Monday, April 28, 2014

War and Peace

I was watching Jon Stewart the other day - he had on an author who wrote a biography about Gandhi's early life in South Africa.  He mentioned how Gandhi had been influenced by Tolstoy - who also influenced Martin Luther King Jr..  Being in need of a project before I start taking classes again in June - I decided that I'm going to read Tolstoy's "War and Peace."  Of course starting "War and Peace" is very different than finishing "War and Peace" - but so far I like it.

It is set in Russia - in the early 19th century - when Napoleon was taking over Europe.  Like all good literature - from Shakespeare to Seinfeld - it is mainly about morality.  What is "good" behavior vs. "bad" behavior?  Context is everything.  The title of the book is probably also the best example of how morality is judged mostly on the context.  Behavior that would be condemned in peace time is celebrated in war. 

I also watched "The Armstrong Lie" this last weekend.  It's a documentary about Lance Armstrong.  It was originally about his comeback in 2009.  The documentarian was very pro-Lance originally - but his downfall happened before the movie was finished - including his interview with Oprah.  I've been very anti-Lance on this blog for a long time.  Remembering his downfall and starting to read "War and Peace" made me think about what exactly his greatest sins were.

He was known by his admirers for his dogged determination.  First - for overcoming cancer and then for winning seven Tour de France titles.  His main failing seems to be that he saw everyone as either a foe to be overcome or a pawn to be used.  There was no bonds with others that were strong enough to displace his goal of "winning" - however he defined that.  He was at perpetual "war" with the world.

Sometimes I feel the need to apologize for the fact that I still love to compete.  It seems childish in some way.  But again - I guess it's all about context.  With racing I'm able to express that part of me that likes winning - but I would call all of my rivalries - "friendly" rivalries. 

Next week I run the Lincoln Half Marathon.  With so much time on my hands I've actually been training quite a lot.  Some of my key workouts point to me running somewhere around 1:14 - which would be the fastest I've run in about five years for that distance.  The nice thing about running in a big race is that ultimately you are running against yourself.  You are running to beat a goal time - rather than another person.  The best way to accomplish your goal is to think of people around you as friendly adversaries.  My hope is that there is a decent sized group (4-5 guys) trying to run around my pace.  In order to run my best there will be a time in the race where I'll need to compete against them - but afterwards it will be all smiles and telling each other "nice job."

I've found that even in professional life it's good to think of others a friendly adversaries.  You can't be afraid of confrontation or competition - but you have to know when the competition is over - and how to smile and shake your adversary's hand.  Because many times our greatest competitors in life become our best allies.  It's all about context.

Here are my last two weeks of training.


Monday - 3000y swim (1 hour) & 4 mi run (30 min)
Tuesday - 47 mile bike (2.5 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour) Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 min)
Thursday - 12 miles 4X2 mi w/ 2 min rest (11:20;11:01; 10:58; 10:50) (1.5 hours)
Friday - 3000y swim (1 hour)
Saturday - 47 mile bike ride (2.5 hours) followed by 4 mile run (30 min)
Sunday - 17 mile run (2 hours)
Total - Swim: 3 hours Bike: 5 hours Run: 4.75 hours (12.75 hours)


Monday - 3000y swim (1 hour)
Tuesday - 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour) Afternoon: 8.5 mile run (1 hour)
Thursday - 50 mile bike (2.75 hours) 6 mile run (45 min)
Friday - 2250y swim (45 min) 6 mile run (45 min)
Saturday - 4 mile run (30 min)
Sunday - 36 mile bike (2 hours) 8.5 mile run (1 hour)
Total - Swim: 2.75 hours Bike: 6.75 hours Run: 4.5 hours (14 hours)

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Best Man

I wrote last week that distance running is more about participation than spectating.  There are many reasons for that.  For one, whoever the favorite is coming into a marathon usually wins.  Many times the winner breaks away with 20-30 minutes left in the race.  There's also the fact that there are very few distance runners who are on top long enough to be well known.  Even though it's my sport I sometimes find myself not knowing many of the top runners.

Coming into today it felt like it would be even more about the masses.  As it should have been, the focus was on the bombings from last year.  They allowed an extra 9,000 people into the race this year - many of whom were not able to finish last year.  I had many friends who, although not in their best shape, decided to race anyways because of the importance of this year.

