To Thrive Rather Than To Survive

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Photo courtesy of MediSwim Total Immersion

In his bestselling memoir entitled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami relates how it took him years to find a coach who enabled him to level up his swimming technique. While all of the coaches he worked with  were competent, he realized, to his dismay,  that not all were effective at helping those who came to them for help. As my teacher in pedagogical approaches would put it:  it is one thing to master something, it is another thing to be able to transfer that mastery to your students.

It was, in fact, Murakami’s insight that drove me to keep trying out various swim  instruction approaches for adult onset swimmers like me.  I am admittedly a special case as  I have never really taken any swim instruction all my life. I only became interested in the sport when I started to train for my first triathlon.  More to the point, it has taken me more than  8 sessions to figure out how to swim. That is the average number of swim lessons  for an average student to  achieve a certain level of breakthrough in swimming according to a local veteran triathlon coach.

Then again, he could be wrong. In the highly instructive Your First Triathlon, Joe Friel notes how it usually takes months if not years to really perfect one’s swim technique.  To punctuate his point, Friel cited the example of a  very efficient swimmer in the pool  who took a while to take his efficiency from the pool to the open water. The late Terry Laughlin who invented Total Immersion essentially reinforces Friel’s insight. More specifically, he wrote that of the three disciplines in triathlon, it is swimming that is most unnatural and therefore, the most challenging. Human beings being land-based mammals are naturally  designed to walk, run and even cycle. They are not naturally meant to swim.  Hence, his insight  that  a triathlete worth his salt should all the more focus on achieving efficiency in the swim leg to be able to save one’s legs (i.e., pun intended) for the cycling and the running legs of the triathlon.

The preceding might as well ground my seemingly endless search for the ultimate swim instruction. To date it has taken me 4 coaches to finally get to a point where I could truly say I will not just be able to survive the swim leg of my triathlon race. I just might  eventually enjoy and thrive in the process.  I am not exactly there yet but I could sense I’m about to enter the territory in the next couple of months.

To be fair, I did learn something instructive from my first 3 coaches. But  it was my learning experience facilitated by  my 4th coach that has proven to be the most game changing by far. That Coach JC Macdonald was personally trained and certified  by no less than  the Total Immersion Master Terry Laughlin may help explain this.

To celebrate the small wins I’ve been experiencing for the past two months, I am journalizing  10 realizations that have proved helpful to helping me gain the confidence and competence to achieve a series of baby steps that build on each other.

Breathing is everything.

Unlike most swim lessons, breathing is not something that my TI coach added towards the end of the swim lessons. Quite the opposite: breathing was the first thing he made me unlearn to be able to learn the TI approach to efficient swimming. He was very empathic about this. First, one must learn to breathe from the diaphragm rather than from the chest. Breathing from the core  relaxes the rest of your body. Breathing from the chest promotes tension and panic.

Just as important, I had to learn how to exhale gently and continuously thru my nose and exhale through  my mouth. Interestingly, I  was, at the same time,  instructed to do both while keeping my mouth open to relax my jaws. This was not something purposively taught to me in my previous swim lessons. In fact, my previous coaches suggested that I apply either the 50/50 exhalation or the 70/30  through either my nose or my mouth or a combination of the two that would work for me.

To my surprise, I have considerably lessened the gasping for air that I used to experience after each lap.  Consequently, my rest stops between laps have dramatically gone down  from 1.5 to 2 minutes to 10 to 20 seconds.

Relaxation can be learned.   

One of the recurrent feedback  I got from my first 3 coaches was the need for me to relax. “Relax, Von, relax,” I would often get reminded. “You’re so tense,” they would often point out to me.  That I am.   I was never comfortable in the water. Water and drowning used to be  synonymous to me.  That is why I have never taken any swim lessons until the age of 47. Thanks to TI, I learned that relaxation can be learned. Breathing correctly is foundational in this regard. Hand in hand with correct breathing, one must deliberately hang one’s neck and arms and loosen one’s shoulders. These are apparently the most critical body parts which could promote or hinder  relaxation. Loosen them up and the rest of one’s body follows.  Tense them and you set up yourself for failure. Thus, before starting each practice session, I now make sure I complete a series of superman glides that mimic a rag doll in the water as Terry Laughlin would describe it.

Balance is king. 

Doing the superman glide like a rag doll in a public  lapping pool   actually looks silly. One needs to keep pushing off several times in the course of completing one lap as you will eventually run out of oxygen and sink.  It is hardly the kind of pre-workout drill you would find most swimmers do before their practice set.  Thankfully, I have learned to ignore the curious and amusing stares I get when I do the superman glide this way.  The reward it provides me in terms of how it relaxes both my breathing and my movement far outweighs the curious and amusing stares. Eventually, I realized it’s also a great drill to improve one’s balance in the water. This is on the condition that you remember to keep your ankles and heels together as you do flutter kicks to cover more distance.

Goodbye swim toys. 

I used to start all my drill sessions with the use of the center snorkel, the pull buoy and at times, the flippers and the paddles.  Not anymore. While my TI coach appreciates the value of these toys for strengthening and improving one’s technique, he sees zero value in them for an adult onset swimmer who is still trying to learn the basics of the free style. What they do, he says, is mask a defect in one’s technique instead of addressing the same.  In their place, he’d rather help his student work on each aspect of the free style slowly albeit progressively.   First learn the basics then move to the swim toys was how he made me regard the place of swim toys in one’s swim training.

Slope your spear. 

