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.)

Advertisements

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.

The Curious Case of Ed Whitlock (The Long Run 2012 Jan)

edHard to believe, but it’s the season when Father Time ushers in Baby New Year and we raise the annual question, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Happy New Year, runners and resolutionists!

For all who come to these pages for inspiration, especially at this time of the year, have I got a story for you. The Father Time/Baby New Year motif that one finds often in editorial cartoons at New Years is a fitting way of introducing someone I’d like you to meet. Ed Whitlock of Milton, Ontario, is the 5’7”,115 pound embodiment of Father Time and Baby New Year rolled into one. Benjamin Button and his grave-to-cradle journey had nothing on Ed Whitlock, octogenarian cross-country superstar. Ecclesiastes says that, “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.” For Ed Whitlock and running, that season has been so long you’d think someone forgot to start the timer on his running career. Oh sure, lots of folks over 70 quip about being in their second childhoods. But only one of them has ever backed the claim with sub 3-hour marathons. (Your editor didn’t miss a typo; the statement is true and has been verified on multiple occasions by World Masters Athletics and the Association of Road Race Statisticians.) Since turning 70, Ed’s best sub-3 outing was a Ripley’s-worthy 2:54:48 at 73 years of age! Moreover, Ed Whitlock has rewritten the over-70 record book in every long-distance running category, turning in jaw-dropping performances of 37:33 in the men’s 70-74 10k and 19:07 in the men’s 75-79 5k (times that elude many fit runners in their 20s and 30s). Now 80, and 4 years beyond the life expectancy of a North American male (an uncle of Ed’s lived to be 108!), Ed has already smashed the men’s 80-84 marathon record with a time of 3:15:54. That’s nearly 25 minutes faster than any person over 80 had ever run a marathon before. Ed also owns a pending time of 20:58 in the men’s 80-84 5k. Arguably, Whitlock dominates his field as no athlete has ever dominated his or her field. In masters running, Ed has no peer within a decade of his age. In fact, Whitlock is, relatively speaking, among the most athletic people on the planet; on an age-graded basis, Ed has turned in marathon performances equivalent to just over 2 hours and 3 minutes, suggesting a slightly better relative performance than the 2:03:38 of the current marathon world-record holder, a 26 year old Kenyan man.

So who is this octogenarian superhero? Anyone who knew Whitlock at the end of his collegiate cross-country career in the early 1950s might have speculated that Ed had been holding something back. But surely nobody could have guessed that it would take him 50 years to unlock his potential. A solid collegiate runner, Whitlock still fell decidedly short of world class. That fact and a nagging Achilles injury (which he still nurses to this day) compelled Ed to abandon running throughout his 20s and 30s. In his 40s Whitlock seems to have briefly and grudgingly flirted with running again, before giving it up (seemingly for good) in his 50s. In his late 60s the retired mining engineer had a change of heart and began his running career in earnest—proving that it really is never too late.

While Ed at 80 may run like a fit man half his age, he doesn’t look much like one. With limp, snow-white hair and gaunt face, Whitlock looks like the grandfather he is. Come to think of it, the Milton resident looks a little like Father Time with a shave. Until he runs, that is; then he’s more like an age-progressed Baby New Year. Known for superior form, Ed is a model of running efficiency. This is undoubtedly a clue to his success. But there has to be more—much more. Reading up on Ed, I’ve discovered that the man is served by a mind-warping immunity to boredom. I shudder to think of Ed’s decades-long, unvarying routine of logging up to 140 (no, the 1 is not a typo!) solitary miles a week in 5 minute loops around a cemetery in his neighborhood. (Whitlock resists waxing philosophical about literally running circles around contemporaries who have shuffled off this mortal coil.) It’s a little easier to swallow the drudgery of Ed’s routine if one can imagine his slipping into a trance and going to some inner sanctum or happy place on his three-hour cemetery rounds. But that would be our consolation, not Ed’s. And this brings us to the real kicker about Ed. According to his biographers, the man loathes training, experiences no runners high, and suffers for the end of every training run. What on earth compels him, then? What happened to, “Love what you do. Do what you love”? Well, what Whitlock seems to love (in addition to his wife of 50 years and his family) is racing and setting world records. Ed is an unapologetic champion of competition (a concept that frequently draws criticism from modern psychologists and educationalists). Without races and the opportunity to set verifiable world records, Whitlock claims he wouldn’t even run. Though uncomfortable with fame—even the light yoke of the elite runner’s fame—Ed seems conscious of his role as a gerontological revisionist and a pioneer of human achievement. Ed joins the likes of John Glenn (77 year old astronaut), Yuichiro Miura (75 year old Everest climber), Betty White (irreverent octogenarian comedienne), and Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski (septuagenarian tough guy from the film Gran Torino) in a rogue campaign to re-brand the third-millennium senior citizen. Here’s hoping Ed Whitlock is one auld acquaintance you’ll not soon forget.

