Tuesday, May 27, 2014

If there's no I in team, why am I still playing?

At a weekend barbecue, I overheard a conversation in which folks jokingly tried to come up with some type of activity that their friend Tom wasn’t great at. I don’t know Tom all that well but I know the type of person they meant: that guy or girl who seems to excel, naturally, without effort, at every sport or athletic endeavor they undertake. Running? Practically elite. Swimming? Dolphins would be envious. Basketball, softball, Frisbee golf, golf golf, if there’s movement required and speed, strength, agility, and hand-eye coordination involved, these people bring the awesome. I don’t know what answer the group ultimately came up with, but I’m guessing it was probably something like “making sure to affix the postage stamp exactly within the rectangle on the envelope to pay the utility bill.” Thank goodness for online payments.

And then there’s me, pretty much the opposite of all that. The list of sports and activities I suck at is damn near endless. Anything that involves stuff being thrown is out; I can’t throw worth shit, and when stuff is thrown at me I duck and cover. (I’d have been great during the Cold War, but atomic bomb readiness is not and has never been a sport.) Anything that involves hand-eye coordination won’t go so well either; I have hands and eyes but they don’t tend to sync up much (except when something is being throw at me; then as soon as my eyes perceive the thing coming at me, the hands go up in a sort of protective surrender pose). You’d think, having grown up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that I’d at least be a good swimmer, but I’m not. I learned to swim the way a lot of kids in Hawaii do, paddling about in the shallows of the beach, gradually going out farther until my toes couldn’t reach, and then kind of improvising movements that would keep me afloat and generally propel me in a forward direction. I’m not afraid of water, at least, but my form is godawful. (And please don’t bring up surfing. I doubt I could stand on a surfboard on dry land without falling off.)

“But what about running?” you ask. OK, I asked it, not you, and I’ve been asking it a lot lately. I like to think I’m good at running, but this year hasn’t exactly substantiated that belief. There was a time when I would regularly place within the top three of my age group at local 5K and 10K races. Indeed, at the 5K race the BF and I went to before the barbecue, I would easily have come in second in my group by a couple of minutes. Yes, I took note of my hypothetical competitors’ times. It’s what you do when you think you’re finally good at something athletic after a lifetime of wimpitude. Because of my injury, however, I didn’t run the race, though even healthy I doubt I’d have done it. I haven’t run a 5K, a 10K, or even a half marathon in years;  I don’t run anything less than marathon distance these days, which sounds snobby and braggy but honestly isn’t. Truth is, the distance thing hasn’t been going so well; instead of finishing in the top three, I’ve finished near the bottom—or not at all—in every race I’ve done this year.

Yeah, yeah, I know, just doing it at all is a victory, just getting out there and trying it shows strength of character, yadda yadda blabbety blah. Please. Given a choice between first place and the good sport award…well, is there really any choice? Everyone loves a good sport but no one wants to have to be one, because we all know what that often means: Good sports = bad at sports.

Case in point: the softball game we played after stuffing ourselves on barbecue. I’d only had two margaritas but somehow found myself heading out to the diamond with the others, a fielder’s glove in hand. (The glove was pink and tiny, belonging to my friend’s young daughter, but pretty much the only glove that fit me even though it was barely big enough to contain the softball. That hardly mattered, as there was no chance of my ever catching a ball anyway.) You know the cliché about being picked last for softball? Not a cliché. Truth. That person was me many decades ago, and I’m not afraid to admit it, nor was my friend Dorothy, who told me she joined marching band to get out of high school P.E. Dorothy and I set ourselves on opposing teams as the bottom of our respective lineups so that we would balance not only each other but the athletically overachieving Toms that made up the rest of our teams.

I’ve fictitiously named her Dorothy because of Dorothy Hamill. My friend ice skates, you see, and by that I don’t mean she goes to the rink, rents skates and wobbles around in circles for an hour or two. She’s competitive. She has outfits. They are sparkly and look all flashy when she does cool spinny stuff on the ice. Ice skating is maybe a few notches better than surfing on my list of things I suck at, but I can confidently state that if I live the rest of my life without ever strapping on skates and stepping out in a rink, pangs of regret will not assail me upon my deathbed. Dorothy didn’t have much luck at the plate, but crust that plate over with ice and watch her twirl—and watch me duck and cover. That pose is good even when things aren’t being thrown at you.

And then Dorothy’s team retired and it was my turn at bat. Time, once again, for things to be thrown at me.

