Inside The Mind Of A Real RunnerS

This week, in what will be a recurring feature of ill-defined frequency, I interview an honest-to-goodness Runner. Or at least a Runner as viewed through my hopelessly simplistic and insecure lens. We talk about how you should run (short answer: "a lot") and why (it's apparently a categorical imperative) and how terrible Capital-R-Runners are (the most terrible). And the lingo. Oh, the lingo.

Please welcome occasional Deadspin commenter and habitual punting investigator, Raysism. He's got a lot of interesting, smart takes on running. And some fucking crazy takes, too.

Apart from my wife, you are basically the only Capital-R Runner that I actually "know." (I put know in quotes because our relationship is purely electronic, not any weird "biblical" insinuations.) Anyway, I talk a lot about Runners, but they are truly like a mythical creature (again, apart from you and my wife) for me. Obviously, I treat the idea of a Runner as a comedic foil to the Recovering Fatass. Some Runners get this, many other do not because they are clearly perpetuating the joyless, psychotic stereotype of the humorless Runner. Basically, my question is: why are Runners such nutbags?

First off, I'm not going to deny the assertion that runners are nut bags. This is certainly the case. But I think by the term "nutbag," you're probably talking about two separate categories of runners. The first of these is the more stereotypical of the two: a car with a bunch of stickers, always wearing a race shirt and shorts while in public, can't pass up an opportunity to talk about training, and it goes on. These people are completely obnoxious, and you should know that "Real Runners" (the next category) hate these people too. No one in my running group [ed. note: "my running group"] has a 26.2 sticker on their car, and you will never hear me initiate a conversation about my own running in mixed company.

Someone once said that there are runners who think a good 5K race time is 10 seconds slower than their own, and those who think it's 10 seconds faster—these are definitely the folks who think their time is 10 seconds faster than good. I can't explain this phenomenon, other than to guess that running, by its nature, attracts people who like to measure themselves, look at themselves and talk about themselves, and if they weren't being an obnoxious runner, they'd be an obnoxious golfer, tennis player, or whatever.

The next category of nut bags consists of "real runners," and I swear that most of us don't intend to be. In our defense, it's partly because we have to deal with people who talk to us about shit they know nothing about ("it's bad for your knees, you know...and make sure you stay hydrated!"). But it's also probably due in large part to normal group/clique dynamics. In any group setting, people want to make themselves feel "in" and others feel "out," so there can be an uncontrollable urge to laugh at the douchebag who got all geared up, hydrated, and stretched to run a 25:00 5K. But I swear we reserve this attitude for the people who really deserve it. I've gone on plenty of runs with new runners at 12:00/mile pace or slower, and I'm never a nut bag about it.

As an abstraction, I can understand how running can be relaxing and a way to keep sane/blow off steam and all of that. In reality, it makes no fucking sense whatsoever. Here, go physically exert yourself for 30 minutes. You'll feel more relaxed. When I'm trying to understand basic human emotions/responses I think of cavemen. Cavemen were humans in their unadulterated form, right? I imagine the caveman as a control in an experiment. So, It's like What Would Jesus Do? but with cavemen. Cavemen only really ran when they were being chased by dinosaurs and I doubt that was very relaxing. Maybe a relief if/when they were able to escape without being eaten. But after they got home from a rough day hunting pterodactyl, I don't think they ever felt the desire to "blow off some steam" by going for "a run." So, are you one of those Runners who needs to run to keep sane, or is it purely a fitness thing for you? I get that those can be the same for some, but I think you know what I'm getting at.

It's interesting that you assume a spectrum that runs from "keeping sane" to "keeping fit", because I've never thought of it this way. Do I need to run to keep sane? Probably. It's been a part of my life for 30+ years, and probably has affected my brain chemistry to some degree. Even when I'm intentionally not running (which I do periodically to stay sane), I'm thinking about what I'll do when I start running.

But I would keep fitness out of the running discussion. Running for running's sake should have nothing to do with fitness. There are a lot of things I do (off and on) for fitness, and I hate them all. If you are doing something because it keeps you fit, I don't see how you can really enjoy that activity. If to run a 16:00/5K I needed to weigh 300 lbs. and maintain near-death blood pressure, I would do that.

And keep in mind that running gets easier and more relaxing the more you do it. When I say that, I don't mean that increasing your mileage from 20 miles/week to 50 miles/week will make it easier for you to run one mile – that's pretty obvious. I mean that all 50 miles will feel easier as a 50 MPW guy than the 20 miles felt as a 20 MPW guy. I've heard some people say that they never knew how easy running could be until they started running over 100 miles per week. It's just getting to that point that's difficult.

(Also, I'm pretty sure our ancestors looked less like Captain Caveman and more like a teenager from modern-day Mesopotamia. Very short, very skinny, and willing to run for food. I think most scientists would tell you that running for distance was an extremely important part of early man.) [ed. note: oh, shut up.]

