The question runners are asked over and over again is why. Why do we do it? Why do we do something that the majority of human beings consider to be anything from unpleasant to painful to downright torturous? Well, actually, let me clarify that: the question runners ask themselves over and over again is why. Non-runners tend not to ask this question, even if they do wonder about the answer, because they know that if they ask it, they are certain to get an answer—and the answer will go on and on, and will involve a lot of boring running terms, and will be embarrassing in its gushy sincerity and overwrought emotion. The runner will talk about the way running makes them feel, the way it empowers them, the blah blah blah oh never mind sorry I asked hey look is that a bucket of fried chicken over there I think I’ll go eat all of it and not refer to it as “post-long-run protein.”
I can’t help it, though. I’m still asking myself that question, and perhaps never more so than right now, given that I’ve begun to train for a potential Boston Qualifying marathon. Have I mentioned lately how much I dislike running fast? So far, two weeks into my training, I haven’t DLL’d yet (see previous post), but I got darned close one recent warm afternoon. My BLAT—bacon lettuce avocado and tomato—almost ended up going “splat” on the path before me. I felt nauseous, I was sweating rivers, I gasped like a landed fish and I had only gone 6 miles. A marathon is a wee bit farther than that. In other words, there are downright torturous times ahead.
It’s endlessly tempting to use running as a metaphor for other aspects of life. Why we keep running even when it’s painful becomes a stand-in for difficult questions about how we keep going even when life sucks. That metaphor doesn’t always work, though, because sometimes life isn’t even remotely like running. Take my job, for example. I teach ESL as a private tutor, and lately business has been booming. I have students from all over the globe, all different ages and backgrounds, everyone from a lightbulb engineer from Taiwan to a chemical fertilizer expert from Brazil. Last week my boss told me I had another gig: two sisters from Italy who wanted to improve their grammar and conversational skills. The sisters are 15 and 17 years old, and their uncle is the head of a department at the nearby university. As such, he is in a position to bring the private school where I work a lot of new business—if likes what the school does. My boss tells me all of this with many a significant look and emphatic word to indicate in no uncertain terms that the pressure is most definitely on.
I used to be a teenage girl once, you know. I forget that sometimes—on purpose, mostly, as those were years I have no desire to recall. You’d think, having been one, I wouldn’t be intimidated by one, or even two, but as soon as I got this assignment I could feel my distance runner’s normally low blood pressure go soaring. Ask the BF; he’ll tell you how I paced the floors, popped the Tums, pulled hair, bit nails, sweated and fretted and otherwise freaked the hell out about how the hell I was going to do this. To appease them, I’d need to be entertaining, but to appease their mother and uncle, they’d have to actually learn something. You’d be surprised how few things accomplish both. Playing Apples-to-Apples: fun, but would they really learn vocabulary words that way? Learning how to use the subjunctive: useful, but if I were an Italian teenager, would I really want to do this on my summer vacation? (See what I did there? Would they?)
On it went, until at one point I flung away all of my potential lesson plan materials and collapsed onto the sofa with a melodramatic sigh. “Got it all figured out?” the BF asked carefully.
“No, and I don’t care. I don’t care anymore.”
“Yes you do. Of course you care. That’s why you’re a good teacher.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t want to be a good teacher any more. It’s too damned exhausting.”
The BF wisely did not respond to this, and in the silence I had a minor “ah-ha” moment. Of course I want to be a good teacher. I want to be a good teacher because it’s my job. I am a good teacher, I like to believe, but being good at something tends not to be a self-perpetuating state but rather something requiring constant work to maintain. It is exhausting, but often you simply don’t have the option to stop. I stop, I have no job. I stop, and a major part of my life is rendered null and void. So I keep going.
Does this sound like running to you? You fell right into my metaphor-baited trap. Sure, working to do something well is exhausting, whether it’s running a marathon or teaching conjunctive adverbs, but the similarities end there. Running is something of an antidote to the exhausting circumstances of life. My attempt to BQ this fall matters to exactly no one on the planet—not even me, when you get right down to it. If I fail to BQ, I will be massively disappointed, no doubt about it. But I can live with it. If I succeed in achieving the BQ, this will not precipitate world peace in our time. But I’ll be pretty pleased. How many things in life allow a person that kind of experience? I have to be a good teacher. I don’t have to be a particularly good runner—in fact, I may not be one, now or ever—yet I’ll still keep doing it and enjoying it, at least so long as I don’t lose my lunch in the process.