I used to run a lot. 10 marathons, many half marathons, and hundreds, thousands of miles of training runs. Then I got into CrossFit. I stopped running marathons. My training runs dwindled to nothing. I left to go train infantry students for 9 months. I stopped being a runner.
A few months ago I started running again. After an extended break from CrossFit due to being away for 9 months, plus a shoulder injury that prohibited many activities, I found that my engine was lousy. I couldn’t keep up on METCONS. I was easily gassed. Out of breath. Sure, I can carry 95lbs on my back all day, but I couldn’t go in bursts. Box jumps and burpees were the death of me. With mouth open wide, tongue hanging out like a cow at the slaughter, I gasped for air. I read how MacGregor just didn’t have the endurance for the fight against Mayweather because he didn’t train endurance. So I added running back into my training.
In running again all of my runs were lousy. I’d forgotten the forms and techniques learned from a couple thousands miles of running. I’d finish a 6 or 12 mile run and my app would show me that it was 68th fastest out of 72 runs. Consistently I was performing terribly. This is a hard pill to swallow. Daily at the CrossFit gym I may be cheerful and happy, welcoming every new face I see, telling everyone they are awesome sauce, offering words of encouragement to the person that is scaling their box jumps to jumping up on two 45lb plates, and so on. But inside I am berating myself for not being faster, stronger. It is the price to pay for the drive of masculinity (note, this is a polarity of energy, I am not writing here of gender) in that masculinity always wants to go faster/stronger/harder. The goalpost is always moving. There is no moment when one arrives in masculinity. It is the essence of striving. Disappointment is the nature this energy. We may feel jacked when we hit a lift for a new PR, run at a new record speed, but we then turn our sites to the next PR, the next time, the next race. Whenever we come across someone else in the same activity, we ask them what their lifts/times are. A marathon runner will ask another one they just met what they’re PR is and/or if they’ve qualified for Boston.
A month ago I had relearned the importance of SPM (steps per minute). This was learned the hard way a couple of years ago when I found out that I was running faster on my rest miles of a long run where I took shorter steps at a quicker pace (PT shuffle) to catch my breath, than I was when I was trying to run at a fast pace. I started to relearn this lesson a few weeks ago when I was sore as Hel from deadlifts and back squats but still needed to log in a run. Plus I am now the Platoon Sergeant for an infantry company and I’ve challenged my entire platoon to run miles. I confidently told them that I’d run than entire squads. So I had to, if nothing else, rack up some miles. I was sore and couldn’t move, so I ran smaller, quicker steps. My pace was better than the past couple of weeks. I then remembered SPM and tailored my next runs around that and my times were in the top 25% of my historical runs.
A week off from the flu during Thanksgiving holiday, I was back at it. Monday. I had gone to CrossFit and had a dismally weak back squat. I had lost 20lbs of lift, a drastic change. I was weaker. I had tried to CrossFit on Friday but almost passed out. I was dizzy and had that ice cold feeling around my head when you’re about to hit the ground. I finished last for the METCON and afterward I sat on a bench for 20 minutes until I felt I could drive with adequate attention.
It was nighttime. Cold (mid 30’s) and a blanket of fog was covering the large park that I run at. The park is bordered by a river along one side of it and a slough along another. There are fields and patches of forest. I didn’t want to run my usual 6 mile route as I was uncomfortable running with headphones at night in an area where cougars have been sighted. I’d run once before after midnight after a long day, and I’d spotted a brief glimpse of green eyes out in the trees (cougar). So I planned a meandering 7 mile route that went to downtown Salem and back. There were a few possible points of ambush by cougar, but the risk was worth it.
I put on my cap and a headlamp. It is best to run with a cap under the headlamp as the bill helps block some of the light. Then I took off for the new route. Left the parking lot and right into a fog bank. I couldn’t see more than 5 feet forward. I couldn’t see the areas to my sides that well. I could not see the ground all that well either. Because it was a fog and I was using a headlamp I was running into a constant white blanket. I’ve searched for images to convey this sense, but nothing comes close. But the effect was like this, only replace the blackness of space with a light grey color.
I ran through a puddle that I didn’t see. I couldn’t tell when I was going to run uphill or downhill. I could only tell where I was at now. So I focused, as I’d started to do, only on my steps per minute. I’d adjusted my playlist to music to help me do this, aiming for around 180 bpm. I wasn’t expecting much for the run. It was cold. The air was wet and cold. There were large areas where the fog in the air froze on the grasses and shrubs, turning it into a white landscape. I was sore from lifting. I was still unsure if I was truly healthy again from the flu. But I told myself I didn’t care about my pace. I only cared about the steps per minute. Even if I took small steps, feeling like I was running in place, I’d take the steps.
Uphill. Nothing big, only a 5 foot climb over several meters. It’s funny how up and downhills that are never noticed when walking, are suddenly front and center in your attention when you’re running. Especially long distance running when your legs feel like they are being pricked by tiny needles everywhere. So to handle this small uphill I simply shortened my stride and ran up. Before I knew it I was up and over the hump.