Yet another new thing I only learned recently was the value of ensuring that as one spears into the water before pulling, one’s wrist should be aligned to one’s elbow and shoulders like a downward slope. Doing so complements the corresponding clicking of one’s heels to produce a taller posture that aligns with the surface of the water.  To be able to picture this under water, the slope being referred to in the TI context is where your nose aligns with your shoulder as it forms a downward slope with your elbow and wrist. It is noteworthy though that the distance from the surface could vary from person to person. Hence, there is value in experimenting until one finds the perfect fit so to speak. Previous to this,  what I was taught to do was to reach forward to extend one’s body and cover more distance.

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Trim your stroke count. 

Less is more.  This is the TI approach to the recommended stroke counts to complete one lap.   From a high of 40 plus strokes for a 25m lap, my coach was able to trim down my strokes to 25. He did this through the tempo timer which I eventually invested in. What it does is it forces you to improve your balance in the water. Not exactly an enjoyable learning experience as I did the free style around four timings:  1.7, 1.65, 1.60 and 1.55 for several sessions. The objective was to only spear when you hear the beep. This meant that as you awaited the go signal to spear, you needed to rotate your body for your inhalation followed by gentle exhalation.  The 1.70 to 1.65 timings were hell pure and simple.  I was literally bobbing up and down the water as I sought to complete my inhalation.  But persist I did. Lo and behold, the stroke count exercise not only helped improve my balance, it also addressed my tendency to pull my lead arm prematurely as I rotated to breathe.

Swing from your lap. 

Next to my breathing, what I do with my arm after I pull has always been a challenge.  My other coach used to point out to me that I tend to bring it all the way back.  Subsequently, I tend to swing  my pulling arm  from the back as I maneuvered to spear. Not very efficient.  To address this,  my TI coach taught me to bring my pulling arm to my lap and then swing my arm sideward before spearing downward.  Problem solved albeit since it meant  unlearning something I have gotten used to, it was by no means easy. It continues to be a struggle but that is why I continue to work on it. Recently, I discovered that bringing my pulling arm to my lap is a perfect springboard to rotate and inhale.  What a welcome bonus.

Learn from the past.  

One other thing that amazes me about the TI approach is its extensive use of video analysis. Every single swim lesson is preambled and capped by a video analysis of how I performed a particular drill or technique.  To be sure, feedback that is based on recorded data is up there in terms of pedagogical power. You can’t argue with the facts as they say. By reviewing these recordings, you get to realize that perception is not necessarily reality. Just as I thought I was doing a particular exercise right, the video analysis would  make me realize what I got right and what I need to work on prior to the next lesson. Very instructive and very humbling at the same time.  To the credit of  my coach there is always something to affirm and something to correct with each completed video analysis.

Take it a step at a time.   

I love the James Taylor song entitled “Line ‘Em Up.” In the song, Taylor talks about how  to solve so many difficult albeit mundane problems like Nixon’s wish to say goodbye to every single member of his White House staff or a pastor’s dilemma on how to  bless hundreds of couples in a mass wedding. The solution: line them up.  This is the signature characteristic of the TI approach. On any given learning day, both the lesson and the homework consisted of only 1 focal point. This flows from the pedagogical philosophy of Total Immersion that the human mind, for all its remarkable capabilities, can only truly focus on one thing at a time. So if it’s the superman glide with breathing for today, that will be the focal point for the next 5 days until the next learning session.

It’s all about mindfulness.

Finally, the TI approach is not just  about memorizing techniques mechanically. Much of what would make it work for you has to do with really being there and learning in the moment.   Time and again, my TI coach would remind me to be mindful of how I execute every learning focal point.   Meaning, each TI swim session is not just a matter of executing x number of laps within the shortest possible time.  Learning how to swim the TI  way is about being truly in the moment and giving 100% of your focus to what you are doing.  Doing so effectively converts one’s swim laps into a meditative activity where you learn more and more about how you learn with each lap that you complete.   When this happens one’s swimming progressively and inevitably becomes as rhythmic and melodic as one’s pedaling and one’s running.

For all that, I am humble enough to acknowledge that I am not there yet in terms of  swimming tall and solving my breathing challenge completely. Nonetheless,  I’ve been amazed by so many things I never thought I would eventually  be able to pull off – from improving my  balance to lessening my kicking, from making my breathing less tense to  partially solving my rotation problem. I really have a feeling I will be able to do open water swimming soon just as I know I will finally be able to enjoy the swim leg of my next triathlon instead of being stuck with the aspiration to simply survive it.  Until then, the ultimate goal which is finally within striking distance is  nothing less than the late Terry Laughlin’s hitherto fitting epitaph: “may your laps be as happy as mine.”   

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Photo courtesy of MediSwim Total Immersion



Giving Tri a Try

june 2017 blog

My first triathlon almost did not happen.

Despite months of time and effort, not to mention a kind of spending I have never done before in pursuit of a goal,  I almost quit before getting to  the starting line of the TriMan 2017.

Like most first-timers, I was quite confident  I could nail the run leg. After all, I have done a couple of  marathons, several 21ks, 10ks and 5ks over the  years.

I was also  relatively certain I would enjoy the cycling leg.  I’ve been biking since I was 7. In fact, it  showed during our Cycling 101 practicals  where our  multiple  Iron Man coach complimented me for displaying a sense of balance that would  allow me to easily weave through the horrendous traffic of  the metro.

