I have never been a good runner.
This initially came to my attention when, at the age of five, I ran my first competitive race and came last. Sure, it was only a 20 meter race at my little Catholic primary school’s sports carnival, but it created an unease which has never quite left me.
You see, it was the first time I tried really, really hard at something and didn’t succeed.
You can’t bluff sports. There’s no room for sleight of hand or trick psychology or even to skilfully talk your way through. You either have the physical goods or you don’t.
I was shocked to come last, because, having two older brothers who had effectively hazed me into a state of rough-and-tumble boyhood with them, I assumed I would dominate in all things athletic. Wrong. The other misconception was that, as I was tall and thin, I must be fast and athletic. Unfortunately, this wasn’t true either. I was slow, weak, lacked stamina and was devoid of competitive genes. I grew to hate organised sport.
And so like watching a train crash in slow motion, any observer could see my athletic tragedies unfold pathetically throughout my primary and high school careers. At least my friends in high school were kind enough to find my weak attempts charming.
I will state for the record here: I came last in EVERY school race I ever ran in my life. Usually by a gap of at least ten meters. I was that person.
I enclose here a photo from my high school year book where I am attempting long jump at a sports carnival. I was in grade twelve. I tried really hard and really wanted to prove something. The faces of the girls behind me say it all (hi Spope!)
I thought it would look more like this:
You can imagine my absolute horror when, at age 19, as I decided to pledge myself to an Indian guru and immerse myself in a path of meditation, I discovered that his rules made it mandatory for his students to run for half an hour a day.
Well shit. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
It was about that time that I took out a gym membership. This was serious. I really needed to get into shape and couldn’t fake athleticism, particularly around the robust, glowing, health-oozing people I meditated with. There was a compulsory 2 mile race every Saturday morning which I used to loath with a passion usually reserved for bad re-makes of Jane Austen classics. So I started training at home. By training, I mean a couple of times I managed to coerce my ill-equipped carcass a few hundred meters down the road. Then, gasping, I would usually seek support from a telephone pole, and try to appear as though I wasn’t an immediate candidate for cardiac arrest. It was usually around this time that a couple of dogs would race out of their yards and chase me the few hundred meters back home, where it was assumed by all that I had spent an entire day in the sun.
And of course, I came last in every Saturday morning 2 mile race I ever ran.
I decided however, that I wasn’t going to let it beat me. So I started training in earnest, building up until I could run continuously for at least half an hour every day. Sometimes it was a little more. I tried to include hills in these sessions, which I actually prefer to flat running, which is incredibly boring. I even ran at night after whatever job it was I was working, so I could fit in my daily running, and actually grew to enjoy it.
This is the part where everyone expects me to say that I became a running sensation and starting winning the races.
I didn’t, and I still basically came last in every race I competed in.
However, a turning point came when I questioned further about the purpose of our running on this path of meditation. Was it just for physical fitness? What in the name of Sam Hill did it have to do with meditation or spirituality?
Because it is a metaphor for our inner running, I was told. When we are committed to something inwardly (be it a spiritual path, a job, a partner) we are everyday inwardly running towards a goal – to gain a higher position, to be a better partner or to feel our meditation more deeply.
When we are committed to this, we are keeping inwardly fit. We are sprinting towards something high and lofty and true. Our outer running is an expression of this. We train the body to be physically fit and healthy, but at the same time we are training our minds to be patient, goal-focused and strong. Run for half an hour a day, every day. Make time for it. Convince your mind it wants to. Do it, I dare you! It’s not as easy as it sounds.
The answer was not what I expected. Nonetheless, I understood it. I came to see running as another form of meditation, and just as effective in quieting the mind.
Therefore, when the word “marathon” was introduced, I was relatively ok with that.
I won’t go into all the gory details of what my first marathon involved. Actually, I will. Basically, it was a small, in-house affair of roughly six people who opted to run a 1.1 km circuit at the University of Queensland something like 38 times. A marathon is a distance of 42 kilometres.
Now, anyone who knows me well knows that I don’t and can’t do things by halves. It must be all or nothing. Therefore, my plan to “maybe see if I can run 10ks” was doomed from the start. We’d planned the event as a night marathon so as to avoid the heat, and started at 10pm at UQ. We had an aid station set up at the beginning of the loop with water, electrolyte mixture, chocolate, jelly beans, fruit, salts, Gatorade and practically everything else you could possible need when running a marathon.
I wasn’t quite as prepared. I hadn’t trained and didn’t even have proper running shoes (I was wearing Converse sneakers). Nevertheless, I was as so enchanted by the possibility of conquering my doubting mind and uncooperative body, I brazenly opted to run 10km, which I secretly always knew would turn into an entire marathon.
Did I mention I have an enormous stubborn streak?
Ok, this is the point where I’ll skip the gory, weeping, blistering, pain-demented, hate-filled, heaving, gasping, lactic-acid-soaked details, but the whole thing basically took me 10 hours. To put that in perspective, a tremendous athlete could do it in under two, and an average one in maybe four or five hours.
IT TOOK ME MORE THAN TEN HOURS.
But I refused to give up. A quarter of the way into it, my shocked legs seized up and refused to bend. At all. So I basically walked peg-legged the remainder of the, oh, thirty kilometres. Surrender was simply not an option. Needless to say, I continued to walk peg-legged for the remainder of the week, much to the delight of the smut-loving chef I worked with at the time.
So, it wasn’t pretty. There was no adoring crowd waitng to greet my at the end, only looks of repulsion. It was possibly the longest recorded time ever for a marathon. But I completed it in accordance with another important stricture: Never, EVER give up.
It conquered a mental barrier. In years to come, I would repeat this venture on an annual and sometimes biannual basis, many times in New York where my teacher lived. I didn’t dazzle anyone on any occasion (except when I exposed my pale legs), but I never repeated my ten hour maiden attempt. The best I ever did was 6:25, and I was ecstatic about it. I came to regard doing a marathon as normal, and never once dreaded it or doubted my ability to do it. After all, I’d already proven I could. I would rock up untrained, with snow white legs, and start half-heartedly limbering up in front of hundreds of doubtful, athletic- looking competitors. Oh yeah, they were scared.
All up, I’ve bumbled my way through eight marathons and continue to run on a daily basis.
I’m still not good. I get so tuckered out after a couple of minutes and I’m still really, really slow. However, I find the best trick to running is to simply be present – not anticipate the road ahead, nor imagine how wrecked you’re going to feel in a few minutes time, and definitely don’t compare your running ability to anyone else – you only insult them and psych yourself out.
I’ve had a year of little exercise after getting glandular fever, but I’m back in training and plan to run a particularly beautiful, hilly 10km stretch of road up at Maleny called “Bald Knob Road” within the next few months. I’d love to be able to run it without stopping.
I’ll let you know how I go 😉