Sunday, May 17, 2015

First place in second guessing

The BF’s youngest daughter is a junior in high school, and she’s on the track team, which means the BF and I have gone to a lot of track meets to watch her perform. The BF buys dinner every time we go to a meet, his way of thanking me for the long hours in heat and cold, wind and rain, waiting and waiting for the few minutes—sometimes the few seconds—when his kid’s events are on. I accept the free dinners (duh) but I always tell him it isn’t necessary; I enjoy watching the meets, though admittedly they do churn up a lot of stuff for me to deal with.

I was not on the track team in high school—didn’t do much of anything in high school. While my parents encouraged my sister and me to be interested in a lot of non-academic activities, they weren’t “joiners” themselves and tended to advocate independently driven interest in things like sports and music. We played piano at home, we weren't in the orchestra or the marching band, and we went hiking weekends with our father instead of joining cross-country. I know how ridiculous it is to resent them, still, for any perceived parental neglect; they had our best interests in mind, always, but they didn’t quite realize how crucially important social interests are to kids that age—to people, really, of any age.

More than a quarter of a century later, I still, still, still can’t get past the what-ifs of high school. What if I had been encouraged to try out for school plays, to write for the school newspaper, to run? I was energetic as a little kid, always on the move, often getting in trouble for running when I was supposed to be walking. (I still remember during my brief stint in Catholic school when a terrifying nun grabbed my arm in passing and said, “Why are you always in such a hurry?”) What if I’d kept running? All the things I’ve watched during the BF’s daughter’s track meets, they could have been my experiences. I could have been someone pushing herself to achieve, to succeed, to win. What might that have done for my life, if I’d discovered that kind of drive back then instead of over a quarter century later?

Of course, when I start paying attention at these track meets, I realize that this is an overly exalted—and inaccurate—view. Nothing’s to say I would have been any good in track, and even if I had been, only one person gets to be the winner of a race. Most everyone else goes away at least a little bit disappointed—and often completely crushed. The BF’s youngest daughter is enormously talented, but she’s tasted more disappointment than glory this past season. On Friday we watched her struggle to complete her high jumps, ultimately being eliminated two rounds in, after which she verbally kicked the hell out of herself for ten solid minutes. Three hours and a rain delay later, she went back out for the 800 and came in fourth, didn’t do her best time, didn’t do her worst, didn’t do well enough to qualify for State. Her season was officially over.

“She’ll get over it,” the BF assured me. “She’s upset now, of course, but she never lets anything bother her for long.”

“That’s good,” I said, and I meant it. Better to get over bad stuff within minutes than stew about them for decades like … er, some unfortunate beings.

The BF shook his head. “It’s a mixed bag.” He told me how his middle daughter, now a college sophomore, is the kind who stews about things, whose self-kicking when she ran high school track would go on for months. While it was hard for the BF to watch her eating herself up like that, it did make her incredibly focused and driven, gave her the motivation to work her butt off so that she wouldn’t be disappointed again. She did achieve and succeed and win, and she didn’t do it by shrugging off her defeats and moving on.

So which is it to be, then? Carry the weight as an incentive to push harder, or shrug the whole business off? Obviously it’s a little of “a” and a little of “b” at different times in different situations, but the funny thing is, even though our culture seems almost fascist in its insistence on positive attitudes and optimism, it’s hard to relate to someone who too easily shrugs off disappointment. I daresay it’s hard to believe someone who acts like they’re OK with not reaching their goal. Why have a goal in the first place?

On the other hand, why, well into adulthood, do we continue to pursue goals so fraught with the potential for disappointment? This past weekend, some of my running buddies were wildly successful in racing, while others were crushed—which is how the game always goes, though the players endlessly rotate in terms of who gets wild success and who crushing defeat. Of course we love the success stories, but the truth, I think, is that our failures are what define us—not as failures, but in terms of how we react. When things go right, we find out what we can do, but when things go wrong, we find out who we are. I’m someone who tends to carry disappointment and regret for a really long time. Sometimes that’s a problem, but not always. Nothing is so satisfying as cheering up a person who is feeling down, and if I weren’t so familiar with downness myself, I might not be so able to sympathize with the girl who didn’t make State or the guy whose ultra didn’t go as planned. The person who doesn’t easily shrug off that weight won’t often hesitate to help someone else carry theirs.

I imagine I’ll continue, to the end of my life, to think about my childhood in terms of what could have been. I’ll always wish I hadn’t waited until middle age to discover running, and I’ll wonder how different my life might have been. Yet despite all this wallowing in what could have been, nothing I do today is meant solely to make up for glory days I never had. Trust me, when you’re eating tater tots at the Sonic with your cute BF after a track meet, it isn’t particularly going to matter when in your life that’s happening. It’s happening, and that—with a milkshake—is a win.



