Friday, August 10, 2012

The Olympics as a nostalgia machine

I remember crouching at the starting line, my naked pimply shoulders tight against the next boy's, our flimsy jerseys held up by tiny shoulder straps, our shorts as short as anything you'd see on a girl, with legs that sprouted twig-like out of them, knots for our knees. We shifted anxiously like nervous wildebeests, unsettled by a strange scent in the air, our ears all perking in the same direction.

I remember setting my foot near the painted white line, and inching it forward so that it almost touched the nominal barrier that stood between us and 400 meters of burning legs and lungs, as though an extra half-centimeter could make all the difference.

I remember the tightening of anticipation in my chest and gut. I remember the sudden awareness of my own heartbeat, pulsing first through my head -- I could hear it in my ears -- and then rippling from that epicenter down through my shoulders, to my torso, my fingers, my legs, and the resulting jitters from the increased pressure, like what happens when a hose squirms as it erupts water. I remember blood and adrenaline mixing into a volatile fuel that would drive my piston legs for the next 58 seconds.

I remember the BANG!, the clipped roar of a predator, and our herd exploding forward. Like a single organism we rounded the first turn, and then as we entered the straightaway, separated slightly into our individual components, into the clumped islands of an archipelago. There was usually one lone runner, a straggler at the end, the last to re-cross the painted white line. Sometimes it was me, and I am okay with that. It was 58 seconds of pure effort, of approaching the finish feeling the numbness in my thighs and calves, knowing that I'd used up everything in me, no regrets remaining.

At 58 seconds, my 400 meter personal best is a middling achievement. It never got me on any podiums, not even close. Nor did my 2 minute, 19 second 800 meter PR. Nor my 19 minute 45 second 5K. In the 60 meter dash, it is my (possibly fevered) recollection that other competitors had the time to cross the finish line and then turn to encourage me as I trailed in their wake. But I wasn't running for glory. I was running for something else, for something that embraces struggle, that revels in pushing limits, however modest or personal.

Of all of the events I ran, I always felt that the 400 meter race was special. It is the building block for most running events - one single circuit around most any track you can find, and requiring an elegant balance between sprint and endurance. It is the distance I would challenge my brothers to when we gathered for holidays. The curvature of a 400 meter track, the slight leftward lean during a counter-clockwise run -- these are in my muscle memory. It's hard for me to imagine running clockwise on a track; when I try, I experience strange moments of vertigo.

More than a decade now since I ran my last competitive race in high school, I can't pass a track without recalling the repetitions of my youth. Thousands upon thousands of circuits I made on a track shaped precisely like the one in London that I see on my television screen. I was never a very successful runner, but that didn't stop the activity from defining my formative years.

In the last half decade, I’ve barely run at all. I started college, got married, had a kid (my wife helped), and now I’m out of shape. Surprise, surprise. But despite my slacking, I still have dreams about running, and my pulse quickens when I recall a great trail run or the staccato crack of a starting pistol. It's why I sign up for a mud run every once in a while.

Mud runs: heavy on mud, light on running
Like any kid, I was active and enjoyed running. But it was my dad who instilled in me a sense of running for fitness, of running as a lifestyle, of finding pleasure in pushing my body to be better in concerted ways. I remember my dad offering to bring me with him on neighborhood runs, and how he never uttered a word about how much slower he had to go to allow me to keep up with him. He never mentioned the extent to which he'd have to cut his exercise short in order to accommodate my eight-year-old abilities. My marathoner dad happily ran three or four blocks around our neighborhood with me, and made me feel like I was doing something special, something impressive. It was something we shared; it made me feel like we were partners, that we were a team.
My dad running in a mountain race
I want to do that for my daughter. For all of the above reasons, not to mention the fact that I want her to be healthy, to confidently nurture her body. Even though I’m currently out of shape, I know what it feels like to be in great shape, and because of that I know I can get there again if I work at it. My confidence in honing and developing my body, and in enjoying the burn of rigorous exercise goes back to those short neighborhood runs.

The other day Lindsay, Addison, and I went to the local middle school track. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since our daughter was born two and a half years ago, but we’ve only just gotten around to it.
I jogged twice around the dirt oval while pushing her in the stroller. Then I took a water break. Addison helped me scuff a long starting line in the dust, and piled a mountain at the end of it, which she said was "for the ants." I inched my toe towards the line. I felt my insides tighten up. I ran a single 400 meter circuit. Slow. Lindsay stayed at the finish line with Addison, and I got high fives from both as I crossed, puffing. I positioned myself again at my makeshift starting line, and Addison lined up with me. Lindsay shouted "Go!" and my two-year old daughter ran about fifty feet with me, all the while muttering "fast, fast, fast" to herself.

When she got bored and squatted down to build another dirt mountain chain, I (slightly) picked up the pace to finish another 400 meters. Halfway through, I was pretty sure I was going to die, that this would be my last one. But when I came through the finish line, Addison was there waiting, and she said "nice!" with what seemed to be an impressed expression. While I clutched my side and slumped to the ground, she went over to the starting line, and waited expectantly. "Readysetgo!" she shouted. "Readysetgo!" So I hauled myself up, and we lined up a third time. This time we ran together for a hundred feet, until she said, "Now you, daddy. Just you." At the end of this third circuit, I really was done.
As we were walking home together, Addison said, “Fast! Running fast, daddy! Fun!”
Next time I’ll shoot for 4 laps. I think this kid is giving me as much encouragement as I'm trying to give her, and I like it. High fives all around.

That's me resting in the shade, and Addison going the distance