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.

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


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.