Monday, March 18, 2013

Life and Climbing (and great mentors)

"With climbing and life there is a difference between jumping and falling. And, I'm not going to jump. I'm going to take the risk of falling." - Eric Evans, 1997

(from my diary, freshman year of high school):

...At first I signed up for Dare to Achieve Job Shadowing because Miss Chapotan said I would miss school. Seemed like a Good enough reason. I hate my school, so whenever I can get away for a day, that's good.

When I found out I was going to be assigned to the Charlotte Climbing Center, I just laughed. The other 5 kids had to go to NationsBank and other really boring places like that.

When I met Eric, the owner of the climbing center, after school on Monday, he was a little different than I had pictured. He was a short African-American man, kind of muscley and handsome with a big smile. He was sitting in the office with Miss Chapotan, and I thought she might sort of have a crush on him.

"Eric Evans, nice to meet you," he said, extending his hand. Then, he asked, "You do know that you've got the awesomest job to shadow, right?"

"Well, it's a lot better than going to the bank," I said.

For some reason he thought this was funny and laughed really hard. He told me a little about his job, and I listened shyly. He then gave me his business card, pointing out the fact that his name was on there but that it did not say: manager, or president or anything. Just his name.

"And you know why it's that way? Because I know that I'm the president and owner. So, I don't need to have it on the card to remind me."

I laughed. He was funny.

On Wednesday morning Eric was waiting for me at 8:30 am. He was the first adult to arrive. All of the other kids were in the office, too, dressed in business suits and waiting for their people to arrive. I got to wear track shorts and a t-shirt.

"You're a runner, so let's run." We ran to Eric's car. On our ride to the gym I asked Eric some questions and he talked a lot. First he answered some of my business questions then he talked about more personal things.

Eric said that doctors tried to tell him he had ADD as a kid, but he has never believed in learning disabilities. He told me he was very poor growing up and that he learned that one of the most important things is attitude. His way of phrasing it was, "If you have a bad attitude you'll get your bad ass in trouble." Eric told me about overcoming the disadvantages of being poor. He also said that out of all of the climbing center owners in the world, he is the only Black one! This is like his claim to fame or something. He seems very proud of this.

Eric talked with me about my running and the psychology part of it. He ran the hurdles in high school like me. I told him about how intimidated I got in the 400 meters at yesterday's track meet. Eric told me that he was the shortest runner in the field when he won his district meet. Eric is not very tall at all.

"What you need to do is look at all of the girls you're running against and say 'yes, they're taller than me. Yes, they're older and more experienced. But, I'm going to beat them all anyway.'"

Then he said, "I sort of know how you feel. People have asked me before 'Do you think you can run the business being black and all?' And I just have to believe that I'm as good as anyone else. I've always asked myself, 'Why can't I win? Who says I can't?'"

We arrived at the Charlotte Climbing Center and Eric let me climb a moving wall while he made some phone calls. Then I looked through a portfolio-thingy. I realized how much risk and hard work Eric had taken to start the climbing center.

A few minutes later Eric finished his phone call, and we went to a meeting at NationsBank about trying to get a loan to expand the gym.

Eric said several people wanted to know why he didn't just sell the center and make a big profit. His reply was always that his dream was not to have a little climbing center. That was only his starting point. His vision was to offer several sports: Rollerblading, mountain-biking, etc.

"I don't know if it'll work out, but I have to try. With climbing and life there is a difference between jumping and falling. And, I'm not going to jump. I'm going to take the risk of falling."

Next we went to Discovery Place Kid's Museum with the mobile climbing wall. One of Eric's co-workers belayed the kids while Eric and I stood back and observed.

"You can really tell a lot about the kids just from watching how they climb," Eric said." He was right.

After the kids climbed I got to climb. I couldn't quite get to the top, but I tried. Eric wouldn't let me jump, and I wouldn't let myself jump either.

"This is harder than I thought it would be," I said.

Eric laughed, "Getting to the top always is." Then, his expression changed to a more serious one.

"So, what do you think?" asked Eric once I was on the ground again.

