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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why We Need Running Now More Than Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Streaking Through The Quarantine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Child’s Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try, Try A Zen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.








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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forrest-Gump (1)

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

Running With Distinction


Image: Oiselle-fan-girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relaying the Message

May 11, 2011. The baton is valuable in all relay races. Here a track athlete prepares for the start of a relay. The GWOC track meet took place at Fairborn High School.In Zen there is the saying, “The sound of the rain needs no translation.” Here we are warned away from the futility of having words and our understanding of words do the work of nature and our most innate means of experiencing it, that is, through our various senses and our intuition. When one’s running becomes as natural an act as the rain’s falling one does best just to run and not to participate in the clumsy business of clutching at words. The very best authors of running are always those whose mouths are mute on the subject and who take no pains to peck at a keyboard. They do best to put their labor—or their play– where it is certain to result in the greatest good. Their legs and lungs are eloquent of all their words can never say, and steer them wide of the sticky doors to publication while leading them on to the widest syndication. When we watch footage of Emil Zatopec winning one of his three gold medals at the 1952 Olympics, do we care one jot what the commentator—in dated turns of phrase and 50s stage voice–is saying? How much is really lost with the audio? We’d do no worse to play Vangelis–or maybe more to Emil’s liking, “Má vlast”–over the whole affair; it matters that little. Emil’s strength and joy and a hundred other ineffable expressions are the things that make an impression on us through even so limited a medium as a reel of grainy, black and white film. The words are just dust kicked up by his footfalls.

With writers we have learned to read between their lines for what is most important to us. Poets—who choose their words with the utmost exactitude–offer us more betweens than lines separating them. The running journalist, in quoting the poets of her sport—the George Sheehans and the Chris McDougals, hands the relay baton to one who wears her own colors. The poets of running may in their turn hand off to the classical poets (as Sheehan was especially fond of doing). We may all, by learning to read carefully, follow along at the writer’s—any writer’s–pace. And when the running journalists, running poets and Poets Laureate have put all they can into the endeavor, the natural runner is the last to be handed the baton, and is called on to close well down the backstretch. He is all that stands between where the writers, whose energies have all been spent, have left off and of our breaking the tape of a perfect understanding. But he is a great deal, indeed; it is not without good reason that he is called the anchor. Read of his feats at second hand and you haven’t really followed him; try, if you dare, to run with him, and you’ll get more by that attempt than you would by all the reading in the world. In the beginning stages of a track relay, lines matter. In the latter stages, they are forgotten. What is remembered is the anchor’s superaddition of athleticism.

That runners read running journalists is a clue to the solemn fact that many of us have not yet learned to elevate our running to anything like the natural dignity of the falling rain, and that we still require translation both to understand and to explain to others exactly what it is we are doing on our lonesome trails and backstreet routs at hours when the civilized world has not yet found its legs. With regard to the runner’s language, we may have a few of the necessaries down, enough for tourism, enough to make a start. But we require language coaches and primers to read until we are comfortable enough in our fluency that we may begin to offer up a few original sentences. Ultimately we may come to use our new language without self-consciousness, to even think in it. Some day we may use it to compose running poetry or even to put the best of that poetry to rout with silent performances that render onlookers speechless. A Zen saying holds that “when the pupil is ready the master appears”; nowhere does it say that the master can’t be oneself. Before such proficiency is achieved, we will have gained a passable fluency when we can give something like a satisfactory answer to the question: “Why run?”

The mythologist Joseph Campbell, in deconstructing the hero’s journey—a ubiquitous pattern of storytelling–identifies a stage he calls “the meeting with a mentor.” It is the stage directly preceding the pivotal “crossing the threshold” stage. For most newbie runners, the journey begins far from a Boulder, a Mammoth Lakes or an Iten, Kenya—communities in which the molding of runners is a kind of cottage industry. A great many of us begin the journey as born-again runners, setting off in gray sweat suits from cul-de-sacs with nothing more than the remote memory of a high-school cross-country coach to consult for guidance. But there are always magazine subscriptions, bookstores and the internet. Coaches are but one kind of mentor. An effective one may teach us the how of running, to the extent that such things may be taught. An effective running journalist may suggest to us (and repeatedly remind us) why we should want to run at all; their highest duty is to help the bulk of us make sense of the call we continue to hear even after realizing that running is something at which we will probably never be great (chances are their own realization of this fact stood as a marker on the course to their becoming writers of running).

It is no accident that the words of coaches, writers and sometimes even the unrehearsed utterances of our more quotable runners become the more intelligible parts of speech that constitute our running mantras. A runner writing for runners enjoys advantages beyond the obvious. Twenty minutes into his long run, a line comes to him. But before he can claim it, he’ll have to carry it in his mind for the next two hours. He repeats it until it finds guaranteed lodging in his gray matter. By the time he is able to jot it down, it will have stood the ultimate test of a mantra: to be concise and catchy enough to cohere while the thoughts surrounding it are a roiling alphabet soup. Many of the running journalist’s most memorable lines had first to be remembered by their author, had first to survive this gestation. Any part of speech that is jagged or ungainly is worn smooth after an hour or two of tumbling through the mind of an endurance athlete. These are the tools our mentors of printed media impart to us, to stand proxy for their instruction and wisdom in our time of greatest need; they are the runner’s talisman, a concealed weapon against deteriorating form and morale. From our place in the middle of the pack, our running heroes cannot avail us; they are literally miles ahead; they elude emulation and have passed from visualization to vanishing point. But with the words of coaches and writers, we may always run stride for stride, no matter what kind of day we are having.