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Couch to Boston

“. . . performance can be understood as process — as enactment, exertion, intervention, and expenditure. . . . Performance, however, is not limited to mimetic repetition. It also includes possibility of change, critique, and creativity within the frameworks of repetition.”

(Diana Taylor. 2016. Performance. Duke University Press. 8, 15.)

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The Avocado on the James River branch. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

For awhile now, I’ve wanted to chart my progression from an essentially static physicality into a steady long-distance running practice. The Boston Marathon is one of those races that has settled into both a running mythos and high watershed of personal achievement. With that experience now in the books, I’ve finally decided that this is the moment to play scribe to the narrative. Thankfully, it feels like just the beginning. Well, actually, the beginning-beginning starts right about . . .

In the fall of 2012, my eldest daughter, Piay, made the transition to middle school, and among the brand new world of subject-specific teachers and fun electives, was the enticement of school sports teams. Aside from a very brief venture into YMCA league basketball, Piay had not really shown much interest in athletics, certainly not anything nearing the time commitment she had given to art, music, and technology at the time. I was somewhat surprised, then, when she came home and announced her desire to join the Kyrene Middle School cross-country team.

“Have you run a mile in your life?” may have been my response.

The pudding of proof was right outside our back gate as we lived directly on the canal path system running through south Tempe, AZ, a burb conveniently carved into one-mile super blocks. Piay and I dug up whatever was serving as sneakers for the moment and made for the door.

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A plumper Avocado. Self-portrait.

There was one very major problem with my plan. After a youth full of little league, then school baseball (running = punishment), steady pick-up basketball, and a brief early-adulthood stint in an ultimate league [prognostication moment: ultimate replaces NFL in thirty years as our collective fall sport obsession], I hadn’t put a single effort into my body for at least a decade.

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Yikes. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

From a lithe 142 lbs. at my ultimate league best, I was now tipping the scales at 225 on my best days. My morning roll out of bed displayed every bit of cheese, bread, pasta, and beer that dominated my diet. Middle-aged. Pre-diabetic. High-blood-pressured. Lethargic. That’s the badass dude on his way out the door.

I knew that I was in trouble as soon as we started down the path. Heat, dust, and fat. Keep it together. Keep it together. Keep it together. In order to maintain any composure, I had to shut out everything in my sensory field. And, if I didn’t look over to see how Piay was doing, then maybe I would be invisible to her along with what I could only assume were multiple signs of suffering. So, it was a surprising jolt to my suspended awareness when a whimper followed by an outright cry came from my right.

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Piay and her infectious team spirit. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

“Paaaaaaa, I think I’m going to throw up.”

That made the both of us.

In the year prior to this scene, I had taken on a new professional role as curator of the Cross-Cultural Dance Resources Collections, a hybrid library/archive/museum newly gifted to the School of Dance at Arizona State University. At first a curiosity to me and then inspiration, the ways in which dance students communicated research interests and information resource needs to their new “information professional-in-residence” were more physically articulated and enacted than I had ever seen in previous contexts. For this community of scholar-artists, the body was the primary mechanism of knowing and engaging the world. The very shallow (and inaccurate) way to view my situation would be: it was uncomfortable to be an overweight dude surrounded by talented, moving bodies. A more nuanced understanding would be that I was functionally illiterate in the first mode of expression, and everything that I was now reading of dance research literature was telling me in no uncertain terms that this made me detached from a better sensual understanding, from a more developed perceptive ability. It was only a very short step from the new (to me) world of somatic research to the strains of phenomenology most closely followed in dance, primarily that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and successive philosophers.

This is all to say that my personal and professional life were saying to me in concert that it was time for me to pay attention to my body.

The needed alterations to my daily habits were easily ascertained but enacted at pains. With regard to my dietary intake,  Joel Fuhrman’s Eat to Live  provided the initial argument and guidance for a recalibration towards a primarily plant-based diet and elimination of added sugars that settled well with me. By simply (though with an anticipated period of withdrawal symptoms) applying those changes along with more sensible portions, I lost twenty pounds in the first month (November 2012) and was under 200 by the end of the year for the first time in several years.

