Thursday, October 18, 2012

Get up that wall! Go Go Go!

Your feet slap the concrete, a staccato beat overlapping the in-out rasp of your breath, which in turn overlaps the hammering of your heart. You inhale as one foot goes down and exhale on the other, just like they taught in high school track to fend off side stitches. Your arms pump at your sides, pistons in a regular motion, kidney punches to an invisible opponent. The whole coordinated operation is a series of layered rhythms which, when everything's working right, strike together in the athletic equivalent of an "amen!"

Finding these agreeable rhythms is a breeze for some people. For them, every run offers a smooth, reliable avenue for scoring hits off of their internal endorphin machine. I am not one of those people.

It doesn't usually take long before the side cramp kicks in. Or the blister on my big toe. If I'm outside, there aren't enough trees to shade me from the damn sun. And if I'm at the gym, some idiot programmed all of the TVs for TMZ. What for some people is as soothing as "Rhapsody in Blue" becomes something decidedly uncomfortable, something by Stravinsky, something that never lets you settle into a groove.

I've run off and on since my high school years in cross country. Some years I've probably only hit the pavement a handful of times. I think I ran the least during the couple years after Addison was born. Running while pushing a jogging stroller sucks. It probably didn't help that I had a gimpy stroller that veered to one side and had to be corrected every five feet.

But, even with the gaps, I've kept running over the years, for the following reasons:
1. I want to be a good example to Addison. I want her to grow up knowing how to manage her own fitness, and raising her to be a runner is one of the best ways I can think of to help her do that. 
2. Every once in a while, I have a great moment running, when everything coordinates in that physical "amen!" It mostly happens when I'm in good running shape, though even then it's probably only ten percent of the time. And it mostly happens when I'm running mountain trails. Best run I ever had was on a week-long solo trip in the Appalachian Mountains.  
3. Running is one component of a good obstacle race, and obstacle courses are one of the best ways to determine how well you'd be able to evade a pack of velociraptors.
Sometimes one of these reasons becomes more important than the others, and for the last month, reason #3 has been a pretty big deal.

I love obstacle courses. The reason I joined the army was to do obstacle courses. Yes, there was some naivete there. It turned out there was a lot more standing at attention and shivering in the cold while guarding against fake enemies than obstacle course running. I've learned my lesson. I will no longer be joining the military to get my fix.

Instead, I now sign up for obstacle course races like the Volkslauf. There's nothing like pulling yourself across a rope over a muddy trench filled with glass and nails and the bones of weaker contestents to make you feel manly. It's one of the few ways that my testosterone shows, I think. I mean, I have no problem admitting that I listen to Tori Amos, Yanni, and Rufus Wainwright. I'm kinda proud to be the primary caregiver for our daughter. I sit down to pee (whenever my daughter's liable to walk in on me). I don't watch football. I watch Project Runway. But I will try to kick your ass at an obstacle course.

Despite being a pretty scrawny specimen of a man (I'm considered "underweight" on the charts for our health insurance), I've still got the muscle to launch myself over eight-foot wall after eight-foot wall. There's nothing that makes me feel better than hauling myself up a barrier that the 250-pound meathead next to me can't manage. Sweet. He'll keep the raptors busy for a while.

Of course, there's still plenty of room to be humbled. I have a cousin who is arguably the BEST obstacle course runner in the United States. I kid you not. Here's a screenshot of him from Outside online:

You can google Hobie Call -- he's a bit of a character. The article from Outside sums up some things nicely, too. And there's no way around it; Hobie could eat me for breakfast.

Still, it's my goal to improve with each run of the Volkslauf. It's become a bit of a tradition in our family, and Addison has come to every single race I've run. Here's Addison from the first two years I ran (our camera crapped out this year), when she was six months old, and then at 18 months:

Melting in the Bakersfield heat
Heading for the barbed wire
The first year I ran the Volkslauf: 164th out of 412, with a final time of 1:15:38. I was in the top 40 percent who didn't get eaten by ravenous dinosaurs.

Second year: 113th out of 324, with a final time of 1:13:53. Top 35 percent.

This year: 74th out of 268, with a final time of 1:11:00. Top 27 percent.

At the rate I'm improving, I'd be able to beat my cousin 15 years from now. I'll be 44 years old. This sort of stuff only gets easier with age, right?

I hope Addison reads this post some day and internalizes the following: First, that velociraptors are real and dangerous. Second, that it's important to stay fit even when it's hard. And sometimes, the hardness can even make it awesome. Third, that even though there will always be someone better than you (unless you're Hobie Call), there will also always be someone worse, and they'll give you a few extra seconds to climb a wall while they're being devoured. Alternatively, the lesson could be to help other people over the wall if they can't do it themselves. But you can still gloat inwardly about being strong enough to do it all by yourself.

And, just for the heck of it, here's an old photo of Addison showing she knows what it means to be strong:

Stiff as a board! Look at those pointed toes and the bulging thigh muscles! If there was a competition for planking, this girl would definitely have won her age group.