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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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