March 30, 2009

What I blog about when I blog about running

Taking out the trash just now, I was talking to my neighbor and he asked me whether I had run this morning. I had, and I mentioned I was running just about every morning these days. He seemed impressed, as you might be impressed by a man who's just swallowed a hundred goldfish - an exceptional feat, that inspires little envy.

I get that look often enough these days. My friends know me for a runner of recent vintage. Only three months ago I was running a maximum of three and a half miles, once a week, originally to have something to do while my wife ran, and then we would meet up to get greens at the farmers market. These days I'm attempting 50 mile weeks (more on that next time), and I appear to be, as my neighbor says, "really into this."

It's true, this is my new religion. I'm running with the ardor of a convert (a phrase applied slightly cruelly by V.S. Naipaul to fanatical Pakistani Muslims, but that's kind of what it's like). In the three months since I started adding miles to my occasional runs, I've acquired 13 running books and read, well, most of them. I bought tech shirts and tights, I own two pairs of training shoes and am eying a third pair, and I just bought a ridiculously fancy watch (yet I have not named it - there must be limits). And I think I mentioned the 50-mile weeks. I seem to be really into this.


Let me sidestep that question for a minute and ask, why is every single runner out there a running blogger? Every morning, in that bleary half hour in my office before the green tea kicks in, I peruse a hundred times a hundred running blogs. I have only to google the name of my last race to find pictures of all my competitors and learn their diets, hangups, and the names of their sports watches. When I run early in the morning and see the serious runners chuffing along the damp, dark track, I can practically see them composing their blog post between stance and swing.

Hi. Welcome to my blog.

Haruki Murakami is not a writer I'm much attracted to but I read, a in rather scathing review of his horribly-titled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (a clumsy allusion to Carver's already-horrible story title), about the intimate parallels he draws between running and writing. How both take discipline, patience, time, etc. And there's something very true about that. I guess there could be just as many weightlifting, basketball, and gymnastics blogs. But there ain't. There's something about running that causes narrative to rise up in the gorge.

So to return to the question, why run? Or why write? Why swallow that many goldfish? Or for that matter, even just one?

I go to the ancients when I need an earthy answer. My first blog entry was as far back as I, or anyone, can go into the paleontology of running. People run. People have been running longer than there have been people, properly speaking. People run to live. Maybe to hunt, maybe to migrate, maybe to worship, probably to mate, or just to fit into that smaller-size animal skin. And it's not at all implausible that our ability to run gave us the reason to grow our big giant brains, gave us reasons to tell stories about what we saw and felt on our runs.

So: Today was a recovery run, after yesterday's long run, in which I trotted the length of the Brooklyn Bridge and back across it, through the quaint glories of Brooklyn Heights and its Promenade, Red Hook's faded docks and gleaming big-box cluster of Ikea-Lowes-Fairway-stan, back up Park Slope (oh right, that's why they call it Park freakin' Slope - pant, pant), once around Prospect Park, and over to my dear friends' house for delicious blueberry pancakes. Because of all that, I felt stiffness this morning, and in need of a little running love to loosen things up a bit. Today's shorter run, all in the park, relieved and relived the whole of yesterday's run for me.

There you have it. As Stravinsky said, "One hopes to worship God with a little art if one has any, and if one hasn't, and cannot recognize it in others, then one can at least burn a little incense." Or write a little blog. Et voilà.

The photo? That's my daughter this morning, eating her goldfish. We are raising her in the faith.

March 22, 2009

Colon Cancer Challenge 4M

I never met my grandfather, he died a year or two before I was born. But everyone says what a grand fellow he was, jolly, generous, and child-friendly. Possibly a little feckless. He lived a big part of his life in Atlantic City. He was a builder before the Depression, and he sat on the boards of banks. After all his wealth was wiped out he spent the war as a welder in a shipyard. Or maybe a riveter. He passed on to my father, and thence to me, a childlike sense of wonder, a corny sense of humor, and a giant set of toy trains. My dad is a fan of elephant jokes, and once told me salad grew on trees. Another time, in the front yard, I remember him showing me Orion in the stars, so huge. I guess Grandpa might live in those things. He might even be Orion.

Colon cancer took him at 66 years of age, unfairly as I've always thought. Today was the Colon Cancer Challenge 4-miler in Central Park, and my second race of the weekend. Last night I stayed up late making a t-shirt with Grandpa's picture (those iron-on things for your printer are super-cool). Another decoration for the fence between the quick and the dead. So Grandpa and I headed out at dawn this morning to the Central Park for some new adventure.

