Sunday, April 20, 2014


Runners, like all enthusiasts, have the annoying tendency to create acronyms to describe key aspects of what they do. Two of the more happy acronyms are PR and PB, which stand for personal record and personal best and basically mean the same thing—the top time or distance an individual achieves—though people are sharply divided as to which term they use. (PR-ers say PB stands for peanut butter; PB-ers say PR stands for Puerto Rico). On the darker side are two acronyms runners fear: DNS and DNF. DNF is the one runners truly dread; it means “did not finish” and it means something went disastrously wrong during the race itself, usually something that will mean no running for a while. For a runner, that’s adding the worst kind of insult to injury. DNS means “did not start.” This happens relatively often, and while it isn’t desirable, its unavoidable nature makes it a bit less feared and loathed. When you sign up for a race you have no idea whether you’ll actually be able to run it, and as with everything else in life, the best-laid race plans often go astray due to injury, illness, or hangover.

I propose a third acronym: DNL. This stands for “damn near last,” and it’s somewhere between DNS and DNF in the runners’ dread spectrum. DNL means you finished the race, and you weren’t last, but you were awfully close to last, and that’s sometimes worse. Last has certain perverse bragging rights attached; besides, most people who finish last in a race do so by design of some sort. Many times the last person to finish a race is someone who’s lucky to be alive at all, or else they’re a joker who stands a foot away from the finish line until the last possible second and then crosses, thus gaining the dubious honor. But damn near last is something else entirely.

I know a number of runners who have a shot at winning any given race they enter. I have no idea what that’s like. I’m one of the masses of runners who has, on occasion, when feeling less than confident about a particular race, said “I just hope I’m not last!” People who hear us say this will scoff and assure us that there’s no way we’ll finish last, and they’re right, but they’re also missing the point. What we really fear is the DNL. We are proud to be runners, but this doesn’t come easy to us, never has, and for a lot of us being “athletic” is scary new territory. And one of the things that scares us is the possibility that we’re not really that good at this after all—that we don’t deserve to call ourselves runners, despite what everyone tells us. Better runners will smile and assure us that the most important thing in a race is to finish. If you finish, you’ve won. You accept their assurances in public, but privately you reflect that these are people who actually have won. What they haven’t done is ever come close to the possibility of a DNL.

I say all of this because at one point very early in the 50k trail ultra I ran on Saturday, I was in last place. Dead, absolute last, no one behind me, everyone in front. This happened after only half a mile. The toughest part of this course was right at the start: long steep hills, zigzaggy switchbacks, paths crazy with exposed roots and jagged rocks. At around the half-mile point I tripped on one of those roots and bashed my knee on one of the rocks. It was a hard fall, so hard that every single runner behind me stopped to see if I was OK. I waved them on. They couldn’t do anything for me, and I was near enough the starting line that I could easily hobble back unaided if I decided I couldn’t go on. When every remaining runner had said “are you sure?” and then moved on after I said I was, I stood and tested the knee. It felt OK, so I continued—in last place.

I didn’t stay last for long; fairly soon I passed the woman who was recovering from back surgery (woo hoo!) and two silver-haired gentlemen probably in their 70s (I am awesome!). Then I didn’t pass anyone for a long time, and that’s when I started thinking I really could DNL.
When running long distances you have a lot of time to reflect on life. During this particular race I spent a lot of my time reflecting on my running life. Unlike other aspects of my life right now, running hasn’t been going so well. It hasn’t truly sucked—I haven’t had a debilitating injury and the longest I’ve had to lay off the running has only been about a week—but between truly sucky and true bliss is a lot of uncertain territory, and I started to wonder if I’m really cut out to run ultras. Since I’m not ever going to do them fast, I need to find them fun, and I have to admit, at many points in that race, I was not having fun. My fear of DNL status dogged me the whole way, yet my fear of falling again kept me from pushing my pace. I had a vivid mental image of going down, my knee slamming against a boulder and exploding like an overripe mango, the impact so hard that my leg would actually be bent backwards, like an ostrich’s leg, and then how in the hell would I find usable running tights?

Of course, one of the great things about running is even if it isn’t going so well, it’s still just running. You can be depressed about it and still function in your everyday life—still feel good about that life, even. I did finish that race, and I wasn’t last, probably not even DNL, though my time was a thoroughly unimpressive 7 hours and 14 minutes. At the finish line, I was greeted enthusiastically by the BF and his dog, who had been waiting patiently in the very warm weather. Later over chorizo scrambled eggs and a chocolate-peanut butter milkshake (when you run 50K you can justify nearly anything), I admitted my disappointment both in my performance and in my inability to simply stop worrying and enjoy the run. I admitted all this because that disappointment was real, and I’m not going to pretend to feel great about a race that did not go the way I or most runners would want. But maybe DNL deserves its own acronym because it is, in fact, its own unique experience, with its own accompanying intensity of sensation and emotion. I know a lot of runners who will never know what this experience is like, and I know a lot of non-runners who might use their fear of such an experience as a reason not to run at all (that and, of course, the fact that they only run if something is chasing them—yeah, folks, we’ve heard that before). For the rest of us, though, DNL is always a possibility—one that you, too, might one day be describing in a story over a post-race meal. If that happens, I guarantee that despite your disappointment, you’ll really enjoy telling the story.



