Back to the little room

30 03 2010

Koan after koan, mile after mile, check it off, get it out of the way. When our practice and our running become rote exercises, just something else to get done in search of Boston or Western States qualifiers or “enlightenment,” we lose the sense of joy and discovery that made us sit or run to begin with. One morning, put down the self-imposed stresses and frustrations of your goals, and begin your sit or run with no purpose other than to follow the simple miracle of your breathing, the earth quickly changing under your feet. Return to the buried beginnings of why you started to do these things, and let that rediscovery enrich the goals you want to set for yourself. As Jack White sings in the White Stripes song “Little Room”:

When you’re in your little room
And you’re working on something good
But if it’s really good
You’re gonna need a bigger room
And when you’re in the bigger room
You might not know what to do
You might have to think of
How you got started
Sittin’ in your little room

Spring ahead

29 03 2010

I spent Saturday at a zazenkai (all-day sit, a sort of mini-sesshin). The weather has finally turned for the season here, and we’re looking at a lot of blue sky and cool breezes – so we sat with the windows open, accompanied by the sweet chatter of songbirds. I had a terrific zazenkai and made good progress on koan study with one of my teachers.

The funny thing about koan study is you can feel mired with a koan for a long period of time, then visit with another teacher (I usually see four different teachers in dokusan over a year) and suddenly something is said, or not said, by that teacher that resonates and helps clarify things. Sometimes it’s not a “turning word” at all, but simply being in a different teacher’s presence that does it. Koan study is often the part of practice I dread, yet it’s the part that usually holds the most tangible surprises and rewards. But, of course, you’re never done with koans – finish one and you’re presented with another, sometimes just as inscrutable as the last one first seemed. A Zen practitioner’s work is never done.

My first month of build-up for fall racing has also gone exceptionally well. I took an extended layoff after the White Rock Marathon last December, just running for fun 40 minutes or less every day. At the first of March, I began a slow build to something more, keeping in mind my tentative race plans for the fall. I felt like I sleepwalked through much of my training last year after finishing my first 100-miler at Rocky Raccoon, and consequently felt very stale during the fall race season, even dropping plans for more ultras after a DNF in the Palo Duro 50-Mile. So, I decided to essentially start from (almost) scratch, take it very slowly, and recover my inspiration along the way.

So far, the slow build has worked very well. It’s gone something like this:

Monday: 40-45 minutes easy run/walk
Tuesday: Tempo run, beginning for 30 minutes and eventually increasing to 38, at 8:20 average pace
Wednesday: 6.5 miles moderate run/walk
Thursday: Incline repeats, beginning with 4 and increasing to 8, at 6% incline for a quarter mile each at 8:20 average pace
Friday: Rest
Saturday: 6 miles, 9.3 miles, 12.5 miles, hard run/walk (consecutive cycle, then start over)
Sunday: 4 miles, 6 miles, 8 miles, easy run/walk (consecutive cycle, then start over)

I continually switch surfaces and shoes, running in everything from standard Asics marathoners to Montrails to Vibrams, running on everything from treadmills to trails to streets to cross-country. I’ve also been strength training 3 days a week as well, and doing three days of yoga, Rountree-style.

For April and May I’ll ratchet up the miles and intensity incrementally from March, but keep the same basic schedule. (Beyond May, a new and harder schedule for June-August.) I’d like to find a local half marathon near the end of May or early June, but they are hard to come by … hopefully something will turn up.

Busy as I move into Spring, but in all the right ways. Things are clicking, in sitting and in running. It’s a good feeling.

Training Break #169

26 03 2010

Meditation is not a recess or a time-out. It’s a deepening and strengthening of the mind, which affects our whole life. In our body we have muscles and bones we can train and strengthen, even when we’re out of shape. In the same way, there is inherent strength, clarity, and stability in the mind, and meditation is a way to bring that out.

— Sakyong Miphim Rinpoche, “Time To Be Pragmatic,” Shambhala Sun May 2010

Lose the script

25 03 2010

Many races are lost, and many sesshins are left early, simply because of our hair-trigger instinct to yoke ourselves to fantasy. Struggling halfway through a 100-mile race, we imagine, in vivid, painful detail, what we will feel like at mile 80, and we quit at the next aid station. Knees and back hurting intensely during an especially dull sit in the third day of a week-long sesshin, we envision in Technicolor 3-D what we will feel like by the end of the last day, and we quietly leave for home at the next break. We do this all day long, every day – dreading meetings as we clearly envision their outcome, avoiding a confrontation with someone over an issue because we’ve already scripted what will be said. Minute by minute, we enslave ourselves to a future that doesn’t even exist. Leave the fantasies to Hollywood. Live here now, and realize that “here now” is always changing – often in ways even the most clever screenwriter wouldn’t think of imagining.

Wear Test: Vibram FiveFingers® KSO

23 03 2010

As part of my informal Spring 2010 “Beginner’s Mind” running/sitting rejuvenation program, I thought: what could be more beginner’s mind than barefoot running? I decided to try (almost) barefoot running and purchased a pair of Vibram FiveFingers® KSO. I’d been eyeing these for about a year or so, toying with the idea of trying out a pair, and finally decided with the final arrival of Spring that there was no better time to slip them on and go for a run.

Factoring in postage, the KSOs cost almost exactly the same as an average new pair of conventional running shoes, perhaps slightly less. I thought briefly about going for Vibram’s “Hummer” model, the KSO Trek, which are probably better suited for trail running, but they were $40 more – and this was strictly an experiment. I plonked down my money for the KSOs and they arrived in the mail a few days later.

