Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Comparatively superlative

When I was a child and complained “I’m bored,” my father would say, “Maybe you’re not bored; maybe you’re just boring. If you find ways to be excited, you won’t ever be bored. Boring people don’t do that. Blah blah blah, blabbety blah blah.” There was more but I usually stopped listening at that point because it, or I, was too boring.

This week I’ve focused my ESL class on adjectives and adverbs. Among other things we’ve discussed the difference between the present participle and the past participle when each is used as an adjective. This too may sound boring, but mistakes in this area result can result in some unintentionally humorous sentences—or perhaps some inadvertently revealed truths. The story from my childhood is an example of why you never want to confuse these two types of adjectives, unless you’re my father and you’re trying to make a sanctimonious point. Native speakers of English probably never have to give this distinction any thought; we know which type of adjective we want in any given situation even if we can’t necessarily articulate the rules behind our choice. Just think about how this looks from an ESL point of view, though. There is no good reason why the present participle should describe an experienced created by something for something else and the past participle should describe the experience itself. This has nothing whatsoever to do with time; it’s just one of those crazy-ass rules that’s true because I say it’s true. It is also true that crazy-ass can be used as an adjective.

Now a set of rules that makes somewhat more sense is that which governs comparatives and superlatives. After all, most languages have words to signify gradations in qualities: good, better, best; bad, worse, worst. In English, “good” and “bad” have irregular comparatives and superlatives, but most other words follow a set of rules involving adding “-er” for the comparative and “-est” for the superlative or else “more” and “most” or “less” and “least” before the adjective or adverb. There are a few other things to know here, but overall this is a fairly simple bunch of rules.

That said, teaching these lessons got me to wondering just why this is such a universal concept. Why are comparisons so essential to human life? Can’t we experience love without announcing to the world that our boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/partner is the best? Yes, it’s supposed to show how much we love them when we make such proclamations, but to me this seems kind of like the opposite of love. I neither know nor care at this moment whether my boyfriend is the best boyfriend in the world; I know he’s the best boyfriend for me, which means he probably isn’t the best boyfriend for everyone in the world because not everyone is me, thank goodness. But there, see, I’m still doing it, still using superlatives to compare one person to others, because it’s pretty much impossible to avoid comparisons if you’re human—if you’re alive at all, in fact. One of our macaws will eat anything you put in front of him; the other strongly prefers some items to others. Picky, pickier, pickiest.

And I just did it again, compared our two birds, much in the same way my parents compared their two children. I kind of hated when they did this; my sister was the neat one who was good at math and science, while I was the slob who was good at writing. While there’s a nugget of truth to all that, they seemed to overlook the fact that she used to get A’s in English (even though she hated writing) and I took advanced Calculus in high school (even though I can’t add worth a damn any more). As for the neat/slob thing, no one else in my entire life has ever thought of me as a slob, but the minute I go back to visit my family and I fail to hang my towel up so that the edge of the towel is parallel to the towel rack, it’s Slob City all over again, population me. Messy, messier, messiest.

Obviously comparisons aren’t always a bad thing. We can create goals and challenges for ourselves by looking at what other people have done and wondering, Can I do that too? And then, Can I do even better than that? And possibly, Can I be the best at that? Of course, most people are never the best at anything, by definition, so it’s debatable whether, at the point where we go to thinking in terms of superlatives, we aren’t perhaps doing ourselves harm. Why set impossible goals? Yes, ambition is exciting and admirable, but finding a way to be contented with your life is in many ways an even bigger challenge than finding a way to be the best, and one key way to gain contentment is through acceptance. Say this life is good enough. Say I have what I need. Say I am this person and that’s fine by me. Easy enough to say, but wait a bit, those pesky comparatives and superlatives will be back with a vengeance.

Fast, faster, fastest.

There have been many times during my BQ training that I’ve wondered why in the hell I ever decided to go after this thing. Right now the prospect of never racing again seems awfully enticing. I love running; I do not love racing. Good news is I can run without racing, I can run just for fun, just to enjoy the feeling of movement, of being alive, of all those good things I’ve gushed endlessly about in this blog, at least before I started jabbering on about PRs and BQs and intervals and fartleks. And yet—and yet! Still I wonder. Still I look at my running buddies who have done Boston and I wonder, can I do that too? These runners would assure me this is not a bad thing—is, in fact, a very good thing, because a BQ is satisfying, not because it makes you better than other people, as it most assuredly does not do that, but because it’s the very best kind of challenge you can encounter in life. This is a goal you created yourself; no one made you do it, and no one will think more of you for doing it or less of you for not. Many of the best runners I know have no desire ever to try to BQ; instead they choose other goals. Whatever running goal you choose, any runner will tell you that you’re mostly in competition with yourself. You want to be good, you want to be better, you want to be the best you can be. And then you want a lot of food. Hungry, hungrier, hungriest.

