Yesterday I ran 8 miles. That’s almost two miles farther than the longest distance I’ve ever completed, whether able-bodied or in my current prosthetic-wearing state. Since my long weekend runs are not blinding displays of speed, they give me plenty of time to think. And Sunday’s run crystallized something I’ve been mulling over since I reclaimed an active lifestyle this past spring.
Why is it that at age 42, with a demonstrated track record of actively disliking running [insert link], I’m now logging more miles per week than at any point in my life? I’ve tried to take up running repeatedly since becoming an amputee but have never gotten to where I am today. What has changed?
My hypothesis: intent is everything. “Huh?”, you eloquently respond. Let me explain.
initial intent: prove i’m different than those other amputees
For the first 18 months after my amputation, running was how I defined myself. I wasn’t “Dave McGill, amputee.” I was “Dave McGill, amputee runner“.
I came to this decision early in my post-amputation life and it didn’t take much prodding for me to get there. Early on, my prosthetist and PT told me that above-knee amputees don’t run long distances. In 1996-97, precious few above-knee amputees were running leg-over-leg, much less logging significant miles that way.
A hyper-competitive person my entire life – my uncle used to remind me about my penchant for trying to cheat while playing the card game “War” as a five-year-old – hearing prosthetic experts tell me that something wasn’t being done seemed like a good idea to do it. So my focus turned to proving that I was unusual not because I was missing a body part, but because despite the fact that I was missing a body part, I was participating in activities that no one else missing body parts chose to try.
This motivation took me through the initial rehabilitation, and four months after losing my leg, I completed a 10k race, “hop-skipping” my way through the course. Liking the ego rush and attention this garnered me, I continued running on a semi-regular basis over the next year, eventually completing the same 10k race 12 months later running leg-over-leg on my everyday prosthesis, which I and those around me regarded as a pretty remarkable accomplishment.
Shortly after that, I was given a running foot. But by the time I received it, I had already stopped running. I had proven that at least this above-knee amputee could run long distances. Having done that, I didn’t have anything left to run for. My original intent couldn’t carry me any further.
stage 2 intent: regain past glory (aka, I’m an athlete! Really!)
I’ve previously commented on the fact that before my accident, I defined myself as an athlete. I was a three-sport-a-year guy through high school, I made my college baseball team as a sophomore (barely), and at the time of my accident, I played soccer in a competitive weekend league. After finishing my first two road races on a prosthesis, it’s probably not entirely surprising, then, that I unconsciously and seamlessly retrofitted these new accomplishments into the historical narrative: I was still – and had always been – an athlete.
So, even as I slid further and further away from an active lifestyle, I maintained this facade. I made sure that people around me knew about those past accomplishments. More important, when I co-owned my own prosthetic facility, being able to tell people what I had done (or having others tell it for me) proved a convincing marketing tool to demonstrate what could happen when you combined good prosthetic care with motivation. I lived in a cocoon where the myth of “Dave McGill, Athlete” flourished as a business necessity.
Between 2001 and 2011, I engaged in multiple attempts to run again, all of which failed, and none of which lasted longer than a few months. These efforts always consisted of two phases. First, they involved buying a new, trendy digital watch that had an instruction manual more complex than what it would take to learn to fly a plane. This computer on my wrist became my slave master, as I subordinated the activity to the data it produced. Second, I had to commit to a big race as a mechanism to force me to work towards a goal.
Neither worked. Ever.
The need to track my performance in detail destroyed me mentally. When, in your own mind, you’re a great athlete, it’s hard to reconcile the fact that you once ran (without training) 6 miles in 48 minutes, but now, with training, your average pace over three miles (staring you coldly in the face thanks to the near-atomic-accuracy of your new, bright yellow Nike watch) is 4-5 minutes slower than that. I couldn’t emotionally differentiate between my new, one-legged athletic self and the older biped version. I was still the same person (wasn’t I?), so why these pathetic results? The data deflated me.
In addition, committing to a “Big Race” only set me up for failure. I trained because I had to, but on the list of daily to do’s, it was #133, lagging somewhere behind “reading Boston Globe Sports Section” (#23), “cleaning garage” (#96), and “finding justification to avoid running” (#132).
