I am, as those who know me well can attest, a person with quite a weakness for dumb things. Whether it is a puzzle, or a bit of math, or a trivia question or a leaky faucet or a computer issue, show me something dumb and I will get stuck on it. I don’t know why this is. If I just get it in my mind that I *should* be able to do something, it’s hard for me to not see it through. Even (especially?) if it’s not important at all, I lack the good sense to just let it be.
spent about 36 hours trying to figure out how to convert audible files into mp3 without paying anyone because of spite
— Michael D. Dwyer (@popthought) November 24, 2015
related: i am a nonfunctional person
— Michael D. Dwyer (@popthought) November 24, 2015
I did, by the way, eventually figure out how to split Audible files into MP3, even though any reasonable person would have just downloaded the Audible app. I just couldn’t accept that DRM should dictate what program I use to play for files that I purchase. This is the same stubborn tendency that had me spend three weeks learning how to build a HTPC rather than just buying an Apple TV or a Roku or whatever. I just can’t let these things go.
Anyway, here was another dumb thing:
I didn’t have any real reason to do it–not to lose weight (don’t care to), not to prepare for a race (don’t want to), not even because I enjoy running (don’t). It just seemed like something that I could do if I tried.
So, with a public declaration and my friend John as a co-conspirator, I started. The idea was to run 75 miles a month through April, then adjust from there as needed. The mileage wasn’t something I was totally unprepared to handle (I’d done quite a few months of 70-80 miles in the previous two years), but the schedule was going to be something of a challenge: I play soccer at least twice a week, sometimes three times, and I didn’t want to push it too hard and get an injury (I strained an adductor in 2013, blew up my ankle in 2011). That meant doing about 20 miles a week in 3 or 4 runs. Manageable.
Oh, also: the gym in my building was going to be closed for the entire year, so unless I went to the gym on campus (ehhh…) or paid for a gym membership (nope nope nope), I was signing up for 1000 outdoor miles. I lived in Syracuse for the bulk of my twenties, so I was okay with the weather, but it did mean that my pace would be slower–hills, uneven surfaces, downed trees, and people who live in million dollar homes but cannot manage to get their sidewalks cleared.
Still, it wasn’t all bad, even when the weather was at it’s worst. On the days when I felt like I was being pulled at from every direction, it felt good to know that there was an hour or two when there was nothing in the world I had to worry about except my cadence and my breath. Just me, by myself, running. I could use this time to think through a problem with a class or with my writing, or sing to myself (lots of Hamilton), or let my mind go wherever it wanted to go. You know how people always say they get great ideas in the shower? What if the reason that happens is because the shower is one of the few places left in our everyday lives that we don’t have a million different things demanding our attention? I stopped wearing earbuds and ran.
scenes from a trail run pic.twitter.com/Rzyj98gLLj
— Michael D. Dwyer (@popthought) March 5, 2015
I fell a bit behind schedule in March–I spent a week in Paris, followed by a week in Montreal, with only a handful of miles between them. Montreal is also where I logged my only treadmill miles of the year–Canadian police had responded to anti-austerity protests with beaucoup de gaz lacrymogène outside my hotel, making a quick outdoor run a bit more complicated. But that aside, things went pretty much according to plan after March.
Once spring arrived in Philadelphia, there really weren’t any excuses any more. My apartment is within easy running distance of several Wissahickon Valley trailheads, which provide a variety of routes covering all kinds of distances and terrain, all quite lovely.
Miles and miles, before class and after dark. On my birthday. After I dropped my partner off at the airport (she spent six weeks teaching in China this summer), I did ten of the saddest miles. When I was bored and lonely, I ran. When I made it to Zhenjiang to visit Rachel, I ran while a doofy Chinese undergrad followed me on his bike, practicing his English by asking me weird questions. After I got back, I ran through the woods in the middle of the night to try to fight off my jetlag. To soccer games. To campus. 120 in July, a personal record. On vacation in Portland. Run run run run run.
I mentioned before that I didn’t do this to lose weight, and that’s true. In fact, I weigh about the same amount as I did in December of 2014. But that doesn’t mean that running that much didn’t come with any physical changes. I noticed it when playing soccer, when others got fatigued I could keep going. It started to get difficult to get pant legs over my calves. I chewed up hills that I had struggled to even make it up in the past, including the monstrous Rex Avenue hill, which hits you with a 12% grade for the first quarter mile, then eases down to about 5% for the next three quarters, ending at the highest point in Philadelphia.
Running was on my mind when planning my classes for the fall. I re-oriented my courses around the idea of endurance, reducing the statistical significance of big assignments and increasing the impact of a series of small, self-directed, easy-to-blow-off-but-vital-not-to assignments. As a teacher and as a person with significant student loan debt, I’m always troubled by the extent to which my students respond to exams, both positively and negatively, as opposed to other kinds of instruction, or other opportunities to get better. But one-off tests or challenges are not how you actually get better at anything. You need to learn how to grind. As one of America’s greatest living writers wrote this year about learning to speak French,
…the real enemy was not any injury so much as the “feeling” of despair. That is why I ignore all the research about children and their language advantage. I don’t want to hear it. I just don’t care. As Carolyn Forché would say—”I’m going to have it.”
To “have it,” I must manage my emotional health. Part of that long-term management—beyond French—is giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things. There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving at it. Everyone should do it every ten years or so.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things”
I didn’t need to run 1000 miles to know this. But putting all that work in was a persistent reminder of how it’s done. Or, as my friend Jon put it:
And, to be frank, by the end of the year I needed a reminder nearly every day. At the point at which running long distances was physically easier than it had ever been, I was mentally worn out from the grind. When school started back up again, I stopped adding distance and quit trying to go faster. I figured out ways to trick myself into going out on the days when my motivation was lowest–“If you can make it out today, you’ll know you can make it out the next time,” or “the only thing worse than running 1000 miles in a year is running 992.” This whole enterprise had been, it dawned on me, a way of testing my ability to keep doing something difficult, even unpleasant, to prove to myself that I could actually do it if I really wanted to.
Basically, I turned my own dysfunction into an engine for doing something productive.
And I suppose I needed that in 2015, because in many ways 2015 was a year of endings. My book came out, and even though it’s not as good as I wanted it to be…I’m still very proud of it (speaking of–if you’ve actually read it, can you tell me? So far my mom and Rachel’s mom are the only confirmed cover-to-cover readers). I got to watch a group of students that I was very proud of graduate, which was gratifying on many different levels. And, just before Christmas, I found out I got tenure. By the end of the year, in other words, I completed all the long-range goals that I had been pursuing for the last, oh, fifteen years of my life. And, to tell the truth, I don’t really know what to do next. That terrifies me.
I guess the great benefit of running 1000 miles, then, was not so much in figuring out what to do, but in showing me the way I could do whatever it is that I decide to chase after next. One foot after another. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Go.