Friday, 18 October 2013

The Joy of Accidental Yoga

I want to like yoga.

I feel it is the kind of activity that a mature, sophisticated cultured man should embrace.

Modern renaissance men are meant to be well travelled, multi-lingual, be able to cook and at least once a week greet the dawn with a Sun Salutation.

But try as I might I have not been able to get into yoga. As someone who is not naturally flexible I do not find it enjoyable in the slightest. And before someone emails me and tells me that the flexibility will come with practice I have been trying to touch my toes all my life and haven't been able to do so since the age of 19!

I have not been able to enjoy the meditative calm that yoga is meant to provide, the quiet nirvana. Instead yoga has just meant sessions of discomfort and pain that can never be over quick enough.

But a year ago something happened.

I was running in New York in Central Park when all of a sudden I felt a shooting pain in my left knee, the pain eventually went and I was up and running again in a week. When I came back to the UK I went for a sports massage and told the masseur about the incident. She gave me a stretch to do that involved me lying face down on the floor with one leg straight out and the other bent underneath me.

Then a few months later my IT band felt tight and a physiotherapist gave me an exercise involving me lying on my back and then raising my backside to form an arch.

After that I did the Edinburgh marathon and created small but painful muscle tears in my lower stomach and another physio gave me another set of exercises.

By the end of this summer after every run I was doing a series of stretches I'd collected along the way. I was finding it a relaxing way to unwind after strenuous exercise and it was bringing me real calm.

But it wasn't until I was doing these stretches after a run with my wife that the penny dropped:

I was doing yoga and enjoying it.

The first "stretch" I'd learnt after NYC was a variation of the "pigeon pose" according to my wife, then she showed me how my sprinters stretch was a "half warrior", my "arch" stretch was a "bridge". Finally I was practically doing a sun salutation at the start of every session as I reached down to try and touch my toes and my stretch at the end was a "cobra"!

I now wonder why I've always hated yoga but found myself accidentally loving it at the same time.

My best guess is I'd always struggled with yoga because I was trying to get the "poses" right and feeling a failure as I couldn't contort my body into the correct forms. But when I'm stretching after I run I am just letting my body do whatever comes naturally. A stretch can feel good, but a pose for an inflexible person like myself can feel like torture.

And then there's the meditative yoga nirvana. As any buddhist I am sure will tell you, no one ever reached nirvana by trying to reach nirvana. By taking away the pressure to reach an inner and higher bliss I actually started to enjoy myself.

I might not be a yoga master (accidental or otherwise) as the title of this post suggests. But I did accidentally find myself discovering the joys of yoga. Oh and for all the runners reading this post it has made me a better runner as well.

(The picture today is of my wife and I doing a sun salutation before a 10k race)

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Stop Counting The Miles

I often run with my Iphone strapped to my arm. My phone has an app which monitors how fast and far I run as well as recording my route. Today at the end of my run the app flashed 4,000km.

I don’t always run with my phone so the 4,000km is a low figure - but seeing the Nike app register 4,000km felt like a significant landmark.

To be honest since showering and getting changed out of my sweaty sporty clothes I'm slightly surprised at the level of satisfaction it gave me.

But my running app and my satisfaction at clocking 4,000km points to a wider phenomenon. I am beginning to think that for many of us it is no longer a case of “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) or even "curro ergo sum" (the runner’s fun take on the famous philosophical pronouncement - I run therefore I am). No, for many of us we are living a quantified life. I measure therefore I am.

If a phenomenon or event is not measured and recorded it is almost as if it didn’t happen. The very act of measurement seems to give an event meaning. Conversely not measuring an event can cause us to question the very validity of a phenomenon. Let me use the example of my running app again:

My running app records the best times I have run for 5k, 10k, half marathon and a marathon. The problem is often this feature of the running app is temperamental. It will often not actually show the best time I have run a distance in and just randomly pick one of the runs I have done over that distance. When I discovered this it really bothered me, I spent far too much time than I care to admit emailing Nike and even talking to the support team on the phone to try and rectify the problem. Why did I care so much? I know exactly what my best times are for each of those distances - I didn’t need my phone to tell me. But it was almost as if I had not run those times if it was not recorded and showing up on my phone!

I know I have actually run further than 4,000km over the last two years but it wasn’t until I saw it on my phone that I felt I’d actually achieved it.

Not only does the classic "cogito ergo sum" seem insufficient to grasp our modern lives, I feel the famous philosophical question of; “if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it does it make a sound?” is now inadequate. The sound of the tree crashing down no longer exists even if an army of people hear it, if you haven’t measured it's volume on your phone, filmed it and hopefully uploaded it to YouTube.

Running at its best connects me with my inner self and the natural world around me. Running should be pure existential joy where you are experiencing the moment as it happens. Checking my running app after a run and taking satisfaction from its measurement saying “4,000km” couldn’t be further from living in the moment.

The Ancient Romans saw the dangers of trying to measure life as demonstrated by the famous poem by Catullus when he wrote: 

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred.
Then, another thousand, and a second hundred.
Then, yet another thousand, and a hundred.
Then, when we have counted up many thousands,
Let us shake the abacus,so that no one may know the number,
And become jealous when they see
How many kisses we have shared.

