New Year's Resolutions and Embracing The Mush
9 weeks to Death Valley
1. The Eisenhower Principle
It’s the end of my first full week of training for the Speed Project and this weekend the GRIT USA team is doing a speed test. Saturday morning we’re setting out at 4:30 am for a 70-mile course to feel out how logistics will work doing the relay-style hand-offs. It’s the first time all six members of the team will run together. It’s going to be dark and cold—the temperature high for the day is 33 degrees. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Each week I’m going to answer a couple of the frequently asked questions from the intro post, here are the first two: Have you ever run in a desert? Can you sleep between segments?
I have not run in the desert, but I have run in Florida which is probably worse—will take dry heat over humidity any day. I’ve also run in Salt Lake City which has a higher altitude than Vegas, but other than that I really don’t know what I’m in for. Since the time frame is early spring it’s not going to be scorching hot, but it’s still an arid climate. As far as sleeping goes, if we hit our goal pace it will likely only be about 2 hours between legs if we stick with the 1-2-3-4-5-6 relay system. In past races, some teams have opted later to switch to 1-2-3-1-2-3 / 4-5-6-4-5-6 format for longer recovery. So napping while in the RV is possible. I haven’t done anything like this before so I can’t speak to it fully yet, but I slept in spandex and sweats on cramped, loud buses coming and going from regattas for the better part of a decade so it’s not entirely unfamiliar territory. I’m also working on improving my sleep tendency threshold.
As of this writing, I’ve logged 20 miles this week after taking Monday off to cross-train on the bike. I’m looking at 10-12 miles for my part of the speed test and then will do a slow recovery run on Sunday which should put this week’s total around 36 miles. I’m sticking with a 10% weekly mileage increase to hopefully ward off injury and burnout. At this rate, I should be around 55 miles by week 7 before starting to taper.
This new year when I looked at setting resolutions with the pandemic dragging on, I was overcome by a sense of futility and dismay at the state of pretty much everything. All the goals I normally set to check-in with myself seemed small, silly, and foolish in the face of another new variant wave and everyone I knew getting sick. I decided I wanted to shift my life away from being goal-oriented (rigid, hollow success, tied to outcomes) to values-oriented (abstract, how do you want to be or feel) and the Speed Project seemed like a solid way to do so given the behavioral changes it would demand and require to get to Vegas. While it seems extreme, any departure is risky, this one is just more obviously so than most.
One of my dad’s favorite quotes is from Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Whenever I run into a problem I can't solve, I always make it bigger. I can never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough, I can begin to see the outlines of a solution.”
I don’t always have a good grasp of what I want. But I’m very sure of what I don’t want and the number one thing I don’t want is to spend another year stuck in the same loop of dread and fear. I don’t want to look back at another year where I had modest aspirations and fell short of them in spite of their limited scope. This was the problem I didn’t know how to solve. The Speed Project offers the outline of an answer.
Another way to think of the Eisenhower Principle would be the famous line from Emily Dickinson: “If your Nerve, deny you— / Go above your Nerve—”
2. Acquiring a Void
Last week I looked a little bit at what it means to be a runner or at least identify as one, this week I want to look more at the why behind choosing to become one.
This week I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s a quick read and I listened to most of the audiobook while on the treadmill. Part memoir, part meditation, it’s more of a diary than an organized treatise on running and veers off towards the end into unfocused frustrations with swimming and triathlon training. The strongest aspects of the book are the connections Murakami makes between running and writing—how they mirror each other as generative disciplines.
At the beginning of the book, he addresses a question runners get frequently: “What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue. … I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”
He goes into a lot of the practical physical/aesthetic reasons and motivations for his personal choice to become a runner and pursue running seriously, but I think this is the core of what it’s about, that idea of a void. It seems a lot like reaching a flow state with writing—a point where the concentration and effort are rewarded with a sense of ease, the sense of barriers to creativity dissolving, creating space, and the ability to meet your potential. Of all the physical activities I’ve tried, none have quite the same euphoric quality as easily accessible as running.
His observations about the solitary nature of running and writing are especially resonating today living through a pandemic:
“I actively seek out solitude. Especially for someone in my line of work, solitude is, more or less, an inevitable circumstance. Sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart and dissolve it. You could see it, too, as a kind of double-edged sword. It protects me, but at the same time steadily cuts away at me from the inside. I think in my own way I’m aware of this danger—probably through experience—and that’s why I’ve had to constantly keep my body in motion, in some cases pushing myself to the limit, in order to heal the loneliness I feel inside and to put it in perspective. Not so much as an intentional act, but as an instinctive reaction.”
I think that is part of why I’m drawn to this project too, the desire to put all the loneliness and isolation of the last two years and beyond into perspective and metabolize it. Even more specifically relatable to the Speed Project effort, Murakami also recounts running an ultra-marathon, 62 miles alone in one day:
“When I look back on that race now I can see that it had a lot of meaning for me as a runner. I don’t know what sort of general significance running sixty-two miles by yourself has, but as an action that deviates from the ordinary yet doesn’t violate basic values, you’d expect it to afford you a special sort of self-awareness. It should add a few new elements to your inventory in understanding who you are. And as a result, your view of your life, its colors and shape, should be transformed. More or less, for better or for worse, this happened to me, and I was transformed.”
Even though so many New Year's resolutions are discarded, I still think transformation is possible. It just takes turning to a pulp first to get there. Sheila Heti writes in Motherhood:
“What happens in a cocoon is not that a caterpillar grows wings and turns into a butterfly. Rather, the caterpillar turns to mush. It disintegrates, and out of this mush, a new creature grows. Why does no one talk about the mush? Or about how, for any change at all to happen, we must, for some time, be nothing—be mush.”
3. Bonus Poem & Links!
More Emily Dickinson!
A TED talk on why “no pain, no gain” is a faulty philosophy. The secret sauce is just consistent sustainable low-intensity volume.