"Well, I can definitely see why the kids jumped."

Eric and his co-worker both laughed, "Really? 'I can see why they jumped.' That's all you have to say?!"

But, it was a tough wall to climb!


For lunch we went to a nice Thai restaurant downtown.

"This is the best part of my job right here," Eric said.

I had no idea what Eric was talking about until he pointed to some flowers. "I love seeing beautiful flowers. It just makes my day."

One thing about Eric is that he always seems to see the best in everything. I noticed that it was a rainy, dreary day. Eric noticed a cluster of flowers on an island in the middle of a parking lot.

That was when I noticed how much he appreciated little things. His outlook was to really focus on the good.

Over lunch we had the best conversation. Eric talked about selling a philosophy and a lifestyle, not just a product. We talked about rich people, and he pointed out that rich people often just want to be comfortable and are afraid to take risks. "I don't mind taking risks. I guess if you haven't got anything, you don't have anything to lose."

We talked about not being intimidated. I mentioned how I did not want to be blunt like my mom, but I feared being always shy like my dad. Eric said, "It's not that you're shy. You just think before you speak."

We talked about business, and Eric said he often works 100 hours a week. When I asked how he copes with the stress he laughed. "I don't really know." He said he had never thought about it, that he loves what he does. "I don't discourage you from being your own boss, I would just say, be aware of the consequences."

Eric suggested maybe I think about sports psychology. "I noticed you ask a lot of questions about stress and psychology. Just something to think about."

Around 4:00 Eric drove me back to school so I could get to track practice. He laughed at all of the student cars in the parking lot. "I told you I go to school with rich kids," I said.

I told Eric about this one girl at my school that crashed a BMW, then got a Lexus, then crashed that, then got a big jeep.

"You probably have better morals because you're not rich," he said, "You value things more."

We sat with Miss Chapotan for a minute or two to talk. He told me to start doing my algebra homework and stop complaining about Algebra being too hard, when really I just need to do the work. And then he left.

"After this I will work another 5 hours probably."

On his way out he said, "Call me to let me know how you do in your next track meet. Don't let the tall people intimidate you."

[Postscript: 17 years have passed since I spent my day with Eric Evans. I later found out that Eric's plan for the outdoor center did not work out. I think he never got the loan. Another gym named Inner Peaks came to Charlotte and drove Charlotte Climbing Center out of business.

In talking with my mom this Thanksgiving, I mentioned this story to her. Her response was, "You know what, though, that kind of person, willing to take that kind of risk, usually will bounce back pretty quickly. He's probably doing even greater things now."

I sure hoped so.

Needless to say, I developed this morbid curiosity to figure out whatever became of Eric Evans. So, I did some light "internet-stalking." A quick google search of "Eric Evans Charlotte Climbing Center" directed me to his LinkedIn Profile.

Not only did Eric bounce back after his fall. He seemed to have climbed to greater heights, founding "Peak Learning Companies, Inc." 

I was blessed with the opportunity to speak to Eric a year or so ago.  When we spoke he was living in Minnesota.  Since then, he and his family have moved to Brazil.  I hope to visit one day.]

