Monday, April 27, 2009

the undiscovered country

prologue note: the following is a speech that i give to students in every class i teach. it's a life-lessons talk meant to help them see just how education (theirs, and humanity's in general) fits in with the nature of life and living. while ostensibly meant more to deal with school and the process of school, i think the principles extend to include other aspects of life, like art or athletics. because whether student or artist or athlete or human being, the process and principle and purpose is the same: education, and the more universal implications that arise from the expansion and development of who we are--in our minds as well as our bodies and ultimately our souls.

fundamentally, we are creatures of curiousity. we cannot be content to just simply live. confronted by the eternity that is the universe, we find ourselves before the enormity of all existence, and are driven to an existentialist state calling for us to find our place within it. in the face of the enigma so mysterious, so profound, so sacred, so supreme, we are moved, because we realize all of that which lies without us also lies within us, and that it and we and all of this is really just the same...and so that to look upon the unknown is to look upon ourselves, our world, this cosmos, and even the reaches of creation that lie beyond, and come to know its face and see its nature and understand it to be its our this one soul.

except there's one slight problem: the universe is infinite. the phenomena within it are infinite. in number and in complexity. and we, unfortunately, are not. we are finite, with limited bodies, limited senses, and limited minds constrained within limited life spans. as a result, there's only so much we can take in, only so much we can ingest, only so much we can understand, and only so much time for us to do so.

the best we can do--and the only thing that has ever been done--is that each of us endeavors to understand as much as we can as well as we can as fast as we can, and pass on our understanding as knowledge to those who come after us, so that the gradual passage of the generations of our species accumulates a store of collective wisdom about that which we call existence. like a painting of the pointilist movement, we individually each bring our own spot of color and lay it upon the canvas of our comprehension, and over time the spots gather and grow and manifest a larger picture that in total comes to form the image of our understanding of the universe.

such an analogy, however, is a disservice to the divine. it lacks the scale of the sacred. and hence profanes that which is most assuredly profound.

rather, the better picture--the greater image--is perhaps this:

the universe can be seen as a vast unknown, unexplored, untouched, undiscovered country, lying in the halo of dawn's horizon, reaching forth to the frontiers of eternity, unfolding great and gleaming and glorious and glittering in the glow that is god's creation...and it beckons us to learn its mysteries.

but we don't know this country. there are no trails. nor markers. nor guides. nor even any maps. at best, all we have are the barest scraps of outlines on paper marking trails traced by explorers who have traveled ever so bravely before us. and the records of their journeys have been compiled slowly, carefully, painstakingly, one by one, as each of them sought to venture a little farther than those who came before and dared to expand the confines of our known world before they took their final journeys past. so that their stories became our stories, and our stories grew to become the scriptures of our souls.

and the stories continue with you.

you see, the early years of personal development--first preschool, then primary school, then secondary school--are largely about learning how to read the map. to see just what the symbols mean, and just how they relate to what we know, and just what direction corresponds to what location how and why and when and where.

the next phase of growth builds upon this, with undergraduate years serving to fill content of the map, so that it identifies certain schools of thought laid out in certain locations, and certain scholars clustered in certain communities, and certain lines of reasoning that lead along certain paths to certain destinations.

for most people, education can end with this. for the majority, it does. people graduate from college with the tools to live within the known world. it is entirely possible for them to live their entire lives within the confines of the map and be entirely happy. and it is entirely possible to live a complete and fulfilling life by remaining entirely within the borders of our understanding.


have you ever wondered what lay beyond the borders of the map?

have you ever wondered what lay beyond the reaches of that which is already known?

have you ever wondered what lay out there--far out there--in the vast, great, undiscovered country?

that's where the next stage of development comes in. it's in graduate school where you learn the borders of the map, where you learn what is known (in some ways, a fair amount) versus what is not known (in all ways, absolutely everything). more importantly, however, it's where you are taught the ways in which we venture forth into the unknown, the tools and methods and instincts and reasoning we use to navigate our way through the uncharted lands. it's where you are taught how to explore the unexplored.

this means that professors, researchers, scholars, all those engaged in the great endeavor of education--theirs ours everyone's--are really all explorers. each one. setting out to explore the unexplored, so that they can learn what lies beyond. out there, far out there, in the undiscovered country.

you may wonder as to that term.

this is yet one more example of how a whole lot more can be learned about life from art than it ever could be learned from science. the words are from Shakespeare's Hamlet. it's found in Act III, Scene I, in the famous soliloquoy of Hamlet, where he muses over "to be, or not to be, that is the question..." the passage itself reads "...the undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveler has ever returned..."

for most readers, "the undiscovered country" is typically interpreted as death. but in a way, it's really about mystery, about anything that is unknown, and so the analogy still holds as to it representing the enigma that is this existence, and the epicenter of all our efforts to understand its truths.

