Friday, September 26, 2014

Survey monkey, give me your bananas; I need to fuel my run.

Surveys. Who doesn’t love them as much as they love to make fun of them? All but the biggest survey-taking dopes out there know that these things never actually reveal any great truths about who you are. At best they may reveal something about who you think you are or, even more likely, who you think you are when there’s a chance someone’s looking; after all, we know these survey results are going to be read by someone, if not the people who made the survey then everyone who sees it on facebook. Yet we love them, oh how we love them, the way we love terrible TV commercials and screamingly awful tabloid headlines as we wait in line at Schnuck’s.

So yeah, I took a survey. This one was about—are you ready for this?—running. A professor at the university where I used to work apparently is doing research on the relationship between confidence and distance running and was looking to get some data through an online survey that got sent to my running group through one of its members. How could I resist? Because this was someone’s legitimate research project and not some clickbait thing, I didn’t get any pithy results describing my running confidence in a cheery (or snarky) summary. It did, however, make me think about the relationship between my running and my confidence in my running.
I secretly suspect—secretly hope, because don’t we all hope some survey proves something unique about us?—that I might end up skewing the results. For me, confidence and performance don’t have a whole lot to do with each other. If I’ve trained well and I’m not injured, I’m more likely to run well, regardless of how confident I feel—and those things being true doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll feel confident. There have been times I’ve felt completely sure I was going to crush a particular race, get a massive PR, win my age group, and generally surpass even my most exalted expectations—and none of that happened, not even close, didn’t even meet my expectations, didn’t even slightly underperform, but absolutely bombed it. Granted, there have been times I’ve felt confident and run well, but I’ve come to believe that how I feel emotionally doesn’t have much to do with anything. I feel depressed a lot of the time. My life is anything but depressing; right now in fact it's damn good. Ergo, my feelings are suspect. I trust them about as little as I trust a ten-question survey that promises to reveal the depths of my soul based on the type of hat I like.

Right now I’m feeling less than confident about my chances of getting a BQ at my target marathon in November. More importantly, however, I base these “feelings” on what seems to me like pretty solid evidence. None of the running I’ve done at race pace has been truly commanding. Even when I hit the pace, I still take a lot of breaks in which I come to a full stop to drink or eat. I can’t do that during the race, as sadly, even if I ask nicely, they will not stop the timeclock every time I need to sip some Gatorade or nibble a pretzel. Most of all, my body feels taxed to the limit during these runs, and I haven’t gotten anywhere close to 26.2. Oh I know, I know;  I can already hear the chorus of “But it will be different during the race!” Yeah, that doesn’t work for me. If I’m taxed now, I’ll go bankrupt during the marathon. It’s happened before, and while past performance is no guarantee of future results, it’s a more solid basis for prediction than any pithy feel-good aphorism would be.

Funny thing about that, though: I’m coaching a women’s running group for new runners whose first 5K race is this Saturday, and I’ve been doling out the happy like you wouldn’t believe. I tell them they look great. I tell them they’re running strong. I tell them they’re going to crush this 5K and have a blast doing so. So how come I can go rah-rah-rah to them and expect them to buy it when I won’t buy, rent, or even so much as click on an ad for other people’s confidence in me? Well, obviously it’s easier to tell other people to believe things you don’t believe yourself; if that weren’t a facet of the human race, where would the politicians, cult leaders, used car salesmen and other assorted con artists be? In this case, though, I am not trying to sell the group on anything. I’ve been running with them for eight weeks, and I’ve seen their effort along with their results. They are ready, and they’re gonna do great. Train well, run well. Train poorly and all the positive thinking in the world isn’t going to do a damn thing for you when it’s mile 16 and you feel the needle of your body drop to “empty” and you realize you’ve still got over ten miles to ... aw crap this is gonna suck.

 Yeah, I know, I know. A positive attitude might not help you get a BQ but a negative attitude definitely won’t … will it? For all that people like to warn about being defeatist, I’ve found that negativity, or at least what people perceive as such, can actually keep me going. I’m not running well. I need to keep trying. I may not BQ at Indy. I need to keep trying. I’m not confident that I’ll make my goal. Say, what’d I do with those Gu Chomps? Better stock up; I’ve got a lot more running to do.



Tuesday, September 16, 2014

To Flint and back, with birds

Last Saturday the BF and I drove 6 hours to Flint, Michigan. Hey, anyone can do a weekend in a fun city or a lovely lakeshore; we like to think outside the box. Next week: Elizabeth, New Jersey. I hear the factory plumes are gorgeous this time of year.

Kidding. We were going to Flint to pick up two parrots. The BF is not just any old vet-MD, after all; he’s a bird specialist, a well-regarded one, and he’s always wanted parrots. He built an enormous cage in the basement—I’m telling you, this thing is bigger than my old apartment in Manhattan—and filled it with cool bird toys. He created all sorts of other contraptions for them when they are out of their cage and hanging out with us watching a Cardinals game. (Well, who else they gonna root for?) He had all this stuff done weeks ago and now all we needed were the parrots. Hence, Flint. The American auto industry may be down and out, but there’s always exotic birds.

