Overcoming a hoodoo jog

A rigid routine: 4 jogs each week on set days, each on a different route. All 4 routes are 10 kms, so the only practical differences are the amounts of ascent, in layman’s terms how bloody hilly they are! It turns out my toughest route, North Loop, climbs 80 metres; I feel every metre and I run it at about 6:15 mins/km (with a fastest pace of 6:05). The easiest route, West & Back, only has around 60 metres and I’m clocking it at about 6:05 (fastest being 5:58). You can see that less hills means easier, means faster.

Another route, East Loop, lies in between the extremes. The ascent is about the same as the easiest route, around 60 metres, but the climb comes in the form of one daunting, steeper hill. Accordingly, I do this route at around 6:10, in between the others. (My fastest is 5:59).

But my hoodoo route, North & Back, also involves 60 metres of ascent, but I’m travelling at 6:15 and I’ve never run it faster than 6:10. It occurred to me over the weekend to question why this is so. There is a tough pinch, up to Yarra Boulevard, but the key factor seems to be that very little is dead flat. This route undulates and I don’t like it.

So a few days ago, I jumped at the hoodoo route. I set off at a decent pace, then focused on surging up all the slight inclines, and over the tough pinches, I put extra grunt into my strides. I was wrung out by the end, but not, funnily enough, more than usual, and my pace came in at 6:01.

Hoodoo conquered! But nothing comes for free: my right ankle is slightly suspect, and my left arch, cured now for two months, twinges once more. Sigh . . .

Inhaler in your pocket

Meg Wolitzer in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, edited by Meredith Marat:

While I’m writing, I ask myself the question that a reader inevitably asks a writer: why are you telling me this. There has to be an erotic itch, a sense of book as hot object, the idea that what’s contained in the book is the information you’ve always needed. . . . Imperative is the kind of thing we associate with urgent, external moments – say, with political causes. I also associate it with art. . . . The most difficult time for me as a writer is before I have a central guiding idea for a book. Once I have it I feel reassured. It’s like having an inhaler in your pocket, if you’re an asthmatic.

A Hiking Big Year anytime soon?: Part 2

A mainstay of my Big Decade was to be a year in which I tackle those daring, truly inspiring hikes, the ones most hikers quail from. You know them and I made a list of them, thinking to recklessly do one a month or one every two months or something like that. Here’s a version of the list (the list morphed, a hallucinatory dream): Grand Canyon, Tour du Mont Blanc, Corsica, Utah gorges, Western Arthur’s, etc., etc. Isn’t there some amazing scary one in Scandinavia? Shouldn’t I max out by interleaving other demanding journeys: the Overland, something in New Zealand, a remote stretch of the Australian Alps Walking Track?

A mainstay of planning for my sixties was to do the Tough Hikes Big Year (for that was what I dubbed it) sooner rather than later, “while the ankles and knees hold up.”

Well, five and a half weeks of less demanding, but rigorous enough, walking in the British summer and spring, left me with plenty of time for reflection, and the upshot of that reflection is surgery. I’m ditching Tough Hikes. Won’t do it, not me.

Why? A virtue of extended hiking is the quality thinking that emerges, and I realized that wrestling with pain up mountains appeals to me mainly for challenge value. The pain, you understand. Vistas and remote beauty can be rewards, but mostly it’s about testing oneself, and suddenly this held less relevance. Also, I don’t have a group of buddies into the adventurous walks. The most important factor occurred to me up on the North Yorkshire Moors: my beloved has no interest in TMB and the like, and I suddenly realized my chief joy in hiking is with her.

Excising a key year in my Big Decade is like taking a knife to my imagined hopes, so I’m grieving a little. But I’m sure this is the correct decision.

What does love of music mean?

I never bought a Beatles record. By the time I fell in love with rock music, at age 12, the period of this film was over. From then on their records became less poppy, deeper, and many of my friends loved them, and I loved some of their singles, but I never bought a record . . . Wanted to be a rebel, I guess. The new movie The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is craftily constructed and very thought provoking, wheels-within-wheels kind of stuff.

