Monthly Archives: May 2012

Sunday Worship

My thoughts on the afterlife, belief and other similar subjects have been expressed here previously and I don’t want to dwell on those specifically at this point, but I did give them a little more thought on my long trail runs I did last weekend, notably the one on Sunday, and I came to an interesting realization I want to share.

I was raised Catholic and did all the things little catholic kids do, like go to church every week, attend catholic school (sans-nuns however), do lots of sitting, standing, kneeling, etc., and basically go through all the rituals that were so constant at an early age that I though EVERYONE did those sorts of things. Of all those rituals, going to church on Sunday was the default. You just didn’t miss church…even if you were super tired, weren’t feeling well or so on. If you had something you couldn’t get out of on Sunday, you went to church on Saturday evening. It was an expected routine as is breathing air. So, after so much of that I’ve developed the basic understanding of the how’s and why’s of catholic worship, even though I broke from that a long time ago as I started to consider issues much more deeply and with a wider looking glass of perspective. Although I shed so many of those rituals that are catholic necessities, I seem to have held on to one I wasn’t aware of, the concept of worship.

I find myself running under the morning light most Sundays at the time most of the city is either sleeping off their Saturday nights or heading to church in their Sunday best, and I take huge sighs (or shortened breaths) of relief that I’m not doing either. I really hated going to church. It was boring, cut into my non-school free time and repeated its remedial moral stories a million times over, which made me question how people actually stick through that their whole lives. So, when I’m out running every Sunday I both appreciate NOT being stuck in church, but also finding a commonality between those who are inside worshiping while I’m doing something similar in my own way.

On my Sunday run through the woods last weekend I felt the same connection to worship again, but not in a “give thanks” sort of way, just a “being a part of” sort of way. Let me explain.

The narrative I was taught to accept growing up is that a being (wow, he looks JUST LIKE US…what a coincidence!) created the world and in effect SELECTED us individually to exist upon the world throughout the span of time. Every single one of us. The theories always skirted the boundaries of pre-destination, but never went so far as to persuade people to not even try. Still, the “miracle” was that god created the world and us, and our life wavers between living it in appreciation and one huge aptitude test where if you fail you burn in hell fires forever. Pretty, no? And people generally fall to one side of that divide more than the other.

Although I no longer accept, and barely understand, the aptitude test of life side of things, I DO understand the appreciation side of the divide, and on my run last Sunday I understood the commonality I still hold with believers. See, worship is basically their way of saying,

“Holy shit! (pun intended) Life is frickin’ unimaginably crazy! I can’t believe it exists and we get to do this and you picked ME to be a part of it! That’s insane! Thanks God dude!! You’re the bomb!”

And that I get. Life IS insane and the fact that “it” (all of us and everything, humans and non-humans, plants, air, chemical reactions, microscopic bugs, atmosphere, energy, extinct creatures, evolving species, black holes, expanding universes, etc.) actually exists and continues to develop, is abs0lutely mind-boggling. And to think that OUR planet and OUR existence is made possible by the most perfect storm of location and chance, well, I can’t even pretend to put that into words.

So I get worship. I get the feeling of stunned awesomeness that compels people to give thanks…to something. Their narrative basically has taken the amazingness of our existence and attached a human being to its origins, which in turn gives them a point of worship. It gives them something to define and thank and, in my mind, basically acknowledge our existence.

And that’s what I do when I run, sort of.

I don’t CONSCIOUSLY get up Sunday morning and think to myself,

“It’s Sunday! Life is the most amazing development of chance ever! I need to engage in an act of worship with the entity itself, that is me, the ground, the air, the bugs I’m about to swallow, and so on! It is time to run in an expression of gratitude and worship!”

No…that’s not it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not what happens.

