Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Cloud Wall

There's been several times in my life that a novel has changed me, just a bit.

 Jack Kerouac's 'On The Road'. William Wharton's 'Birdy'. David Guterson's 'Snow Falling On Cedars'. Donna Tartt's 'The Goldfinch'. All of these, masterpieces that have taken me to places from which, on reading the final page, I've returned a slightly different person.

None of these, however, have transformed me in quite the same way as Mark Helprin's 'Winter's Tale'.

What do I mean by that?

In her blog post on 'The Sheila Variations', Sheila O'Malley states,

'One of the best parts of 'Winter's Tale' is that it gave me 'scenes' unlike anything I have ever seen in any book, in life, in theatre, movies. So specific, so fantastical, that they could only have come from the expansive imagination of one man...

I am forever grateful to Mark Helprin for showing me these things from his beautiful dreamscape, because now they are mine. Forever.

They are not nothing. Nothing goes away. Even things of the mind, the imagination, the dream, are important information to have as we try to navigate our way through the world.'

What do I mean by that? That's what I mean by that.

Of all the wonderful images the book brings alive, the one that intrigued me the most was that of the cloud wall - the mysterious, whirling barrier of cloud that surrounds the mythical New York City. Sheila O'Malley writes,

'Nobody knows what the cloud wall is. It sometimes picks up the sun, glinting with gold, and the wall reaches into the atmosphere. Sometimes it sweeps over New York City, and when that happens, chaos breaks loose. But for the most part, the cloud wall surrounds the city, a barricade, and people forget its existence. In the 20th Century section of the book, people have become so accustomed to the cloud wall that they don't 'believe' in it any more. Nobody even sees it. But maybe the cloud wall is a clue.'

But to what?

'...and although the whirling white cloud wall may not be mentioned for pages at a time, you always feel its smothering presence. You never stop wondering about it. What is it? And what might be out there, in the world, that is working on me, without me even realising it? Don't we all have a whirling cloud wall, to some degree?'

I lay in the bath one Saturday afternoon, deliciously exhausted after a long morning run, with the cloud wall in my head. And in that half-world between sleep and wakefulness, my own cloud wall became clear. The brooding, whirling barrier that surrounded my life was fear.

Although my wife, my children (and my running?) keep me sane, I'd fallen into a default life that I never wanted. I'd become immersed in the same old shit as everyone else. Working too hard in a job that bored me, manufacturing a product that I couldn't give a toss about, saying one thing but doing another, sacrificing precious time to earn money to spend on stuff we'd all be better off without.

In a moment of insight, I realised that the reason I was doing this was down to the cloud wall. In that instant, the cloud wall became a barrier for me between what is and what might be. A creeping fog of fear that is at once immensely comforting and cloyingly suffocating.

Surely I owed it, both to myself and the people around me, to walk into the cloud wall. To confront its challenges in the hope that things will work out, but with the knowledge that it might make things worse?
But how would I do this?

The steps I would take into the cloud barrier would have to be small at first. I couldn't afford to leave any of the people I love behind. And gradually, over weeks, months or years, I might see what lies beyond.

When you're a coward at heart, it's always easier to stick to the familiar first. (If you're an idiot too, then why not choose the very area of your life that might (or might not) be part of the problem you're trying to crack?) For much of the next few days, therefore, the cloud wall became inexplicably bound in my mind with running. It would be in the field of running that my bid to charge the cloud barrier would start. Get it right, and then - but only then - could I push deeper.

I came up with this idea of just running one weekend to destruction. Keeping going until I could no longer, mentally or physically, move forward any further. I'd mark out a 5 mile flat route from my front door and after starting off, just keep running, stopping only to eat or drink when I arrived back home. I googled the longest distance ever run continuously to give me a ball-park figure of how long I could possibly go.

The more I thought about it, however, the more this idea seemed dumb. I'd run 140-odd miles continuously in the past, but paid for it with months of injury and knackeredness. Maybe there was a difference between not doing something because you're scared to and not doing something because it's just bloody stupid. (But maybe not - I guess this dilemma also lies behind the everyday inertia most of us live our lives with.) Whatever - I knocked this idea on the head, confident that something better would turn up.

I've made a resolution in recent times to read less shit on the internet. To be fair, though, I do struggle. And although I'll continue to persevere in my mission to rid my days of modern technology, I have to admit that amongst the mass of sows' arses, you do sometimes come across a silk purse.

I chanced across a blog post by US ultra-runner, Dominic Grossman, entitled 'The Merits of the Full Blarney'. It was to change my life for the next three weeks. The start of Grossman's blog is great:

' I have to admit, I have a problem:

I can't take anyone's word for it; "it" being defined as any truth about life, running, work, relationships, etc. I have to empirically prove it to myself multiple times to thoroughly know the truth inside and out.