As for physical practice, I assumed that I would not be able to run outright initially, so I maintained a new schedule of long elliptical machine sessions, short treadmill jogs, and a weekly spin class. And, finally, there is what I acknowledge to be a necessary component of intellectual engagement with my own consciousness and personal hopes related to the progress of my life. I would suppose that this comes for many people in the form of some variation and/or combination of religious practice, study of doctrine, or intentional spirituality, all of which I respect from the distance of agnosticism. Instead, I have maintained an ongoing exploration, from the most scholarly to popular extractions, of phenomenological research, a branch of philosophy that begins from a post-Cartesian notion that we perceive existence by being a physical presence within it. As with any other such endeavor, there are strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for new thought, but it keeps me resonant, receptive, and active in my mind’s experiences of what has become a very sincere dedication to long-distance running.

In highlights, here is how my transition into running competitively through a series of longer distances and from roads to trails has unfolded:

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The Avocado on the New River branch. Photo: Runabout Sports

November 2013: first 5K
October 2014: first half marathon (Hokie Half, 1:29:48 [9th place in 1:22:36 a year later])
October 2014: first trail half (Brush Mountain Breakdown, 1:39:58 [1st place in 1:26:54 in 2016])

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The Avocado and an LUS bird. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

April 2015: first full marathon (Charlottesville, 3:13:37)
June 2015: first trail marathon (Conquer the Cove, 4:04:36 [3rd place in 3:20:18 in 2017])
October 2015: BQ marathon time (Chicago, 2:51:33)
November 2015: first trail ultra (Mountain Masochist 50-miler, 8:52:59)
October 2016: Lynchburg Ultra Series, 1st Place Masters winner (HL50K, TM50K, PL50K, MMTR)
December 2016: first 100K (Hellgate, 13:10:56)
April 2017: Boston Marathon (2:50:24)
July 2017: first 100M: (Canal Corridor, 2nd place in 16:36:34)

Aggregated results are also available on my Athlinks and UltraSignUp pages.

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The Avocado on the Lake Michigan branch. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

I have written previously about the parallel development of my road and trail running practices. They remain very different experiences for me, and I have only further deepened in my commitment to the trails as I allot my time and energy. It seems now that I will find an interesting half and full marathon combination each year.

JayProffitt
The Avocado on the Roanoke River branch. Photo: Jay Proffitt.

In fact, I am in many regards most thankful for the Boston Marathon for having precipitated the road-specific training window that led me to a physically fulfilling and rewarding personal record at the Skidaway Island half marathon in Savannah, GA of 1:17:24 (a PR that lowered my time by more than four minutes). That being said, the Boston Marathon also stands as my final excursion into large-scale destination road races of its sort. I have taken some joy in the history and collective experience of which I was a part by being there, but I am very certain now that the running circumstances as they are satisfy almost none of the instincts and intentions that compel me to run.

Being in Coral 2 of Wave 1 at Boston positioned me to feel a part of some important pre-race activities. Kathrine Switzer’s speech (I could see the grandstand), and the entrance of the elite runners were especially exciting. (It was fun to catch glimpses of Desi, Meb, Jared, and Mike Wardian as they hustled past our corral.) I mostly lack any great enthusiasm for celebrity, though. As for the race itself, the net effect of being so closely corralled with so many runners of similar strides is that you are more or less with a large, unitary cohort of peers that aggregate for a major portion of the course, save for any adjustments due to better/worse preparation that radiate in both directions. So congealed is this mass of humanity that even my watch data was briefly colonized by a heart-rate monitor affixed to a neighbor.

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Boston Marathon course near Wellesley College. Photo: Gr5555 (CC-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

The spectacle was certainly grand and I was immensely appreciative of the generosity of the city and its inhabitants. But, there were also moments so bizarrely disjunct from the running itself that I often struggled with maintaining my sense of purpose and forward motion. The best example that I can recall may well be the 30+ children bouncing on mini-trampolines as we passed one neighborhood. I am sure that there is a reasonable explanation for that scene. I assume that it would take the librarian in me little time to find out in retrospect. But, I prefer for it to remain the mystery that it was in that moment as we passed.

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The Avocado and Daughters on the Charles River branch. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

Likewise, the enthusiastic (if not entirely sober) students of Wellesley were audience to the race, or perhaps we runners were audience to their annual performance of the scream tunnel, I can’t be entirely sure. The Scream Tunnel has a FaceBook page? Yes, it does. There are so many layers of messed up about this part of the race, I’m just going to say, “wow,” and “huh,” followed by another, quieter, “wow” while looking off into the distance . . . . Has anyone written a cultural anthropology study of that annual ritual? Someone should, if not. I’m serious about this.

