Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mud, sweat, and beers

Like many runners who race, I have a gazillion medals. Most of them are some variation of a metallic disc on a colorful ribbon, and there’s been a trend toward larger and heavier discs to the point where they basically hang a hubcap around your neck at the finish line. My favorite race medal is nothing like that, and I got it even though I didn’t actually run the race. I ran the race course and completed the full 10-mile distance, and the medal was the same one given to all runners who finished, but that wasn’t why I got it. I got it for standing, not running. I volunteered to work one of the aid stations at a 10- and 30-mile trail race, you see. After my shift, I had enough time to run a loop of the trail on my own, just for fun, and when I got back to the start/finish area, the woman who had been handing out finishers’ medals to the race runners presented one of the extras to me with a smile.

They also serve who stand and dispense Hammer Gels.
A lot of people thanked me for volunteering, and while I appreciated their praise, it felt oddly unearned. Truth is I love volunteering at races. It’s fun screaming your head off to cheer for the runners after you refill their water bottles and dispense the s-caps. It’s fun to see them smile through their exhaustion when you do so. The five hours of volunteer work at the aid station was easy. The two hours spent running the trail was hard—very hard. I’d never run hills like that before in my life; heck, the reason I took up running in the first place was because this area is a topographic wasteland of flatness. Well, except for this one trail around this lake. Those lousy ice-age glaciers just couldn’t resist leaving something for us to remember them by, could they.

Until now I have never understood how certain hard-core runners crave beer after a long run. The very idea made me nauseous, and there could hardly be anything less appealing after several hours of strenuous sweating. Well, after ten miles of mud, hills, and muddy hills, I have never wanted a beer so badly in my life. When I got back to the start/finish, I got one. It was without a doubt the finest bottle of beer ever crafted anywhere in the world at any point in time.
As I sat in the brilliant sunshine enjoying my perfect beer, feeling pleased with everything and everyone and especially pleased with myself, I started thinking about the trail ultra I’ve got coming up in a few months. It will be my first ultra, and the elevation change will be a good 50% greater than that of the trail I had just run.

This was tough. That will be tougher. I am scared.
The medal I got for the race I sort of ran is a simple tear-drop-shaped pendant of clay on a string. This humble prize is, as I said at the start of this post, my favorite race medal so far.  It reminds me why I do what I do. When you become a distance runner, it’s hard not to get caught up in your own hype. You start believing you really are badass because you run these ridiculous distances in crazy terrain. The thing is, I get to choose to do these scary, tough things, and since it is my choice, the medal I get for doing them isn’t really about bravery or strength. Likewise, the reward I get for volunteering isn’t about sacrifice and virtue. I do these things because I believe they can be done and they should be done—and yes, because I enjoy doing them. Also because there just might be beer afterward.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Being wrong (a.k.a. changing your mind)

Call it what you will. I prefer to eschew the pretty gloss, take the ribbing and razzing and call it being wrong. I’ve been wrong before, believe it or not, and I take perverse pride in declaring that when it happens, it’s spectacular. When I am wrong, I am so wrong, so breathtakingly wrong I can only sit back in amazement and awe. That, my friends, is the way to be wrong.

Actually there’s a little more to it than that. The key to being wrong is to be wrong in the right way. Here’s where my Electron Woman persona reemerges and fights the good fight with the power of negative thinking. See, when you go around all hopeful and optimistic about the future—go for it! never give up! good things are gonna happen, just wait and see!—being wrong becomes anything from a minor setback to a crushing defeat. Look on the dark side, however, and being wrong is a victory. Believe in the worst, and you’ll never be disappointed, regardless of the outcome. Life sucks! Oh wait, it didn’t suck quite so much today, did it. My bad. Tee hee.
Case in point: running. Ten years ago, wasn’t a runner, was never going to be a runner. Five years ago, wasn’t a marathoner, was never going to be a marathoner. Two years ago, wasn’t a trail runner, was never going to be a trail runner. One year ago, wasn’t an ultra runner…yeah, you know, and by the way the trail ultra I picked is at the end of June.

I have to do things this way. I have to tell myself I can’t and won’t before I go ahead and do it anyway. I know it doesn’t make sense, but it’s worked very well for me. If I tell myself “it’ll never happen” and keep telling myself that, by the hundred and seventy ninth time I figure I must be on to something. If I have to put in that much effort to convince myself, the opposing side may have a pretty solid case. (I suppose it’s rather a good thing I never went to law school. Instead, I told myself for many years I would never, ever get a PhD. By the way, that’s Dr. Electron Woman to you.)
The case for trail running was something I’d heard for several years from about half of my running buddies, the other half being firmly and unshakably on the side of road running. I was just as firmly unshakably with this second group for several years, as trail running always seemed more frustrating than fun. Rocks and roots could leap out of the ground at any moment to trip you up. Branches smacked you in the face. Any moment a mud vortex might appear and threaten to suck you down into the mire. Yeah, nature, and all that, but how can you enjoy the scenery when you’re too busy looking out for snake pits?