A good charity merits a bit of pageantry. The sun shone down on a circus of excited runners, information tents, and a guy dressed as a colon (I think he was a colon - he might have been Texas). A freakishly smooth-voiced announcer read off rules and routes as the runners milled around. Since there was a 15K starting later, the porta-potties had no lines yet and number pickup was quick. I stripped down to shorts and my t-shirt, when suddenly the wind picked up and I felt the 38-degree air. I rushed my warmup as the pre-race got going: a boy scout color guard recited the Pledge; and a blue-eyed soul outfit called The Chicklets sang our national anthem. A volunteer facing the starting line was wearing a traffic cone on his head. A few short speeches and a warning about potholes, and we were off.

I had felt pretty crappy all morning, probably from hard workouts the last few days. Once I got going I began to shake it off. I ran the first mile pretty much all-out, and just barely made my goal split. I tried to dig deeper. Mile 2 found me a little later than my goal, but I was on a mission for Grandpa. I find it hard to put together a finishing kick, I don't like pushing that far outside my comfort zone. But I glanced at my chest and my mission, whatever it was, dredged up a nice fast 800 meters or so and I finished totally spent.

I came in over my goal time by about 20 seconds. It still got me an award plaque in my age group, my second tchotchke this weekend, which I love as much as any lucite tile deserves to be loved. (I finished well behind this guy, but I'm at peace with that.)

After the race I did a full loop around Central Park to round out my long run for the day. Such a beautiful morning, and I got to gawk at the daffodils poking up all over the northern half of the park. Back in my street clothes, I went downtown to meet the missus and the baby in Soho to pick out fabric for the baby's new curtains. Pinks, blues, purples, so many patterns and textures. The fabric store was marvelous. I think we brought back six different swatches - that's how good we are at making decisions.

It was a good day to hang out with Grandpa, I think he had a good time. He managed to get through economic disaster with his humor and his wonder fully intact. I like to think he's given me a leg up in my attempt to do the same thing. In the end I believe he would like nothing more than to spend some time with the baby. Maybe she'll like the toy trains.

March 21, 2009

Smelling the flowers anyway

This morning's race, the Fuggetaboutit 5K, wound whimsically through the most beautiful trails in Prospect Park. I really admire people who know the Prospect place names, I mix them up with locales in The Hobbit (Was that Nethermead or Rivendell?). The racers passed dogwalkers (moderately impressed by our numbered bibs), gamboling children, shaded walks, sweet waterfalls, and clusters of newborn crocuses. It's impossible to me that this clear and sunny day could follow on the heels of yesterday's dense snow. It was an unexpected pleasure to charge down those obscure trails. There was a surprise at every bend, and I felt lost the whole way. I finished in about 20:30 or so (I forgot to stop my watch at the finish, and they haven't posted the results - this 5K was the afterthought of a larger duathlon), not a great time, though somehow it earned me first place. So I got a trophy for park exploration, and jogged home to spend the rest of the day playing with the baby.

March 20, 2009

The secret edge of the world

Penguin invasion!
Originally uploaded by Straymuffin
Ran today through great wet blobs of snow, which vanished as soon as they touched ground. A classic Spring snow, a joy, a circus, a happy jolt. I love to run in weather, especially wind, rain, and snow, because I feel invincible. The elements swirl around me I'm warm and don't care about how I look. Fighting me or speeding me, the wind keeps me cool and embraces me. The dense swarm of snowflakes became a widow's veil shadowing the beginnings of Spring in Prospect Park: the budding daffodils and sprays of green on some of the bushes. I felt I was nearly floating, at the farther, weirder reaches of this world. A friend wrote yesterday about a penguin who had been mimicking and mocking her on her run through Antarctica last week. She reported strafing Skuas, calving icebergs, and neon ice. Yesterday was a rest day for me, therefore naturally a day of unfulfilled longings, and when I read her wrapup of the Antarctic Marathon (sadly no link, it was a lovely description) I wanted nothing but to necklace the earth with my footprints.

I run, I don't know why, with the all the fervor of a new convert. Running helps me trace the outlines of the knowable world, to measure off time, distance, and the margins of injury.

Improbably, I've upped for two races this weekend, a Prospect Park 5K (untimed, and which I'll run gentle) and a Central Park 4-mile. Not sure yet how I'll run 4-mile, but I'll follow it up with a CP loop to complete my long run. Then I meet my wife and daughter to find some nice curtains for the baby's room. Every windbeaten explorer eventually returns to the hearth.

March 16, 2009

Temporary Like Achilles

The Tortoise and the Hare
Originally uploaded by un_owen
Yesterday I dined on a slow, slow roasted pork shoulder, cooked for a crowd of 12 by Dr. Mike for 24 hours, maybe more, I can't remember. What a wondrous, tender, savory thing it was. Lesson for athletes: slow and low works miracles on tough muscle fibers.

