Gratefulness: Running

Throughout the month of November, I want to take time to share about people or things I am grateful for over the past year. Previous entries: Jeremy BoumanPublic LibrariesFuel SaverEric CarpenterWellCare/MedicaidThat One Jimmy’s Egg MealBeth Katz & Lonnie Michael, Mark Rober.

I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run — simply because I wanted to. I’ve always done whatever I felt like doing in life. People may try to stop me, and convince me I’m wrong, but I won’t change.

Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

At age 42, why start running now? I wasn’t sure at first. This past June, I was hanging out with my friend, Tim Perry, and he mentioned he had an old NordicTrack collecting dust since he had a newer one he uses. I told him I’d gladly take the old one off his hands. Being the awesome guy he is, Tim brought it over to my house, set it up, all for free (well, I think I got him a cup of coffee), and I had something to work out with now. No excuses.

The workouts started slow as my body got used to the training. It was fun, and I was seeing results with my body weight. I had been up in the 185-190 range again, which may not seem like much, but with my body I knew it wasn’t good because of a previous diagnosis. Doing NordicTrack, I was losing 1 to 2 pounds every week.

Soon enough, I found myself wanting to do more. I think it might have been the shoes I bought, a pair of minimalist Nike running shoes. They fit well when using the NordicTrack, but why not try them for what they were designed to do?

My first run was a half mile cool down after a forty-five minute NordicTrack workout.  The next day I did another brief run after working out on the NordicTrack, and I found myself enjoying the run more.

The third time I went on a run we were in Colorado. Over 4800 feet in elevation. I ran almost a mile and a half. It was hard, but there was also satisfaction in knowing I ran a mile for the first time in over twenty years. It was slow, nothing like in high school when I ran 5:30 to 6:00 miles with no proper coaching. Still, it was something. I could still do it.

I ran a few more times in Colorado. Trying to breathe at elevation was hard, but I kept adding to my distance bit by bit.

Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as whole.

Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

When we returned to Omaha I found myself wanting to run more. Something had clicked within me. I know my physical prime is long past, but with running I could tangibly push the physical limits of my body in a way I couldn’t do with other sports. It wasn’t a matter of feeling young. It was feeling alive in a way I hadn’t for quite some time.

As I get older, inevitably I think about what might have been when it comes to athletics. (Not that I’m Uncle Rico! Do people know Napoleon Dynamite still?) Some of the joy I had with play and athletics was sapped in high school for a variety of reasons. I stopped caring toward the end. One example being coaching techniques along the lines of “you have no heart”. Yeah, caring was sapped over the years when you are belittled or feeling you aren’t cared for instead of coached. When it came to running, there was no oversight. “Do some stretching, and run to UNO and back.” These coaches were decent people, high school teachers, who probably added coaching to help pay the bills. After a long day of teaching and dealing with teenagers, they are…coaching teenagers. I get that. It’s hard. And, I know my classmates and I were difficult at times. I own my part of it. I can still be disappointed when I look back at what might have been when it came to sports. Especially when it came to track. I was a decent athlete who had some speed. My sophomore year I ran a 56 flat 400m. I didn’t win the race, but I knew I had it in me. The feeling faded as practices were the usual of doing your own thing and filling time until you could go home. What if? What if someone would have pulled me aside and encouraged me about the potential I had? I wasn’t going to be a state champion, but what could I have done if I kept at it?

In other words, let’s face it: Life is basically unfair. But even in a situation that’s unfair, I think it’s possible to seek out a kind of fairness. Of course, that might take time and effort. And maybe it won’t seem to be worth all that. It’s up to each individual to decide whether or not it is.

Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

I can’t go back in time, but I can live in the moment I am in now. And I started doing so when it came to running. I kept adding distance to my runs. I looked for opportunities to run. There was a Friday morning where I ran to the breakfast place instead of driving. The next long run I did was 2.5 miles, and when I finished I knew I could have gone longer. I could have done a 5K. I walked home thinking about it, and then went online and researched local 5K races before I had even run a 5K. I thought I should actually run a 5K before running a 5K race. A week later, I ran my first 5K. And then I registered for my first 5K race.

