Black Magic

About mid leap, my trail leg, and specifically my trail foot, clipped the tree. This is what we call a miscalculation. Emma Coburn, I am not. I hit the deck. And by hitting the deck, I mean I fell on the trail. Hard. Boom. Down. Not only that, I had the pleasure of landing on my keys, which were by my right hip.

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Bluffview Trail, one of the more picturesque places to run in St. Louis

I really don’t like runners that put up the 26.2 bumper stickers on their car. It seems like a rather douchey thing to do to me. In fact, I really don’t like talking about running to non-runners. There’s nothing like seeing someone’s eyes glaze over, with the expression of “oh God, let it end” come over their face. But every now and then, it helps clarify a point.

A little under two years ago, I had the opportunity to leave work a little early on a Friday afternoon. I had arranged to take part of the day off. It was late summer, and I wanted to get my long run in for the week without overlapping on the weekend for a change. I didn’t want to interfere with family activities. I had sought the advice of Ben Rosario some years ago for some training tips. In my mind, the recommendation he gave me had been to keep my long run at least two hours if it all possible, no matter where I was in my training cycle. Although it wasn’t blazing hot like St. Louis can be, it was still a warm day. As I prepared to head out to the trails, I had my Camelback on, filled with 2 L of water, a source of carbohydrates, and a couple of salt tabs. I put my car keys (yes, keys, not key fob, and I wish I still had car keys) in my pocket, and left my cell phone in the car. You have to understand, that when I’m trail running, I don’t want anyone to find me. I’ve since learned to take my cell phone and turn it off, but I’d still rather not take it at all.

As alluded to previously, I was pretty stressed out during this time. The first 30 minutes were pretty much black out rage. “Fraggle, fraggle, fraggle!! Swear, swear, SWEAR!!” That’s about all that was on my mind for the first half hour. After the stress and rage had subsided, I was able to start focusing on my running. And it wasn’t going particularly well. Between fatigue, heat, humidity, and other factors, suffice to say I wasn’t having my best day. And it is been like that for months. I kept putting in the training, kept logging my long runs, kept putting in my tempo runs, but the results just were not coming. I tried to focus on my form, my foot fall, my cadence, my breathing, and my stride.

But the trails were enjoyable. I’ve always enjoyed running on single track. For those of you not familiar with running or hiking, single track trails are the narrow, skinny trails made from primarily dirt and rock. I enjoy the dodging, the darting, the change of direction, and the constant change of your focus. I’m always looking 100 feet in front of me, then 50 feet in front of me, then 10 feet in front of me, then repeat. These trails had some good hills, and even a tree or two to jump over. Generally speaking, I jump on top of any tree covering the trail, and then jump back on the trail. God did not bless me with extraordinary hops.

At a bit over an hour, I reached my turnaround point and it was time to go back. I was sweating profusely. Just so everyone knows, I sweat a lot, all the time. I sweat if it’s 80° outside. I sweat if it’s 25° outside. I sweat if it’s sunny, and I sweat if it’s cloudy. I sweat if I’m nervous and if I’m happy. I sweat if the day of the week ends in the word “day”. But I had finally started to loosen up. It’s hard to explain to non-runners why I would enjoy an activity that takes an hour of effort just to feel like you’re finally getting into. But I had finally started to feel good.

As I headed back down the trail, I came to one of those trees that I just mentioned. Rather than exercising my usual judgment, I decided to hurdle the tree, like someone in the steeplechase. I was feeling good. About mid leap, my trail leg, and specifically my trail foot, clipped the tree. This is what we call a miscalculation. Emma Coburn, I am not. I hit the deck. And by hitting the deck, I mean I fell on the trail. Hard. Boom. Down. Not only that, I had the pleasure of landing on my keys, which were by my right hip. In the dictionary under “excruciating pain”, Oxford’s 14th edition has “Landing on your keys in close proximity to your ding-ding.” I swear it’s in there.

