The Desert: A Running Memory

I looked out into the vast rolling distance. Hills stretched on as far as I could see. It was an ocean of sand and sagebrush that was hard to take in. It looked like it did not end. It looked like my heart finally had more space than it yearned for. All the pain, all the joys, all the tears, all the laughter- every loss and every victory- perhaps here they could finally breathe. Perhaps here they could finally exist without strangling me.

The hot hot sun was setting as I contemplated the expanse of desert before me. I was unaware of how many colors the desert could hold. As it sank behind the hills the sky caught fire. It was pink and orange and red and purple and… colors I did not have words for. I had just climbed a thousand feet. I had only been able to run probably sixty percent of the hills to climb up to this dry lake bed. My muscles were burning as I watched the sun go down behind the hills. I tried to take it all in as I heaved and squatted down to rest.

I could smell the earth as I surveyed the desert. I was new here. The scents were foreign. The sounds made me jump. I didn’t know what was safe and what was dangerous. It was dry. It was hot. I didn’t feel like I had enough water. I was pretty sure my skin was burning. I did not have a headlamp. As the light faded I felt I became more a part of the landscape. I became smaller. I began to both see less and feel more. Darkness settled over me. I stood up and continued to run.

I heard my feet fall in the growing darkness. As I ran into the night I was surprised at how much easier the miles became. I ran further and further away from my new home. I wasn’t even sure how many miles I went. I wasn’t completely sure I could find my way back. My heart felt a little more free every mile. Just a little lighter.

As I ran through the desert I had my introduction to the beauty of its space. I am thankful for the smell and sound of it. I am grateful for the bigness of it. As I ran I felt a sort of freedom within. I am grateful for all the heat and sand and extremes. I am grateful for being able to move through it. Thank you.

“You need a new pair of shoes.”

A long time ago (it at least seems like a galaxy far far away) I was in the military. While I was in the military I ended up (being voluntold, if you must know) on a 10-mile race team. This was quite a jolt to my system in many ways- but one that stood out was introduced to me through the surprising medium of shoes.

The first day of practice I was told to run 10 miles as fast as I could. I did. It was not very fast. I was the last male to finish and I am pretty sure I may have set a record for slowest 10-mile the team had ever seen. I’m not exactly sure what it was (although I’m pretty sure it was around an hour and thirty minutes) but I am sure that I learned how far behind everyone else I was on day one.

On day two I was completely fried from the previous day’s time trial and was told to run an easy 4 miles. I took off with my new teammates and very quickly felt that I was racing just to not get left behind. Now at no time did the coach tell me to keep up with my other teammates but somehow (perhaps just being young or in the army) I did not really take the message of “easy” four miles to heart. So I did my best to run what turned out to be 4 6min 30sec miles with the rest of the team.

On day three I was told to run 7 miles at a tempo pace. At the time I had absolutely no idea what that meant- all I knew was that I was exhausted and that only three days in I felt like I would soon have my body dashed upon the rocks. I was fairly confident that after this third run they would be taking my body off to a morgue. I was running close to the farthest I had ever run and was running at speeds that (at the time) were close to the fastest I had ever run. I was not off to a good start.

When I came across the line after my seven miles on that third day (somehow still in visual range of the next person on the team) my new coach looked me up and down.

“How long have you had those shoes?” he asked.

“I don’t know, sir” I said still heaving from my effort.

“You need new shoes,” he stated flatly. I was still breathing too hard to even respond to him. He continued to stare at me and then said, “Meet me at five.”

“Yes sir.” was all I could say. I had the whole day to dread whatever was going to happen next. Although I wasn’t really sure what exactly that was.

I met him at 5pm. He was apparently driving. I really could not escape it would seem. I was not even really sure what I was getting into and was mostly expecting to be berated for being so much slower than the rest of the team. He did no such thing. Instead, he drove me to the nearest specialty store and helped me pick out running shoes (no tricks to be had as it turned out). I talked to the salesperson in the store and my coach mostly stayed silent in the background. The salesperson measured my foot and asked me more questions than I had been asked about running ever before in my life. My coach only stepped in to make sure I got a half size bigger than I had been wearing (which, as I recall, the salesperson was already pushing for).

