Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Nap Fitness

Carpet Bagger.  It's an apt caricature of life in rapidly unfolding 2015.  I began in the North, waking before the early January sunrise to the first snow I'd seen in Milwaukee this winter for a flight back down South.  "Don't go just yet" the white blanket seemed to plead as it dissolved in blue deicing fluid over the plane's wings.  Brief solitude in the mountains and Zap before bouncing to Scotland, to Tallahassee, to Boulder, to Ireland, and to Greenville, South Carolina.  We're vagabonds at times, us runners.  Train hard.  Rinse off.  Recover.  Race.  Recover.  Repeat.  Compete with your similarly tasked friends across the country, catch up for 90 minutes at a post race party, and see them again at the next one.  I'm not complaining.  Sometimes it feels like we're on tour, with(out) (tens of) thousands of screaming fans, (coach) buses, the (illegal) drugs*, and the (big) money.  But it's an honest, fast, fun life, and one I'm really thankful I get to live.  Things are going to settle down next week when Zap Fitness makes its springtime return to Zap Fitness, but we're as eligible for a trip to California or Istanbul while cutting Zap's grass field or fixing fence posts as we ever are.

Though the pace of travel and racing feels quick, the in-between times reserved for training and doing laundry are relaxing.  The most important thing I've learned since leaving college is how to chill the fudge out (You take fudge and refrigerate it. [too dry?] {My humor or the fudge?}]).  That manifests itself across the board: the nap between runs, mentally handling a string of hard training weeks with few distractions to break the days up, and in the pace of easy runs.  Pete often begins his Top Secret Zap daily training emails with a quote or tidbit, and one from about a month ago sums the idea up well:

"Handle boredom well - so many athletes I run into struggle with running and doing all the ancillary things associated with their running and little else. Put simply that is what the best in the world do but many fight it in our 'need to be productive all the time' western society."
     - 2 x Olympian Peter Pfitzinger (from a NE Runner Column Aug '91 - What it Takes to be a Pro)

But reading about boredom must be boring.  You'd rather be boring a hole in a board during a boring boarding school advisory board meeting about room and board.  Physicist Niels Bohr once said "An expert is a man (or woman) who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field."  He's talking about being bored.  More specifically, about focus on one single thing for a long time.  Wouldn't you rather fully complete something that took a long time than leave a bunch of competing, partially finished projects to die?  There is always time, lots of time.  I'm slowly getting better at what Pfitzinger described, trusting what I am doing and not worrying about what I could be doing.

The Wanderlust continues, bringing Tyler, Griff, and I to Jacksonville, FL for this Saturday's Gate River Run / US 15k Road Championships.  The race marks my last foray into over-distance before track heats up.  15,000 meters (roughly 9.3 miles) is traditionally a good ways for me, but I'm excited to continue breaking out of my mold and testing myself against the race's best ever field.  It's a flat course until the large hill in the eighth mile and blazing downhill in the ninth to the finish.  There's a handsome prize purse, bonuses for the fastest final mile, and a team competition with payout.  All that makes for an exciting run which will be live here (for free!) at 8:30 EST on Saturday morning.

Preparation for Gate River has gone well.  My most recent race was a 13:58 5k win on the roads in Armagh, Northern Ireland.  Since then the past three weeks of training in Greenville have been bountiful.  Last Wednesday Andrew, Griff and I worked well together over three sets of track 1200m snowball (get faster and faster) + road 2k threshold followed by track 4 x 400m for economy.  On our third set we were 3:17 (69, 65, 61) for the twelve hundred and 6:01 (3:04, 2:56) for the 2k.  It was a manageable workload executed patiently which always bodes well.  Nothing killer, but a fitness booster.  And on Saturday we were 5:06, 4:43, 4:45, 5:02, 4:44, 4:54 for the miles on a 10k progression run with hills.  

European Championships Steeple Chase Silver Medalist Krystian Zalewski (r) and I battling
in Armagh, Northern Ireland.

A close second on my list of things to look forward to after the 15k is our return to Zap and the mountains.  Winter training camp is over, and I can't wait for the silence of the woods, the icy rush of the creek outside, and to work on all the projects I have in mind.  I'm going to finish building our garden fence, plant the garden, re-finish some old rocking chairs, build a desk, and then go fishing.  There's something special about that place in the woods - maybe it just seems like home to me now.  As long as I find time to be bored once in a while.  Either way, I hope all this carpet bagging brings a profit in Florida.