Running the Five & Dimes (The Long Run 2011 Dec)

5kDriving home from work several months ago, I found myself trailing a car sporting an innocuous little bumper sticker. In contrast to so many of today’s bumper stickers, there was nothing inflammatory about this one: a bordered oval framing the numbers 26.2. I’d like to boast that I had its meaning in an instant, but, embarrassingly, I had to turn it over a while in my mind–long after that car had turned off–as if it were some cipher worthy of my utmost concentration. Then, somewhere on the drive between Uintah and Fillmore, it came to me: Pheidippides and his fabled run from Marathon to Athens, his resulting death, the 1896 Summer Olympics, a race held in Boston in 1897, and 150 costumed Elvises (Elvi if we’re being grammatical) running 26.2 miles in Las Vegas. (And by the way, I have always wondered whether Pheidippides died from battle wounds or from the rigors of having just run the mother of all marathons; Herodotus was none too clear in translation.) To a small—but growing–sliver of the general population, 26.2 needs no introduction, and no explanation. It is the secret handshake of a fraternity, a sign understood if not by all then by all who matter. Ever since that first sighting, I see 26.2 everywhere: on the posteriors of jeeps, bugs, and minivans; on notebooks, laptops and guitar cases. I remain, however, on the lookout for my first 3.1 (5k) or 6.2 (10k). Maybe some brave soul reading this piece ought to start a trend.

26.2 is a natural buzzword (buzznumber?) for the marathoner; it is, after all, the statistic that defines his or her athletic event of choice. But here’s a question. Is 26.2 on its way to becoming the very emblem of the runner in general? If a vehicle sports a 3.1, 6.2 or even a 13.1 (half marathon) bumper sticker, is its driver relegated to some lower rung of the aerobic ladder, pitied as one who looks up in sycophantic admiration at the 26.2 rung, aspiring to someday arrive, to someday be a “runner” with all the requisite bragging rights? Would one who bravely—or naively–advertised so trifling a number as 3.1 or 6.2 be thought a neophyte, an amateur, a dabbler or, worse yet, a jogger? And would he or she be passed without a friendly beep or a knowing nod by the driver whose bumper boasts a weighty 26.2? In a supersized culture where bigger is assumed better, tall is the new small, Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet, and English mastiffs are trending, has the marathon become the litmus test for passage into runninghood? Is the marathon the aerobic watershed that parts the wannabe from the genuine article? Is 26.2 the thresher for winnowing the weekend warrior’s chafe from the devotee’s grain? (Did I say it was an innocuous little bumper sticker?) Have we come to a place where a runner isn’t really a runner without having reached for the Bodyglide and made the 26.2 mile pilgrimage? I fear that the marathon is becoming to running what Mensa is to intelligence. If so, even the marathoner must ultimately concede to the ultramarathoner, whose sport is in the throes of its exponential growth phase.

