Friday, 7 June 2013

Running Laps

The alarm goes off too early for a Bank Holiday Sunday. It takes me a moment to fathom why I've set it at all, but by the time I've reached over and turned it off, I've remembered.

Today's the day I run laps.

An hour later, I'm pulling the van onto the broad, grassy verge by the 'Well run' gate just out of Claxby Psalter. Since waking I've spent most of the time see-sawing between expectation, excitement and dread. As I get out and lock the doors, I'm still uncertain whether this is a good idea or a bad move. I'm aware, however, that the answer will only be found in doing, so I tuck the keys in my shorts' pocket, check my shoelace knots are tight, and start running.

On Saturday evening, half-way through my second run of the day, I'd wondered briefly how many times I'd run this particular loop. As my default, easy 5 mile loop, it's mainly off-road, always beautiful and straight from my front door. I'd guessed I'd done it maybe two or three times a week for the last three or four years. This day had been different, however, in the sense that I'd already done the same run in the morning. Two laps of the same course in one day? It went totally against what my running had come to represent. What was going wrong?

The answer, I soon realised, was nothing. This year, I'd set out to make different journeys in different ways, and recently, I'd found I'd been doing things in my running that I never would have contemplated even a year back. Whilst the lure of Empty Miling was still strong, this year I'd visited places I was sure I'd run away from for good. Speed work with my club-mates? A road marathon? A 10k race? Aspects of the running experience that were 'just not me.'

And yet, my motivation was at an all-time high. Could this be due to the re-introduction of the very things I'd grown to turn my back on?

I'd figured that maybe it could be.

I'd looked back on my previous week's miles. A marathon at the weekend and a local race on Wednesday night had meant that most of the rest of my outings had consisted of half-hour morning jogs around the Spilsby playing fields. I'd cherished these 'comma runs' a couple of years back, but tended to go further and faster in the mornings nowadays. Eight laps of the playing fields gave me about 3 miles - a perfect distance for a leg-stretcher or a recovery run. Whilst I'd originally found these runs monotonous, I'd come to appreciate them, giving me, as they did, a totally different experience to my favoured point-to-point or large loop courses. The short laps added a lazy metronomic beat to the rhythm of an easy run. Oftentimes, that beat would so absorb me that I'd forget how many laps I'd actually run.

That word 'laps' again. It was taking hold of me.

I'd thought of a conversation I'd had recently with a friend on the subject of running laps of Croxby - a 4.4 mile circuit in the heart of the Wolds, highly regarded for the severity of its inclines. Whilst the summer season races around the route stuck to one or two laps, he'd told me that he often used to run four laps when training for a marathon. I'd mentioned a Fb post I'd seen during the winter from a runner who'd done six laps - more than marathon distance - one Sunday morning.

It set me thinking of the laps of a local hilly route I'd done several times whilst training for my Bob Graham Round. At a little over 4.5 miles, the Fordington short route consisted of three tough climbs and hardly any flat running. The most laps I'd ever done before was four.

As I'd run along the side of the Wolds Grift on Saturday evening, I'd had an idea. Tomorrow morning I'd run five.

In the short distance it takes me to reach the Psalter crossroads, I've already formulated a plan. I'll run the first four laps fairly hard, at a pace just off marathon speed. On the first two laps, I'll concentrate on 'pushing off' the hills. On the third lap, I'll hit the hills hard from the bottom. On the fourth, I'll concentrate on just getting to the tops without stopping. I'd take a short break at the van after this lap, have a drink, grab my camera and run the fifth more as a warm-down than anything else.

The first hill out of Claxby Psalter is steepest at the bottom. I ease into my uphill style - leaning forwards slightly - small, quick steps - and wait for the gradient to hit me. A couple of hundred yards in, my legs are heavy and my lungs are burning. But this hill has given all its got. There's a point in most hills where the slope eases slightly. It's the point where you go from struggling to fine in a matter of seconds. I call this the 'push-off point'. An increase in pace at this point will always pay dividends in a race. You don't need to know where this point is on any particular hill - you just need to feel it. As soon as I sense that slight easing of incline, I pick up the tempo, running hard until I'm over the top.

A long, gradual descent into Skendleby follows. Focusing on keeping relaxed, I turn right at the bottom crossroads and approach the second climb. This one's less intense than the other two, but it's a long slog. Get it wrong, run it too hard, and your chances of doing well on the last hill are buggered.

