Thoughts on Running

Common wisdom says that running attracts a specific type of personality; independent, persistent, and with a masochistic streak. Having run with all different kinds of individuals over the past fifteen years, however, I deny this categorically; all kinds, all types I have encountered in my daily travels under the sun. Running attracts a mongrel variety of souls, drawn to the democratic nature of running which compels them all to suffer impartially.

Maybe that is why I began my first runs. Alone, out in the fields on the southern edge of Grand Forks, where after you emerged from the thinning treelines there was nothing save fallow fields and flat country cut squarewise by gravel roads, the emptiness of it and the silence of it suggestive of some terrible vastation. Out there on those leveled plains one could feel the wind blow uninterrupted from its travels from some unknown corner of earth and the sun burning into the cracked clay below, nothing out there beyond a few isolated rampikes and a distant horizon where sky bleeds into ground and faraway thunderclouds explode soundlessly.

As the years passed I continued to run and along the way I encountered all manner of runners. I ran with a thin, dark Indian chemist imported from the Malabar coast, and a stocky bruiser from Crawfordsville who, once he heaved his vast bulk into motion, appeared to move solely by momentum. I ran through the forested switchbacks of Paynetown with an erudite librarian from Tennessee and a halfwitted pervert from Elletsville who expectorated thin lines of drool whenever he talked excitedly. I ran a hundred-mile relay in the dead of night accompanied only by a black man with an emaciated form and a head that bobbed wildly as he jogged and an indoor track athlete whose body was adorned with all matter of piercings and gemgaws and a tattoo of an anatomically correct heart stenciled into his left breast.

I ran with an insomniac exhibitionist who, in the brain-boiled delirium of his restless nights, would arise and run through campus clad in his shoes only and only once did he ever encounter someone, and that man probably mistaking him for some kind of crazed phantom. I ran with a pair of gentlemen from Michigan passing through Bloomington who seemed to revere running as some kind of aristocratic sport and I ran with a curlyhaired dwarf of a man from New Hampshire whose friend had suffocated under an avalanche and I ran with an old ultramarathon veteran from Ohio with lymph pooling in his legs and the joints of his knees encrusted with grout who reckoned he'd been running on his feet longer than I had been alive. I ran with a confirmed vegetarian from Rhode Island who spoke fondly of the days when there were no mounts and there were no weapons to adulterate the sacredness of the hunt and animals were run to the outermost limit of exhaustion whereupon their hearts burst silently.

Above all, I ran by myself. I ran through hail the size of grapes and I ran through thunder loud as a demiculverin next to your ear and I ran through heat and humidity seemingly designed to instill craziness into its victim. I ran down valleys of emerald grass and I ran up bluffs fledged with dying trees and I ran through dried gulches, my barkled shoes carrying clods of earth far away from where they were meant to be. I ran down all manner of roads, lanes, boulevards, avenues, trails, and paths. I ran during the meridian of the day and I ran in the inky blackness of the early morning where only the traffic lights showed any animation in their monotonous blinking and I ran until my clothes were rancid and my socks vile and my skin caked with grime and dried sweat. I ran until my hamstrings seized up and several mornings were spent testing the floor gingerly with my toes and feeling under my skin thickened bands of fascia stretched taut as guywires. I ground through workout after workout, spurring myself on with words so wretched and thoughts so horrid until Hell itself wouldn't have me, and I ran until the pain dissolved and was replaced by some kind of wild afflatus.

On the evening of August the eighteenth back in Wayzata I sat down with my father to outline my remaining training for the Indianapolis marathon in November. The old man's calculations included every duplicity, setback, and potential pitfall, until we had sketched out the next three months of my life upon a few thin sheets of paper. For the next seventy-seven days I would follow that calendar to the letter. From time to time the old man's visage would appear in my mind and grin approvingly.

