Monday, June 19, 2017

Mud

“And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting kinds of other sitting-up mud I met!”

- Excerpt from the last rites of the Bokonist Faith, Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut




Here are some of the kinds of things I think about during a run:

[This is a run amongst trees and on dirt, pine needles, and rocks tumbled from the oldest mountains in the world, the Appalachians, which are beginning to look soft and rounded now, after all this time.]

I can't help but think, me being a piece of mud that got to sit up and look around, that running is just Earth playing catch with itself. With a piece of itself. A piece of Earth’s own mud. Every stride, lasting around one third of a second, a parabolic hop, an orbit, albeit short, about the planet. This leads to some questions.

What happens to Earth when I push off of it? Does Earth move below me? Wouldn't you feel more important if every time you leapt off the ground you moved an entire planet? Why haven’t all the runners pushed Earth out of its orbit with all their pushing and shoving and hopping over the years?

How much of the mud has been a human at one time or another?

As it happens, you do move Earth when you jump off it. It moves away from you in the opposite direction. Earth has a mass of 5.972 trillion trillion kilograms, and a 150 pound runner, for example, whose stride bounces her center of mass up and down three inches every step, would move Earth 341 billionths of a trillionth of an inch. A pretty small amount, but you can be proud that you made a difference.

Don't forget that you exert your own gravitational pull on Earth.

While you're floating through the air, dreaming of brunch or whatever, Earth is attracted to you [All matter in the Universe is attracted to you for that matter]. When you push off, Earth begins moving away, but immediately its speed begins lessening. At the height of your parabolic, beautiful gliding stride, the Earth also reaches its [much, much smaller] furthest distance of shoved-ness, and as you start falling back to terra form, Earth begins moving back to you. You crash into each other, exactly canceling each other's motion.

So no matter how much running you do with no matter how many friends, once you stop, everything is as it was. Like life. Like mud that got to sit up. But that’s ok. Enjoy your orbit.

You can calculate what percentage of Earth has been part of a human being at one time or another, given the 107 billion humans who have ever lived, their average weight, their average lifespan, and the myth that your body’s cells get replaced every seven years. It’s like 5.56 trillionths of the planet’s mass. Not much mud, relatively, has been lucky enough to sit up and look around. But some has.

All that is to say:

On one hand, it’s tempting to write off your impact on the world as minuscule. "All we are is dust", "Alas poor Yorick", etc.

On the other hand, you could view your life's effect as a force that, no matter how minuscule, still moves a massive world. A massive universe. Which sounds cooler.

Walk across the room. In 105 years, some particle of dust floating in space 105 light years away will feel your movement, you gravitational influence having traveled at the speed of light through space to it. That should make you feel Relatively Special.

Who are we, then, to claim that our effect on the world and on one another isn't large, doesn't matter? We move planets when we go running.


Pardon, Andrew and I moving some mud around in hopes of turning mud into food
for mud that got to sit up and look around.
But sometimes I get caught up in trying to attribute too much matter and meaning to what I do.

If someone asked me at the post office, “who’s your biggest enemy?” my third answer would be “myself”, after burnt toast and car commercials that ruin perfectly good classic rock songs. It’s easy to get in your own way trying to attain something you want perhaps too badly.

Let me bring this back to the genre of this blog.*

Running’s challenge for me boils down to a fight against my serious side. It helps me work hard, but often keeps me from relaxing. Relaxing is the main ingredient in running well.

In the fall, when I was hurt, I had a “Why do I run?” existential crisis. I kept trying to attach a meaning to running (besides the millions I make, of course). I was inspiring others. I was bettering myself for the future, when an improved work ethic would pay dividends. Whichever way I spun it, the answer still had a tint of selfishness in it.

As Pete gradually nursed me back to my current state of health and fitness, I made a pact with myself. I would enjoy running for running, without a higher motive. This basically required thinking less and having more fun. It meant paring my sight into the future down to the level of a couple days, rather than dwelling on what I wanted to happen two months down the road.

And I came to the conclusion:

There is a meaning. There’s always a meaning. You don’t need to know what it is though. Just trusting that there’s a meaning is enough. That’s why I think about shoving the entire planet around by infinitesimal amounts while I run on it. You don't have to be as weird as me to prove this to yourself.