This morning, a lovely recovery run. In the mix of intense runs and easy runs, the recovery is the slowest. And I really have to force myself to run slowly. It took me two miles to stop trying to race the elderly and infirm speeding past me. But the last three miles, what bliss! My legs, slightly stiffened from yesterday's long run, warmed and softened, felt smooth and young. My mind stopped flitting around and just inhabited my well-basted limbs. After my stretch, incipient aches had vanished and been replaced by a rare morning energy burst.

In the old brain teaser, the one you probably heard in school, possibly while stoned, a Tortoise challenges Achilles to a race. Tortoise psyches out Achilles by saying how, as long as Tortoise gets a one-inch head start, Achilles will never catch up to him (first he has to close half the distance, then half of that, then half of that, ad nauseam). Achilles, never the brightest bulb, concedes the race. This of course is all bullshit. Slow and steady does not win the race, fast and steady does. But slow and steady does feel pretty great afterward, and might live past 100.

March 14, 2009

This ink don't run

In the old epics, the Fates record everything that will happen to mighty heroes, and even the gods can do nothing to prevent it. If Lachesis pronounces that Achilles will run ladder intervals on Tuesday, then Zeus himself cannot deter him from the track.

Alas, my personal training plan seems not to be inscribed on that sempiternal scroll. The Fates have other ideas entirely, announced sometimes by my baby daughter's oracular nighttime cries, or other times by the hushed catastrophe of my Outlook work calendar.

So far I've missed a few runs during my ever-hopeful 16-week training cycle for the Brooklyn Half (and in fact the oracle has yet tell us when that race will happen). In the last two weeks I've tried two methods of recouping those lost miles.

Last week I dropped an easy 5-mile because of snow, and just scattered its miles to other runs, making four fairly long runs rather than five normal runs.

This week I missed a run early in the week, so I squished all the runs to late-week. Now I have some lower-mileage runs, but I have no rest days until next Thursday - six runs in a row, including a 12-mile long run.

It's still early in my training cycle, so the after-effects aren't all that dire or obvious. But I believe I prefer more frequent consecutive runs to longer runs with rest days. Conventional wisdom is that consistent, high mileage creates a strong base and prevents injury. Then again I've heard that at my ripe old age, 42, it's better to run less, but faster. In an effort to cheat death and skirt the Fates, I'm trying to combine the two. The burgeoning snowdrops in Prospect Park give me eternal hope. But my preferences count for little, and final say goes to the great training plan in the sky.

I actually don't like surprises. They make me cranky and brittle. But the world is what it is, so incorporating the unforeseen into my training schedule seems like a good idea. Resolved: from now on, each week, at least one surprise run.

Yeah, I better write that down in ink.

The week past:
Easy, 6 mi
rest - "Spring forward" oversleeping
rest - stupid early meeting
fartlek, 7.5 mi
progression, 6.2 mi
easy, 4 mi
long, 12 mi

March 3, 2009

Hamster Dance

Originally uploaded by Sly420
Ice still covers the roads here and there, and although various people have gotten out to run, I wanted to do my speedwork without wobbling around. So it was back to the gym.

Last night the thought of 1:05 on a treadmill filled me with dread, to the point that I dusted off my iPod and charged it up. I hadn't listened to my workout mix in ages, so it's still got tons of Andrew W.K. and Flaming Lips. Also a bunch of stuff from my adolescence like The Jam, Public Image, and Iron Maiden.

I don't listen to music when I run, with the idea that I want to listen to my body, or the park, or being in the present, or whatever. I do sincerely love the hushed clop of running shoes on asphalt.

But this morning reminded me that really loud, messed-up music not only makes you deaf and stupid, but cranks up the euphoria. I was listening to Absolute Beginners when I noticed that my neighbor was watching the video for Hungry Like the Wolf on her monitor. Suddenly I got teenager endorphins, started running hard and light. It brought back that gangly, wired feeling I had most of the time when I was16. I became even happier to think that I can keep the memory of that teenage wasteland forever, and that I never, never have to go back.

8 miles @ 8 min/mile + 6 x 35 sec. @ 6 min/mile

March 2, 2009

Dead Body Pose

Snow today, thick drifts of it, and I woke early to shovel. But the storm was still blowing, and the stoop was reburied before I finished the walk. No way to run outside, though I had 5 miles and 6 hill sprints planned. I grimaced at the sky, put up the shovel, and made for the hot yoga shack.

Today was my second yoga class. I'm trying Bikram yoga - an isometric nightmare performed in demonic heat - to true up some muscles neglected by running. My hamstrings have been tight since at least 2nd grade gym class, and this morning I fell out of the more extravagant poses. The teacher spoke her cues softly, but at the breakneck pace of an auctioneer. I missed every other word, and tumbled limply out of Eagle Pose and Standing Head To Knee. I rocked like a foal in the throes of a fit. The Auctioneer called corrections at me, each time a little more slowly and with audible pity. Nowonyourbackarmsatyoursidesrelax, relax. Relax. A balloon of horror grew in my gut with each deep gulp of steam.

