Yesterday I did my first jog outside in over two months. I was pathetically slow, but it doesn’t matter. I had a very bad fall over two months ago, involving a heavy wooden bench and a hard floor. I tore my hamstring insertion and generally screwed up my right SI joint. Walking was painful for a couple of weeks but after that I didn’t feel bad—until I tried to jog.
The first time I got on a treadmill and tried to jog at a brisk walking pace (4.2 mph), I discovered that I simply could not run. Not a step, not at any speed. Whatever muscle is used to lift the leg in a running motion simply wasn’t operating, at least not without extreme pain. I wondered, if a bus was about to run me over, would I be able to sprint a few steps to save my life?
Your whole perspective changes when you realize the only approach to take is baby steps.
Non-Olympic Training Log (short excerpts only)
- Feb. 23: Jogged one minute on treadmill 4.2–4.5 mph. Back/hamstring still hurts.
- Feb. 27: Jogged two minutes on treadmill 4.2–4.5 mph.
- Etc. Every few days I jogged on the treadmill at this barely-faster-than walking pace, adding a few seconds each time and inching up the pace near the end. By March 25 I did about a kilometer in seven minutes.
- March 27: Went to Como Lake intending to try to jog a one-kilometre loop without stopping. Ended up jogging two loops—very slowly. I stopped and took some photos, then tried running on my toes and discovered I could run faster that way. Somehow I couldn’t resist jogging another loop—you runners know how it is.
The thing about the “baby steps” approach is that as soon as you can see progress, no matter how slight, you feel hope. You believe that any mountain can be climbed step by step. What it takes is consistent, focused effort. If the steps are very small, it takes a lot of patience, too.
Why choose excellence? Why choose running?
I just finished reading a very difficult (and thought-provoking) book by David Shields called How Literature Saved My Life. There was one part of the book that made me understand my lifelong love of running, and why I’ve been able to accept my demotion from being an elite runner to someone who can barely jog.
Shields writes about an old friend of his, the novelist Nancy Lemann. He says her books have taught him that “…the key to life is to find something trivial (…everything is trivial) and love it to death.”
This is something that he, apparently, finds difficult to do. “It’s increasingly hard to have actual feelings anymore, I find.” He adds, “We live in a culture that is completely mediated and artificial, rendering us (me anyway; you, too?) exceedingly distracted, bored, and numb.”
I don’t agree with Shields. I don’t know why his ability to feel deeply is so tenuous. However, I think I understand what he’s getting at when he writes, “Failure is the only subject.” He means that the important thing is to care so deeply about something that you never get over it (as the Nancy Lemann quote says). That is how you know you’re fully alive.
That “something”, for me, has been running.
Choosing to make running my focus
From the time I started running, I felt a certain ambiguity towards it: I even imagined how competitors in a long track race would look to aliens from outer space. Wouldn’t they wonder at the purpose of these bipeds running around and around a little oval, seemingly without purpose, in pursuit of nothing?
But now I understand the value of trying to achieve one’s best in any way. As Shields and Lemann have conceptualized it, any human activity can be perceived as trivial; we all end up dying anyway; it is only through our personal sensory experiences of the world and our decisions about how we choose to live in the world that we create meaning for ourselves.
Trying to reach the top in running allowed me to explore the depths of one available facet of life, the one for which I was most talented. I found my limits. I was admitted into that fraternity of world-class runners who understand the sport’s discipline, pain, psychological torments, elation, and freedom. I encountered not only some of the best athletes in the world of running, but also some of our sport’s best race directors, coaches, broadcasters, and writers—so I was exposed to excellence and enthusiasm about running in many forms.
More than that, I became part of the broader world of running, the one that countless millions of people can share because running is such a simple sport. I can understand both the training and racing strategies of elite runners, and the step-by-step struggles of those who are beginners or those who are broken down (like me) by age or injuries.
I don’t ever have to get over running. It’s kind of like loving someone. There’s nothing wrong with not getting over someone you’ve loved, whether you lost that person through death or relationship conflicts, or whether it was only an unrequited love to begin with. If you truly loved, you’ll always miss that person and feel pain mixed in with your good memories.
By “never getting over someone or something” I (and Lemann, I think) mean this ability to care very deeply. That’s not the same as giving up on everything else that exists in the world, being unable to care about anything else.
Although running meant so much to me, I can see it as a metaphor for other journeys in life. I could relate to another part of Shields’ book, where he’s describing the writer’s artistic process. He writes, “…you have the whole of a person’s experience (thoughts, anecdotes, misremembered song lyrics, etc.) which he or she then ‘edits’ into art.” We are all the writers and editors of our own life stories. Striving for excellence is trying to perfect this writing and editing of our lives (whether it’s literal writing or simply a metaphor for the act of living, the choices we make).
Art is created by the intricate focus on a subject in the quest for mastery. This idea reminded me of one reason why running engaged me so deeply: that is, because running is a blend of art and science. Achieving excellence in running involves taking into account the contributions of both art and science. Runner and triathlete Mike Palichuk brought up this topic when he interviewed John Atkinson (aka BCJohnny) on Atkinson’s podcast Inside the Runner’s Mind. In all of his subsequent podcasts, Atkinson asked his guests the question, “Is running more of an art or a science?”
Many of Atkinson’s guests, because they have excelled in running and have been deeply immersed in its culture, gave fascinating and philosophical answers. I particularly recommend the conversations with Steve King (Part Two, 21:00 minutes into podcast), John Hill (Part Two, 1:07:45) and Jerry Ziak (Part Two, 49:20).
Running still lights my fire
After my months of baby steps back to walking and jogging, yesterday’s humble little “run” made me inordinately happy. Finally I had the chance to experience again the sheer joy of being in motion on a beautiful sunny morning at Como Lake.
Being joyful creates more energy. After my little jog I went to the gym, and I finally achieved one of my cross-training goals: I burned more than 100 calories in five minutes on the Arc trainer! Talk about trivial…There I was, trying to release all my competitiveness and frustrated running ability on this poor machine. I think I’ve been breaking it down these past few weeks. The front end of the machine has started vibrating alarmingly when I get near my maximum speed/effort, and the vibration propels the machine backwards slowly across the gym floor. I hope the gym owner gets it fixed soon; otherwise I’ll have to find another outlet for my energy.
There are plenty of other outlets, though. I’ll never get over running, but I’ll accept the challenge of savouring life and trying to reach excellence in other ways…one baby step at a time.