avocado on a branch


February 2016

ʞ0Ϛ ǝʞɐ⅂ ʎɐpıloHoliday Lake 50k

” . . . the body of the dancer [/runner] is the site of discovery . . . ” (Susan Kozel. 2007. Closer: Performance, technology, phenomenology. Boston: MIT Press, xiv.)

“. . . what we can take from this idea that the body is a source of society is that the embodied subject is possessed of an intentional capacity for making a difference to the flow of daily life, and of socially creative capacities from its sensory and mobile character .  . .” (Chris Shilling. 2005. The body in culture, technology and society. London: Sage, 10.)

The palindromic avocado. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker; glitches: Christopher Miller.

I have always held a deep affinity for symmetry in form and palindromes in annotation. Words, music, dance, film (Wes. Anderson.), architecture, nature. The beautiful gift in the Holiday Lake 50K (HL50K hereafter), for me, is the way in which the race is realized in space. Runners set out clockwise on a 16-mile loop and subsequently return on the same path counterclockwise to complete the race. This had a strong resonance for me as I experienced the race, mindful of my place and progression. The HL50K, like our bodies, possesses an outward symmetry that is also inwardly slant. No other visual representation of the race itself serves to better illustrate the structural symmetry of the event than the elevation profile documented by my Garmin watch:

HL50K elevation profile.


As a music student, I reveled in the discovery of compositions built upon musical palindromes and non-retrogradable melodies. Sometimes, these are made obvious and at other times purposefully obscured. The application can be quite broad, as with the arch form employed by Béla Bartók to entire works, such as the Concerto for Orchestra or the fourth and fifth string quartets. Listen to the Takács Quartet shred the fourth here. Alban Berg was more literal in creating musical palindromes, as with the “Ostinato” section of the Lulu Suite. But these can be quite hidden to the uninitiated. All the better to have a visual cue, such as the balanced architecture of the piano keyboard, where one can literally see the symmetry in the second movement of Anton Webern’s Variations, Op. 27. For the ultimate experience of balance, there’s this brilliant visualization of a crab canon in Bach’s Musical Offering. Finally, lest I present myself entirely as a classicist, we shouldn’t forget Missy Elliot’s brilliant contribution.

For a time, my own compositions were spiced with palindromes, and for a very good reason. My eldest daughter, Piay, was born on 10/22/01. It became my practice, given my own disposition and her birth date, to include palindromic material in any music written for or about her. For example, when she was age 2, I composed a series of short (about a minute each) piano pieces inspired by her menagerie of stuffed animals while we were living in Yangon, Myanmar. (Even more complicated is that we primarily communicated in Indonesian and Javanese, her mother’s languages, at this time in her life, thus the titles.) Here are the scores for  Mbah_Naga (Grandmother Dragon) and Mbak_Ndut (Sister Chubby). And here is a recording of each: Mbah Naga and Mbak Ndut.

At HL50K, some carried their iPods, ears plugged by headphones. Instead, I brought these and other pieces with me in my musical memory, allowing them to ebb and flow, into and out of the sounds of the race itself, across the larger course design and hidden in the bark of passing trees. Remembered sounds would land on my body and elastically stretch out with my vision of the trail ahead; or, staccato passages would invade as my attention compressed and refocused on immediate footing in the handful of technical descents. Some musical passages came in and went right back out; others lingered for longer periods. In fact, that’s the beautiful thing about a meditation on a palindrome: a repetitive ear-worm, if it should take hold, is exactly the right thing to resonate over the forest. And, the best you can do with it is take hold of it and retrograde it at the turn.

Perhaps the most curious thing about running an ultra-marathon is that the distance, spaces, and paucity of competitors (in the hundreds rather than thousands) often means that the runner is primarily alone for the balance of a race. The biggest exception, of course, are the aide stations wherein one is fed just as much in the dance of personal interaction (especially when refilling water bottles) as culinary nourishment. The palindromic format of HL50K, however, ensured that every runner came face-to-face and that there was a terrific gravity of humanity concentrated at the midway point of the run. It was at this point in the race when I was reminded most of the bodies racing around me and the exquisite yet indeterminate choreographic nature of our overlapping runs. And this, in turn, jolted a memory of Bessie-award winning choreographer Beth Gill. I had the sincere honor of meeting and interviewing Beth when she was in residence at Arizona State University, then working on New Work for the Desert. But, what was most pertinent to the physical experience of HL50K was her composition in symmetry, Electric Midwife, a stunning work of absolute physical genius. Depending on your personal attention span, here are 10-minute, 7-minute, 5-minute, 3-minute, and 1-minute excerpts. If you watch this and are not in complete awe, then you do not exist in a body.

The avocado explores the Appomattox River branch.

Perhaps I should actually say something about the race itself. The relevant data: February 13, 2016. It was 16˚F when we started at 6:30am and was no warmer than 26˚F when I finished. Therefore, the runners were cold, but the aide station workers were saints. And, North Holiday Creek, at thigh-high depth, was a very crisp experience both times over. My shoelaces and the bottom half of my outer top layer were frozen stiff. By race conclusion, I was sporting icicles in my beard (~85% sweat, 15% snot). I completed the 32+ miles (50K++) in 4:18:57, 13th overall and 1st among the masters age group (40-49). Results. There are also a fair number of traditional race reports here, including a write-up from the famed director himself. A prize to the best explanation for why my mouth is as open as it is here. And, no, my family wasn’t trying to trow a CLIF bar into my face as I passed. I have to send serious respect to Frank Gonzalez and Matthew Bugin for being perfect gentlemen when I passed in the last mile. (Fellas, the last aide station told me that I could and should catch you, so I ripped out two 6:30/miles at the end. It’s their fault, being saintly aide station workers and all.) Also, many thanks in the other direction to Henry Cohen for a pleasant bit of conversation at Mile 10 before he left me behind for good. For all of the long spans of palindromic meditations, sensual symmetry, and enacted discovery, there were also spontaneous events of camaraderie and the joy of shared choreography.


