part too is owing to the accretions of our personal history. One feels this in ultra-runner Jenn Shelton’s confession, “I started running ultras to become a better person. I thought that if you ran 100 miles you’d be in this Zen state…It didn’t work in my case—I’m the same old punk-ass as before—but there’s always that hope that it will turn you into the person you want to be…”
Yes, there’s always hope; flowers are usually rooted in dirt, after all. But how long must we run the mountain before we realize that the mountain is us and that we have only to get out of our own way? Because its location in the psyche conforms to no point on a topographical map, there’s no telling the miles we’ll need to log before we may tag its summit. We haven’t the perspective to triangulate its true distance from us, and to know whether or not the summit we think we see is false.

Surely our mountains are made of more than molehills, but of what exactly? Only a great deal of digging will bring such facts fully to light: The names we were told could never hurt us, the insults added to injury, the hats we didn’t throw into the ring, the towels we did; and so much else that, by way of consolation, we convinced ourselves was immaterial. (No amount of EVA foam will fully shield our thin skin from the jagged memories that underlie these cushy figures of speech. This is the job of callouses.) Here too is all that we repressed and sublimated; all that emasculated, dehumanized or disempowered us; the prognoses and prognostications we couldn’t abide; the anti-depressants and statins we refused to take. Sleep, science tells us, cleans the machinery of our brains, but there are dustbins nearer the soul that its nocturnal housekeeping never touches. Neglected, the overspill may rise so high as to throw menacing shadows and summon storm clouds to its heights. Against these, we must add our day labor. These piles we may never disperse; but by years of sweat and by the counting of mile markers, we may rise above them. This is but one way of overcoming: the runner’s way.

Do we doubt that a figment of the mind has influence enough to call a body to run? How common is running in dreams? So common that even our dogs do it. Sometimes the illusion is so vivid that a body actually becomes involved in the running dream. The crux of running’s enigma is that others see only the running but not the thing being run. No wonder they’re confounded.

To run is to invite accusations that we are running from something. That, I think, is a weak light in which to view our striving. We runners are not so passive, not so reflexive. We run up and over mountains, never mind that we may be the ones who’ve put them there. We know that mountains do not give chase; they stand in our way.

So what’s at the top, anyway? First, there’s the view, the wide sunny prospect that allows one to finally see where one came from and where one might go next. Second, there’s a descent. There is, in every great running story, a watershed, after which it is clear to all that, whether the hero runs faster or slower or not at all, he no longer grinds against the weight of the world. From here, he may run on to new vistas, or retrace his steps home. Having run with a heavy heart for three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours, Forrest Gump suddenly stops and declares to his assembled acolytes: “I’m pretty tired. Think I’ll go home now.” A flat desert road on a day of no particular importance: this was the appointed time and place for Forrest to get to tell it on the mountain.

Whether tomorrow or a month from tomorrow, we’re sure to hear the words, “Why do you want to run that marathon? That treadmill? That track? That whatever?” We might just shrug and invite our questioner to join us. But if we’re feeling chatty that day, we might invoke the spirit of Mallory and answer (with an inward pointing gesture), “Because it’s here.

Forrest-Gump (1)

Because It’s Here may also be read in The Good Men Project, June, 22, 2015.

Running With Distinction


Image: Oiselle-fan-girl

Depending on which version of the story one knows, the Eskimo have 6, 20 or 50 distinct terms for the English word snow. While Franz Boas’ ethnographic observations on Eskimo language are mostly regarded as a hoax today, the man did have a point. When the thing you’re describing is all around you, there’s no need to be stingy with the modifiers. Hold forth. Be verbose. It’s not TMI if its omission invites a question. Only Captain Obvious tells an Eskimo it’s “snowing.” Or a running shoe sales associate that he’s a “runner.”

Since the beginning, we runners have applied specificity to our training. Now it’s in our jargon. When our sport was in its infancy, it sufficed to say that one was a “runner,” plain and simple. This usually meant that one wasn’t a jogger in the days when you were one or the other (assuming you laced up a pair of Brooks or New Balances at all). Beyond that, there wasn’t much more to say. Being a runner meant you were already odd and on the vanguard of a fringe movement; further explanation might have been thought redundant. This isn’t to say that while making a sweep of the 70s literature one’s detector won’t occasionally beep to the presence of some colorful taxonomic ingot. Take, for example, the curiously Orwellian phrase citizen runner, denoting a runner with a full-time job (and presumably a birth certificate handy for immediate presentation at random police stops). But such fine distinctions were, during the Nixon era, as scarce as a pair of ankle socks.

Then running went forth and multiplied, along with its phraseology. In 1970, running’s word pool looked as if it might evaporate in a single afternoon. Today it has lanes, superslides, and even a deep end, and can charge whatever admission it likes.

Still, when dealing with those who take no particular interest in our sport, it may suffice to describe oneself simply as a “runner.” It may be preferable, in fact. Why not save one’s adjectives for when they matter, for when one is in the company of other runners who’ll be more exacting in their call for identifiers? Imagine you are newly introduced to a throng of running veterans. Tell them you are a “runner,” and you risk being pegged as a novice and accordingly dressed down. What they’ll hear is that you’re a freshman with an undeclared major. (Until you blow past them, of course.)

With a quick primer, the most unversed novice can avoid an unpleasant hazing. The following list (which for brevity says nothing of track and field distinctions) treats the lexicography only cursorily and jocularly (you’ll thank me for it). Of course many of us will find that we fit into several of these categories. Slashes don’t come across well in conversation, so my suggestion is to pick the single descriptor that best describes you, and to wear it proudly and with distinction. (Or use it in word-magnet affirmations on your refrigerator door.) And though I won’t be around to proctor it, there will be a quiz on this stuff. Count on it.

Fun runner, fitness runner, social runner: These various terms describe one who runs for the health, fitness and psychological benefits alone, or one who skips, gambols or perambulates across a finish line for the sheer joy of getting out and participating in a social/charity event that involves covering a designated course (distances usually vary from 1 to 13.1 miles). Used pejoratively by elitists, these are today’s PC terms for the J word. Here’s hoping all runners–even elitists–are sometimes fun runners. All work and no play make Jack an ex runner.

