Philadelphia Marathon 2008: Woo hoo!

Your humble servant Professor B had the privilege of running the Philadelphia Marathon on Sunday, November 23, 2008. The bottom line: 3:51:51, average pace per mile 8:50.7. In relative terms, that’s 2529th out of a field of 7261 finishers.

For those who like to look at pictures, I have a couple over here.

If you like both pictures and sound, feel free to download this clip of me expressing my gratitude to runner and running guru Rick Morris of, and while you’re at it don’t forget to view the incomparably profound postscript to that message. (My watch said a couple minutes less than my chip time, most likely because I accidentally stopped my timer for a while while fumbling with the splits. I was deluded when I was bragging about 8:49:something in the video clip.)

If you like textual narrative, please read on while you wait for those fat-ass AVI videos to download.

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I signed up for my first marathon and began training in earnest last summer, following a program intended to prepare you to run a four-hour marathon. It usually called for six training days per week — though I was not able to fit in more than five — and mixed various types of workouts. With precise instructions as to speeds and distances, the program is highly scientific and technical, designed to develop speed, endurance, lactate acid processing, oxygen uptake, and so forth. The treadmill was more a necessity than a convenience for accurately regulating speed, so I did a mix of treadmill and outdoor running.

The coolest thing about this training regime is that it works. My wheels got a little beaten up at times, but my engine kept getting stronger. It was also highly addictive. Crack pipe became my nickname for the treadmill. The “easy” runs, at slower than marathon goal pace, were times of soothing relaxation and enjoyment.

I did my last of a series of progressively longer “long” runs on Election Day, November 4. I cast my vote for Barack and ran my 23 miles, and was more than pleased with the outcome of both contests. Per the program, there followed a sort of holy period where you run relatively little, concentrating instead on recovery from the last long run while staying tuned up for the great day.

My girlfriend — let’s call her Amy, to protect the innocent — was phenomenally supportive throughout this project. Empathic and generous by nature, she also knows from experience what it’s like to train and run races. We made arrangements for the care of our respective children and drove together to Philadelphia on Saturday to stay overnight a downtown hotel.

Also lodged at the hotel were our friends, whom we’ll call Jennifer and Alain. The latter, an experienced marathoner, is the one who encouraged me to get into this endeavor (i.e., it’s all his fault). He was not wedded to meeting or beating a 4-hour goal, so we agreed to run together for as much or as little of the way as felt comfortable, and he encouraged me to move ahead whenever I felt the need.

I made a point of sleeping adequately Friday into Saturday because having known myself for a full 50 years, I expected the jitters might keep me up Saturday night. Indeed, I slept maybe 3.5 hours, but I didn’t worry too much about that. Hey, you can always take a nap after the race, right?

My anxiety level was moderate to low the day and night before. But in the morning, as the final minutes ticked off before I was due to meet Alain in the lobby and head over to the site, I was a basket case, anxiously buzzing around the room looking for things that I should have arranged neatly the night before. I thought I had allowed plenty of time, but this was a valuable lesson for next time: organize all your stuff, attach your chip and your bib, set out your clothing and accessories the night before rather than the morning of.

Temperatures at 6:30 a.m. were in the upper 20’s. Cold. I did what my marathon-experienced friend recommended: wore a couple outer layers of cotton things that should have been donated to charity long ago, and discarded them in the street once I warmed up.

Within the first few miles Alain checked a mile marker against his watch, and announced that either the mile marker was substantially off or else we were going way too fast. I have since heard rumors that some of the early mile markers were in fact misplaced. A little later, by my calculation we were behind schedule by more than two minutes. We probably slowed down too much, overcompensating for the miles we wrongly thought we had run too fast.

In the days before the race I had gotten the idea of printing out a timetable indicating what time should have elapsed at each mile, laminating it, punching two holes in the lower corners and pinning it upside down to my windbreaker for reference. I actually had this laminated thing ready to go in my hotel room, then discarded the idea because at the last moment I didn’t have time or inclination to fool around with any more safety pins. It wasn’t till dinner the night before that I heard from Alain that the idea has already been thought of, in the form of a bracelet that you can fashion out of paper and tape, and rotate around your wrist. Duh. That’s another lesson for next time: if you’re the obsessive sort who likes to know where he is and you’re not a savant whose glucose-starved brain can perform hour-minute-second arithmetic on the fly, then carry your little reference thingy if it makes you happy.

