Harder the Second Time

‘Cause I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight.
 It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either.
-Rocky Balboa, Rocky

 It’s 4:45AM; the swish-swish of snow pants awakens the sleeping cat, curled into a warm circle of fur. Jealousy rises, but the running shoes go on.

It’s 5AM. It snowed the night before and the sidewalks are reduced to thin passes through miniature Himalayas—careful of the icy patches, only a slight glimmer in the streetlight may mean a slip and a broken ankle.

It was the same on the morning of our Christmas party, or Christmas Day, or New Year’s Eve Morning. Up, raise fist at frigid air, jog. Repeat. There’s a race in a few months and a life being built.

It’s Wednesday February Sixth. Three days before the Cupid’s Chase Winter 5k at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the surrounding Fairmount Park. The realization hits; I’ve no excitement for this race that I’ve been training for. Oh, crap.

In some things “practice makes perfect” is less true. For me—and for many, so maybe for you, too—it’s actually harder the second time, when you’re building a healthy habit. Nobody told me that.

I was looking for the right image to express it and I didn’t find it until the day of the Cupid’s Chase. I had forgotten that the Philadelphia Museum of Art was practically the Wailing Wall for cheese steak and soft pretzel lovin’ Philly guys thanks to the movie Rocky. But then, turning a corner, I came face-to-face with the statue of the fictitious champ. Then I saw the Art Museum steps. Then I remembered Rocky running up those steps, getting beat down, but finally making it. Rocky was about winning—about beating Apollo Creed—but there was more film time about the monotony of training.

 

The Face of the Nothing

 

Ha! Brave warrior, then fight the Nothing.
-G’mork, The Never Ending Story

Just like Rocky Balboa, if you wanna “eat lightning and crap thunder,” as Mickey the trainer promised, then you have to climb those Museum steps, just like Rocky did. If each step is a chore, they all can become an insurmountable mountain, like “The Nothing” in Never Ending Story—a big, amorphous, thing which sucks the life out of our childish dreams. I’ve given some of these steps a name.

Life Creeps In – It’s the truth. In my weight management class we call the distance between a healthy lifestyle and the American lifestyle “the gap.” The reality is, it’s not the gap which separates us, it’s the ocean we swim in, live in, and breathe in. Like building a sand castle, the ocean will erode our health habit. For me, and the disinterest which gripped me prior to the race, this was due to the hours of cold darkness forcing me to run later in the morning—taking me from some family time—and the pounding of work-related demands on my reserves of mental, emotional and physical energy. Then, as seen above, a snow storm added an extra layer of “life” to an already difficult time. But by then, I had rekindled my flame.

The Other Guy – I kept telling myself during the first races training “It doesn’t matter what I get, I’ve never done this before—just doing it is a victory.” But now there was a time in my head. 50:35, the time from my first race. Sure, I wouldn’t win, but could I beat that? The internal struggle of releasing my desire to beat my last time was ever-present.

Fear – No fancy name here; simple fear. When you’ve never driven to Philly and run a 5K at the Art Museum, it’s all an unknown to fear. Further, there’s the fear of injury, fear of failure, fear of just about anything. I found that there was so much more preparation than for the local Hatboro race and some of that was due to simple, empty fear.

Karabin, Party of One – There was no way I was making my wife and daughter stand outside, on the side of Martin Luther King Boulevard, for an hour in frigid February temperatures. Still, that meant I was going in alone. Not having their smiling faces at the end was a prick of a thorn on the rose, but this one was okay, because the alternative was them freezing for no reason.

It’s Not Special Anymore – I saved the biggest for last. That thought is the true cancer that metastasized throughout my jogging regimen and finally threatened to steal the joy of my race. Race One was special, I couldn’t do it wrong, and damn it, I was special, too! I was the fat guy with Cerebral Palsy who was running his first 5K! But now, it felt like, literally, “Been there, done that, got the long sleeve T shirt.” The shine was off the apple and me, in the throes of “Poor Me,” could only muster “Oh. An apple. Again.” 

 

Death to the Joy-Stealers!

