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.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Video for Family

video

I have kept the poststext-only so far, because you get to use your imagination more that way. I'm at the midpoint of my time away from Gavin, Catherine, and Robin, though, so I thought I'd capture a few clips while I was in the high country west of Pike's Peak. Even though I wrote at length about running solo, I won't ever really be alone. This is just to let my family know that I'm thinking about them even when I'm a thousand miles away.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Running Solo

Wednesday, May 27

The snow crunched crisply under my feet as I walked from the tent to the car this morning. I had to give the door a yank to pop its frozen seal. I blew on my fingers to keep them warm enough to set up the camp stove, light it, and get the water on for oatmeal. The sky must have finally cleared, I thought. When I got into the tent last night it was still raining. I watched tiny raindrops pelt the fly over my head. It was early. I lay awake for quite a while before I drifted in and out of sleep.

I would have to get moving after breakfast, just to get warm. I was reminded of mornings on the Appalachian Trail. I’d drape the blanket I used for sleeping around me long enough to cook and eat breakfast. I perfected the quick getaway out of necessity. I guess that was one more good reason to pack the absolute minimum.

Last night I camped off of FS 383 in the Pike National Forest. I wanted to spend some time above 9000 feet. And the Mountain kept staring at me. The weather, which seems to emanate from the Peak, has daily dared me to venture upward. The sun will shine for a couple hours in the morning and then gray clouds build across the mountain. Thunderheads fly from the mountain as if from Zeus himself.

When I took off from Colorado Springs Tuesday morning, it didn’t take long to settle in with my most familiar companion: solitude. I’m not actually anti-social. I can genuinely empathize with most everyone that I spend time with. I like to cook and eat with others. Occasionally there’s even something that I want to say to someone else. Inevitably, though, I feel I can never be quite myself around others. Social emotions exert a strong pull on me. Feelings like sympathy and embarrassment have haunted my development. Most notably, I feel oddly compelled to shun outside influence. What some call stubbornness I consider personal responsibility. If no one else caused me to do something – than I must have caused it myself.

Out for a solo adventure is the closest I come to being myself. Not even bad weather can deter me. I found a site that suited me Tuesday afternoon. It had clearly been used many times before. A wooden bridge spanned the creek that runs between the site and the road. Adjacent to the site is a large boulder – maybe 18 feet high. I set up my tent yesterday evening after my initial foray south and west on the Ring the Peak Trail. I climbed enough to get into snow, and the going was slow. I was soaked by the rain from above and by the sloppy snow from underfoot. I wrote yesterday’s story and waited for the rain to break before I set up the tent.

Because I wanted to eat and get moving today, I walked the first hour. Again I followed the Ring the Peak Trail, this time north and east toward Catamount Reservoir. The trail descends in this direction, and once I was below 9500 feet elevation I was out of the snow and into the sunshine. I shucked my pants and long sleeve shirt, tucked them behind a tree near a prominent boulder, and started to run. In no time I was alongside the reservoir on a service road. “This is money,” I thought. I had wide open running on dirt roads up high and in the sunshine. I wanted to loop around the reservoir. Signs posted showed a trail on the south side that would allow this, but it looked like I’d have to bushwhack for a short stint between two trails.

I got off track. Had I been with anyone, I likely would have conferred and turned around conservatively. On my own though, I tend to forge ahead, look for new routes, and see if there is something unexpected that I might like to find.

All of my biggest adventures have been launched this way. When my family went to Red River Gorge for a New Year’s get-together, we arrived after the long drive shortly before dusk. I needed to stretch out so I said I was going for a quick 15 minute jog. Of course I didn’t take anything, but just started on a little trail that led into the woods. I should have just turned at 7 ½ minutes and come back. Instead I tried to loop around and find a different way back. More than 3 hours later I got back. That was my wife’s first real experience with this penchant of mine, and she was worried sick.

After crossing the Presidential Range in New Hampshire during my AT hike, I looked at the map and decided to take a shorter route to the ridge. I bushwhacked to a gully and followed it upward. No one had a clue where I was. I had made considerable progress up the side of the mountain before the gully became treacherously steep. By the time I was convinced to descend, I couldn’t. The climbs that had been touch and go on the way up were prohibitive going down. I had to go sideways, through gnarly brush. By the time I reached the ridge, I was completely drained, and sobered.

Thankfully my detour this morning was short. I found a new route around the reservoir, and located the clothes I had ditched on the way out. All that was left was to return the way I had come. It’s just not in my nature to make it that easy. I thought I’d try a side trail instead, and circle around the Mennonite camp I had passed during the drive in yesterday. Before long I was climbing a grievous pitch, and realized I was headed up a mountain. I remembered seeing Raspberry Mountain on the map, and that it only had one trail leading to it.

I had most of the water and snacks that I had started with. That’s another advantage of starting right after breakfast. So I decided to see what the top of the mountain looked like. I’m glad I did – it was the highlight of the trip. A metamorphic outcropping at the peak (like a bunch of raspberries?) yielded a true 360 degree view, including my best view yet of Pike’s Peak. The bright sunlight was dazzlingly reflected by ample snow against the blue sky. I’m scheduled to climb the Peak a week from Saturday, but I will be surprised if enough of the snow has melted off.

Most of my training is alone. It makes sense, given that ultrarunners spend a lot of miles running alone during events – even the events with hundreds of participants. Given the large distances and the relatively small numbers of participants, this isn’t too surprising. The difficulty of route finding, however, and the dangers of running alone should encourage runners to stay close together, so why don’t they? Some ultrarunners do run with others, either because they planned it that way or because they happened upon someone who was running about the same pace and who they happened to get along with. On these occasions, however, the runner is generally not performance minded.

I’ll give you three reasons that performance minded runners will run alone for a significant portion of any ultra. The first two are flimsy, the third is tougher to refute. One: if each participant is striving to do the best possible, everyone will have a unique pace and strategy toward that end. Trying to run in groups could only confound that calculation. Two: runners need to focus – on the terrain, on strategy, and on hydration and fueling. Other runners can be a distraction. Three: we compete to sort ourselves out. Competitors will strategize to ensure that groups of runners cannot stay together.

Dave Mackey was somewhere out in front of me, and I had let him go. We were probably about 17 miles into the Mountain Masochist 50+ miler. I had chased Mackey for a while but started to settle into my own pace. At the beginning of the descent toward the reservoir, a couple of guys came cruising past me. I feel like it was Sean Andrish and Paul DeWitt, maybe because they can both roll downhill. I picked up my pace again and ran with them. We were hammering. Climbing out from the reservoir toward the major highway crossing, we caught sight of Mackey. The pace had taken its toll, though, and I had to drop back once more. I didn’t see Mackey again until the finish line. That’s my illustration in support of reason one.

Run for the Hogs 3K was a low-key race with a history of hot competition. It was always on a Thursday night in August in the Butchertown neighborhood of Louisville, KY. One summer I “hopped in it” casually, just like every fast guy around. The blistering pace left me behind, as I played out my typical “smart” race. After the turnaround, and with less than a mile to go, Barry White motors by me, striding long, smooth, and strong. I just fell in behind him; changed my pace. It didn’t kill me. In fact, I found a new, faster groove. I was able to maintain it to the finish, and a spot on the podium. Although maybe this scenario is less likely in an ultra, we can be mistaken about our own capacities. Running with someone else might give us another perspective, and free us from our preconceptions. I don’t think this is likely with experienced runners, but I wanted to include a counterexample to reason one.

In a prior post I described the start of the Stump Jump 50K in Chattanooga. I was running with two other guys around a maze-like set of trails. I followed them off course. Had I been running alone I probably would have been more attuned to following the markings. I would not have been able to depend on others. I could describe many similar situations from other ultras. Running alone forces us to pay attention not only to the course, but to ourselves. We need to eat and drink at regular intervals, and notice any signs that an intervention is needed. Good support for reason two.

On the other hand, I may well not have finished the Hellgate 100K (+) in 2005 if not for the cooperation of the eventual winner, Serge Arbona. Snow and ice covered the course. Many roads were closed, preventing the trail marking crews from accessing early portions of the course. The race starts at midnight, so we were in the dark. The headlight I wore was not up to the task of spotting occasional flagging meant only to clue in the crew that was to hang glow lights. Serge and I traded turns in front, spotting the tree flagging. The person in the back searched alternative routes. When we hit the trail, we yelled to let the other one know. I’ve had similar experiences at other ultras in which route finding was an issue. Zach Miller and I helped each other through Dances with Dirt in Michigan. Sometimes the nature of the challenge, or the shared misery of a tough event, can draw runners together who might otherwise compete. That’s why I will also hedge on reason two. Reason three is more resilient.

