Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Importance of Practice

For the first time in four months, I can walk for over an hour without pain.
I'm no stranger to injury. In fact, I've been injured for an equal number of years that I have been an athlete. During my first long bout sans running, I remember being very depressed and wondering how on earth I was going to find meaning in my life without the sport that made each day endurable. (That was the year of the stress fractures.)

Now, however, I've come to understand my sports not as a win/lose, do-or-die activity, but rather as a "practice"-- akin, perhaps, to yoga or meditation. No matter what I do--whether it's swimming, cycling or running-- it is my two hours to give my body a chance to perform or recover, depending on its needs. 

I admit: I miss running. 

In my day, I was pretty good at it. Not the best; but over the course of three years, I watched my marathon and half-marathon and 10k times drop by minutes. At my best, I ran a 2:47marathon, narrowly missing my chance to go to the Olympic Trials. Granted, a minute is an eternity. But for someone like me, well, it was pretty close to the 2:46 required to make it to the Trials (which has since been altered, I know, to a 2:43.)

After my latest bout of catastrophic injury--a ruptured Achilles followed by a sprained Lisfranc joint in my right foot-- I've joined a Master's swim team and a cycling team to keep myself sane. Of course, I'm not very good at either of these other sports, not really. But what I have discovered is far more valuable than any fast PR running time or any first-place finish: the importance of a practice. 

Taken from Mt. Judas, overlooking Donner Lake where I have competed in an Olympic-Distance Tri and mile-long open water swim.
In February of this year, my foot hurt so much I could hardly walk. So, I decided to swim every day for 28 days (the entire month, in other words.)  I am not a fast swimmer. I have improved since I started, true, but I'm still about three to four lanes from the fast folks. At first, this was a depressing realization: I was never going to be competitive. But then, one morning around 5:30 am under the dark sky and stars and steam coming from the pool, I had a crazy thought: what if I just swam for me? 

Forget times. Forget placement in the lane. Forget everything but the hour and a half in the water when I get to swim freestyle and feel the strength in my arms. Or when I can practice my other strokes and learn better technique and watch my body learn the way to move in a new medium. Maybe I'm nuts, but after I shifted my mindset, swimming suddenly became fun. I suck at backstroke-- oh well! Each day I go to swim practice, I do exactly that: practice. Each day, my times come down, and my arms are less tired. Am I fast? I have no idea. What has changed, though, is my attitude. I do best each and every day: sometimes that means a PR, but most days it doesn't. What is consistent, however, is the feeling of accomplishment I have when I scale the pool wall after another practice. I am better than I was an hour before. How can that not make you smile? 

Cycling, too, has taught me the lesson of practice. I have so much to learn and so much fitness to gain. However, each time I ride, I tell myself I need only do my best. Maybe my best is slower than all the other riders. Maybe it is faster. Maybe it is same speed they are. No matter. My cycling, like my swimming, is my own. 

I thought of all this today when I stepped on the treadmill for my first "run." It wasn't really a run per se-- a 30 minute walk with three one-minute jogs spaced equally throughout to help my joints and bones re-adjust to the demands of running. Walking on a treadmill in a gym immediately made me feel awful about myself and I couldn't help those thoughts of "what are all those people thinking about me? They probably think I'm fat, or ugly or obese of pathetic." I longed for those days when running was as natural as breathing. 

But then those feelings faded. Perhaps it's age or wisdom or some combination of both: but I realized that running, too, is a practice. I may be slow. I may not win a race again, ever. But after today, I know I'll run again. Just as I'll swim and cycle again, too. 

After all, those are the joys that make up my day-to-day life; that give me peace and happiness. No matter the speed, I live to push myself as hard as I am able.  


  1. Thank you for your thoughts on practice and doing things for yourself, rather than to be the "best" or whatever standards we set for ourselves. It makes me think of something I've learned from Tai Chi. Many who practice Tai Chi do not say that they practice Tai Chi. Instead they say that they play with Tai Chi. There's something about the word "play" that reminds me that I am doing something I enjoy and doing it for myself.

    1. That's so interesting, Lacey! I wonder if there isn't something lacking in my (and maybe others'?) view of sport: that of "play" or "practice" in lieu of perfection. Granted, there's nothing greater than seeing the Olympic Games-- but that's perfection. What about the journey it takes to get there? The play and practice? I, personally, think that it would do me so much good to linger there with all the sports I do... I've never run a race "for fun"-- what if I did? Or, what if not every ride has to be your best effort? If nothing else, it might make a person saner. Thank you so much for reading!