Can you run a marathon without training?

I’m not going to recommend this. But maybe someone you know has casually suggested, “Oh yeah, if you’re in good shape, you can probably run a marathon anytime.” I used to say this even before I’d even run a half marathon. I always believed it, just never had a reason to test it. But that’s a pretty bold claim to make casually. Also, science.

So when I found out last Saturday that my friend had an extra bib for the Vermont City (Burlington, VT) Marathon happening the next day, I decided it was time to run some tests. After all, I had gone on a three-mile run the day before and had felt like I could have run at least five. My lungs had cleared up quickly from the pollution I acquired traveling in India. So I got the bib switched over to my name and started hydrating for the race happening in 16 hours.

Here’s what I mean by not training: In the six months leading up to the race, I went on a total of four runs. I ran 7 miles one time in March in India, and the heat destroyed me. I didn’t run anymore on the subcontinent. I got home to Vermont last week and went on three 3-mile runs. Then a day off, then the marathon. BUT, I’m in pretty good shape generally, as stipulated in the hypothesis above. I was recently doing a lot of walking in the foothills of the Himalayas, I have a regular yoga practice, and I have experience with long runs, including one previous marathon.

I did some internet research on running marathons without training, just to make sure I wasn’t going to die. People have done it. People in worse shape than me. People do die in marathons, but not training doesn’t seem to be why. OK, I feel encouraged. I also have good body awareness from the yoga, meditation, and other running I’ve done. So, I planned to go with the new-agey tactic of “listening to my body.” I promised to abandon my sense of ego which would be pushing for a faster time, and just focus on finishing the race.

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Blood from a blister that popped around mile 14

It worked pretty well. Around mile 4 I had a brief moment of terror, remembering what it means to run 26.2 miles. But by mile 8 I was in the groove, watching the scenery and slowly letting the miles tick by. I passed the half-way mark about 30 minutes slower than my first marathon, but no big deal, I was in really good shape for that. And, eventually mile 18. I probably kept up an 8:30 min/mile pace until then. But, oof. Hit a wall. My quads started screaming, my tummy grumbling. I started walking at water stations, ran through sprinklers people had put out, and strongly considered grabbing the beer someone was offering from the sidewalk. But, onward!

Slowly, slowly, to mile 20, 21. Two things happened simultaneously. Thing 1: I realized I was going to finish. Even if I walked the rest of the way, I’d finish before they kicked me off the course. Thing 2: The wall turned into one of those evil demon walls that doesn’t just block your way, but actually attacks you as you approach it. Things hurt, my brain was tired of trying. Everyone was passing me, except one girl who was puking on the side of the course. I passed her. But then she started running again and passed me, too.

made it

Celebrating the finish in the medical tent (just to get my toe cleaned up). Mustache is a must for impromptu marathons.

But, for science! I jogged as much as I could, walked a little bit, jogged some more. Eventually I found the finish line and crossed it. I made it in 4:01:53. Pretty decent time, mostly because I had a solid run for the first 18 miles. More importantly, now I know that it’s possible to run a marathon without training. And even more importantly than that, now I never have to do it again.

Maybe you are thinking (or have thought) of being stupid like me. Here’s some advice. Do you think you can finish a marathon? If so, I believe in you. You probably can. It will hurt, but that’s part of the “fun.” If you actually try this, don’t try to push your finishing time at all. I had some moments of wanting to break four hours (I knew I was right on the cusp), but speeding up might have meant pulling a quad or hamstring. It’s not worth it. Listen carefully to your body, and be fully prepared to withdraw from the race at any time if something is not right. Hydrate a lot before, and a lot during, especially if it’s warm out. Your body will be confused, and water helps everything, unless you don’t have enough salt. Eat enough salt. Plan to not be able to walk for two days afterwards.


Here I am not walking

Honestly, running a marathon in three hours was easier than running it in four. Less pain, less uncertainty, less worrying about injury. A lot more training, but I train because I like running in the first place. Now that I know this is possible, I’m not planning to ever do it again.

In summary: If you don’t like running, why would you run a marathon? If you do like running, you might as well train for it.

