Back in early October I shuffled about my kitchen one evening, earbuds in, juggling pots, pans, spices, powders, and other knockoff whole foods fad items as I cooked up a meal I hoped would to refuel and reenergize my body to recovery after the 18 mile slog fest of a long run I’d put it through earlier that day. As I tried my best to put together a digestible combination of fruits, veggies, and two kinds of red meat, I doubled down on my time by listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Unmistakable Creative, a show that tells the stories of up-and-coming innovators, idealists, and creatives.
That day’s episode featured Adam ‘Smiley’ Poswolsky – one of those life coach millennial types whose real job you can’t quite peg down but still, somehow, there’s no question he’s made it – on promoting his new book “Quarterlife Breakthrough: A Career Guide for Millennials to find Meaningful Work.” His being by no means a household name, and I myself going through one of my frequent existential crises (poetic considering the topic of his book), I listened with the half-hearted blasé attitude of a man fully drained of energy and optimism. Despite my deaf ears, I couldn’t help letting my mind wrestle with thought as Poswolsky touched upon something so wonderfully insightful yet blatantly obvious, that having now seen the light, I’m not quite sure how or why I hadn’t reached the conclusion sooner.
Poswolsky, a success by any millennial definition, vehemently attributed his experience as a mediocre high school cross country runner as a major contributor for his current glory. The lessons he learned, Poswolsky urged, were invaluable:
“I think running is a very useful metaphor for kind of the creative process, because it’s all about practice; it’s all about what you put in, and not the output,” continuing to say, “It’s about waking up on a cold day, in Boston, on Sunday, at seven in the morning, and you can’t really go out the night before… because you have to wake up at seven in the morning and go run 15 miles in the freezing cold Boston winter.”
As these words rang from outer ear to eardrum, I slowed my frantic pacing to a halt. I wish I didn’t have to paint the scene as some cliché moment of sudden epiphanic realization, but that’s the happysad reality and truth of it all. I suppose I really am a cliché then, because there I stood, hearing these words, and a slow smile started to take shape like Harry Potter’s wizarding world swirling into action for the first time. And as the pots steamed, and my ears listened to those words ringing true, and that magical smile took shape, I reached a pivotal realization about the defining role running has played in my life: it’s all about suffering. Running is about suffering, and it’s beautiful.
Spare your scoffs and dismissive shrugs; running is 100% about suffering, and every runner deep in their heart knows this to be as true as the tearing forces of gravity. Highlight reels show our successes, the moments we were champions, at least in our own eyes, but those races don’t make the athlete. Any runner will readily admit their greatest victories were often their easiest days. Few win trophies feeling like a dog in heat, hit by a bus, dragged through the mud. No, those feelings are reserved for the worst of the worst, accompanied by 30, 40, 50 second gaps, leaders lapping you on the track, posture compromised as your head hangs in the balance, lolling backing and forth as you painfully will yourself forward.
And that’s it right there. On a runner’s worst day, they still push forward. They must push on, find within themselves the strength to keep moving forward, to take the next step, to lean into the pain and summon the deep down buried ability to overcome a mind impulsively begging for relief and a deteriorating, crumbling body.
I myself have had the privilege of experiencing a large spectrum of successes and failures. Last year I crossed the line at Penn Relays the collegiate winner, my Dad smiling on from the stands after six hours in the car and years of support to see me race. It was amazing, a memory I’ll cherish for the rest of my life, the reason we love this crazy sport. It was great, but I am so much prouder of the two years in a row I finished in the bottom twenty at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Both years I was dead in mile one, fully diagnosed rigor mortis, body wobbling with six miles to go, completely finished. I was in such pain, struggling by all measures to find the same pace I’d do casually in training. I never found that pace, but I did find the mental resolve to finish. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, suffer through the whipping wind and sinking mud to that Terre Haute finish line, but I did it. I did it twice, and I’ve never been more of an athlete than when I crossed that line.
Those are the days – the days we’re suffering beyond imagination and understanding – that make us better athletes; they’re the days that make us better, stronger people. We fight so hard for those seldom few moments of glory, but I believe the true gift is the fight itself. Through logging the long run on a blistering 95 degree day, through finishing every brutal rep on a lonely day that just wasn’t yours, through hearing the pity claps with ten laps to go and still pushing through the finish line, we train ourselves to suffer. We train ourselves to suffer through every hard, difficult, soul crushing moment life has to offer us, and we train ourselves to move forward anyway, and that is the gift of a lifetime.