Treading Backwards

28 April 02017 (6 months ago)12 minutes of your time

Conversations with Magpie is a (new) long read series I’m working on as a kind of ten year retrospective on the themes in my running blogging efforts.

I just realized it. I have filled a decade with so many plodding klicks, one foot after the next foot after the next foot, for hundreds of thousands of steps adding up to a distance that is taxing to bend to a manageable perspective. I’ve now filled a decade with this running.

Magpie: I’ve been watching you.

I know.

You never say much, but I know. After all these years.  I see you there now, of course. I didn’t notice at first, but you’ve been there since the beginning. Nearly the beginning. Not those first few months.

Did you know that I’ve mentioned you in my writing on occasion?

Magpie: It doesn’t surprise me. I don’t read it. Actually, I don’t read.

There are many words alluding to our brief conversations. Multiple posts about our quiet moments together. I’ve been writing all this, of course. I’m the guy who recorded it all for posterity. I saved it for something.  Saved it for some reason I haven’t quite figured out, not yet.

Magpie: How will you figure it out?

If nothing else I figure that posterity let’s me look back. I figure that posterity is the prism through which I can bend my perspective into something worth looking at. Ten years later that all seems a little more clear.

Magpie: Tell me.  What happened before we met?

I’m looking back now. It shreds through the delicate coherence of my mind to read the first few fragments of it all. There was almost what you might call desperation in the words. I had been something, then I wasn’t it anymore, and then I wanted the ineffable bits of it  back once again.

Once, I Ran Ten K. (January 2007)

Two thousand seven is the year of incremental changes.

I wrote that. Plotted a destination in my mind, a spot on the distant horizon. Looked back.  Or perhaps forward. Or.

A nudge here. A bump there. A baby step along the path to enlightenment. With one month down, it’s time to run. I used to be able to run quite well. Not so many years ago, maybe —and for two summers in a row we participated in a local ten klick race. Timed respectably, too.

Optimism veiled in desperation. You see how this began? With a plan that was too simple.

Magpie: Simplicity is best. Take it from me.

Well, sure. It began with the simplest of ideas. It began with a plan, a hope, a feeling of wanting something slightly different. A yearning for those few years prior, before the roots of adulthood had fully ravelled round my legs.

I used to jog after work. I’d even go so far as to say I had reasonable endurance. I was a runner —kinda. Somehow that has dwindled. Age, I guess.

Magpie: You were thirty.

Yeah. Back then this achingly ancient concept.

Work. Suburbia.

Though both of these would prove to be my eventual allies, you know.  

Who can say? It’s complex.

However — a light at the end of the tunnel. Just over a week ago we inherited a treadmill. Long story. And not a particularly interesting story, either. It’s just there now, in the basement, waiting. And after all, two thousand seven has been declared my year of incremental changes. I started running last week.  Slowly. Baby steps.  With a reasonable number, and that is how I’m working my way up: incrementally. An easy pace. A warm up pace. A good walk. A slow jog. Six minutes. Eight minutes. Little more than a solid trot.

I’ve set a few goals: I’d like to run another ten klick race this summer. I’d like to run it as well as I did back in two thousand three and two thousand four.

At the time the pinnacle of my athletic career. I should say.

Magpie: Nothing to brag about. But a start.

Yeah, a start.  Everything needs a start and starts are usually unfocused in a way that is never really clear until the story reaches a climax. It’s all I had: a pair of memories. A backwards goal on a forwards path.

So — it starts. And I’m noting today, very specifically, simply, frankly, because I came home from work and I ran (at a twelve minute mile pace) a whole mile. One mile. Sounds sad. Sounds weak. I know. But baby steps, remember.

It starts.

Magpie: Did it?

Loosely. That optimism veiled in desperation pushed me forwards down my backwards path for a few weeks. I remember bits of it. I remember logging time in the dark basement. I remember putting in my time within the most minimal boundaries of progress. I remember running, recording these barely-worthy spans to just to say it was done, to get the heart beating ever so slightly faster, and then check-boxing a grand success.

It was the optimism that eventually broke me. Do you remember?

Magpie: You didn’t know me then.

Right. How could I? I was jogging in ten minute stints in my basement with the oversized plan of calculating enough distance, somehow, unfathomably, mathematically beyond scope, to tread the imaginary thousand or more klicks from that same basement backwards, back to the coastal city from which we’d moved three years prior.

Magpie: You were running to Vancouver on a treadmill?

It was my goal, yes.  It was my goal in merely the most mathematical of fashions.

Running to Vancouver (February 2007)

Just to be completely oddball about this whole fitness thing, I’ve decided to make it both more concrete and more abstract all at the same time. I’ve made it concrete by assigning a quantitative goal. I’ve made it abstract by attaching that quantitative goal to a random fiction and put said fiction into an electronic format.

Magpie: Once a geek, always a geek, huh?


I’m a quantitative goal kind of guy. I’ve been around for thirty-odd —emphasis on odd— years…

Magpie: Turning thirty sure did a number on you, huh?

Mortality is scary.

Magpie: Mortality is just more math.

…and I know this is what tends to work for me and my neurotic little brain. I’ll be keeping track of my running and for every klick I run I’ll record it and add it to the total. The abstraction is then my goal to run from Edmonton to Vancouver. This run will only occur hypothetically of course, but the total klicks (eleven hundred and sixty klicks according to Google Maps) will be my real destination.

My treadmill measures in miles, not kilometers. I’ll be converting using the factor of 1.61(x) based on what the treadmill says. This could take a while, so sit back and shake your head.

Magpie: The suspense is killing me.

Is it?

Then I’ll spare you further agony with some of my own.  Two weeks later I was already writing of my impending failure. The treadmill didn’t get me all the way to Vancouver. In fact, it barely made it out of the city.

