Nike! An equinox exploration on psychedelics, running, and victory

In the story of the battle of Marathon it's rumored that, after running back to Athens following his people's brutal battle with the Persians, Pheidippides uttered a single word - nike!, which means victory - before collapsing dead from exhaustion. He most likely meant to convey news of victory in battle, but he may have meant it for himself, too: despite his unfortunate end, there must have been a moment of deep joy and satisfaction once he actually made it home.

So the outcome, I'm learning, may mean less than the struggle: experiencing challenge, whatever that means to you, is more life-giving than actually surviving, coming in first, or whatever external measure of success you may choose. When performed repeatedly, the process makes us "better", more creative, and more confident. Some say adversity builds character, but I'd say that it's moving through the adversity that really makes us strong.

At Johns Hopkins University, in the medical research department, they seem to have found pharmacological agents that can approximate these effects. When people consume them, their spirits become younger, their thoughts more flexible and tolerant, their minds more creative. In other research, clinicians are discovering that the profound retreat, fear, and rigidity that accompanies post-traumatic stress can be healed by similar substances. It turns out that these are deep, shamanic medicines that humans have used to "tone the spirit" for a very long time: mushrooms rich in the alkaloid psylocibin are gaining more and more interest as tools for psychiatric disease. Somewhere out in interstellar space Timothy Leary's disembodied energy construct is chuckling.

Psylocibin and other "psychedelic" substances are interesting in their effects. Most of them have a certain degree of discomfort that accompanies their use. Some, like salvinorin-A (from Salvia divinorum) are downright scary at high medicinal doses. If you've ever tried these plants or fungi, you may have noticed that there is a period of "ramping up" of the effects, a "peak" during which the effects are most intense, and a long "tapering off", which can last hours. During the peak, people can feel confusion and disorientation, or even fear, as pretty dramatic changes sweep over their bodies, sensory systems, and mind. I've often seen folks attempt to escape the drug's effect, which is unfortunately impossible, and get stuck in spirals of self-doubt, paranoia, and isolation - the classic "bad trip". But most of the time, we move through that tough part by letting go of fear, and then the hours that follow become a joyous celebration of "victory" in the battle with the darker side of the psyche.

Perhaps it is this struggle and release that makes psychedelics such good medicine: they present us with a challenge and a choice, give us a chance to meet the tough part of life, and let us wind our way through. This isn't the false sense of invincibility engendered by stimulants, nor the care-free euphoria induced by depressants. It's an actual challenge, and the work is up to us, not the substance. Once we do the work, we become "better", more creative, more confident. We may not need to cling to our old mental framework for self-validation anymore - so our personality becomes more tolerant. Fear loses the ability to keep us locked in.

So for me, finding a way to experience the tough parts of life routinely, in a safe way, is an important spiritual practice. I use physical exertion to do this, and specifically running. I won't go in to why I think running is the best tool for this - that's really just my own opinion. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how you get there, be it through running, other physical activity, meditative practice, fasting, your job, or maybe just your life's circumstance (the fact that I have to actually work at finding adversity in life is a reflection of my societal priviledge). So if you're a runner, what follow are some of my thoughts on training, progress, and balance. If you find your challenge elsewhere, take them as a metaphor during these days around the equinox, when the days rush fast to dark, and the wind blows leaves around.

We don't train for speed or distance - those are just tools. We train to keep going through the tough bits.

We don't train for speed or distance - those are just tools. We train to keep going through the tough bits. Speed and distance are ways to get us there. How do you know that you're experiencing difficulty in training? Well, it just feels difficult! But beyond the subjective feeling, there is a semi-objective way of quantifying your level of physical exertion: the ratio of strides per breathing cycle.

A breathing cycle is inbreath-outbreath. It's interesting to note that this cycle tends to settle into a regular rhythm with strides: during a light jog, you might get three strides in for each in-breath, and three more during the out-breath, for a total of six strides per cycle. Five strides per cycle is still pretty relaxed, but by the time you're at four strides per cycle, you are certainly working a little harder. I aim for this target in my workouts: the first quarter should be at four strides per cycle, the second and third quarter at three strides per cycle, and by the time you're at the last quarter, you should be experiencing some two-strides-per-cycle stints fairly frequently. Two strides per cycle is tough. It's hard to sustain. Try to sustain it.

Since the level of oxygenation required is a direct reflection of your fitness, there's no "pace" that correlates to two strides per cycle. It depends how fast you're going, how far you've gone, and how fit you are. You can get there quick with speed. You can get there slow with distance. But I've often thought, breathing in-out-in-out with every step, how the feeling I'm experiencing is the same feeling all humans have had at this level of exertion. It's universally relate-able. We may be going at different paces, but it's tough - and if we can push through it, we feel amazing! It's an altered state few even get to touch, let alone indulge.

Speed is the tool of fire - it's short, but intense. There are a couple of ways to experience difficulty using speed: you can go at a tough pace for a medium distance, or you can go really fast for a short stint, take a little break, and repeat (a practice known as "intervals"). As usual, start with a pace that puts you into four strides per cycle. If you're not moving naturally into a three-strides ventilation cycle by the 1/4 mark, you need to speed up. See how this can work for any distance? If you want to go for two miles, you should be switching to three strides by the half-mile mark. If you want to go for twenty miles, hold off until you reach the five mile mark.
Interestingly, when using speed as a tool, your heart rate is generally higher. Herbs that support this training are often hot and fiery themselves: ginger, cayenne, even turmeric. They improve circulation and maximize oxygenation. The injuries that result from fire-training are injuries to the soft, connective tissue of the body: ligaments and tendons. Herbs that support these are cooling and often demulcent: solomon's seal, comfrey, horse chestnut. Too much yang injures the yin.

Distance is the tool of water. It's long and slow, but grinding - eroding at you like waves on a rocky coast. You get to the tough parts by exhausting all your energy - a different feeling from the muscular fatigue that accompanies speed, but an important one to dance with. What's "distance"? It varies from person to person. If you start getting into a two-strides-per-cycle pattern after two miles, even if you start out nice and easy, then two miles is "distance" for you. But regardless, if you aren't into a three-strides pattern by the halfway mark, you need to pick up the pace.
When using distance as a tool, you need to feed your system with watery, nourishing herbs and foods: oats, even licorice. And the injuries that come from distance are often injuries to the vital fire: we need adaptogens like rhodiola, schisandra, eleuthero and cordyceps if we find that distance workouts leave us feeling achy, depleted, and listless the next day. Too much yin injures the yang.

Speed and distance are the fire and water, the light and dark, of training. Try for a little of both each week. But both are challenging. Though they reflect balance, we also need to balance difficult training with more restful, "easy" days. If you run three days a week, try for one speed day, one distance day, and one day where you stay at four strides per cycle or more for the whole run. This gives you a chance to warm up your body and then maybe do some gentle stretching or strength training afterwards. If you feel tired, haven't gotten enough sleep, or are a bit under the weather, consider modifying your workout: if you're going for speed, keep the same pace but go a shorter distance. If you're going for distance, keep the same mileage but go slower. Eat well. Take your herbs. Sleep deeply.

Finally, there's a seasonal cycle as well. Find the time of year when you like to go faster and farther. Find the time of year to focus on less vigorous exercise, too. If you listen to your body while ensuring regular, ongoing discomfort, then you will embody the spirit of the equinox: balanced, but rushing. Perfectly poised, but wildly flying apart. The repeated experience of challenge will make you stronger, and your mind and emotions will benefit, too. Victory!