Sunday, September 23, 2018

The dimensions of running

Every runner knows what runs down must run back up again. And what goes up must all come down again. We run in our bodies but our minds also run in their own mental worlds at the same time. Please indulge me a build the layers of perception for the act of running. It occurs to me, well usually after running a long way with my mind desperate for distraction, that there are different dimensions of running, either in the physical actuality of it all or how we perceive it:

The zero dimension is simply running effectively in your head. This is like running on a treadmill. On a treadmill you're going nowhere, often very quickly. You don't have any real perception of going anywhere except when you visualise it. In actual fact, some real terrain runs might incidentally become akin to this as a present preoccupation takes over the mind and sets the body in auto-pilot as it strides a well-worn path. You could be running anywhere for you care as you digest whatever emotional or psychological issue is bothering you.

The first dimension of running is a straight line. Some runs are in fact a straight line but often you can think of a run as merely a linear distance. In fact when asked about a run and we report the distance, usually others interpret it merely as a straight-line distance, even when other factors might be more salient, like the where, for its beauty, or the what, for its significance, or the how, for its degree of difficulty. Even if every run you do were a loop, the runner after the fact might perceive them as lengths of string that he can hang on your belt, or that he could tie together to make a long rope of your mileage to show "how far he's come". A runner's mind is often in a linear mode, one-foot-in-front-of-another, while in action. While there might be turns and bends, the legs are just going in the straight line pointed by the head, which is where the perceiver is in its lofty perch, as if enjoying the run as a movie.

The second dimension of running is in recognising the run as a line on a map. This isn't rocket science I know but we can trace a route on a map but that might not be necessarily what is going on in one's head when they're actually running. I'm sure the original runner from Marathon to Athens was very clear the route he was running. It occurred to me though that many run group runners generally don't know, even if they know all the turns. In a race, often you're not thinking about the map, you're just following the markers. But at the end of the day, it's nice to marvel from a distance of how far you've travelled through space. I remember when I first came back from Taiwan, I walked with my friend Eric from my home in Mt Roskill to West Auckland, to the North Shore, slept outside Devonport Library and then took the ferry back to the Auckland CBD for the final walk home to Mt Roskill again. It really broke the segmented awareness of the map, of my Mt Roskill world, my New Lynn world, my Massey world, my Hobsonville/Greenhithe world etc.

The funny thing about the first and second dimension is that you can't get passed the simple difficulty that you need to go through space and time. There's no quick way to get a long run over and done with. Easy kilometres still really far. It sometimes surprises me after a series of big runs when I feel I could run Everest, a simple kilometre can feel an eternity - one thousand metres~!

The third dimension of running is building the map with the topographical rises and falls. Auckland is a fabulous place to run in that you really do climb over hidden ridges and ranges that an automotive or second dimensional brain does not really register. The map is not flat. And most runs here have a degree of ascent and descent to them. It's fun to perceive a run in the third dimension. When I run up a mountain I like to imagine viewing the mountain from a drone to see myself progressing up and around the foot, waist, shoulders and head of the hill.

As a lover of astronomy I sometimes like to go a bit further to image myself on the bottom of our spherical world falling with gravitation towards the centre of the Earth. In fact, if you watch a science fiction movie with characters in low gravity walking and then go running, you can easily recognise gravity in each lope on our planet. We're pushing ourselves up and it's pulling us down. If running in the morning, I can even visualise the world rotating towards the sun to have it "rise".

The fourth dimension really is pace, momentum, propulsion and acceleration through the three dimensional space. You are a hurtling body. While you're desperately trying to sustain yourself in the air against gravity, you're also pushing your body forward with a huge amount of force. It's only when you have to stop or something stops you that the full energy is transformed into heat and impact. As you course through the depressions and rises of the land, your speed changes and your body tenses and releases, tenses and releases as you go on, perhaps for hours. It's almost alchemy to think that our body can do this: it turns mere bread into explosive heat; it bears a horrible brunt, getting stronger rather than breaking.

And that I guess is the fifth dimension I'd like to think aloud about: the transformative side. I've got a mind that would like to think that it can dispense with the linear aspect of time, embracing a present that is the product of all presents before it. All past runs are pieces to my present puzzle; running itself fills a role in my life that has made me what I am. Running is a piece of the dynamic condition known as "health" (that really is a totality of the wellness of all your cells and their ability to keep your whole organism surviving the course). Running is a piece of my self-actualisation, achieving what I had always imagined of myself since I was a youngster. Just as in the fourth dimension we see the body surging through the ups and downs in the land, our lives follow a similar dynamic course.

