Seniority means nothing

31 01 2013

I was fitting an older man in a new pair of running shoes the other day, someone who seemed to have lived, as Thoreau put it, a life of quiet desperation. At least, his mood in the store was one of resigned melancholy — a former runner eager to share his regrets and warnings. “I do good to walk now and I would never recommend running to anyone, certainly not anyone over 50,” he said wearily as he slouched in his chair, his eyes scanning the dozens of bright shoes displayed on the wall. “The arthritis, the knee operations and replacements … it’s just not worth it.” He certainly did not realize the person fitting him in a new pair of shoes at that moment was 53 years old, had been running consistently for over 35 years and is still running three to four times a week, had never (knock on wood) had a serious injury of any sort, and finds running very much worth it. I said nothing, but simply took it as another reminder that older people like myself should be careful about making definitive statements on how to live based solely on our own fortunes or misfortunes. As Thoreau also put it, we really have nothing to teach the young — they’ll figure it out for themselves, as well they should. After all, it’s a new world every second.

The 2,000 year-old truth about pro cycling

17 01 2013

Even an evildoer may see benefit
As long as the evil
Has yet to mature.
But when the evil has matured,
The evildoer
Will meet with misfortune.

Don’t disregard evil, thinking,
“It won’t come back to me!”
With dripping drops of water
Even a water jug is filled.
Little by little,
A fool is filled with evil.

(The Dhammapada, 119 & 121, third-century BCE. Gil Fronsdal, trans.)

Why do they keep changing everything?

25 10 2012

A man strode into the running specialty store where I work, stopped in front of the shoe department, pointed emphatically at his shoes, and loudly and firmly said: “I want THIS exact shoe, in THIS exact size, and in THIS exact color.”

“Sorry sir,” one of my co-workers said, “but they’re no longer making that model of that particular shoe. I can show you the new model, if you’d like.”

The man blinked at my co-worker, his face shifting in seconds from shock to sputtering, bewildered anger. “Don’t make it anymore?” he said, his voice rising. “Why do they keep changing everything?”

I just never know where my next teacher is coming from, which is why I’m trying to pay closer attention these days. What a great koan! Who are these evil overlords “They,” and why do They seem to reap such pleasure in continually spinning our lives into a thousand miniature hells every day? Why can’t anything stay the same?

Once again, someone saw themselves as the unwitting victim of a sinister plot — this time by a shoe company intent on one thing and one thing only: making him the victim, ruining his afternoon. We all give our egos free rein to do this sort of thing every day, and our egos love it, because the last thing our egos want is to be denied or humiliated. If our egos are denied or humiliated, it’s Their fault, and we’re the victim. For some reason, it’s so much easier to star in our own self-directed melodramas than to simply accept circumstances and carry on.

I’ve been listening to a lot of John Cage lately. John Cage is a great teacher of acceptance. His music compositions, often dictated by chance operations (the I Ching was one of his favorite composing tools), make it possible for many of his works to never be played the same way twice. When you’re listening to Cage, you often have no clue what is coming next. It’s as likely to be a moment of silence as a note or a chord, or loud (or soft) thumping or buzzing noises, or — in the case of one of his most famous compositions, 4′ 33″ — nothing but the pianist sitting at the piano for the period of time indicated in the title.

With Cage, everything is music, and once I stop resisting my expectations for melody or anything resembling traditional musical logic — in other words, once I accept the sounds as sounds and just listen — the other sounds of everyday life begin to blend in with Cage’s plinks, plunks and silences, and you realize everything is changing, all of the time, in a thousand different little ways, and it all is making a kind of music together. No music, no “other,” all together.

Listening to Cage has opened me up a little more to acceptance as a life practice and has influenced my running, my sitting and my life in a lot of positive ways. When we stop resisting, when we realize that we’re really exhausting ourselves by trying to stay the same in a constantly morphing universe, it’s easier to accept a twitchy day on the cushion, or a crappy tempo run workout, or a race that didn’t go exactly as planned, or a favorite running shoe that is no longer available — or even much bigger things. Why do They keep changing everything? The real question is, why can’t we see change as the only constant in our lives?