My training is an especially true testament to this; I can never accept truths that I haven't dramatically proven to myself. I have to put stress on my body in every possible way until I understand what's really going on. So, when I read that former pupils of Jim O'Brien had done blocks of ten 100 mile weeks, I had to try it for myself.'

Now, I'd come across Grossman before in my overexhuberant following of the US ultra scene, but I'd never heard of Jim O'Brien, his 80's disciples (Larry Gasson , Bruce Hoff - amongst others) and his fondness for prescribing a block of ten consecutive 100 mile weeks in his training programmes.  A couple of hours later, however,  I knew a fair bit about them all.

Jim O'Brien's athletic career was shaped by several standout performances, but  defined by one unbelievable record that still stands as a benchmark to this day. His 17.35.48 Angeles Crest 100 record of 1989 has never been threatened since it was set. Remarkable in itself, what makes it even more special is that the course was almost two miles longer in those days than it is now.

O'Brien's preparation for this race was extreme.

'I really prepared for Angeles Crest in 1989. I sacrificed for six months before the race. I had meticulous planning; crew, pacers and nutrition, all dialled in. I had three plans. Plan 'C' was to run close to the record. Plan 'B' was to run conservatively and break the existing record. The secret plan 'A' was to go under 18 hours. The training began a year before the race. My mileage for the six peak weeks, nine weeks prior to race day, was 150 to 200 miles in a continuous build. I then tapered downward from 200-100-75-50 per week.'

Although O'Brien's athletic achievements are something else, there's scope to suggest that he left an even bigger impression in the world of coaching. Starting at the University of San Diego from 1982 to 1984, onto Cal Tech through to the mid '90's, and then at Arcadia High School till 2013 (whereby he was sacked as victim of an internal politics bullshit battle), O'Brien became one of the most successful and charismatic coaches in the US education system, credited with always getting the most out of his athletes.

It was during the '90's that O'Brien also took on coaching private clients. In time, this became 'Team Blarney' - a name synonymous with running achievement in Southern California. At Team Blarney, O'Brien coached a spectrum of runners from 10k speedsters to those wanting to run a trail 100 miler, and included runners from their late teens to mid 60's.

O'Brien's coaching philosophy was pretty simple. He pinpointed the biggest mistakes long-distance runners made:

'Not taking the distances seriously, not treating the training seriously, and being self-coached with no serious direction. Also, a blind willingness to replicate mistakes, and a resistance to positive ideas.'

Suffice to say, I probably wouldn't have made Team Blarney.

'In order to get the most out of your ability, you have to run at a higher level of seriousness. Why? To maximise your ability to finish the distance in the shortest possible time. The runner must be willing to train at a higher intensity, and to properly prepare for the rigours of the distance. This is unavoidable.

'Running 20 miles a week isn't going to cut it. Distance runs aren't enough either. Most ultra-runners run their training runs slower than their race pace. This isn't good. This is where speed work comes in. But speed work must be understood as an efficiency-building exercise. Nobody does speed work at 12-15 minute miles; it's too slow. Speed work is designed to reinforce efficient running habits.'

Bearing the above in mind, central to his athletes' preparation before a long race was the 'Full Blarney' - a ten-week block of consistent back-to-back 100 mile weeks wherein speed was focused on as much as distance run.

An example month block can be seen from the training diary pages of Bruce Hoff - one of O'Brien's most successful athletes.

I have to admit, I always feel a strange excitement at the prospect of running myself into the ground, and the discovery of the Full Blarney got me properly buzzing. Through this trial of miles, I would take my first steps into the cloud wall.

I've done big weeks in the past. Plenty of 100 mile weeks, the very occasional 200 mile week, but never 10 100+ mile weeks in a row. The reason? It scared me. It scared me in its prospect of the time commitment necessary and the mental discipline needed. It scared me because it was so removed from typical modern-day  running coach advice (ask anyone - run 100 miles for 10 weeks and you're just asking for trouble - 'your body just won't cope!) and, moreover, it scared me because whenever I'd tried in the past to run back-to-back 100 mile weeks, my body hadn't coped. I'd succumbed to tiredness and injury, and reverted - retreated, tail between legs - back to my normal 'sweet spot' of 60 -70 miles.

The Full Blarney was taunting me. In a short time, it began to take on a symbolic significance that perhaps it shouldn't. Fine - a Blarney might set me up for this summer's race. Fine - a Blarney would determine if I was physically anywhere as near as good as I hoped I could be. But more, more than this, the Blarney began to mean something else. If I was to change my life in the way I desired in the future, if I was to tackle my fears of doing something radically different (not in my running, per se, but in the whole way I go about living) I needed, first, to finish this stupid challenge.

