by Dante Zappala
Rule # 1: Don’t hop the barrier to cross the road. Rule #2: No running in the bike lane. Rule #3: Fail to follow the rules and someone is sure to call you out.
Even on the banks of the Müritzsee, a majestic lake in northern Germany surrounded by endless woods, the rules still apply. And I’m breaking as many of them as I can.
The footpath I should be on is a trap. The day before, I got stuck in traffic on that narrow strip just as I was slamming the last kilometer of a tempo run – a tragic interruption.
This time, I chose the asphalt that will take me to the trails on the other side of the river. Traffic is light. Yet without fail, one of the bikers blurts out, “Hier is fur Fahrrad vorbei!” I’m not in this fella’s way. I’m going as fast or faster than the bikes. But he realizes I don’t belong and is compelled to say something.
This is a prevalent custom in Germany. Many people assume they know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and then they set out to correct you. Forget trying to explain the situation. They don’t have the patience and I don’t have the vocabulary. As a result, a lot is left to dangle in a social interaction marked with micro aggression and misunderstanding.
I’ve recognized this on many fronts, particularly while I’m running. I’m genuinely enthused by the degree to which the Germans have picked up on running en masse. But I see a struggle going on. Their faces are rigid, their gaits are mechanical. They have discovered running but they haven’t found its soul. It’s not ski jumping or handball just yet.
Instead, it’s an instance of “sport machen.” You can buy an entire running kit at the supermarket for less than 35 Euro – shoes, shirt, socks and tights (and, yes, they have men’s capris). Running is another exercise in doing things formally more than it’s simply an exercise.
I don’t fit in. Ich bin ein Ausländer. I’m on the trail with other runners, but what we’re doing is entirely different. I’m searching for anything between the Elysian Fields and a cheap runner’s high. In the process, I’m catching stares like a mutated barn animal you’d find at the carnival.
While I am physically avoiding people while I run, I’m clearly getting in their way. That’s what the biker was really trying to tell me. And I’m telling myself I need a rest.
For the first 10 days, I’d been all in, logging serious runs in preparation for a marathon in September. This is called super compensation training where you substantially raise your mileage for a period of time. I applied this same principle to immersing in the local culture. I’d been trying to mesh and mold as best I could, speaking German exclusively and not judging the oddities and discrepancies around me.
But I’d had it in every sense and needed a break. Fortunately, rest is exactly what super compensation training calls for. After a period of high mileage, you need to compensate to the same degree the other way to recover. When you’ve completed this cycle, you can feel confident about returning to this new plateau.
This touches on a central tenant of training. Running doesn’t make you a better runner. Recovering from your runs is what makes you better.
After acknowledging that I’m physically and mentally exhausted, I embrace a recovery day. I take a nap at 10 in the morning. I take another one at 12:30. I consume as many calories as I can find. I ask my wife to handle the normal transactions I’d been eagerly taking on – getting the morning bread, figuring out the details of the campground where we are staying. I’ve completely checked out.
Rest days are sacred, officially enshrined as mandatory in most major religions. And for good reason. If you are taking off, for God’s sake, take off. It’s not a day to cross train. It’s not a day to lift. It’s a commodity you invest in. And it appreciates significantly in 24 hours.
The next day, I am eager to set out again. The trails on the western shores of the Müritz are world class, and this is the last time in a long time that I’ll be here. The choice to focus on the woods around me and ground underfoot is an easy one.
All good training, with the proper recovery, results in a beneficial adaption. That’s starting to come to me now. I meet the silly stares and comments with utter indifference. I’m gliding through foreign airspace. I understand what they are saying and even why. I’m not upset. I’m not judging. This is their way.
But I am somewhere else, beyond.