Road runner, road racer: The adjectival noun road was originally used to distinguish between events contested on a track and those contested on the more-or-less straight asphalt or concrete surfaces one encounters in cities, city parks and suburbs. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of running shoes were manufactured for road runners and racers. A decade or two of pounding the pavement, and it might spell the end of the road for your plantar fascia, shin or Achilles tendon. Fortunately, today’s runner has options. Please read on.

Cross-country runner, harrier, hasher: Cross-country running vaguely refers to 4-12 kilometer events contested by individuals (and teams) over mostly natural terrain that may include natural or artificial obstacles. Don’t get tripped up by cross-country’s English roots and rules; although the spikes have been replaced by EVA foam and rubber soles, I’ve yet to see a cross country race in which half the finishers didn’t look like they’d just come in from a rugby match. Also see trailrunner. The lines separating American cross-country and trail running are often as blurry as a trampled chalk mark. Harrier, a folksy word for a cross-country runner, seems to have missed the turn onto the information superhighway. Look for it on the sweeper bus or having a cold one with a hasher, with whom it is guilty by frequent association (i.e., Hash House Harriers, “a drinking club with a running problem.”).

Masters runner/racer, age-group runner/racer: These terms generally refer to all manner of over-40 runners who measure their racing success against age-appropriate competition as opposed to an open field that includes runners of all ages. Contrary to how it sounds, this form of “handicapping” tends to produce relative performances that equal or exceed those of high-school and collegiate runners. It is far from unheard of to find a masters runner in the lead pack of an open race. This is one party where you’ll want to be caught acting half your age.

Marathoner: One who specializes in racing the 26.2 mile distance. Don’t be put off by the fact that marathoners often enter shorter races; they’re only using them for speedwork. Dick Beardsley is a classic example of a marathoner: a man who could barely crack 30 minutes for the 10k but who, in the early 80s, ran shoulder-to-shoulder for two hours and eight minutes with Alberto Salazar, the greatest marathoner in the world at that time.

Trail runner/racer: The less-structured and rule-bound cousin of the cross-country runner, the trail runner/racer trains and competes on natural surfaces offering moderate to extremely challenging conditions that often include rocky and exposed-root surfaces. This is where geographical isolation meets the ever-present risk of tripping or twisting an ankle. Kudos that you remembered to punch the ER’s number into your phone’s contacts list. Now if you could only get some signal bars.

Mountain runner, fell runner: Take trail running and dial in a 10% grade, and you have mountain running. Newbie’s often assume that mountain running is hard only half of the time. That’s because they’ve never experienced the unique exhaustion that comes with breaking one’s precipitous free-fall–for an hour straight. Downhill running requires Napoleon Dynamite skills. For me, no mountain runner will ever best local legend Matt Carpenter. Fell running is the UK’s equivalent. Half the altitude, double the entendre.

Skyrunner: On the rise as a running term. Sounds like it should be ushered in with the cinematic crawl, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” As near as I can tell this is an over-the-top way of saying that one is a mountain runner. Goes best with a post-industrial soundtrack ala 127 Hours and groupies at the finish line. Kilian Jornet Burgada, whose grandiosely-titled book, Run or Die, reads like the frenetic footage from a skyrunner’s headcam.

Ultrarunner: On speaking tours, Dean Karnazes says that in Latin ultra means beyond. This could mean beyond 26.2 miles, and it could mean beyond help. This time, take trail running and dial in a distance of 30-350 miles. If it were only about the distance, Dean would be its icon. But it’s more about having the right attitude. Ultrarunners tend to hold themselves with a free-thinking, off-the-grid air. During the week they may wear ties and sit through meetings. On the weekends, they’re sherpas. Scott Jurek and Ann Trason represent the American contingent.

Barefoot runner, minimalist runner: Steely Dan‘s Donald Fagen once crooned, “Kick off your high heeled sneakers, it’s party time.” To barefoot and minimalist runners, that about sums it up. Injury is afoot, and she treads anything-but-lightly on slabs of EVA foam. Better run from her in your bare feet (or in something with a zero-drop, at least). Before Barefoot Ted (of Born To Run fame) there was barefoot pioneer Ken Bob Saxton (against whom I had the pleasure of competing over 12 years ago). Before either of them, there was homo erectus.

Before moving on from this primer, please don’t forget to read the aside: There is still more that unites runners than separates them. Running code, while it will never rival Navajo code talk for incomprehensibility, can nevertheless be challenging. A glut of hard-to-differentiate jargon is a small price to pay for clarity in a rapidly growing sport. Today racewalking is still just, um, racewalking (our respects to sub seven-minute per mile racewalkers). The running boom of the 70s was no hoax.

The New Therapy: Running On It (The Long Run 2015 Jun).


Running is good, we all know, at loosening the knots we’ve tied in the laces of our shoes. (A run in the rain, I have been astonished to find, may loosen even a double knot.) And even if the invention of Speed Laces proves eventually to be the end of the running shoe knot, we may count on there always being stubborn knots at which running may work: knotted stomachs and knotty problems. Many are the seemingly indissoluble puzzles that have proven soluble after just one hour of running. Had Alexander the Great been more of a runner, he might have undone the Gordian Knot without ever having needed to raise his sword to it, thus forfeiting the rope to brashness.

Why an hour? Why not more? Dr. George Sheehan spoke as if there were a sort of number magic in running for sixty minutes. An honorable physician, Sheehan prescribed an hour of running a day to keep the likes of him and his colleagues away; no man was ever happier trying to work himself out of a job. For regular folks with careers and children, an hour most days of the week seems about right. Any more, and how to fit the run in becomes a knotty problem in itself. Any less, and the purity of the act seems tarnished by our breaking a nice round unit of time into a kind of petty change, like digging in our pockets and purses for a tip of $8.53 when we might instead offer a crisp ten-dollar bill for services earnestly rendered.

Some of us are morning runners. Others prefer to run in the evenings. Still others are lunch-break runners. The most dedicated among us are all-of-the-above runners. To an untold extent, necessity and Circadian biorhythmicity decides the when of our running. Any time might be a good time to run, but I myself am partial to evenings. Much of this preference has to do with a fringe benefit of evening running that I like to call running on it.

