Oops

After 65 years of living, and nearly 40 of running, I thought I’d pretty much discovered all the ways I could get into trouble.

Last Sunday, I ran a little over 2 hours in the foothills of the San Francisco Peninsula, and I pushed the pace too hard. Ten days later, I’m paying the price, with the worst case of bronchitis I’ve ever had.

During the run, I felt wonderful. I had started taking a new supplement that appeared to fill a “hole” in my diet. I felt as peppy as the young runner I was in 1970. My body just kept finding fresh energy.

(I don’t feel it would be wise to recommend the supplement until I’ve tested it for a reasonable period.)

I normally do long runs conservatively — I take a lengthy warmup (45-65 minutes isn’t unusual), at a gentle 65-70% of my maximum heart rate.

After perhaps 40 minutes, I’ll pick up the pace to 70-75% of MHR, and a little after an hour I may increase the pace again to 77-79% of MHR and hold it there. Why that specific pace? Because it feels exactly right. I believe inner feeling is an extremely useful training tool.

I’m not the only one who thinks that way. In an interview on the Nike website, American 5000-meter record holder Bob Kennedy shared his thoughts about good training: “You have to really pay attention to your body, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally.” [Italics mine.]

Last Sunday, I pushed too hard. With superabundant energy, I let myself run faster than my “harmony pace.” Ten days later, Mother Nature is telling me, “You wouldn’t be sick now, if you’d listened to what I was trying to say.”

Where did I go wrong?

I allowed myself to be guided by personal, emotional feelings, instead of consulting the kind of calm, dispassionate, reasonable feeling that the body uses to tell us about its needs.

Nobuya “Nobby” Hashizume studied with coaching legend Arthur Lydiard for a year in New Zealand. Nobby now coaches at the University of Minnesota. He’s also the co-founder, with 1984 Boston Marathon winner and 1992 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Lorraine Moller, of the Lydiard Foundation. In a wonderful discussion of Lydiard’s methods on the Cool Running community forums, Nobby wrote:

Lydiard said something like “You should not be alarmed by temporary exhaustion; but you should watch out for permanent fatigue…” Something like that. In order to identify the differences, you need to rely, more than anything else, on your own feeling. When we got together with Frank Shorter in regards to his support for the Lydiard Foundation, two things he emphasized most with Lydiard principles were: high-mileage training and feeling-based training.

There are a zillion questions about running for I don’t know the scientific answers. Among the most basic is: What training heart rate is best for the long run?

If you consult books by well-known coaches and runners say, you’ll find that they rarely agree. Peter Snell, winner of four Olympic gold medals as a Lydiard protégé, believes long runs should be done at “medium” pace. For the world-class Lydiard runners that Snell ran with, that translated to a weekly 22-mile trail run at 7:00 pace at the start of the 10-week aerobic base training phase, and 6:00 toward the end.

Other authorities give different answers. Philip Maffetone, coach of six-time Hawaiian Ironman winner Mark Allen, urges runners to go no faster during the aerobic build-up phase than their “180-minus” pace. Not to delve into the details, but by any standard, that’s slower than “medium” pace — e.g., for me, it works out to just 70% of MHR.

Ask Jeff Galloway, Joe Henderson, or (former Frank Shorter teammate) John L. Parker, Jr., and you’ll get a colorfully varied bouquet of answers. Ask former marathon world record holder Ingrid Kristiansen, and you’ll get yet another reply:

It takes a long time to build up your fat metabolism capacity; normally several years of training. The type of training we think is most effective are long easy runs. It is important that this training is easy and not too hard (because then the carbohydrate dominance will take over). At the same time this type of training should not be too easy either.

How hard should I have run last Sunday? I didn’t need to consult a book. The answer was as close as my heart. During the second hour of the run, I had a distinctly harmonious feeling whenever I held my heart rate at 137-138 (for me, that’s about 79% of MHR). But when I picked up the pace and my heart soared above 140 (80%), those harmonious feelings vanished. During those stretches, I was pushing hard, seeking a higher level of joy in running, and finding no genuine satisfaction at all.

