Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Warming Up the Turkey

Before dawn, the sky black at the edges, stars number enough to reveal individual leaves' outlines in trees.  As the star quilted sky sweeps into view from above the house’s eaves, a meteor tears across the southern sky, extinguished and then reignited briefly, insane speed and energy dissipated mutely.  Orion hunts, slowly arcing from horizon to horizon.  The time before the beginning of a day.

Several hundred cubic fathoms of beer, immeasurable megawatt-hours worth of sun exposure, inundation in two each of ocean and great lake, multiple minor non-running related injuries involving jellyfish, rope swings, sidewalks, waterfalls, and physical feats a by definition athletically one-dimensional distance runner generally just shouldn’t be attempting, and 14 additional pounds of baggage later, I'm back to running after a cathartic six week break. I needed it. I sort of limped through the outdoor track season on a crutch of ibuprofen, running on a hip with internal workings that just, well, couldn't even. 

Motivating my recent demotivation were two people: the great Kenyan marathoner Paul Tergat, who purportedly took several years off every fall and gained innumerable kilograms, returning to running just rarin to rip heads off. His running career lasted at an international level well into his thirties.  And Pete, our coach at Zap Fitness, who told me I needed to finally let my usually pretty not-injury-prone physique actually rest for more ten days for once, for crying out loud. He had good reason.

Lucky enough to never have suffered from anything worse than achilles tendinitis (knocks on skull), I've never taken a break from training of more than twelve days since high school. Many runners would kill a fly for that kind of durability, but those long term injuries replenish your physical and mental energy stores.   Beside allowing the soft tissue in my hip to heal, pure off time would let the head scratching inducing symptoms of long-term overtraining subside.  I imagine fatigue from one season rolling over to the next season across relatively short ten to fourteen day breaks and compounding a runner to death later on.   Simulating a major injury and taking several weeks off could be the change in training I needed having spent several seasons on a plateau running similar track and road performances.  So Pete applied a jackhammer to my shins.

Just kidding. But for 42 days I wasn't a runner, or even an active human except for some hiking and canoeing.  And Pokemon Go.  Sue me.  Going cold turkey is hard, but I reminded myself that even though my lifestyle closely matched that of Jaba the Hut, minus the weird frog things he heats, the runner within was being given a breather for the work and competition to come.  Whenever thoughts of training started leaking in, I'd reach for another beer.  At two weeks the strangeness of not running faded as hormones stabilized, the metabolism slowed down, and my body got used to not being stressed each morning and afternoon with a run.  At a month I was the one shouting run Forest run.  But in the third trimester of my training holiday, with the Olympics on full blast and inspired by the hugely successful US distance and middle distance olympic teams, I was ready to return to running like I never have been before.  

Week one was rough.  “left, right, left, right, port, starboard” I told my legs, ambulating at greater than three m.p.h. for the first time since early July.  It made me respect the fitness I’ve retained continually for over a decade.  In fits and starts my legs have come around since the break ended.  As uncomfortable as the first few runs were, being “out of shape” provides a good point of reference.  It’s kind of fun to feel the tangible gains made almost daily when you’re starting from a lower point: sure, you have a long way to go, but runners are happiest when we’re climbing.*

Last month’s Cameron Bean Memorial 5k and Magnum Mile in Chattanooga, Tennessee provided a timely mental and spiritual boost for the return to being a runner.  Normally we wouldn’t race or work out so soon after returning to training, but I couldn’t miss Cam’s run.  It’s been almost a year since our Zap teammate Cameron died, and getting to run that morning with Zap team mates past and present, Zap campers, and over 650 people who knew Cameron and to hear how he inspired them in life completely reassured me I’m doing the right thing by working to achieve the kind of goals Cameron set and lived by.  Despite it being so early in training, I ran the evening’s very well put on Magnum Mile event balls to the wall because Cam would have done the same.  I was pretty happy with a 4:25 road mile off no training, although my legs were not pleased the next day.

Aaron, Brandon, and I running a 7-6-5-4-3 fartlek
on Bass Lake in Blowing Rock last week
Team at Zap Fitness has been another big source of energy and inspiration for me in the early stages of this new buildup.  Running after college is a hard road/trail/track, and the team has changed a lot since I started running for Zap over three years ago.  I have a good relationship with everyone who’s run here and moved on, and I draw on the young energy we now have on the roster.  Like Count Trackcula.  Johnny Crain, Matt McClintock, Brandon Doughty, and Aaron Nelson all moved into our facility and campus on Blackberry Road late this summer, and their excitement for training at this level and competing on the professional circuit spreads to the seasoned members of the team, keeping things fresh and in perspective.  When you live, run, eat, cut the grass, and sleep together†, good interaction within the group begets good living and effective training.  

