“Marco polo describes a bridge, stone-by-stone. ‘But which is the stone that supports the bridge,’ Kublai Khan asks. ‘The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,’ Marco answers, ‘but by the line of the arch that they form.’ Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: ‘Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.’ Polo answers: ‘Without stones there is no arch.’
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Before I spent so many hours pondering the integrity of a guy who claimed to have run a 3:11 marathon, I was in the middle of pondering integrity in its second sense, the quality of being whole.
Although I can’t recall when I first heard it, I’ve always liked the phrase “the integrity of the stride.” I suspect I saw it in some obscure book about training, where the author talked about the importance of core strength in maintaining efficient running form at the end of a race. The word “integrity” evokes images of steadfastness in the face of opposing or degrading forces. In moral terms, it is the ability to resist corruption or compromise of principle. In material terms, it describes something that maintains its structure when under stress or wear. In functional terms, integrity suggests a mechanism or process that continues to run truly as complete exhaustion looms. When used to describe the final stages of a long run or race, “integrity of the stride” evokes the desperate struggle to maintain good running form when the demands of the race have brought us to the brink of mental and physical breakdown.
But lately I’ve been thinking about it in less heroic terms. The root of the word “integrity” is wholeness or unity. When we were young, the act of running had a natural integrity. We didn’t study it, we just did it. And because for the most part when we did it, our bodies moved smoothly through space, there was no reason to dissect the sequence of movements that made running possible. To borrow a metaphor from Physical Therapist Jay Dicharry, when we trained, we took the chassis for granted, and focused all of our efforts on souping up the engine.
As we grow older, we do dumb things and acquire injuries. And even if we don’t do too many dumb things, the natural aging process slowly erodes metabolic function, muscular strength, mobility, and flexibility. Surely and inevitably, weaknesses begin to manifest themselves and we begin to break down. That is, our stride loses its integrity.
Instead of an unconscious flow, we become all-too-aware of the complex machinery that makes it all possible, and that needs more-or-less constant maintenance. This maintenance might take the form of more responsible post-run stretching to maintain tissue length and flexibility, or core workouts to enable maintenance of good posture on ground impact, or strength training to make sure there are no weak links in the kinetic chain. Underpinning all these efforts at maintenance is a growing awareness of anatomy and the innumerable moving parts that are crucial for the functioning of the whole.
Small failures lead to large consequences. A tweaked muscle here or there throws the whole body off-kilter, and before you know it parts of the body are doing work for which they weren’t designed and for which they are not prepared. No matter how hard you try, you can’t generate force properly. Degradation of performance is measured not in seconds, but in minutes. New aches and pains emerge daily.
You can focus on describing the problems in your running stride piece-by-piece, as Marco Polo describes the stones in a bridge. But, like Kublai Khan, you’re really interested in the stride as whole. Yet, without the pieces there is no stride. You hope that by fixing the pieces, the stride will reappear intact.
For some strange reason, I don’t feel depressed by this. There is something awesome (in the sense of inspiring awe) about this growing awareness of what it takes to run. I’m glad that when I was young, I didn’t have to think about it; but I’m not resentful about having to think about it now. I guess that’s called perspective. I certainly have a different perspective and deeper appreciation for the miracle of the running stride.
I don’t welcome injuries, that’s for sure, but injuries have not made me stop trying to figure out how to keep running, how to maintain the integrity of the stride for a little longer.