Thursday, January 28, 2010
For the last two marathons I’ve run, I followed Matt Fitzgerald’s (Brain Training) Plans. I used his Intermediate Plan for Buffalo, then moved up to the Advanced Plan for Charlotte. Both plans were 24 weeks long, with step back weeks culminating in a race every 4 weeks. Each of these training cycles produced PR’s for me in the 5K, 10K, Half Marathon, and Marathon distances. That’s pretty successful by anyone’s standards. So, why change?
First, in both training cycles, I felt like I peaked too soon. I felt as if I’d peaked 4 weeks too early in the Buffalo Marathon. For Charlotte’s Thunder Road last month, it was even worse. I felt like I had peaked right after my 10K race in October- nearly 2 months before the marathon! Also, my experience in Charlotte suggested that I need either 1) more miles at tempo and marathon pace, or 2) the same amount, but to reduce the amount of speed work I’m doing at the point where I feel the quality of the longer marathon pace workouts slipping.
My new plan is a Brad Hudson hybrid plan. Originally, 12 weeks long, I’ve extended it to 16 weeks by repeating the first 4 weeks. Running Drills have been added and 10 x 100 Striders replace the Mixed Interval sessions. There are other differences, too.
Instead of running easy following a key workout, you run at steady training pace. (The idea being that Tempo and MP runs shouldn’t feel so hard that you need drastic amounts of recovery from a few miles of it).
As the workouts get easier to do, you increase the pace of the recovery effort, not the pace of the MP sections.
As the hard days get harder and longer, you ease back on the pace of your other runs.
So basically, my running week now looks like this:
Sunday - Long Run (Progression, MP, or Steady)
Monday - Rest
Tuesday - Strength Training (a.m.)/ Drills + EZ Run 20-50 min. (p.m.)
Wednesday - Base Run (6-10 mi.)
Thursday - Intervals or Tempo Run (HM pace or M pace)
Friday - Strength Training (a.m.)/ Base Run (6-10 mi.) p.m.+ 10 x 100 Striders
Saturday - EZ Run (walk-run with kids training for the HM)
I may further tweak this Plan and use it for either the next marathon or my attempt at 50K. I would somehow like to re-incorporate (is that even a word?) the 4-week cycles that culminate in a step-down week and race: Running shorter races that you feel you've peaked for is just too much fun to give up.
[ORN: Obligatory Running Note] 6 mile base pace run last night in 57:00 (9:31 pace). I felt especially strong last night. Not so much "strong" as efficient- running faster using less effort. It was very enjoyable. I left the iPod at home, and I noticed how much more I tuned in to my running. I felt like I was making constant small adjustments to pace and body carriage yesterday. (Perhaps the iPod prevents making these constant refinements..?)
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Consider this: Most pro basketball and football players retire in their 30s, most tennis players hang up their racquets in their 20s, and nearly all gymnasts and figure skaters transition into “where-are-they-now?” status shortly after puberty. In all these sports, athletes peak in their mid-twenties and quickly decline thereafter.
Running (and other endurance sports) may be an exception to this.
As cited in "Born To Run", Professor Dennis M. Bramble, a running expert from the University of Utah, poses a question that I find intriguing:
“We monitored the results of the 2004 New York City Marathon and compared finishing times by age. What we found is that starting at age nineteen, runners get faster every year until they hit their peak at twenty-seven. After twenty-seven, they start to decline. So here’s the question—how old are you when you’re back to running the same speed you did at nineteen?”
The answer he came up with is surprising: 64. The decline in performance over forty-five years is so gradual that the sixty-four-year-old crowd can still compete with the nineteen-year-olds.
My own experience substantiates this. Over the weekend I ran a 10K road race here in Asheville, where about 675 people showed up. The majority of the best runners were over the age of 30, with plenty of top finishers in their forties and fifties. The winner- 33 years old. Average age of the Top 10 Finishers- 36. Two of the Top 10 Finishers were over the age of 50, and despite plenty of entrants in their twenties, only two finished in the Top 25.
