Two Nifty Ideas for Runners

Good morning, runners! Here’s a scrumptious idea to enjoy with your coffee. It’s from the world of — philosophy!

Well, shucks , you could have said good-by.

You’ll be relieved to know that this column isn’t actually about philosophy.

“Philosophy” means “the love of knowledge.” Which is okay if you’re one of the big guns of western thought — say, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, or Jean-Paul Sartre — who spun their brains at 78 rpm and tried to analyze life’s great river. And what a mess. Poor dears. They doubtless hoped their answers would be inspiring and beloved by all.

They aren’t.

In his book, Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t, J. Donald Walters pokes fun at those grand old eggheads.

Immanuel Kant wrote a textbook on pedagogy. Though a teacher himself, he cheerfully admitted that he had never actually tested any of his own principles.

Arthur Schopenhauer wrote scathingly against women. And what was his experience with the fair sex? Nil, virtually — apart from his own unfortunate relationship with his mother, by whom he felt rejected. Schopenhauer never married; he seems never even to have had a friend of the opposite sex.

Jean Jacques Rousseau based his entire doctrine of the natural goodness of unsophisticated man on his concept of “the noble savage” — a theoretical creature if ever there was one, and one whose reality Rousseau might easily have tested, since even in his day the West had developed a certain amount of contact with primitive peoples.

Soren Kierkegaard taught that a man ought to stand firmly on his own feet as an individual, regally indifferent to the adverse opinion of others. Yet after he himself was criticized in the local scandal sheet, The Corsair, he spent years lamenting its ridicule as a “crucifixion.”

William James, to prepare himself for writing his
famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, did not consider it necessary to seek out a single living person of spiritual experience, by whose example he might have tested — and incidentally, been obliged to reject — some of his basic ideas. Still less did he try to gain any actual religious experience for himself.

Friedrich Nietzsche, incapacitated for combat duty during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, served in the army briefly as a nurse. The sight of blood, however, made him physically ill and he had to be sent home. There, in the tranquillity of the Swiss Alps, he developed a philosophy of power to which the almost inevitable corollary was physical violence — indeed, warfare.

And we have already seen the lack of realism in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. It would be only fair to add in his excuse that he was at least the heir to an honored tradition.

Walters shows how the misty, mystical East is ironically more objective and scientific in its approach to truth than the head-pounding western rationalists. When Jean-Paul Sartre looked at the discoveries of modern science (evolution, relativity, etc.), he saw only meaninglessness. Yet, applying the objective eastern approach, Walters discovers profound meaning and purpose in the same scientific findings. (Let me state right here that Walters is not a creationist, or an advocate of “intelligent design.”)

Here’s an idea from Labyrinth with relevance for runners:

Directional Relativity

Are values relative? The fundamentalists of East and West shout “No!” But life tells us otherwise.

A lazy slob spends his days lounging in front of the TV, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Then, one morning, he gets up, dons his least-greasy shirt, and sets out to find a job as a used-car salesman. And his friends all applaud, because at the level of his awareness, the slob is clearly doing a good thing. “Good,” because putting out fresh energy is sure to expand the range of his awareness and increase his happiness.

On the other hand, what if Mother Theresa had suddenly declared, “I’m sick and tired of serving the poor! What a waste of time! I’m off to New Delhi to make my fortune in rice futures!” Everyone would have said, “This woman has fallen!”

The point is, saints and slobs have different priorities. What counts is the direction of their efforts. What makes the slob happier would be a disaster for a Mother Theresa.

Values are relative but directional. Whatever takes us in an expansive direction increases our happiness, and whatever contracts our awareness makes us suffer.

The fundamentalists are afraid that teaching “relative values” will give people a license to steal and murder. But murder and stealing are extremely contractive.

In Labyrinth, Walters describes Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator who ordered the death of millions in the Ukraine in the 1920s. Stalin was imprisoned by a paralyzing fear that others were as ruthless as he. A chauffeur reported that while riding in his car, he would repeat over and over, “I am Stalin. I am steel!” (Stalin is the name he gave himself; it means “steel.”)

A friend of mine, a minister who formerly worked with prisoners at San Quentin, told me, “I got a chance to talk with Charlie Manson, and boy, he is one unhappy man.”

For us runners, the directional relativity of values is an inescapable feature of our lives.

For most of his career, Frank Shorter trained 130 miles a week. When he tried running 200 miles/week, he found he couldn’t sustain that level without breaking down. For Shorter, 130 miles a week was expansive — it gradually improved his condition. But 200 miles was contractive, because it led to fatigue and injury.

Overtraining corrodes happiness. When we overtrain, we experience one of nature’s unavoidable truths: expansion equals happiness; contraction equals suffering.

Years ago, I experienced the power of directional relativity in a big way. After a long break due to illness, starting over as a beginning runner, I decided to be very methodical in my approach. I ran the same distance every other day, and I increased the distance carefully, adding only a half-mile every other week. In that way, taking one tiny step at a time, I steadily advanced to running alternate weeks of 45 and 60 miles. My training diary for the period shows 18 months without a single injury or day off due to overtraining or illness. It was one of the happiest periods of my running life.

