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Chapter 3 (October 7, 2001) - Continuity


There are always lots of good reasons not to run.  It is the easiest thing to come up, and my brain always thinks of an incident variety.  I always have something sore that could rest; I always have something more important to be done.  And what Joseph Chilton Pierce used to call "roof brain chatter" always starts out with reasons how your next hour or so could be better spent in other pursuits.  Running is selfish, outwardly accomplishes little, sometimes is frustrating to your family, and in the interest of purely spiritual pursuits, the time might be better spent in church or helping out at a soup kitchen.  In many ways, when your brain's in this mode, there is no good reason to run.  I try to look at it as just something that I do and an argument with myself that I won't participate in, so as my brain starts all that nonsense, and even sometimes if my family raises the argument, I quietly gather my shoes, my water and my clothes and I listen to the arguments internally and still go down to my path with my shoes on and quietly begin to run, not ignoring the argument, but acknowledging it as largely irrelevant with the only counterargument unspoken, except in my heart, that “This is what I do.”

As I stretch my slightly injured foot and put on my clothes after two pancakes and two fried eggs at a rather smoky little diner served by a classic country waitress with a bleached-blond modified beehive (her name was Frankie, by the way), I see a young, husky-thin young man take off down by the water with no shirt in the chilly sunshine and he reminds me of myself many years ago.  I pull on my compression shorts (which keep my thighs from rubbing together), polypropylene T-shirt, and a Gore-Tex windbreaker, and jog slowly down the trail. 

After about 2-1/2 minutes, I check my heart rate, expecting it to be around 120 and it's 123.  I talked in Chapter 1 about curves in running.  There are curves on the trail.  More importantly, there are vertical curves (which are hills) and there are physiological curves (which are, most importantly, heart rate and respiration rate as a function of exercise output).  Comfort running requires a happy correspondence between the output of energy and the intake of food and oxygen.  Oxygen taken in by the lungs must balance out with the amount of oxygen required by the legs and the rest of the body.  When these two things are in correspondence, the type of work being accomplished is called aerobic.  When the lungs are at their maximum ability to take up oxygen and it is all being used by the legs, this could be maximum aerobic output.  At this point, aerobic stress is maximized and, to some extent, so is the training effect achieved.  But this is only per unit of time that the exercise is sustained. 

My heart rate is now 143 and at this level of effort, I am fairly close to a balanced maximum aerobic output.  If I slow down, my heart rate will decrease, I will build up a bit of oxygen reserve in my circulatory system, and I'll feel better.  If I increase my exercise rate, I will eventually go into oxygen debt, my blood will become more acidic due to a changeover into lactic acid metabolism, which lets you exercise for short periods longer than can be sustained by your lungs, and after a fairly short time, the unpleasantness will cause the exercise to cease so that oxygen debt can be erased and the blood acidosis can be resolved.  If the heart rate is accelerated too fast, oxygen use will overshoot into anaerobic metabolism and you have to stop because you feel lousy.  It is very difficult for men to avoid this loop, since they think or feel that they are being watched and in some sort of competition with perhaps an unseen or internally younger man, even if there's not another human being for miles. 

However, if the heart rate is raised gradually enough and allowed to plateau at several points below maximum aerobic output or it's elevated close to that point and stopped without exceeding it (at some point men frequently almost need to be held back on a leash by a coach), if this exercise rate can be brought up slowly enough so that output equals or is less than the ability of the lungs to process oxygen, a state of balance between heart rate and foot speed can be achieved and this physiologic state is known as homeostasis, or one state.  I usually try to start out running slowly and slow down two or three times.  Approximately one mile into my run, up in my woods to pee, my heart rate falls from 140 to about 109 (today).  Most of what I've run in this first mile is quite flat, and all I'm trying to achieve is this state of homeostasis.  One thing that's good about running with food in your stomach is that if one tries to take off too fast on fried eggs and pancakes, the blood forced to leave the gut by the vigorous movement of the extremities causes the stomach to hurt, and in a way keeps the comfortable runner honest about his initial running output, or rather, what should be his initial running output.

Coming out of my woods back onto the boulevard, there is a walnut tree and it covers a grassy stretch with nuts.  I never realized the life cycle of a walnut, or for that matter, a walnut tree, until I spent a lot of time shuffling through this area.  Walnuts are about 2 to 2-1/2 inches in diameter, perfect for turning an ankle or badly bruising a foot, so you have to pay attention to get through this.  Squirrels don't take the nuts immediately; perhaps the strong odor makes them leave them on the ground and as the season progresses they turn black, lose their thick husks through some process, and along about late spring, they're all gone.  The following year there's hardly any. 

The nut mast, or nut production of the trees, I never noticed until I started running through this area every weekend for several years.  The nut production varies dramatically from year to year.  I suspect that the trees produce progeny in proportion to what they can afford physiologically; some years all their effort goes into maintenance and growth, and only when they can afford loss do they put out progeny.  Putting out nuts is in some ways a risky business for a tree since for a large oak only a very few nuts per decade might actually take hold in an environment that would allow them to grow to maturity. 

It's probably a lot the same as the physiology of homeostasis in running.  The importance in comfortable running is to keep the output below the level of the ability to input energy and only occasionally to exploit one's reserves.  My running teacher used to call this "grace."  It is not being lazy, it is not being unbrave; it's having the wisdom to build up reserves before demanding to exploit them.

The hardest thing for the new runner is to put one foot in front of the other over and over.  Still harder is the effort required to put on one's shoes and go running over and over.  The reason so many would-be runners fail is this: they don't make the experience pleasant because their ambition exceeds their good sense.  And then the voice that tries to stop every runner, every day, wins out, and the time we spend running is not spent in all those productive pursuits promised by the roof-brain chatter, the guiltless excuse machine, but is just sucked up in our day and it disappears, just as no man says on his deathbed "I wish I'd spent more time at the office," or "I wish I hadn't spent so much time with my children," I'm certain very few people have said "I wish I hadn't spent so much time exercising comfortably." 

As I approached the two-thirds point on this run, I passed the young shirtless man finishing up.  From the time involved, I don't think he ran the whole boulevard.  He ran faster, but shorter, and I'm sure his heart rate is now back to normal.  If I had run that fast, I would have been miserable; though I might have had a bit more training effect because of increased speed, I would have been sitting in a warm bath reading a newspaper instead of still being out here in the sunshine jogging back to my break point in the woods.  I had a healthy drink of water at the turnaround and a gel pack, once again letting my heart rate slow down to around 100, and I'm jogging back to my pee spot in the woods then back across the Indian mound to my car.  I still have to shop for groceries today, wake up my teenage son and help nag him through his Sunday chores, but this useless time spent indulging me in my own physiology has been the bright point in my day.

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