You may be familiar with a runner by the name of George Sheehan who wrote the bestseller “Running and Being.” Dr. Sheehan, a physician, took up distance running at the age of 45 and went on to great acclaim with his regular submissions to the magazine "Runner’s World". He was also pretty fast. He was the first person over the age of 50 to log a sub-five minute mile (4:47) and competed in countless marathons. He was able to keep up his competitive 10K race pace until he was in his mid-sixties. His key to success?: run, run, run.
This brings me to my point. Your heart, lungs, and muscles are built to sustain amazing stretches of aerobic activity from childhood all the way into old age. The problem is that we allow ourselves to slide into sedentary living somewhere in the third decade. From that point on our muscles fall into disuse and our joints deteriorate under the added weight of fat; our vertebral disks suffer from lack of postural muscle tone; and our heart and lungs reward our physical complacency with poor performance.
Your body was made to move—your heart wants to beat hard, your legs want to burn under the stress of exercise—and if you manage to keep moving throughout your life you will find that your slide into old age will be a far shallower slope.
I plan to keep these thoughts in mind as I drag myself through the Trial of Miles, the Miles of Trials that are my marathon preparation. I may very well post my 5th personal record in the marathon (in as many tries) in April. I plan to beat a few nineteen-year-olds while I’m at it.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
I remember how nervous I was the very first meeting, how I didn't know if I could run very far, or if I could keep up with the group. I was afraid of looking bad, at being laughed at, at possibly finding out I was no good at running or sports. In hindsight, it took a lot of courage to show up that day.
Two things stand out in my mind about that day. The physical and mental pain that was that morning's run, and the overwhelming joy and enthusiasm of Coach Eric.
As we ran to the nearby park, then across the swinging bridge, down Main Street to the road I knew would return us to school, my lungs and legs burned, sending uninterrupted messages to my brain to STOP! What sweet relief it was to see the school in sight once again, and to know I was going to make it!
What kept me going on that first run was my pride. What made me show up a second time was Coach Eric. He was so damned HAPPY to be out there with us! Laughing, joking, encouraging us. Distracting us with stories and jokes. He genuinely wanted to be there. Somehow, this was FUN for him. It wasn't anything he said or did, because in that moment he could've offered me a million dollars and I still would've been in enough discomfort to seriously turn it down if he would just let me...stop. No, it was simply the example he set. Everything about him said that being super fit was seriously fun. At least that's the connection I made that day. And it seriously intrigued me.
I showed up again and again to those morning runs, even though we had no track or cross country team. I ran with soccer and basketball players, and I was the only girl. Eventually, I transferred to Arroyo Grande High School and went out for Cross Country and Track. Greg DeNike was a great High School coach. I only learned how valuable that experience was later, when I had lesser coaches.
This is what I'm thinking about today as I prepare for the next 13 week season of Boys On The Run at Weaverville Elementary School. 28 years later, I feel so lucky to be able to play the role of "Coach Eric".
Monday, January 25, 2010
Isn't it funny how easy it is after a race to look back and go, "Oh yeah, of course. Why couldn't I see that before the race?". I definitely had one of those 'hindsight is 20/20' moments during this race, and it occurred at exactly Mile 2.
Here's how it all unfolded:
First, a little bit about the course. The race starts with a steep downhill half mile, which is worrisome given that it's an out and back course. You can see from the graphic the steep drop at the beginning then the uphill climb at the end. It is pretty flat as advertised throughout the rest of the race and the turn-around point running through Amboy Park along the river is great.
So, we're off, and I immediately feel like this is not going to be my usual 10K experience. There's no massive adrenaline rush, and even though we're running downhill, I am not flying like I thought I'd be. I was just sitting back, totally within myself, waiting for the 1st mile to finish, so I could make whatever adjustment I was going to make. Robot mode.
Mile 1 goes by in 7:59, and I realize there will be no speeding up today. It's not that I'm having a bad day. I don't feel tired. I just feel slow. Of course, that's when it all becomes crystal clear. My "Aha!" moment: The fastest pace I've been running in the last 4 weeks is Half Marathon pace, or 8:22. So why would I think my body would do anything other than what it's been trained to do- lock on to 8:17 to 8:22 pace, and run for either 4 miles or 3 x 2 miles? I wouldn't, of course.
