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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Squalorer

All my life, I have heard this one phrase..."Just do it." Even before Nike was even thinking of using it to sell overpriced sneakers, those are the words that became the haunt of my waking hours..."Just do it." I heard it from my mother, the neat freak, the 'nervous nellie', the one who still cannot go to the stores in the town closest to her because 30+ years ago she knew people in that town when she divorced my dad, the woman with the phobia of crowds and people...but, by God, her house is neat as a pin, because ultimately it isn't how you feel, as long as you present a proper front for people and everyone thinks you are okay. I heard it from my father, who is convinced that he can get anything he wants done just by sheer force of will...if he wants it done, then it gets done. Period. How many times have I heard, from his mouth, "You are a [insert proud familial name here]. And we [insert proud familial name] don't let anything or anyone get us down. We don't take no *** off nobody. And we don't act that way. Just do it."

An outsider in my own life

Well, I've always felt like an outsider in my own life because I can't "just do it". Sure, I can look around and see how squalor has affected me, my life, my house, my children, and yes, I have all my limbs and they all work....but looking and seeing and knowing and being capable of doing so doesn't help me to 'just do it', and it certainly doesn't keep me from falling right back into that squalorous pit. Even having to spend more than one twenty-four hour period in my life, going without sleep, just to get my little rental house clean for my landlady, wasn't enough to keep me from repeating the same mistakes. Moving to a different, larger house (complete with mortgage) didn't change my behavior, either...it just gave me more space to be messy in. I swore up and down that this time would be different...I would not let this place get to the disastrous state the other house had been in. Yeah...well...the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and while I fervently believed what I was saying at the time in which I said it, the reality is that I don't know how to NOT be squalorous, I don't know how to properly clean, I don't have the proper daily routines set to keep me from falling right back into my filthy trap, and before I found SS I didn't even really know where to begin. So, my efforts at cleaning and maintaining were pretty much doomed from the beginning, no matter how much I wanted to be a cleanie and no matter how many times I did the Tasmanian Devil rush through my house with a broom and sponge.

I am sick of my husband hollering at me because of the mess, even though he is a good part of its cause and certainly does nothing to help me clean it up. I am sick of my children not being able to invite friends over because of the state of the house. I am sick of feeling that nauseous knot in the pit of my stomach whenever I hear a knock at the door or even think someone might be coming up the walk. I am tired of making excuses as to why someone can't come over to my house. I feel ashamed that I haven't taught my children proper cleaning habits. And I have taken that sick and tiredness and ashamedness, and used that to motivate me to clean my house. But then....it all falls apart again....because I have not yet learned two things. One is why I am how I am, and the other is how to implement practical ways of mending that. Struggling with ADD and OCD and depression certainly doesn't help...and, at the moment, medication is out of the question for me, for personal reasons.

Good kids

So, now that I have all of that out of the way, let me tell you a story....

I have two children, a fourteen-year-old son and an almost eleven-year-old daughter. Both are good kids and very attractive, if I do say so myself (and I do). They are both active in athletics...my son plays football, wrestles, and runs track, and my daughter plays basketball, volleyball, and wants to run track in the spring of 2007, when she is eligible to do so. Let's take a look at track, since that is the one thing they both have in common.

When my son first went out for track the spring of his seventh grade year, he was about 120 pounds and around 5'4" tall...basically, a bit of a beanpole, solid muscle, but not as tall as some of the other boys. His first practices, he talked about wanting to be a sprinter and/or possibly running hurdles. However, at the end of that first week, he came home and announced that the coach decided he would be better at long distances...specifically, the 800M and 1600M runs (half-mile and mile). He was somewhat disappointed, because he really wanted to be a sprinter, but he resolved to try.

Well, all he did those first practices was run...and run...and run. Four, five, six miles each practice. Running lap after lap after lap around the cinder track. Running the cross-country course. Over and over and over. Running more than he had even in football and wrestling. I wondered why he was running the long distances, and not the sprint races...only four boys were designated to be long distance runners. But my questions were answered the first couple of meets. I watched him run, and I watched the sprinters run, and I realized what the coach already had... that my son would never be a sprinter because he simply was not fast. That isn't to say he wasn't good, or was clumsy, or was too fat to run...he just was not fast. But what he did have that the sprinters didn't was endurance. When the sprinters were pulling up because they were exhausted, he was just getting started. He placed in every meet he was in but two, the first meet and one where he pulled a muscle and had a hypoglycemic attack on the first lap of the mile. But, even in the one where he was sick, he finished the race. He didn't quit and give up in the middle, even though by the end he was practically stumbling across the finish line. He even won an 800M run, and don't you think mom was excited?

