Recently, I participated in the Angel Fire 50 Mile Endurance run. It is a wonderful event and you should sign up for it. But I did suffer, experience weakness, and fail. Here is the story of how it is that I am so grateful for that.
A few years ago I had occasion to introduce my young sons to Charles Corfield, a veteran of the sport. He is older than I am, manages some significant orthopedic issues, yet, can still beat the pants off of me any day of the week. When I spotted him reading a Yiddish newspaper, I knew his depth and wisdom went beyond just fast trail running. So when I asked him if he had any words of wisdom for these budding young trail runners, I was struck by his simple reply: “make friends with failure.”
I knew he was right. Most of the world’s wisdom traditions uphold some version of this teaching. From the 12 Steps idea that “brokenness and powerlessness” open the doors to spiritual truth, to the various religious teachings on vulnerability and weakness, there is this common thread that suggest that Truth lies on the other side of our ego and the sense that we can do it all on our own. Still, I was expecting something more like, “stay hydrated” or “eat lots of vegetables.”
I say that I “knew” he was right. But, like most of my problems, this one was in my head. The trouble was that my “knowing” was theoretical, an abstraction even. The fact is I’d been enjoying years of steady improvements; if we measure those in terms of performance anyway. After 24 years of serious running, all of my PRs from 5km to 100 miles have been set only recently (and this after a hard 2005 in which I was told to stop running because I “had the wrong body to be a real runner.”) Recently I noted that my 100 mile PR and my 5km time were exactly the same, only one was in hours and one in minutes (18:39). The symmetry of it all was delightful!
During this same period of ascendancy, my young boys had become runners, so they too were on the up and up. The truth is that it is fun to be faster and stronger, and we were all enjoying that together. Still, I knew that to forgo Corfield’s axiom–to allow my boys to believe that failure was somehow to be avoided–was to condemn these youngsters to a life made shallow by the illusion that progress is forever linear, or even that such a thing would be good (the goal?) at all. Put another way, their future as runners–their future as men for that matter–would suck if it were predicated on some notion of perpetual ascension that you start climbing at five years old. The beauty of failure, vulnerability, and weakness is that it arms us against a toxic notion that life is about mountain top experiences. Mountain top experiences are awesome, to be sure. But, such a focus can make us ripe for destructive forces such as consumerism, addiction, or any desire to chase after the next big thing. A mountain top focus risks missing the place we actually are most of the time.
For a few years now I have been thinking about this problem: make friends with failure. My problem has been that my running is going so well. The morning of the Angel Fire 50 miler I did my standard pre-race ritual, which includes half-assing my morning prayer and readings. Nevertheless, that day’s theme that “power is made perfect in weakness” penetrated even my own clouded mind. Uh oh. After years of putting it off, might I have to confront both Charles’s running wisdom, as well as these spiritual truths I’ve been avoiding?
As I’ve said: this race is a gem and you should go do it. Chisholm and Jack and all those OKC folks have cooked up a truly fantastic mountain trail run. Nothing but good things to say about it, and I endorse it fully as one you should put on your calendar. This is my own story, of how I was due for a “bad race.”
The external details are as you might expect. Cool morning, lovely sunrise up a valley that I ran pretty fast. The tea leaf diviners that rule Ultrasignup had predicted a third place finish for me, and I confess that my ego loved this, and allowed me to ignore the warning signs longer than I should have. By mile 20, I was intentionally distancing myself from friends so that I could quit in peace, like a dog might curl up under a porch to die. Another warning sign: solitude is good, isolation is bad. But, hard to tell the difference through fear, pain, and disappointment.
Somehow I made it to the marathon mark, marveling that one could even contemplate running all day feeling like crap–oh, and by the way, we will start at the marathon mark. I sat in a chair, and took note of that simple fact of sitting down. My last several races have been very good, moving quickly through aid stations, sitting in a chair–never! Yet here I was, calmly open to the idea of quitting. Why put myself through this? I?d had so many good races, I did not have anything to prove. Yeah, I’m so open….
But that failure/weakness business kept bubbling up. Was I really open to it? What could it teach me? If “power is made perfect in weakness” then did I even get the question, much less an answer? What “power” would be revealed? I did not really get it, and damn it-I did not really want to. I was full of hot air. It was easy to be grateful and joyful while hammering a fast time, but not today: no hammer, no fast(speed)… but what of joy and gratitude? A Jesuit named Carlos Valles once wrote, “If you always imagine God in the same way, no matter how true and beautiful it may be, you will not be able to receive the gift of the new ways God has ready for you.” In that chair I confronted the uncomfortable fact that I was resistant–very resistant–to “receive this new way” of proceeding in a race. I was very much wanting to be in control, and evidently crazy enough to ignore the fact that I was not.