It was my swimming technique that I’ve always considered my weakest link.  You see I’ve never really been good at swimming. The most I could do was what Pinoys called  “langoy aso”  or dog paddle. Being a believer in  training and coaching,  I signed up not with one but two triathlon training cum coaching schools. Inside Track Athletics covered all three disciplines of multisport  while Swim Academy PH  focused on swimming. Both were ran by veteran Iron Man finishers. While I could be said to have gotten my money’s worth for being able to actually cross a 25m pool without a center snorkel after several months of training, my form is  still far from what Total Immersion founder Terry Laughlin calls the streamline position.  Not surprisingly, a month before the race  I could not swim a 25m pool without stopping for a couple of minutes  in between laps. As if to compound the challenge I was facing,  I traveled abroad unexpectedly three weeks before my first race.  Good thing I am blessed to have a family that supported my triathlon aspirations. They helped me redefine the word traincation as I hopped from one city to another.  To push myself, I set an ultimatum. If I am still unable to cross the 50m pool without stopping  a week before the race, I would abort the whole thing. Roughly 3 days before my race, I did a dry run at the actual pool that would be used for the TriMan 2017. My heart sank when I realized that while I can easily do 25m at a time, I still could not complete a 50m lap without stopping.

I forged ahead anyway.

Thanks to my   tri roadside angels.

Topping my list of heaven-sent tri support crew members is my wife who also happens to be my swim school classmate.  She pointed out that since there is no cut-off anyway, I should swim my swim, ride my ride and run my run. Never mind the bashers and haters.   Never mind the podium finishers and those who obsess about their finishing time. Never mind the onlookers and the photographers.  “Just complete your first race period.”  In the same breath, she  reminded me of all the time and effort I invested in my months of triathlon training along with its attendant financial costs.  All these  would go to waste if I decide not to push through.

And  then there’s my sister who is actually starting her swim class  next month.  She practically said the same thing  as my wife did albeit  in her signature colorful language: “Why not push through? You’ve signed up. You’ve trained. You’ve put in the time.  Sayang naman. (i.e., “It would be such a waste.”)  Go and see for yourself.  You’ll  never know until you try.” Looking back, she definitely had a point. If I withdraw from the race, I would never know the answer to the question, what would have happened had I  given tri a try?

Lastly, there’s my brother in law who has completed a number of Iron Man races.  He gamely provided me with a number of technical insights from articles  to videos  to address my swimming pain points. More importantly, he spent some time checking my technique and sharing  several hard-earned tri insights along the way.  He assured me I would eventually get the hang of it with enough feedback and pool time. “Just keep pushing,” he would quip.

And so it was that I steeled my nerve, prayed really hard and resolved to put my shot at my  perfect effort when I drove my way to Fontana last June 17, 2017, the eve of the 2017 TriMan.

Here’s how it played out.

“I, I wish you could swim like dolphins, like dolphins could swim” 

                                                                                     -David Bowie

Shortly before the start of the race, a number of participating triathletes warmed up in the pool.  When I saw that they were practically swimming effortlessly like dolphins from one end of the pool to the next,  I reprimanded myself for listening to the encouragement provided by my tri roadside angels along with the assurance of the SBR PH organizers that there is no cut-off time.  My strategy, you see,  was to do my best to swim 50m continuously. If such is not possible, my go-to was  to swim for 25m and rest in between.  In the course of completing the 3 sets of 300m loops in the Olympic size pool, I realized that a good number  of the participants could easily swim from one end of the pool to the next without stopping.  Their pace subsequently got in the way of my strategy as I found myself trying to keep up with them in the first 300m loop. This turned out to be a mistake as I paid for it later with  fatigue and exhaustion.  As if to balance my perception, I also noted that there were clearly other participants who also considered swimming their Achilles heel. In fact, a number of them walked in the pool so much so that the organizers called their attention on the PA system. Still others cut corners by not touching the wall thereby earning  gentle reprimands  from the organizers.  Their plight  unwittingly encouraged me to stick to my resolve to swim all the way even if it meant stopping to rest before continuing on.  My coach’s joking admonition kept playing in my head: “If you walk in the pool, I will disown you.” And so despite the preceding, despite my pace, despite the distracting presence of  a live audience, despite the photographers,  despite the well-meaning observers who would shout: “Kaya mo yan” or “Bubbles lang,” I sought to follow my strategy even if I had to stop to rest or to wait for those ahead of me to continue swimming  or to give way to the next wave of swimmers coming from behind. Thankfully, mercifully, eventually, I finally completed my first 900m race. “This too shall pass” has subsequently acquired a whole new meaning for me.

“And it takes a long time to go, to make it to the border of Mexico

so I ride like the wind, ride like the wind.”

                                                                               – Christopher Cross

From the swim leg, it was with  great relief that I ran-walked to the  so-called  T1 or Transition 1 where I surprised myself for not taking forever in  pinning my bib number, wearing my socks, shoes and helmet and mounting my bike.  As promised by the organizer,  the first 8 kilometers were all downhill so it really felt like that iconic Christopher Cross song.  That Clark Field happens to boast of wide open spaces and well-paved roads ideal for biking made the ride even more enjoyable. After my first U  turn though, I fidgeted with my gear shifting as I went uphill. Not as enjoyable but definitely interesting and challenging as I worked double time to figure out which among the many techniques I was taught would prove most useful to ride smartly.  The key was to have  enough energy and power  left for the run leg. Just like practice, I would stop every 10kms to drink water before continuing on.  It was during my three stops that I realized I forgot to bring along an energy drink and the requisite energy gels I have gotten used to taking every 10k.  As I completed the two loops comprising the 30km race course, I quietly thanked my coaches for making me do 60 km long rides on Sundays even if I was only preparing for a 30km bike leg.