This was a natural transition year between being an early post collegiate runner and being a better experienced and hungrier athlete not afraid to set lofty goals.  The best running is ahead.  For now I’m training until November, when I’ll run two road races, including (my favorite) the Manchester Road Race on Thanksgiving morning.  In December we’ll begin our cross country campaign with Zap as we run for the team title at the USATF Club Cross Country Championships in Tallahassee.  In January we’ll compete in several cross country meets across Scotland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal in preparation for February’s US Cross Country Championships held in Bend, Oregon.  With lots of cross country on the schedule, I’ll enter the outdoor track season strong and prepared to race into the end of the summer.

So we move into one of my favorite times of the year: when the smell of leaves and decay on the dry breeze and chilly mornings bring on olfactory nostalgia and mean hard, long training runs on dirt and grass and other rustic surfaces‡, and when those first anxious memories of competitive running formed for a high school freshman who didn’t know where this after school activity would take him.  You fall§ in love with the tired, sore feeling in your legs that pervades your days.  The feeling of accomplishment as you train for those short and rare moments when your goals are at their most vulnerable, ripe for breaking.  The trail to those days is long and full of switchbacks, manticores, man, a lot of core, and as I’ve said, many Coors.  Our objective is to run faster times, qualify for bigger meets, and win championships, but you can’t forget who climbs the trail with you, and even those who conspire to beat you to the top, because they have a funny way of becoming your friends too.  Without them, there’s no one to share the glory of running with.

Thanks for reading.  Here's my upcoming race schedule:

DateRace NameLocationVenue / Distance
November 12HCA 8kRichmond, VARoad 8k
November 24Manchester Road RaceManchester, CTRoad 4.748 miles
December 10USATF Club Cross Country ChampionshipsTallahassee, FLCross Country 10k
January 7Great Edinburgh XCountry Edinburgh, ScotlandCross Country 8k
February 4USATF Cross Country ChampionshipsBend, ORCross Country 12k

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* The derivative of my fitness with respect to time is positive and large, and right now I might even venture to say that its second derivative is positive, meaning my fitness is increasing at an increasing rate.  All of this provides good momentum against the inevitable cooling off the second derivative into negative territory and the slowing of my fitness increase to zero hopefully exactly when I want it to, say next summer at an important competition, again ideally at an absolute value of fitness greater than I’ve ever reached before.
 In extended stay hotels and European dorm rooms
‡ How to say 'soft surfaces' with class
§ Pun premeditated
‖ Qualification required

Friday, April 29, 2016

Arrest Yourself

"They are human, like me.  Why should they be any better than me?  We have the same color blood."
       - Mark Wendot Yatich

Up here the wind sluices steadily down through the valley, crashing against thousands of trees loaning millions of branches to a symphony imitating the sound of surf and beach far to the east and below.  As if nature's ultimate tone is everywhere a powerful thrum, the wind sawing against forest and sea with the same taught bow.

We trot down amongst rhododendron on sparkling mica dust trails to a lake that reflects scurrying clouds, swirling haven while above the pine tops lean slowly back, give, and oscillate murmuring against the gust.  At an overlook the mountains fold and scrunch in rows endlessly towards Tennessee and Virginia, each face a hue of blue-green assigned daily.  Cataloochee is the Cherokee word for their arrangement.

The olympic trials begin in just nine weeks.  Its tractor beam has the hearts and minds of every American track and field athlete with olympic aspirations in its grip, the supply of time for adjustments and gaining fitness quickly fading.  Some have the advantage of having made the team before, but many will leave Eugene first time olympians who had to have total belief in themselves when they stepped to the line.  In some cases unwarranted, against-the-odds belief.  Owning such belief, especially if training or results haven't yet added up, takes more than simply banging your head against the wall, willing it to exist.

“Rest is the conversation between what we love to do and how we love to be… To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself through established goals. To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there to put it right.”
       - David Whyte*

The non-physical component of rest, at times neglected by athletes (including myself) and all kinds of people facing any challenge or job, deserves some attention.  Many runners understand and get recovery training, sleeping, napping, staying off their feet, and therapy right, but they stop there, or rather embark on other projects.

