Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My First Ultra

Each knee drove forward, propelled by the fully extended leg on the other side. Even my toes extended, milking all the climb possible out of every stride. Horton’s advice for first time ultramarathoners: power walk the steep climbs. Buck Mountain in the middle of the Mountain Masochist 50 mile Trail Run counts as a steep climb. It starts at a reservoir about 24 miles in and climbs a couple thousand feet. When you hear the theme from Rocky thumping in the distance through the woods, you are getting close to a break in the climbing. If your legs weren’t completely wrecked, you could actually run along the double track as it contours around the mountain before a final, lung-busting, mile-long ascent up a steep gravel drive to “The Loop.” I am on this final climb, driving my legs for all they are worth, when I see the race leaders in front of me.

It makes me laugh now to read the names of the top five finishers at the 1998 Mountain Masochist. At the time the names were completely meaningless to me. Now I know them as icons of the sport – Courtney Campbell, Eric Clifton, Ian Torrence, Tom Possert, and Scott Jurek. I had recently completed a thru-hike along the Appalachian Trail. David Horton’s name, still echoing around the trail from his speed-hike record, was the only way I knew that there was any such thing as ultrarunning. I had a good running resume from varsity track and cross country, but near-zero knowledge of this fringe, but enticing, sport. I have a true love for the mountains of Appalachia, and for extreme exertion. Combining the two was an obvious choice. I looked up the information on Horton’s big 50 mile race, held in October along the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia. I had eased back into running after completing the AT in August. The event seemed like a perfect way to combine the trail fitness I had earned hiking with my college running background.

I might still have believed I was right after the first 32 miles. Much of the course, up to that point, is runnable forest service road. And save for the steep uphill sections, I had run it. Well past the middle of the race, at the end of the longest climb on the course, I was within striking distance of the leaders. My lesson was about to begin. Ultrarunning eats egos like tattered flesh in a school of piranhas.
The Loop is notorious in Mountain Masochist lore for several reasons. Like many sections of the course, it is longer than advertised. Horton will tell you it is four miles, course notes list it as five miles, but it is probably closer to six miles. It is relatively rocky single track – the most technical terrain on the course. The Loop, like many challenges at Masochist, is primarily difficult because of when it happens. The course, for example, is easy in the beginning, and gets more and more difficult as the runners are less able to deal with it. The aid stations come frequently at first, when the runners are fresh, and then in the final 20 miles, when the weather has turned hot and the runners fatigued, the aid is so spaced that participants are reduced to a desiccated crawl before they reach the next one. Finally, when runners legs have been completely battered by the first 50 miles of running (yes – the run is actually about 54 miles), the course descends a harrowing rock-strewn erosion gully down the side of the mountain into Montebello, where, if they have managed to stay upright, runners stumble across the finish. [note: the descent into Montebello has been tempered since 1998 – it now takes a more contoured, if longer, trail.]

The Loop occurs at 33 miles into the run, and after the biggest climb of the course. As soon as I got off that climb, I knew that I was in trouble. My calves went into spasm. I couldn’t use the front part of my feet to pick my way along the rocky trail. Every step tore like a dagger through the back of my calves. I was reduced to hobbling on my heels – tricky business on a technical trail. I hobbled helplessly as the leaders advanced and those behind me passed. There was nothing I could do. Put one foot in front of the other – try to stay above sensation, like a sponge completely saturated but still floating in a deep pool of pain.

In the final eight miles the course ascends to an old section of Appalachian Trail above Montebello. As I scooted along the ridge, Ed Kostak inched up alongside me, looking equally angst-filled. Each of us gave company to the other’s misery, so we stayed together through the finish, in eighth place for the race. I cared very little, having been reduced by the course to wanting only to complete what I had started.

I didn’t run again for 2 years. It’s probably an overstatement to say that the race caused my early (if temporary) retirement from running. I didn’t walk right for 2 weeks, though, and I prefer to avoid disabling damage to my body. The truth is I had met my future wife, and we soon got married. I worked on, and finished, my work on a doctorate. We started our family. I had other priorities, and running seemed superfluous, even silly. I remember seeing joggers on the road in front of our house and silently asking “why do that to yourself?”

Suffice it to say that I am now eating those words. More than 10 years and 50 ultras later, I have experienced a range of difficulties – and triumphs – only hinted at during those final 20 miles at the Mountain Masochist, my first ultra.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Downtime

Those stormy and feverish nights after Western States revealed my desire to run again. My training cycle had extended long and deep, and frankly, I was fit. Even a well prepared body will show the wear and tear of a mountain 100, and other than a sore ankle and toe, I felt unscathed. Had the ankle recovered, I would have entered the Burning River 100, scheduled for the first Saturday in August. I was determined. I know, of course, that scheduled downtime is a wise, and generally necessary, component of a sustainable training schedule. The nature of the freedom that I seek, however, sometimes requires a purposeful obliviousness to reason. I was going to run again – period. I am not so free as I would like. Within a few minutes of jogging I’m struck immobile – like Achilles – from a sharp pain in my heel.

Mood disturbances notwithstanding, it takes very little imagination to see this as a good thing. My body is enforcing a perfectly reasonable downtime. I’ve trained long and deep, and run one of the toughest mountain 100s anywhere. I covered 85 miles on a sprained ankle, much of it in blazing heat. I pushed through a difficult late evening of near-delirious dehydration and possible hyponatremia. My reserves were depleted, no doubt, and need time to recover. So what is the problem? Whether I am bound by good reasons, or by my injury, I feel constrained by the binding. Shelter is safe, and comforting, but once you have lived outside for a while, the containment is jarring. It reminds me of times during my AT thru-hike when I passed through town. It just didn’t feel right to pee inside. Can you see how resting right now is like peeing into a toilet? To most people it seems perfectly reasonable. But to the guy who’s been relieving himself amongst the expansiveness of eastern forests for weeks, it’s disconcerting.

When I do start running again I won’t be as fit as when I left off. That doesn’t concern me. The ramp-up to good fitness is the most motivating phase of a training cycle. I remember last year at this time. I hadn’t been able to run for many, many, weeks because of a calf strain. I started back in July. A few later I ran the Christopher Todd Richardson Memorial 10K run. This was a first annual run put on by Jennifer Nichols. It goes out and back along the Virginia Creeper Trail. Good grief, I felt the burn. I was completely racked by the time I passed through the finish. With a few more weeks of training, though, I was able to run nearly that same pace for several miles within my 50 mile race at Tussey. If for no other reason, we should take downtime so that we can be motivated by the improvements as we return.

And that brings me once again back to the only kind of freedom we really have. Motivation isn’t something drawn from a magic well by those blessed with the will to win. We structure into our routines those small steps that create motivating environments. Fortunately, if paradoxically, for me – I’m being involuntarily led through those steps now.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Doldrums

I put the bread down in the toaster after I crack the eggs into the pan. I’ve got the timing worked out, starting with boiling water for the French press. I’m back on the caffeine. It’s a small bump of joy in the midst of an otherwise flat routine. Other than habit, there isn’t much to compel me to eat.

In the mornings, I open my eyes to daylight, and they close again. No thoughts press in against my senseless dreaming. To get out of bed I feel like I have to reach down, grab my leg below the knee, and pull it from beneath the cover. I have to pull my eyelids upward against their tendency to close again. Even the slog to the bathroom is a chore.

With some effort I can recall the mornings – they seem so long ago – in the spring. I’d wake up before dawn and bolt out of bed like a jack-in-the-box. I’d soon be out the door trotting down the road for the first of two runs scheduled that day. Motivation has the paradoxical quality of dispensing with its own need. Getting out of bed was effortless. I didn’t need to “motivate myself,” I already was. My legs propelled themselves down my drive and across campus. During my training in Colorado Springs, I climbed up toward Pike’s Peak several times. I didn’t have to beat on drums, or slap myself, or imagine myself in any way an external motivator. It flowed like water from a spring.

Where is the water now that I need it? How can I – the one lacking motivation – exert a force on myself? If part of me was up the trail a ways he could cast me a line and reel me in. Instead I have the rod in my own hands, and the line just runs straight and hooks into my own britches. I can imagine the uncomfortable pull – but the physics don’t work out to get me anywhere. Kind of like being in the bumper cars after the electricity has been turned off. You try slamming your body against the inside of the car to keep moving.

Mongold says I need another hobby. This is it. I analyze. I had oral surgery yesterday. I knew the surgeon would inject a local anesthetic, and that I would not feel appreciable pain after that. I got hung up on the injection part, though. That would hurt. A needle in the palate is never comfortable. When I was young, I took pain personally. It hurt me. As I became older, I began to feel pain as happening to my parts. My toe hurt from the bee sting. This is a reassuring stance. It provides some distance, and resilience, to circumstances. Despite my injuries, I will endure. Too bad this is a conjurers dream. Useful in the short term, we will eventually snag the set and be forced to deal with the reality beyond its walls.

I’d like to be able to feel the bite of the needle the way that I feel the exhaustion of a 100 mile run. Not something in the roof of my mouth. Not something either happening to or belonging to me. The feeling, the sting, the bite, the utter exhaustion: that is me. I won’t pretend that I can sit in a chair while a doctor stands over me and pushes a needle into the roof of my mouth and just be the pain. But that is what I’m striving for. It’s similar to the mindset necessary for the “low flow” I described in an earlier post. It’s an important kind of surrender.

Yet here I am, wallowing in my own doldrums. If I am my feelings, how can I ever get the leverage to pull myself up by my bootstraps? I’ve noticed that people who are depressed have trouble realizing that given a little time, they will feel differently. The aphorism among ultrarunners is that “things never always get worse.” That is a handy, if grammatically awkward, reminder. At a given time our feelings are all- consuming. Yet feelings change. What seems hopeless now can often change for the better – and we are wise to provision little reminders for ourselves. Things never always get worse.

