When a stranger calls
The power to change comes from within. But that doesn't mean we can't use a little help.
Have you ever noticed that when the friends and neighbors of someone accused of committing a horrible crime are interviewed, they always say the same thing: "I can't believe he did it. He seemed so normal."
I'm quite sure that if anyone had interviewed my friends and neighbors when I first started running, they would have offered much the same response. I'm sure that they couldn't understand why this middle-aged, overweight man was out there running and walking nearly every day. It just wouldn't have seemed normal.
The truth is, it didn't seem normal to me either. Normal was coming home from work, drinking a beer or 12, having a bag of chips and a half pack of cigarettes, and then eating dinner. Normal was being as stationary as possible for as long as possible.
I'm often asked what happened. People want to know how and why a seemingly normal man starts running at middle age. They want there to be some grand design, some elegantly articulated plan to change my life. They want there to be a reason. There wasn't. There isn't. Like an out-of-left-field felon, I think I just came face-to-face with the stranger deep in my psyche. The difference was that my stranger didn't want me to do something bad; it wanted me to do something good.
Still, it was a monumental battle. I wanted to stay immobile. The stranger wanted me to get off my butt. I wanted to continue to eat and drink whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. The stranger wanted me to limit what I put into my body. I wanted to poison myself with booze and cigarettes. The stranger wanted me to save my own life.
Even after I started exercising, the battle raged on. I wanted to run too much, too far, too fast. If I did, I was sure that I would eventually get hurt and that would end the nonsense. The stranger wanted me to gently, patiently turn my current body into the body of an athlete.
Of course, that takes time and effort and dedication, and we can find lots of excuses: We don't have a runner's build, our knees are bad from a seventh-grade soccer injury, we don't have the time, and so on. But for most of us, the truth is that we just don't want to face that unrecognizable voice inside.
But when the stranger takes over, when we completely surrender to it, amazing things start to happen. We change. The old normal gives way to a new normal. Until I was 43, movement wasn't normal. Regular, scheduled, progressive movement was unheard of. Now, movement is normal. Now, a day without movement is unusual.
Until I was 43, I was frightened by the sound of my own heart beating. I was frightened by the sound of air moving in and out of my lungs. All the sights and sounds of effort frightened me. Now I live for those moments when my heart is pounding and my lungs are working hard to meet the demands of my body.
Not only have I made friends with the stranger inside me, I've given him the keys to my life. I've given up the notion that I know what's best for me, if that best is sitting still and slowly destroying myself. I do, however, still argue with the stranger. When he tells me I could run a faster 5-K, I resist. When he tells me I could ride a century or run an ultra or complete an adventure race, I balk. I can't believe I can do those things. It just wouldn't seem normal.
Waddle on, friends.