In Defense of the Ordinary to Create the Extraordinary

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” -Gustave Flaubert

After a stellar season opening race, my second favorite professional runner, Kate Grace, posted this quote alongside two pictures: the first showed her in her warm-up, composed and polished, while the second displayed her in the race, fierce and wild.

The trouble with quotes is that they often matter to someone not because the words themselves are exceptional, but because the person reading them, living in her instant where past meets present, needs them. The quote, then, is not about its meaning, but about the moment.

I had been thinking about routines and their power for months, even years, before I read this, but because this came from a runner I admire, and because I was at the time injured and clinging to my routines­–physical therapy, sleep, journaling, etc.–Flaubert’s words hit me with almost religious sincerity. I crave simplicity and intentionality in my daily routines for the freedom it affords me everywhere else. If I spend 40 minutes of every day on PT, strengthening my micro-weaknesses with mundane, monotonous micro-exercises, then I will once again feel the bliss that is running fast, the synergistic flow of mind, legs, and lungs that can take me places beyond the ordinary.

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Thinking about routines and how it all relates to tides & waves & rocks. Mother Earth, man.

Work, to me, right now, is not where I make money (I hope I was not violent with the kids I worked with all summer), but where I seek and find purpose. Kate Grace went on to win the Olympic Trials and race the Olympic final. All I want is to run faster and stronger than I ever have before. To think and learn and write better than my previous self.

But all this is not to say that I reject spontaneity or refuse unpredictability. In fact, I welcome such unknowables like never before. When I budget my time and energy, I am liberated to discover experiences, people, books, that I otherwise would have been too distracted and disorganized to notice.

As I enter my last year of undergrad, I feel excruciatingly aware of finitudes. I know that each first is a last, and that because I will almost certainly never again live in Corvallis beyond June, I must become an expert in its intricacies and opportunities. There is almost all of McDonald Forest left to explore, non-obvious food places to try, and, of course, so many classes to take. Last weekend, I missed my last cross country season opener, but I also watched my teammate/roommate/friend race for the first time in 1.5 years, an experience perhaps even more satisfying. The most I can ask of myself is that I welcome these feelings, all sizes of good and bad, without limits.

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We should all be zen like this donkey. Just look at that focus; purely content.

A certain wildness emerges when all the particulars fall into place. At the end of each day, comforted in my prescribed and sustained efforts, I sleep prepared for something spectacular to happen tomorrow. I burden myself with responsibilities at the appropriate times in order to let my mind and spirit wander later. The philosophy of routine is one of discipline and self-regulation, but once it is established, life clarifies itself, if only a little bit.

The burden of finding a life purpose/career/calling is confusing enough without the mess of existence to complicate it. Perhaps my desire for routine is a predictable need for control of the minute in order to feign a larger influence. It is probable and logical that all of my life experiences and circumstances are randomized and meaningless, but why would I read books so feverishly if I were not always grasping for believable narratives?

I want to believe that my choices matter, that I matter, but if I spent all my time worrying about how best to achieve this, I would do nothing. So, I choose instead to buy in to my own systems, to pretend that I know what I’m doing until I have convinced myself, and I can say that I’m more at peace, if not happier, because of it. I have always established my own moral codes, rather than accepting these from ambivalent authority figures, so if I can justify my theoretical routines once, then I can perform them, indefinitely, without question.

My philosophy, like all philosophies, is flawed and limited, but without some boundaries I could never rationalize personal dogma. I want to do great things, but I need a method to my madness. Even if I do not go on to win the Olympic Trials, I know that I can and will go on to do and create the thing that I should and must, whatever the work is that will sustain me. However flimsy my premise and however distant the results, that promise is enough to ground me in routines that make me free.

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Restless Life Syndrome: Experience Means More Than School

Lately I’ve been thinking about school and life and whether any of it really matters in the end. You see, if a summer spent living in Vietnam taught me anything, it taught me that you can’t become a fully formed person in a classroom and you can’t imagine how much world exists out there.

