Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Gambler, the Rookie, and me

If Kenny Rogers had decided to write a song about parenting instead of gambling—let’s say Walt Disney drove a dump truck of money up to his front door and said “it’s yours but the song’s gotta be family-oriented”—the lyrics might have gone more along these lines:

You got to know when to hold ‘em
know when to let ‘em go
know when to start walkin’
and know when to run

It’s rather a good thing that never happened, because those lyrics are pretty stupid-sounding, even if they do speak some truths. At least, they do to me. I find I function best in life when I’m allowed leeway to invent myself, yet I still found it challenging to figure out how I was going to invent myself as someone in a vaguely parental role. I had figured on going my whole life without being a parent, and even now I’m still trying to make “slightly older female friend-type person to three younger but still adult female friend-type people” an acceptable substitute for “stepmother.”

My first big test of my inventing prowess came today, running my 30th marathon-or-more race with J, my youngest friend-type-person, running her 1st marathon. If you’re a reader of this blog, you already know how our training was going, and you’ll appreciate the fact that I went into this race unhappily resigned to the knowledge that I would almost certainly not be able to run the whole way with J. At some point, I would have to let her go. At some point all parents have to do this on a figurative level, of course, but it kind of seemed like I had skipped right to that point—to the point where the parental figure realizes that the "child" is in control of their own life and doesn’t really need you and, oh, also, may very well be a whole lot better than you at the things you once tried to teach them.

So be it. As Kenny Rogers never said, you got to know when to let ‘em go.

There was one thing I knew I could do successfully, which J had asked me specifically and emphatically to do, and that was to hold her pace back in the early miles so that she didn’t try to go out too fast. It’s the number-one rookie mistake for marathon runners, and J knew she was likely to get caught up in the excitement and blast off from the starting line like the race was 26.2 meters, not miles. If there’s one thing I can do well in a marathon, it’s run slowly. I’d spent all last year only running trail ultras, which are longer than marathons and thus easier, in my view, believe it or not, because anything beyond 26.2 miles on tough terrain is so ridiculous you pretty much have to take it easy. This pleases me very much. However, that was last year; this year I’m back to road marathons, where taking it easy is only a means to an end—a hard, fast end.

We agreed upon sticking to a conservative 10-minute-mile pace for a good 10-13 miles before deciding how we felt about speeding up. This meant, of course, that we were never at a 10 pace for any one of those first 13 miles. Our first 6 or so were at just under 9:50; the next 6 a bit faster, the next 6 faster still. This was not surprising to me. J and I both like to get the negative split, meaning the second half of our race is faster than the first half; the problem for me was that in all our training runs J could run her second half so very much faster than I knew I could. If I tried to keep up with her, I had a feeling, as the song never went, I’d have to know when to start walkin’.

Some interesting things can happen in the late-but-still-not-very-end of a marathon. One of those things is you hit the wall. Cue the walkin’. The other thing that can happen is the flip side: you can realize, quite clearly, that you’ve got this, you can do this, you can finish this race and finish strong. You know when to run, and it’s now.

It happened at Mile 19. I’ve run enough marathons to know how I can handle 7 miles, and at Mile 19, I knew I had those miles on a platter. I could do this. I could run the whole way with J as I’d hoped but not expected.

Something else happened a few miles later. There was never any doubt in my mind or hers that J could do this—and she did do it, and incredibly well. But at some point in those later miles, J realized what all marathoners come to realize: this is hard. I knew when it was happening because I’ve been there so very many times myself. She was struggling. Her pace slowed. Her conversation became more monotone, monosyllabic. Still, a struggling J is leaps and bounds more fun to be around than a struggling me. My late-mile crankiness is just unpleasant; hers was actually entertaining at times. At one point we passed some signs on the side of the road that had quiz-type questions about the local university, whose sesquicentennial anniversary the marathon was commemorating. “Where did the statue of Alma Mater originally appear?” one sign read. “Uh, up your butt?” J muttered. Euphoric with endorphins, I thought that was just about the funniest thing anyone has ever said at any time in the history of humor. I was still laughing about it a good half-mile later. Ultimately what this meant was that I actually was able to fulfill my role as pacer and keep right with her until the finish.

