Although he doesn’t do it much any more, my father was an awesome runner in his day. When I was 12 or 13, I watched him run a 5:22 mile; he was in his mid-forties at the time, and I don’t think he was even trying that hard. In 1990, at the age of 50, he ran the Berlin marathon in 2:50, finishing in the top 1% of men 50-54, in the top 5% of all men, and 1014 out of a total of 20,770 runners. He averaged a 6:30 mile for 26.2 freaking miles. I could not run one 6:30 mile.
What impresses me more is how easy my father made running look. Top-notch athletes always have this air about them. Watch Michael Phelps swim. Watch Nadia Comaneci rock the 1976 Olympics. For that matter, watch Mine that Bird‘s comeback in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. (First, watch the event live and notice that the commentator didn’t even realize what was happening. Then, watch the race from overhead to get a real sense of what that gorgeous horse did. Brings tears to my eyes, it’s that spectacular.)
Last year, I happened to pass by Flagstaff’s top male runner as he was finishing a loop I was just beginning. (Yeah, he was that far ahead of me.) He glanced down at me for a moment, then turned to look over his shoulder to see how far behind the next runner was. (The answer: really really far.) Then, just like that–whoosh–he was gone. He looked lovely, moving so fast but with what seemed such little effort. I felt that sense of wonder you get when you unexpectedly happen upon a deer in the wild and momentarily make eye contact before it runs away. I had been in the vicinity of a Magical and Mystical Creature.
What amazes me most about my father’s accomplishments is that he started running around the age of 40. (Incidentally, I am turning 40 in a few wee months and began racing recently–eat that, Freud!) He started running because his best friend had a heart attack and was told by his doctor to do some cardio. In support, my dad began running with him. He then suddenly discovered that he could run really far and really fast and that he really really liked it. So, he just kept on going.
We could speculate all day about why my father was able to become a competitive runner late in life after years of average fitness. Some would say genetics, that he was born to run. His name is Reiner Renner, after all. Some might say he pushed himself in training–and certainly with his philosophy of “run as far and as fast as you can every time you run,” we’d expect dramatic results. Some would say he was obsessed, and I do recall that once we had to wait for him to get back from a run so we could open our Christmas presents. None of this seemed unusual to me. Running was just What He Did.
When my father runs, he looks like he is doing exactly what he is meant to do and exactly what he wants to be doing. It is His Thing.
(This has probably started to sound like an “I-love-Brian-Piccolo-and-I-want-you-to-love-him-too” speech or like I’m trying to make up for forgetting to send a father’s day card this year, but I swear I have a bigger point, and it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. Stick with me for a moment.)
There is far better terminology for what I’m talking about than the Thing. Some refer to it as being “in the zone” or “on a roll,” others as “flow.” In sports, it’s when mind and body work together, and the cooperation is effective, effortless, and pleasurable. You know what you have to do, and you do it without thinking about it too much because you already know you can. I’ve experienced this a few times. Every once in a while during a volleyball game, I would start feeling like I could predict where every opposing spike was going to land and would get there in time to receive it. In softball, I’d feel The Thing sometimes when turning a double play, getting out of a run-down, or sliding into home.
The Thing lies at the nexus of joy and ability. It’s not the same as simply being good at something. The Thing is what you become good at specifically because you love it so much you can’t help but do it and so you become good at it along the way. I don’t think you are always naturally good at your Thing either, but you don’t mind being bad at it because you know that you’re going to get better.
Not all Things are sports-related, of course. Sometimes when I’m writing, my brain stops judging every word and idea and just lets me write; then, words zipper together into seamless little sentences. My guitar instructor years ago was clearly doing his Thing: he didn’t think chords or strings or frets. He just played. I met a mountain climber last year who knew exactly what I was talking about when I asked what his “Thing” was. He instantly replied, “Reading the rock.”
For other people, it’s knitting, cooking, putting together puzzles, assembling engines, designing websites, navigating the wilderness. I don’t believe, though, that passive acts, like watching films, reading books, listening to music, are Things, though they sometimes feel like it. I don’t know about you, but those sorts of activities always leave me feeling hungry to create rather than sated from consuming. But maybe I’m wrong. It doesn’t really matter what I think. Whatever it is, when you’re doing Your Thing, time stops, doubt dissipates, the brain lets loose the reins, and everything just works, and you knew that it would beforehand.
Some people are lucky enough to have more than one Thing. Some make damn sure they do. I like those people.
I have always thought that the meaning of life is to find a way to give your Thing(s) as much as time and space as it wants . . . within reason, of course. We all need to pay bills. But I think that people should at least consider practical ways to make their Thing their Life. I suppose some would say that this would ruin the Thing, and maybe that’s true. I don’t know. I don’t think so, though. That’s not the nature of the Thing.
(Okay, now this probably sounds like some carpe diem, seize the day, follow your bliss kind of post. It’s not that either. I promised no unicorns and no rainbows. So here goes.)
I have nightmarish fears about my Thing.
1) Do I still have a Thing? What if my Thing is gone? What if I gave it up, lost it? My most powerful experiences of Thingness occurred during sports I don’t play anymore, and the creative Things I dabble in (writing, photography) don’t “click” as much as I’d like; I never seem able to escape the endless self-doubt, the driving need to “be good,” the desire to make other people ooh and aaah. By my definition, these feelings mean that these things are not (yet?) Things.
2) Are my Things really just things? Did I train for a triathlon because it was a meaningful accomplishment or because society has told me that it should be a meaningful accomplishment? Do I visit national parks because I love the experience or because I’ve learned that I should love it and that stamps in my Parks Passport make me An Interesting Person? Am I appropriating other people’s Things in hopes they will become mine? Am I doing everything for the photo opportunity and the Facebook post? Am I simply performing happiness? Rehearsing bliss? Do I even know what makes me happy anymore? Sometimes, I confess, I can’t always tell the difference between What I Love to Do and What I Should Love to Do.
3) What if I never discover my Thing? My dad only found his accidentally at 40, after all. What if, for example, my Thing is ballet? The chances of my ever doing ballet are zilch because I’ve already made some assumptions that I won’t like it, couldn’t do it, etc. How would I ever know if I were wrong? What if my Thing is playing the oboe or carving canoes or designing crossword puzzles? There are so many potential things that I’ll never try: what if one of them is My Thing?
4) And ohmygod what if what I think is blue is actually green but I call it blue and when you look at blue you see green but you call it blue? How would we ever know that my blue is green and that your green is blue?
I’ve gone all hysterical. Anyway, I refer you back to my title.
See? No rainbows and no unicorns.