The Cool Impossible
The Running Coach from Born to Run Shows How to Get the Most from Your Miles-and from Yourself
Featured in the book Born to Run, running coach Eric Orton offers a guide for every runner...
Natural running is more than barefoot running. It’s about the joy of running that we were all born with and can reawaken. With a program focused on proper form, strength development, and cardiovascular training, Orton will help beginners, competitors, and enduring veterans reach “the cool impossible”—the belief that any achievement, athletic or otherwise, is within our reach. Inside you’ll find:
* Foot strength exercises for runners to catapult performance, combat injuries, and transform technique
* A total-body-strength program designed for runners
* Step-by-step run-form coaching for performance and lifelong healthy running
* A training program for building endurance, strength, and speed
* No-nonsense nutrition for runners
* Visualization and mind-training tactics to run and live the Cool Impossible
* And much more…
ATHLETICISM IS AWARENESS—awareness of form and technique, awareness of our effort level, and, most important, awareness of what we think. And with that awareness comes the endless potential for mastery and achievement beyond anything you thought possible.
You In Glorious Jackson Hole
Okay. enough about me and the near past.
This is about you and your near future. You, the athlete—and I use that word with full consideration and intent. Because wherever you are in your running life, you can make the choice to be an athlete. You can adopt that mind-set and make it your own defining essence. Being an athlete is not something you’re “born with.” That’s a misconception, a myth, really, that is all too often also an impediment—or, even worse, an excuse. Being an athlete is a choice. And making that choice, taking up that mind-set, is the step that allows you to move toward a new level of achievement. That’s what this book is about. And that’s what I’m going to ask of you.
The truth is, athleticism is awareness. That simple phrase is at the core of my program. When I say, “Athleticism is awareness,” what I mean is that to be an athlete means you are someone who is aware of your form and technique; aware of how you move your body; aware of your effort level, of your breathing pattern; aware of what you eat (and don’t eat); and, most important, aware of what you think (and don’t think).
We will go deeper into that idea later, but first we need to address the physical side of things. I believe firmly that the mind follows the body. And when the mind follows a good body, it gets to the right place. So that is where we will begin the journey—your journey—to the Cool Impossible.
To get started, I am going to ask you to look at things maybe a little differently than you’ve looked at them in the past. I’m going to introduce you to some new ideas and concepts and ask you to do some new things that will help to catapult your running to another level and help you get everything that you want out of every mile. Along the way, I am going to challenge you to go above and beyond what you think is possible for yourself, for your running, and, I hope, even your life.
And to be clear, this process, this challenge—this opportunity—is open to every runner. This book is for you whether you’re a beginner, or a veteran hoping to reclaim that beginner’s enthusiasm and sense of possibility; whether you’re a dedicated competitor, gearing your efforts to improvements in time and placings at key races, or a recreational runner, excited about the social aspects of the sport; whether you’re someone whose running has been interrupted or compromised by chronic injury, or an enthusiastic experimenter inspired by visions of barefoot running, the Tarahumara Indians, and other adventures. This commitment to awareness will—like Frost’s choice between two roads diverging in a wood—make all the difference.
One element of what you will learn later is how important and powerful a role visualization plays in performance. The mind follows the body and, in turn, performance follows the mind. But harnessing that sequence, controlling it and making it work for us to carry us to where we want to go, is a challenge—and one that often goes unrecognized. We have lost touch with the art of daydreaming. I don’t mean the kind of daydreaming that comes after a few hours of surfing vacation Web sites or buying that lottery ticket. We’re all pretty good at that. No, I mean the kind of daydreaming that can help guide our performance and prepare us for the journey to the Cool Impossible.
So let’s give it a try. Let’s do it. Right now. Rather than simply telling you what’s going to come in the chapters ahead—laying out the programs and the protocols, explaining the mechanics, the physiology and the psychology—I’m going to give you a chance to live it. I wake up each day in Jackson thrilled anew to find myself in what is truly a running and adventure-sport paradise, living the kind of life that I once could only imagine. But that’s the point: I did imagine it, and now it’s as real as the vast, jagged face of the Teton Range that beckons me each time I step out of my house, or the bear that ambles across the trail ahead of me on my morning run, or the lung-searing challenge of an uphill sprint at nine thousand feet. I want to make it just as real for you.