The solitary runner whose designated hour falls between the end of her workday and the call to dinner runs in a world of long shadows. And not all of these shadows may be accounted for in terms of her person and her surroundings. Though she hears the fall of but one pair of feet, she is not alone. She is trailed at every turn by the unfinished business of her day. But didn’t she swear to leave all of that at the front door? The child who plays at shaking its own shadow has no easier task than the adult who works at shaking the hangover of a “rough day at the office.” How much of a rough day’s dialog do we play back to ourselves as we run? And why can’t we just turn it off? Just when we think we have, we catch ourselves ruminating on it again. Mama said there’d be days like this. With any luck, she handed us a pair of running shoes as well.

What can we accomplish in just one hour of running? In our hour we can rehearse the replies we’ll give tomorrow to the questions we left unanswered today. In the chess match that is life, we can gain the advantage that an adjournment affords, having our hour to masterfully plan a move that will turn the match’s momentum in our favor. As for heated conflicts, we have long been advised to walk away from them. As runners, we can go one better. We find that not only the tread of our soles is worn thinner by running. With a brisk run, the indelicate tread of others is often smoothed away. We do well to remember that psychotherapy too proceeds an hour at a time—and is a great deal more expensive.

At a renewable energy fair, the runner will find the pedal-powered projector to be no very great revelation. Her daily running is a dynamo that powers the reel from which the record of her day is projected. All day long her retinae had been busy filming, and her auditory cortex recording. Here, for the first time since she woke, her attention is not being called to the scene of some new fire. In this hour her mind is finally at leisure to study the day’s frames, and to critique, summarize, tag and archive the work. For this kind of viewing, she finds that the “best seat in the house” is no seat at all, and in no house. “The benefits of daydreaming,” according to psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, “are most potent when the external environment is undemanding, and our minds are free to roam our rich internal landscape of emotions, images and fantasies, and to consider our more distant aspirations and plot our paths toward them.” And rest assured that when we encounter a stretch of external terrain requiring all of our wiles, the executive network of our brain will jolt us from our reveries more effectually than any proverbial rap on the knuckles.

With so much work to be done in these hours of ours, can any miles we run in them be termed “junk miles”?  “Know the purpose of each workout.” This has become a hot tag-line in athletic coaching; it speaks to the weekend athlete’s need for optimal efficiency. We need only to reconstitute our thinking to know that while not every workout translates to running a faster marathon, no workout is without purpose. “I grew in those seasons like corn in the night,” Thoreau said of certain hours of his life that others were quick to deem idle. “They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.”

Much of this kind of personal growth we’ll find to have taken place though we were unconscious of its having done so. Our running journal records that it was just a run. The elevation of our mood suggests that it was more. While our ears heard every word of the wind, and while our eyes read the trail as closely as a favorite poem, our brains apparently had been running scans and fixing errors in the background. We rarely can say just why the world seems a better place after a run. It is enough that it does. We run for more reasons than we know. When all is said and done, it was our unconscious—and not our conscious—minds that chose running for us. Racing, the pursuit of prize purses and scholarships, weight loss, fitness, life-extension, charity and community are but a few of the reasons I have heard conscious minds give for their running. While any of these reasons would be sufficient, the whole lot of them may be little more than an ad hoc defense for appeasing the uncomprehending and unconverted world. There is good medicine in running. Our unconscious minds knew it long before our conscious minds began vouching for them.

For most of us the expression, “sleep on it,” is a familiar one. The phrase was coined in the dark ages before the popularization of running. Sleeping on a thing—providing that thing doesn’t prevent one’s sleeping in the first place—requires eight or nine hours. And why does it so seldom occur to us that the five or six its we are sleeping on at a time may be why we aren’t sleeping much at all? We runners may do better than to sleep on it. We may run on it. The latter requires a single hour only. More importantly it allows our heads to hit our pillows a great deal emptier (in a good way) than they might otherwise have been. Is it any wonder that regular runners claim to sleep better?

As adults we understand that we can’t outrun our shadows. As runners we know that we can at least tire them out.

Born to Run, the Tarahumara and other Treasures of the Sierra Madre (The Long Run 2015 Apr)

bornFor every human enterprise there is that book: the one that captures, methodically or by luck, the vitality of a living subculture in the kind of iconic still shot destined for immortality. Christopher McDougal’s Born To Run is such a book. But whatever kind of book you think it is (based on its bestselling success), it probably isn’t that. Born To Run is, to use one of its own favorite words, a bricolage: a hodgepodge of anecdote, travelogue, biography, sermon and science-backed discourse assembled to give McDougal’s pet theories and prescribed practices the traction of something road-worthy and dependable for now and for all time. Departing stylistically from former running bestsellers, Born To Run’s chapters read with the sweep and formlessness of a picaresque novel. The work seems more akin to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road than to any of the sports-writing reads to which we might be tempted to compare it. Its pages brim with surly characters (all the more colorful for being real) playing loose and reckless with social mores while mocking conformist running wisdom. One senses that its runners run not so much for the sake of sport as from hermetically-sealed hometowns, damning diagnoses, and the chafing fetters of convention. If these features fail to square with our profile of an elite athlete, probably it is our profile that needs adjusting. Whatever private existential demons are driving McDougal’s transient characters on from invisible city to invisible city, they seem to agree on one thing: “[they] ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more”; instead they’ll run far and wide and with aboriginal abandon. Rendered in Gonzo journalistic prose, McDougal’s characters are equal parts Fear And Loathing and Chariots of Fire. With McDougal’s book, the “running bum” rounds into form for our classifying intellect and rubbernecking amusement. Now the question is, will he shake off his hang-over and finish—even win—the race? The hang-over is no less a trophy than his first-place medal; later he’ll call attention to each with equal braggadocio.

