On September 1, 2018, I was ushered off the local college running track, which was closing for a field hockey match about to begin. As it happened, this abbreviated workout ended with the completion of my 3,000th mile of barefoot training, on the dot. I’d been working towards this goal with great enthusiasm since reporting on my 2,000th mile in December 2017 (and the first 1,000 miles the year before).
Sometimes writers raise the question, what is it that runners think about? Often the writers are looking for something beyond the inner dialogue of effort and discomfort, they’re hoping for clues to deeper meaning in the runners’ lives or even hints of spirituality.
That’s fine, but why shouldn’t runners think about the act of running? Call it being “mindful,” or just paying attention to what you’re doing.
In fact, there’s enormous interest among coaches, journalists, and psychologists in the best kind of “inner dialogue” for athletes. Often this advice focuses on confidence, determination, motivation, visualizing peak performance, or getting into the “flow.”
I was thinking about this the other day when I heard about an emergency landing of a passenger jet which had lost an engine: the pilot was lauded for keeping her cool. A former fighter pilot, she had been taught to “exude confidence,” a practice that some attribute to legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager, who once commented that as situations became more dangerous, he would speak more slowly.
This line of thought led me to conduct an experiment: I’d take some notes on my own thoughts while completing a high-intensity speed workout at the local track — an exercise that doesn’t carry the same risk as piloting a jet fighter, but which subjects the runner to high levels of discomfort and exposes him or her to heightened risk of injury. The goal of the experiment: observe how I talk to myself while running.
After the first try at this experiment, however, it became clear that what was going on in my head wasn’t a monologue, but rather a conversation among several speakers — all different parts of myself, admittedly — but with specific roles. This segregation of duties, based on my military and corporate experience, seemed to help the decision-making process during the run. Perhaps others will find it useful to organize their thoughts this way.
I’m a little nervous that this transcript may strike people as somewhat nerdy — but why shouldn’t I try to be as calm and collected as a fighter pilot?
See what you think…
Back in December 2016, I reported on the completion of my first 1,000 miles barefoot, and now, a little more than a year later, here’s the 2,000 mile marker. The biggest surprise is how much fun it’s been running, hiking, and walking without shoes. The biggest challenge has been injuries, and whether these were caused or exacerbated by barefoot running, or simply the result of getting older and/or trying to do too much, it’s hard to know. Either way, I’m looking forward to the next thousand miles on this interesting and unexpected journey. Here’s my report.
There are two themes to the December Grid so far. First is the question whether I can get all 35 done, with the latest challenge being a sore knee and a tight groin, which together led me to abort an attempt on Big Indian and Doubletop earlier this week. The second, and more interesting theme, is the effort to “push back” against the grim cold conditions of winter, especially on the part of someone who’s pretty comfortable in the heat (even back in the day running in summertime Death Valley) and for whom the cold can be a little intimidating. As it happened, the other day an email showed up from the Wim Hof organization promoting a new book by investigative journalist Scott Carney, titled “What Doesn’t Kill us,” which profiles the author’s experiences with some of the cold-training methods that have made Wim Hof famous, culminating in a shirtless climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Over the last few years I’ve played around with some of the Wim Hof techniques, and this new book sparked my interest again, and helped me stoke a little bid of attitude with which to confront the cold. (Also, I signed up for ten 10-week Wim Hof instructional video series, so it will be interesting to see what I learn going forward.)
In a recent essay for the New York Times, performance coach Brad Stulberg advocates for the “unbalanced” life. He explains that “the times in my life during which I’ve felt happiest and most alive are also the times that I’ve been the most unbalanced.” These were times when he was fully consumed by a particular activity, whether trekking in the Himalayas, training to set a personal record in the triathlon, or writing a book. Sticking with a more balanced lifestyle might have precluded these “formative experiences.”
Brad goes on to quote elite athletes who also urge people to “give it your all.” The idea is enticing: who wouldn’t want to clear away distractions and throw themselves passionately into a single special activity?
But whether unbalance is the best strategy is debatable. There’s a simple approach to allocating time among activities, and that’s to spend the incremental hour where you get the highest pay-off. Because talents and aspirations differ, what seems balanced for one person might be unbalanced for another. The more important question is how to achieve a state of inner balance.
The goal for Friday evening was to get a climb done before dark, and Plateau Mountain seemed like a good candidate — and if I got moving quickly enough, it might be possible to reach Orchard Point, a sandstone ledge that juts out high above the valley floor, in time to witness the sun’s last rays. But my stomach objected to the prospect of skipping dinner, and thus the early start was delayed while I grabbed a quick dinner, and by the time I’d finished eating, stopped for gas, and made the hour-long drive to the trailhead, the valley was already filled with shadows. There was still an hour until sunset, and thus a chance of making it to Orchard Point before the day was gone, but this is one of the Catskills’ more daunting climbs: the 1.3 mile trail rises 1,500 feet for an average grade of 22%, and the middle part is even steeper, averaging 44%, with the path in some sections leaping up crude staircases fashioned from blocks of stone. This would be a race with the setting sun.
The other day the idea occurred to me to total up the numbers in my training log. The calculation showed that I’d recently completed my 1,000th mile barefoot. I reflected on the odyssey that had led to this unexpected milestone, and an account seemed in order.