I want you to imagine that you are on your way to visit me in Jackson Hole for an intense seven-day running camp. This one-on-one camp will be like no other running you’ve ever done and will introduce you to and immerse you in every element of my training program. Jackson Hole is the real deal, the true Wild West. It’s here that you can find your own frontier and be shocked into a new reality. I am hoping this is what you expect from your visit and from this book, because it is what I want for you.
So, here you are. . . . It’s been a short flight from Denver or Salt Lake City (or wherever you made your connection, because, face it, unless you’ve got a private jet you’re not flying direct to Jackson). But it is a leap into another realm. The plane drops down out of the clouds and suddenly there it all is, a landscape so sweeping and majestic that it makes you almost laugh as you press your face to the little square of the window: the mountains, saw edged and brilliantly snowcapped, marching out to the horizon; the Snake River running its sinuous course through the valleys; the burnished tans and greens of the headlands. We are most certainly not in Kansas (in real or metaphorical terms) anymore.
You can see immediately why they call it Jackson Hole. The floor of the valley sits at sixty-five hundred feet, but the Tetons on the western side soar like a wall to thirteen thousand feet, and the Gros Ventre Range to the east tops out near twelve thousand feet. Trappers and hunters who found their way to the region in the early nineteenth century must have felt they were literally going over the edge as they climbed down the steep canyons into the vast encircled expanse. It still feels that way today, as the plane drops down, far below the peaks, and settles in for a landing at Jackson Hole Airport, which, with its low-slung rustic design, seems to blend in with the flat expanse of the valley.
No Jetway here. You grab your bag, running shoes dangling from the handle, and exit the plane directly onto the tarmac. You take a deep breath. The air is exhilarating and the sky astoundingly wide and close. As you follow the concrete path toward the terminal, you turn to look at the mountains, and it’s like they’re right there in your face. Your eye traces the wild, zigzag lines of the peaks—dominated by the central massif, the truly majestic Grand Teton—and follows the canyons cutting up in deep, dark Vs between the rises. You try to imagine running there, following a trail up to the Teton Crest. It seems like another world. Another you, perhaps.
Welcome to Jackson: That sort of spectacular vista, with its promise and its challenge, is everywhere here. It is also the reason why you’re here. In the next few days you’re going to get a firsthand taste of all that Jackson has to offer, and at the same time an introduction to my running program, a taste of what I’ll be asking you to do, and a glimpse of where these new elements and new ways of thinking can take you—in your running and in your life.
We meet outside the airport. I’m the shaved-headed, skinny guy with rounded shoulders and a cheery smile. I’m happy to see you, after all. I bundle you into my truck and off we go, windows down.
On the ride into town from the airport we pass buffalo—yep, they’re roaming—beside the road, as well as an elk framed against the sky above a ridge, the same ridge on which we’ll put in some quality miles in the days to come. We also pass a trio of cyclists, pulling big gears as they roll down the shoulder not that much slower than we’re driving. You’ll learn that it’s impossible to go for long in Jackson Hole without seeing someone in motion: biking, running, hiking, paddling on the streams, skiing the trails in winter. The most adventure sports– happy town in America—Chris had it right.
But on this first night, before we move into action, there’s time to sit and talk, to get a sense of where you’re coming from, and where we’re going to be going in the course of the next seven days—and beyond. Over a steak salad or grilled trout at the Snake River Brewery, we’ll talk about a lot of things. About Jackson, and the history of the valley. About the Wild West. About skiing at lunchtime and about what twenty-below really feels like. About crazy real-estate prices and about mountain lions. Behind it all, of course, will be that sense of anticipation, of an adventure about to be embarked upon. Maybe you’re a little tired or fried from the travel, but you’re feeling a buzz, too, that tingle that every runner knows that precedes a big test. And so we’ll start talking about the aspects of your upcoming training. Since I’m a bottom-up kind of guy, we’ll start with your feet.
Don’t worry, we’re not going all Barefoot Ted here. My Copper Canyon race companion, and one of the pioneers of barefoot running, has a lot of wisdom to share, but I consider shoeless running a tool—something that can help build strength and improve form for all runners—rather than as an objective in and of itself, or even, as some would have it, a lifestyle. Remember, the Tarahumara sport those huaraches, not bare feet, across their rocky trails. For now, we’re going to concentrate on strengthening the feet, and it’s crucial that you can feel—really feel—what we’re doing.