On June 28th - the day after my 47th birthday - I arrived back at the step at the end of a 13 mile evening run (and a 29 mile day). I was tired, but not done in. And my Full Blarney was complete.

For ten weeks, I'd averaged between 103 and 116 miles without missing a day (my streak, started on February 22nd, is still intact - 149 days and counting). It had been hard, but not impossible. Admittedly, I'd foregone O'Brien's emphasis on speed work - the only time I ever run fast in training is by accident - but I'd done my ten weeks nevertheless.

And what had the Blarney taught me? A few running-related things probably:

- as long as you're flexible, you can always find the time to run 100 miles in a typical week;

- sometimes, the runs where the first miles are the most frustratingly painful end up as the ones where the last miles are delightfully effortless;

- consistency hardens you. Run every day and niggles rarely become injuries. Refuse to rest and, after a day or two, they magically go away;

- it's possible to run 100 miles in the week after a gruelling 60 mile trail race;

- running a lot of miles makes it easier to run a lot of miles (I completed the afore-mentioned 60 mile race at the end of week 9 of my Blarney in a time 1 hour and 45 minutes quicker than last year.)

There's a few others, I guess, but rather than reading about them, it'll certainly be less boring - and infinitely more rewarding for you - if you go out and have a crack at a Blarney yourself.

These running-related things, however, mean bugger all in the grand scheme of things. The most important thing the Blarney taught me was that earlier throw-away sentence: It was hard, but not impossible.

It is this, over everything else, that I need to remember.

To break through the cloud wall, it will be hard, but not impossible.

David Cain writes so insightfully on the subject of fear - the very grey matter that makes up the cloud wall:

'When you decide you’ll walk into your moments of truth — your project launches, race days and blind dates — with an unconditional willingness to see what happens, fear doesn’t have much to do.

For some reason we interpret the presence of fear as a trustworthy reason to be tentative, to delay our arrival at a result. This gives fear time to make the unhappiest possibilities bigger in our minds, seemingly more worthy of respect. Yet fear is your mind at its dumbest and least articulate. All it knows how to do is shout “Get away!”

It designs endless disaster scenarios, not just of failure or setback but of complete ruin. It understands your options only in terms of how they could bring on your annihilation, and therefore is blind to everything else that your experiences can do for you: wisdom gained, doors opened, and particularly the possibility of success. It just doesn’t see it.

So it always bets on death and irreversible consequences without even reading the odds sheet. But like any idiot conspiracy theorist, when it guesses right its confidence explodes, and you can’t shut it up. (“See! They didn’t like your poem! How stupid that you tried!”)

When you point out any of the million instances in which fear was wrong, it changes the subject to its most recent victory, or it makes a brand new prediction. If you’re not thinking for yourself, you’ll start to parrot its paranoid convictions — “It doesn’t matter what I do, things never work out for me! Nobody can love me!” and other beliefs so asinine they would require a global conspiracy to be true. You might even find yourself actively looking for evidence to support fear’s claims, not for any logical reason, but because you wish you were as confident as it is.

And once you’re confident fear is usually right, you’ll be right so often that you’ll never want to bet against it. That’s the great irony of fear: give it too much respect and it becomes the paralysis and annihilation from which it ostensibly protects you.

We are smarter than fear. Walk into the thing it tells you to cower from — or “Feel the fear and do it anyway” as Susan Jeffers would say it — and fear dies, because you ignored its only wish, which is to keep you from going certain places to see what’s actually there.

Unless you have a rational expectation of grievous bodily harm or financial ruin, respond to fears with curiosity about what life actually looks like beyond the moment of truth. Pass through the door and see what’s there. You can take it. The sky has fallen a thousand times already.

Even if you do find what fear warned you about, you’ll notice it had none of the details right. It doesn’t look like, feel like or require of you what you thought. That’s because fear doesn’t know anything about the future. Fear only ever has old material to work with; it makes its predictions out of the past. It’s desperate to prevent you from getting to the future to see what’s really there, because then it will quickly lose your respect.'

As I've gotten older, I've matured a long way from the shy, introverted, lost kid that I once was. I'm more confident, have less inhibitions, take less notice of what others think or say. But, interestingly, when it comes to the way I live my day-to-day life, my fear has increased.

I'll give you just one example.

During the winter of 1989, I flew with my sister to Perth, Australia, to meet Our Kid who'd gone out to Oz six months previously. After bumming around on the fringes of the Pro Surf Tour in Margaret River for a few days, we returned to the northern suburbs of the city and slept in a car-park near Scarborough Beach for a while until we secured a cockroach-infested flat a couple of hundred yards from the Indian Ocean. Two or three dead-end jobs and a month's grape-picking later, with barely enough spare cash to finance a daily food spend of 10 dollars a day between the three of us, we drove across the Nullabor Plain to Port Augusta, before heading to Alice Springs and the remote heart of the continent. From there, we drove to North Queensland, sat out a tropical cyclone for a week and followed the coast south to arrive in Sydney two days before Our Kid's flight home, totally skint.

