Becoming a Runner, Part 1

It started with one of those generic emails that campus security forwards from the city police: “Traffic Advisory for Charles Street 12 Footrace.”

Having just enrolled at Peabody, I didn’t know yet that getting a generic email from campus security was a non-noteworthy occurrence. But being fastidious about actually looking at every email in my inbox, I learned anyway that the street next to campus would be closed Saturday morning for a race that began out in the suburbs somewhere and ran 12 miles all the way to Baltimore Harbor. Having never run more than half an hour without stopping, I thought just the idea of such a race sounded slightly terrifying—but also slightly intriguing.

That Saturday followed my first week of classes, so I took the opportunity to sleep in. By the time I laced up my running shoes and ventured out my front door towards the harbor, all the streets had apparently reopened. Not knowing exactly where I was going, I followed the waterfront promenade as far as I could until it apparently ended at a boat ramp. By the time I got home, I had been running for a full 45 minutes—by far the most I’d ever done.

A few weeks later, campus security sent out another notice from the city: “Baltimore Running Festival – Additional Information.” This time, I scanned the email with real interest and was surprised to discover that a full marathon would be passing right by my front door that Saturday. There would be no sleeping in this weekend. I set my alarm early enough to watch the lead runner, with a police motorcycle in front of him and a TV helicopter above, steam past my apartment towards the harbor. The next handful of runners were lean and rugged athletes, but soon there followed a whole crowd of people who looked, well, kind of normal. Maybe I could do this, I wondered. But how could I ever run for long enough to practice for a marathon? I clapped and cheered for the runners passing my house for most of an hour. Heading back inside, I pulled up the event website on my laptop. It looks like there’s a half marathon too. Maybe that would be more doable. But the map says only the full marathon goes on the waterfront. And I really love the waterfront.

The rest of that year, I did my 45-minute runs along the waterfront a couple times per week (except for the month when my foot was mysteriously sore, and the month when Baltimore got abruptly buried under 2 feet of snow). Once those obstacles finally melted, I was able to whittle the time I took to complete the route down under 40 minutes.

The weekend after school let out, I jogged down to the harbor to check out an event my erstwhile-artist pastor had told me about. The Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race featured whimsical pedal-powered amphibious contraptions jury-rigged to travel around and through the harbor. Some of these traveled at a comfortable running pace for me, so I tagged along on the sidewalk between one sculpture that looked like an explosion in a John Deere factory and another that looked like an 8th-grade art project made of giant blocks of Styrofoam (which, as I learned from a teacher following on a bike, it actually was). I was shocked to discover I had ended up running for well over an hour. Maybe running longer distances wouldn’t be so hard, I thought.

That same afternoon, I was riding in the car to a church event with some of my friends when out of the blue, someone said, “You know that race that goes through our neighborhood in the fall?” “You mean the marathon?” I blurted out. By the time we got out of the car, we had agreed to run together on the weekends over the summer with the goal of racing together in the fall.

To be continued…

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A Runner’s Meditation on Holy Saturday

When I think about Saturday mornings, I think about running.

Last Saturday morning, I ran a 10K. By the time I was half an hour in, my quads were tight and my lungs were burning, but I tried to keep my focus on the task at hand. I was able to imagine the discomfort quarantined to those parts of my body and remind myself that the rest of me was still all right. The handful of spectators cheering runners up the last couple of hills provided a bit of an emotional lift and helped me keep pushing to the finish.

Exactly 6 months ago this Saturday morning, I had a much more intense experience running a marathon for the first time. After three hours of running, I started to notice weird aches in several distinct locations on my body—knees, thighs, ankles, lungs. As my muscles exhausted their glycogen reserves and I “hit the wall,” these sensations merged into an undifferentiated mass of pain. In this fatigued state, I was still aware of sensations from the outside world, but nothing seemed to register emotionally. Instead, there was only a strange numbness. I saw the hundreds of fans lining the final miles to the finish and heard the racket of dozens of cowbells, but I felt no excitement. Seeing friends along the course cheered me for a moment, but the glow faded instantly once I passed them by, and I tried to blink back the darkness hovering around my peripheral vision.

These two very different experiences make me think that it must not be pain alone that breaks a person; it’s fatigue too. Human beings are capable of enduring surprising levels of suffering as long as they have hope and willpower to get through it. If some part of your body (or your life) hurts, it’s possible to isolate it and marshal the strength remaining in the rest of yourself to keep going, even enjoying the rest of what you’re doing. But throw exhaustion and fatigue into the mix, and it seems you are no longer able to distance yourself from the pain. Since you cannot distinguish what is hurting, you begin to feel pain everywhere, waves of pain that seem to be drowning you.

