What we call “I” is just a swinging door that moves when we inhale and when we exhale.
– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
What we call “I” is just a swinging door that moves when we inhale and when we exhale.
– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
The Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 6- and 10-Day Races are underway in Queens, NY; the current results are posted here. These are the 12th annual Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence Races and the world’s longest certified race.
All philosophical musings about personal bravery, self transcendence and running aside, it’s a relief to still have someone else to point to when people tell me, “100 miles? That’s just crazy.”
My first week of training for 2009 went very well. Another change I’m trying out this year is, for the majority of my training runs, going for a specified time limit as opposed to a specified number of miles. This should be helpful in two ways: (1) it brings my running practice that much closer to my Zen practice, since my Zen meditation periods are also timed, and (2) it frees me from having to run specific routes. I won’t be counting mileage totals this year.
I found this especially liberating on Sunday, when, while running through my neighborhood blindly following my old 6-mile route, I suddenly realized I didn’t have to follow the route anymore – I only needed to run for an hour, wherever/however I decided to do it. I immediately cut a zig-zag course across that well-worn 6-mile path, re-discovered some streets I hadn’t ran down in ages, and even ducked onto the high school track for a few laps before deciding to run across a nearby park.
Saturday I ran up and down the gnarly old 9-mile out-and-back trail on Lake Grapevine’s North Shore – an up-and-down hardscrabble path crudely gouged through the woods on the rocky, brick-red shoreline. I didn’t run that trail at all last year, and didn’t realize how much I had missed it. It’s not the world’s prettiest stretch of trail but it has its own urban forest charm, accented by the constant rumble of jets landing at nearby DFW airport that on cloudy days can trick you into thinking they’re approaching thunderstorms.
I only meant to go two hours but, faced with several apparently new connecting trails and having to enter at an unfamiliar trail head before the park officially opened, soon found myself lost and running for nearly three hours before spotting my car again. But I was enjoying myself and really didn’t mind my directional cluelessness — it’s deeply embedded in the family genetics and I’m pretty used to it by now. (Maybe that’s why I prefer the 12 and 24 hour short loop race format — no way to get lost.)
But even more amazing, nearly three hours on trail for the first time since early February didn’t really seem to hurt that much. A good omen, or just a good day? I’m going with omen, despite the fact my Zen practice teaches me speculation about the future is pretty worthless. While I’m all for just living in the present moment, I still think I could use a good omen or two. Couldn’t you?
Mon 4/20: 40 minutes yoga, a.m.
Tues 4/21: Flagpole Hill, a.m. 4 x hills. 40 minutes yoga, p.m
Wed 4/22: UTD Campus, noon. 50 minutes
Thur 4/23: LHHS track, a.m. 20-minute tempo run, 40 minutes total. 40 minutes yoga, p.m.
Fri 4/24: Rest
Sat 4/25: Lake Grapevine North Shore trails, a.m. 2 hrs 45 minutes.
Sun 4/26: Neighborhood, a.m. 1 hour. 40 minutes yoga, p.m., followed by hot soak
In the process of completely exhausting myself, I connect with an inner part of me ordinarily veiled by the everyday distractions of life. During that short time spent on a trail in the mountains, my life is reduced to its simplest terms. Most ultrarunners are people who find goodness and joy in difficult times, who see beyond the misery to the beauty of nature, and who truly realize the elemental and important aspects of life. Going for a run always clears my head, but running 100 miles distills my soul.
– Keith Knipling, quoted in Running Through The Wall: Personal Encounters with the Ultramarathon, by Neal Jamison
Training for 2009 is officially underway. I actually started last weekend, but now I’ve turned that big karma wheel for real and there’s no going back.
As I mentioned, I don’t know exactly what I’m training for yet – beyond helping crew Nattu at Badwater in July, my plans are pretty vague – but I know I’ll be doing something. Definitely another 100 miler or 24-hour, with probably a couple of 50 milers/50K’s thrown in the mix. I’m really partial to the 24-hour format and am currently exploring a few options. But for now, it’s a very slow base build to 50 miles or so per week by the time I head for Badwater.
My guiding race “vision statement” for 2009: race more aggressively. I feel I trained (and raced) way under my potential last year, although part of the reason was being consciously conservative in my first attempts at 24 hours and 100 miles. But my training last year, partly by design, partly from probable burnout, was pretty perfunctory. My body has been hinting it’s ready for another go at harder training, so I’m stepping it up this year.
