on birthdays with a zero…

My youngest is just days away from a very special birthday. The one in which she reaches the magical double-figure mark. She’s bounding around the house with barely contained excitement, the anticipation of the big day breaking forth in unexpected moments as she thinks about a party with her friends, a day with her family, and her first electronic gadget (the iPod has become a de-facto rite of passage at age 10 in our house…please go gentle on the judgement of our parenting choices!).

Lots of birthdays hold significant meaning when you’re young. Double figures. Teenager-hood. Sixteen. The 18 year old adult. The 21st. Time honoured significance in each of those birthdays.

It seems that once you reach a certain age though, birthdays lose something of that magic. Sure it’s nice to have a special dinner with the family, and to receive some best wishes from friends, but it’s not quite as enchanted as when you’re a kid.

Except if the birthday in question has a zero in it.

Maybe its just not possible to keep up the enthusiasm year-in and year-out for birthdays, so we ration it to once every ten years instead. Turning 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 and the grand old century mark, these are special days.  Often we think of them as marking a transition point too, onward to the next stage of life.

Zero birthdays give us pause to reflect not just on the last year, but on the last stage of life, the last decade or more. And to think far more than 12 months ahead, pondering what is to come, what choices we’ll make, what the next stage of life holds in store for us.

Anniversaries are a bit the same. Oh Sheri and I will definitely mark the passing of our 22nd anniversary later this year, but we’re already planning toward the 30th in a much bigger way.

A zero is just one number among ten, but somehow the zero makes it special

All of which comes into sharp focus this week.

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when numbers hurt

Some days, numbers are wonderful things.

When your favourite band hits #1. When your favourite athlete gets a high score. When you run or ride or walk a personal best. When your newborn has their longest non-stop sleep. When the number signifies an important anniversary or birthday.

Some days, numbers are wonderful.

And some days, numbers hurt.  Today it seems to me is one of those days.

The number killed and injured in a highrise building fire in London climbs inexorably higher, and itself is outweighed by the number killed in a Bangladesh mudslide.

The number attached to the Australian government’s legal settlement with Manus Island detainees is a reminder of the horrors of the conditions those asylum seekers are treated to, at the hands of the country we call home.

Some days numbers hurt.

This morning I had the privilege of sharing a breakfast table with World Vision‘s Tim Costello, in Brisbane to speak at an annual Churches of Christ gathering today.  The conversation ranged far and wide, but again it was a couple of numbers quoted in different parts of the conversation that left me startled.

At one stage we talked about gambling in Australia, and poker machines in general. Costello is a passionate advocate for managing this insidious, addictive blight on our society.  The number in question was 20%.  Australia, home to just 0.3% of the worlds population, hosts more than 20% of the worlds poker machines. 20%. Machines that are specifically designed to take money away from those who use them. And that are most often located in communities that can least afford that loss. 20%. If you want to see some more numbers about poker machines that hurt, go here. Oh, and I was also reminded that one of the biggest profit-makers from pokies in Australia is Woolworths….that’s right…the fresh food people.

And then we talked about South Sudan and Uganda.  Australia, one of the richest nations on earth has since 1947 accepted something like 800 000 refugees. It’s a big number. And if it wasn’t for our recent record it could make us feel all warm and gooey inside. Uganda, at the other end of the global rich list has willingly accepted 1 000 000 refugees from South Sudan in the last 7 months. 1 000 000 in 7 months. And provided land to build a home and grow crops, and access to education and hospitals (such as those things are in Uganda).  Together with NGO’s like World Vision (supported, it has to be said by the generosity of ordinary Australians) they’re tackling what seems like (and may well yet prove to be) an insurmountable problem.  It’s an extraordinary effort, but for all that the effort is amazing, the numbers still tell of a world of pain and brokenness.

I don’t post this today to start a political debate. Simply to say that some days, numbers hurt….and today those numbers remind me that in our country, and in our world, we have a long way to go, many challenges to overcome.

Hopefully those same numbers can motivate us to act.

did you hear the one about…

Did you hear the one about the psychologist, the musician and the golfer?

