at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Category: Training Page 3 of 8

Adult Playgrounds and the Skill of Fun

You get older and, even in these times of a supposed refusal (or failure) of people to grow up, you stop playing.

Computer games may still be somewhat okay; card or board games are accepted if you are in the fitting circles; some sports activities are seeing a lot of support… but simply running around, exploring your surroundings, climbing trees, balancing over poles is looked at askance. “You a child or something?!”

In fact, the “adult” world has been encroaching onto childhood to such an extent that not even children are supposed to be active like that anymore.

“Sit still!” is the newly-resurgent admonition all-too-often leveled at children; letting them even just walk to school by themselves has, in places, been taken as neglect. And then we wonder, in an environment full of sugary temptations and lacking in opportunities for physical activity, why obesity is an increasing problem.

Let’s get back to adults, though.

We are the models and the ones who should be growing up – and shouldn’t growing up entail some understanding of the needs of a body, as well as the opportunity to create the conditions good for us?

I think it should, and I think we would all do better if we remembered that and didn’t just grow older, but better.
Obesity is not just a problem of children, after all; and even normal-weight people are not necessarily any fitter than heavier ones – but what do we think of playgrounds?

It’s interesting to look at different places.

China, for example, has similar ideas as ‘the West’, of fitness being something for the younger people and a certain rotundity being a sign of success in older men.

However, China also has something of a traditional physical culture for people who are growing older, not least with tai ji quan.

Now, with a more affluent and aging population and the pressure this puts on the health care system, there are some similar issues as we see in ‘the West’, too – but there are also all those “adult playgrounds” that, whether they were already planned for older people or not, are being used by them a lot.

Beijing Public Playground

It’s one of the biggest challenges for health systems, and it is being discussed a lot in the context of that.
What about the other, much more personal, side to it, though?

By accepting the half-truth that you will decline as you age, you make yourself decline much more than you would otherwise, and it costs a lot in terms of your very own quality of life.

Remaining active, both physically and mentally, is one of the (if not the) main differences that make for a difference in how you will age, badly or well – and it’s good at all ages. Fact “is that the human body adapts positively to well-managed training stress … regardless of age. Age is not the limiting factor. The desire to perform at a high-level and make the necessary sacrifices to do so is.

It’s not necessarily sacrifice, though, when you manage what you do well – and fun.

This is one of the reasons why I recommend Christopher McDougall’s (new) “Natural Born Heroes.”

The story he tells is quite fascinating, but the pointers he gives to various practices and skills that one can gain and profit from, from parkour to foraging, are an even greater (and more necessary) concern for a future with some serious fun.

Ways We Are Not ‘at home’ 3: Not Being the Bodies We Are…

It is one of the great things about us that we have such a rich life of the mind.

Sure, we may be misled by it, ending up fighting over ideologies when we’d really much rather get along, falling victim to stories we tell ourselves of how life is, other people were, and we ourselves are… “You’re Not So Smart” (both book and podcast) is an excellent resource on that.

But, we can also learn. Beyond the abilities of all other animals, we can imagine, anticipate, ponder, and study things.

In thinking about ourselves and our minds, however, we keep talking of “our bodies” as something separate from the brain, and completely different from the mind.

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Relaxing with Curiosity Cola

Mountain Running Decisions, Willpower and Ego

I think there are limits [in ultra-distance running]… but I don’t think anyone actually ever reaches theirs.
Anton Krupicka in Kilian’s Quest S04E05.

For training and gear testing – and of course, for the fun of it – I found myself running around the lakeside road to ‘my mountain’ (the Traunstein) again.
Traunstein - Blue MorningIt was a nice-enough day with a lull in the worse weather that had been moving in.
With an insulating layer and a Windstopper top, what I wore felt rather too warm.

One week before, the temperatures had been even higher, the sun was shining, hardly any snow was visible any more, lots of people were out and about on that beautiful day.
A mother with a twin stroller, running on the lakeside road? Check.
Two old men already coming down the mountain that morning? Check.
Young hikers out for a day of fun? You betcha.

on the Traunstein

Spring was definitely arriving, between the sunshine and the flowers.