In chapters where McDougal leaves off recounting the antics of his ragtag cast (of which he’s self-consciously the least talented member), it’s to wax primitive, to soliloquize about poverty diets, minimalist footwear, altruism, playfulness, and our Space Oddesey-esque evolutionary journey from walkers to the finest endurance runners on the planet. He asks us to accept as living proof his literary diorama of a small band of pre-industrial Mexican natives known to the world as the Tarahumara, the running people. The Tarahumara, it turns out, are McDougal’s kind of rebels: they are great guzzlers of corn beer, happy to clear the training calendars they don’t keep for the wild, licentious multi-day raves they do keep. When they are not fuelling up on pinole, chia seeds and tortillas, they crave gringo cigarettes and Coca-Colas, and will warm to the tourist who comes bearing them. Still, when it comes to running, the Tarahumara don’t just excel, they excel wearing sandals and skirts and being more oblivious to concepts like training cycles, tempo runs, VO2 max and electrolyte balance than your 5-year old son or daughter. Running comes so naturally to the Tarahumara that if no foreigner had ever told them they were running, they wouldn’t know it. The Tarahumara, preserved for centuries from the modern world in the amber of a nearly inaccessible and forbidding canyon land, the Copper Canyons of The Sierra Madre, are (now that they are becoming known through books such as Born To Run) like a recruiting poster that Nature tacked to a wall where loiterers have been reported to gather. Ironically, their message for modern man, homo technicus, interpreted by the likes of McDougal and his peers, is “Be all that you can be.” So much for our advertised progress.

What begins as a casual recognition of resemblances between McDougal’s and Kerouac’s styles becomes, by mid book, a growing conviction that the author, in channeling his Beat-writer muse, is doing something more sublime than just plying a provocative writing style to sell copies. It’s about then that we learn that one of Born To Run’s characters, the party girl ultra-runner known as “Brujita,” is in fact a big Kerouac fan. Just as there are said to be no coincidences in life, it seems there are none in Born To Run. If it reads like Kerouac, there’s got to be a reason. But we’d be wrong to look to McDougal to give it. We’d be wrong to think that he can give it. Like the runners who get lost in Born to Run’s shadowy Copper Canyons—and they all, including McDougal, seem to get lost at times—we’re left to find our own way out of the conceptual arroyos into which the book casts a slanting light.

In the old Beat standard, On The Road, Kerouac’s first-person narrator is a kind of pilgrim moving through geo-spiritual space. Deliverance is a geographical horizon that always recedes from his grasp. It isn’t in Denver and the people he meets in Denver. It isn’t in San Francisco. Surely it’s in the next city, as Kerouac’s protagonist ricochets eastward. Zen too has its path, its pilgrim and its goal; and monks who walk great distances from monastery to monastery in search of the master who’ll ignite in them the spark of enlightenment. As runners, we’re used to negotiating a kind of fitness-spiritual space. We chase deliverance now in this marathon program, now in that method aimed at straightening some feature of our crooked form. This summer we’ll finally run without injury. This fall, in this city, we’ll be in shape to run our PR marathon. This will be the year when, at long last, we’ll qualify for Boston. We follow, for years and for decades, scores of plans, often contradictory, like the fingers that pointed the Conquistadors on to hundreds of false El Dorados, the imaginary cities of gold that endlessly diverted them. This is the receding horizon to which we runners are susceptible to being drawn. The space we seek is the one in which some master alchemist finally teaches us the trick to transforming our dirt into gold. Try to find it in the Copper Canyons. It isn’t there. In the lessons of the Tarahumara: Not there. In Born To Run: Again, no. As fine as these things are, the gold just isn’t there. As anyone who’s ever seen the film The Treasure of The Sierra Madre knows, it isn’t anywhere if we haven’t got it in us already (which of course we do, and must discover the fact in sequels of our own directing). And when we don’t find the gold where we thought we’d find it, there’s only one thing to do: keep moving. From Kerouac to McDougal to you and me, we are all on the road.

The Flash vs. Everyman: a Comic Showdown (The Long Run 2015 Feb)

marathonIs it just me, or was 2014 the year for superhero-themed costume races? Probably it’s been a growing trend, and it took me until Halloween of 2014 to notice. The fad undoubtedly has something to do with Hollywood’s recent recycling of the superhero in film. Whether legion or obscure, every superhero ever known to the big screen, dime-store or illustrated novel seems to have had his or her 15 minutes of fame in the new millennium. There’s someone super for everyone; there’s even someone for us generally unassuming runners. But we needn’t look to the comic-book likes of The Flash to find a fellow whose superpower includes superhuman speed. We might have read in any modern equivalent of the Daily Planet that another men’s marathon world record was smashed in 2014. Yes, Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto made his superhero debut at the New York City Marathon, turning in an astounding 2 hour, 2 minute and 57 second performance. Nowhere in the news was there any mention of a cape. Here apparently is a superhero who puts his shorts on one leg at a time.

Meanwhile in other 2014 news (which the Daily Planet did not consider newsworthy), The Penguin announced his retirement. No, not The Penguin who gave the dynamic duo headaches as a member of the Batman franchise’s rogue’s gallery. I refer here to John Bingham, the running columnist better known by his self-deprecating nickname, “The Penguin.” For decades the columnist served as de facto champion for a new kind of “runner,” one with no aspirations to win races or age brackets, whose ambitions are seldom more lofty than to stick out a training plan and finish a target race, one who can find inspiration in the modest and chummy persona of a writer who likens his running style to the waddling of his overdressed spirit-animal. Beginning in 2015, runners will be without The Penguin for the first time in decades. To whom will they turn for his brand of genial motivation? Will no ungainly animal shuffle, wobble or lumber forward to take up his mantle?

The juxtaposition of these news pieces is perfect for the relating of two concurrent narratives of the running experience over the past several decades. Paradoxically, running has, since the early 80s, grown in dual and somewhat contradictory directions. On the one hand, running’s assault of the record books has contained all of the frame-by-frame drama, the POW! and BAM! action-histrionics, the lithe and muscular figure-drawing of an illustrated novel, as this or that super-runner took turns doing his or her worst to the poor embattled record book. The Book took a beating and gave ground alright, but like a thing constructed of adamant, stands ready to challenge all comers. On the other hand, we are forced to take as the comic book symbol of the second running story the obscure, nebulous antihero of a million faces and somatotypes: DC Comic’s shape-shifting Everyman. In the 1970s there were 1,000 Everymen to each Superman, Captain America or Flash; now there are 100,000 of us. In Metropolises all over the country, Everymen and Everywomen form cities of 70,000 runners, cities that move at an 11- minute mile pace, consume swimming pools of Gatorade and disperse in 5 or 6 hours’ time. But unlike Everyman, best known for imperfectly imitating better known super heroes (and aren’t they all better known?), we commit no fraud when we dress like Kara Goucher, attempt to run with Shalane Flanagan’s form, and submit our race entry blank with the confidence of Paula Radcliff. It never crosses our minds to be a proxy for the likes of them. We know in our marrow that we must run our own race.

