Category Archives: Aikido

The Workout of a Lifetime: Would Picasso Have Been Proud?

THE STORY GOES that Pablo Picasso was approached in a café one day by a woman who asked if he would do a drawing on her napkin. He agreed, made a quick sketch on it and said, “The cost will be 20,000 francs,” or some such enormous amount (some versions say $1 million).

“That much!” the lady exclaimed. “But it only took you five minutes!”

“No, my dear,” he replied. “It took me forty years.”

True or not, the story illustrates the lifetime of effort and experience it takes to be able to do something of quality while making it look easy.

Today’s workout at Body Specs brought Picasso’s napkin to mind. While hardly a work of art, completing it required drawing upon what I’ve learned and experienced since I began serious physical training fifteen years ago.

My workouts are assigned and supervised by trainers aware of my goals, and while the sessions range in intensity, occasionally one becomes a real test of what I thought were my limits. So it proved this afternoon.

This is from another session, but you get the idea.

Basically, I was given what the trainers call “supersets” consisting of a set of exercises performed in order, then “doubled” (repeated). For example, station 1 was monkey chin-ups, followed by ab exercises, followed by pushups. Repeat the three, then move on to station 2. I had a circuit of three stations in all, each with a set of doubled exercises. And I was to complete three full circuits.

After my first circuit I was spent. By the end of the second I needed to sit and rest after each exercise. My heart was pounding. I had nothing left. And I still had one to go.

Sure, I could have quit. All I needed to do was tell the trainers, “I’m done,” and head to the shower. It wasn’t a race, just a training session. And yet it had become, for me, more than that.

Because, for whatever reason, I’m an ultrarunner. And I’ve committed to the most aggressive race season ever, with the first race (50 miles) next month. Completing an ultramarathon requires mental and emotional discipline in addition to physical fitness. Patience, persistence, and dogged determination are needed to accept the continual discomfort and push through the inevitable low points. The mental muscles must be exercised, or they will fail you in a race as surely as undertrained legs.

So as I began the third circuit I called upon some principles I’ve learned and applied over the years.

  • From Aikido: breath control. Replace fast, shallow breathing with deep, slower breaths. This also relaxes the body. I did this after each exercise, establishing control before starting the next one.
  • From Aikido and ultrarunning: focus on where you are, not how much you have left. Do each rep with the best form you can. Then do another. “Remember,” Sensei said, “you can always do one more.”
  • From ultrarunning: pace. Take the time you need to complete the exercise. Don’t go too fast to show off. No one cares.

And, finally, I’d been here before, two-thirds through an extreme challenge, physically and emotionally spent, and ready to quit. Namely, the 65-mile mark at last year’s Lighthouse 100 (you can read my recap here). And somehow I’d found the strength to go on, and finish.

I slowly ground my way through the final circuit. One station, one exercise, one rep, at a time. My 30-minute session lasted well over an hour, and my muscles were shaking, but I completed it. Test passed. Until next time, of course.

So how did I reward myself? Like any health-conscious fitness nut would do:

Okay, it was really just the ice cream. (Peppermint Bark Moose Tracks, my new go-to treat.)

I also had a glass of tart cherry juice with my (healthy and nutritious) dinner. It’s supposed to help ease sore muscles. We’ll see if I can get out of bed in the morning. I hope so, cuz I should get a run in.

Publisher’s note: This post is available for sale for $1,000,000.00. Or best offer.


Off The Mat, But Still Training

Leaving the gym recently, I ran into a former classmate in an Aikido kenshu (advanced study) class. We spent a few minutes catching up, and he asked me if I was still training in Aikido.

I’m not taking any classes at the moment, in part because the winter Rec & Ed session was cancelled, and with increased running and strength training my schedule is full anyway. But I told him that in other ways I practice Aikido every day.

I can’t help it.

Aikido did not become a life-consuming passion for me like running has. But my eleven-plus years of training have definitely created a lasting influence, whether or not I’m standing on the mat in a dojo.

For instance, a few days ago I went to get a haircut. I emerged from my car into a cold, blustery, rainy day (re: March in Michigan). Instinctively my shoulders rode up, face tensed, eyes narrowed, and I began to hunch-walk rapidly toward the covered area near the shop. Standard behavior, right?

And then kenshu training kicked in. A samurai, Sensei had said in a lecture, does not let rain, or cold, or other external situations disturb his serenity. Running for cover all hunched over is for other people.

I relaxed, stood straight, and walked the rest of the distance at a normal pace, as though it were a perfect sunny day. Perhaps I got a little bit wetter, but it was worth the restoration of my serenity.

With enough training, one can even embrace bad weather!

