A Runner Stumbles

My ex and I were in Sacramento for a weekend of R&R, staying at a nice hotel and eating well. On Saturday I went for a run on the beautiful American River Parkway.

I’d lost weight and looked trim and fit. Jogging back from the river, I felt proud – look at me, so fit, so slim, still foxy at 50-plus – surely the drivers whizzing by on the busy boulevard must envy me.

WHAM! – a full-length faceplant on the hard sidewalk.

My permanently bent little finger serves as a reminder of the perils of pride. The furies that live beneath the pavement are eager to extend their tentacles and trip runners who let their heads swell.

Every one of my faceplants has been vibrant with meaning. In Fitness Intuition, I described a run on the Stanford campus:

During a 10-mile run, I was asking God to help me avoid ego-games. I was letting off steam inwardly, praying with gusto to give God the full blast of my feelings. I wanted to open my heart honestly and without reservation.

In the last chapter, I told how I prayed in a stiff, formal way at the start of another 10-mile run in the Sierra foothills. I got no answer until I opened up and really let God know how I felt. After baring my heart for several miles, I simmered down, and the answer came simply and plainly, free of any sense that God was unhappy with me for having expressed my feelings in somewhat colorful language.

I was recalling that run and trying to summon the same spirit of wide-open frankness. And I’d gotten no farther than “Goddam…” when bam-splat! – “Him the Almighty power hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky” – I sprawled in a full-length faceplant on the rocky ground, feeling that it wasn’t a very dignified thing for a gentleman of 62 to be doing.

I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and jogged on, asking God what I’d done wrong. After all, I’d only wanted to share my feelings sincerely. But I realized that on that long-ago run, I had expressed my difficult feelings in a spirit of respectful sincerity, with a humble plea for help – whereas this time I’d merely been spraying my feelings about in frustration. The faceplant reminded me that God is my friend, and that He deserves to be treated accordingly.

I circled the Stanford community gardens while continuing to mull over my problems, and as I turned a corner my frustrations took hold again, and with deep emotion I thought, “Godda…”

SPLAT!!

Picking myself up and tottering on, now with two bloody knees and elbows instead of one, I said, “I feel like crying, Lord – I won’t, of course, but I reckon I’ll have to be more careful how I talk with You.”

I said, “I certainly got Your attention, and I’m touched that You’d care enough to make me take a nosedive.” I was laughing inwardly. I said, “That’s so sweet! And I want You to know that You can trip me anytime!”

It was absurd to think that God would need my permission to slip a pebble in my path. But my mood had changed, and I felt that I’d come back to a kind of cheerful “spiritual running” that’s real. I’d been running in a spirit of forward-rushing impatience and frustration, running in my head, and now I was able to relax and let my heart find its natural way. It was a radically different mood. I felt that I was once again riding in the natural chamber of the heart where God can come, and we can meet as friends….

At any rate, I’m watching my mouth when I run. In future, I may swear with God, but I doubt I’ll risk swearing at Him.

Running has shown me that that it’s a good idea to be gentle with my mistakes, to forgive myself and move on. Hard lessons are unavoidable for a runner – we get overtrained, injured, dehydrated, under-fueled, frozen and overheated, often thanks to decisions that are nobody’s fault but our own.

Seymour Papert is an MIT computer scientist and co-inventor of the LOGO programming language, which is used to introduce children to programming in the elementary grades. (Remember “turtle graphics”?)

Papert believes that learning to program computers helps kids learn a valuable life skill, which he calls “the debugging approach to life.” Professional programmers can make as many as 100 mistakes per 1000 lines of code they write. They quickly learn that it’s okay to goof, that it’s important to maintain a productive flow – the errors can be cleaned up later.

When children learn to program, they discover that mistakes are a natural part of the creative process, and no cause for guilt or shame. The earlier we understand this important lesson, the better we’ll be able to deal with life’s challenges and our inevitable errors.

Great athletes learn to manage their mistakes with poise. Take tennis legend Pete Sampras. Watching Sampras play, I was always fascinated by his composure, which seemed to be a key weapon in his arsenal – that ability to remain, or at least appear, unruffled after losing a point or committing a fault.