I believe the poet is telling us true joy only starts when measurement becomes meaningless.

I will continue to run with my Iphone and running app but I will strive to remember that it is the running that matters not the record of my run. 

And like the kisses in Ancient Rome the real joy in running only starts when we “shake the abacus” and measurement ends. 

(The photograph speaks for itself - it is a screen shot of my iphone displaying 4,000km)

Monday, 7 October 2013

Confessions of a Bored Runner

Running can be boring.

OK I've said it. 

I feel I have broken the great taboo in admitting the bleeding obvious. I have some how broken the sacred code between runners that we can't actually say out loud and definitely can't say in front of non-runners!

Running is meant to be euphoric. A long run is meant to give you a runner's high. Running can do everything from relieve stress to cure obesity. I've even read articles posing the question whether running is better than sex, (it isn't by the way).

But I've never read an article that admits the fact we all know: Often running is boring. 

It is impossible to do any activity day after day, and often for hours at a time and not be bored.

But rather than run away from the boring truth I believe it is time we embrace it.

Western society seems to have a phobia when it comes to boredom. Boredom is something to be avoided at all costs and fought through an armoury of mobile phones, films, radio, video games, music, literature, tablets and of course television. We should never be bored and if we are we should remedy the situation immediately!

But more people are increasingly coming out in praise of boredom.

The state of boredom is now praised by some as a prerequisite for great creativity and insight. It is not until you stop bombarding your brain with stimuli that you can have that great "eureka" moment. 

Although I believe this to be true, and find running an incredibly useful time in experiencing creative breakthroughs as my bored mind wanders, I don't think this is really in praise of boredom any more than a racing driver likes to stop because it enables him to refuel his car and then go faster. This is not really praise for boredom, this is more an argument for the utility of boredom to make your life even more interesting in the long run.

As a runner I want us to really appreciate boredom. Nothing worthwhile can be achieved without us embracing boredom, whether that is reading turgid law books to one day become a judge or filing your accounts to grow your business into a multi-national corperation. Running teaches us how to embrace boredom, it's impossible to run a PB marathon time without experiencing boredom through some of your training runs. It's a life lesson for anything we want to achieve. Through great boredom comes great achievement.

But there is also a more philosophical aspect, dare I say spiritual side, of our lives that I believe running boredom connects us with. 

Poet and philosopher Joseph Brodsky had much to say on boredom but the one aspect that really strikes a chord with me is when he wrote: 

"boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one's mental equilibrium. It is your window on time's infinity. Once the window opens, don't try and shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open".

We invariably fill our lives with distractions so we can avoid facing the reality of time.

Running is one of the few occasions in our lives when we allow ourselves to be bored. One of the few occasions when we allow ourselves to become fully aware of time. In busy lives when every second is meant to be filled with activity. In an age when "work hard, play hard" has become less of a catch phrase and more of a commandment, running and boredom is the ultimate rebellious act. Through running and giving ourselves permission to be bored we connect with the one constant that modernity cannot control - time.

So next time you are on a long run and start to feel bored in the words of Brodsky throw that window wide open and allow yourself to connect with "time's infinity".

(The picture today is of me running a trail half marathon race just outside Brighton UK smiling as I saw the camera - pretending not to be bored) 

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Warsaw Marathon Review

I don't normally write race reviews.

I feel there are other running blogs that do that kind of thing. But I thought I'd make an exception in this case because when I was preparing to run the Warsaw Marathon I couldn't find a single decent review, so here goes:

Last week I ran the Warsaw marathon. It's held on the same weekend as the Berlin marathon and for anyone who has failed to register in time for the prestigious Berlin marathon (as I did) the Warsaw marathon is a great alternative.

The race course is relatively flat and run alone broad roads. Warsaw being Poland the weather in the last weekend of September is suitably chilly and when I ran it the sky was a beautifully perfect "marathon grey" exactly what every marathon runner would ask for.

The drink stations along the race course were not great as they handed out water and sports drink in little cups. I have always found drinking from a cup while running the equivalent of trying to sign my name while riding a bicycle. Luckily I'd read the pre-race literature that came from entering and so I ran with a drinks belt, otherwise I think I would have been seriously dehydrated.

Also despite my previous PB being 3hours 11mins the organisers had put me in the slowest group at the start. Therefore the first half of the marathon I spent most of the time weaving in and out of people as I overtook them. It wasn't until the second half that the numbers were more spread out and I was running more with my pace peers that I found I could really get into my stride.

I'm not really one to judge a race by crowd support because I zone into my own world while racing. But if crowd support is your thing there are plenty of children to high 5 as you run, live bands playing music and loads of people cheering "BRAWO!" as you run (the Polish language isn't one if my strengths but I figured out what that one meant!). Also on my race number they printed my first name so it was nice to hear people shouting my name.

The last kilometre is downhill as you run into the national stadium towards the finish line. After 41 kilometres a downhill finish is very welcome.

So it's not a perfect marathon in the way Amsterdam marathon is, nor does it have the atmosphere of London, but I'd definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a fast marathon.

After all is said and done I got a new PB besting my Amsterdam marathon time by more than three minutes with a new time of 3hours 8minutes. So it cant be all bad!

(The picture today is of the race medal - a really nice weighty piece of metal)