Based on that vision, several “running precepts” are guiding my base build:
1. More aggressive walk/run ratios. I do the majority of my training runs as a planned walk/run. This year, my training walk/run ratios are going to be considerably more aggressive. I’m going to spend far less time in low gear (2 minute walk/4 minute run), little or no training time in middle gear (1/4, although I reserve that as an option for races when needed), and far more time in high gear (1/5). I’m also going to spend a good chunk of time experimenting with a new ratio of 2/10, essentially combining two 1/5 periods. This has worked well so far and I see every reason to continue it.
2. More hill repeats. This one is easy, since I basically didn’t do hill repeats last year.
3. More speed work. I’m going to mix in longer tempo runs and some shorter track repeats, mixing them in with the hill work.
4. More focus on the breath. In line with my Zen practice, I’m going to make a conscious effort to focus even more deeply on the breath during my runs. This leads directly to more body awareness and more precise monitoring of physical changes/adjustments during periods of sustained effort, such as longer training runs and tempo/speed workouts. Both yoga and my Zen practice are also helpful in this respect.
5. Welcome pain and discomfort as companions, rather than trying to avoid them or “break” them. Pain and discomfort are unavoidable, and are actually helpful as measurements of perceived effort or possible larger problems. By accepting and running with them rather than fighting them, I will save energy and maintain focus. By running with them, I also become more aware of how they change, how they come and go. But whenever and wherever they come from or go to, I need to remain right where I am.
6. Race rather than survive. Now that I’ve established time benchmarks for myself in the 50K, 50 mile, 12-hour, 24-hour and the 100-mile, it’s time to stop training and running to survive them and train/run to better my times. Although survival is pretty important, too.
The first three runs using these guidelines have gone well. It certainly helps that the weather has been gorgeous.
I went to dokusan Monday. Zen practice has felt awkward lately, and I was frankly bewildered by my teacher’s positive responses. As with my training runs, the specific “goal” is currently elusive. Perhaps there really isn’t one. Whether sitting on the cushion or running the roads and trails, the best approach seems always not to measure or judge, but simply to continue.
The editors of Shambhala Sun have posted a short essay of mine on their blog. You can read it here. Grateful bows to Andrea Miller and the other good folks at the Sun.
Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Alfred A. Knopf, May 2009)
With such a meandering subtitle, one could perhaps be forgiven for wondering if the resulting narrative will be just as apparently random. And there is no doubt that Born To Run (BTR), like the runners in some of the classic ultra races it describes, speeds wildly from station to station, hurtling pell-mell around cliff edges and chasing down blind alleys, losing its way temporarily only to reconnect with the main trail, all while barely stopping for air along the way. The results for the reader — who might feel at times like he or she is actually running in an ultra — can swing wildly from joyful exhilaration to annoyance and frustration, to exhaustion and back again. And again.
BTR begins with the running injury-prone Mr. McDougall searching for an answer to a question: “Why does my foot hurt?” His quest takes him, and us, on an international roller-coaster ride that takes countless side-trips to the history of running shoes, ultra marathon race reports, colorful profiles of ultra running personalities such as Barefoot Ted, Scott Jurek, and others; sports nutrition, and evolutionary bioscience – just to name a few subjects. After many misadventures and digressions, his journey finally leads him into a precariously staged 50-mile showdown race with a handful of elite North American ultra runners and the elusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, considered by many as the best pure long-distance runners in the world.
It all sounds like the kind of shaggy dog story you might overhear in a bar at 2 a.m., and it’s written that way, too. This is a good and bad thing. Mr. McDougall’s chosen narrative style for BTR is a sort of attention-defict, wisecracking approach that, despite all of the colorful and engaging material the author has to work with, comes across as being inexplicably terrified of losing his audience. Unfortunately, this peripatetic, hyper-slangy prose will probably begin to seriously date the book no more than five years from now. And it’s frankly exhausting to read for more than a short chapter at a time.
Still, the many stories and anecdotes are for the most part entertaining, and Mr. McDougall is especially good at sustaining excitement and tension when describing racing and races. Being an ultra runner himself, his first-hand descriptions of the thrills and many challenges of ultra racing come across as genuine and vivid. One runner’s dehydration symptoms are described as “having pee the color of convenience store coffee,” which more than a few marathoners and ultra marathoners can certainly identify with. It’s just the kind of TMI runners love to relate. But a few side forays into evolutionary biomechanics, just when the story is beginning to pick up speed, don’t hold the same level of interest and seem a little tacked-on. Here is where BTR could have used a little judicious pruning to keep it more on course. In fact, McDougall seems torn between offering scientific explanations of why barefoot is the way nature intended humans to run and serving up a rip-roaring ultra running adventure story.
