Sunday, November 14, 2010

Outrunning the Grizzly Bear

Of course I’m ambitious. What’s wrong with that? Otherwise you sleep all day.
Ringo Starr

I’m just in from a killer run. (In 25 years I don’t think I have referred to any run workout by that adjective). Sixty-one minutes at top speed.

I am a laid back - you might almost say lazy - runner. My running has always been like the dancing bear; to me the wonder is not how well I do it but that I do it at all. In a straight marathon I like to push myself, but I have never achieved what I feel is my best. In Ironman I am content to jog and walk the marathon, knowing that there is very little chance I won’t finish sometime before midnight; my Ironman marathon times range from snail-like to glacial.

This fall, perhaps in reaction to the idleness my clavicle injury forced on me, I decided that I would try to leave my comfort zone and try to improve my marathon time. I don’t think I have too many years left to do this so there will never be a better time than now.

They say you should put your goals in writing, for it is only by creating an analog version of your dreams that they will ever materialize. I am not sure if this is always the best way, but I do know that that some of us build far greater castles in our minds than we do in reality.

I am shy about setting specific goals for running these days because so many things have gone wrong in the past few years. Plantar fasciitis, Morton’s neuroma; my feet are a compendium of podiatric pitfalls. But without a goal, I will end up going nowhere. In this case I need to see my goal written down with accompanying metrics.

So my running goal for the coming year is to complete a marathon next May in less than 3 hours and 45 minutes, a time that involves knocking about 20 minutes off my previous personal best. This would be quite reasonable, except for the fact that the previous personal best was set when I was younger…about ten years younger in fact. So in addition to running faster than I ever have before, I need to deal with an aging infra- and superstructure. It could be a mess.

One of the reasons I want to do this is that at the moment I can’t. I couldn’t run a 3:45 marathon if a grizzly bear were chasing me. The killer ‘top speed’ 61 minutes I just ran weren’t even close. So part of the fun will be to see if I can even get myself into the same time zone as my goal. The other part of the fun will be the sheer enjoyment of the training. It’s been so long since I have been able to run injury-free and to train with a purpose I that intend to treasure every minute.

Each of my three triathlon sports has its attractions. But there is a joy and simplicity to running that never leaves me. Like the golfer finding that sweet spot, a good run is indescribably satisfying. When all the components come together successfully, it is a marvelous way to fly across the earth.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Build Your Wings on the Way Down

Over twenty years ago I chose to abandon my life as a freelance musician to take a comparatively secure job in the business world. We were just starting a new family and I wanted to be able to help provide. I worried that indulging myself in something as apparently capricious as a music career would be selfish, and I truly believed that I owed my children the best I could give them in terms of stability and protection. To me this meant being Ward Cleaver.

In my mind I still believe it was the right decision, but not a day goes by when I don’t wonder what would have happened if I had possessed the courage and confidence to trust my natural talent and remain a singer. To an extent, my participation in endurance sports is a reaction to the stability I chose for the rest of my life. Although my day job comes with its own challenges and rewards, my goals at work are clearly attainable and my progress toward them is mostly predictable.

To me, the essence of a true challenge lies in the mystery of an unknown outcome. When we get on the subway every morning to go to work, very few of us consider the possibility that we might not arrive at the other end. But when I entered my first 10k race in 1985, I had no idea whether I could run 10k or not; when I signed up for my first Ironman in 2001, I truly didn't know whether I was capable of finishing it. Taking those steps into the unknown, large or small, is part of what attracts me to endurance racing. If I ever begin an event completely secure in the knowledge that I can trip lightly across the finish line a few hours later, I will begin to question why I am there.

As I have learned from tough personal experience, there is no guarantee that anyone will finish a long distance race. In the best light, it is the uncertainty that drives me forward; it is a need to know if I can do it. And the fact is that sometimes, I can’t.

I am in good company. Two examples that parallel my recent experience: during the 2007 Ironman World Championships, defending champion Normann Stadler had to drop out during the bike due to an inability to keep fluids down. The same day, six-time women’s winner Natasha Badmann crashed her bike into a traffic pylon, breaking her collarbone and ending her race. Both of them know as I do now, that the outcome of an event like this is anything but certain. I would bet that neither of them would have it any other way.

My own fulfillment comes from challenging these uncertainties to achieve the pure joy of pushing my body and spirit, and in doing so to discover places I might not have known before. To have both the opportunity and the ability to do this is a gift I will not ever take for granted. I would not trade places with anyone’s stability or predictability.

And as I know from my past adventures, there will be an instant in time in the midst of it all when I look up from my handlebars at the world I am traversing, feel the tautness in my muscles as my legs piston me towards my goal, inhale the clean air sharp as a laser in my chest, and know that there is no place else I would rather be. For some of us, the awareness of this will offset every other reality in a single moment; for others it never would in a lifetime.

Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.
Ray Bradbury