Are You Experienced?

            I did a lot of running this winter.  All part of the plan.  ‘Cause Lord knows I can’t go without a plan.  Train for a marathon.  Rebuild an old Volkswagen.

            When I’m working on the car, I usually think about working on the car.

            When I’m spending lonely hours running, I’m also thinking about working on the car.

            If you’ve never done it, you probably imagine that distance running requires very little cognitive activity.  That’s true, for the most part.  Every now and then, I snap out of whatever groove I’m in to check my form, my breathing, or my pace.  Is my turnover efficient?  Is my pace sustainable but not slacking?  And of course you have to be psychologically tough.  You can’t let yourself unravel when it suddenly occurs to you that although you’ve already run twenty miles and your legs feel like concrete, your toenails are black, your shoulders ache, your feet feel like they’ve been tenderized, you’re suddenly having bizarre food cravings (. . . Vienna sausages . . . ooh, yeah!  And jelly donuts . . . mmmm!), you’re chafing in new and not-so-exciting places – in spite of all of these inconveniences and distractions, you still have a 10-k to go!

            Checking yourself carefully, not getting overwhelmed, not going berserk when things start to go wrong real fast, not curling up in the fetal position under the table at the Mile 23 aid station and refusing to come out until it’s dark, no matter how many jelly donuts they may try to tempt you with – sound familiar?

            I’ve been a runner for a long time.  I ran a couple of 10-k’s in middle school, with my dad.  Mainly it was about the camaraderie.  It was nice to get the “old man” – who was then about the age I am now – to myself.  We ran at night. We ran in the snow.  It didn’t matter.  It was fun – the way running should be.

            I was also on the track team for a very brief time in high school, but a couple of things were wrong with that.  First of all, they didn’t run far enough.  The coach tried to make a sprinter out of me.  I hated every minute of it and failed miserably.

            Second, I was simply not a “team player.”  This is possibly what drew me to running in the first place – that it’s not a team sport, in the normal sense.  Once before practice, Coach told us to go “warm up” for fifteen minutes.  It was a beautiful fall day so I just started running.  Going slow but enjoying every minute of it, I ran across the fields to the parking lot; down the long drive to the highway; along the shoulder for a few hundred yards before turning onto a chip-sealed country road along a creek; past cow pastures and silos, orchards and farmhouses.

            I ran ten miles that day.

            It was a glorious run, my Brooks Chariots carrying my young, lithe self with little effort.  But it took me a little longer than fifteen minutes.  Needless to say, when I jogged back onto the infield of the high school track (probably the exact moment he discovered I was missing in the first place), Coach was pee-oh-ed!

            “Oh, so it seems Bruce here has his own agenda!” he announced in a booming voice to no-one in particular.  It is probably cruel to note this, but he had a pronounced lisp and a somewhat-less pronounced beer-belly; as well as a clipboard, a whistle, and your typical high school coach’s drill-sergeant demeanor.

            “Ith it too much to athk where the hell you’ve been?”

            I assumed he didn’t require a play-by-play recap of my running route.  I thought about saying I had run past his house, and (knowing he was married) asking whose motorcycle was parked in his driveway.  Then I decided a short, vague answer was probably best.

            “Uh, warming up, I guess.”

            “Warming up?” he huffed.  He looked around at the birds, the blue sky, and the trees that marked the edge of the athletic fields, as if looking for a studio audience – to see what they might think of this revelation.

            When he found no laugh-track forthcoming, he came up close.  Real close.  Like, he’d had onions at lunchtime.  He lowered his voice to a low growl.

            “Look, Mithster,” he began, misting me with spittle, “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ got it?  So you need to just –“.

            I couldn’t help myself.  You see, I was only fourteen.  Not nearly at that age when my prefrontal cortex – that part of the brain that bestows judgment upon the bearer – would have been fully developed.  For the same reason that young men drink, drive, get their girlfriends pregnant, spend all of their money, collect firearms, play ridiculous sports like football, and make formidable Marines, I literally could not help myself.  It was neurologically impossible.

            “There’s no ‘U’ in it either,” I said.

            I remember Coach turning a rather alarming shade of red, right before he launched the clipboard on an arcing flight through the crisp autumn air.  I remember wondering why our track and field team had no discus program, for this was clearly Coach’s forte.  Incomplete brain notwithstanding, I had enough sense to know what was coming.  My back was already turned, and I had already started walking toward the locker room, when the indignant, fulminating tirade began.