I guess, what I was going for re: fitness v. sanity, was this: is running more of a mental thing for you or a physical thing?
My initial reaction is to say that it's all mental, because when I'm running well, all I think about are the non-physical aspects of running (pacing, strategy, coming up with a workout, etc.). I just take my physique and fitness level for granted. But when I take time off, whether intentionally or because of an injury, the first thing I think about is how out of shape I am and promise myself that I'll just run easy for a few months to lose weight and reclaim some general fitness. So it's probably a pretty even split.
What is a "a run" for you?

Hmm, I've never really considered this. I guess a "run" is any time I put my running shoes on to go for a run of some distance. I've had to stop one or two miles into a run for weather reasons, and I just log that as a one or two mile run. And I've done plenty of two and three mile runs with my kids. So I guess a run is any non-stop jogging-type activity of over a mile or so.

If you're asking me the shortest distance that I would ever consider running by myself, that's probably four miles. I wouldn't even put on my shoes if I only had time to run two or three miles. I'd just go drink beer and go to bed early.

Give me a normal week in Running With Raysism. You should have a show and name it that, actually. Preferably radio, so no one can see how you spell "Raysism." Do you have things mapped out ahead of time, or is it more of a well I went longer yesterday, let's keep today short kind of deal?

My weeks and seasons tend to be very, very similar, and are generally mapped out ahead of time (although at this point, the map is in my head, so I could probably tell you what a week in May would look like without needing to refer to a log or anything). I have a certain running philosophy that I'll talk a little more about later, but basically I consider the following to be the most important aspects of my basic week:

(1) Run six days a week. If you're not running six days a week, you aren't really scraping your potential. There's a huge difference between 4 or 5 times a week and 6 times a week.

(2) Relative consistency among days. In other words, the long run shouldn't be dramatically longer than the shorter runs, and shouldn't be dramatically more difficult.

(3) Put in some very short, very fast work. This is something like strides at the end of a run, or a day where I incorporate 30 to 45 second very fast surges in the middle of a run.

(4) Faster long runs. I'm not going to race it, but I should steadily get faster throughout my long run. Most people run long runs too slowly (usually because it's too long and too hard for them – see point (2)). I think of the long run as my most important workout.

So a usual week would be something like this:

Monday: 7

Tuesday: 8 with 4M tempo or 30 sec. surges

Wednesday: Off

Thursday: 7

Friday: 8 with 10 x 100m strides

Saturday: 9

Sunday: 13 with last four fast

Total: 52 miles

Also, my weeks are very, very seasonal. February is very different from August down here, and my schedule would reflect this. Also, I am very, very insane. [ed. note: I added the very last sentence here.]

From chatting with you, it seems like you do a fair amount of races. Do you find it keeps things interesting for you? Do you have a distance that you prefer running? And if so, what is it about that distance that works for you?

There are certainly people who race more than me, but I definitely run several a year. Races are probably the most important part of my running life, as they serve a couple of functions that can't be replicated.

First, and most obviously, a race makes you run faster than you ever would by yourself. They provide a huge training boost when used correctly (and sparingly). Related to this, they tell me where my current fitness level is. I can better plan the next few weeks of training once I know for a fact whether I'm in18:00 5K shape, or 17:00.

But more importantly, races frame my running "season" so to speak. If your running schedule consists of 52 identical weeks, you're doing it wrong. A good running plan involves periodization, and races tend to be the anchor points for the change in seasons. So I might have a 14 to 18-week build up to a key goal race (which itself may involve a couple of tune up races), and then have an off-season of "base and race," where I just run steady miles all week and show up to a few random races to keep my fitness level up.

And I'll throw this in: races make running a real sport. Without races, you're just performing the ambulatory equivalent of yoga or pilates.

As for my favorite distance, I'd say either the 5K or the half-marathon. The 5K is probably the ultimate pure aerobic event, and it is a strong predictor of your ability over a wide range of distances (I could probably come close to guessing someone's half-mile and marathon time off of their current 5K shape). And the half is just the most fun and least taxing "distance" race. I can run a half and be back in my normal training schedule a couple days later. O AN THE MEDALS

Why is Florida the worst?

I previously lived outside the state for many years, and I hated it too, for the same reason you all think of Florida as the worst: because it sits here as a humid, isolated, peninsulatic reminder of our own inevitability and mortality. Most of Nebraska is horrible, but no one talks about it because no one will ever end up in Nebraska. But you will all end up in Florida. It's going to be 85 degrees here today. You can buy a four bedroom house for under $300,000 in a nice neighborhood. You own one set of clothes. You never have to rake leaves. You can literally wear whatever the fuck you want wherever you want.

And it's going to be 85 degrees today. Did I mention that?

Say I was going to hire you as a personal trainer or Minister of Running or something. What kind of program would you design for me and why? Keep in mind that, while technically not a beginner, I definitely a.) have plateaued out at like Beginner Plus/Novice Jr. and b.) am a huge baby. But I'm a huge baby that wants results, dammit.

