09 December 2010

Learning Who You Are

The tedious struggle to put my body back into one uncracked piece continues. It’s two months since I started taking time off to let the might-be-a-stress-fracture-might-not-but-umm-who-knows leg heal. After four weeks, it still felt injured. After two more weeks, not much better. I am now, perhaps foolishly, lightly hitting four a day with little discomfort – but not zero discomfort – on the theory that since rest didn’t heal it, why rest? Perhaps more time would do it, but I need some fitness and I need to burn off the five pounds that adhered rapidly to my mid-section during the break. So I’m treading the thin line and saying my prayers.

Four to six weeks off is enough time to get you out of the daily mode of getting in your workout. Sadly, no, I don’t cross train, though I know I should and am looking into a gym, but for now, four to six weeks off is, well, four to six weeks off. But as I’ve written in the past, running is part of the definition of who I am. I know that. I know it always will be, even if there are big breaks. Twenty years off didn’t kill that. A few more weeks, a few months, even a few years, if it came to that, won’t – I hope – kill that.

While these thoughts were knocking around in my head, I spent a day in the car with a co-worker traveling to an out-of-town appointment; the typical ‘drive for eight hours, see the customer for one’ kind of day we sometimes in endure in our business. But it was a great day as he too is an avid runner, so the conversation was lively, and – talk about bonus material – he’s a runner who also writes a blog. I bring this up not only because I find his writing enjoyable, but because of a particular article he told me about during that long slog through Vermont. It’s all about knowing who you are, knowing that you’re a runner. It’s here and well worth a read. After, of course, you’ve finished reading my article first.

By adulthood, we think we’ve figured out who we are. But have we? Do we really know what defines us? What we can do? I’d suggest that we do have a pretty good idea what defines us, and part of what defines us as runners is that we understand that we probably don’t really know what we’re capable of. We know that we will test ourselves and constantly try to answer that question.

Which, in a circumspect way, brings me to my kids. Not my own kids, per se, but the kids I coach at my daughter’s middle school. (The sharp eyed among you may have detected that previous references to my daughters’ middle school have now shifted to my daughter’s middle school, since older daughter has moved on to high school leaving but one in the middle school, and yes, I am a charter member of the Eat Shoots and Leaves Militant Apostrophe Usage Goon Squad. But I digress.) At their age, they really don’t know who they are. They don’t define themselves as runners. They don’t know what they can do, and for the most part they don’t know the self-lifting power of testing themselves to find out. In two short months, starting at ground zero and seeing them only two or three times a week, I can’t turn them into lean, mean, running machines, but I can try to get them to explore the dimension of testing themselves.

In the past several years, cross country at Immaculate Conception School has become cool. How cool? So cool that over a third of the eligible kids ran on the team this year. So cool that the school administrators let the kids leave their school uniforms at home on a meet day and wear their cross country jerseys instead. So cool that we even snagged a couple of the cheerleaders onto the cross country team this year. Memories of ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ come to mind.

When better than a third of the kids are on the team, you’re going to have plenty who don’t land in the same chapter with the word fast. Plenty who are taking a walk break before the half-mile mark. And plenty who are there for the social aspect. But it doesn’t matter because they’re out there, rather than at the mall or in front of the video game console.

Designing workouts is challenging when for some of them, motivation flags after a couple of quarter-mile sprints, so I try to instill from day one that the only competitor that matters is themselves. Let’s face it, with a school of two hundred kids from pre-K to eighth grade, it’d take a miracle to get the depth needed to win a lot of meets (though being a Catholic school, we can hope that our Miracle Applications do at least get reviewed upstairs). So why focus on beating the other guys? Just beat yourself.

And this year, they really did it. But not by just edging a few seconds off here or there. A few of the kids, and yes, I have to boast, my daughter was one of them, redefined themselves. It was clear that a lot of these kids saw themselves as slow. It never crossed their mind that they might be anything else. Then, a lot of them figured out they didn’t have to define themselves that way.

I watched at one meet as the gun went off and a good-sized chunk of our team lumbered out for a jog, well behind within fifty yards. By the end, many had picked their way to mid-pack. They weren’t slow. They just thought they were. I had to step out of character and chide them afterwards – always a dangerous thing to do with the fragile motivation of middle schoolers – and remind them that the race starts when the gun goes off.

By season end, many of the kids were running minutes – even up to five minutes – per mile faster pace than where they started. Not improvement, but redefinition. Going from fifteen minute pace, barely more than a quick walk, to nines, isn’t just an improvement, it’s recognizing that you’re capable of running when you didn’t think you could before. Dropping from a nine-to-ten minute jog to the sevens means you’ve learned how to race. Or better, learned that you can race. I recognize that because I’ve felt it. That day at Bay State, when at mile twenty-three, my companion told me to speed up and it dawned on me that a marathon didn’t have to just be endured but could actually be raced. Like that, these kids were having Eureka! moments.

Late in the season, my star protégé from last year, who this year as a high-school freshman is burning up the courses on his varsity team, dropped in to visit his old team. Always the silent giant, I goaded him into making a few comments to the team. He focused on that message that I’d drilled in so many times: You just don’t know what you’re capable of. Varsity gave him a new level of challenging, and again he was finding out.

By testing themselves, my kids learned a little about who they weren’t, and a little more about who they were, or at least who they could be. For any coach, amateur or pro, that’s a big check mark in the job satisfaction category. For any runner, it’s one of the reasons we love the sport.

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