Monday, February 9, 2015

I'm Not a Tree

How would being a tree be. 
Over there, that tree. 
I'm not a tree.  
Maybe it would be nice to be one. 
To stand there in the wind, or maybe 
Not, on a windless day.  
You don't have to eat,
Rather you soak in food with your toes.  
And you breath through your leafy arms.  
But you wouldn't know that, would you, 
Because you're a tree.  
No thinking.  No sorrow.  
No boredom, even.
At least I think, 
But how would I know?  
I'm not a tree.

I am, however very tired.  Although I'm in Colorado, it's the runner's high I'm drenched in, sprawled out on the grass and reveling in the sweet, sick exhaustion that twelve kilometers of cross country at altitude just beat into me, or rather, I beat into myself.  It's weird, the things that pop into your brain when it's deoxygenated.  On race cool-downs I can be reduced to a babbling Shakespearian-esque clown, s-wordplay drawn, in my mind brilliant but in truth muddled to the ears of those bothering to listen.  Hypoglycemia and endorphins steep into a soup of post-nervous energy expenditure elation until I find some kilocalories and lite beer and bring myself back to the normal world.  Especially amplified by a good long race, these feelings put the addiction in running.

Saturday's US Cross Country Championships involved six laps of a two kilometer loop on Boulder's Flatiron golf course.  Though the sun, seventy degree temperatures, and accurate venue name made for nice conditions, the 5200 feet of elevation made it a little harder for lowland-lubbers like me.  Unlike a mile or even 5k, my (hardtack and lard) this race was long enough that it's come to rest in my memory not unlike some Homeric epic with defeats and victories preceding the final result.  It was war out there, and there was definitely carnage.

In the first 2k lap, everyone's nervous energy burned hotly around sharp fenced off turns and through the small rocky ditch about 1800 meters into each loop.  By the first pass by the start/finish area, the major contenders had roughly sorted themselves into a contingent near the front.  Andrew and I were close together in about 25th place.  In fact I almost fell shortly into the second lap and his body helped catch me. (That is team work) Soon after my comfort level began declining rapidly and I knew this wouldn't be a "relax and roll" kind of race.  Every passing minute would require focus.

I began drifting away from the main pack from 3k to 6k into the race.  In the moment I was fighting off negative thoughts, trying not to think about the distance remaining.  I started thinking "Damn it, this is it.  I'm going backwards and the next 25 minutes are going to be helltitude."  But I hung in, and midway into the fourth lap, somewhere around 5k to go, I began making passes around some highly credentialed guys slipping backwards.  Each gave me a small confidence boost and my focus sharpened.  I promised myself I wouldn't save much for a spectacular kick and instead started moving far  out from the tape.

In the hurt box, but my eyes are up.  The course had a nice view of the mountains.
Thanks to Aric Van Halen for the photo
One last challenge remained: the all-of-six-foot sand bunker decline with 600 meters to go.  My legs were so dead that they got tangled in themselves and I hit the deck.  Muscle memory from my skateboarding days took over and I combat rolled and popped right up, hardly losing any time.  Ian Burell was on my tail and I couldn't afford to lay in the dirt.  Shaken up, I "took off" (which probably meant a blazing five minute pace at this point) with another runner in my sights ahead.  In the finishing chute I just missed getting him for a fifteenth place finish in 38:14.

I wasn't going to let myself be disappointed in fifteenth, not after how low I sunk mentally and how hard I fought back.  Though I missed my goal of making the world cross country team, which required a top-six showing, I realize that sometimes you have to be pleased with a bloody guts and little glory result.  If you can't be alright with missing goals sometimes, you'll never have the gas to get them.  This mentality counterweights complacency, but I'll save being hard on myself for other days and (shorter) races.