I thought you'd never ask! Plateauing is fairly common among advanced beginners, and it's easily fixed. Trust me, you haven't even sniffed your full potential. If you really did hire me ($450/hour plus expenses), I'd come up with something fairly detailed, but here would be my guiding principles:

  • I would slowly get you up to 40-45 miles per week, running five or six days a week. Some people will tell you about the "10% rule" (which posits that you can safely increase your weekly mileage by 10% per week), and those people are idiots. High mileage is good (actually, great), but if you ramp up too fast, you just end up running a lot of very, very slow miles. When you get to 45 miles per week, I want those to be quality miles. So I would probably dedicate a year to just base miles, increasing your training by just one or two miles and one or two sessions every 14 days or so. [ed. note: this is so crazy to me.]
  • I won't let you fall into the trap of running your fast runs too slow and your slow runs too fast... If every run feels like a slog fest, you are doing this now. Stop doing this. Go look at what the Kenyans do–they'll start off their runs at almost twice their marathon pace (4:40 vs. 9:00)! How many beginners will start a run at 18:00 mile pace? But they should. I would have you do shit like this: three miles super-easy, followed by 15 x (one minute on/one minute off), where the "one minute on" is you running at mile race pace or faster. You will feel amazing after this run. And there are a million variations of this workout–the fun will never end with Coach Ray!
  • … but almost every run is going to be an acceleration run. In other words, even on those easy days, you are going to finish much faster than you started. I've heard some people call this the 3:1 approach, where the first three-quarters of the run is very easy, and the last quarter is an acceleration towards 10K or half-marathon pace. I think you get the idea now. Run easy runs easy, and work during your workouts.
  • Yes, this means that you are not going to run your long runs slowly. Repeat after me: you are not going to run your long runs slowly. In control? Yes. Steady? Yes. Start off easy before you pick it up? Yes. But you will not run this slowly. But in order for this to work, you will need to follow the next rule:
  • Your long runs are not going to be very long. Relative to the rest of your week, that is. I would never have you run a long run that eats up more than 25% of your weekly mileage. People who drop a 20 mile long run in the middle of a 40 mile week are asking for trouble, and are missing the point. Elite runners run 20 mile long runs because they run over 100 miles per week. And, yes, this applies to marathoners, too. You can run a great marathon with a long run of 15 or 16 miles if your weekly mileage is high enough.
  • We are not going to talk about stretching, clothes, hydration, carboloading, that article your mom read, or anything else that's totally irrelevant to running. Just drop it. Now. I'm done talking about this.

Here's something I've been holding in: I've been seriously considering some kind of interval training situation and maybe even lifting weights or something. Do you have strong opinions on either? Is "seriously considering" as meaningless as it sounds?

If by "interval training" you are referring to running intervals, then, well, yeah, duh. [ed. note: I think that's what I was referring to.] You definitely should be running intervals of some nature. [ed. note: dammit.] There are dozens of ways to run intervals (20 x 200m, 2 x 3M, 6 x 1K, for just a few examples), and while you could read a good training book to get the details, a general truth would be the shorter the interval, the faster. So you might run 20 x 200 meters at one mile race pace (with 200m recovery jogs), or you might run 2 x 3M at half-marathon pace (with a mile recovery jog). But you definitely need to be doing this in some fashion.

Why is it so important?

First, let's oversimplify the primary things that your body must do in order to run fast: (1) your mind needs to initiate the nervous system to tell the legs to start moving at a quick rate, (2) your legs must have a dense web of muscle fibers to power the legs, (3) your circulatory system needs to develop a wide web of tiny blood vessels to bring oxygen to all of these muscle fibers, and (4) your body needs to deal with the resulting waste product and excess heat produced by all of this.

Easy running does a, well, pretty good job developing all of these things. Not a great job, but a pretty good job. On the other hand, very short and quick running does a great job with (1) and helps develop (2). Highly aerobic running (think 5K race pace) does a superb job of (3) and an okay job with (2) and (4). Tempo-type running (think half-marathon race pace or slightly faster) does a great job of (4), and helps with (2) and (3). So it's just absolutely critical that you work those types of speeds into your running plan if you want to run faster. (And by run faster I don't just mean "race faster." I also mean "run your easy runs faster and easier.)

The obvious follow-up question is: "If there are better ways to get faster, why don't we just run sprints, 5Ks, and half-marathons all the time?" You probably already know the answer to this: your muscular and skeletal system cannot handle this kind of load. Which circles back to why we run a lot (a lot! like, 60 to 80% of your weekly mileage) of easy miles—because it best prepares our body (both on the microscopic aerobic level and the bigger bone and muscle level) to absorb training and handle the workload.

As for weight training, it's a nice thing to do if you have time—definitely will help with maintaining or losing weight. But if you have a bunch of time on your hands to train, I'd rather you be running. There are a lot of guys who look good on the starting line and finish well behind us goofy-looking guys.


Thanks again to Raysism for taking to the time to read and respond to my long-ass questions when much simpler and more direct questions would have sufficed. This was fun.

Image by Jim Cooke