After about the first third or so, I moved on ahead of my friend because I was interested in getting back on schedule. Later I calculated that I had overcompensated again and was a couple minutes ahead of schedule, and slowed back down. Meanwhile my friend picked it up a little and we met again about half way through. Amy positioned herself somewhere near the half-way point at a strategic time and waited to greet us as we came around a turn and down a hill. It was well worth stopping for a mid-race hug and a kiss.

At some point I became uncertain whether I was ahead of schedule or behind, but thought most of the miles had probably been fast enough. I focused on the individual mile splits and maintaining a decent pace, staying around 8:45 to 9:00. I monitored my fatigue level, wondering if I was running stupid or smart. I enjoyed the scenery and the rhythm of the feet, and had a good time. The atmosphere was pleasant and convivial, the spectators and volunteers enthusiastic.

Alain and I ran together till around mile 18 or so and then I decided to pick up the pace, as I had planned to do. I went ahead, telling him he might see me later weeping by the side of the road.

After mile 20 I was looking for signs of serious fatigue, wondering again if I was going to crash into the dreaded wall about which I have heard so many horror stories. But the last several miles went by fast and I felt remarkably comfortable. I was passing people all over the place, as if walking through a room full of people standing still. Soon we were almost home and I stepped on the gas a little harder. I ran the last 200 meters at a dead run.

It really was glorious, an incredible thrill, busting it across the finish line with crowds of cheering people left and right. Without question, the whole race was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life. I am astonished that this body was able to do what it did, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for being healthy enough and having a sufficently lucky and privileged life to accomodate the training.

The wall must have been somewhere beyond 26.2 because I never hit it. Since the race I have been tempted to second-guess myself, thinking I might have run more aggressively, but that’s stupid. Which mistake would you rather regret? It’s a delicate balance between fuel conservation and performance.

And it’s interesting, is it not, how gratitude and greed can exist side by side. On the one hand you have tears of gratitude welling up in your eyes, and in next instant you’re demanding more, scheming and planning to beat this performance next time. Who’s up for the New York Marathon in 2009?

PS: my gratitude to the good people at the downtown branch of Urban Athletics for providing excellent advice, apparel and shoes.

Feet and ground: the Zen of long distance running

I spent a few minutes googling around for online literature — is that an oxymoron? — on the subject of Zen and running. Though it surely exists, I found but little. Mostly I found the word Zen misused, as so frequently happens, as a synonym for bliss. According to what I have learned about Zen (admittedly, not much), the heart of the practice is meditation, and meditation in turn is fundamentally not so much about vegging out, escape, self-improvement, or even stress reduction, but rather the practice of sitting with what is. Yes, there are occasional moments of what I call shocking clarity and calm. Perhaps for the experienced, skilled meditator these moments occur more often and for longer periods — ask me in 20 years and I will tell you. But for the most part, it’s about disciplined repetition. Inhaling and exhaling. The attention wandering off, and coming back, wandering off and coming back again. Again and again, minute after minute, day after day, sitting with what is: that dog yapping, a pain in your back, some car passing by in the distance, thoughts swimming around in your head, the movement of the breath. Stilling the mind and ever so gradually getting acquainted with reality.
So it is for the runner. While training for a marathon I have been struck by the strange and fascinating comparison of running and zazen. At first glance they seem utterly different from each other, located at the opposite extremes of activity and inactivity: running your ass off for miles, versus sitting absolutely still staring at the paint for 30 minutes. But both are disciplined repetition; both involve paying attention and then wandering off. Paying attention: feet and ground. Breathing in and out. The stride. The breath. The surroundings. Monitoring body and mind. Feet and ground. Breathing in and out. Then wandering off: following thoughts. Reviewing and editing the past, scripting the future, having a grand old time. Then coming back to what is: feet and ground. Left right left right…. One foot after another, mile after mile: this is reality not delusion.
Many runners are fond of running with digital audio players and the like. I don’t believe in that. Yes I have enjoyed using a radio or iPod on occasion. But for serious running I suggest we should eschew such distractions. It’s not about entertainment, or trying to make the running something other than what it is, or making it somehow more palatable, or less boring. No. Embrace the boredom, if that’s what it is. It’s about paying attention to feet and ground.
The Sandokai by Master Shitou says:

When you do not see the Way, you do not see it even as you walk on it.

You could study this text for years and still keep learning more about it. I wouldn’t presume to explain what it means. But! (You saw that but coming.) But for me, running is more than just running. It is, in fact, just running. I am convinced that all those who ever put on a running shoe experience this truth whether they realize it or not.
Distance running and zazen: two activities some might call weird, each a wonderful complement and support to the other.