I felt a bit of a pang looking at the 2k loop splits published post race day.  Let's just say my fastest loop was only two seconds faster than the winner's slowest.  But I'm not a tree, and I'm also not a pure cross country guy.  As an aside, this years field was high quality, which is a good thing for American distance running.  I'd argue (as C. Derrick has) that greater participation in cross country by our pros improves our Olympic chances on the track.  Many guys are going straight to the track post collegiately, perhaps excessively.  Either way, these results represent a vast improvement in my ability over hill and dale. (but not sand bunker) In high school I finished only as high as fifth at the Wisconsin state cross country meet and was never an All American in NCAA cross country.  Doing "pretty good" this weekend translates to exciting prognostications for track, and that has been the plan all along since September.

Now the plan shifts toward the oval via the roads.  Next week I'll be running a road 5k in Armagh, Ireland.  On π day is the Gate River Run / US road championships 15k in Jacksonville.  A rest week precedes the buildup into outdoor track season and lots of fun races.  I apologize in advance if I meet you on a cool down.

A preliminary schedule of my upcoming races:

Date Race Name Location Venue / Distance
February 17 Armagh Road 5k Armagh, Ireland Road 5k
March 14 Gate River Run Jacksonville, FL Road 15k
April 11 Blue Shoes Mile Greenville, SC Track mile
May 2 Payton Jordan Invitational Palo Alto, CA Track 5000

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Double Trouble, Explained

Act IV Scene I:
In a cavern, somewhere in Scotland, three witches chant

Double, double, toil, and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

The hell-broth mud cauldron boiled coldly under our feet, squirming its way through shoe mesh  and plastering down leg hair (if you had it) through four circuits of Holyrood Park's two kilometer course in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Nothing (especially the hotel showers) escaped the bubbling black mud, and no tourist could we have immersed themselves in Scotland as we did.  The wind screamed and whipped us from the West, streams lapped at our ankles, and the sizable crowd bore witness to a dominating performance by team USA over the likes of Great Britain and Europe.

Kicking home in Scotland
At the post race trivia game, my team won best name with "We Kilt It", though "We Got Bag Piped" would have been a more appropriate description of our quiz performance.  It being my first ever senior US team berth, this brief trip to Scotland was especially memorable.  As runners we're measured greatly by US team qualifications, performances at international events (read: medals), and trivia prowess.  With USA blazed on my chest for the first time, I feel I've broken the ice.  I'll admit, Edinburgh is probably the easiest team to make, but (raises voice) I MADE IT!  You have to start somewhere.

The race was like nothing I'd ever experienced before in cross country.  The course put  many of the grass track-like venues in the US to shame.  It had rained for days leading up to the day of competition, and the junior races before ours made the 2k loop nice and sloppy.  Every lap featured two small but sharp uphills, a longer hill, two small stream crossings, one of which contained a boulder that only allowed one body through at a time, and plenty of ankle deep grass and mud mixture.  ("He must be a King."  "Why is that?"  "He hasn't got shit all over him.")  15mm spikes were the fashion of the day.

Team USA senior men before and after the race.

They say in Scotland that if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes.  It was sunny during our race but began snowing during the women's senior race.  It wasn't unlike Heps 2010.  It all created a very surreal cross country experience, one that made me feel happy and very alive.  I didn't finish up where I would have liked to in the field, but I'm concentrating on the positive of having fought hard in difficult conditions on a big stage.  Tough races never are easy to swallow, but I think you get over them more quickly as you grow more experienced and mature.

Perhaps my favorite part of the trip followed the awards ceremony.  Zap team mate Andrew Colley pointed to a distant volcanic peak, barely visible through the snow, and said "Letsrun up there."  My legs were tired from the race but I couldn't pass up the adventure.  We walk-jogged to the top of Arthurs Seat over rocks, mud, and snow and were rewarded with another abrupt change in the elements: the sun erupted through the clouds and we saw all of Edinburgh below; the castle, the sea, the cross country course, and surrounding pure green countryside.  We didn't bring phones (so did it really happen?) but we kept the image in our memories, which is sometimes better anyway.  On the way down some strange women asked if we had any fillets of fenny snake, but alas, we'd run out.

