Staying On Track
Last October, I wrote about getting back into running with the goal of improving my times. Then in March I drafted a follow-up, recounting my progress and updated strategy, but didn’t publish it. Something felt off.
I realize now what it was. Detailing my quest to improve, reality-TV style, whether it was a laughably unrealistic five-minute mile from three years ago or a more realistic seven-minute one now, seemed shallow. When you have any kind of audience, it’s easy to fancy yourself the subject of your own documentary, so to speak. Watch me try to learn Mandarin in six months, or become a chess master in a year! It sounds like fun, but if you wouldn’t do it with no one watching, you probably shouldn’t be doing just because someone is.
Going to the track is something I don’t really like, but it now feels like part of my job as a human being. To burn through the angst and frustration, the weekend cigar smoke, the idleness of a comfortable life. I don’t want to do it, but I don’t want to skip it, either. Many of my ideas for this newsletter (or whatever you want to call it) come on the two-mile walk back from the track, after I’ve loosened up my mind with a run. It’s just part of my routine now.
The goal then isn’t to break seven minutes for a mile or 1:10 for a quarter mile (neither of which I’ve done, incidentally), but to show up and do the run. Every Monday (two miles, with intervals), Wednesday (45 minutes, any speed) and Friday (two miles, any speed, one faster quarter-mile lap afterwards.) The ideal pace is the one that keeps me coming back. Anything even a tick faster is a deterrent.
I’ve observed, for example, when I run the final quarter mile on Friday in 1:22, I’m out of breath and pushing it for the last 150 meters, but when I run it in 1:35, it’s a breeze, like a car opening up into sixth gear on the highway. If that breezy feeling persists at sub-1:25 eventually, great, I’ll run it at that pace, but for now, I aim for under 1:45, usually hit about 1:33 and don’t dread showing up to the track for the following session.
. . .
I used to think you had to push yourself in life to grow, and that if you weren’t growing you were regressing. But too much pushing can be a defense mechanism, an excuse in advance for when you inevitably quit. If it’s too painful, too dread-inducing — or if you get injured — you find yourself back on the sofa, musing about how you’d like to get more exercise, but have fallen into a rut.
Goal-setting or documentary-style “let’s turn this into a fun game show!” can be a form of avoidance or distraction. The task is simple: show up at the track and burn through the surface layers of resistance to reach a deeper place.
. . .
When I did a yoga teacher training in LA 13 years ago, they explained the long series of torturous standing poses at the beginning of every class was solely to warm the body in order to access certain hard-to-reach areas with the breath, to send prana (breath-consciousness) deep into neglected areas. It really wasn’t to prove to the unbelievably fit woman next to you, or the angelic-looking instructor that you were a diligent and masterful practitioner, I was disappointed to discover.
. . .
The walk home from the Universidade de Lisboa track is not especially nice. It passes through unsightly construction that’s probably from the 1990s and even winds briefly under a metro-station which in LA would have homeless people living in its dank shadows. Even so, it’s part of my ritual after the run, and I always look forward to it, a victory lap of sorts. I did the work, purged the demons, got the prana flowing. It might as well be a hike in the mountains or a walk on the beach. Maybe the country house of which I dream has only been delayed long enough for me to figure out that it’s not a matter of place but of mind.