Sunday, June 30, 2013

A funny thing happened on the way to the ultra

They say sleep helps you heal. Funny, because I got none of it during my week in the ICU; no one ever does. Things beep and click and buzz. Lights flash. Hospital beds are second only to the Iron Maiden in terms of comfort. And of course, you are never, ever alone. Someone’s always coming in to do something to your body ranging from annoying to unpleasant to let-us-not-speak-of-this-again. Blood pressure checks, pulse checks, temperature checks, pain meds, blood draws—oh lordy, the blood draws. I got needle tracks Coltrane would envy.

In order to make sure my left leg wasn’t clotting to the point of no return, a nurse would come in every hour, remove my special yellow anti-skid socks (pointless given that I was not allowed to stand up on them and test their skid-blocking abilities), smear a gob of cold blue jelly on my foot and check my pulse with a shoe-box-size machine that totally looked like some cheap fake prop from a 1950s sci-fi flick. The nurse would stick the end of a metal probe into the foot jelly, turn a big dial, and listen as the doohickey hissed and whined until eventually it found the familiar lub-dub of a pulse. Then the blue goo would be wiped off and the yellow sock replaced, inevitably catching on one of my ragged toenails and threatening to pull it off. The nurse would squeal in dismay and apologize profusely; I would shrug. Distance runners get used to shaking the detached toenails out of their socks.
In the hospital bed, not sleeping, not able to move, not wanting to succumb to self-pity yet feeling pretty damned pitiful, I listened to the night shift nurse quietly enter the room to take my pulse. The procedure was the same every time, but the night shift nurse seemed particularly adept at doing what needed to be done efficiently and unobtrusively. And each time, after she took my pulse and wiped the jelly off with a paper towel, she would run her hand over the side of my foot to make sure she got all the goo off—gently, like a whisper, ever trying not to disturb me.

In that hospital bed, sour with sweat, blood matted in my hair, bruised, punctured, feeling in every way unlovely and foul, I saw someone who cared enough to make sure that least my foot would not be coated with disgusting goo, that at least in some little way I could feel clean again.

Touching someone’s foot can be quite intimate. In this case the touch was not erotic or arousing, but it still seemed moving, somehow. I recalled a line from early in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, where Claudia describes the seemingly harsh way she was treated when she was sick as a child but then, with an adult’s understanding, realizes that the anger she thought was directed at her might actually have been anger over her suffering. She remembers something else, too: “someone with hands who does not want me to die.”
Nurses, like teachers, balance a sense of caring with a sense of professional duty. They are paid to show kindness, or what is often perceived as personal kindness rather than skills borne of training and experience. But even job-related kindness is a precious commodity; not everyone takes that one extra step, after all. In fact, kindness in any form can seem rare to the point of extinction. There is such endless emphasis on love in popular culture that kindness is often overlooked in terms of what’s most valuable in life. The reasons are obvious: kindness isn’t dramatic or sexy; it could even be seen as wimpy, given by the soft to the weak. It’s the stuff of maudlin aphorisms, the likes of which make people go “aw” and hit the “share” button right before they move on to guffawing over some celebrity fashion faux pas.

Just wait, though. Some dark moment of your life, someone will show you kindness in some small way and you’ll understand just how much it matters. This could have been a very bad week. It wasn’t. So many people who didn’t have to do what they did for me did it anyway. When I rose to stand yesterday for the first time in five days, I felt shaky, I wobbled, but I stepped forward. I knew there were hands all around me, the hands of people who didn’t want me to fall.



Friday, June 21, 2013


Complaining about being tired is probably the most popular way to brag about how amazing your life is without looking like a complete asshole. You know what I mean. You’ve likely both heard it and done it. I’m sooooo tired. I can’t remember the last time I got a good night’s sleep. I’m just tooooo busy for that. Just not enough hours in the day, ya know? Oh yawn, gotta dash. Ta. Well, maybe sometimes you do look like a complete asshole, but an enviable one whose life is a whirlwind of nonstop activity.

