Is your next PR just a matter of course?

Angkor-Wat-run-RichardStJohn5

Personal records aren’t just for elite runners. Even the most adamant of competition-averse health and fitness runners can, with enough prodding, give you their PR time (or an approximation) at a given distance or over a given course. At the very least, they’ll remember when they ran that neighborhood course and everything came together just right: when they and the temperature, humidity, wind and traffic were on the same page; when they were able to wring just a little more sweat from their body and a little more oomph from their will; and when the music on their iPod or the encouragement of their training partner was just what they needed without being too much. They’ll remember thinking that had they been wearing a watch, that watch would have given a favorable report. They’ll acknowledge still not having been fast enough to best most serious runners. But on that special day they’ll remember having been fast enough to best themselves, which for most of us is the point.

So what’s the big aversion many runners have–at least publicly–to chasing PRs (or even claiming to know theirs)? How did these two innocent letters earn such a seedy reputation among fitness-running purists? To establish one’s benchmark, and then to surpass it can be character-building. It’s not often one gets to objectively measure one’s advancement in their play. Of course, some argue that statistics are best left to statisticians, and that our play should be as unfettered as nature intended it. I see it differently. The discovery of a primitive counting app, the Ishango Bone, suggests that humans have been counting stuff for at least 20,000 years; counting looks no less natural to anthropologists than running. And speaking of natural, seeing how long one can bear discomfort is central to more rites of passage than one can shake a notched stick at; testing one’s meddle is a primal urge. What child hasn’t some time or another counted how long he could hold his breath, making such playful masochism the sport of a summer hour among friends? We love counting. And we love suffering (the character-building kind, any way). It makes perfect sense that we should love counting the minutes and seconds of our suffering. Is it any wonder then that many runners go through a stage where the PR becomes an unrelenting quest? Sure, the idea is to get the suffering over in as few seconds as possible, which can only be accomplished by packing more suffering into each second. Doesn’t it make you want to go out and PR right now?

A runner on a PR quest will stop at nothing to recruit everything and everyone to his monomaniacal cause, setting some arbitrary goal (i.e., a sub-3 hour marathon, a sub-20 minute 5k) and then pursuing it from course to course like Ahab pursuing the white whale through all the seven seas. Speedwork follows. Training partners are recruited. Track clubs are joined. Coaches are sought. Books and magazines are read. Diets are adhered to. Racing flats are broken in. Clothes are shed (except the essentials). Hair may even be cropped closely in the reductionist’s quest for the sleekest lines.

In short, a PR seeker will have done everything to ready herself for a  PR bid. She’s in peak condition. Time to strike. While a PR isn’t guaranteed, it’s probably just a matter of course–quite literally. Think about it. A PR is an event that requires a runner and–here’s the thing (apart from time with family and friends) that often gets lost in all the minutiae –a course. Choosing the course that will yield a PR before one’s peak fitness window closes, is an art one can’t afford to neglect.

Here are some pointers that most veteran PR chasers will have committed to memory. Most of us will have learned all of this the hard way, having tallied far more personal realizations (regrets?) than personal records.

Make sure the course is certified. Obviously one doesn’t want to run a long course when chasing a PR. Less obviously, one doesn’t want to run a short course. Nothing takes the wind out of a PR quicker than the niggling chatter of post-race, GPS-aided speculation that a course was short. Certification by a governing body is necessary to ensure an accurate distance. And even then there’s no guarantee. I once ran a “certified” course that ended up being a tenth of a mile short owing to an honest mistake made by a single race marshal. Extrapolating what one’s finishing time would have been isn’t nearly as fun as gloating over one’s actual PR time. As a PR chaser, it will behoove you to find, if possible, a standard certified course on which races are frequently run, and to use that as your proving grounds.