It started a couple of weeks ago:

I was sitting in a meeting that included a guy whose profession I would describe as an ‘organisational psychologist’. By that I mean he specialises in understanding how organisations and groups develop, how they deal with changing culture and context, and what kinds of steps an organisation and its leadership can take to move from one place to another.

We hadn’t met before, and I hadn’t seen him at work prior to that meeting…but it very quickly became evident that he is brilliant at what he does (at least from where I sit). He was sharp, direct when required, tactful when that was helpful, and immediately able to pinpoint key issues under discussion in the meeting.  It was a short, chance encounter that left a deep impression on me.  I went away inspired.

And then last week:

IMG_3063[1]On Thursday night I went to see musician Stu Larsen ply his trade at Brisbane’s Black Bear Lodge. I’ve written about Stu before, here. If you haven’t heard of him before, go and read that story for a little introduction and then come back. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Stu’s life is that of a wandering storyteller. A guitar and a microphone all he needs. On Thursday night, he held the audience spellbound as with voice and string he wove a tale of place, of people, of life.  This room, packed to the rafters, was still and silent as he shared his trade. And full of voice as he invited us to join in song.  We wandered from King St Sydney, to the 101 Highway San Francisco, to outback Queensland and continental Europe as Stu’s stories and songs took us places that we had never been (and yet seemed strangely familiar).

In a former life Stu was a bank worker…and I’ve no doubt he would have done a good job at that. But here, on stage, singing stories, inviting responses. It’s where he belongs. He’s found his place. Storytellers, in my experience, do two things with their words. First, the words create images that pop up, unbidden, into our minds. We create for ourselves the images, the video that accompanies the story.  And second, they evoke in us, invite from us, our own story. They make us wonder. Stu does that every time I see or hear him play. And Thursday was no different.

And yesterday:

IMG_3071[1]I trooped down to the Gold Coast with a bunch of family and friends to watch one of our own, Matt Guyatt, play in the final round of the Australian PGA golf tournament. Matt was well placed and backed up a big month with a good finish. He played yesterday alongside recently crowned Australian Masters champion Nick Cullen.  It always strikes me as a strange profession (like music or any other ‘performance’ profession) when members of the public come along to watch you do your job. But that’s the daily reality for some, working live in front of an audience.  Matt (and Nick) put it all on the line yesterday, at times quite brilliant, and at others caught out by the gusting wind and fatigue on the final day of a heavy season.

I’m biased, but Matt is quite clearly an extraordinary golfer, with all the technical ability to play the game, shoot the low scores required to be successful in that particular career choice.  But more than that, it was obvious as I watch that he understands he’s in the entertainment and the ‘people’ business. There was constant interaction with the crowd. A chat here or there, a ball or glove given to a child, a joke quietly shared with those nearest the green to lighten the mood at a tense moment.

What I noticed in each case, was a person who had very clearly found their place. Who has discovered and put to good use a unique and delightful talent. That through doing and being what they are cut out to be, makes the world a better place.

We’re not all, of course, going to be pro golfers, travelling musicians or even organisational psychologists (does the world really need more psychologists? Probably!).

But I got to wondering, as I watched these four in action, what a difference it would make to our world, and to us each as individuals, if we never gave up and ‘settled’ until we have found our place. Until we are sure and certain that what we do (whether as a volunteer at nights or on weekends, or in a professional sense) makes the most of our God-given potential.  Jesus told a story about that once…go google the ‘parable of the talents’.

At each place, in each person, I found my own story being drawn out. My own sense of wondering, of self. That’s a powerful gift given when someone who is very good at what they do, simply goes about doing their thing.

And of course I got to wondering…have I found ‘my thing’ yet? At 43 years of age, husband, father, participant in multiple hobbies and community groups, and in my 3rd totally different career…am I in the right place? Am I making the most of what I have?

And….how about you?

the fear of making people afraid

IMG_1872Those who read regularly (hi!) will know I’m a some-times runner.

I’m not that good or that fast, but I enjoy it, and I run. When I travel for work or play, I’ll usually pack the shoes and go for a trot to explore new places. It’s a nice way to start a day, and to get to know the lay of the land wherever I happen to be.  I sometimes do the same with my bike…but it’s not quite as portable as a pair of running shoes!

