What About Bob?

testman (2)I’ve had plenty of running rivals over the years. Hundreds, I’d say. Some names I remember. Most I’ve forgotten. A couple names are burned into my memory. Ask a lot of runners, and they’ll tell you that they are their own greatest rival. I get that. It’s about that post-race feeling that today we weren’t able to get out of our own way. But even when we say, “I beat myself today,” we are usually saying so with reference to some external benchmark: the clock, or a rival. How else would we know that we had beaten ourselves? And why would it matter? So until I see my name listed twice in the race results page (dismissing the occasional glitch), I’ll consider that I don’t really count as my rival.

So who are our real rivals? In a race, for 99% of us, 99% of the time, there will always be the runner just in front of us, and the runner just behind us. We paid entry fees to ensure that these rivals would be there. In every race, there are scores, sometimes hundreds, of races within the race. These are the best races because they are each products of a kind of natural selection. Forget waves. By the middle of a race, we know these few competitors actually qualify for this race-within-the-race (based on no wishful thinking, no soft qualifying race run eight months prior) because they’re running right beside us, just in front of us or just behind us. They are running our race, and we are running theirs. We may make the mistake, as I see it, of deeming some such rivals insignificant on the grounds of standard race divisions. She is a she. I am a he. He is young. I am not. We reason that it doesn’t matter what we do in relation to them. This may be true enough with regard to the results page. But it is not true with regard to our psyches. Intellectually, we may be dismissive of the opposite gendered runner on our heels. But viscerally, we know a true rival when we are in the company of one. And besides, what’s the point of making someone invisible, when they’re breathing that hard? Is that any way to honor their effort? (Incidentally, the rival who catalyzed my most transcendent 15 minutes ever in a race, whose name I’ll never forget, was 10 years my senior and always outside my age division.)

Sometimes we will know our rivals’ names. Most times we won’t. It doesn’t matter. This is a case where the psychological tactic called name it to tame it won’t work. Still, let’s call our nameless male rival Bob, both the one behind and in front of us: together, they’re the Bobs (see the film Office Space if you don’t get the Bobs reference). If it’s Bob’s day to best you, knowing his milquetoast name or even calling it out as he passes you, won’t help. But that’s not to say that Bob can’t help you. Whether you or he is aware of it, you just ran 30 seconds faster for the mile during which the hope of beating Bob floated. Of course there’s the possibility that in that burst you ran Bob’s race and not your own, and thus redlined to a degree that will come back to bite you in about 10 minutes. But probably not. Most recreational, mid-pack runners are not fully committed to the game of precision pacing (and may not even know what their perfect pace is); if that is their game, their rival is the urge to go out too fast or the siren song that features the feel good lyrics, “You’re looking strong today. Better ratchet up the pace.” If Bob is jockeying for the spot just ahead of you, he is probably no more than marginally better than you (at least today) and will have benefited in similar fashion in the attempt to overtake you. This synergy is well documented. We’ve seen it play out from Alberto Salazar’s and Dick Beardsley’s storied 1982 Boston Marathon “Duel in the Sun” to the high fives, thank yous and good jobs in the finishing chute banter of the local race.

Psychologists recognize these two types of people: those who are more interested in people and relationships; and those who are more interested in ideas and things. This is seen in racing. Observe the runner who rarely looks up from her sports watch. She is interested in—even obsessed with–the idea of time. Ironically, she has no time for the runners around her. One wonders why she didn’t opt to spend the morning with just a track and her sports watch. The irregularities of courses (especially in this region) will render the clock competitor a vexed soul, lashing out at herself for again failing to make her time on long courses, hilly trails, and winding pathways on which the phrases, “I got my time!” and, “I nailed my pr!” were said by no one, ever.

