Saturday, October 22, 2011

Running - Why Bother?

Earlier this week an old friend of mine from my bodybuilding days posted on his blog that he believed "jogging" was the single worst fat burning exercise that must be avoided like the plague. Wow, those are pretty strong and passionate words.  I trained with John for a couple of years and still have the deepest respect for the dedication he has to his calling, and the knowledge he has accumulated through trial and error and personal experience.  

But his thoughts on the matter of "jogging" stirred up something in me that is not letting me rest.  John, from his perspective and the bodybuilding context to which he's applying his opinion, may be right.  This is not a new opinion for him, over 15 years ago he was expressing similar thoughts on the subject (or at least the subject of a marathon running).  If you're bodybuilding to gain size, training to become a faster runner will be at odds with that goal.  I am not questioning his science on the matter - but I raised the question to myself - why run at all?

First, Why Bodybuilding?
My perspective probably begins in High School (and probably before that), when I was trying to figure out who I was and what I was going to do with this life, body and time I was handed.  I dabbled with running in High School, but never joined the cross country or track teams.  I'm not much of a team guy, and the thing about running was that it made me out of breath.  In sports (hockey mostly) I preferred the position of goalie so I didn't have to run.  Other sports that involved continuous running I avoided.  I dabbled a bit in weightlifting but never saw any gains, I just didn't know what I was doing.

In my 20's when my introverted geekish tendencies turned towards women, I looked at myself in the mirror and decided there wasn't much of me to look at.  In my 20-something wisdom I knew I needed something to project outward and gain the interest of the opposite sex.  Not wanting to endure being out of breath to achieve fitness (as I understood it), I started to dabble in weightlifting.  That road led me to John where I made my most significant bodybuilding progress.  

Weightlifting was great because I only had to work hard for 1-2 minutes at a clip, and then I got to rest.  If I ate "right" I could gain size, fill out my XL shirts and have a 32" waist.  Sweet!  Maximum benefit with minimal effort.  Not that deep squatting with 425lbs on the bar is easy, but when you know that in 60 seconds you'll be resting it's a lot easier to grind through the discomfort. So I looked great, but sweet Jesus you couldn't ask me to run 100 yards - that might actually kill me.

In the end, bodybuilding was all about vanity.  I never needed all that size and definition for a sport or job, it was all about projecting an image to the outside world.  Predictably, when that was no longer needed because I was married, I began to struggle with the necessity to continue at that intensity level and suffer through the accompanying injuries.

A Transition Happens
In 2007, after 15 years of grinding on my body, I began to struggle with a herniated disc (L3-L4).  Physical activity ceased and my 32" waist was now a 38".  My lean 198lbs had ballooned to an unflattering body composition of about 220lbs.  Sitting with an ice pack on my back while a Tens 3000 electric stim was sending voltage through my lower back I wondered - was any of that gym time now worth it?  

At some point in early 2009 I was well enough to return to the gym and start grinding again, but it wasn't the same.  Everything just felt shitty.  Over the next year I took up more cardio exercise than strength training, but my yearly blood work didn't lie - I was not in better shape, in fact I was getting worse.  And I felt worse.

Then in 2010, on the recommendation from a friend, I read The China Study.  Within a 24 hour period I went from devoted carnivore to vegan.  I started shedding pounds, and at somewhere around 200 pounds I felt light enough to try going out for a run. 

Skipping Ahead
Sparing the details of my running mishaps and mis-starts, it began to hit me as I was training for my first marathon that running is selfish.  I don't mean in a bad way, but in a way that is focused just on "self".  When running for a couple of hours you have a lot of time with your thoughts.  Who am I?  What am I doing?  Why is there a voice telling me I can stop?  Who would care if I stopped if only I know it?  Could I be running faster?  Why run faster?  And on and on and on.  

Know Thyself
There is a sense of "knowing" that washes over me somewhere north of mile 16 that I cannot describe but will try.  Anyone that has been there will know where that point is for themselves.  Running becomes a spiritual as well as physical activity, though not spiritual in the religion sense.  It is something very primal and innate, deep and moving.  

There is a TRUTH about your self that once you go there, you'll want to go back again and again.  It's what keeps you going.  When every fiber in your body is telling you to stop, when the lactic acid wants to paralyze your legs, your throat is crying for water and your stomach is aching with emptiness, you know you must keep going because you hunger for that TRUTH about yourself and what you're made of, and you just want more.  Mental will is overtaken by something else and you just have to go on because it's easier than stopping.  Your questions and thoughts give way to an empty, quiet solace, a peacefulness and stillness of thought, and you just become who you are at that moment that transcends time.   You are one with your great ancestors, maybe pilgrimaging across a great plain or scaling a mountain pass to get to a better existence on the other side.   You're a Runner.  And that's a place that no bodybuilder will ever know.

Let's Toast to Avoiding the Plague!
I agree with John, that you must avoid the plague.  It'll cut into your ability to achieve other life objectives, but avoiding "jogging" for the same reason is ludicrous.  Running has given me a perspective that far outweighs any size, strength, definition or confidence that bodybuilding delivered.  My only complaint is that I want something more primal.  Running barefoot helps.  Maybe running an ultramarathon (26.2+ miles) will get me there.  Maybe running a marathon while barefoot will satisfy.  I don't know where the road ends, but I know there's a lot more road than I have time to cover.  

Strength training for the runner has its place, and if I had to fix something about my first marathon it would be putting more strength training into my preparation.  Looking ahead to my next marathon in May I'm already planning more strength building time - but with a purpose.  I know my weaknesses now and how to help my body.  It's not about vanity.  It's about purpose.  It's about giving my body a shot at getting me a little bit closer to that TRUTH I seek about my SELF.

See you in the gym...or on the road...or trail.

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