At American River in 2006 I ran with the lead group for the first 24 miles. A sharp pain in my knee caused me to walk for a period until the course moved to soft surface. A sizable gap had opened between me and the first two places. Over many miles I closed the gap and then took the lead with about 10 miles to go. When Phil Kochik caught up with me I was indignant. I felt like I belonged in the lead. My attitude was: well if you’re going to make me, I guess I’ll race you to the finish. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t run as fast as Phil over the last two miles. The huge climb out of the canyon in the sun had gotten me overheated, and I just couldn’t keep up. Phil’s move was smart and well played. It’s also pretty unusual. Most races reveal a set of places early on that don’t change much. The biggest drama is typically someone dropping out. That may change the results, but it technically avoids a change in relative place.

The whole premise of competition is to determine a winner, as well as the relative places of everyone else. We want to compare ourselves to others in our demographic. The race is a set of ritualized fights, like rams butting horns. Some go out fast, daring other runners to try and keep up. Others bide time, and make challenges late in the run. Some runners may charge up the hills, challenging others to try and hang. The point, ultimately, is to prevent our running together. The competitive runner wants to know who is first, second, and third. I was indignant at American River because (in my oxygen deprived brain) I had established my place throughout the run, and deserved to win (I realize that this is actually determined at the finish line, BTW). We will strategize to make sure that everyone can’t stay together. Some competitors will routinely exceed their own capacity early (and be forced to slow down or drop out) rather than allow themselves to run together with others who may have similar fitness.

I realize you may just run. You may not think about why you end up alone, and yet you do. Nature has its own reasons. Good ultra runners must be able to handle solitude. We need to know what to expect as the miles and exhaustion make either mutineers or mutes of the voices we so often depend on.

Tuesday, May 26

The sign for Woodland Park said “the city above the clouds.” Today it is in the clouds. I drove up from Colorado Springs to find some backcountry camping for a couple nights on the west side of Pike’s Peak. As I approached Woodland Park it started raining, and soon I found myself in a thick fog. Fortunately I got my GPS working the other day, so it was counting down the miles until my turnoff at Divide. From Divide I tracked south in behind the Mountain. I found a Forest Service road toward The Crags and headed up. Fresh snow must have accumulated in the last couple nights, because the national forest looked like Christmas. Wet heavy snow clung to the branches of Fir and Pinion trees. I passed the Mennonite camp and waved to the sizable groups working outside. Everybody wore a poncho and carried a shovel.

I pulled off, checked my map, and decided this would be a good spot to park. After a few minutes of tussling around inside the car to trade my boxers for running shorts, I got out of the car and into the cold rain. I swapped my light nylon shell for my hooded Mountain Hardwear jacket. My plan was to run out for an hour, taking it very easy, turn and come back. It was a reconnaissance mission. Today is supposed to be a recovery day.

Yesterday I ran 70 minutes at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. After 45 minutes I ran an uphill stretch of road hard for 1 minute with a jog back down 5 times. It felt good to run fast, but it did burn a little by the time I finished numbers 4 and 5. It took a lot longer than usual to catch my breath. I had been feeling good about my acclimatization. The first 45 minutes I felt like the altitude wasn’t a factor. I like the idea of pushing upward for at least a few periods of time while I am here. The snow is constraining my upward runs, though. It has been making a late-season resurgence. The longer days of Spring have apparently set up a storm pattern that has been dropping afternoon rain on the lower elevations and snow above about 10,000 feet. Last night the rain continued into the wee hours. I think that accounts for the fresh snow I am seeing today.

The Forest Service road is very runnable so I followed it out toward the Crags campground. I continued past and found signs for the Ring around the Peak trail so I followed that trail north and west. It was covered with about 3 inches of snow. I took my time and figured time on my feet was good for both recovery and acclimatization. It was odd to do winter running again, with it being almost June, but I quickly lost myself in the day’s adventure. It may have helped that I had to pay constant attention to my footing and the route.

When I was on my way back, and popped back out onto the road, a vivid recollection came to me:

When I was 15 I spent the summer at Camp Piomingo, working as a counselor in training. There were 16 of us, led by Ann Helm. She had narrow sloping shoulders and big hips. Most everybody at camp thought she was funny. I thought of her as a camp refugee – popular at camp but probably not anywhere else. I developed a bad attitude toward many of the other CITs. I had a full year of strong running behind me, and I had determined to continue my training over the summer. The summer of 1983 was the hottest of any Kentucky summer since I have been alive. We lived in typical camp cabins. The best time to run, by far, was early in the morning. Well, fifteen-year-old kids away from home for the summer are not known for their disciplined sleeping habits. I was an exception, partly because I’ve never been swayed by what most people around me are doing.

My desire to turn in early was not well received. In hindsight this had mostly to do with all the ways I separated myself from most of the group. I remember waking up in a total daze one night, hearing footsteps running from the cabin and suppressed laughter. I felt something unusual around my head and in my bunk, but I went back to sleep anyway. In the morning I found that I had been “powdered” with flour after I went to sleep.

I wasn’t alone, though. Scott Davis and I were united in our opposition to the group-ness that so appealed to everyone else. We were the fringe element, plotting together and talking behind others’ backs. Ironically, our non-compliance came in the form of going to sleep early and getting up for a run before breakfast. When time permitted we would do evening workouts as well. We played hard, and we embraced our role, once it was given, to work with the regular counselors and their groups of younger kids. I had always said that I wanted to be a counselor. Every summer growing up I went to camp – and loved it. I loved the physicality, the variety, and the freedom. I know now that the bonding that occurs between staff members brings them back every year – but that was never what attracted me. I never did go back to camp as a counselor.

The culmination of the bonding that had been designed into our program as CITs was a backpacking trip to the Red River Gorge in Eastern Kentucky. We were dropped off. Two vans loaded with 16 of us, Anne Helm, a second older counselor, and our gear were driven the 3 ½ hours east. The vans were not air conditioned. I remember slouching in my seat, the sweat dripping from the tips of my fingers and nose like I was melting. There was no way to fight it, so I just relented. Like a wilting flower all my muscles just went limp for the ride.

We were, fortunately, well acclimatized by that time. I had already experienced severe heat exhaustion earlier in the summer. The CITs were assigned to sweep out the quarry where the final camp bonfires were held. So on a blazing summer afternoon, there we were, sweeping in the middle of a heat sink. The temperature was probably 115 in the quarry. By then Scott and I were well known for vocally opposing irrational activities. Probably because we were expected to resist, and maybe because the rest of the group was struggling with the task, Scott and I stepped it up and swept for all we were worth. We looked like we had jumped in a pool, because Kentucky humidity precludes evaporation of sweat. We worked defiantly.

Later that afternoon I collapsed in my cabin. I had to lay still, with a fan blowing directly on me, through dinnertime and for the rest of the night. Fortunately, I was better by morning. And though I didn’t think about it at the time, heat trained.

When we got out of the van and found ourselves in the woods we actually felt cool. The 90+ degree temperatures were totally manageable. We said goodbye to the vans and hiked with our gear to Princess Arch, where we would find natural shelter and water; would have found, that is, in years when there hasn’t been a record heat wave and drought. We arrived at our home for the next 5 days to find the stream had run dry. We had water for at least a day though, so Scott and I set to exploring in a way befitting athletic boys. We played commando. Scott introduced me to several games in the time that I knew him. They seemed like good sport at the time. Only gradually did I become aware of the sinister motivation behind many of Scott’s activities. Commando was simple enough – one person ran and the other chased. We ran wide open; over, under, around, through all obstacles. Red River Gorge provided plenty of obstacles: rhododendron bushes are the toughest vegetation, that doesn’t have thorns, to fight through. We had plenty of interesting terrain features as well: hills, knobs, arches, natural gateways, and cliffs. When you’re being chased you find you can do things you would not have thought possible. Only later would Scott introduce still more “motivating” elements into this basic war game.

When we returned to camp we found that the water situation had generated much discussion. Because of the extreme heat, we would be out of water after dinner. The counselors had studied the map, and located an area, somewhat lower, where several streams ran together. The route to this alternative site was several miles down a gravel road and then off on another trail. It was suggested that Scott and I run to the site that afternoon with two gallon water jugs each, and if we found water return with the 4 gallons. The whole group could then make the hike the next day. The task seemed entirely befitting our heroic, if troubled, stature, so we readily agreed.

One of the girls [I’ll call her Connie because I can’t remember her name], who I think had an un-requited crush on Scott, was eager to join us. She followed us for a time but couldn’t keep up, so we took the jugs and went on without her. We ran the route – it may have taken an hour – and found the new site and a running stream. We filled the jugs and began the run back, considerably loaded down (two gallons of water weighs 16 pounds). We were in our element, though, and quite up to the task. It didn’t hurt that we looked forward to a hero’s welcome.

