July 30, 2014

Armed and dangerous

As soon as I got to the track last night, I didn't have any idea what to do with my arms. My walk is bad enough, my arms jerk back and forth in an asymmetrical spasm. But when I'm running I've got a million options: Push my elbows back, or pump my hands down? Loose or controlled? High or low? I'm like the guy on his first acid trip in the Richard Pryor routine: "I don't remember how to breathe! I can't breathe!"

I leaned into the first few warmup sprints, arms noodling to and fro looking for something useful to do. The first sprint I kept them fairly still. The next time I let them pump gently, which felt closer to right, but still awkward.

Arm swing is important. A study released last spring shows that swinging your arms naturally as you run is better than, say, holding your hands behind your head as you run. (As anyone who's had to escape a police car and flee through city streets will understand.) So if you got 'em, swing 'em. But what's the best way to do it?

I mess up the simplest things by reading too much about them. Because there's little science on the subject of arm swing, there's a lot of advice. One book says to pump down with your forearms from the elbows not the shoulders, and imagine you're softly clutching a Dorito in each hand. Another says to swing back from your shoulders, elbows locked at 90 degrees, hands relaxed as if you're holding a butterfly.

I looked around at the other runners on the track. Everyone had their signature stride. One guy's feet darted outward at every paw-back, and another's head pumped like a piston at each footstrike. People's arm swings were just as funky. One woman's elbows rose high and back. A guy running shirtless hardly moved them at all, as if he were cradling a tray (of butterflies or Doritos?) close to his naked chest. 

The anthropologist Marcel Mauss, writing in 1934, remarked, "Imagine, my gymnastics teacher, one of the top graduates of Joinville around 1860, taught me to run with my fists close to my chest - a movement completely contradictory to all running movements. I had to see the professional runners of 1890 before I realized the necessity of running in a different fashion."

But Mauss goes on to make the point that there is no one natural way to do anything with your body. All locomotion - walking, resting, swimming, running - is practiced completely differently by different peoples and cultures. 

Butterflies and Doritos apart, the best advice came from Coach Tony who told me to make sure the hands are doing the same thing as the feet. It's one of those infinitely interpretable and literally impossible proposals, really wide open, that focuses your attention on the act without telling you what to do at all.

Last night there was a boy of about 8 at the track running in one of the outer lanes with his parents. I was struck by how fast he was. You often hear people say that we should run like children, the natural way. But children, if you take the time to look, have horrible running form. Their legs fly every which way and they can't hold their core still. Don't even get me started on their arm swing.

To run well, you have learn how not to run like a child. I watched the kid at the track try to keep up with my group, and he did very well. He ran with joy and real heart, his elbows out like a grandma at Fairway. But he soon was distracted by something, and his spazzy, happy form had exhausted him after 60 yards.

Just as arm swing varies by age, so it will vary by speed. The ancient Greek Olympians on the vase in the image at the top are running a distance event, probably around 2.5 miles. You can tell, in the black-figure pottery of that era, by of the way they hold their arms - out to the front and fairly relaxed. On vases depicting the stadion, or sprint, the runners have high knees and high arms. Very high.

Everyone has a different arm swing, and everyone does it differently at different times. A major conclusion of the study I mentioned above is that runners' different swing styles had no effect on their efficiency - as long as they were swinging them some way or other. As its lead author said, reassuringly, “Most people will settle into the arm swing that is the most efficient for them.”

We were coming around the track for the third time when my arms finally rocked themselves into a rhythm where my trunk felt perfectly balanced and my legs moved easily. I had forgotten to obsess about my arms, and so they figured it out on their own.  Which I guess is really the takeaway. The trick of running is not to think too hard about it. 

And don't forget to breathe.

February 24, 2014

Where was I?

When you're in it, it can be hard to see. Then, mysteriously, it creeps up on you and flattens you. Where does it come from?

Two years ago I was racing every two weeks, and having a great time. I did pretty well. I was in great shape. Why shouldn't I run at 100% effort every 15 days? Ain't I gonna live forever?

Well, it caught up to me, let's just say. I don't regret it. I looked down at my legs the day after my last race, and they looked up at me and rolled their little eyes and said, We're outta here.

My tibialis anterior on both sides were painfully overdeveloped. A rather small flaw in my biomechanics had learned to express itself in a big way, thanks to all the practice it was getting. I ran too hard, too much, and I guess I learned a lot. It seemed surprising at the time, but now of course it's blindingly obvious that injury was the only way that chapter was going to end.

