Sunday, January 23, 2011

Travelogue 379 – January 23
Lessons of the Chaka
Part Two

We're about forty minutes into our hundred-minute run. I can feel the time in my body. I'm right behind Tesfahun, following with a kind of Stockholm fervency. Fikre is behind me, I can hear her footsteps. Tesfahun's favorite course begins in the chaka (forest) at the head of the meadow above the church of Entoto Maryam. Tesfahun likes a rough course, and this chaka is especially uneven. He takes many a sharp turn, and heads suddenly up steep hillsides, among treacherous roots and rocks. He squeezes between the closest trunks and dodges under low-hanging branches. I'm swatted in the face by swinging eucalyptus leaves and I'm clutched at by nettles.

I confess that I particularly like these sections of the run, the most like dance. I was holding forth last time on the five-fold path of the chaka. The dance was the first sacred principle: watch how you move, and enjoy it. I notice how clumsy I am while I turn to fit between tree trunks. I can feel all the extra weight I carry these days. I feel it as I lumber down a steep slope, rock to rock, landing with every step, rather than moving forward with light transfers of weight. I stay aware of all movement.

We're approaching halfway. I can see the wide dirt road that traverses the ridge. Across the road is a field where all the trees have been harvested, leaving only trunks and a bed of branches and leaves. This is another slick tactic of Tesfahun's, high-stepping among these fallen branches, each step falling among the leaves on uncertain ground. We're in full sunlight now. I feel my energy dipping.

Principle Number Two: managing one's resources. A long distance run is like an ephemeral little economy. One has limited resources – some of us more limited than others – and one must spend them wisely. So the dials require close monitoring, dials roughly corresponding to water, fuel, ready energy and latent energy. One monitors muscle fatigue, and body heat, and some of us monitor their portfolios of injuries, recovering at their various slow rates.

My despairing ankles and knees survive Tesfahun's minefields. We re-enter the chaka, this time on the other, the northern side of the range. The woods here are confined to a relatively narrow bit of land above a steep drop. One catches glimpses of the many miles of golden hills rolling northward, toward Selulta and Chancho and Fiche.

It's early afternoon and the sun is at its strongest. The play of shadow and light among the leaves and stones at my feet can be dazzling and distracting. Because I'm the faranj, I'm always second in line, which means that my field of vision is very reduced. I see the terrain ahead only a few feet at a time, practically as my feet discover it. Principle Number Three: one must stay alert. Aside from immediate distractions, such as the dazzling light, there are many temptations to draw one away from the present moment: the soothing views of golden fields and distant hills and whole hillsides of eucalyptus; the business of the day, crawling back ignominiously to nestle among the brain waves; daydreams about the glory of the race, or even the pain of running itself. Monitoring pain and thinking about it are two different things. The latter eventually creates its own problems.

Pain comes darn close to being a principle of its own, very salient to the athlete, or even to the dilettante-athlete such as myself. What saves pain from being a principle is that it is an experience. Among world-class philosophers of pseudo-sport, this is a vital point. Pain is real as a tree trunk, purer than thought. To the chaka runner, pain becomes more, becomes a familiar,becomes the witch's cat, the pirate's parrot, the Athenian's daemon, whispering in the ear. To an amateur, pain says, 'Stop!' To the chaka runner, pain whispers sweet promises.

In a roundabout way, this leads right into Principle Number Four, which is Focus. Running is an achievement of the mind. Alchemy bubbles in the brain cells. Pain becomes promise, and distances telescope. Eyesight dulled by computer work becomes acute. Muscle movement made dull by mundane routine becomes precise. Where jogging up a flight of ten stairs in the city feels like a fatal punch in the gut, half a mile up a rough mountainside is controlled, ecstatic agony.

We head back toward home. I can feel it before I realize it. Eventually we emerge from the chaka into the fields of dry grass where we started. Tesfahun usually wants to finish with five minutes or so in these broad fields, which are pretty but which very effectively undermine my confidence. This is when I am most tempted to hate Tesfahun with all my heart. The fields are discouraging for several reasons. First, we have an audience. Families are washing clothes or collecting water in the spring. Invariably, this means catcalls and jeering from all and sundry, just when I'm most tired. For another thing, I find the stimulation of the close woods stimulating. Emerging into open space where one sees the full distance one must conquer, and lacking the somewhat artificial sense of speed afforded by dense woods, robs one's sails of considerable wind. Lastly, these fields are set at a steep slant. Invariably, Tesfahun is taken over by Satan and arranges for a steep uphill climb to cap the long run.

