Becoming a Runner
You think you aren't a runner? Read on . . . and reconsider.
In the nineteen-seventies the green playing fields of St Albans Primary School were fringed on two sides with huge oak trees that were over a hundred years old. On one corner of the field stood a vast weeping cherry-blossom tree which, come spring, was a glorious umbrella of white blossom. On the far side of the field there were two saw-dust pits – high jump and long jump. In autumn one could go down there and throw acorns at people. Come summer, it was along that side of the field that the running track would be marked out with crisp white lines.
I have clear memories of racing down that track on sports days – the rest of the runners drawing inexorably ahead of me as I ran my fastest.
I think I lost every race.
I couldn’t understand it – I was running as fast as I could, how come I could never keep up with every one else?
By the time I reached high school I had stopped pondering this question.
In 1981 at the age of 16 I ran in the school cross-country.
I recently discovered a website dedicated to reminiscences about the chief phys. ed. teacher at Mairehau High School of those years. Twenty-five years on, people were still pouring out their pain and fear and loathing.
Well into the cross-country race, that teacher came driving around the course in his car. I, of course, was coming last. He leaned out the window of his car and yelled abuse at me. And when I finally got to the end, I was not permitted to run up the finisher’s chute and cross the finish line – I was too embarrassingly useless – I had to skulk off the side of the track into the crowd.
It was the last time I ran.
Twelve years later I went to a series of meditation classes in Auckland. At one point, when given an opportunity to ask questions, somebody asked, “What is the connection between Sri Chinmoy and long-distance running?”. I recall thinking this was a bizarre and ridiculous question. We were at a meditation class! The person taking the class was apparently not so bewildered by this to-me absurd question and answered quite happily.
As time passed I came to realize there was indeed a connection between Sri Chinmoy and running!
Mention was made during those classes of the connection between physical exercise and spiritual pursuits - of the benefits to each of the other. It seemed convincing to me. However, I knew that there was one thing I was never going to do – and that was running. None-the-less the idea intrigued me.
I decided to take up swimming.
Unfortunately I had never been able to swim.
I suppose it is a credit to my commitment that I decided to take lessons (and an indication of the firmness of my conviction not to run).
In the end I was surprised how quickly I mastered the art of swimming. All those years of humiliation and being yelled at at the school pool had failed to produce what the kind old lady at the Hilton Brown Swim School did in a few weeks.
Having mastered the basics, I used to go regularly down to the pool and do my lengths. I could free-style up and down the slow lane for a kilometre. I recall being astonished at the effect that this new-found physical activity had on my meditation. I used to get home from the pool and sit down to meditate. The ease with which my thoughts gently disappeared and I entered into the profound stillness of meditation amazed me. “It’s like I’m cheating!” I exclaimed.
I came to see that there was definitely something in this connection between body and spirit – but I held out against the idea of running. My mother’s cousin was a chiropractor and I knew running was bad for you – cousin Graham said so!
When the members of the meditation group went away for a weekend together and people went for an early-morning run, I took my towel and headed down to the beach. I would rather freeze in the ocean than go for a short jog. Finally I bought some running shoes and then a couple of nights a week would run from my house down to the park and once around and home again. It took me eight minutes. It seemed worth a try.
Soon after that I began training with a group of friends for our first half marathon; six months later we did our first marathon; three months after that I completed my first 100 km race. It seemed I couldn’t stop.
After that 100 km race I stood in the shower and cried my eyes out – I had attempted, and achieved, the impossible.
Three years later, I won my first national champion title.
Things had come a long way.
One of the things that made that national championship title particularly memorable was the fact that my parents sent me a congratulatory card after the race. The McBryde family is one in which religion and music play a central role, and where sporting excellence has been unknown and unvalued. When I started running, one of my sisters commented – “Well, that will come in handy if you are in a hurry”. As I progressed in the running field, my brothers demonstrated a complete lack of interest, and my parents muttered gloomy warnings of physical disaster. That congratulatory card, therefore, probably meant more to me than the jade and gold trophy I received for winning the national championship race. It was a sign of a thaw.
A few years later I did a 100 km road race in the South Island not far from where my parents lived. I was delighted that they agreed to be my helpers. They proved excellent – encouraging and cheerful providers of leek-and-potato soup, water and all those other things that a man needs on the road.
Twelve years after I had sat in that meditation class, outraged that someone could suggest that there was a connection between running and meditation, I have raced over 6,000 km on three continents (Africa next year = 4), won three national championship titles, acquired endless satisfaction.
Often I think back to that day when the phys. ed. teacher at Mairehau High School leaned out the window of his car and loudly and cruelly yelled at me – and I smile gently.
Barney in his first half-marathon, and, some years later, finishing the Christchurch marathon.