The Higher Side of Hooplah

I enjoy running hard, and I plan my training accordingly. My 65-year-old body needs time to recover, so I reserve hard runs for the weekends. Weekdays, I run just twice, 30 minutes at 65-70% of max heart rate. ( I also work out at the gym, and hike with Mary Ellen.) Those weekday runs are at an easy pace, but I’m willing to sacrifice the “urge to surge” for the freedom to do what I enjoy on the weekends.

On alternate weekends, I run long and do speedwork. When I settled on this schedule, I was afraid that two weeks was too long — how would I develop endurance and get faster? But I’ve realized that it’s all the same thing.

On speedwork weekends, I run a bit over two hours. Thus, I’m also training for endurance. And the long runs include a bit of speedwork – when I train properly, with a long warmup, I find that my body can easily handle a few hard surges at the end of the long run.

I’m able to work hard every weekend because I’ve identified the training that’s tuned to what my body can do.

When I start a run, I always take time to prepare my heart and mind. I do this because it helps me run hard, but also because it gives me a feeling of “rightness.” And when I get that feeling, I know I’m on the right track in my training.

In Fitness Intuition, I tell how I was able to run three miles at 96% of maximum heart rate without the slightest sensation of discomfort. For many runners, it’s rare to have a “perfect run” every five years, yet I was able to do it four times in one month. I’ve had similar experiences many times, and the reason is that I prepare my heart.

In Fitness Intuition, I reproduced a chart showing the power output of the heart during negative, positive, and neutral feelings.

Notice that the curve showing the heart’s power output during positive feelings is so high that it had to be truncated, because the power output is many times higher than during neutral or negative feelings.

I’m not a scientist, but when I run I try to observe my experiences objectively. And I’m pleased that my “results” agree with the scientific findings about positive feelings and physical health. To put it simply: when I’m able to harmonize my feelings, I can run much harder, with comfort.

That’s what happened during the “96% run.” In that chapter, I reviewed the factors that enabled me to run hard, easily.

First: I’d built the physical foundation. I’d been running 30-40 miles a week, at a slow pace except for a weekly 20-minute run at threshold pace (85-92% of MHR). I’d also done lots of runs of 20 miles or longer. And on the day of the 96% run, my body was rested, and I’d been eating well. (Photo: Stanford football team greats boosters before UCLA game. Photo taken during walking break between repeats – the approach to the football stadium passes by the track.)

However, I’m persuaded that the physical factors aren’t enough to explain what happened. On other occasions when I ran hard, it was painful to push the pace to 96% of MHR, but on this day, it was easy. And the difference was that I prepared my mind and heart.

I started the run by San Francisco Bay. Thousands of runners train on the lovely path along the shore, and my eyes were tempted by the other runners, the sailboats on the Bay, the beautiful weather, and my own distracting thoughts.

I calmly and persistently disciplined my attention to go within and focus on a single stream of thought. I was silently singing a short devotional phrase, and when my mind wandered, I pulled my attention back to that inward practice. When I reached the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, my mind was calm and one-pointed, and my heart was happy and harmonious.

After an hour and twenty minutes, my intuition told me to go faster; and that’s where the “96% run” started. It was easier than I could ever have imagined, to run hard. (Photo: Stanford “marching” band – the Stanford band’s style is…relaxed.)

It was the kind of experience where training theory gets proved by actual experience. It showed me that a heart that’s harmonized can work harder than a heart that’s jittery with nervousness, distractions, negative thoughts, worries, fears, depression, tension, stress, and unhappiness.

There’s another factor that I should mention. The week before the “96% run,” I ran the same route, and as I was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on the return leg, I was talking to God and asking how it’s possible for great marathoners to run aerobically, at a very high percentage of their maximum heart rate. (This ability was first reported by physiologist David L. Costill, when he tested Alberto Salazar, Derek Clayton, and other great marathoners in his lab at Ball State University.)

I knew that the “96% run” was the answer to my prayer. When I pray with an open heart, I always receive answers, even in seemingly trivial matters.

If it were the only time I’d had this experience, I would have to concede that it was “suggestive,” but that it should be tossed in the bin of experiments awaiting “further studies.” However, I’ve done a many “further studies,” and nowadays, I seem to be able to repeat the experiment, with the same results, almost every weekend.

It happened again today.

I left the house at 8 a.m. without a clue where I would end up running. I decided to pray and follow my inner guidance. I wanted to work on my heart before I ran, so I got on the freeway and headed north toward San Francisco, singing spiritual chants while consciously opening my heart and focusing my attention.

There were several options for speedwork. If the City was fogged-in, I could turn around and run timed repeats on trails on the Peninsula. Or I could go to a high school track. I was surprised when my intuition seemed to be suggesting that I run at Stanford. (Photo: Cobb Track at Angell Field, football stadium in background.)

Ordinarily when I run at Stanford, I park in the oak grove by the football stadium. But I knew there was a big football game today, Stanford and UCLA, with a huge crowd and noisy bands, boom boxes, tailgate parties, and campers — all the usual hooplah attending a major game.

