Monday, December 21, 2009


The solstice is come, the first day of winter arriving in high style, cloaked in white. I always feel a subtle thrill at this time of year, when the daylight hours reach their nadir; when all seems still and quiet, when the season has slipped into its deepest slumber. And yet there is the knowledge that, with every day, the light waxes anew, at first imperceptibly, but with ever increasing speed. The light will increase to a flood, the sleeper stir and wake, the white cloak be cast aside, and the Season will spring up to meet the vernal equinox, and we with it.

It is probably too early to be thinking about spring.

The solstice also ushers in my 9th week of marathon training. When I began this project I sketched out a loose schedule I found online, and then proceeded to systematically ignore it. If I were to compare my progress in the previous week, I'd find I was a little behind in mileage, but 3 miles ahead of the proposed long run. I'm not too worried about that schedule -- it belongs to the "20 mile peak" school of thought, and I am increasingly of the "run so far in training that a marathon feels like stopping early" philosophy." I ran 20 miles last saturday, and am pleased to report that it was unremarkable. Not that it was easy mind you...but it didn't feel like an Olympian feat. I hope to increase my long run by 2 mile increments over the next 5 weeks, and we'll see where I go from there.

There is this to be said for endurance running: when you're running for speed, every additional second shaved off your PR comes dearer. Dropping your mile time from 6 to 5:45 is infinitely easier than dropping it from 5 to 4:45. But with long runs, each additional mile becomes increasingly insignificant. The leap from 20 to 25 miles does not daunt me nearly so much as the increase from 15 to 20. While I'm not there yet, I'm beginning to see on the horizon what I can only imagine is a kind of "breakthrough", a point after which the runner has no max mileage, as long as he can equalize the calories he's burning with the calories he consumes.

I started the new week with an easy 5 miles in the Vibrams. The snowbanks lining the roads are shear right now, and the sidewalks are plowed, but still covered in snow-pack, and in some places the wind has built up impressive snow-dunes. I left the prints of a barefoot runner in sand as I glided along. It's not cold; the sky is blue and the sun is shining brilliantly on the fresh snow-cover. What a happy run! I am all smiles.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Hard Focus"

One of my housemates sent me a blog link about hard focus, saying she had thought of me when she read it. This was flattering, but not very accurate. I was going to write a post about the connection between Hard Focus and running until I revisited the blog and saw that the original source of the idea had been lifted from Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running", in light of which there's not much for me to say. I'll add only this thought: running is the easiest Hard Focus you'll ever get to do. There's no distractions and generally no excuses. There's a clear line between holding your focus and losing it. And, in the event of the latter, there's sometimes a long walk home.

That blog post resonated with me, starting with the term itself: Hard Focus, capital H, capital F. If you clicked that link above, I'm sure you know what the author is talking about. You have some project, maybe it's for work, maybe it's for yourself. You sit down to get it done, and there are a million things fighting you. A multitude of alternate occupations suddenly obtrudes on your attention: you could check your email, browse blogs, make a snack, anything but that one job. Battling that headwind to reach the steady plane of effort where real things are accomplished is indeed Hard, with a capital H.

So's running long distances though. I think that's what I like about the connection between running and focus. You don't just go out and run for two, three, four hours. You work up to it. You train, and your training is at least half psychological.

This made me want to try a little Hard Focus mojo on something besides running, and today at work I had a good opportunity, since I had a somewhat tedious job (testing out a new component I had written in a manner involving some tedious setup) that I was not especially looking forward to. I decided to treat the exercise almost like a workout. I filled up my water bottle, hit the head, took off my headphones, and I set my timer for two hours. For the duration of that time I did nothing but that one project; no email, no music, no web browsing, the bare minimum of interaction with co-workers. With 13 minutes to go, I had finished my testing and found that a part of my original design had been pretty naive, and that what I had wasn't going to work. That would usually be my cue to sigh and distract myself for a few minutes until I was ready to reconsider, but instead I kept my head down, and after 13 minutes passage I had a new design roughed out.

It worked pretty well, in other words, although by the time I relaxed my concentration at the end I felt rather "blown", unready to gather my focus for another round without some rest. Fortunately it was around quittin' time anyway.

I wonder how trainable this attribute is. If I could Hard Focus for 8 solid hours in a day I think I could accomplish pretty much anything.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lost Week

I phrased this blog as the documentation of an experiment in minimalist running and long distance running, and like any experiment there are bound to be some rough patches. This last week has been one of those. In the last six days I've gone all of five and a half miles, owing to pain in my left foot that did not clear up as expeditiously as I could hope. It hasn't been debilitating, but it's got that "wrong" kind of feel, and I reluctantly made the decision to scrap my mileage plans and rest it.

How infuriating that is! I hate these periods of low-to-no mileage. It affects my mood and my appetite, not to mention leaving me restless, as the remaining 95% of me is crying out to get moving, go somewhere, do something. All last week I kept wanting to stand up, shift all my weight onto the outer edge of my left foot, then gradually roll inward until my balance was on my big toe. About half-way across--there! Like rubbing your tongue against a sore tooth--it's obscurely comforting to be reminded that yes indeed, it still hurts.

This experience might be seen by some as a rebuttal against the argument for light-weight shoes. I am looking at it as a reminder not to jump into things too fast. All those blisters on my toes and the balls of my feet should have been sign enough that I had made a major change in where the stresses of each running stride were most profoundly felt. The day my left foot started to hurt, I had gone out for 5 fast miles in the Vibrams. It felt positively delicious, flying over the sidewalk in the pre-morning darkness, not so much a speed workout as an undisciplined series of panting, happy fartleks, running hard as the mood took me. Alas my feet weren't ready for it. I am coming 'round to thinking of barefoot running as a potent medicine, best taken in small doses.

Today I ran three miles and the pain was less. I think I can run on it now without preventing it from getting better (maybe complete rest would be smarter, but in this case I fear physical health and mental health are not in congruence, and the former is going to have to take one for the team). I hope everyone from the club who ran today had a good race! Sorry I wasn't there. Truth to tell I rather expected to be pulling a shift at work, but was reprieved at the last minute.