Th­ese Run­ning Times

To ig­nite bliss on the run, you’ve got to keep the em­bers warm.

Runner's World South Africa - - Contents - BY JONATHAN BEV­ERLY

Catch­ing Fire

comes as a sur­prise, the first time: on a win­ter af­ter­noon, I’m run­ning re­peats of a one-kay trail seg­ment that snakes over two hills along­side a field. As I ap­proach the big­gest hill, I pre­pare for the slog, ex­pect­ing to wal­low in the steep, sandy sur­face and to have to mus­cle my way over. In­stead, my feet dance over the un­even ter­rain, my legs power up the slope with ease. I crest the hill and charge down the other side, my strides ex­tend­ing be­hind me, my hips chan­nelling their force smoothly into for­ward mo­tion. I feel light and bal­anced, a fine-tuned ma­chine. I’m breath­ing hard and my heart pounds in my chest, but I’m in con­trol. I fly over the ground, driv­ing my­self faster as I de­scend the hill and hit the fi­nal straight. I can sense tum­blers fall­ing into place, un­lock­ing the ‘thing be­hind ev­ery­thing’ that makes all else seem sec­ond-rate, as John Updike de­scribed in Rab­bit, Run. I’m rid­ing the wave, hit­ting the sweet spot, in the zone, in flow. As I fin­ish the work­out, I feel in­vin­ci­ble, fully alive, con­nected and pow­er­ful. The next day, the feel­ing is there again as I ac­cel­er­ate to a cruis­ing rhythm on a 12-kay run. At this more re­laxed pace, power plays sec­ond fid­dle to a con­scious­ness of deep strength, the ‘tire­less state’ that leg­endary New Zealand coach Arthur Ly­di­ard spoke about. It lures me to ex­tend my run three ex­tra kilo­me­tres, then four. I roll along, barely touch­ing the ground, feel­ing like I could run over the hori­zon.

While the ex­act mo­ments when I un­lock this power al­ways come un­ex­pect­edly, the el­e­ments that get me to this place are no se­cret. I don’t have to wait for ran­dom light­ning to strike. In fact, with run­ning, it never ar­rives out of the blue, as it might in other sports. You may ran­domly hit a six or drive a golf ball on a straight, soar­ing flight, but you’ll never lev­i­tate on the run without first putting in some pre­req­ui­sites.

Once you learn the way, how­ever, run­ning pro­vides a pre­dictable path to sat­is­fac­tion. I can con­trol run­ning vari­ables far eas­ier than I can re­la­tion­ships, work, or com­mu­nity, and the pay­off is never dis­ap­point­ing. Run­ning is what I turn to when I’m tossed about and need to know that, at least in one area, I can act on my world and be con­fi­dent it will re­spond and re­veal that place where life res­onates in har­monic fre­quen­cies.

Be­ing pre­dictable doesn’t mean it’s easy, how­ever. I’ve learned that I can’t get there un­til I put in con­sis­tent 55- to 65-kay weeks for more than a month, reg­u­lar long runs of at least 80 min­utes, and a small amount of speed stim­u­lus. That speed in­cludes some all-out strides a few times per week, and qual­ity workouts like yes­ter­day’s 800s.

The method is straight­for­ward: build an en­durance bed of hot em­bers, gen­tly fan it with speed, be­ing care­ful not to get greedy and blow too hard; and one day, flames burst forth. I can never tell ex­actly when it will com­bust, but I know what con­di­tions need to be present be­fore it does.

What I need to get there is not nec­es­sar­ily what you’ll need. The el­e­ments are es­sen­tially the same, but ev­ery body re­sponds dif­fer­ently to each stim­u­lus: vol­ume, in­ten­sity, fre­quency, va­ri­ety. You must dis­cover

“There are no Strava apps to track how many squats and don­key kicks I did to­day...”

your own unique com­bi­na­tion. Not only is your recipe dif­fer­ent to mine, but the recipes also change over time. As I’ve aged, I’ve found I need to add one more in­gre­di­ent. While I can get fit on run­ning alone, I won’t ever float un­less I also work on flex­i­bil­ity and strength. Out­side of my run­ning, I mostly live the life of a seden­tary, mid­dle-aged ci­ti­zen, and it has taken a toll. To dance like Bekele I need to get my body back in bal­ance, and cor­rect for years of sit­ting and hunch­ing.

And while for me, run­ning isn’t ‘ex­er­cise’ – a chore, some­thing I force my­self to do be­cause it’s good for me – strength and flex­i­bil­ity training is. It’s hard to achieve flow while stretch­ing my hip flex­ors, hard to even know if I’m mak­ing progress. There are no Strava apps to track how many squats and don­key kicks I did to­day, and no one is ever im­pressed with my toe splay abil­ity or how long I can hold per­fect one-leg bridges. My de­sire to keep run­ning and to run well, how­ever, has driven me to do them. But I still rarely sched­ule this ex­er­cise time. I’ve mostly made the sup­ple­men­tal work part of my daily life: I do air squats while I’m grind­ing cof­fee beans, short foot ex­er­cises at my desk, hip flexor stretches while read­ing email or on a call.

Th­ese new rou­tines, while first only ac­com­plished with dis­ci­pline, have now be­come habits that yield ben­e­fits. I am taller, lighter, and more bal­anced and fleet-footed than ever in my life. When I don’t do the ex­er­cises, I feel off, a bit gross, like I would if I skipped brush­ing my teeth. On the run, ev­ery­thing gets harder, and old aches and pains creep back. I have fewer, if any, mo­ments of grace like I did on yes­ter­day’s hills and to­day’s rhythm run.

back-to-back flights: af­ter rid­ing high two days in a row, I’m tired. To­mor­row I’ll be slug­gish. The feel­ing of con­nected power is not a place you ar­rive at and stay; it is frag­ile and tem­po­rary. No wor­ries. The bright flame may have burned it­self out, but the em­bers are still there. This base of steady strength is a com­fort­able place, one that pro­vides its own sat­is­fac­tion, if not the same heady rush.

I won’t tempt the gods and try to force the feel­ing to stay an­other day. I’ll run easy for a while and re­build the fire be­fore I again fan it into flames. I may need to ex­per­i­ment with the in­gre­di­ents and the tim­ing, but I know it will be there for me. I know, as well, that it will be worth find­ing. It al­ways is.

For­merly the ed­i­torin- chief of Run­ning Times, the au­thor re­cently pub­lished the book YourBestStride. He now runs, writes, and coaches on the high plains of west­ern Ne­braska, US.

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