Of the marathon itself, there is little to say. Some men's marathons are glorious; mine are time trials. The most contact I have with another human being is slowly passing him many miles into the race without exchanging any words or glances, merely the tacit acknowledgement of another event like any other occurring in succession until Doomsday. The day itself was cool with a slight breeze; beyond that, my memory recorded little. Tired legs; acid in my throat; a fleeting desire to void myself; steady breathing that seemed to tick off the moments until my inevitable expiration. Five-forties, five-thirties, five-fifties. Crowds of people on the sidelines with signs and noisemakers and cracked pavement underneath. Steady inclines followed by steady declines but most of all simply flat straight planes lying plumb with the vanishing horizon and at this point the mind begins to warp back within itself and discovers within its recesses small horrific lazarettes of insanity. As though I had encountered it all before. As though I had visited it in a dream.

The finish was blurry. My lower calves were shot but I finished just fine and seeing a familiar friend in the corral slapped him on the back which caused him to vomit up an alarming amount of chyme. As medics ran over to him I looked back at the clock and recognized that for the first time in my life had run under two hours and thirty minutes. I sat down wrapped in a blanket that crinkled like cellophane and took a piece of food from a volunteer and sat down, eating wordlessly. Somewhere in the back of my mind, coiled like an embryo, I knew that this was the end of something and that no matter how I tried it would not be put back together again.

I haven't raced since then. I still run regularly, but the burning compulsion has been snuffed out. I imagine that in my earlier years, when I had learned the proper contempt for non-racers, I would view myself now with disdain, but in actuality it feels like a relief. One ancient Greek in his later years was asked how it felt to no longer have any libido. He replied that it was like finally being able to dismount a wild horse.

Real Ultimate Power

I once read an article by a man who guaranteed that by following a series of simple steps, your blog would become famous overnight and make you filthy rich. He pointed to himself as a case study, having founded a blog devoted to nutrition advice and dietary tips for Caucasian males. He called it White Man's Secret. Within weeks, he claimed, he had millions of unique hits every single day from all over the world. Tens of thousands of women left their husbands or lovers and became his willing slaves. He was elected president of his Rotary chapter and was voted Best Table Topics Speaker at his local Toastmasters five times in a row. And he had done it all by following a series of simple steps that anybody could do.

Most important, he said - or screamed, rather, since everything was in upper case capital letters - was to never apologize for failing to update regularly. People wouldn't even notice it, he said, unless you called attention to it. He recommended treating readers like any one of the members of his now-overflowing seraglio - by playing with their emotions through deliberate neglect. Then, when they were at their most desperate, you would give them some attention. Not much. Just enough for them to become dependent on you.

This, he said, was an expression of power. Real Ultimate Power.


My reason for neglect isn't nearly as insidious. It's because I've been running too much.

A few weeks ago when I visited home I sat down with my dad and a calendar and we made a training program leading up to the Indianapolis marathon in November. At the beginning of each week he wrote the number of weeks left until race day. So, "12," "11," "10," and so on, until "0." Then in each cell of the calendar we calculated how many workouts and how many miles I would need to run to fill a weekly quota. We determined this using Jack Daniels' Running Formula.

I'm not talking about the stuff created by yeast poop. Jack Daniels is a real person. He is a coach with a doctorate in exercise physiology and fifteen years ago he published a book called Daniels' Running Formula. He also popularized the use of a physiological measurement called VDOT, which measures the maximum amount of oxygen used by the body. I have had my VDOT measured a couple of times by exercise physiologists, and both times the process was extremely uncomfortable. They put you on a treadmill and stick a tube in your mouth and then pinch your nostrils closed with a clothespin. You then start running, and the treadmill speed and incline increases every minute or so until you can't run anymore.

The last time I did this, the researchers told me that my VDOT was seventy-point-three. Jack Daniels has a specific workout plan for nearly any VDOT number. And so seventy-point-three was the number my dad and I were using when we filled out the calendar.


Here is what Jack Daniels says I should do in a typical week:

Sunday: 13-15 miles at marathon pace (5:40/mile); 2 miles warmup, 2 miles cooldown.
Monday: 10 miles
Tuesday: 12 miles in the morning, 4 miles in the evening
Wednesday: 8 mile recovery run
Thursday: 2 mile warmup. 2x12 minutes of anaerobic threshold pace (5:20/mile). 4 mile recovery jog followed by another 12 minutes anaerobic threshold pace (5:20/mile).
Friday: 12 miles
Saturday: 12 miles in the morning, 6 miles in the evening

When I read this I thought that Jack Daniels was nuttier than squirrel shit. Obviously there are some people who disagree; there are some out there who think this is easy and no big deal. Fly them.