Make sure the course has a neutral elevation gain. Net downhill courses, while they are often accepted as qualifiers for entrance into subsequent races or race waves, carry the stigma of an asterisk. Make sure the course is as flat as possible. While it is true that what goes up must come down, even the presence of gently rolling hills may have a negative effect on one’s PR bid. Failing that, choose the course that plays to your personal strengths. I’ve discovered repeatedly that courses that begin downhill and finish uphill augment my natural tendency to go out fast and fade toward the end. I’ve always PRd by positively splitting on courses that encouraged positive splitting. You may be fortunate enough to PR the prescribed way: by negatively splitting.

Make sure the course is at the lowest elevation you can find. Training high and racing low may not be in most of our budgets. However, if one lives in a region where considerable elevation differences exist (such as the Colorado Front Range), it behooves one to train in the foothills and race in the cities and river valleys.

Choose a course with a fast surface. Trailrunning is out when it comes to an all-out PR.  Concrete and asphalt surfaces are the fastest. Even groomed gravel is a relatively slow surface.

Choose a course with few twists and turns. Wide loops and point-to-points are the best. Out-and-back courses with tight turn-arounds take seconds off one’s bid. Each tight corner makes it a bit more difficult to turn in a PR performance. Additionally, when trying to set a PR it is a good thing to be able to see who is in front of one. One wants to see that runner up ahead, focus on him and take heart while experiencing the thrill of steadily reeling him in. If one keeps loosing sight of him behind blind corners and stands of trees, one just might loose contact with him and with one’s PR pace. And while this may have more to do with the race than the course, I’ll throw it out there anyway: choose a race where you are likely to find talent slightly above your level, giving you the advantage that being pulled or pushed along can confer.

Choose a well-marked course. Ambiguities require energy and time to resolve on the run. One wrong turn and one’s PR bid is blown.

Narrow courses are to be avoided. Say our PR chaser gets stuck behind a pack of slower runners running three abreast or even one runner with a stroller: she is loosing precious seconds while getting frustrated. Every second spent running someone else’s race is a second spent out-of-sync with one’s most efficient pace.

Chip timing is essential unless one is willing to toe the line with the front runners. Without chip timing one may start the timer on his sports watch the second he steps over the starting line, but his official time will add every second it took him to get to the starting line. “I ran even three seconds faster than my PR,” may be a true statement, but the results page is the final word.

Choose a course that avoids wind. Loops and out-and-back courses usually avoid the trouble of running with or against a prevailing wind. Running into a wind kills a PR bid. Running with a tailwind results in an asterisk. Not only are they a bit difficult to pronounce; they’re a bit difficult to live with.

As long as one’s running doesn’t become all about chasing PRs all the time (don’t be that guy), a little PR chasing might be just the thing one’s running needs to jolt it out of the doldrums. Like most rational adults, you’ve probably figured out that as far as the world is concerned, your half marathon PR will mean little. But that shouldn’t stop your inner child from acting as if your PR meant the world. Family, friends, and bosses may chafe at your weekend-warrior quest. I say PR now, and ask for forgiveness later.

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The New Therapy: Running On It (The Long Run 2015 Jun).

shadows

Running is good, we all know, at loosening the knots we’ve tied in the laces of our shoes. (A run in the rain, I have been astonished to find, may loosen even a double knot.) And even if the invention of Speed Laces proves eventually to be the end of the running shoe knot, we may count on there always being stubborn knots at which running may work: knotted stomachs and knotty problems. Many are the seemingly indissoluble puzzles that have proven soluble after just one hour of running. Had Alexander the Great been more of a runner, he might have undone the Gordian Knot without ever having needed to raise his sword to it, thus forfeiting the rope to brashness.

Why an hour? Why not more? Dr. George Sheehan spoke as if there were a sort of number magic in running for sixty minutes. An honorable physician, Sheehan prescribed an hour of running a day to keep the likes of him and his colleagues away; no man was ever happier trying to work himself out of a job. For regular folks with careers and children, an hour most days of the week seems about right. Any more, and how to fit the run in becomes a knotty problem in itself. Any less, and the purity of the act seems tarnished by our breaking a nice round unit of time into a kind of petty change, like digging in our pockets and purses for a tip of $8.53 when we might instead offer a crisp ten-dollar bill for services earnestly rendered.