I'm past the house on the bend, a choir of yapping dogs accompanying me as I start to head up. The gentle slope teases, before biting with a short stretch of 20% and then easing again. I'm running well - feeling ok - and my push-off is strong and sustained. I slow to a steady pace as the tarmac seems to flatten, but bear in mind that the road continues its upwards path for a good mile or more. By the time I'm at the sign-post at the top, my legs play host to a weariness that is pleasant in these early stages of the run, but could be murderous in the latter.

I turn right again at the sign-post and let gravity take me to the floor of the Fordington Valley. I always think of this section as 'the Big Dipper'. Ahead of me, the road bottoms out and immediately starts its steep journey to the top on the other side.

Fordington Hill has a certain reputation locally. It's only short, but it's gradient is savage. Hit it hard and by half-way you'll be in pieces. By the top, you'll have fallen apart. For local beginners, it's a rite of passage. Run all the way to the top without walking and - Congratulations! You've passed the test! You're now a true runner!

I approach it steadily, mentally ticking off the minor landmarks that reveal the progress I'm making. Past the first house, past the second house, past the green gritting bin, onto the farmyard. Hard, hard work, but I feel the push-off point at the farmyard gate and will myself to go, move faster - sprinting all out to the top tree and the oasis of relief that awaits me there.

Arriving at the tree, my pace slows until I'm flushed with the sweet wine of recovery. It's easy running now back down to the van. I cast aside my thoughts of Lap 1 and set my mind on Lap 2.

The number of laps you run is an interesting concept. The reason I chose to run five laps of Fordington was straight-forward and entirely reasonable. I'd done four laps on a previous occasion and I wanted to run more. I guess I could have gone for six or seven, but I figured just one more than four was enough.

The number of laps I do on my comma runs around the playing fields is less rational. I always run eight. Why eight? I originally found that running eight laps took about half an hour, which is about right for an easy recovery run. However, I've found, over time, that my pace varies considerably on individual runs, depending on what I've just done or what I'm going to do. If I go out the morning after a particularly gruelling long-distance race, my pace could be 10 minute miling or slower. If I'm stretching my legs on the morning of an evening 5 miler, my pace might be nearer to 7.30 or 8 minute miling. If running for a half-hour was my guide, why then do I never run six or seven laps on slow days, or nine on faster days? I don't know. But I don't. It's always eight.

A recent American collegiate study set out to find if there was any rational process in choosing the number of laps to run. Four separate groups of athletes were instructed to run 28, 29, 30 or 31 laps of a track. Once they'd finished their allocated number of laps, they were given the option of running an extra lap. Some athletes agreed, most declined. Only a statistically significant proportion of the 29 lap group elected to run one more. Their reasoning? Merely that 30 seemed a better number of laps to run than 29. The 28 lap group were quite happy to remain at 28 - after all, 28 is a nice round number. None of the 30 lap group took up the offer, and, interestingly, an insignificant number of the 31 lap group did, obviously reasoning that they'd reached the target of 30 laps and just tagged on another for good measure. The study concluded that there was little rationality in deciding on the number of laps to run. Some numbers, especially even numbers, just seem 'better'.

There's exceptions to every rule, as my five Fordington laps prove. And sometimes the number of laps a runner decides to attempt is extremely carefully thought through. On the day before I ran my laps, a young man from New Zealand set out to run a very specific number of laps for a very specific reason. The following article from the Taranaki Daily News explains:

"New Plymouth artist Ryan Ballinger has found an unlikely way of combining his art and sport - by running 728 times around the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.
Ballinger has mapped a track around the Govett-Brewster construction site and on Saturday he began running laps representing the number of days the gallery will be closed.
"I thought transforming this pre-existing space into a running track was a good idea," Ballinger, whose father Paul Ballinger was a noted marathon runner, said.
"To do this physical endurance work is, in a way, a gesture of physical sacrifice to the change that's going on in the gallery and to the gallery itself", the 23-year-old student at the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland said.
He has called the work Fartlek, which means "speed play" in Swedish.
Ballinger will run 728 laps of about 500 metres, about 370 kilometres in total, during the six weeks of the show.
"Running is an integral part of my work. It has been an obsession for years. When I was younger, I used to read a book on the Olympics every night and make plans to win gold medals."
Ballinger sees athletes like Peter Snell and John Walker as artists themselves and each of their races as a performance.
"I think there are a lot of similarities between an athlete and an artist, or sport and art. Both require skill, discipline and training.
"I do look to the great runners as artistic influences. There are a lot of the same principles involved, except with art there is a lot more weight on the ideas side of things."'