I have not changed my feeling about this Saturday’s race; I don’t feel confident that I’m ready to BQ. I won’t be surprised if the BQ doesn’t happen, though of course I’ll still be disappointed; there’s no other way to feel when you fall short of a goal even if that goal was entirely out of reach. But in another way I won’t be disappointed at all. Perhaps my father’s words really did sink in after all, because the one thing my pursuit of a BQ has not been is dull. Neither bored nor boring, I’m off to face the marathon.





Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Self-unfulfilling prophecy

In every disaster movie there’s always one character who tries to warn everyone about the catastrophe about to befall them. Interestingly, this character is almost never the hero of the movie. The hero usually has other things to deal with, mainly proving that he is in fact heroic. The person who predicts the disaster is almost always a dorky little worrywart, which is why nobody ever listens to the prediction. Who wants to hear about a lack of lifeboats when the grand ballroom is so utterly magnificent? In fact, the worrywart often dies despite his foresight, sacrificed to the gods of cinematic irony.

Nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, but far worse than this, it seems, is to be the prophet of bad news to come. You’re never rewarded for it—you’re often killed in spite of it—and even if you live, nobody thanks you because, well, they’re either miserable or dead themselves. This is true for prophecies you make about ships, tall buildings, space aliens, earthquakes, meteors, and big rubbery monsters, but oddly enough it is especially true for prophecies you make regarding your own life.

The minute a person says “I can’t do it,” they are subject to a very predictable meteor storm of aphorisms. Chiefest of these is the retort “self-fulfilling prophecy.” See, if you say you can’t do something, you may start to believe it, and then you’ll ruin your chances of success before you even gave it a reasonable try. That’s the theory behind that concept, in any case, though I would strongly debate the applicability of that concept to many situations. After all, a guy who warns everyone about the lack of lifeboats isn’t actually causing the iceberg to appear or steering the ship into it at full steam; he’s just being his dorky little worrywart self.

Yeah, sure, if you have to give a big speech and you’re sure you’re going to blow it, you might very well be so anxious thinking about blowing it—stammering, stuttering, babbling incoherently until a giant hook comes out and yanks you offstage—that you actually will blow it. I’d argue, however, that this applies only to those situations where you have more to lose than you have to gain. In the speech example, you’re probably expected to be successful at your speech, so you don’t really gain anything by doing it right; you simply fulfill a requirement. In other areas, however, the fear of failure is balanced with a robust desire for glory, and this keeps the self-fulfilling prophecy from ever becoming a factor.

Obviously I’m babbling about all of this because my first BQ attempt is ten days away and I’m pretty sure it won’t end in success. Am I jinxing myself by saying this? Am I now certain to fail because I’ve set myself up to do so? I doubt it. You see, I still want this thing, as badly as anyone wants a BQ, and nobody who attempts to BQ does so because they are indifferent to the results. No matter how casual a runner is about their qualifying success, they aren’t fooling anyone. They’re thrilled. I’ll be thrilled if it happens to me, but my training has not led me to predict that this will happen. In short, right now I’m the guy warning about the lack of lifeboats—or, in this case, lack of the ability to combine speed and distance. I can run pretty fast for a few miles or very slow for a great many miles. Put the two together and…well, I don’t know what happens, because I haven’t done it yet.

There are times we predict poor results as a way of protecting ourselves against the disappointment of failure. If we say “I don’t think this is going to happen,” when our worst fears are realized, at least we get the small consolation of saying “See? I knew that would happen,” as well as perhaps a small shield against crushing disappointment. It isn’t fun to say these things; again, nobody wants to be the guy who points out what’s flawed or lacking in a person, plan, or situation, even if he’s simply being realistic. However, there are some things that even the most enthusiastic optimist would hesitate to advocate. No matter how good you feel about a ship’s superior design, eschewing lifeboats for shuffleboard courts is probably a bad idea. Likewise, planning to run, say, a 3:15 marathon is a ridiculous idea for me, now or ever. I’m just not that fast and never will be. Running a 3:55 isn’t unthinkable, but it’s still pretty unlikely right now.

But it’s not unlikely forever. If not this one, then the next; not everyone meets their goal the first time, and luckily, unlike with ships and tall buildings (and even planets, if you believe the slew of apocalyptic films these days), people often get second chances. In summary, don’t shoot the messenger if he’s the bearer of bad news, and don’t denounce the dorky little worrywart who warns about disaster. He’s probably not going to last much longer; don’t make his final moments on earth any worse than they already are.




