At Home in this World

Inspired by the facebook videos of Terry Reese, I’ve started doing some hurdling again, for the first time in a long time. I’ve hurdled on four separate occasions in the past two weeks. The 44-year-old Reese, a former national-caliber hurdler back in the 1990s who has gone on to coach at the collegiate level for almost two decades, still trains like a track athlete, doing sprint workouts and hurdle workouts on a regular basis. He often films his hurdle workouts and uploads them to his facebook page.

I can honestly say that, for me, the best thing about facebook is Terry Reese’s page. Besides the hurdling videos, he also often drops inspirational, thought-provoking quotes from various people from various walks of life. The quotes usually focus on the importance of facing life obstacles, making it clear that he approaches all aspects of his life with the hurdling mindset.

But yes, the hurdling videos are the best. Being 45, I can appreciate just how impressive it is that Reese is still able to do complicated hurdling drills and full-blown hurdle workouts over barriers ranging from 33 to 42 inches high. To me, clearing 42-inch hurdles is akin to climbing a mountain. And the way down hurts a whole lot more than the way up.

About ten years ago, chronic shin pain turned into a stress fracture in my right tibia. Many years of training, competing, and then doing workouts with my athletes during my early coaching years, had finally caught up with me. At that point, it became clear that my days of doing hurdle workouts were over. After a long period of a couple years when I was just plain miserable, I turned to distance running as a physical outlet.

I have enjoyed distance running and have done pretty well at it. It keeps me fit, helps me keep my weight down, and it truly is the next best thing next to hurdling. In training for 10K’s, half-marathons, and even marathons, I found that I had successfully moved on from hurdling. I had found a healthy replacement, and was no longer looking back to the good old days when I used to hurdle two or three times a week.

But then I became facebook friends with Reese a few months ago, and started watching the videos of his hurdling workouts. At first, though impressed, I felt far removed from what he was doing. I was happy for him that he could still do his thing after all these years, but felt no connection, no desire to go out there and do it myself.

But the coach in me kept nagging me, tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me that the best way to know what to tell my athletes when I’m coaching them is to test out my ideas on myself. Of course, as always, I had a multitude of technical experiments I wanted to try out. And when testing them out on athletes, it can be a bit unfair to them because it often makes them feel like I’m just throwing new things at them without evidence that they’ll work. They’re still trying to process old stuff and here I come to practice all excited with new ideas. So, doing some drills myself would make sense.

But the athlete in me said hell no. I remembered how, after coming back from the stress fracture, I could do everything I used to do beforehand except hurdle workouts. The push-off and the landing caused severe pain in both shins, to the point where I would need to take a good three or four days off before even going out to jog again. Hurdle workouts, I knew, weren’t worth the pain.

But Reese kept coming out with more videos. I kept watching them. Until finally I broke down.

A couple weeks ago I went out to the track at school and, after coaching a few athletes, set up one hurdle at 33 inches. I high-kneed up to it and jumped over it. Felt all right. Did it a couple more times, trying to teach myself the style that I now teach my hurdlers. Even at 33 inches, I could feel the various issues that came up when trying to execute the style. Forty minutes later, I had three hurdles set up at 33 inches, on the men’s 110 marks. I was taking five steps in between, working on executing the style that I teach. I found that my muscles, tight from all the distance running, weren’t prepared to allow me to put my body in the positions it needed to be in to execute the style effectively. The groin, hip flexors and hamstrings in particular just weren’t ready to do what needed to be done. But I still tingled with excitement because I could feel what I was doing wrong, and I knew how to correct it, but my body wasn’t ready to do it yet. Not bad for day one, after having not hurdled at all – beyond an occasional demonstration while coaching – in what basically amounts to ten years.

Later in the week I went out there again to do some more drilling, over 33 and then over 36. I was feeling so good that by the end I even tried over 39. It felt better than I thought it would, but I could tell that I was compromising some key components of technique in order to get over them, that I didn’t trust my body enough to go over 39’s fearlessly. If I’m worrying about a hamstring or calf muscle straining, I’m just being stupid. So for the last rep I put them back down to 36, and it felt great. That last rep felt so easy. Of the four or five different instructions I’d been reminding myself of the entire session, that was the one rep where it all came together.

