Thursday, February 14, 2013

Running Love Affair - Runner's Highs, Rituals & the Dreaded DNF


the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.
Unraveling at the Ray Miller 50-miler around Mile 23-ish

Running check: habit forming? Yep.  Psychological and physical? Most definitely.  Like narcotics? Absolutely (endorphins affect the same opioid receptors in the brain as morphine does).  Stopping it causes severe trauma? My last major bout with depression came when I was physically unable to run due to injury for 10-months, and my last few minor low-periods came after a big deal race that I had been anticipating and training towards for many months.

Okay FINE, I'll admit it: I'm an addict.  I've been addicted since the tender young age of 9.  I kicked it a couple of times, I was clean a couple years here, a few years there.  Running wasn't even my first love (baseball was), but damn she's got staying power.  But I'm not here to talk about addiction.  I'm here to talk about one of the things that might cause it... "the runner's high".

I was recently asked to describe runner's high.  And I realized that it's not just a chemical endorphin/adrenaline response to physical discomfort.  Do you ever wonder why you never hear: the cyclist's high, the triathlete's high, the shot putter's high (I'm reaching on that one, I know).  There is a definite unique chemical and physiological response to the impact stresses and breathing patterns of running (especially long distances).  I break the runner's high into 3 categories...

Point where the high WORE OFF...
PHYSICAL RUNNER'S HIGH - this one is pretty simple, if you run far enough, your body breaks down and when fatigued you begin to release more endorphin (or is it endorphins?) into the system. Boom. You feel high.  You suddenly aren't hurting as much anymore. You pick up the pace because you feel good, moments later the chemical high is replaced by physical discomfort yet again.

MENTAL RUNNER'S HIGH - there's a definite high that comes with hard work and the feeling of exhaustion post hard work.  The farther you run, the more difficult the terrain, the more you physically suffered (and maybe even mentally suffered) there's a deep satisfaction afterward.  Said after a recent Octopus run in the Santa Monica Mountains, "that sucked for nearly the entire time, but I feel so good now for some reason."

Photo by Tyler Olson
EMOTIONAL RUNNER'S HIGH - this one is close to the mental runner's high, but is different in a couple ways.  I see the emotional runner's high often tied to an event that carries a lot of hope, like training a long time for a big race.  You invest a lot of emotional energy in training and race prep.  Race day comes.  Some days it IS harder than you imagined yet still everything you strive for comes through (you hit your A-goal, maybe you run a new personal best, place higher than you thought you could).  The high you ride on these days lasts.  You can think back to a race months or even years later and get a little charge of confidence and happiness with that memory recall.  That's the emotional runner's high!

SGV Team In Training circa SD RnR 2004
Once you get high like this, good luck not coming back to it over and over again.  And there are no support groups for runners, other than groups that enable the problem.  The Marathon Maniacs.  Charity Groups like Team In Training.  The SoCal Coyotes.  Shhhhhhhhh...

Another thing that locks in our absolute love affair with running?  Rituals and romance.  It's a romantic sport full of superstition, habitual behaviors and most races are steeped in tradition.  Think about all of the things we do in prep for a big race day: buying a special outfit, laying things out the night before, eating that special meal the night before or morning of, carbo-loading, watching our favorite inspirational movie (*cough*cough* Cinderella Man *cough*cough*).  Running a race again (and again and again) on a certain day, at a certain time of year, it becomes a regular part of our story!  Take the XTERRA Boney Mountain Half Marathon in early January, I've run it 5-years in a row and can't imagine kicking my new year off with any other race!  And it's absolutely destroyed me 2 of the 5 times I've run it, yet I still love it.

There is a downside to this love affair.  Failure.  Actually, it's not failure in and of itself, as there's nothing more positively motivating as missing a race goal or dream by ever so little.  I often tell the story that I trained for FOUR marathons before I RAN my first marathon.  Chicago 2002.  I never start conservatively with goals and dreams, so I figured I'd go "sub-3 hours" in my first crack.  Didn't seem all that unreasonable for someone who had run sub-17 in a 5k (albeit that was in high school, now some 7-years prior).  Hit my mid-mark splits perfectly: 1:29:59 (which, ironically, stood as my half marathon PR through about 5 or 6 half marathons a few years thereafter).  I'll save you the gory details of the pace pack thinning out in the second half and the winds kicking up.  I saw my splits fading like a K-mart beach towel, and with it my sub-3 hopes.  So I resolved to qualify for Boston.  For Boston, back then, I needed 3:10:59.  I finished in 3:11:11 (yes, 12-seconds overall, or 0.45-seconds per mile too slow).  I'm now someone who understands the VALUE of 1-second per mile.  Hell, I understand the value of 1-second every 2 miles and what a difference that could make.

Aside from missing an 'A' or 'B' goal in a race, there's also the dreaded DNF (which is an acronym for 'Did Not Finish' but often in an ultra can represent 'Did Nothing Fatal').  As someone who attempts to aid people in constructing good race day plans/strategies/pace charts, I am a student of my own body and peak performance limits.  Racing is the ultimate test of fitness and ability, there is absolutely no faking through it, especially in the ultra distances from 50-miles and up.  Often, I hear people lament a DNF like it's some mark against one's character, an in-correctable offence against their running reputation.  I have come to feel very differently about the DNF over the years and have a few things to say about it (as I'm fresh off my 3rd career DNF and have found some very interesting consistencies between the 3 failures).  But first, a quote about failure and it's relationship to success...

"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."

-Winston Churchill

I don't know anyone who would accuse me of having "lost enthusiasm" for running.  There might be a great number of people who wish I would lose some enthusiasm.  I'm a blow-hard and a jack-ass.  In fact, I might just be the Johnny Knoxville of the running world (regularly accepting stupid dares to prove some incomprehensible nonsense to someone).  Yet, I digress.