What do I mean by “harmonious” feelings? I mean that the 78-79% pace felt exactly right. The years and miles have taught me to respect those feelings, because when I do so, my training delivers the best results, inwardly and outwardly. They’re my body’s way of saying “You’re doing the right thing, kiddo.”

Last Sunday, my heart and head were arguing. I thought, “‘Aerobic pace’ ends at 85% of MHR — so why should there be any problem if I run just a notch faster, a little above 80%?” But my heart disagreed. And my heart was right.

Runners are prone to assume that when they’re feeling great, capable of running harder than the day’s schedule calls for, they should. It’s all based on unimpeachable logic: I’ve got all this energy — and why not use it to train hard and get really strong? Why chicken out and go home without giving my all? The trouble is, logic deals with abstractions; but intuition deals with the thousand unknown variables that lie outside of logic’s grasp.

Perhaps it is the right thing to run hard on a particular day — but never if it overrides the incorruptible feelings of the heart. You can fool the emotions. You can — easily — fool the mind. But you can’t fool the intuitive heart. Those calm feelings of right and wrong are unbribable — you can’t jolly them into doing something that will prove harmful, farther down the road.

When I think of the heart, I visualize one of those beautiful Swiss villages set in an impossibly green valley, surrounded by mountains that ascend steeply to snowy peaks. The heart is like a picturesque Swiss village, placed halfway between the mountain heights and the flat plains far below. All kinds of feelings pass through the heart, from the most mundane and practical, to the most lofty and expansive. In his autobiography, the great master of yoga, Paramhansa Yogananda, describes his first experience of samadhi, a superconscious state of ecstasy in which the meditator perceives the unity of soul and Spirit.

Having left his guru’s hermitage in a misguided attempt to find God through solitary meditation in the Himalayas, the young disciple has returned shamefacedly. (The entire book is available online; the following is from Chapter 14, “An Experience in Cosmic Consciousness”.

I’m quoting it because it reveals how the heart can serve as a gateway to a world far above practical questions of long runs and heart monitors. Of his experience of ecstasy, Yogananda writes, “I cognized the center of the empyrean as a point of intuitive perception in my heart.”. I could have limited the quote to that short sentence, but I can’t resist posting it at length. Note: I’ve quoted this passage also in another, article on this site, “Darwin, Dawkins, Distance Runner”. I’m reproducing it here to avoid referring the reader to that very long article.

First, though, a word on how those few among us who may not be capable of samadhi can, nevertheless, find our way into enjoyable expanded states while we run.

I nearly always find that if I take a long warmup and use the time to pay careful attention to what’s going on in the moment, that this simple practice delivers rich rewards.

It often happens like this. I’ll be jogging up a leafy canyon trail by a bubbling stream. Instead of thinking and planning, I’ll let my awareness fall into the pleasures of the scenery, and the inner harmony that comes with running at just the right pace.

If I can keep my attention focused in a relaxed way, and not get impatient or distracted, I often find myself moving into even more enjoyable states. When my body is thoroughly warmed-up, I’m able to run faster while holding mental focus, always a lovely experience.

There seems to be a working relationship between the mind and heart — without paying attention, it’s less likely that a run will pan out joyfully. And without the right, interested feeling, it’s hard to become immersed in the moment. It’s an interesting game, and fruitful way to spend time during a run, exploring heart and mind.

As you may imagine, I’m not an iPod runner. But then, I’m not one of those hard, cold, over-disciplined “serious” runners, either. I don’t see why training — or running as spiritual practice — can’t be a natural, relaxed and joyful thing.

Anyway — on to the story of Yogananda’s first samadhi.

A few mornings later I made my way to Master’s empty sitting room. I planned to meditate, but my laudable purpose was unshared by disobedient thoughts. They scattered like birds before the hunter.

“Mukunda!” Sri Yukteswar’s voice sounded from a distant inner balcony.

