I know why the caged snake hisses:
A poorly-conceived reptile-inspired metaphor for endurance athletes
My little brother used to have a pet corn snake. For reasons unknown, the snake was christened “Flip.”
Flip, a gentle soul like most snakes, demonstrated to us on several harrowing occasions that he was supremely uninspired by caged life.
The cover of his cage involved two layers of mesh chicken wire that doubled over one another in order to prevent him from slithering out.
Not one to be deterred by silly human constructs, Flip frequently selected the chicken wire cover for his escape attempts. Unfortunately, his head was the only part of his body that could be maneuvered through the chicken wire. So he would have to hang there suspended from the cage cover, emitting raspy end-of-life breaths from his open mouth until someone discovered and rescued him.
I believe the first time this happened, we were under care of an unsuspecting babysitter. My little brother found Flip in this alarming position — head through the chicken wire, rest of the body still in the cage, mouth open, slowly choking to death — and FREAKED. OUT. Hysterics. Tears. Screaming. Crying. The babysitter clearly hadn’t foreseen that her night might involve the gruesome death of her charges’ dearly beloved pet snake, and so became equally hysterical.
Luckily, Flip lived through the ordeal and apparently had so much faith in this potential escape method that he unsuccessfully tried it again several more times.
And finally, the glorious day arrived that Flip was presented with the chance he’d been wishing for.
At the fateful hour, our house played host-site to a Cub Scout meeting. My brother ran rampant with his Cub Scout pals for a few hours, and then everyone went home.
Later on that afternoon, my brother headed over to Flip’s tank to check on him.
As he approached the cage his stomach did an anguished somersault and he stopped in his tracks:
The cage cover was ajar.
And Flip, the loyal snake? Flip was nowhere to be found. He had peaced. He had flown the coop. He’d gone rogue.
Predictably, tears were shed. Calls were made to Cub Scout parents to ensure that Flip had not inadvertently taken up residence in another Cub Scouting home (“Uh, do you happen to know if your kid stole my kid’s snake?”).
No, someone must have accidentally left the top off, and Flip, seizing the golden opportunity, hightailed his ungrateful scaly butt out of there.
So there we were. My mom, my dad, my brother, and me. For some reason, none of us was bothered by the prospect of sleeping with an escaped snake on the loose in the house.
A week passed, and then a month.
My brother lost all hope that Flip could ever return.
We all accepted the depressing reality that Flip had slinked off into the walls and died.
So imagine our collective shock when, five months afterward, Flip came slithering across the floor, slightly bedraggled but otherwise looking like he owned the place. My brother was ecstatic. He pulled the frozen mice out of the freezer in celebration of Flip’s homecoming, dusted off the old cage and tricked it out with fancy snake habitat items, and returned the snake to his cage. Flip was BACK!
And then he died a week later.
Solemn moment of silence in memory of Flip the corn snake. May he rest in peace.
We like to think that Flip suspected he wasn’t long for this world, and so returned to us to say goodbye before he passed on to the great mouse-infested cornfield in the sky.
At the risk of waxing poetic about a dead snake, Flip was a role model in determination: He was part-Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, part-Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, part Wile E. Coyote without the flair for creativity. Jailed life didn’t suit him, and he never gave up until he got what he wanted. He kept putting his head through that unbending chicken wire even though he knew exactly how much it would hurt.
And then one day?
His persistence was rewarded. He broke through the plateau and zipped off to bigger and better things.
And you know what?
Sometimes running is like stuffing your head through a double-wall of chicken wire.
It hurts. It sucks. It drives you nuts. But you keep doing it because you don’t know any other way to live. You might try different techniques, you might vary your method, but ultimately you’re just jamming your head through the chicken wire again because in some sick way, you enjoy it.
And then on some days, for no apparent reason? You get lucky. Some days there’s no chicken wire in the way. You bust out of that cage like a freedom-crazed snake — like Andy Dufresne raising his arms to the sky in the pouring rain after slithering two miles through a sewage pipe — and you just fly. PRs — like freedom and wild mice in the walls — are yours for the taking.
Those are the days I live for as a runner. The days when there’s no chicken wire in the way. I keep nipping back at the cage cover even though I know there’s a risk of getting my neck tangled up in the twine, of getting hurt and beat up and frustrated and wondering why I do this to myself, chasing these phantom numbers and paces.
Somehow, the good days make the rougher days worth it. The 5 AM wakeups for miles and miles alone in the rainy dark become a small price to pay.
So get out of my way, chicken wire. I’m busting through a plateau here, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
How can you tell when you’re reaching a new level in your running?
Snakes — like ’em? Hate ’em?