November 15, 2011

On gravity

For the monthly Squamish Writers Group meeting, November's assignment is to write on the subject of gravity:

Training and racing are matters of gravity for the distance runner. Much the way writing is for the writer, running comes natural to the runner but it only comes easy after hard work and dedication.
The marathoner leaps and bounds along the rhythm that her body finds along the space-time continuum. As HG Wells wrote in The Time Machine, "There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space except that our consciousness moves along it."

She moves between the force of attraction that draws her towards the centre of the earth and the suspension in the air as she brings forward her trailing leg, signalling to the other that its turn at the front is done. In that briefest of moments, as her body moves along, the runner is an astronaut on earth, relishing the illusion of momentary respite from the law that grounds us all.

The runner runs to escape what Abraham Maslow called the psychopathology of normality, referring to the fact that "most of us function most of the time on a level lower than that of self-actualization."

The runner's quest to improve is instinctive. It occurs as soon as she takes her first steps; she knows her body and her mind can do better -- instantly. She realizes her potential lies beyond the status quo as long as she is willing to take another step. And then another.

"When I became a runner, I stopped expecting anything for nothing. I discovered that I could just go so far (about one block) without training," wrote George Sheehan in This Running Life.

The runner's dance along the space-time continuum is always a delicate one, searching for the perfect balance as she trains on the edge; the edge of time, age, mental endurance and physical makeup. She aims to find the pinnacle of performance where she can reap the rewards for the years of training before the inevitable physical decline in maximum oxygen consumption, or VO2 max, and muscle mass outweighs the fitness and knowledge gained.

The runner knows she is the only one who can answer the most important questions; what will her genes allow her to do? Has she already squeezed out all that was possible, or is there more left? Will she ever finish a race thinking there is no more speed to gain? Miracles do happen. The mystery of performance, for anyone regardless of ability, is finding the level you are capable of, but first one has to discover the way to achieve it. Both are a matter of trial and error. And the utmost gravity.

Numbers seem to be the name of every runner's game. This runner has gained sixty-four seconds. In three years. After more than 10,000 kilometres of running. That is twenty-one seconds and 3,333 kilometres per year. Every second of speed has taken at least hundred and fifty-six kilometres of training, or about an average of sixty-four kilometres a week every week. Three-hundred and sixty-seven seconds still stand beside her and her ultimate goal: finishing a marathon in two-fifty-nine-fifty-nine. Forty-two consecutive kilometres trotted at four-fifteen per kilometre. She needs to run more. And she will.

Run every day of the week. This winter, a day will not pass without her feet feeling the New Balance REVlites, of which she now owns three pair. Not a day where she can switch off her runner's mind. Not a day without pushing her heart rate beyond 130 beats per minute. The decision to train for a marathon should never be taken lightly. It is a matter of gravity, growing in importance over her 16 years of running.

Some think of it as a matter of vanity. Surely, the only number the female runner is trying to improve, lower, is that on the scale. Her pursuit is fuelled by appearance, implying it is a shallow and unworthy one, according to those non-athletes who make it clear they do not have the time to waste on such immaterial matters.

The athlete has no choice but to assign to her running the highest level of importance. She studies the sport, though most of all studies her body and mind, and how they respond to the demands of marathon training. By now, there is no guidance she can trust better than her own on who she is as an athlete and a competitor. She searches relentlessly for the training schedule that suits her temperament and her current state as a runner. A runner continually evolves as does her running. It takes a lot of training to maintain the status quo of high fitness.

The better the shape of the runner the more it takes to improve it, and the less it takes to lose it; injury, sickness, time constraints, mental weakness or distraction. Sometimes a loss of courage, a loss of hope. A distance runner must be an optimist who can never lose sight of that most subjective of matters, potential. They have to look on the bright side of their personal records, always expecting to be able to better them. They will never win the battle if they lose their conviction that their potential lies beyond their achievements.

Running is religion, a belief the runner follows strictly, without wavering. A runner striving to better her best performance must sustain an absolute conviction she can do better than she has done so far, no matter what. If she loses the conviction, she has found her limits. So she believes, including in the decisions she makes. So many variables, so many choices. There are no hard and fast rules; there is only hard and fast training, with enough recovery and rest to allow the stressed body and mind to recover enough to improve to the next level.

It's been exactly four decades since the first two women broke the magical 3-hour barrier that this runner is aiming for. The fastest has broken it by nearly 45 minutes. But it remains unchartered territory for most. Even falling short of this magical barrier by 6 minutes and 7 seconds, this runner may end 2011 with three times among the year's top 100 women's overall Marathon Canada rankings. This runner believes her potential lies on the other side of three hours. It's only a matter of time. And the utmost gravity.

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