On the flight home I reflected on where I'm going and what's at my tail.  I'm on the cross country plunge: no indoor track, many and frequent miles, lots of strength workouts, and four (count em!) four cross country races by February's end.  Then I'll run the US 15k Championships in Jacksonville, FL in March.  Only after all that big boy work will I step back on the track and roll, and if all goes as planned, I'll have lifted myself in strength and toughness.  I think it's good to try and make every year a little different in terms of racing calendar and training to keep the body and mind from dragging, pitching out the things that don't work.  I'm excited to see where it propels me.  (sorry please don't mach me)

Zap Fitness is fully inundated (that is not appropriate use of that word) in winter training camp in Tallahassee.  For those who don't know, Trailahassee is secretly an excellent running location for its extensive and beautiful parks and trails.  Don't tell anybody though, because I like the lonely sound of footsteps on grade 10 crushed limestone laid over red clay dirt in silent prehistoric spanish moss-adorned woods.  This time of year, our lives consist of running, eating sweet potatoes and quinoa, napping, going to coffee shops, running again, eating more sweet potatoes, and sleeping.  Ok, we eat and do more than that, but the point is we're focused.  I just hope I run into an alligator this year while we're down here.  Not literally though.

Andrew and I are training for the US Cross Country Championships in Boulder, CO on February seventh.  After that we'll return to Tallahassee for a few days then head to Zap for a week, and finally begin training camp beta in Greenville, SC with the Furman Elite crew.  Here's to doubling for a charm of powerful trouble and a Packers win today.

The Zap Fitness crew working out on the grass in Tallahassee.  L-R Joe Stilin, John Simons, Cameron Bean, Chris Moen and the beard, and Andrew Colley hiding.  I ran this entire workout with my eyes closed.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Going Fast and Taking it Slow

On an unseasonably warm late September 2011 day in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania I'm trying to prove myself.  A mile into the Paul Short Invite gold 8k race, I navigate slime slicked grassy spots, the course softened by prior races as if masticated by some giant possessing thousands of half inch spikes for teeth.  My thighs are already beginning to burn and I begin to think, not again.

That summer in Park City, Utah the Princeton Tigers had trained hard.  Some of us older guys put in multiple triple digit mile weeks at between 6000 and 8000 feet, constantly on hills.  We were running 10 mile tempo runs and 20+ mile long runs in August, and to me they often felt nearly like races.  I'd wake up and need several minutes to get myself out of bed, fighting through the desire to just fall back into the pillow.  But I viewed it as typical training fatigue, and believed all the work would cash out during an epic senior cross country campaign.  That fell into doubt when the races started.  First a no-finish on the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park's course in early September.  Then at Paul Short I faded from that 4:51 opening muddy mile all the way to a disheartening 26:01 clocking, totally disengaging from the race.  Some moments in practice were promising: I'd be able to hang with my workout group for shorter bouts of fast running.   But I couldn't string together five consecutive miles without rest in a race.

I watched the snowy and muddy 2011 Heps Championship from courseside in Princeton, not having broken into the top twelve on the team - the year before I had been in our top five for much of the season.  I was working hard and injury free: my performances didn't make sense.  The not knowing why bothered me - I would almost rather be totally injured for the knowledge of it.

That is until a blood test showed I had a ferritin level of seven.  Coaches, trainers, and doctors cite various numbers for appropriate ferritin levels, but they'll all agree that seven is extremely low.  Most likely the deficiency came on during the summer while I was potentially overtraining at altitude.  I began taking ferrous sulfate supplements - I hadn't ever before, and just 17 days later things turned around.  We held a 5k track time trial for the guys not on the Nationals cross country team.  As planned, we ran 70 second laps to two miles in 9:20, at which point I knew my red blood cells were back.  I ratcheted down the pace to 66s laps, closed with a 4:21 mile, and ran 14:12, a new PB.  The next weekend I and Princeton won the IC4A Cross Championships, getting revenge on Van Cortland Park.

The late fall turnaround continued into spring.  I obliterated every personal mark from 1500 to 5k, broke four, won Penn Relays titles, and had success at the conference, regional, and national levels.  I learned that year that every inch of work you put in helps you somewhere down the line, even if years later.  Through 7/8 of college I trained at a much higher level than races indicated, but it fortunately showed in the end.  I ran a lot of miles probably too fast and too tired, but they weren't for nothing.  They stayed in my legs, waiting for health to return.  When it did, I became a totally different runner with a different perspective.  I formed an altered point of view of the unwanted and unexpected.  