I can’t lift myself out of my own feelings as if I had a magical fishing rod. I can, however, be reminded that things will change – that I just need to wait a little while. We know better than to make important decisions just after a major event. You shouldn’t think about the next 100 that you’ll do right after the last one. Don’t do anything rash. Sleep on it. I’m down because I can’t run right now. OK. That’s me – for now. I shouldn’t be pressed for any big decisions. I know better. Give it a while. Let’s take it a day at a time and see how you feel.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ruptured

I sat on a kitchen chair. My right foot was buried under the cubes in a cooler of ice water. My left foot soaked dreamily in warm saltwater. I can handle ice water, though it is never comfortable. I submit to it just like the other “good” pains of training. I did wonder, though, how the competing hot/cold sensations would reconcile in my nervous system. This strikes me as an interesting experiment in phenomenology. If you want to participate, stop reading and go try it yourself. That way my results won’t confound your experience. OK. Stop now.

If you are like me, you should have gotten a nice surprise. I was more aware of my warm left foot so that the sensation in my right foot was more tolerable than usual!

The saltwater soak was an attempt to relieve the pain in my left big toe. For the first time I hurt a toenail during a run. The nail turned white in the week after States, and some fluid had leaked out from the nail bed at the top. I suspected pressure under the nail was causing the increasingly acute pain. So I heated a paper clip on the stove top until it glowed red and then bore a hole in the middle of my nail. I expected a spray of fluid as the pressure found an escape, but instead I felt the heat of the metal. Had I cauterized the hole and closed it prematurely? If so, I hoped the concentrated salt water would draw the fluid out. I know just enough to be dangerous. After the soak the pain only intensified. So much for armchair physics. The good news is that my toe has finally stopped hurting.

The right foot was cooling off to counter the pain in my heel that started so early at Western States. At the time I thought the pain would probably shake out after some running, but it persisted and got worse, so that I took aspirin when I met my crew at the Duncan Canyon aid station. This seemed to help the pain for a couple of hours, but I had to take more pain relievers later. I didn’t consider it at the time, but in retrospect I probably added to the burden placed on my system with the anti-inflammatories. The pain in my ankle required it, so I didn’t give it a second thought at the time. I was able to manage that pain effectively, but I may have contributed to the later difficulty in managing my food and fluids.

Even after the run, as my ankle became tender again, I expected that a few days of rest would remedy the injury. After more than two weeks I am still unable to run. The bad news is that I partially ruptured my Achilles in that ankle. It’s now clear that I will have to rest it for several more weeks before I start training for fall races. If I recover and retrain in time I may enter a couple of 50s before a late fall or early winter 100. I’d entertain any suggestions.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Agitation

Uncle John opened my door, and I awoke. I stood up, my head perfectly clear. We were going hunting. It was my first hunt. I dressed quickly. We drove into the Ozarks in central Missouri. We hiked in before dawn. I sat by myself on a hillside from dawn until dusk, sucking on the bag of hard candies Uncle John had given me. I didn’t get a deer.

Last Saturday I awoke with the same sense of anticipation. My alarm was set for 3 am, but I woke up at 2:45. The stars glistened through the mesh across the top of our tent. I proceeded methodically, as I had the morning of the hunt some 30 years before. I fried 2 eggs on the cook stove. I mixed apple sections in with plain yogurt. Every action was deliberate and in service to the project, finally imminent, upon which I embarked so long ago. Any agitating thoughts, those that circulate and press urgently into consciousness were displaced by the simple demands of getting ready. Those demands occupied me clear through to pinning a small black ribbon on my race shirt just minutes before the 5 am start. There was no question of my taking this time. I calmly looped the minute strip of material and stuck it through with the safety pin. Dan Moores had embraced his perfect rest. It felt right to honor him during this event. There were hundreds of us; each with our own story. What we were doing demands that. There is no inherent value to completing the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. We were each seeking something that we had invented for ourselves; something resistant, or antagonistic, to the normal pushes and pulls of life on earth.

The goal is elusive. We are governed, after all, by immutable natural laws. I climbed to Michigan Bluff, over halfway through the run, with Erik Skaden. He told me the temperature wasn’t high compared to other years. Meanwhile his face glowed red, sweat dripped from his shirt, and he gulped steadily from the large water bottles gripped in each hand. There was no escaping the work of that climb, nor the need to dissipate the heat generated by that work. We were escaping something else though: the expectation of middle aged men on a hot summer Saturday. I might have been taking my kids to the water after a few chores around the house. If we were feeling adventurous we may have traveled somewhere for the weekend. What no one expects, when they ask about your weekend plans, is that you will be running 100 miles. There is a freedom in that – short lived though it is. I met Gordy Ansleigh in the Auburn Raley’s on Thursday night. He looked well. He smiled and chatted easily. He broke expectations when he completed, on foot, what was then a 100 mile horse race. That was better than 30 years ago. Thousands of people have completed the run since then. We have created our own expectations, and we can’t escape those.

The experience itself creates plenty of temptation to stop or change course. To plan and prepare is certainly a commitment, but it is no guarantee against what will come up. I was on Lyon Ridge within the first two hours of running. I caught myself focused intently on the rocks just in front of my feet. It felt tedious, and I deliberately lifted my eyes 15 feet ahead. I stepped on a rock wrong and popped my foot forward, pinching my Achilles. The pain wasn’t intense, but it was sharp and persistent. That pain would haunt me for the next twenty hours. On the descent into Deadwood Canyon, 45 miles into the run, the big toenail on my left foot began to separate from the rest of my toe. The ensuing pain and tenderness would inhibit all my downhill running from then on.

At Auburn Lake Trails, 85 miles into the run, I was stopped for weighing 7% less than I had at the start. I was forced to drink, and it made me sick. For the next several miles I struggled to steady my eyes on the trail. It constantly shifted horizontally. I knew I was dehydrated. I suspected my blood sodium was low as well, and that any fluid I consumed was stuck on the wrong side of cell membranes, and some of that fluid was putting pressure on my visual cortex causing my perceptual irregularities. I searched the side of the trail for a gap in the foliage in which to curl up. I thought of the aid station workers who would be sent back with a gurney. They would have to hike many miles to the nearest road crossing.

Canadian Gary Robbins caught up with me while I tried to recover my senses at Brown’s Bar, 90 miles into the run. He had staggered from Ruck-A-Chucky, where 78 miles into the run I passed him seated at the aid station, pale, feet badly blistered. He seemed incapacitated except for his voice, which rung out clearly: “I won’t quit!” And here he was 22 miles on, his body like an abused rag doll, his voice still ringing like a church bell: “come with us” he said. I got up, dredged from my own misery, and started moving out of the aid station. Robbins is a guy that men would follow to their deaths.

That is our ultimate hedge against natural forces. We persist, no matter what. Damage to our bodies is the converse of physical pleasure. It represents a natural force that would dictate our choices – except that we have denied that possibility. We won’t be swayed. There is a freedom in that. The finish line at Placer High School looked like a MASH unit. I lay down on a cot next to a young woman, pale and gaunt, hooked up to an IV. I sympathized with her, though I wasn’t as bad off. I had stopped trying to drink in the last 10 miles, and had recovered my stomach and perception. Shortly after I stopped at the finish I was able to drink and absorb my drink mix. After I slept briefly, and the sun came up, I recognized the woman on the cot next to me. Krissy Moehl had pushed the last 15 miles and finished 2nd among the women, behind another brilliant performance by Anita Ortiz.

We think of freedom as the breadth of choices given to us. I can make an abstract connection to that kind of freedom – mouth my gratitude for the blessings of being born into this time and place. That isn’t the kind of freedom I have sought, though. One definition of freedom is “the capacity to achieve what is of value in a range of circumstances.” I can make sense of that. I placed a value on striving for my best performance at Western States. I had a wide range of resources available to prepare myself, not the least of which was the quarter-century of my own running. I am disappointed. I prepared and ran the best I knew how. I took time away from my family to train at altitude. I did not achieve as I had hoped. As much as we pursue it, freedom eludes us.

I was subdued, once again, by the relentless vicissitudes of the Western States course. It wore me down to a murmur, and left me on the floor of my cell. In those confines, though, the echo of that murmur has resonated into a booming chorus that won’t let me sleep. My blood has been agitated into froth. In the first quieter hours I thought to myself that the hundred isn’t for me. I should rest, regain myself, and train for a couple of 50 mile races in the fall. I’m good at those. That would make sense. Meanwhile the waves of unrest were building, steadily washing across the boundaries that life is so good at preparing for us. I couldn’t compose my experience. The story didn’t sound right in my own head.

We spent the night before last in the mountains just west of Denver. We arrived, and slept, in the clouds. The mist persisted through the night. We left early for the long driving days across the heartland heading east. We camped in Lawrence, Kansas. The thunderstorms were interminable, racking my fitful sleep. The gnats clung to the underside of the pop top of our van. They infested the campground, swarming all the buildings and sites. The hum was audible from a distance, resolving into a buzz only when single gnats found their way into our ears. Swatting them was pointless. They don’t live as individuals. Better to think of them as cells of a large and fluid organism.

A lot of things are that way – significant at a scale we don’t discern. Even our choices, so seemingly intimate with the person we think ourselves to be, cannot always be understood at face value. I have characterized my thinking in the past as “rational.” That is, I applied reason in the pursuit of valued goals. I fooled myself. Of course I can, and do, try to calculate the risks and rewards of my choices. What has always mattered to me, though, is the freedom to smack down the easy choice right in front of me. I will not quit. A strange relationship I have with myself – impossible really. I can’t choose, but I do. I have to calculate, but I don’t. I should put hundred-milers out of my mind, but I can’t. No, no. I will run another hundred. And another. Until I get it right.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Out of the Canyon


Question: what should you expect if you take your 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son on their first overnight backpacking trip down 4000 vertical feet into the Grand Canyon on the unmaintained Hermit's trail in mid-June?