Yeah, I know. Mile 2 of a race is a terrible time to have this kind of mental clarity. But it was too late to do anything about it, so I set my hurt pride aside, and settled in for a Tempo workout.
7:59 Downhill Mile
8:42 Uphill Mile
At Mile 2, I found myself behind a guy and a girl running together. The guy was wearing a Thunder Road Marathon shirt, as was I , so I tucked in behind them. Apparently, they too had been running nothing faster than tempo pace.
As I hit the turnaround, and I hear a "Go, Psyche!" from Jeff Carnivale, who was looking strong, and yes, I was jealous. Damn him, he's fast!
Around Mile 4, my marathon guy says to his friend, "We're still running 8's. Oh, well." I think to myself, "I feel ya, buddy."
I pulled myself up the final hill, still feeling strong and slow. As I crossed the finish line in a pathetic 51:57, my only thought was, "I do not want to run any more races I'm not trained for."
1. Don't expect to hold race goal pace unless you've been training for it.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
A couple of weeks ago, as I was trolling through the ZombieRunner site I noticed they’re carrying John L. Parker's classic book, "Once A Runner". This is a book I've been dying to read, but because it's been out of print, I've had to settle for reading about the book, including its history- which is compelling in itself.
It seems the hardest part for Parker wasn’t writing the book, but publishing it. After multiple rejections, Parker founded his own company and printed off 5,000 copies. He sold the book at road races out of the trunk of his car.
The book eventually found its way into the hands of high school, college, and postgraduate athletes all over the country. Reading it became a rite of passage on many teams, and tattered copies were handed down like sacred texts from generation to generation. It has become one of the most beloved sports novels ever written. Anything supported for 30 years by "word of mouth" has to be special.
Gradually, through word of mouth, demand outweighed supply – and although he eventually printed off 100,000 copies, "Once A Runner" became one of the hardest-to-find books in America. It remained out-of-print and unavailable for less than $75 on-line. According to Bookfinder, the novel was the most-searched for out-of-print fiction or literature book for 2007 and 2008. All of that changed in April, however, when Scribner re-printed the novel.
Delighted to get my hands on a copy, I devoured the book within days. Even as I was turning the pages at break neck speed, I was aware I would be re-reading it from cover to cover the moment I was done.
As someone who ran competitively in high school and college (briefly), this book really nails the experience on the head. Parker knows what he’s writing about because it’s partly autobiographical. He ran at the University of Florida, and later with American Olympians Frank Shorter and Jack Bachelor at Florida Track Club.
The plot centers on Quenton Cassidy, a fictional miler at Southeastern University in Florida. Cassidy is on a quest to run a sub-4 minute mile, but his goal is jeopardized when he is suspended from athletics after butting heads with the University’s administration. However, (fictional) former-running great Bruce Denton takes the athlete under his wing and the duo continue to train and race. Parker describes Quenton’s twice-a-day training, bottomless pit hunger, and social sacrifices in a way that both competitive and recreational runners can relate to. For example, Quenton first shatters the all-important four-minute mile not in a race but during a random training session—"Just another goddamn workout."
This being a sports novel, there is a BIG RACE at the end where EVERYTHING is on the line. But the true climax of the book is captured in one of Quenton's workouts in preparation for the race, an interval session requiring 60 quarter-miles (for those of you who've done quarters workouts, no, that's not a typo). Denton forces Quenton to run the final 20 alone: "I know you can do this thing because I once did it myself," Denton tells him. "When it was over I knew some very important things." And thus it is after the workout, and not the race, that Quenton achieves true self-knowledge.
Critics have charged Parker’s book with being elitist and exclusive. That may be true, but I think runners of all abilities will find they can relate to the book in some small way. Running is essentially a solitary sport – what you do or don’t do is up to you. The only person to congratulate or berate on race day is yourself. Whether you’re training for a sub-4 minute mile or your first 5K, I think that lesson will resonate. This book left me with a desire to train harder and run faster, even if my mile PR is minutes slower than the Cassidy’s.