Still, that serious side of mine got me in trouble a few times this track season. I came into a few races a little jumpy and rigid, and found myself in places I didn’t particularly want to be. I wanted to run fast so badly that I got in the way of myself.

In the Payton Jordan 5,000m early in May, the whole field was looking at each other as we fanned eight wide in the first half lap, no one wanting to set the pace. I had “too good” of a start and found myself leading the race from the gun on an unusually breezy Palo Alto night, at a disadvantage compared to those tucked in behind me. I couldn’t get relaxed and in rhythm and it cost me. The field beat me over the final lap to a 13:57 5k.

At the Adrian Martinez Classic 3,000m earlier this month, I found myself in a similar position, leading, when the pacer dropped out after a mile. Someone’s gotta be the sacrificial lamb, leading the race far from the finish, but I’d prefer not to be. The extra fraction of a percent of mental effort spent keeping the pace moving took away from my finish once again.


Adrian Martinez 3,000m in Concord, MA

But I kept thinking short term and ran better at the Oxy High Performance meet in L.A. (13:39) and last weekend at Portland Track Fest (13:34), increasingly relaxing mentally and physically.

Hands, face loose, mind blank, run tall, chin up, don’t muscle out the last lap. Don’t think so much. Run to run.

Meaning is revealed in hindsight, when you see where your gravitational waves spread to.

This coming week is the USATF Championships in Sacramento, California. Zap Fitness has seven athletes running (Joanna, Aaron, Johnny, Andrew in the 10,000m, Brandon in the 3,000m steeplechase, and myself in the 5,000m). It’s going to be hot out even at night, so anything can happen in the distance events [I mean, someone could slip on a banana peel!]. The top three athletes in each event qualify to represent team USA at the World Championships in London in August.


Workout on Bass Lake in Blowing Rock, NC with the Zap Fitness men's team.

Zap is a really healthy place to be training and living these days. I've always loved our training base in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but this year there's a special energy around the team that's really made it fun to work hard. Adult running camp season has started up and that adds a ton of energy to the elite team too. Our campers come from all over the country and world, and every one of them has had an inspiring journey in running and life to tell. We learn just as much from them as they do from us.

Last thought: If running is the Earth playing catch with itself, is interplanetary spaceflight just the planets playing catch with one another?

Thanks for reading. Here's a list of upcoming races:
DateRace NameLocationVenue  Distance
June 23US Track ChampionshipsSacramento, CATrack 5,000m
July 7Letterkenny Intl. Track MeetLetterkenny, IrelandTrack mile
July 12Morton GamesDublin, IrelandTrack 5,000m
July 18KBC NachtHeusden Zolder, BelgiumTrack 5,000m
August 4Sir Walter MilerRaleigh, NCTrack mile
*nominally running but primarily misquoted literature, self deprecation
provided they obtain their event’s world ‘A’ standard by July 21st

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Calcallous

"You have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves and everything will fall into place."     - Paul "Mustang" Chelimo's Instagram account


Without a wristwatch, there are two ways of knowing intuitively how fast you’re going.  One way, combining a running pace’s affect on your body with past training experience, triangulates your speed feel-ologically.  Or you can gauge pace based on how fast things around you seem to be scrolling backwards into your periphery before they disappear in your wake.  

The latter is much less accurate, especially at night, when running always seems faster (and therefore more fun), or in the middle of a desert or something, when there isn’t much optical (or digestible, for that matter) fodder for your visual speedometer.  By the way, four minute mile pace (15 m.p.h.) looks disappointingly slow viewed from the cockpit of any semi sportsy car.  Forgo the eyes.  (Most) Well-trained athletes can easily and accurately run within five seconds per mile of a target pace, completely on feel.


Finishing the Gate River Run / US 15k Championship

I didn’t need my body to tell me I was running slowly up “Green Monster”, the sisyphusian bridge spanning the Saint James River in the final two miles of the Gate River 15k Run in Jacksonville, Florida.  The structure’s weathered green I-beams oozed viscously from Dali’s paintbrush into and out of my tunnel vision as we raced upward, hundreds of feet above the river.  The brackish waters below were replete with dolphins I would have given anything, (please, anything!) to be playing with instead of this.  The long curve of the bridge deck rolled over painfully, deliciously slowly, its false summit a tangential mirage that kept dancing away from the couple of others I was running with as we surged and yo-yo-ed to the top.