When I’m running through the woods, surrounded by hundreds and thousands of creatures (though I can only hear a handful of them, and see almost none) , breathing at my maximum capability, my legs on fire from a long, gradual climb, breaking my muscles down with each impact, covering ground that seems absurd in rested states, and generally just expelling every bit of energy from my body I’ve stored up to that point….I feel as spiritual as I ever get. I don’t feel like an intruder in the world, navigating the landscape of abstract moralism, forming even more abstract political theories, colliding with rigid, man-made environments, fighting off the stresses of a system imposed upon me, but rather a COMPLETLEY INTEGRAL part of existence itself.

When I am running, I am nothing but a physical body doing what a physical body does, expending energy. I am doing what everything else does around me, utilizing our physical bodies to act out the give and take of the great circumstance we call existence.

And so in that moment I feel that commonality with the worshipers (not the test takers), who are saying, “Hell yeah! This is nuts! Thanks god dude for making this happen!”, while I’m saying, “Hell yeah! This is nuts! Im’a go be a PART of this as much as possible! I’m not going to sit at home in front of the computer wasting away…I’m gonna go run!!”

It’s an awesome feeling and one I’ve never experienced greater elsewhere. So hey, you worshipers go do your thing. Worship away, give thanks, sit in church and sing and chant and whip yourselves and whatever else you do…I’ll be out in the woods, just being alive. One last thing….If that story of the big dude in the sky were true, I bet he’d be pretty psyched if instead of constantly thanking it for making life, the churches emptied and everyone instead went out for a run, played a game of soccer or threw a dance party and actually LIVED life.

But hey, whatever makes you happy and content in this existence of improbable chance. My worship is running.

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Deprivation, Indulgence and Back Again.

We runners like to brag about how we can eat anything we want without concern. “If the furnace is hot enough, anything will burn”, right? We put in big miles and basically log a negative caloric intake through breakfast and lunch during our morning run alone. We don’t balk at stuffing our starving faces any chance we get and we smile secretly, and not so secretly, when we step back on the scale and see we’ve still LOST weight in the process. We eat ice cream, cookies, cake and basically…indulge. It’s our reward for all the work we’ve put in, but also our selling point for running. We act like running absolves us of all caloric concerns and are free to dive into any buffet that challenges us. But this is quite misleading.

Runners know, we are a depraved species. Self-imposed even, because all that talk of bottomless stomachs comes at the cost of a lot of deprivation for the sake of running.

We can eat, yes, but it’s more important WHEN we can eat. When I did the seemingly all day team relay race a couple weeks ago, I was quite miserable waiting for my turn to run, not necessarily because I had the “jimmy-legs”, but rather because I wanted to EAT…but couldn’t. If I gave into the hunger screaming through my body, I would pay for that later during the run with a feeling of sluggishness, gas and whatever other undesirables. I was used to eating like a tiny bird leading up to a run, then letting loose once completed, but I was NOT used to eating like a bird, running, then having to hold off eating before the NEXT run and then doing it AGAIN! It. Sucked. I ended up nibbling on small batches of raisins and drinking small amounts of coffee just to keep level and ward off hunger-induced impatience. All I wanted to do was get to running so the feelings of hunger would be pushed away during the effort and then I could finally dive in to whatever when my turns were over. And that’s what I did. First thing after finishing I went straight to the car, poured whatever water was sitting around on my oatmeal and then went to town on that soggy mess like I hadn’t seen food in weeks. I must have looked like a wild beast hunched over that bowl of tepid, oatmealy goodness.

Then this past weekend we went South to run the trails and I was again compelled to eat just a couple pieces of toast before driving to the trailhead and running the woods for an hour and a half, completely depriving myself of my body’s requests for early morning sustenance. I had to though, or the run itself would have sucked for the same reasons I listed previous. It’s just what we have to do.

I don’t mean to sound so miserable about all this though, because the reward is in the indulgence. Yeah, it sucks to remain hungry before a run and even GET hungry deep into a long run, but the promise of something awesome, tasty, vegan, and in portions that would ruin the caloric intake of an entire weight watchers class is almost always worth it.

