Greener Pastures (appeared in The Long Run 2014 Nov, and The Good Men Project, June 25, 2015)

trailrunFor those of us over 25 or so, while we slept, ran and lived, a relatively rare event occurred: a sport was born—quietly. Prior to the 90s, glossaries of running failed to recognize the terms ultramarathon, ultramarathoner or ultrarunner. Editors of such wordlists aren’t to be blamed; these terms, like the neologism World Wide Web, were but twinkles in a lexicographer’s eye. Sure, someone somewhere was covering belief-defying distances on foot and at a run. But those someones either weren’t aware they were doing anything noteworthy or their feats were never circulated beyond the limits of their hometown’s or village’s gossip mills. Of course one might argue that an ultramarathon (ultra, for short) is only a new event within an existing sport. It is, after all, still running. Indeed the very word marathon within the compound term betrays its consanguinity with the older guard of running. (Ultimately look for the suffix marathon to be left behind like the straggling runner who fails to clear a 30-mile checkpoint). On the sports family tree, it must be conceded that running and ultrarunning are undeniably more closely related than, say, water polo and badminton. Nevertheless, the cultural and demographic differences between the two spheres of endeavor are great enough to suggest that what was once the amusement of a few fringe eccentrics (and de rigueur for a smattering of African and Central American tribesmen) has become a sport in its own right. While the winners of both endeavors are still recognized on the basis of the fastest finishing times, ultras go out of their way to slow the field of athletes down with demoralizing distances, death-defying terrain and off-world climate conditions. In ultrarunning, a seven-minute mile pace (warm-up speed for an elite road-racer) is the kind of speed that kills even its superheroes.

To a great extent, ultrarunning is touted as catering to the athlete who just can’t get his or her fill from the standard road-running menu. Ultrarunning meets that hunger with an all-you-can eat man-versus-nature buffet. Man-versus-man is a dessert for those who’ve somehow managed to save room after several trips through the buffet line. Man-versus-himself is the dramatic element found wherever running shoes are laced up; it’s the water that washes all the fare down. Here, not all the eyes are bigger than the stomachs.

With ultra events, finishers (as opposed to just winners) enjoy considerable bragging rights. This is no concession to the “everybody is a winner” brand of affirmation that sometimes finds itself under attack by pedagogues of sport. Whether one survives a 100-mile ordeal in 19 or in 29 hours, one has, after all, survived a 100-mile ordeal. She who does it joins a microscopically tiny family of human beings who have, in a day or so, traversed—on foot—a distance nearly equivalent to the length of Connecticut. To her we say, “Take a seat at the winner’s table and regale us with your story. From the first to the last, all are fit to tell the world what happened here.”

If one follows ultrarunning very far, one can’t help but notice in its wide-open spaces a palpable air of rebellion against mainstream running, the splinter-group defiantly postured against the pro-establishment parent. Not accidentally, the ultra community represents running’s counter-culture—sometimes to the point even of caricature. Its athletes are as likely to run in tie-die t-shirts, huaraches and mountain-man beards as they are in any piece of running apparel that flashes even a hint of corporate branding. This attitude of defiance was built into what I believe to have been–at least until it discovered its own considerable internal momentum—ultrarunning’s original and to some degree unconscious raison d’être. When Everette Lee, in 1966, outlined the causes of human migration in terms of push and pull factors, he might as well have been describing the running scene in the final decade of the millennium. As the generation of U.S. runners inspired by Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine began to accept both their own middle age and the fact that the road-racing dominance of African-born runners was no short-lived anomaly, some of its still ravening competitors migrated to pastures where the grass looked to be, if not initially greener, far less trammeled. On the high mountain trails or under extremes of heat and cold, youth and world-class speed (while never quite out of fashion anywhere) were not the most important honorifics on one’s calling card. Within a few years mainstream running’s expats were claiming that the grass was in fact greener past 26.2 miles. Few could argue with them, at least not from a place of experience. Ultrarunning had come of age.