I decided to go on. My family was not there (otherwise I’d have quit so as to “not waste their time”– a genius move from the passive aggressive playbook, in which you can blame innocent loved ones!) I had all day, nobody ”waiting on” me. What the heck, I’d go ahead and experiment by entering fully into this place of vulnerability.
Turns out this place has lots of walking! And as Henry David Thoroeu suggests, walking opens the path to thinking, of which I did a lot. My mind kept wandering back to a commencement speech that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. Part of that message is that education is not about avoiding difficulty, boredom, or pain. Rather, our efforts to be educated–I’d say to be formed–yield fruit insofar as we are able to choose how we think, react, feel in those situations. In other words, the point is not to have a good day, but to make a choice. Could I have the skills, wherewithal, disposition, training, spiritual sense, whatever, to make a choice–to choose wisely– when things don’t go my way? Getting out of my own ego and self-centeredness would be a tough first step. But it was one I was willing to try and take. I was not going to be anywhere near that gazelle from Colorado, Lars, who was crushing the course hours ahead of me. And, UltraSignup be damned, I was not going to come in third. I was not going to be able to keep up with my friends I’d looked forward to running with. I was going to fail all of these goals. Ok, great. I accept that. So if failure is some key, what would it unlock for me?
I stopped at an unmanned aid station forever. Sitting there alone I decided to spruce it up a bit. I picked up some trash, wiped down the table, and tidied up the water station. Gosh, anything to keep from running. I thought of times when my wife was trying to help me at an aid station, and I’d been short or cross with her because I was in such a hurry. At one point in the race, I was going so slow, really, it was funny. I was on a gentle downhill, lovely single track I’d normally want to hammer down, and I was barely creeping along at a slow walk. I was going so super slow when I came into a clearing that appeared to be a scene from a Disney movie. There were curious deer, scurrying chipmunks, and singing birds, peacefully, doing their thing. So non-threatening was my pace that I actually had to wait for the deer to get off the trail so I could proceed. I had a little chuckle, and wondered how such a thing might have struck me had I been having a “good day.” Would I have even noticed them at all? If I had, would I have been annoyed at the cost of the few seconds for them to clear the trail?
It was at that moment that my mind snapped clearly to an image from Dallas. There is a hill I run, and I know every inch of it. I know that if it takes me three more seconds to get to this tree, then that signpost will be x or y or whatever. I love my little hill, and I trust it as my lovely little golden calf. I use it often in training, and as races draw near I have near-superstitious levels of practice as I do a taper routine on it. I know that if I can do x one week out, then y will be my confident outcome on race day. I’ve been doing this for years and I am attached to the practice in that peculiar manner of devoted neurosis known only to athletes and total nuts. So a week out from Angel Fire I went to my trusty hill to do my ritual and found it was totally blanketed in wildflowers. Mexican hats, Queen Anne’s lace, Indian paintbrush, and other flowers just bursting. The coincidence of warmth and rain had conspired to produce a bumper crop of flowers the likes of which I’d never seen–and I’ve been running this hill since 1989. Keep in mind, this hill is normally a barren little strip of overused Dallas hard dirt, which means it’s fast. But, it was not fast that day; I struggled. I pushed and fought and cussed and kicked through vines and leaves and petals which all conspired to slow me down. What a pity that on the day I really needed a fast workout, my hill was impenetrable with flowers.
Pity indeed, as I realized a week later the sad metaphor that waited patiently for my attention. My life is covered with flowers, yet, I fight them. How often do I miss the gift? How often do I push against the inconvenient interruptions that mask, indeed constitute, my true callings? The chance to pay a bill for clean water that most in the world don’t have; the traffic jam that slows me down in my solid, reliable, car; or the difficult conversations with loved ones that actually give enough of a damn about me to try to connect? Or what of the outright interruptions?– needs of a small child calling me from bed or work, an aging parent, a neighbor–whoever challenges my agenda of the moment? If I view these as interruptions, I miss my true calling to be alive, and to be a source of life for them…and I suppose the only voice I’d hear is my own.
The way the Angel Fire 50 is laid out, I passed my truck a few times. Thanks to my slower pace, the sun was setting on my truck all afternoon and so I got to see a certain angle of illumination. On the back window of that truck is small handprint. The print is made of grime and mud and God only knows what. The print belongs to a young boy: my son. I love this boy more than life itself, yet I yelled at him for making the print on the window. The print now glowing in the sun becomes an icon, a visual portal to a deeper place. Running through confession, contrition, and on to amendment, I wonder now why I yelled at the boy? Why I fight against the flowers. Some day this boy will be too old to play with mud, and too grown up to be carefree running about in a world with sticky handprints. If failure opens me to this truth, then it is no failure at all. And, if my weakness on that course, that day, could yield some fruit, then it could be powerful indeed.
– Matthew Crownover
Posted on 18 Jul 2013
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