As said, J did incredibly well. I don’t know many first-time marathoners who trained as smartly and had as solidly impressive a first race as she did. But then I knew that was going to happen. I did not know I’d be there for the whole thing until the whole thing happened. Ten years ago I didn’t know I’d be running marathons at all; five years ago I didn’t know that I’d ever be in any sort of parental position in my lifetime. Twenty-four hours ago I was all set to be frustrated and disappointed in myself the next day. Then all this. Runners have the annoying habit of going on endlessly about how much they get from running, but at the moment I can’t keep from adding to the annoyance because I’m still learning things from these races—the ways I can create myself, how I can still surprise myself, and, of course, when to run.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Never too old

I haven’t written about running in a while, but not because running isn’t happening. I do actually care about a few other things just as much as running, believe it or not, though admittedly I could count those things on my fingers and still have a few digits left over to snag a few gummy bears to fuel a couple miles at a moderate pace. Running is definitely happening, and despite my having been doing it for over a decade, it still never ceases to be a learning experience—with “a learning experience” being a euphemism for “an endlessly humbling way to get your ass handed to you in no uncertain terms.”

K’s youngest daughter, J, has been training to run her first marathon at the end of the month. Prior to this she had run only one half-marathon race, plus a handful of 5Ks. Sure, she’d been a solid runner during high school cross country and track, which was barely a year ago, but I have to admit that K and I smiled when, almost immediately after finishing that first half, J announced that she wanted to do a full. The smiles were pleased ones, meant to be encouraging—like a lot of obsessed distance runners, we love bringing a newbie into the fold—but there was also a certain degree of “ah, to be young and naïve” amusement. It’s the smile I gave last summer to a 16-year-old budding novelist who told me she hoped to get her first book published within the next year, before she started college, because she knew she would likely be very busy after that. The earnest enthusiasm is too adorable to crush, even if the jagged bits of my own repeatedly crushed spirit prodded me to enlighten her.

You see (the veteran runner leans back and folds her arm authoritatively), one does not simply “do a full.” One can say one will do so, one can want one’s self very badly to do so, one can even do everything one can to make sure one does do so, but none of that is the tiniest guarantee that one actually will be able to run 26.2 miles in a way that one would consider a success. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of runners I know who had really good first marathons; everyone else experienced anything from deep disappointment to absolute agony. Put me down for agony, as my own first full was easily the worst race I’ve ever completed. I had gotten injured a few weeks before the race and I was in pain the entire way, but hey, at least it took a really long time.

Because K hasn’t been doing much distance running of late, I offered to do long runs with J and to pace her during the race. I made the offer loosely—I had a hard time believing an outgoing, vibrant, active 19-year-old would have any interest in getting up early Sunday mornings to run with her father and her stepmother—but much to my surprise, she enthusiastically accepted the offer. Again I was pleased—and excited. Last year I raced only trail ultras just for fun (meaning that I didn’t care how slow I went so long as I enjoyed myself and ate huge amounts of food before, during, and after), so I hadn’t trained for a road marathon in a while. This seemed like the perfect way to get back into it. I had benefited tremendously from having so many supportive runners helping me through the early stages of my marathon career, and now I would have the chance to pay it forward. I envisioned relaxing runs at a leisurely pace, me doling out running guidance and motivational good cheer, a wise and steady mentor through it all.

Yeah, that’s so not how it’s going.

First off, J does not need a wise and steady mentor. She does not need running guidance and motivational good cheer. She doesn’t even need a pacer. I have never encountered another first-timer who so thoroughly gets marathon training as she does. She paces conservatively, her splits are even, and she always has enough energy to kick a little on her final mile, even on her first 20 miler last weekend. But back up a bit: before we even get to how she was running, the fact that she was running at all puts her ahead of the legions of marathon bucket-listers. J has never once missed a training run, even when it meant getting up at 5am, even when the weather was less than optimal (and usually it pretty much sucked). In short, as her father says every time she finishes a long run and can’t wait until next weekend to go even longer, J is a badass.

And then there’s me. Forget doling out the advice and motivational good cheer; most times I’m too busy trying to get oxygen in my lungs to do much more than grunt in what I hope is a not-too-negative-sounding way. After more than ten years, it’s good to know that I can still be terrible at this. Running, as I’ve said many times, is as humbling as it is gratifying, and in fact usually those two things work in tandem. Every runner is going to get their ass handed to them at some point, at which time the only thing to do is shrug, reattach ass, and keep going—because, you realize, you can keep going, which is a very good thing indeed.

OK, that’s nice and all, but I wasn’t thinking any of that at around mile 16 of our 20. I was thinking something more like Goddamnit J will you at least pretend to be suffering a little more? For me? Please? Pretty please?

“Just over 16,” she said, glancing at her watch. “So in the race we’d have ten more miles. I thiiiiiiiiink I can do that,” she added cautiously.

