A Quality of Life Series submission
by Neil Cook
This is my lowest mileage year since I began running more than 23 years ago. Don’t think I’m singing the blues. This has also been my most enjoyable year of running. Not due to accomplishments, not due to great races or awards or fast times, but due to sheer enjoyment and pleasure. Due to the ability to overlook (not ignore, by any stretch of the imagination) pain and injury. And mostly, maybe exclusively, due to my regular running partner: tracks. Not the 400-meter kind, but tracks on the road and in the dirt, have marked the year 2000 for me. Tracks that have been new and familiar at the same time.
Running on a road in some suburban town on Long Island, in the middle of the local holiday race, I look around and see tracks. Old tracks I'd left many years before. The feeling of tightness in my chest, difficulty breathing, blurred vision and an overwhelming feeling of joy. That feeling is what I used to struggle to find. I'd run many miles, pounding the pavement, the trail and my body. Frequently—well, actually only infrequently—I would find that joy. Most of the miles were valued by accomplishments—time, distance and place, the dimensions of most of my running.
Gradually, this changed. Yes, the times, distances and places became harder to reach. But I honestly believe I had a choice all along. I could continue to strive or struggle for those accomplishments—time, distance and place—or I could become different. I could search for my joy in other places. I chose to search elsewhere. I chose to search for tracks. My tracks, your tracks. Visible tracks and invisible tracks. I chose to seek joy from within.
I chose to follow mostly invisible tracks. Invisible to the eye, but very much visible to us all. The footprints on the wet road last Sunday were but one set of tracks I followed. The tightness in my chest and legs, the loss of breath, the blurred vision—all were tracks I sought out, found and followed.
Today I followed a different set of tracks. New tracks for me, but still familiar. Old tracks for some of you. The light reflecting off the bottom of the pool. Bright, almost white reflections amidst the blue. These tracks didn't form an obvious path. At first glance they seemed random.
Slowly, after many laps, the path became visible. It wasn't a direction to follow, but it was a path, and the tracks were clearly leading me. Leading me where I've never been and where I've already been at the same time. With each turn and push-off they demanded my attention, and I followed eagerly. Although I was actually traveling to the end of a pool I had just left, the tracks led to a totally new place each time.
There wasn't any tightness, no difficulty breathing (that was present in the first two triathlons I did last year). There was a closing in of the surroundings. Things became more familiar. As the white reflections on the bottom of the pool became brighter, my vision focused more inward. It could have been in total darkness, I wouldn't have known the difference. The rhythm of my swimming perfectly matched the tracks I was following. It wasn't until I stopped that the uncomfortable tiredness became evident.
And the smile spread across my face.
It also happened frequently on one particular hill returning from Nyack. Actually, there is a series of three hills, each a bit more difficult than the previous one. Nearing the end of a 60-mile bike ride, these hills are both foreboding and welcome. It never mattered how hard or how easy I had ridden to reach those hills. It never mattered how fit I was. The results were always the same. As I began up the hills I was able to focus and think.
Somewhere during the second hill things changed rapidly. The surroundings disappeared, breathing came in rapid gasps, and tightness gripped my entire body. The thought of falling over was the only thing that kept me moving. Having fallen a number of times, it was something I tried desperately to avoid. My ability to avoid a fall was never certain.
During the third and final hill my vision became blurred, my mind stopped all conscious thought. I was on automatic pilot. Where the extra energy, the willpower came from was always a mystery—that is, until I reached the top of that last hill. Then it all seemed strangely easy. There were days I almost felt like going back down the three hills and working my way back up them again. Felt like—but never did I go back for seconds!
But the tracks were always there. As difficult as things may have gotten, as racked with pain as my body may have become, the tracks were always visible, clear and easy to follow. They didn't necessarily lead up the hill. In fact, they never led up the hill. They pointed inside, to the core of the reason I do these things. Reaching the top of those hills wasn't the goal. Finding that place inside me where my soul resides, where my happiness comes from, that's where the tracks led me.
This past year I discovered two things: These tracks are everywhere, and they've been there all the time and will remain there all through time. Most of the time the tracks I've followed this year have been invisible to others. Some close friends have noticed them. Some have traveled them with me and on their own. The true gift of the year has been the loss of accomplishments and the discovery of tracks. I believe that had I continued to follow time, distance and place, I would have become extinct. The running, swimming and biking would have become a chore. And I would have disappeared—through my own choices and the direction of the tracks I chose to follow.
Some other things happened this year. I discovered swimming and cycling. Of course I swam before—in fact, I coached swimming. But I never swam seriously, never trained. I did a lot of swimming, but none of it was like the swimming I did this year. The same is true for my cycling. This year I discovered that swimming could be very much like running—just slower. I also discovered that cycling, too, could be very much like running—just faster.
So when I swim, I think about my solitary runs—along the Palisades, circling Central Park, during the dark of night. I never have to worry about what to wear. It's very easy to retreat into my thoughts and get lost in the repetition of the stroke. I've found a new competitive outlet. It's just like when I started running. There is always an opportunity to race, to push myself. But I've also learned that the joy exists apart from the competition. I've avoided the tracks that are measured by time, distance and place.
It's harder with cycling. When I cycle in Central Park I find people to chase, people to ride with. The pace quickly increases, breathing gets harder, the tightness returns. When I cycle outside the park it's easier to control. Time, distance and place have less meaning. The road moves under me, the scenery passes and I'm lost in my own thoughts. The cadence takes over and the joy returns.
So what has this year been like? Fewer miles covered in more time, and the places have gotten lower. I've participated in lots of races, but the joy has been in the movement, the pleasure has come from within. I've struggled—with injury, with getting older, with loss of ability. And I've struggled with new competition—triathlon. But the joy has been greater.
Almost every run, swim or ride, it's there. The joy may not be present at the beginning, but it returns soon enough. The tracks I get to follow and the tracks I get to leave have been the source of my joy. I've revisited places I went long ago, and I saw joy where there had been pain and sadness.
This year has also been marked by comings and goings. The loss of my dad and the birth of my granddaughter. On the surface it would seem like a tradeoff—one generation passes on and another takes its place.
But if you follow the tracks I've been talking about, they really are the same. The same tracks. My dad followed the tracks he had been following his entire life. My granddaughter has started to follow her own tracks, tracks she'll get to follow her whole life. There is joy in both. My dad is gone from this world, but he is still with me and my family.
I also broke my ankle. The easy thing would be to blame the low mileage this year on that broken ankle. It is true that my running training was interrupted. It is true that I had difficulty getting my long runs in after that. But that's not the entire picture. The broken ankle also gave me an opportunity—an opportunity to discover that those tracks weren't exclusively running tracks, and an opportunity to follow those same tracks when I swam and when I cycled.
Tracks. Not the tracks of my tears, although there have been many. And not tracks that are disappearing. No, not tracks that lead to extinction—tracks that lead in exactly the opposite direction. Tracks as ancient as time itself. I'm not talking about longevity, but quality.
Now what in the world does that have to do with running, swimming and cycling, you may ask. Actually, you may wonder what in the world I'm doing writing about running, swimming and cycling, given the number of miles I've covered this past year.
There has been sadness. And there has been joy. The joy is greater because there is sadness. The victory is sweeter because of the defeat. And my love has grown daily this year. My love for exercise and my love for Sweet Julie. She has shown me tracks that I wasn't able to see before. Together we've traveled new and wonderful tracks.