Running, Writing & Living: to Make the Means the Ends

Throwback Friday

This post is part of a serialized collection of chapters composing my recently completed Master’s of Education degree at the University of Victoria. You can access the other chapters on this site here, and access a pdf of the completed paper on the University of Victoria library space here

As it is with running, so it is with writing, and so it is with life, where the joy to be found in each arises from the practice of the thing itself, rather than from whatever the activities are meant to produce. As ink collects on a page, and aerobic breathing and footsteps echo in the local woods, so too have I come to learn that love and joy accumulate in the daily living of life more than in the pursuit of them as external ends. So long as they are not being done to serve some other purpose, outside of themselves, I generally enjoy and in so doing can succeed in these efforts indefinitely. So it is with running, so with writing, and so it is with life.This approach need not, however, ignore the will to strive, to progress, or advance: to grow. It is merely that once these external motivations become the sole and primary objective of these practices – as opposed to merely a by-product of the experiences – it can become all too easy to lose sight of the joy at the heart of the act (however uncomfortable an encounter with a steep hill or blank page may be) that is essential if we are to continue to progress. By realizing this truth of succeeding in the struggles of running and writing throughout my youth and formative education, I have begun to glimpse how best to meet that other intensely personal, often uncomfortable, and naturally rewarding act of living (and learning) itself.

When it is the most fun, after all, I am running not so that I might gratify some purpose not in and of the run itself; I am running for the enjoyment of that time spent running, and so that I might be able to continue to run: so that the most freeing of natural joys in life is available to me, in body as well as mind. When I am enjoying it the most, I am writing not to reap the eventual fruits of the intellectual or emotional labours of reasoning and introspection; I am writing because it is the process itself which brings me into touch with my thinking about myself and my place in the world. Just as in the physical sense with running, writing is an encounter between the self and the world that cannot be predetermined or coerced into existence in advance. Rather, it is the experience that allows my boundary with the world to be defined. Only once it has been so defined does the possibility that this boundary can be transcended come into being.While setting goals or deadlines to motivate myself from week to week or year to year can be helpful in working toward self-improvement, it is this ongoing encounter with the unknown that can most consistently be trusted to lead the way to continued transformation and ongoing personal growth. The outcome, or end, being pursued, in other words, becomes the continuous realization of the means itself: to be able to interpret emerging contexts and plot new courses of action. In striving to achieve this congruence between ends and means, I am reminded of Foucault’s notion of Enlightenment, which should “be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating,” but rather, “a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50).

As it is in running, so it is with writing, and so it is with life. And so with life, with learning. In each of these capacities, I have challenged myself to make the means of these pursuits their ends:

  • By running merely to run, asking nothing more of what amounts to tiring, challenging work, I am rewarded with better health and fitness, as well as the ability to continue to test my physical limits into the future.
  • By writing only to write, and letting the words and insights arise (or not) where they may, I retain and hone the craft and habit of exploring and expressing my thoughts and reflections clearly.
  • And by living and learning for its own sake, I continue to seek knowledge and experiences that become wisdom and points for further departures of curiosity into the future.

This realization and focus of my graduate education in curriculum studies has emerged from almost 10 years as an educator, but is grounded in life experience and formative passions of both running and writing that have long-provided me with motivation and means to succeed and progress. Before I was a graduate student immersed in the philosophy of education and learning, I devoted a good deal of time and education to expressing my thoughts in words, earning an honours degree in creative writing and working for my university’s newspaper while I drafted stories and poems and novels in my spare time. I had a poster of Jack Kerouac on my university-bedroom wall, and had become at the age of 20 convinced of the transformative power of the creative arts. Whether in beholding the transcendent enthusiasm of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Allen Ginsberg, or William Wordsworth, my undergraduate education nurtured a profound faith that such creative expressions could fundamentally transform not only people’s individual identities, but society itself. It is this faith that has inspired me to help students develop this type of critical awareness and ability to communicate: to become the sort of person Apple founder Steve Jobs said could “put a dent in the universe” (Jobs & Sheff, 1985).

