Running Ahead (The Long Run 2013 Dec)

futureWe’ve seen the future. And we’re running in it. From the 1960’s 2001, A Space Odyssey to last summer’s Oblivion, running has really gotten a lift from the science-fiction film genre. To be clear, I’m talking about running for fitness rather than running from good-ideas-gone-wrong or alien giants whose slumber we, in our naïve curiosity, cavalier ignorance or profiteering spirit, have disturbed. The origins of the space-running concept are easily traceable. Astronauts need to get in shape to undergo the rigors of launch. And astronauts need to stay in shape to forestall the atrophy of zero and low-gravity environments and shake off cabin fever. Enter fitness running. I’m uncertain as to the actual extent NASA’s early astronaut-training program incorporated running, but in film, when Apollo crew members aren’t needing to keep their lunch down in g-force centrifuges, they’re often sighted bonding over beach runs or undergoing clinical treadmill tests followed by the brazen Hi-C guzzling product-placement scene. As the sci-fi film genre grew to embrace more science and more fiction, human-sized hamster wheels and giant artificial gravity rings (with painted-on running tracks on their inside hub) have become the stock stuff of science-fiction sets, allowing actors and actresses the perfect opportunity to show off their future-fit bodies (CGI abs and all) in fashion-forward Spandex.

It all looks cool at the Hollywood 16 Theatre or on our Bluerays, but what might the future really have in store for running? What do you say we do a little exploring?

A Moon Marathon? A Mars Marathon? Apart from their being some nifty alliteration in the business, these ideas don’t have a lot going for them. This isn’t to say that some intrepid athlete in a bid to secure a place in the history of extreme-running (with an 80-year-old Dean Karnazes or Scott Jurek as coach, maybe, and mountains of corporate endorsement money), won’t pull off a low-gravity, off-world marathon, but I don’t see it ever going viral with the public. Think a city marathon is expensive and tricky to orchestrate! How many runner/amateur astronauts do you suppose will be able to afford the seven-figure race entry fees for the mother of all destination marathons? Yeah, about that many. For those of our offspring whose lives won’t be complete until they’ve left their running footprint on a dead world, Antarctica should be available for the not faint-of-heart. But just think: if you could run a marathon on the Moon, you’d weigh something like 25-35 lbs.–with your space-suit on.

A two-hour marathon. Definitely doable. I believe that within the lifetime of most who read this piece, the two-hour marathon will be broken on a certified (terrestrial) course. Based on historical precedent, we can expect this to involve a crew of prominent sports physiologists, sports psychologists, coaches and pacers in support of an extremely talented and audacious individual. Runners have been zeroing in on this target for a decade now, occasionally posting times in the 2:03-2:04 range. The time is ripe for our toppling this barrier within the next two decades. Historically, once the barrier falls, runners will follow the feat in relatively quick succession. Once Roger Bannister had proven that running a sub-4 minute mile wouldn’t kill a man (as lore required), runners began to break the barrier with increasing regularity (saying a lot for the role of mind in running). Today the world’s best male milers clock times in the low to mid 3:40s. Probably not long after the two-hour marathon barrier is broken, a woman will run a sub-4 minute mile, 12 seconds and change off the present mark.

Holographic training: Absolutely. Bored with your training? Zoom down to your local running store and purchase a holographic recreation of the 2035 London Marathon, replete with encouraging spectators and Gatorade cups littering the ground. Play it in your holographic theatre synced to your interactive treadmill. Still bored? Run right through that guy in front of you and watch him do that twitchy electronic glitch thing. If that doesn’t cure your training doldrums, nothing will. Remember, only boring people get bored.

Deep space running: I support space exploration as much as the next guy, but with advancing years and advancing knowledge, I’m growing skeptical. Skeptical of manned missions, anyway. Sending 175 lbs. of biomass (an average male astronaut) into deep space is, regardless of how easy it’s made to look in film, a rather low-tech idea that flies in the face of Einstein’s physics. Sending your yet to be born great-grand daughter to Tau Ceti for the next intergalactic convention might make as little sense as your flying a privately-chartered jet to Mumbai for an hour-long meeting when teleconferencing is an option (at a minute fraction of the cost). Deep space is a medium that favors unmanned space probes, artificial intelligence and bits of information travelling at light speed. No deep-space biomass, no deep-space running. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.

A fit population. The jury is out. For every hopeful indicator, there’s a countervailing indicator. More people than ever are entering races of all distances, including marathons and ultras. This trend seems likely to continue. And at the same time more people than ever are overweight or obese. And this trend seems likely to continue. How will it end? Like a good sci-fi film (and yes, there have been a few), this plot finds us suspended between alternate endings. One ending is best represented by a spiral—“the curve of life,” as one Renaissance man described it. Now we see the line tending forward, and now backward, but like a spiral staircase, the whole rises throughout its forward and backward motions, topping out on a higher level. The other way ends in stark dualism: there’ll be the very fit, and there’ll be the very unfit; and they’ll live on separate worlds (or they might as well) in disharmony.

In sci-fi, the outcome usually hinges on the courage and commitment of a single hero. Nudge, nudge. (Enter heroic music) You know what to do. Run. inspire. The future may depend on it.


