October 27, 2009

The Art of Rest, part 1

It's time to taper for my race, so I've been sprinting through some books to take my mind off of marathoning. So I got a book about the NYC Marathon, another about Kenyans and marathons, one about Ultramarathons, and one last one about bugs and marathons. Together they've completely changed my marathon plan.

A Race Like No Other by Liz Robbins was a great tour of the route, and reading about the elites is inspiring. Now I know some of the regulars along the route and I'll be able to properly blank on their names as I approach.

Then there was Toby Tanser's More Fire, about Kenyan runners. I have to write more about this book sometime. It's not that it's compellingly written, or makes obvious sense, or has any good advice at all. But it's the best running book I've ever read (and I've read a lot). It's basically just profiles of Kenyan athletes, where they came from, and their training methods. No, not methods actually, their training spirit. The people who are the foremost international distance runners are hungry for victory. The need it economically, they seem to need it spiritually, they focus on getting it, and they don't mess around with folderol (love the image of athletes using donated heart monitor bands as clothes lines).

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall has become infamous for igniting a debate about running shoes, but I think everyone, maybe including its author, has missed the real point of the book. The entire plot and some awe-inspiring scenes at the end of the book pivot on one single, simple thing, the connection between competition and compassion. We race with and about others. The book traces the genesis of a race between some indigenous Mexicans and some North American oddballs in 2006. In the book, even races won come off as downers because of failures in generosity. The successful races in the book are powered by an innate human capacity to push individual limits to break collective boundaries. Afterward everyone parties together. McDougall spins great stories, and clearly focus tested them in bars. The message is a lightning bolt, and reminded me I still hadn't signed up with a charity for the marathon (I have since corrected this).

Racing is not obviously a team sport - but as a friend of mine once replied when I described a race as a solitary effort, "You didn't notice all those other people out there?" Race day is a deeply communal experience. And not only communal with the runners and spectators around you. When you race, the team is really everyone and everything you can fit in your heart to fuel you through.

I'm following up Born To Run with Bernd Heinrich's Why We Run. I'm not very far through it, but it's a denser meal. McDougall is a journalist, Heinrich is a lyrical scientist. He writes about endurance in all species, especially bugs, his first taxonomic love. You come away in awe of nature, time, people. All of this may seem a little cosmic, but that's the American thing. We get like that.

Somehow this is all about something oceanic. Simple, but potentially large. There's a nice profile today of Ryan Hall's charity foundation -

"A lot of people have been asking me about competing with the Africans and when are we finally going to be able to compete with these guys," Hall said. "I've been inspired by many of the African runners, where they take their prize money and go home and do something good with it. They transform their communities through their success in running. As Americans, we should be doing the same thing.

So, you want to run like a Kenyan? Run like a Tarahumara? Run like your own ancestors? Then strengthen your family bonds. Get with a group. Run for a cause. Meditate on the departed. Rest up and run with passion. Here we go. . .

October 5, 2009

Grete's Great Gallop 2009

In martial arts, or at least the one I used to practice, they say a punch is not thrown but released. It's released as soon as the internal bodily resistances to its power are eliminated. The trick is to know how to shut off the resistances, and when to firm up before and after.

How do you make yourself ready for something to happen? Adrenaline says, let's tense up and pounce. The Tai Chi Kid might say, empty your mind and explode!

On Saturday I got to Central Park just in time to grab my bib and then a high-five from Grete Waitz (now that was some seriously good juju), and we were off!

I started one corral back so I wouldn't run out too fast. Did a fairly leisurely 1/4 mile before settling into target pace. I actually ran faster than target for the first 4 miles, and even zoomed up and down the Harlem Hills - thanks to training all summer in hilly Prospect Park.

Though I was moving well I felt slow. We had gone out to dinner the night before and now I experienced the dark side of every glass of champagne, burgundy, and muscat. I got 4 hours sleep due to some developmental hurdle the baby's going through. It was a comfy 67 degrees, but 97% humidity and a blanket of cloud was kind of a downer. After 4 fast miles I began to slow to a little over target pace.

Finally 45 minutes into the race I gave in and sucked down my caffeinated gel. Oho - there it was, the slow fuse of elation (just as TK has described). I became convinced I could punch my way through to the other side of the jello mold. I gradually sped up again and just reeled in runner after runner with slow acceleration. By the end I was running as fast as at the start, and I had enough to sprint for the last tenth of a mile.

Everything came together for this one, exactly the way it didn't come together in August. I would occasionally catch myself running hunched and crumpled, but focused on my form and brought my spine back up straight. I pumped my way up the hills and flowed back down them. I was disciplined about tangents. I ran with a smile. I had fun and joked with other runners. This is elation and this is why we race.

This is a big boost for my marathon confidence. I came in 25 seconds later than my target, but the race felt great and I managed negative splits at the end. My mind was clear. My legs felt ready for anything.

What I wasn't ready for was the awesome food after the race. The finish line plum was nice, but those gravlaks on a bagel (great NY/Oslo fusion), heart-shaped waffles, and free water were straight from Valhalla. I wished I could stick around and listen to the music (I do love a Hardanger fiddle), but I had to get back home in time to get to the farmer's market and pick up bags of heavy produce, then spend the rest of the day playing charades with the darling baby girl.

Am I ready for a marathon? Who knows? But I'm certainly ready to shut down the resistances and believe in the explosion.

October 2, 2009

Right, Wrong, or Ready

For me this fall, all roads lead to Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, where the NYC Marathon starts in 29 days. But as a newbie I don't have any past marathons to help me set a pace. I have to go by shorter races and a bunch of faith.

So I'm running Grete's Great Gallop tomorrow, probably in the rain, to see whether my fitness has indeed improved over the last year of training. And if I can put in a good time I can trust my training and relax into my pace on marathon day.

Today I feel worried that the race won't show progress, that all my training won't show up. But just as I'll have to trust my training 29 days, I will trust it tomorrow.