Monday, December 30, 2013

The Runner's Raw Shark Test

Sometimes it’s too easy to use running as a big flashing metaphor. Take the 10-mile run I did on the morning of Christmas Eve. I started slow, much slower than almost everyone else, and for a good half of the run I was alone. That was OK, though; I knew I had to run at my own pace, do my own thing. I also knew eventually I’d meet up with my friends, and sure enough, I did: halfway through I caught up with a few running buddies and ran the rest of the way with them. Story of my life, right there: the slow start, the lagging behind, the aloneness, and yet the drive onward with hope that it would work out, that people who care about me will be there for me in the end.

Or compare that to the 15-mile run I did yesterday. The trail was a much easier one than the one I ran Christmas Eve in terms of hilliness, and the temperature was a good 20-plus degrees warmer, but the 15-miler ended up being a brutal battle against ground that alternated between mud-mucked and ice-slicked, as well as winds that ripped any trace of heat right out of your body and carried it off to the next county. One day the trail will delight and surprise you, the next day it will suck like nobody’s business. Ooh! Ooh! Kind of like life! And you know what? Even that sucky 15-miler had its moments of delight and surprise, mainly in the form of my many crazy-ass running buddies who showed up to run with me, in celebration of my birthday, because that’s the kind of people I know. Anyone can be there for you on a gloriously beautiful day; on a day that promises to be hell on Yak-Tracks, look around you and you’ll see the people who really matter.
Do I really believe all that? Does it really matter? That whole perspiration/inspiration ratio credited to Thomas Edison is still pretty spot-on. Dream a little, do a lot. Ultra runners will tell you that running ridiculous miles becomes far more about mental endurance than physical endurance, and while there’s a lot of truth to this, obviously running is still a physical, bodily endeavor. There’s perspiration a-plenty, in other words, yet there’s also inspiration, and—what I think is far more valuable—imagination. The infamous inkblots of Rorschach do not, by themselves, have meaning but can, when perceived and described, mean anything. When I write something, whether it’s about running or anything else, I know I’m making it up; my powers of imagination aren’t necessarily pushing their way into delusion and denial. But the thing is, I usually like what I make up. It often tells me something about myself or my life. It does not always tell me what I want to hear, but that’s good and necessary as well; after all, if we only imagine good things, we aren’t really being all that imaginative. Of course, if we only imagine bad things, as I have learned, we feel pretty shitty a lot of the time. Balance. It’s not just for circus tight-rope walkers.

This is the point in a blog post where I usually try to wrap things up with an attempt at profundity. It also happens to be the time of the year that is particularly conducive to wrap-up profundities. Well, I got nothing at the moment, but don’t you worry. A new year will come, and with it, a little more to dream and a lot more to do.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Goal tending

According to DailyMile, the runners’ version of facebook, I am only 40 miles away from completing 1500 total miles of running for the year 2013. The number 1500 means no more to me than any other milestone-type number that ends pleasingly with a zero, and this isn’t a goal I had ever set out to accomplish, but now that this zero-ending non-goal seems very much within reach, I might just go for it.

Or not. Goals are funny things; even the extremely meaningful goals I’ve set for myself during the course of my life have often ended up seeming about as arbitrary as that 1500 given how little control I had over when or even whether I achieved them.
Let’s see how many of these goal-related references you get: 1) Pyrrhic victory. 2) Sisyphus. 3) EHFAR. Got all three? Awesome; you have an admirable knowledge of ancient history, mythology, and acronyms I’ve made up to represent really stupid sayings. Basically these translate to the following: 1) You achieve your goal but end up finding it a whole lot suckier than your gauzy dreams led you to imagine. 2) Just when you think you’re about to achieve your goal some shitty stuff happens and you have to start all over. 3) You don’t achieve your goal and are forced to utilize all the powers of rationalization you can muster to convince yourself that this is perfectly fine because Everything Happens For A Reason, conveniently ignoring the fact that sometimes the reason is the world is a sucky place where shitty stuff happens.

