The Bigger Picture

After university I decided to get back in shape – about once every 10 years, that is. In my early 20s I took up tennis. In my early 30s I played squash. And, of course, in my early 40s I discovered running.

I got a lot of exercise playing tennis. Well, no, not playing tennis, but chasing after the balls I’d missed, as well as the ones I’d launched over the fence when trying to return a serve. Squash was better. I didn’t have to chase the ball nearly as far when I missed it, and it was pretty hard to lose it in an enclosed court. Still, it wasn’t without its hazards. I used the racquet more often for defensive rather than offensive purposes.

A friend taught me how to play the game. For a while we had fun. But as I gained in skill, as I began to hit the ball by choice instead of by chance, as I began to reach a more competitive level, our game changed.

It seemed that, suddenly, the words ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ took on more sinister overtones. This particular friend had a habit of talking to the ball. After a bad shot he would lecture the ball on where it was supposed to have gone. Or he would lecture the racquet or the wall. To me, these moments were rather humorous.

But he would also lecture himself. More precisely, he would yell at himself. He would call himself stupid, denigrate himself and wonder out loud how he could possibly be playing so badly. And to me, these moments began to be rather uncomfortable. In time I understood that I was not the opponent, even though I was on the court with him. Somewhere deep inside my friend’s psyche lay a much more formidable adversary than I could ever be. This was the demon that he was trying so hard to defeat. The real game was in his mind.

I have noticed this same phenomenon with some runners. They appear to be racing something or someone that no one else can see. They’re surrounded by invisible competitors and are often engaged in a fierce battle which takes place only in their imaginations.

Rather than accepting the course and the day as it is, these runners cling to their fantasy race. The trouble is, in the fantasy race the weather is perfect, the course is clear and fast, and all the other runners are having bad days. It’s not enough for these runners to complete a race or reach a desired time goal. Instead, they must be equal to their imaginary expectations. They’re fighting not only the real elements of weather and fatigue, but an envisioned keeper of their litany of failure as well.

Perhaps everyone begins this way. Maybe we all start by overcoming our own histories. But eventually I think it’s possible to move beyond our past disasters and well-recorded weaknesses. For me, the real joy of running and racing is finding out what I’m capable of on any given day. I start every race with my actual watch and my emotional watch both set to 00:00. I try to stand at every start line filled not with dread, but with curiosity. And I cross every finish line with a sense of reverence and satisfaction.

There are those who believe I’m missing out on something by not being disappointed with my performances most of the time. They would argue that I’ll never find out how good I could be unless I collapse with frustration at the end of every race. But I’m not convinced. I think I have a pretty clear insight into my potential. Every race, every run brings me closer to my dream of becoming a whole person – one who is caring, and one who feels connected to others. This dream does include being an athlete, but that remains only a part of it. Unfortunately, the post-race ceremony doesn’t include any awards for becoming the person you’ve always wanted to be.

So my physical efforts during races may not result in many trophies, but my soul wins hands-down every time.

Waddle on, friends.