In the Distances

Lucidity teases from just beyond the water beading down a rain-spattered window, a hint of blue sky on the horizon, perhaps no more than fifty kilometers away.

Moments of such clarity are rare these days.

Blame work stress. Blame middle age deterioration of the mind and body. Blame self-doubt in a politically strained world. Blame bad shoes. Blame cheap fast food in the mall. Blame a half-baked attempt at training for… well, for almost anything over the past three years.

Mostly, I blame myself. (That’s called accountability.)

Ten years ago I discovered the secret to breaking through the metaphorical rain-spattered glass pane. No, it was not a general secret or a bit of wisdom that has any meaning beyond the confines of my own befuddled brain. But, yes, it was my little secret. My personal hack. My golden ticket through the locked gates and into the whimsical world of epic personal achievement.

It’s words.

My secret was just as simple as that: words.

Specifically, the writing of words. The sharing of words. The construction of sentences from words and then stringing those words into coherent thoughts and ideas and eventually something so much more. Words that no one but I may ever read, but words, dammit… words!

I make no claim that words are a mental hack for anyone but myself (though I suspect that writing stuff down probably works for many people) but I do know damn well that somehow they work for me. Writing. Words gushed into blank digital realms. Words posted into the distant miasma of the internet. Words traced into social medias, filtered through layers of personal accountability, searchable, traceable, readable, out …there. Words wrapped around personal goals and structured into meaningful objectives ultimately bleeding to actual action.

I write it down. I do it. I write about it. Then I do more of it. Ad naseum.

I had been fairly certain of this notion about the creepy grip that words hold over me even prior to this rare lucid moment. Fairly certain… but not locked into the possibility with any sort of conviction. No conviction. No certainty. No… I wouldn’t have written that down with any sort of confidence. No, not until I stopped writing those words and that truth kicked me in the ass.

Yeah, just words did that. Why?

Words found me my first marathon through the carefully plotted plan and accounting of all that training.

Words traced some impossible path to where I, some guy who had once seen a concert, wrote and practiced and wrote some more until after two years I found myself sitting on the stage of the city’s renowned concert hall performing the violin.

Words gilded a path through parenting a beautiful little girl into adolescence as I hashed out the nuances of responsibility clashing with common sense. Words made sense of the chaos.

Yet for a million stupid, cowardly reasons I repaid those words with neglect and dismissal.

I walked away. I silenced my keyboard. I stopped writing.

Lucidity to this point teased me through the window as a storm raged on the far side of the glass. Nineteen stories in the air, gazing into a different sort of miasma of dust and water, swooping birds, wisps of cloud, construction debris, and a single helium balloon in the shape of a child’s rainbow streaking past the mirrored glass of a nearby office tower. Nineteen stories and in a moment of lucidity it was obvious that not one of those was my own story. I had lost the thread, lost my path, and lost myself.

To be honest (and we can be honest now can’t we?) no one is reading these words to unravel my complex relationship with writing.

Though it may becoming clear that to lose oneself in such a neglect is a path fraught with the perils of self-doubt, depression, anger, confusion, and personal struggle. I did not seek any of these things, but they had found me as surely as falling rain had spattered onto the glass of my office window. Words of another sort began to haunt me, never escaping onto any sort of page or into the world through a welcoming keyboard. Words of that sort burrow into the mind, down into the heart, and take up residence in the soul. Words of that sort infect and destroy, and on those rarified occasions when I found myself trying to gaze out into the world then words of that sort had speckled the view with droplets of discouragement and fear.

Lucidity teased from just beyond that clutter.

Lucidity teased in the form of a simple realization, a new conviction forged in the understanding that the absence of words had left me unbalanced, unguided, lacking direction, hope, idealism, and worth. Lucidity offered two simple glimpses through the speckled glass, past the rain, beyond the miasma, and into the hint of blue sky off on the horizon. Lucidity suggested purpose, a plan, and perhaps one last anchoring inspiration: Write. And find something to write about.

