Sunday, 20 March 2016

Running and drumming - on the importance of not giving up on our passions

Long before I fell in love with running, I was a drummer. I started playing 17 years ago, and for many years it was my huge passion. I used to talk a lot about it, think about it, and actually play a lot. There were times when I was a member of up to 3 bands, rehearsing with them almost every day, and practicing on my own for another 2-3 hours every day on top of that.
The time was passing, life started getting in the way, rock star career and lifestyle I was dreaming of wasn't coming, and slowly my passion started to fade away.
I never gave up on drumming though. I was just spending less and less time doing it, and music became more of an important hobby, but not really my dreamed of way of living.

Why am I writing this on a blog that was supposed to be about running?
Because there are many similarities between running and music - or between running and any other passion one can have.

The impulse to write this was the 5 days I've recently spent with my mates from Todger (the band I have a great honor and pleasure to be a part of) at the Rocket Studio in Croydon, working on our new album (the first Todger album with me as a drummer).

I think I want to write about how important it is to stick to our passions and hobbies, and how rewarding it can get, sometimes when we least expect it.

Both running and drumming are activities requiring skill and practice. It's different type of skill, but in both cases it takes years to become good at it. They say it takes 10000 hours to become an expert in a field, and that may be true (although it's not enough to just spend 10000 hours doing something - it's important to do it purposefully and to keep learning and improving the way we learn - as we go).

Learning to play an instrument is not all fun. It's hours of mundane exercises, it's a lot of frustration when we fail. And plenty of satisfaction, when we see the progress, when we're getting better. When we can play things we've never been able to play before. It's quite like with running. I know that internet is full of motivational images and stories telling how awesome and joyful activity running is. And that is true, but it's not the full picture. Running training is also a lot of pain (at least every 3 times a week, during the hard sessions). It's getting out to train no matter what's the weather, no matter what mood you're in, or what cool stuff your friends are up to you're about to miss. It means missing on parties, sticking to healthy diet, reducing alcohol intake, basically - giving up on lots of fun things. Running, drumming, or whatever your passion is, consumes time. It can consume a lot of it, if you're really dedicated. It always comes at a price - mostly at the price of your social life.
But there are also many good things coming with that. There are days when a workout goes better than expected. When you run faster than before. When you run with more ease. There are races, there are PBs. There is your first marathon run, when you feel like a true hero when you cross the finish line. There's lot of satisfaction and self-fulfilment on the way.

At some point you'll realize that your childhood dreams are actually not going to come true. Statistically, none of us would become a rock star. Or an Olympic champion. But - and that's an important part, at least it was important to me to finally understand that - it doesn't matter.
Because what is important is the road, not the destination. I won't be an Olympic champion, I won't be a rock star - but trying to become one, walking the road towards it, can still be very satisfying and enriching process. And there's a lot to learn while we walk that way.

One of the more important things I've learned being a drummer and a runner, is how important it is to be prepared. To - quoting Chris Hadfield - sweat the small stuff. (Btw. if you haven't read his "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth" - please do it.)
I have two stories to back it up. The first one - the most recent recording experience.

Mental Dissection Tool, aka Drum Kit. Isn't she a beauty?

Working in a recording studio is hard. It requires a lot of focus and patience. You record your part, and then all of you - the sound engineer and your band mates - are listening to it. Just your drums. And they're able to extract every single instrument. It feels like being dissected on a public square, where everyone can see what's inside of you, all the things you want to hide, all the stuff you're not proud of.
Is your kick-drum in time all over the song? Didn't you speed up? That drum fill, were all the strokes precise enough? That second triplet, wasn't it a bit too fast? Didn't you miss a crash on that bar? Didn't you hit the tom rim on that fill? And so on - you got the point.
And then, once that part is done, once drums for all the songs are done - the same happens to the rest of the band. Bass guitar, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, vocals...
Before we went to the studio, we were preparing like crazy. For the last several months we were rehearsing the songs we were about to record, in last weeks before the studio practicing twice a week (compared to our regular one-practice-a-week system). We were fairly comfortable with the songs, we knew they were good, but were we good enough to give them justice in the studio? It's a different story than a live gig - in a live situation you can get away with some mistakes, as long as the overall feel is ok, it doesn't matter that much if you made some mistakes, speed up in that solo, or missed a cymbal in the outro. You can't do this in studio.
So we went to record this album with a mix of optimism and a bit of fear.

