Seasons of a Runner 2: Children of Light

Last week I wrote about the “seasons of a runner.” I described how my long runs have three “seasons”: the “winter” of the warmup, the awakening of “spring,” and the “summer” of fast, efficient running.

The “seasons” of my long runs come in neat packages: 40 minutes of winter (a warmup at 65-67% MHR), 40 minutes of spring (“aerobic training” at 70-79% MHR), and a tempo run and cool-down (generally 20-25 minutes at 90%+, followed by a 15-minute jog).

I wouldn’t dream of urging others to follow my formula. Every runner’s requirements are unique. A younger, more talented runner, for example, would surely feel loose and ready to run fast after a much shorter warmup than my old, untalented body requires.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t always adhere to the 40-40-40 formula. I try to “listen to my body” and do what it wants on a given day.

A friend of mine at the gym hasn’t been exercising for very long. He knows I’ve been at it a long time, and he’s always asking questions about my schedule. I answer hesitantly, because our goals are very different. Joe dislikes “aerobic exercise” – whereas I love it. He visits the gym 3-4 days a week and exercises moderately – but I do a single, hard weekly weight workout. I tell Joe my schedule, but I add, “What counts – the way anyone can find fulfillment – is by stretching our own edges, starting exactly where we are.” I tell him, “It doesn’t really matter if your schedule and mine are different. What matters is that what you’re doing is moving you forward. It’s all good.”

Lots of people who’re into fitness have a hard time getting past the notion that there’s “one true way.” After all, it does seem logical that there would be a single exercise routine that’s perfect for everyone. At first glance, human beings don’t seem all that different – we all exercise with arms, legs, a heart, and lungs. But, in fact, we differ tremendously.

Listen to David Costill, one of the world’s foremost running physiologists:

When I coached Bob Fitts (champion distance runner who is one now one of the most prominent muscle researchers in the U.S.), we used to have heated arguments about performance. He would insist that anybody could be a champion if they trained hard enough. He’s since changed his opinion. Now, he admits: “Oh no, it’s genetics.” If you start looking at genetics in a four hour marathoner and a 2:05 guy, they are markedly different. (From an interview in Runner’s World Daily News)

You might expect that scientists, who try to be objective students of reality, would readily accept the plain fact of individual differences. Yet many are as fatally attracted by the vision of uniformity as the rest of us.

A story in the February 14, 2009 Newsweek, Who Says Stress is Bad for You,” vividly illustrates how closed-minded scientists can be. The article describes how mainline psychologists and physiologists reject new research that shows moderate stress is actually good for us:

The stress response-the body’s hormonal reaction to danger, uncertainty or change-evolved to help us survive, and if we learn how to keep it from overrunning our lives, it still can. In the short term, it can energize us, “revving up our systems to handle what we have to handle,” says Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist at UCLA. In the long term, stress can motivate us to do better at jobs we care about. A little of it can prepare us for a lot later on, making us more resilient. Even when it’s extreme, stress may have some positive effects-which is why, in addition to posttraumatic stress disorder, some psychologists are starting to define a phenomenon called posttraumatic growth. “There’s really a biochemical and scientific bias that stress is bad, but anecdotally and clinically, it’s quite evident that it can work for some people,” says Orloff. “We need a new wave of research with a more balanced approach to how stress can serve us.” Otherwise, we’re all going to spend far more time than we should stressing ourselves out about the fact that we’re stressed out.

When I started asking researchers about “good stress,” many of them said it essentially didn’t exist. “We never tell people stress is good for them,” one said. Another allowed that it might be, but only in small ways, in the short term, in rats. What about people who thrive on stress, I asked-people who become policemen or ER docs or air-traffic controllers because they like seeking out chaos and putting things back in order? Aren’t they using stress to their advantage? No, the researchers said, those people are unhealthy. “This business of people saying they ‘thrive on stress’? It’s nuts,” Bruce Rabin, a distinguished psychoneuroimmunologist, pathologist and psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told me. Some adults who seek out stress and believe they flourish under it may have been abused as children or permanently affected in the womb after exposure to high levels of adrenaline and cortisol, he said. Even if they weren’t, he added, they’re “trying to satisfy” some psychological need. Was he calling this a pathological state, I asked-saying that people who feel they perform best under pressure actually have a disease? He thought for a minute, and then: “You can absolutely say that. Yes, you can say that.”

Isn’t that amazing? Upon reading the article, I thought, “Ask any marathoner or ultrarunner – they’ll absolutely tell you that stress can be wonderful.”

In fact, if running has taught me one thing, it’s that the hardest races and workouts often produce the best memories and the highest highs. The Newsweek article pointed out that the “inventor” of stress, Dr. Hans Selye, made a clear distinction between “bad” stress and “good” stress, which he termed “eustress.”

