Thursday, May 23, 2013

Spiders, axe murderers – it’s all good

My facebook timeline lists “Honolulu, Hawaii” as my hometown, but that’s actually not quite accurate. The hospital where I was born was in Honolulu; I grew up in Kaneohe, a small town on the other side of the island. Kaneohe is and was a sort of nondescript place, not affluent like nearby Kailua, not ramshackle like the smaller towns up the shore. Back when I lived there it was still fairly underdeveloped, more banana groves than houses, and our own house, the last on a dead-end street, seemed at times on the edge of a wilderness. We were perched above a gulley where a small stream ran, one that threatened to become a raging river whenever the rains got heavy, which was often. My parents warned my sister and me not to play in the gulley if it was raining—a flash flood might come and sweep us right out to sea. That’s what they always said, “right out to sea,” and I had a vivid mental image of me body surfing the torrents all the way out to the bay, startling the fishermen with my sudden appearance. Far from scaring me, it sounded pretty neat.

I wasn’t fearless as a child, just ignorant. I climbed unsturdy trees and threw pebbles at wasps’ nests and rolled over rocks to see what creepy crawlies might lie beneath, often poisonous ones, much to my terrorized delight. We were out there all day, me and my sister and all the kids in the neighborhood, and really, nothing too terrible happened to any of us. The worse threats, I began to discover, came from elsewhere. Long before heartbreaking photos of missing children began showing up on milk cartons, my mother was obsessively afraid of kidnappers. Don’t ever talk to strangers, don’t ever get in anyone else’s car, do not open the front door unless you are absolutely certain who it is on the other side. Sensible advice, certainly, but the intensity of her eyes and voice when she told us these things freaked me out far more than anything that might be in the “wilderness” out back.
My father had warnings for us as well. “If we are ever bombed,” he advised, “go up the gulley and into the tunnel. That’s the safest place.” The tunnel was a cement tube that was built to help drain the banana groves into the gulley in case of heavy rains. It was probably the worst place to be in a flash flood, but apparently sturdy enough to withstand another Pearl Harbor, albeit one significantly off-target. My mother scoffed at him. “Bombs. You think we get bombed, you have enough time to run all the way out there?” She didn’t sneer at the possibility that we could get bombed, mind you, only at my father’s poorly conceived plan of defense. So now there were bombers after us as well as kidnappers. It’s a wonder I got any sleep at all during those years.

But a funny thing happened. I left Kaneohe, left Hawaii altogether, and eventually ended up moving to New York City. And even though it seems completely perverse, I was not afraid of strangers at the door there. I knew they were out there, and I knew what could be done to help protect myself from them. A spider in the kitchen, though? Fuhgeddaboudit. Instant shrieking pandemonium.
I was a city girl then. I could walk block after block in those heels. Put a pair of hiking boots on me and set me on a mountainside, though, and watch me disintegrate. The Ex and I once bought all this expensive gear so we could hit the trails in Ireland; all I can say about that thoroughly wretched experience is it’s a good thing they got lots of pubs because boy did we need one afterward.
And then The Ex became The Ex and I moved to Illinois and a bunch of stuff happened, the highlight of which was I took up running to a scarily obsessive degree—5Ks, 10Ks, halfs, fulls, and everything in between. Everything—except trail running. That lingering bit of city girl in me resisted the call of nature, dreaded feeling the whisper of spiderwebs over skin, the prick of bloodsucking vermin, the squelch of mud between toes, the general ickiness of it all.

Until now. The trails of east-central Illinois are nothing like the island wilderness of my youth, but there is a weird sense that I’ve somehow come full circle. I can’t really explain why I’ve changed so much over the years. I only know there’s a certain feeling I get when I’m out there alone and something rustles through the brush nearby. It might be an axe wielding kidnapper, or it might be a skittish little bunny rabbit, but I prefer to leave it unnamed and unknown, and simply continue to wonder what’s out there? even while I get a little closer to understanding what’s in here, in me, as I reclaim a little forgotten piece of the past.



Friday, May 10, 2013

A hundred miles (give or take a few) in my shoes

Every winter when it gets very cold I remind myself to wear a hat. This is because 65.2% of the body’s heat can be lost through your head. Or maybe it’s 45.2%, or 89.9%, who knows. Whatever the number, it’s supposed to sound like a lot more than you’d imagine. Kind of like how much of distance running is more mental than physical. It’s 85%, 90%, do I hear 99%? When zombies are after you, I suppose it’s 100%.

