Run like hell.

Shortly after my bike Hell Week Coach Brian said he wanted to do the same thing with running. My heart sank – as much as I had been trying to fall in love with running, it hadn’t been happening. There was much less pain involved with each run, but I wouldn’t use the word love by a long shot. More like accepting being in a relationship with occasional domestic violence. In my case, the act of staying with it for the sake of the children had been the Ironman race. Once the kids were grown and moved out I could check myself into a shelter, change my name, and never run again. Realizing this was not the kind of relationship I wanted to be in, I had to figure out how to genuinely embrace running – for real.

For months now on every run I would go through a mental checklist of form, pace, breath, sensation, and positive encouragement I felt was key to rewiring my brain to love running. Part of that checklist includes beginning with gratitude – thanks that my body is not injured, that I can run and am not bound to a wheelchair or crutches, or that I have had some trauma in my past that prevents me from this movement. From gratitude I could move into feeling my way through the experience itself, trying to be present with the movement, aware of my footfall and where I land with every step. I visualized scraping mud off the bottom of my foot and felt for the feeling of weightlessness I get in the water or on the bike. Slowly, my attitude towards running was changing. I ran a shockingly fast 5K a few months ago, and my longer runs were getting easier and more rewarding. Though my heart was filled with dread about the running Hell Week I knew it would help transform me into a runner.

Before my first long run of the week I reviewed the photos I took at the Malibu Olympic race. I took pictures of runners I knew, runners who seemed to be fast and exhibited good form, and runners who were hurting. The fastest, most elegant runners appeared to be floating and in many shots both their feet were off the ground in the split second between position change. Floating is a side effect of effortless running – rapid foot turnover, slight bend at the waist, the gentle effect of falling over and catching yourself on every step. Muscling through a run is a good way to explode your heart rate and burn out. Overextending the stride creates a braking effect with every step – stretch your leg out in front and you have to land on your heel. This sends shockwaves up the leg and compresses the physical architecture with every step. Shortening the stride, landing on the mid-foot and springing off the ball will engage the fast twitch muscles of the foot. There is a reason artificial legs for runners are carbon fiber blades – it simulates a massive fast twitch spring. Watch a video of Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius, the South African double leg amputee, and you’ll see incredibly fast leg turnover with a foot landing just in front of a slightly leaned upper body. Track sprinting has a much longer rear leg extension than endurance running, primarily because sprinters can redline their heart rate for shorter periods. A triathlete can redline their heart rate in a sprint or Olympic distance race, but the bike section has already changed their leg’s fatigue points.

This is why triathletes are on aero bikes and not road bikes – a road bike engages the hamstrings and recruits the entire leg for power. This would fatigue the leg for the run. An aero bike shifts everything forward, recruiting the big quadriceps, powerful hips, and glutes for sustained power – saving the hamstrings and calves for the run.

Day 1 of Hell Week was a 16 mile long, slow run. (Coach’s notes: “The best runners in the world run their long run as slow as {two minutes} below their race pace. Learn from them. Using your stand-alone marathon time as your race pace, aim for {one minute} per mile slower than race pace for 16 miles.”) There is a lot to think about when running for 16 miles. Biomechanics fades quickly as the mind begins to wander. My thoughts followed journalism 101:

Mile 1-3: Who am I?
Answer: You’re changing who you are every day. Stop trying to define yourself and find the story, just be who you are.

Mile 3-6: What am I doing out here?
Answer: You’re running, stupid. Putting in the miles, money in the bank, every step is taking you closer to your race and if you don’t put in the miles you’re in for a much harder day.

Mile 6-9: Why am I doing this?
Answer: Good question. Right now it’s because triathlon is giving me the sense of purpose, concrete goals, and control over outcome that screenwriting has denied me for 15 years.

Mile 9-11: Where the hell am I?
Answer: Not home by a long shot, but at least halfway done.

Mile 11-14: When will this be over?
Answer: Stop trying to find the end point. Boxers don’t aim for the face, they aim for a point beyond the face. There’s more power if you don’t focus on the finish today, but the finish beyond today.

Mile 14-16: How the hell am I going to do this after a 112 mile ride?
Answer: You’ll find out in two months, cubby.

Thankfully, subsequent runs were shorter and with much more purpose than just running a long distance. Day 2 was a seven mile, 75 minute run and a pool swim thrown in for fun. The pool swim didn’t happen because I had major dental work done in the afternoon. I had forgotten about this appointment. The day of Live Aid I tried to eat a truck and knocked out a front tooth and chipped two of its neighbors. Recently I had a loose adjacent tooth that had to be removed. I had 3 hours of work extracting the loose tooth with weak roots, removing the front crown, and shaping another tooth for the creation of a bridge. I finally got to watch The Big Bang Theory while the work was being done and that made the time go by nicely. As I was being discharged from the office I asked if it was okay to go for my swim. The dentist looked at me like I was crazy and said I needed to go home and rest because I had a gaping hole in my gums where there used to be a tooth. Sucking in chlorine would be a bad idea. Glumly, I obeyed. People looking at me like I am crazy is nothing new, but I am learning to differentiate between doctor-crazy and normal-person crazy.

Day 3’s run was 5 miles of sprintwork and a pool swim. Day 4, a Friday, I skipped the morning ocean swim because even though I already swam in chlorine, I was unsure about the bacteria in the Pacific. I did 75 minutes of hill repeats – sprinting up a half mile hill over and over again. Day 5 was an 80 mile “quickie” ride up and down PCH, and Sunday closed out the Hell Week with a 20 mile run. (“Warm up thoroughly, settle into your pace and run 20 miles in Zone 3. Not much else to say…”)

In writing this, I’ve gone back into my workout calendar and have made a horrifying discovery – there is now an 18 mile run that had been scheduled for that Thursday, but I recall the workout that I saw and did was a track workout of rapidly increasing speed 400m intervals. I remember this clearly because I ran to the local high school track to do the workout and was locked out so I did the work on the dirt bike path in front of my house. I’m confused because I am religious about checking my online training schedule several times a day to see what’s coming up.