The kind of tired I am right now is not that kind of tired, nor is it the chronic insomniac’s up-in-the-wee-hours-pacing-the-floors-like-it’s-my-job tired, though I’ve had plenty of that in my life. This is different, and it’s not something anyone would want to brag about. In fact, I write this post with considerable risk that a huge red international “no” symbol will descend on me after I’m cattle-branded with the word “WHINER” on my forehead. So be it.
I have a runner’s heart, which means it can carry me through hours of intense physical activity. It’s also a human heart, of course, and it’s been drop kicked, stomped on, sucker punched, smashed, crushed, shredded, pulverized, and all the other extreme settings on an industrial strength blender. I once said I’d had enough of love and relationships and was resigning myself to living a solitary life. Friends smiled eagerly when I said this, because as we all know, this is precisely when the heroine discovers that the nice guy she’d only ever considered a friend is actually The One. Nah, that didn’t happen. He dumped me for someone else. You should see them, they’re super cute together.

I am tired of thinking I’m strong and then learning, again and again, how fragile I really am, how very easily damaged.
I have a runner’s body, which I never had before, which means I’m in the best shape I’ve been in, ever, in my whole life. It also means I’ve injured bone, muscle, tendon, ligament, toenail, and even teeth in the process of training for races. I’ve had a major league pitcher injury (rotator cuff), a football player injury (groin), and a hockey player injury (yeah, the teeth again). Some of these were minor setbacks. A couple of them made racing difficult and disappointing. I’ve never before had an injury that made me miss a race altogether (unless you count the hangover I had before the 5K in Chicago one weekend with The Ex). Until now. My first ultramarathon, the one I’ve been looking forward to for most of this year, the thing that put excitement and joy back in my life after yet another major downer of a winter, is not going as planned. In fact, it’s probably not going at all.

I am tired of wanting things, going after them, working so hard to get them, and failing. Again and again and again.
I have a runner’s mentality in so many ways, and that means, among other things, an obsessive need to keep moving. Run through the rain, run through the pain, run and keep running and do not stop until you’ve reached your goal. It also means, an honest runner will tell you, that sometimes you really hate being this way. Can’t I stop? Please? Why the hell not? Why the hell am I still doing this? When my novel got accepted for publication, a “see tolja so” chorus serenaded me for months from well-meaning friends who had heard me wanting to give up on ever seeing the book in print. I smiled at them, and in general I act thrilled to the toes about this dream-come-true news, but to be honest, the main emotion I feel about this isn’t elation but relief. Good. I did it. Now I can stop being depressed about it and focus my negative energy on something else.

I am tired of listening to myself think these things, and I hate having to tell them to others. I dread meeting new people because the thought of having to go through my stories, my past, my life, engenders nothing but weariness.
There are wonderful things in every day. A good meal, a fun book, friends who make me laugh. I value these things immensely. I know I should focus on them and not all the other crap, but as you know, you with the amazing life that keeps you so, so busy, it’s hard to focus when you’re tired.



Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The girl who kicked the hornets' nest...and baked the hornets cookies

Staci-Ann rides the bike she’s had since the third grade. She’s 33 now. Last summer she rode that little girl’s bike, pink and beribboned and be-belled, across Iowa with thousands of other cyclists, many of whom laughed at her until she was no longer in their sights, having pulled far, far ahead of them.

If you met Staci-Ann, you’d probably think she’s just another pretty, bubbly girl from the Midwest who teaches kindergarten and bakes cookies and never has a dark—or particularly deep—thought. That’s if you met her. When I met her, I saw something completely different: a very, very competitive runner. An example? Most runners I know make a big deal about their first marathon; Staci-Ann skipped right over that paltry distance and went right to her first ultra. She runs race after race after race, consistent, steady, strong. But you would never find this out about her if you met her in any other way other than as a fellow runner. This is because Staci-Ann is not merely modest to a fault; she is modest to an active, 9.0-on-the-Richter-Scale-earthquake-generating fault.
A week ago, running trails in Wisconsin, I asked Staci-Ann if I could do a 19-miler with her. She enthusiastically agreed. “OK,” I said, “but as soon as you feel like pulling ahead, do so. I warn you, I’m running this really, really slow.”

“Oh, me too.”
“Uh, not as slow as I am.”

“Oh no! You’re so much faster than I am.”
“Staci-Ann, please. No offense but I’m getting really tired of seeing your backside retreating in the distance ahead of me. You. Are. Faster.”

“Oh no I’m not! I’m so slow! You’re such a great runner!”
“I am not a great runner. I run. Superlative adjectives not required.”

