Air Thresh: Prologue, Part 2 / by Edmund Milly

I’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning and practicing different aspects of the two principal physical activities which define my life: singing and running. What I realized around the time I got my Yale audition was that it would be silly to have spent all that time singing, and yet, not bother to put all those pieces together and realize my full potential as a musician. I acknowledged that I was a singer, and that I needed to make good on that identity. I don’t think I could have had that epiphany without the more distanced perspective that running across Canada gave me on my own life, and it went hand-in-hand with the way I eventually approached my return to running. Since the first day I stepped on a treadmill, sometime in Fall 2007, I’ve had some pretty intense learning experiences. When I finished running across Canada, I eventually realized it was time for me to put it all together and leave the ignorant jogger in me behind. It was time for me to accept the reality that I was, in fact, a runner (a word I was for a long time reluctant to even apply to myself), and make some effort to be a good one.

“Air thresh” is my shorthand for aerobic threshold: that is, the maximum level of exertion which doesn’t tap into your body’s anaerobic resources. According to Maffetone, an individual’s aerobic threshold, or ventilatory threshold, corresponds to a specific heart rate, and by keeping your running under - but close to - this threshold, you exert a sustainable level of stress on your body. Rather than working out too hard and risking burnout or uneven performance, Maffetone suggests doing all your runs at this precise intensity which provides the maximum amount of benefit to your endurance abilities. After all, even the 5K and the mile are predominantly aerobic: thus, developing your endurance will do more for your speed than any workout, although the process is slow. Most people, however, think they should suffer every time they go for a run (or think their aerobic pace is embarrassingly slow), so they transgress their air thresh and sabotage their fitness and health goals. Incidentally, air thresh corresponds to marathon race pace, because the marathon is long enough that it is said to recruit energy from resources which are 99% aerobic, whereas the mile, 5K, 10K, and half all involve slightly greater percentages of anaerobic work.

I find Maffetone’s rhetoric compelling, and the concept of an optimally efficient workout intensity has caused me to reflect that if you suffer a little every day, you’ll never suffer a lot. But if you get greedy with your suffering - if you, in the words of Lyle from Infinite Jest, try to pull unto yourself a weight which exceeds your own personal weight - then you’ll reap more suffering than you ever meant to sow, and you certainly won’t improve as a runner while you yo-yo between hard workouts and injury-induced lassitude (I like the diversity of meanings which Maffetone ascribes to the word “injury” - a runner’s injury can be physical, mental, or chemical…) This is where running is and has always been philosophical, where discipline and maturity still trump talent and ability.

Throughout my life, I have been lamentably greedy with my suffering. Time and time again, I have attempted to sustain an unsustainable workload in my various passions, and each time I make great progress before I suddenly find myself in need of a long break, a break during which much of that progress is lost. This tendency is the reason I was once able to speak Russian fairly well, and now am too afraid to try. My obsession for counterpoint manifested itself in contrapuntal dreams from which I’d wake with a head full of elusive chromatic points of imitation, but it’s been a long time since I wrote any music. And obviously, my prolonged break from running was the product of an unsustainable obsession. (Dare I extend the parallel into my personal life? Did so many of my past love relationships fail to endure because my affections were obsessive, anaerobic? If those breakups were like poorly trained marathoners  hitting the wall, I was usually the head, saying, “I can keep going! I’m still so into this, stay with me!” and my girlfriend was usually the battered legs, saying, “nope, we’re done.”)

How can I keep the things I love from slipping away from me once the weight of my interest becomes too great? This is the question, and my theory lately has been that adherence to the principle of air thresh is the answer; adhering to the maximum sustainable workload guards against burnout and facilitates relentless forward progress. Of course, sustaining that workload also requires that I become more selective with my obsessions, and that is why, over the course of the past year or two, I have attempted to streamline my many interests into one unified concept: Edmund Milly, the singer who runs.

My ruling passions complement each other in their elementary human natures. Who doesn’t sing (even if it is in the shower), and who doesn’t run (even if it's just to catch the bus)? In order to perform at a high level in either activity, however, one must be a master of one’s own body, and particularly of one’s own breath. Of course, a singer is also by necessity a musician, a linguist, and a literary critic, so my subsidiary passions still have their places, but I can’t allow them free rein anymore. The same is true of my other athletic interests: strength training, cycling, and swimming can be useful to a runner, but in excess they can also be distracting. (And athletics can be useful to a professional singer, but in excess they also detract from that thing you do.) My nickname in the voxtet was “Renaissance Vox” because of this sometimes self-defeating, sometimes fruitful tendency I have for my attention to be pulled in many different directions. It is an apt nickname, but I have come to realize that if I’m going to embrace that identity, I need to be Renaissance Vox in a way that doesn’t interfere with the successful focusing of my energies.

Not all of my posts on this blog are going to be so long, so wordy, or so serious, but I daresay some of them will. I often get excited about very inconsequential and frivolous minutiae, things like a specific pair of running shoes, a race, a concert, or an awesome Bach aria. I guess gushing about such things is OK in a runner’s blog or an early music singer’s blog, and I’ll occasionally do that. But I also want this blog to be a record of objective, practical advice I’ve received or compiled on improving as a runner or a singer. This way, my writing can be useful to myself and maybe even to others, rather than just being an exercise in navel-gazing. I’d like to stop being so introverted and to start acting like the active member of the musical and running communities that I am, so yeah, comments are most welcome. Let’s go!