Even before I changed my major (from Biology to English), I was a scholarship athlete on my university’s track and field team, competing across the southern and midwestern states against the best middle distance runners in the NCAA. I waged a 10-year battle against the 800m, sweating and grinding tenths of a second from my best times every year from the ages of 14 to 22, and lived to test the boundary of not only my body, but my will. Every race stood as a new opportunity to create a greater effort than that I had previously achieved, where I might defeat an unbeatable rival, or set a lifetime best. Or not. Even when my efforts were unsuccessful, I was discovering The Line, my boundaries, or the limits that I would be trying to surpass the next time out. Having taken the better part of my twenties away from the sport of running, recent years have found me venturing for further and further runs and races in the localwatershed, and I am again developing the taste for exploration at the edge of my physical limitations. In doing so, I have reaffirmed for myself the faith in a process that I think ought be authentically modeled for students we are encouraging to practice the “analysis of the limits that are imposed on us” and to engage in “an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them” (Foucault, 1984, p. 50).

References

The Quantified Self

1319m

While I’ve been out of the #tiegrad loop with the FitBit frenzy, I am a devotee to employing a good bit of technology in my own fitness regime of late, and wanted to collect a few thoughts on how the phenomenon relates to digital storytelling and learning.

Having received a Garmin GPS watch for my birthday, I’ve been cataloguing and measuring my runs, cycle commutes, and other workouts for almost a year, something of a surprising development at this stage in my athletic life, I have to say. Without getting back into a story that’s been rehashed in bits and pieces on my blog in recent years, once upon a time I went away to university on a running scholarship. However (as I delve into in greater detail in this post here),

Since graduating in 2004, I hardly thought about running. And if I did think about it, or even found myself on an odd streak of jogging on the paths around the inlet near my house, I hardly thought of racing.

When my track and field days had been petering out, I struggled to find motivation to work my way out of injuries that had severely limited my capacity and potential as an ‘elite’ athlete. Having once been at least good, if not great, I had very little interest in fighting my way through the middle of the pack, and as I began to excel in my studies, my desire to compete slowly waned. And while I’ve generally remained an active person – hiking, participating in intramurals, biking to work and the like – I’ve remained apart from organized competition, leaving it in my ‘former’ life until only recently.

About a year ago I started running again, heading up the narrow trails above my house into the forests on Heritage Mountain. Beginning at a few kilometers, I started supplementing these jaunts in the woods with sessions at a spinning studio where I met local endurance-athletes, started to push myself beyond mere aerobic exercise, and began to talk about racing again.

I became reacquainted with the satisfaction of tired legs, the zen-like trance of the anaerobic threshold, and the no man’s land beyond what I knew was within my grasp.

Since adding my Garmin to the mix, and even more recently a heart-rate monitor, I’ve only been able to push this nebulous threshold further: because I can see it.

When my heart-rate falls following a climb, and I might be inclined to dip into recovery for longer than necessary, a quick glance at my watch lets me know there is room to be pushed. Or when I’m panting near the crux of the steep hill that begins most of my trail jaunts, I can be reassured that I’m pushing 90% of my maximum effort.

Totals

Toward the end of the month, I am pushed to get out the door more often, as my totals will be tallied on my Garmin Connect profile (which leaves something to be desired as a social network, but nevertheless aggregates my workout history), all because of what my watch makes visible in its record keeping.

Not that this couldn’t (and isn’t) achieved through keeping meticulous notes on exercise as it happens. I still have my training logs from high school and university and am comforted to know that I was, in fact, in peak form leading into my last few weeks of high school, right when it counted. But the ease and portability – not to mention the sheer diversity of data collected – of the digital markers can be an inspiring reflective tool.

Because each of these workouts, bike rides, hikes, and spin cycles was just an effort made on a particular day – none of them were completed with a particular view of their significance in the greater scheme of things. This isn’t unlike a series of Instagram selfies, or Twitter updates, or even lengthier blog posts.

In fact, the benefit of each of these digital tails is that when we stop to look back, these individual records become constituent parts of a whole that is itself perpetually coming into being. In the self-recognition generated by these opportunities to reflect, and be reflected, we are often pushed further on, and we continue to emerge.

On the Run

Start

On Saturday I ran my first race in more than ten years, finishing third in the Coast Mountain Trail Series‘ 13 kilometer Run Ridge Run between Sasamat and Buntzen Lakes in Anmore, BC. Having explored the trails of Bert Flinn Park above Burrard Inlet during the last year, I stumbled onto the CMTS a few weeks ago when a hike above the Sea to Sky Gondola coincided with the inaugural Sky Pilot Race in September. And after floating the idea to my recent running buddy, R (who ran his first marathon last spring), we signed up to compete in the shorter of the two courses being run Thanksgiving weekend (the other being a 25km tour of the Diez Vista Trail in addition to the ridge-line connecting the two lakes).