the difference, however, is that we hold the hope that all travelers to the undiscovered country shall return, and bring back to us what they have found and record for us what they have learned and add with us what they have seen to the borders of our map, so that even as we are confronted by the eternity that is the universe and the enormity that is existence and the enigma that is so mysterious, so profound, so sacred, so supreme, we can look upon the unknown and see that we look upon ourselves, our world, this cosmos, and even the reaches of creation that lie beyond, and can come to know its face and see its nature and understand it to be its our this one soul.

and in so doing, come a little closer to divine majesty. a little closer to holy sanctity. a little closer to the presence of an almighty god.

epilogue note: you get it, don't you? the distinction between high school, bachelor's degree, graduate degree or amateur, elite, professional artist or athlete doesn't matter. it doesn't even matter if it's student, artist, athlete, or anything else at all. ultimately, the distinction is really about becoming the best human being you can be...about acquiring the skills and having the motivation to become an explorer, to pursue the adventure, to venture forth into the vast, great, undiscovered country that lies before us and beckons us to learn its mysteries. all of them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

earth day 2009: race day recycling

well, it's Earth Day 2009, Wednesday, April 22, and so time for another eco-friendly blog post.

i've written Earth Day-related posts before, addressing what i thought was a significant--but entirely fixable--problem in sports: race day trash. particularly at triathlons and marathons, which have gained outsized proportions courtesy of their accessibility to the masses. you can reference my previous comments at the following:
i want to do things a little differently this year. while keeping things on the topic of race-generated trash, i wanted to take things a bit further and go beyond just simply advocating to keep races clean, but to also keep races green. in particular, i want to now encourage people to do more than just clean up race-day trash, but to take one more step and look to recycle it.

in the previous posts, i encouraged everyone (race organizers, race spectators, and race participants) to pick up their trash (gel wraps, energy drinks, sunscreen bottles, chapstick flasks, tissues, band-aids, etc.) and deposit it in appropriate garbage receptacles. while this goes a long way to keeping things clean, it doesn't really fix the issue of garbage.

here's why: trash doesn't stop at the garbage bin. simply having everyone dump their trash into confined receptacles on race day doesn't eliminate the waste; all it does it enable the collection of it. at some point (invariably after the race is over), the garbage bins are subjected to the usual government processes used to carry out the regular public waste management policies.

unfortunately, at least in the United States (and i'm too afraid to ask about elsewhere), "regular waste management policies" most likely means dumping trash straight into a landfill.

in essence, simply being content to put race day trash into a garbage bin is really nothing more than an act to make it someone else's problem--except that it's not someone else's problem, but ours.

you see, there's only so much space in landfills, and only so many landfills to go around, and only so much filth and contaminants and poisons and toxins that landfills can contain...and there is no end of trash. in fact, the rate of trash production is growing. meaning that we all (collectively, and ultimately individually), sooner or later, have to confront the garbage problem.

the stats are pretty sobering. a cursory review of various internet sources shows that in 2007 the U.S. produced more than 254 million tons of household trash, with over 137 million tons going to landfills and only 63.3 million tons being recycled. despite efforts to decrease per capita waste production, this country still experienced a 60% increase (!!!) in municipal waste between 1980 and 2005. you can check it out for yourself, starting with the following useful sources:
and the thing is, the trash, no matter how much of it we think goes to landfills, still invariably manages to find itself into the natural world, where it continues to accumulate and generate untold damage to the environment...where we, as people, as a society, as a species, have to live. and it's kind of problematic to do that when the ecosystem you're relying on to sustain you is being choked by your trash.

if you want an idea of just how much of our trash leaches out into the natural world (despite the use of landfills), and just where it all ends up, and just what it's doing, check out this video:

i should note that this is something i see every time i go swimming or surfing after a rainstorm off the Los Angeles shoreline. even though it's only a small scale of what is shown in the above video, what i see is still enough to be absolutely shocking. which is why i've become so sensitive about this issue--once you find yourself adrift in this stuff, and realize just what is in it, you don't ever want to do anything to contribute to the problem again.

which is why i'd like to encourage all races to try and facilitate recycling as much as possible, to reduce not just the trash we see littering the race course, but to actually reduce the trash being generated overall from the race event itself. triathlon, marathon, whatever. any race. every race.

to a degree, it's already being done, and there has been a growing movement towards this. i found some laudable examples:
this is a very good start, and certainly very promising. thing is, i'm worried that it's not prevalent enough.

