Listening To Runners’ Thinking: The Useful/Useless Knowledge A Runner Gathers

Leave the first response April 28, 2007 / Posted in The Running Mind

I always come back to the same point where I started my run. No matter how far I run, in a sense I never get anywhere. It is about non-judgment. Reality always wins, our only task is to get in touch with it. When queried about being useful or useless, good or bad, right or wrong, positive or negative. I return to where I started.

Listening To Runners’ Thinking: The Useful/Useless Knowledge A Runner Gathers
c.2001 Austin “Ozzie” Gontang, Ph.D. & Yunkyu Kim

Nitejogger wrote:

The following is a summation of the information I’ve gleaned from news articles, web sites and so on. (I don’t know whether they are scientifically proven or not. I don’t even remember where they came from.)

1. The less you eat the longer you will live. (At least this is true for the mice)
2. Food intake and digestion cause inevitably oxidation of human body cells.
3. This accelerates aging.
4. Exercise on regular basis is beneficial but in extreme, exercises can over-oxidate your body. (Such as professional athletes.)
5. Even worse, extreme exerciser needs more calories. This means more food intake. See #2.

I used to run 40 ~ 50 miles a week. (This is winter so I’ve slowed down a little bit… 20 ~ 25 miles a week) I know many people in this newsgroup (rec.running) run over 60 miles a week. That’s not the distance that the ordinary people usually run, I guess.

So…. Are we (tens of miles a week runners) getting extra wrinkles on our faces and a shorter longevity? I hope we are not. What do you think?


Dear nj,

I’m one of those people you like to have on your team in Trivial Pursuit or Tribond. There is a quote that I’ve liked because it makes me feel that I have some value: The value of a man can be measured by the amount of all the useless information his mind contains. Mine contains a lot.

I derive that thinking from my readings of Taoism especially the stories of Chuang Tzu. I don’t profess to understand much. I do know that wisdom and knowledge can block one’s understanding. One reason all I can share is my folklore. If it works use it. If not, move on.

One story that touches the mark of how people respond when asked what they think is the story of The Useless Tree.

Hui Tzu, who loved to debate and one up Chuang Tzu, said to him:

There’s a large ailanthus tree on my property
You know the one I mean: the “stinktree.”
The tree’s trunk is so grotesque
Misshapen and full of knots
A master carpenter couldn’t cut
A straight board with all his skill.
It’s branches so gnarled and twisted
You can’t align them with a square
In any way that would be orderly.

Let it grow by the roadside.
No carpenter, not even a master craftsman,
Would give it a thought or consideration.

Your teachings are just the same –
Big and utterly useless
So everyone disregards them.

Chuang Tzu thought a moment and replied:
Have you ever observed a wildcat or weasel
As it lies in wait? See it hunch,
Half hidden eyeing its prey –
Then in a flash it pounces
Jumping this way and that
Springing high and low, until it is
Snared by the net, caught
Soon to be killed and skinned

Ah, but look at the yak?
Mighty as the roiling clouds of a thunderstorm
He stands powerful, a sign of strength.
Big? Yes.
But it doesn’t know how to catch rats.

About that “stinktree” you have. Useless?
Then go out and plant it in the badlands
In the barren desert.
Leisurely relax against its trunk,
Use its shadow to rest under
A haven for all passing by.
No saw or axe plans its demise
If there’s no use for it,
How can it come to any grief?

Useless, you say.

1. The researcher (Woldrop, Walthrup at UCLA or was it USC?) who studied the mice allowed the control group to eat freely and the experimental group was fed every other day and diet was controlled. At the end of the study, the experimental group of mice were more healthy, more active and didn’t seem to have aged as much as the control group which where fat and happy. Happy here being a relative term. In the end I believed they were all sacrificed for the sake of science.

That same researcher was involved as part of the crew that went into the Biosphere to live for a year.

2 & 3. Tom Bassler back in the early 80’s was writing about free radicals, transfatty acids, and marathoners being immune from death by heart attacks for up to 8 years after running a marathon. Tim Noakes and Tom had a great discussion back in 1976 at the New York Academy of Sciences Marathon Symposium. Tim drew from his experiences with the deaths of marathoners that contradicted Tom’s hypothesis. Tom arrived at much of his findings and hypotheses from his work as a pathologist, experiment-of-one and avid runner.

4. The research at the Cooper Center under the guidance of Steve Blair showed that even with minimal exercise heart attacks can be reduced by as much as 50%.

Also regular exercise is beneficial based on (a) cardiovascular health, (b) lowered percentage of unnecessary body fat, and (c) an increase, maintenance or slowing down of the loss of bone density.

a. Heart is a bloody muscle. Work it out and exercise it through aerobic activity and it is healthier

b. Normal or ideal percent body fast keeps one away from the diseases caused by obesity: e.g. diabetes which is one of the fastest growing diseases among US children today.

c. Think about it. Muscles pull on tendons. Tendons pull on bone where tendons attach. When you pull on a tendon, it pulls on the bone. The bone receives a message: Hey, the tendon is trying to pull away from me. I’d better lay down some more cartilage, put down a little more calcium so that it won’t pull away. So that continual stimulation of the muscles pulling on tendon and tendon on bone stimulates the body to put down more calcium in the bone to make it stronger so that the tendon won’t pull away.

5. Regarding the extreme exercise. Young women who stop their periods because of extreme exercise lose their bone density at a fairly high rate. Bone scans has shown women in the 20’s and 30’s who were without their periods for several months to several years can have the bone density of women in their 70’s and older.

I know that if someone overtrains to the point of exhaustion they will sustain more injuries. They will tax their immune system and be more open to getting sick. Once someone has gone over the edge, it often takes 6 months to a year or more for them to recuperate. Once over the edge it is a long journey to get back to their level of peak performance.

Their climb back contains much agony and soulful pain to get back to the level where their mind and body had formerly been. This says nothing about the state of their psyche/soul/spirit. This is an area where over the years I have been privy to the inner journey or dark night of the soul of many of these overachievers. I have been honored to attend or be present as they recovered their sense of being that was destroyed by their overdoing. For some the recovery was never to happen.

We individuals are only small echoes of what myth and history have given us. Pride, arrogance, challenging the gods and denying the limits of humanity, being swept away, going unconscious are the shadow and dark side of ourselves we wrestle with all the time. Adalanta, Prometheus, Odysseus, Sisyphus, Samson, Richard M Nixon, William Jefferson Clinton are our teachers and our coaches and our mentors. Positive or negative they are here to teach us about ourselves.

It makes one wonder about James Hillman’s concept that in the acorn is contained the mighty oak. Did Manolete hide behind his mother’s apron as a child knowing he would be facing a 1200-pound bull? Did Winston Churchill have trouble as a child speaking knowing that he would have to inspire with words a country on the edge of total destruction?

I always come back to the same point where I started my run. No matter how far I run, in a sense I never get anywhere. It is about non-judgment. Reality always wins, our only task is to get in touch with it. When queried about being useful or useless, good or bad, right or wrong, positive or negative. I return to where I started.

It’s not useful or useless
It’s not right or wrong.
It’s not positive or negative.
It’s not good or bad.
It’s not hard or easy.
It just is.

So I am neither valuable or valueless since I don’t know if what I have in my mind is useful or useless.

And what did you think about on your run today?

You may want to check out: Marathon Psyching Series

1. Accepting The Marathon Challenge
2. Marathoning: A Path, A Direction, A Lifestyle
3. Hints for Marathon Success
4. What To Say When Talking To Yourself
5. Marathon: The Week Before/The Month After

Learning to fall again:

Running is falling and
catching yourself gracefully
a step at a time.

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