So for two years I didn't race. I scratched Boston (for the second time), changed careers, got periodically busy, and ran only sometimes.

Then this winter, after suffering a cold that lasted six months, I figured it was time to shake things up again. I trained a little, ran a race, and hit the road again.

I'm still overtraining. I haven't learned a thing. Like I said, I don't regret any of it. I got to know myself better. I look forward to interesting injuries, more catastrophic training mistakes, and better failures. 

February 24, 2012

If I don't make it, remember me

There were a lot of reasons not to run last night's team workout the way I did. I'd have been smart not to run it at all. But it was a fun workout, at least while I was running it.

I woke up with a stabbing pain in my right side yesterday, perhaps not running-related, which I tried unsuccessfully to stretch away. I figured there were two ways to deal with it: take a rest day and gently convince it to go away, or run a hard workout and crush it. 

I had raced last Sunday and would be racing again on Saturday. So there was ample reason to take a day off. But a rest day seemed like negotiating with terrorists. I opted for shock and awe. What the hell was I thinking (or simply, WTF)?

I arrived at the workout so distracted by my rib I could hardly greet my friends. I didn't know what pace to run, or even whether to run at all. But I made the most of uncertainty and gambled on the healing effects of further damage. (WTF?)

As we headed out I felt a dagger thrust every other step. But it gradually lessened, and my legs took over from my confused mind. I picked it up. Wasn't thinking at all. The stabbing ebbed a little, and the fog lifted. I was so happy I forgot to check my watch. I picked it up on the hill, heedless of pace. (WTF?)

After a while I noticed I was all alone. I usually prefer the group, but tonight I was happy just to have this brief moment of painlessness to myself. As the end came into view I could hear a group catching up behind me. I foolishly put on a kick for the last .1, despite my upcoming race (WTF?).

I had run the 10K tempo workout in exactly my current 10K race pr. WTF??

My side was still good, and my endorphin levels elevated. I stubbornly decided to run another park loop to fill out my planned 12 miles. At least it delayed the inevitable, as the screaming rib re-joined afterward on the subway. But Melissa had sushi and Advil waiting for me at home.

So anyway if I can keep from trying to kill myself in training I'll have a good season ahead.

February 22, 2012

Give the drummer some

When rhythm has become the sole and unique mode of thought’s expression, it is then only that there is poetry. In order for mind to become poetry, it must bear in itself the mystery of an innate rhythm. It is in this rhythm alone that it can live and become visible. And every work of art is but one and the same rhythm. Everything is simply rhythm.
— Hölderlin in conversation with Izaak Sinclair, 1804

Running is rhythm. Rhythm is stress. That's the point: stress the system, heal back stronger. Do the right kind of damage and you get fast and strong.

But stressing out is no good without a break. Even club kids know that relentless rhythm grinds you down, without the right kind of intoxication. (Which is a story for some other time.)

As a novice masters runner, or inexperienced old guy if you like, recovery is more important than training. I've often trained hard on great-feeling legs, only to find a dagger in my calf the next morning. Now that will break your rhythm.

So, to create the kind of phat beats you need for a marathon - healthy long runs, energetic high-mileage weeks - you need a break in the rhythm. For me, it has to be like every other day. Or if I experiment with back-to-back intense workouts I'll need two or three recovery days.

There are different cycles of recovery, from recovery during the race (e.g., change cadence occasionally), to after the race (put your feet up). And of course the most important leg of the race is run in bed. When my daughter was learning to walk I remember hearing her thump around in her crib all night long. She was absorbing the bodily lessons of the day in her sleep. Adults do the same thing. You earned a lot in the race, but you don't get to deposit it until you sleep deeply.

Then there's the recovery day. It isn't necessarily pure rest, although it can be. I get good results from a recovery run within 24 hours after the race (ideally within 12 hours, but that's not always practical). A recovery run is under 40 minutes at a slow, comfortable pace. It could feel stiff or fresh. But above all, don't burn off tomorrow's freshness.

So how to reconcile recovery with a 10 mile day? Split the runs. I did 6 in the morning, which felt great. I put in a long stretch afterward. Then 4 or so more in the evening. The two recovery runs flushed out my legs without stressing my system, and left me fresh for today's 13 miles.

This is all pretty time consuming. That's the real trick of the rhythm, you have to sync it in with the rhythm of you life. Time with the kid, fixing the sink, moving the car, working on the blog. . . I'm not very good at the mix yet, and it's the biggest challenge of marathon training.