But perhaps continually veering off course and finding new trails is part of the charm and spirit of BTR, a book that could easily become something of a cult classic. With more and more people crowding the trails using GPS devices and wearing high-tech running gear, along with ever more sophisticated approaches to training, competing, and marketing, the “Wild West” frontier era of ultrarunning described in this book already sadly seems like part of history.
While it’s great to see the sport of ultra marathoning continue to grow, it would be a shame to lose that pioneering outsider spirit Mr. McDougall relates so exuberantly. His inspirational personal discovery that humans were, indeed, born to run leaves you ready to hit the trails yourself. And while BTR often comes across as if Jack Kerouac were slamming down Red Bulls and writing on deadline for Trail Runner, you really don’t want to rein in that kind of spirit. But I suppose you shouldn’t be at all surprised at the places you wind up, or the zig-zag route you take to get there.
I knew aerobic exercise was a powerful antidepressant, but I hadn’t realized it could be so profoundly mood-stabilizing and — I hate to use the word — meditative. If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.
– Christopher McDougall, Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Alfred A. Knopf, May 2009)
4.5 glorious miles today at lunch. But, in some ways, these weekly Tuesday-Thursday frolics are starting to feel a little too tame. I am feeling very ready to start working harder next week.
My main challenge will be trying to keep any weekly increases in mileage and intensity moderately reined in until late summer/early fall. Remembering how the New York Dolls famously (and accurately) summarized their own career in an album title, “Too Much, Too Soon” … it’s a 70′s glam-rock warning, but no less timely for that. And yes, I know they recently reformed, but with only three of the original members — which makes them, in a slightly less extreme way, the Lynyrd Skynyrd of early NYC punk.
But I digress; my mind is a landfill of the unnecessary. Speaking of which, Twitter is all about staying aware, right? After all, their slogan is “What are you doing?” But isn’t nurturing awareness through meditation and running a sort of non-invasive, organic version of Twitter? When we sit, run, or do anything else mindfully, aren’t we constantly asking ourselves, “What are you doing?”
So who needs Twitter, really?
It seems strange to train when you don’t know exactly what you’re training for, and when what you don’t know what you’re training for is pretty far in the future. And yet, something has to be done, but not too much of something too soon, or you wind up doing something for nothing.
I don’t mean to sound like a bad imitation of Beckett, although I’ve been reading Malone Dies again and he is much on my mind. But it’s a fact that I still don’t know exactly what races I’m participating in this fall, and yet I still need to start preparing for them. When I don’t know what I’m training for, the simplest approach is simply to build a solid base of mileage and be sure to get in a decent mix of road work, trail work, hill training for strength, and some speed work in there somewhere.
As a result, I’ve been digging into various old training books and my journals to cobble together something resembling a plan. Basically, the plan is to comfortably reach a 20/10 weekend (20 miles on Saturday and 10 on Sunday, around 30%-40% of it on trails) by July, shortly before I head for Badwater to help crew my friend Nattu. Not that I’ll be pacing him for 20 miles, but it’s a conveniently ominous date on the calendar.
During the week, I’d like to work up to 6-8 miles on Tuesday, 6 on Wednesday, and 6-8 on Thursday, keeping Monday and Friday as rest days, with 35-45 minutes of yoga on the weekdays. No weights. And, of course, sitting every day for at least 30-35 minutes.
Hopefully by July I’ll know what I’m training for and can focus more on roads or trails, depending on the races I’ll be registering for this fall. Also, from July into September I plan to increase my peak Sunday run to 20 miles and my peak Saturday run to 30. That’s about the limits of what my schedule will let me do.
I’m adding another day of running (Wednesday) this year, and intend to work harder all around, with more aggressive run/walk ratios on the days I’m doing run/walks. Last year was an experiment in minimalist training, and I suppose it was somewhat successful, but I’m in the mood to work harder this year. Best to take advantage of an odd mood like that.
Sitting-wise, I know what I’m targeting for 2009: a weekend sesshin in nearby Chico, Texas this coming May. Anything longer than a weekend sit is just not in the cards this year.
I’ll get started on my Plan For Nothing next week. But I could use a lot more Unplanned Nothing time. I’m guessing we all could.