Nineteen hundred-something years ago this Saturday morning, the Son of God lay dead in a tomb after hanging on a cross for three hours the previous day. As silly as it is to compare the pain of finishing a 10K to that of finishing a marathon, it would be more foolish to compare even the most grueling race to what Jesus endured (this essay notwithstanding).

Although the pain experienced by victims of crucifixion was infamously intense (the source of our word “excruciating”), they actually died from fatigue. Simply taking a breath required great effort when hanging in such an awkward position, and victims simply suffocated when they became too exhausted to continue. In the face of this physical pain and fatigue combined with both psychological and spiritual torment, Jesus was no doubt sorely tempted to give up. In anguished anticipation, he had asked his Father again and again if there was any way to avoid the “cup” of suffering he was about to drink (Luke 22:42). But the answer came back that there was not.  And so he not only drank the vinegar offered by his executioners as a final gesture of cruelty and injustice; he drained the cup of God’s wrath to the last drop too.

In that moment, Jesus as a man had no hope of getting through to better days. He knew the pressure of God’s wrath on him would only continue to increase until it consumed him. The pain really was going to suffocate him, both physically and spiritually. His heart raced faster and faster as fluid accumulated around it, like a runner in dangerous distress at the end of a race (John 19:34). Then he gave up his spirit, finally surrendering to the onslaught of torment, like a drowning person watching the surface of the water slip away above them.

To love someone is to share in their suffering, and Jesus suffered to the last because he loved us to the last (John 13:1). The author of Hebrews tells us Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses because he was tempted in every way, just as we are (Hebrews 4:15). The fact that Jesus did not succumb to any temptation despite his pain does not diminish his ability to relate to our temptations and hurts; instead, it deepens it. Just as the runner who finishes the race despite the discomfort ends up suffering even more than the one who gives up before the finish line, the person who resists a temptation faithfully to the end feels its pull even more strongly than the one who gives in. Whatever level of suffering we experience in our lives, Jesus felt that and more during the course of his hours on the cross.

But this fellowship of suffering in love goes the other way, too: part of how we grow to love Jesus is by learning to join in his sufferings. The Apostle Paul taught that those of us who belong to Jesus will share in his sufferings as well as his glory (Romans 8:17), carrying around his death in our bodies (2 Corinthians 4:10), so that we actually come to know him through his sufferings (Philippians 3:10).

But the life of most people who call themselves Christians in America does not look much like suffering. We read of believers in Egypt being murdered by terrorists in the middle of Palm Sunday worship, and then we go to our own church services in comfort, donning nice spring outfits and preparing festive Easter meals. Talk of following Jesus with an instrument of torture strapped to our back (Matthew 10:38) seems far-fetched. As uncomfortable as it is, I would do well to meditate on those words more. But perhaps there is also something we could gain by sharing in some part of our brothers’ and sisters’ sufferings as they share in Christ’s, identifying ourselves with the powerless, persecuted, or oppressed.

I know close friends and family who have experienced the torment of overwhelming pain and fatigue, whether physical or mental. I’ve seen the terrible pain and confusion it can inflict in their lives, but I’ve never really felt it firsthand. While it’s not a fair comparison to real-life suffering, my experience in the marathon is the only way I can even find a category to sympathize with the sense of weakness, numbness, or despair some of these people must be going through. I’d like to think having briefly tasted the sensation of despair that accompanies total exhaustion makes me a little more compassionate and understanding towards other’s struggles.

Yes, Jesus knows what it is like to suffer to the end, even all the way to the point of death. And yet his suffering was not in fact the end. Just as the runner’s pain instantly begins to abate the moment they cross the finish line and receive their medal, the moment Jesus crossed the finish line with his last breath, crying out in triumph, “It is finished!” (John 19:28-30), he sat down on the victor’s throne in heaven (Hebrews 12:2).

Tomorrow, on Easter Sunday, millions of Christians will come together to commemorate Christ’s victory over sin and death yet again. The hope of joining the victory celebration in person one day is what inspires us to persevere through—even to embrace—the sufferings of this life without losing heart, because we knew that future glory would far outweigh them (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

(And then on Monday, thousands of athletes will come together to commemorate the world’s oldest marathon yet again, and the hope of joining them in person one day will inspire me to persevere through—even to embrace—another hot and humid summer of running, but that is not a story for this day…)

Athletes and Artists, Part 3: The Soul of Tempo Practice

deformingprisms

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I’ve previously written a couple of posts on what musicians can learn from the practices of professional athletes. The first essay explored how the same dynamics that occur between spectators, coaches, and players appear in the music world between listeners, composers, and performers. The second enumerated a few lessons musicians could learn about practicing from phrases a certain professional football team uses to describe their work. This third installment draws from my recent firsthand experience in practicing a sport.

