On Running, Time, And The Flow Of Non-Thinking Thinking: Running With The Kenyans

by Thomas Brett

Among the joys of Adharanand Finn’s Running With The Kenyans, a succinct and engaging tale of the author’s experiences long distance running training at high altitude in the East African countryside, is the realization that there aren’t really any secrets to East African running prowess besides constant training, continuous pushing of body boundaries, as well as what I imagine is some kind of awesome capacity to endure the pains that comes with this kind of excruciating endurance exertion. As I read I found myself thinking of that phrase “there’s no there there.” For the runners–no special shoes, no special eating regimen, and even no special precision practice routines and post-run analyses. Just run, rest, eat, and run some more, over and over again. A repetitive monastic running groove, you could call it, powered by a desire for international athletic success.

Finn’s trajectory as the visiting runner is predictable but also insightful. Over the course of his several month stay in Kenya, he gets fitter and faster through his training with a running club and eventually runs an impressive sub 3-hour marathon. Along the way, he observes his Kenyan colleagues as they train and realizes that their method revolves around a minimal and simple approach to training that works to effectively bypass over-thinking it. In one of the most fascinating passages, Finn compares Western and African approaches to using a watch while running. It turns out that the watch, that enduring symbol of the Western conception of time, can be used in ways other than just quantifying experience. Finn observes:

“while in the West we time everything so that we can measure and analyze it afterward, or keep track of our running pace so we can calculate whether we need to slow down or speed up, Kenyans use their watches in a completely different way. By running their intervals according to the regimented beeps of their watches, Kenyans are actually taking the thinking out of their running. When the watch beeps, they speed up. When it beeps again, they slow down.[...] Each session is forgotten as soon as it is done. The timing is just a way of structuring the training, of telling them when to start and when to stop.”

What struck me about this passage was how it conjures a kind of empty mind mindset of those Kenyan runners with their beeping watches which they mostly ignore except as a sonic cue. Without regular recourse to the numbers of pace timings, the runners often use only a sensed bio-feedback from the feeling of what happens (to borrow a phrase from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s book) to their moving bodies as guidance.  In this sense, the runners seem like really good listeners to the feeling of what they’re doing as they’re doing it.

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I found this really interesting, both because I sometimes like to measure and time and document things (running included, of course) and because I just as often “zone out” and really have no idea of what I’m doing (while running, obviously, and in many other activities!). In other words, I like precision as a self-imposed game, but often just go by feel.

And as per usual with things I read, I found myself thinking analogically, trying to find links between running and musical practices. One memory that came to mind upon reading about the beeping watches was my once upon a time endless practicing with metronomes, letting the machine take care of the steady quarter note pulse–click, click, click, click–while I busied myself with playing different subdivisions of those clicks: 123-123-123-123 (a triplet), or 12345-12345-12345-12345 (a quintuplet), and so on. (If you’re wondering: yes, percussionists and drummers can find this kind of activity fun…) Thinking about it now, the metronome, like the watch, took the conscious thinking of out of the activity, turning it into a game for the hands to try to fit their subdivisions into the allotted space of those steady quarter note clicks. (Sidebar question: Does playing with a metronome ever really improve one’s sense of time? Isn’t time sense–like running pacing, maybe–a more internalized, body-generated mechanism?)

This non-conscious thinking while doing also reminded me of a conversation I had with a composer schoolmate years ago. He had just listened to my performance of a piece I had written for vibraphone and said: “It sounds like you really like the Dorian mode.” I was puzzled because in his question was an assumption that I had consciously known what I was doing when I put the music together, thinking about scales and Dorian modes and whatnot. From my perspective though, I didn’t know what I was doing, but my hands did manage to find things that sounded right, working with the constraints posed by the layout of the vibraphone to narrow down possibilities and then structure the piece around these constraints. Thinking about it now, the layout of the instrument, like the beeping watch for the runners, took the conscious thinking of out the composing process, turning it into a game for the hands.

But back to the lessons of running. In sum, I took away from Finn’s book a sense that we might do well to structure some of our activities so that we can take out conscious thinking to better get on with the flow.

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