Competitiveness can be ugly; I needn’t supply examples. It’s true that racing the clock is a way to distance ourselves from all of that. Better, we reason, to proclaim, “I killed it today!” when that it is time, than to proclaim, “I killed Bob today!” But perhaps we might, in more carefully chosen words, gloat of besting a rival who, if he’s a true rival, was under no compulsion to go a bit easy on us by making the goal artificially attainable (comfortably hard as the oxymoronic saying has it). If we fail to give our best against the clock today, it will not feel disappointed in us nor will it experience the hollowness there is in having beat one who gave less than her best effort. We feel defeated, and it feels nothing. At least when we lose to a person, that person gets to feel elated for a bit, especially if they know we’ve turned in an honest effort. Our loss will have been someone’s gain. There’s all the time in the world to race time. The race one is having with Bob at this moment in time is fleeting. A cosmic eye blink. Bob is fleeting. You are fleeting. But at this very moment, the question is, which of you will be the most fleet of foot?

You, Bob and the present moment represent the opportunity for a human interaction that is immediate, primitive and genuine, with no time for the sort of overthinking and rule-book consultation that too often lead us into the superficial, exsanguinated dealings that characterize the most humdrum of our workaday interactions. Instead, trade leads with a fierce rival for the duration of a race-within-a-race, and your heart will literally not soon forget the experience; the two of you will end up blood siblings in a way that requires no open wounds and leaves no visible scars, just the memory of a muscle maxed out. I submit that nowhere else can one engage a perfect stranger so fully without hint of guile or impropriety. Thoreau lamented that, “…the laboring man…cannot sustain the manliest relations to men. He has no time (my emphasis) to be anything but a machine.” Here’s that word time again. And here’s the perfect way to kill it. Enter a race. Maybe even leave your timing device at home. Make a pact with yourself to be the nemesis of whoever is just in front of you, while fending off whoever is just behind you. Don’t worry, they’ll both be there (unless you are an outlier). And whether you beat Bob or not in your race within a race, you don’t want to make the mistake Dr. Marvin makes in the film What About Bob? In other words, do not let Bob follow you home.


The Dark Night of the Sole

I went, none seeing me/Forth from my house, where all things quiet be

So runs a few lines of St. John of the Cross’s poem, “The Dark Night,” out of which arose the expression on which I now riff: “The dark night of the soul.” Where it comes to the dark night, and especially to running in it, I confess that most of my musings have been less poetic, and more profane. For years I loathed lacing up in the dark, whether that dark preceded dawn or followed dusk. But why? Was it because the night is “dark and full of terrors,” as screen characters who have known their share of murk and horror remind us? Thoreau muses, rightly, I think, that, “men are generally still a little afraid of the dark.” There is in many of us something visceral and primal, an intuition, that dims our view of the unilluminated hours. In fact, my earliest introduction to running was from the darkness that descended on basement rooms whose pull-string fixtures were situated 25 feet and a flight of stairs from the safe zone of the nearest 60-watt bulb. From what my child-self ran, I cannot say. From what I run today, in darkness and in light, I still cannot say (though my ad hoc reasons are constructed with more sophistication now). That there is something connecting the two, I have no reason to doubt.

But fear of the night is not to be counted among my reasons for, “raging against the dying of the light.” (Really, it isn’t.) Simply, it is in winter that I need most to run in the dark (when the hours of civil daylight are anything but). And winter nights are cold: a thing I have disliked more than, well, the dark. Beneath the stars, 35 degrees feels somehow more frigid than 20 degrees in sunlight, though I suspect the difference has more to do with psychology than either physiology or meteorology. As for terrors, I at least feared no nocturnal predators; my neighborhood had been cleared of them a century ago, save for the coyote or fox (eyes ablaze in the hi beams of passing cars) whose skulking presence grows scarcer by the year. Additionally, in this age of high alert, I had no fear of my fellow man’s malevolence, up to nothing more menacing (as far as I could ever tell) than wheeling his recycling bins to the curb. And speaking of curbs, that brings me to the actual crux of the matter: tripping (with no connection to the light fantastic). Think now of sidewalk partitions that put one in mind of plate tectonics, potholes as matte as the lacunae between stars, rogue sprinkler heads locked in the upright position, dismasted rebar and wooden landscaping stakes, stones strewn like caltrops. Talk about running the gauntlet! Ranking just behind these nemeses is the vista-wide blind spot into which we runners fall with respect to the evening or early-morning motorist, famished from his day labors or not yet having mustered her workaday wherewithal.