“Running on, running on empty

running into the sun but I’m running behind.”

                                              – Jackson Browne

After dismounting  from my bike for the  5km race course , I was still pretty confident that I would finish strong.  Alas, the tactical errors I committed in the first two legs of  the race took their toll on my body.  The effort that went into the swim and my nutrition oversight during the bike leg along with the unbelievable heat  eventually slowed me down. Worse, the water stations ran out of water of all things.  And so what should have taken less than 30 minutes took considerably longer.   Consequently, I was literally a spent force when I  finally crossed the finish line.

As I was awarded my finisher’s medal, I had mixed emotions about my first triathlon experience.

Nothing can compare to the redemption of completing one’s first triathlon. I could truly say now that all those months of waking up early,   training with Inside Track Athletics and Swim Academy PH even on days I’d rather watch my favorite series and spending for the seemingly endless prerequisites of multi sport were worth it. It is happiness pure and simple. I’m glad I decided to push through.

Even as I celebrated my modest baby step, my first triathlon experience pointed me to two opportunity areas crying out to be addressed.  If I truly wish to   leverage my running experience and finish strong in my next sprint races, I need to double time on improving in these two areas.

There’s the mastery of the  streamline position in swimming which would inevitably make my breathing more efficient  and ensure that I use my legs for balance rather than propulsion. And there’s the  mastery of gear shifting to a point where I can easily adapt to the terrain without guessing.

“Padayon!” (i.e., Visayan for forge ahead.)  

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Never Say Never


There is a Filipino exhortation that goes: “Wag kang magsasalita nang tapos.”  Roughly translated in English, it means, never speak with finality.  Back in the day when I was starting to run, my dreams were a lot simpler. From completing my first 5k, I wanted to eventually do a 10k, a 21k and ultimately,  a 42k.  Whenever someone would bring up the subject of  trying out multi-sport or triathlon, I would often say, I would never get into that. My reasons were quite iron-clad or so I thought at that time.

First, I was happy to simply work towards increasing my mileage progressively. Second, I was intimidated by the attendant costs of investing in triathlon equipment and training. Third, I could not picture how in the world, training for one could possibly fit my already demanding schedule as a husband, a father and a senior manager in a multinational company.

All that changed when I got injured and I stumbled onto several well-researched readings about how triathlon is positioned as  a perfect way to actually improve your running. Even more compelling was the assertion of experts about the therapeutic impact of multi-sport training to injuries sustained in the course of running.

Three pivotal  moments eventually convinced me to seriously consider the possibility of giving tri a try.

The first one was when I first completed my 21k race in 2015 by way of the Manila leg of the Milo Marathon.  I bumped into an actual triathlete who did his 21k with an impressive finishing time.  He enthusiastically encouraged me to give multi-sport a try because  it’s more enjoyable than running. He also credited it for his improved 21k finishing time. I remember him saying,  “now that you’ve completed your 21k, you can easily transition to triathlon because you have a good foundation in running. Forget about marathons,” he said with conviction.  “They’re too long and boring.  Triathlons are more fun and fulfilling.”  When I countered that I did not have the time to get into the sport, he reasoned that you can do the bike rides at home on weekdays and just do the long rides on weekends.  The swim part is what I need to carve out time for.  The feasibility of actually following a triathlon training routine intrigued me. But at that time, it was not enough to distract me from targeting my first 42k.

And then  I got injured several times. From shin splints to runners knee, from ITB Syndrome to plantar fasciitis, I experienced them all.  Somehow through practice and training, I eventually overcame all of these injuries  but it was my bout with Achilles tendonitis that had the most adverse impact on my recent races.  Even worse, I started experiencing cramping during the last 2 kilometers  of my 21k races. After I overcame cramping in the course of my 22-week marathon training, it surfaced anew during the 33k segment of my second marathon.  It was in the course of reading about injury prevention and management while preparing for my second marathon that I started to ask the question: what if I actually gave triathlon a try?  Who knows, these experts might just be right all along?

The final clincher came by way of the Nike commercial that featured the Iron Nun Madonna Buder. If she could do over 40 triathlons within her lifetime and she started late running, perhaps I can do, too. Within a few weeks after chancing upon Sister Madonna’s Nike ad,  I stumbled onto a book that explained triathlon from a philosophical and inspirational  standpoint. I am, of course, referring here to Scott Tinley’s very engaging Finding Triathlon. Each of the chapters that comprised Tinley’s book progressively convinced me that this was indeed one life project worth investing serious resources on.

And so here I am gearing up for my first sprint distance triathlon happening in June.  I’m quite confident I can nail the 5km run segment. The 900 meter swim is where I’m having a lot of struggle visualizing.  Although I’m now able to complete a variety of swim drills, I continue to experience serious problems integrating the breathing part.  Related to this, I also need a lot of improvement  in  kicking more efficiently and twisting my hips enough to allow me to inhale more efficiently.  Without a doubt,  swimming is my weakest link as an aspiring triathlete. This is precisely why at this point, I’ve practically invested a lot in it in terms of training.

As for cycling, given my growing up years biking, I was not surprised when a cycling veteran complimented me on my good sense of balance during our cycling drills. It is the mastery of gear shifting and the confident use of cleats that I know I need to work on. I also have no idea yet with regard to the efficient use of  a bike trainer at home. This should allow me to achieve the target mileages I should go for to prepare for my first sprint distance triathlon.