With zero knowledge of basic mechanics, it had been a concern when the van failed to start at a roadhouse a hundred miles or so short of Ayer's Rock. Fortunately, a drunken trucker, taking a shine to my sister's English accent and blue eyes, had showed us how to bang a starter motor back into life with a hammer, and we'd used that new found skill on more occasions than I care to remember for the rest of the trip. It seems strange to me nowadays, looking back, how strong our belief in everything turning out alright had been. Somehow, we always knew - or convinced our young selves that it was so - that wherever we were - middle of nowhere, holding up traffic after stalling at traffic lights on Sydney Harbour Bridge - we'd manage to get that old bus started again. And we always did. For that year, we acted first and feared later.

I'd not yet learnt to drive during those long-gone months of adventure. As the Kombi putt-putted into the Outback, I'd either be sleeping in the back or sprawled in the passenger seat reading 'Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance' or 'The Fountainhead', listening to one of our collection of three cassettes we'd bought from Target before departure - The Sundays' 'Reading, Writing and Arithmetic', The Smiths' 'Louder Than Bombs' and James Taylor's 'Greatest Hits'.

When I arrived back in the UK in 1992, it took me a few more years to get round to taking my driving test. Spurred on by the memories of that Australia road-trip, I eventually passed in 1996 and bought my first vehicle - a split-screen yellow VW bus - for £1800 from a bloke in Boston. On its last legs since Day One, I drove that bus everyday for the next two years, knowing that I'd break down more often than just now and again, but not really giving a toss. Although the Sound Of Fire was never far away, in the area of just getting on with it, the cloud wall was almost non-existent. If it had been, I guess I would have never given up everything in 1998 and fucked off to Africa.

In recent weeks, it's a VW bus that has become the mascot of my own cloud wall - the benign symbol of everything that's wrong.

After my original bus rotted away, I chopped her in as part-payment on a 1967 Splitty - the same age as me. But when, after a lengthy restoration, I eventually drove her home, things had changed. My circumstances had changed. I had changed.

I was now thirtysomething. Married. Two small children. Mortgage. Most of the stuff I'd always wanted. Some of the stuff I'd never wanted but had got anyway. And without me noticing, the cloud wall had crept in, insidiously encroaching waves, surrounding my life, keeping me 'safe'.

The bus was a totem of how things had changed. For the last 8 years, this amazing piece of iconic styling and minimalist engineering has done less than 1000 kms each year - less than I'd do in a month in my old wagon. And when I sit back and ponder the reasons why, the answer is simple - fear. Fear that on a long journey, I'll break down (all that waiting around and inconvenience, you know, when I've things to do!) Fear that using this bus on a day-to-day basis will only encourage rust and cause so much wear and tear that its extortionate value will decrease (but what of it's real value? It's value to me, not it's nominal monetary value. Protectively cocooned, but hardly used, it's real value to me is a tiny fraction of what it could be.) Fear that if I leave it parked on the roadside, some knob will nick it or scratch the paintwork.

So, it sits in the garage, loved but hardly enjoyed, like an expensive ornament or a wedding dress. That's just not on.

I've been reading through old Bumfuzzle posts recently. Check out the site - they're cool folks. People like this have no cloud wall surrounding them. But it never just disappears of its own accord. Rather, by making brave and bold and life-changing decisions, by living more consciously, more mindfully, not just going through the motions, some folks are able to burst through the hazy barrier that encloses most of our lives and experience living for how it really should be.

I'll be the first to admit that my life's pretty good. I've people who love me, I've people I love, I can do many of the things I want to do. But, still, there's something limiting me. There's a direction in which I must travel if ever I'm to find whatever it is I'm looking for. It's the cloud wall that stops me.

I'm no fool. I know it's rarely true that the grass is greener on the other side. I know running away is not the answer. And I've no misconceptions that what lies on the other side is a life that's just -well- better. I know that.

In my imagination, beyond the cloud wall is light. A bright, bright light that, at the moment, is being obscured.

Break through the clouds - make the changes I need to make, travel in the direction I need to go, face the fears that prevent me from really living - and the light will come through, sunstreaming in glowing shafts through stormy clouds.

And maybe, just maybe, under this light, what I have here, right now, will be illuminated so brilliantly that I'll be staggered by its beauty.

1 comment:

  1. Yes.

    I'm not a runner but Yes to the deeper sentiment of this post.

    I'm off to buy the book now.