in particular, i'm not so sure that Ironman events are on the recycling bandwagon yet--and if there's any event that generates trash, Ironman is it. drawing lessons from the above list of races, i'd really like to see every Ironman try to do more to implement recycling efforts by trying any of the following (or anything else in addition to the following):
  • goody bags: get rid of them. and all the random pieces of paper inside them. it all gets thrown away by most race participants anyway. if advertising is the issue, then it should be just as easy to e-mail the ads to race entrees and thereby save trees and stop plastic from intruding any further into our world. and as for all the goodies inside the goody bags, just have them available for people to pick up by hand when they register--or at the very least, use recyclable bags to hold them.
  • recycle bins: big ones. really big ones. on the side of the road at every aid station. something the size of pickup trucks (or mac trucks), with 1 truck labeled "plastic" and another labeled "paper" and maybe another labeled "metal." that way people who are running or cycling by can easily self-sort and toss their trash as they go by--with targets that big, it verges on asking racers to hit the broad side of a barn, which is something anybody can do at any speed...or at least, i'd certainly hope (including even the pros?).
  • pre-race instructions: oh god yes. i think we under-estimate the human willingness to do good things. i think that if race organizers included announcements at registration, the athlete tents, the merchandise shops, the pre-race events, and above all, the pre-race dinner, all containing brief instructions on what race participants need to do to help control race day trash, it would go a long way to creating a self-correcting mechanism on race day. that, and i think it would generate enough response that there would be a reservoir of peer pressure among competitors to be conscientious in dealing with their own trash on race day.
incidentally, i have to admit, i have seen some of this at 1 Ironman: Ironman New Zealand. which is where i got some of these ideas--i'll never forget Didymo Dave (just ask the race organizers), and i'll never forget the 3-meter-high by 3-meter-wide tarp target with a big red bulls-eye painted on it that said "throw trash here" (which almost every competitor did). thank god for New Zealand. now we just need to do it for every Ironman...especially in these freakin' United States.

thankfully, i think American triathletes are starting to generate a grass-roots movement for greener triathlons on their own. you can check out the following:
it's very satisfying. but i just want to see it translate into results, with everyone (race organizers, race spectators, and race competitors) making concerted efforts to recycle. i know i sound like an uptight anal-retentive eco-nut with all this, but it just horrifies me to see just how much trash is being produced at all the races i see--it's something i just don't want to associate with events that i see as being expressions of the greater ideals of human endeavor. it (trash) is just not what we should be about.

so here's to race day recycling. and from one athlete to many others: let's make our races not only clean, but also green.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

so sick

i'm sooooooooooooooooooooooo siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick!!!

sick sick sick!

germs snot germs snot germs snot germs snot germ snot germs snot!


i'm so pissed.

training has gone to hell. school has gone to hell. everything has gone to hell.

all i feel is sick, and delirious, and cold, and irritable, and mean, and tired, and flat-out miserable. all the time. and i feel like my head is in a fog--at least when i'm awake. most of the time i've just been sleeping (it's draining to even get out of bed and get to the grocery store). i went to work on Friday and pretty much just collapsed by the time i got home and didn't wake up until the next morning.

and don't even talk to me about the coughing, or sweating, or shaking, or headaches, or body aches, or thirst, or hunger...or the stuff (green and blue!) that i'm coughing up every few minutes.

i'm pretty sure this is the flu. it has all the symptoms: fever, aches, congestion, hacking, exhaustion.

thing is, i don't know how this is possible. i got a flu shot last fall specifically because i was afraid of something like this happening. i'm guessing the flu shot dealt with a different strain of influenza than what i've got now. meaning that i get to just suck it up and wait this bug out alone.

suckage, dude, suckage. FML. big time.


sooooooooooooooooooooooo siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick!!!

Monday, April 13, 2009

born to run

well, this is an interesting observation that certainly points out the nature of the human relationship with endurance sports:

apparently some anthropologists and biologists believe that humans evolved as long-distance runners, suggesting that running is what we were literally born to do. the article (i've put the full text below this post) pieces together the arguments of several sources to reach this conclusion.

it begins by referencing another paper in the March issue of the Journal of Evolutionary Biology (reference: that conducted experimental tests that suggested humans have short toes (shorter relative to other primates) because it radically decreases the biomechanical energy demands of running (something which, again, humans do better relative to other primates).

the article notes that this study builds upon research conducted a few years ago that identified the markers of human anatomy that indicate a predeliction (and hence purpose) for distance running, which included short toes in addition to other markers such as a large gluteus maximus, robust achilles tendon, tendon-rich legs that enable springing, and the nuchal ligament that stabilizes the head while running.

the reasoning as to why these things arose is drawn from Harvard researcher Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run (reference: Random House), which surmises that humans evolved to pursue animals, since they provided a source of calorie-rich meat, and that part of this evolution involved adaptations that allowed humans to literally run their prey to death. with humans having physical characteristics (e.g., the ability to perspire through the skin, the ability to run in aerobic mode, etc.) that enabled them to out-last animals over extended periods of running. most the prey undoubtedly had higher physical capabilities (e.g., they were faster, stronger, larger), but could not sustain their performance over the same time intervals that humans could.

this theory is apparently controversial, and still in the process of being tested through experimental and historical study. but it's intriguing nonetheless, not only from a science standpoint but also from a sports one.

i see this as suggesting a number of things:
  • in any endurance running event, we are simply fulfilling our biological design, and in so doing performing an act that we were meant to do: run;
  • running is a natural state. it's who we are. in which case, we aren't supposed to be fat sedentary slobs, but instead supposed to be sleek active ones;
  • continuing with the above logic, this suggests that our best insights and personal development (whether physical, mental, spiritual) occurs not when we are still, but rather when we are moving;
  • running isn't something to fear, or love, or associate with any emotions at all, or even recognize or accept. it just is. assuredly as there is life. like us;
  • running isn't about competition, but about being human; and
  • all those coaches who ever yelled at you to stop whining and get your ass in gear were actually just telling you to fulfill your biological imperative: move.
with this in mind, i'll have to remind myself next time i get tired while running, or find myself sore from running, or become anxious about running, or belly-aching or moaning or crying or complaining about running, that it's just a part of our species, and hence something we were meant to do, made to do, born to do...and so therefore nothing out of the realm of anything impossible, but instead something very much possible, and if anything at all absolutely, undeniably, irrepressibly certain.

and then i'll have to tell myself to just suck it up and roll on.