Adopt A Running Partner (The Long Run)

dakotaWhat do you call a running partner who’s always eager to run, perfectly accommodating of your schedule, not afraid to drive the pace but able to ease off uncomplainingly when you ask him or her to, and who’ll never push the boundaries of “conversational pace” with a tempo run yak fest? How about Buddy, Molly, Duke, Jack, Coco or any of the entries on a list of popular dog names. That’s right, I’m talking about man’s best running partner (other than the iPod maybe, but that was another story).

In an age when 1 in every 2 relationships is begun online, it won’t come as a surprise that one can find a four-legged running partner online as well. That’s where I met Dakota (the name his Foster dad had given him): on Craigslist. Dakota is a 2 year-old Border Collie who had been rescued from a high-kill shelter in New Mexico by 4 Paws 4 Life (find them on Facebook at or meet with them at area PetSmarts during Saturday morning adoption events.) The little I’ve been able to glean of Dakota’s history, coupled with his initial unfamiliarity with indoor spaces, and his high-level of canine sociability, leads me to suppose that he had spent his pre-running days carousing with a pack on a reservation, probably with no consistent and reliable source of food, human attention or veterinary care. Fortunately his physical and mental health was excellent, leading to his being deemed adoptable—a very fair assessment considering how well he has adapted to life with a family.

For the runner in search of canine accompaniment, there are many considerations. Endurance athletes should seek the companionship of dogs whose breeding suites them for the style of running in which the athlete participates most frequently. How fast does the athlete run? How often? How far? Over what surfaces? In what weather? There are few healthy dogs that wouldn’t make a great running partner for someone, somewhere. But the key is to find the perfect pairing for human and canine athlete alike. Some of this is just common sense. An elite runner and a short-legged, long-haired, pug-nosed, aging dog? Never should the twain meet—except on the couch over a good film or book. As a running partner, a pug—no offense to your improbably fleet pug—may be better suited to jogging around the neighborhood with a grandma (unless that grandma is Joan Benoit Samuelson). For the faster runner, numerous breeds of hunting, herding or racing dog may be his or her ticket to finding a running partner that can actually keep up. For help in selecting the breed of dog that is right for your running style, consult the Runner’s World article “A Breed Apart” at

When running with a dog, I prefer trails over the road, which is not to say that a dog cannot—like a human—adapt to a sensible degree of road running. Asphalt and concrete can be hard on the paw pads. Walk barefoot across an asphalt parking lot on a hot day and you’ll think twice about asking your dog to run on a road in 95-degree heat. Bring water, especially of you are asking your dog to run long and in hot weather. Pay attention to your dog’s step and gate before, during and after running. Give your dog rest if you notice him or her exhibiting signs of tenderness or distress. If the symptom persists, seek veterinary care. Always remember that when your dog isn’t performing feats of endurance athleticism on the trails, he or she is a member of your family and unlike a pair of running shoes will be front and center throughout many of the 22 or 23 hours a day you and she are not running. Expect your athletically-trained dog to exhibit—like its owner—restlessness when weather or circumstances interfere with your regularly scheduled run. Unlike you, your dog cannot go to the gym and hop on the treadmill (though I’m sure there’s a YouTube video out there ready to prove me wrong).

With Dakota being my third Border Collie running partner, I’ve learned some of the ropes of running with canines, especially Borders (bred to uncomplainingly chase herd animals all day). Like humans, canines can anticipate a learning curve as they tackle the art of controlled running. Be patient with your new running partner. Expect a few tumbles as your dog masters running basics like don’t stop abruptly in front of your human: catastrophe will follow. Bring treats to reward your runner during and especially after a smooth run. Expect to be pulled into the occasional vigorous stride or sprint as a rabbit, fox or bird happens by. Do not expect to run a clean time-trial with a canine, as potty breaks of varying lengths are a requirement and can happen any time (and usually do just when you’re trying to make a mile split look good); be prepared. Keep your dog on leash in neighborhoods as well as urban and suburban trails. Become adept at using a retractable leash or at gathering in the length of your traditional leash to allow the safe and easy passage of fellow pedestrians and cyclists. Remember to cover your car seats if— following a hard rain—you’ll be driving to that trail with the red mud. Don’t be alarmed when your dog goes into a sleep coma hours after an exhausting run. Do read up on running with dogs. There are experts who think it’s a great idea, and experts who don’t. But then there are experts who maintain that human running is a bad idea. And we’ve all decided what to make of that.

Catch as Catch Can (published April, 2013)

trackNeither our budgets nor our freewheeling approach to training have ever led us to a serious search for a running coach. We have no running partners set on speed dial. We have never been affiliated with a running club long enough to have sat for a club picture. And yet we frequently enjoy the motivational benefit of having a coach, partners and club membership. And it comes without the guilt of accountability, and at no greater cost than our standard gym membership. As with so much that is good in life, we stumble on our coaches, partners and ragtag organization of runners by accident; like the lonely hearts of the world, we just kind of find each other. More than anything, it’s Old Man Winter, that unlovable curmudgeon, who brings us together under the same roof at more-or-less the same time. We are the children of the indoor track, united by a parallel disdain for winter’s murky cold and the hypnotic monotony of the treadmill. We comprise a shifting roster. Participants are continually joining and leaving our ranks, coming without introduction, and going without fanfare. Some runners we see but once. Others we see more frequently than we do your own siblings. All are welcome. All, that is, except those who come in twos and threes and insist on walking, jogging or running abreast; and those who run opposite the posted track direction. These etiquette offenders create more traffic hazards than CDOT at rush hour.