Say that I’m stirring up a tempest in a teacup, if you must, but I think there’s something slightly sinister—ok, very slightly sinister in the scheme of sinister things—about the confidence of 26.2’s voice and the comparative muteness of distances that dare not speak their name. To me it hints of number worship, and, dare I say, a budding elitism. To counter, what do you say we show 3.1 and 6.2 some love? There is and will always be great value in running the five & dimes, as I collectively call them. Not that there is anything wrong with marathons and ultramarathons and the milephiles (you heard it here first) who run them. There are many constitutions and characters ideally suited to these great distances, many minds salved by the meditative effects of running in excess of three hours, many dollars raised for charities, and many selves actualized in the wearing of a finishing medal upon completion of a 26.2, 50 or 100 mile event. All running is good, right? But there are many more constitutions and psyches for which less is not less but just right. Individuals seeking life balance may train for and run the five & dimes–even at very competitive levels—while saving ample time for family, career, travel, education, volunteerism, and diverse athletic and creative hobbies. For parents, the 5k race is a perfect means of introducing children to running and racing; such races make ideal Saturday-morning family outings with health benefits for all (not just the runner on a 26.2 mile quest). Like a marathon, a 5k or 10k race promises an elated finish, social bonding opportunities, and a chance to give to community charities (and to get a cool t-shirt). But unlike a marathon, a recreational 5k or 10k race can be run well on 40 or fewer weekly training miles. This is perfect for runners whose injury thresholds are crossed before the 40 mile mark. For runners who experience compromised immunity, burnout or injury on anything more than 40 miles per week, the marathon just doesn’t make sense. But running—and racing-still does. And there’s even something for the competitor in the five & dime venue: the quest for personal records at shorter distances includes all the athletic legitimacy (and all the health benefits) of pushing the distance envelope. And if you miss that personal 5k or 10k record this weekend, you can always get it the very next weekend. Try that with a marathon! (On second thought, please don’t).

My Duel in the Sun (The Long Run 2011 Aug)

duelThe philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that imitation is suicide. Try imitating a runner who is out of your league, and you’ll get a taste for what he meant. I tried once. A mile into a four (it felt like five) mile trail race, I saw one of my local heroes improbably near. For fun, I thought I’d try saying “Hi . . . . see you at the finish line.” I dug deep. I sidled up to my hero. With a calm that belied my red-lined condition, I said “Hi” and flashed him a cocky smile. He turned to look. He returned to his business–for a second or two. He looked again, as if to say, “Is that really you?” and, “What’s the silly smile for?” He was baffled. Weren’t hallucinations a side-effect of heat prostration (it was 84 degrees that day)? He looked at his watch–the universal signal for “this meeting is adjourned.” Predictably, he hit nitro and pulled away. Ordinarily I would have let it go at that, and watched him get smaller and smaller, until I lost him altogether behind the stands of scrub oak through which my straggler’s path led. But this was to be no ordinary day. As much from an impulse to confound as from anything more valiant, I dug deep and, rather unpredictably, sidled up to my hero again, this time with a snarl that let him know I meant business (though just what my business was, I didn’t know). He looked more bewildered than ever. His mind was reeling. Everything was going topsy-turvy. What would come next: pigs on the wing? From his point of view, something was seriously amiss with the universe. Would he reach the finish line to discover that apes were running the race? Taking advantage of his stunned condition, I pulled ahead of him. That’s right, ahead. What nerve! Who did I think I was: him? It was a surreal moment. Or was it? Surely this was suicide. I was about to implode. The jig was almost up. Another minute on borrowed time and I’d be exposed for the imposter I was.

Then the improbable happened. Was that a groan? I looked around. No one else in sight. Just me and my hero. There it was again: a groan of Promethean suffering. That tortured sound had come out of my adversary. He was hurting. There was a chink in his armor; here was a god who bled. Whether the universe had gone topsy-turvy or not, I was going to make the most of it. With the changing winds of fortune at my back, I spent the next 20 minutes running my adversary ragged. I was transformed. It wasn’t my adversary I was imitating now. I was Dick Beardsley. My adversary was Alberto Salazar. We were locking horns in our own private Duel in the Sun. But for us, there were no cameras, no cheering throngs, just the occasional volunteer showing two age-group competitors the road to a plastic statuette.

And when all was said and done . . .

There were no apes manning the finishing chute. The world hadn’t gone to the meek or to the dogs. And I was—predictably—in my adversary’s rear view mirror. In the final 100 meters of the race, I didn’t even rate as a cheap knock-off of my adversary. I was a second-rate tribute act at best; he was the Beatles and I was BritBeat. Reality had kicked in—and what a kick it had held in reserve for me!

Were you expecting a happier ending—one where the underdog takes the day, where human will triumphs over a titanic VO2max, where Wylie Coyote’s investment in Acme scams finally gets him a drumstick. Now, that would be surreal. No, this was reality, and it was sweet enough. All was right with the world—really right. I—I!–had been within 100 feet of a finish line and still able to read the list of sponsors off the back of my hero’s t-shirt. Spent to the point of stumbling, I took my place behind—immediately behind!–my hero in the finishing chute. And what was that on my face? Shame? Humiliation? Disappointment? No. Just the silly smile.