The Running Man, Revisited
In depth by Maywa Montenegro
March 18, 2009
The endurance running hypothesis, the idea that humans evolved as long-distance runners, may have legs thanks to a new study on toes

Ann Trason, Scott Jurek, Matt Carpenter. These are the megastars of ultra-distance running, athletes who pound out not just marathons, but dozens of them back-to-back, over Rocky Mountain passes and across the scorching floor of Death Valley. If their names are unfamiliar, it’s probably because this type of extreme running is almost universally seen as a fringe sport, the habit of the superhumanly fit, the masochistic, the slightly deranged.

But a handful of scientists think that these ultra-marathoners are using their bodies just as our hominid forbears once did, a theory known as the endurance running hypothesis (ER). ER proponents believe that being able to run for extended lengths of time is an adapted trait, most likely for obtaining food, and was the catalyst that forced Homo erectus to evolve from its apelike ancestors. Over time, the survival of the swift-footed shaped the anatomy of modern humans, giving us a body that is difficult to explain absent a marathoning past.

Our toes, for instance, are shorter and stubbier than those of nearly all other primates, including chimpanzees, a trait that has long been attributed to our committed bipedalism. But a study published in the March 1 issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, by anthropologists Daniel Lieberman and Campbell Rolian, provides evidence that short toes make human feet exquisitely suited to substantial amounts of running. In tests where 15 subjects ran and walked on pressure-sensitive treadmills, Lieberman and Rolian found that toe length had no effect on walking. Yet when the subjects were running, an increase in toe length of just 20 percent doubled the amount of mechanical work, meaning that the longer-toed subjects required more metabolic energy, and each footfall produced more shock.

“If you have very long toes, the moment of force acting on the foot’s metatarsal phalangeal joint becomes problematic when running,” explains Lieberman. Our hominid ancestors, Australopithecus, of which Lucy is the most famous specimen, had significantly longer toes than humans. “Lucy could have walked just fine with her long toes,” says Lieberman. “But if she wanted to run a marathon, or even a half-marathon, she’d have had trouble.”

The March study is the first attempt to assess the ER hypothesis using an experimental approach, but the idea that humans have a marathoning past first surfaced more than two decades ago, when David Carrier, a runner and grad student in the lab of evolutionary biologist Dennis Bramble, convinced his mentor that running ability might explain a number of unique human features. Over the years, Bramble’s team at the University of Utah and Lieberman’s team at Harvard have amassed a small ream of physiological and morphological evidence that they believe points to a distance-running legacy. In 2004 the groups copublished a list of 26 such markers on the human body, including short toes, a hefty gluteus maximus and Achilles tendon, springy tendon-loaded legs, and the little-known nuchal ligament that stabilizes the head when it’s in rapid motion.

The paper earned the cover of Nature and generated quite a stir within bio/anthro circles. But it did nothing to answer a fundamental question: What good would endurance running have been to primitive man? On an evolutionary battleground — where the struggle is to eat or be eaten — speed, and not endurance, should be the prized trait. If a tiger in high gear could outpace Homo erectus within 10 seconds and a deer in 20, being able to run at a modest pace for hours at a time does not seem like an evolutionary advantage.

Christopher McDougall came up against this very conundrum in his spirited book Born to Run (Knopf, May 2009). McDougall, neither anthropologist nor biologist, is a journalist originally given an assignment for Runner’s World that morphed into a consuming fascination with feats of high mileage, particularly with that of the Mexican Tarahumara Indians, reclusive canyon dwellers reputed to be the best endurance athletes on earth. Wearing shoes fashioned from tire strips to cushion their feet, the Tarahumara cover up to 400 miles in festive, multiday events drawing runners and spectators from multiple villages. They are also the picture of health, enjoying almost total immunity to cancer and the diseases that plague modern society. For McDougall, the Tarahumara seem to confirm what Lieberman has been arguing all along, that humans are built for running. To find out why, McDougall inevitably found his way to the Harvard researcher, who shared with him an intriguing theory.

We know that roughly 2 million years ago, Australopithecus, with its tiny brain, hefty jaw and diet of rough, fibrous plants, evolved into Homo erectus, our slim, long-legged ancestor with a big brain and small teeth suited for tearing into animal and fruit flesh. Such a transformation almost certainly involved a reliable supply of calorie-laden meat, yet according to the fossil record, spear points have been in use for 200,000 years at most, and the bow and arrow for only 50,000 years, leaving an enormous stretch of time when early humans were consuming meat without the use of tools. Lieberman believes they ran their prey to death, often called “persistence hunting.”

