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2023 Word of the Year: Heart

I was first introduced to the concept of selecting a “word of the year” in the context of a hokey corporate team retreat. I refused to even consider it. Encouraged to volunteer our words with the others gathered around the conference table, I excused myself to the restroom and reappeared some time later for the catered lunch. My co-workers joked for the rest of the year that my word had been “hunger.”

To choose a word is to seize upon a direction, and at that point in my life, the direction was largely out of my control. I was clinging to a raft and barreling towards the falls - now a lady in a blazer assured me I could manifest a paddle if only I would whisper “resilience” or “pause.” I was not up for that sorcery. I ate my turkey sandwich and lurched up and over another swell.

The good news is that the metaphorical falls didn’t kill me and that more expansive metaphorical waters lay beyond. The idea of setting my own course is no longer a ludicrous proposition; it’s a necessity for navigating this new place. Sometimes I even wear a blazer.

Still, in setting my intentions at the close of the holiday season, I had not planned to choose a word for the coming year. The word found me anyway. That word is “heart.”

Men ask the way to Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain: There’s no through trail.

In summer, ice doesn’t melt

The rising sun blurs in swirling fog

How did I make it?

My heart’s not the same as yours.

If your heart was like mine

You’d get it and be right here.

from Cold Mountain Poems by Han Shan (translated by Gary Snyder)

I often repeat this poem to myself when I’m running - especially on those dire runs where I imagine the futility of explaining myself to a bewildered observer. “Why are you running up that hill again?”

“Well,” I respond to the imaginary onlooker, “My heart’s not the same as yours.”

I suppose I could tell my fictional friend that I’m working on improving my running economy and resistance to fatigue, but that would only lead to pretend interrogations where it is revealed that I am past my prime, stand no chance of breaking any records, and could certainly choose to spend the morning in bed. And yet I do not. It’s really a difference of heart, isn’t it? What I am doing doesn't have to make sense to anyone's heart but my own. If their heart was like mine, they'd get it and be right there.

When someone runs a gritty race, they are lauded as having run with heart. But gritty isn’t all there is to it - grit, purpose, determination - the sum of these falls somewhere short of what we mean when we use "heart" as a descriptor of performance. To race with heart means to confront adversity with a certain earnestness - to put forth the kind of effort that leaves one vulnerable to all manner of uncool consequences, including ugly-crying or losing despite it all. In my sophomore year of college - my only uninjured year of competition - I won both the 3000 and 5000 meter races at our conference championship meet. Afterwards, the meet official shook my hand and offered that "you sure don't make it look easy, but you've got a lot of heart." Indeed, there is a gracelessness to laying it all out there. Others have put it less kindly - "So awkward! So fast!" and my favorite admonition, "no style points for you."

This year, I'm striving to live with more heart, style points be damned. I am following my heart to help others achieve their triathlon and running goals and to give them the kind of earnest, all-in partnership each of us deserves. I pouring my heart into my racing, my family, and my business and risking a whole lot of gracelessness in the process. If your heart's the same as mine, you get it - I hope you'll stay right here. Happy 2023.

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