Sunday, April 13, 2014

Boston Marathon Training Week 17 (Why Do We Run)

Why do we run?

Why do we do this to ourselves?

When we run, we awaken an animal spirit that lives inside of us, passed down from ancestor to ancestor from the nascent days of our species.  We conjure this primordial force from thousands upon thousands of generations, deep within our past - from the days when we traveled for miles on foot for sustenance.  We ran to capture our prey.  We ran from our predators.  We ran for our fragile lives.  No history of these days is written, no photographs for our record, no markers but our ancient bones buried in the same earth we bounded across for millions of years.

When we are born, we are born with that animal spirit.  Our parents watch us with curiosity as we lift our bodies up for the first time to begin to crawl.  They triumph when we take our first awkward wobbling steps.  They watch in dismay as we learn to run, as we kindle the fire of that animal spirit for the first time.  The spirit whispers in our ear to travel as fast as our bodies are physically capable, series of short sprints after short sprint, before we even know the limits of exhaustion.  Before we are confined by our stifling human consciousness.

As children, we run barefoot on the beach into the tides of the ocean, laughing with delight as the waves splash against our wiry, young bodies.  We run from base to base in kickball games, swinging our arms through the breeze of a spring day.  We run around grassy parks and backyards with our friends, kicking our heels high above the earth.  As children, we run as if we are floating in the sky, because we know no different.

We grow older and we forget.  

We forget when we sit in classrooms, when we sit and play inane games on digital screens, when we sit for long stretches in our commute or hours on end at our jobs.  Our bodies forget to run when our modern world of convenience sings a lullaby, sending the animal spirit into slumber.  After a long period of dormancy, when the spirit is first awoken, it groans and tosses in its hovel.  It revolts and it punishes us in those first miles with sharp aches and pains.  Our lungs cry out to stop and we must give ourselves the patience to resume again.  It challenges us by turning something once natural into a hard labour.  But it never dies.

Ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek running with a Tarahumara
As featured in "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall

The marathon 

Is an arbitrary distance, yet it has become the ultimate cultural celebration of that animal spirit.  13,500 signed up for the Rock and Roll Half and Full marathons combined this weekend in Raleigh.  The major races - New York, Chicago, and Marine Corps fill immediately these days or have moved to a lottery.  In 2014, marathon running is not just socially acceptable, it has become popular, even trendy.  Running has become a commercial, multibillion dollar industry of races, shoes, and gear.  I remain hopeful this in total is good for our sport, good for our culture, good for inspiring others that never called themselves a runner to take on some sort of challenge.  To awaken their own spirit and move.  Yes, like any sport, there are risks.  I am reminded of this when I read just today that two runners, men around my age died during the half today in Raleigh.  I am saddened to hear this - a day that could have marked a great accomplishment and celebration for those individuals ended in tragedy.    No one ever starts a race with the idea of it ending in such a manner - we cannot or we would never dare to try anything - we would stop living entirely.

The marathon is now possible for a great many - but it cannot be taken lightly.  It is just far enough that it stretches even the most "fit" of our kind to push their bodies to the brink of exhaustion - and overcome that barrier of pain we fondly call "the wall" and continue on for another 6 miles.  A marathon is not quick punishment like the mile or the 5K, it is an embroiled struggle against the forces of our sedentary lifestyles.  The marathon is not a test of raw speed or talent - even the young and fast runner can hit the deepest point of despair at mile 22 without the proper training or pacing.  I have been there before, slowed to a walk down the final stretch, without giving the distance the due respect.  In those first few attempts, the haunting vocals of Thom Yorke echoed through my mind "You do it to yourself, you do, and that's what really hurts."  

The truth about the marathon is the struggle begins a great many weeks before the start of the race.  We begin running the marathon the first time we take a step on this earth.  We succeed at the marathon when we build that foundation of mile upon mile, when we carry ourselves through 18 weeks of threshold and tempo runs and days where could use the energy for something else in our busy lives.  This year it was 18 weeks of the Duke East Campus loop, the American Tobacco Trail, Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill.  Umstead State Park.  Hard Climb Hill.  The treadmill in my loft, watching the sunlight emanate from behind the clouds in the east, illuminating the morning sky in hues of fiery orange.  The marathon is not just the 26.2 miles - it is the accumulation of a great many runs.  18 weeks began in mid December and persisted through the coldest NC winter I remember, yet I can only count one day where I missed a run I had planned.

In a week from tomorrow, I run "number six."  I run the elusive one - the one that slipped away time and time again until I finally buckled down and convinced myself it was within my realm of capability - but it would take work to get there.  I put in the work.  I met the time two autumns ago.  Now it is time to put in the work one more time - if all goes well, go faster than ever before.  Stride after stride, locked in tandem with the masses of others, carrying the raging spirit down the pavement from Hopkinton to Boylston.

This is week Seventeen.

To be continued...

Monday:  rest

Tuesday:  the "busy time" at work has started.  I leave my desk at 6:45 and do a loop around my work campus on the crushed gravel footpath, and then turn down the neighborhood streets for 4 miles in total, letting the Cloud Nothings carry my mind to another place, let the burdens of the day fall out of my thoughts before I go home to start again.  I tell myself this April is still much better than last year.  I'm in better shape.  I have a handle on my job better.  I have done this before.

Wednesday:  6 miles at the Occoneechee Speedway, one of those hidden gems of the Triangle, an old racetrack used from 1949-1968.  Now it is just a dirt path - just under three-quarters of a mile.  Six of us put in a few circuits at a tempo pace around the path, under the shade of the pine trees, where decades ago men raced in a different sport.  A different era, when Durham was a sleepy Southern town.

Thursday:  6 miles out and back from my house down the Tobacco Trail while spring is bursting all around me.  It is hard to believe that just two weekends ago, it still felt like the depth of winter.  The air carries a haze of pollen and I am surrounding by green.

Friday:  rest

Saturday:  my friends are in town for their college reunion at Duke.  I put in 5 miles from the Duke Gardens to East and back to West - one of my staple runs this training cycle.  I meet my friends for a cookout on campus and meet a few undergrads, anxious for spring exams, anxious for what comes next.

If you could go back in time to when you were nineteen years old and talk to yourself for fifteen minutes, what would you say?

How about just two words...

Lighten up.

Easier said than done.

Sunday:  Derek and the Dominoes, the Grateful Dead, my songs of spring.  9 miles out just past O Kelly Chapel and back.  7 minute miles feel easy after a low mileage week - I have to hold myself back, reminding myself to save my legs for next Monday... I am ready.

I meet Megan's family for brunch - her brother and sister in law are in town with their 5 month old, Airyn, the newest member of the family.  

The marathon is all the buzz of discussion.  Megan even made shirts for the race.

Why do I run marathons?  Yet another reason - it adds to the chapter of the family narrative.  It gives us another common experience to rally around.

A marathon gives us something to look forward to.

Taper week:  30 miles.

1 comment:

  1. Good luck next week Brian! We are often in Boston on Patriots Day & watch the marathon (we can walk to heartbreak hill) but sadly we won't be up there this year.