I was in the park the other day reading my book and I looked up to see a slightly overweight woman and what appeared to be her son of around 17 or 18. They were traipsing up the stairs and both laboured with the effort. At the top of the stairs they turned left and headed down the path towards me. After the effort of the stairs their pace was slow but as they made their way to me their stride lengthened and speed quicken and I was struck with the strong steely look of determination on their faces. The son talked incessantly and the mother appeared pensive as she endured what I could only assume was a pointless teenager conversation about fortnight or the problem between a single turbo over a double turbo on super cars. I watched them walk pass and had a chuckle to myself when I heard him mention motor racing at Bathurst. I went back to my book as their conversation drifted away propelled by their purposeful feet. No more than ½ a chapter later I heard the laboured breaths just before I saw their heads bob into view. This time around their arms were pushing at their knees as they climbed the stairs with less speed but no less purpose or determination. The conversation from the son was still going but it was punctuated and truncated with hacking breaths. The mother, however had the same steely determination etched on her face. On first glance it seemed like she was in a battle with her body, but from my perspective I believe that she was setting this breakneck pace in the vain hope of shutting her son up. On this second lap I believe that it was an each way bet who would win. From this point on I put my book away as what was playing out in front of me was far more enthralling than the book I was reading.
Then I did something that only a person that has been running and training for 40 years would do, I started the stop watch on my wrist as they walked past the crack in the concrete in front of me. This would be my start and finish line if they were to come back around again. I made mental notes on how they were striding out. I looked at their shoes, what they were wearing and how they could improve to reduce their time. I then waited and reflected on how they were going. Had the boy shut up yet, if so was it because of a frustrated “shut up Billy” bellow from Mum or because Mum had exercised Billy into submission. (no idea if that was his name, he looked like a Billy) Personally I doubt Billy had given up the battle because he looked like the determined type. He had his Mum’s determined genes after all. I could also sense that Billy knew he was neck deep in this fight. He set himself the goal of annoying the bejesus out of his mother. He wanted her to break as he had probably been doing this to his mother for years in an effort to erode the determined quietness from her and focus some much needed love and attention on himself.
Within 5 very long minutes I heard the laboured breaths much earlier this time as I was listening for them. Then I heard Billy, still talking, putting in a great effort. Most definitively working very hard at the allusion that he wasn’t suffering. Like the children’s party magician who gets their plastic flowers caught on their sleeve in the big reveal. Billy was tugging at the flowers wanting it to appear that this was all part of the act. But I could tell that Billy was the equivalent of a taunting child’s laugh away from giving up his athletic career as his mother’s saddle burr. I could tell the end was nigh for him as I watch him labour up the stairs, his focus was on the stair immediately in front of him. If he wished to conquer this peak he need to look towards the heavens and focus on the top of the stairs like Mum was doing half a step ahead as she pushed herself toward the summit with fierceness. From my vantage she had won the battle but she still looked focused, maybe she had bigger fish to fry. I surmised that she was possibly focused on getting her body into the shape it used to be in years ago or maybe she had a health scare and the doctor gave her some stark and sobering reality. Either way it was clear to see that her eyes were expressing a resolve beyond her current pain. She was intoxicated with purpose and exhibited an unwavering focus like the New Year’s resolution made mid hangover on the 1st of January.
As they flew past I hit the lap button. 5:47! Billy was hanging in there. He didn’t know it yet but Mum had won this one. I then instantly worried, if Billy dropped out would Mum wilt as the motivation that he provided with his incessant crap left as well? Pain tinted spite is, after all, an amazing motivational force. But if Billy was to leave her, she would only have her own internal fortitude to see her through; would that be enough? I was then concerned that my mini Olympic race that was unfolding before me would soon be over. I was seriously doubting that I would see Mum and Billy again today. All I had was hope that Mum and Billy would be there for each other and get another lap in.