On Sunday, as I was starting my warmup for a 2 hour trail run my wife says to me, “After this, we head into Bloomington for the Bloomingfoods brunch.” She verbalized exactly what was going through my head. Basically, I was looking forward to the long, energy-sapping, exhausting, starvation-inducing run through the woods, but partly because I knew that initial deprivation was going to be rewarded with a massive plate of indulgent vegan brunch. And indulge we did. Tofu scramble, biscuits and gravy, herb-roasted potatoes, a massive cinnamon roll, homemade energy bar, coffee and tea. Then just a couple hours later we were hungry AGAIN. It was awesome and so worth it.

I hope I’m not painting an ugly picture of binge eating here, because it’s not entirely like that. We do a lot of healthy portion control and nibbling throughout the day to keep hunger and energy levels in check, while not ruining our ability to be physically active all the same. The indulging is just a periodic benefit of our active lives. And I never take for granted the value of of this benefit, especially when I see others struggle so much to deal with weight and health issues.

I watch those that actually care and make the attempt to address their weight TRULY deprive themselves, because they haven’t found the simple, intuitive ways to eat and live properly. They rely on crazy formulas of caloric intake and scheduled eating or compartmentalize their attempts by relying too heavily on either physical activity while sacrificing proper nutrition or vice versa. Healthy living is a package deal.

I know we are all constrained by so many parameters of daily life (work, school, obligations, etc.), but simplifying the process of healthy living is what will bring about true success. We don’t HAVE to eat animal products (both meat and dairy) saturated with bad fats and so much other detrimental crap. We don’t HAVE to miserably and meticulously count calories at every meal because we aren’t active enough in the day to convert them to useable energy. On the contrary, and sorry to be absolutist here, I want to grab all these people struggling with weight and health, shake them and say,

“Just eat vegan. Just be active. The benefits will come!”

So many dieters TRULY deprive themselves by trying to continue on with their unhealthy lifestyles by applying dieting principles to an already unhealthy foundation of living.

“Well, if I eat LESS animal products, I’ll be ok. If I walk from the BACK of the parking lot, I’ll lose those calories I gained with that low-fat yogurt I couldn’t resist at lunchtime.” *sigh* It just doesn’t work that way friends. I want to explain that if they just replaced all the shit they ate with whole vegan foods, I dare say they wouldn’t even have to count caloric intake. Hell, they could probably eat proportionally MORE than they do and still lose weight. Maybe the perspective would even shift from getting healthy through deprivation to getting healthy through indulgence!

Anyways, that’s not really a battle I have to fight…just a sad observation I find myself making constantly.

So yeah, back to our dismal state of deprivation, sometimes it SUCKS to be hungry constantly. Sometimes I wish I could put a brick in my stomach (is that what steak is?) to shut my hunger valve off and get me to my run for the day, but it doesn’t work that way. Instead, I eat small snacks, easily digestible fruit, coffee, coffee, coffee, and wait until I get to temporarily run away my hunger by focusing on the stress and strain of the effort.

And when it’s all over and my body is flooded with fatigue, THEN I can get to the business of eating and indulging, all without worry. We deprive ourselves to a degree, but the indulgence is always worth it.

Soul Doubt

It’s hard to run well when you doubt yourself to a debilitating degree. Sometimes, it’s hard to run at all if you let self-doubt get the best of you. I’ll admit to this fault of mine over the past couple of months as the weather began to change from crap to awesome. Through the winters I had relegated myself to running on the treadmill, mainly to have somewhere warm and bright to run instead of trudging through the biting, cold air under pitch-black morning skies. I needed a psuedo-summer environment to trick my mental state into forcing my legs forward….in place, of course. But then the season changed and the mornings grew lighter sooner, and the afternoons were full of clear skies, bright sun and an air just warm enough to run without restriction….and I stayed on the treadmill.
 
In the past, the act of running was enhanced exponentially by the actual experience of being outside, observing the changes in the seasons and just feeling the euphoria that comes with running near naked on the dirt path that cuts through my city. I get to see the animals come out, the human animals come out (which is sometimes good, sometimes bad), the trees grow and flowers sprout and so on. It’s just an amazing experience to be a part of, so when the season changed and I stayed inside on the treadmill, something relatively depressing and lame was going on inside me. Where once I could barely wait to bound out the door into the sun I now cowered from the light like a vampire with insomnia.
 