Some of us are morning runners. Others prefer to run in the evenings. Still others are lunch-break runners. The most dedicated among us are all-of-the-above runners. To an untold extent, necessity and Circadian biorhythmicity decides the when of our running. Any time might be a good time to run, but I myself am partial to evenings. Much of this preference has to do with a fringe benefit of evening running that I like to call running on it.

The solitary runner whose designated hour falls between the end of her workday and the call to dinner runs in a world of long shadows. And not all of these shadows may be accounted for in terms of her person and her surroundings. Though she hears the fall of but one pair of feet, she is not alone. She is trailed at every turn by the unfinished business of her day. But didn’t she swear to leave all of that at the front door? The child who plays at shaking its own shadow has no easier task than the adult who works at shaking the hangover of a “rough day at the office.” How much of a rough day’s dialog do we play back to ourselves as we run? And why can’t we just turn it off? Just when we think we have, we catch ourselves ruminating on it again. Mama said there’d be days like this. With any luck, she handed us a pair of running shoes as well.

What can we accomplish in just one hour of running? In our hour we can rehearse the replies we’ll give tomorrow to the questions we left unanswered today. In the chess match that is life, we can gain the advantage that an adjournment affords, having our hour to masterfully plan a move that will turn the match’s momentum in our favor. As for heated conflicts, we have long been advised to walk away from them. As runners, we can go one better. We find that not only the tread of our soles is worn thinner by running. With a brisk run, the indelicate tread of others is often smoothed away. We do well to remember that psychotherapy too proceeds an hour at a time—and is a great deal more expensive.

At a renewable energy fair, the runner will find the pedal-powered projector to be no very great revelation. Her daily running is a dynamo that powers the reel from which the record of her day is projected. All day long her retinae had been busy filming, and her auditory cortex recording. Here, for the first time since she woke, her attention is not being called to the scene of some new fire. In this hour her mind is finally at leisure to study the day’s frames, and to critique, summarize, tag and archive the work. For this kind of viewing, she finds that the “best seat in the house” is no seat at all, and in no house. “The benefits of daydreaming,” according to psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, “are most potent when the external environment is undemanding, and our minds are free to roam our rich internal landscape of emotions, images and fantasies, and to consider our more distant aspirations and plot our paths toward them.” And rest assured that when we encounter a stretch of external terrain requiring all of our wiles, the executive network of our brain will jolt us from our reveries more effectually than any proverbial rap on the knuckles.

With so much work to be done in these hours of ours, can any miles we run in them be termed “junk miles”?  “Know the purpose of each workout.” This has become a hot tag-line in athletic coaching; it speaks to the weekend athlete’s need for optimal efficiency. We need only to reconstitute our thinking to know that while not every workout translates to running a faster marathon, no workout is without purpose. “I grew in those seasons like corn in the night,” Thoreau said of certain hours of his life that others were quick to deem idle. “They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance.”

Much of this kind of personal growth we’ll find to have taken place though we were unconscious of its having done so. Our running journal records that it was just a run. The elevation of our mood suggests that it was more. While our ears heard every word of the wind, and while our eyes read the trail as closely as a favorite poem, our brains apparently had been running scans and fixing errors in the background. We rarely can say just why the world seems a better place after a run. It is enough that it does. We run for more reasons than we know. When all is said and done, it was our unconscious—and not our conscious—minds that chose running for us. Racing, the pursuit of prize purses and scholarships, weight loss, fitness, life-extension, charity and community are but a few of the reasons I have heard conscious minds give for their running. While any of these reasons would be sufficient, the whole lot of them may be little more than an ad hoc defense for appeasing the uncomprehending and unconverted world. There is good medicine in running. Our unconscious minds knew it long before our conscious minds began vouching for them.

