It’s too easy to make fun of a holiday like Thanksgiving. It’s
too easy to roll your eyes at the way people sit down to appalling amounts of
food and go out to spend a small nation’s GDP worth of shopping—interspersed with
a humble litany of thanks, as though being thankful for excess cancels out its
The list of things I’m thankful
for is pretty similar to everyone else’s. I’m thankful for good health, which
means I can run a lot and eat even more. I’m thankful for my friends, who will
never truly understand how much they help me. I’m thankful that there’s a guy
who can make me smile just by reciting the alphabet and can make me blush by
saying et cetera. Funny thing, though: on Thanksgiving I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about
my blessings—not even this year, when I have so much abundance it’s disgusting.
This is not because I’m ungrateful; in fact, I’ve been grateful nearly every
day of my life. Grateful and happy, however, are very different, and so
instead of thinking of things for which to give thanks, I think about times
when I was grateful and miserable, when despite my privileges I still had a
hard time finding a reason to keep going. This is not because I’m a naturally
negative person. No, really. I’ve spent more holidays feeling sad and lonely
than joyful and loved, but understand this: I have not had a hard life. Not
even close. That’s all the more reason to think about just how bad things can
If you believe the more commonly accepted versions of
history, Thanksgiving was borne out of two exceptionally difficult periods in
America’s past. It was not about living large and being thankful for it;
rather, it was about the desperate need for help during tough times. I think
about all of this because just as you are told to think about people less
fortunate than you are, my nature is to think of people who may be even more
unhappy than I once was. It scares the crap out of me to think what that must
be like, but it’s not hard to imagine. They may be hungry and far from home.
They may be sick and weary, fighting and dying. Or they may simply be lonely,
which is less dramatic but far, far more pervasive. Imagine that pain. Imagine trying
to get through the day. Then imagine a day that can make you believe things
will get better. Imagine it’s this day. Perhaps someday it will be.
My birthday is on the second-to-last day of the year. Yes,
that’s right: I was a two-day-old tax deduction. This year on that day I will
be 45 years old, and you have no idea how difficult it is for me to admit that
fact. I don’t know why that should be; after all, most people who know me know
how old I am, even if most of them say I don’t look it (bless you, darlings). There may still be
secrets left in the world, but when you run races and your finish times are
constantly being posted online, there’s no hiding how old, how slow, and how
crazily obsessed you are.
While it is difficult to admit my age, in these nearly 45
years I’ve come to an understanding about difficult things.
The 45th year of my life did not start
particularly well. That is all I have to say about those first few months,
because a lot of other things followed them.
I ran my first ultra marathon. And my second. And my third.
I saw the publication of my first book. I shared my joy in
this achievement in the best way possible, with the best people possible.
And now there’s this cute boy. I walk around with a big
stupid smile on my face these days.
I suppose I could conclude that good things come to those
who wait, and the sweetness of them is even better because they’ve come after
bitterness. That’s true, but I still can’t in good conscience dole out the
platitudes without hedging myself first. The best may be yet to come; so may
the worst. Things will happen, and you will enjoy them, suffer them, get
through them, revel in them, wish they had never happened, wish they would
never end. Whatever age you are, things are going to happen to you, things you
won’t expect. That means you’re alive. Happiness does not define life;
I’ve had nearly 45 years of experiences. I am looking
forward, in every sense, to what happens next.
Last weekend during a road marathon, I chuckled at a runner
who threw a hissy fit because an aid station had run out of Gu. She fumed the
way a person does in one of those “this is a travesty!” situations in which the
only travesty is the seriousness with which the fumer is taking the situation.
I offered her my Sports Beans to placate her, but she held up a “talk to the
hand” hand. “I’ve got Beans and Chomps already. I didn’t bring Gu. I thought they
would have it!” I smiled and shook my head. Road runners. Such pouty little
As it turns out, apparently a member of the Comeuppance Committee
observed me at that moment and decided to take action.
This weekend I ran a trail ultra. Thirty miles in the woods,
through creeks, up and down steep hills, over branches and rocks and lots and
lots of crunchy brown leaves. There is nothing, not one damn thing I’d rather
be doing on a gorgeous late-autumn Saturday than running a trail ultra. I felt
strong and excited. I had Cokes, Pringles, and a peanut butter and honey
sandwich for refueling. This was my third and last ultra for the year, and I
wanted it to be an Uber Ultra, if such a thing can be (and if the Unitarian
Universalists don’t mind my borrowing their acronym for this post).
