Sunday, May 30, 2010

HIgh Country 3-day in Progress

The picture is from midday of day 2 -- about 43 miles in. We ran another 20 miles to get back to Damascus on the Iron Mountain trail. In an hour I'll start the final push from Damascus north over Whitetop and Mt. Rogers.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Distance-Only Experiment

About 40 minutes before the start of the 1982 Trinity Invitational in Louisville, KY, coach Worful took me aside, looked me in the eye, and said: "I talked to the coach at Floyd Central. He told me about two of his freshman. He said they're animals." I absorbed the information, like most things, with little more than a raised eyebrow. Coach Worful, who I can call Steve now, already knew me better than most ever have. He knew he didn't need to say much.

It had been his idea to enter me in JV meets even though I would have been 3rd man on the varsity team. This was my first freshman-only race, and he knew -- even if I didn't -- that it would be important for me to see how I stacked up with others my age. The 3K course started with a loop around a baseball field, proceeded across a valley and back, and then looped around a large flat rectangle of a park. In the middle of the long side of the rectangle, with about 3/4 mile to go, I was running in front. One of the "animals" pulled up beside me and said "you're dying boy." I turned my head toward him, furrowed my brow, and retorted, "the hell I am." Then I picked it up.

In the summer before my junior year, coach gave me a training book by Arthur Lydiard. I soaked it up. We conferred about workouts, but I generally planned the training for myself and teammate Dave Lawhorn. In retrospect, I see that he expected it was my time to shine -- and that I'd be out front at the varsity level. The season opener, as always, was the St. Xavier campus run. Several strong seniors from the region took it out hard. I cruised, well off the pace. I made up a lot of ground in the same final 3/4 mile that had marked the end of the freshman 3K. I did not win, however. Again, coach took me aside. He told me about how much he thrilled in the showdown races between Joe Beuchler and Jim Sapienza, who graduated the year before I started high school. Neither was content finishing behind the other. They pushed each other to remarkable performances. I didn't need to respond; coach had not criticized my race. Still, the image of Joe and Jim racing gnawed at me -- exactly as Steve had intended.

The next big invitational race was Covington Catholic in Cincinnati. The race attracted runners from a wide area -- so we could expect good competition. The start was one of those high school monstrosities -- stretched across a vast field of thick grass. The start strategy for front-runners in high school cross country is fairly simple. Get out fast enough to stay clear of the stampede. I did that, along with a small group of others with the same strategy. I didn't have to think, "oh, time to take control of the race." But I found myself in front, and unwavering. I didn't bring to mind the footsteps behind me, or my willingess to go into greater oxygen debt. I just felt my fingers tingling, and heard the steps behind me grow fainter.

Coach approached me after the race, smiling. He said he had looked at my face when I passed him along the course, and that "he knew." Steve was expert at knowing. He had good success as a coach - because his main concern was knowing his athletes.

He knew the conventional wisdom about training, too, and was relatively conservative about sticking to it. Conventional training wisdom went (and still goes) something like this: on some days run longer and slower than race pace, and on other days run shorter and faster than race pace. So like every other high school cross country program, that is what we did. Daily runs of 6-9 miles alternated with interval workouts. Long run on Sunday.

We were talking one afternoon -- as we always did -- when coach wondered outloud, "what would happen if your training consisted only of distance runs?" He knew I did not readily accept convention of any kind, including training wisdom. I did, however, accept most of his carefully reasoned and articulated arguments. And his answer to his own question was one of these. Considering the success I was enjoying, he argued, it wouldn't be worth the risk to answer the question with an experiment. That reasoning has held for me ever since.

Until now.

Things work a little differently after the age of forty. First -- I've got kids, and the first two are getting big enough to start carrying the torch. Second -- I've got a professional life. I work with young people who are ready to launch teaching careers of their own. Third -- my connective tissue has become persnickety. That means it reacts quickly to overwork and slowly to rehabilitation.

If you've read this deep into my post, you probably have kept up enough to know my achilles tendon woes since Western States last year. Yes, I've had nearly a year of difficulty dealing with the connective tissue at my heels. I've tried lots of things, and actually trained a fair amount in the intervening time. In my quest to find habits that will allow me to keep running, I've eliminated speed. I've not run faster than 7:30 minute/mile pace in months. I've resisted all temptation to run fast, including by avoiding races. My first race since February will be the Mohican 100 in June.