Thursday, October 16, 2014

1AG? Nope. AGED? Yeah, kinda.

So I had to pee on a stick the other day, and I don’t mean in the woods during a trail run. While I waited for the plus or minus to appear, I wondered whether friends of mine who are looking to adopt wouldn’t object to a baby who almost certainly would grow up to be obsessive, depressive, and directionally challenged. Then the minus sign appeared, so I guess we’ll never know. Perhaps it’s for the best.

The minus sign meant more than just immediate relief tinged with a very slight but undeniable sense of disappointment. To put it bluntly, the stick was telling me I’m not pregnant; I’m just old. Yep, menopause is right around the corner, and now that I’ve said the “m” word I’m sure a bunch of you have probably stopped reading (if you didn’t stop after the stick-peeing). I can’t blame anyone for that; it’s not exactly my favorite topic either, though it doesn’t necessarily fill me with dread and horror the way you might think if you aren’t anywhere close to it or never will experience it. It’s a thing that happens, like a lot of less-than-fun things that happen. Why would I want to dwell on a less-than-fun thing that isn’t particularly interesting? I don’t. But less-than-funness must be faced, in life as in running as in just about everything.

The day before the stick-peeing incident, the BF and I ran a 30-mile ultra. This was actually a training run for the 50-miler we both have coming up in a month, so if you look at it in that light, it shouldn’t matter that much that I didn’t have a very good race. It shouldn’t but of course it does. At this same race last year, I placed first in my age group, a fact that I have managed to work into every single conversation I’ve had since then. (“Hey, hear about that business with Ebola? I’d sure rather be the woods running an ultra and winning first place in my age group like I did last year than on a plane sitting next to someone with that disease!” Too soon? My apologies.) This particular race is fairly small, and most of the faster runners in my age group that I know don’t do it, which is the only reason I won last year and the only reason I hoped for a shot at first this year. Didn’t happen. Far worse than that, though, I didn’t much enjoy the race. The BF did place first in his age group, but then that’s a regular thing for him, and he, too, had not found the 30 that much fun. Ultras can be fun—the 40 I did two months ago was maybe the best 8 hours of my running career. This one, not so much, and it has me wondering just how non-fun the next two races—the BQ attempt and the 50—might be.

The most optimistic runners I know will sometimes say things like “there are no bad runs, just good runs and better runs,” but I am sure that even these runners have gone through times on road, trail, or treadmill that ranged from uncomfortable to painful to downright agonizing. A funny thing about running, too, is that people who at all other times maintain an insistently positive attitude will leap headfirst into the pit of despair when they fail to meet their running goals. Non-runners who find those little “26.2” stickers so annoying may wonder why runners feel the need to congratulate themselves so much. Runners aren’t brave, just bored and narcissistic; we haven’t solved any problems, just spent money and time on a hobby. Big deal. Thing is, every “26.2” sticker probably represents as many unmet goals as exceeded expectations.

Another running friend ran his first marathon last weekend in Chicago and ended up with a slower average pace than his training pace. Everything was going well until about mile 17, he said, at which point his legs started cramping so badly he had no choice but to slow to a jog. A few days later he admitted it: he was disappointed. Everyone who heard him state this knew this was a gross understatement. I suspect he was crushed, because I would be—because I was, when it happened to me. In fact, funny thing: everyone he told this to suddenly began volunteering stories of their first marathons, all of them slower than his (my own included), all of them crushing disappointments. All of us have since kept running.

Yes, we congratulate ourselves for this fact. And why not? Why not congratulate yourself when you do something you never thought possible? That’s the easy part, though; what interests me more than the pats on the back are the bruises, the ones we get from beating ourselves up. People often say, “don’t be so hard on yourself.” Yet perversely, to me, this is one of the greatest things about running. I can and do beat myself up for failing to meet my goals, and it doesn’t crush my spirit, it doesn’t lower my self-esteem, it doesn’t make me give up entirely and crawl into a hole. It keeps me going.

I am helpless against the aging of my body. I am powerless against the ravages of time which will one day render me no longer a runner. Shrug. It’s possible that the cycle of exalting and lamenting I go through in my running life has helped me to face all that. If not, at least it’s given me a cute pink sticker on the back of my car that makes me smile, sometimes wryly, sometimes with pride, mostly with the satisfaction of knowing it represents something still very much a part of my life right now.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

151, and I don't mean rum

You know that saying, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”? I got to thinking about that slightly truncated quote from Emerson after the race I ran Saturday, though the first thought I had about it was how needlessly perplexing it is. What exactly is a hobgoblin, and how is it different from a regular goblin? Does a hobgoblin hobble? How is a hobbling goblin more consistent than a goblin that strolls along at a steady pace? Yes, I know none of these questions is relevant, and I know generally what the saying means—the perfect illustration being the person who puts the kibosh on any glimmer of creativity or innovation by announcing “We’ve always done it this way.” At the same time, as with most pithily profound sayings, there’s a lot that complicates the problem of consistency.