Getting in more than a few miles

11 07 2011

My first official long run training weekend for the 2011-2012 race season went well. Yes, it was hot, but I took my time, followed my breath, ran cautiously and logged nearly three hours on Saturday morning and nearly two more on Sunday.

Recovery was challenging but not unexpectedly so; I obviously still have some heat acclimation work to do and, given the times and temps during both runs, my energy levels were low for most of the weekend. As a result my attitude was a bit on the cranky side too, but at least I was aware of it. All in all, not a bad start to training. I am participating in a sesshin this coming weekend which will make long runs impossible, but my race training will resume in full next week.

Recently I sat immediately after a run and noticed it felt like the third or fourth sit of a zazenkai or sesshin, rather than a first sit. Usually it takes a few sits into a Zen retreat for your mind to stop churning, but I’m guessing that thanks largely to the run I was able to “go deep” pretty much right away. A lot of the mind-emptying you normally have to do in the early part of a zazenkai or sesshin is probably handled quite efficiently during a typical training run … you almost literally run your thoughts into the ground. For some reason, that realization struck me during this particular sit.

I’m more convinced than ever that there are millions of runners all over the world who are meditating and don’t even know it.

Changing the rules: my fall race schedule

6 07 2011

I posted recently about my body telling me it wanted to run more, and how I responded by running more, and how my body responded positively to running more. Things were taken several furlongs further this past weekend when I sat down, did some searching, and came up with a tentative fall race schedule … along with the realization I wanted/needed to start ramping up mileage now, rather than the first of August.

What can I say? My body is telling me it’s ready, and there’s no sense in holding it to a predetermined timeline. I’m starting to run longer again this week, although I’m still many weeks from peak mileage. But it’s time, and it appears racing is still something I truly want to do, rather than just another habit.

This is how a longer off-season can be very helpful: rest, recovery, and reevaluation. Not so much a conscious, thinking reevaluation, but just letting the body do most of the driving. I’ve become a pretty firm believer that your body and gut know a lot of important stuff; your mind just makes 3D movies for your ego to star in. In recent years, I have tried to never enter an off-season with the expectation that I would participate in even a 5K again. I try very hard not to think about racing again at all.

And when I give my body and gut time and space to reconsider things and go with what emerges, the right action usually will be made clear. Then it becomes a matter of aligning my mind to my body’s thinking. Which isn’t always easy, as we typically go about most things the opposite way.

So here’s my tentative race schedule until the end of 2011:

9/17 Tour des Fleurs 20K, Dallas, TX
10/9 Tyler Rose Half Marathon, Tyler, TX
10/22 24 The Hard Way (12-hour version; trail), Oklahoma City, OK
11/19 Wild Hare 50 Mile Trail Run, Warda, TX
12/3 Run Like The Wind 12-Hour (trail), Austin, TX
12/31 Across The Years 24-Hour (lottery dependent), Nardini Manor, AZ

We’ll see about Across The Years (ATY). If not ATY, I’ll find another 24-hour or 100 mile race in the same general time slot to fill the gap. So far as early 2012 goes, I’ll cross that bridge once I’ve crossed a few others.

Goals? I’d like to enjoy and be present with every step. I’d like to log 60+ miles for a 12 hour race (my best is a little over 58). I’d like to crack 100 miles for 24 hours. I’d like to end the season healthy. I’d like to really take pleasure in my training, and realize that training is of course running too. and that running is still something I enjoy and still a vital part of my Zen practice.

A lot of desires for sure. So, here we go. To quote one of guitarist and composer Robert Fripp’s many wonderfully appropriate aphorisms, “With commitment, all the rules change.”

Relationships, running, and racing

27 06 2011

Why do we race? Why do we keep lining up at starting lines, crossing “finish” lines, and starting all over again at another start line? I haven’t participated in a race since March 25, a half marathon, and I haven’t really thought about racing in the future. But there is something in me that is craving more than exercise: over the past two weeks, for no particular reason, I began running two more days per week, and have started running with significantly more intensity than in recent weeks. There was no timetable for this; my body, impatient with the current clock I had set for it, was simply telling me it wanted to run more, and faster. I responded with some caution, but given how well my body has taken to my response, I know now it was the right thing to do.

