Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Monday, October 8, 2012

"The Longest Race" is Out!

      My book has been printed and released at last! (as of October 9).  The pre-publication reviews have been amazing--as have the comments both from leading endurance athletes and from leading environmental activists concerned about the future of the planet we depend on for every step and breath we take.
      I want to quote just a few of the reviewers' comments, and then share a reflection (or warning, if you will) of my own.

From the Reviews of The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance:

"Revealing, savvy, and fast-paced, Ayres's eloquent book on marathon running is a master class on the priceless life lessons of enduring and conquering obstacles to victory."
          --Publishers Weekly

"The book is well structured, and the conversation is thought provoking, planting questions and ideas that readers will ruminate on long after the last page is turned.  Ayres's narrative skill makes this book stand out from other accounts of ultramarathons and is sure to appeal to both runners and nonrunners alike."

"A leading environmental activist and ultramarathoner uses the 2001 JFK 50 Mile as a staging ground for his reflections on running, aging, and saving the planet . . . . Ayres admits he is addicted to running, but its importance for  him goes beyond the physical -- a race of that length is a 'rutual of survival' . . . The author's broad-ranging interests and accumulated wisdom will appeal to a wide readership, not just runners and environmentalists."
          --Kirkus Reviews

From Endurance Athletes:

"The Longest Race is a fascinating, compelling, and far-reaching read."
          --Amby Burfoot, Runners World editor-at-large, and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon

"An epic story of how important our fitness as individuals may be to the long-run sustainability of our national and global society."
          --Jacqueline Hansen, first woman to run a sub-2:40 marathon, and two-time marathon
             world record holder

"Ayres is a legend who shares his many provocative insights and lessons in an informative yet enjoyable way."
          --Dean Karnazes, New York Times bestselling author of Ultramarathon Man

"I have been reading Ed Ayres's insightful thoughts on running and life since I began serious training in the 1970s.  We can all benefit greatly from Ed's wisdom.
          --Joe Friel, elite endurance athlete, coach, and author of The Triathlete's Training Bible

"In this compelling read, visionary Ed Ayres takes us on a run that may save our nanosecond lives . . . and our planet."
          --Kathrine Switzer, winner of the 1974 New York Marathon

"This book reminds us that our strength and vitality can never be separated from the health of the earth we run on, and whose air we breathe."
          --Bill Rodgers, four-time New York Marathon winner and four-time Boston Marathon winner

"Ed deftly weaves together a lifetime's experiences and observations . . . . Each topic alone would have made a good book.  Together they yield a great one, richly detailed and finely written."
          --Joe Henderson, former editor of Runners World

"Ed Ayres has a talent for drawing the reader into his adventure.  Enjoy the journey; it is a fun one."
          --Michael Wardian, World Ultrarunner of the Year for 2011

From Me (and From the Heart):

          The Longest Race isn't just a feel-good story, although some of the reviewers say they've been quite entertained.  It's also something of a feel-alarmed story, so be forewarned!  I feel a little like one of those movie-rating czars who warn parents that "the following contains sexually explicit or violent scenes . . . ."  But in the case of The Longest Race, it's not naked bodies, etc., that may be hard to watch with the kids around (near-naked bodies go with the territory for us runners), but a form of impending violence that makes action movies look tame.  I'm referring to the violence our "sprint culture" is doing to the planet we depend on for every step and every breath we take (see Bill Rodgers' comment above).  If you can take a deep,slow breath and not be in denial about that, this book can take you on a memorable journey.  I can promise that it will be unlike any other book about running you've ever read.
          The Longest Race should be in bookstores now (the week of October 9-14), and is also available at all the online bookstores:


Sunday, September 16, 2012

100 Quotes on Running and Human Endurance

       For fun, but also for inspiration and enlightenment, I decided to put together a collection of 100 quotes about that most fundamental activity of our species, the human race.  The quotes I found range from whimsical to profound--sometimes in the same breath (see Dr. Suess). And I was especially fascinated by how universally evocative running seems to be not just to those of us who run for sport, but to philosphers, scientists, and even U.S. presidents (Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter), as well as to some of the giants of literature and the arts (Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Joyce Carol Oates). And of course, let's not leave out actual runners, from Clarence DeMar to Kathrine Switzer to the guy who may have written more about running than anyone else on our crowded planet, Joe Henderson. I hope you won't mind that I'm also including a scattering of quick takes from my book The Longest Race, which will be out on October 9.
        So, here goes:

1.  "Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures
      that the final victory comes."
                --The Buddha

2.  "Men ran after and ate horses for four hundred thousand years.  The outcome is
       more than a love of horse flesh; it is a runner's body."
                --Anthropologist Paul Shepard

3.   "There are as many reasons for running as there are days in a year.... But mostly
       I run because I am an animal and a child."
                --Dr. George Sheehan

4.   "Running! If there's any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing
       to the imagination, I can't think of what it might be."
                --Joyce Carol Oates

5.   "If you can fill the unforgiving minute
      With sixty seconds worth of distance run--
      Yours is the Earth..."
                --Rudyard Kipling

6.   "I got plenty of cautions that one or two of these marathons was all a man
       should do in a lifetime."
                --Clarence DeMar, in 1911, before the first of the seven
                   Boston Marathons he won, and the 65 he ran overall.

7.   "Running has substantiall shaped human evolution.  Running made us human."
                --Evolutionary biologist Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah

8,    "What's true for us as individual humans is true for the civilization we create:
        a sprint culture, seeking ever greater speed and power in all things cannot endure."
                --from The Longest Run: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon,
                   and  the Case for Human Endurance (October 2012)

9.    "I'm 84 years old. Don't let the altar-boy face fool you."
                --Johnny Kelly, aftger the finish of his 61st Boston Marathon

10.   "There are clubs you can't belong to, neighborhoods you can't live in, schools
          you can't get into, but the roads are always open."
                --Nike advertisement

11.   "The best long-distance runners eat raw meant, run naked, and sleep in the snow."
                --Alaska Airlines advertisement referring to sled dogs, as cited by

12.   "As a boy, I was about the slkowest moving youngster in school."
                --Seven-time Boston Marathon winner Clarence DeMar

13.   "Happiness is pushing your limits and watching them back down."
                --New Balance advertisement

14.   "We humans...don't just sense what's happening in our bodies through
         the mediation of our consciousness up top in the ivory towers of our heads,
         but through our feet."
                --The Longest Race

15.   "Why couldn't Pheidippides have died at 20 miles?"
                --Frank Shorter, 1970, two years before he won the Olympic marathon

16.   "Sport, which mimics the language and emotional intensity of war but eliminates
         the fatal destruction, may be a form of redemption."
                --The Longest Race

17.    “They say a good love is one that sits you down, gives you a drink of water,
         and pats you on top of the head. But I say a good love is one that casts you
         into the wind, sets you ablaze, makes you burn through the skies and ignite
         the night like a phoenix; the kind that cuts you loose like a wildfire and you
         can't stop running simply because you keep on burning everything that you touch!
         I say that's a good love; one that burns and flies, and you run with it!” 
                --C. Joybell C.