At the end of the season, at the awards ceremony, he was second in points, which was almost unheard of for a long distance runner (the sprinters run more races because of the various heats, plus there are just more sprints than long distance races, so the short-distance runners simply have more opportunities to accumulate points) and definitely unusual for a seventh-grader. Why? Because he had calmed down and learned something very important but very simple about himself...he was not a sprinter, he was a long-distance runner.

My daughter, on the other hand, isn't old enough to run track yet, being only a fifth-grader, but next year as a sixth-grader she will be able to run with the junior high team. She has done some running on the track at the school, plus at home, and between she and her brother they came to a very important conclusion...she is NOT a long-distance runner, she is a sprinter. She simply does not possess the qualities that make a miler. Her brother said that once she grows a little taller (she certainly has the genes to be tall, she's already a little over 5' at age 10, and her brother is now 5'8" at age 14) and learns a little technique, she will be a very good sprinter. She tried to run a half-mile with her brother, but could not make it. She will probably be expected to run long distances in practice, but she certainly will not excel at it...it will just be for the exercise. She simply is not a long-distance runner...she is a sprinter. And she's accepted that.

Knowing who you are

Now, why are those two things so important? Because they have accepted who they are. They know their limitations, and they don't try to be what they are not. My son could sit and read all the books about sprinting that he wanted to, watch all the documentaries and television shows, scan all the medical reports about sprinters, push himself to his limits every day trying to sprint, and he could want to be a sprinter with all his might...but the fact is, all those things will not make him a sprinter, because he is not geared to be a sprinter. He is geared to be a miler. He could have, at that first practice, said, "I'm going to run the fifty meter dashes, and I'm going to do them in record time," and he could want to do those things really bad, but that didn't mean he would be able to with any degree of success. And then I could come along and say, "Why aren't you placing in the dash? You come in last every time! It's like your motor isn't even warmed up yet! Why can't you just run the dash and win like everyone else?" Which, of course, would only make him feel worse. After so many failures, he might even give up track altogether, because he failed at the dash...not realizing that his strengths lay in other areas. Likewise, my daughter could start out running the 1600M run, and practicing and practicing every day until her legs turned to gelatin, and she could want it really bad because it was what her brother had done, only to consistently tire out after 200M and need to be carried across the finish line on a stretcher. She might even quit...not realizing that she was approaching things all wrong.

But when they learned to accept who they are, and know their limitations, and learn their strengths and weaknesses and learn to strengthen both, it was then and ONLY then that they had success. They learned what they could do and could not do, and what they could work on and what they had to let go, and what was important and what was not important...and who to listen to and who to ignore. Because there are always kids on the team who will try to make it hard for anyone who is the least bit different than what is the accepted 'norm', and if they listen to people like that it is easy to become discouraged. My son has mild hypoglycemia, and therefore always travels to meets with his lunchbox full of things like pretzels, cereal (he loves Quaker Honey Graham Oh's), wraps, orange juice, Gatorade. The other kids just didn't understand or, worse, tried to take his food away. They gave him quite a hard time. But he stuck it out and now they (for the most part) respect his 'personal space' and leave his food alone. In fact, after the race in which he got sick, they understand better why he needs those things. They respect him because, even though he is different, he has respect for himself. And those who don't respect him, or understand him, have already made up their minds...and so he just lets them go and doesn't waste time worrying about the bad opinions of people he can't change.

"Don't run everyone else's race"

Something I heard the coach say to him has stuck with me...my son told me a story where he was wondering, in the middle of one of his first races, where the other boys were and where his teammate was and kept looking around to find them, and as a result he was losing time and getting out of his rhythm. The coach took him aside later and told him that, if he kept looking around to see everyone else's progress, he'd lose time in his OWN race. The coach told him, "Don't run everyone else's race, even if they are beating you or bearing down on your heels. Be aware of them, know where they are and what they are doing, but run your own race." He said that since then he's learned how to be aware of the other runners, how to sneak looks without actually turning his head, how to rely on the coaches who holler instructions at him on the front and back stretches, how to gather encouragement from the spectators, but he doesn't actually concentrate on the other runners. He takes the cheers given to him by the sprinters hollering on the sidelines, but ignores their advice, because they have not a clue what he is going through in the mile. He runs his own race. As a result, he can run the mile in 5:59, good enough for second place...and he gets better all the time.

