Somewhere around 20k it all came apart and I found myself hobbling along a trail that barely an hour previous had held all the promise that I had sanely hoped it would. I was hobbling and praying to an unknown deity to help and mumbling to myself in curse words and pleads. I wanted to keep going but couldn’t. I stepped tentatively forward and my left knee simply buckled under the weight. I urged my legs to go further faster, but even the slightest incline or descent sent spasms of pain all the way up the outside of my leg into my hip. I was done for. There was nothing left to do except politely stand to the side as other runners passed me and say, “No, everything’s fine, just a little knee trouble,” as they offered help. Frustration turned to humiliation which became just plain old schoolboy pissed-off-ed-ness. This race was over and I was stuck doing the shuffle of shame to the finish. Which I walked across.
It wasn’t the first time a trail had laid me out either. A couple of months previous, a long and flat half marathon had left me limping along, just barely running. Two older racers–who had finished so far ahead of me that they looked like they had had time to triumphantly cross the mat, high five each other, have a couple of complementary bananas, a cup of coffee, wash up, and leisurely make their way to the homestretch to cheer folks on–looked me up and down and, without even a hint of irony, cheered me on anyway, the old guy going so far to say, “If it were easy, everyone would do it!’ I did everything I could to urge a little more energy and speed–but the tank was empty, my left knee having none of that. Looking back on the moment that I took the t-shirt I can only blame it on the adrenaline, some swag you just don’t deserve.
Scott Jurek says, “It’s not the losing that defines us. It’s what we do afterwards.” At first, I licked my wounds. Both times. The stupid half marathon wasn’t really so bad; it had not one but two secret weapons that I wasn’t ready for–it was hot and flat. As an arboreal singletrack trail runner, either of those things could have done me in, and together they were a one-two knock out. And it was my first race. And I had never run anywhere close to that far. And. And. And… nothing. I licked my wounds.
The second failure, though; that one hurt. I had trained and put in the miles, logged the up-early runs and the evening ones, I had slogged it through the mud and hadn’t even neglected the hills. In my mind, at least, I was ready for a long trail run. I was ready to race. And, at first, I did; I watched the other racers, put myself in place, paced, measured, and watched some more. And then the wheels fell off-–farther along than previous, but still far enough from the finish that, well, it wasn’t as much of a finish as it was a relief.
To my credit, I didn’t give up.
As a matter of fact, weirdly enough, I never even thought of giving up. Instead, I signed up for another race. A longer race. A longer race on a much more demanding course. And then I really let the other shoe drop, as it were: I promised myself I wouldn’t, under any circumstance, walk across the finish line again. Run or stretcher: those were the options. There was to be zero compromise. And in some cases, zero compromise means going to the experts.
I had never been a physio’s office before. It smelled funny and the skeleton in the corner, while plastic, seemed to be giving me the look that said, “Anytime buddy, anytime at all.” I listened to the conversation next door-–the doc was talking about running with a lady who seemed to have been there numerous times before. As the curtain opened I jumped up and apologized straight away–sorry man, another runner! “It’s okay,” he said, he was a triathlete and liked this stuff. He asked me to lift the hem of my shorts so he could have a look at my quads. I turned this way and that as he a-ha-ed. So, he said, “How long have you been training for trail ultras?” “Uh…” I sort of said, “how did you know that?” Ultra trail runners develop their quads and calves in ways different from other runners was his answer. His next question, “A pain in the knee, eh?” He jabbed at my hip with his pen and I nearly fell over-–the pain is actually coming from here. Right. And? And exercises! Your knees are fine; we have to strengthen your butt!
With a last name like Titus I am sure you can imagine how many jokes I’ve heard. This one was the best. “Andrew,” he said, “you need a tight ass.”
I did the gym time. I ran every trail I could for as long as I could. I again clocked miles in the dark, through rain and heat, with others and without. And I did his exercises. Every day. I looked the other way as the Titans at the gym crunched insane weights and diligently worked my butt off, putting my knee back together. And, oddly enough, I liked it. I liked knowing that what I was doing was having a direct effect on the running. Whether it could be seen, whether the gym had become a place for the mat instead of the rack, whether, whether, whether… None of it mattered. I was going to run. I was going to run faster and longer and that was all that counted. As my friend Jodi Isenor recently said, “When you think things suck, they really could be so much worse and we are all lucky to be here for these idiotic adventures.” And that’s exactly how I felt: lucky.
And then, somewhere behind me, watching and taking quiet mental note, was my son Koan. An excellent swimmer in his own right, Koan’s real specialty is hunkering down in a chair with a book and a snack after jumping on the trampoline for an hour, or riding his bike through the neighbourhood finding places I don’t even know about; a deeply sensitive, thoughtful and imaginative 10 year old, he is a shining example of health and well being. Youth and strength and boundless curiosity pour from every part of him. I should have guessed he was collecting important information for his own purposes.
As I was hammering out the miles and doing everything in my power to build endurance, Koan was hatching his own plans; and as I plotted to run ultras and read everything I could find, my real lesson was right under my nose.
On Saturday, June 29th, by 10 a.m. I was standing on the beach of a lake staring at my watch and wondering where in the world he could be. Six weeks earlier he had matter-of-fact-ed-ly told me that he wanted me to sign him up for the Kids of Steel triathlon, that he was ready to give this racing thing a go. I excitedly told him that I would and now here I was, staring at my watch, and wondering why his first two laps had taken him right around six minutes and now almost 10 had passed. General curiosity turned to wonder and then to worry. In my mind’s eye I saw him lying on the ground and thought about taking off to find him, but as a friend of mine once said, parenting is “perfecting the art of losing you.”
I bit my nails, paced, looked at my watch. At 11 minutes, just as worry was turning into panic, he came blasting around the corner, four or five places back from where he had been, his handlebars pointing in exactly the wrong direction, and a steady stream of blood flowing down his right arm. He whipped into the transition area and dropped the bike on the ground as I tried to pour water over the wound. “What happened? Do you want to stop? Are you okay?” Bike on the ground, a quick “I crashed,” and he was off, running faster and stronger than I had ever seen him run. He quickly overtook two of the kids before they were even out of the gate and then, as everyone who had blown their energy in the swim and the bike ride slowed on the run, he passed one after another after another. By the time he had finished he had gone from 11th in the swim to sixth across the finish line. My pride ballooned to unprecedented proportions, but the lesson was still waiting.
Listen: it’s not really about us–it’s not about the miles we put in, the food we eat, the crazy talk we talk, the races we win, or the one’s we don’t. It’s about perseverance, about what we do next, and about who’s watching. Maybe you don’t have kids, but the kids really are still watching, and maybe you do have kids, in which case all I’m doing is reminding you of what you already know. It’s not really about us and it’s not about winning or losing, but it is about not walking across the finish line, if that’s your goal, and having the kids sit with that as they sit in the big chair eating snacks and thinking… thinking as you are out running in the rain and the heat, in the dark, by yourself, and with others, planning the next “idiotic adventure” and living big and happy.
Isn’t that what we’re doing?
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Who is watching you when you run, gleaning lessons applicable to life?
- When was the last time your actions during a run or race were influenced by the people you know are supporting you in some way?