But what?

How that conviction spun into the vague possibility that the “something to write about” could be an almost year-long effort to do anything and everything possible to become someone who could run an ultramarathon, fifty kilometers through wilderness trails, to tune my mind and my body into a state of preparation and readiness for such a feat, well… that is the subject of these words.

Why We Rest: Injury

Sitting in frustrated pain, I’m elevating my foot. A week before a race, a race I’ve been planning for for months, training for through a harsh winter, running for indoors just to get the miles in — and a simple, stupid misstep means I’m going to miss out.

Injury happens.

In over a decade of running I’ve sat out a half dozen races with pulled muscles, tweaked knees, cramped calves, inflamed arches, or stinging sciatic nerve pain. It can be lingering in the background, warning of impending failure. Or it can sneak up and leap out of a dark corner of good intentions and leave you angry and frustrated at the lack of warning.

Today I’m nursing a bruised — maybe even broken — toe.

I don’t know for certain. I could — should — go see a doctor and have an x-ray done, and perhaps that is even the most sensible thing. It’s not pride or laziness that keeps me away. I’ve been here before and they’ll just say “stay off it for a couple weeks.” So instead I’ll just look at the purple, tender tarsal that is ringing up my leg with pain with every step I take and realize that I probably just need to rest. No doctor required.

History tells me more bad news: this means the chance I’ll be in shape for a half marathon in five days is deeply, sadly, frustratingly unlikely.

Injury happens, and rest is often the only recourse. “Stay off it for a couple weeks.” Forget about running, at least.

Tackling some household maintenance, I stepped off a stool and clipped the edge of it with my pant leg. I watched in slow motion as the stool lost its balance and rocked over, landing with a crack on my big toe. Blood. Pain. Some PG-13 language uttered in the presence of my daughter. And a day later I’m sporting a purple shade and barely able to pull a sock over my foot, let alone walk.

This just means that racing through icy winter roads to do a half marathon is on hiatus this year.

It also means that I need to remind myself that sometimes the most important part of training is taking some time off. To rest.

How to Injury (with Style)

  1. Yeah… “stay off it for a couple weeks.”
  2. Take up a low impact sport for a change: swimming or some light spin.
  3. Write about it on social media.
  4. No, really… “stay off it for a couple weeks.” It sucks but you’re injured because you’re [insert one: tired, sick, over-training, imbalanced, clumsy] and probably need a few days off.
  5. Adjust your diet: injured doesn’t mean sit on the couch and each nacho chips instead of working out.

Why We Run: Footprints

If I were to let the snow get under my skin, metaphorically speaking, I would quickly grow fat, lazy, and boring in this winter city where the frost holds dominion for nearly half of the year.

Cold — brutal, toe-freezing, shivering cold — is my reality for at least two months each year. Those two months are fringed and spastically punctuated with just a lingering, discomforting cold, but for two months furnaces blast a hovel of safe warmth through the wood and insulation of my small prairie home just to maintain a glimmer of protection against the deadly outside.

I do have a personal rule about just how much cold I will realistically tolerate. It is a gut instinct really, though calculated based on time of day, length of run, strength of wind, trail conditions, precipitation (usually frozen), just how far into the season we are and how much my tolerance has been leveled, my overall mood, and if there is anything good on Netflix.

That means if something falls outside the comfort of these rules, I hide in my house. If it doesn’t? I make footprints in the snow.

It has been many years since any deep or abiding fascination with true path-finding through my city clung to my conscious purpose in running these trails. My early running career was one of seeking new routes, entering unfamiliar trail-heads, and breaking with the known with a careful expectation of adventure. Curiosity drove me to reveal many paths.

The unfamiliar quickly mingled with the everyday. After a couple years, finding new paths became a rarity mixed among the plodding necessity of race-training.

Fresh snow changes that.

Trails, routes, paths are all trampled with a quantitative measure of feets. The more prints, the more common the path. The more prints, the more people have already found a particular route through the wilds of the city.

