Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Track is The Truth

At some point in our lives we get it. How we spend our time, the things we say, the choices we make, they all matter. I spent six weeks last summer lying in bed with my leg elevated and on ice waiting for the swelling to go down and the pain of standing to go away. I had plenty of time to consider the consequences of my actions and the weight of my choices. Another summer spent not racing (my 4th). A couple of times given the pain and the size of my leg, I wondered whether or not I'd ever see "normal" again.

So as I weighed the consequences of my choices, the seemingly innocent sprint down a corridor and the pulled hamstring that came from it pointed to a series of inappropriate decisions made over the course of the preceding months. These decisions in turn pointed to other poor choices which spanned years. From this perspective, as I started to unravel the tight yarn of my blurry eyed past self deceit, a disturbing pattern began to emerge. Over the course of years there were the nights where I stayed up beyond the point of tired after a day of working out, work and then working out again. There were the times I skipped meals or ate food of substandard quality. All the times I drank soda instead of water. The times I raced or trained dehydrated. And I couldn't count the times where I worked out even though I hadn't properly prepared, or did workouts or raced when I shouldn't have -- when my body said, "I am not ready." And there were the countless times where that "easy" training ride with friends turned way too "race like". But worst of all were the times I remembered pushing too hard, went too far and wound up injured or over trained or both. I began to realize each time I was injured, there had been a little voice in the back of my head advising caution and suggesting moderation. And I had ignored it.

In the times in life where we are fortunate enough come face to face with ourselves, we should look long and hard. There is wisdom to be found in the face of our consequences. This time I realized I should try to learn from it. For me it became apparent that I was guilty of forgetting who I truly was in favor of the athlete I thought I was, or was trying to become. What do I mean by that? Well in terms of training and in life, there is the person we are at the moment. Becoming aware of that person and respecting them is a true talent. Otherwise, we "ignore" this and have to live with the consequences. It is in the times where we ignore who we really are that we are choosing to be "truly ignorant" of ourselves and our truth.

My friend Luis understood this all too well. When we met he worked a couple of stores down from the running store I was managing at the time. He hadn't run since college and had put on some weight. He wanted to start again. I don't know why but I asked him if he wanted a job at the store. But working with him gave my own running new focus. And the results were amazing. Unlike most people who had run in another lifetime and been quite good at it Luis was different. He was patient. He understood that he was overweight and out of shape so he ran like it. He ran slowly. Somewhere between an 8:00 and 9:00 pace to start. For someone who was formerly a legitimate 4:15 miler in college that is a huge difference.

"Of course my body remembers the speed it had and so does my mind, and I could try to run like that. But to run like that before I am ready will only leave me disappointed and probably injured. I didn't magically wake up one day and run that fast. I did it in stages. This is what we are doing now. By running slowly we prepare for the day when we can run fast later."

And so we ran like this all summer long. Easy recovery runs around the lake to begin with, later adding some short fartleks, then eventually some tempo runs. After about 3 months we started to enter a 10k a week. But even these races were run at a conversational pace which by this time had dropped to about 7:30 per mile. About 6 weeks later this pace soon gave way to 6:45 and we still talked. Runs with Luis were always different. Sometimes in the morning. Sometimes for lunch. Other times we ran late at night in the middle of the road. What was constant was lots of talking and laughing. His approach was simple, training should always be social and fun. This was the only constant in our runs. From Luis, I learned that fast wasn't always the way to faster.

It wasn't until early winter that Luis took us to the track and I finally saw a more serious side to my friend. "The track is the truth," he said to me as pressed his palm to the surface in a sort of private greeting. "You cannot hide in this place. Think you are a 5:00 miler or a 6:00 miler, and the track will show you. It will show you and everyone else who is paying attention. If you race here and you do not belong, everyone watching will know. Think you can run such and such pace for so long? Come here and find out. You may be right. You may be wrong. But at least you will know." I didn't argue with Luis when he said those words because I was seeing a side I him I hadn’t been shown before. But now I knew why he had been able to run so fast. You can’t fake the track the way some people fake races by blurring the lines a bit. “The course was long, the turn wasn’t marked and it added 400 meters to my time.” “I’m usually faster but, you know with that wind…” You get the picture.

The reasons we all run are as varied as they are deeply personal. I learned that if nothing else from Luis with his easy-going, jovial training style that became razor-like once he stepped onto a track. If Luis was going to race, he was going to know exactly how fast he could run, period. He was going to know exactly who he was and live with it. I suppose there is a sort of peace in that. So while we joked and laughed running through empty streets at midnight lit often only by moonlight, Luis got in shape, changed his diet, and slowly but surely got faster and faster.

The truth comes at us from all sides and from all angles. I wish I could say that I really appreciated the wisdom and the friendship Luis had given me that year. I can say a faint and whispering sense of his words and his actions finally came to me as I lay in bed last summer some 10 years later. That is how I come to write about them in the here and the now. It is only now that I come to fully understand what Luis was saying and why. Today it is cool and clear, and I press my palm to the dimpled, spongy surface of the track in a form of greeting saved those who have grown close over the course of their years of running together. It is early winter. And I am here to find out what I am made of.


Triteacher said...

Ooh, that title is a keeper. And I happen to be 100% in agreement with the sentiment. And Luis's training wisdom. Only one question remains: What did the track tell you you were made of?

ace said...

Sort of like your trip back to the pool. On that particular day, I was made of marshmallows... More trips would definitely be needed to whip me into "angel food cake" shape.