Friday, April 6, 2012

Motivation, Creativity, and Adventure

How many of you work out to stay in shape, or for any other purpose other than for the love of that activity? Have you ever told yourself that you should go work out, because your body will like you for it, and you’ll feel better about yourself? Perhaps it’s even something that you enjoy doing, but you just can’t seem to get yourself off the couch to do it? Well have I got the product for you! It’s the all new…ok ok, I won’t scare you with the threat of another cheesy infomercial. I assure you that I’m not selling anything here. In fact, I’m right there with ya, folks. Motivation can be elusive, even for the things you know you’ll enjoy once you’re doing it.

Running was like this for me ever since I started in late high school. It doesn’t help that I hated it when I initially joined the cross-country team senior year, joining mostly because I injured myself during soccer tryouts and couldn’t play. My initial experience with distance running was not fun – in fact it was quite painful – and it definitely put a blemish on the years to come, even when I came to enjoy running more. In college and beyond, there were certainly the days when I longed to get out in the sunshine and run a few solid miles along the river. It was invigorating, and a great way to crosstrain. I never saw it as a means in itself, however. I ran mainly to stay in shape in the off-season, to supplement the soccer season and compliment the climbing season, adding cardio endurance to brute strength. I threw in a few 5k and 5-mile races here and there as well to keep it fun and enjoy some competition, a trait of my personality that I’ll never shed.

As I’ve mentioned more than a few times, my experience at “The Big Juan” last summer changed everything for me. I saw running from a completely new perspective after that. Running became an adventure, not just something that people do to stay in shape or because they just love running. I had never learned the love of running for the sake of it, so this new love was enlightening for me, and the key to keeping me interested and motivated.

Since then, I’ve altered my approach to training. I try not to pick a route that’s easy or close by and run it just for speed (although I still do that sometimes), but rather I use the running as a means to go new places, see new things, and explore the unknown. I’ve explored new sections of my neighborhood and beyond, finding all kinds of cool little points of interest, including the Little Free Library and the tiny locales that I didn’t know existed. The grandest adventure I’ve had thus far was last weekend, when I finally put into fruition a plan that I hatched a while back.

I’ve been more interested in point-to-point runs lately, because it doesn’t require repeating parts already traveled, and as comedian Lewis Black points out when lamenting about the pointlessness of treadmills; “It seems to me if you’re gonna be running, when you’re done, you should be somewhere else!” Now, I have no problems with loops, but for some odd reason, doing a 12-mile point-to-point seems much cooler than a 12-mile loop, so I set out to find some feasible p2p’s that fit into my training program. Just for the hell of it, I checked to see what the distance would be to run from my house to my parents’ house in the suburbs, and it turned out to be 12.6 miles on foot. Not only was it a great distance to throw into my training, but as I checked routes, I discovered that I could do the majority of it on trails, separated from traffic, neighborhoods, and general civilization.

My plan was set. I called my folks to see if they wanted to hang out and have dinner on Saturday, and informed them that we would arrive early afternoon. Anna did her long run with her running buddies early that morning, so we timed it so that she would be showered and driving my direction to meet me shortly after I arrived in White Bear Lake. With a great feeling of adventure and challenge, I set out with my Camelbak and pouch belt stuffed with Gu, foot care items, my phone, ID, and credit card, just in case. The run was almost magical. Crossing through previously unseen areas of St. Paul and across the freeway, I hit the Gateway trail and took a moment to consider my task, feeling a new twinge of focused excitement. It’s hard to believe that in the middle of the city, one can feel as if totally secluded in the woods. Although I was still amid civilization, this was the closest to an “unsupported run” that I’ve ever had. Cruising along, I hooked up with the Bruce Vento Trail – a trail I didn’t know existed until I started searching routes – and chomped on my gel to keep me moving. The trail was practically desolate, and being alone with just the scenery and my thoughts drove me onward in an almost aloof state, and yet I felt focused the whole time. Of course, the “brain iPod” was in full effect with this song, strangely enough. Hey, it’s got a great bpm for setting a pace. When I hit the backside of the Maplewood Mall shopping district, I knew I was home free. Back on the roads again I picked up the pace, finishing it all off with a sprint to and up my parents’ driveway. Although in the eyes of ultrarunning I had just completed a “normal run,” this was the longest distance I’ve ever covered, and I did it all with just 3mm of rubber underfoot, so I relished my accomplishment.

The best part, however, was walking into the house, my parents looking at me rather quizzically in my running clothes and sweaty, red-faced state, asking me with an almost sarcastic tone, “What, did you run here?” Yep. Then the cognitive dissonance began; “Wait, you REALLY ran here? Where did you start? You ran here from your house?” I like surprising people, and this was just the icing on the cake. That, and the fact that I did my run at a 7m36s/mile pace, quite a bit under my initial 8min/mile goal for the half marathon at the end of April. Altogether, it was a great redemption to the failed 11-miler the weekend before, and proof that making the run an adventure helps more than one might realize. The final fruit of my point-to-point labor, however, was the delicious steak dinner that my folks prepared for us. A grand adventure run, followed by a great (free) meal and beer. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. Thanks Mom and Dad. 

Does every run need to be a grand adventure? Certainly not, but by adding new elements and challenges to the run, you can get your mind off of the dull routine of “the workout.” Adding personal challenges and unique twists of various sorts create a distraction from the regular, and they might be as simple as exploring new territory to see how far you can go, organizing a fun point-to-point run (and possibly surprising friends or family), or doing sprint pickups along your route based on landmarks or people in front of you (“I’m gonna pass that guy before he passes the big tree 15 yards ahead of him”). Part of what made the run to my parents’ house so fun was the element of the unknown, running farther than I ever have before in unknown territory and completely alone. “Do one thing everyday that scares you,” proposed Eleanor Roosevelt, and she was absolutely right. Organized or intentional scariness, as it were, can make for a great adventure that yields equally great benefits, as long as you are willing to take on the challenge and be flexible with the potential outcome.

On a smaller scale, if you’re training for an ultra or a trail race, experiment with your gear and see what works best: hydration pack vs. handhelds, various foods and gut response, etc. For some people, that might be serious business, but because I geek out on stuff like that, it’s fun for me to try new things and see what works best. You’ll need to use your creativity to find what works best for you, and as long as creativity is the goal, you’ll find something interesting and fun, which in turn will keep you motivated. It can actually be quite addicting too, so beware!

As I wrap up, let’s boil it down to a few quick points, shall we? Here are the facets of a true adventure in my mind:

  • facing the unknown - unknown places, distances, limits, etc.
  • taking on a challenge – test your strength and endurance, your ingenuity, your mental toughness, etc.
  • facing your fears – What’s holding you back from doing what you really want to do?
  • breaking routine – approach something with a fresh, flexible, creative perspective
One final note of importance is that structured training plans and creative adventures are not mutually exclusive. Structure and consistency are extremely important for successful training, in my opinion, but there is always room within that structure to switch things up and vary the workout. I’ve managed to use my training schedule as the base around which I utilize my creativity, because it provides a starting point that can make finding new adventures a bit easier. Now I look forward to whatever new and interesting challenge I get to dream up, while knowing that I’m still following a plan to make myself stronger, faster, and more competitive. Make a plan, think outside the box, and get off the couch!

In closing, I will amend the words of mothers everywhere and say to you, “It’s a beautiful day outside. Go out and find yourself an adventure!”