Label failure differently.  Make the good times models and the bad times lessons.  What was once failure - a godawful race, a bad workout, an injury ridden season - becomes success.  You successfully failed the race.  You learned something.  That terrible race is a part of You now.  You can think back to it, hate it, laugh at it, but whatever you do, make the future better.  You define what losing really is for yourself.  When you finally do win, it's only because you've lost many times on the way there.  Training is a microcosm of this:   A calculated series of blows to the body in pursuit of the triumphant gain in fitness.

I may be older and wiser (probably not, I just got carded twice in half an hour even though I'm 25) but running never stops challenging me.  This fall has been about learning to be patient.  Our training has focused on aerobic base building: lots of fartleks, hill climbing, tempos, and surges on long runs, to a degree I sometimes have been uncomfortable with.  At times I feel the need for some faster, more specific workouts in practice in order to execute well in races.  The week after a bombed race in Boston in October, I brought this up to Pete in a pretty uncharacteristically demanding way.  He just looked at me and said, "I need you to be patient.  I know you are going to run fast this year."  Something as simple as that calmed me down.

Your 2014 USATF Club Cross Country team champions, Zap Fitness.  L-R Andrew Colley, Cole Atkins, Joe Stilin, Tyler Pennel, Chris Moen, John Simons, Griff Graves.  Not pictured are assistants to the assistant regional manger George Alex and Cameron Bean.  Photo credit Michael Scott.
On Saturday I was back in Bethlehem on Lehigh's cross country course for the first time since that race in 2011.  I finished tenth and the team won in probably the deepest Club Cross Country Championships in history, showing I could run cross country without necessarily needing the battery acid intervals and repeats I adore so much.  I was reminded how sometimes I need to just shut my mind off, pull the plow in training, not ask so many questions, and run.  If you stay in it long enough, things have a way of working themselves out.  And many times, turnarounds happen when you least expect them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Running Tech

Egyptian water clocks.  Romans roads and bridges.  Aboriginal long distance relay communication.  Waffle Irons.  Running has always advanced alongside technology, and in this age of Apples and Blackberries, opportunities are ripe for the picking.  What was once Aboriginal is now Abodigital. Here are some ideas for the future of running technology.*

The Virtual Reality Treadmill.
Imagine being able to run anywhere in the world without leaving your basement.  Surrounded by projections of Google street view as the wind rushes by, you smell the bakery you're running past in Paris, hear dockside clamor in Singapore and feel the burn as the incline changes automatically in downtown San Francisco.  Nano particles in the tread change the feel of the terrain from road to grass to dirt as you train in Van Cortland Park in the Bronx.  Of course by the time you've acquired this six-figure treadmill you might as well have bought some plane tickets.

Programmable (Wolverine) Spikes.
There's five minutes before the start of the cross country race, you're moving through your pre-race ritual, and suddenly coach tells you the mud is really thick in the third mile.  Uh oh, you only have quarter inch spikes in your shoes.  Relax, Don't Do It, no problem.  They are attached to programmable polymers inside the spike plates and a quick setting adjustment lengthens them to half-inch wolverine claws.  Just remember to retract before throwing em over your shoulder after the race...

Clockwise Tracks.
Runners (especially 10k people) have a risk of becoming ambi-turners if they continue to only turn left during track races.  Paint an additional set of lines and markers to allow for occasional meets in which all running events are held in the clockwise direction.  (Actually I have John Simons to thank for this idea).  The other way would be to put a massive mirror on one side of the track.  That would do it, right?

Downhill Tracks.
Imagine a track that turns clockwise and goes downhill....
While I'm on tracks, I was thinking we must be far along enough to make M.C. Escher's vision of a track that always goes downhill but somehow comes around to the same point reality.  World records and shins would come crashing down.

Permanently implanted timing chips.
This one is a bit Big Brother.  At an early age when you are indoctrinated into the cult that is running, they surgically implant a chip in your chest that will identify you at every race for the rest of your life.  No more pesky shoe chips or bib numbers you aren't supposed to fold.  The chip ID would be associated with an online database containing all you race results, splits, workout stats, 24/7 whereabouts... creepy.

Power Generating Training Shoes
Piezoelectric materials like lead zirconate titanate generate a voltage when they are compressed.  Put some in the soles of running shoes and you could charge your dead phone after running five miles right from your shoes.  Or they could power LEDs for safer nighttime running.  DARPA  is trying this in soldier's boots.

