Jake’s Top Ten Reasons for Running

Aglow from the caffeine of two Clif Shots and a finish line coffee coupled with the endorphins produced during the Emerald City Half Marathon, I felt now would be a good time to share with you why I run.

10) My gut no longer hangs over my belt. I exchanged the impetus of my runner’s life for a sleeker frame, muscular definition, and enhanced stature. Reading up on how elite athletes run on vegetarian chili and green smoothies, I can’t argue against exchanging empty calories for nutrient-rich meals. Do I now consume only the best grains and produce the local farmer’s market has to offer? No, but I provide my family with healthier choices, and instead of complaining when Laura serves a meal minus the meat, I now make tempeh and quinoa, beans and rice.

9) The frequent phrase, “I feel like I just ran a marathon,” spilled from my mouth years before Josh, Matt, and I completed our first 26.2 mile race last fall. Now I understand how vast my exaggeration. Pushing myself past what I thought possible unlocked reserves I didn’t know existed. My mettle far outstripped my self-confidence. Wobbling from the finish line, I repeated, “I just ran a marathon,” several times before asking, “What else can I accomplish?”

8) Running taught me when faced with pain or trouble, I can make it worse by tensing up, or I can release what concerns me, accelerating even as I do. I never realized how much energy I wasted stressing out about light and momentary troubles until discovering the mental equivalent of taking a vacation. Some would call it entering a Zen state, but I prefer the phrase disconcerning myself. Running becomes so automatic, your body enters a rhythm like one setting a metronome. Your brain releases your legs to tick away each step then wanders off to play. Applying this practice to the rest of life allows me to complete challenging projects without fear.

7) Running taught me to smile, experiencing joy no matter the circumstance. After pushing my body so long, the muscle ache and general weariness often set my mind to complaint, repeating thoughts of “this is too much, I gotta stop, I can’t do this,” and the like, so my friends, Matt and Josh, and I started telling each other jokes as we ran. Besides forcing euphoria, cracking my friends up got me out of my own head, stopping the self-pity, and taught me pretending to enjoy myself soon turns to true enjoyment, so smiling throughout the day allows me to master my emotions, instead of them mastering me.

6) Josh and Matt care for me even as I look out for them. Spending at least an hour with these guys three times a week builds trust, which frees me to share things I wouldn’t with anyone else, giving perspective, encouraging advice, and promoting acceptance.

5) I became part of a community I didn’t even know existed. People reference the running bug, like it’s a virus, a foreign species capable of invading your body and ravaging it without knowledge nor permission, but taking on the discipline changed me. Words like fartleks and repeats, split pace, and VO2 max entered my vocabulary. I bought a hydration belt and compression shorts. I collect finisher’s medals and tech shirts. I frequent stores and websites I didn’t even know existed five years ago. And there are millions of people like me all over the world that had they read this paragraph, would’ve recognized it as true to their experience as well.

4) Mystified, I became an athlete. Despite going out for teeball in kindergarten and volleyball and basketball in middle school, my participation in organized competitions only served to underline how gross my inability. Uncoordinated on the court, I embraced books and videogames, but I teach with a guy whose image appears throughout the trophy case just down the hall. Knowing I ran, he asked me how many miles I put in that morning. When I told him, “Six,” he guffawed in disbelief and remarked, “Jake, you are quite the athlete,” before stopping another teacher to hear how many miles I ran.

3) When I started running, I was most unfit. My muscles ached for weeks, and as my circulatory system struggled to maintain oxygen flow to my cells, I thought my heart would blow out like a truck tire, but instead, I grew stronger and got faster. At races, both Josh and Matt finished long before I did, but during one 5k, Josh paused to tie his shoe and didn’t see me again until after crossing the finish line where I waited, and now, whether training or racing, any one of us can kick to the end before the others arrive.

2) As I became a runner, so too did my wife, Laura. We’ve completed numerous 5k’s as a couple and even a few pushing our double stroller. This past winter, the first I trained through, knowing she added LASIK surgery to her Amazon wish list a few years ago, I asked Laura if running a 5k in February interested her. “Are you crazy? Just because you run through snow doesn’t mean I want to.” She changed her mind after I told her a local LASIK center sponsored the 5k I found and anyone entering the race qualified to win free surgery. She signed both of us up within 10 minutes with the understanding if they pulled my name, she’d get the surgery. When they called her name at the starting line, I had to confirm she heard right before she walked up to receive the certificate. Laura’s not worn glasses or contacts since.

1) When our five-year-old daughter asks, we lace up our shoes, secure our son in the stroller, and take a family run through the neighborhood. My reduced pace a small sacrifice for watching Magnolia chug her little arms and legs as she surges ahead, runs back, tickles Asher, greets her mom, and reaches for my hand.

Fist Fight

The four men scaled the side of the building, malice twitting their visages. I lowered my center of gravity, balancing on the balls of my feet. When they came at me, I was ready.

As they commenced their mad rush, the ground beneath me vibrated, responding to their need for violence. The mechanical covering for the rooftop pool slid aside as I grappled with my foes.

Distinguishing which thug rushed at me when concerned me not. I met each with a whirl of limbs, the instinct to neutralize them my guiding force. As one followed the next into the pool, I felt a new enemy closing upon me.

She connected with my face before I knew she was there. I lashed out with my left arm, catching her in the throat. As my brain registered the contact, my conscious mind woke me out of my dream just enough to realize Laura leaned over to kiss me goodbye, and I punched her in the throat.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” I thought I spoke these words aloud, but seeing as I never woke up enough to open my eyes, I don’t know for sure.

