When all you are is all you can be

One of my favorite books is a little tome by Jess Laire entitled “I ain’t much, baby, but I’m all I’ve got” (Doubleday: New York: 1972) I happened to read it at an earlier time in my life where being what I was wasn’t all I wanted to be. The shortest synopsis of the book is that you are what you are and you can choose to spend your life frustrated by what you aren’t or learn to be grateful for what you are.

In those days my goal was to be in a major symphony orchestra. I had friends who, at least to my ears, were no better musicians than me and they had, or were getting, jobs in major orchestras. I was convinced that I had as much talent as they did. I certainly had the ambition they did. What I didn’t have was the job they did.

Life in those days was a succession of heightened expectations, exhausting preparation, and debilitating disappointment as I searched feverishly in professional journals for position openings, practiced endlessly the required audition materials and listened hopelessly as I was told that I hadn’t made it into the next round. It was a nightmare cycle of anticipation and letdown.

In the years since I stopped playing professionally, I seen hundreds of friends, colleagues, students, and even my own son go through the same cycle. Sure, a small fraction have actually distinguished themselves and gone on to a measure of success, but that only makes the reality of having missed the mark all that much more bitter a pill.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the parallels between being a performing musician and being a runner. Very early on, though, I vowed that I would not make the same mistake as a runner that I did as a musician.

Like most new runners I was overwhelmed with the kind of progress I was making at first. But, then again, as a 25 year smoker, just not hacking and coughing at the end of a run was progress. As weeks turned into months and months into years the angle of ascent began to flatten out. It didn’t take very many years before there were no new distances, no sure PR’s, and no guarantees of success. I had quickly come to the moment of truth as a runner that had taken me a lifetime to reach as a musician. I was about as good as I was going to get.

But unlike my life a musician, my life as a runner didn’t have to be frustrating. As a runner I had a choice. I could choose to accept the standards set forth by the running community as a whole, or I could create my own personal running world in which I alone was the standard bearer and where I single handily could decide whether a run was good or bad. I had the choice of deciding if running was going to be an activity that enhanced my life or was simply one more area in which I wasn’t able to live up to my own unrealistic expectations.

Clearly, I chose the former. I chose to view running – any running – as a gift. I chose then, and continue to chose to see myself as one of the most fortunate of people on earth. I am fortunate first because I can run and second, because I am a runner.

Too often, it seems to me, runners refuse to accept that, in Jess Lair’s terms, they ain’t much but they’re all they’ve got. That’s not to say that they should want to be better – however they define better. They can chose to want to go faster or farther or both. But it all has to happen in the context of accepting that what they are is what they are.

If what you are is a 2:20 marathoner, then by all means you should do everything you can to be one. If you’re a 15 minute 5K runner.. then be that if you can. If, on the other hand, you discover that you’re a 5:30 marathoner or a 45 minute 5K runner, then being that is what you are. And being that is plenty.

The largest race in which I’ve ever been a participant had 47,000 entries. 47,000. That’s a lot of people running from one place to another. And I would argue that what they share in common is far more important than the differences in their finishing times. What distinguishes those on the starting line from those on the sofa is that the definition of their best is always subject to reevaluation.

So if you see me smiling while I’m running, don’t be surprised. What I know for sure is that I am the best runner I know how to be and the best runner that I am willing to be. That might not be much, baby, but it’s all I’ve got.

Waddle on, friends.

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