Even though Mohican is a very long race -- and performing well does not depend going fast at any point -- it will be the first time I have entered a race having trained with distance runs only. Steve and I will finally have some data pertinent to the question he asked a quarter century ago. And I will report those data here.

Why do people train for races by sometimes running faster and shorter than the race? Why not just train at race pace? Well, I'm not really going to answer that here -- because better technical explanations can be found elsewhere. [Try "The Lore of Running" by Tim Noakes.] I will comment, though, that I have valued variety in my training, and that the most simple variable is speed. So in the past I have made sure to do workouts with sprints, workouts with tempo running, quality distance runs, and slow distance runs. If for no other reason, varying speed keeps running fresh, fun, and motivating.

Speed isn't the only variable, though, and I have had to focus on different kinds of variety the last few months. I have run more gravel roads, found new trails, run more pavement, and of course, traveled to "the mountain" a couple times each week.

That brings me to my original intent in posting today: tomorrow a small group of us will start a 3-day 100+ mile run through the high country north and south of Damascus. We will cross White Top, and circle Mt. Rogers, the highest peaks in Virginia.

View High Country 3-day in a larger map

We will be running slowly, but the terrain is varied and interesting, and I haven't done a stage run since the "Tour De Appalachia" several summers ago. Byron Backer came along then, and is back to run this "3-day high country 100." Annette Bednoskey, Jenny Nichols, and Jenny Anderson are coming along for at least parts of the run -- and I'll report back on the results.

I look forward to spending a few days on the mountain. The days are long, the sun is hot, and the air is thick. The trees promise shade, though, and the valleys water, and the mountaintops wind. And I will add thousands more strides -- all slow -- to the experiment posed by my high school coach.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Testing and worthiness

The nasty twinge about half way down my back on the right side has abated today. I was forced to curtail my wood splitting session yesterday because of the pain. The remnants of three big locust trees are stacked in a line along the edge of our property. I felled them because they were dying and infested by ants. Now they are dead -- and infested by ants. I need to split and dry the good wood, and burn the rest. The large logs resist my efforts to move them, though, and sometimes they win. We love our home -- built in the 1960s by a professor at E&H. He built it on the ridge at the edge of the woods at the perimeter of the college campus. He built it out of timber salvaged from a Saltville train trestle. We are surrounded by trees. The sun is already raging this morning, but we are protected by our trees -- their leaves like countless miniature umbrellas hoisted above us.

To me trees are the most majestic of nature's creation. I feel most connected when traversing a trail deep in a mature forest. Everything feels buffered by a stand of big trees. They are also a big pain. Every season has its own kind of tree litter that we have to deal with: pollen, flowers, leaves, and branches. The ants and termites that live on trees also try to live on and in our house. Simply because of their height and mass, trees are dangerous. This brings me to my main point (and, I will eventually relate that point to running) that the height of trees is, in at least one sense, a waste.

Trees live on sunlight. Trees grow upward to reach the sunlight. The light is just as potent at ground level, though, as 50 feet up. So a tree can just as effectively harvest sunlight at the ground as 50 feet up at full canopy height. And staying low would be a more efficient use of the tree's resources. It could commit more of its energy to making leaves and reproductive organs and less into making wood. Never mind that people generally like trees better than bushes, bushes are more efficient organisms. So why don't trees settle for being bushes?


A tree doesn't settle for being a bush because trees beat bushes. A bush is literally overshadowed by a tree. You've probably heard of ecological succession. An exposed hillside will become populated with nice, humble, efficient bushes. Eventually, though, slow-growing organisms will invade and begin to build big, fancy, tall trunks upon which, eventually, a mighty canopy will rest. The stature-challenged bushes will be displaced, and the shadow of the large trees will cover the forest floor. That's not the end of the story, though.