Monday, May 4, 2015

"Badass" is not my middle name

In the movie the BF and I watched the other night, there’s a scene where the heroine is running through some fields and woods, and all of a sudden there’s this dinosaur. And then another. She’s blasé about it—she goes through the whole movie pretty much blasé about every weird, surreal thing the director throws her way—but it took us a while to figure out that she’d simply come to an abandoned theme park. (The dinosaurs were plastic; it wasn’t that theme park.) And then it all makes sense, except it doesn’t, because pretty soon some other weird shit happens and I’m going “What? What? What?” I rather enjoyed it.

I have never come across dinosaurs while running through fields and woods, but I’ve come across plenty of other things, some real, some imagined, some I’m not sure which realm they came from. Most of the time, however, I come across nothing. When I run, I have tunnel vision; the trees could burst into flames and the devil himself could appear before me and I’d do little more than pop an S-cap and perhaps wonder if goat’s feet have replaced Hokas as the cool new thing to run in. Yesterday afternoon, running with a friend, she suddenly screamed and hopped awkwardly on one leg in the middle of the trail; I thought she’d broken her ankle, but it turned out there was a snake across the path, one I hadn’t even noticed—hadn’t even mistaken it for a twig because I hadn’t seen it at all. A water snake, the BF informed us, non-venomous, just catching some rays. Luckily no snakes were harmed, nor ankles broken, in the running of the trail that day.

I’ve come upon snakes many times while running, but I have never come across a World War II tank. That was another thing we saw, and that one I did not miss, nor did I miss the jeeps, the gunfire, or the girl dressed in USO garb. I was pretty sure WWII had ended and the good guys had won, but in case there was any doubt, it was being reenacted in the park where we were running. Soldiers stared at us as we ran by. We stared at them. I imagine similar thoughts were going through our heads: what a weird way to spend a Sunday afternoon. We went on our respective ways. I think the Allies won.

Much of the time, however, running isn’t surreal at all. It’s corporeal. You breathe, you move, you sweat, your heart pounds, your lungs burn, your muscles push and push and push. Do that long enough and yes, you might start to hallucinate, your run might start to feel like an out-of-body experience, but in truth that’s never happened to me yet, because in truth, in the world of ultra running, having done 9 ultras in 16 months for a total of just under 300 miles, I’m still just a newbie.

When you first start to learn about ultra running, it seems about a surreal as dinosaurs and tanks suddenly appearing in a state park. Like a lot of people, I used to think 26.2 miles was the absolute limit of how far a human being could run, and even then it could only be done by a few freaky people who would be peeing blood for days after the race. To learn that there were people who ran twice that, four times that, seven times that, on a regular basis—well, at first I simply dismissed that knowledge as too wacky to care about. All those pages of the Guinness Book of World Records that describe things you can’t even believe one person would ever do much less multiple people compete to be famous for doing—things involving bees, sharp objects, electricity, and possibly snakes—that’s where I’d relegated ultra runners in my mind. Then I became one, and a mighty cognitive dissonance had to be confronted.

At first I did what many of us do: wore the crazy like a superhero’s cape. I would use the word “badass” as though it were my middle name, and in fact I might have considered legally changing my name accordingly. I would smile condescendingly when people spoke of marathons with hushed awe, my smile meant to say “So what did you run after the 26.2-mile warmup?” If I met that me now I’d probably want to smack her but would refrain only because I’d know that soon enough, running would humble her, as it always does, even to the badassest of us.

Indeed, I have been humbled by running, many times to the point of wondering why I bother doing this when I’m not really all that good at it. That me, the one with an excess of second guesses and a deficit of self-esteem, is just as bad as the one with the condescending smile. She’s caught up in the drama, like someone lovestruck who goes from believing their love is an epic, cosmic connection to being utterly annihilated by their rejection. Calm down, me. Love can be a calm, steady, tranquil thing, too, and while we may be conditioned to see anything that isn’t extreme as boring, the funny thing is it’s a lot harder to find that calm, steady, tranquil thing. Extreme screams; we can’t ignore it. It’s a dinosaur or a tank. And ultimately, even though it’s memorable, it’s irrelevant. 

Yes, running is humbling, and running is glorious. There is urgency when you run—and tranquility. There’s all that crazy contradictory shit and more, yeah, but oddly enough, in the end what keeps me running isn’t what makes it extreme but what makes it mundane. The truth is running ultras isn’t any crazier than reenacting WWII, or following a baseball team all summer, or reading every book your new favorite author ever wrote. It’s the same as any other endeavor you do to pass the time in a way you decide is enjoyable and meaningful. You don’t get to choose a lot of what goes on in your life, but you can choose this, you can make it a part of your everyday existence.

I’ve got three ultras coming up in the next four months, and I’ll admit that saying this did initially make me want to revive the idea of putting a “B” on the cover of my next book instead of an “L” between my first and last names. Ultimately I’ve decided against this; too many other people are using that middle name, so I guess I’m stuck being me.