Monday, April 20, 2015

Against the tide

Most days that the weather is bad -- raining or threatening, too hot or cold -- you can find me walking on the indoor track at the HPER Center, my campus's exercise and recreational facility. The track runs around and overhead of the basketball courts. It's 1/10 of a mile on the inside lane, where walkers are supposed to stay, and 1/9 of a mile on the outside.

Now, I'm there so often that I feel rather proprietary about it. And I'm there so often that I see all sorts of people who either don't know or don't care about the rules. Walk in the direction indicated by the arrow (which flips every day). Runners on the outside, walkers on the inside. I see people stretching right on the track, with people having to step around and over them. I see them doing interval work where they stop running suddenly in order to start doing lunges or something, heedless of people behind them. And naturally, I see lot of people completely ignoring the lane rules, running or walking in any lane they want, weaving around people or forcing others to weave around them.

But what I saw yesterday was a first. There was only one other person on the track when I arrived -- a jogger. And he was going the wrong way. I looked at the arrow, looked at him, and as I stepped onto the track as he approached, I said, "Dude, other way," indicating the arrow. He shrugged. "This is the way I go," he said as he passed.

I walked 27 laps before he finished his jog. He never turned around to go the other way. Just kept running the way he goes. Other people arrived to walk and run. They joined me going the right way. A fellow faculty member who jogs as much as I walk, and that I see almost every time I'm there, spoke to him like I did. I saw him step onto the track and make a circular gesture with his hand as the wrong-way jogger passed him. Again, the jogger shrugged and kept going.

Because we were going in opposite directions, I met him two times on each lap -- a little more, actually, because he was moving a bit faster than me. Because he was jogging on the inside lane (sigh), he had to move out of my way every time we met. After the first time, we didn't make eye contact. He had to snake his way past oncoming traffic in multiple lanes when the several users of the track happened to converge in his path.

What was he thinking for those 40 minutes before he stopped jogging against the current? Was he annoyed every time he had to dodge another person? Did he ever consider turning around and going with the flow, or was he dead set on his own direction? What were his feelings toward me and the other faculty member who had questioned him? What about the others who joined us and mutely testified to the rule, and against his choice, with their actions?

Most of all: Why?

During those 27 laps and maybe 50 face-to-face encounters, I thought a lot about what I would have done if I found I were going the wrong way. Many years ago when the HPER was new, I feel certain I went the wrong way, before somebody pointed the arrow out to me. I don't remember it particularly, but I have many similar memories of learning the rules and folkways of an exercise facility because I did it wrong at first. I might have gone to the start of my lap and turned around there, so I didn't have to account for incomplete laps in my counting. But I can't imagine just continuing on, minute after minute, lap after lap, as the evidence of my error mounted.

But perhaps he was aware from the start he was going the wrong way. "This is the way I go," he said to me, as if he had a private methodology that no rule could sway. I'm not sure why running the track counter-clockwise was preferable. The direction arrow changes daily so that we don't all get shorter legs on one side like mountain goats from always pivoting on the same foot. Maybe he had an injury that made it hard to turn to the right. But that's also why runners are supposed to be on the outside, the rule that he and others widely ignore, so that the curve at the corners is more gentle, not requiring a pivot at all.

I recognize myself in the wrong-way runner. I can be stubborn. I don't necessarily want to be told what the right process is; I prefer to reinvent the wheel because (and I've only just recently recognized this about myself) I get irrationally mad in certain situations where other people know more than I do. But I think I'm learning to overcome these flaws, in large part thanks to my research among the prayer shawl makers, where I had to listen and refrain from imposing my knowledge and perspectives. I've had too many experiences where hindsight tells me I could have saved myself frustration, and done a better job, by trying to learn from others at the outset rather than just bulling through on my own unfounded notions.

What can I learn from Mr. The Way I Go?