Several running logs have been filled and shelved since that race, and I’ve never again come within a stone’s throw of my hero. There’s no going from strength to strength in this story. My hero’s always up there in some unattainable echelon. Maybe my derring-do was reckless, maybe even suicidal. Whatever it was, it haunted me, the way I’ve heard run-ins with death haunt one. I had briefly gone over to the other side, flirted with a place where one’s feet never touch the earth. But my place wasn’t there. It was back on terra firma, bound to race among mortals.

(Epilogue: In 2014, in the same race, I again came close to beating my hero…close but no cigar. Apparently there’s something about this course that plays to my strengths. Good to know that the years have been equally kind to each of us and that we’ve held our own relative to the other. Maybe in 2015 I can do something about that.)

Schooled (The Long Run 2011 May)

Little girl 1T minus 4 minutes and counting. Time to toe the line. In most races my “line” is somewhere in the second or third row, behind young men and women in team singlets and racing flats so loud as to violate noise ordinances in neighboring jurisdictions. And then there’s the kids: those pre-pubescent Prefontaines and Paula Radcliffes whose parents are calling for them from the back row, unaware that their little overachiever has apparently been spending recess training with a college track team. Kids in the front row of grown-up races are kids about to get schooled.

For my part, I’ve never reveled in tutoring the Nickelodeon crowd. They just happen to be in my way…by the quarter mile mark. It’s about then their hatchling bodies stop running on enthusiasm and Lucky Charms and they start looking green from all that humble pie they’re eating. You can’t help but smile at their opening brazenness. The first two minutes of the race will cut them down to size (as if a four foot tall body should ever need that)…until the next race. But eventually their judgment will solidify, like some late-hardening cranial suture.

Anyway, it’s t minus 2 minutes and counting. I size up the competition. What’s this? Another four-and-a-half foot interloper. But this isn’t just any lost child. This one has a two-foot-long blond pony tail. Oh, what I failed to say before is that these fledgling Roger Bannisters are almost invariably male. Boys will be boys, but girls usually won’t be, um, boys.

T minus one minute. The boys aren’t budging from the front row. Neither is the girl. This is her story and apparently she‘s sticking with it. Another child casualty. I imagine how those New Balance and Asics tracks are going to look on her clean t-shirt.

Ten, nine, eight….hands are poised on watches…seven, six, five…nervous glances are exchanged…four, three, two, one…mayhem! It took until 1954 for a human to run a four minute mile. And judging by the first few seconds of this race, 30 of us are going to run one today. I wonder whether anyone called the folks at Guinness? A minute into the race and the four or five runners who look like they actually might run a four minute mile are in the lead, untouchable as always. And right behind them are (you guessed it) the kids. Already one can see their form faltering, arms windmilling, steps making a racket like snowshoes on asphalt. For them, the finish line is less then a track-length away. Sure, many of them will finish the actual race (a 5k), having fallen in with Mom or Dad somewhere along the way, but their opening speed has been significantly checked, halved and halved again. A minute and 30 seconds into the race and three little guys are in my rear-view mirror. A minute more and it’ll be a big-kids-only race. The next kids I’ll see will be pocketing extra bagels at the post-race carb-load. Three minutes into the race and the casualty roll is complete: seven little boys sent to the back of the line. The coast is clear. Just me and the open road and that pack of runners up ahead. That’s where I need to be. With my first real effort of the race, I close the gap. Before I know it I’m in the wind-shadow of a half-dozen male and female runners who had lined up near me at the start, all of them over 5-and-a-half feet tall. I judge that I can take this pack, and when I do an unexpected sight greets me: ten yards ahead is a blond ponytail, no longer hanging but streaming behind a diminutive female athlete in a clean t-shirt. No tread marks. I worriedly check my GPS sportswatch. I’m at the appointed place at the appointed time. It’s she who’s out of place.