Legitimacy and recognition aside, ultrarunners can’t be accused of following the money trail. There isn’t a great deal of endorsement or prize cash in ultrarunning, a fact in which ultrarunners ought to take heart. A 2013 article entitled, “The aspect of nationality in participation and performance in ultra-marathon running,” suggests that both African-born and younger world-class runners show limited interest in ultrarunning events owing to the absence of significant ultrarunning cash purses, which by contrast may climb into the tens of thousands of dollars for professional road-racing events. If you are among the very best runners in the world, why not earn a living by your rare and fleeting talents, especially when your extended family’s quality of life may depend upon it? Accordingly, winners of major ultrarunning events are, the study claims, usually American, European or Japanese and between the ages of 39 and 45, a combination of demographic facts that would most likely exclude them from top contention in major professional road-racing events.

What’s not poetic about a marginalized class of athletes running on the very margins of civilization, the forsaking of one kind of green for another? Just as Boethius, in exile, found consolation in philosophy, many American and European ultrarunners found consolation in nature, even in her most uncongenial moods. Who needed large prize purses and world fame? Wasn’t the world itself—experienced under conditions of extreme privation—reward enough? Ultrarunning came with perks that had nothing to do with its standard prize gold belt-buckles. Ultramarathons became spiritual pilgrimages. Ultramarathoners now worshipped in the same canyon cathedrals as that great lover of walking and nature, John Muir, had. Spiritual pilgrim and ultrarunner alike grappled with the burden of the body, the weight that holds the flights of the spirit in check.

Ultra legend Scott Jurek once used the term “existentialists in shorts” to describe the running family to which he happily belongs. Indeed ultrarunners are far more likely than road runners to speak the words “spiritual,” “sacred,” or “mystical” in sentences describing their cardio experiences. And if an ultrarunner smiles a trifle amusedly at our claims of runner’s highs, we’d do well to bear in mind that his path wends through successions of highs and lows that ought to stagger our minds…and that’s before he’s reached the half-way turn-around. He is a Bodhisattva who returns to us from a journey: wiser, stronger and hungry enough to polish off two large pizzas.

Running is, according to its first philosopher, George Sheehan, “A monastery—a retreat, a place to commune with God and yourself, a place for psychological and spiritual renewal.” If Sheehan found all of that in fewer than 26.2 miles, imagine what one might find in 100.

Knechtle B, Rüst CA, Rosemann T. The aspect of nationality in participation and performance in ultra-marathon running – A comparison between ‘Badwater’ and ‘Spartathlon’. OA Sports Medicine 2013 Feb 01;1(1):1.

This article may also be read in The Good Men Project, June 25, 2015.

Silent Running (The Long Run 2014 Sep)

silentImagine it’s 1972. At the drive-in movie theater, a low-budget sci-fi film called Silent Running is playing. Despite how it sounds, it has nothing at all to do with running (our kind of running, that is). Meanwhile the first wave of the running boom is in full career. Tens of thousands of people are, for the first time in their lives, running…silently, as it were. As a cultural phenomenon, the headphone and “jogging” have not yet met at the intersection of motivation and distraction danger.  Fast forward 40 years, and runners and headphones are as close as two peas in a proverbial pod (or should I say, iPod?). In the modern world, the “Sounds of Silence” increasingly refers to an almost forgotten Simon and Garfunkel song, and not much else.

Readers with a long memory may recall that someone using my name once spilled some ink talking up the iPod as a running partner. Confession: that was me. I don’t repent of it. But, as psychologists and philosophers remind us, human variability is one of the few invariables on which we may count.  In recent years, I have heard a different calling: nature. It is perhaps no coincidence that this about face has accompanied a personal shift from road to trail running. Whether your bliss is the trail or the road, the benefits of plugging into nature instead of the MP3 are many. Here’s a short list.

