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!

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