Overnight train, one-night stay, marathon, overnight train back.
This time: To Venice for the Venice Marathon.
Yep, Italy again.
Three years – has it really been three years already?! – after the first time I visited the place my wife grew up and her parents still (mainly) live, deep in the countryside of Hunan, we returned.
One of the things I returned to was running in a circle.
In Austria, and particularly its east, I’ve lived for the longest time. So, it is just natural that I’d think I know this place and find little of interest in it anymore. Jaded and inured to the charm…
To make myself really at home here and remember that there’s a lot I don’t know and can yet explore further – not to forget, to have the fun of doing so – it helps to find contrasts.
For one, there is that nice contrast between spring – with a topping of snow – further into the Alps and the rather more advanced turn to spring at lower elevations, in the east.
(This year though, interestingly enough, I couldn’t honestly say that this is quite how it is. In the lower parts of where I go in the Alps, the fruit trees are blooming at the same time as in the Pannonian east…)
Of course, there are always the cycles to get at home in and to see again, in their new iteration.
There are the circles I run in and always see somewhat anew, whether that should be because something out there has changed with the passing of time, or whether it is because I have changed, seeing something differently, knowing something more, or getting faster or slower.
And, turning from winter to spring, the wind gets slightly – and sometimes, much – warmer (we hardly ever have no wind here), and it’s been time to see the wild leeks emerge again… and to use them.
This, too, has become quite a theme as my interest in food (not least with www.chilicult.com) has become stronger.
These wild leeks used to be what the poorest of people would have eaten, and what anybody who was anything didn’t want to be caught using (or so says my 93-year-old ‘aunt’); like so many things, they have turned into a spring delicacy that is found on restaurant menus same as in supermarkets, in sausages same as in breads sold in the spring.
Amusingly, considering the carpet of these wild leeks one can find in the Leitha mountains (Leithagebirge) – and actually, also where I go in the Alps – they also sell at rather high prices.
If 100 grams are 3 Euro, then what I sometimes step on, as need be, when I go running through those forest paths must be hundreds of Euros worth…
My running there still ranges somewhat widely, along the ‘mountains’ whenever I can, as a big part of the fun is getting into this area designated with the same word as mountain ranges in the Alps, in some select trail segments almost looking the part… but mainly being nothing much more than hills.
Yet, it can offer different views than other places there – another kind of contrast – again:
Still, running here when the leeks have emerged looks little like a classical training run on which time and distance matters the most; it gets slower and delayed whenever the fancy – or rather, the amount of food to be foraged – strikes.
Then, rain jacket and running vest also suddenly find themselves being used not to protect from weather extremes but to serve as wild leek carrying system; the 3L volume is tested well ;)
The passion for exploratory living does, admittedly, profit handsomely from some studies in contrast.
My personal practice for that (as you, my dear readers, may have noticed ;) ) are trips to the Traunsee in the Salzkammergut, Upper Austria.
“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.
It 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.
Spring was definitely arriving, between the sunshine and the flowers.
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 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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a beautiful sunny day again, the concentration of airborne pollutants makes for an air quality index (AQI) coming in at only around 100… 25 is already considered the upper limit for health concerns, but for Beijing, 100 is very nice.
The weekend before last, strong wind had come through, and it had all been even better.
Sometimes it’s good to take a break from all the philosophical postings and pondering and just go for some time outdoors. It’s spring here, after all. With the changing seasons, regular old training sessions are getting new rather than old…
And with the mountain goats (chamois), being out running on the mountain, there came a runner’s thought: