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Hiatus Interruptus


After my operation about a month ago, I was instructed not to run.

I guess that’s an instruction that your average human might be only too happy to receive, but for me, it was a little like telling a duck not to waddle, or a cat not to chase little red laser-pointer dots, or a leftover lasagna not to go bad in the fridge. Goes completely against nature. But I made the mistake of asking if, after the surgery, I could run, and was told “not until you’re recovered.”

“What’s that mean? How long is that?”

“Well, you’re a healthy guy. So anywhere from 2-4 weeks until you’re up to your full range of normal activities. But don’t overdo it too early or you could end up back in here.”

“When’s too early?”

“You’ll know if you do something you shouldn’t.”

I will?

How will I know? Will I immediately be in terrible pain? Or will it start sore and become awful? Maybe there will be a tearing sound with no pain at all? Can anybody ever really know anything?

So I’ve been in a state of supreme doubt ever since, and out of an abundance of caution, I haven’t run. Jogged a little. Chased my kids around the yard a few times. But no miles.

In six years, I’ve never taken such a long hiatus. Partly that’s out of fear: momentum matters, I know, and when you stop for a long time, like that hulk of an automobile growing weeds through its engine block, it’s hard to start up again. Partly it’s because I never had cause to think I needed to take such a break. And partly it’s because runners seem to be, by rule, dumb and willing to pigheadedly push through pain even when they should stop. And I, as one of my students taught me to say, am sick with that germ.

But I gave it a month. And then I gave it a few more days. Abundance of caution. I’m hardly the picture of youth anymore; I have to play smart, not hard. The goal is not to be the best, it’s to be the best I can be without blowing myself up in the process.

This morning, though, I laced up again. Beautiful morning for it — sixty-five degrees or so. Cloudy. No meteors, but I guess you can’t win ’em all. In what now seems like a sign from the running gods, my GPS watch died within the first minute (of course I could have predicted this; it hadn’t been charged in a month because I hadn’t had to plug it in for a month!). As a result, I wasn’t harried in the least by thoughts of pace or distance for their own sakes.

I just ran, stopping here and there to let the dog sniff in the high grass or to catch my breath and look out for meteors. (Sadly, there were no meteors. I may have mentioned this. I always seem to miss these celestial events. Still sad, hours later.)

I didn’t go as far as I usually do. And I probably didn’t go as fast as usual, either. But heading out this morning was more like knocking a little dust off than it was like pulling weeds out of a carburetor. The month off maybe cost me a few steps, but it didn’t put out the fire.

Better still? Tracing the outline of a shape I already knew, I find myself wanting to write more today than I have in a while. The running helps the writing, and when the running helps the writing, the writing makes me want to run.

Positive feedback loops, not negative ones.

More miles await.

And maybe, someday, if I’m lucky, meteors.

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Better Miles


Some days, the miles are easy. Some days, they’re hard.

Some days, you drag yourself out of bed to pound the pavement because you know if you don’t do this one thing, get this one win early, you may not see another win all day.

Some days, you burst onto the street, strong like bull, ready to wrestle the day to the ground and steal its lunch money.

Some days, you run and you slave and you gasp and groan and feel like you’ll never cross the finish line.

Some days, the fresh, clean air hits your lungs and you feel like you could run forever.

Some days, the miles are best forgotten about.

Some days, the miles stay with you.

But any day when the finish line looks like this:

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Those miles seem just a little bit better.

Happy running from Tybee Island.


Little Things We Do


I was out for a run the other morning and I came across a gentleman walking in the other direction. Older guy, with a cane. Pants up a little too high, polo shirt that looks like it’s older than me. Not moving very fast, obviously, but not bothered by that — in fact, he had a big smile on his face, almost like the sunlight was just soaking in through his skin and lighting him up from inside.

“Morning,” I called as I approached, as is my wont. (Those of us out getting active at daybreak owe it to each other to salute our shared insanity.)

“I know you,” the man replied.

I pull up short. Not the response I was expecting. “Beg pardon?”

“You’re the guy going up and down the street before the sun is up, during the week. Bout five in the morning, right? With your dog, most of the time.”

“Yeah, that’s me.” Crap. Is his yard one of the ones my dog likes to stop and pee in?

“You run by my house three, four times a week, it must be.”

I nod. “That’s about what I shoot for, yeah.”

His grin gets a bit bigger. “You remind me that I need to be out here, moving around.”