Flowery View, Traunstein, Traunsee

That was then. The week later, it still seemed a nice-enough day, but more of a dusting of snow on the upper reaches of the Traunstein was proof of the worse weather that had started moving in.

Getting higher up the mountain, whose top kept itself shrouded in clouds, the expected wind kicked up, too.

Only that it pretty soon was enough wind that the two layers that had just seemed too warm started feeling too cold; out came the windproof/waterproof jacket and pants that have become my constant companions on such tours.
And still, looking around, listening to the wind, noticing some snow start to fall, it was not enough for me.

A man whom I’d seen at the foot of the mountain came past me as I’d decided to turn back, and of course I didn’t like turning back when someone else went on – but it’s just this sort of social comparison and ego-kick that gets us in trouble. Turn back I did.

Not Doing, at least Not Comparing

Not doing anything isn’t the best thing for growth, of course.
Doing will lead to comparison, however, and that may make for some dangerous challenges.

Even on the nice day a week before, I had noticed that.
Compare yourself to those who are really fast, and you may feel like you belong in a wheelchair.
Walk past hikers, and you feel pretty okay with yourself.

And now, with social media, comparison has all the worse a context, especially upwards to the truly extraordinary people.

The only solution, same as it’s always been: If you are not among the best and greatest who have to compete, retreat from the competition.
Be(come) good enough and better, living for yourself.

(As I said before, at least sometimes, “winning is for losers.”)

Know when to pull back to keep yourself safe and go on another day; be happy not in comparison to others but with what you are able to do.

Having gone once across to, over and around the mountain, and back, and then still having been able to head right on to the train back to my wife – that had made me happy.


Having felt the need to turn back even as I could have gone on (and saw someone else do so) this time, that left me feeling daunted by the mountain, especially as a bit more sunshine would break through the clouds as I was on my way back.


It was only a wee bit of sunshine, though, and at least I got on my way back, not stuck in cold and wind up a mountain, which could just as well have been the case.

Out Further, Comfortably Inside

Becoming at home means both drawing back, making oneself comfortable, and pushing at boundaries, growing.

And here lies an interesting insight from recent science:
“Ego” – that is, willpower – apparently becomes “depleted” as we use it.

So, the more you force yourself to do something, to act in a certain way, and the more you simply have to make decisions, the weaker your power over yourself will become.

Choices such as what to have for breakfast are enough to drain ‘ego’ a bit; by afternoon, you just reach for the worst kind of quick sugar fix.

It doesn’t matter if the choices are inconsequential or important, they all require an effort that the brain will start to have trouble with.

Interestingly, there is an insight from the seemingly physiological side of things that sounds related:

When we feel that we just can’t go on, e.g. running, it may not actually be the muscles that are fatigued to the point of not working anymore, apparently.
Rather, it is our brains triggering a survival mechanism, looking to conserve some energy in case we should still need it later.

In both cases, choices (to make, or just the choice to go on) are necessary, and our mental household of energy is the decisive factor for how this will fall.

To a large extent, our conscious minds may be contributing (and we can learn to override some of these processes), but the real decision falls outside of its purview.
Rationality looks like it plays a role, but its main role may well be to rationalize the decision that came about at a deeper level.

Hypo-egoic” behaviors that don’t need such willpower because they have become ingrained in us, though, can go on – and we see that in running, where it’s necessary to forget the ego and just become motion if we want to go on at a certain point.

This is also, and more usually, the point of habits.

Make something a habit, and it will happen on cue and without a conscious, rational, energy-draining decision about it being necessary.

Just try to make sure you create good habits for yourself, be they going out for regular runs, turning back when things get too dicey, or regularly cooking good food, not flopping down in front of the TV with a beer when you really, really, would love to make more in and of your life…

Relaxing with Curiosity Cola

… but don’t forget to take your relaxation seriously, too ;)

Spring Run, Ramps

Not FKT-up Trails, but Fully Known Terrains

FKT, “fastest known times,” may be the oldest running idea that no one has ever heard of.