Fast forward to nearly two years later. I am now 52 instead of 50, still sitting every day, and running considerably faster than when I posted the above. I have no means of proving that the practice of sitting has made me a better runner than I would otherwise be. Life is not a controlled experiment: if you do this, you can only speculate as to what would have happened if you’d done that instead. Still, there is little doubt that the sitting practice enriches one’s life. It teaches you to pay attention to what is happening rather than just being dragged around by it. This in turn serves you well when you need discipline, self-control, and the ability to tolerate a certain amount of pain and/or exhaustion in an equanimous, non-reactive way. Skills such as these are essential to runners who push themselves to achieve their goals.

Zen: Is it bullshit?

I have been a serious lay practioner of Zen for not quite two years — not very long, I grant you. I originally got into it around the time of other profound changes — moving out of an unsatisfactory marriage after 13 years, quitting the habit of abusing alcohol, feeling absolutely marvelous for the first time in years. I had long had the vague idea that some sort of meditation practice would be beneficial, so I visited a zendo of the Soto/Rinzai lineage, and adhered to it immediately. I attend the zendo regularly, and meet with my teacher privately every week — daisan, as it’s called. I study koans. I sit every day, and participate in extended sittings several times a year — i.e., doing little other than meditating all day, all weekend, or all week. This is what serious practitioners do.
Why do this? I don’t know. There is much that I find appealing in Buddhist thought generally, and in Zen Buddhism in particular. The basic ideas — such as impermanence, the ubiquity of human suffering and its causes — make sense to my rational mind. And I am convinced — as it is well established — that meditation itself provides meaningful benefits to mental and physical health.
On a more intuitive, visceral level, I am powerfully drawn to the idea that all the wisdom you will ever need is already within you. You have only to still what Master Lin-chi calls the ceaselessly seeking mind — methodically, patiently, relentlessly — to come to an understanding of nothing less than the essential nature of reality. If you think about it — no, if you contemplate it — you have to say, of course! How can it be otherwise?
Wait — says who? Mister Buddha, the dude credited with launching the whole program? A multi-thousand year succession of masters and disciples and adherents? So? What if they are nuts? What if they are full of shit? Can anyone prove this stuff to be true in any credible, objective way? No, I think not. This is where the F-word comes into play: faith. Some call it trust. Whatever you call it, I sometimes have a big problem with it
This is an example of what they call Great Doubt and it is very much part of the program, according to what I have been taught. Doubt is encouraged. Doubt is your friend. The Buddha said, don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. But it’s still doubt and can be disconcerting, disquieting, distressing — all kinds of dis-words.
Do you say, you are crashing and burning because you trying to approach rationally something that works below the level of rational mind? Maybe so. But rational mind is something we need to carry around with us to function and survive, and for the most part it’s a good and helpful thing. Common sense — prudence, if you will — urges caution before investing decades of your life and incalculable amounts of energy and sacrifice in something this weird. Sometimes when I listen to one of the teachers speaking about such things as Zen and Reality and the One Absolute Truth, my inner voice tells me I might as well be listening to the demented ramblings of a lunatic. One of these teachers has said that Zen is and always will be a minority practice because it is such hard work. Gee, could it be that it’s a minority practice because it’s crazy, and most ordinary unenlightened dumbass people are too sensible for it?
In my great arrogance and psychospiritual immaturity, I have other problems with this Zen stuff. I am about as unspiritual as a person can be. You might even say anti-spiritual. For this devout atheist, the very word spiritual often sounds uncomfortably like agnostic code for religious. I’m all for bowing to people, but I think bowing to statues is silly, and do it only to go along with the crowd.
At a weekend sesshin just the other day my samu task was to clean the bathroom. As I was dilligently wiping the mirror my unmindful mind suddenly noticed something absurd. Here we are, a group of some 40 more or less privileged, educated white people from New York City, and we are paying to sweep floors, wash dishes and take out the garbage. What do you suppose people who actually clean bathrooms for a living would think? It is a ridiculously pretentious and comical affectation.
Sometimes I wonder what the hell I am doing here, and entertain fantasies of rising from the mat in the middle of a sitting period and walking out of the zendo, never to return.
But I don’t. Instead I sit when it’s time to sit, walk when it’s time to walk, chant when it’s time to chant, eat when it’s time to eat. And when Sensei gave a talk this past weekend about how we were at sesshin to realize Nothing, the tears started coming out of my eyes and would not stop. Go figure.