Monthly Archives: July 2015

Intimate Understanding

When the idea struck me to conduct this ultra run fundraiser, probably instigated by a considerable dosing of caffeine intake, it was one of those ideas I HAD to do. It was important, it was exciting, it was beyond anything I’ve done with my running to this point, and it was just a touch frightening. It just felt right. And I knew, no matter what unforeseen obstacles might come my way, I would do it. I will do it. I will complete 50 miles each day, for seven days straight, without faltering….I hope.

Admittedly, as I’ve been putting in the work for this run, I’ve encountered the usual training difficulties I’ve faced during competitive marathon training. Weeks of fatigue and slow progression. Periods of decreased emotional motivation. Mild injuries. Weather that simply can’t be overcome. And, of course, there are all the success too. Continued excitement. Mile paces that drop and drop. Mileage totals that climb and climb. And the joy of feeling my body handle incredible amounts of stress and strain from continuous, dedicated training.

I’m completely excited to accomplish this ultra running feat…except…

Except, it’s no longer as romanticized as I initially imagined when I first came up with the idea. To address my greatest concern with completing this run, I’m worried about the weather. I mean, whose idea was it to plan this 50 mile a day attempt during the month of August. AUGUST! Oh right…me. I have my reasons for the week I chose, but while training through the most recent episode of increasingly hot and incredibly humid, I’m wishing I found other reasons to push it into September. Oh well, no turning back now.

But really, of all my concerns I need to manage for this run – nutrition, timing, road hazards, post-run recovery, etc. – it is the weather that is tempering my excitement. Runners intimately understand their bodies through years and years of training. We know what it feels like to be strong and quick, and we know how our legs feel when we’re not yet recovered. We know what we are capable of on race day and we know what a weakened cardio system feels like when things aren’t going our way. We know when we can push and when we need to just hold on. We know our sleep patterns, our injury rates, our fluctuating hunger, our nutrition needs, etc. All this understanding allows us to adjust and compensate to help us run at our best when it counts the most…but some obstacles of understanding simply can not be overcome.

I’ve learned, over the many years of training, that I run poorly in hot, humid weather. When I ran my 2:25 marathon PR, it was within an air temperature that never rose above 39 degrees. The next year when I tried to run 7 minutes quicker, the air temperature started at 60 and quickly rose to 70. Things did NOT go well the second half of the race. In studying my past racing and training performances, it became very clear that I feel most powerful, most unstoppable when the temperature drops. The lower the better. Scientifically / Biologically speaking, I came to learn about skin surface area and sweat ratios, understanding that taller runners have to work harder to keep their core temperature down in hotter weather due to skin surface area. The body pulls needed oxygen away from legs and lungs to dissipate sweat and cool the body, causing complete shut down if it becomes overworked in the effort.

I can now generally expect a certain degree of discomfort or quickened weakening of my body when running on days that are both hot and humid, compelling me to adjust my pace or change up my workout. Easier said than done. Even when compensating for the weather, things get difficult for me quick, which is why I’m worried about this obstacle and seriously preparing for this ultrarun.

Today I went out for a 15 mile run a little later than usual, ending up running in a blanket of thick, humid air and under a blazing sun beating out mid 70 to 80 degree temperatures. I knew it was going to be a struggle further into the run, but I didn’t expect the struggle to be so great. At about 9 miles in everything started to fall apart, quickly. I started walking periodically, trying to get my heart rate down and strength back into my legs before pushing on. With each successive mile completed, the effort seemed to get worse and worse, with more walk breaks, and lungs that felt like they couldn’t expand at all…maybe even shrinking. At a street crossing I bent over and grabbed my knees, only to rise back up and watch the ground in front of me go out of focus, become swallowed by blind spots, and threaten to meet me head on if I stumbled or fainted. I had to consciously take deep breaths and get the oxygen back to my brain. Pushing on further, the walks became more frequent, the weakness building greater and the whole experience quite unpleasant. I just imagined the trouble I was going to face should this be the weather on my ultra run. I managed to complete the 15 miles and couldn’t shake the 35 more I would have to run in just over a month.

I got to the locker room at the Y and weighed myself to see what sort of damage I had done with all the water loss, the scale reading a new weight low of 136, which was not comforting. Admittedly, I didn’t bring water on the run, or fuel, but still, I’m not sure how much that would have helped.

All is not lost though. The experience taught me just how quickly the more severe weather will affect my running-specific body functions and distinctly drove home how much I’ll need to cut my pace in order to fend off the worst of the weather conditions breakdown. It’s going to be crucial to understand my body as intimately as possible during this run, not only to make it through each day successfully and relatively enjoyably, but to also keep myself from digging too deep a recovery hole. The period of recovery I’ll be managing when the run is over might be as important as the run itself, as I prepare to repeat the same mileage the very next day….again and again. I won’t lie, I’m looking forward to those air conditioned, soft-bedded hotel stays at night (Thanks Holiday Inn’s!).