Trees don't really win. The competition is ongoing, it's just between trees and other trees, or trees and their parasites. Trees have to strive to get taller and taller, and more and more vulnerable, just to obtain the same resources. The escalation is a biological arms race. Organisms adapt to their immediate environment, including the competition. They don't have a long-range view. We are in a special position to see that trees would all benefit if they could just agree to cap their height at something reasonable -- say 25 feet. They can compete through other means -- make more efficient leaves, or really agile spermatophores. This business of growing to dangerous heights could all be contained -- and everyone would be better off! (Again, I'm not concerned with the aesthetic appreciation of tall trees, which has its own biological explanation).

OK, so trees compete, and runners compete. Is that all I got? What's the connection? First, another digression...

Did you take a college entrance exam when you were in high school? Maybe you took it seriously, maybe you didn't. If you were blessed, as I was, with benignly negligent parents, you probably didn't worry about preparing. Do you know what kids do now?

Maybe there are some tests that seek to answer a simple question, something like: has this person learned what they need to know? A driving test is like that. You get an answer, up or down. Some state licensure tests might be like that -- for plumbing or electric work, say. These tests have passing scores, so you either make the grade or you go back to study some more. College entrance exams may seem to be like that, but they aren't. Like most tests, they are designed to show differences between people. Colleges compete for the best students, and college entrance exam scores array students hierarchically. Colleges can most easily compare students using the scores on a college entrance exam.

'In the beginning' the test was a measure of the capacities of students as they had developed through the standard K-12 school curriculum. Assuming students have similar classroom experiences, the test will accurately reflect the variation between students in readiness to continue schooling through college. Students (and their families), like trees, adapt. There are test-taking strategies, after all, that can bump your score up a little. Simple things like getting a good night's sleep and eating a wholesome breakfast. Just slightly more strategic things like "go ahead and guess if you can eliminate two of the choices." Not only might those things raise your score, but if you do them, and others don't, you will probably score a little higher than others -- even if they are equally ready to continue schooling through college. When it comes to college admissions, you will have an edge over your equals.

More power to those kids, you say! The motivation to do well on tests is all part of it. Maybe it means they actually are better prepared for college -- since they know how to be at their best for a test. I think that's a stretch. Call me traditional, but I think the valuable stuff in school is experienced in class when there is no test, and no test looming. A good test would measure that stuff -- not the ability of the test-taker to prepare. Come on, you say, we're just talking about common sense stuff -- like getting a good night's sleep! Everybody should do that anyway. Fair enough.

The students in school now who care about college, though, go way beyond that. They take dual credit college courses while in high school, and they take test preparation courses. They buy books, take practice tests, go to tutoring, etc. The intent isn't enrichment. The point is to improve one's score on the test. Again, we can respect the effort that young people make toward improving themselves. The unfortunate consequence that we also need to recognize, however, is that other students will be compelled to prepare to the same extent. And when they do, no one will have gained, and everyone will continue to pay the added cost in time and energy of test preparation. It's a treadmill.

Finally, running. If you are like me you will run headfirst into a menacing thunderstorm before you'll go to the gym and get on a treadmill. Even if you can get a good workout that way -- it just doesn't feel right to run and not get anywhere. Getting somewhere -- even just experiencing the natural world for an hour -- is a virtue. It's worth it, even if nothing else is gained.

Much of what athletes can do to improve performance is like the test-preparation that students use. The common sense stuff is even the same -- eat and sleep well (if possible). The use of performance enhancing drugs is a problem because it escalates the kind of preparation that others must make, just to stay even. We want athletes to prepare, and try to separate themselves, through hard work. If they all have to work harder, so much the better. There isn't much to value about athlete's figuring out the best steroid recipe. Likewise with a test-prep course. We value the application of energy into one's studies over the course of years -- not the strategic memorization of strategies and likely questions in the weeks before a test.

Some kinds of striving are worthy. The simple test goes: "I did it, but didn't achieve what I hoped. It was still worth it." I couldn't say that about taking a test-preparation course. I couldn't say that about taking performance enhancing drugs. I can say that about the 5 weeks I spent running in Colorado last summer to prepare for Western States, and about every run I am doing now. Especially the ones under the grandest trees in the mountains of southwest Virginia.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Chris Rock did a routine calling out women for wearing high heels and bras. "You ain't that tall!" he said. He called women liars for trying to pull one over on us. "When you date a woman," he went on, "you don't date the woman, you date her agent." The routine was funny. The charge, though, is serious. He exposed systematic cheating -- by a whole sex!