18.    "A city that outdistances man's walking powers is a trap for man."
                --Arnold Toynbee

19.    "It might be a paradox that would only irritate an old-school coach, but I knew
          well that I would run my best by hoping that everyone else ran their best."
                --The Longest Race

20.   "Men are born human.  What they must learn is to be an animal.  If they learn
         otherwise it may kill them, and kill life on the planet."
                --Anthropologist Paul Shepard

21.   "Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."
                --Ralph Waldo Emerson

22.   "Early humans actually ran with lower energy efficiency than the animals they chased--yet
                --The Longest Race, citing University of Utah biologist David Carrier

23.   "Since I was forty and definitely slipping, I have won seven full marathons,
        got second six times, and third four times.... I'm wondering what I can do
        after I'm fifty."
                --Clarence DeMar

24.   "The feature that differentiates hominids from other primates is not large brain
        size, but the set of characteristics associated with erect bipedal posture and
        a striding gait."
                --Biologist David Carrier

25.   "Fatigue is not an enemy.... In fact, it's quite friendly and only wants you to be
        more comfortable.  It wants you to stop and lie down, for God's sake...." 
                --The Longest Race

26.   "Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory."
                --William Barclay

27.   "Stone-age humans and their predecessors didn't have smart phones, but they
         were smart on their feet, far longer than post-industrial people have been."
                --The Longest Race

28.   "We can't reach old age by another man's road."
                --Mark Twain

29.   "The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art."
                --Leonardo da Vinci

30.   "Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible."
                --Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar"

31.   "You don't so much outrun your opponents as outlast and outsmart them, and
         the toughest opponent of all is the one inside your head."
                --Joe Henderson

32.   "In training (as opposed to racing) you don't want to let yourself run out of fuel totally,
        but you do need to make yourself adapt to running farther with less."
                --The Longest Race

33.   "Without patience, you will never conquer endurance."
                --Yiannis Kouros, holder of multiple world ultra records, as quoted in

34.   "Man is a distance runner as a consequence of hundreds of thousands of years
        of chasing antelopes, horses, elephants, wild cattle, and deer."
                --Paul Shepard

35.   "Paradoxically, ultrarunhners have (and need to have) less body fat than
         most other people--yet the little we hve is of great value.  Fat is
         the ultrarunner's secret friend."
                --The Longest Race

36.   "Come what may, bad fortune is to be conquered by endurance."

37.   "No matter how lean you might be, unless you are actually starving, you will
         have enough fat to go for days."
                --The Longest Race

38.   "Heroism is endurance for one moment more."
                --George F. Kennan

39.   "A secret of Superbowl quarterbacks and long-distance runners alike: to go faster,
        Slow the game."
                --The Longest Race

40.   "America may yet learn to endure, not from its pundits and politicians, but from its
        endurance athletes."
                --The Longest Race

41.   "Bodily decay is gloomy in prospect, but of all human contemplations the most abhorrent
        is body without mind."
                --Thomas Jefferson

42.   "There is only one cardinal sin: impatience.  Because of impatience we were driven out
        of Paradise.
                --W. H. Auden

43.   "The human cardiovascular system evolved as part of the physiology of
        [prehistoric] hunters, who ran for their lives."
                --Paul Shepard

44.   "We had seen God in his splendour.... We had reached the naked soul of man."
                --Ernest Shackleton, as quoted at

45.   "Some of the events in the Olympics are about as athletic as a hotdog-eating   
         contest.  Yet, there's no 100k run!
                --The world's ultrarunners

46.   "The law of conservation of energy tells us we can't get something for nothing, but
        we refuse to believe it."
                --Isaac Asimov

47.   "Pushing your body past what you thought it was capable of is easy;
         the hard part is pushing yourself even further"
                --Rex Pearce, as quoted by a blogger I've lost track of, for which I apologize.
                   Blog on!

48.   "A lot of animals evolved through blind adaptations.  We didn't.  When we
        felt the breeze pass across our  nostrils and chests, we were already envisioning
        what awaited us far ahead on the trail or over the horizon."
                --The Longest Race

49.   "If you fall, then you crawl.  What is it about finishing?"
                --Chapter subtitle from The Longest Race

50.   "Here are some who like to run. They run for fun in the hot, hot sun."
                --Dr. Suess, quoted by @We_Run

51.   "When men do not run they are likely to die prematurely from dysfunction of the heart
        and vascular systems or from disabling chronic disease."
                --Anthropologist Paul Shepard

52.   "The most useful thing for a competitive runner to know about fatigue is that it is
        fundamental to nature.  Fatigue is not an enemy, and if you fight it as if it were, you
        squander what little energy you still have."
                --The Longest Race

53.   "We think running is one of the most transforming events in human history."
                --Dennis Bramble, professor emeritus in the biology department of the
                  University of Utah, commenting on how humans evolved as long-
                  distance-running "persistence hunters"

54.   "Some people never get their feet on the ground,
         They're either sitting in a chair or theyre laying down...."
                --Folk singer Phil Ochs, in his song "50-Mile Hike"

55.   "Everyone who has run knows that its most important value is in...removing tension
        and allowing released from whatever other cares the day may bring."
                --President Jimmy Carter, after recovering from his collapse in a Maryland road race

56.   "The body of a runner, like the engine of a car, has to get rid of waste heat as rapidly as
        it's generated, or else fail."
                --The Longest Race

57.   "I couldn't help but note that the notion of spending a bunch of money on something
        'minimalist' was more than a touch ironic."
                --Stacey Gordon

58.   "The now-too-neglected secret, I knew, was that the body's output, like industry's, was
        more strongly determined by energy efficiency than by supply."
                --The Longest Race

59.   "Sweat cleanses from the inside.  It comes from a place showers will never reach."
                --Dr. George Sheehan

60.   "Ultrarunning won't save the world, but it's a practice of the kinds of skills and
         outlooks that could ultimately help change the world's course and will almost
         certainly change yours."
                --"Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner," an appendix to The Longest Race

61.   "You can hurt more than you ever thought possible, then continue until
        you discover that hurting isn't that big a deal."
               --Seven-time Western States 100-Mile winner Scott Jurek, quoted
                  by Can't Stop Endurance

62.   "In almost anything worthwhile, and especially ultrarunning, rushing to achieve success
        is a big mistake."
               --"Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner," an appendix to The Longest Race

63.   "Long-distance running is not separate from the rest of life.  It will affect
         your overall vitality, endurance, and patience, and may also affect your
         relationships and worldview.  You will very likely becomed less complacent,
         more questioning, more adventurous, and more reconnected with your youth."
                --The Longest Race

64.   "If we fail to encourage physical development and prowess, we will
        undermine our capcity for thought, for work, and for use of those skills vital
        to an expanding and complex America."
                --John F. Kennedy

65.   "Is this level of athletic competition the ultimate distraction from real life?  Or
        is it a form of prayer?"
                --Norah Vincent, on the Olympics, submitted by Mark Pynt

66.   "I suppose if you could have only one thing, it would be that--energy.  Without it, you
        haven't got a thing."
                --John F. Kennedy

67   "The Greeks understood that mind and body must develop in harmonious proportion to
       produce a creative intelligence."
                --John F. Kennedy

68.   "I always loved running.... It was something you could do by yourself and under your
       own power."
                --Jesse Owens

69.   "There's no fountain of youth, and there's no anti-aging pill.  But there is a secret strategy
         that does work to a remarkable degree, and is free: continuing to learn with an open
         mind and unobstructed heart."
                --The Longest Race

70.   "For a long-distance runner, the end of the race is when you pause for rest before
        beginning a long and patient preparation for the next race and that sense of rebirth
        it will bring."
                --The Longest Race

71.   "Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise."
                --Thomas Jefferson

72.   "If 95 percent of the runner's success is achieved before he or she even goes
         to the starting line, then 99.9 percent is done before the finish line is even
         within sight."
                --The Longest Race

73.   "It's ironic that Olympic spectators will never have seen Yiannis Kouros, the greatest
         Greek athlete since Pheidippides"
                --Ed Ayres, during the London Olympics in 2012

74.   "What are my running shoes for?  The journey from barefoot hunter to "boots
        on the ground" to where I am now"
                --Chapter subtitle in The Longest Race

75.   "If you want to win something, run 100 meters.  IF you want to experience something,
        run a marathon."
                --Emil Zatopek, winner of four Olympic gold medals

76.   "Learning from Quarterbacks: the Slower-is-faster Phenomenon"
                --Chapter subtitle in The Longest Race
77.   "The more you sweat in practice, the less you bleed in battle."

