The snow was laying down a uniform white sheet this morning, and I wasn’t 50 yards out the door on my run before I realized I could no longer distinguish potholes from smooth asphalt. My ability to perceive depth was decreasing with each snowflake, while the potential for a misstep — and a turned ankle, and a fall — was increasing.
My first impulse was to become tentative, yet I learned years ago that timidity — no less than recklessness — invites injury.
I have been guilty of both, though I tend toward a mild form of recklessness I can only describe as clueless boldness. Cross-country skiing on a golf course one long-ago, full-moon night, I kicked and glided into the side of a hill I could not see, breaking off the tip of one wooden ski. Some years later, I rode a horse into quicksand I could not distinguish from terra firma. I piled off to safety, then fumbled with the girth to relieve the gelding of the saddle’s weight. And then watched, helpless and half-paralyzed, as that beautiful animal struggled for several long minutes before gathering himself for the magnificent effort that freed him from the muck. We stood together, then, on solid ground, every muscle shuddering.
Had I been more wary in either situation, I might have avoided those experiences. Or, invited others that were equally unpleasant. An organism that lacks confidence is off-balance — holding back, inching forward — and unable to respond quickly and effectively to changing conditions. Uncertainty undermines the body’s wisdom, its best instincts.
When I was a young reporter, my newspaper editors encouraged my enthusiasm for marginally harrowing experiences, about which I would then write. These included walking barefoot on hot coals and riding a brake-less track bike around a velodrome — those steeply banked, tight ovals at which elite cyclists race.
The coals taught me the importance of moving steadily and deliberately, slow enough to be safe but fast enough to outpace the particular thermal conductivity of those glowing embers. Likewise, the velodrome taught me to keep pedaling — especially when it was scariest, high on the lip of the track — because staying upright at that improbable angle depends on a certain momentum.
So many of our experiences are just like this: calculated risks. We recognize certain forces at work — the emotional equivalents of thermal conductivity or gravity — and do our best to cooperate with them. But other forces remain mysteries; often, we do not correctly perceive or fully understand what is at work within and around us. Our depth perception fails. What we thought was solid ground opens up beneath us; we mistake quicksand for terra firma. We move too quickly, or too slowly. We get scared, and we stop pedaling. The feet burn, the skin abrades, the heart breaks.
This is what I know, in running and in life:
Wear sensible shoes. Pay close attention. Step high enough to clear hidden or unforseen obstacles. Plant your feet firmly beneath your center of gravity, neither leaning forward nor holding back. Keep moving.
Know that, whatever you do, or don’t do, you will take your share of falls.