Focused rest is described in that last line of Whyte's - not worrying whether you should be doing something else.  In that peace and quiet, the ability of the mind to control the body gets stronger.  When you rest without distraction, you’re preparing to compete without distraction.

Everyone has the will to prepare and the will to win, but will is exhaustible.  It gets damaged when things go wrong.  It takes energy.  You can want to run a fast time or achieve a goal really badly, but when that painful moment of decision comes in a race, your body doesn’t care what you want.  On the precipice of breaking, above your inner voice frantically yelling “mush!”, the body instead hears something we have less explicit control over: the Subconscious.

In Lewis Thomas' Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony he describes "one of the great mystifications of science: warts can be ordered off the skin by hypnotic suggestion."  Skeptical, I looked further into this example of the Subconscious playing a wieldy role in the mind-body dynamic.  There have been cases involving years-old warts targeted amongst groups of warts that when ordered to disappear obey within two weeks, and studies that hypnotized all the warts of one half of the body as desired.

In Thomas' words, "This is not the sort of confused, disordered process you'd expect at the hands of the kind of Subconscious you read about in books... Whatever, or whoever, is responsible for this has the accuracy and precision of a surgeon."

When the mind rests the Subconscious is fed.  Hypnosis is the catalyst in the wart example.  I’m not suggesting we start putting ourselves in trances, but wart surgeon or not, the Subconscious’ power to influence the body is incredibly more powerful than the Conscious'.   Estimates put "conscious processing power" at a mere 3% of the total compared to 97% handled subconsciously or autonomically. I think it’s possible to orient the Subconscious in the direction of the will when we rest, and call upon it when the will weakens, for example during a race.

When you train, your body breaks down and adapts to the stress you put it through.  Meanwhile you shape a portion of the Subconscious related to pain and discomfort by continuously willing forward a body that wants to stop.  In time, instinct is honed.  You learn to relax at paces on the edge of your ability.  Crucially, when you compete, you hardly have to think.  Pacing off competitors, making strategic passes, and shifting through levels of effort becomes automatic.  The best races and workouts feel effortless because something deeper is taking over.

Getting “up” for a race.  Worrying whether you’re going to give it your all.  Questioning your motivation.  All of it comes from a fear that your body won’t respond to your will.  The workaround is training your Subconscious with rest.  Reflect on the workout you did that day, not worrying about whether other tasks need tending to.

Be ok with periods of boredom.  Get away from the phone and feeling like you constantly need to be producing something.  Meditate.  Do what you love to do by being how you love to be: relaxed, focused, and not worried.  As always, this stuff applies to more than just running and sports.  Any time forces are against your will, resting could help beat them.

Stretching on the side of the lake after the run with spring growing around me, I remember how grateful I am for the opportunity to do this.  Things are simpler when you just let them happen.

 - - - - - - - -

GeorgeJohnnyJoanna, and I travel this weekend to Palo Alto for the Payton Jordan Invite at Stanford, where many of the fastest American performances are run year to year.  Not counting rabbiting the 5000m a few weeks ago at Raleigh Relays, the 5000m on Sunday night will be my outdoor season opener.  We’re looking to grab Olympic (13:25) and trials (13:28) standards out there.

In memory of our late team mate and friend Cameron Bean,
the Bean House is nearing completion up the driveway from Zap.

Things are great at Zap. The stream keeps trickling and the birds wake me up every morning. Now that Sinead, Joanna, and Nicole have joined the team, Andrew won’t be able to mow the Zap field naked anymore.  Chef Michael Ryan returns for the summer season on Monday and we're looking forward to his tasty meals, especially the beets. The new Cameron Bean house, which will house some of our athletes, is nearing completion and complements the eight month old Andy Palmer house just up the hill. We're looking forward to a busy running camp season full of new campers and  returners in the Zap family.

Thanks for reading.

Race schedule for the next few weeks: (June races TBA)

DateRace NameLocationVenue / Distance
May 1Payton Jordan InvitePalo Alto, CATrack 5000m
May 12US 1 Mile Road ChampionshipsMinneapolis, MNRoad Mile
May 20Hoka One One MD ClassicLos Angeles, CATBA
July 1-102016 Olympic TrialsEugene, ORTrack 5000m

*Whyte's short essay on rest is a great read
† Good blog on using the Subconscious by Catherine Collautt, PH.D.