78.   "Mental will is a muscle that needs exercise, just like the muscles of the body."
                --Lynn Jennings

79.   "The reason we race isn't so much to beat each other...but to be with each other."
                --Christopher McDougall

80.   "The Blessing and Curse of Competition: Why Vince Lombardi Was Dead Wrong"
                --Chapter subtitle in The Longest Race

81.   "Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live
        life to the fullest."
                --Haruki Murakami

82.   "I'm a minimalist.  I'd rather run naked than over-clothed and over-equipped.

83.   "I'm a minimalist.  I don't want a GPS; I want to develop the ancient skill of mental

84.   "May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most
        amazing view."
                --Edward Abbey

85.   "We who run...are different from those who merely study us.  We are out there
         experiencing what they are trying to put into words."
                --Dr. George Sheehan

86.   "That's the beauty of this great sport (track), though--it's such a fine line between success
        or not, which makes the sweet moments that much more worth savoring."
                --Nick Willis, U.S. 1500-meter Olympian, 2012

87.   "In the year 2025m, the best men don't run for president, they run for their lives."
                --Stephen King, in The Running Man

88.   "The will to win means nothing if you haven't the will to prepare."
                --Juma Ikanga, 1989 New York Marathon winner

89.   "Every man dies, but not every man really lives."
                --William Wallace, as played by Mel Gibson in "Braveheart"

90.   "Becoming a Persistence Hunter: the Long Day of Tracking, the Grateful Kill,
        the Celebration"
                --Chapter subtitle in The Longest Race

91.   "This knowledge, the knowledge that the physical well-being of the citizen is an important
        foundation for all of the activities of the nation, is as old as Western civilization itself. But
        it is a knowledge which today, in America, we are in danger of forgetting."
                --John F. Kennedy, 1960

92.   "If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon."
                --Kathrine Switzer, first woman to run the Boston Marathon

93.   "Running is the greatest meaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it."
                --Oprah Winfrey

94.   "You have brains in your head.
          You have fee in your shoes.
          You can Steer yourself any
          Direction you choose!"
                --Dr. Suess

95.   "I had as many doubts as anyone else.  Standing on the starting line, we're all cowards."
                --Alberto Salazar

96.   "Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory."
                --William Barclay

97.   "Listen to your body.  Do not be a blind and deaf tenant."
                --Dr. George Sheehan

98.   "Years ago, women sat in the kitchen drinking coffee and discussing life.
         Now they discuss the same topics while they run."
                --Joan Benoit, first winner of the women's Olympic marathon

99.   "These two looked light on their feet, relaxed, conversing amiably--just a couple of
         young people enjoying the day, in a world that might have a future yet."
                --The Longest Race

100.   "Without fellow humans, there's no foot race.  Without a healthy planet, there's no
          human race."
                --The Longest Race, out in October


Friday, August 24, 2012

Dark Clouds Over the Olympics . . . and Maybe a Silver Lining

     What?  Dark clouds over all that giddiness in London--even to the point where stiff-upper-lip Brits were cheering their heads off?  (And I don't mean in the manner of their former king Henry the Eighth!)
     I know this is politically incorrect on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention in China, Jamaica, and Ethiopia, but dark clouds there are.  Since the mainstream media were far too lazy and impressionable to do serious reporting or even acknowledging that those clouds exist, I'd better explain myself.  Before I get to a little bright silver, let me first discuss some very tarnished and sometimes-false gold.
     When I was a kid, the Olympics were to me what the Holy Grail might have been to a Medieval knight.  I was 13 when Roger Bannister ran the first 4-minute mile, and soon after that galvanizing event I was one of the 100 million people worldwide who listened to the radio broadcast of Bannister's epic duel with John Landy (the second sub-4 guy), in the British Empire Games of 1954 (see my article "Moments" in the September Running Times magazine).  That was the year I began running myself, and the notion of going to the Olympics was for me like what the idea of playing for the Yankees or Brooklyn Dodgers might have been for some of my playmates in those halcyon days.
      In my coming-of-age imagination, going to the Olympics was the ultimate daydream.  It was no doubt affected by the Olympic ideal, originating in the ancient Games of Athens, of the uncompromised amateur athlete. Those naked Greek runners did not have apparel endorsement contracts. In those years of my youth, long-distance running was under the aegis of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and a runner could be banned for life if he accepted any sort of financial compensation. When I took a job as a high school teacher and cross-country coach in 1963, the school offered to pay me $300 for the coaching, but I asked them to please just increase my annual salary for the classroom teaching by that amount, and not pay me for the coaching, so I wouldn't be banned from running for the rest of my life!
     Of course, this being America, it didn't take too long for that idea to be scuttled, and some guy named Bolt can now be paid more for 10 seconds of competition than the world's best long-distance runners of the 1950s or '60s were paid for a thousand hours of competition over their entire lives.  But while this dream of a beautiful ideal still lingered, I at least won an AAU national-championship medal (bronze) and patch, which still occupy a place of honor on my bookshelf.  (The AAU was a badly run organization, but I didn't really know how relatively OK it was until later, when it was succeeded by the Athletics Congress (TAC), which was even more hapless, and which was itself replaced by USA Track & Field (USATF), which is little more than a money-processing buraucracy that as far as I can see does nothing for 99.9 percent of the country's track and long-distance runners, other than try to sell them stuff on its online store.)
     Whatever the reasons for my youthful dreams about the Olympics, they were destined to be ruined not just by my own failure to qualify for the Olympic Trials (that's another story, for another day), but also by a series of commercial, geopolitical, and terrorist events that in my lifetime has turned the Olympics from an erstwhile Holy Grail to something more like the mortgage debacle of 2008, or Bernie Madoff's brobdingnagian heist.  In brief, some of the dark clouds as they gathered:
     1968, Mexico City: As quickly suspected and later confirmed, East Germany, with a population about the size of today's Mexico City, doped its athletes with drugs--and wins 9 gold medals.
     1972, Berlin:  Terrorists murder Israeli athletes in the Olympic village.  This time, East German athletes win 20 drug-juiced golds.
     1976, Montreal: As U.S. athletes win individual events, American spectators shout "We're Number One! We're Number One!"  I have to wonder how an athlete from a small country, who had performed just as well, feel about that.  The U.S. spectators contribute nothing to the U.S. athletes' success (and largely ignore them for the four years between Games), but don't hesitate to claim national hegemony when an American wins.  And oh yes, this time the East German's take 40 golds.  And the drug-doping business seems to have expanded to other events.  The defending marathon champion Frank Shorter is handed a silver medal, when there is good reason to believe he'd actually won the gold.  And Don Kardong, who finished a bittersweet fourth, seems to have been denied a rightly earned bronze.
     1980, Moscow:  The United States government decides to boycott the Moscow Olympics, forbidding its citizens to participate--even though America is advertised as a "free country" and the Olympics are supposedly about individuals competing, not nation-states.  And the reason for the boycott?  The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, to fight bad guys there, and America does not condone invasions.  Do I need to put an explanation point after that last sentence, or invoke that handy word "irony"?
     1984, Los Angeles: An eye foir an eye, the Soviet Union reciprocates with a boycott of its own. The people most hurt are the Soviets' own citizens.  Sorry, Russian gymnasts: Your arch-enemy Hitler is long dead, but the soup Nazis of the world still rule: No medals for you!
     . . . And so on, through the years: the Games get even bigger, more costly, and more prized by national governments as trophies, the way the heads of mooses or bears might be prized by the owners of upscale hunting lodges.  In much of the media, the Olympics become a "medals race," not unlike the "arms race" of the Cold War years.  And as the Games become ever larger spectacles, corporate sponsorship and control (and, more to the point, profiteering) continues to expand.  If I might invoke that handy word "irony" just one more time, what do you think of all those athletes of enviably lean and fit physique being paraded around by two of the world's largest junk-food traffickers?
     2012, city of Dickensian waifs who'd be very grateful for a bowl of watery soup, please: Nearly all of the vices are now at their zenith (except the terrorism, fended off by a massive army of soldiers and police, at English taxpayers' expense).  The medals race again is rampant, with none of the sports reporters (who are not known for their thinking, in any case) ever questioning whether a nation has legs and lungs and can perform athletic feats.  Nations and corporations don't have heartbeats and can't breathe, which may partly explain why they do so little to prevent air pollution.  And by now, the "we're number-one" delusion has spread from the Americans to the British.  The British singer Morrissey makes a well publicized objection to the "blustering jingoism" of his countryment.  And the Denver Post writer Steve Lipshen writes, "This year's Games reflected the most stereotypical traits of Americans: jingoism, cockiness, and hubris, all presented by McDonalds and Coca-Cola."
     * * *
     So, after all that, how can there be any silver lining?  I'll mention three moments out of the thousands spewed across the ether by NBC and the Internet, that lifted my spirits in spite of all that has gone so wrong with my youthful ideal.
     1.  The last 10 seconds of the men's 10,000 meters: Gaylen Rupp catches up with the East African super-runners who've been outrunning American runners for Rupp's entire life, and passes them with a big smile on his face, to win the silver and come within a half-second of the gold . . .
     2.  Rupp's training partner and friend, Mo Farah, turns his head the instant he crosses the line first, to see and celebrate his friend's having taken second.
     3.  And the last 30 seconds or so of the women's 10,000, in whichTirunesh Dibaba smoothly pulled away from her formidable rivals and sailed to the win with a big smile on her face, like a kid on a playground swing.
     Thesw three moments (among many, I'm sure) were not about competition between nations, but between individual humans at their best.  Significantly, at least for me, Rupp and Farrah weren't teammates on one of the artificial, corporate- and government-funded "teams" that wore the uniforms of their countries (many of which maintain huge military arsentals to war against each other in less sporting ways).  Rupp and Farah are citizens of different countries, but in training together became real teammates.  The smiles on Rupp's and Dibaba's faces weren't manifestations of national or geopolitcal righteousness, or corporate success, but of the human spirit at its best.  Contrary to a recent ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, a corporation is not a person!  Neither corporations nor the governments they largely control have spirits; only the people who form them do. 
     The Supreme Court, in its blasphemic declaration that corporations have "personhood," reminds me of the old men of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) who a few decades ago ruled out any Olympic running events for women longer than 1500 meters, in the belief that women can't safely run for longer than about five minutes.  Maybe the troglodyte denizens of these institutions will eventually die off, but in the mean time I get a big kick out of seeing that despite all the corruption the gladiatorial spectacles thrust upon us every four years now embody, the real strength of the Olympics is alive and well in the some of the individual athletes. And I don't care what country they come from or who paid for their shoes.