Music hunting?

Just considering the option of making 2017 some kind of music Big Year gets my “hunting new music” juices going. Read this from a Spin review of Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest: ” . . . one of the most confident-sounding records ever made about depression, alcoholism, and self-defeat. The riffs scream out so jagged and unfiltered that you can feel the steel cutting into Toledo’s fingers . . .” I listen, I buy, and wow, this is the real deal. Raw and catchy and not by someone my age!

How to master a skill, courtesy of Anders Ericsson

The standout from my 2016 nonfiction reading will surely be Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson (“the world’s reigning expert on expertise”) and Robert Pool (a science writer). Nine years in the making, oft cited in or popularised by other ‘how to” books, this is the real deal, a superbly written, logical book offering vital concepts.

I recall being very taken by a simplistic idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller Outliers: to master a skill, work on it for 10,000 hours. How exciting, eh? Pick a passion, throw energy at it for three hours a day, every day for ten years, and voila, you’re an expert. Well, Gladwell’s notion came from Ericsson’s research but Ericsson, in this book, goes out of his way to point out what Gladwell got wrong. Yes, much practice is essential, but it’s also about how you learn during practice. Time spent is necessary but not enough.

So let me sum up Peak (this is my reading, don’t blame me if you read something else into it). Other than skills affected by bald physical facts (small people won’t star in basketball, giants flounder at gymnastics), any skill can be mastered. Ericsson reveals at length that the idea of genetic disposition is nearly always a canard. Perfect musical pitch? Learn it. Chess grandmaster? Learn it. World-class swimmer? Learn it. The world is open to us.

How do you master a skill? Lots and lots of practice. Three levels of practice exist. Most people go for the first level, a kind of beginner’s practice where you take a few lessons, flail around and eventually achieve enough mastery to be able to “do it.” Most people stop there. Repeating a skill without systematically seeking improvement guarantees stagnation.

Second level – deliberate, focused practice. Both adjectives are important. Focused means intense – a focused practice session of more than an hour might be too tiring. Deliberate means aimed at precise improvements. Learning to play tennis and then imagining you can improve by playing in local competition is a mirage – you need to practise your volley, you need to improve your serve, and so on. Practice must be ambitious and meticulous. If you’re daydreaming during practice, it’s failing. To be frank, deliberate practice is harder work than most of us countenance. But deliberate practice works, step by step by step.

One of Ericsson’s most beguiling concepts is that the key to such deliberate practice is mental. You need to improve your “mental representation,” your mental map. Think, really think, conceptualise how to make that tiny improvement, how to get a bit faster, more precise, quicker of action or thought. Deliberate practice is Monty Python’s “my brain hurts.” Your nightly Sudoku, after your first month, is useless until you analyse why you’re failing four times a week, until you make incremental hard-to-make better decisions. Try, fuck it! Think!

Third level of practice towards mastery – this is Ericsson’s “gold standard,” and involves hiring a coach and pouring fanatical attention into every facet of your chosen skill-to-be. Not every skill is suited to the third level. Highly systematised skills, with well-developed training methods, can best use this approach. Ericsson’s examples: violin, chess, memory, swimming.

Peak offers no easy road to stardom, and I doubt anyone expects that from a book on expertise. But while the 10,000-hour idea, superficially enticing but quickly daunting (“ten years, you’re joking, right?”), offered little to “ordinary folks” such as myself, Ericsson’s work is intrinsically inspiring. For his notion of motivated and deliberate practice, his recipe that “it’s all in the mind,” can be used right now, to improve right now, to improve as much as you want, to reach any less-than-superstar level. Wanna get better? Work at practice, at thinking, at improving!

A mark of an important “how to” book is that executing the book’s “lessons” involves much subtlety. Ever since my read, I’ve had the feeling that I must read it again, to really understand what deliberate practice means. How do I know that I’m probably not ready to launch my new “hey, this is what Peak preaches” programs? Simple: all my current efforts at “bettering myself” are nothing like what Ericsson has discovered from his research, and I can’t imagine how to change my approaches. The journey begins with a reread . . .