For a while, I wasn’t really sure why it was that I took up running. Elise and I have enjoyed hiking together since we first moved to Germany. And I have long enjoyed taking the bicycle out whenever the weather would allow it, easily passing an afternoon biking fifty kilometers along the Rhine. Unfortunately I can not go hiking during the week. And I simply enjoy biking too much that even with the best of intentions, I seem to end up lazily coasting along country roads, watching the world go by instead of really challenging myself. Thus I run. I can run every day and there is no risk of lazily coasting along. In order to run, I have to apply myself. And although where we now live offers some beautiful scenery as a backdrop to a jog, in the end, to run is to work.
Even though the motivation to find a simple, effective hobby to help keep me in shape was one (arguably quite good) reason for me to start running, it was not the main one. When I moved to Switzerland to be with Elise, I left behind nearly a decade of building a life in Germany. I left friends, a career, and a lifestyle for something new. And although the decision to get the band back together was never in doubt, the truth of the matter is that in making the move that I felt the weight of a great deal of uncertainty ahead of me.
The move was one of the best decisions we have made in life, however. We have a wonderful home with the best neighbors one could imagine. And I have a new job, which I really like and fantastic, new colleagues who make the job even more enjoyable. It has been a time of change and new challenges and at some point I reasoned that with so many other challenges successfully met, it would be a good time to try to challenge myself at the physical level. Why not see if I can start a running regimen? One might think after starting a new job that taking up jogging would be a simple accomplishment to have in addition to a new career. I rather saw the new career as a good warm up to the bigger challenge of putting one foot in front of the other.
The thing is that I never thought that I could run. I was a fat kid. I found fascination in books, Legos, and eventually computers. I had no interest in sports. I do fondly remember occasionally playing catch with my dad in the back yard and he also put up a basketball goal over the garage so we could shoot hoops. But most of all we loved to go camping and hiking together and just spend time outdoors, enjoying such solitary, leisurely sport. Therefore I never felt an interest in organized (much less competitive) sport and was never given any pressure to take them up. But this also meant that gym class was something I dreaded from the day that I started grade school. Although I was usually at the head of the class academically, as soon as I entered the locker room, I was the underachiever. And that was a shock. I remember my teachers striving to motivate and support students to be better, to achieve something more and be proud of what they could do (I had some good teachers). But I remember gym class being a simple walk of shame. I finished last and I knew it was my fault because I was fat. Unlike with a bad test score when my teachers would take me aside and motivate me to do better, the absence of any interest in motivating the fat kid in gym class while he’s being lapped when struggling to run the mile reinforced the belief that I would always be the fat kid.
Some people think that life has an uncanny way of finding the right place for people. Some people call this fate. It didn’t take long for me to find my place in life as the fat, good-natured smart kid in the class, whom everyone liked but was never destined to be able to finish running the mile, much less know how to play sports.
It took me a long time to realize that fate only succeeds where aspiration has long since failed. Life doesn’t find the right place for a person, though someone can easily grow to think that he has built an ideal life, when in actuality he has simply adapted himself to what is on offer. Our lives are governed by the second law of thermodynamics just like the rest of the universe and if a person does not seek anything more out of life, he has closed himself off to further growth. And entropy only rises in a closed system.
A drive to reach for something more has been with me for most of my life, I suppose. I remember very distinctly being in the first grade and having homework for the first time. We were learning to write and every night we took home a worksheet that was the size of a standard piece of letter paper if halved longways. This worksheet was lined on one side and we had to fill it by rewriting the word of the day in order to practice our penmanship. Such tedious work was not easy for a kid that was still getting used to spending the whole day in school. And I knew for a fact that we only had to fill the front since that was all my classmates did and because only the front of the sheet was lined. But my mother made me go the extra mile and fill the back side of the page as well. I resented the fact that this kept me at the kitchen table laboriously writing for what seemed like an interminable amount of time before I was free to go outside and play.
After so many challenges during the past year, I suppose taking up running was a way of filling the back of the sheet. And even though I thought that printing the same word over and over again was tantamount to torture, it was relatively simple to running. An honest-to-goodness physical challenge was something I have never done before.
It took me a while to figure out why exactly I was running. I think it was as I was finishing my first 5k and was trying to find the motivation to continue when a line from a Hold Steady song playing on my iPod really hit me for the first time:
“Let this be my annual reminder, that we can all be something bigger.”
Why do I run? I want to be something better. And I don’t mean better than someone else. That’s not the point. I am not measuring myself against anyone. When I look at my time and distance, I’m comparing to my own performance. I am trying to push that little, fat kid to be something better. Can I be better than myself? That is the question I think we should all ask ourselves. To do otherwise is to forfeit any challenge. And overcoming challenge is the human experience. Or as the Hold Steady put it:
“Getting older makes it harder to remember that we are our only saviors.”