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Enduring for Life, Part 5: Keep Learning, or It's the End of the Road!

     This fall's JFK 50-Mile run will mark the start of my 57th consecutive year of long-distance running competition, and while going to a big race is as exciting now as it ever has been for me, it's also an occasion for sober reflection.  Most of the kids I ran with in high school or college, and even most of the hard-core runners I knew during the "golden age" of American road-racing in the 1980s, are no longer around.  Why?  Some had their knees go bad, decades ago, and had to put away their Waffle Trainers or Olympias.  Others were just tired, or burned out.  Some were sticken by illness.  But after half a century of reading, reflection, and conversation with other runners, I have a strong impression that what too often happens is that as an athlete ages, training begins to feel like the ordeal of Sisyphus--that mythological figure who was condemned to be eternally rolling a large rock up a hill, with the rock eternally rolling back on him (or so I recall it).  Or if you're not into Greek mythology, just think of the ordeal of Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day." When things don't change, they can have a deadly impact on you--sometimes literally.
     So, suppose a 50-year-old runner doggedly repeats the workouts he did with some success at age 45, only now instead of getting better he gets inexorably slower, and the workouts get harder.  Maybe he eventually thinks, "What's the poiint?"--and he stops. If you are worried about that happening to you, my suggestion is that whatever worked for you in the past can't possibly keep working if you regard it as a fixed formula.  There's always something new to be learned.  Part of what's meant by getting "wiser" as we grow older is recognizing that reality.  Whether in science or in the art of living, we humans rarely if ever have final answers (except politicians, of course), and as long as we continue to have curiosity and interest in exploration and discovery, the pursuit will feel worthwhile.
     As a guy who is now running ultramarathons in his 70s, I'm astonished at how much I have learned about running--and life--just in the past few weeks, that I didn't know as a dedicated runner in my teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s!  Our species evolved not just by exploring the earth's forests in which primates first evolved, but by adapting to new environments in an ever-changing world.  In practical terms, one way to keep the learning fresh is to keep seeking new places to do training runs, to try races of different distances in different kinds of terrain or climate, and to keep reading the new discoveries about human endurance coming from the fields of evolutionary biology, anatomy, human ecology, biomechanics, neuroscience, nutrition, sports medicine, and the sociology of sport.  Read some of those things and then experiment or play with them, and the running will be enjoyable for a long time to come.
     What I've discovered, so far, is that there's no fountain of youth or anti-aging pill, but that there's a secret strategy that does work and is free: continuing to learn with an open mind and an unobstructed heart.

These themes are explored in the course of a dramatic narrative about an epic race that took place in the wake of the 9/11 attack on America, as recounted in the book The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance, to be published October 9. The book now has a page on Amazon, where you can see advance comments about it from Bill Rodgers, Kathrine Switzer, Amby Burfoot, Jacqueline Hansen, Dean Karnazes, and others--and where if you wish you can pre-order a copy to be delivered immediately upon release. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Enduring for Life - Part 4: Take nutrition seriously, for life!

For a quick intro to this group of posts, look to the right and click on the first one, then come back to here. OK, I'm a techno-doofus and don't know how to properly design a website, but I can still run like the wind!  (Or at least like a gentle breeze....)

4.  Take nutrition seriously, for life.  I don't think many sports-nutrition experts would disagree with my belief that while race-day fueling is a big factor in an endurance athletic performance, it can't compensate for a poor diet over a lifetime.  I've known of great athletes who seemed to thrive on Coke and fries in their 20s, but several decades later were long gone from the scene--some of them burned out, others overtaken by belly fat, and many brought down by cancer or other lifestyle diseases.  A pervasive reason is that American life--and its omnipresence of fat-, sugar,- and salt-saturated junk food--is heaily influenced by quick-impression advertising and what I call "sprint culture." It's not just "fast food" that has afflicted our country with obesity and heart disease, but an expectation of quick satisfactions in all things.  Fad diets come and go like fashions.  But the best nutrition for humans developed over several million years of our evolution as nomadic hunter-gatherers.  The diets most conducive to high fitness and health are those which most closely replicate what we ate in the wild, for hundreds of millennia--what we now call "natural," or minimally processed, foods.
     When I was 13 years old, in 1954, I decided I wanted to be a long-distance runner, and toward that end I decided to give up all foods containing highly refined sugars, starches, hydrogenated fats such as Crisco or margarine, and chemical additives.  That was also the year Roger Bannister ran the first sub-4 minute mile, and I was galvanized.  I've stuck with that diet ever since, and am now in my 55th consecutive year of long-distance competition.  Along the way, I've won four national age-group championships (at 50k and 50 miles), and I'm still going strong.  This summer I'm planning to run two mountain-trail 50ks, then in November run the JFK 50-Mile--now in the 70-79 age division.  I'm way, way slower than when I was a young man of 50, or a mere kid of 30 or 40, but the important thing is that I'm healthy and full of what JFK liked to call "vigah," and I think a big part of that is lifelong attention to good diet.  Over a week or a month, the effects of good nutrition  may be hardly noticeable, but over the decades they are cumulative, and by the time you reach old age they can make a world of difference.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Enduring for Life: Will the Mojo Fade? - Part 3

To read the Intro to this 5-part series on athletic longevity, click on the title of the first installment, to the right. 

