Dreadmill , The Progress in Going Nowhere

“Butch Cassidy: Is that what you call giving cover?
Sundance Kid: Is that what you call running? If I knew you were going to stroll…”
– Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)

I’ve been happily estranged from the film industry’s wares for a pretty long time. Nevertheless I’m still confident when I say that the greatest Hollywood creation of all time has to be the mismatched buddy movie. You know the ones. Two people with vastly different backgrounds or beliefs are unwittingly paired together where their obviously incompatible natures come into immediate conflict. They don’t understand each other. They can’t possible like each other. And there is absolutely no way in hell that they could ever work together.

Well, that is until some unforeseen circumstance persuades those polar opposites to set aside their differences and join forces to resolve the situation or accomplish the common goal. Comedy and/or drama ensue.

Hollywood is so creative. Can I get an extra squirt of artificially butter flavored oil on my popcorn please?

“It’s not about how fast you go. It’s not about how far you go. It’s the process. As we run, we become. Every workout reveals new truths and releases new dreams.” – Amby Burfoot

I ran ten races in 2013, ranging in length from 5K to my first full marathon. As a newbie runner, every one of those events was a milestone. And I experienced some level of self-discovery in accomplishing each of them. But the true joys and revelations were found in the hundreds and hundreds of miles I ran training for those relatively short-lived events; 966.28 miles to be exact approximate.

Do you know how many of those miles were logged on a treadmill? Neither do I, because I only stepped on the damn thing one time all year. And all I can remember is how hard it was just to stay on it for a measly half hour.

I forget what my initial goal was. But I remember that only 10 minutes after pushing the start button, I made a deal with myself that if I could battle through 30 minutes without losing my mind, then I could stop. I’d already adopted the practice of running outside no matter the weather, and logged many wonderful miles in the rain, snow, heat, and cold. I have no clue what I was doing on a treadmill that day. But I hated it.

It was boring. I clumsily struggled to keep from stepping off of one side or the other. The lack of air movement felt stifling. It was tedious. If I wasn’t about to trail off the back I was running into the console. I couldn’t feel the sun on my face, hear dogs barking, smell honeysuckle flowers, or see a single bird. And, oh yeah-Did I mention that it was mind-numbing?

Even without knowing what I wanted from it in the first place, because I hated it so much I’ve unapologetically referred to that gym clutter as a “dreadmill” ever since. Cliché runner joke or not, that’s how I saw it; an endless vinyl path to insanity.

“So I stay out in the streets, Hoping to find you anywhere
Now that I understand, The woman you need to be
I can feel you in the heat, I can taste you in the air
And I can’t help but find your face in Everything I see”
Dawes, Moon In The Water

I spent 2013 running through the surrounding neighborhoods, rarely seeing another runner. But after my ankle crapped out on me last December, I would see one every time I drove around a curve. I swear they were everywhere. Each twisting the knife in my back, reminding me that I couldn’t do the one thing I could rely on for relief…or all too often, escape from a winter season I’d made way too dark. (Note: A healthy crutch is still a crutch. And crutches suck!)

If seeing all of those able-bodied jerks out on the road wasn’t hard enough, there were always a dozen or so people wearing out the dreadmills at the gym. I’d never really paid much attention to them. But as soon as I wasn’t able to run, they became pretty much all I could see.

“Look at that lucky bastard. Goddamn I wish I could go run right now.” – Me, every single day of winter.

It’s amazing what you notice when you’re forced to slow down…or worse, to stop. I never stopped my cycling or strength training exercises. And between sets at the gym, I’d catch myself zoning out into a total stranger’s running style. I saw people screaming along with a heel strike so sharp, it made my legs hurt. I saw others with a stride so vertically bouncy that I thought they had to be joking. There were runners whose upper bodies were so rigidly immobile that I don’t know how the twisting didn’t strain their lower back. And of course there were the gazelle-like superstars with the smoothest, most gracefully fluid running form you’ve ever seen. They’re the worst.

Maybe the most important observation was something I’d accepted as truth without actually witnessing it. Treadmills bounce. Of course I don’t mean like a trampoline. But no matter how clumsy or smooth the runner’s technique, the belted pathway gives more than any outdoor surface I’m aware of. I’d often read that treadmills could reduce running’s impact on the body. But not until I was forced to just sit there and watch did I actually see its flexibility under the stress of all types of runners. And seeing that bounce forced me to accept what I’d long feared; if I really wanted to heal and get back out on the roads, I was going to have to make friends with that “gym clutter.”

“Martin Riggs: Hey, look friend, let’s just cut the shit. Now we both know why I was transferred. Everybody thinks I’m suicidal, in which case, I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me; or they think I’m faking to draw a psycho pension, in which case, I’m fucked and nobody wants to work with me. Basically, I’m fucked.

Roger Murtaugh: Guess what?

Martin Riggs: What?

Roger Murtaugh: I don’t want to work with you!

Martin Riggs: Hey, don’t.