When we were done I went home with not one but two pairs of fancy new running shoes. That was saying something too because either one would have been the most expensive pair of shoes I had ever purchased myself ever- and they were in a bigger size than I had ever gotten before too. I was skeptical on so many levels. I felt like I was being coerced. I felt like I was in over my head. I didn’t understand much of anything that was going on. It was very jarring.

I went to my next practice with one of my new pairs of shoes and my coach pulled me aside. He told me to run only 4 miles again and he told me to run by myself. In fact, he sent me off immediately and told me not to pay attention to anyone else on the team. He had my time. He was keeping track. I was just to go run an easy four miles. I took off in my fancy new shoes that I could have sworn were too big and ran the whole way without seeing a sole from my team. No men. No women. No competition. I didn’t really think about my shoes that day (I was to focused on trying to guess what run “easy” meant) but I felt ok when I got back to the coach. He marked down my time and told me to go eat breakfast. Not a word else was said.

Now on my fifth workout with the team we were to run 15 miles. I showed up with my second pair of brand new shoes (the cushier pair) and I was a bit nervous. I’m pretty sure I had never even run that far in my life. The coach told us all to take it easy and off we went. I was about five miles in to the workout when I realized something- running in these new shoes in this strange size was actually noticeably easier. And this is where I learned a valuable lesson.

You see, this is not a story about running shoes. Sure, they were great and made a serious difference at the time. This story though is about learning to trust. You see, I did not know my new coach and so I was reluctant to trust him. When I was into my long workout though, I realized that the shoes fitting better and being much more appropriate for what I was doing (and of higher quality) was merely a sign of something (much like being told to run slower on my own). That something was that I could trust my running coach. I had thought it was crazy to spend $240 on shoes (over 20 years ago) and I was confused by any instructions that did not end with “keep up” or “don’t fall out.” As it turned out though, my coach could be trusted.

We often need to learn from others which is very hard to do if you do not trust them. In being forced onto a running team I had an unexpected lesson on knowledge and trust. I grew to love that coach and by the end of the first season my 10 mile time had dropped under an hour. I was doing things I did not know my body was capable of and I could not have done it without learning to trust someone else. It’s easy to say and hard to do. I’m really glad (in this instance) I was not given much of a choice. Thanks coach.

“Verse of the Week”

Some of you will know that every week at one of our store locations (Sparks, if you are interested) we have a group run that I am in charge of. And every week for this particular group run I put a different poem out on the table. I call this weekly rotating selection of poetry, “Verse of the Week.” You may not know, however, how this started.

When I was first put in charge of these store runs I knew that having a community gathering for runners was important and valuable- not just to the store, but to the running community at large. I knew I could choose to treat it as such or I could just check the box and hold the run. I’m not really a “just check the box” kind of fellow so I asked myself, “what do communities need?” I knew they needed to gather (we all need each other), I knew they needed to be listened to (everyone needs to be heard), and I knew that they needed poetry.

Everyone needs poetry. It’s something I’ve always been convinced of. I think one of the reasons is that we all have things that we cannot express “directly” as it were in plain words. Things inside need to come out sometimes and while running can help us immensely with our emotions we need to know that we are not alone. Poetry can be a vehicle for that work. It gives us glimpses into many different voices.

So every week I look at the calendar. Every week I think about what runners have told me. Every week I consider the news. I think about what people need to say. I think about what people need to hear. I think about what events need to be remembered. Then, I pick a poem, print it out, and put it on the table by the sign up sheet and all the suggested running route maps. This is the, “Verse of the Week.”

I rarely announce it to my beloved group of runners. I do not think I have ever read it out loud (well, perhaps to one or two curious children who were still learning to read). I go out of my way to find poems written by women, minorities, professional runners, and even sometimes poems written by children. The poems are often about running, but certainly not always. They are little expressions about us as humans and they can, if you listen, tell us more about how we are alike than how we are different.