What makes a person do something she knows is going to be painful and humiliating when she’s an adult and can say “no”? You don’t have a choice when you’re in P.E., but when you’re several decades removed from P.E. and have had a couple of margaritas, a burger and a brat, what’s stopping you from declaring “oh hell no” when someone hands you a bat and says you’re up? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the knowledge that even if you suck at this,you are confident enough in yourself to realize that you’re plenty good at other things that truly matter to you, be they skating or running. But what if that’s rationalization and I force myself to recognize that I’m not necessarily exceptionally good at anything? Somebody has to be average—lots of somebodies, by definition. I’m not going to pretend it feels just as good just to finish as it does to finish well—really well, award-winningly well—but maybe my brief flirtation with athletic ability did me more harm than good. My taste of success was admittedly miniscule; coming in first in the female 40-49 age group in a small-town holiday-weekend race impresses almost no one other than the two 40-49-year-old females you beat out. It certainly doesn’t assuage the intense, déjà vu-like dread you feel as you stand in the batter’s box.

The bases were loaded and our team was down by, I don’t know, a thousand runs or so. On the first pitch I tried to bunt. Why not; at least the bat would actually touch the ball that way, which it might not if I took a real swing. Predictably, the ball went foul. Bunting, in case you thought of it as dainty and wimpy, is hard. I didn’t bother trying to bunt after that; who was I kidding. I might as well swing away and get this nonsense over. I fouled a couple more balls weakly off to the left or behind the plate—they really ought to make fair territory a lot bigger, maybe even include the first couple rows of seats, don’t you think?—before finally getting it in the infield. Wonderful, I thought with relief, gamely running out the throw to first. I can pick up my little pink glove and wait for our side to be retired.

In the meantime, the batter scored from third. RBI, me.

Yeah, we lost, and I didn’t catch, throw, or hit anything again for the rest of the game. But I didn’t completely suck. Can I say I’m proud of that RBI? Can I say I’m prouder still that I faced my fears and played the good sport even though every fiber in my body wished to sit in the shade on the sidelines and marinate in margaritas? I could, but that wouldn’t be completely honest. In the end I think what makes a person voluntarily do something they know they suck at is a complicated mix of insecure rationalization (I may suck at this but I came in first at the Mattoon Run for the Bagel 10K in 2009, dammit) and shrugging acceptance of the self. I know I suck at softball, and swimming, and ice skating, and given this knowledge, another demonstration of my suckness can hardly demoralize me. Sucky things are going to happen in life, and at least softball sucking isn’t going to matter too much in the grand scheme.

That said, I’m happy to retire on my RBI success and get back to running, so that the next race I do, someone else will get to experience the joys of being a good sport.



Monday, May 12, 2014

The asterisk life revisited – OR – How I learned to stop worrying and enjoy failure

Is it possible to fail and enjoy it? The answer (as is the answer to nearly every question I ask on this blog) is “sort of.”

Before I explain, let me address the first part of that cumbersome title. An asterisk, for all its pretty, snowflake-like symmetry, provokes unease. It suggests an anomaly, something that appears normal on the surface but hold on! Look down at the bottom of the page and check the fine print; things are not as they seem, and what looks right may not count the way you think it should. There have been many times I’ve felt like some giant invisible asterisk was hanging over my head, and this year, in terms of the running I’ve done, definitely seems like one of those times. Nothing has gone as planned; every race I’ve run seems to require an explanation.

Or not. Slash all that jibber-jabber with Occam’s razor and the only real “explanation” is that I failed.

I failed to finish the 50K I planned in January. I failed to finish the 60K I planned in March. I finished the two long races I did in April but in some of my slowest times ever for those distances. It won’t take a lot of guesswork to figure out what happened to me at the 50-mile ultra on Saturday. I ran an ultra distance, yes, but 31 miles is not 50 miles, and I’m not really sure whether I should even count this as an ultra unless I affix an asterisk after the 31. I’ll have to figure out what sound to make to suggest an asterisk when I state this figure aloud; I’m thinking a cross between a slide whistle and a Bronx cheer.

Oh, there are explanations. I had bronchitis in January; I hadn’t done any runs longer than 16 miles in February and March, and as the 50-miler approached I suffered minor but persistent twinges in my left iliotibial band. It didn’t hurt so much as serve as a distraction, like someone constantly prodding my leg with a stick, and as I ran I would do strange things with my right leg to try to avoid the stick-poking sensation in my left. The result was I looked a bit like the Igor character in those mad scientist movies, lurching about the castle, and I felt rather like I had tetanus, as the change in my stride messed up my entire body. Two days before the 50, I tried to do a short, slow run to see how I felt, and while it wasn’t the worst pain I’ve ever experienced, the fact that I have to say that suggests how not confident this run made me feel. Fifty miles is tough enough healthy; with an injury of any sort, it might well be impossible.

