October 30, 2011

The Beginner's Mind

I recently posted that wisdom is not a flower to be plucked. It is a mountain, and it must be climbed. The idea here is that it takes time, years even, to gain an awareness of the trail that you tread on.

I still believe this.  However I think there is more to this story. Yes, wisdom is gathered from real life experiences. And there is no substitute for experience. But I also think wisdom can be overrated. I dare say that for everything we gain from wisdom, we also lose something precious from it. Let me explain...

As I lace up my shoes for my very first ultra, my nerves are tense. My heart beats rapidly. Everything around me appears larger than life. The other runners. The glow of the rising sun. Before the race everything is ominous, every little detail surreal. I pin the number on my shorts, I drink a cup of coffee. I fill my water bottles. All these things, so monumental. Then I step to the line. More than anything, with a fresh mind, I think about the unknown...and the possibilities yet to come...  

Fast forward now. I lace up my shoes for my 15th ultra, my nerves are still tense. Again my heart beats rapidly. Yet everything around me has an air of familiarity. I chat with my fellow ultra runners. I glance at the rising sun. My thoughts are more focused, more disciplined. I check my fluid and salt supplies. I review my nutrition for the day. I know now what is to come. I remind myself of the mountain I’ve climbed to get here.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuke once said that in the beginners mind, there are always possibilities. But in the experts mind, there are few.

Stay fresh my ultra friends. Keep a beginner’s mind. And if your reading this on the eve of your first ultra, don’t forget to stop for just a moment. And remember. 

October 17, 2011

Training. An Act of Patience.

For those of you who follow this blog, you know I'm a believer in training principles espoused by Phil Maffetone.  The key objective to this type of training is to teach your body to burn fat for fuel. The method to achieve this is built around training at a lower heart rate (180 minus your age +/- your own history). The biggest challenge to this approach is having patience. Patience NOT to go fast when you feel like hammering, patience NOT to sprint up a hill when you know you can and, yes, patience during training runs to let go of the hunger to push your body to the brink.

Of course this approach to training has its critics. The famous British runner Sabastian Coe once said that "...long slow distance produces long slow runners." Emil Zatopek, winner of three gold medals in the 5k, 10k and marathon in the 1952 Olympics was quoted saying "why should I practice running slow...I already know how to run slow. I want to learn to run fast". Zatopek is considered to be one of if not "the" pioneer of interval training.
Maffetone's principles are very similar to the training principles taught by the legendary running coach Arthur Lydiard who coached many Olympic champions. The difference being Maffetone (who coached mostly triathletes vs runners) stresses the use of a heart rate monitor. Both approach training with a mindset that the athlete has to build his/her aerobic conditioning before they begin to introduce anaerobic conditioning to the training regimen. The point here is that both the Maffetone and Lydiard methods incorporate anaerobic work. It's just that they don't drool over it like so many of today's athletes do.
A friend of mine once said that you can't shoot a cannon from a canoe. What he meant was just that. You can't shoot a cannon (high intensity workouts designed to develop speed) from a canoe (a runner with no base). I know from my own experience that when I start working out on the track doing intervals, several things usually happen. First, I get faster. My turnover becomes quicker, and my cruising speed increases. Second, my body starts to crave sweet things. Sugary, starchy foods. The stuff that it burns when my heart rate gets way up there. Third, I start to notice aches and pains a lot more. Annoying twinges remind me I'm walking on the razors edge between great fitness and the brink of a serious injury.

Mark Allen, the six time Hawaii Ironman champion and student Maffetone, trained up to 38 hours per week during the "push" stages of his season. Allen used intervals to fine tune his training, but not to define his training. When asked about speed training under Maffetone, Allen said...“He looks at the whole picture while most coaches and trainers look at isolated elements even with, for example, speed work. You need it and he prescribed it for me but it is not the only thing you need, just to use one simple example. Certainly there have been many schools of thought about the best method to train...I look at all of them and I still do not think any of them are as good as the basis {Maffetone} uses to determine optimal aerobic heart rate training.”

This year I did zero interval training. Whether that helped or hurt me is a difficult question. I know I could have developed a little more speed if I spent time on the track. But at what cost? I also know that my aerobic training paid some pretty good dividends. I finished six ultras in six months this year, including three 50 mile, one 100k and two 100 mile races, placing top ten in half of these (at 48 years young, mind you).  Many of these races were only three weeks apart so I didn't have a lot of time to recover. I didn't sustain any debilitating injuries (knock on wood). In some of these races I felt stronger in the second half of the race than the first half, passing many other runners in the process.

If you are interested in getting more information on these training concepts, I suggest you read this interview with Mark Allen,  this article on Lydiard's training methods, and this article on the definition of aerobic training by Phil Maffetone.

Like my grandfather used to say.......patience jackass..........patience.

October 9, 2011

Steve Jobs and The Running Continuum

I never was an Apple fanatic. I never understood the cult-like zeal of Mac mania. Steve Jobs? To me he was just another tech billionaire capitalizing on our materialistic, trend crazed society. But then something changed for me regarding Jobs.

When a friend told me this week that Steve Jobs had died, it wasn't the news that surprised me. It was my reaction to it. So soon,  I remember thinking to myself. A hollow feeling crept into me. Something really big and really important has come to an end. In a moment my thoughts bounced from an image of a gaunt man standing on a stage, to the device he held in his hand, to the hundreds of miles of mountain trails that device accompanied me on as an ultra runner.

Jobs on Dreams

The more I've read about Jobs the more I'm enlightened by his perspective on life. Man, here is a guy who had the world in the palm of his hand. Despite unfathomable wealth, he stayed true to himself by continuing to pursue his passion for work at Apple. Jobs was a big advocate of pursuing your dreams, and finding what you love doing, and not settling until you do.

What I've come to realize is that Steve Jobs wasn't unlike the rest of us. He experienced failure like us. He feared death like we do. But despite these similarities, Jobs was different because he could see things more clearly than most of us. He once said that "...for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

Jobs on Death

Jobs said that "remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

What would Jobs say to us runners? I think I can hear his words now. Do what is in your heart. Don't worry about embarrassment or failure. You have nothing to lose. Let everything else fall away when you step to the line. And when the starting gun goes off, breath deeply and remember.  This could be the last run of your life.

RIP Steve Jobs.