3.  Practice Patience!  The great ultrarunner Yiannis Kouros (arguably the most amazing ultrarunner the world has seen) has commented that without patience, you can't have endurance.  "Practice patience" is one of those many platitudes that millions of people say they respect, but very few seriously observe.  We live in a "sprint culture," and are poorly prepared for the long run.  For an endurance athlete, though, learning the art of patience is as critical as doing the miles or eating the right foods.  It's critical in both training and racing.  Here's my thought on how it relates to athletic longevity:
     As you grow older, it gets easier to learn patience--and more necessary.  Youth is famously fraught with impatience and impulsiveness, and for the young that isn't necessarily bad.  But experience brings new perceptions about time.  In my forthcoming book The Longest Race (out in October)*, I have a chapter titled "Learning from Quarterbacks," which examines one of the most fascinating phenomena in all of sports--the concept of "slowing the game."  Football is a game of rocket reflexes, and one of the most important skills of a successful football player is not just to be fast in his own movement, but to slow down his opponents' movement in his perception--to see them in slo-mo, so he can more astutely and accurately direct his play.  As the sports journalist Roy S. Johnson has said, "Great athletes . . . say the game 'slows down' for them, particularly at critical moments.  That's why a baseball player or tennis player can read the spin of a bseball or tennis ball when it looks like a blur to the rest of us . . . . The fastest way to your goal isn't always fast." After Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to their Super Bowl championship in 2011, for example, coach Mike Miller commented, "He is at the point in this game that the game has slowed down for him." 
     And how does this apply to a slow-twitch sport like long-distance running or bicycle racing?  Your need as an endurance athlete isn't so much to slow down a blur of motion around you as to slow down any sense of urgency or anxiety in your gut.  Internal turbulence can be as disruptive and energy-sapping to a distance-runner's performance as chaoitic external forces like blitzing defensive linemen can be to a quarterback's. It's not just a matter of good pacing, but of finding the kind of inner calm that allows the highest possible level of both physical and emotional energy efficiency.

     Part 4 follows in a few days . . .

          *The full title of the book is The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance.  It has had enthusiastic pre-publication endorsements from Bill Rodgers, Michael Wardian, Jacqueline Hansen and a score of other prominent endurance athletes, and will be released in October.  It can also be pre-ordered now from Barnes & Noble and other booksellers' online stores.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Enduring for Life: Will the Mojo Fade? --Part 2

To read the quick intro this "Enduring for Life" series, scroll down to the previous post.  (I'm such a techno-doofus that my blog works like one of those dial-with-your-finger telephones we used to have, but at least, thank God, I can still run!)  Now, to continue:

2. Keep recovery time in synch with performance time.
     With the passing years, as your body slows in running tempo, it also slows in recovery and regeneration time.  A lot of athletes overlook this; they know they can't run or ride as fast as when they were in their 20s or 30s, but they still try to maintain the same seven-day-a-week training schedules they had then.  I made that mistake for decades before I woke up to the fact that after a hard workout or race, my muscles and blood needed more time to bounce back than they did once.  That posed a problem, because if I now needed--let's say--a third more regeneration time, it wasn't practical to just shift from working out every 24 hours to doing it every 32 hours; I'd be wrecking my normal sleep and work cycles.  But I did find that a fairly productive solution was to simply take days off more often,.  So, for example, I might run two consecutive days, take off one, then run three and take off one, then repeat that seven-day cycle for a while to see how running 5 of every 7 days worked for me.  Total weekly mileage dropped, but amazingly, so did performance times!
     That's a fairly simple observation, but the booming sciences of human performance suggest that "Slowing" is not just what happens to tempo and recovery time as you grow older. It's more complex, and multifarious, than that.  Physiological slowing also plays a role in the performances of young people who have not yet reached their athletic peak.  As a runner improves in cardiovascular efficiency, his resting heart rate slows.  An average young adult migh have a heart rate around 75 bpm, but the pulse of a well-conditioned endurance runner, regardless of age, is likely to be much slower--often around 50 bpm or even lower. In effect, the heart is taking a longer rest between contractions in a runner than it does in the chest of a couch potato.
     So, again (recalling the point of the previous post), slowing the recovery between exertions, whether in the hours between workouts or the one second between heart beats, is not a symptom of decline but a measure of efficiency.  As we grow older, we have less time left to live. So, paradoxically, we can most appreciate the time we have left by taking more of it to do what we enjoy most.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Enduring for Life: Will the Mojo Fade?

     Most endurance athletes get quite focused on how well they'll perform in the coming days, and the performances will be measured by clock, not calendar.  Endurance records are written in minutes and hours, not years or decades.
     But what if you perform well by those relentless clock standards in your 20s, 30s, and even 40s, only to burn out or have to give it up due to injury or illness by the time you're 50?  That's what has happened to millions of men and women (including many I know personally), and it's heartbreaking.  In a country where most people now live into their 80s or 90s, having to give up the sport you love for your last quarter of a century on this planet can be one of life's most ravaging disappointments.  Yet, for many and maybe even most of us, that doesn't have to happen.
     Over the years, I've discovered some of the secrets of endurance-sport longevity, and have put them to the ultimate test--my own ability to keep competing at a high level long after most people my age have had to hang up their shoes.  Now in my seventh decade of competition (1950s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s...), I'm still going strong--and have high hopes of continuing for years to come--and I'd like to help others be able to do so too.  This summer I'm running a couple of mountain-trail 50ks, and in November I'll be running in America's largest ultra, the JFK 50-Mile.  And although the 1,500 entrants in the JFK (which was filled in May) are all experienced marathoners or ultrarunners, and most are 20 to 40 years younger, I have good reason to think I'll be able to keep pace with a majority of them.  How?
     In the next few posts, I want to share some of the secrets of athletic longevity I've learned.  Here's the first:
     1.  Aging isn't the same as decline!
     At some point in your late 30s or early 40s, performance times for endurance events inevitably begin to slow, but it's important to understand that your middle-age performances are not inferior to those you achieved in your peak years.  Thinking you've started to "lose it" is a spirit-killer, and is even biologically incorrect.  Rather, look at it this way: An older athlete is a different animal than a younger one,  The 50- or 60-year old is slower, but (if he's trained his mind as well as his body) is probably a wiser and more savvy survivor.  Different animals can't be compared by the same measures.  A bulldog can't run as fast as a greyhound, but that doesn't make it an inferior breed of dog--only a different one with different capabilities.