I sit here, in my comfortable Corvallis home, I sit here and I see a massive football stadium next to a sign that welcomes you to Oregon State University. At this educational institution, the first thing you see is a stadium. While not a football fan myself, I can’t decide if this is a bad thing because sports have determined the trajectory of my life. But that’s not what I want to talk about. College athletics should be celebrated, but for most, it’s a five year endeavor, if not four.

And what happens next? The corporate grind, the domestic dream, the complacent life. When we leave this college bubble–everyone, not just the student-athletes–where do we go? For most, it seems a career or more school is the next step. For me, I want to go everywhere.

Maybe I’m delusional, but I have to believe that there is more than one way to live, that a steady job with a steady income and a steady, predictable life is not my only option. Sure, if I wanted to own a car and a house, I would need to save money from said steady job, but why would I want a car or a house when I could buy plane tickets all over the world?

I want views like this forever and always.

I want views like this forever and always, even if it takes six hours to get there. (Top of Fansipan, Vietnam)

You see, sometimes I get restless; I get antsy, so I experiment and overindulge and experience because this is it, this is the one chance I get to go and do and be in the only body and mind I have. In the end, why should I fret over an exam on colonial American literature when that doesn’t excite me, when I would rather read contemporary books about race and gender and actually learn something about myself and the world I live in? I have 15 waking hours each day, why on earth would I spend even one minute on busy work?

Throughout my education, I’ve had a handful of classes that completely, profoundly blew my mind. Classes that challenged my worldview and moved me to think, deeply. If every single class I took blew my mind, I would embrace their grind because I would emerge a better human for it; I would shout to the world that college is life, that education changes everything. But each term, I’m lucky if I have just one of these classes.

It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that for the past three summers I’ve grown and matured more in that three month time frame than I do in the full nine months I sit in classes. In 2013, I listened to every Radiolab episode during my commute and spent every day working in an organic garden with three other worldly, interesting people. In 2014, I interacted with people from every corner of the world to pull off an international track meet. And in 2015, I actually went to another corner of the world and learned that abstract thinking doesn’t mean much when your main concern is to survive.

It’s great that we have brilliant people in these institutions that challenge us to think and question and analyze, but the stuff that really matters, the movements and the change this world needs, happens outside those walls. I subscribe to the belief that I can change the world, but I don’t believe I can do that armed with a degree alone.

I did not have the cliché education abroad experience; I did not live blissfully worry-free for two months, spending my days sipping coffee and my nights dancing with the locals. When I left Vietnam, I was ready to leave because it was hot and polluted and challenging, but above all I was ready for my next stop in the world. I returned to a life of running and reading and friends and even though a huge chunk of my savings was gone, my heart was full.

I want more friends like this, all over the world.

I want more friends like this, all over the world. (Some village outside of Hanoi, Vietnam)

Now, I’m three quarters through my term and I spend my procrastination time looking at plane tickets and trying to articulate my thoughts. I had a lot of time to think when I lived in an internet-less homestay for a month, and in that time I clarified my priorities; the banality of a GPA was not high on that list. I understand that many of my opportunities can be traced to privilege, but I also understand that I have an obligation to maximize my resulting potential not just as a student, but as a world citizen. Because I have set myself up to have freedom in my future, I feel empowered to take risks and go all-in for my quest to matter.

Right now, I know what I care about–I care about running and learning about the world through books and experience. I’ve learned to live obnoxiously in the present moment–perhaps being surrounded by Buddhism all summer contributed to this–so when I don’t want to write an analysis about 19th century American literature, I just don’t. I have more important things to think about, like how soon I can get to Latin America to practice my Spanish and how I can read every book on my bookshelf. I have a responsibility to live with awareness and compassion, and while that can come from those rare, mind-blowing classes, I think it’s more likely to come when I feel free to live with purpose and clarity.

I’m not practical; I’m unapologetically idealistic. But that just means that when something doesn’t matter to me, I disregard it, and when something does matter to me, I believe in it full force. In this moment, I want to sit wrapped in a blanket with acid music so loud it’s the only thing I hear while I write about my inability to invest in my classes this term. I’ll write my academic essay eventually, but only when it feels slightly more important.