I know that many of us do not spend much time with poetry. I know that it can seem unfamiliar and strange. I also know it can be deep and beautiful- just like running. I know that the movement of running is a sort of poetic expression when we do not have words. But I know we need words. I also know that I love my weekly group of runners and I want to do the things for them that others did for me (and some things that maybe no one ever thought to do at all). So as long as I can I will always say hello, lend my ear, brew the coffee, and put out poetry. I trust that it will have its effect. And while we cannot meet every week right now, I will be so happy when we can. And you better believe that I have been thinking about what to put out on that day for the Verse of the Week.

“Just Turn Right”

I would like to talk to you all about a practical note concerning your running. As I look back on the past thirty years of my own running I have noticed a certain theme that often developed before I became injured. That theme is a lack of variety in my activity and training. In essence I have found that before I have gotten injured in times past I have often stopped doing “other things” besides running- and have found that in those times even my running had grown a bit monochromatic.

I was at a running clinic some years ago when a doctor suggested to me that sometimes all a runner needs to lower their chance and severity of injury is to wake up in the morning, go out the door, and just turn right. What does that mean, you ask (and I did too, of course)? Well what he had said was that he had been speaking with a patient who had knee pain and found out that this patient ran the same route the same direction day in and day out for the past year. Every morning he would lace up his running shoes, head out his door, and turn left to run the same 3 mile route counter-clockwise from his home. He would not vary his distance, rarely vary his pace, and he was continually running in the same counter clockwise manner.

The patient was always turning left and his hips and knees were being affected. So the doctor asked him, “have you ever considered running the same route in the other direction?” The patient had not. He was a creature of habit. It had just never occurred to him. So, armed with a new plan, the patient went home and began alternating the direction of his run every outing. Four weeks later he came back to the doctor for a follow up visit and excitedly told him he had no knee pain. This introduction of variety in the running had made a noticeable difference in less than a month. That was what he had meant by the phrase, “sometimes you just have to turn right.”

Now I am no doctor and I am not here to give anyone actual medical advice (of course), but it got me thinking about the time I first got shin splints. I had stopped lifting weights for a race season thinking it might slow me down. I had also lowered the number of other outdoor activities I had been doing- and I had not changed my running shoes for quite some time. When I finally got a PR I had been hoping for I couldn’t run for a week after and actually walked with a limp for longer than that. It had not occurred to me that I (like the aforementioned doctor’s patient) could have stood to keep some variety in my training and movement. I likely would have benefited greatly if I could have remembered to, “sometimes turn right.”

Having grown older (and hopefully at least a little wiser) it occurs to me that one piece of advice I would give any runner is to include variety in your movement. I now know that lifting weights is not antithetical to running. I know that cross-training is a benefit and not a distraction. And of course I know that my body does not really care if I call movement (or lack thereof) “training” or “living”- as far as my body is concerned movement is movement.
Stillness is stillness. My body wants variety. I try to listen and I recommend everyone else do the same.

So while I completely understand the creature of habit (being one myself), I know that my body does not care so much about my descriptors such as good or bad in regards to exercise or lifestyle choices. It only understands inputs and consequences. And as such, if it desires variety of movement then I better give it what it wants. I will ride my bike. I will do strength training. I will run at different speeds. I will do my best to not sit for 8 hours in the same position every day. I will mix it up. And of course, sometimes, I will even turn right.

Running in Love

A long time ago (about 20 years if memory serves) I had a girlfriend I used to run with.  It was her idea for us to run together.  I miss that.  I miss sharing an experience with another (and given the times, that seems even more significant). Sometimes the experience brings people together. Sometimes people are already together and that is why they are sharing the experience. These memories you make though, they are shared memories and they do not always fade very quickly. For that, I am thankful.

I remember we would meet at a particular park and run this loop through the forest.  The brown dirt and green leaves in the spring and summer were soothing in a way I still can’t describe.  I was faster than her at the time and so I would do my best to run at a speed that neither felt like I was dragging her behind me, nor made her feel like I wasn’t trying.  And of course, since I was young and madly in love, I was entranced by her beauty. Despite that I did my best to not spend all my time staring at her… well, you can imagine what I might have tried to abstain from staring at. I’m also sure you can imagine what my success rate was like in that endeavor. The point is I was transported to a better place while running with her through those woods.

