June 17, 2014

The inner light

Does anyone else have those sort of “turning point” moments in your life? The ones you can point to and say, “when that happened, everything changed.” I don’t mean the intentional decisions you make that lead to change - getting married or going to college can drastically alter the direction of your life but you can sort of see those coming. I’m referring more to the sort of serendipitous events - sometimes even bad events - that change things, and you don’t always realize that something has changed right away until the passage of time gives you the opportunity to look back. When I think of the path my life has taken since I graduated high school I always end up thinking of the first half of 2007 as the turning point, where things happened that really started to change the person I was in high school into the person I am today.

In February of that year my longtime girlfriend and I broke up. It took me a long time to realize that this was probably for the best (she was the one who made the decision to end the relationship), but after it happened I stopped going back to Michigan to see her. I’d sort of fallen ass-backwards into college. My high school grades were not good so my options were limited. I chose a little liberal arts college outside Chicago simply because they had good cross country and track teams - at that point I really had no idea of what I wanted to major in. Even after I was accepted I was reluctant to go because I didn’t want to be so far away from my Michigan girlfriend, and I went back to see her at just about every opportunity I had. I’d drive or take an Amtrak train to Detroit and we’d spend a weekend together going to the same places we had in high school, seeing the same people we had in high school. Going home was a safety blanket. Any progress I’d made in growing as a person in college was wiped out in a weekend when I could go home and regress to being a high schooler again.

When she called it quits the umbilical cord was cut. Of course we still talked and argued for most of the rest of the year but after February I really didn’t want anything to do with Michigan and didn’t go back unless it was absolutely necessary. I started to think of myself as a Chicagoan and as I begun the long and tedious process of rebuilding my life post-breakup I did so with Chicago people and places in mind. It’s not like I matured overnight or that there still wasn’t progress to be made in the coming years but once I let go of my old life in Michigan I finally stopped feeling so stunted in my personal development.

And then that spring, at the conclusion of the track season, I was called into the coach’s office and informed that I would not be on the cross country team in the fall. Instead I was being relegated to something called “fall track” - basically a training program to get in shape for the indoor track season while skipping cross country entirely. The team had not done well the last two seasons and the coaches were raising their standards; only those who had demonstrated the right work ethic and passion for running the past year would be toeing the line in the fall. I had not made the cut. In hindsight I couldn’t blame them. After an injury-riddled freshman season I came into my sophomore year completely out of shape and subsequently got hurt again after only two weeks of hard workouts. I missed the entire cross country season and most of indoor track as a result, and even though I was once again healthy for outdoor track, my races were pretty disastrous. I was slower than even my sophomore year of high school and after each pathetic effort on the track I’d mentally given up and started to seriously consider quitting altogether.

“Don’t take it personally,” my coach said after I expressed my disappointment. “We just looked at track performances and based them off of fitness.”

I started to resign myself to my fate but then looked again at the sheet of cross country/fall track assignments and noticed my roommate’s name listed under “cross country.” He’d been injured since the conference meet and the previous day I had jogged with him on his first run, two miles, in almost a month. He was completely out of shape.

“You’re putting Kyle on the cross country team?” I said, trying not to sound offended and incredulous but managing to sound like both. “He can barely run around campus right now. I’m in better shape than he is.”

My coach exchanged an uneasy glance with his assistant.

“We think he’ll be an integral part of the cross country team in the fall.”

I was pissed, it was a personal decision. They knew that Kyle would be ready to roll come September. They did not think that same of me, even though I had a massive head start on him in terms of overall fitness.

My first instinct was to just throw in the towel. You’ve given college running a shot and it didn’t work out. Two years with zero success is enough to know your limit. But I was indignant. I felt like I’d been wronged by being shoved against my will into the fall track program. For weeks I wrestled with what I should do - quit, go through the indignity of fall track, or train my ass of all summer in the faint hope I could somehow earn my way back on the cross country team. I talked with my friends and teammates, the coaches again, and my father who had run for the same team under the same coach. I decided I’d throw everything I had at one last shot at running cross country.