What spoiled it? I grew ambitious and began doing too much. I ran seven marathons and five 50Ks in just seven months, without ever really taking time off from my regular training. It was my most contractive time as a runner. There wasn’t a day when I felt really good. I had continual symptoms of overtraining: diarrhea, irritability, and a series of nagging minor injuries.

Expansion comes by nudging our edges. The only training that makes sense is the kind that’s tailored to our specific needs. Great coaches know this. Bill Bowerman watched his University of Oregon runners like a hawk. At the start of a track session, he took each runner’s pulse, and if it was high, indicating fatigue, he would assign the runner an easy workout or send him to the showers. Bowerman knew that Steve Prefontaine could handle lots of hard running, but that Kenny Moore could not. So he gave Moore a “hard/easy” schedule that allowed his body sufficient time to recover.

It’s no less foolish to plan our training using abstract logic alone, than it is for philosophers to claim that life is meaningless, based on armchair reasoning. The only method that delivers satisfactory results, in life and running, is the scientific, empirical approach — studying what works.

Here’s another of life’s laws with relevance for runners.

The Law of Motivation.

In Out of the Labyrinth, Walters writes:

India’s researchers into human motivation, following the thread of desire to its source, found that man’s deepest motivation is essentially this: to avoid suffering, and to attain happiness. And while suffering and happiness have different meanings for different people, their basic reality is the same for all.

his observation was given the weight of a formal law of human nature: Beneath every sensory desire is the deeper urge to avoid pain, and to experience pleasure; and beneath every deeper, heart’s desire is the longing to escape sorrow, and to attain permanent happiness, or joy.

This law proved to be as basic to further explorations in consciousness as Newton’s laws of motion were to the further development of physics. The motivational law, indeed, like those of modern science, carried its first basic perception to a view of reality that is not only expansive, but cosmic.

Interestingly, no less a respected thinker than Albert Einstein formulated essentially the same law:

Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and longing are the motive force behind all human endeavor and human creation, in however exalted a guise the latter may present themselves. — Albert Einstein, from an essay, Cosmic Religious Feeling.

Walters continues:

Let us consider how the ancient sages proceeded to apply this Law of Motivation to the question of moral principles.

f the goal of every man is to avoid suffering and attain happiness, then the eternal question of moral right and wrong can be decided quite simply by this criterion. What makes an act right? The answer: its capacity to increase happiness. And what makes an act wrong? The answer, again: its power to lessen happiness, and to increase suffering.

ne can imagine Sartre rubbing his hands at this point and shouting, “Comrades!” For since the search must be into the heart of one human being, right and wrong must resolve themselves into the more specific question: “What will decrease suffering, and increase happiness, for me?” Sartre would be premature in his exultation, however. The Law of Motivation in no way counsels a cynical view….

et us address the issue squarely. Can any system based so completely on self-fulfillment be meaningful in a broader, humanitarian sense? Addressing the bias of Western moralism, is not a self-centered approach to happiness morally reprehensible?
In fact…the desire for personal happiness can be truly fulfilled only when it includes the happiness of all; and the desire to avoid suffering can be fulfilled, similarly, only when one works to help eliminate the sorrows of all.

The implication for runners is obvious: The Holy Grail of running can be found in expansion. We’re happiest when we train in ways that expand our awareness, that increase our happiness and reduce our suffering.

(Note the difference between pain and suffering. Pain can be unavoidable on the path to expanded awareness. Hard intervals, anyone?)

Some runners run for performance. Others, for the good feelings that exercise engenders. Others may not actually like running at all, but simply plow through it for the health benefits. But all runners are intent on increasing their happiness through one or another dimension of their being: body, heart, will, mind, or soul. (Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a pillar of the running movement, says he doesn’t enjoy running, only how he feels afterward.)

Do we want to run fast effortlessly, with feelings of joy? How can we get there?
Directional relativity provides the key: by doing what will nudge our awareness. And the tools that nature has given us to know what will bring us joy are the still, calm, dispassionate feelings of the heart, balanced by reason, experience, and common sense.

At the moment that you decide to increase your pace, go longer, or climb that hill, a fine, subtle feeling will tell you if the end-result is likely to be expansive or contractive. It takes practice to hear that quiet voice, because restless thoughts and prejudiced emotions can shout it down. In my experience, I’ve found that the effort to cultivate that ability is eminently worthwhile. To the extent that I’ve listened to that voice, I’ve always found it a trustworthy guide.

It’s time we defined values by what gives us lasting happiness. This won’t turn us into thieves and liars. Moral anarchy is the result of nihilism, not a scientific understanding of life.

he Wikipedia says of nihilism:

Nihilists generally assert some or all of the following:

  • There is no reasonable proof of the existence of a higher ruler or creator.
  • A “true morality” does not exist.
  • Objective secular ethics are impossible; therefore, life has, in a sense, no truth, and no action is objectively preferable to any other.

The term nihilism is sometimes used synonymously with anomie to denote a general mood of despair at the pointlessness of existence.

That’s not a portrait of a runner.

Runners are forever testing new ways to expand their awareness, using their bodies, hearts, wills, minds, and souls. Running is a blank slate upon which we can write our own prescription for joy. That’s probably why you’ll find so few dried-up head cases among us.

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