Finding a gym with an indoor track wasn’t easy; most gyms opt to use their outside perimeters in the usual way: it’s here the mats are leaned and the televisions and mirrors hung. We like mirrors: they tell—more candidly than any partner ever did—what is right and what is wrong with our running form. Their advice comes at less cost than any coach’s ever did.

Once we had painstakingly scouted out our gym with an indoor track, tapping into our competitive spirit was relatively easy. Running is never so primal as in those instances when we give chase to a fellow runner—in spite of our counter-prevailing urge to just take it easy. In those moments we are the hound pursuing the rabbit, even if that rabbit regards us with steely indifference. And we should not feel ashamed for being goaded on by something as insignificant as another’s velocity; nothing could be more natural –and more healthy. Left to our own solitary devices, even the best of us tends to underperform; the brightest flame is snuffed out in a vacuum.

No training comes nearer to simulating the conditions of a race than the training that affords a little—or a lot of—racing. We find that by chance we are the fleetest runner on the track tonight. But are we fast enough to lap the next fastest runner before she or we have come to the end of our run? The next night we find, again by random chance, that we are the slowest runner on the track. But are we so dawdling tonight that we can’t hold off the approaching runner for the bell lap of our run? The next night, we are in the fourth mile of our easy run, and some one-and-done lap sprinter tears past us. Do we try to hang with him? Here’s the perfect chance to try out that finishing kick we’ll surely need once spring racing begins.

We indoor track runners are keen on patterns. On this night, every two minutes or so, between weight-lifting sets, a young man enters the track and runs two laps at a pace that just happens to approximate our 5k race pace. Could there be a better invitation to perform that interval work we’ve been putting off? Though the sledding is tough and we hadn’t planned on speedwork tonight, we find that we are disappointed when our man fails to appear for his—or shall we say our—seventh workbout? It’s then we realize that we are running—intervals, no less—for the love of it and not slogging through the motions.

Not all who take to the indoor track are knowing actors in our speed play. Some become—as impersonal as it sounds—mere scenery by which we measure the slope of our training curve. We notice that this month we lapped the tall guy 5 times in an hour, where last month we were only able to lap him 3 times. We are pretty sure he has no idea that he has buoyed our confidence as a straggling standard of comparison. In fact, we prefer that he be oblivious (for fear our gain would be his loss). We may be sure that we have unwittingly boosted another’s assuredness by the same ungainly method. But on certain nights, our little acts of synergism are openly acknowledged—even celebrated—through knowing looks, good natured jeers, self-effacing remarks or mock gloating at the water fountain.

Longer, milder days herald a return to outdoor running. And with as little ceremony as befits the indoor track (that is to say, none), we bid farewell to brothers and sisters—coaches and training partners—whose names we never even knew.

Running Scared (published January, 2013)

fixxLast year, as with every year, in the final weeks before the ball dropped in Times Square, our popular media ran its montage of celebrity entertainers and athletes, statesmen and stateswomen who departed the stage in 2012. Runners—even our running heroes—when they exit rarely make their way into those montages. But that’s not to say that the media takes no notice of their passing. Each year, mainstream media offers a smattering of articles—most little more than footnotes—about runners who perished during or immediately after running this or that high-profile marathon or race. Occasionally one of running’s elite will fall, more or less in his or her prime, usually from a cardiac event. Most running-related fatalities, but especially those involving accomplished runners, are treated in a somewhat predictable and curious manner by mainstream media. The focus is rarely on the life and accomplishments of the runner, but rather on the irony of his or her untimely demise. Running-related fatalities (and even near-fatal experiences, such as that experienced by running icon and Olympic coach Alberto Salazar) renew the seemingly never-to-be-settled debate over the risk-benefit ratio of running and endurance sports in general.

From personal experience, such articles—when they aren’t scaring runners and would-be runners—occasion a bit of water-cooler razzing from those uninitiated or unconverted to the running life. Mostly this is done in good humor. To some extent we runners have it coming as a payback for all the times we have, by our mere motivated presence, unintentionally rubbed our superior fitness, discipline, genetics, etc., into the faces of those who on occasion at least aspire—whether or not they’ll openly admit it—to be more like us. This, however, will be one occasion when our more sedentary friends will profess not to aspire so much to our fit but at-risk state; after all, our heckler will remind us, he is standing in all his unhealthy glory while this or that elite physical specimen is no longer among us, having exited early doing the very thing that was thought to confer his or her advantage. Why endure the privations of clean living, healthy dieting and pushing one’s endurance limits only to succumb to an untimely passing? To punctuate his point, our heckler may even make certain that we see him devouring that second donut with all the marks of an easy conscience on his face.

