July 1, 2006

A for Effort

You know, I'm a smart guy usually. I did well in high school, 3rd in my class, high SAT scores. Earned a full ride scholarship to a large university. Did well there, too, applying my intelligence to multiple pursuits within and outside of academia. Even through recent history, I was respected for my brains.

But there's one area I've never been able to be smart in, and that's all this physical stuff. I nearly failed health in middle-school. Hated P.E. in high school; could never hope to succeed in basketball, football, baseball, though I sure gave it the ol' Dopher try. It was dismaying to be the next-to-last picked for teams; more dismaying to see the entire field move inward when it was my turn at the plate. Making contact with the ball was not the problem: distance was. I became master of the bunt, but the guys caught on to that. In college I once again nearly failed Physical Education 101, primarily because I couldn't get within 6" of touching my toes. High marks in trying; low marks in succeeding. And believe me, there are no A's for effort.

Except once. In what I remember as the first truly validating moment, both for me as a non-athlete PE student and for the coach as quality teacher material, I did once earn an actual A for Effort. It was the end of the spring semester in my high school freshman year, I believe. We'd all had Coach K for three years now, with his Hulk Hogan-like visage and swagger pushing us to be baseball players, basketball players, track stars, or just to drag our sorry asses around the "one mile" loop of dirt roads around the school as many times as we could before the period was up. Running was both a planned activity and a punishment, in his classes. (Was 1.25 miles I later found out. That sneaky bastard.) Well, it'd been a long, hard semester, one that not too many people enjoyed, and it came the day before the end of school where the grade slips were passed out. This was done publicly, with everyone in the locker room. Your grade wasn't announced, but we all had the class totals on our slips: 2 Fs, 3 Ds, 6 Cs, 16 Bs, and 1 A. This, in a PE class, was unusual. Most people got As in PE. I mean, all you had to do was show up, perform well, and pass the one or two written tests on sports, right?

Well, no. Coach K didn't go into the tests or anything specific in the semester. He laid it out: as a class, we were slacking. Even the sports stars in the class, the captains of the baseball and basketball teams, were considered slackers that semester. Coach K was tired of being met with a half-assed effort. He acknowledged talent and improvement with those Bs, but he made it clear that only one student had - without much performance success by most yardsticks - simply gone out and DONE the things each period that was asked of him. He might not be good at sports, the coach said, but he'd gone out every day and tried. He didn't slack, he didn't phone it in, and he didn't complain. For that, for his continual effort throughout the semester, he'd earned the only A in the class.

At this point, I was the only one who knew I was that A winner. I was bewildered and confused. I hadn't particularly gone out every day and tried to be the best, nor had I thought about possible grade consequences of what I did or did not do well. I assumed I'd earn the same B I always did. Yet here I was being rewarded for continuous effort. I didn't know any other way to do it, to tell the truth, because if I'd ever slacked off, and if my dad heard about it, I'd get my ass warmed but good. (Yes, I realize it was probably more of an object lesson for the athletic ones; but hey.)

Coach wrapped up his little sermon by pointing out that the non-gifted, but effort-producing A student was me. Great, I thought, here's where the after-school beatings begin. No beatings ensued. Only a few of my peers even complained and they were the people who slacked the most and everyone knew it. The true athletes, the starters on the teams, didn't say a word. Maybe they knew this was coming, maybe not. Certainly they'd been warned that their starting positions and even their futures on varsity teams were in real jeopardy. One student, D.B., who always was a class act, even congratulated me in private.

So why is this anecdote important today? Because it is an illustration of the fact that all I can bring to this game called running is effort. That for whatever reason, even my A game is remarkably stupid, ill-informed, ignorant, forgetful.

Today, for instance, was to be a 6-miler. Yeah... Well, I slept in, took my time with therapy, finally stepped out for a run about oh...the worst time of day imaginable. Noon. You know, it didn't FEEL hot, since the humidity was down, but by the time I got to the park, it was 85 degrees or so. It warmed up a little bit more over the next hour; not that I was out there that long. In the first mile, I was reminded that: I'd been forgetting one of my medicines for a week, an anti-inflammatory; I'd forgotten my Spiriva and Advair, so I didn't have those bronchodilators in my system; I hadn't done my hypertonic saline either. I hadn't brought fuel or fluids. I hadn't had any Enduralytes or gel About the only prep I'd done right was good stretching on the way up to the park. In short, I AM A 'TARD! What was I thinking?

By the second mile, I knew that I'd have to swap today's schedule with tomorrow's. So I cut the run short at mile three, a decision reinforced by the amount of air-trapping I was experiencing and the dry heaves I was having. I would have to live to fight another day. So much for A for Effort.

I headed home, sucked down some albuterol, water, and Enduralytes, then headed back out on the bicycle. The police were registering bikes for free in the park, so this was a nice little bit of cross-training. I LOVE going down the slope in the park, where I can gear higher and move down the hill four or five times faster than I usually run.

So the plan is to hit the hay as soon as my hypertonic saline is done tonight, get up at 6 and do the six miles I should've done today. I will fuel right, I will take hydration, I will take Enduralytes, I will bring some goddamn SMARTS to this! Then, tomorrow, I get a day off. Yay.

Coach K was always close with his favorite athletes and didn't have much time for people who weren't. He and I were never close and I don't even think we liked each other. But after that semester, I had more respect for him as a teacher. A couple of years later would come another moment, when I was managing the basketball team, and I refused to give a player aspirin without Coach's permission. The player got mad, but Coach backed me up. Still, it was a distant relationship. A few years later, after my sophomore year in college, Coach K had a heart attack and died. It was unfortunate news, but I was really shocked when his widow called me a couple days later, asking if I'd come to the memorial. She revealed that Coach had kept a running and oft revised list in his sock drawer of people he specifically wanted at his memorial. And I was on it, one of the only students past or present listed by name.

I like to think that I honor Coach K's memory in the long term by the effort I put out. Days like today - well, I feel good anyway, because I know the effort was there, but the body was not ready because my prep was stupid. Even Coach K would have benched me today. But he'll be expecting me to earn that A again tomorrow.


Danny said...

that's a pretty amazing story...

Steve said...

I always suspected you were a brainy person ( not just a jock)

rivkayael said...

thank you for this post--the need to validate effort, vs. effortless achievement really spoke to me! the example that you set in your running journey is truly inspiring.