Take your shoes off. It’s okay—we’re in Jackson here; you won’t be the first at this establishment. Now look down at those feet, maybe a little pale below the sock line, the toes spreading and gripping the tile floor. For all the usual focus on leg strength, flexibility, and core fitness, when it comes to running, everything springs, quite literally, from those two kind of funny-looking appendages. Just as a race car, no matter how big an engine it has or how sophisticated a suspension, depends on four small patches of tire on asphalt to get around a track, a runner’s performance and health are rooted in the actions of the foot, with its twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints, and more than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Having strong feet promotes proper muscle usage all the way up the leg and throughout the core, ultimately creating the muscle equilibrium that is so important to successful running, and that’s what we’ll be working on throughout your training.
Maybe you’re imagining a gym full of machines and clanking iron; maybe you sneaked a peek down at your biceps last time you raised your glass, or you’re trying to remember how much you hoisted the last time you did heavy leg squats. But strength training is not about how much you can lift. That’s not the challenge. The challenge is to have an open mind about what the objective is. Strength training is about muscle equilibrium—about making sure that the big, prime-mover muscles in the body don’t overwhelm the smaller supporting muscles, pulling the entire system out of balance and compromising efficiency. It’s more important how well we move and how efficient we are in using our strength than how much weight we can toss around.
And the amazing thing is that this muscle equilibrium, this athletic strength, will help you to run better. It will also prevent the all too familiar aches and pains and stiffness that can sometimes seem like the unavoidable price of running.
Let me be very clear about this: These aches, these pains, they are avoidable. You may have been conditioned to think otherwise, but over the course of our time together, I will show you different. With strength, muscle equilibrium, good form, and a proper training program, we can eliminate those common running ailments, have more fun, and achieve tremendous performance enhancements.
Easy, now; I don’t want to overwhelm you. Let’s pay the check, take a walk down Town Square. It’s not Times Square, New York City, but what we lack in glittering lights, we make up for in quiet charm and a backdrop that takes the breath away.
I want to know some more about you. If you’re shy, don’t be. This is important. Before I begin coaching any athlete, I like to get a detailed sense of where he is in his running career. We runners love to talk running. It’s our currency of exchange, as natural as putting one foot in front of the other. So let’s talk about past races, the good ones and the ones that kicked our butts. Let’s talk about workouts and recent long runs; tell me about your favorite route and how fast you’ve covered it recently. And in the process I’ll get a sense of your experience level and where you are in your training. And I’ll ask you—just as you no doubt are asking yourself—what your goals are. What do you want out of your running—from the season ahead, in terms of a specific race or training goal, to a lifetime ahead on the road or trails? If you are not a racer, we can discuss how races can personally empower you and foster a sense of adventure in your running.
Okay, that’s a lot of talk and very little action. It’d be nice to grab a beer together—or, if that’s not your thing, a coffee or tea. But this first night, it shouldn’t be a late one. We’ve got a whole week ahead of us, and it’s time to turn in. I’ll file away what I’ve gleaned about your running past and your goals for the future.
Back at your hotel, you settle in to sleep, your window open to the cool mountain air and all that awaits outside on the trails of Jackson.
An hour after sunrise, the steep slopes of the Tetons are sharply etched in soaring lines of light and shadow, and the rolling foothills are rising into burnished greens and gold. We meet at the Cache Creek Canyon trailhead. A popular hiking, biking, and cross-country trail that runs along Cache Creek close to downtown Jackson, this will be an ideal setting for a short shakeout run. This is not a workout. It’s just to get the blood flowing, an easy, roly-poly outing in the woods, a chance for you to get acclimated to the altitude and for me to watch you run.
We’ll go for thirty-five to forty minutes, whatever feels comfortable. I’ll keep the instructions intentionally vague at the beginning— nothing more complicated or nuanced than, “Take it easy”—since the important thing is to get a sense of how you naturally run. I’ll be watching your form, and to do that I’ll move around on the trail, leading for a while and then dropping back to follow. I might speed up the pace for a stretch and then slow it back down. I’ll be looking to see how you respond: Do you push to keep up—despite those instructions at the start to keep it easy? Or do you do your own thing? I’ll be looking to see how confident you are in your own pace.