I have some vague notion of really starting to ramp up mileage again in August, for a race schedule I haven’t even begun to really think about. For me, part of taking time away from racing is to look from a distance and understand my relationship to racing. Part of it is certainly that I still enjoy pushing my body-mind to its limit, and seeing if that limit can be pushed out further somehow. There is also a lot of personal fascination in balancing nutrition, hydration, and pacing issues during a 12- or 24-hour race; it’s like playing the old classic PC game Oregon Trail, but for real.

But, if I’m really honest with myself, my ego enjoys telling people that I’m about to take part in a 50-mile trail race. And, even deeper, there is in me a desire to somehow stand outside of the herd, to find a club (paraphrasing Woody Allen) where, if I’m not the only member, I can at least be counted among the fewer … even though, paradoxically, I tend to not like the spotlight shining on me.

In short, my relationship to running and racing is complicated, because I’m a neurotic mess. But I’m really no different from anyone else; like the late Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck (another memorial in this year of memorials) said, we’re all a neurotic mess, really. It’s not until you take time away from something and study it carefully from a distance, the way we do our minds in zazen, that you become aware of just how messy things (and we) are.

Why take time to find out you’re a mess? It helps clarify your relationships to things and makes it easier to laugh at and live with your neuroses — and help avoid the traps, big and small, your egoistic tendencies might push you into. Should I really run two marathons a month for the next 12 months and start a website about it? Why? Am I really capable of a Boston Marathon qualifier, or do I just want to use the phrase “Boston Marathon qualifier” at parties? If you pay close attention, taking time away brings perspective and helps qualify and prioritize the hungers and desires you’re feeling.

But in the past two weeks, my body told me, “run more” and I have responded. It feels right, is the only thing I can think of. Where it will lead in the weeks and months ahead, I can’t really say. For now, I’m just trying to listen.

Every step is important

14 06 2011

“Anything within a performance is significant, whether intentional or not,” says composer, guitarist and composer Robert Fripp. This is certainly true of racing. Just a few seconds’ slip of awareness can lead to bypassing a crucial refueling stop, missing a trail marker and getting lost, or absently tipping any one of another thousand dominoes, toppling over the best laid race plans. Part of a runner’s training is to constantly practice staying with the breath and maintain awareness with every step, always being present in the here and now despite pain and fatigue, despite the ego urging us to go faster, faster. Stay with your breath and body, and continually adjust your race based on their constant feedback. Your mind and emotions make stuff up; your breath and body are what they are, and they never lie. Stay with them, relax in their unerring guidance, and understand every step is important, another few inches closer to your goal. Don’t let one go by unnoticed.

Arrivals, departures

13 06 2011

I wrote about memorials in my last post, and the memorials continue. My 93 year-old grandmother (and last surviving grandparent) died last week, and we attended her service this past weekend. A young mother of two surrendered to cancer after a long struggle, and her funeral is today. All in all, seven deaths since January that have personally touched our family’s lives in one way or another.

This week, I’m running to remember. This coming weekend, I’ll be participating in a sesshin, and with all of the memorials visited so far this year, it will be interesting to see where my thoughts go. Last night I dreamed my wife was starting to tell our two daughters what she had just heard about the death of a 12 year-old they seemingly both knew, but she dissolved into grief without me ever hearing the name. I woke up soon after, the sound of her vividly imagined weeping still in my ear. Deaths both real and fantastic, reality and dream.

At the same time we attend memorials to those gone, we anticipate an arrival: our older daughter will soon give birth to our first grandchild, a girl. How will this emerging life influence our advancing lives, our waking and dreaming? Impossible to predict. But in this year of departure, I know we’ll be grateful for her bright new presence.


1 06 2011

I like to run through cemeteries. Apart from enjoying the relative quiet and solitude, I find a certain comfort in running past the rows of tombstones – some mirror-shiny, some mossed-over and faded. The starkly chiseled names seem to take on more resonance in the stillness, conjuring up worlds of unseen family, neighbors and friends, buried and alive … those still very much with us, those newly mourned, and those forgotten in time.