I have to admit, a part of me wishes the novel had stayed out-of-print. Not everyone is up for the running life, and not everyone should be able to get their hands on this book. It should take effort, whether that means borrowing (or stealing) it from someone or saving up $77.98. Once a Runner's portrait of running may very well smack of elitism, but it is a democratic elitism: Not everyone can be a runner, but a runner can come from anywhere.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
"What you don’t want to have happen in a race is to slow down gradually over the course of the event."
I'm filing that little gem under, "things I know but which I cannot implement." All you have to do is take one look at my 5 and 10K splits to know I am the Poster Girl of Positive Splits. Just call me PGPS ("P-Gips").
.2 @ 7:36
Classic. What's occurring in the races above is that I'm going out overly fast, which causes me to slow at a greater rate than would have been the case had I been more conservative early on.
So I have to ask myself why, if I know running an even pace or a negative split produces the best times, do I not race that way? The answer probably lies in a combination of things: Lack of discipline in carrying out the race plan, fear, insecurity, adrenaline, and perhaps not enough patience. Since it has to do with human nature, it's probably complex. Luckily, I don't believe I have to know why I do something in order to be able to fix it. Whew!
2010 may well be my Year Of Learning To Race Well. Too bad YOLTRW isn't a witty acronym. That would've been cool.
It all kicks off with successfully following the race plan on Saturday. This race will primarily be an exercise in following the race plan (F-TRP). If following the race plan produces a time I'm happy with, all the better. If I run a time I am not happy with, but I implement the race plan to perfection, I will consider it a success.
I've divided the race into four quarters of 1.5 miles each and I've devised a strategy for mentally managing each quarter.
Q1. In the first 1.5 miles I will simply try to hold back. I say simply, but I know that holding back in the first mile or so is the most diificult task of this entire race plan. This quarter needs to feel the easiest with RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) being the lowest of the race — and far lower than what my mind will be telling me to do. RPE is everything here. If I start breathing hard here I went out much too fast.
Q2. In miles 1.5 through 3 miles, I'll run at 7:54 goal average pace. RPE should be only slightly harder here than it was for the first quarter. I'll concentrate on form and my breathing here, while being careful not to get caught up in "racing". I will concentrate on my own race.
Q3. Miles 3 - 4.5 are the toughest in a 10K. If I slow down, this is when it will happen. The purpose of the first half of the race was to prepare me for this section. If I have controlled my effort and stayed in the moment earlier on, I will now be able to maintain average pace, although it will now feel much harder. In other words, RPE will rise rapidly even though my body is not working any harder than before. During this quarter I should expect a lot of negative thoughts and feelings. That's normal, so I'll expect it, but not listen to it. I'll maintain focus and effort in this quarter, and do whatever I need to do mentally to get through this section of the race. Again, this is the toughest section, even if I paced properly earlier. If I didn't, then this part will be incredibly depressing.
Q4. In miles 4.5 through 6.2, the end is mentally in sight. I should feel capable of increasing the RPE. Now is when I can race others IF I held back in quarters 1 and 2. I'll try to gain on someone up the road. I'll concentrate on that target. As I come into the hill at the finish, I'll begin to increase the effort gradually. I'll try to pass someone here as everyone is tired. I'll go hard, but if I can sprint that means I held back too much. I want to finish feeling as if nothing was left on the course.
Tomorrow, when I'm doing my interval workout, I'm ging to do each interval using the strategy I'll employ for that quarter in the race. I don't want to wait until race day to practice this.
I'm out for blood,PGPS...You have been warned.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
I suppose it's time to start whittling the weight down now so I can arrive at 115 racing weight in April.
Ever wonder how much those few extra pounds slows you down? There's a simple formula you can use to calculate a projected V02 Max based on a projected weight loss. Simply multiply your current weight by your current V02 Max, then divide the result by your projected weight.
For example, I currently weigh in at 125 lbs., and based on my most recent 5K and 10K race times at that weight my current V02 Max is around 40.8. If I wanted to see what my projected V02 Max would be if I were to lose 10 lbs, here's the formula...