As 6 minutes ticked over I actually got out of my chair and craned my neck to improve my vision down the hill. No sign of Billy or Mum. I decided to return to my book as I felt that my afternoon episode of bold and beautiful starring Billy and his Mum had come to an end. I wanted to finish this chapter before I went for my own afternoon run. I had a descending interval set that I wanted to get done. I did it last week and found I wasn’t getting the speed I wanted and my heart rate wasn’t getting up to what it should be on the final interval. Things weren’t adding up and I was keen to push through and solve what my issue was. It was at that moment that Billy’s Mum suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision as I stared into space considering my athletic inadequacies. I wouldn’t say she was moving swiftly, she certainly didn’t swooshed past me like she did on the first lap. Her foot falls were pretty heavy and her breath laboured but I was so caught up in the moment of not hitting my targets in training last week that I didn’t hear her coming. I did however look up in enough time to see the biggest smile of accomplishment on her face and it was at this moment that I realized that Billy was not to be seen. As she walked pass I looked down at my watch and saw 7:15 click over, significantly slower but the smile however was far more substantial.
Unfortunately that was the last I was to see of Billy and his Mum. I guess she needed to do one more lap just to stick it to her young son and show him that she still had a couple more lessons that she could teach him and in doing so she taught me one as well.
Reflecting back I can still see her smile. I got caught up in the moment and I am so glad that I did. I was vicariously training with them. I was with Billy and his Mum for three of those laps. They pulled me into their world. I felt the pain of the exercise, I laboured with them as they sucked in the breaths as they hit the top of the stairs, I felt the pang of annoyance as Billy continued to talk and I shared the hope in the face of the unspoken transformation that she was engaging in. But as an athlete with 40 years of training and thousands of kilometres of running, cycling and swimming under me I completely missed the point when I started the stop watch. It was then that the idea of running naked hit me.
Just as we are born naked we also start running naked. Running naked is all about instinct and desire. Running naked is running with no technology and no data. Running naked is primeval as it encapsulates the reason many of us start running. Many of us run because it made us ‘feel’ at some level, like it did for Billy and his Mum. Whether we hated the way we looked in the mirror or hated the way that we laboured up the local hill to get to the bus or hated the fact that we couldn’t play with our kids by kicking a ball around the local paddock. Running or any exercise for that matter was the cathartic experience that was needed to make us feel alive again. To ‘escape’ and at the same time ‘embrace’ life. For many it is a distant memory but I can still recall my muscles feeling energized and my mind becoming euphoric as it was bathed in endorphins, dopamine and serotonin after completing the most minor of athletic accomplishment. Back then I embraced the pain when I tried to push beyond my limits, oblivious and uncaring of the consequences. I would have done anything in those early days to revisit the rush of the happy brain hormones even to the point of recounting to anyone who would listen about why I was walking a little strangely on a particular day. In those early days, running was my choice to deliver the happy hormones to my brain. I would run for miles armed only with one unwritten rule, ‘run and don’t think!’ How things changed over 40 years. Now I, like many, train with a mini computer guidance missile launcher on my wrist. I analyse the data that it harvests with three different computer programs showing my metrics and graphs so I can see cause and effect and work backwards from these symptoms to find cures. I hover over my data like a doctor peering over the chart to announce, “I have some bad news for you Mr Riley, it seems that your condition is terminal. But we have some experimental treatment that we would like to try that may bring amazing results!”
So in my constant effort over the years to search for perfection and enhance the high of the endorphin rush I have in fact insulated myself from the reason that I started running. I misplaced the thrill of the chase and instead replaced it with the stark, unrelenting and unemotional harshness of the stop watch. I have consequentially placed all of my self-worth as an athlete on the unblinking and unwavering glare of a stopped watch.
I will stop this deep dive into the misery of underperformance and focus instead on the take away from this blog. Firstly it is not what you think. It is not to throw away technology and move to Tibet and run with the Buddhist monks and become vegan. It’s about putting the technology aside every now and again and simply run to reconnect with the reason you started your journey. My goal in writing this is to encourage running so it is an ephemeral moment rather than a data crunched testimony to your cadence, heart rate and grade averaged pacing.
To show that I am true to my word I recently swallowed my pride and started to walk some recovery session without a watch. I found that I was able to reconnect with the environment I would have normally flown past on a faster interval session. In doing this I was able to listen to the birds and smell the rain evaporating off the warming pavement. Normal I would have missed this as I would have been staring at my watch or focusing on the increasing my stride length so I could get a better graph trace on my analysis program. On one of these session I even walked the park loop that Billy and his Mum walked on that fateful day and shared again in their journey so I could reconnect with my own. While I know I will never be a dreadlocked transcendental runner, my personality is far too type A to allow that to happen. I am, however, prepared to shed my clothes and run bare assed naked through the wild flowers if it means that I am able to extend this love affair a few more years.
Join the resistance and run naked but don’t get arrested!