Sunday, February 9, 2014

Take down the Picasso; I need room for my plaque

Let’s be honest: we like awards. While there are certainly people out there who shrug every time they get another trophy, medal, or first-place prize, these people are annoying. They are not like the rest of us, not part of the masses of ordinary shlubs who polish their trophies, display their medals in a showcase, and happen to mention (several times) whenever they get that first-place prize—even if there’s only one trophy or medal, one single instance of coming in first. If you genuinely don’t care about winning, coming in first, being considered a success by others, good for you. Now go away; I don’t want to talk to you.

That said, award-winning days are rare, even for people who see them regularly. More of your life is going to be spent doing something other than winning. That’s really the key, isn’t it: doing something. Awards are nice, but if you do what you do because you want to be recognized for it, you’re making life so much more difficult than it already is. We should do things because we genuinely enjoy them, not because we want to be given awards for it—right?
Well, sort of.

I bring all this up because my running club just awarded me Female Ultra Runner of the Year for 2013. If you’ve been following my various blogs, you probably have a good idea of what this means to me. I have never been athletic. I only became a serious runner in my late 30s, a marathoner and ultramarathoner in my 40s. Last year I spent nearly two weeks in the hospital with a leg the size of a totem pole, only without the artistically carved faces. Man, what a great tattoo that would have been. To win an award for running—and not just for running, but for running ultras—is beyond anything I could ever have imagined or dreamed. I always dreamed of getting my first novel published, and when it finally happened last year I felt hugely satisfied. But even though I beat long odds and had just about given up on this happening, I wasn’t particularly shocked about it. That I, the girl who failed just about every Presidential Fitness Test in high school, should several decades later win an award for an athletic endeavor—one that even very few truly athletic people take on—is so unfathomably weird, if I hadn’t been there through those hours and hours (and hours) of ultra running, I wouldn’t have believed it.
And now, having achieved this honor, I will let you in on a little secret: I do not always enjoy running. In fact, this winter, there have been times I hated it. You know the litany: the cold, the wind, the ice, the snow. Fingers frozen, hair frozen, snot frozen. Glasses frosted over, obscuring vision. Running on slippery, uneven surfaces when you can’t see is not nearly as much fun as it sounds (and if it doesn’t sound fun to you, trust me, it’s even less fun than that). Fear of falling is not a phobia. Phobias are irrational, their objects secondary in importance to the need for control. It is quite rational to fear falling, especially when several acquaintances of mine have done so and broken bones as a result. These were not elderly, frail acquaintances. They were fit and healthy, and they still went down. If you somehow avoid slipping on the ice and falling, don’t worry; you’ll still be plenty sore from giving your muscles a twisty workout as you negotiate the slushy path ahead.

This all happened the morning before the awards ceremony, by the way. I went on a 14-mile run with a group of folks training for an April marathon. April weather can be treacherous, but it’s unlikely to feature temps in the teens and piles of powder. How well this run prepped those folks for their marathon is thus debatable, but they did it nonetheless, and I tagged along, not as training for the April marathon but as an attempt to get in at least semi-reasonable shape for a 60K ultra in March. I may have a lot less time to get ready, but at least the weather for my run is likely to be just as winter-wonderland-lousy as it is now.
The run was equal parts satisfying and frustrating, and the extreme highs and lows don’t cancel each other out so much as intensify their contrast.  I felt great! And terrible! I wanted to keep going! I wanted to stop! I wanted a cheeseburger! Hmm, I kind of still want a cheeseburger. Well, at least that much is consistent.

Later that same day I received my award. The award had nothing to do with the run that morning except in the sense that it took a lot of similar great-and-awful morning runs to get to the point where I could run three ultras in four months after two weeks in the hospital. I won’t lie, won’t put on a display of modesty, won’t say “I don’t deserve this” even if it may very well be true. To hell with all that: I am absolutely bursting with pride.
And yet, not much has changed. I really like awards, like being successful, like winning. But that’s not why I live my life the way I do.

I tell my writing students this: You have to like writing more than you like being published, otherwise most of your life is going to be a waste. Getting my book published last year was a dream come true. But I’m still writing, and it’s still the same sometimes satisfying frequently frustrating process as always. Ditto running. Ditto a lot of things. The wedding is not the most important day of your life; every day after the wedding is. Today is the day after the ceremony. And guess what I did? Yep. I went for another run.


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