The last American to win Boston was Greg Meyer in 1983.  Greg is from my home state of Michigan.  I actually got to know him a little bit when he was working with my mom - raising money for the University of Michigan.  He even gave me an old couch of his when I moved into a new apartment.  And he gave me an "interview" for this blog when I was training for Boston five years ago.

As most people know - Kenya and Ethiopia have come to dominate distance running in the last 30 years.  Of the last 23 years Kenyans have won 20 Boston Marathons.  It's been a sore subject for many American runners and coaches.  Americans used to be among the best runners.  With his gold medal in 1972, Frank Shorter ushered in the American running boom.  New York didn't even have a marathon until the mid-70's.

The fact that running was becoming more popular with the masses in the late 70's and early 80's seemed to make it even more difficult for the people in charge of the sport to handle that Americans couldn't win our greatest races.  There has been talk about only giving prize money to Americans - a pretty anti-American idea in my opinion.  In the last 10 years that has turned around somewhat.  Ryan Hall, Dathan Ritzenhein, Galen Rupp, Jenny Simpson etc have all had success on the world stage.

The American who really led this charge was Meb Keflezighi.  Meb outperformed expectations to get a Silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the marathon.  It was the first marathon medal for the US since Frank Shorter.  More impressive than his running career has been his story.  He and his family immigrated to the US when he was 12 years old from Eritrea.  His family story is truly the American dream.  Many of his eight siblings are doctors, lawyers, and professors.  His parents pushed their children to make the most of the opportunities they had in the US.

Meb has always been one of my favorite runners.  He is confident and yet humble.  He has overcome many injuries and setbacks.  His sponsor Nike dropped him several years ago when it looked like his career was close to being over.  No other major shoe company would pick him up - he ended up being signed for Skechers.  The entire running community felt pity for the once great runner.  How could Meb be sponsored by a shoe company that seemed to belong more on the feet of a shuffle board player than a marathoner?

But he didn't give up.  He redoubled his efforts training and won New York in 2009.  He somehow came out with a 4th place finish at the London Olympics.  There was one thing about Meb - he performs on the big stage.  More importantly - he has passion for what he does.  He hasn't let the ups and downs of a long professional career jade him.  Watch an interview from last November after the New York marathon.

A few months before New York Meb found out he had a partially torn soleus muscle.  He cross trained to maintain his aerobic fitness - but his legs weren't strong enough on race day.  Most pro's who have a bad day in the marathon simply walk off the course and wait for the sag wagon to take them back to the finish.  Why put more stress on your body than you need to when it's not your day?  But Meb doesn't think that way. 

Usually the best runner wins a marathon.  Today the best man won.

AP photo of Meb after the American national anthem played for the Boston marathon champ for the first time in 31 years.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Finish Line

Running is an odd sport in many ways.  The best runners are not famous or rich like in other sports.  It's a sport of participation rather than spectating.  To me - the main thing that differentiates running from most other sports is the finish line.

This is especially true at a major marathon like Boston or New York.  The sense of elation and victory doesn't end when the winner crosses the finish line.  It continues for hours.  Remember the Christian Laettner shot from 20 years ago?  Now imagine that wasn't the end of the game.  Imagine that everybody got to come down from the stands and try their own shot - except that everybody kept making the shot - for hours on end.  That's the kind of energy that exists at a finish line of a major marathon or an Ironman.

I think that's why the bombing last year was such a punch in the gut for so many of us who have run a marathon.  A finish line is in many ways a sacred place.  It's like bombing a church or synagogue.  It's incomprehensible to most of us.  We all feel pain - but we have a choice of what we can do with that pain.  We can lash out at the world.  We can even try to destroy the world.  Or we can try to make something beautiful.  We can reach other to others.  We can show the world that pain can be overcome.  The beauty of humanity is when we are able to take pain and loss and turn it into victory. 

Here is the story of one such person - Jon Blais or Blazeman.  Watch the video below - it tells his story.  Of course we should remember the victims today - but we should also think about the beauty of the finish line - and that nobody can take away that beauty.

Here are the two poems he wrote that are in the video.