The song would change. From a 178 bpm song to a 182 song. A small change, but this little change brought with it a slight relief. Muscles that felt a little… what’s a word that combines stagnant with tired… were given a breath of fresh air because of a little tweak in speed.
Downhill. Again, nothing big, only a couple of feet over a few meters. But I pushed out the back, using hamstrings to push off and forward, not stretching forward with the leading food, and maintaining my steps per minute. And it was over but I had a good stretch of speed.
I ran through an intersection of paths. I knew exactly where I was. I know this park like the back of my hand. I’ve run it, hike it, birdwatcher in it, hidden LANDNAV trainings on it. And yet these paths seemed new to me. Because I couldn’t see them in relation to a horizon, but only 5 feet of their direction, I noticed brief hesitancies within me. Was I going the right way? Did I make a wrong turn? These were minor thoughts, a 2 out of 10 in power, but they were there. Even knowing this park as well as I do, I still had small doubts.
Running at night I was reminded of something that I discovered years ago when I first started training and I worked nights. I love running at night. Also, I am faster at night. I learned this lesson when I was running along the Pacific Ocean one night on a route I’d never run before. The beach was deserted. It was dark. The sand was hard after the tide had gone out. The horizon was so far away, the lights of the city, that it didn’t move or get nearer as I ran. I was in the darkness, no lamp, just running and focusing on my form. I glided. I flew. I was the wind. It was perfect running. It was perfect. I had one of my best run times ever.
Often when running in the day one sees the horizon, the sides of the road, the people you pass, and so on. You become aware of your spatial relation to other people and things. You become aware of your relative speed. You thought you were doing well and yet you’ve been staring at the back of that runner/bike/dog walker/car for a while now (and “a while” might be for 5 minutes or only 30 seconds). You see far off in the distance the tiny trees, trees that you know to be 120 feet tall, and you feel how tired your legs are, and you doubt yourself and if you can maintain this pace. You start looking, at some level, for some way to allow yourself to slack off and slow down.
Running at night takes those distractions away. Your perspective is limited to closer to you. You see a tree in your headlamp (if you use one, often times I won’t use a headlamp) and suddenly its gone. Tonight, running in the fog, my headlamp turned the world around me into blackness on 3 sides, and a white wall of the unknown in front of me. The bill of my had hid underneath me in shadow. Where I was going was 2 steps in front of me. And I could make out 5 steps in front of me. I had 3 steps of roadway to plan my every move.
It is a common approach by many to have the mission statement, or the far reaching goal, clearly outlined. I used to be a big fan of Covey planners in the 90’s before they were bought out by Franklin and turned into Franklin Covey. People are told to know exactly what the end product looks like. We write vision statements, mission statements, roadmaps, action plans, and more to achieve this. What happens if you don’t know what the end looks like? As someone what their life looks like in 10 years and if this their best self? What if the map doesn’t fit the terrain? Related to this, contrast US Army [OPORD writing from WW2] to current styles. Nobody can imagine a Platoon level OPORD being less than several pages. Rommel gave a 2 paragraph order (each with 7 lines) to take parts of North Africa.
I was sitting in a leadership meeting as we discussed upcoming Company lanes and the Brigade level lanes that would happen later. If every detail is an insect, we had an infestation. So many concerns that competed for attention. Flag what is important. What’s left? A sea of flags. I was walking with a Cadet who will someday be a Platoon Leader elsewhere, and he was swimming/drowning in details. He started to barrage me with questions. Even the act of setting up a Patrol Base and the priorities of work and so on. The OPORD had so much information in it, it was hard to pick out what was important or not. The amount of time spent in planning would be great. And, if we learn from our past, the plan will go to shit the first day or the first bullet fired. Planning is essential, but it isn’t the mission. If my mission is to take control of CP Charlie and to hold it. I really do not care what the morale of the enemy is. I do not care what their most likely COA is. I don’t care what a lot of things are. I’ve got a platoon with machine guns, javelins, and soldiers. We’ll hold. Come what may.