Short Circuit (February 2007)

A stumble, tripping me up in my running efforts has emerged. A sporadic problem with the circuit breaker on the treadmill is cutting short my kilometers. According to the little label on the breaker switch, the treadmill is rated for 10 amps. It’s plugged into a 15 amp circuit. Everything should be right as rain, but anywhere from three to ten minutes into a jog, the built-in breaker on the treadmill trips and the belt bobs to a standstill. I’ve got the electrician-of-the-family looking into this mystery but for now, other than trying a few new electrical options over the ensuing days, my progress is impeded.

I was thwarted by the limits of my hand-me-down technology.  More time was spent debugging a system than debugging my plan.

Magpie: It sounds lonely.  A man and a broken treadmill in his dark basement.

You really have no idea.

People ask me why I so deeply despise treadmills and it is difficult to impress upon them the nuances of this exact sentiment. They are lonely, functional, recording machines designed for a single purpose. The ten years that followed this pathetic attempt at mathematical fitness-making has proven to be as much a social endeavor as is has been of athleticism.  Marathons are not the product of four hours of plodding, but by the push to move through a crowd and under the sun and across gritty asphalt. You could log forty-two klicks on a treadmill, but would you call it a marathon?

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Magpie: You are.  As I said, I didn’t know you yet. Though I do get the sense of a looming break in more than your little machine.  Your spirit. Your goal.  Your optimism.  Weren’t you still moving backwards at this point?

No.  But I was pretty much standing still, even by the base standards of a treadmill.

Other than resetting the circuit every few minutes whilst running, I’m limping to Vancouver these days.

Limping.  Limping but still moving.

Unseen in a dark basement.

Magpie: It conveys a little creepy when you put it that way.

It’s been ten years. Maybe it was a little creepy.  Or maybe it was a little shy. Or maybe it was a little optimistic and naive.

I wasn’t writing much on the subject, but for some reason when I did I was still attempting to convey glimmers of that optimism between the few scattered data points of my mathematical fitness efforts.

Magpie: If it were me, I would have left the lights off.

I should have, admittedly, but then I would have neither the posterity of those memories nor the perspective they are now giving us both.  A month of short jabs at what even now I’d think of as an epic running goal, and I assume I could the house of cards my plan had been built upon.

Yet the unravelling of the plan is interesting. At first I lash out at my tools before eventually ceding my shortcomings to myself. Mostly.

Things in Mind On Running (March 2007)

If you have been watching the little meter sloooooooooowly tick upwards, you may have noticed that progress has been a little slow. I hate to blame something in particular, but I’m going to anyhow. It seems my little friend electricity and I have something of a disagreement.

Magpie: Damn you, law of physics!

Are you mocking me?  I probably deserve that.

I, for example, think that by unplugging everything else on a particular circuit to run a treadmill for a short duration is a pretty fair compromise. It takes time. If I forget to plug the deep freezer back in, or re-activate the furnace then we have a problem. Electricity on the other hand considers this insufficient and continues to demand sporadic breaks at inconvenient times during my healthy-paced afternoon jogs. This is frustrating. And I’m at my wit’s end about how to satisfy the unruly beast that is 120 volts of copper-riding energy in my basement.

And then a few days later, this.

Out of Shape Sucks (March 2007)

I admit. Progress has been slow.

First, the whole treadmill thing has me in a bit of a bind. It works. Sporadically. But sporadically is more akin to frustration when one is depending on something for sheer reliability. I was spoiled by the gym.

I should mention that there was a brief moment when I paid for a membership at one of those fancy gyms.  I even bought some personal coaching. That’s the trick though: it seemed like a great idea from a dark, lonely basement.  Nostalgia.  It rears up once again.  The golden age of backwards, long ago, before suburbia and work and the ever creep of age crushed my dreams, whatever those indistinct dreams were.

Those high-end treadmills have a way of leaving one with something to be desired in the realm of home-quality fitness equipment. Instead, I bought some new runners and have been weather-watching for opportunity to get out on the streets. It’s not the cold so much but the ice on the sidewalks that slows me down.

Keeping track? I’ve left the city limits.

Keeping track of my numbers, I asked.  I definitely was.  It wasn’t a large number. Here I’m still dealing in my too optimistic mathematical abstractions. I know it too.

I know I suck, but one step at a time. Pacing is everything.

My first real outing (with the dog in tow) netted a wheezing one klick.

Magpie: Wheezing?

I was out of shape. Really. One klick bowled me over and left me broken.

That was the kick.  It all fell down right there.

All the treadmilling.  All the plodding backwards or forwards or just bouncing up and down on a plastic track through ten minute stints in my basement with the oversized plan of calculating enough distance, somehow, unfathomably, mathematically beyond scope, to tread the imaginary thousand or more klicks, all of it meant so very little when I actually stepped out of the house and onto asphalt.

My goal remains the same, but I’m adjusting it to the point where I can join a running class when the new Running Room location opens in April.

I didn’t.

I’m thinking the “Learn to Run 5K” class would be a good start.

It would have been.

But I didn’t.

At least, not at first.  Actually a week or so later I confirmed the news that I was going to be a father. That has a way of pulling you out of the sulky, backwards nostalgia that one tends to cling to while traversing those chaotic and frustrating between spaces of life. I would not be sprinting across that space. I packed away the treadmill, stopped recording my mathematical accumulations of my pre-parenthood baby steps, and all-too-quietly ceased writing on the topic of running.

Magpie: Not permanently. Right? Obviously.

No. But that first year, or the next ten months of it at least, has little to do with the chronology of my running life.

Magpie: Will you tell me?

Next time.  I think that’s enough looking back for the moment.

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