Because It’s Here (appeared in The Good Men Project, June, 22, 2015)

ManRunningNearMountainsThe longer one runs, the more fluent one becomes in the use of its spare language. Whether rooted in English, Tarahumaran or Kalenjin, running talk does not usually hold audience with conundrums; it answers most puzzles by earnestly suggesting, what else but a run? Between runners, all of this passes for shorthand; as long as there are routes and races to run, it matters little to us whether there is a translatable answer to the question most frequently put to us by non-runners: in a word, “Why?”Asked why he cared to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.” With those three words he became a poet of mountaineering and of all sports; wisely, he answered the question with a clever dodge; he let the mountain speak to the mystery. He needed only to allude to the famous pinnacle, nature’s ultimate pièce de résistance, and others were able to form a clear mental picture of the thing he hungered to overcome, whether or not they cared to add its overcoming to their own bucket lists. Had he any words to add to his perfect utterance, the result would have been a subtraction.

But utramarathons, marathons, 10ks and neighborhood routes are not “there” in the same sense that Everest is, as a conspicuous, imposing terrestrial feature calling out to some universally human (if latent) spirit of adventure. The proving grounds of the runner are human inventions superimposed on a neutral geography, a compact agreed on by us and our GPSs or a few race marshals.

Yet make no mistake: there is a mountain. For each runner the contour lines and stratigraphy differ. Though the runner’s obstacles exist mostly in the realms of metaphor, they are in the end no less real than Mallory’s mountain. For some there is an encircling range, the ascent of which is the sole means of escape from poverty and prospects best described as mean, brutish and short. One hears this in the interviews of the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes who have, against all odds, clambered up a steep path that carried them through a narrow pass and down a leeward side. This seems appropriate somehow for a people who occupy—literally–the Great Rift Valley. Others have it more like Rasselas, the story-book prince whose only release from a life of courtly extravagance and unwholesome entertainments lay beyond the earthly ramparts insulating the Utopian valley of his boyhood. Picture Bruce Dern, gifted actor and fortunate son, with his streak of 17 years of daily running to blunt the toxicity of Hollywood’s fickle fame and a decade’s-long Vicodin addiction.

To each his own mountain, raised from unseen forces and pressures, formed of what complex aggregates others may only imagine. The bedrock is laid early. Assay the runner’s psyche and read his history in the strata. And don’t be surprised to unearth a skeleton or two. Who can know the story of Billy Mills and not know in his heart that it was the catastrophic tectonics of cultures in collision that raised the mountain up which he had to run? During a harangue by his college coach over a disappointing race, the fiery half Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian with the “white man’s haircut” is reported to have shot back, “What half do you suppose lost today?” We may be sure that Mills stood atop much more than three podium steps when, in 1964, he was awarded the U.S.’s first 10,000 meter Olympic Gold in one of running’s greatest upsets. The mountain wouldn’t come to Billy, so Billy went to the mountain.

Of our uplands, the greater part perhaps is rooted in accidents of our prehistory: the where and the when into which we are born, the lot we draw at birth, including the industrial diseases that are now part of the modern runner’s inheritance. A part too is owing to the accretions of our personal history. One feels this in ultra-runner Jenn Shelton’s confession, “I started running ultras to become a better person. I thought that if you ran 100 miles you’d be in this Zen state…It didn’t work in my case—I’m the same old punk-ass as before—but there’s always that hope that it will turn you into the person you want to be…”
Yes, there’s always hope; flowers are usually rooted in dirt, after all. But how long must we run the mountain before we realize that the mountain is us and that we have only to get out of our own way? Because its location in the psyche conforms to no point on a topographical map, there’s no telling the miles we’ll need to log before we may tag its summit. We haven’t the perspective to triangulate its true distance from us, and to know whether or not the summit we think we see is false.