In the book, McDougall recounts the Harvard researcher’s eureka moment, which happened on a five-mile jog one summer afternoon with his half-mutt border collie, Vashti:

It was hot, and after a few miles, Vashti plopped down under a tree and refused to move… As he waited for his panting dog to cool off, Lieberman’s mind flashed back to his time doing fossil research in Africa…Ethnographer’s reports he’d read years ago began flooding his mind; they told of African hunters who used to chase antelopes across the savannahs, and Tarahumara Indians who would race after a deer ”until its hooves fell off.“ Lieberman had always shrugged them off as tall tales…but now he started to wonder. So how long would it take to actually run an animal to death?

Drawing on Harvard’s extant cache of locomotion data, Lieberman began crunching numbers comparing speed, body temperature, and body weight of humans and various conceivable prey. A deer and a decently fit man, Lieberman discovered, trot at almost an identical pace, but in order to accelerate, a deer goes anaerobic, while the man remains in an oxygenated jogging zone. The same is true for horses, antelopes, and a slew of other four-legged creatures. Since animals can run anaerobically only in short bursts before they must slow down to recover, a human in pursuit may have the final advantage. And because quadrupeds can’t pant while they run, they also quickly overheat. To run down dinner, Lieberman realized, might simply have been a matter of spurring the poor beast into a sprint enough times to make it collapse from hyperthermia.

“Running an animal to heatstroke is something that most humans can do, and that other animals can’t,” says Lieberman. “It’s a compelling explanation for why these capabilities evolved, and frankly, nobody’s come up with a better idea yet.”

But plenty of skeptics remain, some who doubt that persistence hunting was the reason humans evolved with the capacity for distance running, and some who doubt the ER hypothesis altogether. University of Wisconsin paleoanthropologist John Hawks, who researches the acceleration of human evolution since the advent of agriculture, questions how a trait that is supposedly specific to endurance running could persist today, when tools and farming have long since replaced the old selective pressures of hunting. “If these features really were distinctive to long-distance running, shouldn’t they have disappeared?” he asks.

Hawks also thinks that Lieberman and Rolian’s short-toe findings are essentially more evidence that humans are optimally designed for walking. “That’s exactly what we should expect,” Hawks says of the finding that toe-length variation does not affect walking. “If we see that toe length makes a big difference for running, that’s relatively good evidence that toe length wasn’t selected for.”

Still, ER theory has much on its side. Ultramarathoning is a cross-cultural phenomenon, and persistence hunting can be found in cultures all over the globe: The Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana, the Aborigines of Australia, the Masai of Kenya, and the Tarahumara are but a few examples of tribes whose lore includes the epic hunt. Hawks would argue this is a sophisticated cultural adaptation, but it could also mean that we have a common, fleet-footed ancestor.

Whether scientifically bona fide or not, it’s also hard to discount McDougall’s story of the Tarahumara’s supreme health and athleticism, and his sense of having tapped into something primordial — a feeling doubtlessly reinforced by his own metamorphosis from out-of-shape jogger to efficient ultradistance trekker. “They think it’s just a bunch of us crazy joggers out there who think running is important,” says Lieberman of his critics. The critics may be right about that, but it does seem that the endurance running hypothesis has legs.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

spontaneous (dance! dance! dance!)

have you ever wanted to be free?

so much of our lives are framed in regimentation. agendas, priorities, timetables, calendars, schedules, plans. marked out in blocks and chunks and slots and entries. all arranged in rigid structures of appointments, meetings, discussions, sessions, events, talks. all broken down by deadlines and deliverables and due dates and demands. so much so that it extends throughout our being, seeps throughout our existence, smothers us, until it spans work and school and home and training and resting and eating and drinking and waking and sleeping and family and friends and colleagues and strangers and you...especially you.

form and function and detail and dress. metronome time metronome rhyme metronome pace metronome race. fixed. frozen. steady. still.

we subject ourselves to this willingly. because, we tell ourselves, we need these things. so as to be organized. so as to be on track. to the aspirations set before us. to the goals that approach our grasp.

we tell ourselves this. so often, so much, that we forget a life without it, fear a life outside of it, even forswear a life beyond it.

truth is, deep down inside, a part of us always remembers the truth, and sees these things for what we're too often afraid to admit they really are: limits. constraints. bindings. chains.

have you ever wanted to be free?

have you ever wanted to just break away?

from the regimentation, the structure? the so much so, seeping smothering spanning? the form and function and detail and dress? the metronome fixed frozen steady still?

to just let loose?

you know you have.

because inside of you, inside all of us, there is something that seeks a life without limit. a life without it. a life outside of it. a life beyond it.

something that yearns to just forget everything--everything--and just let go. and then let ourselves just move. any way. any how. move. in whatever manner gives expression to everything about us that we've held inside ourselves for far too long.