For most of us the expression, “sleep on it,” is a familiar one. The phrase was coined in the dark ages before the popularization of running. Sleeping on a thing—providing that thing doesn’t prevent one’s sleeping in the first place—requires eight or nine hours. And why does it so seldom occur to us that the five or six its we are sleeping on at a time may be why we aren’t sleeping much at all? We runners may do better than to sleep on it. We may run on it. The latter requires a single hour only. More importantly it allows our heads to hit our pillows a great deal emptier (in a good way) than they might otherwise have been. Is it any wonder that regular runners claim to sleep better?

As adults we understand that we can’t outrun our shadows. As runners we know that we can at least tire them out.

Born to Run, the Tarahumara and other Treasures of the Sierra Madre (The Long Run 2015 Apr)

bornFor every human enterprise there is that book: the one that captures, methodically or by luck, the vitality of a living subculture in the kind of iconic still shot destined for immortality. Christopher McDougal’s Born To Run is such a book. But whatever kind of book you think it is (based on its bestselling success), it probably isn’t that. Born To Run is, to use one of its own favorite words, a bricolage: a hodgepodge of anecdote, travelogue, biography, sermon and science-backed discourse assembled to give McDougal’s pet theories and prescribed practices the traction of something road-worthy and dependable for now and for all time. Departing stylistically from former running bestsellers, Born To Run’s chapters read with the sweep and formlessness of a picaresque novel. The work seems more akin to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road than to any of the sports-writing reads to which we might be tempted to compare it. Its pages brim with surly characters (all the more colorful for being real) playing loose and reckless with social mores while mocking conformist running wisdom. One senses that its runners run not so much for the sake of sport as from hermetically-sealed hometowns, damning diagnoses, and the chafing fetters of convention. If these features fail to square with our profile of an elite athlete, probably it is our profile that needs adjusting. Whatever private existential demons are driving McDougal’s transient characters on from invisible city to invisible city, they seem to agree on one thing: “[they] ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more”; instead they’ll run far and wide and with aboriginal abandon. Rendered in Gonzo journalistic prose, McDougal’s characters are equal parts Fear And Loathing and Chariots of Fire. With McDougal’s book, the “running bum” rounds into form for our classifying intellect and rubbernecking amusement. Now the question is, will he shake off his hang-over and finish—even win—the race? The hang-over is no less a trophy than his first-place medal; later he’ll call attention to each with equal braggadocio.

In chapters where McDougal leaves off recounting the antics of his ragtag cast (of which he’s self-consciously the least talented member), it’s to wax primitive, to soliloquize about poverty diets, minimalist footwear, altruism, playfulness, and our Space Oddesey-esque evolutionary journey from walkers to the finest endurance runners on the planet. He asks us to accept as living proof his literary diorama of a small band of pre-industrial Mexican natives known to the world as the Tarahumara, the running people. The Tarahumara, it turns out, are McDougal’s kind of rebels: they are great guzzlers of corn beer, happy to clear the training calendars they don’t keep for the wild, licentious multi-day raves they do keep. When they are not fuelling up on pinole, chia seeds and tortillas, they crave gringo cigarettes and Coca-Colas, and will warm to the tourist who comes bearing them. Still, when it comes to running, the Tarahumara don’t just excel, they excel wearing sandals and skirts and being more oblivious to concepts like training cycles, tempo runs, VO2 max and electrolyte balance than your 5-year old son or daughter. Running comes so naturally to the Tarahumara that if no foreigner had ever told them they were running, they wouldn’t know it. The Tarahumara, preserved for centuries from the modern world in the amber of a nearly inaccessible and forbidding canyon land, the Copper Canyons of The Sierra Madre, are (now that they are becoming known through books such as Born To Run) like a recruiting poster that Nature tacked to a wall where loiterers have been reported to gather. Ironically, their message for modern man, homo technicus, interpreted by the likes of McDougal and his peers, is “Be all that you can be.” So much for our advertised progress.

