The elusive runner’s high: the joy of the chase

Yale Herald, April 23, 2010, http://yaleherald.com/sports/that-elusive-runner%E2%80%99s-high-the-joy-of-the-chase/

 

They don’t get all the fans, they don’t get all the press, but you’ve seen them around campus. They catch your attention and confuse you. They wear Yale-issued athletic gear, and eat together in commons. But they’re too skinny—sometimes gaunt—too boyish, too clean-shaven to fit the Platonic form of the varsity athlete.

They’re the Men’s Cross-Country team, Yale’s members of the bizarre and insular subculture of long-distance runners. And they’ve been having a great track season. After a difficult cross-country season, they’ve bounced back to victory over Harvard, NCAA berths, and personal records. At the recent Yale-Harvard meet, Alex Harris, BR ’10, dominated the 3,000 meter steeplechase in 9:09.53, qualifying for the I.C.A.A.A.A. (essentially the east coast conference championships) meet. Roughly, that’s two consecutive 4:50-miles over rib-high hurdles and through waist-deep water pits. Sophomore Nate Richards, TD ’12, and Matt Bogdan, SM ’11, weren’t far behind. Conor Dooney, SM ’12, sprinted away over the final 200 meters to win the 1500 meters—the metric equivalent of the one mile—in 3:52.47. Roughly equivalent to a 4:09 mile, that’s an impressive time for a windy day. The bearded Track captain, Jeff Perrella, SY ’11, and the heel-running former high school standout, Julian Scheinbaum, ES ’12, weren’t far behind.

But the bright hope for the rest of the season is Chris Labosky, BR ’10, the outgoing cross-country captain, who has qualified for NCAAs in the 800 meter. He earned second place at the Harvard-Yale meet with a time of 1:50.74, with Chris Ramsey, DC ’13, running a stellar 1:53.46. For Labosky, who could contend for a high place at the NCAA championships, the season has only gotten started, even as the school year ends. Penn Relays—one of the first big meets of the year—takes place this weekend, and NCAA regionals and finals are still to come.

The best hope for next year’s distance squad is the incoming captain, Max Walden, BR ’11. The outgoing and incoming cross-country captains are studies in contrast, at least when they run. By an average person’s standards, Labosky is tall and thin, but for a distance runner he’s broad and muscled. He’s run impressive cross-country races but has recently focused on the 800 meters, an event more suited to his gait—more bounds than strides—and in which he has earned NCAA berths. Walden is the archetypal distance runner, tall and narrow. He seems more to slide over the ground than push on it and leans over his toes, almost falling forward. And he’s found more success in the 10,000 meter, which he will be running at Penn Relays this weekend. Despite their differences, they are members of one rare and, in my view, eccentric species: the long-distance runner.

The long-distance runner (LDR, henceforth) elects, for reasons inaccessible to everyone outside of their culture, to spend his afternoons on 12-mile “easy runs” on the trails of West Rock, and endless repeats of 600-meter sprints over the hills of the golf course. Yale’s distance runners are in season year round, running three seasons—cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track—in fall, winter, and spring, respectively. And the summer is when they log their highest mileage. All this for the sake of races in such foul weather and muddy woods that fans are hard to come by. So what’s the point? It’s a question I asked myself when I walked away three years ago. Maybe they like the pain, maybe. They get a scientifically proven “runner’s high,” to be sure. But, fundamentally, LDRs form a subculture whose values and motivations cannot be translated into those of the outside world.

Like any subculture, LDRs have their own set of status symbols—smooth strides, exquisitely chiseled calves, and the latest four-ounce pair of Nike track spikes. They have their own argot—“I set a new PR after drafting on their number-two guy for the first three-quarters, picking up my cadence on the backstretch, and kicking it in at the 120 for the double-u. The trick is just to maintain your form and stay below your anaerobic threshold until the breakaway move.” They have their own gods: the Kenyan, Ethiopian, and Moroccan athletes who labor away in obscurity, unknown to the outside world, but who are held as paragons of human achievement by all LDRs. And, most importantly for sub-culture status, they have their own Internet forums. There, layers of irony and self-referential jokes inaccessible to newcomers are employed in the endless analysis of videos races, gossip about elite runners’ new girlfriends, predictions for races years in the future—and, naturally, a contempt for outsiders, football jocks, and fat people. If you want a look at this world, check out letsrun.com, dyestat.com, or flotrack.com. But beware of addiction. I am embarrassed to find myself, years after quitting the sport, on these sites daily.

