Friday, April 18, 2014

Phish and the Art of Trail Running

Back in 1994, I walked out of a concert in a gymnasium, no bigger than the size of your high school's, a changed person. I had undergone within its walls an experience that impacted me so deeply I could still account vital details for you today. The place was Bozeman, Montana, and the band was Phish.

What was it about Phish that was so life altering? It is really hard to put into words, but at that time everything I knew about music and about myself had changed. Music always had been a big part of my life, but this music was different-- it was exploratory; and just as any 18 year old is on a journey of discovery, this music seemed full of those themes of adventure. But it wasn't the lyrics, it was the structure of the songs, and how those structures were abandoned and left behind to seek and create new places. Having just moved out west from Georgia, seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time and meeting people who were freer and less constrained in their dispositions, this kind of musical idea that made up Phish resonated with me. It seemed a lot like life to me.

It was also this move out west that began my lifelong passion for mountains and trails. While it wasn't until much later that the trail running bug bit me, I was spending more and more time in the mountains snowboarding, mountain biking, backpacking, camping, and just playing around. When I did get into running, and ran my first marathon, it wasn't long before I was seeking out the trails. Trail running, much like the music of Phish, is a break out of the normal b boundaries of sport. Take a road run, for example, and you have a nice, flat, even surface, with maybe a few exciting hills and hopefully some good scenery around. If a road run were music, it would probably be heard on the radio, maybe a little edgy but mostly predictable, standard fare. If you pump up the tempo you'd have some techno or metal. A trail run, on the other hand, winds and shifts, climbs and falls, and every step is like a note of music, atonal at times, with wandering guitar licks and fugues and spontaneity. The trail and the time are mere structures, like the outline of a song;  but the run is an exercise in variables with each step being an experiment, a risk, and more often than not a joyous discovery.

One way I would describe Phish is that their music creates a space. Think of a Beethoven symphony or Miles Davis and you'll get a sense of this. Music can very atmospheric, and this atmosphere can be like images or a painting unfolding in our minds. Sometimes that is straightforward, direct images from lyrics-- like if I'm listening to Wutang Clan, the images will be of dark nights in the ghetto, preparing an attack on a rival drug dealer…
If it is Beethoven, however, the space becomes pastoral, with splinters of light and rushing waters and the lone artist moving through the forest. With Phish, it is a lot of different things, but for me it would be like a painting that describes potential and adventure. The improvisational nature of the music forces the band into unknown places, and there is an amount of instability and precariousness that begs to be resolved.
I was in my late teens and early twenties when I was seeing tons of shows and listening to literally thousands of hours of the music-- a time when my pleasure receptors were burning indelible paths to the joy center of my brain. And it was also at that time that life's major themes were adventure, risk, and potential. When I listen to Phish I sometimes see a lot of these images from my youth; but mostly I see the stuff that made up and continues to make up my dreams-- that ever-searching, relentless thirst for life and all it has to offer. My mind is ignited in a bricolage of memories, places, friends, family, and future. There's always been something about Trey's guitar licks, Mike's bass lines, Page's melodies, and Fishman's super tight, super creative signatures that catapults me into this space of raw joy.
Trail running falls under that same umbrella. It is a creative process, one that requires the runner to co-create the space around them. A normal run will consist of blurring trees, streams of water, log hops, ferns and moss, distant peaks, green, green leaves, and a wealth of introspection, socializing, pain and low moments, and fun. It becomes formative in the way I think about life and relationships. There are a lot of lessons, both gentle and savage, on the trail. But the overwhelming lesson is that the best things in life happen through patience, through low moments of wanting to quit, through an amount of discomfort or even suffering, and finally through an arrival.

The long run:
Trail runners and mountain runners are often considered freakish by the non-running community for the amount of time and distance covered on the trail. The idea is simply mind boggling to a lot of people, and I don't blame them for that perception. In many ways, it is often ridiculous. I myself have often been smacked with that existential question: "What the hell am I doing out here?" But I think my desire to get out there on the super long hauls is made up of the same brainstuff that gets excited about a 58 minute Runaway Jim or a 31 minute Ghost. There is something magical that happens when you get out there for a while, slowly build a rhythm, go through some low moments, and then the highs become extremely high. The tension and resolution of long trail runs is what make them so amazing, and I think that is exactly what Phish does in their long, improvised jams. They beg to be resolved, but the longer it holds off, the more interesting the process becomes, and the more rewarding the resolution is when it finally arrives.

Every single Phish show, just like every trail run, is a different experience. That is why people will see multiple shows, and go on tour to see what the band does. Every show is a question of what the set list will look like (they have very rarely repeated any songs in a pair of nights), what deep cut songs are going to be dropped, and what shape many of the songs will take. It might seem extremely boring, but to the Phan every moment, every note is a moment brimming with promise. And it doesn't always work. Some nights the band doesn't click, or the jams get a little repetitive, or it just gets sloppy. But when everything comes together it is absolutely explosive, and made better by the fact that it isn't rehearsed, it isn't something perfected and polished and brought to you in a perfect package. The magic is happening right in front of you-- a once in a lifetime moment.

Don't get me wrong. These magic moments aren't accidental-- they are the result of hours, months, and years of the band practicing and playing shows, learning how they communicate musically with one another. It is precisely the discipline and rigorous attention to detail that allows them the freedom to break the musical boundaries on stage. The same is true for trail running. While a trail runner isn't concerned, at least on the trail, with perfect splits and precise effort the way a road runner is, the ability to run well is a product of many, many hours spent on the trail, perfecting form and skill, and knowing one's threshold, being able to move just beyond that. It requires intimate knowledge of one's own ability. Even among the professional ultra runners, you hear stories of the wheel's flying off, DNF's, becoming too sick or injured to finish. You'll even hear the winner talk about the low spot that they pushed through, or how everything seemed to just come together. But while the outcome might seem to fall in the fickle hands of lady fortune, the trail runner, whether for racing or for the pure enjoyment of group long runs on the weekend, works hard to put themselves in her graces. We all wanna have a good run.
One more quick word about the similarities: Both Phish and ultra trail running seem to foster a type of tribal community that you don't always get elsewhere. Sure, I know that any similar interests draw people into community, but not always as intensely as these. Both engender their own mythology and a prolific and specialized vernacular. Both have their "rock stars". Bryon Powell and Ultrarunner podcast have recently done for trail ultra running what Andy Gadiel did for Phish in the 90's-- given us plenty of stats and topics to geek out on endlessly. Both great runs and shows will be remembered and discussed, argued about and embellished for years to come.

In the end it is not about a particular brand of music or type of endurance activity, but more about the values that embody these facets of life. In fact, this may all just be in my head. But the way I see it, Phish and trail running are pointers to something much larger: a spirit of adventure, of grit and perseverance, and a spirit not afraid to get a little dirty and take risks. Furthermore, it is a spirit that requires faith that no matter how atonal the notes of life may resound, no matter how dismal the bonk of a long run, that there is sometimes great joy, sometimes an important lesson, and always a masterful resolution waiting at the end of the journey. 

Set the gearshift for the high gear of your soul; You've got to run like an antelope… out of control!!

1 comment:

KatieT said...

Nice return to writing, Justin. I'm looking forward to the next post. Or run...