I recently read Sampras’s new autobiography, A Champion’s Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis, by Sampras and Peter Bodo. Watching Sampras late in his career, it’s hard to imagine the youngster who stumbled often. A quality that set him apart, even when he was young, was his relaxed confidence at such moments. He didn’t waste energy brooding over his mistakes. As he put it in the book, he was sure that he would be successful; mistakes were only a learning experience along the way. Sampras was never a “head case.” He was about positive action, and learning through experience.

Lately, I’ve made spectacular mistakes in my running that resulted in a series of crap runs lasting several months. Those runs gave me little pleasure. There were warning signs that I was doing something wrong: moodiness after running, sub-par energy, and finally a knee that felt as if it was falling apart after a series of all-out 1-minute speed bursts.

When I took time to reflect, I realized where I’d gone wrong: I’d fallen into an overly mechanical, mental approach to training.

I’d enjoyed great success with an approach that combined inward awareness and outward common sense. Outwardly, I’d given my body a long warmup before doing any hard running. Inwardly, I spent the warmup working patiently to focus my attention, calm my mind, and tune my heart to positive feelings. Above all, I’d been intensely committed to “doing the right thing” – that is, I strictly avoided doing anything that didn’t have a clear feeling of harmony and “rightness.” And it worked beautifully. I had many enjoyable runs of excellent inner and outer quality.

But then I got careless and fell into a habit of going through the motions, subconsciously assuming “I know how the process works. I’ll warm up for an hour and 20 minutes, run hard for 20 minutes, and go home.”

Trouble was, I forgot that every phase of a run is meaningful and needs focused attention, including the warmup. And, more than mental attention, it needs the cooperation of the heart. Running isn’t only about mechanics; it’s also about heart and soul.

Why do faceplants happen? Speaking for myself, they appear to be nature’s unsubtle way of letting me know that my attitude is wrong – that the flavor of the feeling I’m carrying in my heart is contractive, not expansive.

Whenever I return to the basics, and participate with enthusiasm for each phase of my training, the joy returns.

Athletes err when they assume that because they “got it right” once, they can relax, because they’re sure to get it right again. It was refreshing to discover that Pete Sampras would repeat a single subtle aspect of a stroke hundreds of times in practice, until it became an automatic, reflexive part of his play.

In a recent article I mentioned another inspiring biography, The Genius – How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created an NFL Dynasty, by David Harris. In 1979, Walsh’s first year as coach of the San Francisco Forty Niners, the team was reeling, having suffered an abysmal 2-14 season. When Walsh was hired, he set out to rebuild the team from the ground up, starting with practices:

Walsh also had very different ideas about how to practice. The common approach was a lot of walking through assignments as part of group memorization, then scrimmaging with full contact—a routine that involved too much standing around followed by a lot of beating one another up. Bill abhorred wasted time on the practice field and thought it stupid to make his players prove how tough they were every day in practice. He wanted his players constantly busy improving themselves instead. He kept his practices short, but every minute was scripted and performed on a strict timetable, with players sprinting from one segment to the next. He emphasized practicing techniques with precision and attention to detail, over and over. He felt that skills often broke down late in games and that the only insurance against this was endless repetition, creating a muscle memory that freed players from thinking about what they were supposed to do and let them react automatically. Most important, all of that was to be done at game speed. Players tended to practice in slow motion and with approximate parameters if left to their own devices, but Walsh would have none of it. He insisted his team drill with the same tempo, precision, pace, and intensity as on game day, believing games were only as good as the preparation that preceded them.

All of this was relatively unheard-of in 1979’s NFL – “Bill revolutionized how people practiced,” one former NFL head coach observed—but that was only part of what made that first training camp different for most of the players there.

I can’t resist repeating an anecdote that Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana told at Walsh’s funeral. Montana threw an interception in an important game, and when he returned to the bench Walsh glared at him. But instead of looking away, his usual habit, Montana held the coach’s gaze. Walsh said, “What was that?” Montana replied, “That was an interception.” Walsh paused a moment, then said with a hint of a smile, “And it was a darn good one – but let’s not do it again.”

A key to making each moment of training work is being intensely interested. When my heart’s engaged in what I’m doing – even if it’s only slogging through a long warmup – I find that each moment can be enjoyable. It also helps to run in interesting surroundings, places where I feel good. For me, that’s often the Baylands – a huge, marshy nature preserve next to San Francisco Bay that’s alive with many thousands of shorebirds, geese, and pheasant.

Pay attention, enjoy the moment, and you’ll be less likely to stumble.

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