I've stuck with it nonetheless; and the odd thing is, it seems to be working. My runs are getting easier; workouts are getting better; I feel more prepared and more motivated. The only problem is that during the day I'm too tired to do anything else. I get up in the morning around six and am usually done around seven-thirty. For the next hour or so I stretch a little bit and drink chocolate soy milk straight out of the carton. I put a towel on the living room floor and lie there sweating, and sometimes put on music I checked out from the library. For the past month or so I've been listening primarily to jazz - Duke Ellington, Earl Klugh, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, to name a few. I listen to some classical stuff as well. This morning as I laid on my sweat-soaked towel on the floor, I listened to a sonata by Ravel. It was heavenly.

Then I go to work and feel the slow burn in my legs for the rest of the day. In a way it feels almost pleasurable. And then when I get home sometimes I run again. Sometimes I will see other people out there running, and wonder about whether they are faster than I am.

Some would call this insecurity. They're probably right. In any case, I like to call it competitiveness.


Speaking of competitiveness: A couple of years ago a girl told me that one of her previous boyfriends had run a marathon in two hours and thirty-two minutes. At the time, that was faster than I had run a marathon, and so naturally I became insanely jealous. It didn't help that I was hopelessly in love with this girl. The fact that she had dated someone with a faster marathon time was an insult to me.

For the next nine months I trained like a banshee and that summer I ran a marathon in two hours and thirty minutes. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was convinced that when I told her my marathon time, she would rip off all her clothes with uncontrollable passion.

That never happened. The next time she saw me she didn't even take off her sunglasses. Things have been pretty much the same.


By the way: When someone wants to run with you, wait for a really cold morning and tell them that you want to run then. At the last minute they will come up with an excuse not to go.

You know why? Because running in the cold sucks.

Capital City Half Marathon

I and my sidekick (you haven't met her) always strive to bring you the hottest, moistest tutorial videos and neuroscience-related news, but I will be traveling to Columbus, Ohio to run the Capital City half marathon this weekend. Just thought you would like to know that I run more than you do, and am faster than you will ever be in your entire life. I also don't have a TV. Did you know that? Think about that the next time you're watching TV. I'm serious.

Milwaukee Marathon Postmortem

I arose just before six, the wind outside a mere whisper and the lake below black as jet and the wretched sun yet to raise its head above the horizon. I ate; I drank; I slapped my muscles until I felt a pleasant numbness and then I sat at the edge of the bed and breathed deeply, taking in great lungfuls of that charged air until it radiated to my fingertips. Then did I stand at the window and witness the slow birth of a new day, the sun crowning just above the east and scattering upon the face of the water an afterbirth of pale yellows and pinks.

The mercury registered at just above freezing. I threw on layers of wool and synthetics; drew my gloves tight until that slight pull at the ends of the fingers; threaded the aglets through the timing chip with meticulous care; delicately placed a bandage on each of the girls. Double, triple-check to make sure the bib number is still pinned to your singlet, and then it's out the door and to the starting line.

The details of the race are here omitted; all I can say is that I was greedy. Greedy for a personal best, greedy for prize money, greedy for the win. As the starting gun went off I saw that I might have a chance at taking it - race, player, life, all - and the cisterns of my bloodlust quivered with excitement and my fury slipped its leash. Like a fool did I run, swaying to the shouts and the yells and the whims and the vicissitudes of the mob, which would later come crashing down upon my head. The turning point came just after mile twenty, when I had to briefly stop and I was filled with the violent urge to vomit; thereafter was my mouth a foul mixture of acid and adrenaline, from which I never recovered. 