Within 30 minutes of beginning the 9-mile hike from our campsite at Monument Creek back out of the canyon, Catherine threw her hydration pack off her shoulders, let out a big sigh, and starting swinging the bite-valve around, flinging out precious water. She dragged her feet, ambling at about a half-mile per hour pace.

She had held up pretty well on the hike down. It had been unseasonably cool. She did ask how far we had to go a lot. A couple of times she sat down abruptly on a rock. I wasn't sure she would get back up. She did.

Today promised to be hot. We got up at 4am. I gambled that we would make the spring on Hermit's trail in good time, and packed minimal water to save the weight. We packed, had breakfast, and left a little after 5am. I assigned Gavin to lead the first section. I planned to have Catherine lead the first real climb up toward Cathedral Staircase.

She hadn’t eaten much. We packed exactly the food we needed, so when she rejected what we offered her, there were no options.

Now we faced a tough, and potentially dangerous, hike. I pictured baking in the midday sun, short-roping Catherine, and running out of water. I grabbed her bite-valve, lowered my face to hers, and told her she could cause us all potential harm.

She didn’t speak to me for a long time after that. I walked behind her while she moved convulsively in front of me. It was like she was of 2 minds. One wanted to let loose and stride down the slight hill to catch her brother and mother, the other seized her legs with every step. The result was an odd, straight-legged gait, like she was wearing leg braces.

When we started the climb, we put Catherine in the lead. She dragged for a little while, but gradually picked up speed. We were quiet about it, but she put distance on us a few times when we struggled with our packs up some technical sections. Catherine loves rock-hopping. Back home in the high country of Virginia she has proved herself by running from Massie to Rhododendron Gap and back, a distance of about 5 miles. The only catch – we have to let her take her shoes off. More than anything she craves freedom. So we left her alone as she assumed the lead. She turned a few times, told us to get moving.

Well, she never slowed down. We climbed out of the canyon in 4 ½ hours. The hike down had taken much longer. Robin asked what had changed. She said she started singing to herself.

We’re in Williams, AZ. We’ve been too busy with our own adventure to worry over the rest of the world. We are pausing for a few minutes today en route to hotter climes. The elevation phase of my acclimatization plan is complete. Now I need a few days of heat. Gavin likes to gamble, so we’re heading to Vegas.

The final evidence I needed to confirm the efficacy of my altitude training came on the Thursday we left Colorado Springs. I did the team CRUD tempo run for the second time. My first attempt at climbing to within 7.8 miles of Pike’s Peak took over 51 minutes. On my second attempt, after I’d had 2 more weeks to acclimate to the altitude, I was able to run the same climb in just over 47 minutes.

Bring on the heat.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why?

I spoke with Robin on the phone on Saturday. She had traveled to Bedford, VA, for a half-marathon trail race. She has run recreationally for the last couple years, with periodic trail races including one full marathon. She was down. The run hadn’t gone well. It was hot and the course was muddy. During the run she repeatedly asked herself: “why am I doing this?” The age group award was little consolation. Robin thinks she was the only woman in her age group. She didn’t feel good at the beginning, middle, or end of the run. She didn’t enjoy any special recognition for having run. Is there any reason left to explain her participation?

My friend Dave is breaking his promise to me. He’s traveling to California to pace me for the last 32 miles of Western States. The last time he paced me I made him promise never to let me run another 100 mile race. I went out at the Vermont 100 in 2006 with all guns blazing. I had decided the downhills of this runnable course were the key to a speedy race. So I blistered all of them, for the first 70 miles. It took about 7 ½ hours for me to run the first 50 miles. About the time Dave joined me, I was reduced to a walk. My quads were shot – every step I took sent a jolting pain from my knee to my hip. And we had 30 miles to go. During the death march Dave struggled with his role. Should he try to talk to me, fill the space, he asked. Should he leave me to my quiet despair? Doesn’t matter, I said. Just don’t let me do this again.

We say lots of things, and think a few more. These things are like the bugs around my house. The ants show up when even a trace of food is left on the counter. The rafters hum with carpenter bees every spring. The first year, when I saw the little piles of sawdust on the deck, I got to work. I fetched the ladder and went to plugging the holes. The ants were menacing to Robin, so we equipped a spray bottle with bleach and kept all the pheromone trails clear. We can’t win, of course. Bugs, like thoughts and words, can be distracting. The best we can do is manage them. They don’t constitute our real motivations.

We think and speak as if we have intentions, but for the most part we fool ourselves. All the real work is done under the surface. We imagine ourselves at the helm of a stalwart ship, charting a course, assessing the wind and waves, and making the necessary adjustments. The ship is actually a toy row boat, and the rudder and oars are dangling uselessly above the water. The bottom of the boat is buoyed not on the water, but on the back of a truly mighty whale. The whale starts to turn, and we move the rudder. The whale picks up speed, and we struggle with the oars, maybe splashing a little water. Depending upon the relationship of the man to the whale, he is pitiful, funny, or tragic. He cannot free himself from the whale. In the face of any real test, there is but one way: the whale’s way. In the quest for freedom there is only one condition: be the whale.

The whale is running Western States. What I think or say about it makes little difference. I will articulate reasons anyway, because that’s what we toy boat captains do. I appreciate most the messages that can’t be completely made up. Everything is made up except when we speak for the whale. We speak for the whale only when we know the whale. The whale reveals itself indirectly. Our intuition may be a conduit for understanding, or for deception. The best way to know the whale is by experiment. Test it. Feel it bump against things. Race it.

Knowing the whale is not the only reason to run long. It is not a static object whose properties exist to be discovered by something else. The introspection – for that is what it is – exerts its own effects. We know ourselves, and in so doing, become something different. More able-bodied. The test reveals our own efficacy. Our thinking can, if not distracted, serve a purpose. We have to work methodically, over time, but we can make a difference. The difference made is a reflection of our human autonomy.

Our friend Jim Harrison was at the finish line when Robin finished. When she expressed her angst, he said simply that he didn’t do things he didn’t WANT to do. Like most ultrarunners, I have a more complex relationship with my motivations. Running 100 miles is not a simple pleasure. Neither is it a perverse pursuit of pain. The challenges faced that day – only a pale reflection of the lifetime of challenges that preceded it – represent what is possible relative to human ambition. Because of the real and unavoidable difficulties, we reveal, by our performances, the human capacity to do better.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Western States '07

The downhill section of trail let’s my stride unwind. I’m in a groove – not comfortable – but steady. My eyes focus on the rocks and roots about 15 feet in front of me. My legs steer a path of least resistance through the obstacles. I am aware that I am approaching something before I hear the unmistakable sound of distant voices through the woods. It’s the ambient rhythm of intonation, inflection, exclamation, and laughter that echo through the trees even when words are lost. As I approach someone yells “runner!” and there’s a slight shuffling as volunteers assume their positions. I actually accelerate toward the table as I unholster my water bottle. A woman calls out as I approach: “what can I get for you?” I hold out my bottle and ask for water as I come to an abrupt stop. I barely look at the bounty on the table – jelly beans, potato chips, pb&j quarters, oranges – as a younger woman asks what looks good. The first woman still has my bottle so I pick up a potato chip and put it in my mouth before I take my bottle back and simultaneously chew the chip, screw the lid on my bottle and begin to run again. “One chip!!??” the girl calls out to me as I quickly resume my pace.

I’ve run about 50 ultras and so have likely passed through about 500 aid stations. Most of those have been some variation of the scene described above (which is an actual recollection; I just can’t remember which race). When I don’t have a crew that trades me a full water bottle for my empty one, I stop only long enough to fill my bottle. I consume calories while I run, either through a powder that gets mixed into the water or through little snacks that I carry with me, so there is no need to stop for food.

During my first 100 mile race – the Mohican in northern Ohio – I did sit down briefly at one aid station. It was about 50 miles in and the plantar fascia on my right foot had started to hurt. I decided I needed to tape my arch. As I dashed into the aid station, I was greeted by a large crew that included my wife, kids, mother, father, their spouses, and my two half-sisters. I issued the request for the tape I had packed and a chair. While someone grabbed the tape, a boy scout working with his troop at the aid station offered me a hamburger – which I accepted. By the time I took one bite my tape arrived and I taped my foot, around my sock, myself. In a jiffy my shoes were back on and I shot out of the chair like a cannon, carrying my hamburger with me to eat along the way.

Then there’s Western States. The exuberance of the huge crowd at the Robinson Flat aid station (mile 30) has carried me for about 2 more miles. Then the cellular machinery has ground to a near halt. The trail between miles 32 to 38, though offering no obvious impediments, has laid waste to my ambition both times I have run it. My limbs feel like they are filled with the sandy soil I’m dragging my feet through. Runners catch and pass me. My one time teammate Guillermo Medina passes me, his slight physique still and steady, his stride short and light. He encourages me to run with him. It is all I can do. At Dusty Corners (mile 38) I look for something that will help, but I have already lost any desire to eat or drink. What my body wants is to stop.

By the time I get on the scale at Last Chance (mile 43), I answer honestly when they ask how I am doing. It nearly tears me apart. My self-constructed world has been shattered, and I’m not even half way. I try to eat something, and I refill my bottles. I lumber away from the aid station.

The climb to Devil’s Thumb (mile 48) is interminable. Because I am walking, it’s easy to put my fingers on my neck and feel my pulse, which is shockingly rapid despite my languid pace. More runners pass me, either power-walking or mixing short bouts of jogging in with the walking. The climb is too steep to run. When I get there I drag onto the scale, not even relieved to have gotten off the climb. I tell the lady I’m having trouble, and she pulls in another volunteer. He suggests I take a break and talk with him. I take a chair while he gets me a cup. He sits down to talk with me. His sympathy, while measured, is almost more than I can take. I am on the verge of a complete breakdown. He suggests I let myself recover for a few minutes, sip on my drink. It is hard for me to fathom going on, but it is impossible for me to fathom stopping. Eventually the man suggests I keep moving, take things with me. He says he has seen plenty of people in my state again, when they get to the finish line. I accept what he says. He has no way to know that this isn’t me. My plans, my expectations, are gone. My body moves to get up and out of the aid station, but I don’t care anymore.

I have already been stripped bare, but the push to Michigan Bluff (mile 56) empties me. I get the deep ache of utter exhaustion, dehydration, and hunger. As I emerge from another canyon to houses, cowbells, and the sounds of human commotion, I am passed by runners buoyed by the approaching scene. I drag behind, trying to muster the brainpower to think through to the method that will get me moving again. For now I can only turn myself over, once again, to the aid station chair and another man who will tend to me. He gets me to sip on broth, urges me to take on more salt. The camera crew approaches us. I tell everyone that I cannot imagine going on. I’ve got nothing left. I can’t eat – can’t swallow. Drinks don’t feel or taste right. I sit, and drink the broth.

It takes a while, but I start to recover a bit. I will be able to go on. My crew is at Foresthill (mile 62). I feel I can make it there: one (relatively) small canyon between here and there. My wife Robin, who has traveled with me, her friend Melody, my pacer Bradley Mongold, and his friend Kavara are all waiting for me. As I very gradually pick up speed leaving Michigan Bluff, I feel lighter. I’ve shed a lot. It no longer matters how fast I run, who has passed me, or who is behind me. I will have to accept what is possible, not based on anything I might have hoped for or accomplished before, but based on the conditions as they are. The surrender gives me some peace, and I can start to find a rhythm.

By the time I make Foresthill I am running again, and I can eat a large cup of soup. My crew gathers around me. They have not become impatient – though I have made them wait hours longer than they expected. They are not disappointed – though I will not be competing among the frontrunners. They are immediately focused on the task at hand – to get me across the next 32 miles. We take the necessary time, and no more, to strategize before Bradley and I take to the course.

Though far from heroic, the run in from Foresthill was fairly steady. I ran on the edge of what was possible to maintain. I finished well under 24 hours, and placed in the top 50 (45th?). That means very little to me. The meaning of Western States ’07 emerged after I had given up. I wasn’t strong enough. I was powerless. The first 40 miles of the race took everything from me. What emerged in my place, though, was a handful of people. They applied themselves to my project. They didn’t just invigorate me, they became me. I have always thought of the gratitude shown by runners toward their crew as clich├ęd. That’s because I like to imagine myself as strong, independent, and even unaffected by the influence of others. While that illusion may prove a helpful trick to advance some of my ambitions, it has been burned to ashes in the furnace that is Western States.

If you’ll recall with me one of the many great songs from Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang:

“Grow the roses, grow the roses, from the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success.”

My rose, my wife Robin, will arrive with my kids tomorrow. Our epic trip across the desert will begin on Thursday. I won’t be ruminating as much. That’s probably a good thing.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Turnaround on Pike's Peak

I don’t like to change course; least of all to turn around. Why cover the same ground? Maybe my motor is generally set to explore. If I run ten miles I want to see ten miles, not five miles twice. Changing course is like that, too. I don’t ever like the idea of wasting work that I’ve already done. I want to use it in getting somewhere – even if it’s not the place I originally intended. I like to think of this trait as “openness” to new experience. This is, in fact, the positive end of one of the five primary dimensions of personality measured by psychologists (as opposed to neuroticism).

No complex human trait exists without a reason, though, including neuroticism. My willful insistence on charting new courses, avoiding route changes midstream, and never (I am a guy) asking for directions, has gotten me into some tough places. At times I have been left with no choice but to get bailed out. The time when I went for “a 15 minute run” in the Red River Gorge at dusk and came back several hours later, I had actually finally stopped at a small house to ask for help. I chose it because it had a swing set out front. I asked to use the phone to tell my wife that I was alright. As the woman put the pieces of my story together – and realized the distance for me to get back – she insisted on giving me a ride.

One afternoon I left work to run a loop from Damascus, VA. I had been looking for ways to connect the Appalachian Trail going south with the Iron Mountain Trail coming back north. These two great trails roughly follow parallel mountain ridges. On a previous run, my buddy Nick Whited and I had descended the AT at Backbone Rock, stumbled around and found a forest service road and some jeep track that ascended back to the IMT. The run took us about 3 hours. My intention that afternoon was to try and replicate the route. It was getting dark by about 7:30, so I made sure to leave work at 4:00 so I could start the run at 4:30. I packed a small penlight “just in case.” The run was proceeding according to plan, and I was making good time. I found the IMT, though at a slightly different place. I threw down the hammer, to make sure I made it to Damascus before dark. As dusk approached, I expected to be descending off the mountain. Instead, I was climbing. My altimeter indicated I was over 4000 feet! I stopped. I took out my Clif Bloks and chewed on a couple to get some glucose back to my brain. It didn’t take long to figure out that I’d done a 180: went the exact wrong way on the IMT. I was deep into Tennessee and it would be dark soon. I was almost out of the small supply of water and food I had brought. And it was getting cold. It felt absolutely wrong to go back the way I had just come, but I had to make up the five miles I had just covered in the wrong direction, and then cover the five miles left to Damascus. In the dark. I tested the penlight. It worked, but the beam was still faint in the ambient evening light. I slowed, to conserve energy, to find my way on the trail, and to watch my footing on the semi-technical terrain. The night was closing in around me. I could feel the faint haunting of my absolute vulnerability -- a wisp as ephemeral as morning mist. Meanwhile I proceeded unhesitatingly in my method. I move fast enough to stay warm, slow enough to make my way. I ration my remaining food and water. I finally turn on the penlight, and hold it low so rocks and roots cast a shadow.

I find the intersection where I went wrong. I see the way to Damascus: five more miles of technical ridgeline in the dark. I’m cold. A sign indicates the trail to the right intersects a highway in 1.5 miles. I take it. I want to run instead of walk, and I think I can at least let Robin know that I am alright. My descent is rapid, and I’m soon at the promised road. Lights show me the way to a handful of houses. I look for something promising (like signs of kids). As I approach a house a large unfriendly dog checks my progress. No luck. I decide to run toward Damascus. The road meanders along the foot of the mountain. More dogs greet me, but they are wagging their tails. Folks inside already know someone is out here, I think. I start to run on, but it’s late, and I want to call home. I turn back, and climb up the steep drive toward the house. I stand out in the drive where I can be seen. A couple of dogs are caged up and continue to bark. A couple more dogs hang around me.

Finally a young man emerges from the house with a spotlight. He’s shining it around, though I’m standing where I can easily be seen, far enough from the house so I’m not mistaken for an intruder. It takes me quite a while to clue him in. Everything I say seems puzzling to him. But he’s hunted on the mountain, and when I describe the trail up top he makes the connection. At first he says he doesn’t have a phone, but I press the case of my worried wife. Finally he gets his mother’s cell phone from the house. I call Robin. It turns out she wasn’t worried. She’s gotten used to this kind of thing. I don’t let on though. I carry on the conversation with the young man listening. I describe what I’ve done so far to her, and how I will “try to find a way” to run back to Damascus, so that he will better understand my situation.

When I get off the phone, thank him, and start – slowly – moving away, he offers to drive me to Damascus. “That’d be really helpful,” I respond. He takes me in his mom’s minivan. I’ve learned to pack a little cash along with my food and water, so I give him money for gas. He doesn’t expect it, says not to worry about it, but I insist. When I finally get home, Robin tells me she got a call from the Mom. She wanted to know who her son was riding around with late in the evening. Robin has a hard time convincing her.

While I’ve been in Colorado Springs, I’ve had come to terms with the out-and-back mentality. Nippert and I have been running together in the afternoons. Nippert doesn’t like loops. He wants to get the minutes right without any guesswork. What do you do at the end of a loop if the time isn’t right? So we run up the canyon and back. He gives me my workouts, and since I’ve been out here, many of them have specific routes; out-and-back routes. He’ll have me go 10 miles out along the Sante Fe Trail, then turn around and come back. I will rarely do that on my own, but I try to follow my training schedule.

Yesterday my workout was an out-and- back, but one that I have been looking forward to since I got here. I was supposed to climb Pike’s Peak via the Barr Trail. I’ve been watching the mountain daily, though, and it has been blanketed in snow. Last Tuesday white-out conditions near the peak turned back all four of the trains that carry counted-on tourists to the top. Yesterday morning’s paper (that I didn’t read before I left) warned hikers against climbing the peak, calling the route a technical climb in these conditions.

The brilliant sunshine bode well for my run, though, and I set off at 6am from near the Cog Railway station. I was determined to get “as far as I could.” The elevation at the start was 6700 feet. I ran the initial climb through the W’s conservatively, knowing it would be a long day. It took a little over an hour to run the section of trail that took 51 minutes during my “tempo run” over a week ago. I didn’t have to burn my lungs and legs to do it, though. I stopped briefly at Barr Camp; they said it was clear to the timberline. I was up over 10,000 feet. My breath got shorter and quicker, and I walked for a few stints, but the impact of the altitude was markedly less than on previous forays up high.

Above timberline the sun was blazing. Even with the strong winds, I felt warm in my t-shirt and shorts. In less than a mile I found myself in snow, and lost the trail. I found a way up toward the top, and stumbled again into the trail, which had switched back to head west toward “the cirque” a large scale erosion gully that scoops down from the center of the mountain. A single hiker was out, trying to make the summit. He looked reasonably equipped. He was making slow progress, post-holing through the snow. I caught him quickly by running lightly on top of the snow. This crust held my weight as I contoured around the slope, moving upward somewhat, guessing the approximate location of the trail underneath. We talked briefly. Like me, it was his first time on the summit approach. We discussed strategies for crossing the cirque, which was completely enveloped in deep snow. The pitch was steeper, and the drop off below it was menacing. He was post-holing with every step. I was beginning to break through the crust myself. The ice scraped at my bare ankles. Snow got in my shoes. Every step sucked the energy out of me.

