Safety Pin & Preparation

Here is a guest post from my friend, the great Mike Nawrocki.  It is an interesting story about how even “experienced runners” make big mistakes!  Enjoy!

I helped coach the MDRA Fall Marathon Program this year.  During the week leading up to the Medtronic TCM, I e-mailed the members of the training group about 262 inspirational quotes to ponder in the days leading up to the marathon.  Or better yet, as they trudged up Summit Avenue for four miles.  And I opened the list with one of my all-time favorite quotes, this one by Roger Bannister.

“Sport is not about being wrapped up in cotton wool. Sport is about adapting to the unexpected and being able to modify plans at the last minute. Sport, like all life, is about taking risks.”

Little did I know just how much this quote and all the people who I helped “coach” (I use that term loosely) this summer would pull me through my own race: the TC10.

My goal for the TC10 was two-fold: finish in under an hour, but also finish with a smile on my face.  I got to the Metrodome about 90 minutes before my race.  Every time I got up to walk somewhere, I noticed my sock was sticky.

And here is a typical conversation I had with myself every time I re-discovered my sock was sticky.  “That’s weird,” I thought, “And kind of gross.  Feels like peanut butter.  Yum I like peanut butter.  Especially peanut butter cookies.  Oh and peanut brittle.  Not really made of peanut butter.  But brittle and butter sound the same.  Hey!  Which one do I like better?  Peanut brittle or peanut butter cookies.  Gotta go with the latter.  Easier to eat in mass quantities.  Eating in mass quantities.  Awesome.  I like fried cheese sticks….”  As you can see it didn’t take me long to forget “The Mystery of the Sticky Sock.”

Image from wickamoo

For years I have had a reputation for being somewhat of a flake.  The fact that I kept forgetting to investigate “The Mystery of the Sticky Sock” has done little to dispel this reputation.

In fact, I forgot all about my sticky sock until about a mile and a half into the TC10, when my sock became conspicuously “unsticky.”  I had started my race beautifully.  I went through mile one in 5:45, which admittedly was 20 to 30 seconds faster than I had planned.  But given my track record of going out 200 to 300 seconds too fast in races, who was I too complain?

Well, me.  I began to complain once I realized what was now “unsticky” in my sock.  And by “complain” I mean “curse a blue streak that would make a sailor turned red.”  I had cracked the case of “The Mystery of the Sticky Sock.”  That sticky thing in my sock was now a very loose, but closed, safety pin bouncing around the inside of my sock and the bottom of my foot.  So now I had a new mystery:  “The Mystery of How the *%#$@#!$! That Safety Pin Got in My Sock.”

But I had had more urgent matters to address.  We are all familiar with the “five stages of grief” we supposedly go through after a loss.  And in the thirty seconds it took me to realize there was a safety pin in my sock to finally deciding to sacrifice seconds and take the pin out of my sock, I hit all five stages.  I had to accept the possible loss of my goal: breaking 60:00 in this race.  So much for debating cheese sticks vs. peanut brittle!  Instead this is what I said to myself…

“What the *&%^$#@! is bouncing in my shoe?  It feels like a safety pin.  No way.  How the *&%^$#@! did a safety pin get in there!?  I’m still sleep-walking in the Metrodome.  I’m dreaming this. Seriously, how the *&%^$#@! did a safety pin get in my sock?!?! (stage 1: Denial)…

…*&%^$#@! That really is a safety pin!  I mean seriously! How does a safety pin get in my sock!!! &%^$#@!*&%^$#@!*&%^$#@!*&%^$#@! *%#$@#!$! (stage 2: Anger)…

Image from ~k~

There’s no way I can stop.  Every second is precious.  Here’s the deal.  If I move the pin around a bit, I’ll find just the right spot for it—a safe little nook for the pin to be where it won’t bother any toes.  And if I run just right, who’s to say it will ever open?  … (stage 3: Bargaining)…

…You know what?  That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever told myself.  And I’ve told myself some dumb things.  Wow a lot of dumb things now that I think about it.  Seriously how the *&%^$#@! did a safety pin get in my sock?!?! What kind of a rookie error is this?  I’m an idiot (stage 4: Depression).”

And of course the final stage is Acceptance.  I came to accept that the prospect of a pin stuck in my big toe was quite a bit worse than the prospect of not reaching my goal-time.  So it took me about a minute to get my shoe and sock off, shake the pin out, and finally get the sock and shoe back on.

As I hopped back up and started running again, I debriefed a little. I took stock of where I was at. Unable to answer the burning question of the moment (how the *&%^$#@! a pin got in my sock), I tackled bigger issues.  I thought about how I had a built-in alibi.  If I didn’t break 60 minutes, I could explain away any seconds over the one hour threshold to “The Mystery of How the *%#$@#!$! That Safety Pin Got in My Sock.”

But I thought about it a little more.  Part of racing is preparation.  Some of us take it for granted.  I have learned I can’t.  If I can’t get my socks on without endangering myself, that has to be factored into my time.  I thought about many of the e-mails and spoken advice I preached to the training class.  And they all had two central themes: 1) Prepare for every possibility, as much as you can, logistically and mentally, and 2) what you cannot prepare for, adapt to it quickly and smartly.

Not only had I preached this to the people in the MDRA training program, but I had seen them practice it.  I needed to be like them.  I had failed myself in terms of the first half of the message (preparing logistically), and it was now up to me to follow-through on the second-half and adapt.

I made it to the two mile mark in just over twelve minutes.  Close to where I wanted to be.

My mind went back to both the Bannister quote and to so many runners in our training program who had talked with me about how to train through injury, illness, and personal setbacks.  And I saw so many of those same people that morning in the Metrodome ready to toe the line for the marathon.  And thanks to them, I was able to put “The Mystery of How the *%#$@#!$! That Safety Pin Got in My Sock” behind me, and adapt to a new plan.  I could have quit my goal.  I had the alibi.  But I told myself I had to factor my own carelessness and distractibility into my time.  The risk was to go for my goal, even though less than two miles into the race, my entire plan blew up in my face.

And like Sir Roger Bannister said, isn’t that sport is all about?  Learning to take risks and adapt to adversity?  So I did it.  I finished in under an hour, and with a smile on my face.   But I do not believe I could have done if I didn’t spend all summer with the people in the training program.  I saw people adapting and taking risks on a regular basis at our practices.  So I just want to say thank you to everyone in the class for that.  You guys did a great job just by signing up and taking the risk that is training for a marathon.  You were the inspiration I needed at mile 1.5 of my own race.

It seems silly to think that preparing and running in a race will help me for life’s bigger challenges.  To quote the Mighty Mighty Bosstones: “I’m not a coward; I’ve just never been tested.  I’d like to that if I was I would pass.” But every day we lace up our running shoes to train for a race.  And every race we run, where there are no guarantees, we are training ourselves to step up to the bigger challenges life will throw at us.  And that is why I run.

But seriously, how the *%#$@#!$! did that a safety pin get in my sock?  Some mysteries, I have come to accept, go unsolved.

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