Months I had spent dreaming of that last steep descent into Veterans Park, the glittering whitecaps of Lake Michigan in the distance and the sanguinary roar of the crowd as I hurtled the broken bodies of my dying enemies and rushed toward glorious victory. Instead, it was a death march. My overweening pride, transformed into abject humiliation; my obsession with glory, turned into a singleminded focus on controlling my bowels; and each step down that lonely road cracked the tarsals of my feet and tore at the ligaments of my knees. In my mind the encouraging shouts of the crowd had turned into jeers, and I expected mire and excrement to be thrown upon my face. A sorry sight was I, staggering across the finish line, exhausted, limping to the side of that great body of water and searching for the glorious, glittering whitecaps of my dreams; but the sky was as a great grey blanket thrown over the roof of the world and I stood there in terrible silence as the heat of life evaporated and the chill wind cut to the bone.

Grandma's Marathon Postmortem

[Note: I don't have any personal race photos up yet; they should arrive in the next few days]

Finally back in Bloomington, after my standard sixteen-hour Megabus trip from Minnesota to Indiana, with a brief layover in Chicago to see The Bean. I had a successful run at Grandma's, almost six minutes faster than my previous marathon, which far exceeded my expectations going into it.

Both for any interested readers, and for my own personal use to see what I did leading up to and during race day, I've broken down the experience into segments:

1. Base Phase

I rebooted my training over winter break coming back from a brief running furlough, after feeling sapped from the Chicago Marathon. I began running around Christmas, starting with about 30 miles a week and building up to about 50 miles a week, but rarely going above that for some months. Now that I look back on it, this really isn't much of a base phase at all, at least according to the books I've read and runners I've talked to; but that was the way it worked out with graduate school and my other obligations.

Here are the miles per week, for eleven weeks, leading up to Grandma's:

Week 1: 38
Week 2: 57
Week 3: 43
Week 4: 55
Week 5: 45
Week 6: 48
Week 7: 70
Week 8: 31
Week 9: 80
Week 10: 29
Race Week: 28 (not including the marathon)

2. Workouts

The only workouts I do are 1) Long runs, typically 20-25 miles; and 2) Tempo runs, usually 12-16 miles at just above (i.e., slower than) threshold pace, which for me is around 5:40-5:50 a mile. That's it. I don't do any speedwork or interval training, which is a huge weakness for me; if I ever go under my lactate threshold too early, I crash hard. It has probably been about two years since I did a real interval workout, and I should probably get back to doing those sometime. The only thing is, I have never gotten injured or felt fatigued for days after doing a tempo run, whereas I would get stale and injured rather easily doing interval and speed workouts. In all likelihood I was doing them at a higher intensity than I should have when I was doing them.

3. TV Shows

The only TV show that I really watch right now is Breaking Bad, and the new season doesn't begin until July 15th. So, I don't have much to say about that right now.

4. Race Day

In the week leading up to the race, I was checking the weather reports compulsively. The weather for events like this can be fickle down to the hour, and the evening before the race I discussed race strategy with my dad. He said that in conditions like these, I would be wise to go out conservative and run the first couple of miles in the 6:00 range. It seemed like a sound plan, considering that I had done a small tune-up run the day before in what I assumed would be similar conditions, and the humidity got to me pretty quickly. In short, I expected to run about the same time I did at the Twin Cities marathon in 2010.

The morning of the race, the weather outside was cooler and drier than I expected, with a refreshing breeze coming in from Lake Superior. I boarded the bus and began the long drive to the start line, which really makes you realize how far you have to run to get back. I sat next to some guy who looked intense and pissed off and who I knew wouldn't talk to me and started pounding water.

At the starting line everything was warm and cheerful and sun-soaked and participants began lining up according to times posted next to the corrals. I talked to some old-timer who had done the race every single year, who told me about the good old days and how there used to only be ten port-a-johns, and how everyone would go to that ditch over yonder where the grassy slopes would turn slick and putrid. I said that sounded disgusting, and quickly walked over to my corral to escape.

Miles 1-6

At the start of the race, I decided to just go out on feel and take it from there. The first mile was quickly over, and at the mile marker my watch read: 5:42. I thought that I might be getting sucked out into a faster pace than I anticipated, but since I was feeling solid, I thought I would keep the same effort, if not back off a little bit, and then see what would happen. To my surprise, the mile splits got progressively faster: 5:39, 5:36, 5:37, 5:34, 5:33. I hit the 10k in about 34:54 and started to have flashbacks to Chicago last fall, where I went out at a similar pace and blew up just over halfway through the race. However, the weather seemed to be holding up, and actually getting better, instead of getting hotter and more humid. At this point my body was still feeling fine so I settled in and chose to maintain the same effort for the next few miles.

