Saturday, March 24, 2012

Thoughts on Being a Race Spectator

I've been actively training for and running in races for the past five years. It all started with a couple of little 5Ks, then I discovered a fabulous coach and group to run with and my running career blossomed into a series of 10-milers and half marathons. While I'm not a "competitive" runner by any means (except against myself), I have learned to be consistent, persistent, and that bad days are still o.k. days if you get one foot in front of the other. And, I've become an addict. The end of each race is the beginning of training for the next, regardless of what hurts or what other life activities may deserve some of my precious training time. Upon recognizing this, I made a New Year's resolution to not race this year. "Not racing" does not mean "not running," only that I'm emphasizing cross-training more in an effort to keep me running for longer into my life.

For the first couple months of the year, this wasn't so bad. I've never been one to sign up for a winter race. But when registration for a popular St. Patrick's Day race was opened, I started to feel the pull to sign up. In fact, several of my running friends had registered and more than once I was asked if I was going to be there. Was I going to register? No. Would I be there? Absolutely.

St. Patrick's Day came with an unusual amount of sunshine and warm air, and I packed up the dog and found an intersection roughly halfway on the course. My own racing reminded me how tough that middle section can be, and it is often void of spectators save race volunteers. The lead runners flew by, strong in their focus and indifferent to my "Looking good!" cheer. But as the crowd of runners increased, so did the level of fatigue and exasperation I saw on their faces. While I was mostly looking for my friends, I started cheering for everyone. It felt sort of silly to be one person standing alone while clapping and hollering words of encouragement, until runners I didn't know started to thank me. This only encouraged my obnoxiousness, and I continued to clap and cheer. By the time I saw my friends, I was deep into spectator mode and I felt a surge of pride for each of them as they took steps toward their individual goals.

Watching the race was more fun than I thought it would be, and maybe it helps that I know what the runners are going through. Some of them are racing for the first time, others have set time goals, and others still may be having a bad race and just need an uplift. Having run so many races myself, I've experienced all of those scenarios. For the rest of the season, I intend spectate more races, maybe volunteer for a couple. I might have given up racing, but not the race.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Thoughts on Knowing Nothing while Having all the Answers

I've been studying T'ai Chi for nearly seven and a half years. I know several forms, both "solo" and "partner," have attended retreats, and even given workshops of my own. One might might think I know a thing or two about T'ai Chi. The knowing I do have has been a long, slow hike up a very tall mountain, containing obstacles, switch-backs, and an almost menial pace of progression. During class today, I'd had a moment where my solo form felt a little clumsy and I thought briefly to myself of how little I really know about the long form, and I really ought to take a private lesson or two have have an expert show me my insurmountable amount of errors. On one hand, my waist and legs know what is expected of them, on the other my mind is often surprised when an ankle twitches with lack of balance or my shoulder twinges with tension. Why, after all this time, do these things still happen?

Not fifteen minutes later during the same class, we were asked to do an exercise in pairs, and my teacher paired me with a woman who was just finishing the form. He said to her, "If you have questions, you can ask Karen. She has all the answers." Now I know he didn't mean that I know everything, and in our school to hear a statement like that is a very high compliment. The only way I knew to answer it was with a modest smile and proceed with the assignment, but internally I was laughing at irony known only to me. How funny to experience one moment where I feel I know nothing, and another minutes later being told I know a lot!

The whole experience reminded me of reading a book called Mastery by George Leonard. He discusses an idea known as "the mastery curve" in which steady progress is made, there is a slight reverse, and a long plateau. The pattern repeats itself indefinitely. In a later chapter, he describes a phenomenon known as The Plateau, a place where any one learning any skill will eventually find themselves. It is the place where, if it is not a talent one is truly interested in, a person will fade away from learning that skill. Leonard elaborates to say our society values the end goal, that all we do is based on getting something (a degree, a better job, a bigger house, etc) rather than placing a value on the hard work between goals. He writes,

"We are taught in countless ways to value the product, the prize, the climactic moment. But even after we've caught the winning pass in the Superbowl, there's always tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow... The question remains, where in our upbringing, our schooling, our career are we explicitly taught to value, enjoy, even to love the plateau, the long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress?" (pgs. 39-40).

To connect this with my experience today, I have to say I'm not sure where on the mastery curve I might be. Sometimes knowing one is wrong or unskilled is a sign of progress in and of itself, but I'm not sure how that reflects any amount of true progress on my part. At what point do the clouds in my mind lift, does tension fade, and I cease having doubt of my own knowledge? Does it just happen in some indiscernible way, as my Astrology teacher often asks, "when does a kitten become a cat?" In the meantime, I hope I would make both Sifu Ray and George Leonard proud in saying I am in love with The Plateau. It is the near-daily practice, coupled with a school where all learning abilities are honored and respected, that has kept me hiking up this mountain.