     Before rushing on to the next observation, take a little time to meditate on this.  I'll post #2 shortly.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The War on Science--and the Role Endurance Athletes Need to Play

     A lot of us long-distance runners regard our sport as a welcome escape from the stresses of life.  We can feel free, independent, and unencumbered on the trail in a way we might not in our workplace or at home.  Up on a mountain trail, we can often breathe cleaner air than we can elsewhere, and we might appreciate vistas that more sedentary people rarely see.
     But to some degree, that appreciation we runners feel may be an illusion.  In evolutionary time, it's an eyeblink of paradise, and it's disappearing fast.  The air we breathe as runners is endangered by a growing burden of smoke from coal-burning power plants and heavy industries; the forested vistas we enjoy are increasingly endangered by wildfires and by rapidly spreading diseases that are causing millions of trees to die.
     As endurance athletes, we enjoy the wonders of a beautiful planet more than most people ever can. But now, if we want those wonders to be saved, we have a need--even a responsibility--to do more to protect them than most of us have so far.  To emphasize how embattled our natural world has become, I only have to recall several times in recent years when major running events had to be cancelled or disrupted by massive forest fires.  The epic Badwater run across Death Valley had to be shut down mid-race a few years ago, and runners who'd run all day and all night and were finally nearing the finish on Mt. Whitney were stopped by forest rangers just miles from the finish, out of the race.  Then there was the cancellation of the iconic Western States Endurance Run.  There was a giant fire in the Angeles National Forest of Southern California, which destroyed the course on which the Mt. Disappointment 50k and 50 mile are run.  A year later, the race's T-shirt memorialized the event.  And now, this summer, runners in Colorado and Utah are getting hit.
     The root of the challenge we face is not a lack of resources to protect our environment, but a lack of adequate awareness and education in our American population--a lack that has been exacerbated by a mostly gutless mainstream media.  There's a huge--potentially tragic and catastrophic--disparity, now, between what we hear on the evening news and what the world's scientists are trying to tell us with growing urgency.  The media, which get vast amounts of their funding from the advertising of industries that profit from the combustion of fossil fuels, keep our attention focused on entertainment, scandals, crime-shows, juvenile comedy, and other distractions.  Meanwhile, the climate and environmental scientists are increasingly frantic.  Yet, the scientists are not getting through to us.  Thanks to pervasive anti-science campaigns, polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who don't believe in evolution, or who don't think climate change is being driven by human activity, has actually increased in the past twenty years.  In effect, a growing part of the American population has retrogressed into pre-scientific, medieval perceptions of the world--the kinds of perceptions we associate with the Inquisition, or burning witches at the stake.  If Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma (the one who has declared that global warming is a "hoax") had been born a few centuries earlier, he'd have been one of the Pilgrim fanatics most avidly setting the women of Salem on fire.
     And now, there's a guy in North Carolina who joins Inhofe in this anti-science, anti-life crusade.  In recent days, when a group of climate scientists and oceanographers forcasted that by 2050 the sea level along the North Carolina coast will have risen by 39 inches as a result of global warming, the state's coastal development interests attacked the scientists for saying something they feared could dstroy their businesses by leading to restrictions on coastal commerce.  Instead of expressing concern about what was happening to the atmosphere and ocean, they went to the North Carolina General Assembly and asked that such scientific forecasts be made illegal!  Several of the politicians introduced legislation that declared, in effect, that it is against the law for anyone to publicly recognize that sea-level is rising.  It was like making it illegal for fire alarms to sound when there's a fire, or for people to call 911 when someone has a heart attack.
     I've never lived in North Carolina, but I've run several races there--the N.C. Track Club Marathon in the mid-1970s, where I finished second to Jack Fultz, who a few weeks later won the Boston Marathon, and years later the Frostbite 50K.  The people I met in North Carolina were friendly and gracious--the kinds of people I'd enjoy having as neighbors.  A few years ago, my wife and I nearly decided to move to Asheville, NC (we ultimately chose Southern California for its sunnier winters).  But for runners who live in North Carolina today, whether along the endangered coast or in the mountains (where much of the Smoky Mountain National Park is being ravaged by the aforementioned coal smoke), be aware that at least a few of your legislators must rank among the most ignorant humans ever to reach adulthood without being eaten by other animals.  Watch out, North Carolina!
     And again, what's the point for us runners (not to mention our families, neighbors, and country)?  It's simply that we can't take our trails and wildlands for granted, ever again.  If we and others who have an educated perspective don't take strong action to counter the anti-science and exploit-the-land forces soon, we'll lose those trails and wildlands.  Economic pressures will cause the federal government to give up its public spaces--national forests, national parks, wilderness preserves--one after another, to corporate interests such as mining, timber, oil drilling, and commercial development.  The air will get more polluted, the vistas despoiled.  It's already happening (California is shutting down hundreds of state parks), and it's only a matter of time where the places you run may be closed.
     Our society has become fragmented, and we endurance athletes happen to be among the constitutents best able to appreciate and defend our diminishing environment.  We know, better than many others do, how valuable the wild world is to the long-run vitality of our species, and to the human spirit.  Runners and environmentalists have compelling reason to work more closely together.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner . . . . . . #10: Be at Home in the Wild

       A common failing of long-distance runners, especially on solo training runs, is the desire to get back home.  You're out on a bleak winter day, and you imagine being back in your living room, snug with a big sandwich, chips, and TV.  Do you have a fireplace?  Even worse.  Or, it's a hot summer day and the water in your bottle has gone tepid, and you anticipate getting back home and pouring cold juice over a tall glass of ice cubes, then exercising twenty seconds of patience to let the drink chill before beginning to sip.
       OK, the twenty seconds of patience could be a good sign--you're learning.  But the real problem here is your subconscious default feeling about "home."
       This is not to suggest there's anything wrong with your desire to get back to house and hearth.  But if that desire causes you to cut the run short, or skip it on a day when the weather looks bad, then there may be something important missing in your feel for the place where you're running.
     Our species evolved in the wild, and for every century we've been civilized, there were ten centuries or more when we lived in the wild, and that was home--and that deeper sense of home is still in our DNA.  One way to look at it is to consider that just as dogs are domesticated from wolves, modern humans are domesticated from nomadic hunter-gatherers.  Give a healthy dog a chance, and it will revel in being able to go for a run in fields or woods--and  significantly, it will most likely exhibit more pleasure with that outing than with any time it spends in the living room or dog house.  A dog that is too dog-show domesticated is a sad thing.  Ditto a  human who can't reconnect with our primordial love of the wild--the source of all our adventure, discovery, and sustenance for hundreds of thousands of years before we had sitcoms, spectator sports, or potato chips.
       The key is to see the wild not as lonely or sinister, as commonly depicted in TV shows or movies, but as a realm where you can be comfortable and self-reliant and free, and where you belong.  Once the wild feels like home, you're home free to be an ultrarunner.
              --excerpted from an Appendix to the forthcoming book The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance, to be published in October, copyright 2012, Ed Ayres

Monday, June 11, 2012

100 provocative quotes on running and endurance in 100 days

     For a long time, I swore I'd never do Twitter.  Just the words "Twitter" and "tweet". . . arrghh!  Quite aside from the fact that the whole thing sounds way too cute, you get only about one short sentence's worth of space.  But I have a book coming out in October, and a friend whose judgment I trust told me I need to get with the 21st century and and start tweeting!  Maybe it's a manifestation of what I call the "sprint culture" we live in.  Here's an analogy: The sound-bites of politicians, policymakers, and pundits these days compare to thoughtful discussion as a 100-meter dash compares to an ultramarathon.  Our evolution as intelligent bipeds prepared us for the ultra, but not so much for the sprint.  Ask any lion.
     What I came up with is to collect comments from people like Mark Twain, Clarence DeMar, and the Buddah, that are not too cute or inane and will actually fit in the Twitter box.  At the beginning of June, I launched a program to tweet 100 bodacious quotes over 100 days,  And then, for the convenience of people can't actually wait by their Twitter box all day to see what Thoreau thought about marathons, I decided that every 10 days I'll publish the latest 10 quotes here.  So, here are the first 10:

     #1.    "Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes." --Buddah

     #2     "Men ran after and ate horses for four hundred thousand years.  The outcome is more than a love of meat; it is a runner's body."  --Anthropologist Paul Shepard

     #3     "There are as many reasons for running as there are days in a year...But mostly I run because I am an animal and a child."  --Dr. George Sheehan

     #4     "Every man dies, but not every man really lives."  --William Wallace, as played by Mel Gibson in 'Braveheart', cited in

     #5     "If you can fill the unforgiving minute / with sixty seconds worth of distance run / Yours is the Earth."  --Rudyard Kipling, in If

     #6     "I got plenty of cautions that one or two marathons was all a man should do in a lifetime." --Clarence DeMar in 1911, before the first of his 7 Boston Marathon wins and 65 marathons in all.

