Running on Tilt

Running from the hara

Bouncy ball & Vanny C

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At the New York City Marathon, my mother, who has never run a marathon but who has endured several week-long sesshin meditation sessions, offered an outsider’s perspective from the eleven mile mark on Bedford Avenue. Each of the front runners, she said, was running from his hara. “It looks like their pelvises are open, or the fronts of their bodies are open, convex, projecting their bodies forward, shoulders back” she said. ”They have arranged their balance around their centers in a way that propels them forward and makes them look effortless.”

She later elaborated. “It’s not just about muscles contracting and expanding, it’s about carrying a body in balance through space. The front runners have figured out how to move their bodies through this center of power, projecting this power forward. Whereas with the back runners, their center of gravity is behind them, their fronts are concave, as if they are being dragged backwards. Their pelvises are constricted, as if their hips are rolling inwards rather than outwards.”

I have always had poor posture, and though my running posture may be better than my standing posture, training to run from my hara could help both. Better running posture would likely help me get oxygen to my blood, and what better time to try standing up straight than when becoming a father. I bought a bouncy ball to replace my chair at work.

The results have been startling. On a night run in Juniper Park, I imagined leading with my navel, keeping my hips forward. Somebody walking in a group behind me said “that guy runs like a deer.” I took this as a compliment, though after viewing videos of deer running, I don’t believe a high-bouncing behind makes the most efficient gate. Regardless, after a swift five-mile warm up, I ran an effortless 5:45 mile on the track. The next morning, my run to work, which usually takes an hour, took 53 minutes. I sat on the bouncy ball for a few hours, and when I went on my morning breakfast break, my colleague said that I looked taller.

The only problem with the bouncy ball is that, being one of the cheaper versions, it smells like bubble gum, specifically like grape-flavored Big League Chew. After a day at work, the backside of my pants smell like the bouncy ball.

I gave the new approach a test at the 5k cross-country club championships at Van Cortlandt Park on Sunday. I figured I could run somewhere between eighteen and nineteen minutes. There were a few teammates, one named Mel and my coach Tony, that I was hoping to keep within sight. With a great race I would crack eighteen.

I ran a 5k at Van Cortlandt in high school in 1991, and my most distinct memory of that day was of the foulest toilet I’ve ever seen, but I’ll save that Burger King episode for another time. I also ran an 8k at Van Cortlandt in college, so before the race on Sunday I knew that the course would be challenging, with a flat first mile and last half mile and a wooded section in the middle.

My memory of the wooded section was a little hazy so on Sunday before the race, with my wife, my sister and her boyfriend Clarence, who also would be running, I ventured a short distance up a gentle slope into the woods, which crosses the mile mark, then turned back. Despite several days of rain, it didn’t seem too muddy, at least.

My plan for the race would be to take it out a little faster than usual, to take advantage of the flat terrain, to run the downhills hard, and to run an extended kick. I might struggle on the uphills, but I figured so would everybody else, and the time that I would make up on the flats and on the downhills would be greater than the time I might gain by pushing the uphills.

After the start I quickly lost track of Tony, who took it out hard, but I was just a few strides behind Mel. I passed the mile split at 5:47, a pleasant surprise, but at this point my legs were tight and I was feeling neither fit nor confident. Then came the first real hill, which I hadn’t encountered on my pre-race ambling and the severity of which I hadn’t recalled from my high school or college days. The incline and the rugged terrain brought my stride to a near halt.

Increasingly treacherous climbs and descents followed. I was passed on the uphills and, unable to establish any rhythm, was passed on the downhills as well. Men, women, teammates, and a Frenchman who I recognized from one of the media races passed me. I had outkicked that Frenchman before and now he was getting his revenge. Thinking about my hara wasn’t helping.

The Van Cortlandt course is unusual in that you can see the finish line from about half a mile to go. The finish line is a huge psychological trigger, and in races where the finish line comes into view with, say, 100 meters to go, runners usually begin their kicks too late. This is true on the track as well, where the bell lap is a signal to go. Alberto Salazar reportedly has been working with his track runners on starting the kick a bit earlier.

At Van Cortlandt not only can you see the finish line from afar, but the flat terrain after the hills adds to the urgency to run fast, making for a painful but honest kick. I bore down for that last half mile and the Frenchman came back in sight. I was able to pick him and one other runner off. That poor Frenchie gave me some solace once again.

Runners at the finish looked wasted. Clarence ran a great race and spent a few minutes afterwards flat on his back. A woman I didn’t know was on the ground having a meltdown. Others looked dazed and plenty beaten up. Yet teammates I’ve spoken with since want more. Before I run that course again, I vow to do some training up and down those back hills.

The race on Sunday was the last 5k of the season at Van Cortlandt and the last race I’ll run before my son or daughter is born. I plan to keep running though, by stitching in into the daily commute, and I plan to race again in January.

Among the get-fast-quick schemes I’ve had in the past, such as getting a crew cut, drinking ridiculous amounts of water, cutting down on ice cream, imitating Ryan Hall’s gait, drinking less coffee, drinking more coffee, wearing a bandana as a headband, and putting my hair in a vertical ponytail, the idea of running from the hara and even sitting on the bouncy ball will have more staying power. The idea overlaps with the popular notion that core strength is helpful. Meb Keflezighi runs with loads of core strength, and at the New York City Marathon he appeared more than any of the elites to be running from his hara.