Pataphysical Training

MPC-prescup-2010The first thing Julie told me was that “we all get in ruts in our training–and it is necessary to continue to challenge and adapt.” Exactly on target. Those ruts get deeper with time. Imagine that, as a man enters his seventieth year, he can change his mind and change his body.  I decided to train seriously.

My short-term goal was specifically to improve my cross-country ski racing. I have never been very fast, but as I thought, I had no reason not to go faster. I was training to be an endurance athlete, but I have the body of a sprinter. I know this from tests I have taken, but really, anyone who looks at me can see ample evidence. But the longer-term goal had to do with that rut.

I decided to call this program of challenge and adaptation, “pataphysical athletic training.” Pataphysics is said to be the science of particular laws governing exceptions. It is, to be precise, the science of imaginary solutions. Anyone who starts serious training at my age must surely consider himself an exception, and it is reasonable to suppose that he is seeking an imaginary solution. Yet this is no joke.

In this experiment with Julie, I wished to discover what I did not know about my body. I found myself also needing to empty my mind. The experiment continues. Further progress may follow—in one direction or another. Or else, beyond this training lies nothing.

However, it is one thing to engage a coach like Julie, and another to follow her instructions. At the very beginning, her “hip activation” and “trunk stability” exercises seemed nearly impossible to do because they violated the physics of my body as I have come to understand them.

Of course, I misunderstood these physics and misunderstood my body. These difficult exercises were, as I began to think about them, damned interesting, and I slowly began to see how they work. The “trunk stability” series focuses on what is called core strength, especially around the hips and butt: glute and abductor and adductor strength. As she put it, I should focus on good movements that built “a neutral pillar-like posture” and “to hold this posture with integrity thru duration of endurance activities.” The focus is on “strong, stable, balanced moves.” Well, you get the idea.

There is no substitute for a lot of hours and a lot of effort. I had not thought about my hips and butt so much before, and after only a couple weeks I became constantly aware of them. I also began to feel that I might be even be growing taller. My posture changed. I became more upright. I found my trunk more a part of my movement. I realized that I was, in fact, changing my body.

Julie provided more than a program. She engaged with me on a constant basis.  During this, the most demanding and the most intense training I have done in a long time, she expected me to report how I felt, what I could or could not do, and she responded with solutions, with personal experience, and with encouragement.

The shape of our communication had many important conventions. She wanted to know certain things—some she acquired with a questionnaire, and some came up on a day-to-day or weekly basis. Though she was attentive to my perceptions, I needed to decide how I responded to my training. I am sure there are many things she does not want to know about me. But she did what I could not do, follow my day-to-day work and plan for my future, working toward the goals I hoped to achieve, especially performing well at certain races.

I sometimes wondered whether I was on an edge. Indeed, what I learned is that training is about finding that edge and holding it, and then pushing it. (It is not like I never knew this before: I had misspent my youth in the 1960s as a rock climber.) Still, I began to wonder whether this project might change me more than I had imagined.  Though I was often tired in the afternoon, I recovered by the next day. It seemed a miracle that in four months of intense training I became neither sick nor injured.

Nevertheless, what I did on a daily basis is no fiction: training is real work that tests mental acuity as much as physical abilities.  Given my personal situation—or anyone’s—training must combine creation and discovery. I must create a different way to think of my body, or create a different body, or perhaps recover something I have lost. Every change should make me better, and reveal my self to me. But also, training is, by definition, an inductive process, that reveals strengths and limitations of any athlete, by attempting to alter them.

Ah fatigue. For an English Professor like me, sometimes Western civilization seems like a long history of ennui. To speak of fatigue and ennui, annoyance, lassitude, boredom. The secret to pataphysical training is to prevent the athlete from becoming comfortably bored. Whenever he seems to be “getting it,” Julie changes it, by adding new exercises, or activities, increasing resistance, the length or intensity of intervals, and/or the number of repetitions. Always, the insistent focus on form.

Which comes first, technique or strength? If only it were so simple. The first rule for technical proficiency is to pay attention. Watch your shadow, she says. Video analysis, she suggests. But mostly it is a matter of paying attention.

Unfortunately, attention wanes with physical exhaustion. So the path to technique leads through strength. We all know this, though scarcely admit it, or do anything to remedy the problem. What people imagine as “balance,” turns out to be the direct result of physical strength.

In the same way that balance turns upon muscular strength, so too, technique depends upon resources too many to name. Apparently, training calls for rethinking and remaking, examining many aspects of the way to use a body, mental and physical, and learning new (or forgotten) habits, mental and physical.

Call it agility training. Call it anything you want. It starts with static exercises and then moves on to dynamic exercises. It is an amazing experience.