At one of the home meets, my son and another teammate were running together all through the 1600M run, the third teammate having been left behind long ago. First and second had already crossed the line, and my son and this boy were in competition for third place...my son was a seventh grader, and the other boy was in eighth. Now, this other boy was quite tall...and, by tall, I mean over six feet tall at age 13. He had legs that went all the way to his armpits. My son, by contrast, at the time was only about 5'4", and his legs were long in relation to his torso but not nearly as long as the other boy's. Therefore, for each step the first boy ran, my son had to take two. My son told me that they worked together for most of the race, but in the short chute between turns three and four they had already decided all bets were off and it was every man for himself. So, the race between the two of them started. I have a picture of the two of them coming off that fourth turn...the other boy was stretching out those long legs, and my son has his head down and his jaw set and his fists clenched, simply trying to keep up. Down the front stretch they ran, neck and neck to the finish line, going faster and faster. I was standing at the edge of the grandstands, right at the line, camera at the ready, when they went by in a blur, still together. I had taken a picture just as they crossed, and the referee came over to take a look at it....and announced my son the winner. See, as he crossed the line, he did something the other boy didn't think to do....he leaned forward.


But the thing that struck me was not so much that he had the presence of mind to lean (had the other boy leaned, he would have taken fourth, fifth, AND sixth place), but that, after the race, they congratulated each other...he was as happy for my son as if he had beat my son himself, and my son was happy that the other boy had given him such a challenge. I began to notice there was camaraderie between the long-distance runners, since there were only four on the boy's team. If one won, they were happy...if one beat another teammate, they were happy for them. And if one of them was struggling through a race, the other teammates were there to shout encouragement, even if it was just to run alongside in the grass and help him finish the race in last place. Once I saw one slow down just so the other teammate wouldn't have to cross the finish line so far back and alone. But, ultimately, each runner knows that he can't make his teammate faster, or stronger, or run more effectively...he can only stand and holler support as his teammate runs past, or run alongside and encourage his every step.

I've seen runners collapse in tears in the middle of races at the scathing criticism of a parent or a teammate who just doesn't understand. I watched as a girl was berated by her mother for consistently coming in last in the 400M dash, a race that was too long for the girl anyway, and when I talked to her later she said, "Mom just doesn't get it...I can't 'just do it'. Why can't she understand?" I happened to be standing by mom at the next meet, and in the course of our conversation she said about her daughter, "She can do it, she just doesn't want to." However, sometimes, a little encouragement is the one thing that stands between someone giving up before the line, and that same someone running to the best of his ability to the finish, even if that finish comes two or three or five minutes after everyone else.

My race

Me? I'm certainly not a miler by any stretch of the imagination. I was more of a sprinter, and the short sprints at that (200M and shorter). I was pretty good at them, even though I never got to be on the track team (my mom would not let me participate in sports, a bit of bitterness I'll save for another post). But I remember in gym class having to run a timed mile for a grade. The first year, seventh grade, I gave it all I had...I did pretty good for about 400M, but by the end of four laps I was creeping across the line. My eighth grade year, I tried a different approach, and tried pacing myself...only to end up, again, struggling hard just to finish. But, my freshman year I had figured out something very important....my grade was not dependent upon how FAST I finished the race, but upon my simply finishing. So, a friend of mine and I did the 1600M stroll. A twenty-minute mile. My gym teacher was not happy, and she kept hollering at us to run....advice which we cheerfully ignored. But, we finished it, and got our A...which, after all, was the point all along. I got the same grade for ambling along as I did for pushing myself to do something which I was physically incapable of doing. And I felt much better afterwards for completing the race on MY terms, rather than what I thought someone else expected of me or what any other girl was doing.

Today? Don't even ask me to sprint 50 yards unless there is a HUGE reward at the end of it...such as Toby Keith, or Jeff Saturday in his Colts uniform, holding a plate of imported chocolates with a big smile on his face. Last time I ran (to help a boy who had fallen out of a truck onto the mud), I sprained my ankle. Oh, I can walk, sure. But even though I was a sprinter to begin with, age has caught up with me and prevents me from doing even that. My knees hurt and make noises they never made before. My asthma and allergies weigh in with their feelings on the matter as well. If I lost weight, maybe I could run VERY short distances (and trust me, losing weight is definitely in my plans during the New Year). But even if I get totally buff and in shape, I'll never be a miler. I can read about milers, and I can admire the strength and endurance that the long-distance runners have, and I can learn about the techniques used in the mile run, but I simply am not made to do that. And that's okay...I don't worry if someone else is faster or younger or in better shape...I don't worry if they are running a sprint or a mile...I am aware of where they are, I can stand alongside and holler encouragement....but, ultimately, I can't tell them how to run their race, and I can't run their race for them. You see, I have to run my own race.

And so do you.

Long distance runner

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