Now here’s where things get interesting, at least from a first-world-self-absorbed-runner-problem point of view. Runners are constantly posting inspirational aphorisms about never giving up. I am not sure why. Endurance runners are already stubborn and obsessive; they hardly need to be motivated to keep running. If anything, they frequently need motivation to be reasonable and smart and stop doing idiotic things that make no sense. Concerned friends told me it was foolish to attempt to run even a fraction of that distance if I had an injury that was significant enough to change my running form. As always, they emphasized the fact that I might make it worse and end up paralyzed for life. Well, maybe they didn’t say that last part, but they might as well have. I didn’t quite buy it. I’ve run through injuries before, and while it probably took me longer to recover than if I had rested, my legs haven’t fallen off yet. What’s more, in each of those times I felt the disappointment of not running the race would have crushed me. What’s a little shin splint pain compared to the staggering sorrow of training for months and never getting a chance to see what you can do?

But here’s the other thing. Those races I ran injured? I ran poorly, and I didn’t enjoy the run. Moreover, when people congratulated me at the end because I finished, insisting that just finishing was enough to deem the experience a success, I had to restrain myself from shrieking obscenities at them. I have always been a little disdainful of people who put “marathon” on their bucket list and decide to run one, just once, just to say they’ve done it, no matter how long it takes them. In my view they’re missing the point entirely, and because of this I also felt that my own “just finishing” was in no way something to celebrate. If you’re going to do something difficult just to say you’ve done it, you’re probably not challenging yourself nearly as much as you think you are. You’ve probably picked something you consider brag-worthy and badass-like. That’s lovely, but would you do a tough thing if nobody was impressed that you did it—not even yourself, because you didn’t do it to impress anyone but because it simply needed to be done? Eh, I don’t know. External validation is an awfully gratifying drug.

This was the dilemma I faced the night before the 50. If I tried to run it, I almost certainly wouldn’t finish; what’s more, I definitely wouldn’t run well, and it would be a huge struggle to make the 12-hour cutoff. Most of all, my biggest fear was I simply wouldn’t enjoy any of it. I fully anticipated being miserable around mile 40, muttering “why the hell am I doing this” from miles 42-47, and gasping “where the F is the mother F-ing finish line” from mile 47 to the end—and that would be if things went well. But in most runs there’s still a point where you realize why you do this crazy shit you do. Call it endorphins if you like, but that simple chemical explanation still doesn’t take away from the high. You feel great. You love this. You want to keep going forever.

Without that feeling, in my view, there’s no reason to keep going at all.

Race day. I had thought about dropping down to one of the shorter distances, but I’d already done that twice this year, dropping to 25K from 50K in January and marathon from 60K in March. I knew I’d feel no joy or pride in successfully completing a half marathon when I was gunning for 50 miles, so at 6am I lined up with the other 50-mile attemptees and set forth. I fell back among the slowest runners, many of us clearly dealing with injuries or other ailments, and paced myself very conservatively, trying not to do anything crazy with my stride. The first five miles were painful. This wasn’t going to happen, I wasn’t going to finish, I’d have to stop running when we got to the nine-mile aid station and get my first DNF. The nine-mile aid station came and went. I kept going.

The race was on Wisconsin trails, just challenging enough to be interesting but not so bad that it would give me nightmares the way my last 50K still does. I swear those rocks jumped out and tripped me. Anyway, the trails were gorgeous, exactly the way I picture the ideal running trails to be. And at some point just after mile nine, after I had inexplicably forced myself to keep going, it happened: that magic moment when the endorphins kick in or the running gods decided to bless me (or tease me) and I felt good, really good. This was going to happen. I would finish, maybe one of the last to do so, but I’d do it, I’d get my first 50, avoid my first DNF, I’d succeed at last in this less-than-triumphant year.

From miles 9 through 22 I would change my mind about six zillion times. I can’t do this! I’m going to drop! I most definitely can do this! I’m going to finish! I suck! I rock! Shit I almost tripped on a rock! I hate rocks! I love nature! I love running! Running sucks! I suck! I rock! Wait, I already said that! Aw crap.

At mile 22 I checked my watch, something I’d avoided doing so I wouldn’t be freaked out about how many miles I had to go or how much time was left. It was closing in on 11am. I had seven hours left to do 28 miles. You can quickly do the math, as I did, and realize that this means I could have done a 15-minute-mile—basically a brisk walk, not even a jog and certainly not running—and still finish. This sounds so delightfully easy, doesn’t it? Wait, though. Ever seen a novice runner at the end of a marathon? Do you think they’re walking 15 minutes per mile? Ever seen that runner try to go up and down hills or stairs? Are they even moving forward half the time? Seven hours to go 28 miles meant I’d have to work very, very hard to meet the cutoff time. While hard work can be enormously satisfying, fruitless, painful hard work is never such. I had a decision to make.

It was a no brainer. I went nine more miles and called it quits. And thus I ran my fifth ultra distance and—wait for the asterisk—picked up my first DNF.