The challenge of being faster than someone, or preferably everyone, else has surely been around for long, and if it wasn’t in head-to-head competition, it was in how long it took someone to cover the distance from one point to another.

Having moved online, info-wise, the notion got new feet.

Peter Bakwin started his list of FKTs a decade ago; FKTs were discussed years ago; and with Kilian Jornet’s “Summits of My Life” and other people’s mountain speed ascents – not to mention the various thru-hike records – they have come further into the spotlight.

As much as one can talk of a spotlight when it comes to an activity, FKT, that is a small part of an overarching activity, thru-hiking or ultra-distance running, that is not exactly receiving the most attention. (How many hikers, outside of Cheryl Strayed or her movie-adaptation version, let alone ultramarathoners, can the average person name?)

Still, the idea is simple enough: pick a trail or a mountain ascent (and descent) and try to finish it in a record time.

So far, so good – but in a sports practice that is, at heart, a very individual and intimate pursuit – (mountain) trail running – this idea leads things to unfortunate, if logical, conclusions:

When everything is always just about extremes, you always need more extreme feats. And you need simple measures by which to present them, or it wouldn’t all fit into a single tweet or a share-able headline.

“New Record”

So, if you want to get back to a certain individuality in your pursuit, and therefore away from ultramarathon races (or if you have won only too many of them…), this is a way to do so while still achieving something that can be easily measured and pointed to, and is an easily visible and shareable feat.

If you are a runner who is as much at the top of his game as Kilian Jornet (and he’s so at the top, he makes it all look like a game), this goes to such an extreme that it makes for the “FKT-up” headline I am riffing on; Christopher McDougall  used this phrase in Outside Magazine/Online to point out just how crazy some of it all was… and Jornet is aiming to even speed-ascend (and descend, for good measure) Mount Everest.

It is all very much in the spirit of extremization.

It is all about doing things and saying things in such a way as to bring them to extremes which make for messages that quickly and easily appeal to emotions. Hence, they can be shared in headlines and tweets and will be liked and shared a lot, making for visibility and popularity.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure Kilian isn’t very much (which is to say: not at all) motivated to do this for the “likes” – and even if you should be, it may not be the worst thing to happen by far, if it is motivation to learn and grow.

Like a Broken Record

“Extremized” activities like that, however, do often make for superficiality.

The way one hears about them and the people that perform them, it is only that one feat that counts, not the path that led there.

The extraordinary person is held up as hero-like, but is at a level which hardly anyone could achieve, which seems mainly based on innate talent, and which is, therefore, not necessarily all that motivating.

The time counts, and only the fastest time, everything else is just preparation that doesn’t matter – except it’s in the preparation, in the moving and the discovery that goes with it, that the most valuable of experiences lie.

When the speed, the time, is presented as the important thing – or maybe even just, as some would claim, not as the important thing, truly, but just the thing to do the marketing with – we are giving in to the extremization. We feed a machine of shallow attention that demands instant gratification and betray what we go out onto trails to discover.

Trails of Learning

Spring Run, Ramps

Run to fully know, and you may come home with part of lunch. Here, some of the first wild leeks (ramps) of spring 2015

The simple pleasure of motion, and motion that leads to discovery.

A pursuit that is certainly harder than simply lounging in front of the TV and waiting for great views to be brought to one’s eyes, but that is all the more worthwhile for it.

A preparation for better fitness that is also a pleasurable pastime.

A foundation for everyday heroism.

And a way of learning about a place.

This last bit, in particular, is the one I want to call for.

There is so much to learn about and discover wherever you are, and in combining physical pursuits – to range across an area – and psychological ones – to discover and learn – we are doing what humans (like many, if not most animals) have always done: Go out and “learn our place,” from the lay of the land to the resources available, from dangerous spots to beautiful sights.

