“If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four hour run, you ain’t getting them.” – – Christopher McDougall in “Born To Run”
I’m needing to conduct a class tomorrow on one of the main products sold by the company I work for, so this weekend I’ve been holed up for the most part, studying as I did most of last semester whenever an exam was looming large. Translation: rather than cracking open any material, I’ve spent most of my time sitting around and fretting about it. To a degree, I’m stuck. I know the material as I work with it on a daily basis. I have no problem with being in front of a group of 15 people or more, as I love performing, and the more the merrier. My concerns are twofold. 1) I’m going to be presenting in front of one of my supervisors, and 2) I’m going to be presenting in front of one of my supervisors. Though it’s only a practice run and I’m likely going to be getting excellent feedback that I in fact need, I’m still nervous. So now, at 4:01 in the afternoon the plan is to give my material a quick run-through before I actually go out and attempt a ten-miler (after the sun goes down a bit more) and during the time I’m doing so enlist the assistance of any angels, faeries, kindred spirits, ascended masters, mosquitoes, wookies, tazmanian devils, anyone or anything who will listen. I am officially stuck. My outline is complete, and with some spontaneous “tweaking” done over the weekend I think it’s a good plan. After all is said, done, and written, I still need to allow for flexibility dependent on how engaged the class is going to be, or more importantly, how engaged I can cause them to be. In one of the guideline points my supervisor wrote out for me, she said “Get creative here, Michael. You have lots of resources.” For the life of me, I have no clue where they went off to. Running to the rescue. I hope.
It was in 1978 when I was sitting in an easy chair at the home of my friend Chris, halfway watching a late afternoon college football game and was probably cracking open my fourth or fifth beer, when Chris said “Let’s go for a run.” I gave him the most intelligent response I could come up with: “What?” “C”mon,” he said, “Let’s go for a quick run.” He was already putting on his running shoes. Chris was known to do such things. Sometimes he would want to bowl on the spur of the moment, or go to a movie, or maybe play a little boot hockey, all activities I was ok with because I knew that I could trick my way into sitting my 220 lb body down most of the time. But, running? Get real. Frank Shorter had won the Olympic marathon in 1972 and the ensuing “running boom” was in full swing. Chris had hopped on board and was training for his first marathon. Sitting on his coffee table was a copy of “The Complete Book Of Running” by Jim Fixx. I knew he was all in where running was concerned and admired his ambition, but right now he was interrupting my beer drinking time. So imagine my surprise when I found myself jogging ever so slowly up and down Clifton and Fulton Avenues in St. Paul. I mostly walked, and Chris was kind enough to go at my pace, which is to say no stopwatch was needed to time us – – just a calendar. One and a half miles later we were back in Chris’s living room, I was plopping myself back in the easy chair, and greeted my waiting beer can with something like “Hello, Gorgeous” and resumed my slurping. But an odd shift had occurred. Chris pulled a few more of his “Let’s go for a run” maneuvers on me every now and then, but I was no longer surprised. In fact, I looked forward to when he would pull the trigger. Running made me feel good.
At my six month sobriety point, July of 1989, I went into a gradually deepening depression. Having only a part time job and lots of spare time on my hands, I began running whenever I could to make myself feel better. From that month of July to the following in 1990, I went from 220 pounds to about 130. It was not uncommon for me to lace up my shoes on a whim and go for “a little jog,” not to return until I had covered 14 or 15 miles. The depression was dealt with through therapy, and in January of 1991, not knowing a thing about what it took to run a marathon, I dropped an application in the mail for Grandma’s in June of that year. I somehow felt confident that mailing the application would trigger the necessary chain of events that would give me everything I needed to know. A synchronistic series of conversations led me to register for a twelve week training class with the Minnesota Distance Runners Association, where we would be lectured by experienced runners each week, (including little Sue Olson who once ran Grandma’s while 8 1/2 months pregnant) and challenged by each other with some increasingly long runs together. I finished my first marathon in 4:22, a time I’ve still not bettered. What I was intrigued by however, was this amazing capacity that running gave me to go a little deeper into myself. Indeed, stuck points in problem solving usually warranted a five or six miler. I can’t say that a series of uninterrupted light bulbs has gone off ever since then, with every single problem being solved on a run, but it has often produced a solution. The worst case scenario is that usually I feel more clear headed when I get done. Again, running makes me feel good.
The Hopis say that running is a form of prayer. I’m not Hopi, though. The general consensus seems to be that my lineage bends more toward Mayan. You know, the Mayans? Yeah. The ancient tribe that has been looked at as an enormously advanced spiritual culture. The same culture that used to play a baseball-like game in which the losing team was sacrificed. By that type of criteria, I guess many parts of the world today are pretty spiritually advanced. Great folks, the ancient Mayans. Wouldn’t wanna lose a chess game to one of them, though. Heritage aside, I am an oddity in that I’m the only distance runner that anyone knows of in my immediate or extended family. There is no rational explanation for anyone in my family to go off and become a distance runner. Maybe it’s just that nobody else had a beer-drinking buddy named Chris thirty-five years ago. Ironically, Chris ran into some back problems later in 1978, topped out at nineteen miles in his training, and was ordered by his doctor not to run long distances again. He never completed a marathon. I am now training for my fourteenth.
I chase after the ever elusive “runners high,” that breeze of a feeling when my mind and body shift into another gear, I feel like I can run forever, and experience one of the few times in my world where “being as One with all things” really is an experience rather than a theory. Alas, the runner’s high is a matter of grace, and happens unexpectedly, and not very often. The only equivalent “activity” I’ve ever had has been meditation. The late William Glasser certainly didn’t write “Positive Addiction” by accident: half the book extols the virtues of running, the other half is on meditation. The book was my bible for a while. Today, my bible is the running itself. I’ve run sporadically this week, and don’t feel quite as “up” as I normally do. My neurons need to be fired up with activity. My outlook needs to be revamped. After I get done with my run, I suspect the supervisor I’m nervous about presenting in front of will look more like an ally and a mentor than an obstacle to somehow sneak beyond. Running really is a form of prayer. Though I’ve once again barely scratched the surface of a topic dear to me, even writing a little about it makes my heart sing. Running enhances creativity, keeps me fit, helps me maintain a reasonably healthy weight, and there are no gym fees. It mellows me out, give me great stamina in many areas life, and makes me feel more vibrant and alive. No, it’s not for everyone, and I’m sure not advocating it as being a be-all or end-all. With running can also come injuries, although I’ve been very fortunate to escape with very few (and no knee problems!) over the last thirty-five years. I love to run. It is one of my joys in life. It can be every bit as ageless as meditation or yoga. Ask the Indian runner who completed his first marathon at age 92 in 6:42. The next year he took off almost an hour and came in at 5:43. He began running at age 89 to grieve the loss of his son.
The benefits are many, the down side small. I’ve run in a -60 windchill, and in torrential downpours. And yet the one thing that bothers me is running in the wind no matter what the temperature. Living in Minnesota, this can be pretty tough to get around. Today my single-eye is on the benefits. I truly want to produce a good class for all of the newbies coming into my workplace. As I’m relatively inexperienced in teaching classes, my intuition is leading me to participate in the activities that make for a better me in order to do well. My fall back is the following quote from ultra-marathoner Ephraim Romesberg, stated at mile 65 of the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135 mile race that begins at the base of Death Valley, and finishes atop Mount Whitney: “I always start these events with very lofty goals, like I’m going to do something special. And after a point of body deterioration, the goals get evaluated down to basically where I am now – – where the best I can hope for is to avoid throwing up on my shoes.” With that in mind, I have no place to go but up. Hello ten-miler, my old Friend . . .