Some of life’s lessons I’ve only had to learn once. For example, don’t put your tongue on a frozen flagpole, no matter how funny your friends think it is. Some of life’s lessons took me a little longer: as in, don’t wait to start a 16-week project until the day before it’s due. And I’ve come to understand that some of life’s lessons are, in fact, absolutes. Such as ‘thin’ is the only word to use in a sentence that contains the word ‘hips’.
One of the most important lessons in my life occurred in the blink of an eye. The teacher was someone I barely knew and the lesson came when I least expected it. When I was 20 years old, I worked for six months as a labourer in a train depot. Our job was to replace broken rails and worn-out ties. Most importantly, we had to look busy. In the yard, this wasn’t difficult, because there was almost always something to do. But on this day, our only task was to move a large pile of stone from where it was to where the foreman wanted it.
Shovel by shovel, we began carrying rock from the big pile over to a small pile, about 100 feet down the track. The first shovel didn’t seem so bad, but by the 10th one, every muscle started to hurt. With the foreman yelling, I worked as fast as I could, and was exhausted in no time. Then, just when I desperately needed some guidance, a teacher appeared.
He was one of the older men on the crew, and he’d been watching me closely. He came over, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Son, no one’s gonna break your back as long as you’re working the shovel. Let the old man yell. You just work at your own pace.” I looked at him and knew immediately what he meant. It wasn’t the foreman who was wearing me out; it was my desire to please him.
I was the one who controlled the effort. I was the one who controlled my fatigue. In the grandest sense, I was the one who controlled my life. It was my choice. That day and every day I could either work according to my own limits or I could try to live up to someone else’s expectations. My life as a runner began in a similar way to my life as a labourer. I looked outside myself for guidance. I tried to meet goals that were set for me. I was overwhelmed with ‘shoulds’. And I was overcome with fatigue.
It wasn’t until I began to ‘work my shovel’ as a runner that running became a constant source of joy instead of a chronic source of frustration. It wasn’t until I began to understand that my running really only mattered to me that I was free to run for myself. Not that running was easy. Like moving stone that day, it’s hard to ignore the stares and comments from those who believe I should live up to their expectations. It’s hard to run a race with joy when all but one of the drinks stations have been taken away. It’s hard to revel in the mystery of motion when you finish a race alone, the finish chutes having been taken down, with the clock sitting on a folding chair.
Still, I have run with joy. And I do. And when I do – when I overcome my need to please people I don’t even know – I hear the voice of my teacher. And I remind myself that my running – indeed my life – is my shovel. No one’s gonna break my back, no one’s gonna steal my joy, no one’s gonna steal my right to celebrate what I’ve accomplished, so long as I’m working the shovel.
Waddle on friends.