something that calls you as a creature of creation to recall that you were created in the image of creation, and that creation is motion and motion is action and action is energy and energy is eternity, and that through these things you may know the meaning of your existence and your existence may know the meaning of your life, and that through these things you may finally see--as much as any creature of creation can ever see--the supreme sanctity that is divine joy.

like this:
train station, antwerp, belgium:

or this:
shibuya, tokyo, japan:

or even this:
where's matt? (around the world):

because you were made human

because you were made in reflection of the divine.

and because of this

you were meant to live

you were meant to be free.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

running form

well, if there was ever an argument to work on running form, this is probably it:

in case the link fails, i'm putting the full text of the article at the bottom of this post.

it's an article from Running Times on running gait, and the growing body of research showing that certain types of strides are more efficient and less injury-prone than others. in particular, out of the usual 3 categories of running gait (forefoot strikers, who run w the balls of their feet touching the ground first; midfoot strikers, who run w the mid-section of their feet hitting the ground first; and rearfoot strikers, who run w their heels impacting the ground first), the midfoot strikers seem to have the highest level of efficiency in terms of distance covered per energy expended and the lowest incidence of injuries.

in addition, in terms of biomechanics and stride, it appears that maximum efficiency in the trade-off between stride distance (the distance covered in 1 step), turnover rate (the number of steps per unit of time), and energy consumption is reached when the footstrike occurs beneath the hip/spine axis, with stride length being lower and turnover rate being a little higher relative to running with footstrikes in front of the body (the underlying trade-off relationship is that greater stride length requires a trade-off in lower turnover and higher energy consumption, and vice versa, the key is to find the balance where everything translates to peak performance over a desired distance).

i've heard many different schools of thought on this, from people who say that heel-strikes are necessary to allow maximum cushioning of shock, with impact directed away from the arches of the feet, to people who say that maximum speed occurs with forefoot strike to maximize recoil of impact energy through the muscle and bones back into the ground to translate into forward motion. i've even heard that adjusting running form is a waste of time, and that people run the way their bodies tell them, and that your body will always find its own ideal running gait.

i don't know what to say about any of this. i do know that for sprinting (100m, 200m, 400m, etc.) events, there is always a stress on forefoot strike. but then, the times in those races are so short that whatever impact forces are generated on the body are fleeting, and so bearable. and in sprinting, just as much as in distance running, there is still a debate as to the proper trade-off.

personally, i prefer the mid-foot strike, with a running gait with footstrike below the hip-line. but i think this is my natural running stride, and something i did instinctively. i tried other running forms, but for distance running, i pretty much found out on my own everything this article is saying. i even discovered--and sympathize with--some of the references it cites, particularly the "chi running" school.

what i think is interesting about this article is that it notes research and sources that confirm the midfoot strike concept, and so provides some empirical support for the arguments behind it.

of course, my times are not world-class, and so i don't know how much my own experiences can be taken as verification for what this article is saying. just take it as my own observation and personal anecdote, and consider it for yourself.

Run Softly, Naturally
Can a Gait Makeover Improve Your Running?
By Brian Metzler
As featured in the March 2009 issue of Running Times Magazine

For years, running coaches and elite athletes have preached that good running form is the key to efficient running and faster times.

Now the concept of running "naturally" and hitting the ground on your midfoot instead of your heel is being advanced by university studies, biomechanists, stride gurus and shoe companies as a highly efficient way to run and prevent common running injuries.

Many longtime runners are hesitant to tweak their form, especially if they're skeptical about falling for what they might consider a fad. But the basis of natural form or midfoot running gaits has been around for decades, much of it derived from the super-efficient form elite runners have been employing for years.

"It's not new, it's just that most runners have either gone away from what they used to do or they were never taught the proper way to run in the first place," says Malcolm Balk, a Montreal-based running coach, form guru and competitive masters runner who teaches The Art of Running workshops in Canada and the United Kingdom.

One of the first technique gurus to preach midfoot running was Dr. Nicholas Romanov, a Russian biomechanist who in the mid-1970s developed and started teaching the Pose Method -- a running technique that stresses impact reduction and, its proponents claim, maximizes the use of gravity and momentum. More recently, ChiRunning, Evolution Running, Newton Running, Radiant Running and Stride Mechanics have espoused natural running techniques that include upright posture with a slight forward lean, short strides with a high cadence and feet striking directly under the hips.

While the programs are similar, there are plenty of not-so-subtle differences in semantics and techniques that have become fodder for debate among runners, coaches, biomechanists, physical therapists and shoe designers. In his workshops, Balk doesn't necessarily adhere to any particular program, but instead stresses many of the things the programs have in common, including lessening muscular force by reducing braking with every step (even and especially at slower training paces) and the general notion of running more relaxed.

Ultimately, natural form leads to running "softly," a style that can help reduce overuse injuries caused by excessive impact forces typical of heel-strike running.