In his wonderful book, Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t, J. Donald Walters describes a timeless principle of the world’s spiritual traditions: that the key to increasing happiness, and diminishing sorrow, is expanding our individual awareness.

It’s an idea that dovetails seamlessly with the experience of runners. Take the notion of running “seasons.”

In my running, I’ve seen that the same “seasons” show up not only in a single run, but in the long rhythms of my career.

When I stopped running ultras, for example, I happened to mention the fact to Joe Henderson, and he told me that each phase of his career had lasted about six years. He’d run track for around six years, marathons for six years, shorter road races for six years, etc.

I modestly didn’t mention that I’d stumbled upon the notion of six-year stages years earlier, thanks to another book by Walters, Education for Life. I’ve mentioned that book before: how Walters describes the six-year stages of a child’s maturation.

In a nutshell, the first stage is for the body – from birth to about age 6 children are busy exploring the body and senses. From 6 to 12, feelings come to the fore; from 12 to 18, it’s will power, 18 to 24 is for the mind, and at around 24 people often experience a spiritual awakening.

Similarly for a runner’s career – the first six years are mostly about the body – establishing basic fitness and finding a harmonious attunement with the physical logistics of running – shoes, fuels, training, clothing, weather, hydration, etc. And the key to getting the maximum fulfillment from each stage is individual expansion – in plain English, “stretching our own, personal edges.”

After around six years, once basic fitness is achieved and we’re comfortably self-identified as “runners,” our awareness turns to the romance of running. For example, we form affectionate emotional connections with our running role models, and we seek running venues that make us feel wonderful. I suspect most of us have an internal list of five or 10 favorite places to run. For me, venue #1 is the glorious trails of Mt. Tamalpais, north of San Francisco. (Here’s my photographic trail guide to Mt. Tam.)

I remember the “feeling” stage with special fondness – I vividly recall how wonderful it was to run single-track trails through oak woodlands, with kitkidizze shrubs brushing my ankles, running in ultimate simplicity, just shoes and shorts, while sending loving thoughts to Ann Trason, my then-running idol.

At around 12 years, the romance begins to wear thin. We’ve expanded our awareness about as far as we’re able through the channel of the heart, and we begin to feel a yearning for new joys. For most runners, that translates into seeking fresh challenges that invite us to grow stronger, tougher, more resilient and enduring. Think: the marathon and beyond.

After tasting the hard-won joys of running insanely long distances for six years, we may become fascinated with the mental aspects of running. We might start a training diary, tinker with a heart monitor, and read up on the patterns of training that have worked for others. We’re seeking the wise lore of running, in recognition that “running smarter” will improve our chances of running with joy.

The final stage is spiritual. No church membership is required to savor these joys, only a soul-felt yearning for happiness. If we aren’t religiously inclined, the “spiritual” joys may come through nonsectarian inward expansion – for example, by finding ways to escape the petty demands of the ego, perhaps by running for charity or by teaching or helping others – maybe by crewing at races.

An essential fact at each of the stages is that they are individual. At no point does our nature inwardly tell us that we can pass through the current stage only by joining a group or social or political movement, or by following someone else’s rigid scheme. Our own nature invites us to find joy successively through the body, heart, will, mind, and soul – just as it encourages children to explore these facets of human nature in sequence. And our higher nature delivers the tools to find the joy of expansion, beginning where we are, with our own abilities and needs.

As Walters explains in Education for Life, Nature hasn’t chosen this particular sequence randomly. For example, why did nature place feelings first in the equation, immediately after basic physical competence is achieved? Why are feelings so important in the child’s development? The answer, Walters says, is that feelings are a crucial tool for everything that follows. For example, it’s refined feeling that enables us to tell right from wrong. And how can a child use his/her will power wisely, without the ability to sensitively feel the realities of others? Unfeeling, self-centered, brute will power is a monstrosity.

Similarly, will power precedes the intellect in a young person’s development because mental insights are impotent without the power to carry them to fruition by action. Will power gives us the strength to pursue a wise and mature life based on eternal principles.

Nature is wonderfully wise. And Nature’s highest goal is to develop the individual.

In the spiritual path that I follow, our Sunday services end with a “Festival of Light.” I can’t resist quoting these words from the Festival, because I feel they express the ultimate goal of a runner:

The forming of stars and moons and planets,

of galaxies revolving on the tides of space,

of drifting continents, upheaving mountains,

snowy wastes and dark, silent ocean deeps

had but this for its design: The birth of life,

and with life’s birth, the dawn of self-awareness:

Passage through dim corridors of waking consciousness

to emerge at last into infinite light – into perfect joy!

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