Thursday, November 28, 2013


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 excessive quality.
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 get.  

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.




Tuesday, November 19, 2013

39 is the new 45

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; experiences do.

I’ve had nearly 45 years of experiences. I am looking forward, in every sense, to what happens next.



Sunday, November 10, 2013


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 divas.

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 everything.

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 ess.
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 this way.”
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 done before.

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!

Eff 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.


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Where the streets (and people) have no name

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 of anonymity.
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.