ad astra per alia porci


I think, therefore I run

I have always thought that there is a close relation between philosophy and running. Running provides both an excellent metaphor and experience to which we can apply philosophical problems, as well as a conducive context in which one can do good philosophical thinking.

Running & Philosophy: a marathon for the mind (edited by Michael Austin, Blackwell Publishing: 2007) is an excellent volume that explores the various philosophical questions that arise most relevantly in the context of running. Runners encounter certain common questions, and each runner will consciously or unconsciously hold views on and hence answers to these questions. Why do I wake up and run every day? Should I? What good does running do to me? How should I run? Does my body do the bidding of my mind ? Are they the same thing? Such questions are fundamentally philosophical in nature; they seem parochially focused on running but upon closer inspection one realises that they relate to much more fundamental issues which philosophy seeks to answer.  The philosophers featured in this volume are runners themselves, so we can trust them (more) to understand the issues. What emerges is a set of thoughtful, insightful and (most importantly) passionate non-technical essays that addresses some of the deepest and most relevant questions pertaining to running, which I feel any runner of any stripe (competitive or fitness, young or old) can closely relate to and understand to a large degree.

Some of the essays speak out to me more than the others, largely because they reflect or relate to how I think and approach running, as well as the thoughts that naturally come to me when I run.

First is the link between running and the good life. I have always thought that running trains the virtues. Particularly, running inculcates perseverance and tenacity. A runner has to fight the urge to stop and relieve the persistent muscular pains and strenuous exertion of every heartbeat and hold steady onto his running goals, as well as have the discipline to run consistently and regularly. In doing so, the runner builds up his mental endurance and tenacity. Hence running is part of a good life, or is at least a means to living a good life. This view presumes that a good life is a virtuous one, and running is a means to achieve virtue. Virtue theorists think that virtue is the key to the good life. Aristotle, the seminal virtue theorist, thinks that virtue consists of a mean between extremes which may be inculcated and learned through consistent and proper practise. Hence when we run, we practise virtues like perseverance and tenacity.

Hedonists will not agree. They think that pleasure is the sole constituent of a good life, and anything that does not conduce towards the creation of pleasure is not part of a good life. Hence running will probably not be a means of achieving a pleasurable life, since it produces physical pain. Biting cramps, stinging blisters and aching muscles are simply not pleasurable.

But extolling the value of running can be consistent with hedonism. The runner plausibly experiences mental pleasure in physical pain. To describe the runner as a masochist would be to take things too far, but surely, the runner finds some sort of satisfaction after a run, regardless of the pain of his cramp or blister. Alternatively, the runner’s “pain” may be recharacterised as pleasure. A person who loves running does not experience pain at all while running, on this account, which a non-runner feels pain.

So is the runner at heart a hedonist? Does he, in reality, run for the sake of pleasure? I do not think most runners will tell you that they run solely for pleasure. I think there will be many runners who run for the sake of other things which they find intrinsically valuable, like fitness, virtue and happiness. However hedonists like John Stuart Mill will argue that psychological hedonism is ultimately at work here: that every thing we are motivated to do are ultimately grounded in expectations of pain and pleasure. Who is right? I think that psychological hedonism is a hypothesis that is unprovable either way. It is neither easily provable nor disprovable (we need massive amounts of relevant empirical data). Hence the hypothesis reduces to pure speculation.

Second is the mind/body problem. Is the mind separate from the body? Or is the mind (or consciousness) really just the brain, the mere result of photons firing? While running, I often wonder whether my mind is indeed separate from my physical body. Running unsurprisingly raises this question more starkly then in many other activities, because of the common phenomena of runners “willing” their tired and struggling bodies to go on and not stop. The element of conscious intention figures so strongly that it seems that running provides an example in support of dualism, which is the view that the mind is not purely physical. On the other hand, the contrary account, materialism, states that the mind is the brain. Mental phenomena is purely the product of physical, neurological processes, and may be fully and sufficiently explained by such. This is a huge hot spot for philosophical debate, which rages on with intensity that increases with the rate we are finding out more about how our brains work.

I tend to agree with dualists like Chalmers. It seems that subjective experience (the technical word being “qualia”) cannot be explained fully by neuroscience. There seems to be an explanatory gap in this respect: the best science cannot account of why consciousness, that is the subjective experience that humans have of things in the world, exists. The conscious experience of the runner is a good example. While running, I experience the sorrows of missing my personal best, the happiness of feeling the wind in my hair and the bittersweet melancholic feeling of randomly remembering the walks that my grandparents used to bring me on when I was much younger. A purely neurological explanation does not lead to the conclusion that my subjective experiences while running should exist. It only shows that certain representations will be flashed in my mind. I might just be a running zombie that perceives mere representations, without the internal subjective experiences that produces the usual subjective experiences each of which are individually unique to the person experiencing it that runners have. However, I do have these subjective experiences, and plenty of them too.