Those who know me personally will also know I’m a bloke, and a fairly big and tall one.  That matters too, in the context of this story.

A while back I was on the Sunshine Coast, and early one morning laced up the shoes and headed out for a run from Coolum down to Mudjimba. It was a beautiful early morning, and quiet, with not many people out and about yet.  On the return leg I started taking little detours off the main road, into little beachside streets or waterfront walking tracks and then back out onto the main road. It was a nice bit of variety and a few extra metres each time.

The first time I did so, I came back out onto the main running track just in time to see a fellow runner (a woman, and yes, in this story, it matters) join the trail from a side street a little in front of me. I was traveling a slightly quicker, so passed her by, offering a quick “hello” as a greeting often shared by runners, and continued on my way. Soon after I turned off the trail onto another little side route, and when I returned to that main trail found myself just behind the same woman. As I said, I was running a little faster so I went past, and continued on my way. I took the next side-route and on rejoining the main road, once again found myself behind the same woman.

This happened about three or four times before I made it back to my starting point, turned off the trail once and for all and went home for breakfast.

Later that morning (I’m a bit slow to pick up on these things) it occurred to me that I could well have been causing my fellow runner to think she had a stalker…a middle aged, dark-sunglassed, huffing-and-puffing stalker who kept on detouring and then running up behind her.  She could well have been quite anxious about my presence, really worried in the quiet early morning about my motives.

I have to say it was a horrible feeling, that I could have been causing anxiety or fear in another, and even worse that I hadn’t realised the possibility until later (when it was too late to take a different route for example). It matters not that the repeated encounters were totally innocent. It matters not that I was there (on the trail) first. In some ways it matters not whether she actually was afraid or anxious (I have no idea). The very possibility was real.

What concerned me then, and concerns me now, is that we live in a world where the very presence of one (man) can and does cause anxiety or fear in another (woman). We live in a world in which I understand women are continuously targeted for harassment or intimidation. Where men (yes not all men, hopefully including me and most men that I personally know…but surely that’s not the point) continue to inflict violence upon women that they know (and don’t know).

And that my feeling of anxiety and fear about making another afraid and anxious while palpable to me completely pales into insignificance when compared to the experiences and feelings of many women every day.

We live in a world in which this video (released yesterday) depicts an everyday reality for some/many women. I can’t say from personal experience if this is genuinely what it’s like (for as already canvassed above…I am a bloke), but women I know and trust tell me that it is:

And we live in a world in which a well known V8 Supercar driver (my sport of choice, please don’t judge) said today:

Hello Adelaide! In town for the 2015 @Clipsal500 launch. Most pressing item for the day, what do the grid girl uniforms look like?

This is a man with a huge public following, and with a wife and young daughter. And who continues the culture-wide objectification of women. And who is defended in social media commentary as “just having some fun”. And this is the relatively innocent end of the spectrum.

And….I don’t know what to do with all of this. Really, I don’t.

I’m a man. Men cause this.  Maybe not me personally (to my knowledge). Maybe not many of the men who might read this.  But we do, collectively, harass, objectify, instil fear in women everyday.

And that’s just not right.

Gold Coast Marathon 2014: 75% fun….25% pain….

IMG_2255 It is early, the sun just poking its nose over the horizon on the kind of picture postcard winter morning that turns the tackiness of Surfer’s Paradise into something beautiful – all silver and gold, shimmer and shadow. It seems like a nice morning to go for a run. The air is cool but not cold, with the promise of warmth to come. So I join with a few others (well, 5000 others actually) and off we trot.

At first we go south, heading over the bridge at Southport before finding the waterfront at Main Beach and then turning to follow the beach 15km to Burleigh. Some charge like there is no tomorrow, running at unimaginable speeds, secure in the confidence that overflows from elite athletes who can do anything. But most of us are a little slower – just moving at a pace we judge sustainable, conscious of the many miles to go that day.

I don’t know anybody around me, but we run in comfortable companionship. The rhythm of pounding feet and beating hearts accompanied by cheering strangers and screaming kids becomes the soundtrack of a lovely morning. Every so often we find a table laden with blessed relief – water and sports drink – and there is a mad scramble (not quite panic….but not too far away either) to grab some of that liquid gold to feed dry mouths and even drier muscles.

