On the Edge (Elmo, the Coach)

In On the Edge, Wes approaches his old coach, Elmo, and tells him, frankly and directly, “I want to win the Cielo-Sea.” Wes says, “I want you to coach me – like you did 20 years ago.” Elmo agrees, but stipulates “If you want me to be your coach, you do what I say.” But, of course, he doesn’t. I have wondered about getting a coach, and I’m not sure I would want Elmo to be my coach. I’m not sure I could do what he says. But if I could find one who could find the best in me and apply it to a race like Elmo did for Wes, then I would love it. I was talking with a friend about getting a coach, and he noted that once you get a coach, you step up to a whole new level of commitment. And I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.

I like how the training is interspersed through the movie. Wes devotes a year of his life to winning the race. You don’t get just a training montage. You get the ups and the downs and the muscle cramps of a full year of training. It is not just a “training montage.” And you get Wes’s story of reconnecting with his father, learning new lessons from his coach, and discovering secrets from his own past.

There are two running lessons that I have taken away from this movie. The first is the mantra that Elmo gives to Wes to use for the race. Elmo realizes that Wes is not a “mountain goat.” Wes is a miler, with long legs for striding. He tells Wes to think “soar” as he runs up the mountain, and “burn” as he runs down the mountain. This is kind of the opposite of how his body attacks (or conquers) the mountain. As a miler he should have to work hard (burn) as he goes up the mountain, and he should cruise (soar) on the way down. By switching up these key words, I think Elmo is making Wes run with even effort. He is taking away the agony of the uphill climb, and he is encouraging him to push the downhills. There is a great scene as Wes is practicing this mantra the first time and he is just screaming “Burn!” as he runs down the mountain.

I have been there. When I finished the Hospital Hill Half in 2013, I was screaming my mantra “Be water!” as I ran from the top of Wyandotte Hill to Crown Center. I wondered what people would think, but I decided I didn’t care. I don’t know another movie where the actual forging of a mantra is so well depicted.

He also tells Wes that running downhill is an act of faith. You just put one foot out and find a place for it to land. Once you put that foot out, “you’ve committed!” I have found this idea of running downhill by faith also applies to life. As an older runner, I am not expecting too many more outright PRs in my lifetime. But I do have faith that the rest of my career will be filled with its own challenges. I’ll just keep putting my feet out in front of me and finding a place to land.

Wes’s knowledge of his goal – to win the race – struck me. It is inspiring to see someone who knows what they want to accomplish. And then to see them focus on it, work toward it, and achieve it. My goal this year is to “run injury free.” That has been hard given a slip last winter, a ski trip that involved a lot of falls, and then the “coup-de-grace” fall in February. These have beaten up my glute to where it has become what I fear may be a chronic injury now. One of those niggles that I will only be able to put into remission; I can’t count on it healing. I am afraid that whenever I put in an all-out effort, that injury will make itself known. I also have a goal to make it to Boston. The previous goal was to BQ, and I did that. Now, actually running Boston has a hold on me.

The Cielo-Sea (Sky-Sea) race is a handicapped race over a mountain. The mountain (Mt. Tam) is always in the background, brooding over the town. From right to left (the direction of the race as viewed from the flooded lake/sea house where Wes is staying), there is a long climb to the top, a drop, another climb to a lower peak, and then a drop to the sea. When I see the profile of that mountain, I can see the whole race in a sweep of my eyes.

In Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, there are aliens from Tralfamador who can see time as a fourth dimension. They describe seeing a person as a mountain range. (And instead of looking at the sad or ugly parts of a lifetime, they just try to look at the more appealing parts.) So I could also see the mountain as the arc of a life. And in a lifetime, there are several peaks. And even in the valleys and the saddles there are stunning views. In the race, everyone is traveling over the same mountain, at virtually the same time. It is an allegory of life: birth to death and start to finish. But there is only one highest point.