It was about 5:30 at night. The sky had turned a deep shade of blue. The moon, about a quarter whole, was rising above the treetops. After the last rep I sat down beside the first hurdle and just let the feeling of peace and contentment wash over me. I hadn’t felt that good in a long time. I had had a rough day at school. I’d gotten annoyed with the students in one of my classes for their apathy, so I had walked out to the track in one of those moods where I was seriously doubting the importance of my role as a teacher.

But at that moment, sitting beside the hurdle after the end of that drill session, I felt like I had regained my emotional balance. As I sat there, I saw one of the students in the class that I had fussed at jogging in lane one. When she saw me, she stopped to ask if I was feeling okay. I’m fine, I assured her. She said that I’d seemed upset in class. Was something wrong? No, I said, nothing’s wrong.

And really, nothing was. I’ve come to understand that in the course of a school year, there are going to be those days when I just don’t like my job. As long as they are fewer and farther between every year, I can ride them out. I guess, when seeing your English teacher sitting by himself beside a hurdle in the dark, it makes sense to wonder if he’s okay.

But really, her inquiry startled me. I had just done my first true hurdle workout in ten years. I had come back from the dead. The fact that the hurdles were only 36 inches and that there were only three of them was inconsequential. I couldn’t possibly have felt better than I did at that moment. I couldn’t understand how she couldn’t see that. I was oozing tranquility, but she was interpreting it as despondency. It just made me realize how distant we are from each other in this life. We’re always looking for smiles and laughter – for outward signs of “happiness.” But in fact, the highest level of happiness doesn’t wear a smile on its face.

Because I did, in fact, appreciate her asking, I wanted to describe to her that post-hurdle-workout feeling, when the last rep goes just right and you feel so good about yourself and your life. That post-workout feeling that makes you wonder what you could’ve possibly been upset about before. But how do you explain that feeling to someone who has never hurdled before? Even other track athletes don’t understand it.

So I told her I was fine. She smiled, unconvinced, then continued her run.

In my most recent hurdle workout, two days ago, I took my three hurdles to the other side of the track, away from the main entrance. I had grown tired of my focus being distracted by people coming and going, making noise. On hurdle days, I like to get in the zone, and anyone’s chatter can have a negative effect on that process.

Got out to the track about 3:45, coached two sprinters for about an hour. Then, a little before five, as the sun was sinking below the trees, and the moon, now half-full, was gazing down upon me, I set up my hurdles and got rolling.

Always, I start with one hurdle at 33, and ease my way into it, checking to feel which body parts plan on giving me problems. It’s always a delicate balance between pushing myself to do more but not pushing myself so hard that I set myself back. It’s difficult trying to distinguish normal aches and pains from potential injuries.

With the darkness descending and the temperature dropping, I sped things up and was going over three 36-inch hurdles within a few minutes. I did my usual five-stepping, which used to be my basic warm-up speed back when in my competitive days. I did about twenty reps. And more so than ever, I felt my old instincts coming back.

I used to always talk myself through hurdle workouts, and I found myself involuntarily doing that again. Between reps, I was talking to myself out loud, reminding myself of what to focus on for the next rep. I don’t know what scientists would say on this topic, but I strongly believe that hearing my own voice giving myself instructions speeds up the learning curve significantly. For example, when I tell myself aloud to drive my trail leg to the front, my trail leg drives to the front. It’s like, during the rep, I can remember hearing it, so I do it. When I don’t give myself the verbal cue, it’s easier to forget.

So I talked myself through. I engaged in conversations with myself. Me the coach and me the athlete held a steady dialogue. On this day, at this time, I was out there by myself. But back in the day, my tendency to talk to myself during hurdle workouts elicited confused stares and amused giggles. But when you’re in the zone of a hurdle workout, you don’t care what you look like, and you don’t care what people are saying about you. You’re in the zone.