When we had almost made it back – we had only to run from the trailhead down to the campsite, Connie was waiting and begged us to let her carry some of the water into camp. We would have none of it. We had done the work and were certainly entitled to all the glory. We ran down the trail so that Connie couldn’t keep up.

We were indeed welcomed back warmly. The potential consequences of 16 young people in the backcountry for 5 days with no water had probably begun to sink in. We brought water and the knowledge that we had an alternative site within a ½ day’s walk. Connie gimped in behind us. We didn’t pay her any mind.

We had large pots for boiling water. We drank the stream water untreated, but we needed the pots for cooking. The counselors used backpacking stoves, and perched the large pots on top of them. While the group scurried around the center of camp fussing over dinner, Scott and I made considerable progress on the huge bag of GORP each of us had prepared before leaving. The salty peanuts, chocolate M&Ms, granola cereal, and raisins made for an addictive mix. The next thing we knew, our attention was riveted by screaming and commotion where the pots had been cooking.

Connie had tripped over a pot of boiling water. The counselors were gently pulling the shoe and sock off her soaked foot. She was burned, and in extreme pain. I felt badly for her. I’m sure it occurred to me that I need not have added to her misfortunes by denying her the chance to have helped out earlier. In retrospect, of course, I am ashamed at my meanness – regardless of her subsequent accident. Maybe Scott felt the same way. Much later, long after we had returned to camp Piomingo, out of the blue one day Scott threw his arms around Connie, dipped her, and planted a huge kiss on her lips. He let her go. She fanned her face with her hand and said, “wow!”

Camp gives us the excuse we need to let go. We let go of parents, of expectations, of civility. Every trip I make away from the daily conveniences we all take for granted reminds me of that state of mind. Even the brief foray of a daily run is a reminder to let go. A multi-day trip on Pike’s Peak is that much better.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Going Higher

Daily posts will be on a brief hiatus for the next three days. I am traveling to the west side of Pike's Peak until Thursday. A little tent will dot that vast and high landscape. And the tiny figure emerging from that dot in the morning to complete small circuits along the mountain terrain will be me.

Until Friday, then...

Monday, May 25, 2009

Shucking Selfiness

I drove to Knoxville by myself for the road half-marathon. The cool, breezy, threatening weather prompted me to fashion a headband out of a black and white checkered buff. I cut a circular section from it so that it was about two inches wide. When I put it on and tucked it above my ears, it curled around itself and looked like a string. I pulled on the Moeben arm sleeves given out at Western States in 2007. My hair curled around the headband. I still had a full beard. I ran out and back along the first mile of the course for a warm-up. A lot of other runners were around, none of whom I knew. I could feel their eyes follow me. I don’t compete in road races anymore. Running this event was part of my preparation to run Way Too Cool. It gave a benchmark to my training.

When the gun finally sounded, a group of young and fit looking runners shot to the front. I followed evenly behind, easing into the gap between the frontrunners and everyone else. Running on the road, and among others, made the quick tempo temptingly easy. I tried to gage my effort by the number of strides I took per breath of air. At three strides per breath, I figured I was running economically, and settled in to the fast pace.

As the front group began to string out, I passed one runner at a time. At three miles out, all the runners in front of me turned around to head back. Now I knew that they had all entered the 10K, run concurrently with the half-marathon. I would run the rest of the way by myself. No more ride, I thought, and no more distraction. I went into my legs, arms, and lungs to settle at the tempo that would carry me the distance. We were entering a river valley, and I noted the undulating rise and fall of the road into and out of the valley. I leaked into the countryside, the farms in the floodplain, the dog running into the road, the police cruiser at a distance in front of me. I played my part, like the baritone in a musical composition. I played at the rhythm that worked to coordinate us all.

The last part of the course was out and back. I was inbound, passing runners who were outbound. I was at about mile 10. As the runners cheered me on, I waved, said hello, or returned the “good job.” I wiped the dried spit from the corners of my mouth. My breathing became unsettled, maintaining my pace more effortful. I slowed somewhat, but maintained a strong pace to the finish.

I was generally shy as a kid, even painfully self-conscious at times. From an early age it was hard for me to just be somewhere, and just do something. I also had to see myself there, doing that. It’s an accursed capacity, self-consciousness, which puts a person at a remove from himself. Like the middle school kids with their backs on the wall at the Valentine’s Day dance. Everyone could have fun, mingle, move on, if only they could get over themselves. We know self-consciousness inhibits us. It keeps us from getting embarrassed, from committing social blunders. Maybe that can be a good thing. It also keeps us from fully engaging a situation. Self-consciousness keeps us from the flow that makes our best performances possible.

Self-consciousness develops into a more insidious adult condition I’m calling selfiness. I can get off the wall now. I can speak in front a group and not get completely muddle-headed. But I carry around a sense of who I am, and I fit the things I do into a story I can tell about myself. I take credit for the things I do well, and I (generally) take the blame for things I do poorly. Philosophers call this agency. There can be little doubt that personal agency is a central feature of accountability in social groups. In order to be rewarded, or punished, for our deeds we must presume the capacity to have chosen. The capacity to choose implies a chooser. There is a captain at the helm: a self.

Selfiness is epidemic. Individuality can be sliced in infinite ways, and we explore all the options. We identify with styles, trends, brands, vocations, religions, hobbies, groups, shows, movies, characters, activities, etc. We identify ourselves. For something as deeply important as self-definition, selfiness is pretty thin. We can change any of these associations, generally with little effort. We can say a few words, trade out for a different wardrobe, or find a new set of acquaintances. We can start a new sport… ah, not so fast.

Sport is another way that people identify themselves. I think sports features so prominently in our culture, though, because it is one of the few things we do that is hard to fake. Sports are set up to put an empirical test on every assertion. Individual endurance sports help to define real limits to human performance. When athletes run faster or farther than we thought possible, we learn something new, and assimilate the knowledge toward expanding our own capacities. We get to know what works, for us, as we strive to improve performance.

We find that selfiness doesn’t work. It is too sheer, too illusory. After several hours of running alone, drained of a ready supply of energy, we can’t just tell ourselves a story about what we are doing. We can’t fall back on the captain we imagine somewhere behind our eyes. When the narrative is stripped away we have an organized, buzzing, mass of tissue that has to propel the oversized orb on top that used to pretend it was calling the shots. What works is to embrace our bicameral nature. We our ourselves, and we aren’t ourselves. We are a coordinated and mechanized set of cells, and we are a lineage. We are a mind, and we are a body.

The selfiness will accumulate like rime on a ship. High level performance will require some means of stripping the selfiness away. My thru-hike on the AT gave me a good overhaul. Long runs in the woods feel like regular maintenance. Marriage and family put a check on selfiness. For some, religious experience helps shed the temptation of the transient. Spiritual enlightenment comes in many forms, but they seem to share a transcendent connection with something bigger than oneself.

It’s hard to imagine that we’d go to all the trouble we do without a reason. All of our reasons (that I can think of ) are ascribed to the self who provides them. This is a central, and to my mind, unresolved paradox. We work in service to a self who we must deny to work at our best.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Kind of Freedom

The front wheel spun right down the middle of the double yellow lines. The rush of air in our ears was the best indication of our speed – and it was exhilarating. We rode while the city slept. Down Frankfort Avenue in Crescent Hill. Over to Grinstead Drive and up to Bardstown Road. Out Bardstown Road toward Beuchel and our accidental bounty: Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.

We had to spend the night at my house. Chip’s parents were strict, and wouldn’t have let us get up at 3 in the morning for a bike ride. We thought we’d just sneak out and ride, but I told my parents what we were doing. Our defiance was intact. Everyone else was sleeping. Even kids who got to stay up late, or kids who spent their evenings looking for trouble, had finally spent themselves.

We felt liberated. A bicycle had always been my golden ticket. It started with my star spangled red white and blue bike with the banana seat and coaster brakes. I rode it the mile to Field Elementary during first grade. By the time I transferred to St. Matthews Elementary in third grade, I moved up to a ten-speed. I paid a dime to ride the city bus, or when the weather was good I rode the 4 miles to school with my friend Mike Grabhorn. The traffic along Frankfort Avenue required that we ride carefully, and in accordance with rules that others understood. We had to comply. We occasionally bailed out to the sidewalk. I collided with an older lady and her groceries one time. I realized the responsibility implied by my speed.

I had friends, and childhood crushes, in other neighborhoods. My bicycle took me across the city to those places. I would ride across Cherokee Park and visit Joel Morrill, a fun kid, younger than me. I liked his sister Whitney, who I got to see when I was there. She laughed at my antics, like when I carried Joel piggy-back while running around the block.

Our midsummer’s night ride was free of any objective, and any need to worry over the daytime rules of the road. When we stopped for doughnuts, joining a sleepy policeman, I was reminded of the other sides of the freedom die. This was the second time I had been there. The first was when my family visited my older brother at Boys Haven, after he had run away from home. I can’t recall that he ever lived with us again after that.