Running down the long hill from The Gate Inn, I'm soon past the van and starting the next lap. I'm glad the first lap's out the way. My mind flits back to winter season cross-country races, all held over lapped courses. The first lap is always one of doubt and a lack of belief - I mostly feel terrible. Once that lap's done, however, something mostly always happens. Like a switch flicking, sluggish limbs discover some pep and my thoughts change from trying to stay ahead of the runners behind me to trying to catch the runners in front.

And on this run too, I'm now in it. I've found The Flow. The running's good, more relaxed, less contrived. It seems like no time at all before I'm back to the van and starting Lap 3. Without a watch, I'm unsure of exactly how long I've been running - I like it that way - but the last lap seemed much quicker than the first, although my effort varied little between the two.

I think of my comma runs, where, with small laps, I constantly find myself in the position of losing tracks of how many circuits I've done. I remember, too, my attempts at a 12-hour track race some years ago. I'd gone in with a plan of running ten laps, followed by walking one lap. It had seemed simple beforehand, but whilst moving, I'd become frustrated at how often I'd lost count during those running laps and was forced to run an extra one before my walking lap, just in case.

Lost in movement, I find that I'm already at the top of the second hill, surprised at how quickly I've arrived there and wondering just where those last 20 minutes have gone.

It would seem that running is, indeed, a form of time travel. Take your eyes off that stopwatch or the pace readout of the GPS and it's easy to discover. I'd hazard a guess that every runner has had those moments when, caught up in a run, they'd hardly realised that a half-hour or hour had passed them by. This may, of course, be an illusion, but it's an illusion backed by science.

It appears that dopamine is the main neurotransmitter involved in time processing. Dopamine agonists - compounds that activate dopamine receptors - tend to speed up our perception of time, which passes more quickly. Take cocaine, amphetamine or MDMA and the phenomenon will become apparent. Or just go for a run, since exercise also increases the production of dopamine - it's this chemical, together with endorphins, that gives us 'the runner's high.'

But there's definitely more to the perception of time than just chemicals. A return journey always seems quicker than the equivalent outward-bound trip, just as subsequent laps always seem slightly quicker than the first. This must come down to increased familiarity.

When in the car, how many times have you said, 'Oh, there's that bridge - we must be half-way home now,' or 'Oh - I remember passing that garage - we've not far to go.'

On the outward journey, you clock these landmarks, but they mean nothing. On the return, you spot them again, but this time they can't help but act as markers for the time and distance travelled. You're passing landmarks that are now familiar and this leads to the perception that the way back seems quicker than the way there.

It's the same, or even more so, with laps. Subconsciously on the first lap, you're taking in insignificant landmarks that on subsequent laps become significant since they indicate how far you've gone or how far you've still to go. Voices talk to you. 'Once I'm at that bush, I know I'm at the top of the hill.' 'I'm at the gap in the fence - the road junction is just round the corner.' And so, for just a little while, time speeds up.

I'm tired as I start the fourth lap. A slight twinge in my right hamstring briefly gives me pause for thought - 'Should I just stop now?' - but I like to finish what I've started, and, besides that, five laps will make for a better story than three.

As I head once more towards Claxby Psalter, I'm thinking about how certain courses seem to have 'right' or 'wrong' directions of travel. I've always run this short Fordington route in a clockwise direction. I think it's probably harder that way, but it also seems like the proper way to do it. The longer 8 mile Fordington route, however, is a different matter. If I'm alone or with club-mates, I'll run it in a clockwise direction. If I run it with Tammy, I tend to run it in an anti-clockwise direction. I'm unsure of the reasons, but this suggests that the 'right' or 'wrong' way for a route isn't simply inherent in either the route itself or a pre-condition in your own mind, but also dependent on the company you're keeping.

On my 5 mile loop from my front door, I tend to alternate directions as much as possible. I'll run it anti-clockwise one time, clockwise the next. But not always. Sometimes, one direction just seems more appealing than the other.

