I always liked the idea of running. One day I was in the library and saw a book called The Zen of Running, so I gave it a try.
It had some sort of woo stuff I can’t remember, and it had some advice that was just generally good (remember to breathe, unclench your hands and hold them like you’re carrying a bag of potato chips you don’t want to crush).
So I started running.
There wasn’t such a thing as Couch25K at the time, so I just aimed to go 15 minutes without stopping. That would take me to a hill on a country road behind my house that I couldn’t quite crest at the 7.5 minute mark when I started (no time, no wind). Then I was able to crest it and then I was able to keep going.
I had terrible shin splints because I didn’t know about stretching. Stretching is either implicit to Zen or unknown to it, because my library book didn’t mention it. Some mornings they were so bad that I’d get down the stairs by bracing on the wall and the hand-rail and lowering myself. They got better over time.
We moved into town, just a few blocks away from a park with a jogging trail. After a while, I got as interested in how far I was going as I was how long I was going, and I learned that I’d settled into 5K routine without aiming for 5K.
I did that for a while, almost every afternoon after work. I’d go home, put on my evening rice, change, go running, come home, eat.
A runner friend told me I’d burn out doing it that way, so I alternated running with trips to the gym with her. She taught me how to stretch.
One day, as I was finishing up the last lap of my run, I wondered to myself if I could run 10K, same as my friend. So I just kept running. It was fine. 10K felt the same as 5K.
I enlisted some time in the fall of that same year. The recruiter was sort of an asshole about my philosophy major.
“We’re gonna take you out on a run. Pushups don’t tell me how strong you are in the head!”
“Oh, I don’t know, Sergeant Ritchie. Don’t you run a lot? I’m not sure if I can keep up.”
“I’ll take it easy on you.”
So I went home and got my running clothes on and came back as he was closing the office for the day.
“How far are we going, Sergeant Ritchie?”
“You have to go two miles for the PT test, so let’s go a little past that. That o.k.?”
It seemed to me that two miles was about a third of that 10K I’d run, so it seemed I could probably go pretty fast up front and make my point.
I made him quit about 1.5 miles in. I nodded sympathetically as he made excuses for himself, then we walked back to his office.
I was really awful at pushups and situps in basic training.
One morning the drill sergeants were making us do this thing where you have to hold the raised pushup position for a really long time, until you’re shaking and sweating. I sort of toppled over and one of the drill sergeants got down on his belly and put his face next to mine and screamed “you’re so fucking weak in the head!”
I took the advice, obliquely offered as it was.
There was a morning where I wanted to sort of topple over and I decided instead to take a quick inventory. The main thing I realized, having checked myself over inside and out, was that it was just my shoulders that were hurting. They were hurting enough to make me shake and sweat and want to quit, but everything else was pretty much “systems go!” and my shoulders, on further interrogation, allowed as how they didn’t have to quit, they just wanted to pretty badly. So I stayed up and made it to the point where enough other people had sort of toppled over that we were all allowed to quit.
I got a lot better at pushups over time. Good enough that I was usually pretty close to maxing out the pushup score on my PT tests. I remained terrible at situps. When I came up for a PT test in Korea, I was so nervous about situps that I tried to work on them extra hard and ended up pulling my back.
When the PT test came, I maxed out the pushups but couldn’t make it happen on the situps. My back hurt too much, and I fell short of passing by three or four.
I was so mad at myself for failing, and so embarrassed, that when it came time for the 2-mile run, I gave it everything. I was in front of everybody else in the unit in the last 200 meters or so, and it wasn’t enough to make me feel like I’d made any sort of point, so I sprinted. I heard someone yell, “holy shit, Hall!” as I crossed the line, and then I just veered off into the grass and threw up.
You couldn’t fail any part of the PT test and pass, even if you maxed the other two parts, so I failed, heroic vomiting and all.
At Ft. Bragg, I loved the long unit runs. I especially loved the ones where we could peel off and run circles around the unit as it made its way down the street.
I loved the 4-mile run they make paratroopers do and usually finished among the first 10 in the unit.
I joined the unit 10-mile race team, but a few weeks into training for that I had a pretty bad jump and ended up on a month-long no-PT profile that lasted until a week before the annual Ft. Bragg 10-miler.
I went ahead and did a few shakedown runs and then ran the race, and that was a pretty bad idea. I felt flat for most of the back half, and it affected my running for weeks after.
If we want to sum up the army running experience, I guess it’s like this:
I tried to never stop and never slow down, and if I ever felt like I had anything left toward the end of a run, I sprinted it out.
I tried to stay pretty amiable toward the people around me, but if someone talked shit to me or gave me a hard time, I found them during a run and I’d do my best to run them down.
I’d run past them and murmur, “weak.”
If it looked like they were going to fall out, I’d stay alongside them: “Don’t be weak.”
One guy passed out with me doing that to him right after one of our unit combat lifesavers had learned how to rehydrate heat stroke victims through their rectums, so I quit doing that kind of thing.
Since all that, I’ve come and gone from riding and biking, and I’ve had a hard time getting rid of that moment in Korea where I felt like I had to run all that shame and embarrassment out. GPS and stopwatches aren’t good things for me.
When I started to work at Puppet I tried to establish a biking routine, but I wasn’t very comfortable on my bike. I realized at points that I was just trying to push too hard: Too many people on the trail around me were sort of breezing by on their road bikes while I struggled along on my clunky hybrid.
I didn’t really stop to think about what it was that was bothering me about the whole thing. Looking back, I understand that what I wanted was a quiet, easy ride into work, but I couldn’t allow myself to have it. I kept pushing to go faster and got frustrated with myself when I couldn’t.
Last month, I bought a new bike that’s better built for commuting (drop bars, light frame) and started timing my rides. It was pretty easy to shave eight minutes off my 12-mile commute, and I found that it was also pretty easy to ride at a speed closer to the average commute pace for most of the bicyclists around me on the Springwater.
I started using Strava to record my rides because I liked the way it would break a trip down into legs and let me see how fast I was going relative to everyone else who uses Strava and travels across the same legs.
I had several weeks of continuing to not think about what it was I wanted from my ride, so I kept pushing harder and harder and experimenting with gears and all that stuff, then coming home sore and tired and not feeling super relaxed.
I don’t know what finally caused me to think it through, but I did. I couldn’t square the sweaty, panting guy rolling in at night with the guy I saw in my head when I thought about bike commuting and it finally occurred to me that maybe I could resolve that conflict.
So I just got on my bike one morning and settled it into a nice middle gear that allowed me to pedal along and easily imagine having a conversation with myself without panting. It was hard to maintain that pace. I got passed a lot. By the time I got to work, though, I felt a lot more composed.
I’ve been trying to do that ever since. My rides take six or seven minutes longer over 12 miles, but I feel much better at the end.
Better yet, I’ve been trying to get myself into decent enough shape to sustain a daily bike commute instead of just three days a week. I’d like to be comfortable doing daily commutes in time for September’s Bike Commute Challenge. Backing off the speed and effort makes that seem a lot more likely: Last week I rode in four times instead of my usual three. This week, I’ll try to bike in all five days.
I’m still recording my rides because I’m keeping track of calories and exercise, but I switched to Runkeeper Pro (which is far less social than Strava). If I were to add a speedometer to my bike now, I like to think it would be to make sure I’m going slow enough, not fast enough.