Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dog day

This past Monday was St. Patrick’s Day, of course, but it was also the more-or-less birthday of the BF’s dog. Cayenne was a shelter dog, and her exact day of birth is unknown, so the BF decided to attribute it to March 17 just for ease of remembrance. She isn’t an Irish breed, though she is a redhead—red-eared, in any case, the rest of her a mix of red frosted with white. She’s twelve, and her face is almost completely white, yet despite her age she is most definitely still a distance runner’s dog. Over the weekend she got to hit two trails with us, putting in double-digit mileage each day and making it look easy. I suppose if I had that low a center of gravity and twice the legs I do now, I might find running just as easy, though I’d go broke from buying double the amount of shoes.

Cayenne loves to run. It’s a real pleasure watching her do it, experiencing the sheer joy she exudes even in the worst conditions. When the BF is cursing the mud and I am cursing the ice, wind, cold temperatures, trip-hazardous roots and rocks, fogged-up glasses, and legs that simply will not seem to cooperate and do what I want them to do, Cayenne will prance about with glee. People sometimes wish they could know what their dogs are thinking; at times like these I’m rather glad they don’t know what we are thinking, because she’d probably shake her furry head in disgust. Are you daft, woman? The trail’s in great shape! This is a glorious day to run! Stop whining and come help me chase that squirrel over there!

For her birthday itself she got a big treat, though an unintentional one: the BF, tossing grilled chicken with salad greens for his lunch, did not realize the container lid was not properly fastened. Kablooey: chicken, spinach, and shredded carrots everywhere. This was the moment Cayenne had been waiting for. The BF and I are runners; we eat a lot and we eat very fast and we never waste anything—which means we never drop anything. The BF looked down at the mess on the floor, looked over at Cayenne, and sighed, “Oh just take it already.” The chicken went first, followed by the carrots. The spinach was licked clean for its sesame-ginger dressing but otherwise, unsurprisingly, left untouched. To her credit, she ate a lot slower than we do and seemed perhaps to be savoring the moment. It might never happen again, after all.
Trail running, good day; floor chicken, best day.

I am often wary of the way people anthropomorphize animals, especially pets. For me, what’s wonderful about pets is that we can’t always make them what we want them to be. We want them to be stupid, so they prove us wrong in uncanny ways. We want them smart and they do something of such astounding knuckleheadedness we can only laugh. We want them obedient, and they are—though on their own terms. We imagine them as perfect and saintly, but how is that fair? Their actions and motivations can be just as unfathomable as our own.
Though pets by definition are given a limited space to inhabit, they can’t easily be put in other, intangible boxes. Even as the most domesticated of animals, a dog is still a force of nature, a life, moving on her own through the world. If she were merely a pet, she’d simply follow us on the trail, but of course she doesn’t. As soon as the leash is off she goes bounding away on her own, excited by smells and sounds, thrilled to be moving fast and free.

And yet she comes back. It’s not quite anthropomorphizing to recognize a dog’s desire for interaction with other beings. Cayenne follows the BF all around the house; when he’s going to be one place for some time (and that place isn’t the kitchen), she’ll stretch out her front legs, her body a lean right triangle, butt sticking up in the air before it plops down so she can sit and survey his shaving and teeth-brushing activities. (The kitchen, of course, requires vigilance; the grilled chicken salad incident may be repeated at any moment, after all, and one must be ready to reap the tasty benefits.) In these behaviors we can recognize our own needs, just as in Cayenne’s exuberant romping through the woods I recognize what I myself love so much about running. Sure, a lot of running is about discipline, control, and boundaries, but the part that keeps runners coming back to it is more about a sense of doing something just to do it, just because it’s fun, even if it’s pointless—perhaps especially because it’s pointless.
Twelve is getting-up-there territory for dogs, and the BF knows her running days are numbered. He acknowledges, sadly, that there will be a day his four-legged red-headed trail buddy will no longer be able to join him. He’s being realistic, as we all have to be with our pets, even though it’s painful to contemplate. I do know, however, that even after that sad day comes, I’ll still be able to picture her out there ahead of me, still be able to see that joy, as she bounds away, red ears flapping like butterfly wings, so light and full of life.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Mud, sweat, and tears

During the second loop of a trail ultra in Kentucky this past weekend, I came upon a runner standing in the middle of the trail crying. Two other runners and I stopped to see if she was OK—was she injured? Lost? Feeling discouraged? She never really said what was wrong; she simply shook her head and started running with us. The three of us (strangers up until that point) started telling cheerful stories about our running experiences to bolster her spirits, and mostly we ended up telling about the not-so-good things that had happened to us. This was not to be discouraging, of course, but rather simply because the not-so-good stuff tends to be really, really funny after the fact. One runner had gone on an “activities vacation” with her family—climbing, mountain biking, water skiing, trail running—and survived it all intact, only to trip in the parking lot on the way to the car and break her ankle. Another runner talked about how she got hopelessly lost during an ultra and ended up repeating nearly half of the ten-mile loop unnecessarily, cursing the whole way. (Yeah, that was me, but then you knew that already, didn’t you.)

