Performance as Transgression & the Narrows Half / by Edmund Milly

Every race and every concert - every performance - is a transgression, a step across a threshold. In a race, that threshold is your aerobic threshold, and also the starting line. In a concert, that threshold is manifested literally as the stage door, and metaphorically as all of the laws and conventions which govern it. I have a theory that our success is correlated to the deliberateness with which we cross these thresholds. Imagine that your aerobic threshold is a literal, physical threshold, a doorway to another place. We all venture into this other place from time to time, but why? Many people transgress their aerobic threshold seemingly at random: provoked by another runner in the park who tried to pass them, or by a sudden gust of emotion. But some of us transgress that threshold with cold calculation, and when we do it, we aim to dominate.

I had an acting coach at Yale who called the bow of the piano - the area where a singer stands in performance - the “Scary Place.” He always stressed that a different set of rules govern human experience in the Scary Place. In racing and in performance, this zone beyond the threshold of everyday experience, this Scary Place, is a place where the stakes are raised, normal rules are suspended, and mistakes carry more severe consequences. When Alberto Salazar ran the Falmouth Road Race in 1978, his legendary anything-to-win attitude compelled him to cross so far beyond his threshold into some Scarier Place beyond the Scary Place that he collapsed, and was allegedly read his last rites before coming back from the brink of death. For Salazar and for us, there are some thresholds that one would be wise not to step across, from which one might barely recover regardless of the degree of deliberateness with which they are crossed. Rasknolnikov comes to mind now, with his compromised immune system and what Maffetone might call the “mental injury” inflicted by his moral transgression (Crime and Punishment is a less etymologically faithful translation of the title of Dostoevsky’s novel than Transgression and Punishment). Perhaps Salazar, whose competitive career was cut short by the symptoms of overtraining, is the Raskolnikov of the marathon.

Artist's rendering of what it feels like to cross the threshold into Scary Place. Upstairs, Alberto Salazar sits brooding.

Artist's rendering of what it feels like to cross the threshold into Scary Place. Upstairs, Alberto Salazar sits brooding.

In music, the life-or-death aspects of being on stage are less literal, although the life or death of one’s career is often thought to hang on the performer’s one big shot (a major concert, an important audition, or the magnanimity or harshness of a random critic). The central conceit of the delightfully campy B-movie “Grand Piano” (2013) makes this clîché literal: the pianist-protagonist, already filled to the brim with anxiety over playing a wrong note, is told by a psychotic sniper in the audience (John Cusack!) that he will be shot, on stage, if he plays a wrong note.

Perhaps I am lucky that early conditioning at the American Boychoir School has left me with considerable sangfroid when I transgress the threshold of performance. Between the ages of 10 and 14, I saw many strange and sometimes disastrous things occur on stage: I remember the harmonium catching on fire in a performance of the Inferno movement of Liszt’s Dante Symphony at Avery Fischer Hall, I remember nodding off inconspicuously while waiting for the NY Phil to get through the interminable instrumental movements of various Mahler symphonies so I could sing in the finales, and I remember three or four boys fainting under the bright lights of a very hot concert hall in upstate New York. We performed so frequently and under such diverse circumstances, that it became rather difficult to faze us.

In contrast to this attitude, there are advantages and disadvantages to the relatively jittery state I sometimes find myself in when I transgress my aerobic threshold with the intention of proving myself in a race. On one hand, my greenness means that I stress more about making a poor decision in any one of the many race-day binaries I’m still figuring out. To caffeinate or not to caffeinate? Shades or no shades? Which shoes? What should I eat and when? But on the other, I think it is good to retain a keen awareness of the fact that you are crossing that threshold, that you are putting yourself on the line. I have taken part in performances as a professional chorister, in which I was not really putting myself on the line in the same  way, so I always try to be conscious of the gravity of each performance situation and give it the degree of intensity or emotional investment it deserves. With singing as with running, you can’t go hard every day. I’ll sing in 50+ concerts between now and June 2016 (and they’re all important), but a smaller number will be solo performances. On the other hand, I will probably not race more than 10 times in the next year, and I’ll be putting a lot of pressure on myself when I do...


… kind of like I did this morning! Sorry, I do not always come around to the point right away; I suppose this post could have started with “Wooo, just ran a half-marathon PR!” Somewhere out there, someone appreciates or will appreciate that this is not just another running blog.

So yes, I ran the Narrows Half Marathon this morning. I lowered my PR from 1:29:27 to 1:27:47 (6:42 pace), but - call me ungrateful - I’m disappointed not to have lopped at least four minutes off that previous time, which was run on very hilly, iced-over dirt roads over six months ago. My fitness was definitely sufficient to run a 1:25 today (6:29 pace), and my first five miles were on track for that. I am proud that I think I did not commit a pacing error, but in mile six I started getting some bad stomach cramps. From there to the end of the race, it was like there was this totally artificial speed limit imposed on my body that had nothing to do with what my legs and lungs were capable of, but rather with what my stomach could tolerate. I’ve experienced this a few times on hard runs, and I think it might be caused by caffeine, specifically caffeine in pill form (1 x 200 mg, a fairly innocuous dosage). A good day with caffeine is better than a good day without caffeine, but in my experience, these pills might raise the probability of it suddenly becoming a bad day, so I’d say this is the last time I make that mistake! In the future, if I keep using caffeine when I commit transgressions, I’ll administer it some other way.

The Verrazano Narrows Bridge, just visible through morning mist before the race.

The Verrazano Narrows Bridge, just visible through morning mist before the race.

ut it was a cool race and, as always, I had a great time, cramps aside. I like NYCRuns races with their relatively small crowds (a mere 184 finishers at this one), low-ish costs, and solid organization. The course was as flat as flat gets and had some nice views of the bridge as the whole thing ran right along the water. We even got cloud cover for most of the race, which I really appreciate, and it could’ve been cooler, but there was a nice breeze. What most impressed me was that the field seemed really experienced and competitive for such a small race: I only came in 12th overall (2nd in my age group, a hollow victory when you’re M20-29), and I didn’t pass anyone from start to finish (got passed twice, both after the GI issues hit). When the race started and I saw nine guys pull ahead of me right away, I was sure some of them were probably going out too hard, but it turns out they were just fast runners. I’d rather run in a gritty little race like this any day than in some bloated monster of an event with an expensive registration due to the free garbage / totally lame and unnecessary DJ / hordes of ostentatiously-clad joggers doing their thing on a gridlocked course. People were friendly in a runnerly way, and I had a great conversation with the M60-69 winner on the subway ride home: badass age-groupers are so inspiring. So it was a fine day. Pity about my finish time, but a little remorse will keep me honest in my training.

To tie it all together: o endurance gods, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. This morning I trespassed my own air thresh (just barely), and I was trespassed upon by 11 fast dudes. “As we forgive,” but not “as we forget”… I’ll be seeing you guys next time.