Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Don't hate me 'cause I'm warm

On the rare occasion when my sister and I indulged in girl talk and described our dream weddings, her choice of elopement to Vegas was criticized by me as being too elaborate. City Hall for me, please: badaboom badabing, you’re married, next! I don’t know where my disdain for circus weddings comes from or why it has never altered throughout the years; I have been to many large weddings and found them quite enjoyable. I guess I’m just wary of any enterprise that involves detailed planning accompanied by heaven-high expectations. I like planning stuff—it satisfies both my need for order as well as my sense of imagination—but it’s the expectations that get you. As soon as something has to be perfect, it’s no longer much fun, far as I’m concerned.
As many people will tell you, some of the best moments in life are unplanned. At the same time, as few of those same people will admit, some of the worst moments in life come from lack of foresight. For all that travel writers like to brag about throwing away maps and guidebooks and just winging it, this strategy does not always yield brag-worthy results. I didn’t bring any maps or guidebooks with me to my current location—Lance aux Epines, Grenada—not so much out of a sense of adventurousness as a desire not to do a whole hell of a lot all week. The BF is teaching at St. George University this week, in a gig that seems like a textbook definition of “boondoggle,” if there were textbooks on such subjects, but it isn’t; it’s a legitimate winter-session class for veterinary students, where they study such topics as oh who cares it’s all-expense-paid for him and a guest and I’m the guest. Not much more you need to know.
Because the BF is in classes all day, I’m largely on my own. I’ve been on my own in foreign countries many times, something I had to remind myself of on this trip lest I become complacent and spend the week inert on the patio in a seaview trance. It would be too easy to do nothing here, to just enjoy the fact that it’s nearly 80 degrees warmer than it was the morning we left, that the constant sound of waves on shore means we’re no longer landlocked, that the biggest decision I have to make this morning is whether to have the chicken roti or the grilled fresh catch of the day for lunch. No, the solo traveler in me says, don’t be so lazy and scared. This isn’t a cruise ship—you hate cruise ships, almost as much as circus weddings. There’s a whole new island out there to explore. Get moving, so you’ll have something to boast about when you go back to your frozen landlocked home.
I’m writing this on the patio, by the way, listening to the waves, thinking I’ll go with fish for lunch.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not quite at peace with the universe. Me being me, there’s still that nagging sense that I’m wasting my time, that there’s something else I should be doing, even though I’m feeling quite a lot of contentment right now, even though I’m getting a lot of work done on my latest writing project and reading a lot of good books, even though I’m getting in some good running workouts (I’d forgotten how hilly volcanic islands can be) and, hell, I’m warm, for goodness sake. If nothing else happens this week in mid-January, the tropical temperatures alone are a victory. And yet, the nagging. What stories will you have to tell envious friends when you return? What photos will you post on facebook besides that one requisite “Here’s my view, aren’t you jealous?” shot of the scene just off the patio? How can you live with yourself knowing you squandered a great opportunity to explore a whole new place?
Quite toastily, thank you.
And I did get to explore this place, albeit not through any sense of daring or adventurousness on my part. Faculty members at the university working with the BF this week invited us for lunch at their home on Sunday; they own a farm way up in the mountains, and to get there we were driven through a wide range of neighborhoods—from luxurious estates to clusters of corrugated metal shacks—that gave a pretty good sense of what island life is like for the vastly different groups here. There were sheep that looked like goats, there were dogs that claimed right of way, there were many times I can’t believe we didn’t get into a massive accident or go plunging into a ditch because the roads at their widest can accommodate approximately 1.47 cars. I admit feeling alarmed when we finally got to the road that would take us to the farm and were told we might want to “hang on” as the road was windy, muddy, and steep, and who knew if we would make it to the top.
We did, and it was worth the racing pulse to get there. The farm grows just about every tropical thing imaginable, it seemed: mangoes, papayas, coconuts, breadfruit, sapodilla, various types of banana, all sorts of citrus, avocados, pumpkins, cacao pods, coffee beans, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and a few other things I’m either forgetting or don’t know the names of. They made us a meal from foods gathered from the farm, including buttery guacamole and a pumpkin soup so exquisite we all went back for seconds, might have gone back for thirds if it didn’t seem unseemly. To drink there were freshly squeezed juices and ginger beer made from—you guessed it—fresh ginger. We ate and drank on the deck. There was a view, yes. I’d describe it but it’ll just make you unhappy.
It was one of those experiences travel writers adore, because it’s inaccessible to the ordinary folks who come in on cruise ships and eat wherever the rest of the sheep graze. The point of travel writing, after all, is not to describe a place but to boast about the writer’s amazing adventures there. But this particular amazing adventure happened because I was lucky, not intrepid or a smart planner. And lest you somehow get the idea that everything so far has been “perfect,” it hasn’t. It has rained every day, unusual for this time of year, and I’ve gotten quite drenched several times, which means I’ll likely be bringing back a suitcase full of exotic souvenir mildew. Being in the tropics, if you’re from latitudes far more northerly, means adjusting what you think of as “clean”; as soon as you wash off the day’s sweat, sunscreen, bug spray, and curry sauce from the muffler-size roti whose fragrant filling could not be contained by the chewy wrapper—well, you’ve immediately got to douse yourself with more chemical goo lest you be at risk for dengue fever. Then, goo’d up, you go out to do some ocean kayaking that ends up becoming ocean dunking because waves, like weather, have a funny habit of doing what they want despite your plans—or even despite your sense of planless daring.
After you travel a while, you start to learn something important: the experiences you have aren’t going to be perfect; they’re going to be different. There may be things you’ve never seen or done before, or they may actually be very similar to what you’ve already seen and done many times, only you’re now seeing and doing them a new way. Eventually, you come to see “different” as more desirable than “perfect”—mainly because it’s so potentially life-changing even while it is so very easily attainable. You don’t even have to seek it; all you have to do is be open to its possibility.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How to get what you want, and how to let it go

So let’s get the weather commentary out of the way right off the bat. It’s January, and the weather sucks. Pretty much says it all.