Undaunted, I marshal my resolve to pass her. What else can I do? I have to remedy this situation before the first water stop. My wrap-around shades won’t give me the kind of anonymity I’ll be needing if something doesn’t change…in a hurry. (It doesn’t occur to me at the time that all the pride I’m lugging might actually be weighing me down.) Water stop one. There’s Gatorade. What kid can pass up Gatorade, right? Wrong. She glides right through. What’s wrong with this kid—other than the fact that she’s making me look bad? Whatever happened to respecting one’s elders? There are runners in front of us and a lot of runners behind, but no one else matters. I’m sure she knows I’m there; my labored breathing has denied me the element of surprise. Whatever her race goals were, I’ll wager she’s ditched them now, all so she can make me look bad. I’m sure of it. Or is it that I vanquished her dad once and now she’s out to avenge his memory? Water stop two. I’m ten paces behind. She gets an ovation. I get…wait, did someone just throw something at me? This is shaping up to be the worst day of my life. Finishing chute. The moment of truth. How much muscle power can that 70 pound frame pack? There’s no way the girl can have a finishing kick. I bring mine on, such as it is. Too late. My timing is off. I finish two feet behind that blond ponytail.

If it’ll save my pride, I’ll swear that was the fastest an 11 year old girl ever ran a 5k. I’d prove it, but nobody thought to call the folks at Guinness that day.

(Epilogue: This race took place in approximately 2003. In 2013, Jen Bremser–the owner of the blond ponytail–ran a 16:48 5k as a track & field star for Air Force Academy. Somehow knowing this makes me feel better.)

bremser

Outside the Lines (The Long run 2011 Apr)

offtrackOne of my favorite thinkers, Henry David Thoreau, once confessed to preferring a wide margin to his life. His admission is memorable to me because of how well it resonates with my own inclinations. I am no devotee of structure—especially not structure for its own sake. For better or worse, I’m a free spirit—and never freer than when I’m running. Needless to say, I have never taken to speed work like the proverbial water fowl to water. In fact, you could say I loathe the stuff. For those made like me (and many like me seem to gravitate to running), there’s a lot to loathe about speed work. Most speed work has a certifiably redundant structure. That’s reason number one to loathe it. First there’s that warm up thing. Then there’s a hard 400 meters (substitute 400 meters for 300 or 800 meters, if you like), timed. Then there’s a timed rest interval. Then there’s another hard 400—faster than the first. Another rest interval. A harder 400. Rest interval. Hard 400. Rinse. Repeat. Then finally, like a gubernatorial pardon, comes the cool down (the warm down for literalists). An advanced rule of speed work states that if you can accurately count your 400s and rest intervals, you aren’t working hard enough to achieve the level of staggering pain that interferes with elementary cognitive functions (or you spent too much money on your stopwatch). I figure that in my speed work days I usually put in an extra 400 or two—before finally splurging on a state-of-the-art GPS sports watch. Yes, there was a big, amazing world out there, and there I was going around and around between two white lines. That was before I abandoned the oval for greener pastures.

Those who have done battle with the oval know that speed work really hurts. Not just once, but eight to ten times (not counting the pain that lingers through the first half of each rest interval). That’s reason number two to loathe speed work: The pain. And for what? If you do it just right (meaning you don’t cross the tipping point of overtraining or injury), you might slash 30 or 40 seconds off your 5 or 10k time. While that’s nothing to sneeze at, it’s never been enough racing bang for my training buck.

Now I don’t mean to say that I’ve given up on getting faster. Never going to happen. But I have chucked conventional speed work. And even that didn’t happen overnight. I experimented with other less-structured forms of speed work first. I tried time trials. They really worked. But when I began to anticipate them with pre-race jitters, I abandoned them in short order. I mean, if you’re going to leave everything out there on the course, shouldn’t you at least get a bite-sized energy bar in your goody bag for compensation? I tried in-and-outs (two minutes fast, one minute slow x 10) on favorite courses, seeing a lot more of my sports watch than the great outdoors. In the end it was apparent that I’d traded running my favorite course for something like running the gauntlet.

No, the only way for a rebel like me was to trick myself into believing I wasn’t doing speed work when in fact I was. Now I’m not an easy one to dupe. Not even for me. If I wanted to trick myself with speed work, I had to be sneaky about it, call it something else and deny until the last possible second that it was actually happening—until that moment when I said to myself “I guess I’m doing speed work now. Might as well gut it out.” The only way was to unwittingly arrive at that moment when I was too far engaged to pull out, like a skydiver who had just stepped from a plane, when there would be no point in fighting it, when I would just let go, as if into the arms of gravity.

