Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fragility and Resilience

Last weekend, while we were driving to Boulder, my wife and I listened to an interview of author Kevin Fong, MD by Teri Gross of NPR's "Fresh Air."  Dr. Fong is an anesthesiologist and NASA advisor who wrote a book titled "Extreme Medicine" about how our travels to the North Pole and space during the 20th century have changed our understanding of how the human body works. 

At the end of the interview, she asked him what writing this book and his own experiences had taught him.  I'm paraphrasing, but he said something like "the human body is fragile - and yet in extreme environments it can be very resilient." 

Life is fragile.  I had an awful reminder of that this past week when I found out that two high school classmates died within a matter of days of each other.  It made me think about how although I have had a rough year - but I'm still here.  I have challenges ahead of me - but they aren't insurmountable.  I still have opportunities - all of their opportunities have come to a tragic end.

There are two distinct ways to come to terms with our own mortality.  We can attempt to avoid danger for ourselves and our loved ones - or we can take it as a reminder to live life to the fullest.  To attempt to experience all the world has to offer.  To be kind and compassionate to both ourselves and others - because regardless of who we are as people we all have the same ultimate destiny.  Most of us vacillate between these two perspectives.  We live our lives - but we make sure not to take stupid risks.  We try to help others, but we're also weary of those who take advantage of our kindness.

How does this fit into endurance sports?  It might be a stretch - but training and racing for me has always been partially about the interplay between fragility and resilience.  It's about putting myself in a situation where I can choose to be strong or I can choose to quit.  When people say they are addicted to running - I think what their actually addicted to is how powerful it can feel to choose to continue on when the rational thing to do would be to stop.

It's easy to forget what 99% of our ancestors had to endure in order for us to be here.  For most of human history life was, to quote Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short."  Our genetic code has been passed down to us from countless generations of survivors.  One problem with modern society is that we seem not to know how to react to a lack of a hostile environment.  It appears at times as though we create internal conflict in order to replace external conflict - or we create unnecessary drama because we don't know what to do with the relative peace in which we find ourselves.

Although I enjoy the challenge and competition of running - my best moments as an athlete are when my mind goes into a meditative state.  When I'm not thinking of anything except for the rhythmic motion of my body - the air going in and out of my lungs.  The recently deceased poet and author Maya Angelou had a twitter account.  Her last tweet was "Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God."

Much of Maya Angelou's writing was about fragility and resilience as well.  As she said, "I can be changed by what happens to me.  But I refuse to be reduced by it."  I'm not sure that there is a better definition of resiliency than that.

We are of the world - but we can't let the world define us or consume us.  We have to find our own identity and strength within ourselves.  We all have a whisper of the divine within us - we just have to, as Dr. Angelou would say, get quiet enough to hear it.  Many people get to that quiet place through music or art - for me it's through running.  And I guess that's why I keep doing what I'm doing.  It helps me to remember who I really am regardless of what else is going on in my life.  And for that I am truly grateful.

Monday, May 19, 2014

"Pain Purifies"

Author, Haruki Murakami

Although this alliterative phrase sounds like it could have come from the lips of a 17th century Puritan - it's actually a quote from my high school cross country and track coach, Don Sleeman. I think he said it to stop us from complaining about hard workouts.  He said it a lot.

But was he right?  Does pain exist for some loftier purpose other than to merely ensure that we think twice about touching a hot stove?

I bring up this topic because I think many non-runners think that we're just a bunch of masochists.  And to be honest, if you were to come to a gathering of runners it wouldn't be odd to hear many conversations centered on pain - whether regarding injuries or workouts or races.  Many times we are more likely to talk about our failures than our successes because the descriptions of pain are so much more vivid.

Of course, I don't know whether my experience of pain is the same as Joe's - just as I don't know what the color blue looks like to Joe.  There is no objective way to measure pain - we only have our own descriptions of it - and the knowledge that everybody who has ever walked the earth has experienced pain at some time.