I remember when I was in middle school and the girls were starting to wear makeup. Feeling helpful, I explained that I preferred natural beauty. Well, responded the girl still willing to talk to me, I wear makeup for me. It didn't help to point out the flimsiness of the argument. Isn't it obvious that girls make themselves look pretty for boys?

Boys and girls are expert at arranging hierarchies. Boys figure out who's dominant and girls figure out who's pretty. They make lists. It's pretty straightforward in elementary school. Clear skin, straight teeth, symmetrical features, etc. determine prettiness. Boys settle dominance with sports and/or fights. The boys know who is the fastest, strongest, best. Girls know who is prettiest.

Having the opposite sex arrayed from least to most desirable helps define your aspirations. It may not be in your best interest, however, to have your own position fixed. That's where middle and high school comes in. Those unhappy with positioning within a group can move to another group, or start a new one. Cliques form around some definable subcultures: preps, punks, nerds, jocks, etc. As they reposition themselves within groups, young people tinker with self-improvement. A kid in band might take private lessons and practice routinely. A skater may spend every afternoon working on tricks at the concrete steps down the road. A young lady may take medicine for acne, get braces for her teeth, and spend Saturdays shopping for the style that fits her best.

And, some of us take up a sport.

If you were like me, you ended up in a sport in which you were most likely to excel. I spent middle school playing soccer. I had a reasonably defined group of friends who also played. I was not among the best players. When I started high school, I didn't immediately have to worry about going out for the soccer team because soccer was a spring sport. The cross-country coach was recruiting runners, though, so I went out for the team. It was clear from the start that I would be among the best runners my age. In the spring when I had to choose between soccer and track, I chose track.

We feel that it is wise to choose activities that play to our strengths. It enhances our standing by defining a group with whom we favorably compare. I gave up being a mediocre soccer player to be a top runner. We respect decisions like that.

Suppose that my high school didn't have a cross country team, and so, at age 14, I continued to play soccer. Further, imagine that I have an uncle who is wealthy and an avid soccer fan. He takes an interest in my play and offers to pay for private coaching, soccer camps, and a personal trainer who manages my overall conditioning and nutritition. I enjoy the attention of my private coach, I love going to soccer camp, and my personal trainer gives me great tasting shakes that keep my hunger down and my energy up. My play improves, of course, and as a sophomore I start for the varsity soccer team. Only one other sophomore starts. The rest of the group, among whom I had been mediocre, is now relegated to start behind me.

Again, we respect that kind of self-improvement. I may not have figured it out on my own, but I did put in the time. It may not have been a struggle (my coaches and trainer were pleasant people) but it certainly took energy to complete the assigned tasks. Something troubling, however, lurks behind this imagined scenario. I'll describe two monsters -- one an insubstantial ghost -- but the other, I think, more threatening.

I can imagine two versions of myself as a soccer player: one who emerges with the help of my uncle (and his cadre of professionals), and one who develops without that intervention. It seems safe to say that, at least at the level of high school sports, my standing among the team is significantly altered depending on which self we examine. So which one is the "ghost" and which one is "real?" You may be tempted to say both are me, because the real person is deeper than athletic performance. Let's be mindful of the effects of athletic performance, and particularly athletic standing, on other life pursuits. We have hierarchies for a reason. Which me is going to have a better chance at dating the homecoming queen? Which me is more likely to pursue a high paying career? I think it matters whether I get the help of my uncle. I don't think it's a threat, though, to how real my improved self is. We are all improved versions of who we might have been. We don't worry that our improved vision is pretentious because we had to get prescription eyeglasses.We don't worry that our improved health is false because we immunized ourselves against debilitating diseases. Our pursuit of self-improvement is, in fact, one of our defining qualities, and one that we value in ourselves and others. Our improved attributes are as real, and worthy, as any.

