Were we tougher back then? Maybe.
It’s the first Tuesday in November and the last workout before the league championships. Today’s workout is a “T” run — team, tempo, and togetherness — and most of the team has, indeed, made its way to the big open field where we will run 2 x 2k at tempo pace, keeping each tempo group tightly together. It’s a gorgeous day, and not for the first time in the last few weeks, I shake my head in wonder at the Thoreauvian beauty all around us. The woods all around have hung on to most of their leaves, although the colors have faded from peak yellows and reds to more subdued hues. There are still insects flying here and there, enjoying what surely must be their last few days of existence before it finally gets cold and puts an end to all their late fall frivolity.
Today’s workout is supposed to be “comfortably hard,” but many on the team have no idea what that means. So I explain. “This is not a race; this is not an all out run; this is not a ‘dig deep to find every last ounce of strength’ day. If it were a race, you would run 20-30 seconds per mile faster and hold that pace for longer. Instead, you’ll be running less distance, at a less demanding pace, and with a nice break in between the first half and the second half. Yet, it requires focus. It is comfortable, but it is harder than just going for a run. It is, therefore, comfortably hard.”
“But,” my questioner persists, “comfortable and hard seem like opposites. I don’t get how it can be comfortable AND hard.”
I love working with high school runners, but sometimes it seems there is a great gulf between them and me. This perfect afternoon, this perfect venue, and my perfectly-crafted workout and explanation notwithstanding, these young runners always perceive difficulties where I perceive none.
There are many differences between these teenagers discovering running, perhaps for the first time in their young lives, and between their ancient, inflexible, gray-haired, skeletal coach who devises these tests, placing cones at strategic places around the field and telling them what splits to run. One difference is undoubtedly in our respective attitudes toward pain and discomfort. As a general rule, the kids complain about everything. As a general rule, I wonder what do they have to complain about? And yet, on this, God’s own ideal afternoon for a tempo workout, almost a dozen kids will fail to finish the workout, complaining of sore something-or-others, upset stomachs, or nameless emotional distresses. I do my best to be wise about whom to encourage and whom to excuse, but inside my head a voice is screaming “what could possibly keep you from running on a day such as this?”
The thought occurs to me that some of my runners are soft. Is that a terrible thing to say? I don’t think they are lacking in courage or fortitude, or are bad kids — far from it! — only that they are easily derailed by things that to me border on inconsequential. Of course there are some runners on my team who will run through the hardest weather and endure real discomfort with stoic resolve. But for those who have not embraced that ethic, their running is constantly being interrupted by life’s little bumps, and it drives me a little crazy.
It doesn’t help that, for me and other old farts, running has become the one thing that we rely on. We run to remind ourselves that we are alive, and so we run through all of those bumps, even when we should probably stop. We run with injuries that we should rest, with strides that have become unbalanced over the years, with brittle ligaments and frayed tendons, with less and less vitality. We run when we should be staying at home, plodding through winter in mindless service to an ancient routine. We make the same mistakes we’ve always made, ignoring our aches and pains until they become full-blown injuries. And then we run through the injuries.
And yet, over the course of a fall season, my young athletes — they of perfect bodies and seemingly limitless potential — are the ones worried about their infirmities, while I, a rusty antique with a limited number of miles left on my bent and rattling chassis, simply run on. This is not right. Youth must be served. But youth is sitting on the quad with a couple of ice packs explaining to me why they aren’t sure whether they can run tomorrow. And I know that youth will be fine tomorrow, perfectly fine. Unless, of course, youth decides to play touch football, or basketball, or soccer on that same quad (after shedding the ice bags) and tweaks something else, leading to a new set of complaints.
Maybe we of the older generation deserve the blame for making it all sound so pleasant and easy and fulfilling, because when it’s not, our young people assume that something must be wrong, and they’d better stop and make it better before continuing. Or maybe it’s no one’s fault, it’s just that times have changed, and the risk-reward ratio doesn’t support the kind of crazed running that we of a different generation remember pursuing in our lost youth.
Were we tougher back then? I don’t know.
Perhaps we just remember being tougher because we no longer remember any of the things that bothered us back then, and so we are mystified by what bothers younger runners today. Our concerns and our priorities have changed too much, and so we have no sympathy.
All I really know is that on this day of mild weather and fall beauty, I, at least, can feel unseen winter approaching. With the perspective of years, I know that this happy state of affairs is temporary and that the days are short. With the perspective of years, were I in their place, it wouldn’t even be a decision: nothing on earth would stop me from running today.