Freedom for me is good lungs. When we played capture the flag at camp Piomingo, the counselor for an opposing team warned his kids not to bother chasing me. When my younger brother wrecked his bike a distance from home, or my friend Mike got in a serious rock fight at the railroad tracks, I ran – long and fast – for help. When my family got home from a long trip together, I went running. I just ran until I got tired. Then I turned around and started running back home.

I would regularly ride with Chip to where our friends lived in the Highlands neighborhood. Tyler had a basketball hoop set up behind his house. His buddy Willy would join us for two-on-two. Willy was a wise-cracking, prep-dressing, trouble-causing neighborhood prankster. To this day his compelling personality keeps old childhood friends in touch. At the time, though, I had little patience for his shenanigans. He had an especially annoying habit of getting goofy when the game wasn’t going his way.

I don’t remember what started it, but one time Willy hit my bike with a big stick. It was lying next to the basketball court. We had probably gotten into an argument – I remember often getting angry with him if he was on my team and I thought he wasn’t trying hard enough. He hauled off and hit my bike – the real and symbolic measure of my freedom. I could feel the blood rush to my face and limbs. I ran straight for Willy, yelling “my bike!” He bolted. He ran like he was being chased by a rabid junkyard dog. Down the alley, over fences, and across the yards he had grown up around. He tapped all his athleticism. He needed to. Eventually the pursuit bled off some of my heat. I circled back to assess the damage to my bike.

As I approached the guys I saw a nickel in the alley and picked it up. I tossed it up in the air. My limbs, saturated with blood and adrenaline, were still ready for a fight. I could scarcely feel the weight of the nickel. I said I was glad I hadn’t caught Willy. Tyler still likes to tell that story. My bike was fine.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Altitude and Western States

The participant’s guide published for The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run is misleading, if not downright deceptive, with respect to problems caused by altitude.

The trail description on page 2 sounds appropriately ominous: “…the trail ascends from the valley floor (elevation 6,200 feet) to Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4 miles… runners travel West, climbing another 15,540 feet and descending 22,970 feet…” OK. That sounds menacing.

Skip ahead in the guide to John Medinger’s article “Training for the Western States 100.” On page 27 there is a section on altitude problems and snow. It begins, “Even though the first 30 miles of Western States average about 7500 feet of elevation, few runners have significant problems with the altitude at Western States.” The paragraph ends, “For most participants, the worst thing that will happen is that the altitude will slow you down a little.”

I’m convinced otherwise. If you haven’t acclimatized, your initial climb to near 9,000 feet and the effort over first 30 miles will put you in a hole that will very likely cause a dramatic drop in performance in comparison with other, lower elevation, 100 mile races.

My assertion is self-serving, I suppose. I have started Western States twice, in 2005 and 2007. Both times I was reduced to a shadow of my former self. In both cases I felt defeated by the time I reached the Miller’s Defeat aid station at mile 34. I thought I had prepared. Something accounts for my poor performances, though. The central pretext of all of my writing so far has been that on race day there really shouldn’t be, and likely can’t be, work for “me” to do. Any failure is a failure of preparation. If what I say here is true, I don’t have to take the blame for my problems at WS in ’05 and ’07. The two necessary conditions hold: I wasn’t acclimatized, and couldn’t have reasonably been expected to know that acclimatization was necessary. The first condition is non-controversial. The second is substantiated, I’m claiming, because the materials published for Western States participants (which are thorough by any standard) say, implicitly, that acclimatization is likely not necessary.

Now I know. I won’t be able to whine about the altitude after this year’s race, don’t worry. It dawned on me slowly, as I reluctantly reflected on my past two runs at WS, as well as my other ultras. Although several variables are different for States, including altitude, humidity, temperature, prestige, and distance from home, only altitude can account for the disparity between my performances there as compared to elsewhere.

So I formed the hypothesis that lack of acclimatization to altitude caused the disparity. Now I’m doing the experiment. For new readers, I’m now in Colorado Springs, at 6400 feet. I’ll be running Western States in 5 weeks. The sample size (1) is small, and I won’t likely publish my results in a prominent journal. You are privy to my results, however, and they are already starting to come in.

Saturday, May 23, 2009, 5pm. Subject completely whooped.

Following an e-mail contact with former Montrail Teammate Paul DeWitt, I met up with Team CRUD for a jaunt partway up the side of Pike’s Peak this morning. I was assigned to run with Scott Jaime, who is training to run the Hardrock 100. Scott finished close behind me at both the Way too Cool 50K and the Miwok 100K earlier this year. In addition to being well-matched, Scott is also a very companionable running partner.

During my first 9 days in Colorado Springs I had run only as high as about 7500 feet elevation. Today we climbed to over 10,000 feet elevation. We started from Manitou Springs. The most substantial climb was along a water utility road. We started at a little over 7000 feet and climbed up to about 8500 feet. Although we walked all the steep pitches, this climb hurt. I gasped for breath. My heart pounded like an angry fist against the inside of my rib cage. I have climbed similar pitches, running all the way, at lower elevations. This was a far different experience. Scott was unfazed. He lives in Denver, and has come to Colorado Springs twice a week to train with Paul for some time now.

Side note: we were out for about 6 hours. The weather was cool and rainy. We topped out above Barr Camp on the Elk Park Trail, when we ran into prohibitive snow accumulation.

When I made it back to the house, and got a meal, I had to lay down for a spell. The run exhausted me. Similar runs, at lower elevation, would not have put the same burden on me. Of course I’m happy about it. It means I’ll have to respond – acclimatize – to the new demand. It also means that my plan to prepare for the elevation at WS is underway. Finally, it is the first empirical evidence that acclimatization is necessary for a strong performance at The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Can Do

Dan Challener told us to run 20 minutes and meet him at the track. The Bruin stadium was a 10 minute jog from campus, so we looped through the affluent neighborhoods on the hill just north of downtown Providence. We knew the workout would be different. We were left wondering what we were in for.

Head coach Bob Rothenberg (Berg) was there, along with Dan. He told us we would run the measured two mile course on the road finishing at the stadium, without pausing we were to run a mile hard on the track. He told me, along with some teammates including our captain, Fergal Mullen, to run the two miles at 5:40 per mile and the mile at 4:40. We were to repeat this twice more, without pausing in between.

I told our coaches that I wasn’t sure we could do that. Berg looked at the ground and gave me a well-worn shake of the head. Dan stared at me, his agitation visible. I knew what they wanted, and Fergal was quick to give it to them. “Ah, we can do that! Come on, guys, let’s be positive!”

We hadn’t done a workout like that before. We’d certainly done mile repeats, though, and a 4:40 was a tough effort. We’d also done plenty of tempo runs, and 5:40 pace was right at threshold. We were getting pretty fit, but I was apprehensive. The guys were starting to bounce, stretch, or do strides. They may actually have thought that believing they could do it was enough. Or maybe they thought that whatever coach said they could do, they could do. Or maybe they just didn’t think deeply about it. Most likely, I suppose, they had learned that expressing a “can do” attitude worked in getting along with other people. I took the task at face value, and tried to get my head around it. It made my heart beat harder and my hands turn clammy.

I wanted to nail that tempo pace, and maximize my running economy. It would devastate our chances to finish if we got carried away from the beginning. When we started we stayed bunched together. When I stuck behind one of the guys I could lower my arm just a bit so that it would swing just under his. My gait was low and quiet. We hummed through the splits right on pace. When we transitioned to the track I kept in mind that the acceleration wouldn’t feel so abrupt coming off the 5:40 pace. Starting an interval from a standstill gives the body a jolt that takes a little while to accommodate. Shifting gears, as we were in this workout, actually made the first mile interval feel comparatively easy.

We were doing the work, though, and it started to show on the second two miles on the road. The guys were having some trouble keeping pace. I clocked off the splits like a metronome, barely deviating even for the slight inclines. By the time we were back on the track the guys were starting to string out behind me. I nailed the second one-mile interval on the track. I transitioned slowly to try and let the other guys catch up for the final two miles on the road. They were coming apart. I went on to complete the workout as prescribed.

Athletes are compelling because they “can do.” They can do things we find difficult to imagine. They respond to competition by striving to do even better. Great athletes, we feel, have the will to win. They emerge victorious, it seems, no matter what. It’s in their bearing. We want and expect our athletes to lower their heads and shake off any challenge. We mistakenly think that it is this self-confident spirit that propels the athlete forward. When in the course of competition he begins to tire, we think, his will to win kicks in and carries him over the threshold.

