Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Toughest Mile

In high school I ran cross-country, on a team coached by a guy who had no qualms about whipping us into what he deemed proper shape no matter how many of us puked in practice. Wednesdays were particularly tough – this was when we would run through the woods to a neighboring park and an elongated oval of a parking lot. We’d stretch and talk nervously before coach called us to the line, where he’d then explain what we were doing that day, none of it pleasant. Ever.

Sometimes we’d run – and I mean run – four one-mile intervals. Sometimes we did sixteen quarter mile sprints. Once in a while he’d yell GO! And then get in his car and drive a kilometer away, to a point up a long hill, and wait for us there with a stopwatch. While we were all still bent over and spitting up he’d get back in his car, tell us to get back to the line and drive away down the hill.

Coach was tough. And our team (with no significant help from me) kicked ass every year.

The easy lesson here is that hard work pays off. As does puking, in context. But what I remember most about all those Wednesdays of intervals (besides the pain and the puking) was the oft-spoken (oft-screamed might be more accurate) sentiment that the toughest mile, the hardest lap, the most excruciating, most leg-burningest hill climb is the second to last one. It’s not the last one because you know on the last one that this is it, I do this and it’s all over (except for the puking). For every other lap or mile or hill you know you have more to go – and the more you’ve done already the more your system is screaming bloody murder. No one ever verbally agreed with coach on the whole idea that the second to last is the worst, but from the looks on everyone’s faces I think the sentiment was positively unanimous.

The feeling resurfaced early in December.

I can’t draw any neat parallel between the second-to-last lap/mile/hill during cross-country practice and a point in the final month of 2013. I can only say that in early December my arms felt like spaghetti while my body felt like a slab of marble.

For the first several days ideas of quitting lay like a rock at the bottom of the murky ocean in my head. I searched for shortcuts, and prepared excuses. I’m already way past last year’s total... I can apply the extra push-ups from other months to December... Ah well, Christmas is coming, lots to do… Then suddenly, in the next week I felt like Rocky Balboa – more or less, though my knuckles remained on the floor – and by the 14th I found myself just shy of 5,000 for the month. The following week I felt sluggish again, muddling through 1,800 over seven days and doing the math in my head again and again: How many left to do? How many does that mean for each day left in the month?

And was with ten days left that I felt myself cruising down the homestretch. 350 per day would do it – which, for all intents and purposes, was my pace all year. One thousand every three days equals ten thousand over thirty days. Two days of five hundred each got me a day off if I wanted – and could trust myself to get right back on my horse in the morning. And after all this time, what was ten days of moderate push-upping? A walk in the park. A piece of cake. Yes, I had earned the right to say such things.

I didn’t do 350 a day those last ten days. On a few days I did an extra set or two; on a few other days I slacked off – and wittingly so. I was going to make it. On the 27th, the Friday I had to pack up the wife and kids and make the drive over to New Jersey for the extended family Christmas gathering complete with several large pizzas, Yuengling Black & Tan and a bonus drive to the airport, I only got in one hundred. No problem. And on December 31st, the last day of my drive to do ten thousand pushups every month for the year (coincidentally, December 31, 1946 was the official end of World War II) I breezed through three hundred pushups – fifty more than I needed, just because I felt like it.

Because that last mile, that last lap, that last hill or that last set of pushups – it’s really no big deal.

It’s everything before it that makes you puke.

Which, in context, is all right.

It’s 11:30 in the evening, January 1, 2014. I’ve done no pushups today. Because this year I think I will pursue other things. Things that involve other people.

Whatever your goals this year, may you make it through your toughest mile.