Thirty years ago, on a public holiday near Wesley Boatshed on the South Perth foreshore, I went for a run. These were the days when the highest functionality you could expect from a watch was a start, stop, and a lap function. A time when running shorts and underwear were separate items of clothing, and an era when a public holiday meant much of the state was closed.
An easy bridges run was ahead as I took off from the Boatshed, heading for the Causeway at a steady clip. All was right with the world – birds were chirping, people were chatting, and I was enjoying a relatively still day. Once I reached the Causeway, though, things changed quickly. I needed a toilet. Not a tree, a toilet.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that, while it’s difficult to verify, I believe I may have a ten-talent gifting in the area of bowel movements. I could be more humble with the prolfiling of my gift but it’s not always been compatible with a love of running.
I digress. My need was growing and as I crossed the bridge I knew my options. I had to make it to Barrack Street Jetty.
No problem. Just keep ticking along, pick up the pace a little and get this job done. It’s only three kilometers; anyone can hold on for that long. Yet, as I drew closer to Barrack Street, so did my anticipation.
I reached the toilets at Barrack Street poised for an avalanche of fury.
If unrequited love is a killer, the thwarting of an anticipated bowel movement at its moment of release is ever greater.
I had to strengthen my resolve, activate my core, clench my cheeks and proceed with urgency.
In moments like these, there’s a delicate tension to be found between running faster to reach your destination, and running faster and losing control of other bodily faculties. I was traversing the tightrope with borderline success. You don’t want with tortoise head to beat the hare.
My next stop would be between the two tunnels – just beside the lake – a kilometer or so away at best. My pace had increased by now, and my running form was beginning to modify to activate the glutes in ways a runner really shouldn’t.
I reached the toilets with some demented leg carriage that betrayed my desperation. Toilets closed.
Now, I am not fussy about toilets. I’ve enjoyed bus stops and vegetated median strips on late night runs. The road reserves formed at the end of truncated roads were often my go-to in the past. Given the rich, dense flora near that lake, I wouldn’t ordinarily flinch, but there were also steady streams of walkers and sightseers, and this was one sight that they really didn’t need to see.
As visceral as the need, I soldiered on. Next stop, the south side of the Narrows Bridge.
Sometimes you can buy yourself a few extra minutes by forcing your mind to redirect its thoughts. I’d been trying that trick for about twenty minutes now. I’d made plenty of mental withdrawals; I was ready for some serious physical deposits.
The center of gravity had well descended by now. My running form had been modified for survival as I hauled ass over that bridge in some strange bow-legged, grotesque version of running. Few have looked as awkward running 3:30/kilometre as I did coming off that bridge.
If I made it to that bridge-side toilet while still holding myself within myself, it could be the scene of one of my greatest triumphs.
If it was open.
To complete the hat-trick of desperation, it was closed. What was it with Perth and public facilities in the eighties?
I began to hate my life. My body had great expectations yet an inability to produce even the slightest hint of success. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that ‘many die with their music still left in them’. Leaving the music within me was all I wanted now.
I had one last crack at the title. The toilets at Mends Street would be my final curtain call, but I would not be going gently into that good night.
A major problem with the stretch from the Narrows Bridge to Mends Street? The toilet is continually in your line of sight. This is a problem. A visual increases the sense of expectation, causing the mind and thus the body to run ahead of itself and give birth to possibilities prematurely rather than when their time has fully come.
These thoughts are only considered in hindsight. The situation had moved beyond desperate somewhere just after Barrack Street; now it was grim.
With a running form akin to a wounded Cossack dancer, I made the last strangled mercy dash as the toilet was 900 meters away. Now 700 metres.
Don’t think about the toilet. It’s right up ahead. Don’t think about the toilet.
My ability to ‘not think about the toilet’ had long dissipated, along with my expectations of being able to control my bodily functions.
With one last withering sprint, I clenched hard, dropped my waste ever further, and drove for the finish line.
It was futile. 200 meters from a toilet that turned out to be open, the game was over. That which was contained was no longer. The hard work and muscular control gave way to release. Full release. It was a messy business, and I was knee-deep in the carnage.
As I waddled self-consciously through the crowded area attempting to look as though nothing was doing, it must have been clear that a lot had been done.
I started out by saying that this was back in the day when running shorts and undies were separate items of clothing. On that afternoon, my underwear and I parted company. Ceremoniously flushed to a better place. My work there was done.
I coasted back to the boatshed enlivened by the rush of fresh air in parts hitherto contained.
I thought this story had no consequence at all – it’s not as if it needed to – but as I’ve procrastinated its writing, I’ve realised it has plenty.
If there’s a physiological phenomenon to which many runners will relate that has broader life application, it’s this: when the mind becomes alive with expectation, the body prepares and positions itself to deliver! Unfortunately, when it comes to the rest of life, the reverse is also true.
When it comes to performance, we often get what we expect. How we prepare our minds and our bodies, checked or unchecked, feeds into the end result. This is managing expectations in reverse. To position your mind and body for the possibility of a great outcome is to conceive the great and position yourself accordingly.
So many do their finest work on the training track because they never put in the decent yards when it comes to ‘expectation management’. They allow reptiles of the mind to crawl about turning what was good away from what could have been great and into something quite ordinary – purely because they offered the possibility of a negative path of least resistance.
But this piece is ultimately about a bowel movement – one that was spectacularly unsuccessful in its delivery. Ultimately, the weight of expectation was unsustainably great. Both for its safe delivery and its capacity to remain ensconced in the garments that sought to contain its greatness.