Other things practiced in class come out in everyday life too. Being more patient in stressful situations, like slow traffic or long lines. More tolerance for the mistakes of others, and even my own. Being polite and respectful at all times, and seeking harmony in all situations. And more.

Sometimes the benefits of training manifest very quickly, too. Some years ago I left a stressful situation at work to attend a lunchtime class. When I came back my attitude had changed completely, and the situation was resolved harmoniously. You can read that story here.

I could chalk up some of this to eleven additional years of life experience, or the expected increase in maturity as one grows older (well, maybe). Except that many times when I remind myself to be patient, or remain polite, or listen more, in my mind’s eye I’m standing on the mat. All these behaviors are not just essential to Aikido training, they are expected by Sensei and the other students. Not to do so would bring quick attention to oneself, and not in a good way.

Better be nice to your fellow students.

Perhaps the surprising thing is that these behaviors aren’t always expected by other people all the time.

So like it or not, Aikido is certain to remain a fundamental part of who I am for the rest of my life, whether or not I ever go to another class. And I have no problem with that.


A Hundred Thousand Moments

This morning I went to the semi-annual Dan (black belt) test at my Aikido school’s main dojo. It was a long test, with three people each testing for shodan (1st degree), nidan (2nd degree) and sandan (3rd degree) rank. But it was also an exciting test to watch. At Dan level you see everything from very basic techniques to advanced series of throws and weapon strikes. Students are also tested in the teaching method and in their understanding of Aikido concepts.

Jo demonstration following the test.

Jo demonstration following the test.

One of the testers (*) had been in a kenshu (special advanced class) with me several years ago. After the test I went to say hello and congratulate him. He’s a reader of this blog, and he told me he’d noticed that when I write about running he sees an Aikido influence, and vice versa.

He’s right; for me, both physical and philosophical elements cross from one to the other. Sometimes it happens consciously, and sometimes it sneaks in when I’m not looking. Either way, I’m pretty sure it’s helped me improve at both.

I have not, however, attempted this during a marathon. Yet.

I have not, however, attempted this during a marathon. Yet.

The most recent instance was at yesterday morning’s run with PR Fitness. I made it a checkup for next week’s 25K Vasa Trail race, upping my usual pace and monitoring my body’s performance. Things began well; I got up the killer hill on the route without problems, and even sprinted a bit afterward. But as I passed through Argo Park with a couple miles to go, I was fatigued and struggling to maintain form. I just wanted the run to be over.

Then out of the blue the thought came: What are you doing? It’s a bright sunny morning, the fall colors are incredible, the temperature is perfect for running, and you’re not enjoying it. What, then, are you out here for?

2015 Richmond half, asking myself that very question.

2015 Richmond half, asking myself that very question.

Here was Aikido speaking. At this point I’d learned what I needed to know for next week’s race. It was time – past time – to just be in the moment. I slowed down, took a deep breath (or three) and relaxed, taking in what was around me and being okay with the discomfort. I reached the studio no less tired or sore, but almost reluctant to stop. All it took was that adjustment in perception.

Okay for a training run, you might say, but how about an ultramarathon? When running continuously for up to a hundred miles, is it really possible to live moment-to-moment? Yes; doing that at Kettle Moraine this year helped me get through some tough and tedious stretches. Now considering that based on my finish time I had 101,700 possible “moments” (assuming one second per moment), of which I managed maybe a few hundred, by no means am I good at it yet. But even that little bit made a difference.

The alternative (thinking about how many miles remain) is not, shall we say, exactly motivational. So much better to think: Here I am in this moment. Another moment is now here, and I’m still going. Perhaps ironically, I often feel most “moment aware” when I approach the finish line; the realization that I’m really going to finish this thing is enough to trigger it.

Yeah, but it's 77 miles and many hours to go before I can ZZZ . . .

Yeah, but it’s 77 miles before *I* can ZZZ . . .

Just to bring things full circle, at the Dan test this morning, Sensei asked one of the students the meaning of a particular Japanese phrase. “It means, ‘live in the moment,'” the student replied, and explained how it applies both to Aikido training and to the rest of our lives. He paused a moment to think of an example. I felt like jumping up and saying, “Ooh! Ooh! I got one!” but I’m not sure I’d have appreciated the moments that followed. I’ll save it for my own test someday.

Today was another perfect fall day, so after the test I went for a two-hour bike ride out there in the color and sunshine. Just to practice the principle, of course.

Great color in downtown Chelsea, MI.

Great color in downtown Chelsea, MI.


(*) Actually, two former kenshu classmates tested today, as did my current class instructor. I enjoyed their tests very much. Congratulations again! Osu!

Just a Little More

WAY BACK AT THE dawn of history (around 2007), I was on the mat at the start of a weeknight Aikido class. Our instructor worked us through the warmup routine until we got to the wrist stretches. Then he stopped for a moment.

