Hitting the Wall

Dec 18 2011

Saulich trail snowscape

I enjoyed the brief period of daylight we had today out on the trails near my home, running. It was 10 below zero, and the trail was firm and fast. It felt great. After many years going through this solstice season in the subarctic, I’ve learned to get out of the house and make use of the daylight as often as possible. Today’s excursion was a snowshoe run. I ski sometimes, too, but the snowshoes are simpler.

This is just the second season that I’ve done any snowshoe running. What got me started with winter trail running was Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run. It triggered a long chain of decisions which eventually lead to what might be called a “learning experience” this past September when I ran the Equinox Marathon.

The book tells a story about how McDougall learned about a tribe of Indians living in Mexico’s Copper Canyon who were able to run great distances. Even senior members of the tribe had the ability to go on long runs of up to 50 and even 100 miles. He marveled at the grace with which they moved, and noted that they did not wear running shoes, but instead wore simple sandals. He was amazed that they could run such long distances without sustaining the high rate of injuries so common among runners who wear highly engineered, commercially manufactured running shoes. He hypothesized that perhaps the cushioned shoes encouraged people to run with poor form, and were actually contributing to runners’ injuries. This eventually sparked a trend toward what is being called barefoot, or minimalist running in the running community.

McDougall’s inquiry lead him to look at the history of running, and he learned that there is a body of research suggesting that humans are natural-born runners, evolutionarily speaking. Our ability to sweat allows us to run great distances at a moderate pace, whereas other animal species – many of which humans like to eat – need to stop and pant to cool down. This would have enabled humans to engage in what is called persistence hunting, and to kill prey animals at close range. All in all, it was an intriguing book, and it made me wonder if I could ever get into good enough shape to tackle some long runs.

My wife remarked that if I was interested, I had the time and enough of a training base to train for the marathon in the fall, and so I started seriously thinking about it. I worked out at the gym every day, and ran every weekend for the rest of the winter. I ran several days a week throughout the summer, putting in 40+ mile training weeks. I went out on several long runs in excess of two hours, and I ran competitively in a series of longish trail runs put on by the local running club. I didn’t know if I was ready for the marathon, but I did know that the the only way to find out was to try it.

One of the unique features of the Equinox Marathon is that there is a 2000 foot climb up to the top of Ester Dome in the middle section of the race. It’s kind of a gonzo marathon, not one that anyone who wanted a good time would do. I’m pretty good at running hills, so I wasn’t concerned about the climb. That was probably a mistake. I went out a little too briskly, I think, given the amount of training I’d done. By the time I got to the top of the dome, at 12 miles, I was starting to feel some worrisome aches in my hips, and my legs weren’t as snappy as they’d been. But hey, I’d made it to the top. The hard part was over, I thought. Hah! By the time I started heading back down, at 17 miles, the aches had gotten much worse, and I was walking the steeper sections. Going down an exceptionally steep place, known as The Chute, my knees wanted to buckle, and I began having a hard time even walking. And I still had 9 miles to go!

Getting to the finish line was agony. I limped and walked most of the last 9 miles. Other runners streamed by me. I remember being passed by a little 8 year-old kid at one point. I was utterly destroyed. My own mental state became a focus point for me, though. I suppose that was because my physical condition was so beyond repair. I began to watch my expectations gradually get scaled back. I’d gone from hoping to finish in 4 hours to hoping I could just make it to the next set of mailboxes or the next telephone pole. When I got near the finish line I met my daughter running the course in reverse looking for me, and she paced me in, urging me to keep running, which I did. But it wasn’t without a fair bit of whining near the very end. The muscles in my hips, knees and calves were completely played out. All that was left was pain and determination.

I wasn’t proud when I crossed the finish line. Just done. I was disappointed because I’d wanted my finish to be more graceful, more under control, instead of the desperate slog it turned into. But what it was, was all I had. It took me several weeks of hearing congratulations from various people to see it as the achievement that it actually was. I’d run a marathon at age 58. I’d finished in the middle of my age-group, and I’d begun planning for next time.

If somebody had offered me money (as in merit pay), or somehow tried to “motivate” me do this, I wouldn’t have done it. Reaching beyond my capacity is something I would only do for personal reasons, beyond the realm of ordinary motivation, and tests like this have to be undertaken voluntarily. Tests, in and of themselves, don’t call people to their best efforts. Real teaching has to begin with the intentions of the learner, not the teacher, and certainly not the administrator or the policy maker. The more I work in the shadow of the standards movement, the less I want to listen to anyone but the kids, themselves, for guidance about what they really need to learn. What good is an education if, in the bargain, we all lose sight of who and what we really are?