You needn’t be a mathematician to understand the calculus of that bridge’s curve.  In your legs you felt its concave belly inflect mercifully into its convex shoulder, a curvaceous spine transmitting hurt to its foolish pilgrims of pain.  Your best bet, a trick of the mind, was to celebrate inwardly when you reached the point of maximum incline, grateful for its rolling over, though there remained eons until you actually summited.  When you did, you had exactly one mile to go, all down hill.  

By the way, I was not running in the lead pack by the time Green Monster reared its head in the eighth mile of the race.  That maglev train of frictionless speed rolled through this elevated station minutes ago, roadside trash rollicking and concrete span joints groaning in the shockwave left by their hasty departure.  Race winner Leonard Korir ended up running the final, all-downhill mile in ‘only’ 4:08, finishing when I had about 900 meters (nine football fields + on your own 16 yard line) left to go.  

I extracted revenge on Korir when Gate’s athlete coordinator / benefactor in selfless deeds of U.S. distance running Richard Clark Fannin Jr. came up to me, ray banned, at the after-race pool-pizza-beer party (what other race has a scheduled, mandatory post-run pool party, not to mention after party w/ fried gator + after-after party?) and said “Joe, you’re a big guy, [thanks.] help me throw Lenny in the pool!”  After which, terrified, I chucked one of America’s greatest runners / Olympian, who can’t swim, into a four and a half foot deep pool, praying his legs cleared the ledge.

<——All that is to say, I survived (I type therefore I am) the first race back in a while, survived it and enjoyed it, even if it was a donkey-whipping.  On to the next one.

… In which, on North Carolina State’s track in Raleigh last weekend, I tithed Gate River’s 15,000 meter pain payment, stepping down to a mercifully bridgeless 1,500 meter race.  I was again beaten soundly, running 3:46 and experiencing what the industry calls booty lock: when your hamstrings and butt turn into rigor mortified slabs of round steak. 


Start of 1500m at Raleigh Relays

One of Pete’s Peteisms is that progress in distance running isn’t linear.  He’s right.  If you’re lucky, progress progresses sinusoidally, rising and falling across pretty snow capped peaks and lush river valleys in the off seasons.  More likely though, progress approximates some crazy thirteenth degree polynomial with random, remorseless asymptotic plunges to what seems like negative infinity, at the time.  Runners (like gamblers) live for those somewhat rare, glorious ascents to new maximums despite the powerful and totally obvious odds stacked against them.  And we love it. 

Given the comeback from injury in the fall, I have to be satisfied with getting to these start lines healthily and move on from losses quickly.  After a certain number of beatings, the legs figure out how to race again.  Neither of these first couple races were anything special by themselves, but they were good enough to serve as platforms for a great season.  Runners and humans should know that success can follow any sequential jumble of highs, lows, and failure.  You never  truly know when the next home run is: it could even come after your cat just died, you're sick, and your basement just flooded.  Or something.  

Just keep going and eventually it'll stick.  That's it.  Finding Nemo said it better than I did.

Upcoming Races:


DateRace NameLocationVenue / Distance
April 15B.A.A. 5kBoston, MARoad 5k
April 21Larry Ellis InvitePrinceton, NJTrack 1500
May 4Payton Jordan InvitationalPalo Alto, CATrack 5000
June 22-25USATF ChampionshipsSacramento, CATBA




Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Fenestration

Afraid to swing my legs off the bed and put my feet on the floor, I stared at the blankness of my bedroom walls.  When I was younger, this would have been because I was afraid some raptor clawed monster with long, snatching arms waited beneath the bed, ready to drag me to its lair in the basement.  Or if at home in Milwaukee during the winter, because the hardwood floor of my bedroom tended to match the outside's midwest temperatures, ready to freeze bare feet.  Now I stared at the paintings on my bedroom walls.  Checked my heart rate.  The morning light made reflections in the altitude tent plastic, little faces that distorted and chuckled in the breeze coming from the window.

