Friday, August 28, 2015

Past imperfect

I give due respect to novelists who write about time travel. Given that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, you just know some snarky reviewer who pans the book is going to say, “I wish I could go back in time to before I read this book and convince myself not to do it!” That said, I also give due criticism to those same writers. While the premise of time travel is enormously fun and appealing, it never, ever, ever, ever, ever makes sense. Ever.

Without getting into quantum physics (which I couldn’t get into even if I tried), the proof is quite simple: The only way you could go back and change past events is if all possible timelines exist at once. If this is the case, then it doesn’t really matter what you do in the past, so why worry about whether you do the right thing? And if you can go back but can’t change events—if there’s only a single timeline, and everything is predestined, and changes you try to effect in the past will still lead to the same outcome—well, then most of those time travel books don’t work, since most of them are about people trying to avoid bad change and create good change, plus who would ever go back in time if you could only be a passive witness, if it’s just going to be a documentary minus the Ken Burns montage effect.

There’s another issue in the fact that many of these time travel stories have a certain degree of nostalgia about the era to which the time traveler travels. This assumes that the era in question would welcome you—an assumption that doesn’t work for most of the people on earth in most past eras. Octavia Butler’s Kindred is just about the only time travel novel I’ve read that addresses this fact—her time traveler is a black woman who travels back to an America that still accepts slavery—and as such it’s one of the very few time travel tales that I grudgingly concede works pretty well. But come on, Terminator? Didn’t make sense the first time, much less the hundred and twelfth time.

I admit that the idea of traveling to another world, doing so by moving through time rather than space, is an intriguing and exciting one. It’s fascinating to think about where we came from and how we got here, plus come on, the past had hats. I like that there was a time when everyone wore hats. The irksome part of time travel stories comes when the characters who are whisked off to the past are given some kind of crucial mission, upon which the fate of humanity rests. In the book I just finished reading for my book group, a character goes back just a handful of decades to stop John F. Kennedy’s assassination, believing that this will prevent all manner of turmoil and destruction that followed in the 1960s and 1970s. The book doesn’t quite make it clear why the character believes this, though I suppose it might be sufficient motive for him to prevent all manner of boring conspiracy theory debates. Still I couldn’t help but wonder why the guy couldn’t have just stayed in his own time and, like, tried to prevent bad stuff from happening today. Sure, the late ‘50s and early ‘60s didn’t use quite so much high fructose corn syrup in its root beer, but is that really any reason to ditch the now for the then? Why is it so much more compelling to fix the mistakes of the past? We’re still making those mistakes right now. Why not try to change the mistakes of the present?

On a personal level, there are a lot of things in my life I wish I could have done differently, yet I try very hard to avoid thinking about these things. If I had to send a two-word message to my teenage self, as per the facebook meme, the best I could think of is “Avoid perms.” (I was around in the ‘80s, you know.) If you allowed me two million words (the approximate length of that time travel novel I just read), I still couldn’t come up with anything to persuade my past self to do anything other than what she did—because what I did came from who I was. I cringe a lot when I think about who I was, even in the non-perm years, because even if my hair was OK there still probably something huge I was fucking up. Still, all of that had to happen for me to get to the point where I now understand just how badly I fucked up. And in fact I did manage to change the future, even without time travel, because I became a different person. Thirty years ago I was a glum, clueless kid in Hawaii. Twenty years ago I was someone who lived in Manhattan, worked on Wall Street, and looked down at anyone who bought bagels from a grocery store instead of H&H. Ten years ago I was a university professor working towards tenure, being told that it was OK to say “no” to yet another committee assignment and taking on the damn thing anyway. Today I write books, run ridiculous distances, and live in a subdivision that’s right next to a cornfield. Who the hell could have predicted that.

Going forward, I most likely will continue to fall for the lure of the time travel tale. I don’t know whether my future self will look back at this time in my life and cringe—or sigh, wistfully, and long to go back. I hope it’s neither; I could do without wallowing in either regret or nostalgia. Who knows, though. Guess I’ll have to get in my time machine and travel, slowly, minute after minute, into the future.

