Wednesday, March 02, 2005

EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE I LEARNED RUNNING CROSS-COUNTRY: A FORMER HIGH SCHOOL RUNNER'S RANT (AN ELEGY AND REBIRTH)

When I was fourteen and forced to take Phys Ed, my Grade 9 gym class had to run around the outdoor gravel track eight times (two miles, total), and, since I wasn't exactly sure that I'd be able to do it, I decided to run in the Blossom Festival Race down in Niagara Falls that my brother and father were already going to be competing in, just because it would be good training for me, for my gym class, and for my self-esteem.

I ended up running it with my friend from Fort Erie, Mike, and we actually did pretty good. Not top-ten, mind you, but okay. Decent. Respectable. (Meaning, we finished without puking -- always the barometer of success, in my opinion. In racing and in life.)

This was in May 0f 1990 (pre-Internet, pre-CSI, pre-Pauly Shore), and I ended up running all summer, just for the fun, the novelty, the exercise. It was something different than reading comic books and Stephen King and watching movies. It was a little bit of alternative exercise, this pounding on the pavement was, since hockey season finished around March and I usually didn't do jacksquat in the summer. I soon realized how, well, difficult it was, this running thing, this exercising-on-a-regular basis gig I suddenly had going on. (As Mallory's dim-witted boyfriend Nick said to Alex so eloquently on Family Ties, talking about school, but the sentiments of which apply equally to running: "It's a lot harder than sitting around doing nothing.") It took me out of myself and into the streets of my city. Initially, I thought that if I could just make it from the driveway of my house to my old elementary school (Pine Grove) and back, that would be something; that would be an accomplishment of Olympic proportions. That was my barometer, that two-mile jaunt.

I didn't talk about my running much, because my brother was a really good high school runner, and my dad had run a couple of marathons, and who I was I to talk, anyways?

Somewhere in the course of the summer I decided to go and run cross-country in the fall. My school didn't have much a team, being an arts-and-music school, but that was fine by me because I wasn't much of a runner, either.

At the starting line of my first race, I figured I had an advantage over all of those other guys; after all, I'd been running all summer. How hard could it be? I had heard from my brother who the top runners were; I figured, what the hell, I'll just try to keep with these dudes.

To express how clueless, ignorant and utterly over-my-head my fourteen year old self was is redundant.

But sometimes, as they say, ignorance is bliss.

Long story short -- I stayed with the front pack and ended up finishing in the top ten. My brother was stunned. He thought I'd just been bopping around all summer, jogging here and there. (Which I kind of was.) After that race, he realized that he'd have to be my coach.

In order to qualify for the Ontario cross-country championships, I had to finish in the top three in the qualifying race. Near the end of that race, at Queenston Heights, I was tired. Wiped. Finished. One of my brother's school's teammates was up ahead of me, in third. If I beat him, I would go to the provincial finals. As I ran, some anonymous supporter on the side of the course yelled out at me: "C'mon, you can catch that little guy!"

Sometimes, I wonder: Would I be where I am if not for that dude, if not for his random comment? Because he yelled at me, and I figured, what the hell, I'll try and catch the guy, and I did, and I finished third, and I went on to OFSAA, the provincial championships, were I finished 21st, I think, out of a field of a couple of hundred.

After that, I trained. My brother trained me. I ran outdoor track the next year, reaching the provincial finals in the 1500 metres and the 800 metres, and the next fall I won the Southern Ontario cross-country championships, made top-twenty in the all-provincials, then ran track the following spring, making it to the provincial finals for the 3000 metres, then ran cross-country the following fall for the final time, once again lucky enough to finish in the top-twenty.

That January I was in the middle of a race in Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario, when I felt a twinge in my leg, and I dropped out of the race, and that was that. I didn't run another high school race, cross-country or track, for the rest of high school. Injuries, rehab, the whole deal.

What a wild, chaotic blur those two and a half years were! At one point I tried to transfer from my high school to my brother's school, St.Catharines Collegiate, because they had a really stellar team, but I found out that if I transferred only for athletic purposes I would have to give up a year of eligibility; I wouldn't be able to run for a year. So that option went out the window. I had considered, too, trying to get a running scholarship to a school down in the States -- I'm sure somebody would have taken me. (One of my main rivals, Andy Bosak, got a scholarship in America and did really well down there.) That also went out the window when I was injured and missed my senior year.