I was delaying the beginning of the day because I felt a sharp ache in my upper outside ankle.  I didn't want to put weight on it and confirm my worst fears: another bone injury.  I was being dramatic.  A year ago Id’ve chalked this kind of pain up to just another demon sorely haunting my flesh, tendons, and bones.  One of the countless reliably exorcised during the first cracking, tendon popping shuffle to the bathroom, or if stubborn, during the first few running steps of the day. 

As it turns out, I got up, went to practice, ran, and have kept on running since.  The ankle thingy was just that: a thing.  But my hesitancy shows one thing: getting hurt last September has certainly made me keenly aware of my vincibility.  I think that’s a word.



Having neglected to write for so long I feel obliged to rewind (still a word I think) to September twentieth.  I had just posted a blog piece that mentioned how taking a longer break from running had left me refreshed and healthy.  I was about to be proven (mostly) wrong.  The very next morning, on a hard hill workout with (ya done messed up) Aaron at Bass Lake, hubris struck swiftly and sans mercy.  Somewhere in my pelvis, some of the strongest ligaments in the body pulled hard enough on my sacrum, a bone between the pelvic wings, to fracture it.  I knew immediately during the workout that something was wrong.  Donald Trump was way too close in the polls.  And my back really hurt.  Luckily I only ran about an extra mile on the injury, hoping it was just freak pain, before I stopped.

Several days later, an MRI confirmed what we were already almost certain of: a sacral stress fracture.  Pete’s recovery protocol called for a full eight weeks totally away from running. Unlike other types of fractures, virtually every cross training modality, including biking, elliptical, swimming, pool running, walking, and even helping to construct a scale replica of the Great Pyramids of Giza by hand end up irritating a sacrum fracture.  Exercise was out.  I was now wanted by the Sacral Police around the Zap Fitness campus.  Five-stars-on-GTA wanted.  If I was caught so much as dancing I’d receive a stern reprimand from team mates. Eight weeks of electrifying ossification it was.


Wanted by the sacral police in Boston

As it turns out, running problems aren’t much different from living in Egypt under Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues.  Pee transforming into blood.  Lyme disease.  Shards of glass impaling the foot.  Food poisoning from diseased livestock.  Disintegrating bones.  I’ve seen friends and team mates with it all over the years.

Stress fractures are about as common as Starbucks locations will be on the moon in 2050. Most athletes on the professional circuit have suffered at least one bone fracture or reaction in their career.  Many ridiculously accomplished athletes seem to exist in a perpetual state of duct taped-ness, cross training from one window slit of health to the next, yet still pulling off amazing performances in times of relative health despite their apparent fragility.  

Having been healthy for so long, part of me felt I had it coming; that every lucky streak comes to an end.  This notion made being hurt a little easier to swallow.  I was finally about to experience the other side of competitive runner life coin for the first time: video games.  I mean…  being debilitatingly injured.  Actually I just watched team mates play video games. I’m more of an observer.  Seriously though: a runner should always do everything in her or his power to avoid getting hurt, but when she does, he should remember that being hurt is part of the process.  Injury is a cost of doing business.

And I’m finally a member of the Bones Brigade.  I know their secrets.

Rule number one: You don’t talk about the… 
You believe you’re going to come back stronger than before.  Not in an abstract, cliche way, either.  You believe you’re going to have your best season ever, right after being in the worst shape of your life, or at least since your middle school skateboarding years.  As in, you’re going to win stuff you’ve never won before and run personal bests you’ve never run before. Which is the definition of a personal best.  This helps get you through the days when the altitude tent faces start to look like that clown from It, or worse, James Franco.

I didn’t delight in not engaging in the activity I enjoy the most for two months.  I had too much time to think.  I started writing a novel about a coach that mentors athletes for years, only to sadistically murder them and stuff their corpses in a collapsed mineshaft.  I envisioned a toaster that prints the weather forecast, motivational phrases, and market futures on your toast.  (already been done)  I did quite a bit of sifting through thoughts, most of which fall under the “holy shit I’m getting old where did the time go and what am I doing with my life” theme.

I’m proud to report I came out on the other side.  No.  I didn’t quite experience the sunlit burst of mach-nine-jet-fighter-flying-out-of-a-masisve-kerosene-explosion type inspiration that some people claim they get after overcoming injury.  I know success won’t be automatic. It’ll have to be worked for over time.  It’s a long trail back to peak lifetime fitness.  That’s the realist in me.  What I am feeling, now healthy, with three workouts under my belt and running mid-seventies miles per week, on the way up, is a sense of reset and swift progress away from the bottom.  