Yet I think a clear and absolute separation is too simplistic. One can possibly hold that mind and body are indeed separate but they strongly influence each other. To put it colloquially, mind embodies body and body embodies mind. When my body is engaged in running, my mind starts to embody the values and norms of running. When my mind is directed towards running, my body naturally follows and begins to shape itself to become the body of a runner. Body and mind are engaged in a circular relationship, each reinforcing and shaping the other. I think the Asics motto is very true: “Sound mind, sound body”. Running creates a sound body, which is in turn required for a sound mind, and vice versa.

My third point has nothing philosophical to it. Running is a very conducive context within which to think deeply about issues and questions, which need not be fundamentally philosophical. Running allows me to cut up a part of the day, which I could dedicate to pure thought while exercising the body. My mind empties out white noise, focuses on the question or issues of the day, and I communicate with myself. Most of my best and deepest thinking occurs during my runs. I do not think that this can be done in other sports, particularly team sports. There will not be sufficient mental solace.

Books that try to bridge the gap between “academic” philosophy and popular culture and everyday life usually do not make the grade for me. My experience tells me that they either collapse into superficial and insubstantial banter about philosophy (or worse, the autobiographical lives of philosophers) or strenuously seek to create artificial and tenuous links between the two subject matter. I do not know if I am being biased because I am a runner myself, but I find Running & Philosophy to be pitched at exactly the correct level. The philosophy discussed does not require prior knowledge of philosophy, yet the essays stay closely relevant to running, and provide sufficient substance and intellectual provocation to keep the reader thinking long after finishing reading them. My only gripe with the book is that it did not have essays that approach running through the Eastern philosophical tradition. I wish that popular philosophy books are more like this gem of a book.

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when you run in the rain
October 31, 2009, 1:09 pm
Filed under: diary, training and nutrition | Tags: , ,

People think you are crazy.

running-in-the-rain

I ran from my grandparent’s house to my aunt’s condominium in the pouring rain. Amidst the crackle of lightning and the gloom of dark clouds, I felt a sense of redemption as the rain pelted my exposed face and body. The thick strands of rain and the cluster of raindrops hanging over my eye lashes limited my vision. Decisions to cross roads are leaps of faith and every step is made with trepidation.

Yet every passing flash of lightning reminds me that I am lucky to be alive and every beat of rain that lands on my face tells me that there is a real, tangible and wonderful world out there. This kind of run won’t be my last.



a change in running philosophy, and gear

The sad death of my first ever pair of real running shoes (Asics 2120) provided me with a chance to get another pair of running shoes. The old battered 2120 has had its day, after miles on the road, many gym sessions and 300 workouts, and it is time to retire it as its sole has dropped off. I have 2 pair of shoes, one is kept in school while the other is kept at home. The one that died is kept in school, and is used for both gym work and running the Botanic Gardens. The one at home is an Asics Foundation 8, probably the most supportive and comfortable (though chunky) running shoe I have ever used.

Hence the question for me was whether I should stick with the tried and safe, or try something new. The safe choice would be another pair of Asics; Asics never fails to provide a shoe with fantastic support and comfort. Yet after reading much propaganda and books about the perks and advantages of barefoot (or at least, simulated barefoot) running, I want to try out something new that may help and improve my running and the whole running experience. My experience of running so far has been painful at times, with shin splints the most prevalent problem. I reckon that this might have something to do with my running form, and books and research told me that proper form requires one to land and lift off on the forefoot instead of striking the heels. Apparently, wearing shoes with thinner soles will help train one to use the forefeet. I was curious to know if an almost flat-footer like me can develop a “proper” running form and land on my forefeet.

Hence I decided to look for a shoe that has a thinner sole and better feel of the ground, and will train me to run in a more efficient manner by making me run on my forefoot instead of striking my heels. I already have a pair of ultra supportive running shoes, so just in case the new purchase did not turn out well, I can always relegate it to a gym shoe and get another pair, or just use my current Asics Foundation 8 for distance work. It’s time to try a shoe that is less chunky and liberates my feet.

So I popped into Running Lab in Novena to shop for my next shoe. My eventual answer, after trying out and deciding between the Zoot Advantage, Nike Lunarglide and Newton Motus, is the Newton Motus (http://www.newtonrunning.com/newton-products/the-shoes/mens-shoes/men-trainers/men-stability-trainer).