And yet how we marvel at the fantastic things others do. And how little we think of the fantastic things we ourselves do. By our way of seeing things, it is they who wear the cape every day; we don it maybe once a year, and even then with the irony that attends a costume party. “Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in,” Emerson said. The media latches on to stories of world records smashed, of Dean Karnazes running 350 miles or 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, of coach Alberto Salazar’s runners taking the silver and the gold together. We come to be amazed by not just any hero, but by superheroes. Mesmerized by the theatre of the athletically absurd, we forget the far more remarkable and galvanizing fact that something as simple as getting out the door for a three mile run, three or four times a week saves and transforms ordinary lives. So accustomed are we to scanning the skies for superhero fly-byes, we force ordinary heroism to do its everyday work beneath our radar. Spend too much time in the shade of the tall trees against whose height we insist on measuring ourselves, and see if we are not tempted to lie down and go to sleep there.

Ultimately the march of human running performance will meet with an absolute limit, the record book will grow stiff and fail to yield, all blows against it will be answered with a THUNK! that rattles the combatant’s bones. But every individual born from that time on will have the freedom of discovering his or her own personal limits, both in running and in everything else. No matter our age and fitness level, there exists in each one of us more untapped potential than exists in human performance in general. Most of us could coach ourselves to lopping 10 minutes off our marathon best or 1 minute off our 5k best. World record holders have no such slack with which to play. They live in a world where the most Herculean efforts, under the direction of the world’s best coaches, are unlikely to shave more than a few seconds off their PRs. They swing with all their might and make but a tiny dent. We swing and the POW! of our blow has repeating OOOOOs that trail out of the frame. Even if our superhero “owns” a world record, he or she knows that another will soon wrest it from them; it is more a thing rented on a short lease than it is a thing owned. We, on the other hand, own a personal record, and know that if it is ever broken we will be the one to break it.

Like a superhero, Dennis Kimetto has just set the world marathon record. But Dennis Kimetto cannot rescue me from my languor this morning. That is not his errand. This morning, my body and mind are Gotham, and, ordinary as I feel, I am the only hero within calling distance. The morning sun shines like the Bat-signal summoning my will to action. I will not let me down.

Greener Pastures (appeared in The Long Run 2014 Nov, and The Good Men Project, June 25, 2015)

trailrunFor those of us over 25 or so, while we slept, ran and lived, a relatively rare event occurred: a sport was born—quietly. Prior to the 90s, glossaries of running failed to recognize the terms ultramarathon, ultramarathoner or ultrarunner. Editors of such wordlists aren’t to be blamed; these terms, like the neologism World Wide Web, were but twinkles in a lexicographer’s eye. Sure, someone somewhere was covering belief-defying distances on foot and at a run. But those someones either weren’t aware they were doing anything noteworthy or their feats were never circulated beyond the limits of their hometown’s or village’s gossip mills. Of course one might argue that an ultramarathon (ultra, for short) is only a new event within an existing sport. It is, after all, still running. Indeed the very word marathon within the compound term betrays its consanguinity with the older guard of running. (Ultimately look for the suffix marathon to be left behind like the straggling runner who fails to clear a 30-mile checkpoint). On the sports family tree, it must be conceded that running and ultrarunning are undeniably more closely related than, say, water polo and badminton. Nevertheless, the cultural and demographic differences between the two spheres of endeavor are great enough to suggest that what was once the amusement of a few fringe eccentrics (and de rigueur for a smattering of African and Central American tribesmen) has become a sport in its own right. While the winners of both endeavors are still recognized on the basis of the fastest finishing times, ultras go out of their way to slow the field of athletes down with demoralizing distances, death-defying terrain and off-world climate conditions. In ultrarunning, a seven-minute mile pace (warm-up speed for an elite road-racer) is the kind of speed that kills even its superheroes.

To a great extent, ultrarunning is touted as catering to the athlete who just can’t get his or her fill from the standard road-running menu. Ultrarunning meets that hunger with an all-you-can eat man-versus-nature buffet. Man-versus-man is a dessert for those who’ve somehow managed to save room after several trips through the buffet line. Man-versus-himself is the dramatic element found wherever running shoes are laced up; it’s the water that washes all the fare down. Here, not all the eyes are bigger than the stomachs.

With ultra events, finishers (as opposed to just winners) enjoy considerable bragging rights. This is no concession to the “everybody is a winner” brand of affirmation that sometimes finds itself under attack by pedagogues of sport. Whether one survives a 100-mile ordeal in 19 or in 29 hours, one has, after all, survived a 100-mile ordeal. She who does it joins a microscopically tiny family of human beings who have, in a day or so, traversed—on foot—a distance nearly equivalent to the length of Connecticut. To her we say, “Take a seat at the winner’s table and regale us with your story. From the first to the last, all are fit to tell the world what happened here.”

If one follows ultrarunning very far, one can’t help but notice in its wide-open spaces a palpable air of rebellion against mainstream running, the splinter-group defiantly postured against the pro-establishment parent. Not accidentally, the ultra community represents running’s counter-culture—sometimes to the point even of caricature. Its athletes are as likely to run in tie-die t-shirts, huaraches and mountain-man beards as they are in any piece of running apparel that flashes even a hint of corporate branding. This attitude of defiance was built into what I believe to have been–at least until it discovered its own considerable internal momentum—ultrarunning’s original and to some degree unconscious raison d’être. When Everette Lee, in 1966, outlined the causes of human migration in terms of push and pull factors, he might as well have been describing the running scene in the final decade of the millennium. As the generation of U.S. runners inspired by Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine began to accept both their own middle age and the fact that the road-racing dominance of African-born runners was no short-lived anomaly, some of its still ravening competitors migrated to pastures where the grass looked to be, if not initially greener, far less trammeled. On the high mountain trails or under extremes of heat and cold, youth and world-class speed (while never quite out of fashion anywhere) were not the most important honorifics on one’s calling card. Within a few years mainstream running’s expats were claiming that the grass was in fact greener past 26.2 miles. Few could argue with them, at least not from a place of experience. Ultrarunning had come of age.