Our teary companion didn’t contribute anything of note until we started talking about the current race. The course was lollypop-shaped, a short stem attached to a roughly 11-mile loop, and there were four different possible distances; the 23K runners did one loop, marathoners two, 60K three, and 50 mile four. I had signed up to do the 60K but I wasn’t too optimistic about that happening. The longest run I’d done in nearly three months was only 15 miles, not even half the 37-mile distance.
At this point our formerly silent companion made a sound that could have just been a snot rocket but I swear was a dismissive sniff. “I’ve only done 15-mile runs at the most too, and I’m doing the 50 miler,” she declared.

Well. La de fucking da.
The first two ultras I was supposed to have run this year so far did not happen. At the first, I had bronchitis and had to drop from 50K to half that distance. I finished in the bottom 10, wheezing and coughing the whole way. The second was this 60K, which took place on trails covered in snow, ice, mud, and deep puddles of freezing cold water. At times the path ahead resembled a Dairy Queen Blizzard with bits of Oreos and Reese’s; other times it looked like a river of iced cappuccino. These were the descriptions I came up with at the time of the race, by the way; you can see where my mind tends to go on tough trail runs. And as much as you may enjoy eating and drinking those things, I guarantee you won’t like running through them.

Funny thing about those conditions, though: all that slop was actually an improvement over the way trails have been most of the winter. At times my favorite courses were so packed with powder they were unrunnable, and at other times—when the snow had partially melted and refrozen—they were crazily slick. Later this month I anticipate every trail to be a mudslide. Many shoes will be lost in the quagmire, count on it.
Because of the lousy weather, my training has suffered a lot, and the sloppy conditions made me even less confident than I usually feel before an ultra. Yes, I have a reputation to live up to; in case you weren’t aware or had somehow forgotten, I was awarded Female Ultra Runner of the Year for 2013 by my running club. But I’m still a total amateur when it comes to running, and I mean that in a very literal sense of the word, which derives from the word for love. I run because I love it, not because I’m particularly good at it, and my fear wasn’t so much that I’d be unable to finish the race as that I’d push myself to finish it and be absolutely miserable as a result. I’ve spent more of my life being miserable than I have being a runner, after all, so my expertise is far greater there.

So I ran the marathon and not the 60K. I ended up being in the top ten women to finish the marathon—but just barely, if you know what I mean. Overall I was 60 out of 123. “Hey!” I exclaimed after seeing the results. “Check it out: I’m average!” The BF gave me a look and said, “Uh, no one who’s average runs a trail marathon under these conditions.”
Perhaps, but then 677 people ran anywhere from 14 to 50 miles under those conditions on Saturday. Nearly a third of them did as I did and dropped down a level, so I was in good company as far as wimping out. Yes, I realize how it sounds to call running a marathon “wimping out”; it’s as annoying as hearing someone say they’re running nearly twice the distance you are with just as little training.

Do I second-guess myself for not going after the 60? Not much. I know if I’d gone for it, I’d have had a tough, miserable time. Yes, there was that moment when I thought a third loop would be possible. Of course, there was a far longer moment when I thought even a second loop was beyond my ability at the time. The thought of repeating all of that sloshing through slush, trudging through muck, all those ice-slipping puddle-splashing miles yet again—well, let’s say I’d have bawled far harder than Little Miss Fifty Shades of Bitch.
Yet I did do that second lap, if not the third, which left me initially a little perplexed as to what I could take away from the experience. Should I rejoice or lament? Sometimes what you get from running is not simplistic and won’t make for a pithily inspirational slogan. Ultimately, I think, these things are true about running a long distance race: It will be at least as hard as you think it will be, and it may be even harder than that. You may not get what you want from it. You may not win, you may not get a PR, you may not even finish. And you may not want to hear this right now. But here’s the thing. You will get something from the experience, something you can’t get in any other way in your everyday life. I can’t tell you what that is, because it’s different for everyone. You may learn something about yourself, you may experience exquisite joy or bitter disappointment, I don’t know. One thing I do know is you’ll be changed. And maybe you’ll know why runners go on and on and on in the obnoxious way they do about running—and why they get so emotional about it, sometimes, even, to the point of tears. Just don’t let that be an excuse to be bitchy.