And every so often I find a familiar face in the crowd. A wonderful friend, a son, daughter or wife. There are banners, encouraging words, lolly snakes, wide smiles. And a lift of spirits too, followed shortly afterward by a strange feeling of loss and loneliness as unknown faces once again crowd peripheral vision.

GCmarathon 2014At Burleigh the crowds swell. The noise raucous and infectious. Somewhere a band plays “Take me home, country road” as we turn to head north once again, faces set now into the morning sun. The sense of rhythm is strong, the miles pass easily by.  Surfers ride, crash and paddle. Kids play. Dogs bark. Coffee shops overflow onto the pavement serving Sunday morning breakfast.  Eggs Benedict invades my nostrils. Helicopters buzz over the fastest of all – showing the rest of us just how far ahead they really are. All is well in the world. I could do this again. This is fun. Somewhere else a different band plays “Today I don’t feel like doing anything“.  And even as we run, we laugh at the irony. It is still a beautiful morning. Everything according to plan.

Gradually, as the half-way point falls behind, as the 3/4 mark starts to appear in the distance, things start to change a little. The comfortable cadence becomes a little strained. Calf muscles start to burn a little more, knees ache, mouth just a little drier with each step. That 3/4 mark is welcome. Family to wave and smile and laugh with. Crowds to play with. A finish line to see as we pass by and continue on our way. Not long to go. Not long. Just 12 kilometres more I ponder as I run away, suddenly feeling all alone among the crowd. The knees, the calves, the thighs start to insist now. You haven’t run this far before. You didn’t warn us. You can’t ask this of us on such a beautiful morning.

The lovely morning sun starts to burn a little, the road hot beneath the feet, the water stations seem further and further apart. And still we run away from the finishing line, further and further from where every muscle, every cell wants to be. At each drinks station the temptation to walk a few extra steps becomes overpowering. Of course I want to run the whole way, every single step – but those shrill voices in my legs start to chant one word over and over “No. No. No.” I relent, they quieten down for a moment. I run again. They protest again. And so the cycle goes. A battle that plays out in my mind, just as the same goes on in the minds of those around me. The friendly banter of earlier is gone. Each locked in a silent war of will.

We turn, now just 5k from home. A distance I run without thinking any other day of the week. A light jog after work with friends. A quick rip around the block on an early morning before family preparations for the school day call me home. Only 5k. How can 5k be so far? So insurmountable? So impossible? And then it’s four. And three. And two. And the finish line seems just as far away, as if I’m running in quicksand, stuck fast to the one spot. I trudge on, now beside another. We share the agony of the moment. Agree to overcome our screaming legs, run one last time, to finish together. A thousand times in those last metres I want to stop. To lie down. To rest. To silence my muscles. A man is down at the final turn, being helped into a wheelchair by an Ambo no more than 250m from the finish line. I want to stop, to help, to cry with him. So close. But I know that if I do, I will not start again.

So my new friend and I run on – somehow he motivates me to keep going. Faces to the sun, the noise of the crowd at last silencing the complaining quadriceps. Carpet. Fences. Grandstands. People. My family. My blessed, loving, suffering, encouraging family. My friends who drove an hour just to stand there for this moment in the sun. The clock ticking. My target time a few minutes gone. I no longer care.

If I could capture and bottle those final metres. The moment of knowing it is all but over. The moment of finally being sure I will make it. The high fives from my girls and boy, and a thousand other kids I’ve never seen before. The announcer saying who knows what, his words floating away on the morning breeze.

2 1/2 years of running. A year since this stupid idea occurred to me as I stood on the other side of the fence, cheering a friend home while having no idea what he had just endured. 6 months of training. 600km of pavement pounding.  Countless early mornings, blisters, aches and pains. And it is done. Not one metre past the line I stop running, sure and certain I will never run another step as long as I live…not even for chocolate cake. My new running friend and I shake hands, wish each other well, knowing we’ll likely never cross paths again. We shared 2km. 12 minutes. It might have been a lifetime.