Afterward though, I felt my joints soften and shed their aches. My head was light and my step gentle. The world was warm and smooth as pudding. Then, when I got back to my house, there was still the egregious snow.

Turns out a corpse pose in the snow leaves a damn good snow angel.

(Image by Tracy Collins)

March 1, 2009

Alley Oop!

Archeologists have recently found footprints that suggest homo erectus got up for running early. One and a half million years ago, our ancestors, small-headed and short legged, were apparently already tottering on feet adapted for a long-distance walking and running gait.

They actually found two sets of footprints, one silted above the other, separated by 5 meters and about 10,000 years. One erectus walked over the self-same trail as his or her long-gone forebear. I like to imagine this early person dimly aware the trail of time s/he was treading, the tenuous connection between the various messes left by humanoids upon the earth's rough surface. But erectus had a small brain, so s/he was probably could only "just do it", without the balm of philosophical reflection.

The NYT article predictably calls on Daniel Lieberman of Harvard for some color commentary. Lieberman's name comes up any time someone wants to adduce support for primal running, and I think his research may be attached to the design and marketing of the Nike Free, or the Vibram Five-Fingers, or something. In any case he seems to have become the dean of hominid track and field - a science whose motivation probably could only have evolved in our time, to fill our hunger for genetic sanction of everything we do.

Running is a religion to its adherents, just ask anyone, and science is working hard to support our articles of faith. Popular books on the anthropology of running - and there are ever more of them, from Bernd Heinrich to Benjamin Cheever - detail how we evolved good running economy before even expanding our braincases. In this telling, it is not our opposable thumb and forefinger that sets us apart from the beasts, but our unopposable big toe. We learned to run before we learned to think hard, or make tools. They say our brains were just trying to keep up with our feet. Or at least it pleases me to think so, as my mind becomes wholly absorbed by bipedal toddling during a run.

I'm starting this as a running diary, more or less. No blog knows its purpose from the first post. So I'm just looking to set down some facts and thoughts from my new hobby, which I took up only a couple of months ago. I like to run, and every day I wonder what its secret purpose might be. Every run has a training purpose, building up to a race. The races space themselves out to cover the year. The common wisdom is, you can improve your running fairly consistently for 8 years, no matter what age you start. So one of my goals is to get better and better throughout that 8-year run to my 50th birthday.

But there are much better ways to stay in shape, and there's no obvious reason why someone my age has to be exercising every freaking day, so why all this? Well, I think there's something fundamentally human, as they say, about running. And I like the long, slow trajectory of training for a race eight years away. There's mystery to running, and spirit, and that's why I'm writing things down.

Freshman scribblings of a recent convert - bring your own salt.

Today's run: I'm early in my training cycle aimed at the Brooklyn Half-Marathon in May, so today was a fairly short long run: 8 miles, spooled out between Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery. In the park, the barest tendrils of bulbs have already broken the soil, like zombie fingertips reaching to feast on living brains. Or like the exuberant resurrection of Spring, if that's more your style. Snowdrops are already apparent here and there, just visible against the background of actual new-fallen snow. After a mile or so I turn right out of the park, through the South Slope, and towards Green-Wood Cemetery.

It's a lot closer to the park than I thought. Green-Wood is one of our nation's lovelier resting places, though it sits in a fairly bleak, industrial neighborhood. Leonard Bernstein is buried there, with Boss Tweed, and legions of other permanent Brooklynites. Its peaceful rolling hills face the bleak grandeur of the railyards, power plants, and metal shops that ring it around. Fascinated by both, I always had too many amazing things to look at as I wound my way by. The dreaming departed ("Our MOTHER, Elizabeth G-----, WENT TO SLEEP October 1, 1904") are turned eternally to face the faded economy ("Precast Masters Metal Finishing") of NYC's largest borough. It was a trip through Hades, and you don't slow your pace on such visits, even to beckoning shades.

Rejoining the loop in Prospect Park, I fell in behind a couple of guys I have often seen up ahead of me during my three races. One of them works at a sporting goods store and last November sold me the shoes I was wearing. They were running a little faster than me but I drafted behind, since I figured I was near the end, and just converted my long slow run to a progression run. Got home in time to kiss the baby and and the wife and cook up some beautiful pancake batter she had just mixed up. After yesterday's brutal yoga experience, the morning was a resurrection.

8 miles, 1:04:18, avg pace 8:02.

(Image by Matthew Bennett/Bournemouth University)