On football weekends, I generally stick to the opposite side of the campus. Stanford is huge, with over 2000 acres on the main campus, and 7000 acres altogether, including the Stanford Hills. You can run 20 miles easily on the Stanford campus without repeating your steps. (Photo: Stanford boosters enjoying barbecue before UCLA game.)

When I arrived, three hours before the game, the noisy scene had begun. It was hot, over 85º, and I needed to fill my water bottle, so I jogged to the sports complex, winding my way among the campers. I stopped at the bathroom outside the stadium. I was leaning on the wall, peering moodily down at the urinal, and I thought, “Master, are you with me even here?” I looked up and, through the wire mesh window, saw the beautiful trees and sky. I thought, “He’s reminding me to keep my awareness uplifted if I want God’s help.” (“Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.”)

I warmed up by running an easy four miles through the campus, stopping to snap pictures. (Including a clandestine visit to the UCLA pep rally.) I then headed to Cobb Track, adjacent to the football stadium and the picnic area where the Stanford boosters gather, the epicenter of the hooplah universe. (Photo: The Enemy. UCLA pep rally and barbecue at Frost Amphitheater.)

During the warmup, I made an effort to keep my attention focused on what I was doing, and to relate to the “outside world” from that calm center. When I started the workout, I was immersed in that practice, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it allowed me to see the positive, cheerful side of the tailgating scene and enjoy it.

I found a shady spot on the track and dropped my little runner’s pack of Clifshot gels, electrolytes, and water bottles, then began the workout.

I ran 4×400, 1×1600, and 2×800. It was very hot on the track, at least 90º, with a slight breeze from the northeast. The first two repeats were tolerable, but a bit painful at the end. I glanced at the heart monitor and was shocked to see that I had reached my maximum heart rate. No wonder it was “slightly uncomfortable.”

I kept my heart rate under 95% for the remainder of the workout, and found the pace quite tolerable. On days when I’ve had little success harmonizing my heart, perhaps because I’m distracted or there’s not much time, 95% MHR is fairly painful, but today it was a lot easier. (Photo: Water polo game, Stanford vs. UCLA. Photo taken during warmup run.)

Afterward, I was feeling nicely expanded in my heart. Sitting in traffic for 10 minutes as traffic inched toward the stadium, I felt little impatience. I stopped at REI to stock up on Clifshot gel and Recoverite (an excellent post-workout drink from Hammer Nutrition) and felt very loving and harmonious with the clerks. For me, how I treat others is an indicator of whether I’ve expanded my heart when I run.

At one point in the workout, the noise and crowds began to get to me. A country-western band that had started with a lovely ballad was “getting down” about as far as it could go, the Stanford band had just marched blaringly by, and I had begun to lose my harmony. I was trying to lasso my attention, and I’d started to chant inwardly, when I looked up and saw a hawk gliding in small circles high overhead. It was soaring in a world of peace, and I reflected that the thin film of human activity is a tiny part of the whole. (Photo: Not a football fan. Stanford has Memorial Auditorium [“Mem Aud”], Memorial Church [“Mem Chu”], etc. This statue was installed while I was a student, and was immediately dubbed “Mem Claw.”)

When I started out as a spiritual seeker, my understanding was different than it is now. I thought that unless I was perfect, God wouldn’t love me. But I’ve come to understand that spiritual practice is directional. God accepts us as we are. He isn’t concerned when we fail. His only concern is with our continuous improvement. How could it be otherwise? When we bring him our mistakes, we find Him very loving.

His only desire is to help us experience greater happiness. And happiness comes by expanding awareness. Sometimes we’re able to take big steps, other times we can expand only a little. But progress is always accompanied by joy – a little joy with little steps, more joy with big ones.

For years, while I was struggling to blend spiritual practice with running, I felt that I hadn’t succeeded unless I had a big, overwhelming experience of God’s love and joy. And, once again, I learned that that isn’t God’s way. Some days, it’s all I can do to take a few tiny steps toward greater mental focus and expansive love and self-offering. But those small steps are always rewarded. God never sneers at them derisively. And when I do my best, I often find God making up the difference. (Photo: Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais,” AKA “Stanford After UCLA Game.” Closeup here.)

When I was a student at Stanford in the mid-1960s, I was mildly scornful of the hooplah surrounding football. But I’ve come to a different understanding. I try to feel in my heart that, like myself, all people, even UCLA fans, are looking for joy. When I’m tempted to treat people shoddily, I find that God defends them vigorously. At such times, I’ve had to endure God’s ferocious irony.

The novelist Howard Fast wrote several excellent murder mysteries under a pseudonym, E.V. Cunningham. In The Case of the Russian Diplomat, the hero, a Nisei Beverly Hills detective named Masao Masuto, interviews an arrogant Russian official, who treats him condescendingly. Masuto, a practicing Zen Buddhist, remains unperturbed. He remarks, “I find that all people are interesting if you view them with respect.”

That’s always stuck with me. It’s a good principle for relating to difficult people, and it’s a useful idea for our training. When our minds are restless, and our hearts are preoccupied with worries and fears, it’s good to remember to treat ourselves with respect. God loves the daisy and the redwood tree alike. We succeed when we accept ourselves as we are, and work patiently to move forward.