by Dante Zappala

A few days ahead of Labor Day, summer was trickling away in Wildwood. The crowds on the boardwalk were thin. The neon had lost its luster. Even the T-shirts didn’t overly offend. The best one I could find read, “Obama can’t take these guns” with two arrows pointing towards the wearer’s biceps.

Wildwood has historically provided great satire for current events, but that’s clearly slipping away. The saving grace for me was the coffee/caramel ice cream twist at Kohr Brothers.

This is the perspective of a Wildwood lifer who remembers pink Oakley windbreakers, overalls with no shirts and lots of hairspray. Now, I really do have to watch the tram car and I get motion sickness on the rides. My kids, on the other hand, see the town for what it is: a playground full of overindulgence in thrills and sugar.

One place where we did share a mutual sense of exhilaration was in the ocean. For years, they danced in the shallows, running back and forth from crashing waves. This year, without hesitation, they ventured with me out to the breaks and took on the surf enthusiastically.

The water was rough, but at points the waves were setting up beautifully. I thought that maybe this was the year I could teach them to body surf. Boogie boards have all but killed this tradition, but it’s the only way I know to enjoy the ocean. I’ve worked the craft over countless summers, experimenting with barrel rolls, flips and riding on my back. Still, there is no better crown to wear than catching a wave with your head down, riding it until you are blue in the face from holding your breath and skidding to a stop on the beach.

I just couldn’t explain to them how to do it. It’s something you learn by feel. You have to first judge which wave to ride. Then, you have to position yourself properly behind the break but not too far back. Speed and timing are important. If you can match the momentum of the wave at the right point, the force of the break will take you to Mecca.

To their credit, they tried but mostly ended up getting smashed. Both took face plants on the ocean floor. But just at the point that I thought it might be wise to bring them back to shore, the perfect wave came at the perfect time. My oldest by himself and my little one with a push from dad each caught the wave and rode it just long enough to know what “right” feels like.

My running and life buddy who has been suffering from a recurrence of plantar fasciitis was emailing during these last days of summer with his own revelations about finding “right.” He had come across some videos and explanations that convinced him he’d been running wrong. His form was to blame for his injuries, he believed. With great enthusiasm for having found the right way to run, he set off to modify his stride.

What is the right way to run, I wondered? He was very deliberate to explain that this was a solution for him, not necessarily the rest of the world. He felt it addressed the core problem that was causing his injury. It involved relying more on his hips to get his legs further back, thus shifting the momentum forward enough that his impact point is beneath his center of gravity, not in front.

This makes practical sense. But so much has been written about form while gurus of all walks preach that there is a certain way to run. What I stressed to my friend was that when you hear religious-like claims about running form, read between the lines. People are usually looking to profit in some way. In my opinion, each person has their own set of perfect strides. Different paces require altered mechanics. Different stages of a race will likewise affect which muscles you can activate. But I believe there is a right way and it is unique to each of us.

We search for that in many walks of life. When we discover something so pure in meaning that it defies words, our stubborn instincts still try to quantify it. So we share our wisdom, which many times morphs into proselytizing. It’s understandable. If you found salvation for yourself through Jesus or just a good golf swing, you’d probably want to tell people about it.

But this ultimately intrudes on our own capacity to figure these things out for ourselves. Ambiguity makes us nervous, which in turn makes us more willing to accept someone else’s finite definition, particularly those that exploit fear. It’s why we have religion-based bigotry. It’s also why runners think a 20 miler is necessary to prepare for the marathon (another topic for another column).

It’s ultimately our personal responsibility to discover our own actual and metaphorical perfect stride. Outside information is a good start. But relying too heavily on the experts for guidance leaves us ripe for manipulation. For me, the truth is out there in the break of the waves or the loneliness of the trail. But rather than seek it, I find it’s only necessary to be there and let it find me instead.