125*40.8/115 = 44.3
As you can see, if I drop 10 lbs my V02 Max would go up over three points! A 5k time at V02 Max 40.8 is 23:42,while at V02 Max 44.3 it's 22:05. That's a pretty significant improvement for simply losing 10 lbs.
Now that's motivation!
P.S. The link below will calculate your V02 Max based on a race time.
[ORN:Obligatory Running Note] One hour dynamic strength training session this morning at the Y. 6 miles at base pace is on the schedule for this afternoon.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
(Turn around and face the strain)...
What is this vague sense of unhappiness and negativity I've been feeling ever since I started my new training plan?
Over the weekend, the last 40 minutes of my 16 mile progression run brought the answer clearly into focus for me. As I tried to push through the fatigue to increase my pace, I realized how exactly like the marathon this type of running is. This led to a series of revelations that went something like this:
"Ha! I have correctly zeroed in on what I need more of in order to improve". Elation!
"Whew! I have a good training plan. Plenty of Tempo, Progression and MP runs." Relief!
"Shit! I am really suffering right now. I don't want to do this." Anger! Rebellion!
"Fuck! There's no way around it. No cheating. You have to pay the price to improve. Pain! Fear!
"This is it. Moment of choice. This is how you define yourself. Keep running. Don't stop." Man Up! Character! Strength!
Resignation. Acceptance of the pain.
It's funny how a run can change your whole world. Even if it doesn't last. In that moment, I knew the truth of my predicament. To reach my potential I would have to be willing to man up, dig deep, and embrace the misery - Repeatedly, and maybe for years.
The vague sense of discomfort and unhappiness I was feeling was just the outer manifestation of what I'm calling "The Change Challenge" - the discomfort of being pushed beyond where you thought you had to go.
I thought I had done enough to reach my goal, only to find that running 3:50 requires more hard work on my part. I have decided it's worth it, but I realize that deciding to make changes to improve is like walking into the unknown, you have to accept the lack of control that goes with it. It takes courage.
If change were the easiest thing to do, then most people would change. But we know they don't. Instead, they stay comfortable. They take the easy road, somehow thinking that since they wish things were better, that, in and of itself, must be noble. It isn't! Taking the difficult road of change in the face of easier roads is noble!
Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose Wisely.
[ORN: Obligatory Running Note]: Scheduled for this afternoon: 4 mile Tempo Run. 2 miles warm up and cool down. I put this workout off yesterday due to lingering fatigue. I feel ready to crush it!
Friday, January 8, 2010
Notice I said video, not DVD. Yes, it's true, I have a secret hidden VHS video vault in my home. I occassionaly break out a classic or three for my secret video viewing pleasure.
The other day, in a blind search for Pretty In Pink, I inadvertently discovered this dusty gem, so of course I popped it in the old player (uh, yes...I also have a VHS player- duh!)curious to see what might have originally prompted me to send away for this. You see, I'm pretty sure there was no online ordering back then. I probably had to fill out an order form and wait 3-6 weeks before my bubble packaged envelope arrived in the mailbox.
O.K., I will say this: with few exceptions, the actual information contained therein is basically solid. Occasionally, some random "fact" is thrown out there like, "you must reduce the mileage of the athlete with high arches, as they are prone to injury." Huh? Otherwise, Mr. Bill spends 45 minutes speaking about solid stuff like the Priniples of Moderation, Progression, Adaptation, Variation, and Callousing.
All good stuff....but delivered in a monotone of m.o.n.o.t.o.n.o.u.s.n.e.s.s.
It's unbearable how bad a public speaker Mr. Bill is. Why they would not just have him stand next to someone who could actually make this stuff sound interesting,vital,facinating even, is beyond me.
But here's where it gets good. Playing in the background is footage of collegiate level runners training and racing on the track, a lot of it on Hayward Field before it got all prettied up for the US Olympic Trials.
Moderation. The ability to reach the big meets healthy and injury
free. Rudy Chapa and Alberto Salazar are used as examples for how it is better to enter the championship under trained than over trained.
