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Accidental athletes

Some athletes are born. Then there are those (like me) who become athletic purely by accident.

Some athletes are born. Some are made. And then there are those, like me, who become athletes completely by accident.

You've seen the type. I was the youngster who took the wild hook shot that somehow went in the basket. I was the Little Leaguer who circled under a towering fly ball, held out his hands, closed his eyes and prayed that the ball would plop into my glove.

When I made a basket or caught the ball, no one was more surprised than I. And when I actually hit a baseball, I stood transfixed at home plate until someone pushed me toward first base, imploring me to run.

Like others, I experienced athletic success early in life. Unlike others, my successes happened infrequently and without my help. My accomplishments were always unexpected. In fact, most of the truly magical sports moments in my young life came not because of me, but in spite of me.

It shouldn't seem remarkable then that 40 years later, as a runner, nothing has changed. Despite my best intentions, detailed training schedules and ever-increasing knowledge of the art and science of running, nearly every aspect of my running seems to happen by accident.

I have had some glorious runs and some noteworthy races. I have had mornings when the universe seemed to converge just for my pleasure. The temperature was perfect, I was well-rested, my legs and lungs felt strong and powerful. On those days, no distance, no speed seemed beyond my reach.

Then there are the other days. The other races. There are mornings when it seems that the entire universe has conspired to crush my spirit. Everything is wrong. I am slow and awkward. On these days I gladly would give up running and return to the safety of my sofa.

The problem is that, as an accidental athlete, I can't figure out what causes either experience. On the superb days, I go back to my logbook and try to figure out what I'm doing right. On the ghastly days, I go back to figure out what I'm doing wrong. The conundrum is that nothing seems to be different.

Mind you, running as an accidental athlete isn't without its rewards. Some runners can predict their training pace and race pace with great accuracy. For the accidental athlete, however, every run is like a blind date. Some are extraordinary. Some are forgettable. And a few are truly laughable.

For the accidental athlete, every run holds both the promise of enlightenment and the threat of embarrassment. Each mile has the capacity to embrace us or punish us. Every race has the potential to be a celebration or a humiliation. The excitement comes in never knowing for sure which it will be.

But as we continue to run into the unknown, we accidental athletes stumble onto the fact that often there is very little difference between our best and our worst. The more regularly we face the fear of discovering who we are, the better we get at accepting whoever that is. In time, we learn to take neither the good runs nor the bad runs too seriously.

In the end we realize that a good run almost always means that we have accomplished just a little more than we expected. We realize, too, that all a bad run means is that we achieved just a little less. Most importantly, we discover that the difference between a good day and a bad day is usually in our expectations, not in our running.

And in time, we learn to savor the runs when everything's working just right. Even if it happens by accident.

Waddle on, friends.

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