Legitimacy and recognition aside, ultrarunners can’t be accused of following the money trail. There isn’t a great deal of endorsement or prize cash in ultrarunning, a fact in which ultrarunners ought to take heart. A 2013 article entitled, “The aspect of nationality in participation and performance in ultra-marathon running,” suggests that both African-born and younger world-class runners show limited interest in ultrarunning events owing to the absence of significant ultrarunning cash purses, which by contrast may climb into the tens of thousands of dollars for professional road-racing events. If you are among the very best runners in the world, why not earn a living by your rare and fleeting talents, especially when your extended family’s quality of life may depend upon it? Accordingly, winners of major ultrarunning events are, the study claims, usually American, European or Japanese and between the ages of 39 and 45, a combination of demographic facts that would most likely exclude them from top contention in major professional road-racing events.

What’s not poetic about a marginalized class of athletes running on the very margins of civilization, the forsaking of one kind of green for another? Just as Boethius, in exile, found consolation in philosophy, many American and European ultrarunners found consolation in nature, even in her most uncongenial moods. Who needed large prize purses and world fame? Wasn’t the world itself—experienced under conditions of extreme privation—reward enough? Ultrarunning came with perks that had nothing to do with its standard prize gold belt-buckles. Ultramarathons became spiritual pilgrimages. Ultramarathoners now worshipped in the same canyon cathedrals as that great lover of walking and nature, John Muir, had. Spiritual pilgrim and ultrarunner alike grappled with the burden of the body, the weight that holds the flights of the spirit in check.

Ultra legend Scott Jurek once used the term “existentialists in shorts” to describe the running family to which he happily belongs. Indeed ultrarunners are far more likely than road runners to speak the words “spiritual,” “sacred,” or “mystical” in sentences describing their cardio experiences. And if an ultrarunner smiles a trifle amusedly at our claims of runner’s highs, we’d do well to bear in mind that his path wends through successions of highs and lows that ought to stagger our minds…and that’s before he’s reached the half-way turn-around. He is a Bodhisattva who returns to us from a journey: wiser, stronger and hungry enough to polish off two large pizzas.

Running is, according to its first philosopher, George Sheehan, “A monastery—a retreat, a place to commune with God and yourself, a place for psychological and spiritual renewal.” If Sheehan found all of that in fewer than 26.2 miles, imagine what one might find in 100.

Knechtle B, Rüst CA, Rosemann T. The aspect of nationality in participation and performance in ultra-marathon running – A comparison between ‘Badwater’ and ‘Spartathlon’. OA Sports Medicine 2013 Feb 01;1(1):1.

This article may also be read in The Good Men Project, June 25, 2015.

Silent Running (The Long Run 2014 Sep)

silentImagine it’s 1972. At the drive-in movie theater, a low-budget sci-fi film called Silent Running is playing. Despite how it sounds, it has nothing at all to do with running (our kind of running, that is). Meanwhile the first wave of the running boom is in full career. Tens of thousands of people are, for the first time in their lives, running…silently, as it were. As a cultural phenomenon, the headphone and “jogging” have not yet met at the intersection of motivation and distraction danger.  Fast forward 40 years, and runners and headphones are as close as two peas in a proverbial pod (or should I say, iPod?). In the modern world, the “Sounds of Silence” increasingly refers to an almost forgotten Simon and Garfunkel song, and not much else.

Readers with a long memory may recall that someone using my name once spilled some ink talking up the iPod as a running partner. Confession: that was me. I don’t repent of it. But, as psychologists and philosophers remind us, human variability is one of the few invariables on which we may count.  In recent years, I have heard a different calling: nature. It is perhaps no coincidence that this about face has accompanied a personal shift from road to trail running. Whether your bliss is the trail or the road, the benefits of plugging into nature instead of the MP3 are many. Here’s a short list.

  1. Hear your dog. In case your GPS dies on your run, use your dog’s panting to independently check your level of effort. For that matter, use your own breathing, which you can now hear.
  2. So that’s what nature sounds like! Birds, rabbits and mice in the scrub oak, locusts in the fields, toads in the marsh reeds. They—and their sounds—have been present all along. The only thing that’s different is that now YOU are present. Bravo.
  3. Would a cheetah, a Tarahumara, a zen master, Kung Fu, Micah True or Chuck Norris ever wear headphones in their zone? Enough said.
  4. Dances with headphones…and cords…and controls. Imagine a run that doesn’t involve your reinserting ear buds and cord jacks for the umpteenth time, fumbling for your iPod or iPhone’s volume control, repositioning that 70s-style hi-fi speaker headset that’s large enough to be detectable from satellite (and which happens to weigh more than your running shoes). These gyrations and other tell-tale signs of inefficient and needless technological struggle have made you the butt end of several sylvan animal jokes, only you can’t hear the laughter in the trees because…well, you know why.
  5. Be a minimalist. Shoes have gone minimalist. Running clothes, while mercifully not matching the loincloth minimalism of the 70s, employ the most lightweight designs and fabrics available. Take the minimalist movement an additional step. Feel the breeze brush past your ear, feel nothing weighing down your pockets, nothing tugging on your waistband or squeezing on your arm.  Less may not really be more. But it can be more fun.
  6. Return to sociability. Wouldn’t it be something to have actually heard what that approaching runner said to you as she passed? Maybe the two of you were like two ships passing in the night without so much as an “Ahoy!” And wouldn’t it be comforting to have heard what those worried looking hikers appeared to have been warning you of as you were entering that thickly-wooded canyon? Save nodding and smiling for your long-winded uncle’s stories. Welcome back to the human race.
  7. Safety. Never again be taken unawares in the forest by that mountain bike on an intercept course with you and your knees (or your dog’s sweet mug). Runners—when they do hear–hear mountain bikers before mountain bikers hear runners. Fact: runners wearing headphones sometimes end up wearing mountain bikes as well. Headphones are easier to remove.
  8. If a tree falls in the forest, YOU will hear it. This goes for falling rocks as well. A variation on this theme could come in handy if you’ve unwittingly blazed a trail through someone’s secret backwoods firing range.
  9. Never again have to postpone your run for an hour while the iPod you forgot to charge recharges. You may find that while your iPod regains its charge you’ll have lost yours.
  10. The sound of silence. Use it to meditate. Use it to analyze your gait or your breathing. Use it to draft that novel or to work out the grand unified theory of physics. Use it to insert a mantra. Use it however you like. Or don’t use it for anything. It’s a gift. And it’s absolutely free. It may be the only waking silence you experience in the course of a day. Why fill it with noise?
But keep your iPod on that charger. Winter is always just around the bend. IPods and other MP3s are most at home with their technological brethren:  treadmills, climate control, fluorescent lighting, and television screens.  Even the monotony and predictable safety of running on a track warrants or flat-out begs the use of a motivating distraction. Use your iPod today. Don’t use your iPod tomorrow. Run with a partner the day after that. But for goodness’ sake, mix it up. “Chariots of Fire,” “Eye of The Tiger” and “Greyhound” are songs for iPods. But the wind also is a song. Running is a song. Our heartbeats are songs. Our running partners and our dogs are songs. These are the songs that enliven life’s playlist. Play it softly. Play it loudly. Play it on random. Play it on cycle mode. Best of all, it’s always there, whether you’ve remembered to charge it or not.

