Friday, February 10, 2012

Personal Best: Running to Empty

In the March 2012 edition of Runner's World Magazine there is a section, as there is every month, called "Personal Best."  In this issue, the first part of this section is subtitled, "The Warmup: Love Your Run."  The single-page feature gives tips on how not to get bored with running, addresses fueling during a run, and also includes responses to the question, "What do you love most about running?"  The overwhelming majority of respondents (64%) selected "how it makes me feel."  Just below this is the following quotation:

I think I get addicted to the feelings associated with the end of a long run.  I love feeling empty, clean, worn out, starving and sweat purged.  I love the good ache of muscles that have done me proud.

I read this at least a week ago when the issue arrived (and I will never understand why the March issue arrives at the beginning of February -- shouldn't that be the February issue?), but it has been following me around ever since.  Although I am not, and have never been, a hardcore runner, this statement captures exactly what I love about running, or any strenuous endeavor for that matter; the sensation of effort and sweat and exhaustion.  The sense that you have gathered what you have, in whatever amount that happens to be, and used it all up, or at least a good portion of it up.  Rather than feeling depleted or hollow, this sense of spent energy is strangely fulfilling, gratifying and uplifting.

No doubt the scientific explanation will involve endorphins and survival instincts ("RUN!!!!") and evolutionarily developed predispositions toward traveling long and far and enduring what other species cannot.  (For those of you who have not read Christopher McDougall's most excellent book, Born to Run, I urge you to do so.   It does not matter if the only running you do is to the grocery store in your car, you should read this book.  I loved it so much, I read it twice.  Consecutively.  I'm not kidding.)  But as much as I love science and what it can reveal to us, in this instance I am more interested in the individual, subjective experience than the names of the chemicals in my brain that are behind that experience.

So back to that empty, sweaty, wrung-out, tired and totally psyched, euphoric feeling you get at the end of a long run or bike ride (so I'm told) or hot yoga class; that good feeling of work and accomplishment and satisfaction.  It is for real.  Yet, if you're like me, you will nevertheless regularly attempt to avoid the very rewarding sensation that you know you like.  It goes like this:  you start out almost every time contemplating whether you are going to do anything at all.  You'd like to go for a run, but it is ______.  My fill-in-the-blank favorites are usually "cold" (less than 75 degrees), "not sunny", "dark", "really cold" (less than 60 degrees) or "really fucking cold" (less than 40 degrees).  I've also been known to assess how far I wanted to run (usually 4-5 miles) against how much time I have (not enough).  Never mind that I could just run 2-3 miles and be fine on the clock.  If I wanted to run 4-5 miles but don't quite have time, well, then, maybe today isn't the day for a run after all.

Once I have navigated the fun house mirrors and pits of quicksand that apparently account for most of the space inside my own head (at least that not already occupied by rogue hamsters), I usually manage to exit through the side door into the daylight of a decision to go running or go to hot yoga anyway.  And here's the thing:  I have never once regretted the decision to get off my ass and do something.  Not one single time.  I have never gone running and arrived back at my driveway panting and drenched and thought, "Shit!  What did I do that for?!"  And I have never gone to yoga and found myself soaked, emptied and rolling up my mat 60 or 90 minutes later muttering, "well, that was a total waste of time."  Yet the very next time I consider doing it again, I must still fight my way though the same internal maze of inertia and false logistical complications.  Evidently the evolutionarily validated impulse to conserve energy exists side-by-side with the reward systems for expending energy.  So our brains are effectively telling us, "don't do it, but if you do it you will be glad you did."  No wonder we get so flummoxed and contorted with political debates in an election year and can't seem to speak intelligently to each other.  We can barely understand what our own brains are telling us about whether we want to go running or not, and that doesn't usually involve any yelling.

Thankfully, I have discovered that there are other ways to approach or approximate the sense of release and emptied satisfaction of strenuous physical exertion that involve less self sabotage.  For me, taking-in live music is a legitimate alternative to running around outside until you drop.  And while I have a bias toward the visceral experience of being surrounded by people and sound while a band like Broken Bells or The National or Trampled by Turtles ignites the jets underneath First Avenue, and sends the whole place blasting off into another universe, I am not unfamiliar with Beethoven, Vaughan Williams or Verdi and the purging experiences they can unleash in an altogether different environment.  Somehow music, not just listening to music but experiencing music, is a good proxy for physical expenditure.  Perhaps it is the vicarious impact of being so close to those who are exerting great effort and pulling out all the stops, but I think it is possible that mind melding may be involved.  If you give your attention to the music and follow where it leads, you will find that the effort of concentration and emotional reaction is real and substantial.  Remember how Spock would get sometimes after a really intense mind meld with James T. Kirk or Dr. McCoy or some uncooperative alien?  He'd be all spent and collapsing and barely conscious?  Well, in my experience, music done right is a mind meld that can leave you slumped over against the walls of the Enterprise struggling to stay upright -- in the best possible way of course.