And in case it be supposed that the author hasn’t the good sense to outfit himself with a light, of which the modern world offers many varieties that are not your father’s flashlight, well, this brings me to all that is good and wholesome about night running, and especially running sans illumination: Man is a visual animal, sometimes to his detriment. It is a stock cliché of film that a blind master of the martial arts is a higher master than any. Such a one has learned to grow her “lesser” senses as a means of compensating for the loss of her uppermost faculty. In doing so, a sightless master comes to experience the world in a unique way. The night runner is a listening runner in a way that his diurnal counterpart is unlikely to be. Not only does his survival sometimes depend upon it (not all night-motorists remember to turn their headlights on, after all) but late evenings and early mornings produce far less noise pollution than is drummed up by the bumptious activities of the day, leaving behind a less jagged soundscape in which it is possible to hear one’s footfalls (a more telling story than one usually imagines). A Robert Frost poem begins with the words, “I am one acquainted with the night.” A week ago, as the snow still melted from pavements warm with the imprint of earlier hours, it occurred to me as I ran that I had learned to recognize which of several storm drains I passed by the noise the runoff made gurgling down its concrete throat. I knew then that I was beginning to get on familiar enough terms with the night, though I claim nothing like Frost’s mastery.

So what of it? Is a night runner to derive nothing more useful from his pains than a quaint ability to identify a few local aqueducts by their sonic signatures? We are thinking too narrowly if we can imagine no more than this. If the experience of night running can alter, even subtly, one’s understanding of external landscapes, why shouldn’t it also alter one’s consciousness in ways that make it possible, with repetition, to explore features of his own mind ordinarily hidden in plain sight? Mercury was the runner par excellence of the Roman pantheon of gods. Seen by us mostly as a “star” at dusk and dawn, the planet bearing that name (speedy in his laps around the sun) no longer hides his light in the sun’s corona, as he has all day long. Of the night runner, we should say that more than just her clothes ought to be reflective. And as for clothes, let her wear just what she wants; none will see whether they match or whose label they bear. And if any are impertinent enough to ask her, she should answer that, yes, she did dress herself in the dark. Furthermore, she ought not laugh too loudly if that same one observes that her headlamp is reminiscent of the third eye of a mystic seer.

Modern life is awash in artificial light; physicians recommend that we reduce light stimuli in the evening hours to ready one’s brain for sleep. Evening running may act as a mild form or sensory deprivation therapy, or, for that matter, as age regression therapy as it ought to have been conceived. Most of us began, after all, as entities who could hear but not see. For the early morning riser, there too is the opportunity for these therapies: it is darkest, as the expression has it, just before the dawn. “Out of the womb of the morning, you have the dew of your youth,” claims Psalm 110:3.

To keep my own youth, my favorite dark running play is what I call, to borrow an expression from philosopher Alan Watts, the game of black and white. This requires a greenbelt trail or road lit at intervals with street lamps. Carefully and slowly, I jog the dark intervals, the lacunae, between lights. As you might have guessed, I take the well-lit portions at race pace. Certain nights I am grateful that the county is remiss in its deployment of maintenance personnel.

And before I am thought irresponsible for talking up the dark side (with its risks), allow me to suggest a compromise that is neither strictly black nor white: carry or wear a source of light, and use it on particularly dark or perilous stretches, but do yourself the favor of sometimes switching it off. Any glance at a light-pollution map reminds one that even the darkest night in these parts is not so very dark. Sometimes add to that a three-quarter or full moon, and we might read a newspaper (does anyone still?) as we run. If your non-running neighbors didn’t think you insane before, they may now rightly dub you a lunatic if they are anything of an etymologist. But who is the unwise one when melanoma and macular degeneration are on the rise? And in the summer heat, advantages accrue to the night runner that are too obvious to state.

