Thursday, November 29, 2007

Running out of Thoughts

Last night I was feeling restless so I decided to go for a run. The kids were watching Christmas cartoon specials on TV, while my wife was relaxing on the couch watching the kids, although I secretly think she is a fan of "Shrek the Halls." Not being much of a TV person, rather than wait out the clock for 8:45 to roll around (when I was scheduled to meet Mr. Wenzel, my running compatriot), I left the house for the high school track at 7:30.

After a few awkward stretches (I'm about as flexible as a cold, plastic spoon), I turned on my redeeming .mp3 player and with my running gloves, my long-sleeved compression under shirt, my winter cap, and comfy shoes, I started running. Much like Forrest Gump, I just ran, and ran, and ran, with not real goal of when I'd stop.

I have always wondered what goes through people's minds when they're running, because I struggle personally with fighting off such negative thoughts as, "Man, this really suck!" "Why am I doing this again?" "I really shouldn't have eaten that bowl of chili for dinner." "I'd rather be driving my car." You get the idea: running is more of a psychological battle than a physical one. But don't think there aren't any physical consequences. I run through all sorts of aches and pains like abdominal cramps, piercing pain in my right shoulder, stiff neck, sore Achilles tendon, and little things like my sock wadding up against my big toe. It's funny though, that I only feel these pains when I'm thinking about them. If I can force them out of my mind, which isn't easy, I don't feel them at all.

Which is why I rely so much on my music, which provides somewhat of a diversion for my over-active brain.. But my mind does wander as much as my feet. Last night I thought about such varied topics as separable differential equations, my plans for Christmas break, what those strange sounds coming from under the darkened bleachers is, and what my family was doing at home without me, hoping they missed me. I also cannot help but afford some attention to the other runners who come and go during my endurance session.

I'm not a fast runner, but I'm not slow either. I can average 7 minute miles at 3-mile distances, but last night, I was averaging 9.5 minute miles. Last night, as I was finishing up mile 5, a young, athletic-looking man arrived and fell in about 50 yards behind me. Knowing he's there ignites my competitiveness a bit, so I pick up my pace ever so slightly, one I know I can sustain. After about one lap, I heard his pounding feet approaching behind me. I figured, with him being a young male, that he would simulate an artificially fast pace as he went by me, and adjust his breathing to appear like he was not panting (at least, that's what I tend to do.) True to masculine form, he zipped by me before I could even nod him "hello." I noticed he slowed his pace after he felt he was comfortably ahead of me, in the shadows of the night. Before long (within 800 meters), he slowed to a trot, and I coasted right by him. For whatever reason, shame, embarrassment, or fatigue, he finished walking his lap and left the track for the evening. I felt like the victorious tortoise defeating the hare. The next lap I took I called my "victory lap!"

There was another man who arrived shortly after I did last night, an older man who obviously had bad knees. This man was an inspiration to watch. He ran at a very slow, but very steady pace, looking like Rocky Balboa beneath his hooded jacket. Unlike a champion prize-fighter, he struggled with every step, stepping gingerly along the track. I did not expect to him last very long, but each lap I took, he was still there, like FDR's presidency. When he could run no more, he walked on soft grass just inside the track to recover, but each time, he would start up again. I think the entire 95 minutes I was out there, I only lapped him 6 times, each time giving him a reassuring nod of encouragement. His drive and determination to push himself gave me renewed spirit of determination and appreciation for individuals who push themselves beyond what is easy, convenient, or comfortable. I'd like to think that my being out there gave HIM a little extra motivation as well. Although we never exchanged words, there was a shared energy and esprit de corps between us, each outlasting our epicurean urges to stop.

Ten miles (and 40 laps) after I started, I was dizzy and depleted, so I decided to shut it down. "Ten is such a nice, round number. 5 times 2, the square root of 100. 3 factorial plus the cubed-root of 64. Yes 10 is good!" Although I did not PR on my average time (I once ran a 40-yard sprint in 4.67 seconds, an average time of 3 minutes and 25 seconds per mile!), I did PR on distance. My euphoric "runner's high" lasted well into the evening, even after I got home, showered, and hit the sack. In fact, I lay awake until 2:00am enjoying my accomplishment and thinking of my unknown friends I had met at the track that night. At last, I fell asleep and had sweet dreams of separable differential equations.

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