Whatever number is given always strikes me as wrong, not because it puts too much emphasis on mind over body but because it seems too simplistic. If someone who has never run so much as a mile decides to run a marathon, all the mental prowess in the world is not likely to overcome weak lungs, underdeveloped muscles, and a heart that goes berserk if the line at the drive-thru is too long and the body enclosing it is forced to park the car, get out and walk. On the other hand, every runner knows the feeling of being completely spent yet willing one’s self, somehow, to keep going, just a little farther, just until that tree, and then that stop sign, and then that other runner, and then that odd-looking archway with the big digital clock and all those cheering people. Oh, the finish line. Who knew.
A fellow trail runner and I were once discussing some of our more extreme running acquaintances, the ones who regularly run distances that would carry you to another state, two or three if you’re back east. Of course I had to go and foolishly say that no way would I ever run one of those insane hundred milers (preferring the completely sane 31-milers, naturally), and when my friend smirked because he’d heard me say similar things before about lesser distances, I became emphatic. People do have limits, despite what all the inspirational running aphorisms will tell you. Not everyone can run as fast as an elite runner, so it stands to reason that not everyone can run as far as a hard-core ultra runner. I simply refuse to accept the pervasive mentality that anyone can do X if they just put their mind to it. If that were true, why would you want to do X in the first place? Sure, everyone can write a novel if they want to, which is precisely why there’s so much really awful writing out there. I encourage everyone, always, to write if that’s something they really enjoy, but if you’re doing it because you just want to say you’ve done it, please, for the love of literature, don’t tell me about it.

But then I’ve just said it, haven’t I: everyone can write a novel if they want to. My trail running friend insisted that it was the same for extreme running. You could run a hundred-miler—you could, he said to me. Yes, you’d have to train for it; you can’t write a novel if you can’t write a sentence, but once you get past the basics, it really does become mental. In other words, you can do it, but you have to want it, really want it, for some good reason, and that reason isn’t always easy to find and hold on to.
I didn’t buy it at first, but it got me thinking. I suppose most people could get through a hundred miles if they had to—if forced to, if, for example, being chased by something, as non-runners so love to say. Enslaved people, escaping people, people in wartime and famine, all have had to push their physical endurance as hard as if not far harder than a hundred-mile runner. They had to or they would die. This is not the case for an ultra you volunteer to run. You choose to do it. And at that point I had to concede that my friend was right. In the end, the question isn’t “How am I going to get through this,” but “Why am I trying to get through this?” How you get through it is you just do, just like you always do. Something terrible happens and you are devastated and the night has never seemed so bleak and endless and you wonder how you can make it, but the funny thing is part of why you feel so awful on those nights is because you know you can make it, you can get through this, but getting through means going through a whole lot of suffering.

My first ultra is nowhere near a hundred miles long, and it isn’t for another seven weeks, but I’m already starting to ask myself, how am I going to get through this? I try not to ask it aloud because I know what people will say—some variation on “you can do it” ranging from from cheerleader chipper to drill-sergeant tough. And I know they’re right. I know how; I’m just not sure why.
I took up running in part because it was something I could do by myself without needing to depend on a lot of special equipment, a special location, or, most of all, other people. Much of my adult life has been a solitary, independent existence, and it’s not surprising that two of my favorite leisure activities—reading and running—are those frequently enjoyed by loners. That said, even loners sometimes join book clubs so they can share their enjoyment (or, what’s even more fun, share their snarky criticism) of their current reading material. And as far as running goes, I discovered what many distance runners do: that running really can be a team sport, at least in terms of motivation. There is no “I” in “team,” but “team” is an anagram for “meat,” and what better motivation is there than a group of runners talking about the merits of eating bacon during a long race?

See, here’s where the “why” question comes back into play. If you are running, say, a 20-miler in training for your next marathon, you are far less likely to ask yourself “why the hell am I doing this?” at mile 17 if someone is running with you. It can even be someone you don’t particularly like, someone who’s chatting your ear off about stupid shit until you want to strangle them except you feel like you’re being strangled yourself, you’re struggling so hard to breathe. Still, somehow, it helps you get through, and you actually find yourself thanking the chatterbox, sincerely, for helping you get through. And then you go find some bacon to eat, or to stuff in your ears, so you won’t have to listen to them any more.
Because of my erratic work schedule and the fact that I find it impossible to function on any level before about ten a.m. even with coffee in my system, I’ve been doing most of my training runs for my ultra alone. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing given that I’ll be running the ultra itself alone, meaning that there won’t be anyone to cheer me on during the ordeal. I’ve run a lot of races this way—a 10K in Barcelona, a half marathon in Budapest, a full marathon in Reykjavik—races where I not only didn’t know a single person in the race or in the country but also didn’t understand a single word being spoken by the runners around me. It’s quite an experience to hear a countdown in Hungarian and only figure out what “one” is when everyone starts moving. I enjoyed those races for their exhilarating novelty. Now it’s not quite so novel any more. Now the prospect of going somewhere yet again where I don't know anyone around me just seems like a wearying deja vu. And the prospect of running over 30 miles where I don't know anyone around me is making me wonder why.

I’m not saying that the only reason to do something is to be with other people; I still enjoy independence and solitude as much as ever. The point is that as with anything, the motivation has to come from me. I have figure it out myself: Why am I doing this? What satisfaction will I derive from saying, hey, I'm running an ultra, I'm going a distance I never thought I could do. Woop de do. Aren't I the shit.

And so I find myself once again in a situation where I begin by asking "how am I going to get through this" only to realize it's the wrong question, and the right question, the one that asks why, is one I'm not sure I can answer.