Finally, ask yourself this: Has the shine worn off my day running routine? In his book Eat & Run, Ultra legend Scott Jurek offers a short list of change-up suggestions for when one’s running is in a funk. They include: run with a dog, run a new trail, run in jeans (that’s right). I have something to add to this list: Run at night. Heck, run in jeans at night, if that’ll keep you in the game. Nobody ever need know.

Our Sunday Best

As veteran runners you’ve perhaps heard the suggestion that running is a religion. Even if you’re not buying it, the idea is out there: just consult the modern oracle that is the internet, where scores of clever memes make the point more entertainingly than I can. Or consider the message in a 2016 holiday-season Asics ad depicting runners in winter conditions: “In this religion, there are no holidays.”

So is running really a religion?

A simple semantics test casts doubt on the notion. We find Christian runners, Jewish runners, Muslim runners, Buddhist runners, etc. If running really were a religion, one could be, for example, a Christian or a runner but not both at once. Religions just don’t mix that way. That’s the short and neat negation, if you like. But being a long-distance runner, used to slogging through the gray and the mud, I’ll leave short and neat to the sprinters.

I can imagine that the idea of a running religion first occurred to some dithering Christian runner who, faced with the dilemma of a Sunday morning service or an important race, chose the latter, and resignedly exclaimed, “Well, I guess running is my religion.”

We can agree, I think, that running isn’t “that old time religion”; nevertheless, for me and for a number of secularists, agnostics, and atheists it may perform some of the work of religion in our lives. A Christian, Jewish or Muslim runner might prefer to view running as George Sheehan (a committed Catholic) did: “Running is not a religion, it is a place.” A place of silent worship. A place to offer thanks. A place to enjoy God’s gifts among what John Muir refered to as, “nature’s cathedrals.”

Like all religions, running has the potential to redeem (in this life, obviously). Popular running magazines abound in testimonials. Running has saved the lives of alcoholics, depressives, and drug and food addicts. It has provided meaning and structure to young lives on paths of self-destruction or gang involvement. Short of these stories of nearly miraculous intervention, is the more typical existential-crisis narrative, summed up in veteran trail runner Buzz Burell’s words: “…I had no idea what was true or what was false. But I knew when I moved and breathed and perspired, that was real. And so running became the first real thing in my life.”

For the person who has trafficked too much in the wide array of vices on offer in the modern world, running, like religion and self-improvement programs, offers the promise of rebirth and a platform for those purgations, mortifications and ablutions associated with repentance. The repentant forswears old beliefs and practices, and is born, as it were, into a new life, often to include even a new circle of friends and acquaintances, certainly to include new rituals and sabbaths. These conversions are often treated as watersheds and defining moments in one’s life history. Runners often talk of the time before they were runners with the same sense of estrangement and disassociation as the devout speak of the time before they were saved to new lives. Dean Karnazes’s story of conversion in UltraMarathon Man and John Bingham’s saved-a-wretch-like-me yarn in An Accidental Athlete contain many of the same dramatic elements as may be found in Saint Augustine’s Confessions. It is not just the flight from cigarettes and fried food–the usual gluttonies, in other words–that deliver world-weary souls to running’s doorstep. It is as often the flight from ennui, an urgency to fill a running-shaped hole (to borrow an expression from the devout), that calls that most wretched and lost of creatures, the middle-aged schlep in baggy bluejeans, to purchase his first pair of running shoes.

Religions, we know, offer prayer and meditation as means of obtaining states of mind in which one’s attention is diverted away from the clutter of bodily and mental concerns and trained upon a spiritual focal point (i.e., the love of a deity, oneness, the contemplation of perfection, etc.). Religious ecstasy and enlightenment are the sorts of names we sometimes give to such states of mind. Not surprisingly, we find a fertile analog in running. Mantras, visualization, and focused breathing are used to gain a purchase on “the zone.” The fabled runner’s high refers to a transcendent state beyond discomfort’s jurisdiction, where running becomes as effortless as drawing breath, a place where all previous sacrifice and doubt dissipate into bliss, quietism and perfect understanding. How is a runner describing the runner’s high different than a believer describing the act of receiving communion? At the very least the runner’s high can be likened to the enlightenment that is sometimes glimpsed by the spiritual seeker in Buddhist traditions. Practiced sincerely and mindfully, both running and religion can leave their practitioners with a sense of personal well-being and a feeling of interconnectedness with all that is good and wholesome.