I wander in a daze. I wonder in a daze. Water. Banana. Orange. More water. T-shirt. Medal. Gate. People, so many people. Vision grey at the edges. Knees weak. Muscles empty, so, so empty. Mind blank. Emotions raw and beyond control. I find my 12 year old, so proud of her dad. I hold her in the middle of the crowd, tears in my eyes and on my cheeks, knowing if I let go I will fall. I’m sure I must smell terrible and look worse, all salt-caked, sweat-dried, haggard and showing each of my years and more. But I hold on. And she holds me back.  I love this girl in this moment more than ever.

And then Sheri, and Mitch, and MK (who is the only sensible one…flatly refusing a congratulatory hug as only the rambunctious seven year old can!). A chair. A drink. My family an island in the sea of people. The sun shining. Voices chattering. Laughter. Stories. Triumph. Tragedy.

The Gold Coast Marathon.

It is done.

IMG_2256

PS: The next day when I arrive at the office, somebody holds the lift for me as I cross the carpark. I am forced out of sheer guilt to break into a jog to get there quickly and not delay them. It hurts my legs. But it also hurts to know I have already broken my promise never to run again.  Oh well, promise now meaningless…..I may as well run on.

PPS: So many people encouraged me in preparing for this day. In the grand scheme of all that is horrible in our world, it’s just a guy going for a run. But for me it was a big deal. Thanks to my family and friends. To Tracey. To Steve. To Andrew. To Dugald. To Paul. To another Paul. To Matt. To Ben. To the GCAM14 organisers and brilliant volunteers. To strangers by the roadside.  Most of all to Sheri and our wonderful kids.  Thanks.

PPPS: You could too. If you wanted. I’ll do it with you (don’t tell Sheri I offered).

the home run

So the end is nigh.  It’s 2 1/2 years since I first strapped on a pair of running shoes. It’s a year since I first ran a half-marathon distance, and  year since I first thought to myself “I wonder what it what would be like to run a marathon?”  It’s 5 months since I decided to actually find out and started training properly.

And it’s just now just five days until that ridiculous question is answered as I trudge power my way through the Gold Coast Marathon.

The training is done. The shoes are worn in. The eating plan for Friday and Saturday’s carb-loading is ready. The taper is well underway. Accommodation is booked. Race pack retrieved.

And now every moment of every day it’s all I think about.  Mostly those thoughts are “why?” and “this cannot end well” and “this is going to hurt”.

But occasionally there’s anticipation mixed in as well, moments I’m really looking forward to:

The energy in the field in the moments before the starter’s gun fires. Crossing the Nerang river for the first time. Running past Cavill Mall. Seeing my family at Nobby Beach and friends along the way. Turning around at Burleigh Heads to head back north again. The half-way point.  The last kilometre through swollen and noisy crowds….and so on.  I’ve played these moments a thousand times in my mind, looking forward to each of them.

I’m pretty much blocking out everything that might happen between 30k and 41k. I think that’s just going to be a world of hurt, so why bother anticipating it? 😉

There are lots of unknowns of course. Have I trained sufficiently? Have I designed my training program effectively? Will my dodgy knee last the distance? Will I get the anti-chafe stuff in all the right spots? Will I get super bored in four hours of running? Will I hit my A, B or C target times? Will I even finish?

So many unknowns.

And it occurs to me that’s pretty much how life is any time we try something new – whether it be running, starting a new job, living in a new city, becoming a parent, proposing marriage (still the most nerve wracked moment of my life….even though I was fairly confident of the answer!).

What’s your new thing? What are you preparing for that you’ve never before tackled?

We can read, we can talk to those who’ve gone before, we can surf the net and watch hours of youtube videos.  We can even train and practice, experimenting and simulating.  We can examine every possible outcome, ponder the good and the bad, mentally rehearse, get the right gear, eat the right food….and so on….ad nauseum.

We can be totally prepared.

But ultimately there comes the moment when we have to get out of bed, eat a banana, strap up the laces and run out the door.

That’s ultimately what I think I’m looking forward too the most. Standing at on the start line at 7am next Sunday morning, knowing that everything is done. Knowing that everything I can control is now controlled to the best of my ability.  Knowing that the outcomes are still unknowable. Knowing that all there is left to do is run.