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Life of a runner: Part I

Birth of a Runner

She was little, very little, frail, no muscles.   She labored to breath in the mid-morning summer heat.   Sweat drenched, muscles screaming.  Only one thought crossed her mind: ‘keep going.’ 
‘Once, just this once, I want to jog the whole way.  I want to make it without walking at all.  I want to prove that I can do this.’  She had solidified her intentions on the school bus ride to the park, but the true challenge was now.  Now.  With every step, every labored breath, bead of sweat.  ‘Don’t stop running.  Do not walk.  Keep going.’ 
In just over 30 minutes she finished the course, all 3.1 miles of it.  Her only rewards were Gatorade, complete and utter exhaustion, and intense pride.  In her 13 years of life, this felt like her greatest achievement.   With her steps across the finish line she has surpassed her own limits.  She had become something new.  A runner.
It started as simply as that, with her goal to jog the 3.1 mile cross-country course without stopping to walk.  The nation’s best high school athletes had tread upon this same course for many years before her and would for many years after.  This same course would host many races, school records, and qualifying events for the national championships.  But, she was oblivious to this fact.  She did not aspire to newspaper write-ups, winning races, or Division I college running, all of which would come later.  On this summer day, she had never dreamt of anything beyond finishing the 3.1 mile course  based on stubbornness and sheer willpower.  Mind over matter.
Later that day she was approached by the cross-country coach who relentlessly pursued her about joining the team.  ‘But I’m slow’, she said.
 ‘You’ll get faster in no time’, he said.  ‘And, we really need runners.’
She was always eager to please and needing that attention and approval.  So, she said ‘yes.  I’ll join the team.’
Of course, she doubted herself, and started to reconsider.  She became nervous just thinking of racing and worried about getting dead last in a race.   She remembered well her first junior high track meet.   Her event was the 400 meter dash – one whole lap around the track.  The field took off in front of her,  and she barely jogged to the finish line, long after others had finished.  She finished that race to the tune of sympathy clapping from those in the stands.  She thought of how painfully long the sympathy clapping could go on if she finished last in a 3.1 mile race.
And yet, some part of her said, ‘I want to be a runner.’
She began drilling her older brother Matt about how fast the girls ran, seeking some assurance that she would not be the very slowest on the team, or worse, in the entire race.  Matt was someone she always looked up to.  She was said to ‘follow in his footsteps.’  Matt was 1 grade ahead of her and had run cross-country as a freshman.  He had done well, as the number 3 runner on the boy’s team.  ‘But, that doesn’ t mean I’ll be any good’ said her voice of doubt.
As the summer progressed, she realized she had limited time to back down from her agreement to join the team.  As she ran every day, she solidified her commitment to run cross-country.   Despite her fears, logic prevailed, and this was the logic. ‘ If I try hard every day, and I keep running, I have to get faster.’  And she held on tightly to this belief.
Finally, that first meet came.  The Eyeopener meet in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  She would feel herself start to sweat in the days before the race when the coach would mention logistics.  She barely slept at all the day prior to the race.  Before she knew it, she was climbing into the van to ride to the race.  She felt nauseous with fear and progressively sicker during the drive to the race. 
What if I don’t finish?  What if I finish dead last?  What if I get lost on the course? 
The race started, and with the sound of the gun some butterflies flew out of her.   She had been told to ‘never look back’, so she tried not to.  Still, she had to look back periodically to make sure there were people behind her.   And others were behind her.  She was not last.  In fact, she was even passing people. 
She was truly running as hard as she could.  Her legs and lungs were screaming at her, but her ego and her determination were yelling equally loudly for her to go faster. 
Finally, she finished and went to find all of her teammates. 
It took her a little while to comprehend that only 2 of them had finished; the rest were still running.  This meant she was #3 on her team.  This meant she was actually good at running. 
She was quietly in awe of herself on the bus ride home.   When she got to her house, her mom opened the door, and she said, ‘mom.  I ran a 23:35! Mom, I finished 3rd on the team!  I can’t believe it.'
Years later those who knew her would reflect on ‘the memory of that tiny little girl who was so happy to finally find something she loved and was good at.’  The girl was shy, unattractive, socially awkward, but none of this mattered on the cross-country course.  Finally, she had found a place that was hers, a place where she ‘fit.’



Life of a Runner: Part II

Part II: Life as a Runner

There was something about running that took ahold of her.  Maybe it was her early successes.  Or, maybe it was just that she felt so great, so joyous, so natural, so alive, so free when she was running.
The path was not all paved with happiness, however.   As the girl saw rapid improvements, her expectations grew at an equal pace.  Her competitive ego always wanted better, to the point where she forgot about how incredible it was to run 3.1 miles without stopping.  She lost sight of what an achievement and transformation that was for her.   She simply said, ‘I need to get faster.’

There was success and notoriety, but with this, added pressure.  Mostly self-imposed.    She could never catch up to herself.  With each new accomplishment, her expectations moved ahead at an even faster pace.  Then came injuries and set-backs.