What’s even better is that this was the morning of Pelotonia, the cycling event to raise money for cancer research, marking Laura’s first 25 mile bike ride. Here she was, getting up early to accomplish an athletic feat for charity, kissing me goodbye after making a smoothie for me and the kids, and I tried to crush her windpipe.

I don’t think I defeated the group of men in my dream (they climbed out of the pool and kept coming after me), but Laura completed her 25 mile bike ride, and I made sure the kids and I met her at the finish.

Guarding my Galaxy

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These are the Guardians of the Galaxy in Lego form. To assemble this group of minifigs, I bought all three building sets, spending close to $150 on toys for a movie I have yet to see.

Let me remind you I’m a grown man, complete with stubborn nose hair and a retirement portfolio.

Why on Earth am I buying toys?

They could be for my five-year-old daughter who loves Avengers Assemble and Ultimate Spider-Man as much as she loves Littlest Pet Shop and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or I could have bought them as an investment, anticipating high demand for product tie-ins to Marvel’s latest blockbuster. If either scenario rang true, why do they sit on a high shelf, unboxed, and put together where my daughter can’t reach?

I want to play with them.

As a teenager, I recorded episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, dreamt of attending conventions in full costume, and amassed over 80 action figures along with play-sets and toy ships that lit up while making photon torpedo sounds, so I recognize the signs of geek mania.

Before writing me off, please note the following indicators of hope:
1) Even though the movie spawning this hysteria opened Thursday at midnight, I won’t see it until the following Wednesday. During opening weekend, I chose to visit my in-laws and attend my wife’s 20th high school reunion. We’ll also celebrate my sister’s birthday before I see the film.
2) My daughter and I assembled the Lego sets together, and she and my two-year-old son spent more time playing with them than I did as the Guardians of the Galaxy rubbed shoulders with other members of Maggie’s collection of interlocking bricks.
3) You’re reading this post wherein I discuss my penchant for collecting toys designed for children. I could’ve kept this quiet, but decided to share it with you instead: “Hi, my name’s Jake, and I’m a sci-fi toy collector. It’s been two weeks since my last purchase.”

Yeah, I bought toys so I could play with them. Might this indicate an arrestment of my emotional development? Maybe. Could my fascination with science fiction reveal a dissatisfaction with reality? Probably. Do my interests prevent healthy relationships, isolating me from friends and family? Not at all. Have I created this post in response to a vague internal sense society might question my behavior? Bingo.

I write to settle uneasiness in me. If I can answer perceived arguments striking at the core of my identity, then I don’t have to change who I am or even fake change. I get to go on pretending it causes me no concern I know more about fictional worlds than I do about football, but it still bothers me.

This is about self-acceptance, releasing the modus operandi that disliking sports equals rejection. After all this time, the voices of my middle school bullies echo within. How do I release their lies? By speaking the truth.

I appreciate nerdy things, and that’s great because it defines me. Being drawn to Guardians of the Galaxy draws me closer to my wife and kids because they love the things I love. My genetic code combined with my life experience and spiritual formation made me unique all according to plan. I’m exactly the person God meant me to be right now, and He transforms me every day.

Do I still have a ways to go? Certainly, but I’m still breathing, which means I, along with my ragtag group of friends, can keep darkness at bay until the day our galaxy is saved.

Career Change

Do you remember your last great achievement? If you deposed a tyrant or saved someone’s life, thank you for changing history. If you solved a work problem or rocked that new dinner recipe, celebrate.

What happens when the glow of success fades? My brain switches off that light with the question, “What now?” I pursued my dream of becoming an author, earning an MFA in creative writing last year, and asked myself what’s next ever since.

Most people respond with holy fear when I tell them I teach middle school: “Oh, that’s wonderful! I could never do that. Do you like it?” Their dread fascination makes me feel like Van Helsing or Hellboy. As if to deal with little monsters, I have to be a bit of one myself, but I enjoy meeting the challenge and seeing my students grow.

Knowing many of my fellow MFAers became college professors made me think that’s what I needed to do, and seeing my professors writing and teaching had me assuming my new degree cleared the way for a new career, but in the last 365 days, not one English department head knocked down my door. In return for submitting a handful of essays, I received a handful of rejections.

I prayed hard about my career, believing God would open a door to a job somewhere other than Centerburg Middle School before the 2014/2015 year began. My phone rang, but the man who called didn’t represent Simon & Schuster. My principal told me a colleague took a job down south and wondered how I felt about switching from science to English/social studies.

Unexpected? Yes. A deal-breaker? Not at all. Here lay an opportunity to teach English, my favorite subject, as recommended by the superintendent who started the same year I did. I spent a lot of time in his office a decade ago, trying to figure out how best to serve gifted students in two buildings, and there’s not many people who know the educator me like he does.

“Yes, boss. If that’s what you want me to teach, that’s what I’ll teach, boss,” I responded to the principal. Pleased I took the new position, he laughed at my assumed deference, and by conversation’s end, I hung up feeling perched at the edge of a cliff dive.

My wife supported my decision as it kept my day job, and in the past weeks, my sister helped me move into my new classroom while our mother looked after my kids.

This career change was the new future I desired dressed in clothes I didn’t expect. Since saying yes to this, I said no to teaching an adjunct English class at my alma mater (not enough money at the wrong time) and no to writing math curriculum for McGraw-Hill (12-15 month position working in my least favorite subject). I dream still of becoming an author, and teaching 8th grade English seems the best way to get there.

Do what you love; love what you do.

Not only will I work hard at school, preparing and presenting new lessons, I’ll work hard at home, submitting essays and writing every day, for little victories stack up to great achievements.