The other monster is more problematic. That is: what will happen when the other soccer players catch on? They see me improving, after all, and not just in absolute terms. I'm improving my standing relative to them. One used to beat me in a one-on-one drill, and now I beat him. Another used to start at left-mid, now I start at that position. Even if the kid can shrug it off, what about his helicopter parent? The dad casually asks my mom "what are you feeding him?" It gets out about my coach. So a couple of the parents, who can afford it, hire the same coach. My friends ask about my soccer camps -- and that summer several show up with me. It doesn't take long to create a monstrous regime that kids will embrace to stay competitive. "All for the better!" you might say. Everyone improves. To what end? If everyone employs a similar training regimen, no one gains compared to the others. It's an arms race.

The most obvious examples of pointless escalation come in the equipment used in some sports. Consider the bodysuits used by swimmers to decrease drag and increase bouyancy. The invention of the suits spurred a flurry of new world records. German swimmer Paul Biedermann beat Michael Phelps and afterwards readily admitted "it was the suit." If the suits had not been subsequently banned, all swimmers would have had to wear them to be competive. So Phelps' coach announced he would not compete unless they were banned. Professional cycling is replete with arms races. Newfangled bikes, for every kind of condition faced even in a single road race, are rolling out all the time. Why don't they issue stock bikes and just compare riders?

One response is that we value innovation and the can-do spirit that motivates people to push at the boundaries of what we think is possible for them, and for a sport. The "me" who showed up first with a personal trainer and coach showed some spunk. That is worth something, even if ultimately it levels back out. And who knew kids could get so much better with a little training?

In that spirit, though, cyclists find potent means of self-improvement. Floyd Landis is back in the news admitting to an entire professional career based on use of performance enhancing drugs. He says he spent $90,000 a year on treatments that included EPO, HGH, and blood doping. Wrapped into that expense is a program for covering up the drug use. If drugs are used in the same spirit of self-improvement as aero-bars, though, why are drugs banned, and aero-bars allowed? If cyclists really just want a level playing field, why don't they all agree to use the same equipment?

When we compare athletes, what attributes do we value? We know Lance Armstrong "has a big engine." We can measure his maximum oxygen consumption, and compare that to other athletes. But then why race? There are many variables during competition, and some things that are hard to know in advance. Don't we value athletes who put it together when it counts, especially when we didn't see it coming? Don't we love it when athletes come from behind, or win in an upset? Athletes need to be able to rally resources in new and unexpected ways. They demonstrate what is possible. Landis' ride to overtake the field when he won the Tour De France was thrilling. So how did he become cycling's pariah?

Drug use is problematic, in part, because we can't know for sure who is doing it. Riders sign on to a ban, I think, because it increases the chances that others won't do it. If they are smart enough to do it, without others knowing, it gives them an advantage. This is like if the fictitious soccer-playing me had been helped by my uncle, but I kept my regimen a secret. The other kids might never have caught on, and I could have maintained my improved standing. Landis blew it. Not by taking drugs, which seems to be ubiquitous at the top levels of cycling, but by getting caught.

The girls who are prettiest in elementary school should prefer that the others never discover the world of enhancements that open up in middle school. And guys like me (at the time) might prefer that girls remain unadorned for convenient comparison. Those girls won't comply, though, and they shouldn't. By tinkering with shoes, clothes, make-up, and ultimately themselves, they keep shuffling the deck. That makes the game less predictable, and more interesting. At least until we get married.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Whether or not you know it by this name, you are familiar with the hedonistic paradox. If you try to be happy, you won't make it. Virtue ethicists from Aristotle to the present have noted that you are most likely to attain happiness indirectly, as a result of your worthy pursuits. You should aim to better yourself, therefore, and you will find yourself happy in the process.

'Fine', you say. What you really wanted was to run faster. Who was so concerned about happiness? Happiness is not on my mind when I'm on a mile-long climb on a sun-baked gravel road in the middle of a national forest 21 miles into a 24 mile run. I'm squinting because every drop of sweat burns my eyes. I'm holding my butt cheeks together because of painful chafing. I'm keeping my stride short and light because my left achilles is marginal. Any utilitarian ethicist is going to have to take a step back and scratch his head while ultrarunners pass by. Happiness is not our standard of measure.