Some of my fellow DailyMile friends have encouraged me to pursue the 1500, one in particular informing me that one of my local running groups gives free T-shirts to runners who achieve certain mileage milestones, 1500 included. Golly. A free T-shirt, you say? Well, hell, who wouldn’t want another one of those! Another friend took a more relaxed view: go get the 1500 if you want, but if you don’t want it or don’t get it, don’t sweat it. Nothing wrong with, say, 1498.3 miles, and I wouldn’t have to run around the parking lot like an idiot trying to get that last 1.7 in before midnight New Year’s Eve.
No, 1500 is not a special number, nor is 45 (the age I’ll be in just over a week), nor, believe it or not, is one hundred. That last number represents the number of miles that many hard-core ultramarathon runners aspire to complete in a single race. If you aren’t a hard-core ultramarathon runner, that number may seem unthinkable, impossible, and, to quote Princess Bride (because every blog ought to quote Princess Bride once in a while), inconceivable. It was certainly all that to me until about a month ago. I’d just completed my third ultramarathon, and I’d made plans to run my first 50-miler the following May. Fifty was a fine goal, one that seemed reasonably achievable. Naturally, the achievability of this goal made me feel both pleased and dissatisfied at once. If I am reasonably confident I can make this goal, well, sheesh, what’s the point?

Yeah, that’s a pretty messed up way of thinking. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m fairly conventional when it comes to disliking failure. It took me ten years to get my first book published, and even though I succeeded, I’m not going to rewrite history and tell you that the agonizing parts of that ten-year wait were totally worth it in the end. Ends do not justify means, especially when those means turn into a suckfest. What’s more, there were a lot of nonsucky parts of that wait as well, and as the 1500 suggests, goals are largely arbitrary; as such, getting a book published or running an ultramarathon mostly represents a way to pass the time that seems a whole lot more satisfying than most other aspects of day-to-day living.
Given that numbers ending in 5 are almost as quasi-meaningful as those ending in zero, just think about the potent one-two punch of declaring a goal of running a 100-mile ultra at the age of 45. Not that I am actually declaring this, mind you; I haven’t even declared I’m going for 1500, for that matter, T-shirt incentive notwithstanding. Smirk all you want; you don’t know any better than I do how anything’s going to turn out. Pick a number, pick a goal. The number may end in zero, the goal may come with a free T-shirt, but even if neither is true, does it really matter?

But do return to this blog next year to see how I do, won’t you?


Sunday, December 15, 2013

The past is a bucket of snow

Last Sunday I went over to the boyfriend’s house to watch football. We ate tater tots, Chips Ahoy. During commercials we’d make out on the sofa. During halftime he got me screaming laughing with his imitation of Elmer Fudd.

Yesterday morning I ran gleefully through the heavy layer of snow, fought with snowballs, admired the many fine snowmen smiling from lawns.
Last night I went to a birthday party in which we drew with crayons, cut colorful construction paper with snub-nosed scissors and pasted the blobby shapes together with glue sticks. We wacked away at a piƱata and played, I kid you not, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. There was pizza. There was cake.

The root of the word “nostalgia” is “-algia,” and it means sickness. It is a sickness of sorts to long for the past, to want to return there because you imagine it was a better time. This is a malady I almost never suffer. All those recent events I just described were not in any way attempts to relive the past. I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was fairly well into adulthood; I grew up in Hawaii where even snow-cones weren’t called snow-cones but shave ice. And as I’ve said before, I always hated my birthday, a week into winter, suck between two greater holidays, usually either forgotten or forgettable.
That said, there ought to be a term—perhaps there is—for the reverse of nostalgia, signifying an unwarranted disdain for the past, an assumption that childhood equals misery and anyone who insists otherwise is deep in denial. Probably the first thing I think of when I think of childhood is play. We played a lot. It doesn’t take an expert in child development to tell you that play is essential to the development of the human mind and body. Even animals play; pets need toys not just for amusement or because it’s cute but because they need stimulation or they’ll fail to thrive.

The way we played as children is, I think, a part of the past worth reviving. This is not nostalgia; it is not a return to the past so much as seeing the past as a resource for the present. In all the things I described at the start of this post, I was not acting like a child; I was acting like myself, at my present age, doing things people associate with childhood. There’s a big difference. Part of the fun of the birthday party craft session was the fact that we approached our collages with the analytical sensibilities of adults, pondering the symbolic possibilities in purple triangles and yellow squares and then laughing at ourselves for our pretentions. Most of the fun of running through the snow was the fact that it was nearly 8 miles up and down steep hills, a grueling activity I could never have done in my past life before I became  a runner. And as for the bf—well, I won’t bother to go into the benefits of experience in that regard.
Perhaps the past serves us best not as something to be mimicked, disdained, or ignored but as something to recall and reuse in new and better ways. No, you can’t go back—the journey only goes one way—but take a look at what you’ve brought with you. Someday, preferably a snowy one in almost-winter, you might find use for it.