Facial Recognition Fan App.
How many times have you been watching a race and asked "who the hell is that guy taking it out like Diego Estrada?" or "wow, who is their fifth runner?  She is making the race for them."  With FaceTrack, simply point your mobile device at a pack of oncoming runners and it matches their faces with pre-loaded athlete profiles.  Then fans could view all results, media, and history for that athlete.  Don't forget to keep an eye on the race.  Doesn't work if all the runners in the frame have Derek Rubis' face.

Alternate Alter-G.
Definitely the best editing job I've ever done.
There has to be a better way to simulate lower gravity during rehab training than a sweaty plastic bubble that forces you to run like a T-rex.  I'm sure someone could figure out how to locally block the gravitons interacting between your body's and the Earth's matter... or maybe some kind of magnetic levitation suit?  An attractive option.  Wait, no, a repulsive one.

Holographic Pacers
I've heard that Harvard's indoor track used to have lights in the rail around the oval that could be set to a pace for workouts or races.  The "Hare-o-Gram" would take it a step further: project a hologram of a runner on the track for competitors to follow at a certain pace.  No more "what pace is the rabbit going?" "58 through the quarter" and then the guy runs a 61.5.  Hare-o-Gram would hit 58.00.  You could even pick the pacer's image, bringing back Matt Scherer from retirement or drafting off Big Bird.  Unfortunately, holograms can't provide a wind shadow so this is mainly for psychological pacemaking.  Puts people out of jobs too.

"Track Casual" Trainer-Dress Shoes.
This is actually possible, I think.  Have you ever had to squeeze a double run in between a flight and your friend's wedding, a first date, or a job interview?  Just because a training shoe has to withstand hundreds of miles, rain, snow, mud, and vomit during its lifetime doesn't mean it can't look like an Oxford.  Saves packing space, but probably not worth the smell at more formal events.

Real Time Form Analysis.
In-lab form analysis with the little Velcro ping pong balls and wire frame modeling already exists, but there's no way to get scientific stride or posture feedback on the roads and trails.  Let's say you are trying to improve your arm carriage or your rearward leg extension.  Gyro and accelerometer sensors inside bracelets and anklets measure the angles, rates, positions, and distances your limbs are swinging in.  They wirelessly update your watch, reminding you to focus on desired improvements.

Autonomous Meet Coverage.
Cover track and cross country meets with teams of drones.  They fly around with cameras getting aerial and trackside views.  Commentators work from a central control station and can cover multiple meets simultaneously all over the country without having to travel.

Prolonged careers with time travel.
I always have to include relativity in these more serious blog posts.  Let's say you want to dodge a rival doing particularly well this year or you want your career to last ten Olympic cycles instead of only two or three.  Just board a spaceship going close to the speed of light and time will move faster for you relative to Earth's, and when you come back you'll have "traveled into the future."  Though it might be hard to train on the spaceship since your relativistic mass would be at least... three times bigger.

Tear Away Short Shorts.
We love running in nice short shorts with big splits, but what if you get challenged to a game of HORSE (or ZAP) on the way to the run?  You'd be wearing the wrong equipment.  I envision a pair of basketball or lounging shorts that tear away to running shorts.  Man would you get made fun of.

But when it's all said and done, running is a gritty and visceral sport.  At a certain point, automation takes away from its purity.  Really the only thing that matters is getting results quickly after races.

*I do not claim to actually know anything about any of this.
**I know I know, I totally just botched special relativity.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Do you catch my Tokyo Drift

Across the mist strewn oval of lake, a group of runners sets off on their morning run, muscles straining in ostensible rigor mortis, tendons popping and cracking, their collective movement painfully gaining momentum like some great steam engine finally shuddering to life.  A swan's diverging ripples agitate the reflected image of autumnal fire advancing daily now to the water's edge.  Burning blood red across the descending spines of ridges and still greenish-yellow in the bottoms of ravines, fall reveals topography like a cartographer summarizing the relative social order of trees in their endless clamber for sunlight's favor and a stronghold in the stone studded soil below.  In their nostrils hangs the scent of damp and rotting leaves, pungent as morning light melts the overnight visit by a first frost and releases their imprisoned perfume.