I surprised even myself, because I did not utter even one profanity. I started to do an inventory. Any blood? No. Sunglasses on? Yes. Hydration pack punctured? No. Able to walk? Yes. Able to run? Yes.

I had fallen during a cross country race in high school. It was in the opening quarter-mile, and I had nearly been trampled. So the act of falling sometime leads to a bit of an adrenaline rush. I restarted slowly and got past the initial “fight or flight” surge from the spill. I was able to find my rhythm again quickly. Then I really got on a roll.

Something got knocked out of me, or got knocked into me, whatever the case may be. I was moving well, at least by my standards. I ripped through the final three miles faster than I had been able to in months. I had put in the right training, but the results hadn’t been coming. And all the sudden, after tripping and falling on the tree trunk (because I was an idiot), it was there. It was exhilarating and frustrating simultaneously. I hit my finish point, and let out a guttural, visceral yell. It wasn’t a yell of victory or defeat, but one of “where the hell was that!” Unfortunately, I wasn’t alone, and I scared the bejeezus out of two middle-aged women who were starting their walk. To this day, I would like to go back and apologize to them. Whoopsies.

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5’7″ and knee high socks; trend setting hunk

What’s the point?

Shortly before and shortly after I took sabbatical, some well-meaning people had reiterated the age old advice “do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” And as I reflect about that particular workout, and that particular piece of advice, I think that age old adage is slightly overblown. There’s a nugget of truth in there. But I don’t think it reflects the world in which we live. Nor do I think that it reflects what we actually do strive for. It’s just not realistic. It puts a lot of emphasis on the end product, the doing what you love. I rather enjoy the struggle.

In my view, there has to be some focus and some enjoyment of the approach. No one gets to do 100% of what they love. The age-old adage puts the focus on the end point, and that’s a ton of pressure. If you love to cook and own a restaurant, you have to spend a lot of your time thinking about pricing and inventory and running a business. If you’re a parent, you may love children, but you spend 1000 conversations with your child about washing your hands, or applying deodorant in the morning, or completing your homework. If you’re a computer programmer, you may love code, but how much of your time is spent in meetings planning, or explaining a process for the umpteenth time to a customer that doesn’t have a clue what’s going on? And so the list goes.

Here’s a hint. No matter what you do, even if it’s what you love, you’re going to work. Every day of your life. Never ending bliss does not exist. And that’s not meant to be pessimistic. It’s meant to avoid the pratfall that the old axiom suggests.

Life is going to get in the way at times. Work isn’t going to go as planned. No matter what you do, no matter how much you feel “love” for your occupation or calling, you are going to get derailed. Period. So if your goal is to get to do what you love 100% of the time, you are guaranteed to fail. Why not then embrace the struggle? Who knows if it will take you one whack, or two, or 10 to get something right? Contentment is going to come from two things; the result and the process. To adapt another old adage, it’s about the destination AND the journey. In my view, it’s not an either/or proposition. Denis Leary has a funny bit about “happiness in small doses” that is a bit too vulgar to quote here, but it is apropos.

If you get what you want easily, where’s the enjoyment after a while? Where’s the accomplishment? Where’s the sense of adventure and finding oneself? It’s gone. Conversely, if one struggles consistently without any reward, where’s the feedback to keep going? Every now and then, we need serendipity, that black magic, to descend upon us and jolt our spine to keep us going. We need that reminder of “that’s why I’m here! That’s why I’m doing this!”

That’s what hit me on that particular run. A little black magic. A little “something something” to keep me going. I do wish it would hit more often. But I think it’s largely out of my control. And I’m OK with it. More than that, I think that’s the way I want it. If your motives are good and if your approach is right, maybe the next breakthrough is just around the corner, past the next log, maybe sans the car keys next time.

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 40 year old pediatrician on sabbatical, happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I fell out of the Ugly Tree, and hit every branch on the way down.

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