KM3

Having grown up on tracks and cross-country courses since I was eleven, I rode an athletic scholarship to Arkansas when I was seventeen. Down south I enjoyed a few successes, briefly holding my school’s 800m record, and was a member of a few national and conference champion relay and cross-country teams. Eventually though I ‘retired’ on the heels (or, shins, rather) of successive seasons ruined by injuries, and threw myself headlong into my academic studies, fortunately earning a scholarship there that allowed me to finish school in Arkansas and discover the path(s) that would lead me into teaching, outdoor education, and the intersecting life’s passions that have sustained me in the years since.

Since graduating in 2004, I hardly thought about running. And if I did think about it, or even found myself on an odd streak of jogging on the paths around the inlet near my house, I hardly thought of racing.

When my track and field days had been petering out, I struggled to find motivation to work my way out of injuries that had severely limited my capacity and potential as an ‘elite’ athlete. Having once been at least good, if not great, I had very little interest in fighting my way through the middle of the pack, and as I began to excel in my studies, my desire to compete slowly waned. And while I’ve generally remained an active person – hiking, participating in intramurals, biking to work and the like – I’ve remained apart from organized competition, leaving it in my ‘former’ life until only recently.

About a year ago I started running again, heading up the narrow trails above my house into the forests on Heritage Mountain. Beginning at a few kilometers, I started supplementing these jaunts in the woods with sessions at a spinning studio where I met local endurance-athletes, started to push myself beyond mere aerobic exercise, and began to talk about racing again.

I became reacquainted with the satisfaction of tired legs, the zen-like trance of the anaerobic threshold, and the no man’s land beyond what I knew was within my grasp.

With this all making its way about my mind on those runs, and increasingly in between, it was only a matter of time before I toed the start-line of a footrace once more. Because while I’ve done a lot of things in the time since I left the sport, many of which have opened my eyes, challenged me beyond words, or led me to new personal achievements or experiences, nowhere is the essence of a personal challenge more literally waged than in a race.

Snow Run

And if a race, why not a grueling tour of the local watershed?

Why not put the trouble of travel by foot to the rigors of the British Columbian coast?

Dirt, and granite.

Slippery cedar roots climbing incomprehensible inclines.

R and I paid our entry fees and scouted the course a few weeks before race weekend with equal parts excitement and giddy fear that the experiment might go horribly awry, that we would be sandbagged by the hills, or wind up wrestling one another to not shuffle in dead last. On a second trial of the course, a week before the Big Day, we became more familiar with the rigors of the Run Ridge Run, and talked about where we would conserve our energy, where we would try to push the pace, a race plan we followed almost exactly – if a lot faster than we bargained for – on Saturday.

Run Ridge Run Data

With the excitement of the start and the rush of the departing crowd, our first three kilometers (all relatively flat along the shoreline of Sasamat Lake) were more than a minute faster (each) than in our trials on the course. We bid our time heading up the ridge road, and then steeply up the single track section of trail leading up to the water station, drafting on the pace set by a runner in the 25k race. Cresting the hill, we recovered and descended briskly to Buntzen Lake, where we were able to log a few quick kilometers along the road before heading straight back up the mountain.

This ascent had been the concern of my pre-race anxieties, much due to our run the week before on the course where I soundly ‘bonked’ on the climb after a hard week of training on the Bert Flinn trails. But with a mostly restful week leading into the race, my legs were burning, but still able to meet the challenge of the steep and technical climbing over roots and rock back up to the ridge.

“That’s the ball game,” R said when we were (*almost) back to the water station atop the trail returning into the finish, where we pressed the pace against our knees and the soft single-track descending the ridge. Mist was hanging in the trees and beginning to glow with sunshine poking through the clouds.

Plaque

Not having seen anyone since we left our 25k companion on our way up the hill initially, we couldn’t tell where we were in the pack, but were pleasantly surprised to hear that we had arrived within a few minutes of the 13k winner, and come in third and fourth separated by only a few seconds.

In addition to the third place plaque and a pair of DryMax socks, I was also unofficially awarded “first place in the rocking beard division” by the MC.

Having arrived and warmed up in teeming rain, I drove home in the sunshine hooked (again) on racing.