That was an attempt to emulate the imagery heavy prose of Cormac McCarthy in his first novel The Orchard Keeper, which I found in Zap Fitness' extensive library while stretching after a run one day.  McCarthy also wrote The Road and No Country for Old Men which of course have become movies, but this first work describes the Tennessee mountain region, its wildlife, and an older, simpler way of living like nothing I've read before.  It's helped me appreciate and describe the setting we live and run in daily in the High Country, a backdrop that continues to grow on me. (literally)

The big news this week (this year) at Zap is Tyler's winning the Twin Cities Marathon and 2014 US Marathon Championship in his debut at the distance on Sunday.  While the team watched him in his final miles of "Glorious Isolation" from the champion's own man cave that morning, a palpable sense of excitement and cementing of purpose fell upon us then and afterwards.  A team mate winning big goes far beyond his or her own race.. It elevates everyone else's training, goal visualization, and belief in the program. This, combined with the fresh arrival of new team members John Simons, Andrew Colley, and Griff Graves has created a very real buzz at Zap Fitness.  The team chemistry is practically stoichiometric - and if we could improve our Appalachian Mountain Brewery Tuesday trivia game, look out.  On a given run we have milers, marathoners, and in-betweeners in the same pack.  In times of the year when our workouts match up, strength runners like Tyler and Cole compliment the anaerobic, speed based guys well (on our fashion of course) and vice versa.  It's a unique dynamic compared to most American professional teams, which tend to favor one side of the spectrum or the other.

Speaking of marathons, Sarah runs Chicago this weekend and we're all very excited to watch her.  She's been killing training and looks very ready.

I'm writing from Shimane Prefecture, Japan and will be racing in the Izumo Ekiden road relay on Monday.  I ran this one a year ago (preview blog) and had a blast experiencing Japan and the unique Ekiden format.  The race is 45.1 kilometers in total and is separated into six legs of 8.0k, 5.8k, 8.5k, 6.2k, 6.4k, and 10.2k.  Instead of a baton, runners carry and exchange a sash. (think beauty pageant sash) The American relay unit is an Ivy League select alumni team, so I'm traveling with former team mates / room mates and rivals from college - not sure if you could ask for a cooler opportunity.  My experience from 2013 will help a lot, especially during the race: I can visualize the course and competition and know what to expect (ball$ out running from the extremely tough Japanese.)  Last year I led off on the 8k leg, went out a little fast, and faded disappointingly.  This time I'm seeking redemption on the 5.8k second leg.  Our team of six's 5k PBs average 13:43, the best in the field of 21 teams, 20 of them Japanese - but we'll be up against their experience, home country advantage, and our travel.  But if Alabama Boy can win in Tokyo Drift, we can too.  There is another element at play affecting all teams equally: super typhoon Vongfong is bearing down on Okinawa to our Southwest tonight.  It will diminish in strength as it heads our way, but on race day there could be heavy rain and 40mph winds on the roads.  Just another tale to tell the grand kids.

This year's Izumo Ekiden race art

Monday, September 15, 2014

Input the Output

Stress is a killer.  Tensions do cause neurosis.  Uneasiness of the heart can lead to despair.  But without them, we remain inferior to our true selves.  Live if you will a life without risk .  Avoid the forge, the fire, the flame.  But know that joy and happiness and the good life come only as unexpected interludes in the endless, stressful, tense and restless journey to become who you are.  There is no easy way.
       - George Sheehan, Dr. Sheehan On Running

August marked ten years since my running career began.  On that first muggy summer day, I got out of my dad's Toyota pickup in jeans and Vans, unsure whether showing up in shorts to captain's practice was, well, cool.  Once past that barrier of freshman terror, I left the jeans in a bush and went running for the first time.  Before, I'd known running in more playful terms: short sprints on the beach, races against my uncle for quarters, and the mile in gym class.  But this was the first time I'd run: crossed street after street, deliberately continuing miles after I wanted to stop.  Going on runs would end up sculpting the next decade of my life.  It's been a distraction, a social outlet, a high, an ego booster, and a way of living.  Once it stood squire to engineering school, often beaten by it, and my life still followed an (oval made of rubber with lines painted on it) typical of many American students.  Now that Zap Fitness and Reebok have given me the ability to train full time I'm unusual, pursuing my dreams in a way many people, runners or otherwise, cannot.  So what happens in a one dimensional environment in which focus is paramount and results are key?  What does running become when you remove the distractions?