In the end, I ran a time that was a PR (just a hair over 2:50) but about four minutes slower than a reasonably set goal of 2:46. I didn’t have much time to be disappointed, though, as the graciousness of Boston washed over me at the finish line and radiated out into the city and all of the way back to our hotel, even among the security personnel in the public transit system. It was a good retirement party . . . the best one, in fact. I’m never going to get pulled back into a similar event (NYC, Berlin, Tokyo . . . ), so major city marathoning had to end somewhere, it was a fitting close. I’ll road marathon again next year, but the race is so small that I’m sure you haven’t heard of it . . . .

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Snow Trail Avocado (plus an awesome RD, Josh Gilbert). Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

In the meantime, I look out towards a full calendar of some exciting trail races, run in a body that now arrives at the starting line somewhere between 130-135 pounds and fueled on good, healthy whole foods.

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Tropical Trail Avocado. Self-portrait.

My bookshelf, reading list, and writing plan are filled to the brim with inspiring texts and phenomenological thoughts. Post-Boston running life seems pretty darn busy and full, and I’m ready for a run.

 

PiayRun
Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

Post-Script. Piay continues to jog from time-to-time, but honestly, the art, music, and technology still wins the day of her heart and mind. She will patiently listen to me go on and on about phenomenology over a healthy dinner or a hike through the woods. In other words . . . her gracious and generous spirit still resides in the story of my running, and her presence remains as much a mentorship to me as I hope I am occasionally a source of guidance to her. Onward, kiddo.

Post-post-script: Some parts of this blog post have been altered in response to direct criticism. My personal view is that the material in question was written lightly and would be received as such by people who knew me. I did not take into account the possibility of readers who do not know me well. Therefore, I have updated content to assume a more distant readership.

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Appalachian Trail Notes, Part 2

“For many women as they move in sport, a space surrounds us in imagination that we are not free to move beyond; the space available to our movement is constricted space. . . .

Our attention is often divided between the aim to be realized in motion and the body that must accomplish it . . . We often experience bodies as a fragile encumbrance, rather than the media for the enactment of our aims. . . .

Where these modalities [ambiguous transcendence; inhibited intentionality; discontinuous unity] are not manifest in or determinative of the existence of a particular woman, however, they are definitive in a negative mode — as that which she has escaped, through accident or good fortune . . .

. . . the woman lives her body as object as well as subject . . . She also lives the threat of invasion of her bodily space.”

(Iris Marion Young. 1980. “Throwing like a girl: A phenomenology of feminine body comportment, motility, and spatiality.” Human Studies 3: 137-56.)


I have more than a few opinions about both the supported and self-supported fastest known time (FKT) records for traversing the Appalachian Trail. And, like most opinions I have, I would do very well to keep them to myself. So, I’ll mostly do just that. But, some of the dialogue that I saw emerge from the coverage of the Olympics with regard to gender/biological sex and sport overlapped so clearly with my own thinking about the AT-FKT’s that I simply want to share some (mildly opinionated) observations.

The Supported Record

Scott Jurek (M), a highly trained, thoroughly corporate-sponsored, decorated in awards, trail-running guru set a new FKT of 46 days, 8 hours, 7 minutes, topping the previous record of 46 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes of Jennifer Pharr Davis (F). To convert these numbers, Jurek (66,727 minutes) to Pharr Davis (66,920 minutes), a difference of 193 minutes that disappears if Pharr Davis simply got up 4 min. and 13 sec. sooner every day. A reduction in the record of 0.2%. Or, if one were to beat Usain Bolt’s current 100m record by the same percentage, a reduction of 0.0276 secs. Measurable, for sure, but barely.

The Self-Supported Record

Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson set a new FKT of 54 days, 7 hours, 48 minutes, topping the previous record of 58 days, 9 hours, 40 minutes of Matt Kirk. Anderson in 78,228 minutes;
Kirk in 84,100 minutes, a difference of 5,872 minutes that would have required Kirk to wake up 1 hr., 38 min., and 48 sec. earlier every day of his hike. This is a reduction in the record of 6.98%. If one were to beat Usain Bolt’s current 100m record by the same percentage, a reduction of 0.6686 sec. (which would consequently lower the mark to below the 9 sec. barrier). One further should not lose sight of the fact that Anderson’s record is just under 8 days longer than the supported record. One person, all responsibility, carrying and refreshing all supplies only a week+ slower than someone with a team mixing protein shakes and grilling veggie burritos, a stocked camper van, and pro trail running pacers. Yeah, Heather Anderson rules.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

I have a great deal of respect for these athletes. They have each accomplished something monumental. In the greater sense of the trail running community and its internal behaviors, Jurek, I believe, has drawn to a tie with Pharr Davis. On the other hand, Anderson definitively set a singular mark of great achievement.