I’m no coach, so I’ll stop short of prescribing my methods for everyone. I can only tell you what has worked for me and hope that it might speak to the other free spirits among you who, in your readiness to be free of the track, have abandoned all hope of getting faster. My answer to the speed work question is the progression run. I didn’t invent it. It’s too natural to have needed inventing. It’s as natural as…well, giving way to gravity. For the running lexicographer, progression running is nearly synonymous with negative split running, except that it’s more extreme.

Here’s how progression running works for me. Once or twice a week I pick a favorite course. I start running slowly (that’s key). After a mile or two I begin to build my pace. I let the speed come to me; I don’t rush it. Still, by the middle of my run I may be at tempo pace without having given it much thought. I continue building speed gently until a mile before the finish of my run. I top out at goal race pace or faster in the final minutes. Then it’s over…except for a blissful mile of cool down time. One rising movement culminating in a crescendo of exertion. You wouldn’t expect a great film to have eight denouements. Why should a great training run?

Pros: You don’t have to kill your weekly mileage just because it’s speed work day (I’ve done 10 mile progression runs and felt invigorated afterward). It’s perfect for slow starters. It simulates ideal race pacing (negative splits). Done correctly, it gives the runner significant time at threshold and VO2max paces. Cons: I can’t think of any…oh, it may challenge your iPod mixing skills (tip: start with the Carpenters and end with Rage Against the Machine).

How Low Can You Go? (The Long Run 2011 Feb)

coldHave you wondered lately whether your porch thermometer is broken?  Have you found yourself scanning the newspaper forecasts with a longing for bigger-digit days?  Have you recently been seen sporting a running tights/shopka ensemble despite the pleadings of children and resident fashionistas?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be a runner mired in a February freeze.  But as bad as that is, there’s reason to take heart.  It could be worse.  What if you had to relive the same February day indefinitely (or until you pass your cosmic exam), like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day?   Or, more likely, say you were a runner in a place that actually gets cold–and I don’t mean for a week or so every few years when that frigid Canadian air rides the southbound all the way to New Mexico and stays for a sit-in.

The next time you–and I, for that matter–think of hanging it up because the thermometer reads 15 degrees (a typical February overnight low for Colorado Springs), we should warm ourselves with thoughts of our fellow runners in Fairbanks, Alaska.  Fairbanks.  Whoever arrived at that name had an ironic sense of humor or didn’t get out much.  Fifteen degrees!  If it were 15 degrees in Fairbanks, it would most likely be an April day.  Chances are that right now the Mars rovers are enjoying warmer temperatures than some poor guy lacing up on his porch in Fairbanks.  It can be 20 degrees warmer on the surrounding hilltops.  Holy temperature inversion, Batman!  And you thought nothing would ever make you want to run hills.  And then there’s the problem of limited daylight.  Or shall I say, “limited gloaming?”  Better run at lunch, or it’s lights out for you.  In late December you could boast of starting and finishing your long runs in the dark—you might think I’m kidding, but I’m not.  And even at high noon in mid-winter, a feeble sun seems to hang just above those pine trees on the horizon.  Talk about the Twilight Zone.  Well, I guess they have the Aurora Borealis to look at, anyway.  As for me, I’ll take the view of Pikes Peak (and not that tiny light at the top, visible only in the dark).  Add a 15 mile per hour wind to an otherwise lovely Fairbanks run and you might as well be on the wing of a DC-10 at cruising altitude (hey, didn’t I tell you it was like the Twilight Zone?)  “No thanks, Mr. Flight Attendant, I think I’ll pass on the in-flight hot toddy, thank you; but, say, have you got a balaclava–or better yet, an EVA suit—in that serving cart?”

Ok, you’re right.  I sound jealous because I am jealous.  I’m jealous of the stalwartness of these folks.  I’m jealous of the audacity that taunts Old Man Winter at close range.  I’m jealous of folks who can get away with wearing stylish knit caps and scarves every day for months.