Ah, the glory of the faded, has-been athlete, eh?

But not all was lost.

I ended up recovering and eventually running on the cross-country and track teams for York University during my junior year, which was a real highlight, a real joy, especially since I had trained so hard the year before but had been unable to run because I got a stress fracture in my right foot (the pain of which still lingers to this day.) It was nice to run just for fun, really; nice to be part of a team. (We did alright, too -- placing third at the Ontario finals, but not too well at the nationals in Montreal, or at least I didn't, anyways, finishing at the back of the pack.)

Oh, and incidentally, it was very, very instructive, being both a Creative Writing major and a member of the cross-country and track teams, because the smartest, craziest people I've ever met have been either writers or runners. I've found that elite runners are either straight-arrow honor roll students or complete kooks. (Same goes for writers, actually). To go and pound your brains out on the pavement is a little nuts; to sit and create imaginary worlds out of symbols on paper is also a little kooky. To be someone who does both is, well, interesting, if not recommended. Caused a kind of schism, actually, because I thought that you couldn't be both, a writer and a runner; that you had to choose. No wonder that I identified so much with the title character in John Irving's brilliant The World According to Garp. I was young enough to believe that life is either/or. Of course, I won't speak for my former teammate and Creative Writing alumnus Brian Gibson, who was a much better runner and writer than me, anyways -- check out www.bleedingdaylight.ca for more info...)

You never want to get somebody talking about their days as a high school or college athlete, because they'll never stop. (My apologies. Thank-you for your patience...) The achievements of our adolescent selves remain primal and authentic; they shaped who we are and what we do. And these benchmarks, however transitory they proved to be, were founded and forged via a mysterious alchemy of sweat and stamina, of cool autumn afternoons running through the wilderness and hot spring mornings sprinting around an oval circle. Maybe the resonance can be explained by the fact that, in the madhouse that is modern-day adolescence, athletics allow you to win. You can conquer, stand proud, clearly and unequivocably know where you are, if only for a day, if only for a moment. (The rest of life doesn't offer such certainty.)

Running has been a steady, constant benchmark since I was fourteen; it's taught me everything I know. How to transform myself, believe in myself, push past myself. How not to allow others to limit you or your perceptions of what you can do. It's allowed me to put on weight and then take it off. It's given me the ability to amaze myself again and again. It's spiritual, is what it is; it's redemptive.

Running's a lot like writing, actually. Every time you do it, it's different. You have an idea of where you're going, but you never know what's going to happen along the way, what detours will pop up. The more you do it, the better you get at it. The longer you stop doing it, the rustier you get. They're both internal odysseys that lead you back into the self.

When I run, I'm connected to that fourteen year old kid who was just starting out; when I write, I'm connected to the child who would watch Star Trek, then make up his own stories.

So, my fondest wish for you is: Run. Many people say that they've tried to do it before, and they're weak, they have no stamina, but the great secret of running is: nobody has stamina starting out. You do a little bit today. Two minutes. Then the next day you three minutes. If you do this for a month, you'll be at thirty minutes. And so on. It isn't easy -- no, I can't bullshit that -- but it is possible.

The greatest thing about running: You go from here to there. You go out, and you come back. Your route is clear and defined and visible, every step of the way. Within that simplicity lies the essence of life.

Believe it. Try it. Slap on some shoes. Open the door. Take a breath. Take a step.

You have the ability to amaze yourself.

4 comments:

EuroCANUCK said...

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Great to hear that there is also a Canuck blog site for Canucks in Asia. For all Canucks in Euro, I have set up my own rants and raves @:

http://eurocanuck.blogspot.com

Have a great day,

EuroCanuck

Muktuk said...

Very inspiring, makes me want to run. I would argue that any outdoor sport is empowering and causes a strong growth in self autonomy that can potentially lead to a better sense of self, increase in self confidence and overall physical and emotional health.

There is something giddy about moving and being in the world. It's almost like you are forced to be silent and listen to your body through the medium of a sport v. meditation, etc.

Wonderful story.

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