I can admit the romanticizing of this run is, well, a little less romantic, but I expected that. There is a wide gap between imagining and doing. With proper planning however, for these relatively worst-case scenario conditions, in the end, the experience might even outshine my initial perceptions. Whatever happens, I will have done everything possible to prepare, and the reward of knowing how much the fundraiser is helping the families and patients of Family Reach will be more than worth it.

The Moment

For non-runners, it is forgivable should they look at our training with disdain, judgement and disgust. Their scowling, though sedentary, mimics the expressions on our faces as we push ourselves through varying states of effort and struggle, and so it is understandable when they exclaim just how much they DON’T want to do what we do. It looks like we suffer. It looks like we are unhappy. It looks very UNFUN.

If one merely looked at these more strenuous visions – juxtaposed against a training calendar that fills each day with a period of running, linked to a succession of weeks that comprise a month, coupled with even more to create a training block, that overlaps into an obsessiveness that circles a year – the idea of runners as sadists becomes hard to counter. Maybe we aren’t running towards something, but away from something else. Maybe it’s not about the running…but about some internal imbalance.

But we know, there is something else to it. There is an element to our daily physical efforts that betrays the looks on our faces. In truth, we enjoy it. We enjoy the struggle, the adversity, the stress and strain…even if not in the immediate sense, even if not written in the creases of skin funneling sweat between our brows.

Yes, we know it’s more than that. It’s more than a succession of daily physical struggle, a pushing against the perceived weight of blanketing humidity or the stinging pain of sub zero air. It’s more than an unending, seemingly unstoppable, loop around the proverbial track, out of control hamster wheel, glitched out treadmill. It’s more than a calendar filled with 10 mile runs every day every day every day.

It is a moment.

Or moments. We struggle and we strain and we spin the wheel over and over because somewhere in the effort, no matter how much difficulty we suffer through to get to it, we find a moment. We find an experience that is unmatched by any other attempt in our days, and there is only one way to get there. Put one foot in front of the other. Into the heat. Into the humidity. Into the accumulated weakness. Into the freezing cold. Into the struggle against ourselves.

It’s hard to make it sound NOT masochistic.

And yet, all the fighting dissipates when we find that moment, where it lies. Sometimes the moment doesn’t come until the run has completely stopped, the mileage has been logged, and a gentle, drawn out sense of satisfaction weaves in and out of our consciousness for the rest of the day. Sometimes the moment comes before it’s even registered, coming out of a daydream only to realize our body is fluid, the pace is quick, and the effort is easy. Sometimes the moment starts the second we do, filling our bodies with a power and strength that alludes the days, weeks, months of accumulated fatigue we’ve attempted to build into our legs and lungs.

Then there is the definitive, measurable moment of a goal, an aspiration, a quantifiable point from A to B on race day, where we put all the previous exertions, struggles, and strains on the line, the starting line, to create what we hope will be a monumental moment when we leave A behind and reach that definitive B. That moment, oddly enough, can feel awful. It can feel slow, and weak, and impossibly difficult, but the clock doesn’t lie and no matter how terrible the run itself may feel, the sense of accomplishment when one achieves a new PR is a moment that can’t be discredited by all the countless days of work that preceded.

Such a moment is tenuous though. To put all one’s measure of success and worth into a definitive time between A and B is risky. All it takes is an unprimed body, a doubtful mind, or an unavoidable shift in unwelcome weather, and every difficult moment it took to get to the start line becomes an added weight to the hopeful experience.

But we keep at it.

Because the moment is not at the finish line. The moments we seek are in every run we begin. The human animal has been shaped by evolution to endure. We’ve developed the capacity to manage through the most torturous, unimaginable conditions, but not for the sake of enduring alone, but because we find ways to create moments no matter how small, in anticipation of finding bigger ones. So when the non-runners shake their heads in misunderstanding of our motives, it’s because they don’t understand just how valuable the moments are, just how fantastic they feel, just how rewarding they become. They can’t see past the labored breathing, the creased brows, the focused gaze, to the moments we propel ourselves toward, whether that be one mile later, when the run ends, or days thereafter. Hell, they can’t see the moment even when it moves right past them.

Our training calendars look like descriptors of self-flagellation. They look like the scribblings of the deeply troubled, the obsessives, the delusional, but we know within each brutal workout, each mileage total, each long run, each repetitive interval, lies a moment that can’t be put into words, can’t be fully conveyed, and can’t be understood…until it is experienced.

Like it’s as necessary as drinking water, as inherent as breathing, the moment is why we struggle, why we strain, why we suffer…why we run.

Broad Ripple Magazine

The link above directs to an article written about my fundraising run in Broad Ripple Magazine. More updates to come soon!