I am neither a physician nor a sports physiologist, so I will gladly leave all scientific discussion of the merits and demerits of the running lifestyle to professionals. Regarding my personal case, I need no scientist to convince me that running has been integral to my own physical and mental health, and has enhanced the quality of my life and my sleep (before running I was a raging insomniac). In 12 years of running, I have not traced a single deleterious effect to putting one foot in front of the other and high-tailing it. Though I have not been looking to. And there, I think, is the rub.

Had I been looking for reasons not to run, I’m sure I could have found plenty. To quote the Talmud, “We see things not as they are but as we are.” To she who already despises running, something must be inherently wrong with running, she will reason. Her ego—which loves to be right—will find that something, whether it’s really there or not. And the scantiest suggestion—based on anecdote, sloppy journalism and agenda—that the running lifestyle is assailable, will serve to validate her instinct or belief that what she naturally dislikes isn’t worth liking anyway.

Running isn’t for everybody (just watch any episode of Friends that includes Phoebe, um, running). I have no difficulty admitting that. But that’s different than making broad and alarming statements about its being dangerous and at odds with health, fitness, longevity and even, yes, beauty. Why would someone make such dubious claims? In certain transparent cases we need only to follow the money. For example, in one online instance, the untimely deaths of runners was used as exhibit A by a personal fitness trainer who was very clearly trying to amass a base of clients who already loathe running by “scientifically” damning the source of their curses and promoting his program as a running-free safe zone. For his coup de grâce, this “fitness professional” went so far as to link increased cellulite to running, playing on his clients’ vanity.

Every now and then one meets the smoker who, in defending her right to smoke, will trot out the example of the pack-a-day user who happily lived to a ripe old age. With the running and the smoking backlash the same cultural phenomenon is at play. We are all wise by now to the folly of the smoker’s argument. He assigns undue weight to the statistical anomaly of the long-lived, healthy smoker. He amplifies the significance of the few lifelong smokers who beat long odds by surviving into their 90s. Likewise, the irresponsible journalist assigns undue weight to the statistical anomaly of the elite runner who suffers a fatal heart attack in his prime. The vast majority of elite runners do not suffer fatal heart attacks, but every so often, yes, one does. We all have it on the good authority of our parents that life is not fair. In statistical terms this will always mean that a small percentage of people who do all the right things will nevertheless depart young, and that a small percentage of persons who recklessly ignore prudence, common sense and Surgeon General warning labels, and who spend their lives seemingly courting an untimely death will somehow escape one. Dwell if you will on life’s little ironies. Or, to quote a popular running slogan, “Don’t think. Just run.” I know what I’ll be doing.

The Reading Habits of Tortoises and Hares (The Long Run 2012 Oct)

magsWhether you are a regular subscriber to a running magazine, occasionally “borrow” one from your gym’s magazine rack, or find yourself picking one up at the airport gift shop, this piece is for you.

Even in the internet age, running magazine titles (none of which I will expressly mention here) have proliferated. There are magazines covering the local, national and global running scenes. There are magazines for road runners, trail runners, ultra runners, women runners, and mountain runners. What next? Magazines for vegan runners? For hashers? (I’m sure someone will inform me that such publications already exist.) The ways of splitting the running population up into smaller and more specific groups could continue ad nauseum.

For my part, I’ve always taken interest in what unifies runners: putting one foot in front of the other and reaching, conjuring up the inner child who always wants to get “there” a little quicker. This unity is obvious, simple and beautiful. But as it is in the nature of the zygote to divide itself, it is in the nature of all living things (groups of people included) to split from within.  And from there, it’ll get snarky. Count on it.

Having been an off-again, on-again consumer of running magazines over the years, I have identified a fundamental division in the readership. This rift mirrors a schism in the view we runners take of ourselves: “I’m a tortoise” or “I’m a hare.” “I’m a recreational runner,” or “I’m an elite runner (or will be when I reach my goal).” Sure some of us may claim the middle ground (the author included), but we still can’t help but lean to one side or the other, and when pressed will expose our allegiance. When discussing magazines, this allegiance sometimes erupts into open warfare.  I have heard more than one zealous reader extol and defend his or her choice of magazine with a passion usually reserved for patriotism or politics. Read between the lines: he or she is actually defending his or her level of commitment to the sport. I have heard haters of a populist running magazine refer to said publication as “Joggers World.” Oh how we runners hate the J word, however slowly we may do that thing we do.  I have heard readers of the “low brow” magazine scoff at the elitist publication: “That’s for people who don’t have jobs and kids, who don’t have real lives.”

True, each type of periodical provides plenty of fodder for its detractor.  The populist magazine regularly features runners who, with self-effacing humor, expose their rookie mistakes in all their embarrassing glory, document how slowly they, um, run, exhibit how ungainly their form is, lament how badly they struggle with motivation, weight, keeping their shoes tied, etc.  This kind of magazine features the running bios and anecdotes of celebrities, actors, politicians and rock stars who’d be unwise to give up their day jobs for a running career. Sometimes things can get really goofy between this periodical’s covers, even carnival at times. This magazine regales us with color and thematic graphics that look like they were stolen from a page of People magazine. If it had a representative font, it might be Comic Sans. This magazine is our good-natured friend; it always laughs with us, not at us. But for those who go looking between its covers, there’s always, I contend, some useful tidbit of serious coaching aimed at the mortal runner among us. 