“Oh, yeah?” (My vocabulary isn’t as impressive when I’m run-winded. I realize I’ve said “yeah” three times in a row. I wonder if he noticed it, too.)

“Sure. Doctor wants me to stay active what with my treatments. Always feel better when I do, but I don’t always remember to do it. The day gets on and it gets too hot and I can’t be out in that.” He waggles his cane for emphasis. “But I see you truckin’ past my house and I think, ‘well, I guess I’d better get out there, too.'”

Now I’m smiling, too. “No kidding. Good for you.”

“Naw,” he waves me away. “Good for you. Keep on doin’ what you do.”

I nod and fall back into step. “You, too.”

I finish the last leg of my run feeling a little bit stronger than usual.

This has been your friendly reminder that even the little things you do can inspire others. (As if you needed more reasons to do them.)

So, on this day, go forth and do.

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This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


Discomfort Lasts About Thirty Seconds


Is Georgia officially in a drought?

It seems impossible that we wouldn’t be, given that we’ve basically been in a drought for every year I can remember, though I can’t specifically remember hearing about it this year. Given that this is a stream-of-consciousness post, I won’t be stopping to do research on that, but it seems fair to assume, especially since, prior to this week, it had been about six weeks since we glimpsed a raindrop.

Yup. Most of October and basically all of November slipped by without even a sprinkle here in the Greater Atlanta area, so the rains of the last two weeks have been welcome.

But as you know (maybe), I’m a runner, and one that won’t be confined to the indoors for a run even in the worst of conditions. (We do own a treadmill, but feh. That’s for if you’re 1000 steps short of your daily goal and you still have an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine to watch. And yeah, there’s gym memberships, but paying money to go to a sweaty room and run indoors is sort of the antithesis of why I run to begin with, so, nope, no gyms for me.)

So of course it happened: the first rain in over a month, and to boot, some of the nastiest to come our way came about on a run day, in the wee hours of the morning last week.

And while running in the rain can be delightful in the summer, in the winter (inasmuch as winter actually exists in the Southeastern United States), it’s not so much. Damp shoes mean blisters. Sodden clothes mean chafing. To say nothing of the sheer demoralizing cold that can seep into your bones in the throes of a windy, whipping rain on a thirty-five degree morning.

It’s more than a runner should be asked to bear, in other words, and it inspired in me that rare notion: that I could, I really could, just take the day off. Nobody would know but me. I’ve been diligent of late, and at this point, I know that missing a day doesn’t mean I fall off the train for good — a fear I had in my early days as a runner and that I still occasionally have as a writer. And, apologies to any readers north of the Mason-Dixon line, being an Atlanta native for basically my entire life, thirty-five degrees is cold. Add rain and wind and it’s prohibitively cold. In other words, this was an excellent candidate for a sleep-in morning (although sleeping in, in my house, means you’re up at 5:40 instead of 4:40. God, my college-aged self is spinning in his sheltered little womb just thinking about it.)

And, come to think of it, that’s how a lot of my writing days have felt of late. It’s rainy out there, and dark, and cold. It feels like harder work than I want it to be. The blank page doesn’t offer you much in return, and man, it sure would feel good just to take the time that I would have spent writing and use it on something else. An extra thirty minutes in bed. Getting some lesson planning done (how am I always so far behind? Oh yeah, because in my free time, I run and write instead of planning lessons). Reading. Squeezing in a nap.

But, y’know, I’ve gotten to the point that it’s not so much about convincing myself to do the thing that looks uncomfortable from the outside. Nine mornings out of ten, I’m just going to go for the run. I don’t have to berate myself, call myself a fat slob, chide myself about how lazy I’m going to feel … those days are gone. I know now, intrinsically, that the day is always better if I run. So I run. And, likewise, I don’t have to talk myself into facing down the blank page anymore, either. I just do it, as naturally and automatically as kicking my shoes off when I get in from work. It just feels wrong if I don’t. Getting the daily word count in is just the thing I do now.

All of which is to say that, despite the fact that it was a great morning for not getting the run in, I got the run in. It was as miserable as advertised. Within two minutes I was soaked through two layers. Half-blind from rain in the eyes. Feet squishing in my shoes. Huffing and coughing and slogging it through the cold, grinning wanly and shaking my head at the lonely cars driving by in the dark, laughing at what they must have been thinking seeing me out there.

I finished with nasty blisters on both feet (I almost never get blisters — not even from my six-mile mud run), which are still ailing me a week later. I had sore, stinging nips that itched uncomfortably under my shirt for the rest of the day, despite the band-aids I covered them with (nobody ever said running was glamorous). My chest-rattling cough resurged … the one I’ve been tangling with since October.

But it reminded me of a thing I already know: no matter how daunting the run looks, or how intimidating the blank page may be? Once you get over the fear of the thing and get into the guts of the thing, all of a sudden, it becomes a lot easier. In fact, once I got over the initial shock of the cold and the rain (which took about thirty seconds), it became just another run like virtually any other. The discomfort doesn’t last. After it passes, you just put your head down and go to work.

In short? The first step, the first word, the first day, the first anything? That’s the hardest. But once you’re in the thing — the run, the writing, the new job, whatever the challenge is — it becomes easier. Shockingly quickly, in fact, it becomes bearable when just moments before it was unthinkable.

It’s always better to take that first step despite the fear. (Well, I guess, unless that first step happens to be out your front door during the zombie apocalypse. In that case, maybe do sleep in.)

 

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Savage Race Recap: Blow-by-blow part 3


Disclaimer: This is the third part of a race report. If you care about continuity, the first part is here, and the second part is here. If you think that running and obstacle course races are endeavors fit only for the insane, well, you might not be wrong, but feel free to skip this entry. If you’re intrigued by all this, you can find lots of pictures and in-depth descriptions of these obstacles at Savage Race’s website.

This entry concludes the (maybe too) lengthy detour I took to talk about this race. Regularly scheduled programming will resume.

The first half of the course, despite its challenges, has been a kids’ gloves introduction to the course. In the second half, the gloves come off immediately. Mile four begins with the craziest ascent I’ve ever seen on a running trail. We’re leaning against the hill itself for support in climbing the hill; ropes and pickaxes wouldn’t go amiss here.

Then we turn around and come right back down it; apparently we climbed that monster for the sheer hell of it, and if that isn’t a perfect metaphor for this race, then I don’t know what is. Our next obstacle is a dunk into ice water — there’s literally a refrigerated truck next to two pools, and as I go under, I can feel the cubes clinking off my dome — which, frankly, comes none too soon in the ninety degree heat.

Then there’s more pain: we pick up lengths of 4×4 and sling them across our backs to carry them a quarter mile across more rolling hills. Why? Because we can. We’ve already run a 5k and covered an elevation gain of something like a half mile, given and taken; why not slog some lumber while we do more of the same? And then we shimmy sideways across railings not unlike the ones you stand in while you’re waiting for your turn on the American Scream Machine, and if you haven’t fantasized about doing that, well, then maybe you’re reading the wrong race report.

The obstacles come fast and furious now; the first half of the race gave us maybe three challenges per mile, but we’ve got twenty more to cover in the last 2.5 miles, which means a lot less running and a lot more scrambling. “Wheel World” pits us against rotating garden spigots that leave a lot of racers twisting and spinning helplessly in space before splashing down in defeat, but a simple application of my old maxim — momentum matters — carries me through the obstacle. Instead of attacking it head on, I roll into it sideways off the launch platform, and the rotation carries me cleanly across.

Then it’s up a culvert on an incline which shifts to a decline when you’re halfway across. The culvert is too narrow to crawl on hands and knees but too slick to commando crawl. I inch forward like a slug until it tips and spits me out into the dirt, my abs burning and my knees bruised.

Then a climbing wall; not up, but across, and it’s leaned backwards at a fifteen degree angle. This is my first failure: I just don’t have the grip to hold myself up and I stumble off into the dirt. But here’s the thing about that: at this point in the race, people are failing obstacles left and right, and there’s no shame or anger in it. You just dust yourself off and truck on. A point of training to return to for the next time.

Now another crawl under barbed wire, but this one through the thickest, soupiest mud yet; we come out the other side looking like the Michelin Man hosed down in brown goop. It clings and clumps to us as we mount the hill for the next challenge: a simple ramp. Except, thanks to the mud, it’s impossible to climb the thing. Even the rope is slick with the mud of hundreds of previous runners trying to summit this thing.

At this point, you can barely finish an obstacle before you’re on to the next. A twenty-foot climb followed by a terrifying leap into a deep pool. A diabolical jagged monkey bars over murky water. (This one puts me in the drink halfway across.) An inclined traverse around telephone poles that you have to hug like the college girlfriend that’s looking for a reason to dump you. A maze-like series of ropes and rings that drops racers like a series of particularly bad habits. (I slip off the rope almost immediately, with burns on my pinkie and ring fingers to show for it. Never in my life have I injured my pinkie finger, until today, but there it is.)

