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?

Angkor-Wat-run-RichardStJohn5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Run Through The Jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bad Dog Workout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ultra Touristy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Two-Faced Runners Pulling A Fast One?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortnightly Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project Ultramayhem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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