Untrod branches in the path beckon. No prints tempt of the allure of something less common. Perhaps we are not the first to go this way. It is unlikely, in fact… but there are few enough that to break through a fresh snowfall on a trail feels closer to exploring than just plodding along in the cold for mere mileage.

Why We Run: Resolving

Forty-eight hours into a brand new year and I can already feel the motivation slipping.

I set a thousand and one goals as the hours ticked down on last year: eat better, run often, write boldly, worry less, post clean, capture moments, and dig deeper. Resolutions writ bravely upon a fresh new calendar, and all of them seeming abruptly ambitious now that the hours press into days and soon into weeks.

The very first thing I did on the morning of January first, however, was the same thing I’ve done every January first for a decade: I’ve run a five klick race.

I woke up, drank coffee, pulled on my shoes, and driven to the annual Resolution Run. We traipse into the cold of the new year, be it minus forty or a balmy barely-sub-zero as this year. We linger at the start. The anthem is sung. The other new years clock counts down to the 11 am and we run the first run of the year.

Five klicks through icy, oatmeal, mashed-potato’d streets and cold. A new year and a new resolve, and over a pancake breakfast on the floor of a small recreation centre gymnasium we ponder our distance totals from last year and our grand ambitions for this new one.

After a depressing December of too much food and dwindling motivation, we dash into just another day with a kind of renewed appraisal of this sport, and resolving to set grand goals in the blur of it all.

How to Goal Set (using your head)

  1. Set simple, manageable goals. Y’know… things that you can actually accomplish. Sure, there’s glory in shooting for the moon, but very few people actually get there.
  2. Make yourself accountable to someone (besides yourself).
  3. Write stuff down. Measure. Track. Record. Make a spreadsheet or keep a journal. Take photos of your ass in the mirror. Something. Your brain is fickle and will convince you of failure unless you can present it with hard evidence of success and change.
  4. Don’t wait for a special day to start. Go live today.
  5. Remember that incremental change (and success) is worth celebrating.

Why We Run: Coffee

I have just sat down at a crowded table in a crowded cafe nestled in center of an even more crowded recreation complex. It’s Sunday morning. I don’t know many of the people milling about in the building or even the cafe, but the table is ringed by chairs full of sweaty people who I’m delighted to call some of my closest friends.

We’ve just run. We’ve just laced up and plodded for some distance, maybe long, maybe short, around the vast suburban sprawl and along the winding, tree-lined asphalt trails and then, eventually, back to the shelter of the glass and steel complex which, as it turns out, was our most honest destination: the coffee purveyor and a crowded cafe in the middle of that very building.

I’ve been asking myself for ten years: why?

Why do I wake up early on Sunday morning and rush towards a long, painful training distance run?

Why do I eagerly lace up after a hard day of work just to climb up and down concrete hill repeats?

Why do I pull on my warm layers of moisture-wicking fabrics and beat down snow covered paths just to accumulate some mileage on an otherwise quiet morning?

But then I find myself at that crowded table, warm coffee in hands, and understand that without the run there remains no excuse.  Without the run I’m am outsider in this group.  Without the run I have not earned the beverage.  So I run, and then I buy my medium-sized paper cup filled to the brim with a nutty, dark roast brew. I pull up a chair… and I take a sip. 

Coffee, it turns out, is one of those social lubricants that eases the distances between groups of people with vast gaps between their personalities. We may slog through the streets together week after week after week, but bring us together around a few wobbly cafe tables and the nuances of those relationships emerge.

Construction workers mash minds with computer scientists. Receptionists relate to elementary school teachers. Retirees sip brew across from university students.

In a world of oh-too-many claustrophobic relationships built inside silos of perception, we run… and then consume hot caffeinated drinks alongside people we’d be otherwise unlikely to encounter.

We run for fitness, but the coffee is the metaphorical whipped cream upon the sundae of strengthening our bodies and shaping up our health.