     #7     "Running has substantially shaped human evolution. Running made us human." --Evolutionary biologist Dennis Bramble

     #8     "What's true for us as individual humans is true for the civilization we create: a sprint culture, seeking ever greater speed in all things, cannot endure."  --my forthcoming book, The Longest Race

     #9     "I'm 84 years old.  Don't let the altar-boy face fool you."  --Johnny Kelly, after the finish of his 61st Boston Marathon

     #10    "There are clubs you can't belong to, neighborhoods you can't live in, schools you can't get into, but the roads are always open."  --Nike

Monday, June 4, 2012

Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner #6: Neither a Loner nor a Groupie Be

     A healthy and fit human is a social animal.  We survived our evolution for a hundred millennia by working and cooperating in small groups: the family and tribe, and particularly the hunting party--the original cross-country team.  If your cross-country team consists of the Olympic 5000 meter champion and six C-shaped joggers (people whose hips and butts hang out behind them instead of aligning vertically with their centers of gravity), it will lose every meet!  The scoring of cross-country is based on the recognition that at its roots, this is a team endeavor.  Since humans could not have successfully hunted mammoths as lone heroes, they had to chase down their prey in packs, the way wolves do.  So, it's in our genes to run in groups.  And most long-distance runners do at least some of their training (as well as all of their racing, of course) in groups.  Lone heroes have been romanticized in our pop-cultural consciousness by solitary comic-book superheroes, cowboy heroes (a generation ago) like the Lone Ranger and subsequent John Wayne characters, and action-movie characters who are on the run from their erstwhile-colleagues at the CIA and have to survive by their wits.  But the biological reality is that humans are always interdependent.  (Even the lone, Montana-cabin recluse with his bag of potato chips, six-pack, and shotgun can't survive without there being farmers out there somewhere growing potatoes and hops, and truck drivers hauling the potatoes and hops to the processing plants, and the entrepreneurial-immigrant guy in the local 7-11 selling the chips and the beer.  Total independence is a delusion.)
     On the other hand, in our long evolution, cooperation was essential but limited by nature.  The hunting party provided mutual protection, but if one member sat down in a funk and refused to continue, he probably got left behind and eaten by a lion.  His funk genes weren't perpetuated.  And in the world we have inherited, society functions best if we cooperate but also continue to carry our own weight.  We are interdependent but also independent. 
     For the ultrarunner, to keep that sense of independence strong, it's helpful to do a significant amount of running alone.  If you can run with a companion or group once or twice a week, that's good.  But chances are, you spend most of your time both at work and at home interacting with others, so you probably don't lack for social experience.  What you may not have so much of is true independence, to the extent that that is possible for a fundamentally social animal.  A few days a week of solitary running can do wonders for that.  To practice feeling independent and self-sufficient on the trail is not just a boon to your running; it is one of the great rewards.  Take your water bottle, but leave the smartphone at home.  At least part of the time, it's important to connect with the air, forest, wildlife, and the signals emanating from your own body, not just to chat with companions.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner #5: Practice Form!

     Here's where a lot of even very experienced ultrarunners fall short.  They got to be what they are--quite competent at getting through a 50k or 100-mile race--by learning the arts of patience and mental toughness and by doggedly doing the mileage.  Yet they run with handicaps and miss out on a big part of what could help them run faster and more enjoyably.  Watch a random group of ultrarunners in action, and they look healthy, happy, gnarly, and game, but not especially athletic.
     One of the great attractions of spectator sports like basketball or soccer, or of Olympic sports like gymnastics and swimming, is the wonder of the human body in motion.  Arguably, there is nothing more beautiful on earth, because there is nothing more complex, and when all the complexities are in synch--in "the zone"--it's thrilling to watch.  And, for the athlete, a thrill to experience.  More generally, beyond sport, it's this most amazing of nature's wonders that gives us the pleasures of dancing and the integration of body movement with music.
     Running will be more enjoyable--and your performances more satisfying--if you practice your movement the way a swimmer or basketball player or dancer does.
     First, as you run, your body should be vertical, not leaning forward.  For generations, cartoonists and logo designers have depicted running as an act of tilting forward, but in the real world that would result in falling down on your face.  (The only exception is the start of a sprint, when gravity is actually employed as a momentary boost to initial forward propulsion for a few yards, with the legs moving at maximum anaerobic speed to "catch up" with the torso, and even then the sprinter is fully upright within ten yards.)
     Second, it's important not to "cheat" on the verticality by sagging into a "C" shape, as many joggers and slower runners (especially older ones) do, with their heads appearing to be properly aligned over their feet but their butts and hips hanging behind them.  The result is that while the C-shaped runner doesn't fall on his face, his lower torso is perpetually struggling to keep pace with his knees and chest, and there's no forward momentum.  The way to remedy this is to focus on keeping your hips forward and your back straight, not slumped. 
     Third, your feet should point straight forward, so that you're not wasting energy or inviting injury with excessive lateral motion.  Recreational runners can sometimes be spotted jogging with feet splayed so far outward that the knees are thrown inward--increasing the risk of injury to both feet and knees,  not to mention expending so much energy that long-distance running would be out of the question except for a masochist. 
     Fourth, the arms should be swinging forward and back, fairly vertically like the body (not with elbows poking horizontally out to the side as if you were trying to elbow your way through a crowd), and fairly loose.  Practice checking to make sure your shoulders are relaxed, not clenched.
     Fifth, keep the head fairly still, not wobbling left and right as if tethered to the arms.  The head is where the sense of balance is seated.  While you're running on rough terrain, your legs and hips may make continuous complex movements to keep the balance, but it's the head's job to guide these movements by maintaining an independent, relatively unwavering forward track relative to the horizon.
     These basics can't convey the real complexity of good running form, however.  They can help you avoid or correct gross mistakes or misconceptions, but the best way to acquire good form may be simply to observe outstanding runners and--if you observe them enough--to subconsciously incorporate what they're doing into your own form.  This is what kids do when they watch elite athletes in a stadium or on TV.  High school basketball players have better moves today than they did half a century ago, not just because they're better coached, but because they've spent more hours watching NBA and NCAA games.  That's not to say personal coaching by an expert in the biomechanics of running might not help, but simply watching great athletes can do wonders for getting your ancient running instincts activated.  The best coaching you can get might be watching videos of great marathon runners or--if you can find them--ultrarunners like Scott Jurek, Ann Trason, or Michael Wardian.
                    --from an Appendix to The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon,
                       and the Case for Human Endurance, to be published in October.
                       Copyright 2012, Ed Ayres

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner #4: Balance Stress and Rest