People may reward such optimism, but nature doesn’t care. I’m reminded of an encounter I had during a run from Damascus, VA. I started south on the Appalachian Trail. About 4 miles out I passed a hiker. He wore a full sized pack. He was also headed south from Damascus. He said he was thirsty, and asked if I had water to spare. I was carrying a hydration pack with enough water for my run. I told him so, but I said I would turn after another 6 miles and when I passed him again, I would give him what I had left.

When I passed the hiker on my way back, I asked him how he was doing. He said he was doing great. After our encounter he had begun to pray to God for water. And God answered his prayer. He sent a group of hikers along the side trail from Back Bone Rock. And they had water for him.

I recommended to him that he make provisions to collect his own water.

I suppose great athletes do carry themselves with a certain self-confidence. It isn’t the confidence which causes them to do well, though. There just isn’t the room inside us for a wild-eyed spiritual stoker. It is the well-advised application of effort over long periods of time, and the built-in wisdom that develops from that, fueling great athletes. That kind of self-knowledge runs deep. Virtuoso performance of any kind is too big to fit inside a person’s head. It extends through the body and out into space and back through time to encompass all the experience that contributed to one’s capacity to do this thing well.

Great athletic performances compel our admiration and respect because they embody the culmination of expansive, and real, effort. Athletes can do. We can talk about the will to win as long as this is what we mean. If we imagine strength of will to be a non-corporeal essence that some people just happen to have, we distance ourselves from what is possible.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Potential

I paced the hall, looking at my watch. My mother was upstairs. “Let’s go!” I yelled again. We finally got going on the drive from the Crescent Hill neighborhood in Louisville, where I had spent all my years, to Atherton High School in the Highlands. I was going to my first cross country practice. School would start in a couple weeks. At least my mother didn’t dawdle with the driving. She loved her new RX-7. The rotary engine was so smooth. We arrived at exactly 9:00 am in the school’s parking lot. I didn’t know the other kids, but one caught my eye. He rode up on a BMX-style bicycle and wore a white bicycle cap. He was little, but had some attitude. A minute later, a truck drove up with another, older kid. Coach Worful walked over to the truck, and then it turned and drove away.

Coach called us over to the sidewalk sternly. He said David and I had been a minute late. Since we were underclassmen, he would give us this one break. Jeff had also been late, but was an upperclassman, so he was sent home. I said by my watch I had actually gotten there right on time. He said we go by his watch.

We did some stretches for a warm-up, and then coach explained the 5 mile loop we were to run. We started off together. Not all of us knew the neighborhood. It was about 5 miles from my house to the school. I had some friends who lived in the Highlands. I rode my bike back and forth occasionally, but still needed to get my bearings.

About halfway through the run, as we were starting back toward the school, Dave picked up the pace noticeably. He and I had ended up at the front, and the rest of the group was strung out behind us. He bounced along, his heels popping up to his shorts with every stride. I picked it up along with him. It took some effort, but it felt good. It reminded me of the pace lines we learned doing rides with the Youth Bikers of Louisville (YBOL). Joe Ward, an experienced cyclist, sponsored the group, and I participated during middle school. We did several long two-day trips. A group of us would fall into line and take turns leading so that the rest of us could draft. The leader would always push to either keep or pick-up the pace. It felt like we were flying. It was a great way to knock off a bunch of miles in a hurry.

Similarly I followed Dave. I stayed on him, even as the pace started to burn my lungs and legs. We had completely broken away from the rest of the group. I wasn’t sure of the last turns, so I wanted to stay close. When we made the last turn on to Emerson, I relented a let Dave get a few steps ahead of me. This was my first run, ever, aside from some short jogs with a neighbor around the Crescent Hill reservoir. We strode toward the school. David looked back, then signaled me to close the gap. He said we’d finish together. Coach was waiting with the clipboard at the front of the school. He wrote in his book, but he didn’t let on what he was thinking. Neither did Dave. I would find out later.

David was the second man on the team, behind Jeff. He was a sophomore, and had started running in middle school. He was taken aback by this tall lanky new kid, who couldn’t be shaken during a hard run. He wanted us to finish together because he was completely whipped and didn’t want to risk that I would pass him. I found that out much later, after David and I became best friends. Beginning with that first practice, we ran together almost every day for the next four years. David and I still run together, though much less frequently. He has paced me at two of my 100 mile runs: Mohican and Vermont. He will join me for the final 38 miles of Western States this year.

Though coach Worful didn’t let on with me, he did have a talk with my parents. I found out years later, after high school, that Coach had arranged a secret meeting with my parents at a restaurant near the school. He wanted them to know about my potential.

What do we mean by potential? I ran faster than the other kids. But that was true right off the bat, without training. Potential is about what can happen given a methodical intervention. If we cared about improvement, the greatest potential would be with our slowest athletes, because they have the most room to improve. I started out fit and active, so my improvement was gradual. While improvement certainly has value, we care more about kids’ ability to stand out in a chosen endeavor. When Coach alerted my parents to my potential, he meant my potential to stand out among high school runners in Kentucky and beyond.

It is uncontroversial to say that there are wide variations between individual people. Idiosyncratic differences between people allow us to be individuals, and to develop our own talents. Our parents were constantly trying to show each of us how we had something we were good at, whether it was music, art, or science. There are indexes of human performance, though, that are general enough you’d think everyone would wish to “have more” of it. Take intelligence, for example. It’s a good thing for everyone to be able think about and remember things, right, so why should it be that some have more intelligence than others? The capacity to develop aerobic fitness seems that way to me as well. Wouldn’t it be nice for everyone to have more of it? You should feel ripped off if you aren’t able to develop your capacity to use oxygen just about as quickly as everybody else. All of our ancestors, at one time or another must have been tested in just such a capacity. It would have benefitted anyone to be able to work more quickly to find something of value or to avoid danger.

For all our uniqueness, we have strikingly similar morphologies. Surgeons do not have to wait until they have cut into a patient to know what organs they will find in which positions, or how each does its job. They learned by studying a cadaver. Any cadaver. Coaches do not have to figure out the unique physiology of every athlete. Runners respond to training in predictable ways.

Yet, some runners have potential to stand out; potential that compels its own fulfillment. I can tell you that I didn’t wait for my mother to take me to any more practices that summer. I rode my bike.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Low Flow

The race director abruptly yelled “go!” Jamie Dial bolted out of the school parking lot and made the turn toward the trail. He was quickly out of sight. Three of us formed a chase group, still running very fast for the start of a trail 50K. Since this was the first time I had set foot on the Stump Jump course, I was glad to have two local runners lead the way over the winding trail system on Signal Mountain in Chattanooga. After several miles we realized that we hadn’t seen any course markings for a while, and there were no runners behind us. Reluctantly, but with no choice, we turned around and doubled-back.

At first my attention was focused on finding trail markings, or at least spotting a runner. As it became clear that we had gone about a mile out of our way, and so would not only give the rest of the field a two mile head start, but would also run a race that was two miles longer than everyone else, I felt my already rapidly moving blood start to boil. We stumbled back on course at the back of the field. Instead of slowing to a sensible pace and methodically passing runners, I began to run like a man possessed. I picked up the pace and had to focus intently on the footing as I led our threesome past the other runners. When the trail descended steeply on narrow single-track that dropped off precipitously on one side, I ran faster, yielding completely to gravity. My feet found all the right places to step as we plunged down and around other runners. There was no time to think, let alone consider each foot placement. I was in the zone.

Eventually I was alone, with only a handful of runners still in front of me. The course, and the temperature, was climbing. I automatically filled my bottle at each aid station, and slowed on each climb. I relented to the circumstances that had gotten me here, and gave up the notion that I could control the outcome of the race. The effort to get me 20 miles into the race had stripped my ego away. There was no self left at the helm. Just the rest of me, moving forward unthinkingly. I was surprised to catch and pass Jamie. It snapped me out of autopilot. I had been peeved that he went out so hard. He knew the course well. Had I been able to go with him from the start, I would not have gotten off course. That he paid the bigger price for this decision was come consolation, though I didn’t really savor it. There was too much work left.

I was also surprised when I heard at an aid station that only 1 runner was ahead of me. Glenn Redpath had come in from New York to run the race. I was already running what I could run, though, so I didn’t pick it up, and I was again surprised to catch up with him. When crossed the road at an aid station before the last ascent, I asked for ice. I was beginning to feel overheated. They didn’t have any. As we climbed, I slowed considerably. Glenn pulled away. Halfway up the climb I passed him. He was walking. When I topped the hill I was able to pick up the pace again and finish uncontested.

I have had similar experiences in many, many other ultras. I like to think ahead and plan. When I race, I like to imagine that I am in control of the outcome. Short races, or the rare race in which everyone goes right, can fool me into thinking that I was right. Much more often, things don’t work out as planned. Occasionally some minor adjustments can be made and I can get back on track. A significant portion of my races, though, completely disabuse me of the pretense that I can call the shots at all. I am forced, either by circumstances that don’t fit my preconceptions, or by utter exhaustion, to submit completely. I may pity myself briefly at my bad fortune, but ultimately all I can do is move forward, and let things unfold as they will. The best phrase I can think of to describe this state of mind is low flow.