"It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love – for your dreams – for the adventure of being alive.
I want to know if you can live with failure – yours and mine – and still shout at the edges of a lake, river, or mountain – “Yes! I am a warrior poet!”
It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know whether you can get up after a night of grief and despair – weary and bruised to the bone – and do what needs to be done for someone you love.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and truly like the company you keep in the empty moments of your life.
And still remember me – Blazeman – ALS warrior poet"

"Live - more than your neighbors.
Unleash yourself upon the world and go places.
Go now - giggle - go - laugh - and bark at the moon like the wild dog that you are.
Understand this is not a dress rehearsal.  This is it - your life.
Face your fears and live your dreams.
Take it all in - yes, every chance you get.
Come close - and by all means - whatever you do - get it on film."

Jon Blais (August 30, 1971 - May 27, 2007)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Schopenhauer and Sports as Performance Art

"If life—the craving for which is the very essence of our being—were possessed of any positive intrinsic value, there would be no such thing as boredom at all: mere existence would satisfy us in itself, and we should want for nothing. But as it is, we take no delight in existence except when we are struggling for something; and then distance and difficulties to be overcome make our goal look as though it would satisfy us." - Arthur Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer was a 19th century German philosopher.  His best known work is called "The World as Will and Representation."  In it he states that the basic human desire is not only the basis of ourselves - but of the world in general.  This desire or "Will" is not rational and therefore the world is not rational.  Our own desires are the root of our pain - because we rarely fully obtain that which we desire - and even when we do "every satisfaction lays the seeds of some new desire, so that there is no end to the wishes of each individual will."

The conundrum of life is that our desires lead to pain, or if attained, simply to new desires - and yet the answer is not to have no desires - because then life would be meaningless.  For Schopenhauer the best we can do is to lower our expectations for how we will feel when we've accomplished what we desire.  We also have to understand that life is made up of the actions we take to realize our goals - rather than the attainment of those goals - which can feel empty and embarrassingly vain once we attain them.

The other important concept in Schopenhauer's writings are related to the difference between the thing in itself and a representation of that thing.  This is an idea that comes from Plato - with his allegory of the cave.  Schopenhauer thought that music and visual art are important because they allow us to experience a concept (love, loss, joy etc) in a more abstract way then how we experience them in real life.  In art (aka aesthetic contemplation) we no longer simply perceive a thing - but we become immersed in that thing to such an extent that the perceiver and perception become one.  In that moment of aesthetic contemplation, we are actually released from the pain of desire.

He thought that the Dutch still life paintings were some of the greatest art - because they focused on the beauty of everyday objects.  Sports are, in a way, also a representation of concepts that are deeply human.  Competition, physical prowess, determination, struggle - all of these very human concepts are in play with sports.  Many times people ridicule sports "fanatics" because they seem to care about something so deeply that "doesn't really matter."  I think Schopenhauer would say that's the point.  I can't sit in the chair in Van Gogh's painting of his room at Arles - I can't sleep it its bed.  But I can get a sense of the coziness of such a room - and what it would feel like to be in it.

Sports allow us to feel real struggle - without it being a true life or death situation.  Yesterday I ran 17 miles in some miserable weather.  It was in the mid-40's, raining, and windy.  At first it wasn't too bad - but about half-way through it started pouring.  I was soaked to the bone - my legs started to go numb at one point.  And yet I was happy with myself.  I didn't see one other runner the entire 17 miles - Kendra said "Well that's because you were crazy to be running out in that weather!"  She's probably right - but I think why it made me happy is that I got to feel as if I was overcoming some great obstacle for some higher purpose.  That purpose probably doesn't really mean anything to anybody other than me - but that's exactly why it matters.  That run was a struggle - but it was more an aesthetic contemplation of Struggle - and therefore it allowed me to detach from the things in this world that cause me actual suffering.  In running I get to a place that, as Schopenhauer would say, is "pure, will-less, and timeless."  I think if you ask any artist - that's exactly the place that they attempt to obtain when they perform.