I tried to say “I’m sure you can do it!” It came out “shoyucan.”

“Who knows,” she grinned, “I’ll probably go out way too fast like everyone else and I’ll be dying by this point in the race. But whatever, I think I can still do it.”

I made a grunt of agreement and took advantage of the slight slowing of our pace while she ate the last of her Sports Beans. “I’m sure you can do it. It won’t be fun, but you’ll do it.”

That was when, as they say, I got thoroughly schooled. “I would rather say it’s not going to be easy,” J said genially, resuming our target pace (aw crap). “I still think it will be fun. I wouldn’t do it otherwise. But something can be difficult and still be fun.”

She was right, and it was the kind of thing I’ve said myself a great many times. I don’t run to prove anything to anyone, not even myself. As someone with a propensity to feel lousy about everything most of the time, I personally don’t believe in taking on any unnecessary suffering, not even for the possibility of being crowned a badass. I run, I have always told myself, because I enjoy it. Was I enjoying this?

Maybe that’s not the right question to ask—or, rather, not the right way to ask that question. At the moment, struggling, frustrated, and deeply worried that I would not be able to finish the whole marathon with J much less provide any support or guidance, no, I was not enjoying it. But running, like a lot of things a person can love, is not just about instant gratification. That first marathon of mine was ghastly, yet here I am a good two dozen marathons later still going after another. You can’t always know how an experience will be, or what you’ll get from it, until you’ve done it, and even then it might be a while before you really get it. In short, you’re never too old to be young and naïve.

Saturday, April 1, 2017


The east-facing window of our bedroom looks out onto a just about unbroken view to the horizon. In the early morning, glasses off, half awake, I’ll peer blearily out this window and see the earth, open and empty, and in the distance a thin strip of sky on fire. It looks like the apocalypse has finally come. Great, I’ll think, sinking back into the pillows and blankets, now people can finally stop writing trilogies about it.

Even in the light of day, corrective lenses in place, the view out every window in the farmhouse is stark. I like it for reasons that aren’t easy to explain. Anyone can admire mountains, forests, oceans, or indeed the towering spires and glittering lights of a cityscape. It takes a different mindset to appreciate emptiness, to get something out of not a whole lot of anything—not color, not shape, not movement or change, at least not that can easily be discerned. It isn’t a beautiful view, or an interesting one, but there are some big things here: Light. Air. Sky. Vastness. When’s the last time you experienced that?

When a storm comes, we see it coming, all of it, and when it hits the house, it isn’t just an annoyance; it’s a force. During the last one, K told me he saw a huge sheet of corrugated metal go by via a roughly 50mph gust. We found it on the edge of our field the next day, having traveled a good quarter mile. “If someone had been standing out there when this thing went flying at them, they’d have been cut in half!” K said. Of course I suppose anyone standing out in a field in the middle of an electrical storm is kind of asking for a dramatic death one way or another. You can imagine the poor sucker bracing for electrocution and instead getting sliced like so much pumpernickel.

Today was not like that. The morning was sunny and warm, perfect for relaxing. Or not. We have an old farmhouse on four acres; we may never relax again. I needed to clear ground for my planned vegetable garden; K needed to build a new chicken coop. Yes, we have chickens now, six of them. They produce a staggering amount of poop and a slightly smaller but still formidable number of eggs every day. You know, you can top just about anything you’d ever want to eat at any meal with a fried egg and it won’t be the worse for it. Trust me on this. 

We worked in the sun. The dog wandered around the yard, sniffing things, woofing occasionally when she felt lonely. The macaws circled overhead, every so often a brilliant flash of color breezing by me as I tilled, weeded, and shoveled compost. We worked, kept working. We got bug-bit, sunburnt, dirty, sweaty, tired. It didn’t feel bad at all. When we got hungry I fried up some leftover corn tortillas (homemade), scrambled them with a half-dozen eggs (home raised), and topped it with cheese (homemade, believe it or not, and amazing) and salsa (from a jar—gotta wait a few more months for the garden to yield). When the sun went down we sat our achy bodies on the sofa and prepared not to move for the length of several episodes of whatever happened to be on, even if it was dreck. Neither of us wanted to exert the energy it would take to change the channel.

This was a good day.

I full well realize that part of the satisfaction I felt came from the novelty. It’s different from the stuff I usually do, from anything else I’ve ever done. Maybe this isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun Saturday, much less an enjoyable life, but life has a vastness of its own, enough for many ideas, many experiences, many ways to live. This is one way, and it’s not empty but full, of light and air and activity, filling up the sky. And there’s so much sky.