Test now the Fifth Principle of chaka training: measure and check your reactions. Emotional and mental fatigue are more potent than physical fatigue. You can work with physical fatigue. Pull in your resources. Rather than slumping forward and giving in to a desperate and sloppy forward stride, pull it in. Straighten your back, measure and regularize your pace, and place each footfall precisely. There are always cycles to strength and energy. Pulling in is like laying a new base for the next cycle. Power returns, and your resilience will surprise you. But not until you regain some precision and economy of movement.

The final stretch is down the original dirt road, hard as asphalt in places, dodging donkeys and children and emerging into the dirt piazza in front of the church, Entoto Maryam. There our fan club gathers around us, a ragtag bunch of little boys who mimic our stretches and laugh. Shimeles backs his taxi out of the shadow of the church's wall. Once we've warmed down, we set out for the city. Addis Ababa lies spreading below us, reaching for Debre Zeit across valleys full of yellow teff.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Travelogue 378 – January 22
Lessons of the Chaka
Part One

I'm feeling aggrieved because I have to rush to my biggest training run to date, straight from long, back-to-back meetings. I'm out of breath and five minutes late, jogging up the hill from my place to the asphalt road where I meet my taxi driver and my trainers, Tesfahun and Fikre. In fact, I'm a feeling a little macho about how brave I am, … until I hear from Fikre that she's coming straight from the stadium, where she just placed third in a race of 10,000 meters. I'm chastened. I ask her to see her medallion. It's a big wafer of metal with the Pepsi symbol on one side and a simple picture embossed on the other of female runners encircled by spare Amharic script.

We start the drive up Entoto mountain in Shimeles's old Lada, a vehicle that takes the incline so slowly that I get plenty of rest before the big run. We tease each other, asking chubby Shimeles when he's going to join us, taunting quiet and diffident Fikre about how difficult she is. I get teased about how much I suffer on these runs. Today we do 100 minutes in the chaka. I'm running out of training time in Ethiopia. Next week, we'll do the run from Entoto to Kotebe, something of a tradition now while I'm in training. I rent a minibus and invite a good crew from the team, and then I treat them all to lunch afterward. Kotebe is roughly half a marathon's distance from Entoto along a rocky dirt road that follows the ridge of the mountains. It features a few monster hills, but winds downhill for its second half, nearly breaking my morale with its relentless stones, gullies, and switchbacks. But that's the kind of thing runners think is fun.

We arrive and we stretch. I'm watching Fikre. She's so thin. She says she's seventeen, which is patently untrue. That has to be at least five years off the mark. Athletes here habitually lie about their age. She lives on her own and works as a housekeeper part-time. Her hands are over-sized and tough, a sign of the manual work she has always done to survive. Tesfahun tells me she was leading during the whole race today but wasn't able to hold onto the lead at the end. She has no kick. I'm no expert, but it seems clear to me why: she has no muscle. I'm pretty sure she gets nowhere near the protein she needs. I'll take her out for a celebratory feast tonight.

We start. I've admonished them to take it easy on me today. I'm comforted that Tesfahun is leading. Fikre unconsciously accelerates when she leads. The sun is strong today. Though we're in the shade most of the time, the dazzling light and the heat get to me early. I'm feeling light-headed. My breath is uneven. Past Entoto we're over 10,000 feet, according to Cien's mountain-man watch readings. I find that I never totally adapt to the altitude. I have moments of short breath and dizziness no matter how long I've been in Ethiopia.

But as I've mentioned before, one must stay alert and nimble in chaka training. One can't let one's feet drag; one can't lose concentration. Chaka training has become a kind of zen practice and yoga for me. One hundred minutes of pinpoint meditation and body awareness.