Do I believe that there is a compelling narrative here with regard to gender/sex and competition (especially in endurance sports)? Abso-freaking-lutely. What is perhaps the most disappointing of all is the date of Young’s prescient article cited above in the context of the mind-numbing rhetoric in our public dialogue during the Olympic games. That’s an opinion I am not afraid to share in the least.

 

Appalachian Trail Notes, Part 1

“The circle of hyper-reflection can be so finely grained, in such tiny loops, that it can be done in the midst of experience. A dancer [/runner] who interrogates her movement phenomenologically in the very moment of dancing attempts to not let reflection intervene and shape the flow of movement but knows that it will change the process, perhaps making it more conscious, providing more depth.” (Susan Kozel. 2007. Closer: Performance, technology, phenomenology. Boston: MIT Press, 22)

“For any lived body, the world appears as the system of possibilities that are correlative to its intentions [after Merleau-Ponty] . . . For any lived body, moreover, the world also appears to be populated with opacities and resistances correlative to its own limits and frustrations. For any bodily existence, that is, an ‘I cannot’ may appear to set limits to the ‘I can.’” (Iris Marion Young. 1980. “Throwing like a girl: A phenomenology of feminine body comportment, motility, and spatiality.” Human Studies 3: 137-56.)


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In many ways, this is a post about not running. Well, actually, in every way. And something more than that . . .

Like many folks in the wider trail running community, I watched with great interest as both the supported and self-supported fastest known time (FKT) records for traversing the Appalachian Trail fell last summer, to Scott Jurek and Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson, respectively. I also found myself among a further subset of attentive observers, those with a long-abiding interest in and lived proximity to the Appalachian Trail itself. Having finally resolved two years ago to answer the internal call to return to the central Appalachians of my youth, the AT again loomed large in both my immediate environment (I live less than 15 miles off-trail) and my psyche. And, in perhaps the most esoteric of my senses of connection to these FKT’s, I identify as being among those who are culturally Appalachian, a strongly felt if very much problematic, varied, diverse, and elastic identity in this landscape.

That is all to say that a tiny voice with a big mouth in my mind said, “huh, I wonder if my trail running body could have a go at that . . .” And, indeed, I spent the next several months exploring, testing, thinking, strategizing, deciding, planning, equipping, mapping, boxing, posting, driving, and then starting (self-supported). There a great many details in those verbs that I’ll leave for either another day or the oblivion, because they are both tedious and likely of limited interest. I will only say that I was very serious about the attempt; that I arranged to be ultra-light in order to run (rather than hike) when I could; and that I am ultimately grateful for many of the personal discoveries that I made in what became a failed campaign (though I have successfully taken in significant parts of the AT as a result). What I intend to reveal here about the experience itself are the details that overlap with the greater purpose of this blog, to document my phenomenological observations in running.

Traveling north-to-south on the trail, my journey necessarily began with the negative-mile climb up Katahdin in order to simply begin, followed by a full-on assault of the 100-Mile Wilderness. Day 1: 44 miles (though, 38 and change that actually counted). Thus began a daily grind aimed at keeping pace with a formidable challenge set by a great athlete.

My own hyper-reflection and constant, sustained awareness of the bodily experience, the can and cannot of my running endeavor, began to target certain particular and peculiar aspects of the activity. Certainly, I met with varying degrees of injury/aches/pains, especially in the demanding terrain of Maine and New Hampshire. But, I would not say that those presented me with either surprise nor physical limitation demanding that I discontinue the adventure. However, there were two very distinct parts of the experience that did halt the FKT attempt. And, like Kozel’s dancer in a state of flow, my progression was altered both as a part of and because of the sensuous process as it unfolded.

First and foremost, I wasn’t actually able to run. And, so, I mostly hiked quickly for long periods of time. Now, that probably doesn’t sound like too much of a problem, and indeed to many folks I suspect that it adheres to a resolution towards a greater bodily good. Except, I like to run. No, I LOVE to run. It is a mode of movement that I prefer to experience as often as possible. In the case of Maine, I would approximate that 15% of my miles were accomplished in some form of slow running or jogging. In New Hampshire, that minuscule ratio of physical happiness plummeted into the technical bouldering and steep climbs of the otherwise otherworldly and gorgeous White Mountains. In fact, I recall with such vivid clarity-via-joy the stretch around Ethan Pond and Thoreau Falls for the run-able trail that the remainder then lives in my experiential recollection of movement as something altogether not running.

