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.


  1. Knowing what pace to run is very difficult in ultra running. If I am going to have a good performance or even finish at all I have to start out at a pace that feels easy and the gap between too easy and too hard is measured in angstroms. This is part of what makes ultra running so challenging and for me at least makes it so appealing.

  2. Eric, Great post. I won my age group last week at the Dances with Dirt race in Brown County Indiana. It had rained heavily for several days prior making sections of the course very difficult to pass. Besides slowing me down, I gained bursts of confidence from having made my way through each long section of deep mud forcing me to turn the first negative thoughts of the conditions into euphoric feelings of being able to overcome all obstacles. After each tough slog, I was thinking to myself "now that's extreme trail running-Bring it on". Under normal conditions, I may have been preoccupied with the normal race issues of pace and pain. I do understand now that the tough conditions ended up helping me tune into clarity on the mental dial at just right moments. Without it, I would have been listening to the usual static of late race suffering. I was lucky. I don’t know if I would have been able to push myself under normal “good” conditions. Sometimes, nature sets the pace and we just follow.

  3. I appreciate the responses, guys. The "nature" that Rick mentions is just what I want to continue to explore. Stay tuned, and keep the feedback coming.