And here, again, I’m forcibly informed of the key difference between an OCR and a road race. Road races, and to a lesser extent, trail races, are a more or less linear challenge. The difficulty goes up predictably with the distance, and the race gets harder the farther you go. The effort wears you down, but you know what distance and pace you’re capable of. But with OCR, the challenge is on an exponential curve: they save the best (most challenging) obstacles for last, but by the time you get to them, you’re gassed out by the previous obstacles and/or the viciousness of the run itself.

I’ve now failed three obstacles and I’m almost a half hour behind my predicted finish time. And in a strict running race, that would be shattering. But here? Today? Staring down the final obstacle — a fifteen foot quarter-pipe, mud-slick from failed attempts to summit it and topped with hooting, cheering savages who’ve already made the climb — well, earlier I likened the event to a bacchanalia, and while there are no chemicals involved, we’re all drunk at this point. The falls on earlier obstacles don’t matter, the bruises on my knees, shins, and elbows are irrelevant, the mud caked in my eyebrows and the stubble on my scalp is totally off topic. I don’t care about the burning in my calves from the relentless ups-and-downs of these murderous hills. Every runner who makes the top of this ramp does so to a chorus of cheers and howls, and every one who fails and slides back to the earth meets a sympathetic groan.

But I’m tapped. I’ve got nothing left. The six miles of the run and the ridiculous crescendo of the obstacles have left me a pile of sentient Jell-o. I can no more make it up that ramp than I can sprout wings and ascend into the heavens. But I lower my head and charge at the ramp anyway.

I grab at the rope. My fingers seal around the knot, strangling it. Somehow, I fling my arm upward and catch the next know, and creep higher. But that’s it. I’m done. The ledge is right there, but I can’t reach it. I cry out, or at least I think I do. On the ledge above me is some guy I don’t even know, and he’s shouting at me like I’m Rocky. Grab that ledge. You can do it. Grab it. Come on! He could help me, but he knows — as I know — that it’ll mean that much more if I can make it on my own.

And I do. My fingers catch the ledge, then a hand has my forearm and I’m being lifted upwards over the edge. I tumble onto my back and stare up at the sky for a moment.

It’s a clear, beautiful Georgia afternoon. Wispy blue clouds, postcard blue sky. The roar all around me goes dull.

I’m acutely aware that this afternoon would have been a gorgeous one whether or not I had put myself through the wringer of this race. But somehow, the air is a little sweeter, the breeze a little cooler, the sky a little bluer.

But there’s no time to rest. I get to my knees and turn around to offer a pay-it-forward hand up to a few other racers climbing their way up after me. High-fives and slaps on the back abound. Then, it’s over to the other side of the wall — a slide right back down into (you guessed it) more muddy water. And there’s the finish line. Somebody puts a medal around my neck. A bottle of icy water is shoved into my hand. Half of it goes on my head, half of it goes down in a few greedy gulps. It tastes like the untamed glaciers of the Arctic.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this race, a lot more than I usually bother to write about running. (Partly that’s because fitness isn’t really the focus of my blarg here, but partly that’s because there’s really only so much you can say about running.) But I think the race deserves a bit of time and reflection. It wasn’t just an event, it was an experience. I’m not going to say I’m a better person because of it — that would be shallow and too easy, I think — but there’s an ineffable sense of accomplishment swirling around me after finishing this thing, even almost a full week later.

There’s something primal about it that no amount of running or hours spent in a gym can replicate. Running, jumping, crawling, climbing — these are things our bodies evolved to do, and the creature comforts of this modern life have allowed too many of us to forget we can do them. Savage Race was a test in a way I’ve never been tested. It’s a bit like life, really: it throws a challenge at you, beats you up, bruises you a bit, knocks you in the mud. Then, if you come through to the other side, it says, “okay, you handled that. Now how about this one?” And it repeats, on and on until you drag yourself across the finish line, or until you tap out, give up testing yourself and walk the rest of the way home.

I’m happy to say that, even though I didn’t complete every obstacle, I tried every one. And my run may not have been pretty, but life ain’t pretty. We all get a little dinged up, a little scraped and bruised along the way. We all get a little dirty. Sometimes it hurts. But you can still run the race with a smile on your face.

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