Inevitably, about three weeks before the event, I would find myself horribly underprepared but with no way of extricating myself from the commitment. (These were often relay races, so on top of everything else, I had a team of other individuals with limb loss depending on me.) The final weeks of training consisted of resignedly logging sporadic runs and convincing myself mentally that if I could just get myself up to 2-3 miles during training, adrenaline would get me through the last 3 miles on race day. (It didn’t work.)
And so, like a student walking into a final having forgotten the test was on the schedule until that same morning, I would find myself on a race course somewhere, running the first mile like a champ, gasping my way through miles two and three, and walking/jogging the remainder of the race, cursing at myself for the failure I now was. Every objective measure – minutes per mile, the discipline necessary to train for the event, the race result – screamed at me that my days of athletic glory had long since faded. I wasn’t an athlete. I was a has-been.
And with that knowledge gnawing at my sense of self in the deep recesses of my mind, I slid into a life of sloth, put on 20 pounds, and bought bigger pants.
stage 3 intent: i run because i want to
In 2010 I randomly chose to read Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. He weaves together the tales of an ancient Mexican tribe of distance runners, an American who one day walked across the border to join them and learn their ways, human evolution, the rise of the running shoe (and running injuries) in the U.S., and the exploits of Dan Jurek and Pamela Reed, two of the greatest runners most Americans don’t know.
An enormously entertaining book, Born to Run had a profound impact on how I thought about running. What resonated with me more than anything else is McDougall’s “endurance running hypothesis” – that human beings evolved in a way that resulted in them becoming uniquely designed to run long distances. Cheetahs, antelope, and jackrabbits are designed to sprint; humans are designed to run for miles and miles.
I had never thought of myself as an entity whose evolutionary purpose might be to run. But reorienting my personal reality to this possibility, particularly at a time when my ever-expanding waistline was simultaneously causing me to loathe myself, led me back to the running world. I somehow convinced myself that my natural human state required me to run; sitting behind a desk 12-14 hours a day was the aberrant behavior.
In October 2010, my prosthetist made me a new running leg. I tried running before the end of the year and quickly injured my back, which shelved me for the balance of the year. Early 2011 saw me traveling more for work than ever before, and between time spent in airports, hotels, and meetings, I couldn’t launch my new running initiative until late May/early June of this year.
I started short and slow – 1.5 miles with no goal other than to finish, no more than 3 times a week. Aside from distance, I prohibited all data collection – no stopwatch, no heart monitor – nothing. I also excluded all potential distractions – no headphones or anything else that could divert my attention from what I was feeling as each foot struck the ground. (The only exception to this rule is when I’m forced to run on a treadmill (i.e., when I’m traveling for work and in unfamiliar territory). There, I permit myself music to (a) keep myself from dying of boredom, and (b) to distract myself from the stopwatch that’s staring me down, beckoning me back to my State 2 Intent.)
And a funny thing happened: even as I railed about how much I hate running, even as I said that the best part of it was finishing, the 20, 30, 40, 60, 80 minutes – I’m estimating; no stopwatch – I spent on the road became a necessary part of my life. My goal had shifted – I ran because I wanted to run.
I don’t have a Big Race planned for the future. In fact, I’ve become increasingly hostile about the possibility of running in a race because it threatens to undercut the entire philosophy that has led me back to an activity that has become an essential part of my life.
I steadfastly refuse to time my runs today, focusing instead on the value of the activity for its own sake. Deciding that a run is “good” or “bad” based on a time would now ruin the entire experience. While I have some sense that I’m running better and faster at 42 than I ever did at 32, it doesn’t really matter. Some of my “best” runs have been those that I suffered through mightily, feeling like garbage every step of the way. The 8-miler I knocked off yesterday falls into that category. The last few miles felt like someone had strapped 5-pound weights to my ankles and I lurched to the finish looking, I imagine, like a broken Rube Goldberg machine.
But I did something I had never done before. Ever.
When it comes to running, for me intent is everything. While I regret having not figured this out earlier in my life, I’m happy that I learned it before it was too late.