I failed. Oh, rationalize it however you will; I didn’t succeed in the ultimate goal of this endeavor, and that’s a failure by definition. On the other hand, I enjoyed the entire run—well, except for the last four miles, which were hell, but they kind of had to be in order for me to accept that I’d made the right decision. Many of the best ultra runners I know have at least one DNF, and I know some pretty astounding runners. This is, I hope, not a rationalization so much as a reality. It is difficult to run fifty miles. Failing to do so underscores this. I was injured and I wasn’t well trained, so it’s no real mystery that I didn’t finish, and I like to think it’s no discredit to my fortitude that I gave up.

I like to think this, but as the queen of second-guessing, I’m just not sure. I guess I’ll find out when I go through this whole business again for the next 50 mile attempt.



Thursday, May 1, 2014

Saints and poets and runners and carbs

On Saturday I ran another marathon. It was my 11th road marathon, my 12th marathon including both trails and road, and my 16th race of marathon-or-greater distance. But that’s not what I want to talk about right now. Two days after the marathon, the BF and I took a mini-vacation to Saint Louis. We were looking for a quick getaway, so without much planning or forethought we drove three hours south and spend three days seeing the sights. At the zoo we saw all manner of critter, including the frogmouth (a bird that looks like a tree stump) and the hellbender (a salamandery-looking thing with just about the most badass name ever); at the science center we played with blocks and sand and cast dirty looks at little kids hogging the cool stuff. We went to the top of the arch to see the view and the bottom of the ninth to see the Cards (they won, thus preventing a Brewers’ sweep and negating the need to take the Rolaids handed out beforehand). We stuffed ourselves on cuisine ranging from Indian to Italian, eating so much rice, naan, papardelle and pizza that I might very well be carboloading for another marathon.

But the one thing I didn’t do was run. I’ve had some issues with my illiotibial band for a couple of weeks now, issues that were not made better by running 31 miles two weeks ago and 26.2 miles a few days ago. I’ve got a 50-miler coming up in a week and a half, and the only way I have a chance of being in any condition to start the race much less finish it is if I lay off the running now. This is a logical as it is aggravating. If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around to hear it, it’s a huge bummer because it means I’m not out there running trails.

I can’t remember the last time I took a trip out of town just for fun. Lately all of my travels have involved visiting family, promoting my book, or, most of all, running races. Running is obviously a huge part of my existence, yet the way things have gone so far this year, I’ve felt the need to rethink my running life. None of my races has gone particularly well for one reason or another, and after a series of not-particularly-well races a person starts to feel like “one reason or another” is really just one excuse or another. If it’s always something, isn’t that telling me something? Have I foolishly believed my own hype and thought I could conquer the world on Sports Beans and Brooks?

Wait a minute. I wasn’t going to talk about running again, was I. But then you already knew I’d do that, huh.

Yeah, I’m obsessed with running, but I’m also wary of becoming the running equivalent of a bad poet. As a prose writer, I admit that poetry engenders everything from awe to perplexity to (sometimes, I’ll be honest) disdain. Most of my poet-friends are impressively unconcerned about being published or having a book; they do it because it’s just what they do. I don’t know how much they worry about whether their poetry is actually any good, but having read a lot of poetry that I thought wasn’t very good and a little poetry that I felt was absolutely stunning, I know it’s something I’d worry about. It’s probably good, then, that I don’t write poetry—yet the same petty anxiety still worms its way into my running life. As a runner, am I a “bad poet”? Am I someone who will keep doing this thing I do because I love it and not because I’m particularly good at it—and will likely never be particularly good at it? Is it enough for me to enjoy a race because there will be friends to run with, friends to support me, friends who will congratulate me sincerely and enthusiastically no matter how lousy my finish time? That’s how this last marathon went, after all. Yes, I ran my third-slowest marathon, and yes, I’m recovering from an injury. But all the photos of me from the race show me smiling, thumbs-upping, jazz-handsing, and otherwise appearing for all the world like someone who couldn’t care less what her finish time is because she’s having too damn much fun.

No, it would not be the worst thing in the world to be someone who runs—who writes—who travels—who lives—just for the experience of it. Clearly life can be enjoyed without an obsessive need to run ever faster, ever farther, ever more races back to back to back. One can eat a carb without calling it a carb, without thinking about it as fuel for a long race. Likewise one can travel to another state and not have to set the alarm for 4:30am the next morning because you want to make use of the clean private toilet in your hotel room before you’re relegated to Porta-Potties for the next several hours. One can live like this, and one does, standing on the top of the arch looking at the world in a new and unexpected way.

And then one returns home and looks ahead to the next trip out of town and hopes one’s first fifty-miler is a stunning success.