Roger Murtaugh: Ain’t got no choice! Looks like we both been fucked!” Lethal Weapon (1987)

I was reluctant in our relationship for sure, but I’d avoided it as long as I could. I took several weeks off with no running at all. Then I eased my way onto an elliptical machine; which I also don’t enjoy. After a couple of weeks substituting my three weekly runs with that arm swinging, cross-country-skiing-meets-stair-climbing silliness, I finally stepped back on the dreadmill. And I did dread it, except that I didn’t. After not being able to run for so long, I couldn’t help but see that whirling nightmare in a slightly different light. It still looked mind-numbingly boring. But it also looked like the only doorway back outside. And I desperately wanted to go outside.

In addition to the presumed lesser impact, I also thought the treadmill would keep me from running too fast. In my earlier efforts back from injury, I would hit the road for “easy runs” and end up going too fast for too long, always distracted by some modest, but ultimately insignificant, mileage goal. I wasn’t focusing enough on healing. I wasn’t listening to my body. And as a result, I aggravated my injury and hindered my recovery. I do stupid shit better than a lot of people do anything. If I wanted to run faster on a treadmill, I’d have to consciously change the speed setting. I thought that might rein me in a little.

My first treadmill sessions had no goals, only limits. I wasn’t worried about mileage or speed at all. I just wanted to get some time in. I would run until my ankle told me to stop. But if I made it to 20 minutes, I’d stop regardless and finish my 45-60 minute daily cardio goal on an elliptical or bike. I stuck to that routine for a thousand weeks (What? It felt like it), slowly adding a few minutes or a little more speed as my body allowed it. But if I ever felt even a tinge of pain in my Achilles, I’d stop. It was frustrating beyond words.

After several weeks of battling the boredom of those runs, I let myself out on the road for a short run, only with the understanding that my other two runs that week would be back inside. Eventually I started taking my Saturday “long” runs to a local trail where I could get a softer surface AND still be outside where I belong. But again, if I did my long run outside, my next run was on the mill. Patience is key. Slow is fast. Baby steps. Blah blah blah. It was excruciating. But I think it’s working.

It was brutal out there.

It was brutal out there.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally ran my first race of 2014. It was my slowest 10K to date and maybe my most satisfying race ever. I’d just taken another week off after some worrisome outings the previous weeks. And my prerace warm-up was not at all confidence building. I approached the start already conceding that the only goal for this race would be to enjoy the spring weather. Once it started, much to my surprise, I actually ran well. It was the first time I’d run “fast” in six months. After the cluttered crowd navigation of the first half mile, I zoned out. I’m not a speedster at all, nor am I very competitive. But for the next six miles, almost without realizing it, I slowly crept by one runner after another; steadily reeling in each next person without paying much attention to it. It was awesome. I finished the race with negative splits throughout, only a few seconds slower than the same race last year, and most importantly with zero ankle issues. I felt good, which felt great. And as much as I would’ve loved to buy into the “Greg’s back” sentiment expressed by my friends, three days later, I was back on the treadmill. Why? Because I want to run a marathon this fall. And I won’t be able to do that if I do something stupid this week.

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – George Bernard Shaw

During those agonizing months of slow recovery running I was tweaking every aspect of my form; my foot fall, my posture, my stride, everything. Those adjustments brought with them the general aches and pains that come with all change. And those discomforts complicated my ability to measure my progress. “Was that pain Achilles-related? Or was that normal (and less worrisome) soreness of a flatter foot strike?” I swear I can complicate anything. But I always had my new friend waiting for me at the gym if I needed to slow down and evaluate something in a controlled environment. And that helped a lot, whether I always want to admit it or not.

Do I love treadmills now? Nope. But I’ve been reminded that a bad first impression is not always the fault of the impresser. As a child I hated beets and brussels sprouts. Now I love them eat both almost every single day. A year ago I said that until they classify bacon and pulled pork bbq as vegetables, that I could never be a vegetarian. I haven’t eaten either one in a year, and now thrive on an almost completely dairy free, plant based diet. Two years ago, I’d have told you that I hated running. Now I can say without hyperbole that I believe it saved my life.

My resistance to new things has stolen so much from me over the years. Some of those things I’ll be able to get later, some I won’t. But first I need to avoid falling victim to the “I just don’t like change” mentality. The only people that should ever comfortably say that are people 100% satisfied with every aspect of their existence. Otherwise, refusing change is to refuse the possibility of achieving something greater.

I ran like shit on a treadmill, so I blamed the treadmill and built a whole argument about how awful they are. Then I realized that like any tool, you have to learn how to use it before it can work for you. I bought into many of the bullshit arguments against a plant-based diet. Then I tried it and discovered that it works incredibly well for me. I perform better without meat and dairy products. I recover faster. I feel better. I run better. And running has without a doubt made me better.

I’ve been wrong more than I’ve been right in my life. And my default settings are still to misplace blame, exaggerate my displeasure, and too often embrace the negative. I don’t know why, but those things just come easy to me. But I’m working on it and slowly making progress. I feel good. I like changing the things that don’t work for me. I’m learning that all of that might be as simple knowing when to change my mind. Happy Wednesday. Go outside.