Meanwhile, I could feel my muscles adapting to what I was asking them to do. The groin and hip flexors were rotating with little effort now. My body was gaining an innate understanding of the angles I wanted it to be in. The forward lean over the hurdle was the hardest part because I’ve lost a lot of flexibility in my hamstrings and lower back. It wasn’t necessarily distance running that caused the decrease in flexibility. More so it’s the fact that in running distance it’s easy to get away with running without stretching first, and I’ve gotten in the habit of doing that far too often. So, I had to kind of put myself in that forward position before I took my first step, and then just try to hold it over each hurdle and when coming off each hurdle.

By the latter stages of the workout, the lean was clicking in sync with the rest of the technique. Once it finally did, I decided to do three more reps, and those three reps felt incredible. Fluid, rhythmic, tight. No wasted effort, no pauses in the action. I had stopped giving myself verbal instructions so I could see whether or not my body could operate effectively on auto-pilot. It did, and that’s why those last three reps felt so good.

Once I finished, I sat down beside the first hurdle again. Then, blissfully exhausted, I lie down on my back and gazed up at the moon. That moment … if I could describe it to you I would. But that moment marked one of the very few times I have ever felt at home in this world. And the only other times, I noted to myself, were also after hurdle workouts.

The past two days, I’ve been reflecting back on that workout, trying to comprehend what happened. I do know that something profound took place – not just on the track, but within my own heart and soul. I honestly didn’t realize that I missed hurdling so much. I didn’t understand how little, in comparison, the other aspects of my life fulfill me. That includes distance running, that includes writing, that includes teaching, and that includes coaching. All of these are meaningful, vital aspects of my identity, and provide for me ways to contribute to society. I enjoy them immensely and savor every opportunity that each provides me to positively impact lives and to create deep connections.

But I think that what I’ve come to understand is that Joy with a capital “J” has an undeniably physical aspect to it. And that for me, for some reason that I may never know, nothing even comes close to the feeling of running over hurdles. The feeling of running a half-marathon at a personal-best pace does not compare on any level to the feeling of a half-hour’s worth of drills over 36’s. That thing that Christians refer to as Grace, that Buddhists refer to as Nirvana – that peace which surpasses all understanding – I have only experienced that on the track, over a lane of hurdles.

When it happens in a race, it’s not as pure, because of the competitive element. Competition is so much about achieving goals and proving oneself superior to others that the joy of winning tends to water down the joy of hurdling. In workouts, the joy is pure. It’s not watered down.

On his facebook page, Reese often explains that he continues training and hurdling because it keeps him fit and simply because he still can. Such explanations are for outside observers who don’t understand. I give the same ones. They’re for people who use negative terms like “obsession” and “addiction.” People who don’t understand why a man in his mid-40’s would put himself through such arduous workouts for the “fun” of it. My athletic director saw me hurdling last week and asked me if I plan on competing in masters meets. Of course I don’t. But that’s the mindset of our society – if you’re training, you must be training for something. But if you love what you do, and you do what you do because you love what you do, then you don’t need to explain anything to anyone. That’s where I am right now.

I often find myself wondering what life is all about. That workout a couple days ago brought me back to my college days, when, in the fall, I used to go out to the track and work out 10 o’clock at night. It took me back to my early coaching years, when I used to reserve Sunday mornings as the time I’d go out and do monster hurdle workouts by myself or with one or two of my hurdlers. It took me back to December of my senior year of high school, when I did my first hurdle workout after being sick in the hospital for three weeks, receiving treatment for a rare blood disease.

I’ve spent much of my adult life searching, trying to figure out what I want. Trying to figure out what the ideal situation would be for me as a coach, as a teacher, as a writer, as a family man. At different times in my life I thought I wanted to be a novelist, a college coach, a professional coach, a college professor. I’ve thought that I wanted a bigger house, to make more money.

But all I’ve ever really wanted was what I had all along. A track, a lane of hurdles, and a body fit enough to do some drills.

© 2011 Steve McGill

Here’s the link to Terry Reese’s youtube page. Watch and learn:

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