The elite magazine, on the other hand doesn’t laugh at all. It is, like an elite runner at the Olympic trials, all hardnosed business from start to finish. Its representative font would be Times Roman (maybe even Franklin Gothic).  Running is hard. Reading about running should be hard.  It says, “You want clowns, go to the circus.” This is Sparta!  This magazine does not deign to give instruction to the mediocre among us. This magazine toes the line in racing flats. A magazine catering to the elite runner recently ran an article ambitiously titled, “How to Run a 2:03 Marathon.” (No pen names involving animals that waddle here.) Taken as a coaching piece, the target audience for such an article would consist of—optimistically—about a dozen men on the entire planet. Talk about exclusivist! Out of editorial interest only, I read the article. Of course it turned out to be a “how they did it,” article,theybeing the handful of Kenyan runners who actually have run a marathon in less than 124 minutes (about the average length of most films not based on a Jane Austen novel).

So what makes a tortoise and what makes a hare, anyway? It is a matter of self-identification mostly. Ambition, wishful thinking, pride, humility, the ability to laugh at one’s self, whether one’s personality is Type A or Type B, whether the sun is rising or setting on one’s running career, all play a part in the camp with which a runner self-identifies. I think the editors of both types of publication are onto something. Regardless of a runner’s true ability, he or she may respond positively to the inviting atmosphere of a come-one-come-all magazine, the “I’ve got friends in low places” camaraderie of a magazine that doesn’t put on airs. And other runners–irrespective of true ability–respond positively to the set-the-bar-high approach of the elite magazine. These are the folks who reach for the moon, believing that even if they miss they’ll be among the stars.

Snarkiness aside, there’s a little something to help all of us to get “there” a little quicker. And the best news is, that little something is cheap and on sale now at your local newsstand.

Running The Numbers (The Long Run 2012)

mathAs a social sciences major in college, I skated by with a single math course: math for non-majors. I received an A for showing up and feigning interest: sad but true. And what did I need math for anyway? That’s what calculators are for, I reasoned. It wasn’t like I was trying to get into an MIT graduate program.That was long before I discovered running, and started seeing numbers everywhere (though it will never be said of me that I have a beautiful mind).

Running, as we commonly experience it in the West, is an intrinsically quantitative endeavor. At its heart, running is one of the most beautifully simple things; but we cannot resist freighting in with a little Western—a little intellectual—baggage. We measure out courses. We time performances. And that’s just the beginning of it. We record and target mile splits and average paces in our quest for zone-based training runs and record performances. We sometimes run indoor tracks of the oddest lengths: 1/11th, 1/13th or 1/22nd of a mile, where running at a target pace requires more division than a person should ever have to undertake while simultaneously counting laps (and possibly measuring leg turnover in steps per minute, monitoring heart rate and thinking about the stack of work on one’s desk).

And in this little piece I’m not even going to take on that bugbear of the American runner: converting meters and kilometers to miles, and vice versa. There’s a topic unto itself.

Sure there are myriad online calculators and aps designed to rescue runners who took only math for non-majors. (They’ll even say what your pace would have been had you taken your training run in Bogotá, Columbia with a 12 MPH headwind at 67 degrees and 80% humidity—in case you ever needed to know that.) And there are GPS sport watches to monitor our time, distance and average pace with a more-than-acceptable level of accuracy.

Problem is calculators—even phone apps–are a bit inconvenient to use while running. For convenience, nothing beats our hands-free onboard computer.

Now I’m not going to claim that any running math vies with differential calculus—or even Sudoku—for difficulty. But I will say that the most basic math can be a challenge when discomfort and fatigue set in during a challenging run, when we can’t hear our thoughts for our labored breathing. (And after we’ve “hit the wall,” we’re doing well to know what the date is.) Though no Isaac Newton, I’m always running the numbers when I run. Here’s an example: say I run the first mile of a six mile trail run at an 8:37/mile pace, and I decide that today I feel like running an 8:00/mile pace. What should my average pace for the remaining five miles be? My GPS won’t give me that figure (though I broke the bank for the darned thing). The answer is that my average pace should be a shade under 7:53/mile. I’d better get on it! I check my watch frequently and try to hover around the prescribed pace. How did I find my new pace? By taking the 37 seconds that I have to make up and dividing it over the next five miles. The result is that I have to run 7 seconds and change under an 8:00/mile pace for each of the next five miles. Of course I may reassess my pace at 3 or 4 miles and have to run the math again and again as I approach the finish of my run.

And here’s another example. I used to do the bulk of my winter training on the indoor track (a Lilliputian oval) at the Downtown YMCA. (Hey, I felt remarkably liberated—and fast—when I actually started running in a straight line again.) Preliminary to finding my time per lap, I converted my target pace from minutes (e.g., 8:10) to seconds (e.g., 490). I then divided the seconds by 22 (the track is 1/22nd of a mile long). In order to run an 8:10 mile on the Downtown YMCA indoor track, one must maintain a shade faster than a 22 second lap, all the while trying not to endanger stray children and patrons attempting to cross from the encircled weight and cardio machines. Being the instinctive runner that I am, I was always revising my pace and recalculating on the fly.