The barefoot running movement is a reaction to corporate involvement in running, which in reality is something that any healthy person can do without special equipment. Running shoes represent a form of standardized “curriculum” for our feet and a marketing opportunity for corporate interests. And now there’s a question about whether they may actually be responsible for some of the many injuries that runners suffer each year. Corporate control of school reform, curriculum, and teacher education, coupled with mandatory high stakes testing will do the same to education as it has to running, and we’ll inherit an overbuilt, inhumane institution that accomplishes nothing that it isn’t already doing – except create more losers. Already, schools are becoming pressure cookers in which there are expectations that anyone who works hard can be a winner. Win what? Really, anyone? Ahh, well …..

The days will soon be getting longer. Nothing to do but take care of each other and watch the changes unfold.

7 responses so far

  1. I wasn’t sure where you were going with this post, but I had an idea, and you went there. Awesome and well-stated reasoning for opposing merit pay.

    Dr. Robert Sapulsky talks about dopamine and motivation/rewards. I think we need to recruit him to help us explain why merit pay won’t work.

    And, congratulations on your run, you old geezer!

  2. The days will soon be getting longer. Nothing to do but take care of each other and watch the changes unfold.

    All mortal folks could ever do, really, at least since we got tossed out of the garden.

    This may be the nudge I need to get through the next few weeks. Thanks for sharing.

  3. One of my students last week was teaching himself how to make these God’s eyes I’d gotten us into, telling me that, “We need more days like this.”
    Meanwhile I’m figuring what will happen for my stepping off page and hoping no one comes through the door. Yet in those designs are so much applied math, and the interesting issues in 3 dimensions. As if I should apologize and the unit in math is on geometry for gosh sakes! You want to know the greatest trouble they had making them, this honestly KILLS me, when changing colors of yarn they need to tie the two ends together. This they couldn’t do. The simple knot.
    What exactly are we doing? I’ve lived 52 years I remember the world of 8 year olds, I know we could tie two strings together once.
    This is what test based work creates?
    Not enough practical application to tie two threads together, no sewing, no survival skills, no making. Just consuming. Just a helplessness.

    One of my kids finally seeing I wasn’t helping You tubed tieing two strings together. I was a little stubborn about being the solver.
    I was thinking about that for three days wondering. But my project worked like this-I showed a few kids and let them demonstrate to everyone. And then I suggested they try “their own.”

    I suppose I could edu-blog it.
    But I think I’ll just let it seep out of the woodwork.

  4. A marathon at 58? Congratulations, indeed. Amazing. This post inspires me to start running again. I am 40 now, ran a marathon when I was 18, and then spent almost two decades killing my lungs. I am free of that cycle of abuse, and I am starting to turn my mind back to this world of a deep, an sometimes, painful, connection with my body. That Born to Run book sounds like exactly what I might need, so thank you. And did I say congratulations?

  5. Jim, read the book, indeed.

    The painful connection with the body, it seems to me, is inevitable. Look around; there are lots of examples. I decided a couple of years ago to confront that pain sooner in small, manageable doses hoping I might avoid doing it later, and being overwhelmed by it. So far, so good. It’s a project that pays dividends.

    Thanks, and read the book.

  6. Doug,

    Doing some reminiscing tonight and found your blog after a LONG absence. I missed your writing and insights.

    I read ‘Born to run’ and it inspired me as well. I didn’t run a marathon! But I did start to trust my body and go shoeless.

    As far as education: I feel feedback is absolutely key. Shoes limit feedback of sensation. Schools limit the feedback of learning. As in, “Did I learning anything? I don’t know, but I passed the class.”

    Great to read you again and glad to see you are going strong. And, you have the reverend Jim Groom here! Two of my favorite learning reform mentors in one place.

  7. Hi Newman, good to hear from you again! As you can imagine, going shoeless in AK can only be a seasonal thing. Nevertheless, I’ve joined the minimalist movement, too. Got myself a pair of trail shoes that feel like slippers when I run with them. I’m still breaking in my feet and legs, taking it easy so I don’t cripple myself, heeding the advice of the experts to take it slow. But actually, I’ve not noticed any strain on the joints or muscles from running in the new shoes. The season is still not quite here yet – we had a high temp today of about 12 degrees F – and I’m getting a head start on it. You’re right about the educational connection, getting immediate feedback through the feet is just as important as getting it any other way depending on what you’re trying to do.

    Happy trails!