I was doubting myself. After spending so much time training the years prior and then stopping almost completely, running sporadically throughout the week or skipping mulitple weeks at a time, I just wasn’t ready to expose my lack of running fitness to the outside world. It’s one thing to be inside on a treadmill where no one can really tell your actual pace and you can stop the machine and step off if it gets too much, but it’s another thing to run labored and hunched over, your tongue hanging out like flypaper, blindingly white skin exposed for all the world to see…and still have 3 miles till you get back home. I know…it’s not THAT bad…but in my mind it was. In my mind I was EMBARRASED to go from 120 miles a week and 5:30 pace, to 20 miles in a good week and a labored 7:00 pace. So I stayed inside with my hobbit feet stuck to a rotating piece of rubber.
 
There was only so much of that I could take though and when the weather turned from awesome to exceptional, I just HAD to get out there. But I still had my doubts if I would enjoy the experience or not. I still doubted I was good enough to put my running out in public, so maybe it helped that I started doing it pre-sunrise. Whatever the reason, after taking the first few precarious steps onto the pavement, the doubt just sort of melted away. And as I moved further into the miles, it continued to wash away behind me. And when I hit the dirt trail I’m so familiar with it had evaporated with my effort and I was left there feeling completely….stupid. What was I so doubtful about again?
 
And here’s the thing. I’ve been through this lesson over and over and over again. No matter how much I’ve trained, no matter how much success I’ve had leading up to a race or a workout, before it all starts I’m a bundle of doubt and fear. Did I do ENOUGH? Should I have tried HARDER? Am I just not GOOD? And then as soon as I start putting one foot in front of the other…it almost always works out. Actually, when I have a healthy amount of doubt running through my mind, I tend to have my BEST races…but that’s because I actually START racing. And in that is the key. I know of runners who have so much doubt that they sometimes don’t even start. Or if they do start they carry it with them into the race and quit. That’s TOO MUCH doubt. And conversely, I know those who are so frickin’ confident that they have no problem starting a race, but when things start to go south they are so shocked that they give up. The key is striking the appropriate balance between the two, having enough confidence in your workouts to get you to the line, but holding enough reservation not to expect an idyllic outcome.
 
I hate to admit to it, but these past few months I was succombing to the negative side of doubt, allowing myself to become overwhelmed to the point that I was missing out on amazing running experiences. And to think….all it took was just TRYING. All it took was to recognize my doubt and realize the only way to move past it is to run through it, quite literally. Remaining in doubt certainly wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I don’t know what I was waiting for really. I’m just glad to say I’m past all that now. The doubt about my abilities are gone and I’m back to training….outdoors even. See you on the trail.
 

The 5 am Litmus Test

Some ideas seem downright brilliant when you’re loaded with quad shot americano’s, caffeine-infused dark chocolate bars and running on a night of complete sleep. Everything seems right with the world and any spontaneous idea seems infallible. That happens to me from time to time, specifically when I’m loaded with quad shot americano’s and..well…yeah, all that. Those ideas often ARE awesome (I’ll stop short of brilliant) and I sometimes find myself over-ambitiously working on them as soon as I come up with ’em…which often leads to failure. Because sometimes, when you actually SLEEP on an idea, the possibility, logistics and passion of carrying it out becomes much clearer and in a less caffeinated state of being, the reality of your brilliance is less, well, brilliant. There are those ideas, however, that stay with me even after sleeping on them, sometimes over and over again. THOSE are the ideas I can’t let go and know will succeed with the right amount of effort, caffeinated or not.

As I’ve aged though, I like to take things even more cautiously and have begun applying another self-imposed barrier to bouts of inspired brilliance (read, absurdity). I call it the 5 am litmus test. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Who in the hell gets up at 5 am!?”.

Runners do.