Here was my training from last week:

Monday -  4 mile run (30 minutes)
 Tuesday - Morning: 1500y swim (30 minutes)
Afternoon: 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 minutes)
Thursday - 4 mile run (30 minutes)
Friday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 minutes)
Saturday -  56 mile bike (3 hours) followed by 4 mile run (30 minutes)
Sunday - 17 mile run (2 hours)
Total - Swim: 2.5 hours Bike: 5 hours Run: 5 hours (12.5 hours)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Who Shows Up

The above picture is of Dick Beardsley (leading the race) and Alberto Salazar in the 1982 Boston marathon.  The book "Duel in the Sun" describes this epic race along with their training - and how their lives were changed afterwards.  The two men ran within a few feet of each other for the entire last 10 miles of the race.  Look up the race on youtube - it is incredibly exciting.  Beardsley was the underdog - but he had focused all of his training on winning Boston.  Salazar was the better runner - but he may have been a little overconfident - as he had raced against the great Henry Rono in a 10k the previous weekend. 

Salazar ended up winning - although he was so severely dehydrated that he was taken to a hospital and given six liters of water intravenously.  His career started a slow and steady decline after this race.  Dick Beardsley never ran as fast either.  Ten years later Beardsley was convicted of forging prescriptions because of a drug habit.

On Saturday I ran a very different race "in the sun."  It was called Run the Runway - a 10k at the Scottsdale airport.  I actually ended up winning the race.  I was happy with my time - but it certainly wasn't fast enough to win most races.  It was a new race and there was no prize money - so none of the local hot shots showed up.

Don't get me wrong - winning a race is still a lot of fun.  And I understand that most people don't ever get to experience what it feels like winning a race.  But it really is mostly about who shows up.  This isn't false modesty - but merely from the experience of getting my butt kicked many more times than I've kicked butt.

The experience started to make me think about how winning is a lot of fun - but that it doesn't really teach us much about ourselves.  If I won every race - how would I ever grow or get better?  It would actually make racing very dull.  Running is after all just about putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible.  If it weren't for the unknown of competition - it wouldn't be worth doing.

The truth is that most distance races, from the Olympics to your local 5k, actually are pretty boring.  There is usually one person who is simply much better than the other runners.  And with distance running - there is no subjectivity - so, the person who is in better shape usually pulls away - unless they make some terrible error in judgment.

The same is true in life.  Whether you are competing for a job or really anything - most times there really is someone who is "best for the job."  Many times we focus on a direction in our lives and then, like a pool ball heading for a pocket, get knocked a different direction by something or someone completely out of nowhere.  In our lives it's also about who shows up. 

We all come to a point where we have to decide whether to view getting knocked sideways as a detour to our ultimate destination, or as a sign from the universe that we need to go a different direction entirely.  This is both what makes life frustrating and interesting.  We are not in complete control of our destiny.  The world has plans for us that we can not possibly predict or even prepare for.

What makes the "duel in the sun" a great race is that both men were so determined to not let the other get in the way of their dream that they put themselves into great peril - and eventually harmed their bodies to the point that they were never the same runners.  But to admit defeat wasn't possible for either of them at the time.  Their struggle that day turned into over a decade of internal struggle for both men.  Salazar is now America's most successful distance running coach.  Beardsley is a motivational speaker and helps others to overcome their addictions.

For me, the lesson to all of this is that pain is the only real teacher.  Every time that we have a difficult experience we need to ask ourselves - what is it that I've learned?  Usually we get caught up in asking the universe "why"?  The answer is usually - "because you can't help others until you've experienced what it means to really struggle."  And in my opinion - that is what we're on this earth to do - help each other to thrive in what is often a cold and lonely world.

We often play the if only this happened (or didn't happen) I would be happy "game."  It is a waste of time.  Our lives played out the only way they could have.  Usually when we play the "if only" game - it's because we have knowledge now that we didn't have at the time that we made a mistake.  We blame ourselves for not knowing something that we could only know because we've had that experience.  In the end we have to learn to be thankful for every experience and person who we've encountered - and although it's hard - be even more thankful for the people and experiences that brought us pain in our lives.  Because they taught us something we needed to learn in order to become who we were destined to be.

Monday -  3000y swim (1 hour)
 Tuesday - 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour)
Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 minutes)
Thursday - 9 mile run (1 hour)
Friday - 30 mile bike (2 hours)
Saturday -  11 mile run - including 34:11 10k (1.25 hours)
Sunday - 4km swim (1.25 hours)
Total - Swim: 3.25 hours Bike: 4 hours Run: 3 hours (10.25 hours)