Setting the Sail… a Classic Chronicle

The Lesson of Leeway

I’m not much of a sailor. That in and of itself may not surprise you. Sailing, I found out, is – or can be – a very busy endeavor. I suppose there are times when everything goes just right and there’s a magic about being out on the water being pushed by the power of the wind. But for me, everytime I’ve tried to sail, the power of the wind has tried to push me into the rocks.

It has to do with lee way. Or more precisely, the lack of lee way. You see, there’s the windward side of the boat – that’s the side from which the wind is blowing – and there’s the leeward side – the side away from the wind. A sailboat doesn’t go in a straight line, it gets pushed to the leeward side. You set the sail and then point the bow slightly windward with the rudder. Most importantly, you need to leave yourself plenty of lee way. Are you with me so far?

All this is well and good if the wind never changes, and the course you’re on is a dead-on straight line. But, that never happens. The wind moves around, the course twists and turns, and the better part of a sailing day is spent fiddling with an endless array of ropes, and cranks, and cleets.

Many of us think that running, like sailing, is simply a matter of devising the plan, laying out our goals and strategies, marking our course to take us where we want to be, and then sitting back and watching our dreams come true. But our running is fraught with the changing winds of fortune and life, and the course that we’re on is nearly always the course we create anew on a daily basis. And, as runners, it never occurs to us to give ourselves the leeway to fail.

This seems most obvious to me at the finish line of races. Over and over I see runners of every age and description cross the finish line, look at the time on the clock, and frown. They are disappointed in their time, whatever it is. The 16 minute 5k runner wanted to run a 15:45 and the 40 minute 5k runner wanted to run a 30:30. It doesn’t matter. The phenomenon is the same. They didn’t allow enough leeway.

The only way that the disappointment could be real would be if one could recreate precisely the same set of circumstances over and over again. That can’t happen. Our lives our linear. If you go back and read this sentence again it won’t be the same as it is now because you’ve changed. You’ve read the sentence. You altered yourself by the simple act of reading the words.

You are a different runner every time you run. You are in a different race, as a different runner, every time you toe the starting line. In spite of all the preparation, all the experience, and all the drive you bring to the starting line, the fact of the matter is that you have no idea who the person is that’s standing there in your shoes. You may have brought him or her to the race, but the minute the gun goes off you are merely along for the ride.

You can set the sail, to be sure. You can set the rudder too. You can train effectively, warm up carefully, stay within yourself, and follow your race plan, but you are still at the mercy of the fates. The day, the course, the other runners, and a host of other factors outside of your control will affect the outcome. And you’d better give yourself some leeway.

It’s important to have goals, but it’s more important to be honest about what it takes to achieve them. It’s important to assess yourself, to observe and even be critical of yourself, but it can’t be done in ignorance, and it can’t be done from the position of master of the universe. We are only the runner that we are on that day.

In my running – and life – I’ve often given myself too little leeway. I’ve often let the winds of fortune blow me too close to shore. I’ve run too many miles, or raced too many races, or set goals that were impossible, or simply willed myself to go beyond my capabilities. And yes, I’ve gotten away with it at times. More often, though, I’ve crashed into the rocks and been set back days or weeks or months.

Deciding to be a runner – whatever that means to you – is only the first step. Being a runner is a daily activity. It’s running when you should, and not running when you shouldn’t. It’s paying attention to yourself as you are today and choosing a course towards tomorrow. Being a runner is a matter of endless fiddling with schedule and distance and pace.

You cannot control the wind, but you can always set the sail.

Waddle on, friends.


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