I felt as rebellious as my thoughts. “Master always urges me to meditate,” I muttered to myself. “He should not disturb me when he knows why I came to his room.”

He summoned me again; I remained obstinately silent. The third time his tone held rebuke.

“Sir, I am meditating,” I shouted protestingly.

“I know how you are meditating,” my guru called out, “with your mind distributed like leaves in a storm! Come here to me.”

Snubbed and exposed, I made my way sadly to his side.

“Poor boy, the mountains couldn’t give what you wanted.” Master spoke caressively, comfortingly. His calm gaze was unfathomable. “Your heart’s desire shall be fulfilled.”

Sri Yukteswar seldom indulged in riddles; I was bewildered. He struck gently on my chest above the heart.

My body became immovably rooted; breath was drawn out of my lungs as if by some huge magnet. Soul and mind instantly lost their physical bondage, and streamed out like a fluid piercing light from my every pore. The flesh was as though dead, yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before had I been fully alive. My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confined to a body, but embraced the circumambient atoms. People on distant streets seemed to be moving gently over my own remote periphery. The roots of plants and trees appeared through a dim transparency of the soil; I discerned the inward flow of their sap.

The whole vicinity lay bare before me. My ordinary frontal vision was now changed to a vast spherical sight, simultaneously all-perceptive. Through the back of my head I saw men strolling far down Rai Ghat Road, and noticed also a white cow who was leisurely approaching. When she reached the space in front of the open ashram gate, I observed her with my two physical eyes. As she passed by, behind the brick wall, I saw her clearly still.

All objects within my panoramic gaze trembled and vibrated like quick motion pictures. My body, Master’s, the pillared courtyard, the furniture and floor, the trees and sunshine, occasionally became violently agitated, until all melted into a luminescent sea; even as sugar crystals, thrown into a glass of water, dissolve after being shaken. The unifying light alternated with materializations of form, the metamorphoses revealing the law of cause and effect in creation.

An oceanic joy broke upon calm endless shores of my soul. The Spirit of God, I realized, is exhaustless Bliss; His body is countless tissues of light. A swelling glory within me began to envelop towns, continents, the earth, solar and stellar systems, tenuous nebulae, and floating universes. The entire cosmos, gently luminous, like a city seen afar at night, glimmered within the infinitude of my being. The sharply etched global outlines faded somewhat at the farthest edges; there I could see a mellow radiance, ever-undiminished. It was indescribably subtle; the planetary pictures were formed of a grosser light.

The divine dispersion of rays poured from an Eternal Source, blazing into galaxies, transfigured with ineffable auras. Again and again I saw the creative beams condense into constellations, then resolve into sheets of transparent flame. By rhythmic reversion, sextillion worlds passed into diaphanous luster; fire became firmament.

I cognized the center of the empyrean as a point of intuitive perception in my heart. Irradiating splendor issued from my nucleus to every part of the universal structure. Blissful amrita, the nectar of immortality, pulsed through me with a quicksilverlike fluidity. The creative voice of God I heard resounding as Aum, the vibration of the Cosmic Motor.

Suddenly the breath returned to my lungs. With a disappointment almost unbearable, I realized that my infinite immensity was lost. Once more I was limited to the humiliating cage of a body, not easily accommodative to the Spirit. Like a prodigal child, I had run away from my macrocosmic home and imprisoned myself in a narrow microcosm.

My guru was standing motionless before me; I started to drop at his holy feet in gratitude for the experience in cosmic consciousness which I had long passionately sought. He held me upright, and spoke calmly, unpretentiously.

“You must not get overdrunk with ecstasy. Much work yet remains for you in the world. Come; let us sweep the balcony floor; then we shall walk by the Ganges.”

I fetched a broom; Master, I knew, was teaching me the secret of balanced living. The soul must stretch over the cosmogonic abysses, while the body performs its daily duties. When we set out later for a stroll, I was still entranced in unspeakable rapture. I saw our bodies as two astral pictures, moving over a road by the river whose essence was sheer light.

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