August 2008, on another hot and humid afternoon.  In the first workout of the season, the Princeton men's cross country team was setting out on a ten mile progression run.  Coach Steve Dolan instructed us to run together for the first four or so miles before the older, more experienced runners were allowed to accelerate .  We ambled down the hill from campus to the cross country course, and I started to feel feisty, like I could run with anyone.  We looped the course and hit the tow path, u-turning around wood bridge to the other side of the canal.  And then we started rolling.  Back west along Lake Carnegie, gathering speed and testing each other's summer fitness.  I saw my first year class boldly rallying near the front of the pack next to All American senior Michael Maag.  Six miles in we turned off the tow path towards legendary bean fields and I began to notice the cicadas buzzing.  The heat.  The acid started filling my legs and as we re-entered the forest, I was a dropped fly.  Eight miles into the run Dolan was waiting in the Institute Woods, giving me and a few others the option to stop early, which I shamefully but thankfully did.

My version of the classic freshman wakeup call, the workout humbled me.  In high school, running had been easier.  Winning came often.  I was driven by outer confirmations of greatness: state rankings, news articles, medals, records, our team's success.  Feedback was immediate and running followed a more clear input equals output pattern.  But now I had to find a way to run from the bottom of the totem pole.  For all the work I put in, the most glory I felt came in moving up a workout group or making a travel squad.  Motivation needed to shift its source from outer sources to internal ones.  In the first couple years of college I didn't make an impact, but inside I was learning more than I could have when things were easy in high school.  I learned how to manage time, how to lose, how to be a team mate, and how to keep coming back no matter what.  During that drought of outer verification I came to think of running in more simple terms.  I began to put less pressure on myself.  I thought less and less about pace on training runs, and I started truly taking easy days easy.  I spent less energy preparing mentally for races and allowed instinct to guide me.  I was running because I actually loved running itself.  When during senior year the wins and records returned, it was that much easier to run. 

Now treading the atypical path of full time American runner, I know I won't last if I frame running as a trophy hunt.  There are no distractions like school or work to fall back on during times lacking positive feedback.  Instead I invest confidently in long term training, enjoy the process, and celebrate even the smallest victories.  This mentality might come more naturally for some people, but I'd wager that for most, "running wisdom" comes with time.  For the average runner, and even for the pros, it boils down to you.  And running.  You and running, exactly like it was on the first day, when you were afraid to show your skinny legs to the world.

- - - - - - - - 

Back to ground level and a little update on what I'm up to:

After my last track race in August I took two weeks totally off from running, gained ten pounds, and regrouped a bit.  I'm now a couple weeks into a volume ramp consisting of only once a day running.  Last week was 87 miles in singles, and this week I'll see my first real workout back in the form of a 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 minute piece Fartlek before heading to Providence, RI for the CVS 5k / USARC 5k Championships on Sunday.  I'm training through this race and relying on residual track fitness, but the minimum goal is top 10 so I can qualify for the .US 12k Championships in November.  After CVS the next race will be the Izumo Ekiden in Japan in October.

Many of my goals for this fall are process-oriented.  I will race several times, but the overarching design is to build strength for track season.  Most of them are simple, back-to-basics reminders of things I got away from during track: consistently longer long runs, fewer double days (more singles), weekly medium long runs, and more frequent tempo runs.  I've done a solid job with drills, strides, core/stability and hill running and I'll continue those routines.  I'm engaged in an all-out assault on my iron levels (which have caused me problems before) involving daily ferrous sulfate doses in both liquid and solid forms along with eating red meat every other day.  There is hard training in the months ahead and I'm excited to be better than I ever have been.

Fall Racing Schedule:
Date Race Name Location Venue / Distance
September 21 CVS Downtown 5k / USARC 5k Champs Providence, RI Road 5k
October 13 Izumo Ekiden Relay Izumo, Japan Road 8k Relay
November 16 .US 12k Championships Alexandria, VA Road 12k
November 27 Manchester Road Race Manchester, CT Road 4.748 miler
December 13 USATF Club Cross Country Bethlehem, PA Cross Country 10k