Sub Two

I get it from the first few seconds of a piece of music that I love but maybe haven't listened to for a while. The knowledge that the next few minutes will be great and nothing else really matters. My head goes cold and a euphoric tingling spreads across my scalp. From Bonobo and Bon Iver to Neil Young or John Taverner, I cannot know which music will trigger it nor when. The music has to chime with my state of mind at that particular moment; a seemingly unique chemistry. It is a moment of pure grace and a satisfying state that whilst full of energy is completely calm.

It turns out someone has given it a bland scientific name “autonomous sensory meridian response” or ASMR. People have attempted to create triggers for it (YouTube it if you dare). I am glad to know that others get this sensation too, but am less excited that there may be a formula for it. Nor do I have any desire to make these sensations predictable:the serendipity and transience is part of what makes it so fulfilling. Like a sunny morning in Scotland before the midges arrive or a cool day in Dubai before the flies have hatched.

And there is the thing. It cannot be predicted and it cannot last. The only solution seems to be to keep listening to music and be ready to enjoy the feeling whenever it happens. Like the Buddhist theories around gardening, fulfillment lies in the activity and flow rather than its completion.

Like most runners, I am goal oriented. Superficially those goals are expressed in target times, positions or finishes in certain races and rankings among peers. We decide on races, consider appropriate training schedules and possibly confess our ambitions to training partners in order to prevent any backing down as things get tough. We all combine this with varying degrees of data analysis both during and after every bit of running. Interestingly we tend not to record any other aspects of our lives in the same way.

In that usual ritual, I recently declared to anyone who talked to me for more than ten minutes and feigned an interest in running that I had set a target of running 800 meters in two minutes. Given that I had just finished a 72 km race in February, it seemed particularly ludicrous as a new goal. Other people go for a Boston qualifiers, a sub-3 hour marathon, or completing Comrades. When I ask myself for a reason I have tended to explain it as raised fist of defiance against the potential decline in my physical ability thanks to age. I will not go gently into that good night etc., but I have begun to realize that this new goal is simply part of a new stage in my running addiction. A challenge must be set to justify all the training and meta running (training plans, equipment and discussions with fellow runners) and create the flow that might result in a running equivalent of ASMR, whether that comes on race day or any other moment in the training process. Only once the addict has found the fuel for his new high, can he start consuming.

I have run an 800 in two minutes a few times, but only in the last of my teenage years. At 46, I may well have set a goal that I will regret; like eating 50 hard boiled eggs in an hour. But hey, sometimes no hand is a cool hand, right?

Aside from the running, of course, I needed to indulge in plenty of discussions about my new challenge. Firstly, I wanted to understand what the difference in physical capacity was between my 18 year-old self and the current embodiment. The general consensus is that an older man simply cannot run as fast as his younger self. Certainly statistically that seems to be the case, but the underlying reasons are not so clear. Anthony Whiteman appears to have lost none of his 800 pace now that he has turned 45 and still clocks an impressive-at-any-age 1:48.

Wisdom and experience ought to count in my favor in terms of both training and race strategy, although I had plenty more track racing experience back then. I am a bit lighter now, but that is most likely due to a loss of muscle and therefore power, which would likely offset any benefit.

Graham has mentioned the impact on heart rate as we age, but a discussion with Ramzy Ross indicated that such heart adaptation is more likely to affect distance running events. The 800 is the nasty distance sitting between a sprint and a pure distance race, the middle distance. Perhaps it is strange then that most people gravitate toward longer distances as they age. There may be many reasons:

  • Social: there just aren’t many older people running on the track nor events catering to them. Our desire to participate with peers is a key element of sports culture and probably shapes many of our decisions about what activities to take up.
  • The testosterone factor: levels certainly drop in your 40's and in theory you lose the desire to engage in more explosive activities and potentially some of the muscle mass to perform well in them.
  • The time: track running is short in duration and might not be long enough to satisfy the running addiction.
  • Injury: the increasingly inelastic muscles and legacy of past injuries mean that the range of movement and power is diminished.

These are fairly loose theories with which to start my own sub-two-minutes campaign, but my initial experience has reflected some of this. Having developed an initial training plan, I realized my long run was now quite a bit shorter than those of my friends, which has left me running it alone. Likewise my speed session at the club track night seemed only to attract the younger runners in our group. The old track runner is a rare breed.

With out much time to prepare, an initial 800 presented itself. The Ultimate Race Nights in Dubai’s Sports City showed pictures of school children and teenagers running but the details showed that seniors were welcome. I decided to do a trial race and see how far off I was from my goal.

I turned up more nervous than I had been at any road race since arriving in Dubai. I was comforted to see a few familiar faces only to learn they were all there on parenting duty. My nerves began to sink into a fear of humiliation. I felt like some great white whale in a sea of dolphins. The spoken commitments to a task are meant for exactly these moments, with no one around I would surely have just slipped away.

With spikes on, I stepped up to the line. Memories of how it had felt all those years ago came back, my head went cold and I felt the tingling through my scalp…

Sadly the result was also a return to the foolhardy excitement of youth. The first 200 in 30 seconds, the first lap in 64 seconds, and I was in trouble. The all too familiar last 200 of complete oxygen debt and the longest final straight ever left me finishing in 2:12. A salutary lesson on pacing, but a good marker on the board and nice set of data with which to plan the next steps. Undoubtedly lots more time running is required, I said to myself. Addiction fueled.

So now back to the weekly routine of practice and waiting for further moments of grace. The pursuit of this goal may take a while and that is exactly why it is a good challenge with more experiences to write about too.