Off Course Episode 3

About a year ago, I wrote a piece that I like very much called For the Sake of the Grind. I am proud of this piece because it was super different from the stuff I had written before it. Before that, I mostly wrote silly pieces like a long poem about how many high schoolers follow Craig Lutz on the internet (TBH, I am pretty proud of this piece too, but in a different way. I would also like to clarify that I wrote this piece out of jealously and would gladly accept any and all follows from high schoolers). But, when I wrote For the Sake of The Grind, I wasn’t being silly, I made myself vulnerable. I put myself out there and I liked the way that vulnerability translated to the page. I liked how it felt like an advice column from someone who doesn’t have all the answers, or even many of the answers. It was a column by a dude who is figuring this shit out along with everyone else.

After I wrote that piece, it took me a while to write something else that I really liked, or something that I thought was worthy of sharing. It wasn’t until I really sat down and thought about who I was writing to that I figured out what I should write about, and then I still struggled to put words on a page in an order that was both coherent and pleasing to read. I ultimately decided that my target audience was myself at a moment in my running career when I was struggling both physically and emotionally. My hope was, and still is, that if I wrote to myself when I was struggling, then maybe other people who were having a rough go of it could glean something from it, or at the very least see that even people who are very good at this sport struggle too, because that’s something I didn’t really see ore understand for a while.

The moment that I think about a lot when I write, was an afternoon shower that I took in the University of Portland Men’s Cross Country locker room during the fall of 2010, after my freshman cross country season. I’ve taken lots of afternoon showers in the University of Portland Men’s Cross Country locker room. And I think about many of them often. But, I think about most of those showers in that MRSA infested cesspool of friendship, soap fights, and male bonding differently than I think about the shower that has informed my recent writing. I’m not gonna say that any one shower was more or less influential or transformative than any other shower, but they were just different, you guys.

So, anyways, I think about that one particular shower a lot because it was the first time I ever considered quitting running. I had a terrible season for a lot of reasons. Some of those reasons were my fault, like going to parties every weekend (and some weekdays) and getting like 3.5 hours of sleep the night before tryna hammer 2 hour long runs. Other reasons that I struggled were out of my control, like being an 18-year-old boy with real low ferratin who was trying to train with 23 year old almost men who had been at the college level for 4 or 5 years. I approached this new challenge of trying to hack it in the NCAA with all the expertise and nuance of a blind, paraplegic surgeon who got an online degree. I trained myself into the ground and also didn’t sleep enough and also really explored the intersection between my brand-new sense of freedom and my new found ability to acquire copious amounts of cheap beer. Everything started crashing down after I bombed this big, important, workout that I perceived to be season defining (it wasn’t, that’s, not a thing). In my infinite wisdom, since I was 18 years old and obviously knew everything, I decided that the workout didn’t go well because I wasn’t working hard enough and because I wasn’t tough enough. So, I upped my mileage by waking up early to do runs before my morning classes. As one might imagine, this decision to train more while recovering less, really greased the wheels on the runaway train that was my season. That metaphorical train careened off a cliff and into a fiery crash at an annual 4-mile time-trial that our team would hold for the people who weren’t going to nationals. If you looked back at that start list now, you’d be forgiven for expecting me to have won easily. Shit, you’d be forgiven for being surprised that I was even running the 4 mile instead of going to NCAAs. But, when the race started, I was quickly dropped from the lead pack and ended up finishing in a time that I would have absolutely murdered the year before as a high school senior. The last inklings of my enjoyment of running drained from my body like the final drops of a cheap lager from one of the cans that I put to my lips the weekend before.

It’s easy for me now to look back on that moment and identify all the factors that went into bombing that workout. Now, I can take responsibility for the things I did wrong, like trying to be the best beer pong player and the best runner in Portland, simultaneously. And, I can accept that I was up against some things that I couldn’t control. But, in 2010, when that moment was happening, I was 18 years old. And here’s the thing about 18-year-olds, they aren’t really the greatest at stepping back and analyzing situations in a larger context, and also they’re often times kinda stupid.

That afternoon shower that I think about when I write took place a few days after the above mentioned time trial. I was showering in the locker room, alone, when a thought came to my mind, “This shit isn’t fun anymore. Why the fuck am I putting myself through this.” I ruminated on that idea for a while and then got on Facebook and looked at how my high school friends were doing at the University of Colorado. It looked like they were having just the best time. They were getting dressed up and going out at night, going skiing on the weekends, and going to football and basketball games. Just as important as seeing pictures of my friends having a great time was not seeing pictures or posts about how my friends were dragging their asses through the rain and mud or struggling through workouts. You know, because Facebook is really good medium for seeing how people’s lives are REALLY going and not just the highlights. It looked pretty clear who was having the better first semester of college. So, then a new thought came to my mind, “Maybe I should quit running and go to CU and just be a normal college student like my friends.” Then, I got real sad because running had been something I had loved and participated in and found solace in for a long time. And I was also sad because running wasn’t that thing for me at that moment. Then I got even more sad because maybe it would never be that thing to me again.

As you probably figured out, because we are all in the future together, I did not end my running career right then and there. I wish I could tell you that I had a profound revelation about some absolute truth about the value of running. And I wish that I could share that truth that came to me and has informed my journey from that shower to the place that I am now. But, that’s not what happened. If I’m being honest, the biggest reason that I didn’t quit was because I was scared and embarrassed to go to Coach Conner and my parents and my friends and tell them that running wasn’t for me. I was ashamed and afraid of being the state champ/ school record holder/ Footlocker finalist who had burned out. In general, I think that the opinion of others and fear of change are bad reasons for doing something, but I was 18 and stupid, so thank goodness for that. I stayed on the team and had a pretty good spring season and ended up having a great career and experience and relationship with running at the University of Portland.

I don’t have a neat way to wrap this whole story up with a takeaway in the form of some mindful nugget, because I’m just a guy who doesn’t have all the answers, or even some of the answers. I’m figuring this shit out as I go, just like everyone else, remember.

Even though I don’t have a pithy little nugget that would have made a dope Instagram caption, I’m publishing this piece because I think it’s important to be vulnerable and tell stories about struggling and I think that vulnerability is especially important when things are going well. The first reason I think that is for the sake of being honest with yourself, because when things are going generally well, you’re still gonna have days that don’t feel great. I know that this is true in running and I imagine that it’s true in every craft. Even when you’re dialed in and on a roll, some days just don’t go well. So, I think it’s important to remember the times when things just generally weren’t going well because that was a time when you were begging and praying and hoping desperately for days that you feel as good as the worst of days when things are clicking. Perspective, you know?

The second, and more important reason that I believe in vulnerability, is because things aren’t going well for everyone. And when things aren’t going well, it’s like all you can see are people who are crushing it. It’s like how immediately after a break-up, you only hear love songs on the radio. And those are just the loneliest predicaments to be in. So, I think that vulnerability when things are going well is a kindness for, and a connection to, the people who the people who might be struggling. Vulnerability is a way to make someone else’s time on this pale blue dot a little easier and a little better.

Like I said, I can’t pull a neat way to wrap this up out of my brain. So, let me leave you with this:

Things are going well right now for me, but it wasn’t always that way. I had to work though my fair share of shit just like everyone else. Everybody struggles and that’s ok, important things are supposed to be hard. So, be vulnerable. Even if it’s just with yourself.  You don’t have to have all the answers, because no one has all the answers. We’re all just figuring things out as we go.