Friends of mine make time for a lunchtime run at work. There are good yoga positions, like legs up the wall, that you can do anywhere there's a wall (a great opportunity for learning to withstand ridicule). Sometimes I do little stretches at my desk or on the subway.

Whatever it takes. To get ready for a marathon you need a lot of miles. But the beat means nothing without the quiet between.

February 20, 2012

No direction home: Cherry Tree 10-Mile

Running, as fun as it is, can feel like an exam. Every workout is like a quiz, and each race a test, to show whether you're ready for. . . well, more quizzes I guess.

In my buildup for the Boston Marathon any workout could prove that my fitness is going well or completely in the wrong direction. Each race could prove all the work I've put in has been a monumental waste of time. So is it any wonder I've developed test-anxiety before races?

The Cherry Tree 10-Mile, put on by the Prospect Park Track Club, is one of my favorite races every year. It's well-organized, friendly, and on my home turf. They always have good bagels.

This year however I was filled with an insidious dread: this was to be the first long race of my marathon training cycle. The first one over 10k in about a year, in fact. I still have plantar issues. My knees are still mushy from my spill a few weeks ago. This race was going to feel very pass/fail.

My house was home base for my running comrades, who were coming from Queens and Jersey to run the relay version of this event. We all kitted up in our team's orange, joked through our pre-race nerves, and jogged over to the start. I lined up optimistically at the front and hoped I was ready.

I took off moderately fast at the horn. It was a slight downhill and I found myself doing 5:30's. This was strategically about right but it didn't feel good. By the middle of mile 2 my knees felt dry and squeaky like styrofoam. The whole thing was becoming a chore.

Damn. It was a beautiful day; I was well trained; there were awesome bagels at the finish. But something was missing. At the top of the steep hill in mile 2 something jostled in my shorts pocket. Crap, I forgot to take my gel.

Now, no one needs a gel for a 10-mile race. Your glucose reserves won't be tapped. But I had deliberately drunk only 1 cup of tea that morning, and my whole dose of caffeine was supposed to be in that stupid gel. And now I was going to have to suck it down mid-race, on the downhill, at 5:30 pace. Good news was, it might have a Popeye effect.

And sure enough, by the second time I hit the steep hill I didn't feel so middle-aged anymore. My legs felt brave and capable, and I could fend off the challenge that the guy behind me was mounting. Popeye was ready to get him some Olive Oyl.

I tried to pace like teammate David, who was maintaining a sensible approach to the hills about 10 seconds up ahead of me. Just in front of him was the guy who sold me my first running shoes. I liked them both. And I wanted to beat them.

Now that I had some depth to my stamina I reached down as far as I could into the reserves. I had good endurance from my earlier high-mileage weeks, but no real ferocity. Thing is, by mile 9 I was having a great time. The morning was too lovely. I lagged behind teammate David and the shoe guy and just worked on weaving a friendly path through the muzz of runners we had lapped.

I caught sight of my wife and daughter, who were running to get to the finish. They gave me a cheer that shook me like rocket fuel. I relaxed for a moderate surge, but still couldn't find the fierce push it would have taken to catch up to David and the shoe guy. I watched them empty out into the finishers' chute even as I was gaining on them.

But that last mile had felt strong, as if I had something more to give. As if I might even have done this pace for a few more miles. Like I was going the right direction.

After getting a congratulatory kiss from the wife and daughter, I joined the comrades for a cool-down lap around the park before we headed to the high-school for hot chocolate, apples, and bagels (a meal only a runner would dream up). The relay team had done well and everyone ran better than they thought they would. Everyone passed the test. We formed a happy orange flying wing.

I hit a PR by nearly four minutes, and I recall the whole day as cheery and bright. I might fail the next test, but this one proves that for one fine and shining moment I showed some improvement.

February 7, 2012

The low spark of high heeled boys

Is there a runner on the roads whose life hasn't been altered forever by Chris McDougall's Born to Run? The book goes down so smooth, like the four or five beers it would take to hear this born storyteller recount how Indians taught him to run like Adam in Eden.

You get two breathtaking epiphanies for your money: compassion and competition are closely linked, and so are running shoes and running injuries. The first point has been lost in the hoo-ha sparked by the second. Yes, the book inspired me to sign with a charity in my first marathon. But what really fired me up was the barefoot revolution. I imagined flying down the road, feet naked as God made them. "Running should be free, man." Halleluja.

In the chill light of dawn I did have a few questions, though. Could barefoot running alone really cure my soft feet of decades in hard shoes? Our efficient ancestors grew up barefoot and I didn't. Starting now sort of felt like painting my face and joining a drum circle in a national park. Cavemen are born, not made.