All this talk of ups and downs, I might as well get the theorising hat off and mention that I've plummeted into the pavement twice in seven days, bringing the number of falls this year to a rather disturbing three. My wife literally told me before I left yesterday morning to be careful not to fall, to which I promised I'd be fine.  My mind and circumstance then conspired to make me into a liar.

Yesterday's fall was quite mundane. It wasn't dark, an overcast but clear morning running along Great North Road in New Lynn. I was keen to relieve myself and had been scanning both sides of the road. This in itself was annoying. I'd been before I left, had been in Kingsland about 3kms into my run and then at the 9km mark again I needed to go. Some runs I'm fine and some runs my body just wants to pee everywhere. Anyhow, while my eyes were checking out the roadsides my right foot struck a black sign base. It was the kind of base that they'd usually slot a sign into but this one was just the base, left outside on the footpath. Presumably they put the sign out every day and then remove it at the end of the day. The base itself is quite heavy so that its sign wouldn't be blown away. When my foot connected with it, it probably didn't move an inch, but my body crumpled into the concrete a metre onward. I was stunned for half a second, which was about the time needed for my nervous system to make its initial reports of damage. Nothing major and after a second half-second I was up and running and made a visual inspection while on the move. This probably confounds non-runners. If you've fallen over, you should take a break and check things out. Well, maybe other runners will think of me a fool, too. Either way, all three falls this year did not stop me for long. On this occasion, my right shoulder had taken the brunt of the impact, with my right knee losing some skin and my palms also losing some, especially the outer edge of my right hand, which had a moderately deep abrasion. It was the only of my many cuts that continued to bleed. I had a hydration vest on so I sucked out some water and washed my hands as I ran. Apart from the bleeding, the dull soreness of my shoulder was the only other nuisance. I ran a further couple of kilometres to a petrol station. They initially said that I couldn't use their bathroom as it was staff-only. Fortunately my bloody hand changed there minds. I held tissue from there almost for the next 18 kilometres until I felt a bit too tired and wound up the run.

The fall the week before was a cracker, though: my own carelessness was a big part of it. I'd already run about 14km, also in relatively good morning light, when I came to a road I had to cross at some stage. It was relatively busy, unexpectedly so in fact. Perhaps there was an event nearby. Or perhaps I'd never run the road that late in the morning. Either way, I could see it'd take patience to cross. At the same time, 14km was the point that I'd decided to take a "gel" (sports nutrition). It was to be a long run and I wanted to get used to taking gels. So I got one out of my waist pouch and was about to rip the top off when I thought I had a break in the traffic. Crossing is a tricky act: You can see oncoming traffic but need to turn your head on the move to see if there is traffic coming form behind you. Now, you might say that it'd be a good time to stop and look behind, but it's second nature to do this on the move now. I've crossed 1000's of roads while running. I thought I had a clear patch so I darted across just after a traffic island. I may have been still trying to zip back up the pouch or had just turned my mind away from the pouch either way, I was distracted and my foot caught something, perhaps just the raised part in the middle of the road and I fell directly in the middle, not directly on either lane but in the section after the island. There was actually a car coming fairly closely from behind who came to a complete halt, perhaps in shock of the running falling into the middle of the tarseal. My gel had been thrown into his lane. Again I had half a second stunned, then half a second of scrambling, scooping up the gel and getting to the other side to do a quick body-check, an OK-gesture to the driver and then running onward. I really felt a fool for a moment, thinking how it could have been a lot worse. Compared to yesterday, the injuries were very light. Perhaps tarseal is a bit nicer in comparison to concrete.

Both runs finished at 28km, not really achieving their purposes. The abrasion on my right hand I'll watch carefully. After my first fall of the year back in April, a similar cut was infected for quite sometime and I should have really seen a doctor. My immune system eventually healed it but it's not something I want to repeat.