One way in which I think my coach was right is that it's very difficult to think about anything else that might be bothering you when you're in real physical pain.  So often we seem to suffer because our brains need something to think about - and what's most likely to focus our attention are the worries of everyday life.  Physical pain strips that all away.  Any insults we've borne through the day - real or imagined - magically disappear.  We are completely focused on the struggle that we're enduring in the moment.

Pain is also one of the strongest connections that we have with others.  In an article about pain - and how living in the age of anesthesia may change how we interact with others - Joanna Bourke quotes 19th century physician Samuel Henry Dickinson "Without suffering there would be no sympathies, and all the finer and more sacred human ties would cease to exist."  Our own experience of pain and our ability to empathize with others' pain is in some ways the basis of morality and kindness to others.  You could go further and argue that pain is the basis for society and culture - and our ability to express pain - both physical and emotional - is what makes us human.

One of my favorite books on running is a memoir by novelist Haruki Murakami called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  He makes the very Buddhist comment that "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." 

However, my favorite passage is the following:

"Of course it was painful, and there were times when, emotionally, I just wanted to chuck it all. But pain seems to be a precondition for this kind of sport. If pain weren't involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It's precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive--or at least a partial sense of it. Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself."

So pain is part of the experience - but it is not the ultimate goal.

As Christopher McDougall wrote in Born to Run - "running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle--behold, the Running Man.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn't live to love anything else. And like everything else we love--everything we sentimentally call our 'passions' and 'desires' it's really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run."

So, to return to my original question - does pain purify?  Pain is not the goal - but it is a signpost that you are headed in the right direction towards your goal.  It simplifies and strips away what's not needed.  It helps us to identify with one another. But many people lose sight of the real goal - they get stuck in pain - they make pain the defining representation of their experience.  The real goal is self knowledge of what your body is capable of doing.  It is to know that the human body is made to run. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Team That's What She Said - The Genesis of this Blog

In the spring of 2007 Kendra and I moved to Baltimore, MD.  We didn't know anybody there - so I went online to find out if there were any running groups in the area.  My search led me to Falls Road Running Store - where I met owner Jim Adams.  He pointed me to a group that had been formed by a University of Maryland runner, Ryan McGrath.  Little did I know what was in store for me.

Ryan is a unique individual.  He is a man of contrasts - it's difficult to pin down exactly how to describe him.  But one thing that's for sure is that he is very committed to his role as Baltimore running impresario.  To understand what I mean you need to go to the team's blogsite

There are a lot of things going on.  First, is a review of results from the previous weekend - including an award called the "Purple Drink Athlete of the Week."  On the right column there is a box that shows races, names, and times for the previous week.  I counted 22 people listed from the previous week - which is probably about average. 

You might have noticed the poll at the top right of the blog.  This is usually something silly (this week is who is your favorite British Harry - Harry Styles from One Direction, Prince Harry, or Harry Potter). 

Then there is a list of birthdays for the current month, upcoming running events, a tool to help you find a group run (based on the day of the week and your location), list of other blogs, quotes, running links, top 10 lists for the group, etc.  And all of these are updated fairly regularly. 

Other than to show you how one man has used his obsessive compulsive disorder to bring good into the world - I wanted to show you why I started this blog.  In 2007 runner blogs in the Baltimore/D.C. area were popping up like worms after the rain.  I would say there were close to a dozen of us who have written blogs at one point or another.  An example of another runner who has kept it up all these years is Jake Klim and his "Red Fox" blog.  Jake lives in DC and runs for Georgetown Running Company - and is an outstanding runner. 

My point is that, although I'm now far away, I still feel like this blog is part of that community.  The running group and the people I met in Baltimore really energized my love of running.  There are many things that I wouldn't have even tried if I hadn't been part of Team That's What She Said - including triathlons. 

Runners are special people.  There's no place I've lived where I haven't been close friends with at least a few of them - but the group in Baltimore is even unique among running groups.  So, thank you Ryan and thank you friends in Baltimore/DC.  For better or worse - you guys are a big reason why I keep writing this blog and keep competing.