Sure, the internet world will not praise you the highest for the ordinary things you’ll see and learn. But in seeing and learning, you can make yourself at home in the places you live, make yourself more fit, knowledgeable, and useful, and get to really living there, intimately, fully knowing the terrain, wherever it is that you are.

And that is where life really lies and is lived.

Beijing AQI (Air Quality) Readings

5 Rules for Running in Beijing

One of the practices of at-home-making I have discovered for myself is the simple practice of moving through the places I find myself in and want to more deeply immerse myself in.

It doesn’t have to be running, it can also just be running around, walking and being a flaneur, but it often does take the form of run-seeing through cities, along places both famous and far away from the touristically much-visited.
Running just too nicely combines the physical, oriented inside the body, and the psychological-exploratory, oriented towards the outside, the place in the world and the attention paid to the world.

My place in the world, for the last few months, has been as something of an international migrant worker who, like so many Chinese migrant workers and others looking for a chance to get ahead, headed for the Chinese capital, Beijing.
This city, though, can seem to have some rules of its own, in many a regard – and especially when it comes to something as seemingly simple as heading outdoors for a run.

Rule #1: AQI ≥ Training Plans

Beijing AQI (Air Quality) Readings

Beijing AQI (Air Quality) Readings. Guess at what time it was time for a run…

Running as a regular practice has been described as a great start into willpower training: you go out according to your training plan, you build the grit and conscientiousness that will help you in other areas of life as well.

All well and good, but not in a city like Beijing where the very air seems out to deliver a slow death of a thousand breaths.

The problematic situation with air pollution is well known, and a look at the AQI (air quality index) becomes as routine a part of everyday life, if you care about your health in the least, as a morning’s step on the scale is in many a life.

It’s simple: AQI below 100, which isn’t great but as good as it gets? Go running.
AQI between 100 and 150? Get your face mask and go for a slow run, if you feel that you must.
AQI above 150? Try and stay indoors with an air filter running.

Rule #2: Traffic Moves in Mysterious Ways


A little of the traffic (and video artifact) encountered recently…

Someone with the slightest experience with China will know that actually, there are traffic rules in China, they are just different – and followed in very “different” ways again, in practice.

When in doubt, cars have the right of way, for example. Always. Cars may come from many an unexpected direction, and people on two or three wheels from even more unexpected ones.

So, keep your eyes open when you need to cross roads, be they small or large, with traffic lights or without. Prefer under- or overpasses, they are good for getting in a bit of “hill training” in otherwise flat Beijing, too.
Listening to podcasts while running outdoors? Maybe not so good.

Rule #3: Praise (and Race) to the Parks

Looking back at the "end" of the canal

Nice enough to make you forget there’s traffic all around

The value of city parks becomes all the more apparent in a city where so much space is reserved for vehicular traffic and so much pollution is all around. Even on good days, most outdoors running that is not in parks will be close by roads, and the (still leaded) gasoline makes for not the best of air even when the air quality is not as bad as usual. Even in the parks, there will still be quite enough smokers to make for some breaths you’d really wish you hadn’t taken.

Parks, still, even with throngs of people, some of them smokers, make for much nicer places to run than almost anywhere else, given trees and meandering paths – and also, perhaps, the manifold sights and sounds of people practicing taijiquan, dancing together, singing and making music, and so much more.

Rule #4: Look Strange as You Want

China seems a pretty closed and mono-ethnic society, in some respects. A foreigner is still a pretty noteworthy sight, be that where there are too many who are too easy to rid of more money than Chinese or where there are so few that they are worth a comment.

Especially in the parks, however, everybody dresses the way they do, does what they do – and even if running is still less popular than more traditional pastimes and practices (though I wonder what’s the history of the public dancing in parks), it is becoming more popular and one can see all kinds of clothes employed in its practice.

So, you’ll get looks for your foreign face, and you may get looks for your running clothes, but most anyone can potentially draw a crowd, anyways. So, never mind that.

Rule #5: Don’t Be Kept From It

Sure, there are days when it’s considerably healthier to stay indoors and keep an air filter running than to go out at all. Beijing is not a good place for, well, for even just existing, as long as that includes having to take breaths.