            It was never clear to me whether I quit, or if I was officially kicked off the team.  It didn’t matter, really.  I was never on a team of any sort ever again.

            It was an unfortunate coincidence that Coach’s day job was as the shop teacher.  It is probable that I would have had something to learn from him in that capacity – something that I would have found useful, down the road.  Like right now.  But I never took his course, mostly because judgment – what little of it there was – dictated that future engagements with Coach should be avoided if at all possible.  I see now that, in a way, my failure to thrive in a high school track and field setting is a contributing factor to the fact that, in my Volkswagen rebuilding endeavors, I have no idea what I’m doing.

            But I do know something about running.  Aside from a hiatus in late high school and college – when cigarettes and beer took priority – I’ve been a runner most of my life.  As a runner, my opinions on that particular matter carry a certain credence, a certain weight, simply because I have the experience to back them up.  I might not be right, and what I say might not be in keeping with the latest in exercise science, but at least I know what has worked in the past, and where to look for improvements.

            I spend hours and hours scouring www.thesamba.com.  There are classifieds, photo galleries, technical data, wiring diagrams, paint codes, downloadable manuals, historical archives and, of course, the technical forums.  There are two downsides, though.  First, the forum section is enormous – to the point that it’s tricky to narrow down the search criteria without getting distracted.  The second is that much of it is opinion.  This is to be expected.  But I do not have the vast trove of experience necessary to weigh the merits of differing viewpoints here.

            For example, if you tell me that you like to eat a protein-heavy breakfast before a long run, I’m automatically skeptical.  Sure, it just might work for you, for some strange reason.  But if I happen to know – both from reading and from painful, personal experience – that protein, being slower to digest, will be nothing but a cramp-inducing gut-bomb a few miles down the road.  So forgive me if I’m a little leery.  Forgive me if I suggest that at the very least, you find running shoes that don’t clash with the color of your partially-digested, high protein breakfast.

            But if I’m ‘trolling the forums trying to ascertain, say, the best way to treat surface rust, the response seems to be everything from “Scotch-Brite and POR-15” to “cut the whole offending section out with a plasma torch, and spot-weld in an original, unused section of German steel – anything less, and you should be shot!”  Some might even assert that it’s not rust, after all – it’s “patina;” in this case, apparently, the thing to do is to install a narrowed beam, dial in some negative camber, drop it like a lawnmower, add some unique, irreverent, and/or bizarre knickknacks, and call it a “rat rod.”

            What’s a fool like me to do?  My usual response, if the opinions are evenly split, is to go from the least to most complicated, the least to most invasive, or cheapest to most expensive.  It’s also important to keep an eye on the prize, to keep the goal in mind.  I do not want a “rat rod;” ergo, rust is rust, not “patina.”

            Over time I’ve come to take some of the running terminology and esoteric practices for granted.  So occasionally I have to remind myself that, for the uninitiated, some of the argot can be misleading – if not downright hilarious.  For example, a neighbor may say, “I saw you jogging yesterday.”  Forgetting for a moment that I’m driven to distraction by people who confuse running with jogging (for the same reason that I’m a cyclist and not a biker), I can’t just casually say, “Yeah, that was me.  I was out for a seven-mile fartlek.”

            People will say things about me.  I’ll get strange looks.  Or, at the very least, they’ll take a subtle step backwards and point their noses into the wind.  Only after the fact will I realize where I went wrong.

            I must be learning something, at least, in the way of auto-shop skills, because I’ve caught myself in a similar spot in that pursuit.  I was proud of myself when, before deciding to tear the entire car apart, I rebuilt the old Solex carburetor.  It’s actually a fairly simple procedure for the novice mechanic.  In many cases, all you need is a bucket of Berryman’s, a cheap gasket kit, and a source of compressed air to blow it all out.  But my throttle shaft had a slight fuel leak, and for that I solicited the services of a local machinist/VW guru.  He did me right for about forty dollars.

            Over dinner the night before, my wife and I chatted about our respective plans for the next day.  I said something like, “Yeah, I can pick up some laundry detergent.  I’m going out anyway.”

            “Oh, yeah?  Where are you going?”

            “Well, I gotta drop by Howard’s shop.  He’s gonna re-bush my throttle shaft.”

