Tag Archives: testing

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!

Hey, Wait a Minute – Wasn’t This Supposed to be Fun?

From my first Aikido Yoshokai class in 2005 as a raw beginner, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue. Ten years later, I’m still training and grateful for how it’s improved my life.

Increased fitness, agility and coordination have been physical benefits, but the philosophy appeals to me too. I appreciate the emphasis on seeking harmony, of bringing positive energy to class, and setting the ego aside and training for its own sake.

Not to mention great stress relief.

Not to mention great stress relief!

And the benefits have extended beyond class. Aikido training has encouraged me to be more patient and respectful in all situations, not just on the mat. This post from a couple of years ago relates one instance where I used Aikido principles to turn a potentially unpleasant situation into a positive one.

For the first several years, Aikido was a fixture in my life. Testing for increased rank is completely optional, but I enjoyed the challenge and added it to my annual goals, with a plan to try for black belt in 2013 or 2014. From 8th Kyu up to pre-1st Kyu rank, I progressed steadily and passed every test the first time. The last rank before black belt is full 1st Kyu, and I tested for it at the end of 2012, right on schedule.

Jumping over partner.

1st Kyu test – I jump over my partner.

I did not pass. I’d felt ready and done as well as I could, but it had not been good enough.

I was disappointed but not discouraged. It’s not unusual for someone to fail a test along the way. I studied Sensei’s written feedback and began actively training for another go the following spring.

Then, as they say:

life is what happens etc

During a routine run in March 2013, I tripped and fell hard, injuring my left shoulder. I thought the pain and mobility loss would clear up but it got worse instead, and by June it was clear I would have to suspend training to let it heal.

Recovery took nearly a year of physical therapy and careful exercise. While I was often frustrated at the slow improvement, it gave me sufficient time away from Aikido to really reflect on my training. The main question I asked myself, over and over, was why I was trying for black belt. Not the flippant “because it’s there,” answer, but the genuine, deep-down reason. Why was it important to me?

I had no good answer.

Recognition and increased respect from other students? Nope. While there is a hierarchy to be followed, you’re taught to respect everyone.

To show the world what a kick-ass dude I’d become? Hardly; I didn’t feel like one. And Aikido is about finding harmony, not starting fights.

For personal satisfaction? Aikido emphasizes letting go of the ego, not feeding it. The black belts in our school are among the most humble people I’ve ever known. I’ve never seen one flaunt his or her rank. Rather, they go out of their way to help those junior to them.

All right, I could adjust my goals; Aikido isn’t about pursuit of high rank, anyway. But when I resumed training, the old spark wasn’t there. What had changed? And that’s when it hit me, so to speak; I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. Instead of looking forward to going to class, I was stressing out about it.

And the stress was mainly coming from where?


Yep – from my rank – what I’d worked so hard to achieve, because I’d thought I wanted it. The higher Kyu ranks carry some extra responsibilities, which is fine, but I’d thrown in some additional expectations of my own making.

A couple of examples: on top of learning my own techniques, I’d been trying to learn all those of the junior students, so I could help them prepare for their next tests. I’d been attending advanced classes and instructor clinics, because that’s what black belt trainees do. But all that extra study and training was in the pursuit of rank rather than personal improvement. I was sacrificing what I enjoyed most about Aikido to meet an artificial, meaningless objective.

Looking back, I can see how much unnecessary stress I’d caused myself for a goal I’d been pursuing blindly, automatically, rather than as something fulfilling. That fall in 2013 was truly a blessing in disguise – a temporary discomfort that allowed me to recognize, and correct, a chronic one.

And what’s next? I continue to train, but with a firm resolve not to test again until I know why I want to. So far that answer has not appeared to me. And that’s okay. I’m back to training just for the sake of training.

And it’s back to being fun.

Yes, this is fun. Trust me.

Yes, this is fun. Trust me.

