Thursday, January 30, 2014

Winter's discontent

There was this one time in January when my sister and I were walking to school and it was so cold we could see our breaths. We were thrilled. It was maybe 60 degrees.

That was Hawaii, after all. This, right now, is east-central Illinois, in January, in one of the worst winters this part of the world has seen in decades. The temperatures look like wind chills, the wind chills are unspeakable, and the wind itself rips away body heat and rooftop shingles and carries it all into the southern hemisphere. But that’s not the worst of it, at least from a runner’s standpoint. The worst of this winter is the fact that much of the snow we’ve had—and we’ve had a fair amount—is still here, only in a non-fun form. You can run in the cold. No, really, you so totally can. You can run in the wind, though you’ll only enjoy it half of the time. You cannot run over ice. You can slide on it if you’re sure-footed or you can penguin-waddle over it if not. Or you stand before a patch of it on the sidewalk, shaking your fist and cursing—and not doing any running.
My ambitious running year has gotten off to a terrible start. The first 50k became a 25k, and a really bad one at that. After nearly two weeks as a phlegm factory, I’m almost back to normal, but the trails and roads are not. Yeah, I know, suck it up and get out there. You have to understand something, though: I have never needed prodding to get out and run. I love running. I do not, however, love slipping on ice and smashing into pavement or frozen ground. Crazy as it sounds, I like my teeth right where they are.

In winter, even when it’s sunny, the light is thin, silvery and chilled. It’s easy to feel depressed in winter. Of course it’s easy for me to feel depressed damn near any time of the year, but it’s especially hard to avoid the down-and-outs when the light is so thin and fleeting. Whenever I step outside these days I have to remind myself, repeatedly and forcefully, that things are going well and I don’t have any reason to feel like I’m sinking into a hole—other than the fact that all outdoors is grim and dreary. It’s the beginning of the calendar year, and beginnings should mean confidence and strength, great strides forward into the future. Instead winter brings the urge to curl up under a pile of warm, fresh-from-the-drier laundry and stay there, preferably with a similarly hibernatory-minded friend, until June.
But there is more light every day. And still we go out to run. Afterward we sit together inside and laugh about it, and no matter how awful it was out there we are so glad we did it, glad for the company of like-minded lunatics who fight the awfulness of winter by reveling in it. You can see your breath in winter, even in Hawaii, which means you can see—vividly—that you’re alive.



Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Singin' those swamp stompin' blues

I imagine you can tell a lot about a person by looking in their medicine cabinet. (I’ll give you a moment to go through yours mentally and worry about it just a little.) When I lived in NYC, mine was full of stuff to deal with respiratory infections. I used to get at least one bad cold and several minor colds every year. You just don’t even want to think how many evil germs are coating any given pole or strap on a subway car. (I also had the keg-sized vat of Tums to deal with the other fun by-product of living in the city: stress.) Since I moved to the rural Midwest and took up running, however, the medicine cabinet has been quite different. Gone are the NyQuil and TheraFlu; instead there are things to heat up tight muscle tissue, things to cool down inflamed muscle tissue, things to prevent chafing, things to kill pain. I may be sore, but by golly I’m not contagious.

I recently bragged about the fact that I haven’t had a bad cold, flu, or any other type of respiratory distress since I became a distance runner. While this was true—there were many winters I would shake my head pityingly as non-running friends seemed to come down with one viral infection after another—it was also an incredibly foolish thing to announce. You know that ironic bus, the one that always seems to hit people right after something good happens to them in hypothetical situations? Well, it got me this weekend, and got me good.
I went down to Memphis with a bunch of running buddies to run a 50k trail race called Swamp Stomper. What could possibly be bad about that? Memphis—barbecue, Beale Street, Peabody ducks and Gus’s chicken—plus 50k in the woods plus cabins in those woods shared with a score of fun-loving beer-drinking ultra runners seems like the formula for fun. Only problem is I woke up Saturday morning feeling like there was a softball-sized wad of phlegm lodged behind my sternum.

The race was Sunday morning. I had a few options. I could run the 50k anyway, just pace myself a whole lot slower than the already-slow pace I’d planned. I could downgrade to the 25k race, which started an hour later and which a great many of my running buddies had opted to do, mainly so they could party harder on Beale Saturday night and not have to worry about getting up to run 31 miles at 7:30am the next morning. I could opt out of the race entirely, but that was not something I considered—at least not Saturday morning.
By Sunday morning, I considered it. The softball felt like a bowling ball. I had one of those really gross coughs that, had I heard someone else nearby issue such sounds, I would shoot them a look of loathing and disgust—how dare they be out in public spreading their tubercular nastiness? There was no question of running the 50k; 7:30am came and went without regrets. But I did not want to have come the whole way down there without running at all. I bucked up and went out for the 25k.