Road runners agreed fervently with me on these points. Trail runners scoffed at them. Road running, they sneered, is boring. During training runs you have nothing interesting to see but the same dull neighborhoods over and over. During races you get crushed into packs of thousands. Trail runners are tougher, cooler, and more fun—just ask them. Road runners are whiny babies. Ew, the Gatorade is warm. Ugh, we have to go up a hill. Goddamnfuckingsonofabitch my chip fell off my shoe and now there’s no record of my PR this is a travesty how can things like this happen?
The whiny baby part? Truth. I readily concede that. The criticism about road running’s being boring, however, annoyed me. It annoyed me in part because it turned me briefly into my father, who, whenever I complained that something was boring, would say “maybe you’re the boring one” in a tone that suggested more thoughtful reasoning than harsh put-down. If it’s boring, you make it interesting. You enjoy being in the moment. You revel in the fact that there is nothing else you have to do—nothing else you can do—except run. You exalt in just feeling yourself move forward, breathing, heart beating, unquestionably alive. Yeah, and some other stuff you see on all those motivational running posts on facebook, all of them wince-worthy when you read them at home but truly inspirational once your feet hit the asphalt.

The one point that ended up being pivotal for me was time. While there are certainly those runners who truly do not care about how long it takes them to complete a course, they are rare. Anyone who runs a race of any type, road or trail, 5K or ultra, must care at least a little about time. That said, time tends to mean far more to road runners than trail runners. While every road marathon is different, most will be similar enough such that finishing time comparisons will be pretty much apples-to-apples. A comparison between any two trail marathons, on the other hand, could easily be apples-to-anvils. One trail might be well-marked and relatively flat while the next will cover swamps, cliffs, jungles, deserts, and the occasional surprise snake pit. A runner who does an 8-minute pace for a road race might do that in a trail race, or might do 10 if the course is tough enough—and might just win at that seemingly unimpressive pace.
This drives road runners crazy. If your time for a trail ultra could be anywhere from three hours to three days, what’s the point? How do you know if you’re getting better?

“It isn’t about the time,” snorts the trail runner. “It’s about the experience,”
This is an over-simplification. Road runners do enjoy the experience and not just the time. Trail runners do care about time, otherwise races wouldn’t use a clock. And yet—and yet!—I will admit what I never thought I’d say: I prefer the experience of trail running.

I don’t like running fast. Lucky for me I’m in no danger of doing that very often, but I still try to do so when I race roads, and for someone of my age, sex, and lack of athleticism, I actually run a pretty decent pace for shorter distances. For the marathon, my pace is thoroughly average. Yet it’s the longer distances that draw me. I would rather run 20 miles than 2 miles, because even though you can’t technically sprint 2 miles, you have to try, and even though the 2 will be measured in minutes and the 20 in hours and both will hurt like hell, the 2 will only feel bad. The 20 will feel good, then bad, then great. And then you’ll go eat a lot.
Even with this mindset, the move to trail running still seems like quite a leap. And yet it isn’t. Running trails is about slowing down, paying attention to your body and your environment and pretty much ignoring the clock. One prolonged glance at the Garmin and you might faceplant. Yes, there are roots and rocks, branches and logs, mud and mud and mud. There are hills that are truly hills and not just speedbumps. It can be tough. It feels tough. And then it feels great.

This is how to be wrong. Set your mind against something with all your strength. Tell everyone it will never happen. You will never live in New York City; people get mugged there. You will never go back to school; you have no interest in being a teacher. You will never get your book published; don't you realize the publishing industry is going down the toilet? You will never see this person as anything more than a casual acquaintance and there is no way you will fall for him. You will never, ever run a trail ultra. The very idea is laughable.
Guess who’s laughing now? That would be me, sweaty, muddy, exhausted and sore, wrong as can be, and feeling pretty great about it.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

If you win the good sportsmanship award, are you an oxymoron?

Everyone loves a good sport. I’m talking about the genuine article, the person who, win or lose but especially in loss, always has a smile and a word of sincere praise for the opponent. It’s obvious why we value good sportsmanship: in its true form, it reminds us that some of the greatest joy in life comes not from being better than other people but achieving our own personal best.

Here’s the thing, though. There are two kinds of good sport. There’s the real thing, as described above, and then there’s the rest of us. It isn’t quite so genuine with us. Feel that tightness in your face when you try to smile? That’s the feeling you get when your good sportsmanship veneer is threatening to crack. We can’t help it. We value good sportsmanship as much as the next person, yet we can’t help but wish the next person were standing on a platform just a little lower than ours watching us take the prize. I have to admit I have a soft spot for this kind of good sport, especially when the fa├žade is revealed. I’m not talking about the pouting, trash-talking major leaguer who throws a tantrum, his glove, a large cooler of water and all the extra Louisville sluggers in the dugout. I’m talking McKayla Maroney, vexed and not hiding it, about to become a facebook meme. At least this is one Miss Congeniality who isn’t pretending she’s just glad to be there.
And why shouldn’t I admit this? Face it: losing sucks. Yes, the degree of suckness can vary a great deal from person to person, situation to situation. But no one prefers losing to winning.

Case in point: he’s there and she’s there and you’re there, and there’s no question who’s the winner and who’s the loser. They win. You lose. Oh, no one’s gloating, not one bit, but they might as well. The way her eyes light up when he appears, the way his follow her every move, the way they stand too close together, laugh too much, smile too bright and long, so you smile too, smile and smile, even though a tidal wave of acid reflux is blistering your esophagus, because you have to be a good sport about it, you see. What else can you do? It could have been you, it almost was you, but ultimately he picked her instead. Her by a landslide, a landslide that buries you deeper and deeper into the ground that right now they dance upon together. You smile because the only other thing to do is run away and never come back and even though that’s probably the smartest thing you could do, that would make you one worse than a loser—that would make you a quitter—and nobody loves a quitter, everyone loves a good sport, and that’s really what you want, isn’t it, not to win but to be loved? So you smile. Smile and smile, and keep smiling, and try not to wonder just when exactly you’re supposed to start feeling loved for it.