Apparently, the concept of clothing moderation was lost on these two.
Progression. During this five minute discussion charts are used of Matt Davis’ goal of running 13:30 for 5000 meters. By adjusting the date and goal paces, workouts can be tailored for each athlete. Charting progress and changing intervals are the guides to each workout. Steve Prefontaine is used as an example of adjusting goals.
By adjusting their shorts, these guys can avoid showing those butt cheeks.
Boys, for what it's worth, Steve Prefontaine somehow managed to look cool in his Duck uniform.
Callousing. The basic premise of.. I'm not even going there.
Happy Friday everyone!
Thursday, January 7, 2010
However, I am a BIG fan of Matt's. I think his most well known book, Brain Training for Runners, is the first book about running to contain new information since Galloway's book on Running from the 80's). I have wanted his new book from the moment I heard about it.
I got RACING WEIGHT for Christmas, and I read it over a couple of days. It's a solid read, and although technically there's not a lot of "new" information in it (especially if you follow(ed) Matt's blog or if you check out his articles at Competitor.com), the already existing info is molded into a 5-Step Plan, and that IS new. And it looks GOOD, and bad timing aside, I am EXCITED about it.
I'm not sure I'll do an "official" book review for it, but you will undoubtedly hear more about it as I try to get those last 5-7 pounds successfully off for the first time, and toe the line in April as a mean, LEAN, racing machine.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
If sports teach character, why then are so many professional athletes immature and spiritually bankrupt? (This is not a trick question). It’s because sports don’t teach character; they merely have the potential to teach character. Like so many things in life, you only get out of sports what you put into them. Obviously, you can achieve excellence in sports without developing character through them. The image I get here is Serena Williams' tirade at the U.S. Open. But sadly, there's really no shortage of examples, are there?
I find it interesting that the number of references I come across that say character development is the next frontier in running is increasing.
In Chris McDougal's book Born to Run, the Tarahumara are not the only runners to believe that a value system has the ability to affect running. Joe Vigil, coach to Deena Kastor and Team Running USA, believes that humans can push the barriers of endurance by developing “character.” Not the sort of character we typically identify with sports – not the “killer instinct” or “second place is first loser” attitude – but rather an attitude of compassion, kindness, and love. Is it possible that we have analyzed the scientific facts of running to the point of diminishing returns and the next advances in running will come from emotional and psychological changes?
Joe Vigil thinks the Tarahumara have the secret. He believes it so much that he has established these rules for Team Running USA:
· Improve Personal Relationships
· Improve Achievement Motivation
· Improve the Quality of Their Mini and Macro Environments
· Improve Their Athletic Maturity
· Show Integrity to Their Value System
· Display a Commitment to Their Mission
· Practice Abundance by Giving Back to Their Sport and Team
Vigil established these rules to promote the pureness of heart and passion he considers necessary to be a great runner.
Then there's the greatest triathlete to ever live, Mark Allen. He's clearly frustrated with the lack of athletes pursuing the metaphysical side of training. When Inside Triathlon asked him asked about the current pro field he said, " There is still not one athlete who is incorporating anything other than the numbers in the logbook to go fast. Anyone out there that you can think of that focuses on developing inner character to go fast in Kona?
A while ago, Matt Fitzgerald (author of "Brain Training For Runners") wrote an article for Triathlete that is so good, it's worth posting in its entirety:
Character and Performance
A couple of years back the legendary running coach Joe Vigil wrote an article called Anatomy of a Medal that provided his take on why his star athlete, Deena Kastor, was able to capture a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic Women’s Marathon. Vigil provided lots of interesting details about Kastor’s running volume, altitude training, and key workouts. But before he got into any of that he wrote about Kastor’s character. He identified several qualities necessary for success, including athletic maturity and showing integrity to ones value system, which Kastor epitomized, in his view.
This passage intrigued me. Vigils tribute to Kastors character contained a clear inference that character enhances performance. It is said all the time that sports build character, and who knows what we mean by that? But could it really be true that it also works the other way? I decided to investigate the question further.