But even better than watching others expend themselves in the process of making music, is finding a good basement and a few gullible friends and making your own.  True, this approach does have the distinct disadvantage of much lower music quality, but the direct involvement in the process has a protective, insulating effect.  You are less likely to notice the diminished musicality because you are busy spending so much energy making the sounds that your effort is distracting you from.  But oh, does it feel good.  Singing is cathartic and satisfying and rejuvenating and wonderfully tiring.  It's why we sing in the shower, in our cars and when we're vacuuming the living room.  For most of us, it is not the singing that we're really afraid of, it is the risk of being heard by others.  Singing we know is good.

Performing, however, is a different matter.  It is complicated by judgment and approval and reaction.  Which is where the basement comes in.  If you have one, I highly recommend that you go sing in it.  Immediately.  Just go down there and pull the string for the light bulb hanging from the ceiling, pop an old cassette tape of some band you used to love in high school into the boom box you have on the shelf for when you are doing laundry and start belting it out.  O.k.  Fine.  Go back and close the door first, but then crank it up and belt it out.  You will not regret it.  Speaking with the voice of experience on these matters, I can tell you that once you get the hang of the basement by yourself, you can slowly step it up to more vigorous vocalizations in the shower and then in your car.  The car does present increased exposure as others may be able to see you singing as you whiz by, even if they can't hear you, but you will endure.  And then, eventually, you may graduate to singing while a few other people play instruments in someone else's basement and you will marvel at how far you have come and how rewarding all that hard work has been; and how good it makes you feel.

Which brings me back to 64% of surveyed runners and 4 out of 5 dentists.  One of the upsides of middle-age (and I haven't found all that many) is that by the time you stumble bleary-eyed and confused into your 40s wondering how you got there when you only looked away for a split-second, you have gotten to know yourself over the years.  In my case, this means that I am well aware of my own foibles and idiosyncrasies and well-honed ability to argue with myself and lose.  So I have learned to trick myself and game my own system.  How do I do this?  Easy.  Resistance to effort is greatest when it is right in front of you.  If the issue is whether I have to go running right now, well, then there are all kinds of factors and considerations that must be taken into account.  This is the same reasoning process my daughters use when they swear to me that they will (a) put away their clothes, (b) clean their room, or (c) do whatever else I am asking them to do in a minute.  The difference between now and a minute from now is huge.  Everyone knows this.  Because "now" means you have to do something, and "a minute from now" means you don't have to do anything just yet. So, here's what I do: I sign-up for races and other events in the future.  No need to do anything now, just agree to do something later.  (Interestingly, this is also how I got into trouble with the Columbia Record Club, but I digress.)  Of course, what I'm counting on is that my more rational, goal oriented brain will eventually kick-in and insist that I do some amount of preparation for said future event, because it is simply unacceptable not to.  And there you have it.  System gamed.

Applying this process, my calendar already reflects the following upcoming events:

Get Lucky 7k (St. Patrick's Day)
Warrior Dash (June 30)
Iron Girl Duathalon (September 23)

I am already registered (meaning I have paid actual money) for all of them.  Predictably, I panicked just yesterday when I realized that St. Patrick's day occurs in March, and that is next month.  Time to lace up.

But what I really want to do is one of the Ragnar Relay races.  If you are not familiar with this particular breed of racing, the Ragnar web site provides the following explanation:

Ragnar is the overnight running relay race that makes testing your limits a team sport. A team is made up of 6-12 individuals; each individual runs 3 legs. The legs of the race vary in difficulty and distance, from 3-8 miles, allowing elite and novice runners to run together. Over 2 days and 1 night, teams run across 200 miles of the country’s most scenic terrain. Pair that with crazy costumes, inside jokes, a great finish line party and unforgettable stories. Some call it a slumber party without sleep, pillows or deodorant. We call it Ragnar.

So in other words, you gather up a bunch of runners, a van or two and whatever else you need to cover 200 miles and you start running.  You don't stop until you hit the finish, meaning that there is running happening constantly by someone in your group for 36 hours or so.  So, if your stint rolls around at 3 a.m., you strap on some sort of headlamp, pop out of the van door, hit the pavement, and get moving.  When you're done, you get back in the van and wait around until it's your turn again.

I don't know why, but this is hugely appealing to me.  Sure, there is nothing stopping me from running around my own neighborhood at 3 a.m. and looking ridiculous this very night, but that wouldn't be quite the same.  I wouldn't get to hangout in a stinky van with stinky people while eating GORP and potato chips and wondering when I'll have a chance to pee.  It's all that added charm that I would be missing. The running is just a means to an end, the end being something less quantifiable than mileage logged.

But whether it is stinky vans or dank basements (no offense intended, Jim), I think what I'm really after with these experiences is something beyond olfactory stimulation.  What makes the "empty, clean, worn out" feelings associated with effort so satisfying is more than just endorphins (though don't ever underestimate the power of endorphins).  It is the knowledge that I showed-up;  that I registered for and participated in my own life, which is confirmed by the fact that my legs are tired or my heart aches or my head hurts (though that is sometimes related to the consumption of certain beverages); that the world has required something of me and I have given it.

So, if you know where I can get a few vans and  a half-dozen or so people who like to stew in their own sweat for a few days, skip sleep and run down a dark road in the middle of the night, let me know.  The Minnesota race is in August and I'd like to get that sucker on the calendar, because it is certain to make me feel good no matter what I tell myself when race day rolls around.