Before we hit the road, we had to get in our long runs for the week. He was doing 20, as his target marathon is a month sooner than mine; I only did 14 at a relaxed pace. The dog came with us; she’s quite the runner when she feels like it, especially when mud and puddles are involved, which they were. That morning she did fifteen good strong miles. As the BF was starting his fourth and final 5-mile loop, he looked back and noticed the dog wasn’t with him. He ran back to the car and saw her sitting there calmly. He called to her; she gave him a look that said, quite clearly, “Nuh uh, no way. You may continue, foolish human; I am done here.” It isn’t often that the canine has more sense than we do, but when she does, she really makes us look like dufuses.

As we made our way to Flint, I wondered just how much of a dufus I would look like when our two new feathered friends joined us. So far I’d had partial care of the dog, the turtle, a lizard and a tortoise and didn’t manage to kill any of them, though it was close with the lizard. There are times I barely feel like I can get my own sorry self to function adequately; to add responsibility for someone else—be they furry, scaly, shelled or feathered—well, that may send me back over the edge. Add to that the fact that these were very young birds—one still in the process of being weaned—so they would be high maintenance for a while. I joked to the BF, regarding the oblivious dog, that she had no idea what she was in for. Actually I was secretly referring to myself; the dog would probably be affected very little. There’d be strange new creatures occupying attention that formerly was given to her, yes, but what she lost in belly-rub time she’d gain in treats dropped and flung aside by her new roommates.

When we reached the house of the bird lady in Flint, we were greeted at the door by a horrible little yappy dog so small and so loud I nearly stepped on him by accident (if some accidents can be said to be partially intentional). Later on I would recognize one of the sounds our parrots made as an imitation of this yappy beast. Parrots are astonishing mimics; the bird lady had an African grey she’d gotten as a rescue bird from a guy who traveled a lot and left the bird at home alone with nothing but a dead-battery smoke detector. Not surprisingly, the grey’s most common sound was that awful high-pitched chirp. It was uncanny, perfectly reproduced, and every bit as annoying as the real thing. (There was only one other thing that came out of the grey’s beak while we were there, apparently the only other thing he learned from his former owner. Quite out of the blue, in an ugly and deep male voice, the grey said “FUCK.” That word hardly has much shock value any more given its ubiquity, but man, I tell you, I was completely creeped out.)

The BF worried that the birds wouldn’t like him—they had spent the first few crucial months of their lives being cared for and adored by someone else, after all—but he need not have worried. They took to him right away, snuggling up to him like puppies, only without the slimy noses and bad breath. (Apologies to the dog, but man, I tell you, her breath probably killed off the dinosaurs.) They were curious about me, too, and while our initial meeting went well, I’m still apprehensive. The dog basically sees me as she-who-gives-belly-rubs; I suspect the birds so far see me as the-one-with-the-glasses-and-earrings-we-can-pry-off-and-play-with. It’s early days, though. Maybe I’ll work my way up to official belly rubber of all our household creatures, great and small.

Our birds are macaws, a blue-and-gold and a green-wing. The blue-and-gold really is blue and gold, but the green-wing is mostly bright red; his wings are green but also brilliant blue like his buddy. Their names are Boston and Phoenix, Boston because the Boston Marathon’s colors are blue and gold, and Phoenix because, well, the BF wanted to go with another city name and Phoenix is just an all-around good name for a bird. They’re young still, so they don’t do any talking yet, just sounds, though I’m trying to teach them Japanese. I got the idea because, on the drive back from Michigan, the BF had his iPod on shuffle, and every now and then one of his “Learn Japanese” tracks would come on. One minute Ozzy Osbourne encourages us to go off the rails on a crazy train, the next we’re asking “Ima nanji desu ka?” so we don’t miss said train. Because of this, I’m trying to get the birds’ first words to be “Irasshai mase!” That’s the thing the sushi chefs shout at you whenever you enter a Japanese restaurant. Yeah, it’s kind of an odd thing to teach birds to say, but it’s got to be better than the f-bomb.

Despite their names, Boston is the one who I predict will rise. He’s a bit of a runt, slow to develop, and has some troublesome issues digesting his food. His feathers haven’t grown out to true splendor yet, like Phoenix’s have, and he still exhibits young bird tics and mannerisms. But he’ll prevail, I know he will, if only because, well my goodness, what spectacular symbolism that would be! The Boston Marathon is bombed and becomes more popular than ever. The runty high school girl who failed all those Presidential Fitness Tests ends up running a Boston-qualifying marathon. The little blue-and-gold parrot named Boston who started so far behind ends up smart, strong, and utterly magnificent. Or at least he can digest more than baby-bird mush and tell time in Japanese.

Yeah, they’re birds, not symbols, but then again, pets are always going to be more than just mere creatures to the humans who love them. We’ll always see more in them, maybe even see ourselves in them, and hope that we live up to whatever it is they see in us.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Hope is the thing with Gu shots

You know that poem that’s in every single basic English literature anthology ever published? No, not the one about the road less taken, not the one about the fly buzzing when I died, and not the one about Shakespeare’s ugly mistress. I’m talking about the William Carlos Williams one. No, not the one about the plums; the other one.