Alas, the fact that I’m still reeling from the frustration that accompanied my second marathon got in the way of my plunging headlong into my triathlon training.  That, along with my realization that I owe my body some serious rest, made me distance myself from running for practically a month.

And so even as   I find myself at the starting point  of a full-blown sprint distance triathlon training, questions and doubts hound me.  Am I an April fool in the making? Will I make it in June? Can I actually swim free style by then? Will I master gear shifting and pedaling with cleats in time?  Will I have enough left to complete the 5km run after the swim and bike segments of the race?

If I go by Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s exhortation, the outcome need not be belabored.  “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Let us begin.

Running on Empty: Lessons in Running from Haruki Murakami

“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields
In sixty-five I was seventeen and running up one-o-one
I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on”

                                                                                                        -Jackson Browne, “Running on Empty”

running article forrest gump

“Running for no particular reason”

There is a scene in the movie Forrest Gump where Jackson Browne’s classic “Running on Empty” aptly accompanies Tom Hanks’ character as the thought of long-distance running suddenly occurs to him for no particular reason. That scene comes to mind when you read about how the thought of taking up running as a sport occurred to Haruki Murakami in his very engaging memoir entitled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2007). “I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run – simply because I wanted to.” (p 150)

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Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami, of course, is the celebrated contemporary Japanese writer. His works have been been translated into 50 languages and his novels have sold millions of copies. His most well-known novels include A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), Norwegian Wood (1987), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-1995), Kafka on the Shore (2002), and 1Q84 (2009–2010). Although he has expressed his disdain for awards and recognition, he has received a number of prestigious awards over the years. Among these are the World Fantasy Award (2006),the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (2006), the Franz Kafka Prize (2006) and the Jerusalem Prize (2009).

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The novelist as runner

It turns out he is also an accomplished runner with over 24 marathons under his belt as of 2006 (i.e., the year he completed his memoir), averaging 1 marathon a year since he started in 1982. He has ran in the New York Marathon 4 times as of 2005 and has completed the Boston Marathon 7 times as of 2006. He is also an accomplished triathlete having completed 6 triathlons as of 2006. He started running seriously in 1982 at the age of 33. Running, according to Murakami has been “the most helpful and the most meaningful habit” which has made him “stronger physically and emotionally.” (p 8) In many ways, his memoir shows that running has actually sustained and nurtured his career as a successful novelist.

Although Murakami preambles the book with a very clear purpose statement, to wit: “this is a book about running…in which I’ve gathered my thoughts about what running has meant to me as a person.” (pp.v-vi), he concludes his introduction with the disclaimer that “they may not be lessons you can generalize.” (p viii) Nonetheless, I came away inspired and challenged after reading his book. Here are ten running lessons which might resonate with you whether you’re about to get into running or are into the sport already or are simply intrigued by the current cultural fascination with this sport.

running murakami book
1. “Hinay hinay basta kanunay.”

Nope, Harukami is not from the Visayas. But this Visayan quote informs and grounds how he first approached the sport of running. Roughly translated in English, it means, “Do things slowly but consistently.”

“When I first started running I couldn’t run long distances. I could only run for about twenty minutes or thirty. That much left me panting, my heart pounding, my legs shaky. It was to be expected, though since I hadn’t really exercised for a long time…but as I continued to run, my body started to accept the fact that it was running, and I could gradually increase the distance. I was starting to acquire a runner’s form, my breathing became more regular, and my pulse settled down. The main thing was not the speed or distance so much as running every day without taking a break…running was incorporated into my daily routine.” (p 39)

To be sure, his initial progress as a runner was modest if not cautious. After running almost every single day in 1982, he completed his first 5k in 1983. That same year, he successfully completed his first 15k race. In the course of his first year as a serious runner, he reached his ideal weight and sustained the same by changing his diet radically. “I began to eat more vegetables with fish as my main source of protein. I never liked meat much anyway…I cut back on rice and alcohol and began using all natural ingredients. Sweets weren’t a problem since I never much cared for them.” (p 41)

Along the way, taking naps in the middle of the day provided an extra boost of energy that sustained his runner’s routine. “One other way I keep healthy is by taking a nap…Thirty minutes later I come wide awake. As soon as I wake up, my body isn’t sluggish and my mind is totally clear.” (p 51-52)

Not surprisingly, in the same year he completed his first 5k and first 15k, he also cinched his first 26.2 miles in 3 hours and 51 minutes in Athens, Greece – a most auspicious debut as this was the birthplace of running as a sport.

2. The Why Answers the How.

“If you know your why,” reflects Friedrich Nietzsche, “you can deal with any how.” That is to say, if your purpose for pursuing something is clear to you, no amount of hurdles can get in the way.


Nietzsche: Know Your Why

Murakami’s why locates itself in his realization that running is the best sport that suits him as he is not a big fan of competitive sports. He gets greater validation from beating his previous time or distance or both and in the process achieving the goals that he has set for himself. “I think I’ve been able to run for more than twenty years for a simple reason: it suits me. Or at least because I don’t find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’ continue what they don’t like.” (p 44)

Complementing its physical fit to Murakami is the opportunity running provides him to improve himself over time. “Running is both exercise and metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level…the point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running, the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.” (p 10)

In the latter parts of his memoir he equates the self-improvement that running affords to living life to the fullest. “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life – and for me, for writing as well.” (p 82-83)

Two other enthralling reasons accompany his primary reason for embracing running as a sport.