Or, at least, runners with so many other life responsibilities (stupid running water and mortgage payments) that the only time they have to make their day right is by getting up at 5 am and running 10 or so miles. Sometimes, there just isn’t any other time to do it. Period. And it’s at 5am, when the brain is at it’s LEAST caffeinated and LEAST motivated, and just brushing your teeth is like building the great wall of china, that any idea faces the ultimate challenge to its sustainability. If you can stare an idea in the face at 5 am and say, “Yes! That would be AWESOME! I MUST DO THIS!”, then your idea has passed the test and you are free to indulge in your absurdity. If, however, you think to yourself, “Oh god, what’s the effing point? To my idea, to life, to anything? Why in the hell am I up at 5 am? Why do I hate myself? I’m going to quit working, let the house lapse into foreclosure and end my existence early”, then maybe you should go back to bed and think of something more in line with your passions. THAT’s the 5 am litmus test.

I became aware of the 5 am litmus test after my attempt at the Vermont 50 and upon my return to Indiana I was faced with a completely blank running calendar, a consistently screwed up leg and NO motivation to run or train to run. For some reason though, I continued to get up at 5 am, drag on cold weather running clothes and hate the world as I trudged out the door…only to make it a couple blocks before stopping in the middle of the pitch dark street and staring blankly ahead…trying to remember the reasons I ever did this in the first place. I lost count how many times I turned around and walked back home, my head hung in complete dejection. I don’t know what depression is, but maybe that was similar.

Sometimes I never even made it out the door. I would successfully make it to the bathroom, stare at my tired image through heavy, deadened eyelids and then find my way right back to bed…completely failing the 5 am litmus test again and again. So I quit running. No matter how I felt later in the day, no matter how caffeinated I was and how ABSOLUTELY GREAT AND INSPIRED of an idea running the next day was, when I got up at 5 am, it seemed like the absolute WORST thing I could ever be doing at that moment. So again and again I failed the test.

At 3 pm, “I’ve GOT to run tomorow morning! It will be great and feel so awesome when I’m done! I’ll feel accomplished and be that much fitter!”

At 5am, “Life is stupid. Why do I keep doing it?”

Anyways…you get the point. Which brings me to my current running state. If you read the previous post, you know I’ve made the decision to start running competitively again, which means I’m doing high-mileage with specific training. It’s a long explanation, but one of the main reasons I’m ABLE to do this again is because I’ve already subjected myself to the 5 am litmus test leading up to this decision and consistently passed. It wasn’t just a briefly inspired idea at 3 pm that set me on this path, but rather a handful of 5 am alarms followed by torturously boring treadmill runs….that I enjoyed. In the recent past, I WANTED to run. I WANTED to train, but that all means nothing when I’m dead tired at 5 am and the last thing I want to do is force myself from such a comfortable slumber to sweat, run out of breath and basically mildly damage my body over and over again. Something changed though. I haven’t quite figured out what that is exactly, but something certainly changed, because the value of getting up and running under a dark sky (slowly changing to light…finally!) began to far outweigh the desire to sleep. I now look forward to 5 am. It is the part of my day that excites me the most! So even though I was a little hesitant to write that last post about pushing the reset button on competitive running, I’ve passed enough tests to do so confidently.

And here we are….about 2 weeks into consistent running. About to hit 70+ miles this week. A psuedo-race already under my belt and my first OFFICIAL speed workout this morning.

5 am doesn’t seem dreadful at all. Actually, it’s quite inspiring.

If you can pass that test, it’s full speed ahead.

DWD. WTF. OMG.

My wife is trying to ruin me.

Ok, not really. She did, however, get asked to run as part of a relay team in an absurd 100k trail race called Dances With Dirt that makes you sign a waiver that reads, “I’m probably going to die in this race, but as a race director you probably don’t have any sense or money to begin with so I’ll give you my word (in blood) that I won’t sue you if this is to happen”. Seriously, that’s all it says.