Shall I share? Here, in a nutshell, is the five-fold path of chaka training:

1. Since returning to running a few years ago, I've discovered that age may not bring wisdom, but it certainly forces one to look for it. When I ran as a boy, the body didn't resist. There were few dues to pay. Getting relatively serious about it at this age, I found myself battling injury after injury. Thus began the path of posture. After some perfunctory research, I decided that posture accounted for most of my injuries. I was fortunate in that my subsequent experiments were successful.

I got into the habit of monitoring my body as I ran. I checked in with feet, with back, with knees. I adjusted as I ran, straightening up, pulling in my stride, making sure my feet were underneath me, making sure I was rolling off the whole foot evenly. One injury would fade, and another would appear with another lesson.

In the chaka, I find myself even more aware of body mechanics. Maybe it's because of the variety of terrain, making for more variety of movement. It's a fascinating study, and profitable in the pursuit of fluid running.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Travelogue 377 – January 14
The Chaka

We're about halfway through the dry season. Since the small rains a few weeks ago, the sun has been steady and hot. The skies are glaring. The grass on the hillside is golden. It crunches under our feet. The three of us are passing single file across a broad sloping meadow underneath Entoto's peak. Nearby mountains spread their own gentle slopes to the east, yellow meadows and patches of eucalyptus. Below us are several families sitting among the grasses, washing clothes, watching livestock.

We are heading toward the woods for some training. I'm behind in my conditioning for the half marathon in March. I've been battling bronchitis for weeks. I've got to get some distance in. We enter the stands of orderly eucalyptus and begin the sixty-minute workout.

This is the most characteristic of Ethiopian training: chaka training. Chaka means forest. We dive right in among the trees and begin circling among the thin trunks of eucalyptus. Athletes might count themselves among the only beneficiaries of deforestation in Ethiopia. The entire range of mountains here have succumbed to the Australian invasion. The eucalyptus grows fast and is harvested fast. It is planted in tidy rows. Underneath is only bare red earth or moss.

Fikre is leader today. She is one of our top female athletes; she came in 26th in her distance in the recent cross country championships. She's tiny and very thin. She has a bright smile, and a certain innocence in her round eyes, in her girlish laugh. Behind me is Tesfahun, one of the short distance guys. He's in college and speaks English well. They are both extremely kind and patient. Running at my pace is trying, there can be no doubt.

Ahead of me, Fikre flinches when she hears me stumble or snap a stick in two. Chaka running takes intense concentration, which is one of the reasons I love it. We wind among the trees in tight formation, weaving among close trunks of trees, sailing over rocks and limbs, dancing down through gullies, down steep slopes and back up. You have to be very alert, and you can't let fatigue slow your reflexes or drag down your stride. During my first few runs, I experience a few severe 'benders', ankle twists that could have stopped me cold. But my ankles are pretty tough after years of running, and I force myself to keep going. If one stops, the ankle swells too much to run on. On my second run, I let my feet drag and tumble over a root. I roll down a slope and gather a few good scrapes, but again, I force myself up and running, though limping for a good five minutes. This is why Fikre flinches when she hears me being clumsy.

We run sixty, seventy, or eighty minutes. I need to boost this to one hundred soon. It's funny, because in eighty minutes, you literally never stray further than a few miles from your launch point, knitting complex patterns among the woods. At first, I struggle with that. My linear nature wants to cover some ground. I want to go from here to there. But after the first run, I'm hooked. The compensation is the connection among the runners. Chaka running becomes hypnotic. After the first ten minutes or so, you feel like you're all attached invisibly, and the leader's movements are your own. You are pulled forward by the leader and sustained by the one behind. The hypnotism of open-road running is the pace. Here it's somehow the opposite: the choppiness and variability of the terrain and pace induce a kind of hyper-awareness that a more pleasant trance than the lulling rhythm of street-running.

The dry woods are pretty. Once in a while we pass a crudely tilled field, a lazy horse or lying sheep. Every so often we see the wood-collectors in the distance, stout women who will bundle branches on their backs and walk down the mountain. Occasionally, there's a ragged man with callouses gripping an axe, showing us a startled face. The sunshine glows brightly in skipping spots along the forest floor. Light breezes hiss among the long leaves of the eucalyptus. Fikre winces at another clumsy step.