Runners fight gravity in many ways and I lots two battles. The war will rage on.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Always crashing the same car

The 2018 version of Running Dan is markedly different to the 2017 version. Better injury resilience, much faster over 10km and half marathon distances. (There was, though, the pesky 5km record, which hadn't moved an iota.) Overall, it reflected a lot of good improvements to the "machine". My tendons were tougher and my muscles adapting to the strains of running. In terms of the engine, my lactate threshold was continuing to improve, and I believed too that my aerobic base had improved too. So going into the marathon last weekend I was quite sure I was going to improve my 3:46 record at Auckland Marathon, albeit on a more difficult course. I had been hoping for 3:20, would have been happy with 3:30.

At 9:14am, I pulled through the finish line at Milford Beach with 3:44, a two minute improvement after a solid year of training. Fortunately the result was coming clear well before the finish line. In some ways I was lucky to not to go equal or exceed the previous year's time. And unfortunately the story was pretty much the same.

There had been early tension about the weather. Heavy downpours were forecast near the start of the marathon at 5:30am. I bought rain ponchos to prepare for that eventuality but fortunately when arriving at 5:00am at Milford Reserve we were greeted by a starry sky. 5:30am is the earliest start time I've ever had and for that we can blame the moon. The North Shore Marathon goes across many beaches and the tide cannot be close to full. The organisers seemed to be a little slow off the mark meaning that most to the runners were milling around Milford not knowing where to drop bags or where they'd start the race. But everything fell into place.

We started in the dark, which startled a blue penguin which made good pace traversing the beach in front of us as it sought the safety of the water. Half of the people, including me, following the advice of carrying illumination (mine was a waist lamp). "It's your responsibility to know the course" was the mantra of the organisers. We were still clustered as we head off the beach and into suburban Auckland. I was lucky to have my illumination at one point when I accidentally went into a holiday park that was divided from the route by a wire fence. The wire blocking my re-entry back into the flow was only visible at the last minute in my beam of light, causing me to hesitate and then do a scissors jump over it.

After about 8km the bunch spread out and I ran with another competitor who I chatted with. His name was Peter and this was a training run for him before the road running championships. "This course is dangerous if you go out too fast," he mentioned. I don't think he was actually saying it to me at the time but it appears to have been the case. It does have its hills, including two ascents of Northhead, a lot of general undulation and beach sections. I feared the beach sections but the first loop allayed some of those fears: the sand was firm from the outgoing tide. My fears were reinforced though on the second loop when the sand had a chance to dry and you had this sapping drag.

The first 30km were according to plan. I had dropped Peter at the first ascent of Northhead and felt like I could run smoothly, at the half way point I accelerated again slightly. Up to the 30km mark I had maintained most splits below 5 mins/km (necessary for getting below 3:30) and had felt good. I was approaching Northhead the second time and that's when I slowed because of fatigue as well as being worried about having the energy to deal with the steep ascent. I ran the whole second ascent slowly but surely but by the time I finished I had a clear feeling of fatigue. With only 10km to go I wasn't too concerned. Even if I just maintained my overall pace, I'd get in at about 3:25. But the pace didn't return to me after the second ascent. I felt OK until 35km but not splits were below 5 minutes. And then stitch became me. It had developed slowly but distinctly in the early 30s but at the 35km mark it was unbearable. I rubbed it. I stopped and walked to take in big breaths but still it remained. I ran a section and then walked a section but still I wasn't feeling well. I felt almost nauseous. I thought it must have been the energy gel or my peanut butter slug I ate so I didn't eat any more, which too might have been a mistake.

During this period all targets slipped through my fingers. It was only in the 39th kilometre running on Takapuna beach that I sustained a whole kilometre running again, and I decided to consciously lengthen my stride and push. Both the 41st and 42nd were under 6 min/km and I shuffled into the finishing area.

In the post-mortem the main problem, not enough aerobic base for the pace I'm looking to maintain, is probably still the case. The pace might have been OK at Auckland Marathon but not this course. And even before the stitch I'd been decelerating. Interestingly, the "stitch" felt more gut-like. It may have come from the peanut butter I ate, or even a side-effect of my food poisoning from two weeks previous. (Up until the day of the marathon I'd still had some after effects of that episode.) If I run another marathon in the near future, I'm just going to bite the bullet and run on gu gels alone.

What's next? I'm still thinking whether I want to run the Auckland marathon in seven weeks time. There is enough time to recover and put some minimal training to improve my current fitness and experiment. There is a half marathon series that I'm already entered into starting in 3 weeks, and I'm eyeing the Kirikiriroa Marathon (Hamilton), just as an opportunity to see what I can do on a flatter course. Run on!