Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 22, 2011

Tractatus Curso-Philosophicus

I’m a little late posting today’s regular Saturday entry. I’ve been busy. I’ve been contemplating the state of my sole.

That is to say, I’ve been out running around the track up at Miraleste Intermediate, obsessing about whether or not I’m on the verge of an injury to my right foot. I have this twinge, you see; it’s not completely down in the plantar fascia, but it doesn’t seem like a full-blown achilles thing, either. I’ve been contemplating it as I run.

This, you may not be aware, is what all those runners you see on sidewalks and park trails and suburban streets and everywhere else are thinking, too. They’re thinking about injuries they have, or recently had, or are likely to get, and wondering if it’s going to get better soon, or recur, or suddenly hit them in the next hundred yards.

I know this is true, because I read some publications for runners, and that’s what fills every magazine: how runner X overcame injury Y to win the trans-Himalayan 1,000-mile run, or how Runner Z was perfectly prepared and trained to win the A Marathon until a sudden bout of Ewing’s Tumor laid her low. All the other articles — all of them — are about recovering from injury, avoiding injuries or some variation thereof.

Running is not like other sports. If you’re training for football, baseball, soccer or 43-1/2 Man Squamish, there are all those things about catching, throwing, kicking and swinging sticks and bats to master, in addition to all the aspects of team play that require detailed execution of strategies and tactics and not getting whacked in the head by some other team’s stick.

Running is just you and your respective mass traveling along together. Running also has the advantage of not being very equipment-intensive; you need some shoes (there are those who run races barefoot, but, really) and running shorts or pants and probably a shirt. You can get a stopwatch pretty cheap, and then it’s up to you. The sporting goods industry has bent its back to this task, and now there are whole departments full of specialized running clothes for every weather, shoes for every surface, but no bats, balls, helmets, shinguards (except for a few neighborhoods) and so on.

As one starts out to be a runner, there is, of course, only pain and discouragement: how will you ever run more than two hundred yards without feeling like your heart or lungs or both will burst? How will you reach a point when the muscles of your legs stop that burning feeling? As the days and weeks go by, and you manage to extend your first feeble stumbling into more hundreds of yards and then miles and then more miles, those bursting lungs and burning legs don’t occur until longer and longer distances elapse. Your mind is freed from pain and can roam around a bit as you churn over the ground.

If you’re strong and brilliant, you might be composing poetry in your head, or solving that problem you have about there never being any grass in that one spot in the front lawn, or other deep matters. Some people — many people — discover that, left alone with nothing but the miles going past beneath one’s feet only proves that there’s really nothing worth spending that much time thinking about, and so headphones and an iPod are the solution. There’s nothing like an infinitely shuffling playlist of AC-DC and George Thorogood to help you remember that other people are suffering more than you are right now.

Eventually, though, as the days and weeks pass and you’re left alone with your own thoughts, that eternal note of doubt enters in: what’s that twinge in my left knee? Is my cartilage wearing out there? Am I going to need ACL surgery? And what about that pain in my lower left abdomen: just a stitch in my side or is something rupturing? And my left hamstring is bothering me … am I going to pull it and fall twitching to the sidewalk, miles from any help?

I once saw a documentary about the great pianist, Vladimir Horowitz. He was still very young, only 90 or so, and still practicing every day and performing. There was footage of him practicing practicing practicing his scales and arpeggios and a scary range of other exercises. He talked about how he never knew where the next problem would arise in his technique: would his left index finger betray him and not respond? Lately, he said, it was the pinky on his right hand that was the “traitor:” it wasn’t cooperating. He was forcing it to cooperate. He was thinking all this as he played the world’s most demanding piano music at the very peak of artistic expression, capable of making even Soviet Dictators weep, something the deaths of millions of their citizens in Siberian prisons failed to do.

Runners are like Horowitz, except they have nothing like the complexity of a Rachmaninov Concerto to occupy their frontal lobes, so they obsess about their quads and their calves and their tendons. They do, unfortunately, make their injuries or the current lack of them their religion. It’s a very boring, narcissistic religion, but since running is, itself, a rather boring, narcissistic pursuit — at least to non-runners — it’s not that unusual.

The only escape is to race. The great muse of writing about running was the late Dr. George Sheehan. Sheehan filled books full of pithy aphorisms about running, one of which was, “The thing that distinguishes joggers from runners is a race number.” Finally, in a race of any distance, at any level of competition, one is finally free of all this petty doo-dah about plantar fasciitis and knee cartilage and whether one’s shoes are rubbing you somewhere. The gun goes off and there are far more interesting obsessions: am I going out too fast? Too slow? Why is that tub of lard passing me when he looks like he should be in the cardiac unit? Why can’t I gain on that pregnant woman pushing two kids in a stroller? Who brought that dog to the race?

As the miles go by, however few, for once you are pushing yourself to the edge of whatever pace you’re capable of. There are the burning lungs and the burning legs, but this is a RACE and it’s GOOD! You catch that tub of lard at mile 3. The pregnant woman has to take a long stop at mile 3 to get one of the kids back in the stroller. You FORGET why that nagging pain, wherever it is, should be bothering you, because you’re within 5 seconds of your pace-per-mile and you know there’s a downhill stretch where you can make it up. THIS is the payoff for all those endless miles and interminable hours of practicing. You feel the endorphin rush that puts you into a kind of blissful acceptance of the ordeal and turns it into a sort of pleasure. The finish line is ahead. Your watch tells you you’re going to beat your goal time. You DO it!

You turn to the runner next to you, who’s bent-over, trying to get air to the lungs and let blood return to his head. You say, “Man, my achilles tendon is killing me.”

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