Miles 7-13

Things proceeded as expected, with a 5:34, 5:38, and 5:35 bringing me to mile 9. I saw my parents again at this point, both looking surprised that I had come through this checkpoint several minutes faster than planned. Although I knew it was fast, I didn't really care; at this point the weather had become decidedly drier than it was at the start of the race, the crowd was amping up the energy, and I was feeling bulletproof. It was also right about this time that I started feeling a twinge in my upper left quadricep.


I had been having problems with this area for the past year, but for the last month things had settled down and it hadn't prevented my completing any workouts for the past few weeks. Still, it was a huge question mark going into the race, and with over sixteen miles to go, it could put me in the hurt locker and possibly force me to pull out of the race. I knew from experience that slowing down wouldn't help it so I continued at the same pace, hoping that it might go away.

5:28, 5:40, 5:37, 5:44. Although I was able to hold the same pace, the quadricep was getting noticeably worse, and began to affect my stride. I ignored it as best I could, trying instead to focus on the fact that I had come through the half in 1:13:40, which was close to a personal best and almost identical to what I had done at Chicago. I kept going, prepared to drop out at the next checkpoint if my leg continued to get worse.

Miles 14-20

The next couple of miles were quicker, with a 5:28 and 5:38 thanks to a gradual downhill during that section of the race. As I ran by the fifteen-mile marker, I began to notice that my quadricep was improving. The next pair of miles were 5:42, 5:42. At this point there was no mistaking it: The pain had completely disappeared, something that has never happened to me before. Sometimes I am able to run through mild injuries, but for them to recover during the course of a race, was new to me.

In any case, I didn't dwell on it. The next few miles flew by in 5:48, 5:38, and 5:55, and I knew that past the twenty-mile mark things were going to get ugly.

Miles 21-26.2

As we began our descent into the outskirts of Duluth, the crowds became larger and more frequent, clusters of bystanders serried together with all sorts of noisemakers and signs that sometimes had my name on them, although they were meant for someone else. At every aid station I doused myself with water and rubbed cool sponges over my  face and shoulders, trying not to overheat. 5:57, 5:56. However, even though I was slowing way down, mentally I was still with it and able to focus. We had entered the residential neighborhoods, and the isolated bands of people had blended together into one long, continuous stream of spectators lining both sides of the road. I made every attempt to avoid the cracks in the street, sensing that if I made an uneven step, I might fall flat on my face.

5:55. Good, not slowing down too much. Still a few miles out, but from here I can see the promontory where the finish line is. At least, that's where I think it is. If that's not it, I'm screwed. Why are these morons trying to high-five me? Get the hell out of my way, junior. Just up and over this bridge. Do they really have to make them this steep? The clown who designed these bridges should be dragged into the street and shot. 6:03. I was hoping I wouldn't have any of those. I can still reel in a few of these people in front of me. This guy here is hurting bad; I would feel sorry for him, but at the same time it's such a rush to pass people when they are in a world of pain; almost like a little Christmas present each time it happens. 6:03 again. Oof. We've made another turn; things are getting weird. Where's the finish? Where am I? What's my favorite food? I can't remember. This downhill is steep as a mother, and I don't know if those muscles in my thighs serving as shock pads can take much more of this. Legs are burning, arms are going numb, lips are cracked and salty. One more mile to go here; just don't throw up and don't lose control of your bowels in front of the cameras and you're golden. 6:11. Whatever. There's the finish line; finally. Wave to the crowd; that's right, cheer me on, dammit! Almost there...and...done.


Artist's rendering of what I looked like at the finish

29th overall, with a time of 2:30:23. I staggered around the finish area, elated and exhausted, starting to feeling the numbness creep into my muscles. For the next few days I had soreness throughout my entire body, but no hematuria, which is a W in my book.

More results can be found here, as well as a summary page here with my splits and a video showcasing my raw masculinity as I cross the finish line.

Next marathon will be in Milwaukee in October, and I'll be sure to give some running updates as the summer progresses.