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

Yeah, that one. Well, I was thinking about this poem at the end of my long run yesterday, and it dawned on me: what if Williams had been a marathon runner? Just picture it: he’s staring out into the yard before he goes out for an 18-miler, and it’s been raining, see, and he thinks, shit, what if it rains during my BQ attempt? That might feel good for a while, but then there’d be all that chafing. And what if then the sun comes out and it’s crazy humid? Or what if the temperature plunges and now I’m wet and cold and hypothermia sets in and they’re out of chicken broth at the aid stations because the faster runners have already sucked it all down? Crap. Stupid wheelbarrow. Stupid chickens.

OK, so that’s probably unlikely. Still, though. I wonder if The Dark Lady was a distance runner?

People who like the Williams poem praise its quiet drama, its haiku-like perfection and simplicity. People who hate this poem hate it the way people who hate poems hate every poem: they think it’s stupid and pointless. (I once worked with a grad student who did like poetry in general but despised this poem so much that every year on his birthday I feel compelled to write it on his facebook wall. Hey, you’re welcome.) As with any text there are infinite ways the poem can be interpreted, but most people tend to believe it suggests how much the small things in life can matter—how, perhaps, you should take time to appreciate even small moments of beauty. That’s lovely, but some of the poet’s biographers note a bit of background information that suggests a somewhat different meaning: Williams was a physician treating a very sick child when he wrote it, and knowing this puts the words in more of a grim and fatalistic light. Of course, other Williams scholars say Williams himself describes the poem’s creation as simply reflecting what he saw one day in a friend’s back yard. Who knows, maybe he saw that back yard after a hard set of Yasso 800s.

Like my former grad student, I dislike this poem, not for the poem itself but because, as a teacher of literature, bringing this poem into the classroom opens a can of worms I’d just as soon keep canned so that they run out of oxygen and die or else eat each other until there’s only one big fat worm left and he runs out of oxygen and dies. (Now that’s poetry.) When students interpret a poem according to their own views and values and insist that there is no right or wrong way to interpret poetry, I cringe. And when they suddenly discover the “secret key” to a poem, as they think they do when they read the WCW and hear about the sick child, I cringe even more. In the first cringe moment, I have to gently remind them that while it is all well and good to decide that a poem means whatever you think it means, there’s a difference between analysis and imagination, and both have a place in the New World Order, but if you imagine when you should analyze, you may decide one day that the cure for cancer is powdered unicorn horn, and while that’s lovely, it’s, well, stupid and pointless. In the second cringe moment, I get to see their faces light up with discovery and enlightenment, which should be a teacher’s dream, except that in this case the discovery is that they suddenly realize all of poetry—all of literature—is nothing more than a puzzle. I once had a student come running to me with “The Yellow Wallpaper” and breathlessly informing me that he’d “figured out” the story: the narrator was dead the whole time, see? Believe it or not, I am not so heartless that I enjoy crushing their little spirits in times like these; I actually dread it, but it must be done. No, she’s not dead. That was Bruce Willis. Try again.

But see, I did it too. I started this post imagining Williams as a marathon runner, after all, because this poem, love it or loathe it, was what came to mind at the end of my 15-mile BQ training run yesterday. The day started with weather that strongly suggested a September easing from summer into fall, with overcast skies and temperatures a good 20 degrees cooler than the last time I tried to do a long run at race pace. That last time, I was disappointed; my average pace was a few seconds off of BQ pace, and while this may not seem like a big problem, a few seconds might as well be hours because that won’t qualify me for the big show. The BF reminded me that hot, humid weather makes running not just less pleasant but more difficult—a lot more difficult. He insisted that the heat was worth a good 20 seconds of pace time. I wasn’t assured. I don’t ever feel assured when I’m aiming for a big goal. Until I reach it, nothing is going to make me feel truly confident, and most things—such as an unsuccessful long run—will make me anti-confident, no matter how you spin it. I missed my pace; I suck.

Oh, my pace that last hot run? Around 9:05. My pace this time? 8:45, ten seconds faster than I need to BQ and 20 seconds faster than … oh. Dangit. How’d he know? He's a keeper, that one.

More important than the pace was the fact that I didn’t feel like I was going to die with every step forward. Not feeling like dying: good! To me, a good run is never about the numbers or even the ultimate goal I may be trying to achieve. A good run is always, always about how you feel in the moment. In pleasant weather, pushing myself harder than usual, I felt good. Even though I love running, I don’t feel good about it all the time. And unfortunately, what dictates whether I feel good isn’t always under my control—is usually completely out of my control—and frequently is something small. So much depends on whether it’s a warm day or a cool day, whether I eat something that fuels my run or foils my innards, whether rainwater glazes my shirt and makes me chafe or simply refreshes me with a cool wet kiss. Yes, I realize the Williams poem, with its unspoken context, may very well be about life and death; a BQ is not. In the scope of every experience I’ll have during my lifetime, a BQ would be only one of many small moments (hopefully less than three hours and 55 minutes worth of moment). Still, more of life consists of small moments than huge ones, and no matter how you interpret, analyze, or imagine it, Williams’ poem suggests that small moments matter.