What begins as a casual recognition of resemblances between McDougal’s and Kerouac’s styles becomes, by mid book, a growing conviction that the author, in channeling his Beat-writer muse, is doing something more sublime than just plying a provocative writing style to sell copies. It’s about then that we learn that one of Born To Run’s characters, the party girl ultra-runner known as “Brujita,” is in fact a big Kerouac fan. Just as there are said to be no coincidences in life, it seems there are none in Born To Run. If it reads like Kerouac, there’s got to be a reason. But we’d be wrong to look to McDougal to give it. We’d be wrong to think that he can give it. Like the runners who get lost in Born to Run’s shadowy Copper Canyons—and they all, including McDougal, seem to get lost at times—we’re left to find our own way out of the conceptual arroyos into which the book casts a slanting light.

In the old Beat standard, On The Road, Kerouac’s first-person narrator is a kind of pilgrim moving through geo-spiritual space. Deliverance is a geographical horizon that always recedes from his grasp. It isn’t in Denver and the people he meets in Denver. It isn’t in San Francisco. Surely it’s in the next city, as Kerouac’s protagonist ricochets eastward. Zen too has its path, its pilgrim and its goal; and monks who walk great distances from monastery to monastery in search of the master who’ll ignite in them the spark of enlightenment. As runners, we’re used to negotiating a kind of fitness-spiritual space. We chase deliverance now in this marathon program, now in that method aimed at straightening some feature of our crooked form. This summer we’ll finally run without injury. This fall, in this city, we’ll be in shape to run our PR marathon. This will be the year when, at long last, we’ll qualify for Boston. We follow, for years and for decades, scores of plans, often contradictory, like the fingers that pointed the Conquistadors on to hundreds of false El Dorados, the imaginary cities of gold that endlessly diverted them. This is the receding horizon to which we runners are susceptible to being drawn. The space we seek is the one in which some master alchemist finally teaches us the trick to transforming our dirt into gold. Try to find it in the Copper Canyons. It isn’t there. In the lessons of the Tarahumara: Not there. In Born To Run: Again, no. As fine as these things are, the gold just isn’t there. As anyone who’s ever seen the film The Treasure of The Sierra Madre knows, it isn’t anywhere if we haven’t got it in us already (which of course we do, and must discover the fact in sequels of our own directing). And when we don’t find the gold where we thought we’d find it, there’s only one thing to do: keep moving. From Kerouac to McDougal to you and me, we are all on the road.

The Flash vs. Everyman: a Comic Showdown (The Long Run 2015 Feb)

marathonIs it just me, or was 2014 the year for superhero-themed costume races? Probably it’s been a growing trend, and it took me until Halloween of 2014 to notice. The fad undoubtedly has something to do with Hollywood’s recent recycling of the superhero in film. Whether legion or obscure, every superhero ever known to the big screen, dime-store or illustrated novel seems to have had his or her 15 minutes of fame in the new millennium. There’s someone super for everyone; there’s even someone for us generally unassuming runners. But we needn’t look to the comic-book likes of The Flash to find a fellow whose superpower includes superhuman speed. We might have read in any modern equivalent of the Daily Planet that another men’s marathon world record was smashed in 2014. Yes, Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto made his superhero debut at the New York City Marathon, turning in an astounding 2 hour, 2 minute and 57 second performance. Nowhere in the news was there any mention of a cape. Here apparently is a superhero who puts his shorts on one leg at a time.

Meanwhile in other 2014 news (which the Daily Planet did not consider newsworthy), The Penguin announced his retirement. No, not The Penguin who gave the dynamic duo headaches as a member of the Batman franchise’s rogue’s gallery. I refer here to John Bingham, the running columnist better known by his self-deprecating nickname, “The Penguin.” For decades the columnist served as de facto champion for a new kind of “runner,” one with no aspirations to win races or age brackets, whose ambitions are seldom more lofty than to stick out a training plan and finish a target race, one who can find inspiration in the modest and chummy persona of a writer who likens his running style to the waddling of his overdressed spirit-animal. Beginning in 2015, runners will be without The Penguin for the first time in decades. To whom will they turn for his brand of genial motivation? Will no ungainly animal shuffle, wobble or lumber forward to take up his mantle?

