Saturday, October 13, 2012

Tales of Running: Resilience & Mules

When I was young and had to run at sports, I always came in last.  I knew I would never be a winner at running, but I always told myself that compared to most people I was running with, I bet I could out run them.  That is, I told myself (though never ever came close to proving it) that I could have the stamina to keep running long after they had quit.  That's what I told myself, but I'm not sure I believed it.  I told myself that I was a mule--made for long treks while they were gazelles, gallivanting about.  It tended to be self-delusional at best and largely a means of trying to make myself feel superior when I felt anything but.  However, years later, as I enjoy the development and love for running coupled with the accomplishments of this fall of running a 25K, 30K and half-marathon, I feel now more the mule than ever.  I'm still not winning races and I'm coupled with hundreds of other mules as we trot along in these races (most others at faster paces), but I feel I am doing running that many others that I was comparing myself with may never do.  It's a slight feeling of vindication, accomplishment, and comfort to that child who hated running, himself, and the world around him so much.

Finding Inner Balance

In all my development as a runner, I've walked a very tight rope.  Inwardly, I've accomplished an impressive feat that has profoundly changed my understanding of myself and my abilities.  And because of that, it lends itself well to feeling like I "know" something about life and can extrapolate from my experience to make sense of others' life.  In laymen's terms, I could easily fall into the preachy world of believing that if I can do it, everyone can.  It's such an easy position to take up--one that feeds our egos and our national mythology of the self-made man (or woman).  This is such a strong sentiment within our culture:  "If I did it, you can.  If you can't, you're clearly not trying hard enough."  That is, we have a tendency to decide that something we can do and others cannot is a character flaw.  Many know this as the fundamental attribution error.  We know our own stories and recognize the myriad situational challenges that keep us from doing things we want to do, but when we look to others facing challenges (drugs, weight, relationship problems, etc), we decide their problems are a result of character flaws.  What I have to keep reminding myself is that just because I did it, doesn't mean others can.  And if they can't--it's not necessarily through a failure or lacking on their personal end.  It isn't a reflection of them but more often, a reflection of their context.  (Some will hear that and look to blame the individual for inhabiting their specific context--this feels like the same thing:  much of our context is predefined or inescapable or even unrealized because it entails trying to see and and make sense of our lives from beyond our viewpoint--more about that later).

Lance Eaton running the Nahant 30K race in his Vibrams
While I did manage to build up the stamina and strength despite different set backs, there were vastly more things that went right for me (beyond my control or influence) that allowed me to work as hard as I did and succeed.  There were innumerable situational contexts that helped me as an individual to succeed.  I can't claim victory without acknowledging how those contexts helped me and how the context of others' lives hinder their attempts.  And of course, I'm not just talking about running--this is true for all aspects of life.

What Does This Runner Have Going for Him?

Here is just a list of some of the situational contexts that allowed me to do what I have done--that vary drastically among people.  And these are the ones that I'm aware of--I would imagine for every one that I am aware of, there are several that I'm not:
  • I work in an environment that is intellectually stimulating (making me feel mentally rewarded and thus leaving me opportunity to seek physical stimulation after work hours).
  • I work in an environment that is not physically exhausting.
  • I am paid sufficiently so that I do not have to work 10-12+ hours a day nor do I have to work a second job (I do--but that's because we all know I'm hyperactive like that).
  • I have a good amount of peers who have picked up running prior to or in parallel with me and thus had a community I could depend on for support, advice, and encouragement.
  • I could afford the footwear that helped me find running tolerable (and eventually enjoyable).
  • I live in an area that I am safe to go running in at any time of day or night.
  • I'm a large white male--perceived as less vulnerable than others and thus, more confident to run by myself without fear or concern.
  • I can afford a music player to help keep me motivated and moving (technically numerous, since once accidentally found itself in the washing machine).
  • I could afford the various entry fees that I paid over the summer for the different races and to which helped me build up the stamina for the longer runs.
  • I had the leisure to write about the running (which helped perpetuate the running).
  • I had the internet access to regularly get a sense of how far I was running.
  • I knew that if I got injured while running, I could access my health insurance for care.
  • I knew that if I got injured while running, it would not likely impact my job or job performance in an irreparable way.
  • I do not suffer from previously untreated or poorly treated illness or injuries (often from lack of health insurance or poor quality insurance).
  • I do not suffer from any variety of visible or invisible disabilities.
  • I have the resources to regularly wash clothes.
  • I have the resources to afford healthier food to better fuel my body.
  • I do not have other dependents to care for (my cats don't count).
  • I was coming from a place of health where I have already achieved some success (sustained weight loss after becoming vegetarian) and that served as substantive motivation.
  • I had an occasional running partner whose schedule coincided with mine (and then I could go on ad nauseum of all the things that went right in order for him to be running with me).
And to be clear, I'm not making excuses for those that haven't achieved their goals (whatever they may be).  But I can better understand that while I could start training for running at mile zero, many others must start training at mile negative ten and beyond.  I have a great many advantages to work with that made achieving these goals more realistic.

