Running, Singing, and Self-Mastery / by Edmund Milly

"The vastest things are those we may not learn.

We are not taught to die, nor to be born,

Nor how to burn

With love.

How pitiful is our enforced return

To those small things we are the masters of."

-Mervyn Peake (1911-1968)

This morning, I found myself mulling over the diametric opposition of ‘the things we may not learn’ versus “those small things we are the masters of” in this poem - the latter category of which Peake gave no examples, but which calls to my mind concrete invention and innovation (technology, language, games) as a contrast to the elemental human experiences he lists (how to die, how to be born, how to love). If things must fall into one of these two camps, where are singing and running? For that matter, did Peake see writing and drawing as small things that he was a master of? Or is it possible they these things fall somewhere in the middle, that they are vaster things?

I am a devotee of Alex Hutchinson’s column for Runner’s World, where he recently probed the question of whether data or feelings is a better way to monitor training and fatigue. Hutchinson’s column is usually notable for its emphasis on empirical data and objective markers (or enhancers) of performance, but here he quotes a study that concludes: “Subjective measures reflected acute and chronic training loads with superior sensitivity and consistency than objective measures.” Which is to say, our attempts at collecting objective data about our bodies are still child’s play compared to the nuances we can perceive with only our bodily senses. This conclusion calls to mind Colson Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionists, about a professional elevator repairwoman who intuits mechanical problems with a greater degree of accuracy than her “empiricist” colleagues.

Maybe running and singing are not such small things because we are never truly the masters of them, anyway. Both have a long list of greats who struggled with maintaining control over their bodies, even as they performed at a higher level than anybody else (Salazar and Callas come to mind). Perhaps the runners and singers who feel most at peace with the degree of control they have over their bodies are those who attempt the least: the joggers who do the exact same loop at the exact same speed every day, the people who go to a community choir once a week. The rest of us seem to encounter an exponentially increasing set of variables which affect performance with each modest increase in skill.

And yet, the reason I run is because it does seem like as effective a route as any towards self-mastery. Running necessitates a close acquaintance with the various processes going on in your body and in your mind. The more situations you run in, the more diverse workouts and long runs you attempt, the more you realize the importance of respecting and regulating these variables to the best of your ability: hydration, blood sugar, ketosis, heart rate, cadence, foot strike, stride length, posture, quantity and quality of sleep, condition of the respiratory mechanism… and so forth. Theoretically, the more aware you are of all this, and the more equanimous you are capable of being in your perception of this even as you try to tweak the variables to your advantage, the more healthy and successful you will be in all your endeavors.

But in the past few days, I have been rudely reminded that running and singing are vaster than my science, that I have not mastered myself. On Thursday, Sept. 24, I was out for a routine 12.7 miles, the exact same run I had done for the past three days, in order to maintain roughly the same weekly mileage I’d held for about six weeks. I thought I knew how it would feel, and suddenly, around mile 8, I felt like I didn’t know much of anything. Runners who shouldn’t even be passing me on my easy days started passing me, I lost the rhythm of my breathing and wondered if I should cut the run short, in the hopes that maybe tomorrow I’d feel better and I could avoid some worse setback. Then the question was, “Should I pay attention to the protestations of my body, or should I put my trust in the objective data?” - the knowledge that in spite of my perceived effort level, a run this length and pace is routine, has felt routine every other day, and the mental conditioning would be valuable.

Disastrous runs do not always look disastrous in the empirical data they present, and disastrous-looking runs aren't always disastrous, either. In the middle of mile 9, I knew something was wrong with this run. The next morning, I knew I probably should have cut it short.

Disastrous runs do not always look disastrous in the empirical data they present, and disastrous-looking runs aren't always disastrous, either. In the middle of mile 9, I knew something was wrong with this run. The next morning, I knew I probably should have cut it short.

I ignored what my legs were trying to tell me that day, and I’ve paid for it with a prolonged taper that started before it was supposed to. Rather than a neat two-week taper that reduced my mileage from 80 to, say, 56 in the first week, and then even less in the last week before the race, I’m going to end up with three weeks of 35-40 miles immediately before my marathon. Is it a catastrophe? Probably not: after all, I got in a very long and very quality training block this summer, and in three weeks of reduced mileage, I doubt that I’ll lose much fitness, even if I can’t gain much. From now until the race, I’m listening to my body, because on race day, I want to be in control; I want to feel fresh at the start, and for that I’ll do whatever I have to. So for the past couple weeks, I skipped long tempo runs and long half-marathon-pace interval workouts in favor of some light speedwork and some core work and plyometrics. After a summer of zombie endurance training, it felt so good to run fast and to do some calisthenics, strengthening my conviction that maybe I should just listen to my body and spend some time focusing on my fastest event, the totally un-prestigious and un-fetishized 5K.

Then, last week was a big week of singing: two concerts on adjacent days, and 30+ hours of singing throughout the week. It definitely went well on the whole. I’m proud of how I navigated my first crunch period at Trinity, and musically I’m just loving the experience, but it was definitely a reminder of all the caution I need to avoid the missteps (transgressions?) that can conceivably ruin my voice for the day: ice cream, alcohol, less than 8 hours of sleep, crossing air thresh in a workout before a rehearsal, not getting up early enough in the morning… those are some of the big ones, anyway.

Besides merely performing my job, I try to make every choral rehearsal productive with regard to working on vocal technique, and this week I found myself thinking a lot about how to stand. I don’t think I’ve even mastered how to stand on two legs, or how to breathe! So my ‘pitiful, enforced return to the small things I am the master of’ consists of less elevated activities: eating peanut butter, sleeping... yes, of these I am definitely a master. For everything else, we will all have to keep working.