I decided to go up – instead of across. There were rock outcroppings above us that I hoped would promise better footing. I scampered on all fours for 20 yards at a time, and then had to stop to catch my breath. My altimeter indicated I was over 13,000 feet. I was only 1000 vertical feet from the summit. I could hear the train whistle at the top. I wanted so badly to fight upward – to complete my mission, to see what it was like up there! I had ascended nearly 7000 feet, I didn’t want to waste that. The boulders were spaced apart, though, and immersed in a sea of snow. When I looked down at my own tracks I knew the descent across the snow would be a lot more difficult than the ascent had been. I had started post-holing about every third step. I had been out over 3 hours.

I turned around. I followed my own footsteps backward. For a moment I despaired the lost bid – then I realized the difficulty of my downward traverse. The added downward velocity of every stride caused me to either post-hole or slide – two bad options. For this inexperienced and ill-equipped mountaineer, my best (and safest) technique was the crab walk. I scampered on my feet and hands, keeping my feet pointed down the mountain. I was able to walk the horizontal traverses in places where the snow crust was thicker. In a reasonable amount of time I was back at the 12,700 foot sign, marking the big switchback in the Barr Trail. I was able to get running again. The descent from there took about 90 minutes.

My good friend Dave should be proud – he’s been encouraging the development of a 100 mile “temperament” as I approach the Western States. This is an interesting word, because it honors the dual virtues of stable character and pliable resilience. Those of us struggling to do something difficult surely need this potent combination: unwavering determination and adaptability. I may not have made the summit of Pike’s Peak yesterday, but I had a good adventure, and I turned around in time to ensure that I could tell the tale.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Fair Advantage

Nippert and I were descending from Cheyenne Canyon on an afternoon run when he dropped back about 30 feet behind me. This is about how far I’d have to be, he said, to blah blah blah. I said he was to far back to hear, so he caught back up and explained the new USATF policy about “pacing” at the national 100 mile trail championships that it sanctions. Pacers aren’t allowed, Nippert told me, because they provide an unfair advantage. [Pacers are runners that aren’t registered competitors, but run along with competitors, generally in the later stages of ultramarathons.] In the interest of safety, competitors may have “safety runners” who must run at least 10 yards back of the competitor. The use of pacers has been much discussed among ultrarunners. I won’t rehash the debate here. I would like to explore the broader question of fairness in sport, though, in particular what constitutes a fair advantage. I am training in Colorado Springs, after all, and so are many other aspiring athletes, including those at the Olympic Training Center. We are here because training at elevation provides an advantage during competition. It is a legal advantage. Does that make it fair? Don’t worry; I’m not feeling twinges of guilt at my strategy. The race I’m training for is at elevation, and I (now) have convincing evidence that those who don’t prepare for this are at an unfair disadvantage.

I grew up three houses from the railroad tracks on North Bayly Avenue in Louisville. The neighborhood has sprung back in the time since we moved out, but in the 1970’s it was on the rough side. My brothers and I cruised the streets on our bicycles, teaming up with other boys for games of bike chase. There were older bullies lingering on the fringes, but for the most part, we settled things among ourselves. My best friend through elementary school was Mike Grabhorn. Like me, he had a dinnertime and a curfew when he was due home. Otherwise, we were on our own. Our families were unusual in the neighborhood. Other kids had fewer things to count on. He was a year older, and had another friend who was the same age named Will Church. We all got along well enough. We organized games of baseball or kickball in the street in front of Will’s House. We played rough at times. Disputes came up, and had to be settled. First we yelled, and then we got in each other’s faces. If that didn’t take care of it, we fought.

We were inflamed by anger or injustice, and likely engaged with all available passion. Still, we knew the rules. We escalated until someone gave up. I remember a fight between Mike and myself. Will hovered nearby as a sort of referee. We were fighting methodically, looking for clean body blows. When Mike threw a roundhouse and caught my cheek I became enraged. “You hit my face!” I screamed and dove into him, tackling him to the ground. We didn’t do head blows. There was no point. A fight between kids, just like the ritualized competition between the males of almost any species, is circumscribed. While our immediate motivations may be visceral, and our means distastefully violent, there is an unspoken goal to preserve the peace, and each other. We were settling disputes, not perpetuating them. There were no tricks to winning. We needed to settle the question of dominance.
Imagine if Mike pulled out a rag soaked in ether. While we grappled Mike could easily have covered my mouth and nose with the rag and incapacitated me, “winning” the fight. That wouldn’t have settled anything. The outcome only makes sense to the extent that the fight was fair. The results aren’t even interesting otherwise. Among kids of my generation there was such a thing as a good fight, and it was a fair fight.

Footraces are as primal as fist fights: open battles for dominance. Good races settle the question. We did these as kids too: across the schoolyard. I was never the fastest sprinter. It didn’t occur to me to prepare to run faster. I already knew where I stacked up compared to the other kids. None of us prepared. The races were fair. We got the information we needed: namely, who ranks 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.

What is it about a boy that determines his place among other boys? Is it his talent? How about his determination? Is it different for a fight than for a race? How does that change with the more elaborate, and mature, contests between adults? Most of us will probably say that a schoolyard sprint is mostly a test of God-given speed. There will be variation between kids, and those differences will remain pretty consistent. In the case of fighting, we may want to say “physical talent” (whatever that is) plays a role, but another element is added. Because fights, as I have described them, escalate until someone submits, a fight can be won by the person more willing to risk injury (or at least to bluff that he is!). That willingness, I propose, is the precursor to the “will to win” in modern, adult, athletic competition.

Willingness to risk injury is a kind of commitment. I was stronger than my younger brother, John Leigh. I could pin him, holding his arms down with my knees. I remember using my knuckle to grind into his head (we called this a noogie). There wasn’t much point, though, because no way was he going to submit and “cry uncle.” That’s determination, and it compels respect from others. It says: I’m willing to suffer injury rather than submit to you or your wishes. Athletes show this kind of commitment. Aren’t we compelled by the players who dive to make the save? Not only do they retain possession, but teammates are uplifted and the opposing team is deflated. How can you win against someone who will risk everything? Of course, if they really risked everything, then sometimes they would lose everything. While this may be true in adult fights, sporting contests have evolved to ritualize, and spread out, the risk.

Athletes play with risk. They train to the precipice of injury, and then stay as close to the edge as possible. They constantly break their bodies down with grueling workouts. They prepare rigorously so that during the contest, their performance seems more risky than it really is. For career athletes, risk is managed. The preparation is a way of accruing an advantage over opponents. It is compelling because of its relationship to commitment. We admire, and honor, the commitment that athletes make. It shows the will to win – and it can determine the winner. Wouldn’t it be more fair, though, if we disallowed preparation for athletic contests? Imagine that every contest was something completely unexpected, so that you couldn’t prepare. Wouldn’t that put everyone on more equal footing? I think the answer is yes. I also think that we don’t want fair contests. We want to see who has created the greatest advantage – by his or her commitment. This is the advantage inherited from the willingness to take greater risk than one’s competitor.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

you get what you give

The night was black. We carried flashlights, but never used them. The walk from the dining hall to the cabin was about a half-mile. We followed a wide trail from the parking lot. We were accustomed to getting by with the faintest light – generally by looking up and noting the faint gray gap in the tree canopy. We made the walk every night, after cleaning up from the night activity and meeting to de-brief. This night there was no light. We knew to use our peripheral vision. There was no point trying to see our hands in front of our faces by looking right at them. But we couldn’t detect the movement of our hands anywhere in our field of view. We only knew where to walk by the feel of the trail under our feet. We were mesmerized by our heightened sensitivity to everything around us, even while nothing around us was visible. If we spoke, it was quietly – respectful of our amplified perceptions. When the distance felt right, we felt for the narrow gap in the forest leaf litter that was the narrow trail to our cabin. Mildly surprised at our own intuitive capacities, we entered our cabin and turned on a light.

The days at Otter Lake Conservation School were long, absorbing, and exhausting. Each instructor was assigned a group of 8-10 sixth-graders, who we took responsibility for through the majority of the day. Kids came to us excited and energetic. We matched that energy and raised it. Our kids slept well at night. We took turns sleeping in the dorm. It was one room packed with side-by-side bunk beds. The lights went out at 9:00 for story time. Story time was simple. Start with a vivid description of a comfortable scene and something animate [the sand dunes rose and fell in the distance. A small green lizard warmed itself on a smooth rock]. Allow enough movement to carry the scene, but branch continuously into superfluous details. Speak evenly and slowly. [Ivan, the lizard, turned its head side-to-side. He lifted his left front leg and right rear leg at the same time, and held them in the air. He put them down, and lifted the opposite two legs. Ivan looked left and right again]. Before Ivan could even get off the rock, someone would start to snore. Within a few minutes, he was joined by a full chorus.

Instructors had a short amount of time off just before lunch. This was a good time to collapse after the always-busy morning. It was also a good time for a light jog. Our persnickety nurse said to me one day as I jogged past: “where do you get the energy to run?” Most runners have likely heard a similar question from non-runners. Like me, you probably thought something along the lines of: “running gives me the energy to do everything else!”

Nippert drives the 30 minutes to Cheyenne Canyon almost every afternoon. He does his workouts in the morning. The canyon run is auxiliary. I’ve been joining him for those runs while I’ve been here. We run slowly, but climb out on the Columbine trail for about 1000 vertical feet and then come back. Each afternoon last week we ran to Gold Camp Rd and returned for about 1 hour total. This week, because we have both started to taper, we turn earlier for a 45 minute run. I wrote about yesterday’s delayed workout. I waited until about 9:30 to run a workout that included a handful of surges. The weather never did improve. I wrote my story through the wet afternoon and mechanically put running clothes back on when 5 o’clock rolled around. We drove straight toward the mountain, though all we could see through the rain-soaked windshield was a huge dark grey pillow where the mountain used to be. My eyelids drooped as I slumped back in the passenger seat. Nippert got out at the canyon. I just stayed in my seat, looking forlornly for a break in the clouds. “Let’s go!” Howard had to remind me.