The ultra consisted of three ten-mile loops. I ran the first
half of the first loop conservatively, as is my M.O. By the end of that loop, I
felt terrific, excited for Loop 2, and cautiously optimistic that things would
go well. I flew through the first half of Loop 2, and as I pushed through the
second half of it—the tougher, hillier half—I reminded myself that I’d only
have to do this tough half one more time and then I’d be done.
And here, reader, is where you start to figure out where
this is going—which puts you one up on me at the time.
“The trail is well marked!” is something that has only ever
been said by someone who knows that trail like their own backyard. With a mile
to go in Loop 2, I took a wrong turn and got lost. Where the blazes were those
pink blazes—the ribbons meant to show the runner the right way to go? Funny
thing about trail markers: you only know if you’re going the right way if you’re
already going the right way. Once you go astray, there is nothing to guide you.
At the time, I did not ponder the metaphoric implications of these thoughts. I
was too busy being a cursing, screaming, hateful little diva.
What the eff. Eff the
effing well-the-eff marked trail. Where the effity eff am I supposed to effing
go? This effing sucks. This is an effing eff-fest of effdom. Eff it. Eff
There are no atheists in foxholes, nor, it would appear, elocutionists
lost in the woods.
As I tried to backtrack, I saw a runner about thirty yards
away and tried to catch up with him. Using my best damsel-in-distress persona,
I begged him for help. Unfortunately, he was literally one of the front runners,
going into his third and final loop, and he didn’t even so much as slow down as
he grunted something vague, a verbal shrug, before dashing away.
Mother effing effer,
who the eff says trail runners are nicer than road runners, eff that effed up
Eventually a slower, kinder runner appeared. He was
sympathetic, but no more helpful. He had been well behind me, you see, still
midway through his second loop, and all he could do was point me straight ahead
in the direction he was going. Unfortunately, that was the worst thing he could
have done. Somehow I’d jumped the trail back to mile 6 or so; there was a
stretch of sandy trail dotted with horse manure that I recognized. When all the
trees look the same, a singular pile of horseshit becomes truly memorable. “This
just doesn’t seem right!” I whined to my would-be rescuer.
“I’ve run this trail dozens of times,” he assured me. “It’s
I followed him; I didn’t have much choice. It wasn’t so bad
at first—he was a hottie, all trail-runner leanness with a buzzcut, and what
damsel in distress would mind that? Problem is, he was really, really slow. Dude, I silently urged him. If you want to be my knight in shining armor
you got to stop with this walking business and get moving. Eventually when
I figured out for certain what I had done, I left him behind. I knew where I
was going: I was going to do that same effing stretch of the loop I’d already
Four miles is nothing to me. That’s not bragging;
that’s simple truth. I don’t even bother running anything less than seven miles
these days; it just isn’t worth my time. Those four miles I unnecessarily
repeated yesterday were four of the longest, teariest, screamingly tantrummy
miles of my life. I wish I could say that I laughed it off. I wish I could say
it didn’t bother me that much. I can’t. I didn’t laugh, it did bother me, and
it ended up spoiling a great day. I wish I could say that upon reflection I’ve
learned my lesson and next time something like this happens, I won’t let
pettiness get the better of me. I can’t say that either. When something like
this happens again—and it will happen again—I almost certainly will react the
same way. I know this about myself. I hate it about myself, but something I
hate even more is lying to myself.
People who write about running, myself included, often write
about the gloriousness of it. Running makes us realize we are stronger than we
think. Running makes us see that we should never give up on our goals. Running
makes us see the beauty in little things. Running is just a big ol’ festival of
love and joy, isn’t it. Well, yeah, but there’s this other stuff too. Running
can also be a big ol’ slice of humble pie, and not just in the dramatic way
where your face contorts in a beautiful sort of agony because you’re in so much
picturesque pain because you wanted it so badly but you didn’t quite make it.
The humility also comes from seeing sides of yourself you really would much
prefer to see in other people, so you can make fun of them and feel better
about yourself. It’s fun to smirk when some other runner makes a big scene over
something insignificant, fun even to sigh pityingly and wonder why they can’t
just enjoy the run. Running is glorious! Forget the Gu and enjoy yourself!
Getting lost is part of the fun! Stop worrying about the fact that you tacked
on an addition 50 minutes to your time, which by the way would have beat your
previous 30-mile time by 10 minutes if you hadn’t gotten lost. It isn’t about
the time. It’s about the run!
Oh don’t worry. I’ll be back running ultras as soon as the
new year begins. I still love it. It’s still preferable to rage over my poor
sense of direction than to rage over any of the other deficiencies in my
character or my life. That, you see, is yet another positive aspect of running.
