Thoughts on running, blogging, and how we get better at things

Over the summer I had the good fortune to meet Chris Huntington. If you’ve been reading Growing Sideways for awhile you may remember him as the subject of The Parent Interview #5 and the author of a guest post about a family trip to Hong Kong Disney.

He also lives quite far away, in Singapore, but this summer he was back with his family in the United States. Their tour included a stop in July in northern Maine to visit his wife’s grandmother. That was just about the same time that Growing Sideways was showing signs of new life. I’d just written about “the meaning of a summer in Maine,” and that post served as an unintended smoke signal: Chris saw it, we emailed, and on a Saturday afternoon, the boys and I met him, his wife, Shasta, and their son, Dagim, at a bookstore in Portland.

The meeting could have been awkward, but it wasn’t. We talked easily about our summer plans, life in Singapore, and life in South Carolina. Every now and then I’d remember we were ostensibly strangers to each other, and that he lived halfway around the world, and things would go out of focus for a second. But, really, our entire lives exist in strange circumstances, and usually it’s best to pretend everything’s normal. So, for a successful hour, that’s what we did.

After the bookstore we stopped by a donut shop where I ordered a chocolate glazed. As we ate, Chris asked me why I’d stopped writing Growing Sideways through the winter and spring. I didn’t—and don’t—have a clear answer, but I did say that during that period I’d viewed the blog as fallow, not dead, and that I’d always anticipated I’d pick it up again.

In this, I said, I tended to think about Growing Sideways the way I think about running—as something that develops in bursts, then settles, then bursts again.

Running is a ripe metaphor in general. It has weight for me personally because in the realm of easily assessable activities, it’s both the thing I’m best at and the thing I’ve improved at most.

I’ve been running for nine years, and that time breaks into five phases:

  1. 2005-2008. Just starting out, I ran a few times a week, at an easy pace and never more than four miles. During this period there were several multi-month stretches in which I didn’t run at all.
  2. 2009. Around May of that year I thought I should try to run a marathon. I was worried about getting injured so I trained at the minimum I thought I needed to be able to complete the distance. That November I ran the Philadelphia Marathon in 3:24, about twenty minutes faster than I’d expected.
  3. 2010-2011. I went back to short runs a few times a week, and again had long stretches in which I ran very little at all.
  4. 2012. That January I met a pair of accomplished marathoners at a birthday party. We talked for awhile about training, which got me wondering how much faster I could run a marathon if I put in more miles than I had the first time. I trained through the summer and that October ran the Detroit Marathon in 3:14.
  5. 2013-present. For the last two years I’ve been going along at a middle speed, running 20-30 miles a week, neither letting my running drop-off, nor doing much to get appreciably better at it.

Altogether, the pattern is of periods of dedicated activity, which led to higher results, interspersed with periods of idling. The first time I thought about running this way, I was surprised: I’d always imagined progress as linear, and given thoughtless assent to sayings like, “If you’re not getting better, you’re falling behind.”

So, when I wasn’t blogging much, I always imagined that the inactivity was a prelude to some next act. There’s a strong self-delusional risk to that kind of thinking; it’s easy to confuse a fallow period with a real descent, or to rely on the currents alone to buoy you, when all progress requires, at some point, an act of will.

But there’s also no use hastening some things. Right now my running is in a semi-fallow period and Growing Sideways is just coming out of one. I have in mind that I’d like to run a sub 3-hour marathon one day, just like I sometimes have big ideas for this blog. Will either ever happen? I don’t know, but it’s exciting to be position where you have energy, and don’t know exactly what comes next.

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