Friday, August 14, 2015

How I Howled

Last Saturday I ran my 10th ultramarathon in 2 years, within which was my 24th marathon in 6.5 years. Runners are second only to baseball fans in terms of love of stats. I described this race in my previous blog post, and I was most emphatic about the fact that this ultramarathon—and really, ultra running in general—is fun. People who don’t run don’t believe this for a second, which is understandable since it obviously isn’t their idea of fun, but even some hardcore runners I’ve told this to have looked at me with skepticism bordering on hostility. Running ultras isn’t fun; it’s hard, grueling, intense and extreme; it weeds out the weak and cowardly; it proves to yourself and the world that you are awesome and then some.

Yeah, that’s crap. But before I tell you why it’s crap, I have a confession to make: there were moments during Saturday’s run that were definitely not fun. Not at all.

Some of my running friends who were doing this race for the first time were freaked out of their minds about it, and as a result they trained like tributes for the arena. Me? I trained, sort of, if by “training” you mean “running kind of like how I always run, a few shorter faster runs during the week and a long run of some kind on the weekend.” That’s what I’ve always done for Howl, and it has always worked, because I’ve always met my goal—because my goal has always been to enjoy it. That said, I realized in the late stages of the race that had I trained a little more thoroughly, I might not be suffering quite so much as I was then. It was starting to get hot. My legs were getting tired. My eyes stung from sweat and sunscreen, and my body was becoming increasingly displeased with my treatment of it.

I kept going, of course, since that’s the name of the game in running (and since you generally don’t have much choice, as there are no races I know of that allow you to run around your car so you can stop and go home whenever you like). Pretty soon I happened upon one of my running friends, doing her first ultra ever. She had stopped at an aid station to rehydrate, and when I asked if it would be OK for me to run the rest of this loop with her, she gratefully accepted the offer. She acted like I was the one doing her a favor, encouraging her, keeping her going, but the truth is I needed all that to keep me going. “You’re doing great!” I cheered, meaning it for her, hoping but doubtful it might also be true for me.

And then the race got fun again. I ran the last few loops with several different running buddies, and once more the ultra became a party. There was singing and dancing. There were daiquiris. There were prolonged moments when we tried to make our addled brains do math, which doesn’t tend to happen at many parties but when the race organizers perversely make the loops 3.29 miles and one of your buddies has a goal of doing over 40 miles in 8 hours, math must be done. In the end, I didn’t run my “best” or “worst” Howl in terms of mileage, but the experience was hugely satisfying, in part because I didn’t get injured (always a good thing), in part because my running buddies did amazingly well (go figure, serious training really does pay off), and in part because of what I said before: ultras are fun.

Still don’t believe me? Look at it this way: Running an ultramarathon is something you choose to do. You prepare for it, you do it, it’s tough, and then it ends, and if all goes well you feel victorious, glorious, and badass, and if it doesn’t go well you are disappointed, you kick yourself, and then you choose another race at which you may redeem yourself. Compare this to the other tough things in life that can happen to you, where you don’t get to prepare, it doesn’t end, you never get to feel good about it and you never get any redemption. And I’m not even talking about the huge things in life but also some smaller, quieter things that are still a lot harder than any ultra because there is no finish line; to be successful you need to keep doing these things until the end of your life. Decency, kindness, and humility aren’t exciting, sexy concepts like toughness, strength, and bravery, but if you’re a runner and you really want a challenge, instead of looking behind you at who you’ve beaten, look ahead at who beat you—and be happy for them, really, genuinely happy, not Miss-America-Pageant-Runner-Up happy where you smile and hug her all the while imagining flesh-eating bacteria attacking her face. Be happy for them and yourself and everyone doing this because you can do this, you can have this experience, because more than being a goal toward awesomeness, running is something to experience and even, quite possibly, to enjoy.

In fact, the most satisfying moment of Howl came a day later, when I was told those sweet, sweet words from the friend I ran a little of the race with: You were right.