You can learn a vast amount about people just by going on an easy run with them. Every step reveals a wealth of detail, and I’m making notes in my head as we go along: Hey, her pace is good, or Hmm, his stride crosses over; He’s not using his glutes; or She’s a heel striker. All of this gives me a road map for going forward.
I’m an expert at running and talking—comes with the job. So let me cover a little about form as we go. Like I told Chris, there’s a right and a wrong way to run, and I’m here to teach you the difference. The specifics will come later. For now, let’s address the significance of form.
When we have good form, we run efficiently. With bad form . . . wait for it . . . you’re running inefficiently. Bad form forces you to use some muscles more, and others less, than is optimal. Over time, the ones we use strengthen; the ones we don’t weaken. It’s not rocket science. This disparity throws off the body equilibrium I told you about before. When that happens, you create tightness in your muscles, and you suffer from common running ailments in your hips, knees, ankles, and feet. We’ll focus a lot on form, and I’m confident that once you start making changes, you’ll like the transformation in your running.
But right now, it’s important that we make sure the run stays relaxed and natural, to keep you from becoming self-conscious. The hardest thing for a person to do is to run as he or she normally does when she knows there’s someone watching. Of course, there’s a good chance you’ll be a bit distracted—by the scenery of Jackson, with the woods just waking to the day, the mountains coming into focus beyond the trees; by the thoughts of what you’re going to be asked to do over the next seven days; and, of course, by the altitude.
If you’re coming from sea level, this first run at six thousand feet is going to be a real eye-opener, and not just in the good-morning sense. You’ll feel it just walking from the car to the trailhead: that sense that each breath is bringing in just a tiny bit less oxygen than you need. Even at a relaxed pace on the trails, a sense of desperation can creep in, as each slight rise brings a gasping moment of oxygen debt. Yeah, yeah, Jackson is gorgeous, and the morning sun through the trees is amazing, and we might see a bear or a mountain lion or who knows what else, but right about ten minutes into this easy run, your vision is narrowed to the single track in front of you, and your thoughts are on nothing more than the next step. This is a shakeout run? It feels more like a survival test. But you press on. That’s what you’re here for. And the amazing thing is how the body always adapts. Even by the end of this first short outing, you’ll feel a bit stronger, like there’s more you can give. And that, right there, is part of the process.
As we slow to a jog and then a walk on the last switchbacks down to the trailhead, your pulse rate and breathing returning to normal, you’re already thinking ahead to the next run, considering how you’ll respond to a greater challenge. You’re eager, excited, energized.
This is a good time for me to hit you with the heart and soul of my program. Sometimes I call it cardiovascular training, because there’s a lot of pumping blood and heaving lungs during its execution. But there’s much more that happens during this aspect of your training— improving running efficiency, developing strength, burning fat, raising lactic acid thresholds, getting faster—and so you’ll also hear me address it as your “strategic running foundation.” Catchphrase or not, what I’ll lay out for you with a specific day-by-day schedule is a system of training runs focused on either speed or heart-rate zones.
Following it will build for you a foundation of endurance, speed, and strength for whatever kind of running you want to do, no matter what level of runner you are. This program is flexible and dynamic enough to work for the beginner simply looking to develop a healthy approach to running, to the experienced competitor who’s hitting a plateau, and to those who are looking to run their first 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, or beyond.
Gets you hungry just thinking about it, right?
Next stop is breakfast. We’ll roll back into town and hit the Bunnery, just off Town Square, bright and bustling with folks off to work and others in from their morning workouts—rides and runs and climbs and paddles. There’s nothing like sitting down to breakfast knowing that you’ve already done a morning run. The engine is fired and ready for fuel.
This will be a good time to talk a bit about nutrition—surrounded by the aroma of fresh-baked muffins and buns, breakfast burritos, and blueberry pancakes. Nutrition is a very important part of my program (something you’ll learn over the next few days), though not so much in terms of day-by-day, meal-by-meal schedules and menus. It’s not about becoming a label (vegan, paleo, veggie). To me, the question of nutrition is more about mind-set: With the commitment to becoming an athlete, and living as an athlete, comes the sense that you live with awareness. That includes awareness of what you put in your mouth. We will talk about natural eating, and avoiding processed foods, and particularly sugar. But mainly the message is that we all know what we should be eating, and, just as important, what we shouldn’t be eating. The key is to stop taking half measures and just do it right. Oh, and pass the salsa for the huevos rancheros.