A couple weeks ago I achieved my 3rd DNF of my running career.  I have completed 24-of-27 ultra distance races, ranging from 50k to 135-miles of varying difficulty, terrain and conditions.  An interesting commonality about the 3 races I failed to finish: ALL three were my second time running each of those events.  As a matter of fact, looking back at my recent history of races repeated at almost any distance, there is a somewhat clear cut 'Sophomore Jinx'.

F- Angeles Crest 100-miler 2006 = FINISH in 26:27

S- Angeles Crest 100-miler 2007 = DNF at Mile 49
T- Angeles Crest 100-miler 2011 = 23:51*
    *third time's a charm / third time's a CR

F- Oil Creek 100-miler 2009 = FINISH in 21:17 (4th overall)

S- Oil Creek 100-miler 2010 = DNF at Mile 76
T- Oil Creek 100-miler 201_? = TBD*

F- Ray Miller 50-miler 2012 = FINISH in 8:08 (5th overall)

S- Ray Miller 50-miler 2013 = DNF at Mile 28
T- Ray Miller 50-miler 2014 = TBD*

A deeper examination of the Sophomore Jinx in my racing...

F- Bulldog 50k 2008 = 4:27
S- Bulldog 50k 2009 = 4:29

F- Boney Mountain Half 2009 = 1:46

S- Boney Mountain Half 2010 = 1:51
T- Boney Mountain Half 2011 = 1:41*

F- Miwok 100k 2009 = 10:13

S- Miwok 100k 2010 = 10:19
T- Miwok 100k 2011 = 9:45*

F- Topanga Turkey Trot 2009 = 1:07 (4th overall)

S- Topanga Turkey Trot 2010 = 1:10

F- XTERRA Pt Mugu 2010 = 1:16 (2nd overall)
S- XTERRA Pt Mugu 2012 = 1:25

F- LA Marathon 2011 = 2:56

S- LA Marathon 2012 = 3:01
T- LA Marathon 2013 = TBD*

The ONLY race I can honestly remember improving upon in the last 10 tries to do so is the Rio Del Lago 100-miler, where I shaved about 20-minutes and 1-position overall on my sophomore effort, and the primary reason was I was really focused on my previous two sophomore DNF's at the 100-mile distance.

Why this somewhat predictable trend?  In most cases, I was pretty happy/satisfied with my rookie efforts at those races listed.  I came back determined to do better.  More fit, race ready, mentally sharp.  But then I became someone focused on exerting my will upon the course/mountain (with the obvious exception of the Los Angeles Marathon... no mountains there).  Instead of a trail runner's creed of "take what I'm given" I got greedy and tried to take what I wanted, what I felt I deserved, what I thought my hard work had entitled me to achieve.  I didn't work with the course, I fought against it.  Instead of flowing, I was battling.  The mentality is hugely different.  This past Ray Miller 50 I could explain all sorts of factors that could have been likely contributors to my epic failure, but really, they read like a list of excuses.  The bottom line is I most often go into a long race humble and patient, let the course and miles come to me instead of trying to take them on.  My sophomore efforts I take much for granted, I hard-charge in search of a few less minutes overall and expend excessive precious energy prematurely.  My love for improvement (and at times, the physical suffering that leads to the chemical response) leads to my downfall.

I'm grateful for my failures, as they've become my greatest teachers.  Yours can too, IF you dare to fail.  Some of us have trouble putting ourselves in a position to truly fail.  Yeah, it sucks for a little bit (I was pretty down on myself for about a week after Ray Miller, as I had been looking forward to it for the better part of 11-months), but I'm over it now.  Excited to train again.  With a 3rd crack at the LA Marathon in March and a rookie shot at the Mt Fuji 100-miler in April, I don't have to face my Sophomore Jinx again anytime soon.  But looking at that race mentality of "humble and patient" VS "aggressive and battle ready" will help, tremendously.  Hopefully I can remember that when seeking my 3rd consecutive silver buckle at Angeles Crest in August too.

I almost spoke too soon: I am headed back to the Lake Tahoe Super Triple in late-September, a sophomore effort where the only way I can improve is to win the race and establish a new course record (with the other 2 course record holders competing as well).  Oh boy.  This love affair could end poorly.

Starting off conservatively on Leg 2 of 3 at the Tahoe Super Triple last September


Mac Smith's Wishing You a Happy Valentine's Day... Or NOT?
Krissy Moehl's Thoughtfulness Trumps Going-Thru-The-Motions

What are some things YOU love about running?  What are some rituals, routines and obsessions you have?  Comment below if you feel so inclined!


Olga King said...

I am an addict. And if I look back...there is a reason I don't do same races anymore:) Great post!

Paul said...

Nice write-up Jimmy. I've been fearing two upcoming sophomore appearances of my own... 2nd WTC 50k and 2nd AR50 coming up!

Jimmy Dean Freeman said...

Humble and patient, brutha. Pretend that BOTH are your 1st time, and you can overcome the Sophomore Jinx! PR's are possible the 2nd time when you pretend it's your 1st time...

Go get em! I'll be pacing at AR50, my baby sis is running her first 50-miler!

Paul said...

I will pass the start line calmly, humbly, and conservatively. I will come into EVERY aid station with a smile on my face. I will do my best and will know that if I am to go down, I will go down fighting, like The Last Samurai!

I will also keep in mind that these are training runs for my first 100k... Gold Rush. ;)

Good luck to your Sister! Look forward to seeing ya on race day!

oedipussy said...

Dude, so true!