You may be thinking that surely every Fairbanks runner has a treadmill or belongs to a gym with a treadmill, and that outdoor running in winter is as great an oddity as liquid water.  I wondered about that too, so I looked up the website for Fairbanks’ running club, Running Club North.  (I fancied them the Polar Bear Club, but the name, we know, is already being used by another group of extremophiles who appear a little soft in comparison to these hearty folks.)  And guess what?  People on the perimeter of the Arctic Circle really do run–in the dead of winter.  And stranger still, they actually seem to enjoy it.  The good folks of Running Club North claim, with an earned air of braggadocio, that they used to call off races at -25 degrees, but now they leave it up to the individual race director.  I’m with them; why draw the line at dangerously cold, when hypothermic hallucinations are just around the corner?  (No, that bank thermometer that reads -55 isn’t a hallucination; you’re perfectly safe.)  Club North hosts a weekly training run called Fahrenheit Be Darned (at least they keep their braggadocio clean).  To satisfy my (morbid) curiosity I clicked on a menu option entitled “Cold Weather Running.”  Among the advice offered is the suggestion that one choose his or her course with a potential refuge in mind.  I was thinking that loops around the emergency room parking lot seemed like the most prudent course (outside of an indoor track).

Ok, accuse this middle-latitude dweller of exaggeration if you will.  But there’s just something about imminent danger of frostbite that’s always brought out the hyperbolic in me.

But seriously, how low is too low?   To paraphrase exercise physiologist John. W. Castellani, more people are injured running in hot weather than cold weather.  Now that I can believe, having known the pleasure of a 93 degree marathon finish.  The good doctor gives the green light to running down to -50 degrees fahrenheit.  It should be noted however that Dr. Mom stridently challenges Dr. Castellani’s findings, never mind his professional standing.

Since the temperature has never plummeted much below -30 in Colorado Springs, I figure none of us has an excuse for not running outside in winter.  So lace up, layer up and have some hot cocoa waiting for you at home in a thermos.  And look on the bright side.  February too will pass, whether or not you ace your cosmic exam.

Bear Witness (The Long Run 2010 Oct)

funny_bear_not_a_runner_now_you_are-1561You gotta love moms. In a casual Sunday catch-up chat I mention that I just got in from a 12-mile run. “Without stopping?” Mom asks incredulously as though it were a feat of madness on the order of swimming the English Channel. This dubiety, mind you, is coming from a woman who accepts tabloid headlines about alien-human hybrid births. If only my feat were immortalized in an Enquirer headline: “Man runs from Woodmen to Baptist Road and Lives to Tell the Story.” Anyway, the next thing out of her mouth is not, “Good job,” or even a jesting, “Were you in some kind of trouble?” Instead she asks, “Honey, what about the bears?”

I return a dose of unfounded incredulity (apparently it runs in the family). “Bears?” I say dismissively. “Maybe in Alaska.” To me wild bears are mythical creatures. To date I’ve seen as many wild bears as I have human-alien hybrids: zilch. If I hadn’t seen bears at the zoo, I’d swear the whole bear lore was a hoax. I can’t tell you how many times some saucer-eyed runner has warned me off a trail because a bear had just scared the [insert your noun here] out of him. I am never daunted. Always foolhardy, I venture where folks with better sense dare not go. I secretly—not so secretly now–hope for an encounter. A benign encounter, mind you. And, as always, it ends up being just me and the empty spaces. With me, every purported encounter holds as much water as a “bigfoot” sighting. I’m a veteran runner (and camper) who has logged his share of time on mountain trails and in alpine meadows. Darn it, I’ve earned my sighting! And yet there are Circuit City clerks who have seen more bears than I have (remember that story?) To think that some kid shelving Blue Rays was granted the encounter I’ve been denied is a cruel piece of irony. God has a confounding sense of humor.