“Oh no…!”
And on and on, until I wanted to take a baseball bat to her shins and watch while she still beat me on two fractured legs.

Here’s the thing, though. When I say these things, I’m not being modest. I’m dead serious. She is faster than I am, at every distance. This is a fact. It therefore enrages me when Staci-Ann refuses to acknowledge this fact, as though she’s pleasantly, cheerfully, modestly arguing that the world is flat and that in this flat world I’m a far better runner than she.
“How fast did you run your last marathon, Staci-Ann?”

“Oh…I…” Hemming, hawing, hesitating.
“How fast?”

She named a time a good fifteen minutes faster than my fastest ‘thon. “But you’re so much faster at the shorter distances!”
This also is not true and I was getting ready to go through all our PRs at every distance—5K, 10K, half—but an intervention was called and I never got to celebrate the triumphant moment when I proved beyond a doubt that I suck at running compared to her. That woulda showed her, huh.

Other runners think it’s amusing that I take such umbrage to Staci-Ann’s perpetual denial of praise. The concept of projection sometimes comes to mind: am I angry at Staci-Ann’s refusal to admit her badassness because I myself have similar self-esteem issues? Nah, that’s not it. The truth is I have a lot of respect for people who are genuinely humble, whose modesty isn’t artifice to garner praise or an act borne of social convention. Humility is in very short supply, it often seems to me, in part because it’s something that can’t easily be taught. If you’re forced to be modest, you aren’t being modest; you’re being oppressed.
But modesty and humility aren’t merely about thinking less of yourself. I don’t believe it’s damaging to self-esteem to recognize what you are capable of and balance that with an understanding of how you are fallible. I don’t think it’s terrible to look at the great things other people have done with admiration and leave it at that rather than tacking on an “I bet I could do that too.” I’m glad there are people who are capable of amazing things I could never do. I’m glad there are amazing things I can do. I’m not terribly glad that I sometimes fail to do amazing things, sometimes even embarrassingly simple things, but I’d be a fool to deny that this happens from time to time. A lot of runners are faster and stronger and better than I am. Hooray for them. Here’s hoping they finish their race and then wait fifteen minutes or two hours so they can cheer me on when I finish. They usually do if there’s beer.

This is not, I daresay, the way Staci-Ann practices humility. She’s perhaps the only person I’ve ever known who I wish would be just a little more cocky and obnoxious. There’s something disturbing about her constant denial of reality—something I daresay tragic, because there’s something disturbingly stunted about her emotional development. Spend any amount of time with her and you’ll be treated to an endless stream of chirpy observations that might be appropriate coming from a six-year-old (“Look at that yellow house! It’s really yellow! I’ve never seen a house that yellow before!”). Usually the people with her take turns murmuring an “uh huh” or a “yep” after her pronouncements, however inane, because even when her chatter is irksome, you somehow never want to tell her this. Staci-Ann gets teased a lot—all runners in this group get their share of jibes—but never to the point of nastiness, never in a way that might really hurt her. Hell, my insistence at her superior running abilities is probably the harshest thing anyone ever says to her.
It would be easy to dismiss Staci-Ann as someone without much more to her than meets the eye. I can’t do that, though. It’s easy to think of other people as shallower than you, to refuse give them credit for depth because you can’t see those depths. In her case, I know there’s something beneath that surface. I am not always sure I want to see it

“How do I find my special someone?”
Staci-Ann posed this question in the middle of camp, while everyone else was brushing teeth or hair or shaking ticks out of sleeping bags. There was an awkward pause. Then one of the guys said he met his wife at work. Another guy volunteered that he met his girlfriend on Match. “Work,” Staci-Ann said thoughtfully. “But I haven’t met any other male kindergarten teachers so far.”

That’s likely because there’s only one in the entire state, and he’s thinking about quitting that gig and getting his EdD, but I didn’t say so. As for Match, Staci-Ann isn’t even on Facebook. She lives at home with her parents, in the same room where she grew up as a child, riding the same bike, only now she rides, and runs, like a mofo in her spare time.
“That’s an awfully serious question all of a sudden,” the Match guy said with an uneasy chuckle. I think we all felt a little odd about it. It’s so much easier to think of Staci-Ann as being contented with her life, even though we have the luxury of finding it slightly ridiculous ourselves.