“I was asked recently how far one should take a wrist stretch,” he told us. “Everyone is different, so there isn’t an absolute answer. But in general, take it to where it begins to hurt. Then push it just a little further.”

I’d been taught in exercise class not to stretch into pain. But his approach made sense to me. Where it begins to hurt is the limit of what the body is used to. To become more flexible requires pushing into the uncomfortable, just a little. Not enough to cause injury, but enough to trigger an adaptation. And we were to determine that point ourselves. The intent was to reach and push past our own limits, not someone else’s.

Okay, perhaps this is more than "just a little"?

Pushing past my limits of pain. Whether or not I asked for it.

I soon found that the principle of “just past your limit” carried over into every part of Aikido training. You can sit for five minutes in seiza? Great, how about six? I’ve never been the most flexible guy, but with practice I could eventually manage twenty minutes in that posture during Sensei’s lectures in advanced class. Leg-numbing, agonizing minutes, but I did it. The pain sometimes diverted my attention from what Sensei was saying, but as was explained to me, that too was part of training.

For my next trick, I will stand up. Or try to.

For my next trick, I will stand up. Or try to.

Later on I was introduced to the complementary concept of “just one more.” Think you’ve done as many breakfalls, or buki strikes, or whatever, as you possibly can? Well, you could probably manage just one more. Repeat until you’ve reached your goal. The brain knows it’s a scam, and yet it works remarkably well. To this day I use it at the gym during particularly brutal workouts.

Just one more - or 40 more. I forget.

Just one more – or 40 more. I forget.

During more than ten years of Aikido study, I’ve had many opportunities to use both “just past your limit” and “just one more.” Sometimes I use them consciously, but the excellent teaching and the example set by the senior students have already built them into the class atmosphere. You push through the challenges because that’s what everyone does. And pushing your limits little by little adds up over time.

But there have been a few occasions where my limits were not only pushed, but blown out of the water. Sometimes, like with a test or a race, I know what’s coming; there’s time to prepare, to psych myself up.

And then there are the ones that drop out of the sky, smack me upside the head and dare me to beg for mercy.

It’s July 2010, near the end of an intense, two-hour advanced class. 90 degrees in the dojo. Sensei calls for a series of breakfalls. We begin with backward falls and progress to forward rolls. Sensei calls out the first sixteen (two series of eight), and then each student in turn calls out another sixteen. There are six or seven students in the class and I’m the most junior, so I count last.

My attempt at a forward roll.

My attempt at a forward roll.

The set isn’t all that bad, but Sensei immediately begins another. I’m now really tired and sore, and my form is slipping. But I keep up as best I can. At my turn to count the adrenaline kicks in, and I complete the final sixteen rolls. I stand in dizzy, triumphant exhaustion. I’d pushed past my limit.

Except Sensei doesn’t call a halt.

“One more set!” his voice cries though my fog of fatigue. “Hajime!”

WTF? This isn’t “just one more,” it’s dozens more. I’m already past my limit! But the other students start the breakfalls, and there’s nothing for it but to go along.

My world shrinks to a small rectangle of canvas, the sound of my labored breathing, the mat quivering from the slapping of arms and legs to the inexorable “ichi-ni-san-shi...” cadence of whoever’s counting. My pants are untied and coming loose. I can barely push off the mat enough to roll instead of drop flat on my face. Just one more. Just one more.

Then, finally, it’s my turn again. I’m ready to collapse into a soaking pile of dogi-clad bones, but I call out those last sixteen rolls like a Marine. If I’m going down, it won’t be with a whimper, dammit. “Roku!” Roll and stand. “Shichi!” Roll and stand. “Hachi!” Roll and stand.

Yame!” Sensei calls. It was over. We lie flat and relax, then stretch. My head clears, and we line up for end of class. Sensei smiles at us. “Excellent work,” he says. “Four hundred! And no one quit!”

Four hundred continuous breakfalls at the end of two hours of hard work. I’m stunned. From the accomplishment, yes, but also from what Sensei has just said. Quit? As tough and as painful as those sets were, the thought of giving up before Yame had never entered my head. Never an option.

Looking back at it now, those roughly twenty minutes were truly life-changing for me. My body had put out the effort and endured the pain to push past its physical limits, and I’d had the mental discipline to hold myself together during it all. Out of it came a sense of inner confidence that I was capable of far more than I’d imagined before.

'Nuff said.

‘Nuff said.

The class took place years before I became a marathoner and then an ultrarunner, or started cycling centuries, but I think that my Aikido training, and in particular that one breakfall session, made all that possible. All that “just a little more” and “just one more” had set the stage to go well past, and many more than, my previous limits.

Thanks to my wonderful Aikido family for the lesson.