When we ran together I just felt like everything was right in the world.  I could not have imagined wanting anything else.  The feeling of endorphins and clarity of sense was a thing I have struggled to not chase the rest of my life.  The memory is still so strong.  I can put myself back to that time as if it was yesterday.  One foot in front of the other. Crunch, crunch, crunch go the twigs and leaves as our feet fall. I hear the birds, I smell the trees, I hear her breath and my breath as we run, playing in the woods.  We dodged and jumped and chased each other like puppies escaped from the yard.  When we finished runs sometimes we would take each other’s hand and place it on our chests so we could feel each other’s heartbeats.  It was magical. At this point if you need to vomit a little in your mouth I’ll understand, but it really was beautiful.

I am surprised at how many good memories I have that touch on running.  Running in love is something that is hard to describe.  It is a good memory and I am glad for it.  I did not get as much time as I would have liked with that love- but running still remains and for that, I am grateful.  It is my hope that this gratitude will continue with me whether I run alone or with another. Perhaps we should all pause to say thanks- for the present, or for the memories. I do love running in love.

How I Got Into Running

When I was about ten years old I started to run for training purposes (as opposed to fleeing from my own hopes and dreams as you may have read about in a previous post). I was not running for any organized sport. I did not have a coach. I ran in any kind of shoe you could think of (my mom especially loved it when I would go for a run Sunday afternoon without changing out of my church clothes). I didn’t know what I was doing I just knew one important thing: I wanted to be like Hulk Hogan.

For those of you who are not familiar with Hulk Hogan he was a beloved star of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation especially popular in the 1980’s and ’90’s. Me and all my male elementary school friends (and a few enemies too- but unfortunately not many of the ladies) would all watch what adults (and unhelpful older siblings) were fond of referring to as “fake wrestling.” We would watch a show on the weekend or on a Monday night and then immediately try out the “wrestling moves” we had seen on each other the first chance we got. We would spend long hours arguing about who was the greatest wrestler of all time and would wax eloquent and form arguments as if we were scholars debating important historical events. But what does this have to do with running you might be wondering.

Well, my favorite wrestler was Hulk Hogan. And since I was a “Little Hulkimaniac,” I basically took everything Mr. Hogan said to be my rule of life. He said he worked out every day so I would work out every day. He was strong so I would be strong- and I would never quit- because the Hulk never quit. Well, in one particular interview Mr. Hogan said that as part of his training he ran at least two miles every day. Guess what- after the interview was over I went and asked my mother how far two miles was (she told me how many times around the big block in our neighborhood it was). I retied my shoes (to make sure they would stay on) and I went out for my very first run.

I ran two miles. It hurt my lungs. It hurt my legs. It was mentally difficult to make myself continue through all the physical discomfort. I probably started way too fast. I did not know if I could do it. But I knew that if Hulk said I could train and become strong like him that I was going to train and become strong like him. His word was enough.

When I finished my first run I collapsed on the grass by the street. I was heaving and seeing spots. I stared up at the sky through the filter of the oak tree branches and I waited till the heaving subsided. Then I stood back up and got back down and proceeded to do as many push-ups as I could followed by moving back to the grass and doing as many sit-ups as I could. I found big rocks to pick up. I did bicep curls with full milk jugs. I did everything that came to mind to work towards becoming strong. Then I’d do it again the next day.

The more I ran, the easier it got (surprise). And I just kept doing it. I would go farther, I would go faster- but I began to really like how it made me feel- and eventually even enjoyed the act while I was doing it. Now I don’t think I ever had a 24” bicep (something the Hulk was known for) but I did get into running for its own sake. What started as a child looking up to a TV celebrity birthed a life-long love of running. I am really glad for all of it. And if you ask me if I would do it again my answer would of course be, “you better believe it, brother!”

I’m Glad I Went Out

Even on the drive home from work I knew I had to go out.  I was tired.  I had to go out.  I was stressed.  I had to go out.  It was wet and cold.  I had to go out.  The light was fading.  I just knew I had to go out.  

My foot has been bothering me for a year and it had not been the best day for my foot while at work.  I hadn’t eaten in quite a few hours.  I ran through a lot of reasons in my head why I should stay in.  I still felt the pull to go outside though.