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I triple dare you

I don’t think of myself as a particularly brave person. In many a situation I practically cluck, so chicken am I. It strikes me, however, that bravery is something that can only be judged by others. A person facing a situation in which they have to be brave probably won’t feel “brave” so much as terrified, resigned, determined, or a sort of what-the-hell-why-not-ness. People do brave things because they feel they have no choice, because they believe it is their duty, because they have calculated the potential rewards as greater than the risks or because they are too ignorant to know the risks. There have been things I’ve done that other people called “brave” that struck me as nothing of the sort. Travel all over the world alone? Eh, it was either that or never leave my zip code, and my zip code is boring. Run a marathon on a broken leg? Well, my car was parked at the finish line and my sandwich was in the car. Choose a profession that requires standing up and speaking before large groups of highly judgmental people when all your life you’ve been painfully, paralytically shy? Um, hello: summer vacation.

In recent days, however, a situation has developed that requires me to be brave: I’ve had to meet the BF’s kids. He has three daughters, one early 20s, one late teens, one mid-teens. Solo travel? Child’s play. Broken-legged marathon? Piece of cake. Teaching? Pfff, do that standing on my head. Play the part of step-girlfriend? Say, isn’t there a burning building somewhere nearby that I could rush into to save some kittens? Or, like, an active volcano I could fly a helicopter over? A crocodile I could wrestle? A bomb to diffuse? My odds of coming out unscathed would be far better, after all.
They came over for dinner on Friday evening: salmon croquettes (because it’s Lent), edamame (because it’s the only veggie the youngest likes), and mac ‘n cheese (because it’s mac ‘n cheese). Usually it’s just the two of us on Friday evenings, or, if his kids are coming over, it’s just them; on those occasions I’ll have a girls’ night out or (more frequently) a night of wine and reading alone. But the BF doesn’t want to feel like he has to choose between me and them, and he figured it was time. I agreed with him in theory. In reality I damn near pee’d my pants in fear.

The BF put no pressure on me about this, mind you, and his daughters are, by all accounts, good kids, with good grades, active in sports, talented in music, art, and drama. They are also good friends, the three of them, despite the age differences and despite the fact that they are…well, related. My own sister and I get along great now, but I wouldn’t necessarily say we were all that close when we were kids, nor could we really be described as “friends” back then. Last Friday night watching the BF’s daughters chasing each other around the house, shrieking with laughter, singing songs about diarrhea (don’t ask), I felt astonishment start to mix in with my anxious terror. I had no idea such things were possible.
It helped that they had each other to lean on during the initial awkwardness—at least they could be a little more themselves and wouldn’t end up like me, making a big production out of filling my water glass, chewing my food with extreme thoroughness, petting the BF’s dog like it was my job, because I didn’t know where to look or what to say or do. And then at one point one of three mentioned a trip to a water park some friends were taking this summer. The other two snorted and made faces at her. The BF looked surprised. “You all used to love going to water parks when you were little!” The middle one rolled her eyes. “If I wanted to walk around self-conscious all day, I’d just be myself,” she said.

I laughed. Loudly. I couldn't help it; that was a damn funny line. “I’m stealing that for Twitter,” I said.
The middle girl met my eyes. She grinned. As if the heavens called out “cue metaphor!” the ice cubes in my water glass shifted.

Ice broken. Yes.

I don’t have any illusions of pal-ing around with them any time soon the way they do with each other; my expectations are so modest I’d be satisfied with polite tolerance of my presence. After all, it took a couple of decades for my own flesh-and-blood sister and I to become good friends, and we share most of the same DNA and a lot of memories of our parents’ hugely dysfunctional marriage. That’s another funny thing about bravery, though: we tend to think of the situations that require being brave as quick and sudden and dramatic. The truth, I think, is that like a lot of things, bravery requires time. Anyone can be brave once; anyone can do something daring and risky for the adrenaline rush of it beforehand and the bragging rights afterward. Anyone can run a marathon on a broken leg, though I do not especially advocate trying it. The marathon will eventually be over and the leg will eventually heal; when it does, and you go back to your everyday life, that’s the time to figure out how to be brave.