While both religion and running may be practiced as solitary endeavors, both reach their fullest expression where they intersect with the social milieu. Even for the running hermit and the closet prayer, he or she must occasionally re-establish ties to the community as a periodic source of renewal and reorientation. Community is not so much a watering hole into which it is healthful to sometimes dip our ladle (for the nourishment that fresh perspectives and new knowledge bring), as it is an oxygen-rich rush of roiling water, into whose unremitting currents we may mix the various contrarian eddies that we are, to get us going with the flow again, so as not to finish in stagnation or to disappear completely down a sinkhole. Hydrodynamics is at bottom a study of energy; anyone acquainted with mass-participation running or religion will appreciate that these endeavors are no less bound than water to natural law. The runner who has never felt herself swept up in a race (like a droplet of H2O in a rushing torrent) has neglected a tenth and maybe more of her performance potential. One who stands aloof from group worship or communal meditation eschews the synergism that has for ages recommended the religious congregation. The hermit always risks loosing his way and developing idiosyncrasies in his vision and his practice. When lost in the mountainous wilds, one does well to find and subsequently keep to the river that follows the valley floor. The river leads back to civilization. Though his “rivers” were mostly desiccated creek beds, even Micah True knew the way to Urique.

Consider running’s religiosity as akin to that of the internet congregation known as the Church of Body Modification. This small collection of individuals recognize ritualized privation and discomfort as means of strengthening the connection between mind, body, and soul. Consider their Statement of Faith, “We promise to always grow as individuals through body modification and what it can teach us about who we are and what we can do.” Substitute the term running for body modification and we are left with a sentiment with which we can comfortably relate. Compare these words to those of Saint John of the Cross’s: “Let your soul therefore turn always…not to what is easy, but to what is hardest…not to rest, but to labor.”

The word religion calls to mind, for many, the various rituals and observances associated with the major world religions. This contains the crux, I believe, of the comparisons of running to religion. To the religiously committed, few if any worldly distractions warrant ducking any part of the set of rituals deemed essential for his/her chosen degree of involvement in the faith. To observe a runner “in training” is to behold an individual bent on the strictest adherence to a set of ritualized behaviors, worldly distractions be damned. The deeper his involvement in the sport, the more likely it is that he will doggedly resist temptations to make exceptions to an absolute adherence to the prescribed way. And who will have mandated the way? Usually a coach or an author. It is no stretch to say that these individuals play a role similar to that of priests in consulting the canonical works of running (and applying an individualized pedagogy), and fashioning them into inspirational sermons as well as courses of study and ritualized practice.

There may come a Sunday morning when you’ll face the dilemma of whether to show up at church or to race. Either way, you can view it as a chance to put on your Sunday best.

Fortnightly Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project Ultramayhem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Acceptance Speech Given at the RRCA Awards Banquet, April 26, 2015

desmoines“Where you stumble. There lies your treasure.” I believe it not because Joseph Campbell said it, but because it happened to me. At age 35, my running began on another’s whim. Seeing that I needed to get my mind off of that first novel that wasn’t coming together, my wife at the time informed me that a 5k was being run a few blocks from our condo, and that she’d signed me up for it. She waited until the morning of the race to tell me. I finished in 26 minutes and change…in a pair of High Tech hiking boots. That was 14 years and about a hundred races ago.

At age 43, my entrance into running journalism began with no more promise. Seeing that I needed something to take my mind off of the flat race performances that come with advancing years and the discovery of one’s lower-than-hoped-for genetic ceiling, a different wife suggested I try my hand at writing an article for the local running newsletter. My first was a rant about the glut of extra large T-shirts at races: the story of a slightly-built race-day registrant with a closet full of race shirts easier to swim in than to run in.