Sunday I went to Manhattan Beach and swam a mile, then Brian met me for the 20 mile run. We did the first seven miles together just having a good time talking and running. Brian is also undergoing a personal change, rearranging his personal life and priorities. He’s now not only my friend, but my business partner in TNS Training. Some of his personal life decisions impact our business, and vice versa. I’m excited for him. Though it means I’m seeing less of him on a social level it is a big growth period for him and I’m encouraging that change. I’m officiating a friend’s wedding (more on that later) and in writing their ceremony I talk about a great relationship being built on two individuals who constantly choose to be together. Taking a relationship for granted is a sure way to allow the relationship to wither and die. Inaction is still an action. Or, as Geddy Lee of Rush sings, “if you choose not to decide / you still have made a choice”. This is the same for lovers as it is for friends. I don’t assume that I will still have a friend if they go and change and I don’t accept that change and grow with them. It was a pleasant surprise to get those 7 miles in with Brian, checking in on where he is, and him making sure I was not insanely crabby as I often am after a lot of running. He’s my coach, he’s my friend, and one of the few people who truly understands where I am at this exact moment in my training. Two months away from the biggest race of my life, questioning everything, riding the edge of mental and physical burnout like a surfer being pushed by the energy of the planet under constant threat of being sucked under and rolled by that same massive inertia.

The rest of the run I did solo and it was awesome. It was hard, certainly, but it was also the easiest 20 mile run I’d ever done. In years past for marathon training I had done a few 18 and 20 mile runs but had always done them with friends at run 5 minutes, walk 1 minute intervals. This time I ran 20 miles, non-stop, for several hours. 3:12 to be exact – my fastest 20 miles ever. That bodes really well for my Ironman race, if I can just hold that long, slow pace I may be able to beat my best marathon time by almost half an hour.

Crazy equals freaking out about a 55 mile run week vs. a 68 mile run week. Sunday was a phenomenal long run, but was it easy because I skipped a mid-week long run? When I told friends I had run a 55 mile week, most were impressed and confirmed what I was doing was nutty. But in my head those 55 miles were expected, and if I was really supposed to run 68 miles those other miles are diminished.

This is how I devalue my workload. Yes, I ran 55 miles in a week. If I was supposed to run 68 miles, those 55 are pretty insubstantial. In Runner’s World magazine I read about professionals who run 100 mile weeks regularly. This makes my 55 seem pathetic.

I received an email from Michael B. that read, “they set up Macca’s ride for Kona yesterday.  Apparently, the dude is running at 55-42, with an 11-23, for 112 miles.  I feel like such a girly man.” He’s talking about pro triathlete and 2007 Ironman World Champion Chris “Macca” McCormack. Michael is a strong athlete, faster than me, and is coming close to the podium. He’s highly competitive, sometimes to his own detriment, but it drives him to train really hard. He’s also a successful professional, an Ivy League graduate, who works crazy long hours and squeezes in training as best he can. He also has personal commitments that give his life further depth and meaning.

Which is why his comment is batshit crazy. He’s comparing himself to a person who has proven himself to be the best triathlete in the world – that’s planet earth mind you – and drops in on races like an atom bomb, winning them handily. Macca’s competition are similar athletes recognized as World Champions. People who do this for a living, have access to the finest training resources in the world, and are given cutting edge tools. But most of all, and most precious, is they have the time to commit themselves to training 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Every workout is focused, timed, and controlled. They may have familial obligations, but they support their family by training. Time is the one thing we can’t make more of and the Pros have it in abundance. In my tech work I have seen how the wealthiest people in the world live and what they have that we don’t is not money, it is time. The money affords them the ability to shape their life, to create space for what they desire and find important. I feel my worst when I have no time for myself or my priorities. I feel my best when I am in control of my time. It doesn’t take infinite wealth to achieve this; it takes planning and will.

Still, Michael’s comment jangled around in my brain for a while and it didn’t become clear to me until now. It doesn’t matter if I ran 68 or 55 miles. The quality of those miles was exceptional and a single, breakthrough 20 mile run stands on its own merits. I’m not trying to be World Champion. I’m trying to finish my first Ironman without getting injured or sacrificing my personal relationships. Simultaneously I’m running a freelance tech business that continues to grow and flourish even in a down economy, as co-owner of TNS Training I am cultivating a budding community of triathletes, and I am reinventing myself as a person and eventually, a coach. On a huge emotional level I talk about letting go of my self-definition as a screenwriter and it brings tears to my eyes. I don’t know what I am now but every step and every mile changes me. I’ll never be a World Champion athlete so I won’t compare myself to those people. I can read about a 100 mile run week and taste a tiny bit of what that must be like, but I don’t have to do one to feel better about my own training.

Still, I’d be annoyed with myself if I couldn’t read a damn calendar.

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4 responses to “Run like hell.

  1. you are crazy. like the fox.

  2. Your self-definition of yourself as a screenwriter was too limiting. Anyone’s self-definition of themselves as a job title is too limiting.

  3. Max, you have never been anything but too big for ANY box. “Screenwriter” only has 12 letters – that is pathetically inadequate.

  4. I don’t know If I said it already but …Great site…keep up the good work. :) I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, :)

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

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