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

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