Sunday, October 13, 2013

The asterisk life

My status as an ultra-marathon runner has gotten off to an interesting start. The first ultra I was supposed to run, back in June, didn’t happen; instead that day I lounged around the Intensive Care Unit with a metal filter in my abdomen, put there to catch any of the numerous blood clots in my left leg that might decide to get adventurous and journey upward into my brain, heart, or lungs. The first ultra I did run I hadn’t planned on running. It was a local race in which runners do as many 3-mile loops as they can in 8 hours. The concept sounds kind of awful even to die-hard runners like me, and I originally had not wanted this to be my first ultra. Thirty-four miles and a wrecked Achilles tendon later, it was anyway.

My second ultra was yesterday. It was supposed to be on a trail called Farmdale, and whether or not Farmdale actually takes place on or near a farm or a dale, it’s on U.S. Army land, and the government shutdown put the kibosh on that happening. Instead the race happened in a different park, on a slightly tougher trail, called Jubilee. The race directors took to calling it Jubilee-dale. I think Jubi-dale would have been better, but in any case, it was cause for jubilation because I not only finished it but enjoyed it tremendously. At one point I fell, got up, and laughed. It was that kind of day.
Each of these ultra attempts seems to require an explanation—an asterisk, perhaps. The first one didn’t happen. The second happened when it wasn’t supposed to, and the third happened where it wasn’t supposed to. I suppose that’s fitting given that if ultra-marathon-running had an associated punctuation mark, it would be the asterisk. Doesn’t your heart leap just a little when you see an asterisk? Doesn’t it make you just a little uneasy yet excited? Something’s coming, says the asterisk. Are you ready for it?

Two years ago, during one of the toughest times of my life, I wrote a short essay titled “Asterisk” that I thought up after lying in bed staring up at the ceiling fan for several hours during a bad spell of clinical depression. The ceiling fan reminded me of an asterisk, and it made me wonder if it was marking my life as not quite right somehow. An asterisk as a punctuation mark tends to correspond to some small but crucial explanation necessary to know so that the thing being asterisked has more meaning. Thing is, I couldn’t find what my asterisk corresponded to. Maybe I’d never find out.
Sometimes the asterisk implies that certain events don’t really “count.” Maybe, I thought, my asterisked life is anomalous, one that looks like other lives but isn’t quite right, somehow, doesn’t quite “count” in the same way. The asterisk hovering over it is there to remind me that I’ll never really fit in the way other people seem to. Of course as soon as you say that, as soon as you suggest that you aren’t “normal,” people start in on the what’s-normal-nobody’s-really-normal-Normal-is-a-town-in-Illinois bit. And they’re right, of course, especially the Illinois part, but where does that leave you? You can put a positive spin on it all; you can say maybe the anomalous part was that very bad year. That would have been a lovely thing to believe, that things would get better, that I’d never go through that kind of hell ever again. But I don’t believe that. In running, sometimes the toughest part of a trail isn’t going up a steep hill—after all, most runners will just stop and walk those—but getting to the top of one, because you’re tired, really tired, but you have to start running again. Once you get through hell, you now have to live with the knowledge of what hell is—and that it could come back to you.

During my second ultra, there were quite a few steep hills. I ran it on a cool, damp fall morning, trudging up those hills, skittering scarily back down them, tripping over roots, splashing through creeks, dashing past cornfields, over rocks and under fallen branches. At one point on the third of four loops, a big leaf smacked me right in the face. Maybe it was just exhaustion or low blood sugar playing tricks on my mind, but the leaf looked asterisk-shaped. I wondered if maybe the asterisk doesn’t necessarily correspond to what’s flawed and unfixable, or what’s unknown and never to be known, but rather to what’s unexpected. As it would turn out, this would be one of the best races ever for me. I finished strong, I felt great, and I even came in first place in my age group. Who would ever have expected that, given that just over three months ago I nearly passed out walking from my hospital bed to the bathroom?
The leaf that hit me fell to the ground before my feet. I looked past it for a moment, and saw the entire trail paved with asterisks. I ran toward them. Who knows what they could mean?


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