  1. Hear your dog. In case your GPS dies on your run, use your dog’s panting to independently check your level of effort. For that matter, use your own breathing, which you can now hear.
  2. So that’s what nature sounds like! Birds, rabbits and mice in the scrub oak, locusts in the fields, toads in the marsh reeds. They—and their sounds—have been present all along. The only thing that’s different is that now YOU are present. Bravo.
  3. Would a cheetah, a Tarahumara, a zen master, Kung Fu, Micah True or Chuck Norris ever wear headphones in their zone? Enough said.
  4. Dances with headphones…and cords…and controls. Imagine a run that doesn’t involve your reinserting ear buds and cord jacks for the umpteenth time, fumbling for your iPod or iPhone’s volume control, repositioning that 70s-style hi-fi speaker headset that’s large enough to be detectable from satellite (and which happens to weigh more than your running shoes). These gyrations and other tell-tale signs of inefficient and needless technological struggle have made you the butt end of several sylvan animal jokes, only you can’t hear the laughter in the trees because…well, you know why.
  5. Be a minimalist. Shoes have gone minimalist. Running clothes, while mercifully not matching the loincloth minimalism of the 70s, employ the most lightweight designs and fabrics available. Take the minimalist movement an additional step. Feel the breeze brush past your ear, feel nothing weighing down your pockets, nothing tugging on your waistband or squeezing on your arm.  Less may not really be more. But it can be more fun.
  6. Return to sociability. Wouldn’t it be something to have actually heard what that approaching runner said to you as she passed? Maybe the two of you were like two ships passing in the night without so much as an “Ahoy!” And wouldn’t it be comforting to have heard what those worried looking hikers appeared to have been warning you of as you were entering that thickly-wooded canyon? Save nodding and smiling for your long-winded uncle’s stories. Welcome back to the human race.
  7. Safety. Never again be taken unawares in the forest by that mountain bike on an intercept course with you and your knees (or your dog’s sweet mug). Runners—when they do hear–hear mountain bikers before mountain bikers hear runners. Fact: runners wearing headphones sometimes end up wearing mountain bikes as well. Headphones are easier to remove.
  8. If a tree falls in the forest, YOU will hear it. This goes for falling rocks as well. A variation on this theme could come in handy if you’ve unwittingly blazed a trail through someone’s secret backwoods firing range.
  9. Never again have to postpone your run for an hour while the iPod you forgot to charge recharges. You may find that while your iPod regains its charge you’ll have lost yours.
  10. The sound of silence. Use it to meditate. Use it to analyze your gait or your breathing. Use it to draft that novel or to work out the grand unified theory of physics. Use it to insert a mantra. Use it however you like. Or don’t use it for anything. It’s a gift. And it’s absolutely free. It may be the only waking silence you experience in the course of a day. Why fill it with noise?
But keep your iPod on that charger. Winter is always just around the bend. IPods and other MP3s are most at home with their technological brethren:  treadmills, climate control, fluorescent lighting, and television screens.  Even the monotony and predictable safety of running on a track warrants or flat-out begs the use of a motivating distraction. Use your iPod today. Don’t use your iPod tomorrow. Run with a partner the day after that. But for goodness’ sake, mix it up. “Chariots of Fire,” “Eye of The Tiger” and “Greyhound” are songs for iPods. But the wind also is a song. Running is a song. Our heartbeats are songs. Our running partners and our dogs are songs. These are the songs that enliven life’s playlist. Play it softly. Play it loudly. Play it on random. Play it on cycle mode. Best of all, it’s always there, whether you’ve remembered to charge it or not.

The Don’ts We Do (The Long Run 2014 Feb)

shoesAs the spring thaw approaches, and as we gear up to ramp up our running, it’s time we’re all reminded of running’s rules of thumb: you know, that list of don’ts intended to guide sensible runners to success and longevity in our sport. But as the rebel gene seems to be no less prevalent among runners than among other segments of the population, these don’ts too often become the don’ts we flagrantly do anyway. The point is that we all run afoul of the law sometimes. And some of us—we know who we are—run a little further afoul than others.

The dont’s we do could be enumerated in a far lengthier list than the one found here. In my experience offenses to these rules top the runner’s rap sheet.