“I saw a man pursuing the horizon;

Round and round they sped.

I was disturbed at this;  

I accosted the man.

“It is futile,” I said,

“You can never —”


“You lie,” he cried,  

And ran on.

-Stephen Crane

This poem spoke to her.  She was 16 and already in therapy when she first read this poem in literature class.  She related the poem to her running, chasing faster and faster times, greater successes.  Years later, as an adult, she would realize that she lived her entire life according to this poem. 
The day that she became a runner she also became a high achiever.  She approached her workouts and races with a certain drive and determination.  When she heard that carbohydrates were important for running, she became vigilant about eating pasta at lunch every day.  Years later, when she was no longer the 75 lb skinny girl, but beginning to develop into a woman, she approached dieting with an equally intense and obsessive determination.   Eventually, this behavior was termed ‘anorexia nervosa’, but in her mind it was the price of success.  She was determined to succeed at all costs.
When she became a runner, she became someone who approached all of life with a certain drive and passion.  She became devoted to making the best grades, creating artistic masterpieces, having the perfect body, striving to excel in all things she approached.  For better or worse, she took everything in life to extremes. 
And she tried to live by the rule to ‘never look back.’  Successful runners push forward.  Turning back is a sign of fear, weakness.  So, she continued to move forward, always working toward that next goal.  And, she had some successes.   
Unfortunately, she could never realize her success because her attention was always focused forward.  She could not rest on her laurels for fear that rest would make her lazy.  When she finished 2nd place in a race, there was still that one person ahead of her.  For that matter, even when she won the race, there were still thousands of faster runners not in the race.  And her focus was always on chasing what was ahead of her.  She seldom looked back at the many more runners behind her.   
And she never looked back at the tiny 12 year old girl struggling to run 3.1 miles without stopping.  She had left that girl so far behind that the girl was essentially forgotten.




Life of a Runner: Part III

Into the Void
For many years competitive running gave her life a certain symmetry.  Each year was divided into seasons, each season into phases: the pre-season, the early season opener meets, the mid-season, and the championships, a week or two of rest, followed by training for the next season.  Starting with  high school cross-country and track, later with collegiate competition, and then post-collegiate racing, running was the axis around which her life revolved. 

When she started out, continual improvement seemed possible.  She knew no limits and she dreamed big.  Her first few seasons were marked by continual improvement.  Her hard work paid off in a big way.  The realities of time and injuries tempered her dreams, however.  Years without improvement led her to the acceptance that she would only be 'elite' in her dreams.  She would always be great at running but never among the best. 
 As she accepted her limitations, she pursued other life goals.  She completed her higher education, completed her Master's Degree, and found a meaningful career in counseling.  Along the way, she formed many meaningful relationships and friendships. 
Still, running remained her greatest passion in life.  In the years following her collegiate racing, running became more of a personal pursuit.  She ran, and won, some road races, but ultimately she most enjoyed the training, the continual physical challenge, pushing personal limits, and every once in a great while,  the excitement of a new breakthrough.

Periodically, she would swear off competitive running.  But, running itself, she could not quit.  It had become such a part of her being.   The longer she ran, the more natural running had become.  It was as natural as eating or sleeping.  It was vitally important to her and as life-sustaining as breathing.
Where life was generally unstable, running was a constant.  Jobs went from good to bad.   People came and went.  Alcohol worked until it stopped working.  Drugs worked but caused problems.  Sex often left her feeling emptier. 

Running was always there.  Running provided a social network, a physical outlet, a steady stream of endorphins, a distraction from the mundane parts of life, a way to stay in shape, a physical challenge, an identity.

So, when the pain came, she ignored it, at first.   Then gradually, she cut back on her running.  She tried to run through the pain until, finally, it became unbearable.  When she could no longer run, she went to see the doctors, and her worst fears started to materialize.
 She struggled with denial, stubbornly refusing to accept reality.  This acceptance was slow to come and marred with bitterness and sorrow.

She could not run anymore.