The first has to do with running as a journey consisting of random thoughts, accidental discoveries and unforgettable memories. Whether it’s counting the number of dead and flattened cats and dogs on the streets of Athens or getting a kick at being passed by the pretty young girls of Harvard with their blond ponytails, new Ipods, long strides and sharp kicks or being awed by the Charles River in Boston or jogging with the writer John Irving in Central Park or seeing the face of a very attractive young woman jogging daily in Tokyo.

Equally compelling is the awesome feeling that runners relish every time they complete a race. “The happiest thing for me about this day’s race was that I was able, on a personal level, to truly enjoy the event. The overall time I posted wasn’t anything to brag about…but I did give it my best, and I felt a nice, tangible afterglow.” (p 170-171) And here’s his other account of the proverbial runner’s high: “Even so, when I reached the finish line in Tokorocho, I felt very happy. I’m always happy when I reach the finish line of a long-distance race, but this time it really struck me hard. I pumped my right fist into the air. The time was 4:42pm. Eleven hours and forty-two minutes since the start of the race.” (p 115)

So a good question to ask oneself before getting serious about the sport of running is, what is my why for running?

3. Develop a routine.

It is said that the neighbors of the philosopher Immanuel Kant could tell the time of the day by observing his routine from early morning until the end of day. That is to say, Kant led a pretty predictable life. It was precisely by being routinary that Kant imbibed the discipline that led to the writing of his philosophical masterpieces.

running article kant

Kant, the epitome of discipline and routine

The same may be said of Murakami as a runner and a novelist. His book affords us an insider view of 3 routines that have served him in good stead as an accomplished marathon runner. By implication, we get to appreciate the kind of discipline that informs his daily routine as a novelist. “…unless it’s totally unavoidable, I run every single day…As long as I can run a certain distance, that’s all I care about. Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day.” (p 4)

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, he shares how his daily routine consisted of “thirty-six miles a week. In other words, six miles a day, six days a week…I cover 156 miles every month which for me is my standard for serious running…At a jogging pace, I generally can cover six miles in an hour.” (p 7) This routine dovetails with his other training rule: “I never take two days off in a row. Muscles are like work animals. That are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load, step by step, they learn to take it. As long as you explain your expectations to them by actually showing them examples of the amount of work they have to endure, your muscles will comply and gradually get stronger.” (p 71)

To implement his training routine, he lived out most of his days as follows: “I got up before 5am and went to bed before 10pm. People are at their best at different times of day but I’m definitely a morning person. That’s when I can focus and finish up important work I have to do. Afterward I work out or do other errands that don’t take much concentration. At the end of the day I relax a don’t do any more work. I read, listen to music, take it easy, and try to go to bed early. This is the pattern I’ve mostly followed up till today. Thanks to this, I’ve been able to work efficiently these past twenty four years.” (p 36-37)

The first two routines lend themselves easily to his third habit of relentlessly planning and measuring. Consider a typical Murakami runner’s log:

“June 156 miles
July 186 miles
Aug 217 miles
Sept 186 miles”

The log forms a nice pyramid.The weekly distance averages out in June to thirty-six miles, then forty-three miles, then fifty, then back to forty-three.” (p 92)

4. Give it your personal best.

Legendary college basketball coach John Wooden loved to share how his father taught him the concept of giving everything one’s personal best. According to Wooden, his father would often ask him at the end of each day if he gave his personal best. If he answered in the affirmative, his father would no longer press. For his father and eventually for Coach Wooden, that was ultimately what mattered most. Nothing more, nothing less.

running article john wooden

Coach John Wooden: “Give your personal best. Nothing more, nothing less.”

For Murakami, one does not run to pass people although he does confess being bothered when other runners pass him. Conversely, he feels good when he passes other runners. In one particular run, he wrote how he passed 200 runners. Notwithstanding how he feels about being passed or passing other runners, in the end, the problem with such practice, according to Murakami, is that if these fellows quit the race, then your motivation for completing the race disappears with them. Hence, his reflection below on the value of giving every single run your personal best. Nothing more, nothing less.
“Most ordinary runners are motivated by an individual goal, more than anything: namely, a time they want to beat. As long as he can beat that time, a runner will feel he’s accomplished what he set out to do, and if he can’t, then he’ll feel he hasn’t. Even if he doesn’t break the time he’d hoped for, as long as he has the sense of satisfaction at having done his best – and possibly, having made some significant discovery about himself in the process – then that in itself is an accomplishment, a positive feeling he can carry over to the next race…the only opponent you have to beat is yourself.” (p 9-10)

5. Leverage Music.

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Coach Noelle De Guzman: “Form over speed and distance”

Coach Noelle De Guzman also known in running circles as “The Kikay Runner”  would often reiterate that training for running only has one purpose, namely, to use every critical part and every single movement of your body to propel you forward or as she loves to put it, to “clear the grass, and break the glass.” To make this happen she methodically instructs her students to work on the different aspects of the runner’s form – from breathing correctly to running like the Kenyans do, from working out to achieve the correct cadence to pounding the pavement efficiently by visualizing the you’re stepping on burning coal. Done separately, each of these do not seem to amount to anything. But once you put all of these elements together the way they are meant to dovetail together, they are no different from how the different instruments that comprise a rock band or an orchestra work seamlessly together to produce an awesome sonic experience.