The first few steps were by far the hardest of the whole run. It was like a tug-of-war, but the twist was this: one team had lashed my body with thousands of thin, stretchy filaments that bound me up like a fly in a spider web. The other team tied a rope around my waist and started to pull. I suppose you’ll want to call this my “will.” [and why not the other, inhibiting team?] Over the course of the first 10 minutes, thankfully (and predictably) the filaments stretched, broke, and fell away. By the time I trotted back to the jeep I felt completely revived.

I often have the experience of gaining energy from a run. I don’t think it is the same as an endorphin rush. There is something else that happens, best described as a sense of well-being, either during or immediately after exercise, that I think is related to endorphins. That is often a cue to relax. I get wound up and uptight before big runs or events. Afterwards I feel good, in a peaceful kind of way. That, I think, is endorphins. The energy gain is something different. It is more like two teams, stagnation and effort, have settled their dispute in the tug-of-war, and effort has won.

My runs during the week at Otter Lake were like that. At the time most suited to retreat, the battle was escalated instead. Those runs were of insignificant length and intensity. They kept effort on top, though, so that I’d be ready on Friday after the busses pulled out. Moments after watching our kids, often tearful, waving from the bus windows, I returned to the cabin to change into my running clothes. I ran out the long drive for the camp, and crossed the road toward Crotched Mountain.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

whatever the weather

Two school buses pulled in to the large dirt parking area. Jon Dery, our charismatic program director, climbed on one of them. A few minutes later the buses were gone and 60 to 100 sixth grade graders formed a circle around him, joined by 10 instructors. I was a recent graduate, as were several others. A couple more were taking time off from college. For the time we were outdoor instructors at Otter Lake Conservation School in Greenfield, New Hampshire. It was the most formative experience of my life.

School groups came to stay at camp for the week. Except for a month around the Holidays, we operated throughout the school year. The snow, like the rest of nature, became an object for our instruction and experience. The kids were quickly divided into groups and assigned to one instructor for the week. With as few words as possible, I took my group into the woods. I wound my way around until I found a familiar opening, so we could create our first circle and review the few simple rules. Stay together. No throwing rocks. No swinging sticks. I had to get to the rules quickly, because otherwise the boys would inevitably begin throwing and swinging.

At the end of the week, we had our final circle. I told each in turn how I saw their role in the group, how well I thought they did, and something I thought they could work on. Then I asked them to give me their thoughts about the group and their instructor. Someone would always speak for the group and confess that when they first saw the instructors, they had hoped for a different one. Once we were in the woods, though, playing match-my-steps, or doing trust activities, or facing team challenges, they were really glad for how things worked out. I wasn’t serious, or stand-offish, or boring, like they thought at first glance. Actually, I really got into stuff.

That’s what happened. I challenged my group to go a little further, push a little harder, and take any hardship as an opportunity. And they challenged me. I paid attention to personalities, negotiated, prompted, and facilitated. I tried to give them the minimum input I thought was required so that they could take the initiative, and therefore the ownership, of success at whatever task we had given them. Most, but not all, of the tasks we had contrived as part of the program. One of the culminating activities had the group prepare and eat lunch on their own. We provided the raw ingredients, a pot, and 1 match. The group had to choose a private place in the woods on the opposite side of the lake, and when they were done, leave absolutely no trace. On the next day, we hiked to the summit of Crotched Mountain – whatever the weather.

If it rained or snowed, we dressed for it. DeWayne, the director, taught us a diddy to pass on to our kids: “Whether the weather be sunny, or whether the weather be not, whether the weather be cold, or whether the weather be hot, we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.”

We liberated our middle school students, not just by going outdoors, but by constraining the options available to them. We defined the groups and instructors. We gave them a fixed set of supplies with which to accomplish challenges. We were determined to do our activities, no matter what.

People often confuse freedom with freedom of choice. Choices are not inherently liberating. We are either led to make the best choice (a matter of calculation) or we stubbornly make a bad choice (and do worse than those who are smarter). If we made calculated, rational choices, these could be bought by the highest bidder. That’s not the kind of freedom I want. It is a central paradox of human experience that we are most free when we give ourselves the least latitude to change our minds. We make ourselves resistant to the temptation of a bidder who would like to influence our behavior. We also make our behavior independent of circumstances more broadly. These can be called “environmental conditions,” or in a word, the weather.

When I woke up this morning, I burrowed more deeply under my covers on the futon. I could hear the wind blowing outside. Rain was spattered against the window. My workout for this morning was 70 minutes with four 2-minute surges. I put on my running clothes, and stood at the window. I allowed myself to imagine cold water pelting my warm skin, with my head hunkered down against the wind, while I struggled to extend my stride for an honest two minutes. I thought of lessons learned from Otter Lake Conservation School and I proceeded to… eat breakfast. Yes, I delayed my run because of the weather. What about my freedom, my resistance to outside influence? Even as I write, I recall the moniker given me by my friend Kristin Duncan in high school. She called me “the stone pillar.” I was unwavering.

I injured my knee playing indoor soccer during the winter of my senior year. I had to wear a cast that immobilized the knee joint for 6 weeks. I “crutched” my afternoon runs. I could actually cover some serious ground with a 3-legged hop-skip-crutch pattern. I gave myself a destination in another neighborhood – frequently it was Kristin’s house. I was attracted to Kristin because she was, in many ways, indifferent. She was interested to have conversations, and she loved to laugh. But she didn’t need to convince me of anything. I was wary of girls – especially the ones well equipped to lure boys. I suppose I perceived any temptation as a threat to my autonomy. I didn’t often go to parties, and I certainly never drank. I went to bed (as I still do) at 9:15.

Have I grown soft, now that I allowed a little sprinkle to delay my workout? Have I lost a little of my freedom? I want to say no, and you can call me out if you think I’m rationalizing, but here’s why. All freedom is measured. We are mistaken when we imagine freedom to be something floating above the physical world – as if it is a set of choices not influenced by natural forces. Our behavior can only be caused by natural forces. Forces can be harnessed in opposition to predictable temptations. This is manifest, for example, by the “whatever the weather” mantra. If the rule against yielding, however, is absolute – like the stone pillar – it is no more liberating than succumbing to the original temptation.

I like to think I can be reasoned with. My schedule in Colorado Springs is flexible. I can eat first, then run, as easily as I can run, then eat. In fact, I want practice eating then running because I will have to run with food on my stomach in order to complete a 100 mile race. There are things we should be determined to do, no matter what. Right now it doesn’t have to be to run first thing in the morning – in nasty weather.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Peak

There is a looming presence in this town. We are under threat all the time. We are also reassured. We know where to look for orientation. We know how to find our way. We know what’s important. Ultimately, we are drawn upwards; by the looming massiveness, by the promise of a better perspective.

Three weeks ago I first approached Colorado Springs from the East. Pike’s Peak appeared suddenly on the horizon as I drove the gradual slope up from Kansas. As the road meandered slightly north or south, my focus remained centered on the mountain.

Left to my own devices I likely would have found a way to proceed all the way to the peak by now. I met with Nippert first, though, and he gave me a schedule. Not until June 6th does it say: run up to Pike’s Peak and back from Cog Railroad. He had reasons for me to wait. I needed to acclimatize to the altitude, for example.

Even the first several easy runs at 6400’ left me more winded than I would have guessed. After 10 days, my first climb up to 10,000 feet was a real wake-up call. Climbing at these elevations is hard work for lowlanders. After two weeks I was lured up the Barr trail to the 7.8 mile sign. That means I still had 7.8 miles to go to get to the summit. Paul DeWitt calls the timed event a “tempo run.” I call it a lung buster. My diaphragm was still sore as of yesterday. Two and a half weeks in, we went up to 9000 feet for my long Sunday run. I would circle Rampart reservoir twice, and add a side-trip to Nichol’s reservoir.

Though still exhausting, the run at that altitude didn’t have the edge of earlier runs. I didn’t struggle to catch my breath as I had on earlier runs. The most striking element of the run was the continuous view of Pike’s Peak. Its stare, at times inviting, had become an icy glare.

The biggest reason for me to wait to climb Pike’s Peak, it turns out, is the snow that still covers the trail over the last 4000 vertical feet. Each day the warm temperatures melt snow. Each afternoon, and several nights, precipitation falls across the peak, and often in the form of more snow. At midday I can look up to the mountain and see where the snow has receded. The whiteness is less monolithic – brown fingers reach up and point to the summit. When I look again the next morning the mountain has brazenly donned a fresh coat of snow. The gleaming reflected sunlight pierces my ambition to get to the top.

This past Sunday I received an e-mail update for Western States 100 runners. The theme was: welcome to your taper. I have written before about the downsides of tapering. As little credence as I give to the power of mind, it may be a useful way to look at the attitude problem created with the “four-weeks-to-go” window. Namely: what do I have to look forward to? Yes, I have a race in less than four weeks. It will surely pose a challenge, and I do look forward to it. But what’s everything about between now and then? It’s about doing less and less, less and less intensely. It’s about staying safe, not getting hurt, and recovering. That’s not exciting. That’s not conducive to a racing state of mind. A mind ready to embrace flow needs immediate challenges. We have to reconcile the real need to recover from months of hard training and the need for the “mind” to be occupied and challenged leading into a peak competition.