Surely our mountains are made of more than molehills, but of what exactly? Only a great deal of digging will bring such facts fully to light: The names we were told could never hurt us, the insults added to injury, the hats we didn’t throw into the ring, the towels we did; and so much else that, by way of consolation, we convinced ourselves was immaterial. (No amount of EVA foam will fully shield our thin skin from the jagged memories that underlie these cushy figures of speech. This is the job of callouses.) Here too is all that we repressed and sublimated; all that emasculated, dehumanized or disempowered us; the prognoses and prognostications we couldn’t abide; the anti-depressants and statins we refused to take. Sleep, science tells us, cleans the machinery of our brains, but there are dustbins nearer the soul that its nocturnal housekeeping never touches. Neglected, the overspill may rise so high as to throw menacing shadows and summon storm clouds to its heights. Against these, we must add our day labor. These piles we may never disperse; but by years of sweat and by the counting of mile markers, we may rise above them. This is but one way of overcoming: the runner’s way.

Do we doubt that a figment of the mind has influence enough to call a body to run? How common is running in dreams? So common that even our dogs do it. Sometimes the illusion is so vivid that a body actually becomes involved in the running dream. The crux of running’s enigma is that others see only the running but not the thing being run. No wonder they’re confounded.

To run is to invite accusations that we are running from something. That, I think, is a weak light in which to view our striving. We runners are not so passive, not so reflexive. We run up and over mountains, never mind that we may be the ones who’ve put them there. We know that mountains do not give chase; they stand in our way.

So what’s at the top, anyway? First, there’s the view, the wide sunny prospect that allows one to finally see where one came from and where one might go next. Second, there’s a descent. There is, in every great running story, a watershed, after which it is clear to all that, whether the hero runs faster or slower or not at all, he no longer grinds against the weight of the world. From here, he may run on to new vistas, or retrace his steps home. Having run with a heavy heart for three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours, Forrest Gump suddenly stops and declares to his assembled acolytes: “I’m pretty tired. Think I’ll go home now.” A flat desert road on a day of no particular importance: this was the appointed time and place for Forrest to get to tell it on the mountain.

Whether tomorrow or a month from tomorrow, we’re sure to hear the words, “Why do you want to run that marathon? That treadmill? That track? That whatever?” We might just shrug and invite our questioner to join us. But if we’re feeling chatty that day, we might invoke the spirit of Mallory and answer (with an inward pointing gesture), “Because it’s here.

Forrest-Gump (1)

Because It’s Here may also be read in The Good Men Project, June, 22, 2015.

Running With Distinction

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Image: Oiselle-fan-girl

Depending on which version of the story one knows, the Eskimo have 6, 20 or 50 distinct terms for the English word snow. While Franz Boas’ ethnographic observations on Eskimo language are mostly regarded as a hoax today, the man did have a point. When the thing you’re describing is all around you, there’s no need to be stingy with the modifiers. Hold forth. Be verbose. It’s not TMI if its omission invites a question. Only Captain Obvious tells an Eskimo it’s “snowing.” Or a running shoe sales associate that he’s a “runner.”

Since the beginning, we runners have applied specificity to our training. Now it’s in our jargon. When our sport was in its infancy, it sufficed to say that one was a “runner,” plain and simple. This usually meant that one wasn’t a jogger in the days when you were one or the other (assuming you laced up a pair of Brooks or New Balances at all). Beyond that, there wasn’t much more to say. Being a runner meant you were already odd and on the vanguard of a fringe movement; further explanation might have been thought redundant. This isn’t to say that while making a sweep of the 70s literature one’s detector won’t occasionally beep to the presence of some colorful taxonomic ingot. Take, for example, the curiously Orwellian phrase citizen runner, denoting a runner with a full-time job (and presumably a birth certificate handy for immediate presentation at random police stops). But such fine distinctions were, during the Nixon era, as scarce as a pair of ankle socks.

