Going the Distance

Me and my big mouth. One minute, I'm contentedly digesting Thanksgiving dinner, and the next, I'm running laps in the freezing rain.

It started innocently enough. After this year's big meal, our hostess's mother asked my buddy, Jason, who climbed Mount Rainier last year, if he had plans for any similar ascents. "No," he said, "but I'm going to do the Vancouver marathon next May."

I scoffed. I'm the most dedicated runner in our little clique, and that's nothing to crow about. With no prior running experience, Jason would never be able to get in shape fast enough.

"If any of us should be entering a marathon, it's me," I blurted out. Well, carve that on my tombstone, because the next thing I knew, I had signed up, too.

Which is why I found myself at Green Lake last Tuesday at the uncivilized hour of 8:45 a.m. getting psyched up for the longest run I'd ever attempted: 12 miles. By my estimate, it would take exactly two hours. And while I was concerned about taxing my physical limits, the truly daunting question was just how I would stay entertained for 120 minutes of unrelenting exercise.

Lots of people listen to music while they run, but I can't. I used to carry a Walkman, but the weight annoyed me, and I kept changing pace to sync to the tempo of whatever was in my headphones. I've contemplated investing in one of those lightweight MP3 "sticks," but I worry that in a moment of endorphin-fueled distraction I'd mistake it for a relay baton and hand off the pricey gadget to an unknown jogger.

In Marathon: You Can Do It! (Shelter Publications, 2001), Jeff Galloway writes extensively about the struggle that rages between the left and right halves of the brain while training for those 26.2 miles. The former half of the old bean deals with logic, sending out messages like "What you're doing is insane! Stop immediately!" While this is a helpful sentiment before bellying up to an open bar in a room full of business colleagues, it isn't conducive to tricking your body into performing nigh impossible feats of endurance. Which is why Galloway encourages doing everything possible to engage the creativity- oriented right brain, which minimizes the impulse to quit and makes time pass faster.

As I set out to make four-plus passes around Green Lake, I tried to preoccupy myself by revisiting my idea for a screenplay about a Goth boy band. But the rhythm of my trainers on the tarmac kept drowning out my eyeliner-wearing charges, and instead I found myself silently repeating snippets of songs ad nauseam.

"This is stupid," announced Left Brain, interrupting whatever seemingly inane chorus was rattling around my skull. Recognizing that if I allowed that half of my consciousness to take charge I'd never complete 12 miles, I struck a deal: For every ditty that Right Brain alighted on, I'd let logic-loving Left Brain deduce exactly why that tune had bubbled up from the murky depths.

The impetus that spawned "True Faith" by New Order was easy to pin down. The chorus of the group's 1987 hit begins, "I used to think that the day would never come/That my life would depend on the morning sun." Cold rain had been falling off and on since I left the house; a glimpse of morning sun would have motivated me to keep going as surely as if Brad Pitt had suddenly materialized 10 paces ahead of me in see-through running shorts.

The next selection was more slippery: "Transmission," by Joy Division. Yeah, Joy Division spawned New Order, but the machinations of my Right Brain aren't that transparent. "Dance, dance, dance to the radio," droned the words in my head. "Bingo!" announced Left Brain. Without the benefit of portable electronics, I was functioning as (to quote Nina Hagen) "my own radio." Mystery solved.

The source of the spring feeding the no. 1 song on my hit parade that morning wasn't going to stump the Sphinx, either. Left Brain recognized immediately that Right Brain kept dialing up "Getting Faster," from synth-pop underdogs Book of Love, because of the lyric "slowing down and getting faster." Galloway's training tips for extended distances include running at a slower speed and taking intermediate walking breaks; by reserving energy, you tire less quickly and maintain a steady pace.

Sure enough, by "slowing down and getting faster," and giving Left Brain a steady distraction, I managed to complete my 12-mile course five minutes quicker than I'd calculated. So I vowed to keep a list of these songs as I continue my training. I figure come that fateful day in May, I'll be able to make one hell of a motivational mix CD—even if I'll have to just play it back in my head during the big race.

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