Monday, August 3, 2015

How to Howl

This Saturday I will attempt to run my tenth ultramarathon. The first ultra I ever ran was, in fact, two years ago, this very same race, an 8-hour ultra on a roughly 3-mile loop course. Yeah, I know. Eight hours of running in circles in August, which at the very best will be warm and more often tends to be molten. And for this I paid money. Look, lions don’t get killed and there are margaritas on the final loop. I could do a lot worse.

I’ve told anyone who will listen (and a few people who refused to listen, but I still managed to blurt it out when they thought I wasn’t around) that this race is fun—basically an 8-hour picnic on your feet. I still maintain this view, but I’ll admit having mixed feelings this time around. A lot of the runners I know are doing this race, and while this enhances the picnic atmosphere even more, it has also made me sharply aware of the different approaches people have to running ultras like this one.

There are those who follow a strict training plan that incorporates many different aspects of racing—eating the foods you are likely to eat during the race so you’ll be used to them, running in very hot temperatures in case the weather gets ugly, training on the course itself so that nothing is unfamiliar. Then there are those who sort of run a bunch of miles here and there and just show up on race day with a shrug and a smile. I’m in the latter camp as far as this particular ultra goes, but that doesn’t mean I disdain those who do favor painstaking preparation. Or at least I know I shouldn’t disdain them, though that, like so many things, is easier to acknowledge than it is to practice.

My mixed feelings come from the fact that many of the runners I know who are doing this race have been talking about it for months. They have discussed training plans, they have weighed shoe and clothing options, they (of course) have talked about food—why be an ultra runner if you don’t care about eating? People have counted down the days, and now that there are only days left, weather forecasts are checked nearly hourly. And I’ll be honest: it’s all kind of driving me nuts. This is my problem, not theirs; I fully admit that. There is nothing wrong with getting excited about a race. Hell, it’s fun to get excited about things, fun to get back some of the enthusiasm we once had as children, before disappointment clobbered us one too many times over the years.

The thing is, the best long races I’ve done were surprises. I didn’t expect to do as well as I did—I didn’t expect much of anything at all; I merely hoped to finish without death or dismemberment. I not only didn’t die, not only retained all limbs, but did well and, most important of all, had fun. The biggest disappointments came when I had specific and ambitious goals that I obsessed about for months. I know it isn’t this way for everyone, and in fact I wish it weren’t this way for me. I would much prefer to be someone who could work steadily toward a goal and be reasonably confident that my chances of success were good.

What I have to remember, though, is that I don’t run ultras because I’m good at them. I run ultras because I’m actually not good at them, at least not consistently. The mark of an amateur is inconsistency; anyone who can throw a baseball 60 feet 6 inches can probably throw a strike once in a while, but even a major league pitcher can’t do it all the time—though he sure as hell can do it more consistently than you can. And so it is with ultras. I’ve run some really good ultras, but those times are far outnumbered by the not-so-really-good ultras. Any time I go out to run 30 miles or more on trails, odds are things won’t go exactly the way I’d hope. The trail might be muddy, or icy, or covered in slippery leaves that hide holes and roots. I might trip and fall—several times. The weather might suck. I might just not have the energy to keep going strong—or keep going at all.

Then why do it? Because running ultras is one of the hardest things I’ve ever chosen to do—and the key word there is chosen. The difficult thing you do voluntarily is probably going to be more memorable, regardless of the outcome, than most anything else in your life. It will also probably seem like a piece of cake compared to the difficult things you don’t get to choose.

Of course I want the ultra to go well. More than that, though, I want to have fun. Of course, it tends to be easier to have fun when you run well than when you don’t, so I’m kidding myself if I think I don’t really care how I do. But even if I don’t have a good race, eh, so what; I’m not really all that good at this to begin with. Which is fine; if I were good at it all the time it would become a job. I already got one of those, thanks. Besides, do you really have to be “good” at picnics? Nope; you just have to show up and stick around. I think I’ll give it a shot.