You probably knew what I meant when I said that I was in the zone early in the 50K. Athletes will experience this when their attention is completely focused on a demanding task. The sensation, ironically, is of near effortless, automatic execution of the skill. Although there is an expanded sense of having time to respond immediately, overall time passes quickly. Psychologists have referred to this phenomenon as flow. It can be one of the greatest rewards of training, or extensive practice with any endeavor. Mathematicians, musicians, visual artists, can experience flow when fully engaged by a challenge for which they are prepared.

The descriptions of flow don’t cover the range of experiences induced by running ultras. We’re lucky to have a small fraction of an ultra “pass quickly” as we are fully engaged in a challenge that we readily rise to meet; running along a technical ridgeline for a few hundred meters, for example. I’d like to introduce the term high flow to describe this kind of experience. We know these experiences are transient over the course of a 30 to 100 mile race. At some point we are very likely to feel, as I described above, that we really aren’t up to the task at all. The task is too big or has deviated too much from that which we expected. We let it go. We shed ourselves of the illusion that we can control the situation any longer. But we keep running. It can seem almost miraculous. We let go of the thinking part of our striving, yet our legs are still moving. I want to call this low flow.

I have come to think that capacity for low flow determines success in ultras. As with high flow, however, low flow isn’t just a state of mind. We still have to do the work. Flow, of both kinds, is possible because of extensive training. We cannot escape the physical demands of running, but we can immerse ourselves in them.

This morning I climbed the Columbine Trail in North Cheyenne Canyon 3 times. Each climb lasted 30 minutes and spanned 1000 feet. After my final return trip, I sat in the North Cheyenne Canyon Creek. The cold rush of water bit into my body. I watched a bird forage for nesting materials on the opposite bank.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Calling Massanutten Runners

What machine could be making that sound? The thought woke me at 3:15 am this morning. I would have been waking up if I had been in Virginia, but now I really wanted to be sleeping. A distinct and rapid staccato clicking rattled around in my room. I had put the futon on the floor so I could pull a chair up to the large counter that runs the length of the room on one side. An older computer sits on the counter, along with many of the odds and ends that I packed for my month long training camp (and writing retreat). I had to wake up enough to think through the devices (cell phone, computer, mp3, etc.) that might create a noise and then rule them out as the source of the sound that I was hearing.

Although I ran in cold and wind for my 20 mile run on Sunday, the weather has quickly shifted to the warm and sunny climate I expected. So I had opened my window to feel the cool night air. Carried with the air, I finally reasoned, was the clicking of some desert insect. Back home I’ve had to go on the hunt for a stray cricket that found its way to some out-of-the-way corner. It waits until all is quiet and dark and then cracks the night wide open with its shrieking call.

This insect was outside, though, and it’s clicking much more mechanical sounding than a cricket’s call. I wasn’t going to fight it. The outside air was too pleasant to close the window, and the sound was so constant and repetitive that I could imagine wading into it, like it was the short steep ripples disturbing an otherwise placid lake. When I woke back up sometime later, dreaming of escorting my wandering daughter back to her bed, the sound was gone.

I spoke with Bradley Mongold before I went to bed. He explained his decision to withdraw from the Massanutten 100, held last Saturday. He had dedicated enormous resources preparing to win the race. The aggregation of several adverse circumstances in the two weeks prior to the race, culminating in an upper respiratory illness, tipped the scale against starting the run. I had hoped to continue the discussion about the nature of his striving in light of the results of his run at Massunutten. Because of the intensity of Bradley’s pre-race efforts, his legitimate bid to win the race, and our friendship, I was particularly interested in his story.

Adam Casseday placed 5th overall and Robin Meagher placed 3rd woman. These outstanding runs no doubt have compelling stories behind them. The Massanutten is not for the faint of heart on any year – because of the extremely rocky and mountainous terrain. This year was added a spicy variety of weather conditions, from hot and humid at the start to dangerous thunderstorms in the afternoon.

This is a call to all Massanutten runners for your story. I am interested to hear all stories of extreme striving. This platform has a particular bent, though, which may need some explaining before you offer your response. I have expressed skepticism that you have the sort of powers we are tempted to ascribe to you. You have run 100 miles, in difficult circumstances. You have endured extreme discomfort, if not pain and injury. We are tempted to marvel at the sheer power of your will. “Sheer” is an appropriate modifier for this power because it seems not only unaffected by such brute forces as gravity, but it is at the ready to resist the earthly forces that cause everyone else to relax at home.

I do admire you, and your efforts. I just think that all the things you are able to do on race day are explainable. We reap what we sow, so to speak. Karl Meltzer gave himself the best odds to win the race in his pre-race blog post. He knew his fitness to complete the event because of his experience in training and his prior runs at Massanutten. Karl did win the race in a remarkable time given the conditions. The outcome is explainable. I suggested in an earlier post (The Bradley Running Machine) that if Bradley did well in the race his effort would be explainable in terms of his preparation. He made many of the decisions that would come up during the race in advance. That, I said, was his willfulness, in contrast to the image of a levitating essence inside Bradley that could “will” him forward despite his (predictable) bodily difficulties.

All this is not to suggest that we can know the outcome in advance. We have to actually run the race. It is not just a contrived goal in service to all the preparation. We have to actually deal with race-day variables, all of which cannot be known in advance. Prepare for the unexpected.

Bradley isn’t ready to discard his “benign user illusion.” This is the phrase coined by philosopher Daniel Dennett to describe the deciding self we all imagine at the helm of our bodily ship. Bradley wants you to know that he tends to all the details of fueling, hydration, and decision-making in advance so that he is free to focus on what needs attention during the race. My response is: if he did his job right, no work is left to be done.

For Massanutten runners, I would like to offer a parable. I am interested in your interpretation of this story as it applies to your efforts. It happens to be true, as witnessed by Bradley while hunting stone sheep in British Columbia:

Through the binoculars, I saw a lone caribou bull on the run. This unusual behavior caught my attention, and I searched for an explanation. I soon found it. Trailing behind, at an unhurried pace, was a black wolf, followed closely by a gray wolf. The open landscape of the plateau in front of me was dotted by small lakes, about 100 meters across. The wolves didn’t close, but neither did they lose ground. Eventually the caribou slowed as it approached a lake. The wolves gained ground. The caribou jumped into the lake and swam toward the middle. The wolves stopped at the lake’s edge.

The caribou exerted much effort swimming. When it reached halfway, the gray wolf trotted around to the other side of the lake, where the caribou was headed. The black wolf lay down. The caribou approached the far edge of the lake, without seeing the gray wolf, which had also lain down. Not until the caribou was nearly climbing out of the water did the gray wolf stand. The caribou lunged back around into the lake and swam for the near shore where it had first jumped in. Many minutes later, when it had reached the near shore, the black wolf finally rose from its near-slumber. The caribou turned once more. It slowed, fighting to keep its rack above water, and to creep once again to the far shore. The black wolf trotted to the far side to join the gray wolf, and to wait for the caribou, already nearly dead from exhaustion.

The caribou saw the wolves, but could not fight. The wolves closed on the caribou, and killed it. The wolves then trotted off, leaving the carcass of the caribou whole by the side of the lake.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The downsides of tapering

“The hay is in the barn” coach Worful always said toward the end of the season. The morning runs didn’t feel that early any more. The speed work didn’t leave us limping around after the ride home anymore. The long Sunday runs didn’t require a full day reclined on the couch snacking and hydrating anymore. And now he wants us to take it easy? Early in the season, when I was chasing Jeff Birt up the steep hill behind the school in the middle of a mile interval, I focused desperately on the back of his shirt. My legs were becoming leaden with lactic acid while the air ripped through my respiratory tract. Coach just stood at the finish with his stopwatch. He certainly didn’t exhort us to “take it easy.” A part of me wanted to stop. The grass looks soft, a part of my mind said to me, just lie down. You could have a cramp, it suggested.

The Highland Fling was a cross country race put on by coach Worful in the middle of the season. It was a two-person relay for varsity runners, and a 3K race for the junior varsity. My freshman year I ran several JV races, the Highland Fling included. We ran at Joe Creason Park in Louisville. The steep climb along Trevilian road toward the zoo caused everyone to labor mightily. That day was particularly bad for me. I felt exhausted from early on. My shoulders and arms began to feel almost immobilized. As we returned from a turnaround at the flagpole, we descended a short steep hill adjacent to Beargrass Creek. The inner voice rudely suggested that a fall here would be completely understandable. A runner could easily spend several long moments recovering after such a fall. Fortunately my feet knew well enough how to stay under me. I finished like I was running through a foot of honey. Where was the break then?