A stumble on the road to being a novelist. A stumble on the road to being a competitive Masters runner. And here I am accepting an award for which another woman, my editor Lori Hawkins, set me up. Two stumbles. Three women pointing me in the right direction. And now at races strangers inform me that they sometimes use the lines I’ve written as training and racing mantras. There lies my treasure. Thank you, Lori. Thank you, Pikes Peak Road Runners. And thank you, RRCA.

The Tell-Tale Heart

v02_max_machine1It happens all the time: Someone asks about my time in such-and-such race. I give the numbers. If the asker is unacquainted with human potential as it applies to running, he or she is more or less impressed. But if the asker is a true enthusiast, I‘m left with that same feeling I had when I dug in my pockets for all I had and still didn‘t have enough for that popsicle the ice cream man was on the point of grudging me.

Of course folks are almost always tactful in reacting to the revelation of my times, but I can tell when I’ve let someone down. You see, with 6% body fat and long sinewy legs, I look like a elite runner (if a few years past his prime). And if I’ve recently dropped a few C-notes at the Boulder Running Company, I’m probably decked out like an elite runner. But the similarities end with the dimensions and the brand-label trappings. It’s my unhappy distinction to be one of those folks who look faster–much faster–than he is.

This used to baffle me no less than it baffled bystanders. How can that guy with love handles be up there, when I’m back here? How’d that Clydesdale winner beat my age-group third-place time? This was like a cement mixer beating a Lamborghini (or at least a Honda Accord), a Saint Bernard nudging out a greyhound. Clearly, things weren’t as they seemed. There were things going on under the hood to which I wasn‘t privy.

This remained a frustrating mystery until a friend of mine, unaware of my befuddlement, suggested I join him for some tests at a local college. It was to be just for fun and to give some students in the Sports Physiology Department a crack at testing V02max. Mounting a treadmill, I was wired and poorly fitted with some hodge-podge of an apparatus that blurred the line between mining gear and sci-fi movie costuming. The proctor (who looked incapable of running anything more than “the numbers“) told me to keep up with the treadmill as long as I could, while he gradually (so he promised) opened its throttle. If you’ve never had the pleasure of breathing through a mask and tube, let me tell you, it’s a greater challenge than you think (no wonder Vader always wanted to hurt someone); and running (or trying to run) at sub six-minute mile pace under such conditions presents a tenfold challenge. I gave the cut sign . . . embarrassingly early. Minutes later the proctor handed me my results. What was that grave look in his eyes? Was he really going to say, “I’m afraid it isn’t good,” like doctors in movies do? Nah. It turned out I’d done ok . . . just fine . . . above average, in fact. This was great news. Right? Wrong. I’d wanted to be a stellar performer; I’d wanted to be off the charts. After all, wasn’t I a prime athletic specimen? You only had to look at me to know it.

Well, my heart, it seems, wasn‘t all there. With a V02max hovering around 60, mine might be the heart of a lover, or the heart of a poet, but it wasn’t the heart of an elite runner. I’d welcomed running into my heart. And now it seemed my heart didn’t have room for it.

Novelist Henry Mackenzie once said, “the heart is for saving what it can.” And so I followed my heart . . . to the internet. Could it salve my ego? A look at the V02maxes of historically great runners reveals that V02max isn’t the last word–uh, formula–in running success. If it were, the Boston Marathon might be decided by having its contestants breathe through a mask and hose for 12 minutes on a treadmill. Medals could be awarded ten minutes after testing, no police blockades, no aid stations, no clean up . . . no fun. V02max defines the upper limit of one’s ability. That’s all. There’s always a little slack to play with, a little untapped potential left in which one‘s hopes may find elbow room. It’s up to each runner to tap more of his potential than the next guy and hope that guy’s V02max isn’t off the charts. The last word, it seems, is still to be sought in our heart of hearts.