by Austin Bussing
I’m sitting on the end of a massage table, legs dangling over the edge, head down, intentionally slumped in horrible posture. I dorsiflex my foot and ankle on one leg, trying to bring my toes close to my shin. From here, I kick my leg up, straightening it out and locking my knee. This extension causes a tightness and slight pain in my hamstring, and then the discomfort is immediately dispelled as I lift my head and look straight ahead. I repeat this strange series of movements 20 times before switching to the other leg. “Kicking your head off” is the tongue-in-cheek name for this exercise in the physical therapy community. Other aliases include “nerve glides” and “nerve flossing.” Truth be told, I rarely floss my teeth (although I consistently feel the need to lie to my dentist about this), and here I am, “flossing” my nerves in both hamstrings through this bizarre and tedious routine- twice a day, every day.
This exercise is followed by a number of others, each as mind-numbingly monotonous as the last. These tasks all demand intense focus and attention, as they are designed to isolate and activate typically dormant or under-utilized muscles, thereby slowly correcting detrimental muscle imbalances. My particular imbalance is between my glutes and hamstrings- basically, my butt doesn’t do nearly the amount of work it should while I’m running, and my poor hamstrings are left to pick up the slack. Over the course of tens of thousands of miles, this imbalance can (and certainly has) put quite a beating on my hamstrings – especially when I try to run fast. Since running fast is pretty essential to what I’m trying to do with my life (read: run fast), it’s pertinent that I get this little problem under control.
In addition to observing these strange rituals daily, I can be found doing a number of other small tasks throughout each week, including repeatedly rolling my legs on a foam cylinder, running 150 meter sprints on the Austin High Track, and balancing, one-legged, on a poorly inflated rubber oval while throwing a small medicine ball back and forth to a teammate. In isolation, each of these activities seems not only slightly absurd, but also pretty far removed from my ultimate goal – to run a fast 3000-meter steeplechase. However, considered holistically, these individual tasks are part of a larger process, through which my goals become achievable. Compared to the time I spend actually racing the steeplechase, or doing steeplechase-specific workouts, I spend an astronomical amount of time on these (seemingly) tangentially related tasks. It’s not that glamorous, and it’s certainly not that “cool.”
What does it look like to be a good runner? Does it look like a Gatorade commercial, complete with inspiring music and shots of ripped, good-looking athletes doing a series of explosive and impressive exercises, and then just standing there sweating colorful sweat and looking determined? Well, that’s some of it. But a lot of it is sitting on massage tables, performing weird movement patterns to activate neglected muscle groups, and doing all of the other “little things” that are so very necessary to achieve consistent success at a high level.
An episode of the highly acclaimed HBO series, The Wire, recently drove this point home for me. For those unfamiliar with the show, it provides a nuanced and gritty look into crime in a city that is now sadly back in America’s media spotlight: Baltimore, Maryland. The beauty of the show is its multifaceted approach, and its exploration of the theme of moral ambiguity in contemporary politics, law enforcement, and organized crime. I could talk about it forever. But I won’t do that, because even bringing up The Wire in a running blog is inherently tangential, and I’m really in no position to start stacking tangents here. Bear with me though – I do believe there is a point to be made, and a connection to be drawn.
In this specific episode of The Wire, a special unit of the Baltimore Police Department has finally succeeded in tapping the phones of members of the Barksdale Crew – a group of drug dealers with a number of suspected murders on their hands. This episode comes about halfway through the first season, and the prior episodes devote a substantial portion of time chronicling the administrative, legal, and bureaucratic hurdles the police unit has had to clear before using the wiretap. The frustration of the detectives is made inescapably palpable to the viewer, as it seems that time and time again the “bad guys” are able to “get away with it” all because the police have failed to meet some tiny procedural requirement (quotes are used in reference to the aforementioned moral ambiguity at play in the show).
In the scene that really hit home for me, Lester Freamon (the show’s archetypal wise old detective) is explaining to some of the members of his unit that they are only allowed to listen to wiretapped conversations when they have received visual confirmation that a real suspect is using the phone. What this means in practice is that a team of cops must be in a position to actually see a specific member of the Barksdale Crew on the phone, and report back in real time to another team of cops back at the office who have access to the wiretap. Big surprise, right? More procedural hurdles to clear. Or, as one of the younger detectives in the room puts it, “More bullshit.”
Freamon takes a bit of umbrage to this comment, whirling around in his chair to face the young detective (Herc) before exclaiming, “Detective, this right here, this is the job! Now, when you came downtown to CID (Criminal Investigation Department) what kind of work were you expecting?”
Now, sometimes in running, we’re all guilty of thinking like Herc. I know I have been. When we came to Austin to run for Rogue Athletic Club, what kind of work were we expecting? Surely we were expecting to crush PRs set in college, we were expecting to make World teams, we were expecting to win- and win big. We were expecting the glory.
However, in our best moments, we’re able to step back and think like Freamon. We’re able to realize that there’s no glory – there never has been and there never will be – without a bunch of “bullshit.” There will be Saturday nights when you don’t race as well as you had hoped, but you’d better believe you’re getting up early Sunday morning for a long run, followed by at least 20 reps of some weird “clam” exercise where you lie on your side and try to lift one of your legs up and hold it at a 45 degree angle for 10 seconds at a time – only using your glutes – because that right there, that is the job. It’s not always pretty – in fact it rarely is – but in those rare moments when it is pretty, damn is it beautiful.