Riding the Wave


By Gary Griffin


I’ve never been a surfer, even though I spent my childhood on or near the water in the farthest most reaches of South Florida. My Dad believed that a boat was for fishing only and the ocean was for generating fish for us to catch. My opinion never differed much from his on that issue. The closest I ever got to a surfboard was watching Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in the old Beach Party flicks in my youth or hurling 2 oz. pyramid sinkers with my surf rod at the guys on their boards getting in the way of my fishing on some central Florida beach. Nope – no hangin’ 10 for this guy. Surf’s up? Who cares? The real question is “Are the fish biting?”

Nonetheless, I’ve decided that running for a long while inevitably creates an analogy that is not unlike surfing. When I say “running for a long while,” I’m not talking about endurance running, marathoning, or ultrarunning. I’m talking about running for a number of years, i.e., the span of your running career. I believe the analogy holds true for those speedsters that thrive on 5Ks and 10Ks as much as it does for those who cannot stand the pain of such things and opt instead to run for hours at a time. As long as you do whatever type of running it is that you do for a number of years, you will inevitably encounter THE WAVE.

In my formative running years, back in the 80s and early 90s, I probably would not have even recognized the wave. In those days running was fairly effortless, and even when I went hard and ran a PR or something, I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. I just attributed it to speedwork or a good pre-race meal or some alignment of Jupiter and Mars. If it continued for a while, it was just accepted and never questioned, and pretty much was expected to continue, day after day, unabated. Real running careers don’t work that way, however. That is fairyland stuff for the most part. The elite runners of our youth aren’t around much anymore, and we’ve watched as the best of our group has gotten sidelined for a period of time that has often turned into forever. I’m talking about the Salazars and the Wottles and the Millses as well as the many who have graced the streets of Tallahassee at the front of the pack that are now off square dancing, or hashing on occasion, or doing nothing more than changing the remote on the TV from the comfort of the sofa.

But, some have stuck around and have come to know, and catch, the wave. My pal George Palmer caught one a few years back, and what a wave it was! A monster of 30 to 40 feet, I’ll bet. He had had hip replacement surgery and had “cashed it in,” as he likes to say. Then, he got to looking out at the horizon and decided to get his feet wet again. In doing so, he caught the wave, and rode it through a year of training which ultimately ended with a wonderful ironman performance in Clermont. That was quite a ride he took. Eventually, though, the wave crashed and dumped him on the beach. He’s since picked himself up, spit the sand out of his mouth, and is gazing out at the horizon again …. looking for another wave. They’re addictive, those nice big waves. You’re up there on top of it, hanging on for all you’re worth, but knowing every second that it is a gift and that it will not last forever. Such is the beauty of catching the wave. You know it is finite, unlike those rides of our youth that we thought were endless.

Let me tell you about this great wave that I caught about 18 months ago. Like most great surfing waves, it crept up on me. It wasn’t as if I was looking out at the horizon and saw it coming and paddled hurriedly out to meet it. No, this was nothing more that a swell that just happened to carry me for a bit until it turned into something really special that I could get upon top of. I actually encountered this swell at the Callaway Gardens Marathon in February 2002. For some unexplainable reason I ran a faster marathon than I had run in 9 years. I wasn’t training any differently, and although it was good marathoning weather that day, it was also a tough course. And – it wasn’t like I had focused on the event, for it was a spur of the moment decision to even show up and enter. Something happened that day, though, and I felt lifted up and somehow better than I was. The rest of 2002 went equally well, with every marathon or ultra entered providing a result that surpassed expectations and times that were faster than I either had ever run, or faster than I had run in many years. The whirlwind tour of 2003 was a dream: the Mountain Mist 50K in the snow in January and a finish only minutes off the old Master’s record, a fourth place overall and first Master at the prestigious Mississippi Fifty in March, another Boston qualifier at Boston in April, and the fastest Pennar 40 Miler in 11 years in June. July brought the amazing Badwater experience, and early August, a second place finish at an 8-hour run in Atlanta. This was a good wave and I was having fun. Throughout all of this, training was generally easy and the desire to lace ’em up and get out the door was never a factor. Long day after long day after long day – things that never would have been possible or would have been considered inane became commonplace.

“Want to run 20 tomorrow?”
“Well, I ran long today, but, sure …. What time?”

And so it went. 70, 80, 90, and up to 100 miles a week. What a ride. And yet, I always knew it was the wave. I knew it was a gift and that I had better enjoy it, because waves don’t last forever.

“How was your run today?”
“Not bad. I’ve got this nagging pain in my leg. If I just walk a bit before I run, though, it is OK. Besides, I’ve got the hundred miler coming up.”

The hundred miler.

I knew my ride on the wave was nearing an end when my focus turned from running a fast 100 to just getting through it. Was I going to exit the wave with dignity and catch another one or was I going to wipe out only to be covered with sand and have the board broken in two? That’s the question you ask as you’re on top of one of these things. Is this wave going to get so big that I can’t handle it, or will it let me down gently before I hurt myself? In this case, I had the chance to get off before the crash and chose to see what excitement might await me when we reached the shore. And – in this case I was left sprawling, and it’ll be awhile before I get wet again. For now, even the horizon is not clearly seen.

What did this teach me? Well, like so many, I held onto the “live for today” mentality. Instant gratification. Nonetheless, I would not change a single solitary second of the whole experience. Towards the end, when the surety that it was going to spit me out became quite evident, I struggled for a bit. And – I am not happy about the prospect of spending several months in recovery from my self-inflicted wounds. My experience has been that good things come of these times, though. I have noticed that the constant tiredness that was subconsciously present has eased a bit. I have learned to ride a bike again, and I have noticed I can lift more weight at the gym than I could when I was running. I am going to have to learn to live under the bubble at Myers Park and the pre-dawn darkness as I water run. But all the while I am out there water running, I’ll be remembering with gratitude the wave that I caught in the spring of 2002. I’m pretty certain that another one will come along someday, probably when I least expect it.

In the meantime, keep your boards waxed and ready, because when one of these things comes along you need to be ready. At anytime you may hear those words and feel your legs saying “Surf’s Up”!