And yet. The big, waffly motion-control shoes I was running in at the time were, as McDougall points out, anxiously overprotective. The dense lugs defended my ankles from growing stronger, and the heel, 13mm higher than the toe, helped me to put my heel down too far in front of my knee.

Maybe what stood between me and greatness was only this superfluous stack of rubber? While I wasn't about to be slow and barefoot, the time had surely come to cast away my fancy high heels.

At first my resolve was weak. I marched back to the store that a year or two before had prescribed those motion-control monsters. The same young salesman manned the treadmill, ready to zero the videocam on my overpronating left ankle. Armed with Chapter 25 of Born to Run, I demanded to try some minimal running shoes, and, just to check them out, some Vibram Five-Finger foot gloves.

The lad furrowed his unlined brow, as if I'd asked for some crack and a pipe, or rather, as if I were the tenth person that day to ask him for crack and a pipe. Tersely: "We don't carry the foot-gloves."

Fine. I persisted with the low-cushioned shoes, mumbling about running naturally and strengthening my ankles.

"Ever since that book. . ." he sighed. He looked me square in the eye. "Do you know the shock will go straight up into your soft tissue?"

My soft tissue! I didn't know quite what that meant - wasn't the soft tissue exactly where you wanted shock to go? - but I blushed like I'd been trying to sell a crack pipe to kittens. I left with motion-control shoes.

After a few months I found a store without a treadmill, where the staff could be tricked into selling me a pair of low-heeled shoes. I trained in the Kinvaras once or twice a week, and ran the fastest race of my career in them eight weeks later.

By that time Mr. We-Don't-Carry-The-Foot-Gloves was hosting in-store barefoot running seminars with Chris McDougall, while I very gradually moved toward neutral, low-profile shoes. I was an agnostic minimalist rather than a barefoot evangelist, but 1,500,000 years of evolution was getting me to paradise a lot faster than 13 millimeters of EVA foam ever had.

The road to Eden is bumpy, however. After a period of several weeks of not running and not stretching, my Achilles tendons shrunk up a bit, and I've had a host of heel problems since. My solution of course is to double my mileage. Either because of or in spite of that, the heels are gradually healing. I've had to make one big compromise though. To take the stress off my Achilles tendons I bought - you guessed it - high-heeled running shoes.

It's a trade-off. In the short term, what these heavy rubber hoofs take away is far outweighed by the speed and happiness high mileage gives back. One day soon though, maybe after the Boston Marathon, I'll cast off the heels once more.

In the meantime, while I wait to free my feet again, I should sign with a charity for Boston.

For spirit is something that no one destroys, and the sound that I'm hearing is only the sound of the high spark of low-heeled boys.

January 31, 2012

And to think I saw it in the park. . .

Sightings in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Sunday afternoon through Tuesday morning.
  • Three cops in double-breasted uniforms from the 1930's, Meadowport Arch. Smoking and staring into the distance.
  • One headless chicken (deceased). Trailhead east of Stranahan monument. Dull brown plumage, feet the color of a Meyer lemon.
  • Lone astronaut in space suit, on Lullwater Bridge. Seated on rail, helmet closed. Seemed wistful.
  • Bacchus (probably), off Center Drive west of Nethermead Arches. Green velour toga, circlet of leaves. Posing on makeshift plinth.
  • Mounted police officer, modern uniform. Walking slowly west on trail above Wellhouse Drive. Blood bay gelding.
  • Impressionist. Same location. Painting a limpid view of Prospect Park Lake.
  • Multiple obese squirrels. Ubiquitous. Complacent, as if unconcerned by global warming.
  • Eight beauty queens, with sashes and tiaras. Walking en groupe on Lullwater path. They took care to wear black tights against the chilly air.
Theatrum mundi. If I brought my camera into Prospect Park I'd never get any running done.

January 30, 2012

Rode hard and put away wet

On the NYC subway, a man who is wet, shivering, and bleeding from knees and hands won't attract much attention. Just another ornament on the city's dusty shelf.

I ran a team workout the other night. It was rainy and cold in Central Park. We were doing a 5-mile tempo at a pretty good clip, and I was thinking about how I've been running an awful lot of slow miles and how it's mysteriously boosted my speed. The body is an eternal stranger.