“No rest for the weary” is one of my favored sayings. Late in the season, when rest is well-advised, many runners resist it, because they no longer feel weary. They have made the adjustment to heavy training. Additionally, the goal is in sight. Anticipation is high, and it is much easier to motivate for a long or hard workout. Yet, as many coaches have said, “the hay is in the barn.” It is conventional wisdom that the last few workouts of the season can’t help get you fitter, but they can cause you to be fatigued, and so hurt your performance. The solution most often embraced by coaches, and accepted by athletes, is to reduce the length and intensity of workouts in the 5-20 days before the “big race.” In other words: to taper.

And why not? Is there any way a hard workout on Tuesday or Wednesday could help a runner to compete better on Saturday?

Here is some of my running lore that isn’t so pleasant to recollect. Cross country season my junior year in high school I stacked up well compared to my competition. One Kentucky runner finished ahead of me at the first meet of the season. After that none did. Until, that is, the state meet. The one race that really mattered. The meet toward which all our energies had been applied. The race for which I had tapered. I came in 21st. The year before that I came in 24th. In both cases I did much worse, relative to the other runners, than I had previously in the season. Just before and during the races I didn’t feel well. Like I was coming down with something.

When big events approach, I become anxious. It occupies my thoughts. I notice little pains, or a sore throat, and worry that it will develop into a problem for me. I worry that I’m worrying too much. What I need to get my world back in order is a good hard run, but I’m supposed to be tapering! (the hay is in the barn). I don’t think of running as just a mental health modulator, though. The mind-body dynamics of a taper can be hard to decipher.

It may help to anchor our thoughts around two key elements of the taper. First, we’re running less. We’re burning fewer calories. Second, we know that a big event is eminent. I don’t mean “know” in some mysterious thinking way – but in a visceral bodily way. We’re alert and poised, our nervous system on standby, all mediated by very real neurotransmitters coursing through our cells.

I can get keyed up for a hard workout that is coming up. Heck, I can get keyed up by someone looking at me wrong. In the case of a workout – I run it. All the “winding up” beforehand comes unwound with the effort. I am always at my most relaxed after a good hard run. The intense sessions follow on top of each other, so that a cycle of build-up and let-down is established. During the season it is hard to keep up with the calorie expenditure. What little fat we accumulate in the off season is quickly burned away. The body is always hungry for carbohydrates, and quick to stockpile them when it can. The system is in a state of continual stress.

The taper is a let-down. We continue to eat similar amounts, but we burn fewer calories. Extra calories are stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. The fatiguing stress of long or hard workouts is diminished, and the body may change into repair mode. We may feel more lethargic, and sensitive to cues about injury or illness that had been “waiting in the wings.” With the resources freed up by a taper the body may begin to respond to these lingering problems.

And we do think differently as the season comes to a close. We don’t get the satisfaction of watching our times improve over a given distance, like we did early in the season. The big race isn’t somewhere in the distant future, many weeks out. It is upon us. We shift gears; where we had felt excitement at our own unrealized potential, we know feel threatened by the possibility that all will be lost.
Indeed we may lose. We may fail, as I did at the state meet, to live up to our own expectation. We may get sick.

We still taper, though. To some degree we have to. Training tires us out, and we need to be rested to perform well. We work out a strategy that meets the necessity of rest with the downsides of tapering somewhere in the middle. For me, I like to rest two weeks out, and then start to ramp back up the week before the event. Some avoid tapering too much – running enough to sleep well at night.

What works for you?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Calvin Hobbs

Calvin is contentedly munching the weeds just outside the fence I’m facing. He’s a dark chestnut colored 20-year-old thoroughbred. Nancy Hobbs let him out of the barn. A door slams from across the street, causing his head to jerk quickly upward. After a few moments of vigilance he lowers his head to eat again. I’m enjoying the perspective from the upper deck of Nancy’s house. She graciously rented a room to me for this month. The full weight of my body presses comfortably into my chair. I’ve had my run up the mountain, shower, and plenty of breakfast. I have the rest of the day to rest and reflect.

The incline club meets every Sunday morning. Nancy suggested that I join the group for today’s run. All fitness levels are represented, she said. Among the people who show up are the likes of Paul DeWitt, Anton Krupicka, and Matt Carpenter. Wow, those guys are all here? I liked the idea of getting together with other folks who are training. Although I train alone most of the time, running with people adds welcome variation to my routine. I’ve known Paul for some time now, but I’ve never met Tony or Matt, both of whom have well established reputations among ultra runners. I looked forward to the possibility that we would all show up this morning and pass the run chatting.

Nippert caught wind of the plan and vehemently vetoed it. “You don’t need to get into any pissing contests,” he spouted. “Those guys would just love to get you up at the top of the mountain.” I protested mildly, but eventually conceded. I’ll stay close to the barn, for now. I cannot deny my own nature. At least part of the impetus to train and race is to gain status. Our games are analogous to the battles for dominance common to all our animal brethren. We can give other reasons for running when asked, of course. We may even mean it when we say we love to feel the wind on our faces or the burn in our legs, or that we enjoy the companionship of others who have settled on the same pursuit. But can we really make the case that running ultras is reasonable? Joining a group of birdwatchers would make a lot more sense.

Some will say that they run to test their own limits. Fair enough, but of what use is that information? I never thought of myself as being competitive. I felt no animosity toward other runners. I didn’t focus my thoughts around beating people. I didn’t consciously think about my status as a runner. Before I ran, though, I played soccer. When I started high school I ran cross country. Track and soccer were both in the spring though, so I had to choose. Several of my friends were soccer players, and many of them were better players than me. There were no runners my age better than me. I chose to run track. We want to see how we stack up against other guys. We won’t necessarily quit those activities in which we aren’t the best, but we do want to see where we stand.

Calvin is always on the lookout for a challenge. His handlers must be mindful to keep him out of harm’s way. Even on the racetrack, his passions need tempering. He wants to either be out front or to know that he cannot be out front. For that information, he has to compete.

So for now, I run my workouts alone. This morning I started in Red Rock Canyon, one of the many beautiful open spaces at the base of Pikes Peak. I climbed for 65 minutes and 2000’, and then came back down. This is my fifth day at altitude. My body has certainly responded to the change. The conventional wisdom is that performance will deteriorate for the first five days at altitude as blood plasma volume drops. Acclimatization takes 4-6 weeks and includes several changes, one of which is a higher concentration of red blood cells. The change is demanded by the decreased partial pressure of oxygen at higher elevations.

Athletes who train at higher elevations may have an advantage over those who don’t, even when the race is at a lower elevation. I will explore the ethical implications of this disparity in future posts. The weeks I am spending at elevation, though, are to prepare me for the Western States 100. This is a race that climbs to 9000’ in the first 10 miles. I have tried to run it twice before, and in both cases have been reduced to a shadow of my former (low altitude?) self. So this is an experiment. I’ll keep you posted.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Our Burden to Bear

The gouge cut into the red soil of the Santa Fe Trail. It meandered back and forth organically, though never far from the center of the trail. It continued as far ahead as I could see. I was clipping along on my 20 mile run for today. Nippert sent me here because it’s flat. My tendons already feel the stretching of running on the gravelly canyons at the base of the mountain. By contrast this section of the Santa Fe Trail is well compacted. My legs seemed to embrace the change. With the strong wind at my back I made good time, a little better than 7 minutes per mile. The altitude didn’t seem like a factor. It takes the added effort of climbing to really notice.

Yesterday afternoon, though, I felt exhausted. I hadn’t slept well the night before. I tossed and turned. It reminded me of the several nights before Western States in ’07. I was in a comfortable bed in a quiet house but just couldn’t sleep. Of course I had just arrived a couple days before, and the house was at about the same altitude as I am here. I was unaware of any direct affects of the change in elevation, though. It was like when I opened a canister of recovery drink before setting out on the run this morning. The can wouldn’t sit flat on the counter. The top was puffed out as well. When I tore open the seal it whooshed with the release of pressure. It would not have done that in Virginia. I wondered, at first, if something inside had gone bad. That didn’t seem possible for a powder, though. Then I realized that I had brought the canister from 2200’ to 6200’. The air pressure outside had decreased but the pressure inside was still the same as that at the lower elevation where it was sealed.

Similarly, my body has to make specific adjustments to the decreased pressure. Gases that have dissolved in the fluids of my body, for example, are going to “come out of solution” at the higher elevation. This didn’t occur to me when I had to apologize to Nippert for my many “lapses” during our first couple runs together. I politely stayed behind him and assured him this was unusual for me. I don’t know the details of changes going on in my body, but I know there is no escaping physics.