Monday, March 3, 2014


I went to Seattle for the AWP Conference, which is the conference for all things and people literary. Writers, writing students, writing teachers, publishers, and general assorted bookish types all gather together in one place to let the written word ooze from their pores. I went because I wanted to meet my publisher, promote my novel, and pick up some heavily discounted paperbacks at the terrifyingly huge bookfair. I also went because my family lives near Seattle, which means I’d have free lodging and large meals my mother would insist I eat because she thinks I run too much. She’s silly, if well-meaning.

If it were not for these reasons, I would go nowhere near the conference. I hate conferences in general, and conferences involving writing in particular. Large groups of writers make me suspicious; talk about writing too much and you may not end up doing any writing. Panel discussions make me squirm, and reading events make me want to stick corncob holders in my ears. There’s this style of reading everyone has, you know? The strangely accented syllables, the oddly drawn-out vowels, the dramatic pauses and emphases in seemingly random places.
I hearrrrrrrd aflybuzzwhen I diiiiiiiied the stilllllllllness ROUND! MY! FORM! was LIKE! thestillnessin. The. Air? Betweeeen heeeeaves…of AAAAA (storm).

Plus there’s the AWP type. Just picture her on the plane on her way to SEATAC. She’s wearing boots, a leather jacket, lots of black. She’s writing in a burgundy moleskin notebook. She thinks for a moment, reads what she just wrote, thinks a little more, then puts down the notebook and pen and picks up the novel she’s reading. Her page is being held by a bookmark made of real tapa cloth, given to her by a poet friend in grad school. She will become utterly engrossed in her book, frowning in deep thought, then laughing out loud and dog-earing a page. One suspects she shudders if you say “ebook” to her. When she finishes a chapter she’ll pull out her own book and flip through it ostentatiously, deciding which of the stories she’s going to read that night at the hip-and-funky bar in the edgy-and-cool part of town. She decides on the story written in second person. Second person—it’s so special. (She reads this special story right before another writer reads a prose piece full of imagery meant to describe how it feels to be lactating, and though she looks attentive throughout the other writer’s reading one imagines a private smirkiness that her own story was far better.) She tells herself not to go overboard at the bookfair but she ends up buying so many things she tells people, sighing heavily, that she has no money left for food for the next three months. It’s hard to take, isn’t it, all that self-conscious preciousness.
Oh wait. That’s me, isn’t it.

A few months back there was a bit of buzz about an essay some guy wrote making fun of the marathon runner mentality. It was a mildly amusing, occasionally on-target bit of satire except for one particular section in which the writer sneered at the supposedly narcissistic way runners parade around in their little outfits so that everyone will see them running and awed by the sight. This was the one thing that made my running friends irate—for good reason. No one runs long distances to impress other people. No one. Now, granted, most of us will certainly welcome impressed looks and gushy praise and “badass” designations, but I don’t know any runners who care whether or not anyone is watching them run. Likewise, any perceived preciousness or pretentiousness of the writing community is not borne of a desperate need to be perceived as writerly. This is how they—we—really are.
The running/writing comparison doesn’t work in other ways, however. I run for me. I will never win a race of any kind, and if I should happen to, say, place first in my age group (it has happened, believe it or not), that’s merely a sheen of icing on an already richly satisfying cake. I’ve only been running for a small fraction of my life; I’ve been writing for considerably longer, and even though writing is done in solitude, I don’t write just for myself. I write to be read. While I enjoy the process, if my writing isn’t read, it’s pointless. This means I do, in a sense, have a desperate need to be perceived as writerly, which means I desperately need those folks at AWP, lactating imagery and all.

It would be thus reasonable to suppose that my dislike of writing conferences stems from my own pettiness, my insecurities, my anxieties that people won’t realize that I Have A Book and my fear that they will realize it and not care because ooh lookit Mr. Genuinely Famous Author just walked by followed by Ms. Hugely Talented Up-And-Coming Young Writer. I don’t know about that, though; I like to think I’m reasonably honest with myself about what I’ve accomplished, and I know it’s not as though, now that I have a book, I am able to bypass the riffraff and saunter past the velvet ropes right into the authorial VIP lounge. I have a small book out from a small independent publisher. I’m not having lunch with Annie Proulx any time soon.

And you know what? I’m fine with that. After all, it sure beats not having a book at AWP. Yes, I realize that’s a petty thing to say. Hey, I waited a long time for the privilege of being this petty; grant me my moment, will you?