Then running went forth and multiplied, along with its phraseology. In 1970, running’s word pool looked as if it might evaporate in a single afternoon. Today it has lanes, superslides, and even a deep end, and can charge whatever admission it likes.

Still, when dealing with those who take no particular interest in our sport, it may suffice to describe oneself simply as a “runner.” It may be preferable, in fact. Why not save one’s adjectives for when they matter, for when one is in the company of other runners who’ll be more exacting in their call for identifiers? Imagine you are newly introduced to a throng of running veterans. Tell them you are a “runner,” and you risk being pegged as a novice and accordingly dressed down. What they’ll hear is that you’re a freshman with an undeclared major. (Until you blow past them, of course.)

With a quick primer, the most unversed novice can avoid an unpleasant hazing. The following list (which for brevity says nothing of track and field distinctions) treats the lexicography only cursorily and jocularly (you’ll thank me for it). Of course many of us will find that we fit into several of these categories. Slashes don’t come across well in conversation, so my suggestion is to pick the single descriptor that best describes you, and to wear it proudly and with distinction. (Or use it in word-magnet affirmations on your refrigerator door.) And though I won’t be around to proctor it, there will be a quiz on this stuff. Count on it.

Fun runner, fitness runner, social runner: These various terms describe one who runs for the health, fitness and psychological benefits alone, or one who skips, gambols or perambulates across a finish line for the sheer joy of getting out and participating in a social/charity event that involves covering a designated course (distances usually vary from 1 to 13.1 miles). Used pejoratively by elitists, these are today’s PC terms for the J word. Here’s hoping all runners–even elitists–are sometimes fun runners. All work and no play make Jack an ex runner.

Road runner, road racer: The adjectival noun road was originally used to distinguish between events contested on a track and those contested on the more-or-less straight asphalt or concrete surfaces one encounters in cities, city parks and suburbs. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of running shoes were manufactured for road runners and racers. A decade or two of pounding the pavement, and it might spell the end of the road for your plantar fascia, shin or Achilles tendon. Fortunately, today’s runner has options. Please read on.

Cross-country runner, harrier, hasher: Cross-country running vaguely refers to 4-12 kilometer events contested by individuals (and teams) over mostly natural terrain that may include natural or artificial obstacles. Don’t get tripped up by cross-country’s English roots and rules; although the spikes have been replaced by EVA foam and rubber soles, I’ve yet to see a cross country race in which half the finishers didn’t look like they’d just come in from a rugby match. Also see trailrunner. The lines separating American cross-country and trail running are often as blurry as a trampled chalk mark. Harrier, a folksy word for a cross-country runner, seems to have missed the turn onto the information superhighway. Look for it on the sweeper bus or having a cold one with a hasher, with whom it is guilty by frequent association (i.e., Hash House Harriers, “a drinking club with a running problem.”).

Masters runner/racer, age-group runner/racer: These terms generally refer to all manner of over-40 runners who measure their racing success against age-appropriate competition as opposed to an open field that includes runners of all ages. Contrary to how it sounds, this form of “handicapping” tends to produce relative performances that equal or exceed those of high-school and collegiate runners. It is far from unheard of to find a masters runner in the lead pack of an open race. This is one party where you’ll want to be caught acting half your age.

Marathoner: One who specializes in racing the 26.2 mile distance. Don’t be put off by the fact that marathoners often enter shorter races; they’re only using them for speedwork. Dick Beardsley is a classic example of a marathoner: a man who could barely crack 30 minutes for the 10k but who, in the early 80s, ran shoulder-to-shoulder for two hours and eight minutes with Alberto Salazar, the greatest marathoner in the world at that time.

Trail runner/racer: The less-structured and rule-bound cousin of the cross-country runner, the trail runner/racer trains and competes on natural surfaces offering moderate to extremely challenging conditions that often include rocky and exposed-root surfaces. This is where geographical isolation meets the ever-present risk of tripping or twisting an ankle. Kudos that you remembered to punch the ER’s number into your phone’s contacts list. Now if you could only get some signal bars.