Yoga yoga yoga!

Iyengar Yoga/I am not a Yogi

I have a confession to make. I’m not doing yoga how you’re supposed to. I don’t even want to. But I’m going to keep doing it anyway, and even teach.

I just finished a 5-day Iyengar yoga course near Dharamsala. Iyengar yoga was founded by B.K.S. Iyengar, who is basically the biggest yoga all-star in recent history. Definitely top three. This course was taught by Sharat Arora, a student of Iyengar’s, so this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to the source. I should start by saying that I enjoyed the course thoroughly. Sharat is an amazing teacher, full of life and inspiration. In five 3.5-hour sessions, my practice has been fine-tuned, and in some places completely overhauled.

Here’s the deal: Iyengar yoga is focused strongly on proper alignment and balance of the body. It doesn’t care much about strength or flexibility, and all sorts of props (blocks, belts, chairs, bolsters, blankets, etc) are used to make it possible for anyone to get into the best alignment in each pose. The teacher put a lot of emphasis on relaxing into each pose while maintaining alignment in order to release all the tension in the body.

Philosophically, the idea here is that balance in the body creates balance in the mind, and releasing tension in the body slowly eliminates tension in the mind, which is the root of craving and aversion. All this is more compelling and intricate when properly described, and my experience has suggested to me that it’s completely true. The teacher remarked that only this type of balance is “yoga.” All the forms which emphasize strength or flexibility are not real yoga, rather acrobatics or calisthenics. And on the my fundamental level, I have to agree with this as well.

The problem with strength or flexibility yoga, is that the poses continually create more craving to do harder poses, or to go deeper into the ones you know. Most recently for me this has been about handstand and scorpion. I want to be able to stand comfortably on my hands, and I want to be able to touch the back of my head with my feet. This is generally kind of weird, is not sustainable for the whole life, and is definitely not aligned with yogic thinking. Iyengar yoga does a lot better in this regard. There aren’t that many poses, they’re all accessible, and even more so with the props. You don’t have to go deep into the pose to get the benefits. As long as you keep proper alignment, you’ll reduce the tension in your body and become calm, more free from desire.

But I still want to be able to do these harder things. I want to deepen my yoga practice and my poses, to be stronger and more flexible. The more I learn about actual yoga philosophy, the more I realize that this freedom from desire is not really what I’m looking for in my practice. Maybe from meditation, but not from the yoga itself. Instead, I use the poses to balance my life on a larger scale. I plan to keep doing all sorts of things that create imbalance in my body: running, rock climbing, having worldly possessions and desires. To be totally immersed in the yogic life, all these things must be given up. Other physical activities just create tension and desires.

They’re also fun. The occasional frisbee tournament or running race is thrilling. Getting strong for rock climbing allows more rocks to be climbed. Life may not be able climbing more rocks, but I like it. Basically, all these imbalanced activities also create powerful experiences. Experiences broaden the mind, expand horizons and comfort zones, give meaning. A wealth of experience is not necessary for finding enlightenment or “inner peace,” and in fact based on this line of thinking, probably makes those things harder to reach.

These other forms of yoga, however, are wonderful for reducing the tension created by imbalanced experiences, for calming the mind, and for living a more examined life. Some people might be ready to go full steam ahead along the yogic path (not nearly as exciting as it sounds), and this pure form of Iyengar yoga seems to be a real way to do that. But I’m not ready to give up the experiential life, full of ups and downs and all-arounds. The world is big. There are so many good people to meet. For now, for me, yoga will make all those experiences better.

North! Haridwar, Rishikesh, Dharamsala

I’ve made it north. Chennai to Delhi, Delhi to Haridwar, Haridwar to Rishikesh, Rishikesh to Dharamsala. I’m acquiring stories to tell faster than I can tell them. Similarly, I’m getting inspired faster than I can act. Plans for businesses to start when I’m back home, places all around the world to travel, classes to take, ideas to share. But very little time to make any of it happen. I’m realizing this is the nature of traveling. It fills your cup with novelty and experience, but doesn’t leave a lot of room to put energy back into the system. So, I’ll have a busy summer and fall.


Train rides!