Get a Grip
The first person I thought of in considering the character-performance connection was Mark Allen (a.k.a. The Grip), who won the Hawaii Ironman six times between 1989 and 1995, but who before that lost the Hawaii Ironman six times and sometimes doubted that he ever would win it.
The year he finally broke through, Allen met a Huichol Indian shaman named Don Jose Matuswa in Mexico. Allen became intrigued by the Huichol spiritual traditions and immersed himself in them, and they began to transform his attitude toward life.
One of Huichols philosophies is that they’re grateful just to be alive, because their life down there is very uncertain, Allen says. Moved and humbled by the Huichols appreciation for the smallest things, he soon found himself letting go of many of life’s frustrations and anxieties, and feeling happier for it.
If you think about it in our own life, he explains, when you wake up in the morning and you feel jazzed to be alive, you know your day is going to be great, because you can handle everything. But when you wake up saying, Oh, god, this sucks, I don’t want to be here, you know what kind of day that’s going to be.
Granted, Mark Allen also trained better and harder than ever that summer, but he gives this new, all-embracing attitude toward life equal credit for the razor-thin victory he achieved over Dave Scott in Kona in October. The two men cycled side-by-side throughout the bike leg and ran side-by-side until the final miles of the marathon. “About halfway through the marathon Dave started really pouring it on and I was barely able to hang onto him”, Allen recalls. ”Before that pivotal moment in the marathon I had a ‘This sucks’ attitude. I didn’t want to be there. Dave was too strong. I was going to lose again.”
Suddenly, however, Allen had a vision of Done Jose Matuswa, and was reminded of his new attitude.”When that image came to me, all of a sudden I was happy just to be there”, he says. “I was with the best guy in the world. We still had 13 miles left to run. Right then and there I knew I had what it took to win.” With less than two miles to go, Allen broke away from Scott, and the rest is history.
Mark Allen is aware that most Americans have a hard time relating to the Indian rituals and traditions that enabled him to make this breakthrough, and facilitated many more astonishing performances over the next several years, but he insists that the essential point can be easily translated into simple, psychological terms. “If you have that perspective, where you’re just happy to be alive, then you can take challenges in stride, and not get stuck by the tough moments”, he summarizes.
The ability to smile in the face of suffering and difficulties- is that character? Could be. And if it is, then character is unquestionably a performance-enhancing quality.
A Coach’s Perspective
After discussing the relationship between character and performance with Mark Allen, I next called Lance Watson to get a coach’s perspective on the matter. Watson coaches triathletes of all levels, from absolute beginners to world champions. Interestingly, he told me that, in its broad outlines, the course of Mark Allen’s character and performance development is not at all unusual.
“I’ve observed a long-term development path in elite athletes”, he says. In younger athletes there’s a complete obsession with every minute detail of the sport. They live and die by their performance in the last race, the last workout, or even the last interval. Most of them have to go down that pathway, explore every nook and cranny of the sport in search of greatness.”
It could be said that these young athletes lack character, to a degree, because they have limited mastery of their thoughts and emotions. They try to put positive thoughts and feelings in their heads by exerting absolute physical control over their performance on a purely physical level. They have not yet achieved the level of maturity that would enable them to sustain positive thoughts and feelings regardless of how they perform, a capacity that, ironically, as Mark Allen discovered, actually enhances performance.
“One can only improve for so long by purely physical means. When they reach this limit, athletes must mature to continue moving forward. In their late 20s, triathletes often plateau, start butting their heads against the wall, and maybe go through a little burnout”, says Watson. ”Those who make it through and eventually reach another level of performance are typically the ones who find new meaning in their sport in their early 30s.”
The “new meaning” Watson refers to is, I believe, the same attitude Maark Allen adopted at mile 13 of the marathon in the 1989 Hawaii Ironman. Suddenly it no longer mattered whether he won or lost. He still wanted to win, but he was happy simply to be having the experience he was having. And that’s why he won.
