Saturday, May 22, 2010

On Plans, Spontaneity and Joy

Just back from a walk to the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, with a detour to the bank, making it a three-mile round trip. I think my legs are ready to go again after two days restricted to biking due to excessively shredded quads. Maybe something easy this afternoon? Then long tomorrow, although Monday is looking like a better bet for decent weather. Definitely by Monday afternoon I want to have completed the first of three planned 18+ mile runs before the Flat on the Fourth.

By the way: I have no regrets about derailing my training by running 2,800 steps on Mount Tabor on Wednesday. I knew there would be a price to pay, but the price was fair for what I got. There are people who thrive on following a carefully laid out training plan but I’m not one of those people. My approach is to understand the kind of runs I need to do to get me to my goal; to make sure that over the course of the cycle my training has the right mix of those runs; to build smartly; to overvalue rest ... and to have fun. I never want to lose touch with the joy, and spontaneous running is a key pathway to the joy. That stupid stair run last Wednesday was one I had to do.

Mind you, I wasn't planning to run at all that day. After four straight days of road work, I planned to rest. But I was hit with the urge when I ducked out the front door to pluck the Oregonian off the porch. There was a breeze blowing from the east, weirdly warm, crackling with energy and premonition. A mostly blue sky was dotted with clouds that piled up, then disengaged, then danced away. I came back inside and checked the radar: the predicted wave of rain, hail and 40+ mph gusts looked to be about an hour away. I rushed to put my shorts and shoes on without any of my usual dallying and was pulled out the door, onto the road — the atmospheric maelstrom had me all hopped up and I practically glided down NE Hoyt Street and turned right toward Mount Tabor, in the heart of Portland’s east side.

The Storm

The thought that flashed in my mind was to run the mile to the hill, do my trusted 2.3-mile trail loop around the extinct 650-foot volcano three times, then run the mile back. That’d be about nine miles. Perfect: most of my run would be in the warm, pulsating pre-storm air, then the unfolding system seen on the radar would chase me home for cover.

But when I got to Mount Tabor I didn’t head up the dirt trail. I started up the stairs, as far as I can recall without having made a conscious decision to do so. I rarely run stairs— hilly trails are a better running workout, providing a broader range of benefits — yet something about the day compelled me to just go, so stairs it was.

When I got to the top — it’s about 150 feet vertical from the bottom of the staircase— I wondered how many steps it was and decided to run them again and count. I’d counted the steps on this staircase before, on walks with the Lad, but the total had a habit of floating away from us. A day later I’d say, “Niko, how many steps was it up those stairs on Mount Tabor?” He’d reply, “Huh?” because he’d be buried in a Terry Pratchett novel. I’d repeat the question and he’d scrunch his face, peer up at the ceiling, then look over at me and offer: “Two hundred or something like that?” And there we’d be. Unknowing.

On Wednesday the number bore into my mind. It became part of my cerebral architecture. I very well might be muttering it incoherently on my deathbed, Rosebud-like, leaving survivors to speculate as to the meaning. The freeway that goes down San Francisco Peninsula? His best bowling score? No, 280, that’s the number of steps on the staircase on Tabor, the staircase he ran up ten times one morning in May.

The Stairs

I counted on the second climb and the third one, too, to confirm the total. On the fourth climb I began to hit the lap button at the top and the bottom. The first timed climb came in at 2 minutes and 45 seconds, so that became the Minimum Required Time to Count. If I didn't hit 2:45, the climb didn't count toward my goal of 10 times. (Where did that goal come from? It popped into my head.)

I’ve been using the term “staircase” but I should note there are several very short portions along the way that aren’t steep enough for stairs, and a couple of road crossings. The irony is that these short portions are, psychologically, the most difficult. The stairs compel you to take another step; it's all you can do and you get into a groove and up you go, tiring constantly but pushing through it. When the stairs disappear, the powerful inclination is to take a breather. I soon realized that my fastest climbs — dipping toward 2:30 — came when I hammered the non-stair portions.

It was never difficult to gear up and take off on another climb, even for No. 10. The quarter-mile downhill (I mostly went downhill on grass and trail) was enough to induce runner’s amnesia. You know, where you forget how wretched you felt just a minute ago. But of course, each successive climb the muscle-strangling lactic acid would wrap its hands around my quads earlier and earlier. The final climb was done almost entirely in extremis.

It also was done in rain. Well, not rain. A few sprinkles. Tiny, scattered sprinkles on the way up, slightly larger ones on the way down. Then, just a block down the hill from the bottom of the stairs, beginning the mile home, the blue skies were entirely gone, the wind was swirling crazily and the sprinkles had morphed into fat raindrops. I passed a coffee cart and a woman waiting for her drink looked up and said, with panic, “I thought I had more time. It isn’t here already, is it?” It was. “‘Fraid so,” I said with an empathetic smile, motoring by, feeling her pain — she probably had designs on walking that cup of coffee up to the top of Tabor. But me, I was loving the rain. The morning sun had dried things and now that distinctive aroma of rain on warm blacktop was rising from the streets. Turning toward home, a powerful gust stopped me for a moment, then pea-sized hail began to pelt down. I arrived at my house and stood under cover on the front porch, wet, wrecked, watching, a big smile on my face.