If you don’t believe me, check out my video from the Beijing Marathon, “the most depressing running video ever,” as a friend of mine called it.

The lack of movement that can come with that, however, makes it all the more important to go out and exercise whenever the air quality is good enough.

Now that my time here is drawing to a close, I must admit to failure when it comes to the plan of seeking out and presenting Beijing trails for running (though I did find some, but with them rather farther out, I usually just walked and did not record them). Yet, having sat around only too much with all the days that made the outdoors unappealing, the (few) days that included runs outdoors were all the more precious.

Dampfbad - Steam Bath

Of Sweat, Sweets, and Self

When you sweat, it’s you that sweats; when you enjoy something sweet, it’s you tasting and enjoying it. Isn’t it?

We often think and speak as if we were truly just the conscious part of ourselves – and it’s a fundamental and consequential way we fail to be and make ourselves ‘at home’.

We are “brain owners,” I recently heard in a podcast;

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Untrained Ultra – 12 Weeks, More Than 50k…

When you experiment with yourself, you can get fantastic and fascinating results – because you quit trying to find the best way first and get going instead… and because your sample is just 1.

I’m on record complaining about Tim Ferriss and his brand of personal development going astray, exactly as it applies to ultramarathons – and all the more so because I claimed that he probably could finish a 50k within the 12 weeks of training he ‘advertised’ (but never came through with even mentioning anymore).

Still on through the Seetaler AlpenInadvertently, I created a similar situation for myself in the run-up to the Via Natura 100 mile trail:

Where a real ultra-runner preparing for such a race would rake in 100-200 mile weeks, I hardly did that in the 12 weeks leading up to the race.

The last run before the race was 3 days before, doing lactate testing to finally get the medical certificate necessary for participation. (I had thought I’d just go to my usual doctor on Monday and get it signed, only to find out that he was on vacation until the day before the race. Fortunately, I asked at the ‘Sportordination‘ in Vienna, and promptly I got lucky with someone having to cancel their next day’s appointment and me getting it.)

Six 3-minute episodes rising to 18km/h speed. On a treadmill. Not what’s recommended mere days before a race.

The last time I had been out training before that (there was also a little work-related hike), I went up the Feuerkogel at the Traunsee lake (one of my usual ‘quick’ mountain training runs) the day after a sauna/steam bath visit, feeling weak and steamy. And then, after getting up there in 1 hour 30, I moved back down, checked when the next train back would go when I was down quite a bit, found that it would be in some 15 minutes, and ran all-out to catch that train.

12.6 km, 1156 m of ascent and then descent, in 02:16 hours, (at an average heart rate of 177 and reaching a maximum of 225(?)). Not all that unusual for me, but a mountain trail sprint race more than anything training-like.

Before that? Aside from one of the usual relaxed circles, that was the Linz marathon, just about a month before the 100 mile race. There, I ran in Salomon S-Lab (trail) shoes because I found that I neither had any decent road-running shoes anymore, nor the money and inclination to get new ones just for that race. And I started out only too fast, as usual when I do such things, only to get close to some cramping later on, have to walk a bit – and finish in my (apparently) usual 3:45.

April Training Statistics

April training statistics: 4 ‘moves’

All in all, after February (which was a good training month), I did only 14 “moves” I recorded as training, spanning 19:30 hours, covering a distance of 195 km, ascending merely 3000 m. That’s what a good runner may do in 2 weeks, not in more than 2 months… and I may have counted some twice because they were recorded once with my usual Ambit2 and once with the Ambit2R I was then testing.

FitBit data for last 12 months, in contrast

FitBit data for last 12 months, in contrast

Then again, my average daily number of steps during that time, as recorded by the FitBit One I carry, was between 12000 and 13000 (where 10000 steps is said to constitute a “highly active” lifestyle). So, I wasn’t just sitting around, either.

Is there anything to learn from that, though?