I’ve got three things in mind. One is the peak. I check it every morning. This morning it is still shrouded in clouds after being pilloried all night. I want to climb it. I look forward to climbing it. It will require over 7000 feet of vertical ascent in about 12 miles. I’ve circled around the base of about 270 degrees of it. The singularity of Pike’s Peak makes it especially regal, as does its white crown. I will run the course of the widely renowned Pike’s Peak Marathon. It starts in Manitou Springs and runs past the Cog Railroad station. The initial climbing is marginally runnable. The wide path switches back and forth as it ascends what are called “the W’s.” I would like to see how much of the climb I can run. I am curious about how difficult I will find it to breathe and fuel my muscles as I approach 14,000 feet. The weather will be different at the top. The wind will pick up, and afternoon rain is likely. I will have to carry a jacket. The run down will feel like a relief at first. The constant quad pounding will take its toll, though. I’d like to see how my legs hold up. I need to bang up my legs.

The other thing on my mind is the Team CRUD tempo run. This is the one organized by Paul DeWitt up the Barr Trail. Last week I could only manage to run it in 51 minutes. It wasn’t my assigned workout, and Nippert wasn’t thrilled that I had gotten mixed up in it. You don’t need to be able to run fast up the side of a mountain, he said, to get ready for States. He’s right, of course. But Scott Jaime ran it in 48 minutes. I want to see how much difference two weeks at elevation can make. Doing the run again will give me a good measure of my acclimatization. And more importantly, it gives me something to look forward to.

The third thing is reuniting with my family. Robin, Gavin, and Catherine will travel in our van from Emory Virginia to Colorado Springs Colorado to pick me up next week. We will proceed on our first cross country road trip. I look forward to watching my kids scramble around the boulders and feed the jays at the crags. I look forward to seeing them race down the sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park. I want to show Gavin the Hoover Dam, because I know he is fascinated by marvels of engineering. Robin and Catherine will especially appreciate the fragile desert wildflowers.

A spirit of adventure leading up to and surrounding an event will help create a mindset for optimal performance. One of my favorite running adventures to recall was my trip to Japan with a combined Brown-Harvard-Dartmouth alumni team. We were invited to compete against Japanese collegiate teams in a championship Ekiden. These are long-distance relay races. Eight-person teams ran legs of varying lengths to cover about 100km. So much of the experience was new to me: chasing the sun on a transpolar flight from the west coast, the vast but low-slung cityscape of Nagoya, lavish attention from gracious hosts, a culture that honors long distance running. We were picked up from the airport in a bus with “Happu” written boldly on the side. For us it was the Happy Bus. We soaked in the novel sights and sounds, and enjoyed the company of the interpreters who had been assigned to us. We spent several days before the race in Japan. We weren’t worrying about how to correct for jet lag, or how to get our digestion on track. We were caught up in the moment, embracing the adventure.

It rained most of the day of the race. We rode sheltered in the Happy bus, though, until it was our turn to run. I ran the anchor leg, the longest of the race at about 21 km (13 miles). Yukiko, my interpreter, got off the bus with me and held her umbrella over my head while we waited for my teammate to enter the transition zone. There were about 20 teams that had qualified for the championship. Going into the anchor leg we were in the middle of the now widely spaced teams. I saw no one close in front of us. My teammate handed me the purple sash and I started running – cheered away by the rest of the team and our Japanese hosts. I was quickly in the rural countryside. I can still recall the faint smoky smell, not unpleasant, of backyard incinerators. I soaked up the miles of road, like I had everything else in Japan. When the Happy bused passed, I waved back at all the smiling yelling faces behind the windows. I ran alone, neither passing nor passed by another runner. Still, when I charged up the final climb to the shrine that marked the finish I found myself in the middle of cheering throngs. I had run a strong leg.

My adventure now lies to the West. Snow-capped Pike’s Peak most immediately, then the desert sand and the Grand Canyon. I’m looking forward to it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

soccer

Four neighborhood kids crammed into the back of the Sinai’s Volkswagen bug. I had long legs, so I got to share the front passenger seat. Luckily we were both skinny. One of the older Sinai sisters drove barefoot down to the Louisville Water Company fields at the Ohio River. I pulled my socks up to my knees.

Our coach was a ding dong. And he could get angry. I didn’t mind to let him know what he was doing wrong. When he got angry with me I would pull my socks up. Repeatedly. Like all kids, we loved to play, so we worked it out. One time during a game he got frustrated and told me that if I thought I could do better to go ahead and coach: call the substitutions for the game. So I did. At halftime everybody came to me to get in the game, and tell me what position they wanted to play. I was trying to get it straight, which was admittedly difficult, when our coach stepped in and said he was taking back over. Although I could have pulled it off, I was relieved for both of us.

Three men that I got to know growing up represent how I now think of integrity. The first was the referee for Crescent Hill soccer. He had dark hair and a tidy dark mustache. He dressed sharply, with his striped jersey tucked into his black shorts, and his black nylon socks pulled up to his knees. He ran to keep up with play and knew just how to move to stay out of the way. He called the game the way he dressed: crisply. He wasn’t detached, though. He was generous with guidance and compliments for players, once the play was called. One thing I feel sure of in retrospect: he wasn’t thinking of anything else on Saturday mornings.

I was riding my bike down Payne street one afternoon when I saw our referee mowing his yard. The yards, like the houses along there, are tiny. I was surprised at the modesty of his home, but not at the care he took of it. He waved and smiled when he saw me.

Although I didn’t think of it at the time, I reckon now that the referee noticed me because of the way I played: effortfully. I could be gangly and awkward. I wasn’t the quickest, nor did I have the best ball skills. I did not give up on plays, though. I chased down balls that others let go. I ran the field to cover offense and then ran back to cover defense. I don’t know if there was any other way for me to play. Several of my friends who went on to be good at soccer played a more intermittent style. It’s like the difference between the hunting technique of dogs and cats. Cats are sneaky; they get into position and spring with mighty and fearsome speed. Dogs run, in the open, and just wait until their prey is worn down.

Fernando was the best soccer coach I had. A group of us formed an indoor soccer team toward the end of middle school and the beginning of high school. He put me in to run the field at halfback. Run behind the ball to support the forwards on offense, he told me, and run after the ball on defense to give our defenders a place to put the ball forward. On both ends of the field the other team ended up feeling dogged.

It seems obvious that soccer, especially the way I played it, helped to develop a strong foundation for the running career that developed when I started high school. I was already fit when Coach Worful called a preseason one mile time trial for freshman. In preparation, I wanted to see how fast I could run a mile on my own. I knew that it was “a mile” from my house to Field Elementary, where I first went to school. So I started where my street intersected Frankfort Ave and ran as hard as I could to the turnoff for Field. It took a little over four minutes. I told coach my time and he said, “that wasn’t a mile.” When we ran the time trial on the track behind the school I ran about 5:40. He didn’t make any fuss about it, but I know now that any high school coach is going to get excited if a freshman just shows up before the season and runs a 5:40 mile.

It may be a little less obvious that I played soccer, in the style that I did, because of my capacity to run. Understanding this has to go beyond a simple accounting of the volume of oxygen that my lungs can utilize, or the type of muscle fibers in my legs. But it can’t go as far as a mysterious netherworld in which my spirit somehow takes over the controls for my body. I don’t want to say that I played soccer and later ran just because I have an unusually high VO2 max, and so I am not really due any special credit. I also don’t buy that I decided to play soccer the way that I did, and later to train and run competitively, and therefore I should get all the credit.

After cross country my freshman year I had a real choice. I could continue to run and compete in track and field, or I could play soccer. I don’t think the outcome was inevitable. Had some things been moderately different, I might have made a different choice. For example, I had friends on the soccer team. They were good friends, but what if they had been very close friends? What if one of them had made a very strong appeal for me to stick with them? Like many of our choices, this one sat at a fork in the road. One step left or right determines widely divergent destinations.

That we make decisions with real consequences does implicate a being who should take responsibility for those decisions. This doesn’t mean, however, that all options are open. In fact, my decision to run instead of play soccer was based on my relatively low status among soccer players. Other players were quicker and more skilled – likely due to factors beyond our control. Our manipulation of factors that we can control relative to those we can’t gives us the only kind of freedom we can hope for – natural freedom.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The End-of-Season Decline

Rob Shoaf was a little light haired fellow from Trinity High School. He liked to crack jokes. We were friendly. At any given race, though, I felt I should beat him.

Immediately after the cross country season we arranged to drive together to Bowling Green for the Wendy’s 10K Classic. Dave Lawhorn, my teammate at Atherton, rode shotgun. Shoaf took the back seat. He brought a cooler. For the duration of the trip he cracked beers. He offered them up to the front seat. We declined, of course. I gave a knowing look to Dave. We could add another item to the list of reasons I should beat him.

When track or cross country season ended, I would take a week or so easy, and then ramp back up to a regular training schedule. Shoaf took a month off. I made every commitment to prepare for competition. Shoaf seemed to lag into every season, coaxed along by his coaches.

When the starter gun fired, Shoaf and I ran near to each other, as we had during much of the cross country season. He started to fade mid way through the race. I rolled on, as expected. A mile and a half later, Shoaf runs up alongside me. “I had a little cramp,” he says. He proceeds to pick up the pace. I’m unable to respond.

Shoaf and I traded victories. Mine came throughout the regular season, his came at the championship events. I always liked Shoaf, I just resented that he somehow managed to beat me when it counted. And he partied while I was home sleeping.

I have run many seasons since then. Competitive runners with long careers must cycle through phases of work and rest. Continuous improvement never is. Runners who don’t take a break typically break down. After my first season of cross country in high school, I continued on to the regional and national junior Olympics competition. Although I finished respectably, I felt “stale” at those races. When I continued to run in preparation for indoor track, I was finally forced to take a break because of tendonitis in my hip.

Starting from a baseline of general fitness, but little or no specialized training, athletes can quickly build aerobic capacity. We impose demands on the body, and the body adapts. The increasing fitness can be very motivating. Good coaches know that adaptation really occurs on rest days, as the body restores what has been broken down. They will sometimes have to bridle the horses who push themselves day after day.