I was jockeying with a teammate in a windbreaker, which he wore off his shoulders and it billowed as he ran. We were working hard together, and he stayed mostly just off my shoulder. He'd race ahead a little and I'd focus on relaxing and pass him again. As we turned a corner he rounded close and accidentally clipped me. I flew.

I found myself sliding on my left knee along the wet asphalt before I howled to a stop. Windbreaker was horrified and helped me up. He really couldn't have felt worse, poor kid. "OMG, I owe you at least a couple of beers!" I tested my knee and got ready to go again. I told Windbreaker to go on, he could buy me a beer at the end of the workout. (But it'll have to be at The Four Seasons.)

My hands, elbows, and knees were scraped raw, and my clothes were torn. But I was frigid, wet, and far from all the places I wanted to be, so walking was out of the question. I ran the last couple of miles carefully, but not easy. Despite the bloody hole in my running pants, the knee ran fine. The burning in my knees and hands seemed superficial. I never got my groove back, but I ran straight.

I ended up with a decent workout, though not as good as I wanted. My mileage, while hardly Lydiardian, has been high enough to give me some saving stamina. Running cures most ills caused by running.

It's when you stop running that things get hairy.

I arrived at the subway platform shaking more from cortisol than the chill. My knees were still smoldering and the lines of my right palm were irrigated with blood. I drew deep breaths to cancel the shivering as the train came and commuters raced me for a seat.

I didn't want to sit. I felt like a total badass. Except for, you know, the uncontrollable shaking, the gasping, the stooping, and the look of deranged pathos I surely wore. I attracted only a few cautious glances. A man across from me with kindly eyes was reading a worn Bible in French. A woman bent blankly over her biology textbook.

In the days since, I've had to nurse some inflammation in my knees. At least it's distracted me from the inflammation in my feet. Actually my plantar issues seem to be on their way out. The training goes on and on, with a very good 21-miler yesterday. My legs, apart from the bruising, feel better than they've felt in over a year.

Running taketh away and running giveth back once more.

January 20, 2012

Fierce repose

Maybe I'm just feeling my forty-odd years, but repairing the calculated damage of running takes me less effort than running itself. Running isn't much more than a specific choreography of destruction and rebuilding. Here's the thing: as I apply more intensity to recovery, running fast becomes almost effortless.

Last week I did more miles in one week than I've ever done, by around 20%. It was the easiest running week I've had in ages. I found myself excited about every run, in a way I haven't felt in at least a year and a half. All my aches vanished. My insides felt sleek and able. I bounced up stairs. My plantar issues subsided significantly. My "comfortable", low-effort pace approached my old race pace. The whole week was buoyant and light.

I capped the week with an 18-miler, 10 miles of it at marathon pace. I went out tentatively, not sure I could keep up with the plan. But three loops around a hilly course and my body kept finding energy for a perfect, steady effort. I probably hit the hills a touch hard, because the last one hit me back. But once I pulled it back together on level ground I felt I could have done a lot more.

Now to consolidate all those miles. This is a week of lower mileage - though still about as high as my previous maximum - and of lower intensity. I've been alternating a general aerobic pace with recovery pace. When I'm not running I try to walk a lot. I've been focused on staying calm. I work to hydrate and eat right.

I confess the plantar issues are back. Nothing worse than before, but they need attention. So I'm icing, stretching, massaging, and wearing shoes everywhere. Recovery is a constant dialogue with injury.

I'll get serious about speed again soon, because I know I've already lost some. We'll see about next week. But for now it's all about rocking the recoveries.

January 13, 2012

In the Night Kitchen

When I'm running fast, I don't like to do it in the dark. When I slow down I prefer the trails, which are tricky in the dark. But last night I didn't get out till sundown, and I must confess to you - it was kind of hypnotic.

Five mile recovery run around the park. I felt so fresh it was hard work to keep the horses reined. Man, I wanted to run fast. Still, I managed to hold about the middle of my recovery pace range, using the surplus mojo to relax and keep good form.

They let cars in Prospect Park at rush hour, and the oncoming headlights tensed me up. But then the darkness began to wrap itself around me. The mist fogged my glasses and the headlights diffused into rhythmic wills-o'-the-wisp. I found myself neglecting my tensions, my whole body loosened almost involuntarily, and bits of me drifted off in desultory heaps. I was still plenty paranoid about running half-blind right next to traffic, but my limbs managed to trance out anyway. The middle miles were like a massage from the inside out.

Rock the recoveries: don't just rest, but rest deep. Not just rest deep, but siphon up the gallons of energy laid away in the dark of the cellar. Let the lights come to you. . .

. . . um, within reason of course.