It has been a sad summer at my office. Three younger people, two of whom I knew well, have died — two from illnesses that can fell our fragile sacks of bones in an instant or slowly erode them over many years, the other from drowning. There were memorials, all three remembered and mourned in different ways. We want them to stay with us, we can’t believe they’re gone. We cling, we mourn, our own lives continue, but for how long? “One inch ahead, all is darkness,” goes the Zen saying.

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with Memorial Day. Certainly we should remember those who have died in war, but they are perhaps our greatest tragedy. Humans reduced to killing each other is collapse on a cosmic level – failures of communication, of wisdom, of patience, of generosity, of understanding, of will, of imagination and creativity, of love and compassion, of courage. The young men and women who bravely paid the highest price for the colossal failures of others are rightly mourned and remembered. But I deeply wish it were not necessary to do so.

We’re building other, lesser memorials all the time: memorials to the job we didn’t get, the relationship that didn’t work out, the house or car we want but can’t afford, the race that didn’t go as planned. But the power of these lesser shrines is undeniable and inexplicable. We can worship and grieve at them almost as fervently as we can those in cemeteries. Letting go, on any level, is very hard.

I like to run through cemeteries, but I always, at least while I still can, try to make it a point to leave them. Remembering is helpful, clinging less so. Certainly remember those who have left us, learn from the examples of their lives and deaths, and carry those lessons forward. Visit the memorials, remember, and learn. But don’t pitch your tent in their shadows.

The riches of recovery

20 05 2011

The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery: Rest, Relax & Restore for Peak Performance by Sage Rountree (VeloPress)

“No one is going to get rich writing a triathlon book about rest,” Tom Rogers wrote in The Perfect Distance, and quoted in Sage Rountree’s new book. Sad but true. Most hardcore runners and triathletes don’t want to hear about having to rest or recover from anything. You could look at it as one-thirds ego, fear, and delusion: there’s an ego-fed image of indestructibility that many athletes feel they must maintain in order to perform, there’s a fear of taking a fitness hit if you skip a week or even a day of training, and there’s the delusion that rest is somewhat unnecessary and perhaps even detrimental.

Rountree quite clearly and sensibly deflates all of these assumptions and shows how rest, when properly measured and managed, can actually boost peak performance. Her book is a treasure trove of recovery information, with 20 chapters, 2 appendices and references for further reading. No topic is left uncovered: qualitative and quantitative measurements for recovery, active recovery, recovering from injury and illness, nutrition, hydration, meditation, cold and heat, supplements, stress reduction, restorative yoga, massage, self massage … it’s all there, and more. Marathoners, ultramarathoners, triathletes and even just plain stressed out average folk will find a wealth of useful information in The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery.

At times it seems like almost too much information, on too many different (albeit related) subjects. There is simply not enough space and too many relevant topics to delve deeply on any specific aspect of recovery. Personally I felt the all-too-brief chapter on sleep was tantalizing more than satisfying and could easily be expanded into a book of its own, as could the chapter on meditation and breathing. It’s also a little regrettable that a few current “high tech” tools are described and pictured in the book instead of discussed in a more general fashion, since the devices shown will probably date the book within five years. (And as anyone knows who visits here on occasion, I don’t have a lot of faith in high tech solutions to organic problems anyway.) And knowing her deserved reputation as an expert on yoga for athletes, the chapter on restorative yoga was probably a given, although it seems a little cursory given her other yoga books.

But to say there’s not a lot of valuable information here would be very wrong. As a runner in distances up to 50K and a short-course triathlon competitor for the U.S national team, Rountree definitely knows her stuff, and she’s an excellent writer and organizer of information. There are just so many relevant topics covered that at times it feels like drinking from a fire hose. But hey, at least someone finally turned the spigot on. Rest and recovery have been almost taboo subjects in the racing community, something best avoided by popping a few tablets of “Vitamin I” (Ibuprofen) and getting on with more and more training until the wheels finally come off. Unfortunately, hobbling around in a leg cast equals “rest” for many runners. It’s to Rountree’s deep credit that she not only understood the necessity of dealing with this subject seriously, but to leave no stone unturned. And if you’re really interested in delving deeper, she lists a ton of supplemental reference material to get you going. Recommended.


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