Of course the math is laughably easy, but even so, it offers the brain a bit of a workout. By now we all know that the “use it or lose it” principle applies not only to physical conditioning but to cognitive conditioning as well. Mathematical thinking (like reading The Long Run) can be a powerful weapon in the war against Alzheimer’s disease and the general deterioration of cognitive function frequently associated with the aging process. Once again, running is a winning ticket. By engaging the mathematical brain, running can chalk up yet another benefit to add to its ever-expanding list of offerings.

Of course in time technology will catch up with the Western runner’s needs and whims. Some computer-age innovation will render the mathematical brain superfluous, and free it from the need for cumbersome calculations and challenging multitasking. As always, this will be part blessing, part curse, and an encouragement to leave off using yet another portion of our brains. But we are runners. We stubbornly, insistently continue to use our legs when convenient forms of transportation abound. We bristle at the easy way. We will forever be throwbacks to simpler times: when we used our legs to get from A to B and still did math in our heads.

Rites of Spring (The Long Run 2012 May)

springDid your mother ever tie a string around your finger to make you remember things? Mine did. The next day I’d see the string and remember to take that permission slip to school, to be kind to my sister, to walk the dog, to bathe, to eat. Apparently, I was a very forgetful child. That was before I grew into the creature of habit I am today. Who needs a string on his finger when he’s tied to his daily routine? But just because one remembers to do a thing–the same thing every day–doesn’t mean one remembers the reason he or she does it. And isn’t that the more important thing to remember? We can go months or years doing things without remembering why we do them. Take me, for example. All winter long I had run a hundred and twenty miles a month–most of them on a treadmill. And would you believe I’d completely forgotten why?

My amnesia was even threatening to carry over into the next season. Spring had come. But I’d forgotten to spring ahead. The vernal season was advancing apace and I was sleepwalking on the treadmill, the occasional sub-seven minute pace notwithstanding.

Then came my wake-up call: a sunset. Not just any sunset, mind you, but a sunset viewed from Palmer Park—in the month of May. I have it on good authority that any sun that sets on the snow-streaked slopes of Pikes Peak is apt to deliver its wake ups with enough force to jolt a sensitive viewer into a spiritual epiphany, into one of those “Ah!”moments reserved for Zen masters and children at heart.

But if you’re anything like me, you’re no Zen master, and many moons have passed since you looked at the world with the fresh eyes of a child. I’m sad to report that save for the occasional passing mood, I had in my winter of discontent grown as immune to nature’s wonders as to the dose of caffeine in my morning coffee. But there was just something about this sunset that struck me with enough force to jar my senses awake to the splendors of where I live and to my preferred means of enjoying those splendors.

I don’t remember what drove me out. Probably the pleading eyes of my border collies Meg and Levitt, in perpetual need of exercise. But one night in May I swore off the treadmill for the trails. It was one of those rare evenings that seem to roll off a dream picture reel in ribbons of Technicolor film. And yet I was (I nearly had to pinch myself to discover) in the midst of reality—and in the middle of a city, no less. The red-brown trails were hedged in the most verdant foliage, embowered at intervals with the fledgling leaves of scrub oaks, starting up from winter slumbers. The air was redolent with the pollens of trees and wild flowers, the larkspur’s figuring in unabashed prominence among the latter. A hawk hung kite-like over the same plot of ground while I covered miles on foot, sizing up its wingspan from a dozen privileged angles. Running amid such wonders I could imagine I’d been granted admission to a preserve whose sanctity was ensured by higher decree.

Meg and Levitt gave chase to the bounty of birds and hares that nature had summoned in her vernal frenzy. Nature’s cup was overflowing and we three were on hand to lap up the spillage.

As runners—especially as outdoor runners–you and I have a leg up on most in appreciating nature’s gifts. We, more than our less kinetic kin, understand that our bodies are of nature and not of civilization, though we may sometimes improve them with lenses, prostheses, joints and valves. As runners, you and I gasp for air (and thus develop a fuller appreciation of its life-sustaining necessity); as outdoor runners we experience the headwind, tailwind and crosswind more as the hawk than as one who has never traveled fast or far except in the heated or air-conditioned bubble behind a windshield. We understand the workings of our legs and feet, as they negotiate the rutted and rock strewn earth, more as the mustang and the mountain goat than as one who knows nothing but the velvet ride of a four-point suspension. Humidity and temperature register more with us than to one who catches half of the forecast in the fourth mile of a treadmill workout. We stand humbled and prostrate before the fury of a midday sun, and need never lounge at poolside or under UV lamps to get a little “color.”

But even we as runners are susceptible to the hypnotic suggestions of the treadmill and the elliptical trainer. Something about the invariance of temperature and humidity, the predictability of belts and pistons, the regularity of a favorite training program performing before our eyes, can lead us, like the proverbial siren song, to forget what we’re about.