Runner’s Highjinks (published February, 2012 in the Long Run, and June, 26 2015 in The Good Men Project) )

1970-Frank-ShorterRunning, as a rule, comes with a built-in fad detector: performance. New training methods come. And if they don’t produce measurable, well-sampled, and repeatable results (faster times, improved fitness indicators, healthy weight loss, etc.), they’re best remembered for the perfect arc they describe going into the recycle bin. Equipment and apparel trends come (don’t our wallets know it). And as long as those trends aren’t linked to a measurable injury uptick, they hang around until the next promising—or uber cool—innovation comes down the pike. But this isn’t to say that running is a science. Not hardly. With running, as with every sphere of human endeavor, a colorful mythology attends its history, culture, and cast of characters. Running has its heroes (e.g., Steve Prefontaine, Paula Radcliffe, and Ryan Hall); anti-heroes (Rosie Ruiz and chafing); battles (the duel in the sun and Prefontaine vs. Lasse Viren); pilgrimages (the Boston Marathon); and quests (records, PRs, and the besting of a rival). And what would a mythology be without its magic? For running, that magic is the hallowed runner’s high.

“Runner’s high?” you may scoff. If you’re feeling forsaken, you’re far from alone. Though some veteran runners seem to experience them as regularly as untied shoelaces, others will tell you (often disappointedly) that there’s just no such thing as a runner’s high. (The author has experienced one in 11 years of running. Then again, it could’ve just been his Venti Americano really kicking in.)

It is, I think, significant that the running movement, with its purported high, caught fire at roughly the same time the recreational use of psychoactive drugs (e.g., cannabis) was being glorified in popular music and on the drive-in movie screen. Running became just one of several paths to a high in the 70s. One could get high on marijuana, peyote buttons, nature, meditation or life. Or one could get high on endorphins, so the thinking went. Endorphins could be synthesized within the body, and thus could be indulged in without risking possession charges, hitchhiking to the desert, or hooking up with a guru in the days before Google. Whether you were Forrest Gump, Jenny or John Denver, high was the thing to get in the 70s, and as long as you were getting it, your ticket to the peace train was stamped. There was something idyllic about running in the Me decade: reading a few of the then-very-much-alive Jim Fixx’s pages (replete with pencil-sketched, blissful runners) for inspiration, saving one’s nickels for a Greyhound to Boulder or Eugene, slipping on a pair of shorts in which today’s streaker might feel self-conscious, hiking a pair of striped tube socks to one’s knees, clapping an elastic sweatband to one’s forehead to restrain a shock of lank bangs (for an illustration of the 70s runner, see Coach Carmine), lacing up a low-tech pair of sneakers, jogging to the strains of the animals and the birds, and getting home in time to sink into your bean-bag chair and catch that episode of In Search Of or Mork & Mindy. For the full-fledged culture maven, an out-of-body experience or UFO sighting might have been a welcome distraction in the fifth mile of a run.

The 70s left subsequent decades—eventually with the help of eBay—to pick through its good, its bad and its lava lamps. And it left runners with the Nike Swoosh and the runner’s high.

In our fourth decade of hindsight, what can we say about the runner’s high? Was it a physiological phenomenon brought to light in the decade bridging the Nixon and Carter administrations? Or was it the pipe dream of folks who wanted to prove that one didn’t have to sacrifice his sobriety to alter his consciousness? The fact that thousands of 70s runners sincerely reported experiencing a runner’s high proves very little when one considers the weight usually given to the equally sincere testimony of thousands claiming to have seen UFOs during the period. Taking the cynical view, one might say the runner’s high was a marketing ploy for shoe manufacturers and apparel companies to entice high-seekers to the fledgling sport of recreational running. If marketers didn’t exactly invent the runner’s high, they were happy to latch onto and exaggerate its “high.” Anything seems possible for a decade that successfully fobbed the pet rock off on a glib public. What if nothing more than the power of suggestion is to blame for all incidental running highs experienced during and following the Prefontaine era?

At first scientific glance, the runner’s high seemed to hold about as much water as a moon rock. Early findings suggested that endorphins are too large to pass through the blood-brain barrier to affect brain chemistry (as happens in the case of psychoactive drug use). Endorphin release, it was thought, relieved pain in joints and muscles while producing no brain high. Findings like these were enough to make a high runner come down faster than, well, Skylab! But wait. Did someone say endocannabinoids? As a matter of fact, Dr. Matthew Hill did (and I’ll bet even he had a hard time saying it). In 2003, Dr. Hill of Rockefeller University linked this vital player in the cannabis-brain connection to the runner’s high. It now looked as if both running and cannabis stimulated endocannabinoid activity in the brain, contributing to similar feelings of euphoria (and the munchies). While the connection was as yet imperfectly understood, Dr. Hill gave runners their best hope yet of escaping the mass-hallucination or wish-fulfillment rap. And as of 2008, new scientific studies began to put endorphins back in the party-mix. But even if the endocannabinoid and endorphin leads turn out to be more smoke than substance, many runners will keep believing. Why? Because, as nearly as I can tell, it’s like Bob Dylan summed up in a 1966 ditty that previewed the 70s: “Everybody must get stoned.” Keep on trucking, runners.

You may also read this article in The Good Men Project, June 26, 2015.

Big Business and the Shrinking Runner

thr4g4clu7Fifteen years ago the average runner was bigger. Before you Google it, I hope you’ll read on.

