September 28, 2009

The universe in a drop of water

Minutely observed, the smallest poem is an epic. I always figured the mile for a unit, not a race distance. But it turns out every distance has a beginning, a bunch of chapters and plot twists, and an end. Any distance can seem infinite. Zeno probably was a miler.

Teammate Brenn convinced me to run the Fifth Avenue Mile on Saturday, even though I hadn't trained or tapered for it, and had no idea about running such a short distance. It's not that I thought it would be easy - in fact I was intimidated by the idea of spending so much of myself in so short a time.

The start was brutally crowded, and I met more elbows than usual at the starting horn. I spent the first quarter mile threading my way through, determined as always to get away from the flurried mass. This naturally meant that I went out far, far too fast.

As I embarked on the second quarter I began to understand I couldn't keep up that pace, but I reasserted my form and my focus and concentrated on the hill that reared up to attack me.

The 3rd quarter was a vast dispiriting desert. Despite having crested the hill, I thought the race would never end. I wanted to pull off the course, buy a water, slink home. My lungs had no interest in this pace, and my mind lost perspective entirely. Other men were passing me at an alarming rate and I was sure I was dead last.

But by the fourth quarter I was starting to settle into my pace even as my legs urgently questioned my sanity. As the finish line came into view I considered whether I could kick. Some guy started to pass me and I decided to beat him. The kick wasn't intense but it shaved a few seconds. A New York accomplishment: getting from East 80th Street to 60th in just over 5 minutes on foot. Good thing the race wasn't run crosstown.

I surprised myself with my time, about 7 seconds faster than I expected (especially since I had been up all night with a fever). I met up with Teammates Gregg and Chris to watch a few of the next heats. We witnessed runners of 55, 65, 75 years hitting blazing times. One grinning fellow ran by juggling 3 balls. When the 90 year old man ran by (11:36) we were all floored.

We watched Shannon Rowbury warming up (she won the pro women's heat at 4:23.3), and Bernard Lagat jogged by with a shoe in each hand (couldn't figure that one out).

Each distance I've raced this year has been a novel to me. Or a heist movie. An opera, or a ship in a bottle. Twenty blocks or 20 miles are a concentrated chunk of your life, the whole long struggle in a drop of salty water. And watching so many others do the same thing brings it all back to the swooning infinite tides.

Image by Dustin Humphrey

September 25, 2009

Qui sème le vent récolte le tempo

Last night I ran fast and steady for 5 miles. In fact much faster than I'd planned. This is either very good or moderately bad.

How to know?

A few weeks ago I was hitting real resistance about two-thirds of the way through my tempo runs. During last night's tempo I hit the resistance but I was just able to focus on my resources rather than my suffering. I only lost about 4 seconds in the second half. So that's good.

But tempos are supposed to be at lactate threshold, or LT. Running at LT pace incrementally pushes the threshold up as supercompensation gives you better performance over time. A gauge of LT pace is one you could hold in an hour-long race (so my 1:04 in February's Cherry Tree gives me about 6:24 m/m). Or the McMillan calculator gives me a range between 6:12 - 6:28 m/m. Last night I ran 6:09's.

As a newbie I really should be trying to get a bodily sense of these things rather than hanging them on benchmarks. The Cherry Tree was 7 months ago, prior to any training really, and the calculator is just an Excel gimcrack. Too much gear and metrics subtracts from the pure feel of legs on the road doing a specific job.

So last night I was feeling for my LT, that is, a pace just before my legs tired. During the run I sensed aerobics were holding me back, not tired legs. For small stretches I could center my mind in my muscles and felt a lot of mojo still in there. But my chest was heaving a little.

Looks like my aerobic capacity is lagging behind my LT. Not a surprise: I'm topping out at 40 miles per week for a marathon coming in 36 days. As Joe Garland would say, my low mileage means I'm "going in soft".

I probably ran too fast to get much of an LT bump last night. But centering my mind in the muscle and its huge reserves was a big breakthrough, and one I'll need for the race.

Another Garland pearl, originally from Charlie Spedding, is the idea of a "perfect" workout. Not "hard" or "easy", but optimal for the job. I did a hard workout last night. Remains to be seen whether it was perfect. Guess we'll find out in 36 days.

September 18, 2009

You must not love the bear

"Yes, there was a depression. But how came it? Who devised it? The 'bears', sir. The depression of our stock was solely owing to the growling, the hypocritical growling, of the bears." (Melville, The Confidence-Man)

The times have shown us that, just as faith in stupid stuff makes a fragile bubble, faults in faith will keep us down. The bleak illusion of doom, be it the counterbalance to earlier delusions of eternal windfall, is still an illusion. It brings hard times on a system and the bodies that make it up.

But things are what they are. Never trust a bull. Never trust a bear.

Some recent exercise science espouses the "central governor theory", in which it is an involuntary faculty of the brain that decides when the exercising body tires. That is, it's not some chemical reaction in your muscles sending a message to the brain about fatigue, but just the opposite: the brain tells the muscles to get tired. Why? Just because.

If the theory is valid, then training is at least as much about the mind as the muscles or the lungs. The central nervous system must be convinced that the myo-fascial system has untapped reserves.