I know that my words will resonate with some of you (I’ve heard you express similar sentiments). Still we must be on our guard against an appreciation that is purely academic and never or seldom experiential. My words, being just one more voice in the buzz of civilization, can’t speak for nature; there is no proxy for nature. So if you haven’t shed your winter habit yet, now’s the time. Step away from the hum of the treadmill and out of the fluorescents and you’ll get a picture that is worth more than a thousand words—or in the present case, 935 words.

(Epilogue: Written in 2012, this article recalls a perfect run from the year 2011, when Meg and Levitt were my border collie training partners. As of this writing they are both alive and well and living with my ex-wife in Woodland Park, Colorado.)

The Music On The Streets-Part 2 (The Long Run 2012 Apr)

music_playlistEver heard of the Mozart effect?  The term speaks to the phenomenon whereby one’s IQ improves following exposure to a few of Wolfgang’s strains, as if a trace of the composer’s genius were transferrable to his listener through the medium of music. Arguably, the effect has been scientifically proven.  It doesn’t take a genius to gather that a similar effect is observed wherever running and, say, that modern master of the pop collage known as Beck meet (the “Beck Effect” has a nice ring, I think).  Such pairings have been known by iPod-using runners to improve running performance–without elevating red blood cell count. Win, win.

We all march, as the saying has it, to the beat of a different drummer.  (For me, an amateur bassist, the bassist is my drummer). This makes the very idea of a perfect running playlist suspect.  The perfect playlist is admittedly personal.  And it is admittedly fleeting.  Of course musical tastes and music catalogs change over time, but usually long before they’ve had the chance to morph much, our brains have long since grown immune to yesterday’s perfect stimuli.  What lit a fire under us and made our molecules all wiggly last week may have all the effect of soggy newsprint under a pot of tepid water this week.

Even one’s approach to compiling the playlist is personal.  Playlist-making methodologies are as diverse as the runners who employ them.  Here are a few approaches with which I have been acquainted.

1.) What’s in a name: Here, one looks for the words run or running in the song title: “It keeps you Running.” “Running with the Devil.” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down.” “Running on Empty.” “Born to Run.” You get it.  Personally, I don’t see how such a loose collection of songs whose only claim to relatedness is a three letter word (or its verb form) can be of much value to one in need of audio adrenaline.

2.) Take your soundtrack to the track: One may build a playlist from songs associated with triumphant scenes in feel-good films. “Gonna Fly Now.” “Eye of the Tiger.” “Chariots of Fire.” “We Are The Champions.”  For me, this approach often flirts with the formulaic, the trite and the overplayed.  These are frequently the kind of songs whose campy melodies have to be flushed out of your brain with the musical equivalent of a fire hose (Firehose—now that’s a good running playlist band.)

3.) Poetry in motion: One may select pieces of sweeping lyrical or musical beauty in the hope that they will calm the nervous system, freeing the runner to more fully experience his or her run. In this case, peak performance is probably not the objective. Peak enjoyment is. In this frame of mind, my favorite piece is  “The Moldau” by classical composer Bedrich Smetana.

4.) The mathematician: While I have not met him or her, I have heard of runners who strive to carefully match the timing of songs to their running cadence. That is too much math for me.

Here’s a playlist of my own (using none of the above methods), made up of songs that I’ve personally road tested over months or years. Included is some insight into the rationale behind the selections. By employing similar rationale, you may be able to compose the playlist that gives your training that extra push or gets you through that slog of a long run (you know we all have them). Tip: Compile multiple playlists and cycle through them to avoid burnout.

  • Cake, “Going the Distance”: Sure it’s about an overachieving wage-slave, but with a beat like that, who’s hearing the irony? “No trophy, no flowers, no flashbulbs, no wine. He’s haunted by something he cannot define.” That about sums up the recreational runner.
  • Beck, “Novocain”: Feels like musical dubbing for a documentary about an extreme sport like base jumping. Makes me want to sport a mohawk and day-glow wrap-around Oakleys. Good thing the feeling wears off, right?
  • CCR, “Chooglin”: My nod to classic rock. Metronomic timing. Biting harmonica all day. Nearly long enough to see Ryan Hall through a 5k. Makes me feel like I’m keeping pace with a train (like in that Superman movie).  I’m not running, I’m chooglin—whatever that is.
  • Red Hot Chilli Peppers, “Give it away”:  Sounds like Anthony Kiedis sang it while hopping on a pogo stick. Puts a spring in my step. Just don’t listen to the Weird Al parody of it; it may kill it for you: “…yabba dabba, yabba dabba dabba do now…”
  • BHS, “Pepper”: “…like an avalanche coming down a mountain…”  That’s me—visualize.
  • Sublime, “Burritos”: Forget the name, remember the bass line.  Frenetic.  Infectious. A bassist’s equivalent to running a four minute mile.
  • Rage Against the Machine, “Tire me”: A song whose every measure screams, “I dare you to mess with me!”  Includes the line, “Why don’t you get from in front of me?“  Poor grammar but a great mantra for picking off that runner you’ve been trying to reel in for the past mile.
  • Sting, “She’s Too Good For Me:” This is when a walking bass line becomes a running bass line. Warning: It could be embarrassing—and bad for your form–when you catch yourself playing air bass.
  • Miles Davis, “Fat time Groove.”  A real tension builder.  Time your explosive finish with a guitar solo that makes your favorite rock solo sound like junior playing at Guitar Hero. The solo riffs for about four minutes, so pace yourself accordingly.