       This is tricky and complex.  Taking time to rest isn't a matter of compromise.  You don't compromise anything by seeking the right balance.  Movies about heroic warriors perpetuate the idea that the harder you can train without collapsing, the stronger you will be.  OK, it's basic physiology that stressing a muscle in a workout tears it down a little and stimulates it to grow back stronger.  That's true of all physiological systems and mental skills.  But the "growing back" part is too easily neglected.  In any exercise, you can reach a point beyond which there aren't enough hours left in the night to fully recover before the next day--so the next day's workout begins with less muscle or resilience than the day before, and the training effect begins to reverse.  Symptoms of improper balance betweeen stress and rest include a "stale" or "flat" feeling, a slump in performance, and then--inevitably, sooner or later--illness or injury.  And if you don't learn, you could experience burnout and permanent disability.  I've seen it happen to a lot of people.
     Part of the complexity is that different kinds of exercise require different amounts of recovery.  Speed work requires more recovery time between sessions than slow base-building.  It may be counterintuitive, but twelve quarter-mile intervals totaling just three fast miles (or six miles overall, if you  count the alternating slow laps) may need three times as much rest between sessions as longer but slower 10-milers do.  Similarly, intense weight-lifting routines require two or three times as much rest between sessions as situps.
     Another complexity is that the physical exercise is not the only source of stress in your life, so it's not the only stress you have to take into consideration in finding optimal rest and regeneration.  Ever since the pioneer endocrinologist Hans Selye began his research on the "stresses of life" almost a century ago, we've understood that while such varied experiences as financial trouble, a car crash, the death of a spouse, a new baby, or the planning for a wedding are all very different, their effects on an individual can add up.  A runner who is coping with heavy stress at work or home, whether emotional, mental, or physical, may not be able to carry as much workload in his or her training as one who feels relaxed and on top of the world.  On the other hand, if you've already built some endurance as a runner, you can probably handle more stress in your life as a whole than you could if you were sendentary.  Again, the ideal regimen is to find a balance between the cumulative stress of everything that's happening, including the running, and the amount of rest (sleep, days off, easy runs,) needed to keep building endurance.

     --From an Appendex to the book The Longest Run: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon,
       and the Case for Human Endurance, to be published in October.  Copyright 2012, Ed Ayres

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner #3: Vary Everything -- Distance, Speed, Routes, Terrain, and Mental Engagement

This is a basic principle of biological and ecological health, including the ecology of your own life.  For biologists and ecologists, biodiversity--both within the genetics of a species and in the complexity of a whole ecosystem--is essential to long-run survival.  And for athletes and trainers, cross-training--combining the benefits of complementary forms of exercise--is one of the secrets of durability and resistance to injury.
     Probably the most basic variable in your training is the distance you run each day.  A successful pattern for many runners is to go short to moderate distances (5-10 miles) five days each week, and one day a week go long (15-30 miles).  To illustrate the importance of that weekly long run, consider two different patterns, each totaling 60 miles for the week.  The first is to run 10 miles a day for six days, then take a day off.  The second is to run 8 miles a day for five days, then 20 miles on the sixth.  While both yield the same total mileage, the first pattern never takes you past the point where you're running low on muscle glycogen and need to adapt to more efficient fat-burning metabolism for endurance.  The second takes you past that four times a month, or about forty  times in the year or so you'll be training for your ultra.  While there's no difference between these two patterns in total mileage, the second one provides a huge advantage in training effect.
       Varying speed is also important.  Here, too, a tried-and-true pattern for most people would be to run at slow-to-medium speeds four to six days a week, and faster for one or two days.  To try running fast more than once or twice a week is to invite injury.  "Fast" is a relative term, and in your first year of training for an ultra, it would be prudent to limit your fastest running to the taper phase (Note #2, below), and use more low-key variations of speed during base-building.  These broad categories ("slow" days, "fast" days) can be further broken down as you gain experience.  The "slow to medium" pace can vary from a lazy lope on some days to the pace you might actually hope to run a 50-kilometer race, on another.  Remember, running at ultra race pace doesn't mean you're doing a hard workout, if you're only holding that pace for 8 or 10 miles rather than 50 kilometers or 50 miles.  When you do intervals (again, not necessary at all during a first year of base building), there's no need to time them as you would if you were training for the 1500 or 5000 meters; what's important is simply to run fast enough to be breathing hard and making your heart beat fast.  An alternative to regular intervals such as you'd do on a track might be to run a longer stretch of several miles fast (a "threshold" run as described in Note #2), then slow down just long enough to recover before doing another several miles fast.  A third alternative is what Scandinavian athletes call fartlek--highly irregular shifts of speed within a single run so that you're trying to "surprise" your body and build its resilience and adaptability along with aerobic capacity.  The logic of these patterns is that if you train your body to run fairly often at faster-than-race pace, then "dropping down" to race pace will enable you to feel very comfortable at that pace (an important goal) on the day of the big race.  In the fast-pace training, rather than rely on stopwatches, heart monitors, or other techno-assists, practice relying on your own developing ability to "listen to your body."  With practice, you won't need electronic monitors to tell you what's happening with your heart, lungs, hormones, and metabolic waste.  And in the long run, it's better if you don't.  You do value independence, don't you?
       Varying routes (and thus terrain) is important for both physical and psychological reasons. Uphill and downhill running put different stresses on the muscles and tendons, and both differ from running on the flat.  A runner I know who had no hills near his home trained for a mountain ultra by doing long sessions on a treadmill raised to steep-climb settings.  He thought that as long as he could handle the climbs, the descents would be a breeze.  But when he ran the race, the miles-long descents were murder on his quadriceps which get the lion's share of downhill braking.  Unfortunately, none of the treadmills I've seen have steep downhill settings.  If you don't have hills or mountains near home that are comparable to those you'll  encounter in your race (look up the elevation profile on the race website), you can train just about as well by running up-and-down repeats of a smaller hill.  But again, try not to use just one route.  Different grades of climbing or descent, like different speeds, use different combinations of muscle fibers.  In training, run as many different  hills, of different steepness, as possible.  And for similar physiological reasons on a more "micro" level, seek out different surfaces as well.  Pine-needle paths, dirt, gravel, grass, rocky trails and pavement each put different stresses on the feet and legs (and even on the core muscles used for balance), and you need to feel at home with all of them when you  race. 
       As for mental engagement, experienced runners often distinguish between "associative" running, in which you are focused on all the physical and environmental factors affecting you performance, and "dissociative" running, in which you're not consciously paying attention to the running but are letting your thoughts wander.  Both have their place.  It's important to sometimes focus on the running itself, so that you are well attuned to the progress of your conditioning and so that you can consciously practice (or "visualize") racing conditions.  But there are also times when it's important to let running be an escape from the stresses of the workplace or home, or our troubled world.  On some days it may be better for your mental and physical health to let yourself recall what you said in a conversation that's bugging you, and then fantasize about what you'd like to have said, than to be thinking about your stride length or tempo.  The more practiced you become, the more the running can take care of itself for hours at a time, while your mind takes care of business.  There's also a kind of engagement that's neither associative nor dissociative, but an integration of both--occasioned by a run in a beautiful place, or past an inspiring scene.,  If you come over a mountain pass and see an amazing cloud formation and feel your spirit lift, it's a chance to feel your body lifting at the same time; you can be light on your feet and psychologically energized by the scene.  It's especially rewarding to integrate both physical and mental experience with the environment you are traversing.  That's a big reason why millions of people in the past twenty years have shifted from the roads to the trails--and why most ultras are now on trails.

          --Excerpted from an Appendix to the forthcoming book The Longest Race:
             a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance,
             coming in October.   Copyright 2012 by Ed Ayres