Which augurs well with Murakami’s account of running in Cambridge as he was gearing up for the New York Marathon, “breathing in the crisp, bracing, early-morning air, I felt once again the joy of running on familiar ground. The sounds of my footsteps, my breathing and heartbeats, all blended together in a unique polyrhythm.” (p 13) A unique polyrhythm that can only be complemented by what usually keeps him company when he is running: rock music “since its beat is the best accompaniment to the rhythm of running. I prefer the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gorillaz, and Beck, and oldies like Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Beach Boys.” (- 14) Other oldies, or if you will, classic rockers who serve as Murakami’s constant companions in running are the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. “Yesterday I listened to the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet as I ran. That funky “Hoo hoo” chorus in “Sympathy for the Devil” is the perfect accompaniment to running. The day before that I listened to Eric Clapton’s Reptile. I love these albums. There’s something about them that gets to me and I never get tired of listening to them – Reptile, especially. Nothing beats listening to to Reptile on a brisk morning run. It’s not too brash or contrived. It has this steady thythm and entirely natural melody. My mind gets quietly swept nto the music and my feet run in time to the beat.” (p 95)

Towards the end of his memoir (pp 142-143) we learn that Murakami has more than a passing casual interest in music. This guy is actually a certified audiophile. “What were the main things I did while in Cambridge? Basically, I confess, I bought a ton of LPs. In the Boston area there are still a lot of high quality used record stores. When I had the time I also checked out record stores in New York and Maine. Seventy percent of the records I bought were jazz, the rest classical plus a few rock records. I’m a very (or perhaps I should say extremely) enthusiastic record collector…(p 142) How enthusiastic exactly? “I’m not really sure how many records I have in my home right now. I’ve never counted them, and it’s too scary to try. Ever since I was fifteen I’ve bought a huge number of records…If somebody asks me how many records I have, all I can say is, “Seems like I have a whole lot. But still not enough.” (p 143)

6. Run to recreate.

My boss who hails from Peru would often remind us his direct reports to have a life outside the workplace. Something to recharge you so you can fight again another day. Doing nothing with your life except working from morning till night is like allowing the workplace to suck its fangs into your neck. It will eventually suck you dry.

Viewed from the preceding, running offers itself as an ideal activity for recollecting and recreating oneself. Check out Murakami’s take on this aspect of running. “What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue…I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning…I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void…the thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. “ (p 16-17) Shades of Zen and centering oneself.

Some people turn to drinking to drown their sorrows, others to drugs to get high. Murakami turns to running. Here’s how he deals with emotional hurts or frustrations: “When I’m criticized unjustly…or when someone I’m sure will understand me, doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer, it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are. I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little farther than usual is that I become that much stronger. If I’m angry I direct that anger toward myself. If I have a frustrating experience, I use that to improve myself. That’s the way I’ve always lived. I quietly absorb the things I’m able to, releasing them later, and in as changed a form as possible, as part of the story line in a novel.” (p 20)

7. Run the talk.

running joe girard

The Sales Guru Joe Girard

The sales guru and Guinness record holder Joe Girard is a firm believer in self-talk long before the science of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) became vogue. Which is why he would often encourage sales professionals to spend a few minutes to engage in positive self-talk before they head out to their first sales call for the day. The importance of positive self-talk apparently extends itself to running. Consider how Murakami has learned to deal with days when he doesn’t feel like running. “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in?,” he once asked Olympic runner Toshihiko Seko. “He stared at me and then in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time.” (pp 45-46.) Murakami’s surefire formula to deal with such down times is to remind himself of the fact that compared to sitting in boring meetings or commuting packed trains, running daily is actually a luxury he won’t be able to enjoy had he decided to be a corporate type instead of being a full-time novelist.

Prior to a race, Murakami also dabbles in what some sports psychologist call positive visualization. Here is a sample from his psychological prepwork as he was about to participate in the New York Marathon “So I close my eyes and see it all. I imagine myself, along with thousands of other runners, going through Brooklyn, through Harlem, through the streets of New York. I see myself crossing several steel suspension bridges, and experience the emotions I’ll have as I run along bustling Central Park South, close to the finish line. I see the old steakhouse near our hotel where we’ll eat after the race. These scenes give my body a quiet vitality.” (p 133-134)

But does self-talk still work when your body is about to give up on you?  Here is Murakami’s account of a near-fail race had he not engaged in a very passionate self-talk. This happened in 1996 when he participated in a 62-mile ultramarathon in Hokkaido, starting the run in the morning and eventually completing it in the evening. ”…even though my legs were working now, the thirteen miles from the thirty-four mile rest stop to the forty-seventh mile were excruciating. I felt like a piece of beef being run, slowly, through a meat grinder. I had the will to go ahead, but now my whole body was rebelling. It felt like a car trying to go up a slope with the parking brake on…Out of oil, the bolts coming loose, the wrong cogs in gear, I was rapidly slowing down as one runner after another passed me.” (p 109) Speaking to each body part that was howling in pain, Murakami “encouraged them, clung to them, flattered them, scolded them, tried to buck them up. It’s just a little farther, guys. You can’t give up on me now…I’m not human. I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead. That’s what I told myself. That’s about all I thought about, and that’s what got me through.” (p 110)

8. Push Yourself.

To transition from 5k to 15k to 42k, one must be ready to level up with each goal that one successfully achieves. You can’t keep doing the same routine if you want to get to a different destination point. To quote Marshall Goldsmith’s best-selling leadership book, “what got you here, won’t get you there.” Thus, his consistent Goldsmith-inspired attempts to stretch himself: “In the three months up till now I was basically trying to rack up the distance, not worrying about anything, but steadily increasing my pace and running as hard as I could. And this helped me build up my muscles, spurred myself on both physically and mentally. The most important task here was to let my body know in no uncertain terms that running this hard is just par for the course…the body is an extremely practically system. You have to let it experience intermittent pain over time, and then the body will get the point. As a result, it will willingly accept the increased amount of exercise it’s made to do. After this, you very gradually increase the upper limit of the amount of exercise you do. Doing it gradually is important so you don’t burn out. “ (p 51)

9. Fall down 7 times, get up 8.

running article 4 dwayne wade

Dwayne Wade: “Fall down 7 times, get up 8.”

Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat recently revived popular interest in the old Japanese saying “fall down 7 times, get up 8.” The original context of this saying is that the true warrior, whether he likes it or not, will come across defeat, frustrations and disappointments just like ordinary mortals. The key though to attain Tamashii or indomitable spirit is to keep fighting and to keep moving forward despite the odds and no matter what.

Take his failure to achieve the time that he set his sights on before a race he trained hard for. Instead of being paralyzed by frustration and defeat, he immediately engaged in a ruthless self-examination. The result is a very insightful root cause analysis. “There are three reasons I failed. Not enough training. Not enough training. And not enough training. That’s it in a word. Not enough overall exercise plus not getting my weight down.” (p 54) “Freeze my butt off and feel miserable? I’ll pass. Right then and there I decided that before my next marathon I was going to go back to the basics, start from scratch, and do the very best I could. Train meticulously and rediscover what I was physically capable of. Tighten all the loose screws, one by one. Do all that and see what happens.” (p 54.)

This critical eye for kaizen or never-ending improvement also proved pivotal in improving his efficiency as a swimmer when he participated in triathlons. “…I made an important discovery. I had trouble breathing during a race because I’d been hyperventilating…I was breathing too deeply and quickly…Now before a race starts I get into the sea, swim a bit, and get my body and mind used to swimming in the ocean. I breathe moderately in order not to hyperventilate…” (p 162)

After his disappointing time at the NYC Marathon and the Boston Marathon, where he did complete but missed his target time, Tom Petty would have approved of his insight which is reminiscent of the the classic rocker “I Won’t Back Down.” “…until the feeling that I’ve done a good job in a race returns, I’m going to keep running marathons, and not let it get me down. Even when I grow old and feeble, when people warn me it’s about time to throw in the towel, I won’t care. As long as my body allows, I’ll keep on running. Even if my time gets worse, I’ll keep on putting in as much effort – perhaps even more effort toward my goal of finishing a marathon. I don’t care what others say.” (p 149)

10. Invest in a good coach.

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Head Coach Nonoy Basa – Effective coaching is premised on correct diagnostics.

Thanks to YouTube and Google, today virtually any skill can be learned through the internet. Nonetheless, despite the volume and variety of teaching videos available in the internet these days, there is something that video recordings can’t give you – a constructive and well thought-out feedback from a good coach regarding your blind spots. This is precisely why Head Coach Nonoy Basa of Streamline Sports Instruction typically kick starts his coaching sessions by baselining where his coachee is in running or swimming instead of employing a cookie-cutter approach. His trained eye for identifying both an aspiring athlete’s strength and growth areas relies heavily on a careful analysis of his coachee’s video-recorded running or swimming. From such diagnostics, his school literally builds up an aspiring athlete from the ground up.

In the two chapters he devoted to his adventures as a triathlete, Murakami turned to good coaches to help him master cycling and correct his form for swimming. “When I first began I had no idea what I was doing, so I asked a person who know a lot about bike racing to coach me. On holidays the two of us would load our bikes in a station wagon and set out for Oi Pier…the two of us would decide how many circuits we’d make in how long and set off. He accompanied me on long-distance rides as well.” (p 141)

He was not as fortunate in being coached when it came to improving his form as a swimmer as he went through several coaches before finally chancing on the one who proved instrumental in transforming him to become a better swimmer: “So we began one on one lessons to reshape my form…she revised very small movements I made, one by one, over an extended period of time…what’s special about this woman’s teaching style is that she doesn’t teach you the textbook form at the beginning. Take body rotation, for instance. To get her pupil to learn the correct way, she startsout by teaching how to swim without any rotation…and then ever so slowly, my coach started to add some rotation.” (p 161)

Epilogue: Running On

running article jackson browne album

Long May You Run

“Running on Empty” originally came to Browne as he was driving back and forth from his home to the studio in the course of recording The Pretender, his 1976 best-selling album. The drive was so short he never bothered to get gas as he completed the recording process. Over time, for many of his fans “Running on Empty” has eventually grown into a song about optimism. Today, many of Browne’s fans and followers regard it as the perfect driving song which conjures images of forging ahead, moving on, running on, no matter what, with or against the wind, until you have nothing left to give. Hence, it’s a fitting song to end this reflection with if we consider how Murakami regards every running experience he has had and those that he looks forward to participating in the remaining years of his life.

“I expect that this winter I’ll run another marathon somewhere in the world. And I’m sure come next summer I’ll be out in another triathlon somewhere, giving it my best shot. Thus the seasons come and go, and the years pass by. I’ll age one more year, and probably finish another novel…my time, the rank I attain, my outward appearance – all of these are secondary. For a runner like me, what’s really important is reaching the goal I set for myself, under my own power. I give it everything I have, endure what needs enduring, and am able, in my own way, to be satisfied. From out of the failures and joys I always try to come away having grasped a concrete lesson…And I hope that, over time, as one race follows another, in the end I’ll reach a place I’m content with. Or maybe just catch a glimpse of it.” (p 173)

running article haruki 2

“Running on Full Cylinders”

Let’s go run.