Finally, I don’t recommend any song that incorporates sirens or barking dogs; such sounds can be very, um, disconcerting.  And of course, give your friend the iPod a break now and then, and commune with your own thoughts and with nature.

The Music on the Streets-Part 1 (The Long Run 2012 Mar)

country-marathon-runner-650The dog is man’s best friend. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. Ben is Jerry’s best friend. You get the picture. In the spirit of platonic pairings, I propose that a runner’s best friend is his or her … drum roll, please … iPod. Shoes are a poor BF candidate, unless you walk on and discard your BF for the next one every four months. And your GPS is all work and no play.

Not ready to accept the iPod into your friends network just yet? I invite you to walk a mile—actually, to run a certain ten miles—with me. You may change your, um, tune.

It was a blustery Sunday of 35 mile per hour winds, plummeting temperatures and the threat of snow, unpleasant enough to make me fathom the unfathomable: ten miles of long-run-paced plodding on my gym’s treadmill. The thought makes me shudder still. This was the runner’s equivalent of doing hard time. Putting the unsavory task off until the last minute, I found myself among a throng of others serving a like sentence. There was but one available treadmill. Perfect! I hopped on the belt and got after it. I futzed with the control panel and quickly revved to plodding speed. I was warming to the task. Time to settle in, relax, and leave the hard work to the pilot. I’d be landing on terra firma in an hour and a half. Baggage claim was just feet away, in a cubby. Parking wouldn’t cost a penny. Piece of cake.

Before then I hadn’t glanced at the TV that was directly in front of my workout station, so close there was no looking over, under or around it. I’m not usually a channel flipper, but what I saw made my trigger finger itchy. With gunslinger reflexes, I reached for the changer (in the drink-cup holster, where it always was), and…Drats! It wasn’t there. It was nowhere (probably behind a cushion somewhere). Slow to panic, I surveyed the neighboring treadmills. Still no vacancies. Like it or not, this was my treadmill, the one offering the unremitting view to The Poker Tournament of Champions while simultaneously blocking all relief from the oscillating fan. Double foul! My apologies if you love TV poker but, to the unconverted, TV poker is about as captivating as, um, TV long-distance running (or Waterworld, the extended version). Ok, I thought, it’s a good thing I came prepared. Surely I could endure the view of six unflinching, sunglass and cowl-wearing, stone faced visages for an hour and a half. I had 8g of music strapped to my arm. Say hello to my little friend! It would be like viewing a screensaver of the Easter Island Heads while chilling to my “party on” playlist. Piece of cake. I reached for that magic white button of music-giving gratification, expecting from it all the deliverance the skydiver expects from his rip-cord. With smug satisfaction, I pressed the button and voila!…CONNECT TO CHARGER. Connect to charger?! In a crushing moment I felt the full weight of Snidely Whiplash’s pain. “Curses! Foiled again.”

Was I the victim of epic technological failure or of my own woeful planning? Either way, that day I discovered who my true friend was: my iPod. Absence had made this heart grow fonder. And if your iPod isn’t just the friend you want, you have only yourself to blame (ok, and maybe Steve Jobs, a little). With some thought, you can make your iPod anything you want him or her to be. What friend can you say that of?

Before I continue with this ode to the iPod, allow me to get a few preliminaries out of the way. Like your BFF in high school, your iPod can sometimes get you into trouble. First, your iPod is a friend who, you may discover, is not welcome at races. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that there’s a lot happening at races (we are talking about hundreds—or thousands—of people running as fast as they can, after all), and race directors and volunteers want you to be optimally aware of your surroundings and of their directions. Please respect their wishes, and don’t attempt to smuggle your friend into an iPod-prohibited race by hiding your headphones in a hoodie or some such contraband-concealing piece of headwear. You may be disqualified (and get really hot). Anyway, the last thing you should be at a race is either bored or lacking motivation. You may even find music an overwhelming irritant late in a race. Second, I don’t recommend running unfamiliar trails, streets or neighborhoods while tuned in. Only after you are well-acquainted with all that a course may throw at you, is it advisable to crank up the volume. Palmer Park, for example, is as popular with mountain bikers as it is with runners. Much of its 25-mile trail network consists of deeply-rutted, scrub-oak lined single track. Running with an iPod, I’ve been caught unawares by rapidly approaching mountain bikers, and averted head-on collisions with them by the slimmest of margins, leaving both them and me shaken. If you simply must have your friend with you, at least hit his/her hush button when confronting blind corners, limited visibility or creepy underpasses reminiscent of horror movie sets. Third, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) may make your “easy miles” playlist, but I recommend leaving the iPod at home after dark. With one of your senses already compromised (your sight), your disadvantage is doubled when you can’t hear if something goes bump in the night.

Tune in next month, when we celebrate our BFF the iPod, and explore the “science” of composing the perfect running playlist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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