Breakfast is over—a lot to digest so far in many ways. Go rest, take a siesta at your hotel, maybe head out for a leisurely walk afterward. Take in a bit of Jackson, talk to some locals, get a feel for the place where you’ll be spending the next week. I’ll pick you up when the sun is on its wane.
It’s late afternoon, and we’re back in the truck, bombing north past the airport into Grand Teton National Park. We turn in at Moose Junction and cross the Snake River, shadows from the falling sun now stretching across its waters. We follow Teton Park Road farther up into the park. There’s still a nice warmth in the air, but you can’t help but notice the narrow poles flashing past at regular intervals along the side of the road. They’re there to mark the edge of the pavement when the route is covered in snow—and they’re taller than the truck. What, you wonder, looking out through the greens and browns of the woods, must it be like here in the winter, when all is white?
While your mind is wandering to thoughts of taking up ski mountaineering, or snow biking, we pull in and park beside the eastern edge of Jenny Lake.
This is where we’re going to do another run, and it is a spot unlike any you’ve ever seen. Formed by glaciers twelve thousand years ago and framed by the tallest peaks in the Teton Range, Jenny Lake is about two miles long and a mile wide at the middle, and its crystal water mirrors the sky and the mountains perfectly. For the next hour or so, this living postcard will form the backdrop to our workout, even as you’re going to be focusing not outward on the scenery, but inward on your own mental landscape.
As we take off along the pine-needle trail around the lake, I want you to think about the importance of training the mind, as well as the body. Thinking affects performance, period. I’ll talk a lot about this over the coming days, but for now, I just want to further introduce this idea of awareness.
With awareness comes the possibility of control and improvement, of progress and mastery—and, ultimately, of new possibility. In many ways, actually, what we think is not what’s important. What is important is our awareness of our thinking, and, then, how we act after we think it. It’s human nature, for instance, to want to know what’s in store, to ask before we attempt something, “What’s going to happen? What is the outcome going to be?” Our thinking—this need to “know”—is often what stops us from doing the things we want to do, or dream of doing, especially when we’re not sure we can. Call it a fear of the unknown. It can stop us before we start. But if we can identify that fear—if we have awareness of it—and still go forward, then we’re on a clear road to our dreams. Crazy things happen when you’re on that road. Crazy good things. That’s something that I’ve learned over the course of my life, and it has become the foundation for my own athletic endeavors and for my philosophy of training. When we embark on any venture—whether it’s running or any other endeavor in life—it’s crucial that we don’t get hung up about the outcome. Yes, every athlete has his or her goals, and it’s important and necessary to aim for those. But we don’t know how it’s going to turn out, and that’s the glory.
This is not all loose theory (i.e., “Here’s what’s theoretically possible, but you’re on your own to figure out how to obtain it”). No. There are specific techniques you’ll learn from me. The journey begins by helping you identify your goals, what it is you actually want to accomplish as a runner. You’ve done some visualization already with me, but there’s much more to come.
I’ll also teach you how to use mantras. Don’t worry: I’m not talking sitting like Buddha, legs crossed, incense swirling around your head, and humming deeply “om” after “om.” That’s great, if that’s your thing. But mantras come in all different shapes and sizes. They can simply be repeating phrase like, “Do what’s required.” Their power comes in focusing your thoughts, centering your mind to your purpose.
Heady stuff, quite literally, but if you trust me to lead you through every step of the Cool Impossible, you’ll see that it works.
Now slow down; come and sit beside me on the lakeshore. Good. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Go ahead—take your shoes off; I know you want to slip those tired feet into the cold blue water of Jenny Lake. Nice, right? Hopefully, you feel a kind of open flow through your body, a relaxed sense of connectedness.
We sit here awhile, not speaking, just taking it all in.
There—look up now into the wide blue Wyoming sky. There, far, far above, a bald eagle is circling, riding the currents seemingly effortlessly, everything—anything—within its reach. Maybe, you think, you can relate.
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