Pushing Through Brick Walls And Learning Endurance

Running is not about winning. It's about finishing.
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(This article is dedicated to Mary Boblett Wirth (1920-2001.)

My first coach was my mother.

Don't get me wrong. My dad was a wise, loving, brilliant, funny man. He was one of my best friends. For one thing, he introduced me to science fiction! Dad had a large library of it, making me the envy of my classmates.

But my mother taught me how to run. She also taught me how to kayak, to climb mountains, to do gymnastics, to do plyometrics, and to bend into unlikely positions on the yoga mat.

She did none of this herself.

My mother had rheumatoid arthritis. It was severe. It came on suddenly. She was 11. She went through the rest of her childhood walking with a cane. And there were no rules about bullying or name-calling. Not then. Not during the Depression. Not in a small town in Ohio.

By the time I knew her, my mother's right leg was 2.5" shorter than the left. She wore a special shoe with a thick sole. In the years I knew her, she went from one cane to two, from canes to crutches, from crutches to a walker. But she fought the wheelchair to the end of her life. She died at 81.

None of these things defined my mother. She had a Master's degree from the University of Chicago. She had a two careers and two marriages. She had more volunteer positions than I can count. She could ride a bicycle like nobody's business. And when she had to give that up, I heard not one word of complaint from her. Instead, she took up dancing.

Oh, and she had four very rambunctious children whom she encouraged to get outdoors as much as possible. The orange groves, the granite hills, the desert, the smells of medicinal plants growing wild - all these were her gifts to us.

It was not her job to entertain us. It was her job to get us to entertain ourselves. She did. Boredom was not forbidden. It was an alien concept.

OK, so what has this to do with running?

Well, it has to do with endurance. It has to do with running through brick walls. And life is full of brick walls. God puts them there. They are Her most precious gift. (Well, that and chocolate.)

On June 5, I ran in the San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon. That heavy medallion now hangs in my office by its bright blue ribbon. It is one of my credentials, along with my framed degrees and certificates.

Yup, I finished. Here are my times, from that wonderful chip implanted in the band on my shoe. Any runner will look at these numbers and nod knowingly. Ready?

Halfway: 2 hours, 2 minutes, 20 seconds.
20 Miles: 3 hours, 35 minutes, 1 second.
End: 5 hours, 8 minutes, 38 seconds.

OK, anybody see the problem here? Hands up!

Any knowledgeable distance runner will be shaking her head: "Michael! Where was your pacing? Where was your form? Who was your trainer?"

The figures don't lie. I ran fast till Mile 20. Then I ran out of steam. There's even a picture of me on the Active Sport website - trudging along toward the end, my shoulders slumped, my face sagging, my arms limp.

Yes, I'm embarrassed. Yes, my trainer scolded me a bit. Yes, I hit the proverbial brick wall. And, yes, I built that wall myself. Brick by brick. (With some help from God.) Oh, I could give this excuse or that excuse. The bottom line is: I let my form fall apart.

But I finished.

And that process of finishing was an entire education in the art of running. That's really what this column is about: Running is not about winning. It's about finishing. It's not about speed. It's about form. If your form falls apart, it's not conscious running. If it's not conscious running, it's not joyful running. And if it's not joyful running, you are missing the point.

As I write my forthcoming blogs, they will continue to offer technical tips: Form. Diet. Physiology. Cross-training.

But I will start to include other ideas: Running as meditation. Running as prayer. Running as dance. Running as worship. All this I'm getting from that particular brick wall I slammed into a month ago.

Yet the deeper lesson I learned decades ago. It is about brick walls in general. I learned it from a woman who couldn't run five feet. Who could barely walk.

But she was an expert on brick walls.

From her, I learned that brick walls are sometimes things we build, brick by brick . But always they are a gift from God as well. Indeed, they are Her most precious gift.

Well, plus chocolate.