Context Is Messy

The context we exist in is particularly tricky.  It can empower us, debilitate us, and usually does a range of both in differing ways.  The mental ability to stick with a project can be challenging.  Whether it's weight loss, physical training, or quitting cigarette, outsiders don't often realize that it's not a singular battle ("I've decided to eat healthy. Done!"), but innumerable battles taking place on many different battlefields.  Take eating healthier.  It means every time one engages with food, one has to determine a path to "healthy eating."  Nevermind, that food information lies, misinforms, or purposely confuses (see Michael Pollan's work for more on that), so choosing the right foods is problematic, but then there's the amount.  There's also the cultural around food.  I have at least one friend who swears she wants to be a vegetarian but she lives with a family whose cultural food traditions are very meat heavy.  I have other friends who feel they lose elements of social engagement because they have to reject offers to go out to eat because the places to eat are not inline with the decisions.  So as an individual, a person is dealing with type, amount, timing, social pressure, inner pressure, and other myriad facts.  And they're doing this constantly throughout a day.  That's a heavy cognitive load to work with.  And it's true that it wears on the psyche of the individual.  Research experiments regularly show that one's will power is limited and needs time to develop more strongly.  But with big-ticket items such as weight, healthy, addiction--that's extreme hard to do because in a given day, the willpower is being drained away constantly.

And of course, one is doing this while also deeply enmeshed in the craziness of their lives with the various personal, work, familial, and friend-related demands that complicated it extensively.  And this is important too.  People don't realize how much one has to do with the other, but yes, the myriad other demands of one's life also make achieving specific goals quite hard.  Want proof?  The military has about a 60% success rate in terms of people who sign up and are still there 4 years later.  Despite the tens of thousands of dollars (if not more) spent on the training of a single soldier, they still cannot get a higher retention rate--they cannot get people to achieve their goals.  And that's the US military!  I make this point, because the military are very conscious in their training and helping soldiers prepare.  They do something that virtually most of us cannot.  They purposely and clearly remove the cognitive demands of soldiers.  Basic training takes soldiers out of the demands of their daily lives--it lessens the amount of things they have to think about, so that they can focus on training.  Their food, sleep, clothing, daily events, transportation--nearly everything--is predetermined for some 6-12 weeks.  This means that they only have to focus on their goal.  It's almost entirely reprogramming; remove them from their context, and get them fixated on one purpose.  It's a very ingenious way of helping people accomplish a task and yet, isn't perfect.  It goes to show why making committed decisions in our lives are rather challenging and that it takes a serious amount of reprogramming that not quite easy to do when deeply intermixed with our context.  

In the end, I'm proud of my accomplishments.  I've earned them.  But I hold no perception that this proves anything about anyone beyond me.  I've benefit from the privileges afforded someone as a white middle-class (perceived as) heterosexual male.  In our culture, that does give me certain advantages and predispositions.  It does not detract from my accomplishment, but it provides a relevant context for understanding that the there is a multi-layered playing field and others have larger and more challenging obstacles to overcome beyond just building up to the running  (or whatever goal or expectation being discussed).


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