Twenty-five kilometers is around 15-16 miles. This is not a tremendous distance for me to run; I’ve run ten marathons and three ultras, and while the terrain for this race was definitely not flat—many ups and downs, much roots and rocks—it wasn’t a whole lot tougher than any other trail I’ve done. None of that matters: this was the slowest I have ever run any distance, any course, any time, in my life. My pace was so slow that a brisk walker could have easily kept up with me and a competitive walker could have beat me by a good hour. Wow, was I slow.
Slow? Whatever. Slow was not the problem while I was running. Finishing was the problem while I was running. I didn’t want to. I kept thinking, OK, I’ll get to the next aid station and I’ll tell them I just can’t go on. It hurts to breathe. Every time I cough it’s like I’m coughing up thumb tacks. There’s no shame in a DNF, I kept telling myself, and what exactly are you trying to prove? Who the hell cares whether you finish this race or not? The people who really care about you, the people whose views you admire and respect the most, the people whose opinions are most meaningful to you will not think less of you.

Does this sound familiar? If you’re a runner, I imagine you’ve likely had this moment too: the trying-to-talk-yourself-into-doing-something-you-really-want-to-do-but-you-aren’t-going-to-do-after-all. I realize it makes no sense. That's probably why I kept going.
I used to be good at math a long time ago, but not anymore, and at no time are my math skills worse than while I’m running a long, painful race. The course was an out-and-back, but with a twist: on the “out” part, runners had to do an extra 3-mile loop, which they would not do on the “back” part. As I finished the 3-mile loop and trudged onward to the turnaround point, I kept trying to figure out how much further I had to go until the next aid station—the aid station in which I would declare my DNF-ness—and kept failing. There were no mile markers, and I had not turned on my Garmin; normally this would be how I like it, but in this case I was going bonkers. Where was that damnable aid station? Why the hell was this taking so long? For the love of all that is holy, why won’t they let me DNF?

I had forgotten, you see, that we didn’t do the 3-mile loop on the return. I was assuming that the turnaround point was the halfway point. When I finally realized my mistake, I felt two things: 1) relief, because this meant I was farther along than I’d thought, and 2) weary resignation. The turnaround point was beyond half way. With less than half of the race to go, I could not DNF. No, that isn’t a rule; that’s just the way my mind went. When I got to the aid station, I filled my handheld with Gatorade and water, choked down some pretzels and ginger ale, and began the long trudge back.
And I did make it back, among the last of the 25k finishers. And that’s about the best thing I can say.

Hey, it happens. I’m not going to mope about it. At the same time, I’m not entirely willing to sweep all mopey sentiments aside and slap a happy face sticker on the whole ordeal. A bad race, by definition, does not feel good. In retrospect we can talk about lessons learned, we can say that at least we tried, but if we force ourselves to be happy about learning lessons and at least trying, I daresay many of us will come up short. And that’s OK with me. Happiness is only one of the many things a person can feel. Running has made me exquisitely happy at times, but it has also made me feel frustrated, anxious, resentful, and downright glum. And yet I keep coming back for more.
People have accused me of enjoying my misery, of refusing to be happy. The next time someone says that to me I’m going to smile and happily punch them in the neck. I enjoy being depressed as much as I enjoyed having deep-vein thrombosis last year. They are comparable, after all, both being illnesses—as is respiratory distress. I sure as hell didn’t enjoy hacking up phlegm-coated thumb tacks, but only a fool thinks every race, every experience, every moment of life is going to be enjoyable. I think that’s a good thing. It’d be awfully boring otherwise.

I’m off to the drug store in a bit, on a quest to fill my medicine cabinet back up with cough suppressants and decongestants. To make room for them, I’ll move out the things I no longer need: the leftover Coumadin, the unused Lovanox, and the remaining Paxil. The last is an antidepressant. I’m off those. Life won’t always be enjoyable—sometimes, running in the swamp with a bowling ball in my lungs, it will downright suck. But I’ve made it to the turnaround point, so I guess I’ll keep going.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Pet sitting

The bf is going away for a week, lecturing at a university in an enviously tropical climate. I get to take care of his pets. I should say right up front that the bf is a vet-md and three of his four pets are animals he took in from the clinic where he works. They are not the kinds of pets you play with. They are not even the kinds of pets you pet. Basically they’re the kinds of pets your parents described when you clamored for a puppy as a child: never-ending drudgery centered entirely on bodily functions.