 “When I first started out they shut all the doors.
But I laughed at all the doors and I kicked ‘em down.
-Billy Idol, Generation X “English Dream”

That was the ugly state of my mind a mere four days before the race. I knew it wasn’t a fair attitude to have, but there it was. Will, like any muscle, can weary. I had lost heart.

This is where the universal applicability of this message comes in; It’s not about racing. It’s about any new positive habit. Remember, I’m not the 5K guy—I’m the 400lb guy who is only recently become healthy after 35 years of poor-me, crappy health!

I don’t care if it’s switching gum-chewing for smoking, walking your dog every day, drinking seltzer instead of soda or napping daily; maintaining any positive health habit in our mostly indulgent and indolent culture is akin to flapping your wings and flying out of a swamp. Daily. Fighting against gravity and suck-muck every day.

You will be plagued by every one of the above things, and more, in your constant wing-flapping fight. Life will creep in, you will compare yourself to yourself or others, you will be afraid, you will feel alone and your healthy habit will damn well go from special thing and special you to arduous chore! Even if you love it.

But here’s the trick: It can also return to specialness just as quickly, because that negative morass is emotionally based and emotions can be changed by changing thinking and perspectives.

Look over that pile of gear above. Each item, from the list scrawled on the back of a printout, to the gluco-tabs, to the trek pole helped get me from arduous chore back to exciting adventure.

Re-inspiration is key, because it is the only thing that has truly decreased. The first thing I did was go to www.active.com and read articles about running, training and 5K races. Y’know what I found? First, I found that one can become re-inspired simply by turning pages on the toilet. Second I found that it was my own fault that I never heard anyone say that I could lose the fun of running. It’s all over this and every active living site, as are countless ways to re-stoke your fire. The internet is an open sewer of vapid navel-gazing, but it also has innumerable sources of positive information and feedback for any healthy or unhealthy habit.

Planning to fight fear is the only way to beat fear. My plan—scrawled above—came right from the articles that I read, in fact, I wrote it right on the back. I had overlooked simple things like “What is your race-day plan to get there?” and “Where do you park?” Simple things like that were lodged in the back of my mind, stealing my joy and bringing them into the light shriveled them up. By the time my plan was set even a last minute freezing blizzard became only a line-item on the page, not something that could have ruined the whole thing.

Remember your journey and you won’t lose your way. I had forgotten how much I had believed I would live and die on my couch with my hand in a box of Cheese-Its. I had over-looked how much adaptation, commitment and thought went into each of those items above. I had forgotten how my hip tendons ached so bad that I used to run with a cane on my back (now a cool trek pole) rather than give up—and how my first trip to www.active.com showed me simple stretches that eased my legs, and my unfounded fear of arthritis. I had forgotten the joy of becoming, which is the true power of a health change.

Kick Negatives just like Billy Idol kicking through a door. Sneer at them, for they are beneath you. I’ve listened to Generation X: Valley of the Dolls since I was 13 years old. I loaded that album onto my short running mix because of how it’s been the sound track to so many phases of my life. The middle-breakdown of “English Dream,” from which the lyrics above are pulled, hit my ears just I saw the finish line last Saturday. I laughed to myself because I had to kick through a bunch of doors to get this far. I was proud, I was joyful and content.

And then I saw the big red race timer…

 

Two Minutes

…if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’,
I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see,
that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.
-Rocky Balboa, Rocky

…and I said to myself “Oh, yeah?!”

There may have been a mix of the Rebel Rocker and the Italian Stallion in the tone of that defiant, confident question. Body shaking, I hit the gas. I knew I could do it.

You see, despite all my fear and prior lack of inspiration, despite all my internal talk about not trying to beat my previous time, I still wanted to. In that moment I realized that wanting to see improvement is just as healthy as the habit itself.

I wanted to see my preparation, months of frozen running, and all my gear matter, but I had been bracing for it not to matter. The truth was that the biggest inspiration suck was also the greatest joy; I wanted this whole thing to count for something, but I was afraid that it wouldn’t. Health wise I would be “just another bum from the neighborhood.” Instead, in the end, I took my picture with the champ.

With “English Dream” beating on my eardrums, I beat the frozen Philadelphia asphalt and came in 2:20 faster than my last race.

And a whole lot wiser in my life-journey.

 

 

 

 

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