For this writing I want to break from my usual tone and reflect on the journey that brought me to today, and I want to look at it through one of my favorite pastimes: running.
Here’s a short story.
As I looked down at my GPS watch trying to keep my heart rate below 136 beats per minute (bpm), I marveled at just how untrained my aerobic system was. My whole life (at least since I was a junior in high school) I’ve been trying to run faster. I would run as hard as I could as often as I could but I seemed to plateau at just below an average pace.
My frustration–not to mention my self consciousness–was only heightened when I arrived at West Point. Track-and-Field stars, marathon runners, triathletes, sprinters, it seemed everyone arrived with a prestigious running background except for me.
During our basic training, known as Beast Barracks, I was often relegated to the dreaded Brown Group. The third in a tired running system–blue, green, brown.
There in the Brown Group we would sprint hills, jog for long slow miles in the rain, be randomly set to sprints such as to induce vomiting, but mainly we were just disdained for the “shit” we apparently were–as denoted by our group’s designated color.
Running wet, bedraggle, and discouraged all I could think about was how miserable I was while running.
The message to us was clear, it went something like this:
“We’re not sure how you got in to West Point with these run times, but if you want to stay, you better figure it out.”
So like I had in high school and like I did at the West Point prep school where I had been the year before, I began running as hard as I could as often as I could until I was able to convince our group leader I was ready to move out of the team most associated with fecal matter.
To me though, the message had been sent loud and clear and I would often repeat it back to myself.
“I’m a slow runner and always will be. I’m ashamed of this.”
What’s strange is that from the first time I tried going out on a simple job with my dad in middle school I loved it. But my inability to run faster or farther always sat there–at first questioning me, then accusing me, and ultimately discouraging me.
Taking a PT test at West Point and watching many of my peers do literal laps around me (while the marathon team would joke how they hadn’t even warmed yet as I dry heaved across the finish line) my internal narrative would solidify even further.
Even though I loved the experience of running on my own, I would never be good at it and would forever feel ashamed of my abilities. I was even afraid to go on a jog in the middle of the day for fear of being quietly judged by the people I passed for my slow pace (a ridiculous thought that carried to this day!)
“Better not run past the Superintendent’s or Commandant’s house” I would think as I would plan my hidden route.
I did have a few bright spots, the greatest of which came when I was working on my stride. I learned to ditch my heal-strike gait and saw a bit of improvement. But ultimately it wasn’t what I was hoping for.
I remember my worst run time came the last PT test I took before getting out of the Army as a Conscientious Objector. I was worn out from fighting the system all by myself, hopeless, and anxious not to mention out of shape. I passed by 2 seconds.
As we would cover those miles in formations up and down the mountains of West Point, or as I would secretly jog by myself so no one could judge me, my mind would often enter the common reflective, meditative state that many endurance activities encourage.
It was on many of those mediative, quiet jogs that I would find dread, confusion, or worry waiting for me as I considered what I was really training and working so hard for at the academy. I would think about the logical end of my time at West Point which was always in some way supporting “to close with and destroy the enemies of the United States.”
I could barely muster enough energy to warrant hitting my friendly opponent in the face at boxing or combative class. This sort of behavior, practice, or mentality didn’t seem very helpful. This “warrior” they want me to be, it’s not my true self. I’m not violent, I’m not a killer, I don’t believe in aggression or destruction to solve any type of problem.
“This song makes me want to beat the shit out of ISIS,” I would then hear in my ears, remembering one of our senior leaders bellowing proudly as he ran past me on one of our infamous brigade runs–a 4,000 person painful speedwalk through West Point and the surrounding village. An activity of whose purpose I am still uncertain.
These runs were led by our senior leaders–our Superintendent, a 4 Star General, and Commandant, a 1 Star General. They would stand in front all 4,000+ Cadets and our instructors and we would just, run.
The senior leader who made the aforementioned remark had sat with me at a contemplative prayer vigil a few weeks prior to his public confession about wanting to beat the brown group out of his enemies.
“Am I really ok being this hypocritical?” I wondered.
“Can I love my enemies while training to kill them?”
A few years later I would submit and be granted discharge as a Conscientious Objector. The culmination of years of contemplation, reflection, and trying to be honest with myself.
So yesterday, when I looked down at my heart rate monitor on my GPS watch my mental landscape was quite different.
The pace was comfortable. I learned that, “In order to go faster, you have to go slower.”
By training in my fat burning zone (or zone 2) I’m teaching my body to use fats as a fuel. In the past when I would run as hard and as fast I could I would instead use carbohydrates and sugars in zones 3 or 4.
As it turns out, this was forcing my body to deplete all of its glycogen–something it can only sustain for about 90 minutes. Training in this way leads to the grey zone, or zone 3 plateau. Basically, you only train your quick twitch, fight or flight energy system which always leaves one fatigued, unimproved, and unchallenged. Hence the name the gray zone.
So I learned I needed to stop running as fast as often as I could and slow down to train my zone 2 endurance, for me anything under around 136 bpm. The more I train in this zone the more efficient my body becomes and my pace is slowly catching up to its usual time but my heart rate is staying low.
In life, I’ve also had to slow down to go faster.
I had to abandon my career–which has meant serious social, financial, and life-altering consequences. I had to be real with myself about what I was working for, and slow down to evaluate the direction of my life, how it was going to impact the world around me.
Once I was going slow enough to listen to the still, small voice of divine consciousness inside me (inside all of us) it was clear what must be done.
I’d rather be a dead seed in the forest of peace than a blind, scared cog in the machine of violence and hypocrisy.
As I looked down at my GPS watch and settled into my new, slower pace I hardly even noticed the sideways, freezing rain beating my body as I made my way down the lonely street.
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