Chicago vs. the Blue Ridge

“. . . our bodies both shape and are shaped by our life experiences.” (Ann Cooper Albright. 2011. Situated dancing: Notes from three decades in contact with phenomenology. Dance Research Journal 43(2): 7-18.)


The avocado on the Chicago River branch. Photo: Piay Mayalorca

My running practice began in an urban environment (Phoenix, AZ) about 9 months before I made a move in January 2014 to return to the central Appalachians of my youth. This is meaningful here because the types of spaces I run through mean a lot to my experience of running. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that, as a runner, I must identify as someone who runs roads or someone who runs trails. I enjoy both for the very reasons that they differ so much. I love the way that my body feels when it’s churning down the road and pushes toward a 6:00/mile pace; I love the serene engagement and constant activity of a new trail (or discovering newness in one that I’ve run dozens of times). Both settings offer a way of knowing my world and my place in it through running, for which I am very thankful.

The time qualification in Chicago (my second marathon) came from my first marathon attempt in Charlottesville, VA. And, Chicago served to place me into a comfortable BQ qualification zone (2:51:34) where a very hilly Charlottesville and a poor fueling plan left me bonked and roundly out (if 12th place should ever feel so bad). Aside from a slight tinge of disappointment, I absolutely loved every minute of that first marathon (ok, mile 24 didn’t go very well, but still . . .). The town, people, course, support, camaraderie, and overall spirit of the race couldn’t have been more fantastic.

So, it seemed to be a given that Chicago would be all that and more for me, especially with the faster time and BQ. And, by all means, Chicago performs its marathon like a champ. It is, after all, a gigantic, world-class affair. I was, for at least a mile or so, a handful of minutes behind the best of the best. If only they had a strong gravitational field trailing behind them . . .

The very odd realization for me was that, despite having run a mere 2 seconds slower than my target pace, finishing with every “A” goal achieved for the race, I had been absolutely and thoroughly miserable for almost the entire experience. And I knew exactly why I hadn’t enjoyed the run. The noise. Both my aural and visual fields had been completely overwhelmed from the minute I started to run until the moment I queued for a banana at the end. Shouts, screams, bells, amplified rock bands, un-amplified marching bands, and DJs seemed to populate every block (though I do recall thinking that there was one somewhat quiet section of Chinatown). My brain was continuously telling my eyes that we were getting a fantastic architectural tour, but I don’t recall seeing any buildings. Ok, yes, Sears/Willis Tower hovers vaguely in my memory of the run, but is that image really from the run? I can’t be sure. All I knew from the moment that I stopped running was that I had had one of the worst running experiences I could remember in my body. And that really threw me off, especially since I should have been celebrating a real, personal victory, now weirdly detached from experience.

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The avocado on the James River branch

Exactly four weeks after Chicago, I was scheduled to run my first ultra-marathon, the unfortunately named Mountain Masochist, a 50-mile point-to-point run on the Blue Ridge of central Virginia. In terms of the distance, course, terrain, and elevation profile (9,200 ft. of ascent and 7,200 ft. of descent), MMTR could not be more different than the Chicago Marathon. Importantly, my experience of the race was polar opposite as well. From the congregated headlamps of our pre-dawn start to the crisp feeling of creek crossings; from the leisurely aid station munching (sure, I’d love a cheese quesadilla before I conquer the last 13 miles) to the cloud, heavy with moisture, that rolled over the mountain as we ran along the ridge; from the slow crawl up the steep climbs to the angular dancing around the trees. Not only was I happily running 50 miles, I was doing so in a body that felt at ease. Joy.

The MMTR start . . . my daughter said that we looked like a glowing millipede. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker

This is rightfully the first post for this project/blog, and I share it a day before a kind of “beginning.” I’ve made the decision for the coming year to run primarily on trails, having signed up for a series of 6 races. (Honestly, “beast” seems so silly, doesn’t it? I mean, grrrrrrr, I’m a beast! . . . . It’s difficult to reconcile with the feeling of floating I have on trails. Also, the shear magnitude of food at trail races begs for this to be called the “feast” series. But, I digress.) I am also considering the Mount Rinjani Ultra in Indonesia. And, if my body and running practice continues to develop well, an unsupported thru-run of the Appalachian Trail is in the planning. I do have one road marathon on the calendar as well, because I really do love running straight and fast. I will, after all, need to be ready to run Boston in 2017. But, it’s a nice, quiet race on the other side of Lake Michigan. (I won’t even say where on the off chance that I may attract even one more runner to the tiny field.)

All of these events should find their way into this blog, though hopefully in more interesting and less-straight-forward kinds of ways. Now that I’ve grounded myself in this space, experiments will follow. Because, this project is meant to be more than simply a reflection on the running. My goal is to grow more deeply in the creative practice of running as a lived experience. I look forward to sharing it here.

Tomorrow (Feb. 13, 2016), we begin with the Holiday Lake 50K. Let’s.

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