The juxtaposition of these news pieces is perfect for the relating of two concurrent narratives of the running experience over the past several decades. Paradoxically, running has, since the early 80s, grown in dual and somewhat contradictory directions. On the one hand, running’s assault of the record books has contained all of the frame-by-frame drama, the POW! and BAM! action-histrionics, the lithe and muscular figure-drawing of an illustrated novel, as this or that super-runner took turns doing his or her worst to the poor embattled record book. The Book took a beating and gave ground alright, but like a thing constructed of adamant, stands ready to challenge all comers. On the other hand, we are forced to take as the comic book symbol of the second running story the obscure, nebulous antihero of a million faces and somatotypes: DC Comic’s shape-shifting Everyman. In the 1970s there were 1,000 Everymen to each Superman, Captain America or Flash; now there are 100,000 of us. In Metropolises all over the country, Everymen and Everywomen form cities of 70,000 runners, cities that move at an 11- minute mile pace, consume swimming pools of Gatorade and disperse in 5 or 6 hours’ time. But unlike Everyman, best known for imperfectly imitating better known super heroes (and aren’t they all better known?), we commit no fraud when we dress like Kara Goucher, attempt to run with Shalane Flanagan’s form, and submit our race entry blank with the confidence of Paula Radcliff. It never crosses our minds to be a proxy for the likes of them. We know in our marrow that we must run our own race.

And yet how we marvel at the fantastic things others do. And how little we think of the fantastic things we ourselves do. By our way of seeing things, it is they who wear the cape every day; we don it maybe once a year, and even then with the irony that attends a costume party. “Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in,” Emerson said. The media latches on to stories of world records smashed, of Dean Karnazes running 350 miles or 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, of coach Alberto Salazar’s runners taking the silver and the gold together. We come to be amazed by not just any hero, but by superheroes. Mesmerized by the theatre of the athletically absurd, we forget the far more remarkable and galvanizing fact that something as simple as getting out the door for a three mile run, three or four times a week saves and transforms ordinary lives. So accustomed are we to scanning the skies for superhero fly-byes, we force ordinary heroism to do its everyday work beneath our radar. Spend too much time in the shade of the tall trees against whose height we insist on measuring ourselves, and see if we are not tempted to lie down and go to sleep there.

Ultimately the march of human running performance will meet with an absolute limit, the record book will grow stiff and fail to yield, all blows against it will be answered with a THUNK! that rattles the combatant’s bones. But every individual born from that time on will have the freedom of discovering his or her own personal limits, both in running and in everything else. No matter our age and fitness level, there exists in each one of us more untapped potential than exists in human performance in general. Most of us could coach ourselves to lopping 10 minutes off our marathon best or 1 minute off our 5k best. World record holders have no such slack with which to play. They live in a world where the most Herculean efforts, under the direction of the world’s best coaches, are unlikely to shave more than a few seconds off their PRs. They swing with all their might and make but a tiny dent. We swing and the POW! of our blow has repeating OOOOOs that trail out of the frame. Even if our superhero “owns” a world record, he or she knows that another will soon wrest it from them; it is more a thing rented on a short lease than it is a thing owned. We, on the other hand, own a personal record, and know that if it is ever broken we will be the one to break it.

Like a superhero, Dennis Kimetto has just set the world marathon record. But Dennis Kimetto cannot rescue me from my languor this morning. That is not his errand. This morning, my body and mind are Gotham, and, ordinary as I feel, I am the only hero within calling distance. The morning sun shines like the Bat-signal summoning my will to action. I will not let me down.