It’s hard to say. Self discipline is all about making choices. If you choose the more difficult path by forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do, you’re automatically categorized as “self disciplined.” Sitting down to crank out those pages when you don’t really feel like it is certainly a measure of someone’s character. I remember one of my college professors remarking that another professor and his wife were preparing for a trip to France by speaking only French when they were at home. This professor happened to be the creative writing teacher and a published author. Being an undergrad, I was totally impressed at the man’s dedication and discipline. (He later told me that his fluency in French was so bad that a Parisian waiter asked him to “Please speak in English.”) So much for my theory about discipline leading to greater rewards.
But sometimes it does. A number of years ago my buddy Mike McNamara told me he’d run 120 consecutive days preparing for the karate matches in the Police Olympics. After hearing that I decided to try my hand at matching or breaking his record. The ground rules were that you had to run at least one mile during a twenty-four hour period. I managed to get 200 consecutive days of at least 3.5 to 4 miles in before getting sidelined with an illness. I tried several times to get my running streak going again, but couldn’t seem to get past ten or eleven days before something would interfere and I’d peter out. But the 200 day streak had become the stuff of legends. People still said I had an “iron will” and was very “self disciplined.” I basked in the warmth of their praise, but the truth was that I couldn’t muster enough gumption to match half of my previous streak. Finally, Dave Gryczewski, another of my police buddies, told me he was going to start running that night with the intention of “breaking my record on New Year’s Day.” The threat to my “record” was enough to stoke the fires of self discipline in my belly. I went for a three-and-a-half mile run that same night, and every day thereafter. At the end of a week I asked Dave how his streak was going.
“I only made three days,” he said, “then I stopped.”
Without the extra inducement of the threat to my record, I considered quitting too, but since I’d already made it for a week, I decided to try and break my own record. I continued to run every day, rain or shine, snow or sun, wind or rain. I zoomed past my old record of 200 and felt great. So I kept going. Winter faded into spring and on to the summer heat. I ran through ninety degree days and lightning filled thunderstorms. By the time autumn arrived, I realized I’d gone an entire year without missing a day of running. Then it became a challenge. I’d made it through an entire year without missing one day of running. Keep in mind that I was working night shift for the majority of these days. Ever try forcing yourself to get dressed and run at least one mile when all you can think of is going to sleep?
Many times I felt like quitting, but I also noticed something else. I was in such good shape I never got sick. I hardly even caught cold. I did get a rather severe case of the flu one New Year’s Day. I spent the night shift in agony and when I got off in the morning it was January second and about five degrees below zero. I drove home with one thought in my mind: if I didn’t run before going to sleep, I would never be able to get up in time to keep the streak going. I suited up and did a grueling mile through the snow-filled streets suffering with every step. When I finished I showered and immediately fell asleep for a solid twelve hours. When woke up I found that I’d missed a protracted SWAT call-out involving a barricaded gunman, which I regretted immensely. But the streak was still intact.
At what point does self discipline become infused with a bit of obsession? I kept the streak going strong for seven more years, never missing a day no matter what the circumstances were or where I was. My tag name for it was “Time out for fitness.” I estimate that I’d run across the country quite a few times and probably circumnavigated the globe at least once. A few times I came close to quitting, as with the aforementioned flu episode, but while the streak was going on I felt at the top of my game. Finally, when it became apparent that I was starting to show signs of arranging my life around my running, I began to entertain the idea of how to end the streak. It was a difficult decision. As I mentioned, I’d never felt so robust. Stopping didn’t seem to be in the cards.
Eventually, my decision was made for me. A massive scheduling change at work necessitated that we go to 12 hour shifts, with a contractual obligation to hold over for four additional hours if needed for overtime coverage. The daunting task of starting work at six PM and sometimes not getting off until ten the next morning (with the knowledge that I would have to return to work that same evening by five-thirty PM) made the thoughts of doing those forced runs less than enjoyable. So I purposely let the streak end on one of those bleak, overtime mornings. I sat wistfully in my squadcar with a cup of coffee thinking how I’d so much rather be running.
Presently, I go for a run just about every day. However, if I start to build up too many consecutive days in a row, I make it a point to take one off, lest the streak reassert itself and I get on that endless treadmill once again. Still, the temptation lingers to see if I could beat that old record.
Let’s see, if I started tomorrow . . .