But all of this quickly started to fade away, giving the place to the excitement. We finished the drums - and that was pretty good. I loved the sound, it was played quite well, groovy, smooth. And then the bass came - making the stuff more exciting, starting to resemble the songs already. Hugh did an awesome job, nailing his parts in just half a day.
The next two days - guitars. That's where we got really over the top with the excitement. It was simply smashing! Powerful, fat sound, all parts executed perfectly. Then the vocals on the last day - and it sounds awesome! Christian left all he had there - and you can hear that!
After 5 days - and the work is not done yet, we still need to record backing vocals and mix the whole thing - we've got something that we are very happy with.

Magic happens. Especially in Croydon - the Jewel of the Southeast ;)

I'm not writing this to brag about it. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter if anyone would publish this album for us, if anyone buys it. What matter to us is that our effort paid off to ourselves. We've spent years learning to play instruments, starting bands, writing songs, playing gigs, practicing, rehearsing. And after all those years we've reached the point, when it all came together to produce something bigger than just the sum of it's components. Not giving up, practicing, sweating the small stuff out, week after week, month after month, year after year - and at some point a moment comes, when magic happens. They way I felt during and right after this experience was priceless.

The second story is about a race I run last year. After our club mile championship race, where I did fairly well (better than was expected of me, anyway), my Coach told me "you're now officially a mid-distance runner". That was on the 30th on June. From that point we changed my training, making it mid-distance specific. For the next 2 months I was doing more sharp, fast workouts, at some point running a track session 3 times a week. There were some brutal sessions, when I felt I was about to revisit my lunch (apparently that's quite common for pro mid-distance runners. I didn't puke after a session yet, so I guess there's a long way for me before I reach a pro level).
But that was paying off. In the following weeks I got quite decent 400m and 800m PBs. And then came the day of the main - and the last - race of the season. It was a 1500 m at Highgate Harriers open meeting, at the Parliament Hill track, on an early September Wednesday evening.
I went there after work, got changed, started my warm up. My Coach came over to support me, we had a little chat, and it was time to go to the start line. My goal was to get as close to 4:20 as possible - according to the starting list there were supposed to be few guys at around this standard, so I'd had someone to run with.
Sound of the gun and off we went. After 200 m I realized that the pace is a bit too slow, so I sped up and took the lead. One guy followed me. Coming to the second lap (so 300 meters in the race) I can hear my Coach saying "take it easy". I relax, keeping the pace, and we continue to run. The Highgate guy still on my back. We're coming to the 3rd lap, and I can hear my Coach saying "let him work". I was willing to, but he wasn't very keen to take the lead, so we carry on with me in the lead and him on my shoulder. The third lap in a 1500 m race is the hardest one. You're already very tired, so it's easy to slow down. And the important part is - to not to. It requires a lot of focus to keep the pace. We're running, working hard. Breathing fast, lungs starting to hurt, legs starting to burn, but pace stays right.
Coming down to the last lap. The sound of the bell, and I can hear my Coach: "you got it".
And I got it.
The last lap hurts the most, but it's also the best one. There is some magic to a one lap race - and that's what eventually every track race gets down to. It doesn't matter what happened before, how many laps you've run so far - now it's all out. It doesn't matter if you collapse just after the finish line, no one thinks about it. Your thinking becomes erratic, as all the blood and oxygen are now in your legs and arms, pumping to get all the energy you've got left out. It doesn't matter you're suffocating - you're almost there! Back straight, last bend, and finally down to the home straight. Sprinting like there is no tomorrow, just a glimpse at the clock while crossing the finish line. First place in 4:18!

Again, I'm not writing that here to brag about it. I've had my fair share of bragging already ;)
What I want to tell you now is that even if it's already more than half a year since that race, this memory is still very strong in me. I still cherish it as a really important event in my life. And it really doesn't matter that it was an insignificant race, that I didn't get any medal for that, that my time (even though I'm really happy with it) is still very very far from the times pro runners are running. What matters is that all the hard work, all the preparations paid off - for me. I felt good with myself, I was proud of myself, possibly I made my Coach proud as well (he well deserves that!).

Nursing a hobby, a passion, is not easy. It takes time, it can take money. It requires many sacrifices.
But it's worth it. All the hours, days, weeks, months and years we spend practicing things we love - pay off. Probably they won't ever pay off literally, giving us careers in a given field, probably we'll never get rewarded with money.

But we get something more valuable - memories.
And they stay with us.

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