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Leading with Joy


"Never run away from something. Always run towards something." - Rick, Brooklyn Barfly

Some how I managed to put in 1,000 miles of running in 2017. This came in spite of me having very little desire to run at all. Early in the year I crashed my bike twice in the span of two weeks, and in the process damaged two ribs on my right side. This ended my hopes of running a long distance race in April. Every mile for the next three months was torture. I was only able to get to 1,000 because I felt I should. They weren't healthy, or joyful miles. They were plodding, desperate miles. Some runs are bound to go like this. Some joyful and some a struggle. One can only hope that on summary, there is more joy than struggle. The last few years have been primarily a struggle. And this got me thinking about Rick the Barroom Sage.

I met rick in 2002. I was a young kid new to Brooklyn. I had been reading about and fascinated by the Congo (particularly the excellent book, "King Leopold's Ghost"). Rick, in the 80s, had been something of a guide there, so we got to chatting. He was a brit, with stereotypical poor teeth, a smoking habit and taste for drink. He loved to wax philosophical and spin a yarn until the early hours. To a 20 something that wanted rebellion and wisdom all easily found at his local pub he was a hero.

I was spatting with my then girlfriend about something stupid. My friends wanted me to join them in Maine for the weekend. I was seeking wise council if, I, a twenty something gent should go have a fun weekend with my pals, or stay home and reconcile with my girlfriend. Humanity hung in the balance.

He looked at me and said, "Shaun. Whatever is going on in your life. Just make sure you are running towards something and not from something. If you're going to Maine because you're afraid of your girlfriend. She's still going to be here when you get back."

The silliness of the situation aside, the words still stick with me.

There is a route I've run more than 15 times since moving to San Francisco. The route itself, by California standards, is not all that remarkable. It sits between San Francisco and South San Francisco on the San Bruno Mountains. The fog line often rolls through the hills. I like it because it is easy to get to (just 15 minutes from my house), is a proper trail (I'm drawn to dirt), and still allows me to get lost in the run and feel like I've escaped my regular life. It is a quick espresso shot of what I need from my passion when time will not allow a full blown coffee pot of adventure.

It being of such comfort, I would of course head there to run on one of the worst days of my life. I had just moved to San Francisco, both my dog and an ex-love had passed months earlier. My community of 15 years in Brooklyn felt like it was in my rearview, and I just had to do a very difficult thing. I was sad, and angry. Confused and lost. So I hit the dirt.

I ran with rage and anger. And it worked. I felt better. It would be the fastest I would ever run up and down those mountains. I know this because I am meticulous about tracking my performance on the social site strava. I come for the data, but stay for the vanity. So I would have to look at that run every single time I go up and down those hills for nearly two years.

My passion for running didn't make it much further out of that run. By the following spring I'd have those bruised ribs, bruised ego and be -- even if by my own choosing and spun by me as "on sabbatical" -- unemployed. Running from things isn't sustainable, even in the literal sense. I mushed on, mostly in a daze for the remainder of the year. Until, at the end of the year I committed to run at least a mile, every day, from Thanksgiving to New Years Day The goal, even though a fairly meager one, meant I was running towards something again and that simple challenge allowed me to focus on why I run. And by reconnecting to the why, I was better able to reconnect to the passion.

When I hit that goal I turned the page on the new year. I set new goals. I picked up a running coach to help me with the process. She's been incredible. We do drills and things and stupid boring non-running things like yoga and swimming. But we spend just as much time searching for joy out there. For every instruction of 4x200 barfing repeats on the soulless track, there's a "climb to the top of something".

I went back to the San Bruno trails on a Thursday, having spent the day connecting with a number of people about new opportunities. Some will workout, some will not. Each conversation a great one, though. As I stepped on the trail that day I knew immediately I would be heading towards something. And, you know what, the those pesky strava records fell. Rick was right, you should always run towards something, instead of away. You'll likely run better in the process.