Basically the brain must stop being such a pussy. Somehow the squishy little fellow must be conned into trusting you.

In that spirit, here is my stimulus package for my bearish brain.

  1. Long tempo runs, executed with patience, toughness, and playfulness. Last night's 9 miles of tempo was faster and stronger than any training I've done in several months. I kept up with a group who dusted me last week. The air was cool and sweet. Trust your training.
  2. Bounteous training table. My wife writes about food for a living, and we've been getting on the Michael Pollan bandwagon, so pretty much everything we eat is organic, local, and delicious. I drink a big fruit smoothie every morning, with a bagel and a Clif Bar. Dinner always comes with salad. I eat a ton of good calories. Trust your training table.
  3. Recovery days after every quality run. Whether it's because I'm a rookie or an old dude or both, I need full rest days between workouts. I do light cross-training, mostly core, a few times a week. I stretch a lot. But total rest is OK too. Most the chronic problems I had earlier in the year when I ran more often have disappeared. So that's my recovery package: trust your rest.
  4. I've been training with others who run more consistent and tougher paces that I normally would. I push harder because there's someone up ahead of me, and that's annoying. Trust your training partners.
  5. I'm meditating again to help focus myself. Being able to focus on form when I'm tired has sped me up immensely. If I can meditate for an hour, I can definitely focus on the road for about that amount of time. Also, being relaxed is good. Trust your inner zen master.
  6. My wife and baby daughter have sacrificed time with me for a few hours for 4 or 5 Sundays while I do my long runs. The baby teaches me the value of patience and the big picture all the time. Trust your outer zen master.

There's more, but those are the main planks. They're what I'll think about 43 days from now, at mile 16 or so, to override the slowdown. My message to my brain is pretty much the same as my message to big, timid institutional investors - man up, engage with the system, and STFU.

September 4, 2009

Immagini del tempo

I love my long runs, and I can nail my speed workouts. But the tempo run is my weak spot right now. During last night's run I began to see why.

A couple of weeks ago I did a group tempo run - we ran approximately 5K at half-marathon pace and then another 2 miles at 10M pace. The humidity or something got me during the first part and I just couldn't keep up with the group for the pick-up, which I ran slower. This was discouraging.

Last night I ran with a slightly slower group. We did a horse-shoe in the park, doing 3.25mi around the top of the park at marathon pace, then went the same way back at half-marathon pace (actually, quite a bit faster). This time I managed to stay with the pace leaders and sprinted at the end. Total lift.

The difference? It's a mental game. When we sped up for the pick-up I started to think I couldn't hold the pace through the whole distance. I argued with my soft, pink brain, who was floundering about and yelping like Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure: "I can't do it!" "Come on Belle, you can do it!" "I can't! Aaaagh!"

In fact I could. I asked the legs, Are you tired? They said no. Respiratory system? No. Fine then. Brain, I call bullshit.

Running a more manageable pace left me with gas in the tank afterward, and the sense that I could have held the marathon pace for a good long time. I ran my target paces and felt strong doing it. The confidence is everything.

The tempo run is a sustained note. It has a perfectly-timed punch line, a crazy plot twist. It's a stare-down with Shelley Winters.

After the lovely sundown run in the cool breezes of nearly-autumn - truly we have reached the filet mignon of the training season - I went for dinner with a great friend I haven't seen in a year. Got to sleep quite late after all that. But this morning was OK because -

(Image by the talented Mr. Bingo.)

September 3, 2009

Lion In A Coma

"Do you not observe that these athletes sleep away their lives, and are liable to most dangerous illnesses if they depart, in ever so slight a degree, from their customary regimen?"
(Plato, Republic, Bk III)

Sleep is the better half of training, or thereabouts. I learned this from my baby daughter, tiny Zen Master of my days and nights. When she was just a few months old and still figuring out how to move her limbs, she would invent a few new wiggles each day. Then, late at night, we could hear her thump-thump-thumping as she practiced the same moves in her sleep. Next morning we'd find our not-yet-crawling baby girl totally turned, tangled, and backwards in her crib.

It's the same for the athlete. The neural network absorbs training all night long, constellating neurons and ganglia from the shocks and motions of the day's work. So the sleepless athlete gets nowhere.

Re-enter the Zen Master. Nowadays, she crawls, stands, and is cutting teeth. After months of sleeping solidly through the night, she's back to waking us at unkind hours with gale-force bawling. This morning, 4 am found me cradling her against my chest for 45 minutes while her sobs slowly ebbed. It took me another hour after that to fall back into a restless sleep.

I treasure every minute with my daughter, including and especially 3/4 of an hour holding her tight to my drowsy body. I won't be able to solve her problems so easily forever.

On the other hand, I'm nearing the peak of marathon training. Last Sunday, 22 miles, with a fast pickup mile at the end. Tuesday, a bunch of 1-mile intervals at 10K pace (well, a little slower) and some hill sprints. And tonight, another 6.5 miles of tempo running. My legs feel good, but a week's poor sleep has left me soft.

I've learned from experience that my Zen Master always has some important life lesson for me in her visceral riddles. I don't think she's telling me to get less sleep. Probably it's something about being flexible. It's hard to bring it into focus though. I'm just so sleepy.