From Delhi, I caught an overnight sleeper bus to Haridwar, on which I got to share a twin-sized birth with a very nice man. Fate smiled on me and he was pretty thin, and had the idea to sleep head-to-toe. Turned out to be quite comfortable. In town, I met up with my friend Kelly from Seattle, who I’ve been traveling with since. For more in-depth impressions on Haridwar and Rishikesh, check out her latest blog post here.

Very briefly, Haridwar is a holy city for Hindus, and is packed with tourists and pilgrims from around the country. It’s nearly absent, however, of westerners. We stayed for two nights, checked out some cool temples and watched a fire ceremony that happens every night on the Ganges, the holiest river in the county. We ate some really good dal (lentils) and poori (fried dough – this is breakfast here). It was nice to be in a place without many white faces, just the opposite of what we found in Rishikesh.

Rishikesh is a holy city for Hindus as well, but it’s also popular for westerners because of the yoga scene and the fact that the Beatles spent some time there. More or less, the Ganges separates the hectic, crowded, Indian side of town from the chilled-out western side. A lot of people come to Rishikesh to stay in yoga ashrams and basically seclude themselves to do internal work. I’ve been to a couple ashrams, and at this point in my trip I’m not feeling any need to isolate myself. So we stayed in town on the chill side of the river.


Laxman Jula, the chill side of Rishikesh

There are definitely some cool things happening in Rishikesh, but largely it’s the same scene as all the other popular traveler towns. Lots of cafes with peace signs painted on the walls serving western food and muesli very slowly while you sit on the floor with other westerners, play guitars and drink coffee. Normally, these are some of my favorite things to do, but it feels inauthentic here. It’s our idea of what India is supposed to be like, so we’ve manifested it here. Also, a bit too much pot-smoking and dreadlocks for my taste (fashion note: apparently the new way to have dreadlocks is to shave half your head and keep the rest).

But we had a good time. We did some yoga, checked out some far-out meditation workshops, and went rafting down the Ganges with a group of 19 year-old boys from Agra. It was great to catch up with Kelly and throw around some ideas about Seattle and the future. After a few days we caught another overnight bus, this time to Dharamsala, the home-base for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.

This was almost a week ago, and I’m loving it here. Most people don’t stay in Dharamsala itself, which is a relatively large and bustling city. We’re up the hills in Mcleod Ganj, which is where the Dalai Lama’s temple is (he’s not in town right now unfortunately). Farther up there are a couple smaller towns which are great for walking around, but which have the same muesli-vibe we caught in Rishikesh. The Tibetan community is really strong in Mcleod Ganj, which gives the place a wonderful feel. There are all sorts of organizations around to support the refugees, and I’ve just started helping a bit with English conversation classes. The air is clean here; the mountains are beautiful. We’re just in the foothills of the Himalayas (6,000 ft), which I’m planning to explore more deeply in the next few weeks.


Mcleod Ganj

I’ve also met back up with Samyak Yoga, the group I did my yoga teacher training with. It’s great to see them again, drop into a few classes, and feel immediately like I’m part of a community here. Today I started a 5-day intensive Iyengar Yoga course, which will be a whole different way of looking at the practice, focusing entirely on alignment of the body. There is strong coffee here (without the pot-smoking and peace signs to go with it), and the desserts are the best I’ve had in the country. Indians love sweets, which tends to make their treats one-dimensional along the sugar axis. The Tibetans have it better figured out, with a good balance of sweet, salt, and chocolate.

Seeing the Tibetan community in exile first-hand has also opened my eyes to the insanity of the struggle going on across the border. It’s a desperate situation. All those “Free Tibet” stickers and t-shirts have been changing over to “Save Tibet,” which is much more accurate at this point. This is a story for another time.

Basically, you are probably getting the idea that there is a huge amount going on over here. My days are full and the energy around is powerful. There is so much good stuff to do, and now I’m down to my last month in India. The trip is simultaneously flying by and endless: one of the mysteries of time. I’m excited to get back to the States to pursue some of these ideas, but still savoring the experiences of the trip.