Here is what I did last week:


Monday - 3000y swim (1 hour)
Tuesday - 56 mile bike (3 hours)
Wednesday - Morning: 3000y swim (1 hour) Afternoon: 6 mile run (45 min)
Thursday - 36 mile bike (2 hours)
Friday - 3000y swim (1 hour) 6 mile run (45 min)
Saturday - 56 mile bike (3 hours)
Sunday - 17 mile run (2 hours)
Total - Swim: 3 hours Bike: 8 hours Run: 3.5 hours (14.5 hours)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Lincoln Half Marathon

"The Sower" - The statue on top of the Nebraska State Capital building in Lincoln

My writing on this blog has been pretty heavy on Philosophy recently.  Well, today I'm going to write a good old fashioned race report.

I signed up for Lincoln around New Years.  I didn't quite know how much time I'd have to train at that point.  Unfortunately it's been more than I expected.  So I decided to make the most of it.

The Half Marathon has always been a good distance for me.  My PR is right around 1:10 - which is a little more solid than my marathon PR of 2:32.  Half marathons are great events - they are long enough that you feel like you've really accomplished something - but they generally don't leave you crippled like a marathon can.

Having not run an all-out half for close to four years - I didn't really know what I was capable of.  I just kind of picked a number out of a hat for my goal.  I decided on 1:15.  I also decided to get under 1:15 I needed to focus more on my running (rather than cycling and swimming) - and do some proper half marathon workouts.

The key workout for me in the past has been two mile repeats with two minutes rest.  I build up from two to four repeats over 6-8 weeks.  I also made sure to get in a "proper" long run each week - which for me is 17 miles.

My last 4X2 mile workout went 11:20, 11:01, 10:58, 10:50.  So basically I started off at 5:40 per mile pace and ended in 5:25 per mile pace.  In general, it's good to keep an even pace in workout or maybe get 5-10 seconds per mile faster - but my last one was so much faster than my first - it was hard for me to judge exactly what that meant.  I decided that a pace in the high 5:30's was possible - but part of me wasn't sure - because my best 5 miler of the winter was at 5:38 pace - and it was a pretty hard effort.

The weather this morning was pretty much perfect.  Temps in the low 50's.  There was some wind - but nothing much worse than what we typically have in Nebraska.

I don't care who you are - that first mile is always a mystery.  The excitement of the race can easily make you go out too hard - but you want to get in a good rhythm as well.  I missed the first mile split - so it really was a mystery.  But I felt pretty strong.

I ended up going through two miles at 11:06 - so, I was going slightly faster than planned.  I have to say that the support on the course was awesome.   They had our names printed on our bibs - which I used to think was kind of cheesy - but it does help to hear people yelling out my name.

The course is relatively flat - but it does have some rollers.  It was also just windy enough that I felt like I was fighting through it in a few places.  But overall the conditions were great.

I somehow missed the next two mile splits - so, I was stuck doing some mental arithmetic at mile 5.  I had slowed down a little bit averaging ~5:40 those three miles.  Then there were two welcome downhill, wind at my back miles.  I actually went 5:20 for both of those miles.  The last 4-5 miles were tough.  I was really struggling up some of the hills - my 10th mile was my slowest mile at 5:54.  I was starting to wonder whether I could break 1:14 or not.  I also got passed by three guys in this section.  Getting passed is always a little demoralizing - but instead of feeling defeated you have to try to hang on a bit as they pass and then focus on their rhythm and try to match it.

Unfortunately the third guy who passed me put me into 11th place - there was prize money through 10th place.  I was able to get back to low 5:40 miles in the last two miles and came through in 1:13:35 - over a minute better than my original goal. 

Even though I just missed out on some prize money I can't complain.  The weather was great - the support and organization of the race was great - and I ran faster than I expected.  Thanks to the Lincoln Track Club for putting on such a great race!

The reason I will probably always run is that there is something completely satisfying about a day like today.  I made a plan several months out - I executed the plan - and I reaped the benefits.  That doesn't always happen in life - or in running - but it sure is sweet when it does.