Mountain runner, fell runner: Take trail running and dial in a 10% grade, and you have mountain running. Newbie’s often assume that mountain running is hard only half of the time. That’s because they’ve never experienced the unique exhaustion that comes with breaking one’s precipitous free-fall–for an hour straight. Downhill running requires Napoleon Dynamite skills. For me, no mountain runner will ever best local legend Matt Carpenter. Fell running is the UK’s equivalent. Half the altitude, double the entendre.

Skyrunner: On the rise as a running term. Sounds like it should be ushered in with the cinematic crawl, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” As near as I can tell this is an over-the-top way of saying that one is a mountain runner. Goes best with a post-industrial soundtrack ala 127 Hours and groupies at the finish line. Kilian Jornet Burgada, whose grandiosely-titled book, Run or Die, reads like the frenetic footage from a skyrunner’s headcam.

Ultrarunner: On speaking tours, Dean Karnazes says that in Latin ultra means beyond. This could mean beyond 26.2 miles, and it could mean beyond help. This time, take trail running and dial in a distance of 30-350 miles. If it were only about the distance, Dean would be its icon. But it’s more about having the right attitude. Ultrarunners tend to hold themselves with a free-thinking, off-the-grid air. During the week they may wear ties and sit through meetings. On the weekends, they’re sherpas. Scott Jurek and Ann Trason represent the American contingent.

Barefoot runner, minimalist runner: Steely Dan‘s Donald Fagen once crooned, “Kick off your high heeled sneakers, it’s party time.” To barefoot and minimalist runners, that about sums it up. Injury is afoot, and she treads anything-but-lightly on slabs of EVA foam. Better run from her in your bare feet (or in something with a zero-drop, at least). Before Barefoot Ted (of Born To Run fame) there was barefoot pioneer Ken Bob Saxton (against whom I had the pleasure of competing over 12 years ago). Before either of them, there was homo erectus.

Before moving on from this primer, please don’t forget to read the aside: There is still more that unites runners than separates them. Running code, while it will never rival Navajo code talk for incomprehensibility, can nevertheless be challenging. A glut of hard-to-differentiate jargon is a small price to pay for clarity in a rapidly growing sport. Today racewalking is still just, um, racewalking (our respects to sub seven-minute per mile racewalkers). The running boom of the 70s was no hoax.

Relaying the Message

May 11, 2011. The baton is valuable in all relay races. Here a track athlete prepares for the start of a relay. The GWOC track meet took place at Fairborn High School.In Zen there is the saying, “The sound of the rain needs no translation.” Here we are warned away from the futility of having words and our understanding of words do the work of nature and our most innate means of experiencing it, that is, through our various senses and our intuition. When one’s running becomes as natural an act as the rain’s falling one does best just to run and not to participate in the clumsy business of clutching at words. The very best authors of running are always those whose mouths are mute on the subject and who take no pains to peck at a keyboard. They do best to put their labor—or their play– where it is certain to result in the greatest good. Their legs and lungs are eloquent of all their words can never say, and steer them wide of the sticky doors to publication while leading them on to the widest syndication. When we watch footage of Emil Zatopec winning one of his three gold medals at the 1952 Olympics, do we care one jot what the commentator—in dated turns of phrase and 50s stage voice–is saying? How much is really lost with the audio? We’d do no worse to play Vangelis–or maybe more to Emil’s liking, “Má vlast”–over the whole affair; it matters that little. Emil’s strength and joy and a hundred other ineffable expressions are the things that make an impression on us through even so limited a medium as a reel of grainy, black and white film. The words are just dust kicked up by his footfalls.