There are situations where being successful demands being consistent. With any endeavor that involves muscle memory, for instance, consistency is gold. You want to sink that putt, ace that serve, or park that ball in the upper deck, your body needs to move a certain way that you’ve practiced again and again until you can do it under pressure just as easily as you could in rehearsal. Problem is, sometimes consistency isn’t a sign that you’ve reached the goal but that you’ve reached your limits.

The race I ran, you see, was a half marathon in central Washington State. I hadn’t run a half marathon in nearly three years, in part because I wanted to focus on longer distances during that time but also because the finish times for the last three halfs I’d run were all within a few seconds of each other. I felt like I’d plateau’d, like it would take serious training and hard work to push beyond that 1:51-and-change mark, and when I thought about how crazy tired I was after those 1:51s, I didn’t relish the thought of pushing beyond. Instead, I went long: marathon, 50k, 40m, 50m. It sounds nuts, but a 50k on trails is a lot easier and more enjoyable for me than a half on roads. And yet there I was, trail shoes left at home, staring at these big ol’ mountains and wondering why I believed the race director’s insistent claim that the course was mostly flat. Note to Midwesterners: never believe any description of topography coming from anyone who lives in or west of the Rockies.

I was there mostly to test my speed training efforts over the past few months—and to see how ready I was for my BQ attempt at Indy next month. A 1:51, my half PR, is about an 8:30 pace. To BQ in November, I need at most an 8:55 pace. I figured if I could run the half at an 8:20-8:25 pace, I’d not only PR but also feel reasonably more confident about the possibility of a BQ. Why’d I pick those numbers? They are a tidy 30 seconds faster than my BQ pace, and somehow that just seemed right. Because I wasn’t able to connect my Garmin with a satellite, I ended up having to do math every time I got to a mile marker—i.e., when I got to the end of Mile 1 and saw 8:20 exactly had passed, I knew I’d want to hit the next marker by 16:40. That got difficult the farther along I went, and by mile 10 when my blood sugar was tanking, I started to see the beauty of a 10 pace.

Well, you’ve probably guessed what happened: I hobbled, goblin-like, across the finish line at 1:51 and change. Again. For the fourth time, even after a three-year hiatus. Consistent. And disappointing.

I didn’t fail, but I didn’t quite succeed, because I hadn’t improved. Any teacher will tell you that the student who starts poorly but shines at the end is always going to be more impressive and gratifying to work with than the one who stays dully lit the same way the whole time. Every runner knows, even if they don’t want to admit it, that the day will come when they can’t go any faster or any farther or increase the number of races they do in a year. You never want to cut short your potential by assuming you’ve reached your limits prematurely, yet at some point, consistent results may be telling you something: this is it, the highest you’re gonna go, so park your keister on this plateau and enjoy the view.

I did enjoy the view during my 1:51-and-change on the road—any type of actual topography is a treat to eyes that see straight to the horizon back home—but I also really, really wanted to stop enjoying the view and fall down and stop moving fortheluvagod, because moving was really, really exhausting. And so when I crossed the finish line and checked my accursed Garmin, I decided: this is it. No more halfs. Quit while you’re…well, if not ahead, at least not falling behind. I don’t feel like I’m limiting myself unduly. I wanted a PR as badly as any runner wants one, but not so badly that I want to turn running into a chore. Ultras are fun. No, they really are; they’re like day-long picnics on your feet. Half marathons? Imagine a picnic that lasts an hour and fifty one minutes and only serves Gatorade. No thanks.

Of course there’s still the matter of the BQ attempt, and in this regard I’m a lot less certain of what to make of my half. All that speedwork merely got me back to where I was three years ago in terms of racing a half; will it be enough to get me where I want to be in terms of racing the full? Yes, my pace can be 25 seconds slower, but the distance is twice as far, and even more important, there’s something seriously deceptive about the consistency of those half times. Consistency implies intention. I didn’t aim for 1:51 any of those four races; I aimed to get a PR. For one of them, the first, I did. For the other three, I didn’t, or only did by a handful of seconds. In all four cases I ran until my heart and lungs exploded in my chest. If your internal organs explode and you still don’t get what you want, well, it’s hard to take that as motivation to aim for something even harder.

I know, I know, I have to try anyway. Consistency may be a hobgoblin, but ambition is a fire-breathing dragon that eats hobgoblins for breakfast. The beast must be appeased, even if you get scorched in the process.