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Classic Chronicle Archives

Originally published in Runner’s World Magazine March 2000

Working the Shovel

Some of life's lessons I've only had to learn once; like not to put my tongue on a frozen flagpole no matter how funny my buddies think it will be. Some of life's lesson took me a little longer; like, when I'm given 16 weeks to do a project, I can't wait to start until the day before it's due. And some of life's lessons are absolutes. Thin is the only word to use in a sentence that contains the word hips.

But one of the most important lessons in my life happened in the blink of an eye when I least expected it. My teacher was someone I barely knew. And, the lesson came at a time when I was too young to truly understand the meaning of the lesson, and how it would come to define my life.

For six months, when I was 20 years old, I worked as a laborer in the Norfolk and Western train yard in Decatur, Illinois. I was a gandydancer. Our job was to replace broken rail and worn out ties. Most importantly, we had to look busy. In the yard, this wasn't difficult because there was almost always something to do. But on this day, our only task was to move a large pile of stone from where it was to where the foreman wanted it.

Shovel by shovel we began carrying rock from the big pile to a smaller pile about 100 feet down the track. The first shovel doesn't seem so bad. But, by the 10th, everything starts to hurt. But, with the foreman yelling, I was working as fast as I could, and in no time, I was exhausted. And then, just as I was ready to learn, the teacher appeared.

One of the older men on the crew came over, put his hand on my shoulder and said: "Ain't no man gonna break your back 'long as you working the shovel. Let that old man yell. You jest work at your pace" I looked at him and knew immediately what he meant. It wasn't the foreman that was wearing me out; it was my desire to please him.

It was me that controlled my effort. It was me controlled my fatigue. And, in the grandest sense, it was me that controlled my life. I had the choice. That day, and every other day, I could either work to my own limits or try to live up to the expectations of someone else.

My life as a runner began like my life as a laborer. I looked first outside of myself for guidance. I looked outside of myself for expectations. I tried to meet the goals that others set for me. I was overcome with 'shoulds'. And I was overcome with failure.

It wasn't until I began to work my own shovel, as a runner, that running became a nearly constant source of joy instead of a chronic source of frustration. It wasn't until I began to understand that ultimately my running matter only to me that I was free to run for myself.

Not that it was easy. Just like that day moving stone, it's hard to ignore the eyes and voices of those around me whose believe that I should live up to their expectations. It's hard to run with joy when all but one of the water tables has been taken away. It's hard to revel in the mystery of motion when you finish a race alone, and the chutes have been taken down, and the clock is sitting on a folding chair. But, I have. And I do.

And when I do, when I overcome my own need to please people I don't know, and who don't know me, I hear the voice of my teacher. I remind myself that my running, indeed my life is my shovel. And ain't no man gonna break my back, ain't no man gonna steal my joy, or rob me of my right to celebrate what I've accomplished, 'long as I'm working the shovel.

Waddle on, friends.

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