September 9, 2011

Masters of Relaxation

My legs are fairly trashed, as I push hard at my limits to get ready for the upcoming Mile. During a six-mile team workout yesterday, the first three miles (at marathon pace) were a total mess. I was sure I would have to stop at the halfway point, where we were supposed to accelerate to half-mary pace. I felt a stubborn woodiness in my calves. Turbulent ideas about work and commutes and the president's jobs speech jostled the air around me. I was tensed and shambling like a cartoon zombie. My eyes nearly crossed and my shoulders pushed up towards my ears.

Then suddenly the air grew still over my right shoulder. Maybe a valkyrie, a dragonfly, or the eye of a storm; still, but moving faster than me. It was teammate Joe, hardly moving his body and already several strides ahead of me. What calm, what grace. Like he was daydreaming on a park bench. I latched on to him to escape my own shipwreck, and managed to hang on for a while. But he drifted off ahead, and instead of trying to match his velocity I felt my limbs imitating his stride: short cadence, shoulders low and back, hardly any motion in his upper body, but also no tension. No tension at all.

For the last three miles of the run, I kept reeling in that calm. The tension constantly tried to flow back up from my legs, but I just let it fall back. Every time I relaxed I sped up.

Jack Lovelock was a New Zealander and one of the fiercest milers of his time (1500m gold in the '36 Olympics). For Roger Bannister and his younger classmates at Oxford, he was "a master of relaxation, the cleverest, neatest miler they had ever seen." Just watch him - like a lot of fast runners, he looks like he's moving in slow motion next to the other runners.

WORLD RECORD SMASHED! (click through for the video)

Does that guy look like he's breaking a world record?

It is a lesson that keeps appearing in the little mantras that pop into my head during workouts. Run faster not harder. Thoughts are heavy. No effort.

So it was Joe and the ghost of Jack pulling me along those last few miles, even once both of them were far out of sight, and their merest images floated alongside, to preserve me from thoughts.

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