For now, I’ll look out my window at that football stadium and that sign and wonder what my last two years in college can give me that dropping everything to move across the world could not. For now, that’s enough, but if I maintain my momentum, then the most conventional part of my life has already happened. And in the end, I guess it all matters, because it all brought me to now.

Fast Starts and Water Jumps: What I Learned From My First Steeplechase

After my first race of last cross country season, my coach asked me my thoughts.

“I definitely started out too hard,” I said.

“Good. Keep doing that,” he replied.

At first his response baffled me, but when I thought back to my high school days, I realized that starting out harder than what seemed reasonable was a key factor in my ability to get faster and better. A fast start can easily sabotage an entire race and result in chronic fading, but eventually, a fast start will lead to a fast middle and a faster end.

My dad always told me that Galen Rupp’s strategy was to hold on to Bernard Lagat’s pace as long as possible, and each race he held on a little more. Rupp didn’t beat Lagat for their first 12 races against each other, but on his 13th try (which happened to be at the 2012 Olympic Trials), he won. The first time Rupp tried to hold on, he probably looked a little crazy, but all that mattered was his belief in himself and his refusal to give up.

Last August, I had a week almost entirely to myself because my parents were on vacation, all my friends were out of town, and I was done working for the summer. I had a lot of time for self-reflection, which resulted in borderline insanity, but it also resulted in an important, tri-fold revelation. Three thoughts entered my mind and have continued to swirl around it ever since: mountains, majors, and steeples. The first led to a tattoo and other adventure plans. The second led to a switch from zoology to English (the best decision of my college career so far). And the third became a reality last Saturday, when I ran my first track race of the year, and my first ever steeplechase.

Once again, I started out too fast, and after two laps of decent hurdling form and well-executed water jumps, I pretty much fell apart. Most of the race was a blur of splashing water and approaching barriers, but it was incredible. After the race, I explained to my coach that my over-confidence and over-excitement in the beginning led to my quick demise, but like before, he seemed pleased with my attempt.

(Photo credit: Irish Rose Photography) Look at how much fun we're having! Who wouldn't want to do that?!

(Photo credit: Irish Rose Photography) Look at how much fun we’re having! Who wouldn’t want to do that?!

The thing about steeplechase is that there are water jumps involved, and to clear these water jumps successfully the only option is to approach them fast and without hesitation. Otherwise, there are a plethora of things that could go wrong (and did go wrong in our practice in the weeks prior): accidentally hurdling it, falling forward on the landing, not making it out of the deep part of the pit, etc. Even successfully placing a foot on the barrier is not a given, so any good water jump requires, quite literally, a leap of faith.

This is probably why, when I first discussed becoming a steeplechaser with my coach, he made it clear that to be a good steeplechaser, you have to be a little nuts. I assured him that I was more than a little nuts, and he agreed that steeplechase could become my new event. After a single experience with the actual race, I still very much have no idea what I’m doing. My strategy to learn is to put myself out there in every sense of the phrase and hope that along the way, I’ll find out what it takes. Consequently, this is also my strategy for life.

Vulnerability is a terrifying thing. It can result in quite a bit of anguish and frustration, but more importantly, it also leads to some incredible heights. And to me, these heights are worth all the heartbreak along the way. Sometimes, when these ratios are skewed, it feels like I’m living in a state of perpetual heartbreak. I often care too much, so I am often disappointed. But alongside this comes euphoric (drug-free!) highs. This is also the reward for the leap of faith in a water jump; for a few moments, you get to fly.

Just like steeplechase, I think that to be okay in life, you have to be a little nuts. The world is a big, confusing, intimidating place. A lot could go wrong, so putting yourself out there seems counterintuitive to protecting yourself. Why risk feeling too much when there’s already so much outside of our control? Why add in barriers and water jumps to an already excruciating race? My answer, of course, is because it’s worth it. Because imagine the possibilities that exist when you leap without knowing what’s next. Because if you really want to know what it feels like to fly, you can’t hesitate. You have to just go, and you have to start out way too fast.