My wife, the mountain-biking-non-runner-I-trained-for-a-half marathon-and-hated-every-second-of-it, agreed to run for this team, mainly because I think everyone else on the team uses this race as a reason to get together and drink…aside from all the other times they find a reason to do this. She was really looking forward to it, so much so that she said “yes” to the request despite forgetting that she already booked a photo shoot that day.

And this is where she tries to ruin me.

She asks ME to take her place on the team. Mr. “obsessive-compulsive-slippery-slope-I-ran-a-mile-so-now-I’m-obligated-to-run-a-marathon” me. And, of course, I said Yes. I feigned like I wasn’t sure if I wanted to, but…well…I wanted to. Not because I’m fit…I’m not. Not because I’ve been training…I haven’t. Not because there is enough time to prepare…It’s SATURDAY. I’m doing it because it is yet another piece of a puzzle that has been slowly pulling itself back together like it was made from magnets and haphazardly dropped on the floor instead of being properly dismantled, put back in its box and stowed away for someone else to pick up later on (right Noah?!).

Again, I said Yes. So when going to bed a couple nights ago and she asks me what time my alarm is going off and I silently hold up five fingers, she jokingly curses me and I curse her right back.

“Hey, you signed me up for Dances With Dirt so shut the hell up.” Because now I must train. For like 4 days.

I know…that’s stupidly absurd. I know. I KNOW. But this brings us back to this puzzle I just referenced.

Maybe you didn’t notice, but the sun rises very early now. And this body is in desperate need of a tan. It’s also quite warm out and sweating makes me feel alive. I also have a vacation coming in July and I can’t bear spending a week next to the ocean without waking every morning and running at least 10 miles. Then there is that personal reward thing…that unparalleled sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and just doing something that comes more naturally than anything else in life. You know..that.

So maybe my running has become more consistent…and each treadmill run a little longer…and I keep slipping down that slope I never wanted to climb out of anyways. Then the Mini-marathon arrives and I find myself running 6:30 minute miles on the treadmill while the rest of the city battles in the streets…and I’m inspired because I still feel so connected to all that. Then the next morning I find myself running on the very rail-trail I set foot on nearly every single day for years and at that very moment I took the turn….it all came flooding back in. So in just one morning of beautiful weather, beautiful running and complete mental clarity it all hits me.

I’m. Not. Done.

I never was. No matter what I thought was “rational” or “sensible” I simply couldn’t shake the motivation to keep doing the very activity that keeps me alive, that keeps me HAPPY. I had yet to find a way to reconcile that and so I’m not going to try anymore. I’m going to train, because I NEED to train.

Mind you, I’m not quite sure WHAT I’m training for at this moment, but that will come in due time. I’m not even sure what distance I’m training for, but right now that isn’t my main concern. What I’m most concerned about right now is WHEN I train and how I fight through the low spots. I’ve NO intention of losing the ground I’ve gained with my family, of course not. I feel closer to my stepson than I ever have been and plan to keep it that way. This means, most likely, I will be doing most of my runs BEFORE work, fighting off the fatigue of 5 am wake up calls. So be it. The payoff, as I’ve written about before, has always been worth it. I’ve also addressed this somewhat with my wife and she has given me approval based on two demands.

1. She also gets the time to ride/race her mountain bike. Done.

2. I don’t let the fatigue stop us from having good sex. Done!

What else is there to concern oneself with anyways? Recreation and sex…life is simple, right?

I’ve got a pair of worn out shoes, which I have been and will continue to wear out until my birthday affords me an excuse to ask for another pair. I’ve got teammates with positive attitudes. I’ve got a stepson who loves to be outdoors. I’ve got a son who has yet to see me race. I’ve got an awesomelicious wife who supports my dreams and desires. I’ve got good genes, consistency, a race, a summer, a desire and a larger picture comprised of so many little puzzle pieces that have been pushed back together. Now it’s time to get to work.

We’ll start with this almost joke race on Saturday and keep going from there. See you at the start line. God it feels good to say all that. I feel like me. I mean, I’ve always felt like me, even after I stopped training, but now I feel more like me than I have in a long time. It’s good to be back.