I didn’t think these unsettling thoughts about her again until later that weekend, at a bar in a nearby town, beer and burgers on the table and hockey on the TV. Most of us were watching the game; Staci-Ann’s chair pointed her toward a TV with something else on. I happened to catch a glimpse of her face, realizing as I did that she’d been surprisingly quiet for some time. What I saw shocked me thoroughly. Her face looked like it had been stripped naked while simultaneously something had collapsed inside of her. I took a surreptitious glance at the TV she was watching but I didn’t recognize the show. I looked back at Staci-Ann but I couldn’t look for long. I was seeing despair where I’d never expected it, and I had nothing to fight it. I could not tell her what a great runner she is and how that should be a tremendous comfort to her. I could not tell her she was sure to find that special someone because everyone does. I certainly couldn’t tell her the things I tell myself, or she’d be just as messed up as I am, which means as messed up as she is now, just in a different way.
In the end what compels me about Staci-Ann is the fact that she and I could not be more different in most ways, and the ways in which we are similar, we are unable to communicate about. But there are similarities. No one is so remote as to be unreachable, even when they run far ahead or drop far behind.




Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Night falls. So do I.

Fear of the dark. Fear of falling. Fear of being so lost you’ll never find your way. Worst of all perhaps is the fear, not of being alone, because there can be great comfort and solace in solitude, but of being alone when you’re lost, in the dark, and you’ve fallen, and there’s no one to pick you up, no one to find you, no one to light the way back, no one there when you need it most.

All this and deer ticks, too.
I did my first night trail run over the weekend, nineteen miles through the woods of southern Wisconsin. This is a beautiful part of the region at a beautiful time of the year, trees topped with dense clouds of green and lakes that are see-to-the-bottom clear. At least that’s what you get in the daytime; it’s obviously a little different at night, but still beautiful, a tradeoff for a sky swirling with stars.

I was eager to try night running as a changeup from the usual and as a way of adding to my running repertoire, so I went up north with a bunch of runner friends to camp and hit the trails. Camping and running and lots and lots of beer—all promising of a good time. Of course, a group of oddballs with extreme hobbies and personalities to match, not to mention some rather tangled history and soap-operatic backstory in common, all spending several days in close proximity also promises a certain degree of tension and subtle underlying drama. I can tell you right now, drama isn’t nearly as fun to be part of as it is to watch. I am sure Claudius and Gertrude would have loved the play Hamlet arranged if it hadn’t ended up being about them. In my case, there were moments I wanted to throw my hands up and bellow to the wilderness, “Are you not entertained?” I am sure the wilderness was.
Some things hurt too much for words. Distance trail running is not one of them. There are plenty of words for that, though the four-letter variety get repeated rather a lot at times. Let’s just say my first excursion into night trail running lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. No, scratch that, I can tell you exactly quoi: grace, speed, finesse, balance, and sense of direction. I tripped, I stumbled, I fell. I lumbered and lurched. I trudged up hills, and then, in defiance of the sacred aphorism about what goes up, trudged up more hills. None of that sounds particularly unusual for trail running, but the darkness made me feel like I wasn’t just running on a new trail but on a new planet.

The funny thing is, even though I felt a great roil of emotions out there, fear wasn’t one of them. Yes, it was dark, and I couldn’t see what was around me, or ahead of me, or behind me. There were sudden, strange noises, and looming shadows, and long stretches where I seemed to be the only person in existence. But it wasn’t scary. I didn’t know where I was, or where I was headed, and I could only look as far as the next few steps illuminated by my light. So I took those steps. And then the next ones. In that way I made my way through the dark.
I finished a good hour slower than a friend who ran the exact same course at the same time. That part didn’t bother me: I don’t run to go fast; I run to go somewhere. Sometimes in the process of going somewhere you get beat up really hard, but most of the time that’s OK, because you do feel stronger afterward. Other times, though, you get really, really tired of things being hard. You wish just once the pleasure did not always have to be mixed with pain. I wish I could say that this run changed something for me, made me feel stronger and more confident about my running, my life, myself. I’m sorry to say that running isn’t the cure-all you might want it to be. Sometimes you run because you don’t know what else to do. You aren’t afraid, just tired and hurt, and you go on not because you want to overcome the hurt and emerge victorious but merely out of a sort of weary resignation. The world goes on; you can stop and fall and stay lost in the dark forever, but instead you choose, such a choice as it is, to go on with it.