The last two summers, my weekly running mileage gearing up for cross country had been around 40-50 miles a week. My first week in the summer of 2007 was 71 miles...followed by 77, 80, 84, and then 90. I ran twice a day, seven days a week, through thunderstorms, temperatures over 100 degrees, mosquitoes, humidity, fog, up hills, through forests, splashing through puddles. I ran on vacations, stumbling groggily out of my tent at 6:00 AM on camping trips to get a few miles in; I ran through unfamiliar cities, relying on a stopwatch and my navigation skills to avoid getting lost.

Before then I’d lacked any intrinsic motivation to run on my own just for the sake of running. I had no skin in the game. In high school I ran what my coach told me to run - nothing beyond that because it wasn’t asked for. When I got accepted to college and went out for the cross country team I was told that freshmen typically put in 40-50 miles a week in the summer, so that’s what I did. After I arrived on campus, we were told that the five mile run every morning was optional, so I stayed in bed every morning. I didn't think I was lazy - when I went to mandatory practice I put as much effort in as anyone else, but I relied on the coaching staff to tell me what they wanted from me. I didn’t want it on my own. There was no inner drive to improve, no inner standards of my own to reach. I was only preoccupied with reaching standards set for me by others. Then in the summer of 2007 that changed. I didn’t care about how I fast I would run during the season, or who I could beat, or anything else like that. I simply wanted the opportunity to be allowed to toe the starting line with my friends. To get there I had to prove to the coaches that I wanted it and that I wanted it more than anything else.

I arrived on campus in the best shape of my life and demolished the first fall track workouts. On tempo runs I could not only keep up with but even drop people who had been out of my league in previous years. During our first workout of mile repeats I averaged thirty seconds a mile faster than I had ever run before. These were still fall track workouts but my performances did not escape the attention of the coaches. At that point it didn’t matter if made it on the cross country team - I was feeling so good in practice and workouts, dumbstruck at how fast I could run that I already felt like I’d justified my summer of running myself into the ground. At the midway point of the cross country season I was finally allowed the opportunity to put on a uniform and race.

It was a hot day, far hotter and humid than it had been, and by mile three of the five mile race I was starting to feel the effects of heatstroke. I stumbled across the finish line, muttering incoherently as my teammates and the athletic training staff ran up and started pouring water over my head. My skin was pink, I was so dehydrated that I’d stopped sweating, and I don’t remember anything of the last two miles of that race but I’d still covered the five mile course nearly two minutes faster than I had the last time I’d run it as a freshman.

Through the remainder of that cross country season and into track I crushed nearly every personal record I had over every distance from the 800 meters up through 8000 - three seconds off 800, 19 seconds off a mile, 58 seconds off two miles, 1:23 off of 5000, and a whopping three minutes off of 8000. The summer leading into my senior year was even better but a stress fracture put an end to my season after two races. I was disappointed but not disheartened - I would have gladly traded four years of injury-free mediocre races for that one year, my junior year, where I felt completely unstoppable.

That drive, that work ethic, that feeling that I had something to prove bled into every other aspect of my life. My grades steadily improved throughout the rest of college and into graduate school. I went from being barely academically eligible to participate in sports in high school to graduating magna cum laude from graduate school. In work and marriage and friendships I’ve strived to go above and beyond what is necessary to get by. I realized as 2007 drew to a close that up to that point my life had been the culmination of two decades’ worth of low bids. Keep your expectations reasonable, stay out of the way, try not to get hurt and you’ll never be disappointed. It wasn’t until I got dumped and really started to pour myself into running that I came to the conclusion that that philosophy would lead to nothing but disappointment.

With a wife, a house, and a full-time job my life is more rounded today than it was when all I did was run, but in the past two years I’ve still found the time to run a marathon, two half marathons, and bunch of 5ks. There are no coaches watching over me anymore but at this point I don’t need them anymore. They lit the fire inside me and I’ve kept its embers glowing ever since. When I think about the kind of person I was before 2007 I hardly recognize him. Every now and then I come across some reminder of that person - and old notebook, a shirt I got from a concert I attended with my ex, and I consider these ghosts of yesteryear for a moment before putting them down and remembering how far I’ve come along this path. The boy who didn’t listen, the boy who only gave the bare minimum to get by, the boy who was too wrapped up in a girl to realize that she was holding him back is gone and has been gone for a long time. He can tag along on a run with me if he wants to find out why.

No comments:

Post a Comment