Were my friend John to read this, he would shake a finger at me and warn me to be careful what I wish for. John had his encounter (and not while in the market for electronics). And his wasn’t exactly a benign encounter. Before I say more I’ll say that John is as honest as your conscience wired to a polygraph machine. And his flair for the dramatic rarely reaches the pitch of a single exclamation mark. John doesn’t cry wolf–or bear—or anything. So when an uncharacteristically emotive John called me one night a couple of years ago I listened. And I believed. Here’s the story John related. He went for a run in Eldorado Canyon near Boulder. A few miles in he was met by a ghostly-white runner moving rapidly in the opposite direction and aggressively imploring him to turn on his heels and run for it. John, being quicker on the uptake than I, complied. And good thing he did. Within seconds a grunting, testy bear was running the two runners down. Sensing the futility of outdistancing the bear on a well-trammeled trail they ducked into the forest (a suspect move when one considers the advantages a woodland creature might have in . . .um, the woods, but one I might’ve made in a panic). In the ensuing scramble, John’s informant twisted his ankle badly, forcing the two to turn and face their aggressor. A stand-off ensued. Pawing the ground, the bear circled their position. No amount of hurled rocks and sticks could persuade the bear to disengage. As the standoff dragged, dusk was approaching. The bear showed no signs of relenting. In a desperate move to avoid adding darkness to the bear’s advantage John parted company with his hapless new friend (I don’t think John ever had time for such niceties as learning his name) and bolted for it. Amazingly the bear held his position, allowing John to escape, find the trail, and eventually recruit a posse of local firemen. John’s, his friend’s, and the bear’s story ended well. Cooler heads prevailed and the bear backed down and slunk off into the woods.

John’s harrowing adventure is surely rare but with the scariest time of the year upon us we should remember that even a routine run can turn scary. When running (especially trails) be aware, run with a friend (canine or human), and heed warnings. And enjoy!

Maybe it’s time to start wearing that bear bell mom gave me for Christmas.

The Taming of the Shoe (the Long Run 2010 Aug)

tameTextbook form. You’ve heard the expression. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you embody it. But odds are you’re not so lucky. So how important is it, really? Very important, if you read the running books; not only does it decrease the risk of injury, but it leads to improved performance. Yet observe any high-profile race from the sidelines, and you’ll get the feeling that a lot of great runners aren’t doing their homework. For every example of textbook form among elites, there seems to be at least three examples of—how shall I put it?–more vernacular form.

I’ve watched, like a kid peering into a candy store, the elites at the Bolder Boulder. Short striders. Long striders. Heel strikers. Toe runners. A lot of spitting. Oh, and it goes without saying, a lot of flat-out jaw-dropping fast times. I saw elites wearing expressions more befitting of a soak in a Swedish bath—while stringing together sub-5 minute miles! I saw others who looked like they were passing a kidney stone—through their airways. I saw some with the focus of a petawatt laser. And I saw others with distracted, far-away looks, like their minds were running on a calculus problem.

So what can one take away from the viewing of such a motley parade of world class humanity?—aside from pangs of inadequacy? As I took in the gamut of running styles on display at Folsom Field, a few axioms suggested themselves. To thine own self be true. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Different strokes for different folks. But what came most to mind was relief.

You see, I’d been working at correcting my own reproachable form for years. It was my version of finishing school. I choose treadmills in sight of mirrors, so that, with governess sense, I might right my ailing form whenever the urge to be human overtook me. When I wasn’t analyzing my gait, I was counting footfalls per minute. While trying to steer my leaky raft between the Charybdis and Scallya of impeccable form, there was the bugbear of belly breathing to do battle with. The Ps and Qs of the foot strike hadn’t even been added to the curriculum. I was like the king—mentioned in Thoreau—who set himself on a course of correcting his faults, but couldn’t find the end of them. And while trying, my performance faltered and my running had become joyless, as learning becomes joyless under the tutelage of pedants and ruler-wielding nuns. Was it worth it to cross a finish line with first-lap form and a look of tranquility on my face, if I crossed that line a minute later than with stooping and grunting form? Some, who always stand on form, will say yes. I say no.

I remember the joy I felt when I PRd in the 5k. With abandon, I had burst from the gates, flying in the face of negative-split wisdom. By mile two I was rattling apart and red-lining like SpaceShipOne puncturing the ionosphere. My forward tilt was teetering on a topple. My arms were beating a front crawl in a wave pool (where the only waves were those of my gathering nausea). My hands were convulsively clutching at the grail of personal glory. The textbook was in tatters. The only book that mattered now was the record book. The Conservation of Energy—that weighty tome–had been ditched for a page-turner named the Call of the Wild. The Book of Numbers had trumped the Book of Judges.

Stand on form? Or stand on the winners’ platform? Ultramathoner Dean Karnazes said it well in this paean to his junior high coach: “Coach’s approach to running didn’t come out of any textbook; he simply instructed us to run as fast as we could until we crossed the finish line.“ That’s what I call street smarts.