You might think this would make running far more difficult and far less appealing, but then again if you are reading this blog you probably already know that sucky weather, far from being a deterrent, is for many runners an enticement to go out and brave the elements. Such runners don all the fancy gear and garb they own before they go out the door and return with that gear crusted in frozen sweat. And they laugh! And then they search for people they can tell all this to, because when you run more miles than there are degrees Fahrenheit, you won’t feel satisfied until at least one person calls you crazy for it.

Right now it’s about a fraction of a degree, the windchill factor is minus ohfuckthis, and snow is blowing sideways down the street in great pelty sheets. Actually I’ve run in worse weather than this; most of the hard-corers I know have done likewise. It can be just as awful as you imagine—and it can be more invigorating than you’d ever believe. No matter how ghastly you feel while you’re running, when you finish you always, always feel victorious. So am I planning to run today? Hell yeah. However—are you sitting down?—my run will be indoors, on the treadmill in the basement, watching the macaws and pretending I’m in some tropical jungle.

Why am I wussing out? That’s a good question. Maybe an even better question is why that first question must be asked in the first place.

First off, I hate the treadmill. Most runners do. It’s as boring and painful as a trip to the dentist, only instead of a free toothbrush you get…well, a big bucket of sweat, basically. As much as the treadmill is despised, it is also, for many runners, a necessity at times. I used to have my own treadmill but then sold it because I realized I would rather run outside in just about any kind of weather than get on that blasted hamster wheel. Now the BF has one, and I’m making use of it as I rehab myself from my latest injury and try to get back to BQ-pursuing status.

Once again, my running obsession has put me in a humbled state. It has been difficult for me to get through four miles at a jogging pace lately, much less pushing it to BQ pace (and keep in mind that my BQ pace is still fairly slow for shorter distances). And while my target marathon is over three months away, I’ve got a daunting amount of work to do between now and then. Yes, I said “work,” even though I realize some runners I know would shake their heads and question why running should have to be work. If you love it and no one’s forcing you to do it, shouldn’t it be fun?

Thing is, I don’t think those two concepts, work and fun, necessarily have to be binaries. I guess the main difference is that “work” is enjoyable, when it is enjoyable and not soul-deadening, not just for what it is but also what it accomplishes, while “fun” is something you do for the sheer experience of it. If you run to get faster, it becomes work—with all the potential aggravation and satisfaction that concept entails. The problem arises when the aggravation exceeds the potential satisfaction. That’s where I am right now: at the point where I’m thinking maybe I no longer want running to be work. I always knew it would come to this someday; it does most runners, whether we want to admit it or not.

Maybe this is what gets me accused of being a pessimist: I cannot help but consider the challenges ahead. And that’s really all “pessimism” is, in some ways: it isn’t simply always talking about bad stuff; it’s looking ahead to what the next obstacle might be, and acknowledging obstacles is an indirect admission of goals—of hopes and dreams, even. Is that so very bad? In the case of running, as with so many things, the next obstacle may very well be accepting the fact that I can’t run the way I used to and need to find a new way.

No one keeps getting PRs forever. A lot of runners discover ultras simply because they can’t run any faster so they seek to run farther. I’m at the point where I may not necessarily want to run much farther either, so I’ll content myself with simply seeking new running experiences. I know runners who like to run the same races every year so they can try to run ever faster and better. Me, I’m at the point where I never want to run the same race twice (other than certain just-for-fun races like the 8-hour picnic-on-your-feet known as Howl). I want to be surprised by a new trail, stunned by new vistas, trip over new rocks and roots, curse them, and be satisfied in knowing that after this I’ll never have to deal with those particular trip-hazards again. Most of all I don’t want to worry about who’s ahead of me, or how much slower I’m running now than before, or whether this particular run isn’t the best use of my running time because I ought to be doing intervals or hill repeats or something other than traipsing through the woods all carefree and giddy like this.

Are you disappointed? Maybe you aren’t, but I am. Yes, I admit: it’s disappointing to release your ambitions. It’s also liberating. See, that’s the thing about running, about everything, really. You can go for it, or you can let it go, or—best of all—you can do both, first one then the other. This pessimist thinks that’s a win-win.

Oh, but fear not, reader; I haven’t let go just yet. There’s still the BQ, there’s still the 50, there are still many, many things I want to achieve, and you can damn well bet just about every post on this blog will still mention running in some form or another. That said, I’m off to put on shorts and hit the treadmill. Maybe this means I’m not “hard core” or a “real runner” because I’m not putting on spikes and a balaclava and braving the elements, but hey, you wouldn’t believe the conditions I endure in the imaginary tropical jungle of our basement. Now that’s crazy.