A Cruise to the Finish

HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL MY READERS. I hope you’re enjoying them as much as I am. Just one sad part – I had to say goodbye to my oldest daughter this morning, who headed back to her home in Virginia. But the week she spent with us, and that we spent with our combined families, was wonderful.

Did I mention I broke 20:00 in this 5K?

Did I mention I broke 20:00 in this 5K? But it hasn’t gone to my head. Not a bit.

Last week was memorable for a couple of events, and I’m overdue in posting an update, so here they are.

I received my Aikido 1st Kyu test results, and unfortunately I did not pass. I’m disappointed, naturally, but I enjoyed the experience, and I received a list of specific form and technique points to work on. My club instructor, who has failed three tests in his years of Aikido, once said he hoped we might all experience the ‘blessing’ of failing a test because we’d learn so much from it. Well, based on the list I received, I am very blessed. But as he also said, pass or fail, you just keep training, and in January I’ll be back on the mat. More thoughts on this in future posts.

On a happier note, my seven-mile run on Dec. 19 put me over 2,500 combined running and cycling miles for the year – my final goal! I joined the PR Fitness Wednesday night regulars for an easy cruise through downtown Ann Arbor and some residential neighborhoods with particularly spectacular holiday light displays. The run felt smooth and effortless, one of those times a runner lives for, where you feel like you’re just gliding along and there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing. It doesn’t happen every time, but it’s magic when it does.

Mile 19 of the Ann Arbor Marathon in June.

Not one of the magic runs, but memorable: Mile 19 of the Ann Arbor Marathon in June.

With all my goals for the year behind me, it’s now time for some R&R. Over the holidays I am running regularly, but that’s about it. No Aikido classes or Body Specs workouts until after the New Year. I feel positively decadent.


I have turned in my “Intent to Test” for 1st Kyu (the final Kyu test). Assuming I pass, my next test will be for pre-Shodan (black belt level). As I passed my pre-1st Kyu test in July, the earliest I could test for 1st Kyu is October. So the choice was whether to push for an October test, or wait until December.

Why push? Once you reach 1st Kyu, you must wait at least 6 months before testing for black belt, and Dan tests are held only in June and November. So to test for black belt in June 2013, I need to pass the 1st Kyu test no later than this December, and an October test would give me an extra chance.

Click here to see examples of some renzoku techniques. They aren’t full speed, but you can get the idea.

The final Kyu test is more involved than any of the previous tests. In addition to doubling the number of weapon techniques and basic techniques to perform, there are more hand techniques and more renzoku (a sequence of techniques performed in rapid succession). Could I learn them all well enough to have a chance of passing in October? I wasn’t sure. So I emailed my regular instructor for advice, telling him my goal was to test for pre-Shodan next June. I thought he would be pleased, since he’d said before how much he looked forward to 2013, with up to three of his students possibly testing for black belt.

His response reminded me how much I still have to learn.

My initial reaction, he began, is that rushing through to achieve a certain rank by a certain date is not the way to approach Aikido. I learned this by rushing through to achieve a certain rank by a certain date…Always train as if you are going to test, but decide whether you’re ready when the application is due.

This was not what I (more precisely, my ego) had wanted to hear. But of course he was right. Why was the June Dan test so important to me? Because I wanted to be one of the first of my instructor’s students to test for black belt. The problem with that? It was based on personal pride and wanting my instructor to be proud of me. By rushing to test I might perform decently, but my understanding of the techniques would be shallow and limited, rather than at the deeper level that leads to permanent growth in Aikido.

“Practicing the basics over and over is so important,” Kushida-sensei once said in Kenshu class, “because it establishes the foundation upon which your subsequent training is built.”

So when I turned in the Intent to Test form, I told Sensei that I would be testing in December. I will still be taking extra classes, but my focus will be on really learning the techniques instead of rushing to meet an artificial goal. And per the advice of my instructor, I will take the test at the main dojo instead of the Rec & Ed club. Pass or fail, he told me, I will learn a lot more there about where I am and whether I’m ready to move on to the next level.