"I think the most important thing is that you need to keep braking to a minimum if you want to reduce muscular effort and the impact that goes with it," says Balk, who practices and teaches the Alexander Technique, which isn't specifically about running form but is a self-help system aimed at developing awareness and efficiency while respecting the natural movement patterns of the body -- especially the relationship between the head, neck and spine.

"If you get people to run tall, run with a fast cadence, and get their feet landing underneath them and not in front of them, they can make themselves more efficient fairly quickly. But the hard part is letting go of their old habits."

Changing your stride

If you're an aspiring elite or fast recreational runner, the idea of running with a midfoot gait could be old hat to you. But then again, maybe not. As you get older, your body changes, and often because of bad habits or injuries or both, you alter your running form, Balk says.

And a quick glance at the faster runners in any 5K or marathon -- both in open and masters divisions -- shows that there are plenty of good runners who are slightly crouched over, landing on their heels or exhibiting other biomechanical inefficiencies, even while running at a fast pace.

A gait makeover could be the key to better running, Balk says, no matter what your age or PRs. "As people age, a runner's stride almost becomes a caricature of what it once was," says Balk, 54. "They weren't aware of what they were doing in the first place, and they've never gone through the process of re-educating themselves to develop a better, more sound technique."That's exactly where sub-2:30 marathoner Dr. Mark Cucuzzella found himself in 2000. After more than 20 years of competitive running, the former University of Virginia track and cross country competitor started experiencing severe pain in his feet due to arthritis and other degenerative changes. Although he was only 34 at the time, running was becoming very laborious.

"I figured my days of running pain-free were over," says Cucuzzella, an associate professor at the West Virginia University Department of Family Medicine.

Instead of giving up, he set out to learn about the biomechanics of running and came across the Pose Method. Cucuzzella started to retool his running form with a lower-impact midfoot gait and started to feel improvements.

But it wasn't until 2005 when he read Danny Dreyer's ChiRunning, which offers a holistic approach to running technique utilizing tenets of the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi, that Cucuzzella put it all together -- running with a high cadence, short strides, footstrikes under his hips and an upright posture, and deriving power from his core.

Since then, Cucuzzella's running has been revitalized and pain-free, even if he admits he's slowed down slightly as he's gotten older. Now 42, he ran two 2:34s last year, at Boston (14th masters finisher) and Marine Corps Marathon (first masters finisher), and then won the masters division (11th overall) at the JFK 50-miler in a PR of 6:45:48.

Now he feels like he can run at a high level forever, especially because his revamped style of running allows him to significantly reduce his recovery time. "You have to look at the whole mechanics of the movement," he says. "You can't just say, 'I'll try to land on my midfoot' because it's much more than that. It's about how the whole process fits together. Learning all of the principles and always improving is important."

A revolution?

Cucuzzella's personal breakthrough made him want to share it with others. Combining his medical training and running passion, he delved into the topic in 2007 by surveying 2,500 people who had bought Dreyer's book and found, among other things, respondents reported a 30 percent reduction of injuries and a 40 percent reduction in perceived discomfort over six-month periods.

While he admits it's not enough to draw conclusions, he believes it's the beginning of ways to change how people think about running form and offer new ideas about injury prevention and treatment. He presented the information at three medical conferences last year, including the Running Medicine Conference at the University of Virginia.

He followed that up last fall by putting 20 marathoners through a Run Softly workshop, the primary tenet of which was running with efficient form. He wants to be able to go beyond the conceptual evidence and testimonial results and advance the field of study. "My goal as a doctor is to keep people healthy," says Cucuzzella. "And from my perspective, we've made zero progress in preventing and treating running injuries. People still get hurt at the same rate -- 40 to 60 percent a year -- despite the MRIs and all of the care they get now. We need to find better ways -- as runners, coaches, doctors and the shoe industry. And from my experience and preliminary research, there's a ton of validity to this."

Midfoot shoes

Another thing most natural and midfoot running stride proponents agree on is the need for runners to use minimalist footwear that mimics a barefoot stride. A shoe without a thick midsole, large heel crash pad and stiff stabilization devices, they say, allows a runner to have the proprioception necessary for efficient running and allows the natural settling of the heel after the initial impact of the foot.

"You need to feel the road," Dreyer says. "The more your feet can really feel the ground, the more it will educate the rest of your body on how to move and how to run."

As of 2009, no fewer than six brands will be offering shoes aimed at midfoot or natural running gaits, including Nike, Vibram, Newton, ECCO, New Balance and Skora.

Newton co-founder Danny Abshire has been preaching for years about efficiency and injury prevention through better running form and shoes. The Boulder, Colo., footwear guru has been making custom insoles for elite runners and triathletes for 20 years.
He argues that if you were to run barefoot along a smooth sidewalk, your body wouldn't allow you to land on your heels because it isn't engineered to accommodate the blunt force trauma of repeated heel striking. "If you want to run more efficiently, you have to understand your body and how it moves," Abshire says. "You have to think about how you move across a surface and stop using so much muscle power to move forward."