Even the worst of it can be tolerable. Even being smacked upside the head with
my own hypocrisy and smallness won’t keep me from saying eff it and hitting those trails once again.
I ran another marathon yesterday, and while I had a lot of
fun, the drivers stuck in long queues at intersections did not, and they let it
be known that they did not. They honked. They gestured. These were not cheery
little honks or happy “go for it!” gestures. They shouted, a lot, and most of
the time it wasn’t “you got this!” or “almost there!” One pissy-faced guy at
the front of a queue rattled off every curseword he knew and then, because
there weren’t many of these, rattled them off again in different forms (verb,
noun, adjective, adverb—that last one was clever, I thought). He then rattled
off the same litany in Morse code on his horn. This was unwise. The cop at the
intersection turned slowly and silently and regarded him a
cop-regarding-pissy-faced-driver amount of time, which is to say a squirmily
long time. I regret to say I did not catch what the cop said or did; I had to
keep moving. I was one of those runners pissing the driver off, after all. Hey,
I do what I can.
Back before the online world existed, the only outlet people
had for anonymous fury was the automobile. Road rage is still popular, of
course, but now there is additionally a veritable cornucopia of possibilities
for the average citizen to don the cyber-cloak of anonymity and scream
obscenity-laced invectives at the world.
You remember Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak? Well, the cloak of
anonymity is far more powerful. Harry Potter’s garment, after all, only allowed
those huddled beneath it to observe, not to interact. While it sates the
voyeur, it confers no real power by itself. Ah, but if you can be invisible yet
also yell abusive things at people, well, you still have no real power but you
at least get a certain snarky, small-minded satisfaction.
Catharsis is a useful thing; the problem is sometimes it isn’t
just a release. As you already well know if you’ve spent any time online,
anonymity brings out the stupidest, ugliest, most hateful sides of humanity.
The best way to ruin your day is to read the reader comments of nearly anything
online. You’ll wish you had an invisibility cloak big enough to hide the entire
stupid, ugly, hateful world.
But there is a positive side to anonymity, and believe it or not, I’m just the
person to tell you about it.
At yesterday’s marathon, I happened to be wearing a shirt I
got from one of my ultramarathons. I did this for the reason you expect a
marathon runner to wear an ultramarathon shirt: so that everyone would assume
that 26.2 was a piddly, trifling distance to me (which is not true at all) and that
I use marathons as training runs for my “real” races (which actually is true
but doesn’t speak well of my sanity). After about a mile and a half, a
pleasant, grey-haired lady ran up beside me and commented on my shirt. Seems
she’d done the same ultra. We got to chatting and found that we both preferred
trails to roads and ultras to any other distance. We had a pleasant chat
through sixteen miles, at which point she told me to go on ahead; she wanted to
walk a bit.
This kind of thing has happened to me before in races, and
it’s always a positive experience getting to know a like-minded lunatic. This
time there was something else, though. My new running buddy had been an avid
ultrarunner, doing 100-milers and 24-hourers and all sorts of other races in
all kinds of terrain. But recently she’d had to cut back rather a lot. Two
years ago she’d undergone surgery for a brain tumor, and she was just getting
back to distance running form now. She told me funny stories about her time in
the hospital, about how her surgeon, who knew she was an amazing runner, would
take walks with her around the hospital corridors while she was in recovery and
tried to walk just a little bit ahead of her. “This is the only time I’ll ever
be faster than you!” he joked.
I laughed, a genuine laugh, not the sort of faint “huh”
I’ll give to someone who says something meant to be funny while I’m running but
because I’m trying to concentrate on running (and breathing) I don’t want to
encourage them too much. I really liked her stories. I was impressed with her running, both past and present, as well as future—because, she assured me, there would be future running. The miles passed pleasantly until we parted and I went off on my own. I wish I’d gotten her name.
Anonymity means without name. It doesn’t mean you
have no personality or characteristics, and it certainly doesn’t mean you
aren’t alive. In this marathon, as in others, you had to wear a bib that had
your number and your name on it, but the thing is you have to pin the bib on
the front of your shirt or shorts, not on the back, so you can’t see anyone’s name;
all you see around you are runners, and as a result running becomes a weird sort
Sometimes it can be the very best sort of anonymity.
We are without name, without all the things we usually rely
on to define ourselves. We are all one thing: runners. In the absence of any other
name or identification, we are free to do and be surprising things. We can be kind. We can be
strong. We can be inspirational. And, perhaps most amazing of all for someone
like me who once believed nothing would ever make me see the world as anything but stupid and ugly and hateful, we can be inspired.