Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Body Knows... [Miwok in 3 days]

I have the sense of what it might be like to be a robot. There's this faint buzz barely agitating all my limbs -- like the transformer mounted in our garage. I woke up at 4:45 this morning and the same vibration was in my gut, like it was poised for something. Our cat, Tonks, has serious cognitive dissonance now that I put her food outside for the summer. She wants to be inside, and to have her food. So she gets caught on the threshold, completely torn. My gut is like that right now. It remotely knows to be wary. Food is good, but so is emptiness. We get it, somehow, that 3 days from now something big will go down.

So I got up and drank a protein shake. No run this morning. My running this week is sharply curtailed. I did run 3 x 400m on the track yesterday. Nippert said "don't time them." He probably thought that would temper any strong desire I might have to run fast. That's not the way it works for me though. A racehorse trapped in the gates doesn't care about the clock. It wants to be free, and in front. That's how I ran my 400s. Had I timed them I think I would have gone slower. I would have controlled the effort and matched it to my expected time.

That is the promise, and the pitfall, of our expectation. We calibrate it. I'm reminded of my first real distance race. I had never even witnessed a footrace beyond a schoolyard sprint. I joined the cross country team at my high school because the coach wrote me a letter, explaining that I'd be good at it. At the time I didn't realize that he sent all incoming freshman the same letter. He also told me that at my first race I'd run the junior varsity 3 km event. I didn't really know how far that was so it didn't worry me too much when he told me a few minutes before the start that I would actually be running the 5 km course. It was the St. Xavier Campus Run in Louisville, KY. It was called the campus run because the course started in a field along Trevilian road and then wound up and around the steep hill at the foot of the Bellarmine College Campus. None of that mattered to me because when the starter pistol fired I was a horse. I ran fast, free, and at the front. Until I died. Two St. X runners passed me and so did my teammate, Dave. I ran the remaining distance, as we liked to say, as if I had picked up a refrigerator.

I also placed 4th in my second cross country race. My pace, however, was relatively constant across the 3.1 miles. I got it. I knew what to expect. A track is ideally suited to the calibration of effort. You can literally see what has to be done in one glance. Get to the end of the straightaway for the 100, to the other side of the track for the 200, once around for the 400. I spent many a workout circling the track at various speeds for varying lengths of time, all the while noting my effort and checking my watch. I got to be like a metronome, clocking off laps at precisely even times. In the longer events I would tire, of course, but I knew that. I figured that into the equation (subconsciously, of course). In effect, I built a wall around my effort, containing it to what was sustainable. We all do that. We have to, because otherwise we couldn't sustain our effort.

Which brings me, finally, to my buddy Nick. Nick got in touch with me shortly after I moved to SW Virginia. We've run together at least occasionally ever since. Nick has dedicated a lot of resources to the improvement of his ultra running. He doesn't hesitate to drive the hour across the mountain to my house so that we can drive another 1/2 hour to a trailhead for a run. He has demonstrated many times a willingness to suffer through exhaustion, dehydration, and nausea in order to train. Nick placed 1st at the inaugural Iron Mountain 50 mile Trail Run. Although he is training better than ever, Nick has had a string of DNFs in the past many months, the latest at the Bull Run Run 50 mile. This despite his feeling that he is very fit and uninjured.

I'm attracted to sport, and in particular ultrarunning, because it cuts down on BS. There are real outcomes that are reasonably indisputable. There are limited cases where a person can legitimately say things could have gone differently. We all agree that what counts was how things did go. If you start out a 50 mile race running 7 minute per mile pace, and then drop out of the race at 30 miles, it doesn't make sense to assert that you could have run 50 miles in 5 hrs 50 min. How do you know you could have maintained that pace? Runners feel more tired after 30 miles than when they started. How much more tired? That depends on how much further they think they have to go. Perceived level of exertion depends upon the apprehension of the distance yet to be run. The greater the distance remaining, the lower our perceived level of exertion. The data emerging from research (google Tim Noakes of "Lore of running" fame) is compelling, but it corroborates personal experience. How many races have we finished and immediately collapsed in a heap, barely able to move? Up until the last step we were in full stride, trying to hold off competitors or finish under a certain time. What changed? Our apprehension of the remaining distance went to zero, so our perceived level of exertion went to infinity!

We should reserve the DNF for real crises. We want the outcomes of events to line up reasonably well with our expectations. We expect to run 50 miles, we should run 50 miles. Otherwise, we won't learn what it means to run 50 miles in those conditions. If dropping out becomes a viable option (as perceived by the athlete) we'd expect his perceived level of exertion to increase as he approaches the point in the run at which he can imagine dropping out. I do not say this as someone who will slog on "no matter what." I have dropped out of several races, both in college cross country and in ultras. There are times when dropping out is the right choice, and times when it is the only choice. Neither of these applies when the situation is that I am in the middle of a run and feel more tired than expected. For me, that has proved to be the best time to re-calibrate. The walls weren't built close enough in, and I have gone across a buffer. I know that I have to slow down.

Athletes are not revered for their ability to proscribe their own limits, however. They are icons of human possibility, constantly pushing the edge of performance. They find ways to go faster and longer. Our knack for building walls around our effort is a pitfall in this pursuit. We may be needlessly limiting ourselves. So it seems, at least, to those who believe that "the will to win" is all that stands between the athlete and greatness. For my part, I will continue my taper this week in preparation for Miwok. My performance depends on real, physical parameters such as stored glycogen. I will also start slow.


  1. Ah yes the Nippert 3 x 400 untimed intervals the week of a big race. I'm just as happy not to time them myself. Good luck at Miwok and safe travels.

  2. I read blog entry of a similar thread a while back by Brian Morrison about his '06 WS race.
    He talked about how he mentally let his guard down and it carried over to his physical break-down on the track.
    There is a mental side to the game of ultrarunning that cannot be ignored or completely understood.
    Good luck at Miwok!
    -- Casseday

  3. Lots of good stuff Eric. Thanks for sharing. May this be the year that you make your peace with the Western States 100...Best wishes for Miwok.

  4. Eric, Thanks for your insight. Good luck at Miwok this weekend. Rick