The subculture—maybe religion is a better word—is difficult to fully adhere to at Yale. Coaches warn athletes in advance of how hard it is to run at an Ivy League School; and the results prove that old high-schools standouts have more difficulty succeeding as athletes in the Ivy League than elsewhere. A friend of mine who was recruited for U Texas was immediately put on the five-year plan, given a private tutor, and pushed toward an easy major. The coach and athletics department there took it for granted that it wasn’t possible to train at an NCAA level for cross-country and maintain a full course load. But Yale’s runners aren’t so privileged, and will often spend the one afternoon per-week that they have off from official practices in a lab on Science Hill—before a 10-mile run on their own. This—the constant stress of Ivy League academics on top of elite training—may be part of why Yale’s cross-country team has struggled with injuries in the past. But if this season is any indication, good things lie on the horizon.

I FIRST PERFORMED THE RITES OF THE RUNNING religion as a teenager. To be a teenager is to be overcrowded—to have a capacious and widening sense of independence counteracted by belittling teachers, nosy parents, and siblings a wall away. I found space and dominion in long, long runs over the hills and trails of upstate New York. I quickly became a devotee.

But the running religion, like every religion, can be torment as much as ecstasy for an overly devout soul. In my senior year of high school, I began the cross-country season with course records, predictions that I would soon go “sub-15” and ascend to the pantheon of high school runners at the Footlocker National Championships. I can’t articulate the significance of the Foot Locker National Championships to outsiders. So just believe me. It was the world to us—to the little sub-culture that was my whole world. And I wrecked myself for it.

At first I underwhelmed just a bit. Just 15:09 instead of sub-15. So I worked harder. Then I got paler—extremely pale—anemic again. And so I underwhelmed a bit more. The more upset I became, the harder I worked, and the sicker I got. But I kept the faith. The state championship was my chance for redemption.

I held the record on that course, set in September when I was a Trackie king. That was confidence for me. But jogging in the cold air before the gun, the stilts beneath carried me without their former strength, looked just a bit too pale—a runner notices everything about legs.

The pistol fired, and I jumped to the lead with two trackie friends, Brian Rhodes-Devey and Steve Murdock, and we cut the brittle air 20, then 30, then 40 meters ahead of the rest of New York State. I was a sprinter by birth, though a marathoner from my hours logged. They were pure distance runners. If I stayed glued to them until the final sprint, I could win.

We peaked the first sandy hill, then the second, and then approached the two-mile mark and the third—hilliest and sandiest—hill.

By the top of that hill my season was over. Lactic acid—a chemical about which I was one of the world’s leading authorities—poisoned my hamstrings. Through eight years of runs I had cultivated—if I may say so—an elegant, graceful stride. But there was neither elegance nor grace in the agonized waddle that carried me over the final mile, as I fell to fifth place, then tenth, then twentieth. I rounded the final bend just in time to see Brian and Steve sprinting for my win.

I couldn’t be reached for comment afterwards. Running had forsaken me. And running was my only consolation. Official practices were over, so for two weeks I ran straight from school’s end to dinner-time—3:00 to 6:30 p.m., or about enough time for a little over 30 miles in the miserable, stygian dusk of Upstate’s late November. Athletic suicide, I knew. The worst possible thing before Foot Lockers, I knew. My anemia would just get worse, I knew. But I couldn’t stop—running was my only comfort against running.

Maybe I’m just a chaste soul, but when Harold Bloom first read me Shakespeare’s 129th sonnet, I thought of the old impulse to run:

“Past reason hunted, and no sooner had

Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”

I walked away from running, three years ago, after just shy of one year on the track team. I don’t quite remember why I decided to quit—maybe a conviction that I should do better things with my time, maybe a conviction that I had already hit my peak. But I do miss it.

For the rest of my life I’ll probably labor in obscurity. But if I go back home in two years, and sneak into the high school, I’ll still see my one-mile and two-mile records there. Some day some kid might break those track records. But as for the 16:03 on the deadly hills of Bethlehem Town Park, that record will never be beaten. I’m willing to bet on that.

I’ll remember that when I die. I mean that.

Every sport is a cult, in the best way. Professionals and traditional matches (like the Game) aside, each sporting event has almost no significance to the world outside of itself. But to the athletes and fans it is something for which extravagant sacrifices are happily made. Art for art’s sake—the motto of the decadents. Victory for victory’s sake—the politicians’ motto. Running for running’s sake—what, I suspect, motivates the men’s XC team.

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