Ironically, my involvement in athletics this year came about due to an injury sustained while practicing music. Last spring, I developed a mild case of tendinitis in my left arm, likely from excess tension during a hard week of preparation for a guitar competition, and had to take several weeks off from playing. With extra time on my hands and favorable weather beckoning outdoors, I decided the thing to do was…

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The Pure Strategy Is the Steady Strategy

There are two ways to run a race: with tactics or with pure strategy. The difference is whether you care what other people are doing. (This is assuming you run the race as a race, not purely for fun. Many people derive great joy from running races just for fun, but I tend not to think in those terms.)

Tactical running is defined by anticipating or responding to the actions of the runner(s) you are with, noticing their every move and processing what it might mean. You are truly competing against them, responding to their actions and parrying in kind. Tactical running demands sensitivity, versatility, and quick thinking. You must have a clear plan and yet be willing to throw it to the winds the moment one of your rivals does something unexpected. Or rather, you must have many plans, one for each unique way a race might develop and what you would do in that scenario.

Of course, there is no point in running tactically unless there is some chance that you or one of the people you are with will actually win. (Winning does not necessarily mean finishing in first place; one might run tactically for, say, third place if the top three finishers get a prize or qualify for another event.) But no one jockeys for 10th place or 100th place (assuming they even know that is where they stand). Sure, the round number might make you feel a little better about yourself, but it is no real reflection of your ability as a runner.

For all but the few with striking distance of the lead, the best strategy is the pure strategy. And the pure strategy is always the steady strategy, not wavering from your pace, regardless of what the others around you do. It’s a strange feeling to be passed by dozens of runners in the first few hundred yards of a race and then to spend the next hour passing them all back, but it’s what you must be willing to do to run a pure strategy. Any energy you expend in brief surges of speed could be more efficiently used to keep a consistently faster pace over the whole race.

But steadiness does not imply stasis. In its ideal form, the perfect pace would be one long, drawn-out, imperceptibly gradual acceleration from start to finish. Since this requires almost superhuman awareness and control to execute, a reasonable substitute is to speed up gently but noticeably at certain points in the race, creating what is called a negative split (that is, you run the second half of the race in less time than the first half). But the important thing is that you are always upping the tempo, never fading back (As a columnist I was fond of reading says: “Always buy, never sell.”). Once you accelerate to a certain pace, you are committed to going at least that fast for the rest of the race. Either you will be capable of doing so (and feel glorious in doing it), or you will not—and feel agony. But to slow down is to admit that you made a mistake earlier on, that you tried to do more than you had the fortitude to handle.

In a purely strategic race, your only opponent is the clock. The clock is not vulnerable to gamesmanship or cat-and-mouse tactics. Success against the clock is defined by your personal goals, and you can only achieve your own goals by running your own race. Of course, if during the race you find a runner going at the same pace as you, it is likely to both of your advantage to work together against your common opponent, the clock. Having someone else keeping the same pace alongside helps protect you from accidentally letting it slide either faster or slower. It is also psychologically much easier to hold up over those painful final miles knowing that you’re not alone out there.

. . .

Training to run a steady race, of course, means training steadily. But again, this steadiness is not static, but dynamic, not a source of monotonous routine but a solid framework for fresh exploration. The steadiness shows itself not in repeating the same workout day after day, but in doing the same set of workouts every week, and in building steadily on the previous week’s work.  Although you intend to run a steady pace on race day, you don’t run the same pace every day, or even for the entirety of a workout, and only rarely do you try to run at race pace. (In fact, the more you vary your pace in training, the better equipped you may be to run steadily when you want to on race day. A long workout in which you irregularly and spontaneously vary your pace is known in running parlance as fartlek, Swedish for “speed play.” Aside from being fun to say, the word fartlek is a reminder that a good workout can just as well be called “play” as “work.”)

