Now this is the law of the jungle as old and as true as the sky;
And the wolf that keeps it may prosper and the wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that circles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back
The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.
– From the Jungle Book.
When he was 19 years old, “Jim” (not his real name) weighed 160 lbs. Now at 32, he weighs 275, is self-conscious, and embarrassed. I was his phone call of desperation. He was confused and no longer knew what to do, where to start, or who to trust to talk to.
I saw his sad eyes when we met to talk about me helping him, I knew I wanted to give him hope, above all else, that many people have gained weight, lost it, and kept it off in a healthy way. That it was possible to go back to his normal weight.
I felt very assured of my point of view because of the undeniable truth that normal is how we are made to be. The human body was not made to lug around an extra 100 lbs on its frame, long term. The fact it does, says a lot about the body’s ability to adapt. But not without a price.
(The same argument can be made of the opposite end of the continuum, as well. Some elite marathoners and gymnasts are also examples of how the body isn’t supposed to be: malnourished, under a healthy weight, especially those that develop an eating disorder. This is not normal, not how the body was created.)
“A strong will is a runner’s greatest asset,” according to Marc Bloom in his book, God On The Starting Line. “To endure the grind of running, to pile on thousands of miles, to keep going when your body pleads for mercy or you’re simply not in the mood. The pain passes. Get through the suffering and you enter a different world, a pristine world, where you have a higher consciousness, a state of grace, and an exquisite understanding of life, a taste of hardship and hardship conquered, affirming the hard work. ” That’s will and perseverance.
I also wanted to let Jim know he wasn’t alone. There are many who have gone before him, and, if he’s successful, many will follow his own footsteps as a role model, not the least of which will be his two little ones. For those who make it part of who they are, it’s as if they were a runner (thought, worked, trained) before they were born, so that they could speak it, act it, and share it with others.
I was recently asked, “What makes you a competitor?” It means I’m not alone. There are others out there. As long as I’m a competitor, I’m not by myself. It can be a selfish endeavor. Very self-absorbing if one allows it. Being a competitor can be all about that person. BUT (!), if one looks at the word, one can’t be a competitor without someone else to compete with, against. To me it means being with others, who help me be my best, do my best, and get to my best. It’s necessary to have people in front and behind me during a race. I can’t win without someone losing. The people in front are urging me to catch up, while those behind are cheering me forward. The aid station volunteers are happy I take water from their stations. Being a competitor includes others. Competitors must look over their shoulders occasionally to make sure there are others around to compete with. We must support each other in “the race” whatever that might be, including outside the field of play. Otherwise, if there wasn’t anyone to compete with, we would fight the animals and elements to be competitors. I’d much rather have my friends to run, train, and race with. I wanted to help Jim get “in” race fitness.
In Jim’s case, I also wanted to put him in touch with others who could encourage him in ways I couldn’t, such as Kurt who you’ll read about next month. He gained a lot of weight, but then through exercise and diet, lost it. My friend Tracy lost weight and became an Ironman finisher in the process. And because Jim said he likes swimming, a good exercise for him because it is non-weight bearing, I put him in touch with Dallas Aquatic Master’s, and particularly Coach Liana McStravick.
That but for the grace of God go I. I could be Jim, just as easily as anyone else reading this. Do the same things he was doing for the same period of time and, voila! You could double your weight, too. Scary isn’t it? Earlier this week I heard triathlete and racquetball player, Jamie Shaw, say “Being active is self-perpetuating. Just like being inactive.” Aren’t you glad you did NOT do what Jim did, that your circumstances were/are different? Maybe someone got you to be active when you were younger, just a kid. Maybe it was after college that you saw the direction you were heading and did something about it, meeting up with some others that were active. You aren’t like Jim only because of grace.
After being guided or inspired by a person, book, or movie, we ran out and started our new life, putting on new clothes. We were preparing for a moment, equal in importance and significance as the day we first went out and played (exercised), not even realizing it. Our imagination and inspiration called us to be active, attaining a level we never thought possible. There was much work to do.
We are carved and created during training. We are forged in long speed sessions to help our anaerobic capacities, and long single workouts to build aerobic tissue. We are sculpted (mentally and physically) in to beings that more resemble our ancestors and less like what is being passed off as normal today. Shaped by the weather that surrounds us, we enter the outdoors with trepidation, but assured of our workout ahead. We fight against our destiny and our self. There is honor in the struggle! Adversity strengthens our resolve, our purpose. IT IS BY ADVERSITY THAT WE LIVE.