The second problem was infinitely more complicated, difficult to accurately identify, and even more troublesome to clearly articulate. But, here goes the attempt nonetheless. The very nature of my activity and effort meant that I passed south-bound thru- and section- hikers only a little less quickly than the north-bounders. “Howdy, how are ya, how about that mud, how are the water sources . . . ?” and then onward. Since most hikers are looking to only cover 12-15 miles in a day at most, my days began two hours before and ended two hours after just about everyone I may have casually met. And this became a physically manifest, phenomenological crisis for me personally. I can remember with vivid clarity the two, yes two, handshakes that constituted my only human-touch-experiences in twenty-two days. It turns out that running through my environment is not the only way in which my body joyfully experiences the world. I began to have repeated, deeply emotional dreams about my partner and my children embracing me. I felt a terrific sense of loss, compounded by the loss of running, in the distance that I (obviously due to clear and absolutely reasonable social norms of interaction with strangers) needed to maintain with the people I was around.

In the end, I determined that I was unable to resolve either of these issues in the interest of continuing my self-supported march south. But, that doesn’t mean that my time on the AT is through. It’s only just begun. I’m back to my running vest and a day of supplies, followed by a long drive home to the comfort of hugs and dinner at the table. For now, it’s how I’ll click away at VA, TN, NC, and maybe GA. And if another FKT attempt is ever in my future, it most certainly will not be of the self-supported variety, which is quite alright by me. For reasons that I’ll explain in another post, Heather Anderson is a certified beast and possessed of a record that will stand well past the likes of me (and pretty much any other human being).


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Terrapin Mountain 50K

“. . . the nature and role that mimetic empathy plays in a dancer is not mere representation, but a materiality grounded in bodily experiences . . . to watch dance is to have a ‘feeling of’ the movement, simulating movement sensations . . .” (Edward C. Warburton. Of meanings and movements: Re-languaging embodiment in dance phenomenology and cognition. Dance Research Journal 43(2): 65-83.)

“When I run my eyes over the text set before me, there do not occur perceptions which stir up representations, but patterns are formed as I look, and these are endowed with a typical or familiar physiognomy. . . . The reading of the word is a modulation of visible space, the performance of the movement is a modulation of manual space, and the whole question is how a cretin physiognomy of ‘visual’ patterns can evoke a certain type of motor response, how each ‘visual’ structure eventually provides itself with its mobile essence without there being any need to spell the word or specify the movement in detail in order to translate one into the other.”  (Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception, 167)


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The avocado on the James River branch and his super hip daughter sporting their fancy dancing shoes. Photo courtesy of Natasha Lamalle and used by permission.

Terrapin Mountain 50K, three returns to a single point, a gentle gravitational pull of aid and people at Camping Gap, resonating like distant, distantly periodic gendhing gong strokes of gamelan memories and Java time . . . in Wonogiri (wono = forest; giri = mountain)  . . . /// wonder-full wayward whimsy once witnessed wandering the waduk, whence Wonogiri \\\ . . . squeezing a java-aroma-ed gel between my teeth after mile 2 (“eat [flavored snot packs] early and often,” mixing paraphrases of single-tracked friends), Matt and Aaron already far ahead, dancing, battling, becoming Bambang Cakil

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while behind the rest float up and over the buka and first gong parting ways with half-marathoners already starting home, settling into paced thoughts tracing Mahabharata bedtime stories with Otis over chimed melodies, shadow plays of Arjuna sojourning Himalayan Indrakila, tested by gods in mountains, an upward slope gathering John, Chris, Joshua, and me into temporary Srimpi

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lulling legs listless labored lapping miles and over again . . . gong . . . gathering clouds into slightest snow until Chris/John finally disconnect and depart across the penultimate stroke and finish as a Gambyong pair . . .

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. . . and I linger longer on the hill as the pace slows . . . kembang aren tumungkul anent duren, sandunge kula mulat ing paduka, hanganggit puspita, temuhan wiyago” o o o o . . . gong . . .

 

 

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.)


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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:

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HL50K elevation profile.

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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.

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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.)


 

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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.

View More: http://mykkah.pass.us/mmtr2015
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.

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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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