Dispatch from China; Some Thoughts on Running

I’m writing from gritty gritty China, where I’ve done the unthinkable: I’ve run on a treadmill.  Beijing air, as those who paid attention to the run up to the Olympics in 2008 will recall, is dismal.  China managed to clear it up by cutting off all of the factories around it and inundating the sky with cloud-seeds, but suffice it to say that they did not do the same for our arrival.  Upon landing I immediately got a headache, and my throat started to clog a bit with some lead-flavored particles.  So besides a yellow-tinted sky and perpetual haze, we also had 95° weather to enjoy.  All of this meant that running in the air-conditioned hotel gym was the only way to go.

I ran for about 40 minutes at 12Km/hr, which is almost identical to the pace at which I ran Bay to Breakers.  It was excruciatingly boring.  I counted my strides and did some mental math, and calculated that over the course of a marathon I would take approximately 34,584 strides.  Running on a treadmill is also unnerving.  If you look away and swerve left or right, or fall behind a bit, you risk deep abrasions and crushing embarrassment.

Thankfully, the air in Lijiang is much clearer.  At 7,800 feet of elevation, this town is nestled in a stunningly gorgeous valley, near Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, an incredible landmark and also home to the southernmost glacier in the northern hemisphere.  This morning, before a tour of the old town, I arose before sunrise and ran for two hours up and down the valley.  I had surprisingly little trouble with altitude, although my run went longer than expected because there are no street signs, and I got lost.  Still a welcome change from running on a treadmill.

I’m on my way home now.  I’ve flown four times in the last two days, and have a 12 hour flight tomorrow.  I’ll be getting in around 9am to SFO, probably sore and exhausted from lack of a proper bed.

Training-wise, not much else to report.  Instead, I’d like to take this opportunity to write out my thoughts about why I really look forward to my long runs these days.  One thing I did not mention in my earlier post about running for novices is the pleasure that comes from finally getting comfortable running.  Allow me to explain:

When I get going on these long runs, the first couple of miles are given to finding my stride, getting all the muscles and joints warmed up, and getting a sweat going.  I’m running very lightly at this point.  After about half an hour, the running starts to feel easier.  I’ve gradually sped up, any tightness has been worked through, and I can feel my body getting warmer.  Then, for the period of time between 30 minutes and 100 minutes, I get this feeling like I’m not running, but actually rolling along the ground.  I feel like the marathon will be easy.  The rhythm of my feet pounding the pavement or the trail becomes the beat of life itself, the world bouncing along on its merry way as it passes by my panting perspective.

Something very funny happens in this middle hour.  My mind becomes both busy and empty, as random song lyrics pop in and pop out (I don’t run with an iPod), thoughts about life flash for a brief moment and disappear, and all I really focus on is enjoying the sensation of moving through whatever setting I’m in with the greatest of ease.  Muscles are warm, my body feels strong, and I only really think about where I’m going to take this run, and when I’m going to stop quickly and have another sip of energy goo or electrolyte water.  It’s amazing how the act of running reduces my needs to basic sustenance, and therefore makes meeting them very easy.  All I’m concerned about is keeping fueled, so that this feeling of effortless chugging along will stay around.

After about 90-100 minutes, I start to feel fatigued.  I keep the same pace, the same stride length and frequency, but the effortlessness is gone, and I have to concentrate on keeping form and on a determination to keep the wheels moving.  Nutrition and hydration become even more important at this point.  Also, at this time I’m usually about 5 miles away from home, and getting back to the shower and the refrigerator become extremely prominent desires.  (By the way, I’m not sure I’ve ever typed refrigerator before, and it’s a really funny word when you stop to examine it.)  The satisfaction at this point comes not from detached, airy floating about the world, but from enjoying the anticipation of complete exhaustion, the feeling of burning legs, the fantasy of collapse onto a bed, sofa, or hell, even the floor.  Every minute that I struggle through the pain, the burn, the heavy breathing, is a little bit more rewarding the collapse will be.  I also begin to strongly anticipate cheeseburgers.

Also, I occasionally get funny thoughts.  Two weekends ago I was running along Land’s End trail, and I thought back to a Vertebrate Morphology class I took at UCSB.  Sam Sweet, who was famous for his awesome beard, was explaining that our calf muscles aren’t meant so much as locomotors, but as “batteries” to store kinetic energy.  They basically augment the Achilles’ tendon, vascular rubber bands.  This is primarily responsible for the feeling of “rolling” along the ground when you get into the groove: you aren’t expending energy so much as just using what you’ve already expended to get yourself going.  A horse is an extreme example.  Sam Sweet said that if you could somehow kill a horse that was galloping at full stride, the kinetic energy it has stored in its body would keep it going for about a quarter of a mile.  A kangaroo’s tail is similar in its purpose, and is responsible for a kangaroo’s method of locomotion being among the most efficient of all terrestrial mammals.

