Today at the track, I was thinking about the lyrics to a song I particularly like (by Pat Alger, songwriter extraordinaire):
In a moment of reflection, looking back upon my life,
There were times I’ve changed direction, letting fortune pass me by
And there were seldom second chances, and nothing so profound
As a lesson learned the hard way that I’ll use next time around.
The belief that we occasionally learn an important lesson the hard way and then use that lesson to breeze on through the same trial the next time around is a nice idea. It is the basis of any number of bad movies, books, and songs. But how often does it ever really work that way? I mean, seriously.
In running as in love, I’ve always been specifically inclined to learn lessons the hard way and then think, “Fuck that stupid lesson! I’m doing it the exact same way again!” Fall pathetically in love with someone you suspect is going to dump you? After wallowing in self-pity for the allotted time after the dumpage, go right back out there and do it again. Start out too fast in 5ks in 1982? Why not just continue that technique right on into 2012?
In my mind, there are any number of “lessons” I learn that morph into Church Lady drifting in front of me saying, “Tsk tsk!” It annoys me to think I have to change. And what if, what if, the improbable love works out? What if, given the right day, the right wind, the unexpected lightness, the magic—what if that ridiculous start works to my advantage?
It’s not that I’m a complete lunatic and never reflect upon my mistakes and try to learn something from them. My failures and losses stand out way more vividly in my mind than my wins. (Is this true for most people, or am I just a Debbie Downer?) I had an outright win at a 10k back in the late 80s, but all I remember from it was a really bad picture that was taken of me and the humiliated dude who came in 2nd who wouldn’t even look at me. I don’t recall how I felt, my time, or the name of the race. Nothing.
On the other hand, I remember much more clearly totally blowing a 5k that same summer. I had done everything right, trained my ass off, followed the rules, and there I was, falling behind and dying. I was trying to break 19 minutes and missed it by, if my memory serves me absolutely and glaringly accurately when it comes to my FAILS, 53 seconds. I recall a non-runner friend standing at the 2 mile mark and yelling, “Come on! Isn’t this what you TRAIN for??” I remember not understanding what had happened, where my energy had gone, or why the totally unremarkable hill midway through felt SO hard. I definitely remember coming in a dismal 7th woman at some dumbass rinky dink family run called the Ice Cream Social 5K.
But a lesson learned to be used the next time around? No.
Some of my more recent failures that have carved Grand Canyons in my cerebrum include my Moonpie DNF and getting outkicked more than a few times near the finish line. Lessons learned: Don’t run on a broken groin and, You’re not a spring chicken. These are not what I’d call profound moments of learning that will benefit me on down the road.
But what about things that you’ve done wrong that you can change that COULD help you? I can hear you demanding. Like starting out too fast, you pathetic nimrod, I can hear you adding on.
I don’t know.
I’ve tried a lot of things over the years. Made a zillion adjustments, sped up, slowed down, tilted my heavy head into the curve, switched shoes, ate chia, added miles, bought into negative ion quackery, subtracted miles, killed the track, killed the hills, ran solitary and with teams, slept in weird socks, clocked even splits, bought a garmin, stretched, overtrained, got fat, ran more, kept running, won, lost, remembered, forgot.
Sure, some things work better than other things. Maybe. Sometimes. But then race day shows up, and who knows? I don’t know a runner who hasn’t been honestly stunned by what happens on those frustratingly rare occasions when the gun goes off and…everything works. Maybe it was something you changed, a bit of a past lesson learned. But I’m more inclined to think it’s just that moment, that day, something inexpressible and un-analyzable.
Kept running. After all those zillion adjustments, that is probably the only thing that has ever truly made me ready when one of those rare days comes along.
And when a good wind blows your way, be ready to sail, the song concludes.
Which, of course, is the magic of running and racing. The mystery of that good wind is far more compelling than any lesson learned the hard way.