On Accepting the Challenge

A mile into my four-mile run, another runner turned onto the road, a few hundred feet in front of me.

It was a gorgeous summer day, I’d finished my chores, and I was ready to enjoy a leisurely run through the pastoral landscape of our new hometown. When we lived in the District, my runs generally consisted of six half-mile circles through our townhouse development. It was monotonous, but safe and predictable. Since our move to a lovely, rural exurb, I’ve enjoyed more rambling runs through small neighborhoods, along country roads, and around the small downtown haunts. While running has always been a chore I’ve only half-heartedly embraced, I’ve recently found myself actually enjoying it. I’m still slow as Christmas, but at least I have a smile on my face. Or at least a smiling grimace.

I don’t know why it all changed on this day. It could have been the fast tempo of the music playing on my iPod. It could have been the great night’s sleep I’d had. Or it could have been the natural competitive juices that have made me a slightly above average Clue and Battleship board game player. Whatever the reason, as the other runner entered my field of vision, it was obvious to me that the alternating flash of the runner’s heels was a not-so-subtle rebuke of my running style and speed. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and I accepted the challenge. I would overtake this new-found adversary, and my Saucony running shoes would leave nothing but a trail of tears and a cloud of dust in my victorious wake.

I picked up the pace, the cadence of my footfalls perfectly in synch with the pop song currently blasting in my ears. I turned up the volume. Shoulders back, foot kick crisp, breathing controlled. I was picking up speed, and the other runner was looming larger in my vision with every step. It was one of those steps, as my foot kicked perfectly in advance of a balanced heel strike, that I realized I was actually wearing my old running shoes. The realization of inferior equipment — worn soles, diminished heel support — would have affected a lesser runner. Not me. Not this day. The challenge had been accepted, and, as I had recently reminded myself, I believed in the mantra that there are no shortcuts to excellence. This day wasn’t about the equipment, it was about the man. And, with that, I persisted.

It wasn’t long — perhaps a few more pop songs, a dash past the local Subway and McDonalds — before my adversary nemesis was right in front of me. It wasn’t difficult to pick up my speed, and smoothly pass on the left. I didn’t glance over, I didn’t acknowledge. Rather, I just let my running do the talking. I left it all on the sidewalk, so to speak. Had my manhood been tested? My mettle? Yes. The point wasn’t the fact that I succeeded in overtaking and leaving my nemesis in the dust; rather, it was that I accepted the challenge to do so in the first place.

Now, Negative Nancys out there would point out that my nemesis was a heavily pregnant woman in her early 30s wearing knee braces on both legs. But I’m not a Negative Nancy. I’m also a firm believer in gender equality, and I’m not about to insinuate that, somehow, someway, I had any advantage. I’m not going to disrespect her like that. Besides, winners don’t make excuses. And I’m a winner.

On Running in Circles

My new running shoes look and feel great. Now, if I only loved to run.

I run a few times per week. No marathoner, I run around three miles, and that’s enough for me. I get a nice little cardio workout, enjoy time rocking to some great music, and tune out just about everything else. When I’m done, I’ve got a great sweat going, and I feel like I’ve exercised.

The one part of my running routine that’s missing is the part where I love doing it. I run because it’s easy exercise. It’s a great off-day exercise between gym days, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s pretty uninvolved. No machines necessary, no trainers, no special anything, really. If you’ve got a half decent pair of shoes, you can run. You don’t need the latest and the greatest running gear, although, take it from a veteran, some anti-chafing glide gel is your best friend. I’ll spare you the back story.

I’ve heard about “the runner’s high,” the zen-like state that some┬árunners achieve. I can only assume that life’s mysteries are solved around mile 7 or later, because I’ve never run more than 6.5 miles at any one time. I’ve never experienced this Nirvana, and, maybe if I had, I’d love running more. Instead, I plod along, my energy and enthusiasm almost exclusively tied to the song playing on my iPod.

My current route is a large circle around my neighborhood, so, in fact, I run in circles, which is only slightly better than the bad-weather days I run on a treadmill resulting in running and going nowhere at all. I’m pretty sure if I loved running more, I’d seek out adventurous, non-circular running paths. Maybe I’d join a running club where we’d all wear matching (dorky) running jerseys and running shorts that seem impossibly and unnecessarily short. Or maybe I’d enter lots of ultra-marathon races, continually pushing to beat my best time,┬ápumping my fist wildly as I broke through the finish line tape to wild shouts, applause, and camera flashes. Nike and Adidas would fight over sponsoring me, and Men’s Health Magazine would beg to put me on the cover. None of that will happen, but I guess it could.

My relationship with running and its lack-luster quality isn’t unusual. When you think about it, people usually end up running in circles, or going nowhere at all, precisely when they are doing things they don’t really love. No inspiration. No energy. No desire to do anything different. Truly just going through the motions. And, you know, maybe that’s just fine. Not everything can be a thrilling, life-changing experience. We need the mundane so those life-changing experiences can really mean something.

It’s too bad our culture doesn’t embrace the mundane more. We hop, skip, and jump from one “awesome” thing to another so much that “awesome” no longer really means anything. We are always “taking it to the next level,” never stopping to ask what was so bad about this level. I guess that’s progress.

I’m going to keep up the good fight. My boring, uninspired running is good for me. It may not be sponsorship-worthy, but I’m dedicated to it. And that’s enough for me. Next time you’re driving down the road, you may see me. Sweating, slightly pained expression, shuffling at an incredibly unimpressive speed, no smile, putting in the miles. Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m just running in circles…and meaning to.