What this all means, I realized, is that it actually takes effort to stop running.  In other words, once you start running, it’s harder to stop than it is to keep running.  I could extrapolate this and say that it’s responsible for runners being so damn addicted to the sport (I am beginning to feel that craving as I type), but that might be leaping to conclusions.

So is this what the runner’s high feels like?  I’ve heard people say they get it, but is this similar to what other people experience?  If you’re reading this and you run, I’m curious to get your perspective.  Do your legs feel like wheels?

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7 Responses to “Dispatch from China; Some Thoughts on Running”

  1. I’ve heard from other runners about that sensation of their legs being wheels, but no one ever described it quite like you just did. You make me want to be able to get to that point. Unfortunately, years of playing a sport that only required me to sprint for 30 feet at the most has left me with an intense dislike of running more than 1 lap around the track. Maybe some day…

    • Alicia: Sure, but you do have the feeling of getting whipped in practice and having a great shower. Not to mention the satisfying catharsis of pounding a ball during a match. Hard work -> effortless execution.

  2. Not a runner, but have had the experience of a period of effortlessness when it comes to swimming or hiking before fatigue sets in. I like the idea of the exhaustion and pain leading to a more satisfying ending, or in my case, an excuse to veg out the rest of the day, after a big meal.

    • It’s a great feeling, isn’t it? When effort is rewarded by completion, say, getting to the top of a hill or finishing a tough swim set, of course it’s satisfying. But it achieves a whole new realm of awesome when you can achieve and it feels effortless. I think the feeling of effortlessness is the culmination of all the hard work that goes into finally reaching that level of competency.

  3. Alright, so please excuse my comment-y-ness today. Just reading some of the entries I’ve missed and feel like participating (all of a sudden feeling like had my professors kept blogs, I would’ve listened to more of what they said…). As I may have already mentioned, I don’t do lengthy runs (still working on perfecting my 2-mile (just a little longer and I’ll bump it up to 3 miles). However, several months ago, I had hit my halfway mark but decided I just wasn’t tired enough to turn around and end at 2 miles, so I kept running. I wound up running 3 miles, feeling as though it was basically effortless. I was a little confused during the run, because that feeling of floating across the ground was not something I had ever experienced before. It was totally rewarding and was a definite high. I did realize at the end of the run that I had been eating a decent amount of carbs for a couple days, so that probably factored in. I never pay much attention to what kind of nutrients I’m consuming, but when the right ones are eaten and processed I can certainly tell.

    OR… Maybe it’s as you mentioned: the first 2 miles of your run are pretty much warming you up and finding your stride. Could it be possible that I should be running 3 miles already? Perhaps I would find progress much smoother. Hmm….

    • I think it’s fair to say that nutrition brings a lot to bear on the subject of actually running. In my totally non-research and unprofessional opinion, I think it has a whole helluva lot to do with it, in fact.

      However, that said, it certainly takes a little while to “find your stride” so to speak. I found that when I was running very occasionally in Santa Barbara on the beach, I would go for maybe 25 minutes, and I never felt like I got good at running, and this might be because I rarely ever got over the hump of that warm-up phase. I will say that there must be something to the concept of getting your body used to the muscle twitchings that are involved in the repetitiveness that is running. It’s like any repetitive exercise…the more you do it, the better you get.

      I would recommend keeping your diet fairly consistent over a period, and gradually increasing the length of time (not necessarily distance) that you run, so that you can isolate it. Perhaps eat a Clif (or Luna, since you’s a lady) bar twenty minutes before you go. At least this way you won’t wonder if being hungry is the problem.

      Happy trails!

      • Well, I used to do the 20-minute thing, but I’m in the process of becoming a commissioned officer in the military, and the Physical Fitness Test (PFT) for this particular branch is 2 miles. So I have a time limit to stay within in order to pass (so far, I’ve taken one PFT and got an 90 out of 100 for the running portion; I’d like to perfect it). Anyway, my current goal is to at least run 3 miles “comfortably” before training starts, which should be later this year.

        Oh, and despite bein’ a lady… I much prefer Clif bars. Although, I am slightly skeptical of a Clif bar’s ability to keep me fueled. That, and I totally burnt out on that sort of thing (Clifs, Lunas, PowerBars, ProMax, etc.) in my one year of collegiate rowing. Yuck. But thanks for the tip!

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