Work-rest cycles certainly characterize a typical training week. It is harder to conceive why work-rest cycles must also characterize training at longer time-scales. Several weeks of hard work must be followed by an easy week, for example. And several months of hard work must be followed by an easy month. Why? If you go out on the track and do several fast repeats, not only will you feel tired afterwards, but you will likely have incurred muscle damage. It makes sense that you would need to wait long enough for muscle tissue to repair itself before you do another track workout. Are there analogous processes that occur over longer time-scales?

Conventional wisdom among ultrarunners holds that end-of-season breaks allow connective tissue to heal itself. The idea seems to be that while muscle builds quickly (a few days) connective tissue builds more slowly (a few weeks).

Injury, however, is not necessarily the bane of every runner who refuses to take a break. The more insidious problem is the performance plateau, or even decline, that extended seasons often bring. Rapid improvements in performance are very typical for athletes who have a reasonable fitness base, but are coming off of a period of rest or inactivity. As training continues, however, the rate of improvement will decrease. Most athletes who continue to train without a substantial break, even if they are able to continue running, will see a decline in performance. What, I always wondered, is the measurable index in the body that declines along with performance? Does mitochondrial density decrease? Do the raw materials for metabolic enzymes run low?

The pretext for much of my writing has been to establish natural explanations for human performance. I don’t want to invoke mysterious powers of will or spirit to explain how athletes strive and achieve. I don’t even want to use the term “mind” as if it works in a different way from the rest of what constitutes us. It is understandable, then, that I would search for the physical substrate of declines in performance. I can’t ignore, however, the most obvious index of declining performance: decreased motivation. Athletes who have been training hard for an extended time become lackadaisical. They don’t care as much. I recalled feeling “stale” toward the end of my first extended season. I could continue my search for the physical substrate that explains both declining performance and declining motivation. We can all accept that depletion in the body will cause decreased motivation “in the mind.” [This makes treating the body and mind separately unnecessary] But this would ignore the interesting possibility that we don’t need a physical parameter to explain the end-of-season blahs.

Imagine identical twins (Adam and Bob) on treadmills on opposite sides of a large gym. We have them hooked up to measure oxygen uptake, blood sugar levels, glycogen stores, and skeletal muscle activation. We start the treadmills and run them at the same speed. After a warm-up we tell Adam he has 10 minutes to go and Bob he has 30 minutes to go. We then ask each to rate his level of exertion. Adam reports a higher level of exertion than Bob, although all the measured physical parameters were identical. After the conversation, however, Bob’s skeletal muscle activation decreases compared to Adam’s. Although the experimental set-up is imaginary, it reflects the real results of experiments conducted by Tim Noakes that I referred to in an earlier post.

The critical finding is that what we anticipate at the beginning of a workout will affect our perception of effort, which will in turn affect our skeletal muscle activation. “What we anticipate” is, of course, a state of mind. While I certainly hold that states of mind exist naturally (via physical changes in the brain), the significant feature of these brain-states is their perceptual meaning. The meaning of “you have 10 minutes to go” depends on prior experience (like the last time you ran for 10 minutes on a treadmill), and, importantly, that perception will feedback on how your muscles are activated.

I suggest we look for a similar mechanism governing the experience of seasonality. At the beginning of the season we know there is “a long way to go.” We rapidly improve in fitness. Toward the end of a season, we know that “the end is near.” We have slow or stalled improvements to motivate us. Workouts of similar quality may require more effort (as perceived by the athlete). The result may be a slow decline in performance, even without the depletion of the body.

Our findings may suggest ways to manage our activities so that we can get the most out of them. We may find that the phased training employed by athletes and coaches with seasonal breaks, stumbled on by trial and error, is the best solution possible. Rob Shoaf “accidentally” managed his seasons so that he peaked when the stakes were highest. He took lengthy breaks, starting his seasons slowly, and kept a lighthearted and spontaneous approach to racing and training. I guess I’m hoping that a methodical approach can yield even better results.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Nature's Reasons

I was fussing around with the countdown timer on my camera when another hiker happened up to the summit of the Crags. So we exchanged cameras and took each other’s pictures. We ended up talking for some time. I’m always more apt to engage in conversation with a stranger after I’ve been alone for a while. It helped that the man was friendly and inclined to share his knowledge of the area. He briefly mentioned that he was hiking to strengthen himself before another round of cancer treatment. Mr. Tyler (I only remember his last name) was easy to converse with. His mind seemed designed to remember and share tidbits of information that others might find interesting. He pointed out mountain ranges and their names in the distance, discussed the geology of Pike’s Peak, and bent the limp pine to demonstrate the origins of its name. Mr. Tyler is a model cultural actor; he is both a product and a purveyor of culture. He is very civilized. We all are, but Mr. Tyler exemplifies it. It’s tempting to oversimplify and imagine his opposite, a caveman who takes what he wants by force and needs little more than to grunt to get across his message. The caveman acts on instinct. His only reasons are nature’s reasons. If clubbing his competitors works to win a mate, he will club his competitors. Mr. Tyler, by contrast, has his own reasons, seemingly independent of what nature intended.

My voice was raspy. After only 48 hours at close to 10,000 feet my sound-making equipment was dried out. After the hike I broke camp and drove back to Manitou Springs. I decided to hang out there and write so that I could meet Team CRUD for the Thursday evening tempo run. The dry sensation in my mouth caused me to drink a lot of water, so several times now I have had to take a break to find some tree cover and relieve myself. Nature, it turns out, is full of nifty inventions that don’t always work. I know when I need to drink because I get a dry sensation in my mouth. If the dryness is caused by lowered humidity, though, I mistakenly drink more than I need. So if I ignore the dry sensation, and reason for myself that I don’t need to drink, have I defied Nature’s reason?

So many of the comments I get from non-ultrarunners about my training or racing reflect the sense that what I’m doing is crazy. Like “that’s abnormal,” or, “I can’t believe your body can do that,” or, “where do you get the will to keep going?” It doesn’t seem natural to run 50 miles, so I must have my own reasons. We imagine that Nature’s reasons are wired into us. We don’t have to think about them – in fact, we are more likely to act on them if we don’t think about them. We act on instinct. When we are hungry we seek food. When we fast, it seems it is for reasons other than nature’s reasons. We think it is for our reasons. The instinct to feed ourselves can get us into trouble. The built-in mechanisms that cue us to eat were designed for a different world than the one we live in -- a world in which procuring reliable and calorie dense foods was difficult. These foods taste good to us – nature’s way of encouraging us to eat them. Nature didn’t anticipate we’d have an unlimited supply at our disposal, however. So we have to create our own reasons to avoid unwanted calories.

Diets, however, are notoriously difficult to follow. People have a sense that they ought to be able to resist temptation. It is just a matter of will. We don’t want to get fat, so we will just eat what we need. Likewise for all human activity that seems to fall outside of what is natural. We mow our yards, hang decorations around the house, or train to race 100 miles. What better evidence is there that we are deciding selves who can take nature or leave it? The model of our autonomy in which we are freed of nature to act as we will is mistaken and problematic. We fall into relationships, addictions, trends, and all manner of patterns out of which we cannot simply will ourselves. Our mistake is putting ourselves opposite of and apart from nature. We know a lot about the wiring that constitutes our nervous systems. We cannot help but imagine, though, that there is something else, something with the leverage to originate messages, cause them to change tracks, or stop them altogether.

Several comments to this blog reflect the basic sentiment that my training and racing mentality demonstrate just the sort of willpower that I keep trying to deny. I seem disciplined, strong, or tough. I can go beyond where others may have to stop. Implicit in these comments is the view that I exist apart from nature, and can act according to my own reasons. Relying on this view can be self-defeating. I want to be realistic. I want to explore a natural account of our capacities. I want to accept all the pushes and pulls on our behavior, not as something we must fight, but as forces that we must reckon with. The self has no leverage – it can only use nature. We may be able to ascribe some reasons as our own, but they can only be composed of nature’s reasons.

Berg called me many times during the Fall of my senior year in high school. He recruited athletes by paying them attention and getting to know them. As I described some of my running habits I can remember him asking: “it gets to be like brushing your teeth, doesn’t it?” We are creatures of habit. Once a pattern is established, it just doesn’t feel right to change it. We are compelled to brush our teeth before bedtime.

Establishing a daily run is at the heart of becoming a better runner. It seems like a perfect demonstration of the willfulness of the committed athlete. What makes the daily run a habit, though, is that no decision is involved. We run, no matter what. When I do my morning runs, I wake up, and automatically start getting ready. I don’t check myself over to gage my energy level, I don’t sample the weather. There are no factors that must be weighed to make my decision. The decision has already been made. I smile when people ask me what I do about my running when the weather is bad. I think to myself that if my running was contingent on the weather I wouldn’t be a runner.

Other features of my willfulness are like this: simple tricks. Many runners enjoy eating rich foods because they feel they have earned it. I bought a dozen donuts after my 3-day foray to the high country. We know that rewards will reinforce behavior. So I can reward myself for running, and increase the likelihood that I will keep doing it.

I have written recently about the natural desire to stand out. We tend to find things we can do well, at least among a subset of people, and then pursue those things. This drive may look like the will to succeed, but it is a natural mechanism for attracting mates that we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. We are a social species, so we also feel the need to fit in. Many athletes will pursue a sport because of the camaraderie. Again, we do things because of nature, not in spite of it. If it takes joining a group so that you will run, because everyone else is, then that is a trick worth pursuing. You still get credit for having the “will” to run, even though you really just tricked your desire to fit in to convince yourself to do it!

People do seem to resist nature sometimes though, even acting counter to their own interests. Where selfishness would benefit them, and was surely programmed into them by nature, they will instead be generous toward others. I have benefitted, as I’m sure you have, from the thoughtful tutelage of selfless coaches and role models. Mr. Tyler, for example, didn’t give a second thought to interrupting his own hike to share his knowledge with me.

That discussion will have to remain open for another post.