What I Think About When I Think About Nothing

When I first started running, I listened to music, podcasts, whatever. It was hard for me to run a mile without stopping or walking. I needed something to distract me from the pain, the labored breathing, and the embarrassment of being a fat person running. The music was a way to wall off the world while also not having to deal with the thoughts in my head. I could be in a limbo that was not of the world and not of my own psyche. It was an oblivion that I’ve dangerously flirted with for the bulk of my days. 

It was quite messy out at Pandapas Pond today.
It was quite messy out at Pandapas Pond today.

As I gained confidence and fitness, I came to feel more comfortable being out there in the world. I got more comfortable with my own thoughts. I learned to process them. I learned to leave them on the trail. I’d run by them like landmarks that represented some lost time and place; a history with which I no longer needed to wrestle. Catharsis then came in the form of the rhythm of my feet and my breathing. Those sounds beat out a pattern that made sense of my petites folies.

So, now I run with no headphones and since I almost always run alone, I have moments where my mind feels completely blank. Every so often, I song lyric or phrase gets stuck in there and becomes a mantra. One of these recurring mantras is “relentless forward progress” which I picked up from Bryon Powell’s book of the same name.

Today, I had two wonderful mantras chasing me around Pandapas Pond for 20 miles. Since this was going to be my longest run ever and I’ve been way behind on my training, I decided to alternate running a mile and then walking a mile. In my head, this became “run to the odds, walk to the evens” meaning I ran the first, third, fifth, etc. mile and walked the even numbered miles. 

The second mantra was the title of the song “A Man is a Pent-up Thing” by my second favorite band of all-time, Five Eight. The song itself is genius because it never resolves. There’s no crescendo and it’s simply minute after minute of tension with the chorus reminding us that “a man is a pent-up thing.” Today, that line repeated in my head and it felt like this energy and drive to be better was waiting to explode out of me. The pain and fatigue gets turned into the fuel to keep turning the legs over. Keep the feet flapping down the street. Release that pent-up power and do something with it.

If you could be in my head while I’m running, you’d likely think I was boring because there’s only ever four or five thoughts cycling through it. But then, that’s part of why I do it. I’m running to find that place of crystalline thought that allows my subconscious to process all the nonsense it builds up over time. There’s lots of research about how music increases your athletic performance but that pales in importance to what I discover about myself when I let my brain stew a bit.

I know everyone does their own thing out on a run, but try running without music for a week or two and see what you discover about how your head works.

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Jason Isbell Rocked Roanoke

On Friday, at the last minute, I was able to acquire two front-row seats to see Jason Isbell at the Berglund Center in Roanoke. Danielle and I have seen Jason Isbell play several times before in varying situations. We saw him in a small rock club in Chattanooga and at the Ryman in Nashville. I’ve also seen him at record store promo gigs. While each show had its own character and vibe, the constant is always Isbell’s strong storytelling and gorgeously subtle melodies that stick with you long after the show.

Solid seats to catch a rock show.
Solid seats to catch a rock show.

We arrived in Roanoke just in time to catch a few songs by the opener Anderson East who was giving it all trying to elicit some attention and excitement from a crowd still filtering in. I’m sure it was a tough gig warming up a big room full of seated adults and East was gamely pulling people into his set. I really appreciate what East does with his tinge of retro sound made modern through an adaptable voice and a solid band.

Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, played a set with a strong mix of older songs, including long-standing favorites, Decoration Day and Dress Blues, with newer songs off the recently released album, Something More than Free. I was impressed at the flow of the set with some rocking jams leading into admittedly downbeat tunes like Elephant. The entire show was kicked off with an amazing version of Cover Me Up that built from an acoustic base into a full-band rock out.

The Berglund Center is an interesting place to see a show. This was my first time there. It’s really set up for plays and maybe more sedate concerts. It’d be interesting to see how they set it up for more raucous shows. The sound was phenomenal even though we were in the front row which often has pretty sound though we were only feet from the stage.

It was a show that didn’t suffer from the overly reverent and sedate vibe Isbell had at the Ryman and a decent dose of the loud rock we saw from him in Chattanooga. I recommend getting out there and checking him out on this tour.

Sadly, he did not play one of my favorite songs of the Southeastern album, “Live Oak.” I contend that the song owes a debt to Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country which is my second or third favorite book of all time. I highly recommend reading that if you get a chance.

Shadow Country (Modern Library Paperbacks)

$14.73

By Peter Matthiessen

Tips for Night Running

It’s wintertime and that means that if you live in the northern hemisphere, it’s likely dark when you’re running. You’re getting out early in the morning before the world wakes or you’re barreling out after work looking to shed the stress of the day. Either way you are probably running in the dark and that means a few different issues.

First, you need to be seen. Most running-specific clothes these days have highly reflective areas. I’ve found that the most flexible and easiest to use ways to illuminate my body are these Nathan Strobe lights

Last night while running, a biker coming up behind complimented me on how bright and easy to see the lights were. He said, “Thanks for making it so easy to safe out here.” They are $10 and clip anywhere you need them. I put one on the back of my hat or headlamp and one on the back of my hydration vest. I put a third one on my front and set them all to strobe. In short, you can put them anywhere you need or want depending on what you’re wearing or your personal preference. The batteries are replaceable but at $10, you could likely just get new ones after 100 hours when the batteries run out.

Second, you need to see where you’re going. That means you’ll want some sort of headlamp. I recently picked up the Petzl Tikka RXP headlamp and have found its auto-sensing features and comfort to be absolutely perfect.

The headlamp automatically adjusts the brightness of the beam based on the ambient light. This is great for the early morning and late evening runs I mentioned because it means that as the sun comes up or goes down, your headlamp can automatically adjust. There is an easy-to-access button that can switch the headlamp to a constant brightness which might be handy if you’re on a particularly tricky stretch or just want consistent brightness. For camping or other users, the headlamp has a red lamp that can help preserve your night vision for when you might be hiking or reading in the dark.

The strap is adjustable and I’ve found it to be very comfortable on my large head. The part that sits on your forehead is soft enough to not hurt your head but it’s stiff enough to prevent bouncing. The battery is rechargeable with a power indicator on the side of the lamp. The whole kit can be adjusted via a piece of software and the included USB cable but I haven’t dug into that feature much.

Some runners like to supplement this with a hand-held flashlight. I’ve found that to be unnecessary on most paved surfaces but it can be helpful if you’re out on a trail with lots of tree cover or that’s very technical.

Lastly, you’re going to need to think about your diet and your sleep. As the days get shorter, our bodies react by changing our appetite and our need for sleep. If you’re up early or out late taxing your body with running, you’ll want to be cognizant of when you’re eating and making sure that you are getting enough sleep. This means not cramming in hours of work or chores or TV in the evenings after your run. Eat, maybe read a bit, and then get in bed. Your body will thank you.

Running in the dark can be decidedly peaceful because the distractions of the world can slip away more readily than they typically do when you’re running. It can also be dangerous because you are hard to see and you are not going to see every dip or rise in the pavement or the trail. So, think about slowing down and maybe getting rid of the headphones so you can be more aware of what the night holds.

If you’re interested in how are nights are changed from the nights our parents and grandparents knew, I highly recommend Paul Bogard’s book The End of Night. It examines the role of light pollution and how it has affected not just astronomers or scientists but our health, our society, and our connection to our world.

Embrace the night and all the mysteries that lie therein. You might learn to love night running.