So I went inside, grabbed some running clothes (I couldn’t have cared less how I looked or whether I could find something warmer), did some mobility exercises (because my foot was, as a friend once put it, “grumpy”), warmed up (I have too many old niggles not too), and I went out the door.  I couldn’t even find a headlamp to take with me in the dark.

I walked to the trail.  I walked up the trail.  The darkness was more of a comfort than a hinderance.  I began to run.  I knew I didn’t have much in me.  I think I only went out for maybe a mile and a half.  I stopped at one point and squatted down and looked out at the bright lights of Reno and said a prayer.  It was cold and windy but somehow I felt just a little bit of my burden slip away in the dark out there on the trail.

I brought home less weight than I took out.  I didn’t go far.  I walked half of it.  It wasn’t perfect… but it helped.  When I was cooking dinner at home after the run (I am being generous with the word “run”) I felt more grateful and just a little less stressed- I’m really glad I went out (even if it had to be alone) and I do not want to take that for granted.

Mobility Post Script:

Some of you might want to know what my mobility exercises were.  I like to take a small ball and divide the bottom of my foot into sections.  Then I stand on the ball in each section for about 30 seconds with as much weight/ pressure as my foot will allow.  It relaxes the soft tissue and allows (among other things) the joints to move more freely (and often affects pain if I am having some).  I don’t always recommend doing it right before a run unless you follow it up with some foot activation (like short foot exercises)- but if you have tight feet and ankles and make mobilizing them a habit- you will learn your own body more and know when you need to do it.  I mobilize my feet at least once a day (often in the morning or at night).  I recommend everyone learn how to do “soft tissue work” on yourself- it can reduce pain, help speed up recovery, and help you learn the wonderful body that we all get/ have to live in!

My First Race

One of the things I love about running is all the stories I have involving other people.  They go back a long ways for me.  Let me tell you one brief running story from a long time ago.

When I was in elementary school one of the gym teachers marked out a 50 yard dash course for us.  I was the third fastest kid in my school.  I couldn’t tell you what my time was.  The other two in the top three were the strongest kid in the school (number 2), and a girl named Michelle (who was crowned the fastest).

I should back up a little.  Michelle also happened to be the second girl I ever had a crush on.  I thought she was something else… but I was more than a little shy.  I had recently (a few months prior) used my allowance money to go buy a giant chocolate Hershey’s kiss, wrapped it, written a card, and rode my bike in the snow to deliver it to her house as a Chaunukka present.  Fun fact: Chaunukka can actually be spelled more than ten ways in english- but I digress.  

I was not particularly upset about the girl I liked beating me at the time but it’s important to keep in mind for what happened shortly thereafter.  Apparently (as it was told to me) the girl I was crushing on (at the wise old age of 10ish) was at a sleepover playing truth or dare and a friend of hers was dared to kiss me.  And this is where it gets interesting- she traded one of her dares with that friend so that she could kiss me.

So after school (the following Monday) they cornered me on the walk home and told me some version of the story above.  While I really wanted to kiss her I suddenly became very afraid.  I panicked. My response was to bolt.  In that moment I decided to start a second race… with the fastest kid in school.  I took off.  In the process I dropped my backpack and kept going.  My books were useless to me for once.  She gave good chase.  She was on my heels for almost a half a mile- but there were a few differences that I learned about that day.

First, I was afraid and she was not.  Second, a half mile is a lot different than 50 yards.  And lastly I had a different tolerance for physical pain than she did.  In one of my first real experiences with fight or flight I ran back to school, around the school, and through 10 feet of thorny bushes over both our heads to escape through the swamp with mud halfway up my knees where I was able to hop a fence, sneak through someone’s back yard, and take the long way home alone.  I think I actually l lost her at the thorns- but i didn’t need a heart rate monitor to tell you I was pushing over 90% for more than a mile.  

So I I beat my crush the second time we paired up in a race… but I don’t think I could really say I feel like I won that day.

If I were to time travel and give my younger self advice I would tell little me to just kiss the girl and discover you were more of a distance runner some other way.  I would also say, don’t give in to fear, it won’t help.  I think back to that day often.  Michelle, if you’re out there, I owe you one.