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Knowing When You’ve Peaked

My son is a 5’4”, 93-pound 10th grader. He hates his skinny shortness. He is tired of the reminders that he just needs to be patient, that his 6’4” dad grew late, that late bloomers tend to be bigger than kids who hit puberty in middle school. To an almost-16-year-old, those words offer no comfort, not after he’s heard them a million times. 

But my goodness, this kid is built to be a cross country runner. A ballerina in Asics, he glides over mud and gravel, elbowing past other runners much larger than he. Watching him makes my heart swell to XXL.

The problem: in the first three races of the season, the kid ran at the speed of sloth. Teammates at the slower end of the spectrum were finishing well ahead of him, happily claiming, “Wow! I’ve never beaten you before!”

This sport that, just one year before, had made my boy feel less short and skinny, was reminding him that he was short, skinny, and slow. He pretended it didn’t bother him. I almost fell for it, his act of nonchalance. 

***

In September I went back to teaching middle school English after a fifteen-year break.  As one of 283 adults who loves middle schoolers, I find the job dreamy.

But since being hired in June and launching myself into curriculum development, I have written roughly 283 words. Before getting hired, I told my agent I’d have a complete manuscript by August (the August that was two months ago); still I have just .7 of a novel. Between curriculum writing, grading, lesson planning, teaching, parenting, plucking old lady whiskers from my chin, carpooling kids, locating dinner in the depths of the freezer, I can’t make time to write.

Writers write. If I’m not writing, well, you know.  

I pretend it doesn’t bother me. And it doesn’t. It terrifies me.

***

Through the month of September, I continued to not write, and my son continued to be not speedy. Then I heard a story about the Kenyan runner, Eliud Kipchoge. He had shattered the world record by running a marathon in 2 hours, 1 minute and 39 seconds. 

The story explained that Kipchoge, like many Kenyan runners, has “this brilliant ability not to fear running, not to see it as something that’s going to hurt but just to accept it. This is not about legs … It’s about the heart and mind.”

I thought about my son and his sudden slowness. How much of his slowness was a result of his heart and mind? How much of my inability to write was a result of silly excuses about being too busy?

Just a few days later, I heard a second story about Roger Bannister, the first man on record to run a sub-four-minute-mile, a feat many thought was impossible, beyond human capability. As an article from the Harvard Business Review explains, 

The experts believed they knew the precise conditions under which the mark would fall. It would have to be in perfect weather — 68 degrees and no wind. On a particular kind of track — hard, dry clay — and in front of a huge, boisterous crowd urging the runner on to his best-ever performance. But Bannister did it on a cold day, on a wet track, at a small meet in Oxford, England, before a crowd of just a few thousand people. [Looking back], experts believe it was “the mindset … rather than the physical achievement” that allowed him to break the record.

I told my son about these two runners, about the power of heart and mind in running.

“Maybe you should do some visualization,” I suggested with maternal helpfulness. “Imagine you are a Kenyan. Hey! What if, as you run, you say ‘I am a Kenyan. I am a Kenyan.’ over and over and over?”

He shrugged. “Coach Mike thinks I have a sinus infection. He thinks that’s why I’ve got this cough and disgusting snot. That that’s why I’ve been so slow.”

I paused, calculating how long I had been hearing my son’s cough and seeing the garbage can piled high with used Kleenex.

Crumb. 

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll call the doctor.”

Sure enough. Dr. N took a peek in my boy’s ears, nose, and throat, then said, “Yep. This is a bad one.” He prescribed fourteen days of antibiotics. Dr. N and Coach Mike should have been my son’s mothers.

But as one waits for antibiotics to work, there’s plenty of time for a skinny, no-longer-fast boy to ruminate: What if the antibiotics don’t help? What if a sinus infection isn’t the issue? What if I’ve just peaked?

Likewise, waiting for time to write gives me plenty of time to ruminate: What if I never finish that .7 novel? What if I spend two decades working on fiction, and I never get myself published? 

Worries are Whack-a-Mole moles.

***

This past Saturday, six days after finishing the course of antibiotics, my son had a big race an hour north of Seattle. Nearly one hundred teams from Washington and Alaska. He was pumped. Nervous and jumpy. Bouncy and electric.

Have you ever been to a XC meet? If you time things right, you can watch the mob at the start, hundreds of thin, long-legged boys in very short shorts and singlets running straight at you. Once they pass, you then run hither and yon, cutting across various parts of the course to catch glimpses of the sprinting man-children. It’s a sub-18-minute thrill. I scream and yell and cheer like crazy. 

At the finish line of this particular race, I caught sight of my boy among the sweaty throngs. 

“I PR’d!” he said.

He had knocked 18 seconds off his personal record. Because his teammates were around, I gave him a nonchalant fist bump and used emotive facial expressions to communicate joy and exuberance.

Later that night, still bouncy with relief and excitement, he let the truth out. “I pictured the course,” he said. “All week, I thought about my start and imagined myself passing people. Then I imagined my kick at the end. I pretended my lungs weren’t on fire.”

I probably got too excited. “And did you pretend you were Kenyan? Did you say, ‘I am a Kenyan’ over and over as you ran?”

He rolled his eyes. “No, Mom. Because I’m not Kenyan.”

“Ri-ight. Which is why I asked if you pretended to be a Kenyan.”

He laughed. He and I are cut from the same always-rushing, impatient, hard on ourselves, wonder-if-we’ve peaked, cloth. We also think we are funny.

“You haven’t peaked,” I reminded him.

“No,” he said. “I haven’t peaked.”

Later that night, when the house was quiet, I closed my eyes and imagined myself sitting at my computer, fingers racing across the black keys of my laptop, click click click, clickclickclick, like hundreds of Asics and Nikes pounding across a course of grass and gravel, crushing crisp autumn leaves, splashing through mud puddles. My fingers propel me, but mostly it’s my will and my heart pushing me toward the The End of my .7 work-in-progress.

It feels good. It feels better than focusing how difficult it is to carve out writing time. I don’t want to worry about whether I will or won’t complete this .7 novel. I want to explore the power of mind over muscle. I want to acknowledge, then accept, that I am in a particularly busy season, but seasons turn, turn, turn. That’s all. No big deal. I am a Kenyan. I am a Kenyan. I am a Kenyan.

My son’s got another race today, 3:00 PST. While he pretends he’s a Kenyan, I’ll be at a mandatory teacher meeting. Maybe after that, after our family has dinner, and after our boy gives us the play-by-play of the race, I’ll carve out thirty minutes to write.

Your turn: What have you done when you hit a speed bump in your writing life? Do you have a mantra–Be a Kenyan–or do you do visualization that distracts you from the pain of writing? Please share strategies that keep you moving toward the finish line of your work-in-progress.

(The cute-bodied, headless runner in black? That’s my boy.)

About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.