It was a tough choice. The Zoot Advantage had a thinner sole, which fitted my requirement of a shoe with a thinner sole, and it was an absolutely fantastic fit. It hugs the feet perfectly, and the lacing system was no frills and effective without the need to fumble over tying knots. One can run in it barefeet without socks; just slip it on and off one goes.

Yet I chose the Newton Motus instead. With all this gushing, one might expect me to end up with a pair of Zoots. As I mentioned, it was a tough decision. The Newton was not half as comfortable as the Zoot, and the lacing system is as normal as it can get. The colour scheme is a garish yellow/orange blend (a note to manufacturers: please use nicer colours).

What won me over was the feel of the shoe, not in terms of comfort, but rather its attention to correcting and perhaps forcing the runner to adopt a midfoot running style. The lugs in the middle of the shoe protrude out of the sole and makes it irresistible for the runner to land on the lugs. On the treadmill at Running Lab, I began to notice a change in my running style; instead of heavy wide strides, my legs closed up in narrower strides that landed closer to the bottom of my body.

The true test of any shoe is whether it performs in a normal run. I took mine for a light run after coming back from school.

Landing on my mid/fore foot was a novel experience. I felt like a toddler, unsteadily tiptoeing along and I felt like falling over. However the lugs absorbed the shock well and my feet adapted to the need to be more steady as the shoe had significantly less support and cover than my Asics.

After the initial baby steps and uncertainty, I was running faster than I did on my Asics. The Newton is light, in fact very light. The contrast was quite massive; the Newton with its thin and breathable mesh outer was very light, in comparison to the chunky Asics I have.

And it was not just the lack of weight that made me go faster. My running form changed. My legs lift higher, and they land below the axis of my body. I take more steps, but my stride cycle is faster. My arms are tucked backwards, and my spine erect, with my legs propelling me forward. Is this the fabled “optimal running form”? Or ChiRunning? Or POSE? Or whatever you call it. Whatever it is, it feels different, and good.

Back home from the 40 minute run, my calves are sore. They are very tight, and various hitherto unseen and unknown small muscles ache. I envision myself having some trouble walking tomorrow. There was no pain, which is always a good sign.

I hope that it is not just the placebo effect of getting a pair of new shoes. I will find out whether the improvements are real in the next few weeks. I am optimistic that this pair of shoes will open up opportunities and bring my running to another dimension.



its the attitude, stupid (ok the shoes too, but less so)

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love—everything we sentimentally call our “passions” and “desires”—it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.

===

If school was not in the way,  I would have finished Christopher McDougall’s Born To Run in a single sitting. I have never been so thoroughly gripped by a book since Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

Exhilarating and attention-grabbing from start to finish, Born To Run reads exactly same way as its subject matter: the excitement, joy and secrets of running. McDougall leads the reader on a scintillating journey (or rather, run) to discover the running secrets of the Tarahumara and the enlightened few who in their own ways found their own secret philosophy of running, like Conrad’s Marlowe on steroids, only with much more optimism and genuine curiosity. Characters from nerdy sports science researchers to the colourful Tarahumara Indian runners, and of course, the crazed and eccentric Caballo Blanco, flit in and out of McDougall’s narrative. McDougall meshes adventure story and a sociologist’s diary with fitness science investigative drama and snippets from the History Channel, and the result is one rocking oddball of a read that serves to inspire even the non-runner.

The one recurring message this book constantly expresses is heart. Running used to be done for its own sake, as a reflection of innocent love and joy, as well as necessity. Unfortunately modern attitudes to running has sharply deviated from its original purpose and goal. Today most of us run because we have ancillary motives, like a desire to avoid an early death or obtain a good figure or to put an end to persistent nagging by others.

And this is what makes running so painful and hard to do for modern men. The “get it over and done” attitude translates to a whole sports industry that focuses on relieving and minimising the runner’s pain and coddling runners from the effects of running. It demeans the activity and the sports goods industry has milked it for all its worth. Sport shoes are designed and repackaged all the time, for no apparently good reason other than to make more profit from consumers who want “the best” for themselves. Ironically this has the effect of making us weaker runners and propagating a whole host of running injuries that were almost never heard of in the context of our primitive ancestors.

A larger observation can be made of human activities in general. Just as how running ceases to be meaningful and joyful once ancillary motives take the place of its intrinsic value, the same can be said of almost anything we do. Is it any wonder why most people hate their jobs? Or why hobbies cease to be pleasurable once one converts it into a career?

It is interesting to see how running and sport in general can be a larger analogy of life. Our own perspectives on our chosen (or rejected) sport is itself a larger reflection on our larger point of view on life. I agree with McDougall when he opined that runners are the happiest and most beautiful people in the world. It is no coincidence that athletes require little makeup to look really good and city people are more depressed than the rural folk. What we do has a curious ability to in turn affect our world view, and vice versa.