            I’m slow on the uptake sometimes.  This must be said.  In my child-like innocence, my mind just does not have the necessary lascivious bent to see the humor in such things.  My wife, however, thought it was pretty amusing.

            Lubrication is critically important for a smoothly running machine – whether it be a Volkswagen or a marathoner.  Of course, aside from stretching, proper nutrition, proper training, and the occasional massage, there is not much the runner can do internally.  These things take care of themselves.  Or not.  But there are certain external areas of the body, usually hidden and therefore forgotten, that can suddenly make themselves front-and-center after 26.2 miles of friction.  For the general, non-distance-running population, cotton is harmless and there is no wholesome, Christian reason why a grown man should lubricate his nipples.  But seeing a guy stumbling across the finish line with two bloody smears on the chest of his cotton t-shirt tends to leave an impression.

            Invention, I posit, has many mothers – necessity being only the most cited.  Novelty is another.  One of my first trips out with the ’65 was to the auto parts store, to get some tune-up supplies.  When I had my last Beetle, you could still find most of what you needed – oil, filter-screen-that’s-not-really-a-filter, points, condenser, fan belt – at the local joint.  Nowadays I’ve seen the screen-thingy (and, of course, the oil) but not any of the other stuff.

            It was mid-morning on a Tuesday, and the store was empty except for two or three employees and a tall, older man leaning on the counter, rambling on about nothing at all to nobody in particular.  After a glance he seemed to me the kind of guy that had nothing better to do than to hang out at the auto parts store on a Tuesday morning.

            I placed my items on the counter next to him while the clerk rang me up.  Avoiding eye contact, I could tell by the very fact that he had stopped talking that the old man was about to latch on.  I could feel him looking over the items – four quarts of thirty-weight and the filter-screen.

            The filter-screen was the giveaway.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him turn his head to look out the window.  Then he turned the rest of his lanky frame around, leaned back, and propped his elbows on the counter.

            “Watchya got there – ’66?  ’67?”

            It was a good guess from this angle but I was not impressed.  And I was quickly learning about an unanticipated side effect of driving an air-cooled Volkswagen in the twenty-first century – unwanted attention.  It is my personal preference to skirt perimeters and lurk in dark corners, unnoticed.

            “’65,” I mumbled.

            That was all he needed to embark on a monologue about everything he knew about old Volkswagens.  Which seemed, it must be admitted, to be a lot.

            But I was not listening.

            I don’t know if it’s a function of one of those insidious German genes tainting my humors, but sometimes I tend to be a little rigid.  My wife’s a psychologist; to borrow a term from her field (although I clearly don’t have the credentials to do so), when I’m on task I don’t handle disruptions very well.  Going to the auto parts store involves compiling a list of required items; route planning – dry cleaners, post office, check-in with parole officer, grocery store – to maximize efficiency and minimize greenhouse gasses; and a strict time frame in which to accomplish all of this.  There is no time allotted for chit-chatting with strangers. 

            What does he want from me?  Why can’t he leave me alone?

            Still, I do remember some of what he said.  He waxed nostalgic about working on Volkswagens with his buddies, back in the day.  Talked about the Beetles and the Buses and the Karmann Ghias that had come into his life.  Told of the library of Volkswagen books he had accumulated.  Laughed about how he and his friends figured out how to set the point gap with a piece of one-point-five rolling paper, folded up a certain number of times.

            What put me off about the whole thing, at the time, was the approach, which was in my mind tantamount to that of a telemarketer.  You could offer me something that I’d really, really want – like, a perfectly restored split-window Westfalia (SO-42 option package, please), with racy shots of Audrey Hepburn (package just fine the way it is, thank you) tacked to the ceiling – but if, in my twisted logic, I decide that your approach deviates from my own pre-conceived notion of the rules of engagement, I do not want it.  Any of it.

            Which I’ve come to realize is a crying shame.  Life doesn’t follow any pre-conceived rules, and you need to be ready for it – and open to it.  A telemarketer might deserve to be disregarded.  But this friendly and wise old man had crossed some silly line, and I (once again) missed out on actually enjoying a conversation with a stranger for a change.

            The kicker was when I collected my sack of items and started to walk out.  He thrust an old business card at me.  It was yellowed and tattered but I did not read it.  Understand that I had been nothing but rude to him up to that point.

            “I still have those books,” he said.  “Give me a call if you want them.”

            “No thanks,” I said, before he could even finish.