Just as it is difficult to push hard in a race when alone on the course, it is difficult to train at maximum effort by yourself, so many people choose to run with partners. But a varied workout program can also allow for varying partners. Since one runner’s hard workout could be another’s easy one, you can run your hard workouts with faster runners and your easy workouts with slower ones. Of course, some people’s natural pace may be different enough from your own that it is impractical to work out with them. But a good training program will have you varying your pace by several minutes per mile on different days, providing lots of latitude to find common ground with others.

But you don’t just train to help you race better; racing helps you train better too. There’s a special kind of delight in your first workout after a hard race and a couple days of rest. Speeds that used to seem hard and painful now feel like treading on air, because facing competition has forced your body to get stronger. The value of competition is not in being the best (in comparison to others), but in being your best (in comparison to yourself). If you sincerely try to be the best, you will still almost certainly fail, but you may well succeed in being your best. You need to surround yourself with people faster than you so that you cannot succeed in the former without also accomplishing the latter. A race, in these terms, is simply when a bunch of fast runners get together to do an especially hard workout, so they are sure of having someone faster to spur them on to greater effort. Of course, the leader of a race has no one in front of them for inspiration, but presumably the prospect of the clock and medal at the finish line is motivation enough.

. . .

So, the pure strategy is not just for midpack athletes aiming for a personal best. Championship racers can, and sometimes do, choose the pure strategy as well. In the 10,000 meters at the most recent Olympics, Almez Ayala of Ethiopia broke away from the pack early on and struck out by herself at a consistent but blistering pace. She built a huge lead over the field and never relinquished it on her way to smashing the world record for that distance, much to commentators’ astonishment. Ayala was supremely confident that she was simply stronger than any of her rivals and could therefore win the race easily with a pure strategy.

Another spectacular example of a pure strategy came in the men’s marathon at the same Olympics, where Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya came into the race as the clear favorite. On a warm and humid day in Rio, he was content to let other runners set a relatively slow (relatively being the operative word here; it was just above a 5-minute mile) pace for the first half of the race while he kept an eye on things from just behind. With no one pushing the pace, at the halfway point of the race, the lead pack still contained over 40 runners. But then Kipchoge started to make his move, taking the pace up a notch every mile or two and seeing how many of his competitors could (or would) keep up. The lead pack slimmed to a dozen, then nine, then six, then four. All the while, Kipchoge never made a dramatic surge, but just kept nudging the tempo higher and higher.

Around mile 21, another runner dropped back; here, to all appearances, were the three medalists. Kipchoge inched slightly faster, losing American Galen Rupp minutes later. Now only Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lelisa remained. Kipchoge swerved side-to-side across the road, as if daring Lelisa to pass him. He couldn’t. Kipchoge shifted into one last higher gear (something around 4:35 mile pace), put some distance between himself and Lelisa, and cruised the final two or three miles to victory. Kipchoge managed to run the second half of the race more than 3 minutes faster than the first half—an incredible negative split—with barely a noticeable change of pace along the way.

In my praise of steadiness and the pure strategy, I don’t want to neglect the glories of tactical racing. I’m sure it can be thrilling; it’s just that, as a much-less-than-elite runner, I haven’t had the chance to ever try it yet. But just to be fair, I’ll close with an example of a particularly memorable tactical race, also from the 2016 Olympics.

Matthew Centrowitz Jr. became a local hero here in Maryland for his performance in the 1500-meter final in Rio. As impressive an athlete as Centrowitz is, I doubt he could have won that race running a pure strategy, as several athletes in the field owned far faster times than his, most notably the lanky Kenyan Asbel Kiprop, winner of the previous three world championships and third-fastest human in history at that distance. Centrowitz went to the front of the pack immediately and set a relatively relaxed pace (again, what would be a flat-out sprint for most humans) for the first two laps, as the rest of the field seemed content to run tactically behind him, with Kiprop bringing up the rear.

With two laps to go, Kiprop had had enough and tried to make a move around the pack. Just as he did, two runners collided next to him, distracting him for just a moment, and before he could pull alongside Centrowitz in the lead, they were into the turn again. Rather than waste strides running wide around the turn, Kiprop dropped back into the pack to await another chance. From there, a fascinating tactical battle ensued. On each straightaway, Kiprop would start to make a move, whereupon Centrowitz would pick up the pace just enough to stay ahead of his rival into the turn, forcing him to regroup.

Coming off the final turn, Centrowitz, now in full sprint, was still in the lead, with Kiprop just off his shoulder. But the world champion was too spent from his earlier surges to keep up, fading down the homestretch as Centrowitz held off defending Olympic champion Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria for the gold medal. He had found the right tactic to beat the great Kiprop—and executed it to perfection.