And one of the questions of the movie is when does that point come in Wes’s life as a runner? And who is witness to it? And who can appreciate it? I think it is his coach, Elmo. Elmo describes a perfect race that Wes had as a miler. He describes Wes coming around the final corner and into the home stretch with the sun dancing off his hair.

So once I finish answering that question about Wes, I start to wonder when my own finest moment as an athlete is, was, or will be. Was it in high school, bench pressing 220 pounds or running my best 5K? Was it Hospital Hill or the KC Marathon in 2013? Was it playing ultimate Frisbee, just out of college in Summer League? Was it catching a line drive in softball? (OK. The softball catch was almost a miracle.) All of these are high points, and it’s hard to know what is the highest point. For that, I’m guessing you would need a different perspective. But I didn’t appreciate how “good” I was when I was a kid. I wasn’t satisfied with myself as a runner or an athlete. Now, as I am starting to look downhill, I am trying to recognize the peaks and the valleys, and appreciate the views.

The Cielo-Sea race is handicapped by age and gender. The scene at the starting line is very cool as the oldest runners come to the line first, and then the age-grouped male and female runners come in waves. It is interesting to see what ages and genders are racing together. If memory serves, the men 18-25 are last to start. The younger and male runners have to pass more people to win. The older and female runners have to keep from getting passed to win, which gives them a slight advantage on the single-track trail. In a handicapped race, the stakes are raised as it becomes a game of chase. The only course requirement of the race is that you start, reach the summit, and then make it to the finish line. The path you take is up to you, which is a lot like life. Because Wes has practiced on the course, he has a few (legal) short-cuts up his sleeve. As in life, experience pays off.

Early on Elmo has his doubts. He knows that Wes is a miler, not a “mountain goat.” The race does not play to his strengths. The only thing Wes has going for him is that the race is handicapped. This race will pit him against an Olympic miler. The competition is fierce, as the younger miler is the favored runner. But Wes, as the older veteran, has the chance to win the race with the benefit of the handicap. This is the competition that Wes eagerly anticipates. He hangs a poster of his rival up in his rented house. It is his way of proving to himself (and making the statement to the governing body of running) that if he could roll back the clock, and if he had not been banned, he could have been a spectacular Olympic miler.

Who is my rival? My fiercest competition comes from myself. In the race, one of the guys is wearing a t-shirt with “Sub 4” on it, which means he’s either run a four minute mile or he’s got it as a goal. I’m not sure. This got me thinking about the 4 hour marathon. Someday, 4 hours may be the bar (or barrier) for me. For now, 3:15 is what I’m shooting for. If I run a 3:15 marathon, I know that I have put it on the line. As we train, we find out what is “easy” and what is “hard.” After a season of training, I have a good feel for my fitness, and I want to finish in a certain time – at the edge of my abilities. With apologies to the LORD’s prayer, I have begun thinking, “Save me from the easy race (evil one).”

The giant calendar that Wes makes and tapes to the wall is what I do for a training season, only bigger. And calendars get me thinking about predicting my retirement and dying and death and my legacy. Being a numbers geek and a former actuary, I could use a statistical approach. How long can I hope (expect) to live? (It’s like the retirement ad with all the people tugging on their “life lines,” which are as long as the amount of money they have saved for retirement.)

But what do we really know about the future? It’s like running down hill. You have to do it by faith. The hard part is putting your foot out in front of you. Once you’ve done that you’ve “committed” to the future. You have to find somewhere to put that foot down or you will fall. You make it to the future (the finish) by putting one foot in front of another. You trust that you will find ground, a place to land, a place from which to move forward. All the time, you are descending to the sea, to the finish, to the end, to death. One question to ask yourself is “Are you a miler? Or a mountain goat?” And then the question is: How are you going to train? Then you take one more step, fly, fall, and catch yourself.

You rise, you fall, fall down, then you rise again! What don’t kill ya make ya more strong! [Metallica, Broken Beat Scarred]

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