Apr 10, 2013

The Long Road to Mature Work

by Alissa Wilkinson

I never thought I’d do it, but there I was, in mid-January, stretching my quads and blowing on my fists in a parking lot in Venice Beach before sunup.

My first half-marathon was about to begin. And I was about to learn a valuable lesson.

I’d signed up on a whim in September and started in on a training schedule, discovering to my surprise that running—which had once been tremendously difficult for me—was easier once my body had become accustomed to parceling out its energy slowly instead of all at once. In fact, I was shocked to discover, I liked running.

I looked forward to my long weekend runs, to shady, solitary tree-lined paths or paths that ran along the river. I loved having the time to think all by my lonesome—a stretch of time where nobody could call or text or email me, where I didn’t have to do anything “productive.” just me and the road. It was sweaty, and I got blisters, and once in a while my knees gave me trouble, but it was great.

All of this took me up to that chilly pre-dawn Los Angeles parking lot, where I gathered with 900 other runners to pound out 13.1 miles of pavement.

I’ve totally got this, I thought, looking around smugly. Lots of people were standing and chatting, not even keeping their muscles warm. I hopped up and down and thought, This is going to be fun.

Then, a local high schooler sang the Star-Spangled Banner. The runners cheered. The gun fired. And off we went.

And I had the worst race of my life.

Every step was agony. My hips, knees, and ankles felt like they were crunching and slamming together with every step. Though I was running on the beach along the Pacific Ocean at sunrise, I might as well have been on a treadmill in a dank basement. All I could focus on was the running, and the important thing about long-distance running is that you can’t think about the running. You’ve got to let your mind wander.

My mind was settled squarely on the race course—and, specifically, the people on that course, whom I could see running merrily off in the distance.

It’s not that I was jealous. I wasn’t comparing myself to them, but I was comparing my position to theirs. I knew I’d get there eventually, up to that bend in the road, out to that place where the wooden slats of the boardwalk turned to hard black asphalt.

But I’d watch people rounding a corner far ahead and catch myself thinking, How long will it take me to get there? Five minutes? Fifteen? And then I’d feel despair—irrationally, of course, since five or fifteen minutes are both incredibly short periods of time. I’d hear my inner two-year-old whimpering, But it’s so faaaar.

Fixating on the distance I had to go before I reached a point far ahead—a point others had reached—was the worst thing I could do. It took the joy out of the work of running and turned it into the very epitome of drudgery: one foot after another, whining all the way.

Of course, this holds true not just for running. I’m surrounded in my work by tremendously talented people who have worked hard to get to their positions as scholars, or professors, or authors, or thinkers, or writers, or artists. I respect and admire their talent, and in many cases I work hard to promote their work to my own students, friends, and colleagues.

But sometimes I’m tempted to look at where they are—author of three finely-crafted books, holder of multiple graduate degrees, respected mentor, thoughtful speaker—and despair a bit. There’s so much road between us. So much work and thought and prayer that just tires me out when I think about it. So many lessons they’ve learned along the way. It’s so faaaar.

What I’m learning, though, from those who share their wisdom with me, is that there’s no leapfrogging when it comes to doing good work—or no leapfrogging that won’t leave me sore and tired and spent and unsatisfied. The only way to get from here to there is to dig in, stop comparing myself, and just do it. I have to fall down and fail and figure it out along the way. There are no shortcuts to maturity.

There aren’t any shortcuts to running a half-marathon, either, which is a lesson I’m learning all over again—since the day after my first race, I signed up for another. See you out on the pavement.

Image by Tim Miller. Used with permission.

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