Watson has found that those fortunate triathletes who do find new meaning in their sport tend to perform better because they loosen up and stop being afraid.They don’t take so much anxiety to the starting line and learn how to let go of stuff, he says, again echoing Mark Allen’s words. They may or may not take another step in their physical development, but they do take another step in their psychological development. Watson’s wife, Lucy Smith, an elite runner, is a good example of the phenomenon. “My wife is 40 now and she’s still winning races”, says Watson. “She stands on the starting line thinking, Okay here we go for another one. Meanwhile some of the younger athletes next to her are practically having a nervous meltdown.”
What Would Sartre Do?
When they discuss the psychology of sport, athletes like Mark Allen and coaches like Joe Vigil and Lance Watson don’t sound much like traditional sports psychologists. They sound like existential philosophers. Mainstream sports psychology is highly empirical and technical. It’s all about employing narrowly focused techniques such as goal-setting and imaging to achieve specific benefits. Non-measurable qualities such as courage and spirit are largely ignored, despite their obvious relevance to performance.
Existential philosophy posits that humans have absolute freedom to choose their own meanings for their lives, and to either boldly fulfill these meanings or fearfully shrink from them. Feelings of anxiety and discomfort overtake us in moments when a critical choice must be made. The right thing to do is face up to these feelings and make the choice that is most consonant with ones personal values and ideals, no matter how hard it is.
Mark Nesti is a reader in sport psychology at York St. John University in England and author of the book, Existential Psychology and Sport. In my search for a better understanding of the character-performance connection, I called him up and asked him to explain the existential approach to the psychology of sports.
“It’s about facing up to the discomfort that is associated with the sport experience, whether it’s the pain of racing, the grind of training, or the entire lifestyle sacrifice,” he explains. “Confronting those challenges and the anxiety that is associated with it builds character. A lot of people talk about how sport builds character and they never quite articulate what that means. The existential view is that the encounter with anxiety that comes with facing up to challenges repeatedly, facing up to those challenges and going through them, strengthens the core of who you are.”
Dr. Nesti is a good talker, so I let him talk. “Every time there’s a chance to step up, every time there’s an opportunity to move beyond where you are now, and the recognition dawns on you that that choice is yours, if you repeatedly say “no” to these opportunities, if you make “no” your typical response, that undermines your personality and character, and makes you less of an authentic person,” Nesti says. “You become less of the real you”.
“The idea is to become more and more authentic, which involves you fully engaging the question of why you should step forward. The more you do that, the more authentic you become, because you’ve gone through this process of wrestling with your own values and thought processes to make a decision.”
Nesti’s words made a lot of sense to me. They reminded me of my own struggles to become better able to tolerate the sheer agony of racing, to overcome a tendency to wimp out and race at 98% of maximum effort to spare myself the worst suffering. My ultimate success in this effort came through precisely the sort of process of facing up and making a choice that Nesti described.
The other thing I thought of as Dr. Nesti ran up my phone bill was the splendidly politically incorrect term “man up” that is used so often in sports these days. Manning up is refusing to let anxiety, fear, and suffering steer you away from what you know you really want as an athlete. The ability to man up is hugely beneficial to performance, of course, and I also think it’s the essence of character. After all, isn’t that what we really mean when we use the word character? The raw courage to say “yes” as Mark Allen said “yes” to the misery he had said “no” to previously on his way to winning the 1989 Hawaii Ironman?
Now I fully comprehend why Joe Vigil credited Deena Kastor’s “athletic maturity” and “integrity” to [her] value system for helping her win an Olympic medal. Thanks to her courage and, yes, her capacity to man up, Kastor has made a career-long habit of studying her values and ideals and choosing to step toward them rather than shrink away from them every time anxiety and discomfort have told her there was an important choice to be made. Her rewards have been the development of a more and more authentic character and steady improvement as an athlete. This is something all of us can do. “Either you’re growing, and getting stronger, or you’re regressing” Mark Nesti summarizes. You make your body stronger by challenging it, and the same principle applies to your spirit.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Me vs. Plow Truck
Also, for what it’s worth, here’s some free advice - shoveling is not good cross training unless you are a professional lumberjack living in Alaska (another very cold place, you know).