Don’t run too long in your shoes. Every running shoe, like every tire, has a recommended mileage rating. If this comes as news to you, then it’s a good bet that you’re an arch offender of this rule (pun intended). Drive too long on worn tread and one of your tires will suffer a blowout. Run too long in a pair of shoes and some part of your body will suffer a blowout. Sure some of us suspect that the whole recommended mileage rating thing is the second cleverest marketing trick in the book, right behind the rinse, repeat directive on shampoo bottles. For example, a devout ultra-marathoner who takes the mileage rating seriously goes through a pair of shoes about every three weeks. If you’re a running shoe manufacturer, this sounds something like cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching. In the course of a year our ultra-marathoner is going to spend in excess of $1,500.00 on shoes, a trifling shoe-budget figure only if your name is Imelda Marcos. If you are waiting for your uppers to wear out before you give up on a pair of running shoes, then it’s safe to say that the lowers–the things that protect your feet from the pounding–gave out ages ago. At your next race look at what the competition is wearing. Among the clean day-glow colors you’ll spot a few old-school looks. Think that’s a new retro look? Look again. Those early-model Brooks have seen more mileage than a Chrysler K-car (the three still on the road). And no, running until your shoes look like they were abandoned by a hobo does not make you a minimalist, it makes you a…well, I’ll just stop there. If you’re not going to listen to the shoe manufacturers, at least listen to your body. If you’re achy and can’t shake the feeling, it’s time to trade up to something sold in this decade (at least this century).

Don’t increase mileage too quickly. There is a quantifiable rule that says that a runner should not increase training volume (mileage) at a rate greater than 10% per week. This rule is intended to keep our zeal in check and to spare us shin splints and other nasty effects of too much too soon. But try bringing this rule up to the runner whose cabin fever at February’s end sees quelling relief in a forecast full of 65-degree temperatures. “Say what?” she’ll scream uncomprehendingly from a quarter mile away. The call of nature is just too loud sometimes.

Don’t go out too fast. I’m talking about racing here. We’ve all heard repeatedly that negative-split (second-split faster) racing is the way to garner a PR in style. But how many of us are able to resist being pulled along with the first mile current? As for me, I’ve always thought that negative split-racing was a bit counterintuitive. In sports that are played with a ball it’s thought a very good thing to go into halftime with a big lead. Even when teams play so-so in the second half of such a contest, they often win on the strength of their first-half domination. Why shouldn’t the same hold true in racing? I leave this for elite racers to answer, since I’ve never been able to run a negative-split race in my life that didn’t involve a 5% downhill finishing grade. It seems I’m equally spent at the end of a race regardless of whether I’ve given 75% or 95% effort in the opening mile or two. I’ve heard this from other racers as well. And for those of us already on the fence with regard to this supposedly unassailable racing philosophy, there’s the occasional big running-magazine article that espouses the virtues of the positive split. I used to think such articles were just the aberrant ramblings of bored sportswriters giving vent to their inner contrarian. Now I’m beginning to think that theirs are the sane and refreshingly realistic voices (kind of like the voices of the defenders of that new Barbie who carries a few extra pounds).

Don’t run in the heat of the day. (Because June will be here sooner than we think.) Run in the morning. Run in the evening. Just don’t run in the heat of the day. That’s nice in theory. But I think it was Rudyard Kipling who observed that, “Only mad dogs, Englishmen and runners trying to reach their mileage quotas go out in the noonday sun.” Ok, that might be a paraphrase. Nevertheless, those of us with full schedules know that sometimes there’s no other option but to strike while the iron is hot. This is one instance where doing a don’t could get one into a lot of trouble. Make no mistake: the consequences of heatstroke are not to be compared with those of shin splints or plantar fasciitis. If the rebel in us must thumb his nose at a spiking thermometer, we at least ought to do our best Caleb the Camel imitation (without repeated verbal respects to a certain day of the week) while minding our electrolyte balance and slathering on the sunscreen.

Sure we may break the laws of running. But, like all criminals, we’ll eventually get caught.