My sister and I got that same lecture every other child got—you say you want a dog but do you know how to care for a dog do you know how to be responsible for a dog and just who’s going to feed the dog who’s going to walk the dog who’s going to clean up the dog’s poop—that we listened to with impatiently nodding heads, waiting for the pause that would signal us to assure them we would pick up every piece of poop that ever issued forth from our pup’s behind with such alacrity that people would start to wonder whether the dog ever took a dump at all. I usually left these assurances up to my sister, the responsible one, the one who couldn’t leave our room without making sure all the books on the shelf were aligned and all the clothes in the closet were spaced equidistant, no errant sleeve rumpled the wrong way. Privately I snickered at her fussiness, but in public—or at least the public of our parents when they were hearing our pleas for pets—I pretended I was just as much of a neatfreak fusspot as she was.
This strategy paid off. Over the years we got rabbits, guinea pigs, two dogs, lots of fish, and a bird, a Javanese finch, who would lay eggs at the bottom of her cage and then kick them from one end to the other like soccer balls. That was childhood, though; I haven’t had a pet of my own in nearly 30 years. While I like animals, I also travel a lot, my condo is small, and I have barely enough disposable income to cover my obsessive need for running shoes. Pets do not fit into such a scenario well.

Enter the bf. And exit the bf, at least for a week, leaving me with a turtle, a tortoise (and I assume at some point, dating a vet-md, I’ll know the difference), a lizard, and a dog. The dog is no problem at all, sweet-natured and generally well behaved. Yes, sometimes she gets in the trash. Sometimes she slips out the front door and goes cavorting around the neighborhood, giving me and the bf anxiety attacks that she’ll be hit by a car or eat something nasty. These are rare occurrences, though; more commonly she would follow me and the bf around the kitchen when we cooked dinner, often interposing herself between us and the stove while we stir-fried veggies or flipped pancakes. This was partially out of her usual neediness for affection but largely, of course, out of neediness for scraps that might fall, and I was always afraid of stumbling over her and sending dinner and dishes flying. Maybe I should sell this idea to the Food Network as their latest lousy cooking competition show: Animal in the Kitchen. Contestants have to prepare a three-course meal all while caring for a clingy, demanding critter. Here’s the twist: turns out the judge of the contest is the critter itself. Are YOU an Animal in the Kitchen?
The turtle and the tortoise live in the basement, in large Nemo-themed kiddie pools under heat lamps the bf set up to keep them from freezing. My duties to the shelled critters this week are easy: add water to their drinking pools and add food to their food bowls. The turtle is a carnivore and gets dog food; the tortoise is vegan and receives a nice organic salad mix. I’m sure there are other differences between them, but those are the ones I know of right now.

The lizard is the high-maintenance one. “He hasn’t eaten on his own for months,” the bf informed me. “He has to be hand-fed.” This entails heating water, mixing it with powdered reptile feed, filling a syringe, and slowly, carefully, dropping the mixture down El Grecko’s mouth. That’s not his real name; I don’t actually remember his real name, but that hardly matters given that the bf just calls him “the lizard” and it’s not like the green guy much cares. I came up with El Grecko. I rather like it, even though he’s not a gecko. I am not sure what he is. There's another thing I'll have to learn.
We did a practice feeding the other day so I could get comfortable with the process. The bf coached me through it: “Grasp him by the shoulders and take him out of the tank. His mouth should gape open automatically, which will make it easy to feed him. Be careful, though—he bites.”

He didn’t, though. Animals seem to like me, eating disordered reptiles notwithstanding. I did everything the bf said to do just fine, the bf nodding his pleased approval, and carefully placed El Grecko back on a branch in his tank. El Grecko went limp. He fell back from the branch, hung upside-down, rolled his eyes back in his head, and dropped to the floor of the tank.
Oh my god. I killed El Grecko. What’s wrong with him? I whispered hoarsely.

The bf peered into the tank. “He does look a little weird.”
Oh shit. I didn’t even pass the preliminaries. Oh shit oh shit oh shit.

The bf calmed me down. The lizard was very old, he explained, and could go any time. It was quite possible he might die in the week I was taking care of him. This did not comfort me. I did not want El Grecko to die. I had zero affection for the thing, and the bf spent a good ten minutes reassuring me I would not be responsible for anything that happened, but I still didn’t want to deal with the little reptile's death. But I also didn’t want the bf to have to lug the tank over to the clinic to have a vet student deal with El Grecko, so I agreed to be his caretaker—though hopefully not his undertaker.
It has struck me that while the bf clearly loves animals given that he’s devoted his career to their care, his care of them frequently results in their deaths. I’ve heard people insist that ranchers and hunters—people who regularly kill animals—know more about these animals than anyone else, and because of knowing more about them also care more about them. This is too sweeping a generalization to pursue, and yet sometimes I look at people who put little hats and sweaters on their pets and talk about how they find most animals far superior company to most humans—and I wonder if these people really are the animal lovers they claim to be. The narcissism of making an animal into what you want it to be is somewhat problematic. Animals are a lot of things; suggesting that they are merely perfect and innocent is not doing them justice. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think of me as perfect and innocent, since I’m clearly not those things and never have been. Flawed and ignorant, sure; I got those qualities in abundance, but I can still at least try to do what needs to be done, I can still hope my efforts are successful, and I can still care for something or someone in a way that I hope helps them thrive. Wish me luck this week, and if I have bite-marks on my fingers, be happy, not alarmed. It means I haven’t killed El Grecko yet.