And knowing that all I can do from that moment onward is deal with whatever comes my way, trusting that the preparation will give me all the tools to respond.

So here I am.

On the home run.

Thanks for reading these last few reflections about this adventure that lies ahead.  If I’m not in hospital I’ll let you know how it all turns out!

the value of training

This week I finally admitted it out loud:  I’m sick of training to run a marathon.

I woke up Thursday morning, alarm set early to head out for a mid-week run, and just did not want to go.  It wasn’t the consequence of a late night the previous evening, or too many days of running in the week, just the cumulative effect of weeks and months of running to try and get my middle-aged body in decent enough shape to run 42km.

This day, I was over it all.  I just wanted the race weekend to be here, and to be over, so that I can go back to bed. So that I can choose to run if I feel like it, instead of running to a schedule.

But, my schedule said run, and the last thing I’m going to do is let the months of training slide because of slackness in the last few weeks…so I dragged myself out the door and onto the pavement.

And I felt rotten the whole morning. I felt every twinge, every ache, every step. And I ran slow, and not very far.  There’s no question that state-of-mind has an impact on performance!

The next day I ran into a PE teacher/sports-trainer friend and was telling him my sob story. He said “You know Scott, those training miles, the ones that you do even when you most want to be at home in bed, they’re the most valuable training miles you will ever run”.

I didn’t believe him at the time, but with a week to ponder, I think maybe he’s right.  The moments when we somehow manage to talk ourselves into what we know is the right thing, even when we’d rather be elsewhere…those moments are important.  Maybe it’s the minutes I choose to spend reading night-time stories to the six-year old instead of snoozing on the couch. Maybe it’s the yard work, or time invested with the family, or volunteering at my community group….whatever the category, it’s the times we go when we’re just not motivated that really matter.

Anyway, a couple of days later I was scheduled for my longest run yet – 32km.  I think you can guess how much I wasn’t looking forward to that experience!  My previous longest at a little over 28km hadn’t ended well, with a little walking mixed in the last couple of km to nurse home some injured legs. That memory, together with the general funk about the whole project meant I was dreading that alarm bell.

What a surprise then, and a blessed relief, to find myself thoroughly enjoying the whole run.  Pace was good (still probably a little too fast for training…but such is life), the few aches and pains that popped up along the way disappeared as I plodded along, and to top it all off, the river was shrouded in fog to lend an ethereal quality to the early miles, before the sun came out to cheer me home. It was perhaps the best “long” run I’ve had, and definitely the best in weeks.

Don’t get me wrong. I was spent by the time I got home, and nursing a couple of pretty painful knees – but way better than my previous long run, and way better than I expected as I headed out the door that morning.

And with my 32.7k including quite a few hills (where the Gold Coast race is almost totally flat), the whole experience gave me a much needed shot of confidence that 42km is going to be achievable.

Not easy. And not pain-free. But achievable.

I guess that’s the value of the hours and hours of training. Even when it doesn’t feel like it to me, it’s been building and conditioning the muscles to do what they could not have done before. To churn out km after km on one Sunday in July, hopefully going the distance and enjoying the journey.

On this second-last long training run, I think my brain finally caught up with my body.  Everything feels like it’s nearly ready. The training is working.  There are a couple of weeks of solid running left, one more long run (35km) and then it’s into the blessed relief of the taper and pre-race rest.

I got to wondering (as I do) about parallels.  About other areas in life in which long hours of preparation, weeks and months and years of training quietly sneak up on you, preparing you for some new experience.

Maybe it’s education and formal training. Maybe it’s on-the-job learning. Maybe it’s hours of training sessions at a sport or hobby.  Maybe it’s years of practice as a first-time parent helping to prepare you for each new stage of a child’s life.

I don’t know what the answer is for you, or even necessarily for me.

I only know that training matters.  It prepares us, equips us, enables us.

Even when it’s not fun.

Training Since Last Blog

24/5  –  20km @ 5.35 p/km

27/5 – 10.4km @ 5.36 p/km

29/5 – 10.2km @ 5.33 p/km

1/6   –  32.7km @ 5.41 p/km

4/6  – Ride 40km

Details at strava