It was the early 2000s. And as an ordinary, average runner of middling proportions, I remember walking tall through finishing chutes, proud to be involved in a movement I believed (and, 15 years later, still believe) to hold the key to better physical health, improved clarity of mind, and abundant, youthful energy. Like millions, I took comfort knowing that even if running wasn’t adding years to my life (which it probably was), it was adding life to my years. I was content to run my 30-40 mile weeks, race once a month, rarely enter a marathon, and only sporadically hit the track. I happily eschewed the latest highly-touted high-tech gear and gadgetry in favor of brand loyalty and a quarterly shoe bill that rang up shy of $80.00. As modest as all of that was, it was still far more than the average person was doing, activity wise, and I knew it. Mine was a bliss shared by millions of folks united in our uncomplicated love of putting one foot in front of the other. For me and others like me, running equated to a healthful approach to health, a way to cultivate one’s physical well-being while maintaining life balance.
Then somewhere on the way to 2016, running, like so much else, got “supersized,” making “ordinary” runners look rather diminutive next to what has become the media-fueled, larger-badder-crazier-faster-sexier-than-real-life image of the ultra-marathoning/cross-fitting/Iron-Man finishing/adventure racing weekend all-week warrior.
 As recently as the early 2000s, a plain-and-simple runner didn’t feel the need to sheepishly qualify his or her training and racing distances when asked about them. If you’ve ever caught yourself answering the question, “How many miles was that?” with, “Just six,” “Just 13,” or even “Just 26,” then you’re aware of the personal miniaturizing effects of the supersizing phenomenon in running. If you’re not following me, then try following this bumper sticker: “You ran a marathon? That’s cute.” Reading that, I’ll be darned if I didn’t find it a little harder to reach the gas pedal. And then I thought about it…
So when did getting off one’s backside and moving (even for 26.2 miles) begin to feel like a publicly shame-able act? And when did this distorted sense of proportion begin to make “ordinary” runners question their status as “real” runners. It’s time for a reality check, runners.
Running has been supersized for the same reason that every other supersized thing has been: to supersize somebody else’s bank account by selling buyers more—a lot more–than they need. If a runner wishes to purchase running at that size, I applaud her and marvel at her appetite. But for the runner who doesn’t want all of the excess, he should never have to feel shamed into taking it, not by bumper stickers, memes, emailed race spam, print media, or zealots who don’t just passively wear the logos of sports apparel heavyweights but who may also unwittingly and highhandedly take their more-is-more message (sports marketing’s shrink-ray gun) everywhere runners congregate.
A 2012 survey revealed that over 70% of runners enjoy an annual household income of over $75,000.1 With runners now being seen as a highly target-able market segment, marketing and commercial media are trying to do to us what the fashion industry has been doing to women for decades: encouraging the perennial pursuit of an unrealistic image as a goad to purchasing a lot more of what they’re selling. “The [running] industry is huge–it’s running the sport now, not the sport running the industry,” laments former marathon world-record holder Steve Jones in a 2015 interview with Competitor magazine, in which he goes on to call the magazine out for its own irresponsible marketing practices.
Veteran runners view a modicum of suffering as more or less just going with the territory. Sports marketing, on the other hand, tends to fetishize suffering en route to selling us experiences in which we’re free, in the company of others who’ll not judge us, to court as much pain as suits our fancy. Understanding that our brains will likely connect, by way of the Protestant work ethic (to which even atheists may subscribe), suffering to gain, marketers are able to leverage our cultural biases to lift sales. A 2014 ad by runDisney (Disney’s bid to attract the relatively affluent running population by hosting large running events), features the tag line, “Run Till You Drop.” (Too close to “shop till you drop” to be a coincidence?) While the line makes better sense in the context of an ad that also pitches a Disney attraction featuring a tower and an elevator drop, it serves as an example of the kind of irresponsible marketing messages that frequently target runners in both running and even mainstream magazines. The Disney ad is neither an isolated nor the most egregious example of this species of marketing. In all such ads, the message is simple: running is pretty cool; but suffering on the run is uber-cool. If you doubt that suffer-while-you-run stories have trade value, you haven’t spent time in the company of those who swap yarns of cardio perdition with a view to outdoing one’s neighbors. What money won’t buy (friends), a dramatic chronicle of one’s time in the pain cave just might. A story (turned with narrative panache) of the ultra that landed you in the hospital will make you–to paraphrase a wildly successful marketing tagline–the most interesting runner in the world.
In the beginning, recreational, mass-participation running gained momentum as a health movement; 40 years later it often seems like a keep-up-with-the-joneses game of who can bag the most destination marathons, run/walk/crawl the longest races (which cost more) and be the first of his running friends to own the latest, greatest fitness-tracking watch or phone app. There was a time when recreational running pioneer George Sheehan, ogled on his morning runs by unbelieving gawkers, felt like the oddest duck in his neighborhood; these days one gets the feeling that some are running to be the coolest kids on their block. At least when Alberto Salazar, giving a nod to popular running’s health movement roots, admits that “health was never my motivation for running,” we understand that he was motivated by whatever motivates champions; we who aren’t destined to win major races may have difficulty saying just what motivates such types, but we can confidently say that it isn’t marketing. With a mounting body of research strongly suggesting that “moderate” running (for Salazar, an oxymoron) translates to the most favorable mortality outcomes, running for health and running for today’s runner-as-trendsetting-daredevil image are destined for a falling out. So at what point must these incompatible objectives go their separate ways? This is a personal question, the answering of which requires a clear mind, not one muddled by company-coffer-serving marketing messages.
If you absolutely must get your run-crazy on, do it for the right reasons. Failing that, do it for the wrong reasons (that’s what freedom is about). Just don’t do it for someone else’s reasons.
The human brain tends to view the world through a filter of paired opposites: night and day, black and white, etc. The folks who want you to stuff your oversized shopping cart with all the races, coaching, fitness programs, performance apparel, sports drinkables and edibles it will hold, know this. Regarding your running life, they’ll try to cow you–as though your image depended on it–into choosing between a pair of false alternatives: you are either all in, a monomaniacal, hell-bent, Terminator–make that T-1000–of running, or you might as well not bother. I’ve got news for them. Real runners don’t go big or go home. They go for a run…any run. How’s that for a real slogan?
1Morse, Parker. “Running For the 99 Percent.” Running Times, May. 2012, pp. 63-65