I was curious about the cause of the gouge. Someone riding a bike with the kickstand down? The gouge was too wide, though, and the meanderings too jumpy for that. Something made it – fresh gouges don’t just show up on a smooth trail.

“There’s no such thing as bonking” Nippert declared last night. “If you take a muscle cell, put it in a dish with glucose, water, salt, and an electric current, it’ll keep firing forever.” I didn’t object. I don’t think much good can come of crossing Nippert. I knew what he meant. There is nothing mysterious going on when people bonk. Quite likely they have run out of fuel for their muscles. You have to eat, and drink, methodically in very long endurance events. No mystery. Just physics.

The source of the gouge came into view. A dark haired man with a dark blue sweat suit was jogging with a vague grimace. His hands were clasped around the full size cross that he carried on his shoulder. Behind him the tail end of the cross dragged along the trail, leaving a distinct gouge. Two other joggers led the way, just in front of him. They looked businesslike, if a bit pained. One spoke on his cell phone. The conversation was not casual.

Among the intended messages may have been that Jesus died for our sins. I’ve never understood what that means, though, so I thought about another of the still likely intended messages – that we all have a cross to bear.

One might think that ultrarunners are masochists. We do put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. My favorite race is called “mountain masochist.” I’ve had my share of painful injuries, all self-inflicted. I’ve had to stop running during an ultra when my ears started ringing intensely and my vision narrowed to a dark tunnel. Are we punishing ourselves? Assuaging the guilt for our wickedness? No. Speaking for myself and the runners that I know: we are not masochists. Do we have a cross to bear? Maybe, but I don’t think it is the sort of burden metaphorically represented by the cross used to crucify Jesus.

The burden that ultrarunners carry is self-knowledge. Not a New Age sort of self knowledge described by vague and mysterious “energy flows,” but a real understanding of what is possible – and what isn’t. We go to that line all the time. It’s like the gouge along the Santa Fe Trail. No special force intervened to lighten the weight of those 4x4 timbers. The wood cut into the dirt with exactly the force exerted by gravity – minus the intervention of the man who carried some proportion of the weight on his shoulder. We like to think that all of us have a levitating influence like this within us. Some hedge against the determinism of the physical world in which we live. Ultrarunners know better. There is no room for mystery after running for 14 hours straight across 80 miles of snow covered mountains and sun-baked canyons. There certainly isn’t room for effrontery.

This is our burden: our own nature. And gravity. They are inescapable, and yet we have the capacity to reflect, aspire, plan, and strive. The source of this capacity can’t be left a mystery, though, if we expect to get any better.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Bradley Running Machine

[Note: I am writing this with Bradley Mongold in mind, but he doesn’t show up until way on down the page. Like many other running friends of mine, he is running the Massunutten 100 mile trail run tomorrow. I wish the best for all of the runners. Bradley is a special case, however. Why? Read on…]

I’ve toed the line to run 100 miles 4 times. The first was Mohican in ’04. My furthest run up to that point was 54 miles (at the Mountain Masochist “50 miler”). I didn’t know the course and I didn’t have a very detailed strategy for eating and drinking during the run. Two things happened that, in retrospect, made my run a success. First, it rained torrentially two days before the run. Many sections of single track along the course were treacherously muddy. The mud, in fact, sucked one of my shoes off my foot about 25 miles into the run. I had to hop back on one foot, stand perched on the side of the mud puddle, and bend over like a crane to extract my completely buried shoe. Second, the front that had created the rain cooled everything. Race day dawned cool and breezy with a relatively low humidity.

We can run long. We can run in the heat. Although some of the attention paid to ultramarathoners is inspired by the awe at our disproportionately long runs, the fact is that we can do it. Aside from reasonably good health, the only obstacle to anyone running 50 miles is the preparation required. Part of the preparation, however, can make people uncomfortable. There is the discomfort of running for long periods of time, or of running in the heat, of course. There is a deeper discomfort, though, more troubling to some. You can’t run ultras and think of yourself in the same way.

The mud at Mohican was helpful because it slowed me down. There is a lot of talk about the importance of “pacing” oneself during an endurance event. For all the common sense understanding of that idea, optimal pacing is surprisingly difficult in practice. I still vividly remember a runner from St. Xavier high school in Louisville. His name is Mike Haggerty. He was two years my senior, and I kept an eye on him because of his reputation as a good half-miler. He ran cross-country to “stay in shape” for track season. His 5 kilometer races unfolded in predictable fashion. He blasted out of the start and into the lead. A mile or so out he died. Many runners who had gone out more conservatively passed him easily. I asked myself, and probably my older teammates, why he didn’t just go out more slowly. “He’s a head case,” was the most likely response. I didn’t buy it, even then. The coach tells you to go out easy. You tell yourself to go out easy. The gun goes off; you blast out into the lead. This doesn’t make sense to us because of our misguided intuition about who we are. Who decides how fast to run? Our intuition is that there is a miniature person somewhere behind our eyes where it all comes together. This homunculus is at the helm, so he gets credit, or blame, for whatever happens. When I mention Mike Haggerty, people who know him will think I mean this little version of him. Yes, they say, he had a lot of talent. Good leg speed. He didn’t know how to use it, though.

Jeff Birt was my teammate and was the same age as Haggerty. I remember his expressing anger when someone accused him of “not running up to his potential” at a particular race. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked me. “My mind and body show up on race day, and what I do is what I can do.” Him; the whole package. There isn’t a user, or owner, of Jeff Birt who can pull in the reigns, or wield the stick the way that a jockey can manipulate his horse. If Jeff wants to improve his performance, he will have to devise some other trick. It may work for him to imagine himself like a jockey, even though he isn’t. There are at least some times, however, when this illusion fails us. It failed Mike Haggerty at every cross country race I saw him run. It fails drug addicts. I want a more reliable model. Ultra runners, almost by definition, are continuously faced with the challenge of getting this right.

At Mohican I was just fortunate that the mud stepped in on my behalf. It made me go slower. Maybe I shouldn’t get credit for my performance because it was really an environmental condition that caused the outcome – not me. But what if I purposely sign up for runs with similar conditions? If I do really rocky, technical trail runs, I’ll have to go slower, so I’ll be able to perform better through a very long race. I get credit for that, right? What if I just happened to start doing trail runs, and because I have to go slower, I perform very well? I have no idea that it is because running trails made me go out slower that I was doing well. Do I get credit for that?
I like to play, and think about, sports. For the venue, a sports contest defines what is of value. Generally speaking, it is of value to win. Even if we have ulterior motives for playing, the contest only works if the contestants “sign-on” to the premise that we will all try to win. Even if we don’t feel we have a legitimate shot at 1st place in a race, we still aspire toward that. We train and strategize to run as fast as possible. Strictly speaking, there may be participants in a race who have no pretense of trying to win, or even of trying to improve. They may run to socialize with a friend. They are not, however, engaged in a sports contest. They have reasons for running, of course, reasons that in the big picture may be more valid than the contrivance of winning. My interest is in understanding the dynamics of striving. For that we need a contest.

The Massunutten 100 is a contest. This year in particular the men’s field is “stacked” with guys who have competed in and won competitive ultras. They have each, in their own way, prepared to win this event. The race will unfold, perhaps dramatically, to reveal a winner. Very likely it will not even be close. In a race this long small differences are exaggerated into disparate results. And we will be able to discuss the results coherently in terms like: “he ran really smart early,” or, “he started pushing at the right time,” or, “he runs really well on rocks,” or “his stomach turned on him and he had to slow down.” Someone may say “he just wanted it more.” I hope not. I fear that sentiment would bolster the impression that there is work to be done by the homunculus on race day. There is not.

The work to be done tomorrow is tediously mechanical. Water, fuel, effort, timing, and the coordination of support have to happen. And for the winner they will have to be done well. There simply isn’t space in some central part of the runner’s brain to process all these details in real time. The work has been spread over time and space, as the runners prepared. Most of the “decisions” have been made already, and will be dispatched automatically in proper sequence. Runners cannot just “tell themselves” to slow down. The cues to slow down have to be processed automatically. Runners cannot calculate the rate at which they are processing calories and weigh out the proper amount of food to take from the aid station. They have practiced it. They grab what they need automatically.

I am privy to the crew plan developed for Bradley Mongold’s race. He sent me a copy via e-mail. I won’t reveal his secrets here – except to say they are detailed. As in, his crew knows exactly which gel goes in which pocket of which shorts. The Bradley running machine is much more extensive than his race plan, though. It is more extensive than his conscious intentions. All of his experiences – competing in cross country in college, running Hellgate, hunting caribou – and his apprehension of those experiences have engineered the machine.

Bradley knows it is bigger than him. He calls it “the Beast.” He sees it as untamed – part of his resistance to civilization and all its conformities. Maybe, but it’s a well-oiled beast.