The problem for hedonists, however, is no less a problem for those of us who readily dismiss the false allure of happiness. That's because the parodox arises not from trying for happiness; it arises from trying -- for anything.

Many of us are outcome oriented. We talk about goals. We write them down. We sign up for events. We set a training schedule. We shoot for a target pace. We try to PR on a known course. Most running events are contained enough that the flaws in our thinking go unnoticed. If something doesn't go as expected, we "had a bad day." If we get injured, it's because we didn't stick to the plan, or we didn't have the right plan to begin with.

Running ultras is not so contained. The premise is that runners are going beyond. We like to think of ourselves as defiant. People think the marathon is the pinnacle of endurance? Well check this out! We don't just want to defy other peoples' expectations though. We want to run further and faster than we ourselves thought possible. Is it possible to try to defy our own expectations? Wouldn't that mean we really expected we might be able to do it? It doesn't take much introspection to run (so to speak) into some conceptual difficulties with the meaning of 'effort.' It will be more sensible to illustrate.

I spent the summers of '97 and '98 thru-hiking the AT. As I've written here, the original plan called for me to run the length of the trail (self-supported) just that first summer. I started in Georgia. No sooner had I gotten past Springer Mountain (the southern terminus of the trail) than I was confronted with the physics of the situation. That is, the time required to traverse the distance. This is the appeal of sports. I live for the moment of revelation that all sports ultimately provide. Our ideas, our plans, our ambitions, our thoughts -- they can stray away from us like feral cats. Performance is the domesticator. When I strapped 35 pounds to my back and climbed a couple thousand feet on a rocky winding trail my thoughts were rightfully tethered. My initial thought was something akin to "Oh shit." Over the course of a few days, though, I adjusted my goal and "decided" to shoot for Harper's Ferry, and put off the second half for the next summer. A better way to look at the phenomenon, though, is through my relationship to my wild ideas. They settled down around my house. They took the food put out for them. They were tamed. I had claimed them, said they were "my plans" when they were wild, but they weren't really mine until they settled for something more fitting.

Ultrarunners know well the moment of revelation that almost inevitably comes during an ultramarathon. We don't celebrate that moment -- though if handled well -- we do celebrate the protracted recovery that becomes the raison d'etre for our participation. I'm talking about the moment during the event when our plans collapse. My first Mountain Masochist subdued me during the infamous "loop" at about mile 34. Both my calves seized up and I was reduced to hobbling. I raced the Minnesota Voyegeur on an especially hot day and had to drop at mile 45 of the 50 mile race. My ears were ringing and my vision had darkened to a narrow tunnel. These occasions had the immediate effect of deflating my ambitions. They were also both part of my edification as an ultrarunner. They were part of the humbling of my ideas.

Good performances require submission to factors outside our control. Long events will eventually grind down and quiet overbearing parts of our mind. My first Hellgate took me as low as I have been. One knee felt locked up from the incessant overnight toil of breaking through a thin layer of ice on top of several inches of snow, step after step. I was reduced to a crippled plodding as other runners passed me. I had to give up concerns about pace and place, and just submit to the situation, before my pace could quicken and I could make up the places. Many of my runs have been like that -- though less dramatically. We have to get out of our own way. We have to stop forcing it -- stop trying -- in order to, paradoxically, do our best.

But where would we be if we stopped trying? Why get out of bed? Sometimes getting started on a run feels hard. Our muscles are sore, it's raining out, and we feel tired. It certainly seems that we have to rally to exert ourselves. We need goals, target paces, and the possibility of PRs to stay motivated, right? Those seem like good things. And yes, I think they are -- to the extent they are within the fold. Our minds are a lot like our intestines. Digestion depends upon a variety of bacteria that live symbiotically in our guts. Thinking depends upon a variety of ideas that live symbiotically in our minds. Indigestion occurs when wild bacteria infect us and displace our bacteria. Bad thinking occurs when wild ideas infect us and displace ideas that have been calibrated to work for us. Fortunately for ultrarunners -- in either case -- continue to run and it will work itself out.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Run from the Tracks

I grew up on the railroad tracks. Ours was actually the second house down the street on Bayly in Louisville, KY. We were drawn to the deafening -- yet rhythmically mesmering -- passing trains. My brothers and I stood close enough to feel the shifting turbulent wind. We played on the tracks. We put coins on them as a train approached. After the train passed we ferreted our coins out from among the rocks to marvel at the flattened, distorted figures of past presidents. We walked the tracks to get places. The Crescent Hill pool was one mile up. We would see how far we could get balanced on a rail. The neigborhood bullies used the tracks too. Tommy Shooster was older, and much bigger, than us.

