IN WHICH WE TAKE ON A NEW CHALLENGE, DIP A TENTATIVE TOE INTO THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CHI, AND PONDER ON THE EFFICACY OF MARTIAN TRIPODS AND AT-ATs IN THEIR QUEST FOR FORWARD MOTION…
I was working late in the home office and my son Dallan was cooking the dinner. Saoirse came home and announced that we should run a mile every day for December.
A sort of advent calendar for runners. Life is like a box of chocolates. Except every window you pop open reveals the same thing: run a mile, please. And no, there is no chocolate, so you can stop poking around.
Great timing. It was the first of December, and Saoirse had already done a decent session in the gym and clocked several miles that morning. Dinner was about ten minutes away. And dinner was the cut-off for the evening. It was late enough to be eating, after which it was going to be far too late to be out jogging on a full stomach.
A quick change and over to the gym treadmill across the road. Perhaps not the ideal time to try your first proper treadmill session, and I admit I have been rather skeptical of the thing over the years. I would much prefer to be out and about, getting some fresh air into my lungs. Plus, there is something perverse about the fact that you are running but standing still. It flies in the face of nature… even physics itself is revolted by the idea; if you let your mind wander for a second, the damn machine will toss you to the floor.
Saoirse was watching on carefully though, so I stayed upright and on track for the 8 or so minutes it took to clock up a mile in intervals. And we were back in time for dinner too.
Yesterday was a little more structured. I went out into the pitch black woods with my headlamp and did a decent 5k. There are no rules per se to this thing. You just have to run a mile every day ’til the end of the month. You can’t bank your miles; that’s perhaps the only rule. If all goes well, the year should end with a half-marathon along the banks of the Royal Canal. I like this race. I’ve done it about three times now. You are dumped by a bridge on the side of the canal and the only way home is to run back. It’s very informal: there are no medals, no T shirts and no goodie bags. You make a contribution towards a bus to get you up there, and soup and sandwiches back at the athletics clubhouse in Leixlip. The race is called ‘Lock up the Year’ and there is a 10k and full marathon option. I wouldn’t be anywhere near fit enough to take on the full (not even with my intensive 1 mile a day training programme!) but the half should be manageable. It can be a bit of a slog if the towpath is wet. Indeed parts are more of a trail run, albeit a flattened version.
I have been reading a little lately about chi running. And to rehash the whole box of chocolates analogy, the topic amongst some runners seems as welcome as the sudden realisation that you’ve sunk your teeth into the coffee one.
I can’t say with all (any or some) honesty that I know a hell of a lot about it. A quick trawl through the web will reveal a jumble of feedback through which you must pick your way carefully. As Lone Swimmer nailed it once more on his excellent blog, people often go online to assess things when in reality they do so to ‘subconsciously confirm to themselves a decision they’ve already made’. Amen to that, brother. I too have sinned.
Anyway, I can see the logic of chi running, even if part of me rails against anything that has a whiff of new age bunkum about it. And a book/DVD offering is usually a good warning sign. I like to think of myself as broad-minded (don’t we all). I quite like the way the internet can be harnessed as a human resource that gives more than it takes. But of course, more often than not, this particular box of choccies has more than its fair share of coffee ones lurking in wait. And needless to say, the box isn’t free either.
But hey, enough of the downbeat stuff. And certainly it’s time to kick the Forrest Gump analogies to touch. Chi running is apparently something we naturally do as kids (so another good reason not to exploit it), and it seems to logically use the cunning force of gravity to help you move forward (oh look… a split infinitive…). If running can be described as falling over without hitting the ground, then chi running is simply an explanation of this continuous occurrence and an attempt to put some method on the madness. Or as grizzled pros put it: ‘that’s just good running form…’
Being bipedal is already one of nature’s great gifts. No harm in trying to tweak it a little, I suppose. So, Chi 101: upright posture, lean forward, footstrike under the body. And there’s lots more about your ankles, your cadence, your backswing on the non-standing leg… if chi runners out there who evangelise about the method are reading this, they have already choked on their chai lattes in gentle rage. And to prove what an errant savage I am, I have no idea what a chai latte is. So relax. Enjoy the run. I have been building in a few of those principles into my 5k training runs, and without doubt there is a strange but rather natural reaction when you lean forward whilst running. You naturally speed up. As any runner knows, increasing speed (by either lengthening your stride or increasing your cadence, or both) means expending more energy, but in this case, the trade-off seems to be that you can increase your pace by a small percentage using this technique whilst still only burning the same amount of gas.
I did warn you this wasn’t a scientific blog. And if I didn’t, apologies. But it isn’t, so now you have been warned. And there isn’t really much mention of the War of the Worlds tripods either, nor the AT-AT machines from Star Wars. Gratuitous cultural references to prove I can get down with the kids. And if there is an emoji for snapping one’s fingers in a self-congratulatory manner, I can’t be arsed to look for it.
Suffice to say, walking and running is quite a clever thing to do, when you see how tricky it is to get a machine to do it. Which is why machines (and their inventors, obviously… I mean, this isn’t SkyNet folks) generally plump for tracks and wheels.
And the chi running technique exponents would jump in at this point and mention how the technique is akin to a circular motion as described by a rolling ball (AKA a wheel) and not an up-and-down piston-like motion or the more uncouth dragging of a block of stone.
Ace Irish cross-country runner Catherina McKiernan swears by it. And she has run a 2.22 marathon, making her the national record holder. So who am I to judge. And the Boss tells us that, baby, we were born to run. Which any first year anthropology student would agree with (even if they don’t own the album).
My athletics journey is a blend of science, hope and wishful thinking. The more you examine your times, it seems, the less fun you have. If you know exactly what pace you are running and can sustain, you can calculate very quickly what your finish time will be. For some, that is a godsend. For others, like me, that creates a small disturbance in the force (!). This is why I own a heart-rate monitor, for example, but don’t wear it. Or can pontificate on the value of knowing your VO2 max, but don’t know my own. And why I will probably never own a Garmin watch.
That explains a lot of course. Such as very average finish times, somewhat haphazard training schedules and a general ‘spikiness’ in my attempts to create an upward trend of fitness.
I do quite like the mystery of the faith, but there are times when you need to reverse-engineer the thing and see what makes it tick. Only then can you really get on the road to some decent progress. Next year will tell a lot about that graph.
But for now, I have an advent calendar to attend to. Baby steps, ‘n all that.