Running Ahead (The Long Run 2013 Dec)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Adopt A Running Partner (The Long Run)

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

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

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

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

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

Catch as Catch Can (published April, 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Scared (published January, 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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