Well, it apparently is possible to finish a 100 mile mountain ultra marathon, going into it with a decent foundation of fitness but having done relatively little training.
Having had the adequate gear and enough experience certainly helped – but it all, aside from a decent physical foundation, mainly comes down to just what I’d written before, I feel: Do you really want to do it and are you able to overcome the obstacles in the way? Especially the psychological ones? Especially the competitive spirit that tells you that you’re not good enough if you aren’t among the fastest of finishers?

No way to know that in theory, no way to gain the fitness – whether from the usual training plans or some “minimum effective dose” – by perfect planning. You’ll just have to go out, find out for yourself, and get better at it by the doing. Or realize you don’t want that.

Sunrise in the Seetaler Alpen

Getting on a Via Natura-l High…

I cherish my mind too much – or maybe fear it’s all too fickle, anyways – to drink alcohol or do drugs. The 100 mile Via Natura ultramarathon proved mind-altering, anyways…

One hears a lot about the runner’s high. Some stories sound as if being on the move, running, was not a natural activity that a human body is made for, but a mere possibility that people get hooked on because of the way it taps into the brain’s production of opiates.

It all belongs together, though.

Going barefoot (or “barefoot shoes”) or not, the human body probably did evolve so that we are “born to run.” And a part of the ability to go on may well be the production of opiates stimulated by the running and making it possible to go on and get self-drugged further. The brain works by chemistry, anyways.

The Via Natura ultramarathon had the additional element of sleep deprivation.

I thought I had some experience with that thanks to the night shifts I used to work for a while (when I had had to take a job as security guard to get by). I was mistaken.

Sunrise in the Seetaler Alpen

On the Via Natura, we went straight through the first night and on the next day, not sleeping until arriving at the third and final control point, some 27 hours after the start – and then, my stop there was a total of 45 minutes. Later that second night, even the husky with whom Stefan runs started falling asleep while moving and refusing to go on, at which point we all stopped again.

That had been and would continue to be a constant, the surprising realization that one could keep walking while actually having started to fall asleep.

Then and there, though, we crashed at the roadside, a little up, head on the running vest propped against a tree trunk, in my case. Wrapped up in the rain gear and with hat, hood, and gloves, it was sufficiently warm. Some raindrops hit the visor. After maybe half an hour, someone in the group noticed that the “hikers” were coming, turned on his headlamp again, and we all awoke and continued.

Hallucinated, I had before. There was the headlight of a van parked by the roadside, there to provide aid until it turned out empty, at an odd angle… and then turned out to be just the reflector strip of the roadside marking, finally. The place where we slept… I’m sure I’d been there, slept at a spot just like that – if not that very spot – before. When we continued, I took off for a little, got off track into a cow pasture… and I’m pretty sure the same thing had happened once before.

Many places, I felt like I’d been there before.

In part, it was easy enough to tell how they reminded me of one or the other of the (relatively few, after all) places where I’d been on such adventures before. The Alpannonia. The Ötscher. Areas I go more often.
Some places, though, it was the total deja-vu. Even while knowing that I’d never even been in that area before, let alone on those trails, I could have sworn and would still swear I’ve been there and did some of the same things before.

The paths we went up and across that one mountain where we also ended up sleeping for a little bit, on the side of the forest road. The very spot we slept. The wrong path I took just a little later, leading inside a cow pasture when it actually goes by just outside of it.

Old memories of similar situations combined with ideas of such places, rattled around my sleep-deprived brain, and came out as recollections of previous experiences I never actually had, the way they seemed (and still seem) to be remembered now.

It all still is a perfection of memories.

Fancies of exquisite delicacy…

…when the bodily and mental health are in perfection…

…where the confines of the waking world blend with the world of dreams…

 … where all that we see, or seem, is but a dream within a dream.

(A Dream Within A Dream, Alan Parsons)


Eating Realities

Eating is one of the most basic of activities for any animal – and it is one of the most complex things for us. All too often, unfortunately, it’s also one of the activities that are most ‘virtualized,’ at a remove from reality.

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