I pulled him aside. ”Look, there is the mission, the Task/Purpose the Commander has issued for us. This breaks down into two areas, generally speaking. We need to be ready to kill the enemy. And should he be so foolish as to attack us, we need to be ready to repel his assault. This wasn’t satisfying to him. I explained that, yes, there were ways to conduct a Patrol Base. Do you dogleg in? What is the best location of it? When do you send out your R/S teams? What about sector sketches? Claymores. Deadzones. Weapons maintenance. Etc… So much to plan on. But essentially the plan is this… We are on patrol to complete a mission. We need to stop for a while, maybe grab some rest, do some maintenance, and plan for the next day. We’re going to do this some place we’re not going to be found out. We want to be hidden. We also want warning if enemy is walking around. So we put up a ring of weapons for security. We might not get to sector sketches. It isn’t the end of the world. We might have an elaborate defense, or not. But in the end we have 360 security and an alert level the matches the danger. There is no doctrine on the order of work. It is SOP and TTP and METT-TC. Everyone is going bonkers about the supply issues, what we need, lets get a list, etc… But again I told him to relax. There is mission essential gear, nice to have gear, and stupid gear. Let’s get the mission essential gear, which is a surprisingly short list. Ammo. Water. Radios. Batteries. These are essential. There’s nice to have, such as rain gear and night vision. We’ve fought wars for thousands of years without such. We’re not going to call off a fight because the enemy surrounds us and we don’t have NVG’s. We’ll do with what we have. Then there is the stupid. Things that people take out in the field that they shouldn’t. The best way to learn this is to let them take it. But for a platoon of guys who’ve many have not deployed, they could use some time in the field without goretex, cots, tents, and so on. It builds not only strength, but also an understanding of what is truly essential. This allows you to cut through the bullshit in a world when you’re surrounded by people who continually add to it. Read The Soldier’s Load or this Foreign Policy article. We get lighter gear, but we still carry a lot. And poor planning will have us carrying far too much. As much as I might think I am frugal, I still carried 45 lbs, not including water, on my 40 mile hike around Mt Hood this past summer. It is light, sure, but going up and down 10,000 feet in three days over 40 miles and me second guessing my gear. Next summer, around Mt Shasta or Mt Rainier or The Sisters, will have me cutting that weight even more. My goal is to be in the 30’s.
But I digress for too long. The point is there comes a time when we need to say fuck the vision statement and focus on the here and now. There is a saying that is popular among my fellow productivity nerds that goes like this; focus on process, not product. I spend time reading GTD blogs, podcasts, and such, usually from computer programmers, writers, or production managers. The point isn’t to say that the product isn’t important, you’ve got to know what you’re creating (a computer) in order to assemble your team. But we act in the here and now and working this moment is only one we’ve got. We plan future, but we act present. How to balance these two is the test. Going back to the Army example above, how much of our concern is mission essential, useful, or stupid?
My future Self wanted to be faster, with a better engine for not only CrossFit, but also leading my soldiers, hiking around mountains, and doing anything else that might come my way. That was why I was out on a frigid night running in the fog. But this future self affect my stride. I didn’t change my footfall, which the stability or lack thereof is important for runners. It didn’t change how I attacked a hill, or how I might change gears for a hill. It did add to my motivation for doing so.
When I started running it was pure discipline that got me out on the path at times. I dreaded hills. I dreaded long runs. But I made myself do them and slowly over time learned to love a long run. But I still dreaded hills. I kept telling myself, every time I came upon a hill, that this hill was condensed training. It was giving me twice return on investment. I told myself every time I hit a hill, still hating it.
One day I was running an 18 mile stretch of road around UMCD and I was 9 miles away from anyone. It was hot. I was isolated. I just kept plodding away. 18 miles was my scheduled long run as I was prepping for a marathon. It was going to hurt. I knew it would. But as I came over a small crest, I could see off in the distance, over a mile away, a hill. A good hill. The kind where it grabs you by the face and says “you will change your run or you’ll walk up”. And my heart leapt in joy when I saw it. I even said, out loud, “You’re beautiful”, as I ran in the afternoon summer heat. I knew that it was adding pain to my run. But I knew the marathon in SEP would really hurt. They all do. I always push myself as hard as I can. And I knew that this hill was adding strength for that test.
The small hills that I went up and down on this foggy night were not tests. But they helped remind me that life throws a lot of ups and downs. These small up/downs were minor tonight, but a few weeks ago I had cursed when running up them. Now I simply focused on my steps per minute. I breathed. I relaxed into the process. I trusted the plan. It was a simple plan. If I came to a space that had water, I’d run elsewhere. I didn’t need to beat a time. I didn’t need to keep a certain pace. I only trusted in the process. I ended up running 15th best out of 81 (runs between 6 and 8 miles) at 0:48 off my fastest pace, and 4:30 seconds slower total time. I ran the same route again two days later 42 seconds slower total time. Pretty consistent.
Running at night helps my mind not see the distant trees. I know I’m running 7 miles, so why does it matter about the trees in the distance and how long I’ve staring at them worrying about how slow I’m going? Thoughts, like gear, also can fit into the mission essential, useful, or stupid categories. If I am focusing only on the process, after having committed to the plan of running a 7 mile strip of land, then I don’t need to worry about anything else. Just run. And that is each step. Each step, running in the fog at night, is a chance to make that step a good one. CrossFit has the same approach with make each rep count. They don’t mean to make each rep a PR. But instead to make each rep as good of a technique as you can. CrossFit is about functional fitness, not lifting weights. Functional fitness is about living life well. If you scale workouts to where your level is so that each rep is something you do well, focus on form not result, process not product, then you’ll get stronger. The weights change, but the approach doesn’t. The distances of a run change, a 4 mile run used to be my long run, but the process doesn’t. Battles and wars change, but the soldiers don’t.
I’ve been struggling, for months, on finding the big picture. I still don’t know what that big picture is. I’ve pretty much given up the idea of going to graduate school because the idea of adding so much debt to my life is something I’m not wanting. But I can focus on the process. What lessons did I learn and then forget? Life may throw ups and downs at me, but stick to the process. Don’t stand still. Don’t stop. Take smaller steps, but keep running.