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.

Lessons from One Fifth of a Marathon

On Mother’s Day, after three hours of sleep, I arrived at Hayward Field at 6:55 a.m. to watch the Eugene Marathon start. While I might have done this just for fun, I was there for one specific reason: to watch my mom start her second marathon. Among the thousands, I did not spot her, but I did tear up when all those strangers glided past me. Maybe I’m too emotionally invested in the running community, but whenever I see people run road races, I think about the transformative power of running and it gets to me. Something about the determination and bravery that it takes to step on that line is as moving to me as any art piece.

Three hours and three cups of coffee later, I drove to the Owosso Bridge, located 20 miles into the marathon. There, my real job began; I was to meet my mom and run with her through mile 25, just like I had three years prior in her first marathon. Over the previous months, she had talked nonstop about the marathon, so I knew the plan. She wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which would require a 4:10 final time–she ran her first one in 4:09.26–and a 9:30 minute/mile pace. Thanks to technology and her bib number, I also knew that she had passed the half-marathon mark in a 9:40 pace.

I stood shivering with a handful of other dedicated cheerers; the runners ticked by with the minutes. I watched a woman emerge from the path and plant an eager kiss on her boyfriend. I watched another woman burst into tears when her boyfriend excitedly said, “You’re averaging 10-minute miles!” He did not receive a kiss. By this point, Boston was beyond reach and I prepared to comfort my crying mother. But when I finally spotted her purple shirt 20 minutes after I expected it, she looked emotionally stable.

“What up,” I said.

“It’s not my day!” she said with surprising conviction. No tears, no curse words, just a 5’5” build trucking along.

Over the next five or so miles, we averaged two minutes slower per mile than she had trained for or anticipated. At times, I worried that she might fall off the bike path when she ran too close to the edge. I did my best to say inspirational things like, “Nick Symmonds has never run a marathon. You’ve done two! That means you’re way better than him.” Mostly, though, I worried that after the race, she would be devastated. Maybe I expected this because that’s how I would feel. Just a week prior, I had run my worst race of the season to cap off perhaps the worst week of my year. In the span of a few short days, all the things I had worked toward for months fell apart, and since I was entirely unprepared to deal with it like a person with actual perspective, I counted them as failures of my humanity.

So, while I jogged alongside and took selfies with my semi-delirious mother, I thought about all the things I could say to console her afterward. How I would remind her that running success is not evidence of human success and that it’s really the process that matters, all the training and the lessons along the way, not just the race.

With half a mile to go, I said, “It’s all you now. You know what to do” and sprinted to Hayward Field with enough time to pee before she finished. She crossed the line in four hours and 34 minutes; 24 minutes too slow for Boston. When we all went to greet her, to my complete surprise, she was totally content, maybe even happy.

Here's a really high quality selfie that shows how much fun mile 25 can be.

Here’s a really high quality selfie that shows how much fun mile 25 can be.

When I think about her response to a perceived failure versus my own, I think the difference is gratitude. She understood all the nuances about racing before I told her because she could already appreciate and recognize the gift of this marathon. With even the tiniest bit of gratitude, a world can change.

In my own world, after bad news continued to pile on in heaps, I stopped for a moment and listed all the things that made me grateful to be alive: watermelon, oatmeal, 30 degree mornings, college, my family’s support, Inca (my dog), Chance the Rapper, airplanes, etc. I felt broken, but my spirit was intact. The bad news continued to come, but rather than be moments of failure, they became moments of opportunity. I can still be hopelessly idealistic and chase after big, impossible things. I will still feel defeated and heartbroken when these things don’t happen, but I will also be okay. I am not entitled to a spectacular season or infallible plans, but I am entitled to do everything possible to make these things happen. My mom was not disappointed with her marathon because she had no regrets; it was not her day. She did the absolute best she could, and that was enough.

When I made my gratitude list, the most important thing, the thing that will always be at the top of my list, is this moment right now, this breath and this heartbeat, the tiny details that allow me to make a list, and to make another breath and another heartbeat into a moment with possibilities so endless I cannot imagine what might happen next. For that, I am forever grateful.

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.