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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running The Numbers (The Long Run 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rites of Spring (The Long Run 2012 May)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.