Newton shoes accommodate the body's natural propensity for light midfoot landings, he says, and have an innovative levering propulsion unit in the midsole that works in conjunction with the lifting of a leg (instead of pushing off) to begin a new stride. Newton calls it the "Land-Lever-Lift" technique.

Newton shoes have a row of four external rubber lugs that encourages a midfoot strike and enhances the energy return in the forefoot. Newton's lab tests suggest the system returns 30 percent more energy than traditional foam-only midsoles. "We know we can get people to run more efficiently by using a higher cadence, better alignment and more upright form," Abshire says. "They key is running relaxed and having the awareness to just touch the ground and lift on every stride."

So far Newton has made a huge splash with triathletes, whom the company initially targteted. In 2007, Natascha Badmann turned in a world-record Half Ironman effort wearing Newton racing flats, while Craig Alexander won the 2008 Hawaii Ironman World Championship in Newtons, thanks in part to a 2:45 marathon split (the fastest run split of the 1,700 athletes in the field).

It would be naïve to go by the results of sponsored elite athletes and satisfied customers, but the initial results of a study started last spring at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reinforced Abshire's ideas.

The study, conducted through the Chemistry of Sport class taught by Dr. Patti Christie, took 25 athletic individuals with various running abilities and put them through an eight-week distance running program. The research was based around running 4x800m or 4x1600m repeats while holding a constant heart rate.

The first set of intervals was done in traditional EVA foam-midsole running shoes the participants started the program with, while the latter was done in Newton training shoes. That preliminary data revealed that 100 percent of the runners who completed every workout recorded faster times in the final interval wearing Newton shoes. Results showed that 77 percent of the runners ran faster on two or more intervals wearing Newtons, and 55 percent were faster on every interval. "The results were statistically significant," says Christie, who will be continuing the study with a new group of runners this spring. "If you combine the [midfoot] running with the Newton shoes, there was definitely a significant difference."

Harvard is working with Vibram to conduct a barefoot running study, and Skora, which intends to launch its first line of shoes late in 2009, is also studying the subject.

What about you?

Balk says he often encounters broken-down runners in his workshops, those who have become physically beat up from heel pounding and those who have started to lose their love of running because it has become so rigorous. "Those are the people who are putting more and more in and getting less and less out, and on every level," he says. "They're not getting any emotional or spiritual enjoyment out of it any more, it's just become a job. But running doesn't have to be that, and it shouldn't be that."

Whatever your case might be -- the need for minor form tweaks or a complete form overhaul -- the shift to a natural or midfoot running gait will take time. Virtually all proponents of natural form warn that doing too much too soon can lead to injuries and recommend making a gradual transition.

Repeating properly executed form drills and learning more from the various form gurus (go HERE for a list of resources) are simple ways to start. Advanced steps include seeking help from a running coach versed in one or more of the techniques or attending a workshop with video stride analysis.

"There are a lot of good programs out there with a lot of good points. I think they're all kind of speaking the same language in a little different bend," says Cucuzzella, a proponent of ChiRunning. "I really think we're on the cutting edge with this, and it's important for people to know that there is a better, more efficient way to run."

Run Naturally
Here are several basic tenets of natural running form espoused by various technique gurus:

- Regardless of your running pace, run with a fast cadence of 180 to 190 steps per minute or higher.

- Run with an upright posture and a slight forward lean.

- Strike the ground below your hips and not in front of them to reduce braking. (Wearing lightweight, low-to-the-ground shoes with minimal midsole cushioning helps reinforce this stride.)

- Strike the ground at the midfoot, not the heel or the toes -- the actual impact area will vary based on body type -- and allow your heel to naturally settle to the ground.

- When starting a new stride, develop the habit of picking up your leg instead of pushing off the ground.

- Use a compact and fluid arm swing, keeping your elbows bent at an acute angle and your hands close to your chest.

- Keep your head upright and steady and your eyes looking forward.

- Be "present in the moment" to allow yourself to concentrate on your stride but stay relaxed and don't overanalyze. The more you adhere to good form, the quicker it will become second nature.

- Consider getting custom insoles to further your gait enhancement.

- Land at the midfoot and allow the heel to settle to the ground.

- Instead of rolling through a stride and pushing off, lift your leg to begin a stride.

- A key to natural running form is high cadence with short strides, regardless of pace.

Stride Resources

The following links offer up a wealth of information about stride mechanics and technique from a variety of running form gurus and footwear manufacturers. From the “Run Softly, Naturally” story in the March 2009 issue of Running Times.

Barefoot Runner
David Sypniewski, barefoot running proponent

Danny Dreyer, running coach, Tai Chi advocate

Evolution Running
Ken Mierke, exercise physiologist

Newton Running
Danny Abshire, footwear innovator

Nike Free
Nike Sports Research Laboratory

Radiant Running
Douglas Wisoff, physical therapist and sports movement specialist

Stride Mechanics
Jack Cady, physical therapist

The Art of Running
Malcolm Balk, technique instructor

The Pose Method
Nicholas Romanov, biomechanist