Herding the piggies

Out of the box they had the same potent “new running shoe smell” I was used to, but of course looked entirely different. The rubber sole, which curled up around the front of the toe boxes for additional protection, certainly felt very thin. They looked sort of like high-tech bedroom slippers for circus clowns. Apprehension crept in, with a micro twinge of buyer’s remorse. What sort of consumer karma had I tapped into here?

It took me a few minutes to get all of my piggies herded into their private pens, but they all fit comfortably with the possible exception of my right little toe – for some reason it felt slightly and a little oddly extended, despite additional squirming and flexing to reposition things. Finally I decided enough already — it was going to be one small step for a man, one giant barefoot leap for mankind. I headed for the park.

At the park

I had decided on a very easy 40-45 minute test, running about 30% of the time on concrete and the rest cross-country. The park is a mix of open field, concrete walkways/parking lots, and soccer fields, with some minor rolling terrain. Ground conditions were clear and fairly dry, with some softening from the meltoff of the previous day’s surprise one inch of snow.

And away I went.

Stepping gingerly, I started out on a two-minute walk just to get a feel for the shoe. I could feel the changes in the surface literally from step to step, and my calf muscles were obviously working harder. It really felt like I was walking barefoot. And then I started to run, going for five minutes at a time followed by a one minute walk.

After only ten minutes or so, I had gained full confidence in the shoes and was simply enjoying the run, even daring to go faster than I had intended – probably topping out at around 8:30-9:00 minute mile pace in the middle stages. I ran over a broad covering of pointy-ended acorns without fear, up and down hills, through soft dirt, over concrete. My right little toe, the one that had felt a little out of place before the run, had found the sweet spot in its stall and settled in comfortably for the ride.

What I liked most about the KSOs was how they fully connected me with my run. I realized how, in conventional running shoes, we’re not allowed to make much contact with the actual ground surface. We’re missing a lot. I really enjoyed how I could feel the surface textures constantly changing under my feet, helping to keep my head in the run. The forty minutes passed way too quickly.

And that, to me, is the real magic of the Vibram approach. So much of today’s running technology is designed to take you out of the run – GPS monitors, MP3 players, heavily cushioned shoes. It’s as if we were trying to recreate tooling around in a Cadillac Escalade on foot, ironically seeking ways to escape the very experience of running. Sure, they look a little odd, but Vibram’s technology actually serves to put you more in touch with your running environment and make the experience of running more intimate and real. Put simply, it made me more aware of my running. And anything that helps make me more aware, in my book, is a good thing.


I expected soreness in my feet and calves on the next day, but I didn’t have any, so I guess being a little cautious the first time out was the right move. I wondered how the shoe would really hold up — for one run at least, they appear to have held together quite nicely. I’ll be interested to find out how durable they are over the next few months.

For now, this is definitely my go-to shoe for shorter (an hour or less) runs cross-country and on non-technical trail. Beyond that, I don’t know how much braver I’ll get; I’ll just take it one nearly barefoot run at a time. But I’m really looking forward to trying them again — and I’m afraid I’m starting to covet the KSO Trek. Desire is definitely endless.

The way of surrender

20 03 2010

There comes a moment for me in every marathon or ultramarathon, and in every sesshin, that is very specific and pivotal. It’s the moment when I’m feeling most tired, most in pain, most sick of fighting it all, a clearly defined point in space and time when I basically become fed up. And there are two very different directions that moment can take me. I can either run away from it, by quitting the race or leaving the sesshin. Or I can surrender myself to it. And when I do give up the struggle to escape my experience and simply let myself be, to feel it all fully and completely, my tension evaporates, the cheap scenery of my self-scripted melodrama is revealed for what it really is, and I make peace with my pain and suffering. Then, and only then, can I finish the race or stay for the end of the sesshin.

It’s true that surrendering is generally not seen as victory in our culture. The operative response is “fight.” But when I do surrender, whether on the trail, on the cushion or in life, it makes words like “victory,” “defeat,” “fight,” or even “surrender” unnecessary. Surrendering is simply allowing ourselves, finally, the freedom to be us — in all our messy glory.

Clover, wildflowers and Mockingbird mixtapes

15 03 2010

Eight miles yesterday through clover and wild flowers, twelve and a half miles the day before around the lake. The cormorants have mostly left their poop-spattered aviary of half-dead trees at the north end of the lake and headed back home, presumably to defecate in alarmingly large quantities there as well. The odor of half-digested fish is slowly leaving the lake breeze. Someone spotted a bald eagle near the spillway a few days ago, and everyone’s abuzz. Testing out the new spring sun, glistening turtles slipped off mossy logs into the water as I passed. Early spring, and everything is coming and going.

The first two weeks of my build-up for fall have gone well. Strength training at the gym three days a week again; surprisingly easy to fall back into that routine. The 12.5 mile run on Saturday felt a little more bonky in the last two miles than I had hoped for, but it was the first double-digit run since December 13 or so. And the first energy gel of the year: lime-flavored, that familiar sweet and sour taste of my favorite gels. I’m going Gatorade-free this year, something new. Also carried a water bottle on Saturday for the first time since December. And I’ve ordered a pair of these to try out on my next cross-country run, just to see what happens.

Old habits, new wrinkles, a blend of the familiar and new. Sitting is still sitting, although by the end of June I will have attended more sesshins and zazenkais than in all of 2009. And I’m monitoring zazen on Thursday nights at a local church, a first for me. I’ve always been content to (literally) sit on the sidelines because I didn’t want my sitting to be interrupted, but of course monitoring — timing the sitting for everyone, and leading the chants at the end — is practice too. Everything is practice, grist for the mindful mill.

The optimism I hear in the exuberant mixtapes of the Mockingbird improvising by our front porch is palpable and inspiring. Getting an education from the birds again … it’s early days, but I feel I’ve already recaptured some of my beginner’s mind this spring.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 121 other followers