A couple of years ago, a question came into my head whilst watching the Grantham Newton's Fraction Half-Marathon. This is a great event, and watching got me thinking. The race starts on the back straight of a running track. After the gun has gone, participants run clockwise round the track for about half a lap, before leaving the stadium through a large gate. On returning to the stadium towards the end of the race, participants then run a lap of the track in an anti-clockwise direction before finishing on the home straight.

'Why do we run laps of the track anti-clockwise?' That was the question that occurred to me. Was there any good reason? Was this situation the same throughout history? And, aside from running, why are most laps travelled in an anti-clockwise direction? From Formula One racing to horse racing to ice skating, the direction of movement is always the same. Why is that?

As I continue my fourth clockwise lap, these thoughts come and go, increasingly drowned out by the wave of exhaustion that's dumped itself on me. For a moment, I long for the foopaths of last year. But, here too, a mischievious voice nudges me in the direction of this new-found preoccupation. I'd run many circular long distance routes last year, most of which were described in LDWA notes. I wonder how many were described in an anti-clockwise direction, with the accompanying implication that this was the 'correct' way to do them. But I resolve to findout at a later date - Fordington Hill is approaching for the fourth time and I'm not going to have the energy to think again for a while.

I'm determined to finish these first four laps at a good pace. But I'm tired now - really tired. I hit the bottom of Fordington and I'm hardly moving. One last push. One last push. With more than a stagger than a stride. I finally reach the top. All downhill now. Job well done.

I stop at the van, take a drink and swallow a tasteless granola bar. In the throes of post-session euphoria, I grab my camera, lock the doors and jog off before the feeling subsides and I change my mind.

The pace is easy and the nature of the run's totally changed. Just minutes ago, I was running. Now, I'm Empty Miling.

I give my thoughts space to grow. Running laps. What has it taught me?

I arrive back at the van 40 minutes later, no further forward.

Running laps has been a different experience, but have I got anything valuable out of it? Not really.

I drive home, tired and disappointed.

                                              *                         *                         *

It's Tuesday and I'm back on my loop. It's a wild evening - rain showers battle for prominence over cloud-laden skies. A fierce wind blows from the direction of the sea making movement more difficult than it ought to be.

My pace is slow. My thoughts are on Wednesday's race - a road 5k at Lincoln - four laps of an old cycle way. I'll stretch my legs in the morning with a comma run - eight laps of the playing fields, and hope to knock a couple of seconds off my last attempt at the distance, come the evening.

Now 5ks are, perhaps, my least favourite distance. I'd achieved a half-decent 16.10 back in my younger days, but an all-out effort these days would give me a time a good two and a half minutes slower. I wonder why I'm bothering. It's guaranteed that I'll glean little intrinsic reward from racing - running 5ks hurt - but I guess the finish line would provide some good feeling as compensation. And, more importantly, it's something different from what I've grown accustomed to, which has to be a positive in this year of seeking new experiences from my running journeys.

My train of thought takes me back to Empty Miling, the overwhelming guiding force of my running - and the antithesis of racing 5k.

A couple of my favourite passages from Mark Rowland's 'Running With The Pack' come to mind:

'It is true that running has multifarious forms of instrumental value. However, at its purest and its best, running has an entirely different sort of value. This is sometimes known as 'intrinsic' or 'inherent' value. To say that something has intrinsic value is to say that it is valuable for what it is in itself, and not because of anything else it might allow one to get or possess. Running is intrinsically valuable. And so when one runs, and does this for the right reason, one is in contact with intrinsic value in life.'

'When I run, I know what is important in life - although for many years I did not know that I knew this. This is not so much knowledge newly acquired as knowledge reclaimed. When I was a boy, I also knew what was important in life. I suspect we all did, although we did not know that we knew it. But this is something I forgot when I began the great game of growing up and becoming someone. Indeed, it is something I had to forget in order to play this game at all. It is one of life's great ironies that those least in need of understanding its meaning are those who most naturally and effortlessly understand it. On the long run, I can hear whispers of a childhood I can never reclaim, and of a home to which I can never return. In these whispers, in the rumours and mutterings of the long run, there are moments when I understand again what it was I once knew.'

As an explanation of Empty Miling, Rowland's words come pretty close.