I returned to running Thanksgiving week with a blissful nine minute jaunt on the alter-gravity treadmill at 70 percent body weight.  We did several weeks worth of short alter-G runs alternating with swim days.  By mid December most runs were on land with all 9.81 meters per second squared of sweet gravity pulling my aching limbs that forgot how to run down towards the center of the Earth.

The first hard workout back was here in Tallahassee.  Brandon and Matt dragged my mouth breathing self around four times two kilometer repetitions on grass soccer fields.  The 800 meter loop that Pete measured and marked out would have made lovers of quicksand and many sided polygons proud.  I didn’t care how much energy the angel food cake-like ground soaked up from our strides.  I was just glad to be back rolling after so much lying around doing crosswords.


Matt, Brandon, and I running a hill cycle workout in Tallahassee earlier this month.

Admittedly, there were moments during time off and the early phase of starting again when I was mildly depressed.  Doubtful that I’d be able to climb back to competitive fitness.  I didn’t feel like a runner, which, despite trying to stay diversified in my interests, is a huge part of my identity.  While not running in September, October, and November, the next most exciting aspects of life began creeping into my thoughts.  What am I going to do after professional running?  I want to engineer and invent.  My dream is to be an entrepreneur. With nothing else to do, I began doing research, sketching ideas, calling people.  Which is great, except for one thing: I’m not done committing myself fully to running yet.  Post-running life was making a house call while running was away.  The desire to do something frankly stressed me out, because I was, and still am, around Zap, a running environment (except for the occasional drag race and pistol duel).  

In the end I learned from this injury something I already knew, but had to be reminded of: to just relax and live the life I’m living currently.  That’s easier to write now, when I’m grabbing fitness left, right, port, and starboard and beginning to see the light.  When you’re going through a tough time, believe that your wayward anchor, when it’s given back to you, will serve its purpose and make you happy again.  I forgot for a time how great working towards hefty goals, finishing a hard workout, and sharing a swift run with friends makes me feel.  Natural.  Purposeful. 

Maybe I just came to the exact same conclusion that many before me already have.  But everyone has to wade through the same experiences, bound by shallows and miseries at times.  Would life be any fun if you were born with the wisdom of humanity come before you?  Probably not.  I always preferred the Do It Yourself (w/ your contemporaries) section.

One day I was staring out of my window at a tree high up on the ridge opposite our house.  It towered above all the rest against the sky.  The wind had gradually bent its limbs until they permanently embraced the trunk’s leeward side.  I was trying to determine from my window whether the tree was an evergreen or a deciduous tree, but at that distance I couldn’t be sure.  I resolved to take a steep hike up to find out.  But then I got hurt and couldn’t walk.

Six weeks later in November when the valley was awash in fiery yellows and reds, I looked out the window and my tree stood out, clearly ever green, high on the ridge.  Sometimes you just have to wait.

Team field trip to St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge and alligator alley.  Matt was so scared he kept his eyes closed the whole time.

Zap Fitness is in hard training at Tallahassee training camp until mid February.  Then we’ll retreat back into the mountains and enjoy Chef Michael (co-author of a forthcoming Zap Fitness cookbook + workout book!) food once again.

Having started training so late following the injury, my agenda for 2017 is a long track and road racing season extending all the way into October.  The first time I put the uniform on will be to pace 5,000m and mile heats at the Iowa State Classic indoor meet in a few weeks. My first real race will be the Gate River Run / US 15k Championship in March.  That one will be successful if I avoid a post-race thermometer up the butt like two years ago.  TMI?

Thanks for reading all the way to the end, gentle reader.  To reward you, I leave you with this: flamingoes are pink because they eat shrimp.


Here's my tentative race schedule:


DateRace NameLocationVenue / Distance
February 11Iowa State ClassicAmes, IAIndoor track pacing duties
March 11Gate River RunJacksonville, FLRoad 15k
March 24Raleigh RelaysRaleigh, NCTrack 1500, 5000 pace
April 15Boston Athletic Assoc. 5kBoston, MARoad 5k
May 3Payton Jordan InvitePalo Alto, CATrack 5k