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.
Running 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.) Ajumble. 2.) S maze. 3.) survival. 4.) 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.
To 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.
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).
Like 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?
Another 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?
Recently 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.
Life, 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/
The 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.”
Because It’s Here may also be read in The Good Men Project, June, 22, 2015.
While running in the Tri-Lakes region, be sure to check out Cornerstone Multisport in Palmer Lake for apparel, sports nutrition, knowledge of the local trail running scene, and more.