            “They’re just taking up space.  You can have them.”

            I never litter but I tossed the business card out the window as I drove down the highway, disgusted with myself more than anything.

            It would be over a year before I went back in there.  With powers of self-analysis usually reserved for members of the Baby Boomer population (the youngest of whom have about five years on me), I like to think I’d made great strides in the self-actualization department by then.  I was on a more even keel, at any rate.  By most accounts.  Most of the time.

            I was hoping to see the old guy, to actually be nice to him.  Not because I wanted the damn books (although I still kick myself about that); no, this would have been a lesson on listening and learning.  Most of all, I would have heard – in every detail – how he and his friends came to discover that the point gap could be set with rolling paper.  Something tells me this was born out of more than simple necessity.  He would have loved to tell, and I would have loved to listen.  But I missed my chance.  I’ve been in there several times since, and have never seen him again.

            Having never completely rebuilt a Volkswagen before, I often find my lack of experience daunting.  A recent epiphany in my running life, though, tells me that maybe I shouldn’t let it stand in my way.

            The marathon I had been training for is next week in Atlanta.  A month ago I was in excellent running shape.  I ran a half-marathon, and came in fourth out of ninety-two runners in my age grouping.  I had done a handful of longer runs – a couple of eighteen-milers, then twenty, then twenty-two – all at a good pace, finishing strong.  But shortly after the half-marathon, a few things happened.

            I realized that I was running well, but not getting any faster.  In the back of my mind, the ever more elusive goal of beating my seven-year-old personal record seemed to be fading.  But the honest-to-God truth is that beating that record really isn’t that important to me.  I would have to train even harder – as if sixty-mile weeks aren’t enough.  I’d likely have to be more scientific about it, with heart-rate monitors and online coaches.  I’d have to be even more selective about nutrition.  Regular massages.  Yoga.  Core-strength training.

            And I’d likely have to sign up for a marathon that’s known for its fast course – Chicago, Houston, or Orlando.  But none of that excites me.  I actually like hills, and I find that courses with a variety of terrain are more scenic and more fun.  Which, unless I’m a sponsored athlete (which does not sound like fun), should be the whole point of the thing, yes?

            Then, in the middle of February, the weather turned spring-like and has pretty much stayed that way.  Friends were calling, wanting to know if I’d like to go for a long bike ride.  Naw, sorry man.  Gotta run twenty in the morning.  Don’t want to trash my legs.  Have fun.  Add to this the nagging sensation of being voraciously hungry all the time, suffering from bouts of insomnia, and feeling like a high-strung race horse.  I was not having fun.  My motivation was gone.

            It’s not an easy decision to throw away four months of hard training.  But it was my experience as a runner that led me to it – the confidence of knowing when to throw in the towel.  This doesn’t mean I’ll never run again.  But next time, I’ll need to reassess what keeps me motivated.  Do I need to do something new, like a course in a beautiful place I’ve never been before, forgetting about speed and just enjoying the scenery?  Or what about stepping it up a notch, and trying an ultramarathon – further, instead of faster?

            This is how I came to the realization that it is not experience, primarily, that makes a better runner.  It’s motivation.

            At the end of the race there will be only one.  There will be a point when the chute comes into sight, and all semblance of proper form or technique will go out the window.  After 26.15 miles it will be an all-out, legs-pumping, lung-busting, snot-flying, crowd-roaring sprint to the finish.  In those seconds, there is nothing else.  All points lead to now.  He goes and he goes and he Goes and he GOES!  Then comes the lean.  His arms unfold and sweep back, like he might fly.  The tape pulls taught against his chest, then snaps apart and time stands still.

            If you need proof there are the numbers.

            Is the one who breaks the tape the most experienced runner?  I doubt it.  That mantle would probably be worn by some eighty-year-old codger – still a few hours back – who’s been running marathons since the Eisenhower administration.  He’ll make it for sure, though.  Or maybe it’s Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the first Olympic women’s marathon almost thirty years ago, and could still kick my ass.

            I’m more likely to believe that the winner on this day is not the most experienced – just the most motivated.  And that’s why it no longer bothers me that I have no idea what I’m doing.

            Here is a quote that I came across recently:             

            “If your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all.” – Anna Quindlen

             I agree.  But the converse is also true: if it looks like complete shit to the world, but it feels good in your heart anyway, that can also be success.

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