The day I registered for the Omaha Marathon 5K the race was just over two weeks away. It became forefront in my thoughts. I was concerned how I might perform, not wanting to be done in by the race or course. I didn’t want to be revealed as a fraud. Not that any other runners would have said that. They would’ve cheered me on for taking the plunge with the race! I ran four more 5K’s before the race. As my times improved, I looked at previous results from this course. I began to wonder if I even had a chance to place in my age division.

I didn’t sleep well in the days leading up to the race. I even dreamt about running. I tried to think of a strategy, but since this was new I was guessing and googling techniques and tactics. And then the weather was forecast to be unseasonably warm with high humidity.

When it comes to running, the ideal running weather is cool temperatures. Forty to fifty degrees, depending on the person. At race time, the temperature would be eighty degrees with seventy percent humidity. (Mid-September Nebraska weather, I guess.) I drank a lot of water the day before to make sure I had fluids, but when I kept going to the bathroom the night before the race I was irritated I wasn’t sleeping.

Of course it was painful, and there were times when, emotionally, I just wanted to chuck it all. But pain seems to be a precondition for this kind of sport. If pain weren’t involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive–or at least a partial sense of it. Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself.

Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

Race day, and I was anxious. I started running less than two months before…was I ready? I had some goals in my mind (setting a PR, coming under 29:00, placing in my division), but ultimately I wanted to finish (and not embarrass myself). My family was there to cheer me on, and as 240 of us started outside TD Ameritrade ballpark I could see and hear my boys cheering me on. It gave me a boost as I raced ahead.

As we made the turn onto Capitol Ave, the conditions started separating people. My sides cramped, which was something I’d never felt before. I worried I went out too fast. I didn’t want to quit, and I didn’t want to walk at any point. It was a matter of pushing through the pain. The goals I had in mind were quickly pushed aside except one. “Finish.”

I ran alone thinking about what it was I was doing. I tried to stay within myself and run my race. All of a sudden, I’m making my way back. I’m on Capitol Ave again. I think of my family at the finish line, and wanting them to be proud. I make the turn onto 10th Street, and the stadium is in sight. People are along the street cheering you on. The heat and humidity have reduced my energy to almost nothing, but I will not stop. I can see my boys in the distance, getting excited as they see me. A few fist bumps, and I make way into the stadium. Someone had warned me you think you are done, and then you get inside the stadium and realize you have to run the entire warning track. It’s okay, I know I’m close. And as I cross the finish line I hear my family cheering. 

Finished. I managed to win my division, and set a new PR. The boys loved all the free food and drinks the volunteers were cheerfully giving them. We celebrated as a family with some free pizza (thanks to the library’s summer reading program). And after it was all said and done, after the physical pain and wonder of if I could do it, I was ready to run some more. 

If you’re young and talented, it’s like you have wings.

Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

What was next? I had my own ideas, but then a fun development occurred. Liam wanted to run with me. So, a week after the 5K race, he paced with me on a 5K run in our neighborhood. He knew the way home if he got too tired and started walking, but that didn’t happen. While he lagged a bit behind, he ran the entire way. Liam’s first time running a 5K? He ran faster than every other time I had run a 5K until that day, when I set a new PR. 

It begins to dawn on him that he is fast, and that he can do well. He expresses interest in running a 5K race with me, so we look at the fall schedule of races. We end up picking  the 5K race we did because we both liked the Day of the Dead themed design of the t-shirt and medals.

Liam wants to run more. The next time we run a 5K together he paces with me the entire way like last time, but now he taps into a reserve and blows by me the last few blocks. All I can do is smile and marvel at youth. We run again, this time at Lake Zorinsky Park, where the race will be run, and we run fast. In the end, we finish together while establishing new a PR, 27:06, for us. We are ready for the race.

We look forward to the race, but the time with Liam I am enjoying more. He wants to talk about strategy, pacing, and how he can get faster. We discuss goals for the race. (I ended up with seven goals.) He knows he is fast for his age group, but much like the lead up to my first race how does that translate in an actual race? And, much like the lead up to my first race, he has trouble sleeping since he is thinking constantly about the race. Throughout the week leading up to the race, I am constantly encouraging him. 

One month after my first race, Nebraska weather makes an appearance again on race day. This time, it is cold. Wind gusts make it feel like it is in the mid-30s. We arrive before the sun has risen, and every runner there is hanging out in their vehicle. We register and make our way back to the minivan to stay warm. Liam isn’t sure about the race ahead because of the wind chill, but I tell him not to worry. We’ll be okay. “Just stay with me at the outset, and you’ll be fine.”