With writers we have learned to read between their lines for what is most important to us. Poets—who choose their words with the utmost exactitude–offer us more betweens than lines separating them. The running journalist, in quoting the poets of her sport—the George Sheehans and the Chris McDougals, hands the relay baton to one who wears her own colors. The poets of running may in their turn hand off to the classical poets (as Sheehan was especially fond of doing). We may all, by learning to read carefully, follow along at the writer’s—any writer’s–pace. And when the running journalists, running poets and Poets Laureate have put all they can into the endeavor, the natural runner is the last to be handed the baton, and is called on to close well down the backstretch. He is all that stands between where the writers, whose energies have all been spent, have left off and of our breaking the tape of a perfect understanding. But he is a great deal, indeed; it is not without good reason that he is called the anchor. Read of his feats at second hand and you haven’t really followed him; try, if you dare, to run with him, and you’ll get more by that attempt than you would by all the reading in the world. In the beginning stages of a track relay, lines matter. In the latter stages, they are forgotten. What is remembered is the anchor’s superaddition of athleticism.

That runners read running journalists is a clue to the solemn fact that many of us have not yet learned to elevate our running to anything like the natural dignity of the falling rain, and that we still require translation both to understand and to explain to others exactly what it is we are doing on our lonesome trails and backstreet routs at hours when the civilized world has not yet found its legs. With regard to the runner’s language, we may have a few of the necessaries down, enough for tourism, enough to make a start. But we require language coaches and primers to read until we are comfortable enough in our fluency that we may begin to offer up a few original sentences. Ultimately we may come to use our new language without self-consciousness, to even think in it. Some day we may use it to compose running poetry or even to put the best of that poetry to rout with silent performances that render onlookers speechless. A Zen saying holds that “when the pupil is ready the master appears”; nowhere does it say that the master can’t be oneself. Before such proficiency is achieved, we will have gained a passable fluency when we can give something like a satisfactory answer to the question: “Why run?”

The mythologist Joseph Campbell, in deconstructing the hero’s journey—a ubiquitous pattern of storytelling–identifies a stage he calls “the meeting with a mentor.” It is the stage directly preceding the pivotal “crossing the threshold” stage. For most newbie runners, the journey begins far from a Boulder, a Mammoth Lakes or an Iten, Kenya—communities in which the molding of runners is a kind of cottage industry. A great many of us begin the journey as born-again runners, setting off in gray sweat suits from cul-de-sacs with nothing more than the remote memory of a high-school cross-country coach to consult for guidance. But there are always magazine subscriptions, bookstores and the internet. Coaches are but one kind of mentor. An effective one may teach us the how of running, to the extent that such things may be taught. An effective running journalist may suggest to us (and repeatedly remind us) why we should want to run at all; their highest duty is to help the bulk of us make sense of the call we continue to hear even after realizing that running is something at which we will probably never be great (chances are their own realization of this fact stood as a marker on the course to their becoming writers of running).

It is no accident that the words of coaches, writers and sometimes even the unrehearsed utterances of our more quotable runners become the more intelligible parts of speech that constitute our running mantras. A runner writing for runners enjoys advantages beyond the obvious. Twenty minutes into his long run, a line comes to him. But before he can claim it, he’ll have to carry it in his mind for the next two hours. He repeats it until it finds guaranteed lodging in his gray matter. By the time he is able to jot it down, it will have stood the ultimate test of a mantra: to be concise and catchy enough to cohere while the thoughts surrounding it are a roiling alphabet soup. Many of the running journalist’s most memorable lines had first to be remembered by their author, had first to survive this gestation. Any part of speech that is jagged or ungainly is worn smooth after an hour or two of tumbling through the mind of an endurance athlete. These are the tools our mentors of printed media impart to us, to stand proxy for their instruction and wisdom in our time of greatest need; they are the runner’s talisman, a concealed weapon against deteriorating form and morale. From our place in the middle of the pack, our running heroes cannot avail us; they are literally miles ahead; they elude emulation and have passed from visualization to vanishing point. But with the words of coaches and writers, we may always run stride for stride, no matter what kind of day we are having.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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.