Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Miles Stay the Same...

...It’s the Runner that Changes.

A pint’s a pound the world around, and a mile has always been and will always be 5,280 feet. Been that way since before I started running, and will be when I unlace my shoes for the last time. The consistency of this distance, and any distance made when you string together a bunch of of those – 10, 15, 26.2, 140.6 – is striking.

I swear that the mile I used to run for pre-season volleyball in college is not the same distance as the mile I run to warm up before I lifted during IM training. And neither of those are the same as the mile I ran in elementary school gym class (wearing jeans, no doubt), or the mile between 25.2 and 26.2 I ran in San Diego ’07 for my first marathon.

But they are. All those miles are the same. It’s me that has done some changing. I’ve only been a part of the endurance community for a little over five years. In that time I’ve amassed a resume of triathlons, running events, century rides, and a handful of years coaching. The intensity with which I trained was, like anything else in my life, fixed and fiery. Being able to reflect upon my achievements with quantitative data – distance, time, heart rate, elevation – meant a lot to me. From these abstract numbers I tapped into a source of persistence that was unawake for the first 22 years of my life. Those numbers fueled me. The mile was my gunpowder, my gold.

Westridge Canyon on a trail run one morning

But this past year, things changed. Not the miles. No, they are still each the same distance. It was the runner who changed. After I completed IM Coeur d’Alene, I stood at the top of a mountain of achievement. And when the rush of adrenaline and pride and finisher-medal-shine wore off, I didn’t know what to make of myself. I can’t go much farther. I can’t go much faster. And really, I didn’t want to. While I was feeding that one part of my life, I felt the rest of myself atrophy.

After four years of go-go-go and no-stopping-me-now … I wanted to stop. To burn and break away from what everyone envisioned me as, and from what I inadvertently twisted my identity around – being a badass runner and coach.

It was both easy and hard to “take time off” from the sport and get to know myself as not-a-runner. Funny, when you workout as often as we do, your brain goes into an automatic and easy stream of thinking. Yes, anything and everything runs through our heads as we run through the trails. But what didn’t go through my head is, “Who am I when I’m not running, when I’m not ‘a runner’?

The prospect of investigating such an existential question is scary. But for me it was necessary. So I took away competition from myself, for a while. I still ran, but I did not maintain marathon conditioning. I still biked, but did so minimally. I dropped out of speedwork and capped my weekdays miles to 3-4 each session. I slowly peeled away the one-dimensionality of who I presented myself as.

The runner changed. With work, and thought and controls and huge amounts of faith I have found in my life, and in what I can only consider a power from something larger than myself – the universe perhaps – I changed. When you take away a major part of your life, there is a fear that you'll be left with a black hole of nothingness, in which no talent or skill or passion will ever fit.

But that's not true. Something comes along to fill the void - a challenge or opportunity ... or an opportunity disguised as a challenge (favorite!). Sometimes we can define it and sometimes its better left undefined and appreciated for whatever unnamed entity it is.

I’m still goofy, a bit awkward in unfamiliar situations, and hard on myself. I still let my overly articulate mouth run instead of speaking my feelings frankly. But that’s me and will always be me. It’s changes like letting people closer to me, into my life, that have replaced the endless miles I used to run on weekends. Instead of logging another set of 9, I’ll go out to dinner with friends. Instead of working through lunch at work, I’ll read a book. I’ve learned to crawl out of the mind that I live in when I run, and use the time I’ve given to connect with people. I've learned the discipline of slowing down.

So now when I go for a morning workout – same stretch of miles I always do – they look and feel different. Sometimes after 4 miles, I’m tired and want to stop. And I do. It doesn’t make me less of an Ironman. It doesn’t make me less of a coach. I’ve learned that it makes me more of each simply because it makes me human. And you know what? For as long as I’m here, the miles will be here, too. So given that, I’m free to keep changing.

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