We line up at the front, just so we don’t have to weave through too many people up the initial hill and across the dam. The race starts, and we take off. A handful of people pass us on the dam, but for the most part we are on our own running the course. We are running fast, the fastest 5K pace yet for us, but I’m concerned about maintaining the pace. Well, more concerned for myself. Liam can blow by me, it’s just a matter of belief and understanding for him.

As we come back across the dam, I start to pick up my pace. I know I don’t have the quick burst Liam does. I need to work up to it. Get my momentum going. This separates me from Liam a bit as we close in on 2.75 miles. I keep increasing my pace ever so slightly, and all of a sudden we are nearing the end. The descent from the dam is upon us, and I lengthen my stride. I start to hear Liam’s steps increasing in volume as he comes up behind me on the hill. As we come to the bottom, and the final stretch before the line, we both sprint as fast as we can. The lead I had built up on the dam helps me edge him by two steps. The picture of us at the end says it all. My face full of strain and exertion, and Liam looks like he is out for a relaxing jog. 

When we cross the line, I turn to him, hug him, and tell him I love him. We both set PR’s of 25:22, which bests our previous PR by a 1:44! We finish in the top ten, Liam wins his division, I accomplish all seven goals I had, we have our awesome Day of the Dead medals, and we have a wonderful memory of accomplishing something together. For Liam, it’s only the beginning if he wants to continue with running. I know this, he has helped me improve as a runner.

For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.

Haruki Murakami, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Running”

I ran eight miles this morning. Four months ago that was not possible, but today I did it at a relaxed pace. I want to run faster, I want to run farther. Then what? At age 42, I can only do so much. What happens when I come upon my limit? A feeling of satisfaction. 

The feeling of satisfaction comes often when I finish a run. There have been a few times where I’m not sure I want to run, or early in the run I feel sluggish and am not sure I can go as fast or as long as I hoped, but I end up pushing through to the end. There is satisfaction with those runs. There are also the runs where you feel you can run all day. I remember the first time I ran a 10K, and even though a thunderstorm moved in halfway through the run I felt great as I was drenched from head to toe.

When I finish most runs now I come inside and have a cup of coffee. I relax and think. My little reward for getting out there and running. Satisfied.

I had my yearly checkup a few weeks ago. My blood pressure? 88/52. The nurse told me, “You’re barely alive.” It made me smile because Murakami recounts how nurses in America check his pulse and ask if he is a runner because it is so low.

Being active every day makes it easier to hear that inner voice.

Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

Last week, I found out I didn’t get a pastoral job I wanted. It was a position that was first brought up to me in January. In July, when asked about it again, I started to consider it. Jana and I prayed about it consistently. I applied in August. Three months later, I find out I am not going to get it. I felt numb. Months of consideration, planning, and wondering what might be…and in a snap it disappears. Some will say to get yourself back out there, but mentally and emotionally I can’t turn right around and do that. 

The first run I went on after finding out, I wanted to distract myself with podcasts or an audiobook. I decided against it and would run in silence. Maybe some prayer. Maybe some reflection. I wasn’t sure what, but I didn’t want to distract myself from reality. 

I didn’t want to run as I started the run. A 10K was before me. Here’s what I wrote in my journal:

It was cold, and I felt slow, but I tried to pray during my run. I talked to God. I listened. I meditated. I tried to connect to the world and environment around me. I wondered about where I’m at and what the future might hold. It was a thoughtful run. No noise. No one around me. Just me…running alone.  The idea of running alone connected me to Jesus, as He had stretches where he probably felt alone after he was baptized. After the last supper, how often was Jesus alone? How often did he cry out to God? My situation is not the physical equivalent, but I made a connection with Christ there. Faithfulness to God…there will be times of loneliness. What does one do then? Stay faithful? Or, do you sacrifice faithfulness to ease your pain?

No answers. No clues. But a reminder that Jesus knows and understands the pain and disillusionment I felt. A reminder He is there with me.

I keep running. I don’t want to walk or quit. Stay faithful. Finish the race. 

Perhaps I’m just too painstaking a type of person, but I can’t grasp much of anything without putting down my thoughts in writing.

Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

3300 words later, I am grateful for running.

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