Six Months Without Alcohol

Last night I had my first drink in over six months. To address the obvious question first: no, I haven’t been getting over a drinking problem. It’s been more of an experiment in sobriety. This is the longest I’ve gone without alcohol since I started drinking at about age 18. So yesterday, after a 50-hour, 2,700 km combination scooter-bus-train-rickshaw adventure (an aside – total cost: $30, or about $0.016/mile), I decided that I had learned what I set out to learn from the experiment. I had a Kingfisher Light, the beer of India, with some friends in Delhi and went out to a rap show to see Heems from Das Racist, who was crashing at the same apartment as me. Nothing crazy happened to me all night, my head did not explode with toxins, and I woke up the same person today as I was yesterday. I definitively did not turn into a pumpkin.

Here’s why I did it: Last September I signed up for a Vipassana Meditation course in Washington. They don’t specifically require it, but it is suggested that one abstain from all intoxicants for a month before the course starts. I did this for everything except coffee, which I tried and failed to cut out of my diet.

But alcohol was easy for me. I had just finished hanging out in the woods all summer with teenagers, so I had hardly drank at all for a few months previous. I actually quite enjoyed the excuse to not have a beer or two in the evenings hanging out with friends. I find that casually drinking beers with dinner or afterwards just makes me sluggish the next morning without adding anything (but empty carbs) to the evening experience. Going out dancing proved to be more of a test of will, but it turns out dance parties can also be really fun sober. Once you start to move your body, it just feels natural. The one weird part is seeing how sloppy and out of control some of the really drunk people are.

So Vipassana came and went, and I felt great. I decided to keep it going for a while to see what happened. Eventually I started going on some dates, which I thought had a high probability of being really awkward without the social lubricant. It turns out the opposite was true. Actively not drinking is pretty unusual in the dating world, and it happens to be a great topic of conversation. Most of us are so accustomed to drinking when we’re out on dates that not drinking really refocusing our awareness, and becomes a thing in itself to be examined. I had some really good conversations with women about why we drink, what we’re afraid of, and what we’re actually doing on all these dates. It was refreshing, and usually only awkward for the first five minutes.

Here’s what I realized about myself: I mostly drink to make hard situations easier, and this is a terrible reason to drink. Almost always this is in regards to women. Starting conversations, continuing conversations, moving beyond conversations. Alcohol makes it all easier. But it doesn’t make it any better. I want to be able to handle these interactions without “something to take the edge off.” Keep the edge, and if I get cut, so be it. I have faith in my ability to navigate a conversation, and I don’t want to teach myself that I need alcohol to make it go well.

So, a few months into the experiment and I had my Yoga Teacher Training on the horizon. I knew I wouldn’t be drinking during that, so I decided I might as well just continue with it until the training was over, then reassess. Also, it’s really easy not to drink in India. Not a lot of places sell alcohol, and one beer costs about the same as a great meal. So I stayed away.

And here’s what I learned next: In moderation, it’s really not such a big deal. I don’t feel any more “pure” or “wholesome” or “good” because I haven’t drank for six months. I’ve saved some money (honestly, this is the best reason not to drink), but I don’t feel any more enlightened. I’ve never had a drinking problem, but I’ve seen what alcoholism can do. The difference between having a few drinks socially each week and total sobriety for me is miniscule. For some people, that might be the tipping point. And going to the point of having a couple drinks everyday, the real trouble starts. It seems to me that alcohol is much more commonly a crutch than a carefully enjoyed pastime. We use it to dull the senses, to make hard things seem easy, when really we’re just letting the difficulties build up to the point of being unmanageable later. And things fall apart.

I’m glad to have had my little experiment in sobriety. Give it a try sometime – only your wallet will be fatter.

Yoga Teacher Training Complete!

As of two days ago I am officially a certified yoga teacher! The last two weeks of the training flew by. Week three was the most physically demanding, with at least four hours of practice a day, plus prep and teaching everyday. I had a few “yoga firsts,” which is fun. First drop-back to wheel pose from standing, first jump-through to dandasana from downward dog, deepest twists and binds I’ve had in ardha matsyendrasana. By the end of the week my body was feeling the strain, but still happy.

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