Sadly this is not so when it comes to modern attitudes on running. Once an intrinsic element of human life, running has been relegated to merely an optional activity which only “hardcore” workout people or those with time on their hands can engage in. To most, it is a needless pain. Physical prowess is often seen as a secondary and less desirable trait in comparison to mental competency and social skills in our society, and this probably affects social perception of running and other valuable physical activities.

It is a shame. I believe that there is something pure and tangible in running that we cannot derive from other things in life. A run has an end and finishing line, and if you fail to meet the timing, you fail to meet the timing. Things are obvious, innocent and clear. Unlike the tiring and shifting world of human relations and emotions where one never knows what till happen and has to deal with the unsavoury aspects of human character, running is pure and simple.

As a law student, running has a special attraction to me. One standing trend of anything I study in law is the defeasibility of any argument and principle. One can argue for a position, but one must realise that this position is almost always defeasible, either by the opponent’s argument, the teacher’s criticisms or the judge’s final opinion. There is simple no certainty at all.

To this, add the myriad of characters that filter in and out of your life. I am a poor reader of character and I tend to trust people too much. Sometimes this trust results in disappointment. You never know who to trust and who will turn out not to be a friend in the end.

Running is a welcome relief and escape from this uncertain world of smokes and mirrors. Through running, I metaphorically and spiritually run away from my problems. Running helps me sort out my thoughts. Running grounds my life with some certainty; there is no doubt that ten kilometres is ten kilometres and the watch does not lie. If I had a good workout, I had a good workout. If I did not, I simply did not.

That said, I am not the best runner at all, whether in terms of speed, endurance or even heart. I have my off days and sometimes I lose the motivation to even put on my shoes and go for a really short jog.

Which explains why this book has such a hold on me. It provides me with glimpses into the attitudes of others, which I can strive to emulate and learn from. And for this, I am deeply grateful to McDougall for penning such a life-affirming book.



ali
August 2, 2009, 3:06 pm
Filed under: diary, training and nutrition | Tags: , , ,

Was obsessed with boxing matches for the last week. It’s the raw ferocity displayed by boxers and physicality of the sport coupled with the intellectual strategising required to win that attracts me. Underneath the blunt violence, taunts and verbosity lies dedication to the sport, intensive preparation and much sacrifice.

Muhammad Ali was particularly inspiring

Ali v. Foreman, Rumble in the Jungle:

As cheesy as a Rocky movie, but as inspiring in a heart thumping, masculine manner. Apparently one of the bloodiest fights, Ali was the clear underdog, but won through his smarts. He let Foreman pummel him and expend all his strength for the initial rounds, before coming back at him when he was tired in the later rounds. Foreman was to become a close friend of Ali later.

Ali v. Ernie Terrell

Terrell refused to call Ali by his Muslim name, and called him Cassius Clay instead. In the fight, Ali toyed with Terrell and tortured him for 15 rounds even though he was dominating. He could have knocked him out, but he refused to because he wanted to punish Terrell for his lack of respect. This he duly did, shouting “What’s my name” repeatedly while doing so.

Ali v. Frazier, Thrilla in Manila

The third time they faced each other, and one of the most brutal matches in boxing history. An appropriate climax to their bitter rivalry, this fight took a massive toll on both boxers.

Ali’s words

Perhaps the most memorable words came outside of the ring. Ali’s recipe for life.



what I write about when I read about running

031008

People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But I don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits, that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life

I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two everyday running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reaing books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.

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training 070908 + foreseeable future
September 7, 2008, 1:47 pm
Filed under: diary, training and nutrition

070908

The run today was immensely invigorating and thoroughly fun. I was sprinting for a large part of the second part of the run. This was very surprising because I am usually faster at the first leg and wittle away subsequently at the second.

I can’t put my finger on what exactly made it so fun, and where I found the reservoir of energy. It might because of the intervals I did last week. Might be the swimming on Saturday. Maybe it’s the lunch at Seafood Paradise.

At any rate, I feel energetic and ready.

Here’s the regime for the last few weeks, and the next few months (probably). Due to study obligations workout sessions might be switched around, but the regime should not vary wildly.

Sunday – 80 minutes run to nowhere

Monday – Calisthentics workout (600 reps)

Tuesday – 80 minutes run to nowhere OR intervals + 300 workout

Wednesday – Calisthenics workout (600 reps)

Thursday – 80 minutes run to nowhere

Friday – Gym training

Saturday – Rest OR 40 laps in the pool