We were playing on the tracks after school with Mike Grabhorn, my best friend when I was nine. My parents were still at work. Mike's parents were home, but his Dad was best avoided for a while after he got off his shift. We saw Shooster and his gang approaching, but we didn't want to give ground. It probably started with shouted words, but soon enough we were throwing rocks. They were advancing, and they were promising to do us serious harm. We realized we were in over our heads. I ran for help. I ran like my life depended on it. Not panicked -- just absolutely committed. I ran clear to Mike's house, about a half mile away, and got his father. He threw his baseball coach's bag, and me, into the car and raced back down the alley to chase away the bigger boys. Then we went back to Mike's house, where his father sawed off a bat for each of us to carry.

As kids we routinely played chase games, either on foot or on bikes. We played kick the can or capture the flag at night. We played team tag across wide swaths of neighborhood. I can almost recall the kind of psychological immersion a child gets when fully engaged in such physical pursuits. I might have paused long enough to notice that I could not only feel, but see, my heart beating in my chest. Yet, physical facts seemed completely secondary. I had to get out of sight. We were playing, but the state of mind struck the sort of familiar note that let's you know -- I'm made for this. For a kid, play is as real as it gets.

I can only recall one adult experience that strikes me as similar. I went with my wife and two young children to a gathering near Harrodsburg, KY. The group, all young and outdoorsy people, hiked some distance to a swimming hole. We were deep in a river valley and didn't see the thunderstorm until it was nearly upon us. We retreated rapidly toward shelter, but we were still a couple miles away when the storm unleashed its full fury. We ran for it. My stout brother-in-law carried my five-year-old son and I hoisted my three-year-old daughter to my chest. She threw her arms around my neck and her legs around chest and clung to me like a baby monkey. I ran along the river bed, up the steep bank, and through the woods with absolute singleness of purpose. All of my capacities were committed to covering the distance between my family and safety in the least time possible. The challenge was all the more demanding because we were bushwhacking in unfamiliar terrain in a torrential thunderstorm. I would not, and could not, wish threatening circumstances upon my family. The state of mind called upon during such urgent situations, however, is best described as "ecstasy."

I put challenges in front of myself all the time, of course, and "rise to the occasion" to a greater or lesser extent. This morning I got up and ran four miles, still half asleep. Day before yesterday I ran through Slagle Hollow in Steele Creek Park in Bristol, TN, for the first time. I let myself get to places where I was uncertain which direction was back. That got me moderately engaged -- I had to focus and decide which way to go and run through some nasty overgrowth and climb in some steep terrain. That took about two hours. I'm currently planning a trek for Memorial Day weekend. I want to take three days to cover 107 miles. I will do a 50K, 50mi, and then finish with a marathon. That will be difficult, because it is on trails in the mountains around Damascus, VA. I likely will not have support. To finish, I will have to rise to the challenge. At some points, it will require an engaged and focused state of mind. I have committed to doing the event, so at some level I must find these states of mind rewarding. They are like the states I experienced as a child and then as a parent, but something is different.

I run for sport. While engaging, sports are always bracketed and placed outside real-life activities. Participation is optional. I've run into potentially life threatening situations during races, but the fact is unavoidable: I brought it on myself. How miserable can I let myself feel? On the flip side, when I run masterfully and overcome difficulty to achieve a great result, how ecstatic can I let myself feel? It is, after all, just a game.

Compared to other sports, running is at least stripped of many modern contrivances. A race demands little more definition than a start and a finish. The simplicity of running helps it resonate through my body like an echo of ancient proclivities. If I cannot always achieve that blissful connection in my races, I can at least take some solace in my childhood recollections. Speeding through the alley behind my house, completely ignited by my imperative, I ran for all I was worth.