In the world of athletic stories, there’s a sub-genre of short films on YouTube, usually 15-20 minutes long, that follow an elite trail runner during a big race, usually a 100-miler. They head in with hopes of finishing first, or at least getting a personal best.
These films are seem legit. Since no one knows how things will turn out while they're filming, it's impossible to just make success stories that glorify the runner.
Often the race goes well, but once in a while the effort the runner thought would go well takes a turn for the worse. A recurring plot line in these is bad-luck tales is:
“I faced an injury (and/or stomach/bowel issues, dehydration, excessive heat etc). I thought I’d have to quit at the next aid station. But something from deep inside me (and/or the encouragement of my support crew) told me to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
Then one of two things happens. In the best case scenario, the runner eventually loosens up and gets their energy back. They start passing other runners and defy all expectation.
The more interesting plot line, though, is the one where the runner recovers enough to keep on keeping on with no hope of winning. For the rest of the race, they tough it out, running whenever they can muster the strength and walking the rest of the way, all the while pushing past their intense discomfort.
That film usually ends with the runner staggering across the line.
Whichever way it ends, the lesson is the same. Regardless of the outcome, they sum it up in some variation of the same phrase: "I just kept moving.”
Thinking back on my second cancer treatment, healing came through goals (as told in the Proof of Life documentary). Sometimes I didn’t meet those goals, but they always served their purpose: they kept me moving.
Rebuilding my life after a traumatic brain injury this past summer has been the ultimate test. There have been more mental and physical challenges and more disturbing memories and false memories – more trauma on all levels – than anything so far.
Improvement has sometimes come in dramatic surges. More often, there have been long weeks filled with mornings when my body seems to be just as weak as it was the day before, and my head is still just not right.
It's encouraging to know I'm not alone in this.
In The Resilience Breakthrough, Christian Moore says, "Doing anything, even something small and or seemingly futile, helps me remain in control and more resilient." (p 176).
What has gotten me through physically are the friends and family who remind me to have faith in incremental change. Life gets continually better if we I just keep taking tiny step after tiny step.
Getting a hold on my emotional and mental health has been a similar process. Only instead of learning a few more exercises or taking on a new household chore, it’s been taking encouragement from wherever it comes.
I've been eating at a resilience buffet: a podcast here, an online talk there; reading a book or an article, writing an article, taking Sunday walks or day trips with my wife, hanging out with my running club after their runs. Lately, going on hikes. Whatever is in front of me and looks helpful and whatever I can handle that day.
Just Keep Moving. It isn’t the only key to resilience but it underlies everything.
Because when you lose confidence, you stop moving.
When you lose hope, you stop moving.
When you’re exhausted beyond all measure, you can't help but stop moving.
But if you can remind yourself about the power of incremental change, you can rest up, dust yourself off and get your legs in motion again. That's resilience.
This is all fine and good, but sometimes the weight of something like cancer is just too much (see my Curious Survivor blog post on Fear). Knowing there's an invisible force, a demonic worm inside you and/or the cure is actually worse...
That's the kind of knowledge that can stop you in your tracks. It can't be erased. It can only be lived with.
That's where you have no choice. Unless you want to shrivel up and stop living, you have to just keep moving. Even if you don't know where you're going or if there's even a destination.
It’s okay if you aren’t a rock star today. You don’t have to be optimistic right now, or even pleasant. Just keep one foot moving in front of the other. The momentum will return tomorrow, or the day after, or in a month.
Just because you keep moving doesn’t mean you'll get better. But you can’t get better if you don’t.
It's tempting to compare ourselves to others who seem to be stronger, or to an ideal person we picture who powers up life's hills without their lungs feeling scorched by the effort.
The lesson from these YouTube trail running films is one I've had to learn many times when running with a friend or in a race: at a certain point, you can only do what you can do. Your body and energy level that day will dictate what you're capable of.
Some days, you may be able to gut it out and push that little bit harder. But there's a point at which you're not going to catch up with that person in front of you, the one you think you should be running past. And more often than not, pushing too hard will burn out your legs and actually suck the energy from your body.
The lesson in those times of discouragement is that you need to run your own race.
If that race is slow; if your form isn't what you'd like it to be; if you have to take more stops than everyone else -- well, that's okay.
There's no sense fighting it, because it's where you're at. If you're slow today, you're slow.
Sometimes, though, you just can't push through, like in the film An Almost Perfect Race, in which running phenom Courtney Dauwalter tears a muscle and and has to pull out at mile 66, two-thirds of the race through.
In the face of the really tough, soul-breaking times, it can be tough to keep our head up. But Courtney doesn't whine. She's happy for the other runners. She heads off to several months of rehab and goes on to win some major races over the next couple of years.
The challenge when we're struggling is to have grace with ourselves -- to take the race for what it is, and try to enjoy the scenery. Then to get some rehab for our soul so we can run heal up and run again tomorrow.
And whatever else, no matter what, to Just. Keep. Moving.