We fought against what we saw and heard as the standard, and strained and ached for something higher, better, and faster, feeling the unity of bone, muscle, mind, and enthusiasm. This is who we are. This is who we were meant to be. This is what we were meant to do. We can no longer separate the athlete from the person we are.
And so, we are fitted with the insurance policy that no matter where we might be, if we see a runner on a track, a cyclist on the road, or a swimmer on TV, we will be able to relate and understand that athlete’s quest of his inner drive, maintaining his rhythm of moving limbs, of lungs inhaling and exhaling. We will be able to insert our self into the body of the elite athlete. We will feel his pain, because we, too, have felt that same pain of a throbbing headache from extending our systems in oxygen debt, of a storm of cramps threatening to break out throughout our body and tie us in knots, of our body generating so much heat and desperately trying to dissipate it through sweet, sweat that we are both soaked in sweat and hot as August asphalt melting into the earth.
Seeing Ryan Hall in the final miles during the Bejing Olympic Marathon running alone, I knew exactly what he felt like to be in “no man’s land,” without another competitor around him, straining to stay in the race, physically and mentally.
I may never be as close to Michael Phelps as to be sitting in the top row of a natatorium where he’s competing, but I know what it’s like to be stroke-for-stroke with a person in the next lane, gasping for air and forcing water down along my sides as fast as possible.
And I may only ever get to see Lance Armstrong on TV, but I know the ache of leg and back muscles after fatigue has set in while only half way into a long bike ride, up an incline, throwing my bike left and right for that little bit of extra power and leverage.
But our workouts can be solitary endeavors, making us crave another human being to share the pain, monotony, and loneliness of such training. Packs come together on the weekends for the weekly long workout, and if the runner is lucky, for the speed interval sessions, too. We pay our dues in patience, waiting for body changes to take place. Despite their extra time, energy, and strength of mind and body, dedicated to the goal we have set for ourselves, we “just do it” finding pride in the act and in doing the act to our best.
There are fundamental differences between individual sports and team sports. One is their core values are different. One finds happiness in the pursuit of the sweat and guts (and some would argue, sanity) spilled on the course during a solitary race in last place with the hope of setting a new personal record, “bedrock values of hard work and humility, the search for higher ground” (M. Bloom). The other is happy to kick or throw a ball around for an hour with nine others talking, reaching for low hanging fruit, plotting against the spirit of the game. Team sport people may never understand that one of the points of swimming, cycling, or running is that success is solely based on one person. I will live and die by how I train and, ultimately, how I perform in a race. The quarter back, the catcher, or the cheerleaders will NOT be able to help me when I’m hurting. There are no time outs, or substitutes. And certainly none of those will be able to take away, or even share, my glory when I cross the finish line. And because of that, swimming, cycling, and running have lasting value, a legacy few other sports can compete with, way beyond the plastic trophy one gets IF he or she is so lucky to achieve. Aerobic sports can become extremely personal and emotional, driven from the inside. Go, Jim, go!
In the book The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, central character Colin Smith says, “I couldn’t see anybody, and I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness in the world. And I knowing it would be no different ever, no matter what I felt like at odd times, and no matter what anybody else tried to tell me.” Being a runner is like being part of a covert army where you are under the radar of the rest of society.
Then there’s the point when we want and are able to enter a race, a public baptism of our fitness, a testimony of the work we’ve done to get to the start line, and an initiation into another world where people considered as weirdo’s and health freaks co-mingle. It’s a joyous celebration of the body where tears sometimes flow after first-timers cross the finish line. I have witnessed this, and done so, personally. But, one has to understand if the goal is race performance, our times and proficiency is dependant upon our training. A few days of training and practicing is not the same as months of training and practicing.
Jim left our initial meeting much more optimistic than when I first saw him. He had hope. He has a lot of work in front of him. It took time and work to get to 275 lbs, it’s going to take time and work to reverse the situation. But the good news, he CAN. And in the process, gain a lot of new friends, too.
If you need one more reason to get out there, how about this:
“Because you never regret going for a run, only the ones you skip.” – Megan Kretz, blogger on Runner’s Kitchen