Then I remember an article I've just read by US mountain runner, Joe Grant - a constant source of inspiration to me. In 'Ferns and Inclines' he'd detailed two days of running laps. The words had resonated with me in the aftermath of my own day of running laps. Grant had praised the innate pointlessness of running as being key to its intrinsic rewards - just like Rowlands, and gone on to postulate that this was embodied in no better act than running laps - an activity, even in the field of running, so seemingly pointless.

But now, recalling Grant's words, something feels wrong. That's not the way it works with me. It's my empty miles - the majority of my running - that are, at once, the most pointless and intrinsically rewarding for me. For me, running laps is different. My laps are never pointless - they always have a reason. I run easy laps in preparation for a race. I run slow laps when recovering from a race. I run hard laps when training, not Empty Miling, and most of the time when I race - just like tomorrow night - I run laps too.

Running laps carry few intrinsic rewards. The only rewards come in completing a lap, finishing a session, arriving at the finish line. It had been this way on Sunday, and it would be this way tomorrow evening too.

Without a doubt, some laps deserved a small place within my running life - they helped me get results - but, by only running laps - by concentrating only on the finish - surely I'd miss out on the all-around and the in-between. And the all-around and the in-between - that was true running to me. Those miles were the empty miles I loved so much.

Once a thought takes hold, it's hard to control. This one runs away with me, unwilling to leave go until I follow it through to its conclusion.

It takes me to a line from a poem I'd stumbled across by someone I'd never heard of. Written by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, the poem, describing IBM workers in the '70's hadn't really been my cup of tea. I'd gotten bored with it, but not before one line had jumped out:

'Running laps never led to flying.'

In a moment, I realise that my Sunday morning running laps taught me little about an activity as inconsequential as putting one foot in front of the other. Its lessons were to be found somewhere much more important.

We've been conned - brainwashed to believe that running laps is a noble way to live a life. Conned for such a long time that we don't cringe when our worth is summed up in terms of 'productivity', and our world is judged overwhelmingly by 'economic growth'.

We've all fallen victim. Lured into a lifetime of running laps that offer little opportunity for intrinsic reward, just promise at the finish. Each lap brings us closer to the finish line. Closer to the things we think we want. Closer to building up enough savings to retire on, closer to paying off the mortgage, buying a fortnight's holiday in some resort with more sun than back home. Closer to being able to justify our worth through the possessions we own.

We all run laps. Maybe a certain number of laps are necessary. But a whole life devoted to running laps is a life less lived.

I think of my Empty Miling, and I realise, for perhaps the first time, that the concept aplies equally importantly not only to the way we run, but also to the way we live.

I picture that look I get from some people when I talk about Empty Miling - people who are always chasing, people who always want more, people who run not for the glorious feelings of just running, but need something else from it. People who loose track of the process and are simply concerned with the rewards of the result.

I hear their voices. The same old, same old.

'Empty miles? Junk miles you mean?'
'Running for running's sake. Total waste of time.'
'You'd be better off running laps if you want to beat that PB.'

Voices, omnipresent and persistent. And wrong.

To base your running life on empty miles is a statement of sorts, but easy to do. To base your life on the same principles is a much braver proposition. And I guess the people who do this get the same short shrift.

'You're just watching your life go by.'
'Get yourself a proper job and make something of yourself.'

I know just a handful of people who live their lives in this manner. Their days aren't filled with running laps, doing a job they simply put up with for the future benefits it may eventually bring, sticking to a routine that stifles hope, creativity and joy, simply because it pays the way. No, their days are filled with mindfulness, of an appreciation of the simple pleasures that truly living each moment brings. Their days are filled with making do with what they've got, having just enough and not a lot more, since acquiring anything else requires a sacrifice they're not prepared to make. Of adventure, travel and the ability to enjoy the present. Of a happiness I'm envious of.

By now, I'm back on the step. But I'm not willing to stop. A Ball Of String hinted at the direction that I feel compelled to travel. A Revolution Of One? charted its course. Running Laps confirmed it.

More of Mark Rowland's words pass through my head.

'Living amidst the darkened of the world, our lives are marred by the inability to recognize intrinsic value when we encounter it. Our lives are lived doing one thing for the sake of something else, which is in turn done for the sake of something else. Three score years and ten, or twenty, of an endless for-the-sake-of-which: decades chasing what is valuable but only rarely catching it. To be in contact with something that is important for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of something else, would be to end this chase, at least for a while. For a time at least, one does not chase value, one is immersed in it.'

I stand up. I've made a start.

Now, I go further.