I’m running a narrow, uneven trail along the banks of the Nile River. From time to time the small subsistence plantations of corn and plantain bananas open up, and I pass through scattered villages. The living is simple, the huts are low and the chickens scratch wherever they please.
The people are dignified and friendly, always ready with a greeting for this ‘mad mzungu who runs for no reason’. The children’s first response is to dash around me in a haphazard fashion. Their second response is to point and laugh, uproariously and unashamedly, at my battered Vibrams with their frayed toes.
As I re-enter the hand-tilled land, the trail becomes rough again. The harsh inconsistent cambers on the steep tiered bank demand my focused attention. The few older children still straggling along drop away and I run alone, with the hot African sun on my back.
East African cattle with their long straight horns and the river’s rapidly rolling rapids which splash onto the path, surprise me and keep me guessing on the winding trail.
I feel like I could run like this forever. But I can’t – life makes its demands.
A week later and I’m running another trail next to a different river.
The towpath follows the banks of the Thames River all through London and beyond.
Large blocks of council housing, with weeds overgrowing the communal yards, alternate with river fronting houses, with expensive German cars parked on paved lots.
I pass people walking dogs, cyclists and a surprisingly high volume of runners. I greet the latter with the customary runners’ raised hand. Ignoring my daring cultural indiscretion, none greet me back.
The path is neat and flat. Its consistency makes it easy to find my rhythm so I can look around as I run. The rowing teams are out training, their coaches shouting into loudhailers from small motorboats. A houseboat owner is hanging up her washing.
I realise that, distracted, I have run further than intended.
There is a third trail that I am running. It follows the river of life.
My life flows inexorably on, minute by minute, meeting by meeting, one To-Do List after another. The flow of these repetitions seems, by their predictability, to define the fabric of my life. Yet, I know that such things are not life. Being alive is more. So much more.
Aristotle is reputed to have said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Even if he didn’t say it, it’s a dependable truth. As I run next to the iterative happenings of my life, I pass many opportunities to grow, to make meaning, to develop. It is what I do with those recurring opportunities that actually writes the script for the drama of my life. It is not the regular things that happen around me, but my repeated responses to those that define my performance on this once-off ultimate event.
I’m running a trail. And so are you. What matters most is how we run - the skill, the style, the courage.
Every time we respond solidly to a challenge on the trail we become more likely to respond solidly. The converse is also true, of course.
The river of my life, and yours, will undoubtedly take unexpected turns as it flows on unstoppably. We can’t always choose the people and events that pass us as we run along, but we can determine how we respond as we go. Sometimes we take wrong paths and have to pick our way carefully back.
The cumulative sum of the habitual responses we choose make us the runners we are. Skill leads to skill, style to style, courage to courage. In the same way, incompetence breeds incompetence and avoidance grows avoidance.
I’m running a trail and so are you. Run well, Friend – this is a one-way route.