So, then, why do I race? Why do I run? Why did I pull the plug on triathlon despite continued enjoyment of all 3 disciplines and yet continue to race running events? The answer isn't entirely obvious and may not have anything to do with anyone else's answer. The answer, for me, is quality.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance does a wonderful job of explaining just how difficult it is to define the essence of quality. Actually, there are numerous parallels to that book and my life, particularly the differences between my work as a software geek and my primary passion: exercise induced exhaustion. It is truly fitting that the book was published the year I was born.
How does quality relate to running for me? The essence of it boils down to the line my mother so often repeated when I would reach a point of frustration with the effort involved in academics or sports as a child and the stress which that frustration inevitably unearthed. Her words were consistently "just try your best". That mantra has stuck with me, to the point that I would classify one of my stronger personality attributes as an intensity and passion to achieve, and an insatiable desire to improve.
This next paragraph started off as a response to Jeff when he asked "What about tri didn't allow you to pursue quality? If anything it seems even better suited to your needs." I responded to that with:
I didn't really explain that well, did I?
I got turned off by the gear. By the drafting. By the dweebs. By my
own lack of ability to improve on the bike despite trying (at least
trying a little bit.) By the costs. By the trends and where it was
heading. But mostly because I didn't feel like I had many days of
"quality" when cycling or swimming. There were a few, but the
majority were all run days.
When I attempted to rewrite that response in a slightly less obnoxious manner, it ended up sounding overly sanitized:
So, wait, I mentioned that I pretty much gave up racing triathlon, although I still enjoy swim/bike/run training. So, what gives, how does that make any sense? Jeff asked me to clarify this point and it prompted additional thinking. The bottom line is that triathlon boiled down to an endeavor which seemed incompatible with my desire to pursue quality. I got turned off by all the gear. I got frustrated by all the drafting among nameless age groupers. I got sick of being around the personality types which dominate the sport. And, here's the part where I take some ownership of my own baggage, I was primarily frustrated by me own lack of improvement on the bike. I know I tried a few different angles on cycling, even spending most of 2003 focusing on riding instead of working, but the improvements didn't seem to come. Meanwhile, the costs of participating in an already expensive sport continued to increase, while my desire and ambition were trending the opposite direction. I started to feel like the majority of my "quality" was focused on running. I had a few good swims and a rare uplifting ride, but the arrows all pointed towards running as being the more consistent and reliable source of joy.
Jeff prefers the first version. I think the 2nd version is somewhat easier to follow, but I expose both angles as an attempt to let the reader decide for themselves what I really mean.
It is worthwhile to note that I am actually pretty lousy at a lot of things I do, particularly those I have less experience with. Take yoga for example. When I started, I flat out sucked. I had never been flexible, my balance is still well below average, and what strength I did possess was geared more towards spastic efforts than anything resembling graceful movement. I had always been scared off by the mirrors and the other people in the room, I retained fear of failure, fear of judgement, fear of looking like an idiot. With time, and particularly with effort, those fears dissolve in the pool of the inner ego, apprehension morphs into confidence as the unknown becomes familiar. Part of it is realizing that everyone else in the room puts their pants on the same way, even if they can do standing splits and jump into a pike position from adho mukha. But the biggest part is watching my body and abilities change through the continued application of desire to improve.
There is a genetic component to this desire for quality. I see it in my father's dancing. He started getting serious with it about 15 years ago and he has progressed into a fairly competitive dancer. Most importantly, far more important than any recognition he might receive from competition, is his own satisfaction from being able to do something with his body that was previously unknown or impossible. His career has been a series of rational decisions, with life and death literally hanging in the balance and the wealth of experience providing the sustenance on which to propel through each new uncertainty. Similarly and also differently, through dancing, his body and mind are invigorated in the relentless and endless pursuit of a perfection that cannot be defined, only asymptotically approached. I see beauty and grace in the fluidity of his instructors movements which he has not yet mastered and I can tell, despite how far he has come and how much I admire and appreciate the skills he has gained, there is still enough room to improve to combat any sense of satisfaction that might lead to complacency.
I run because every now and then I will encounter a moment that astounds me. Last year I had a number of days that absolutely blew me away, some in training, and a few races as well. Sharing those experiences and what they meant to me in this blog is a way to bare my soul, to rip away the meaningless layers of courtesy, manners, politeness, clothing, space and time, and delve into the raw emotion that fuels my journey of self exploration and attempts at self realization. I run to experience intensity, passion, and desire without filters. I run to watch myself give up and then re-enlist in the fight. I run to experience failure, remorse, greed, ambition and self-importance, and yet still attempt to supercede all of that and try to be better as a runner and as a human. It is, and has always been, an endless search for quality.