Saturday, April 16, 2016

The big in-between

When I first started traveling solo, I didn’t have a camera and didn’t bother bringing my phone, so there is almost no record of those journeys other than the stamps in my passport (and I’ve since gotten a new passport). Barcelona, Benidorm, Riga, Budapest, all just fuzzy memories and race medals, since of course I went to those places to run. At one point my friends insisted I get a camera, arguing that it was my duty to those living vicariously through me to photograph and disseminate these jaunts. Think of those less fortunate souls lacking time and money (and only running when chased) who would never get to do a half marathon in Latvia! Think of them and take some damned pictures! I caved and bought a cheap digital camera, and while I’m still not actually in any of the pictures I took with this camera—it wasn’t a phone, after all, and the selfie-stick hadn’t been invented yet (probably would have sounded like something vaguely dirty back then)—at least I did manage to get that waterfall in Iceland everyone else on the bus got, so as not to feel like a complete loser.

I don’t look at these pictures very often any more, but I will admit that at the time, it was nice to be able to share them. I looked forward to it, even, and I enjoyed the “likes” and the appreciative comments when I posted them on facebook. Funny thing about that, though: some of the best pictures I took, showing some of the most amazing places I’ve seen, happened when I was actively plunging into the darkest part of my life. The camera doesn’t capture any of the fall itself, but hey, at least the view going down was spectacular. The photos, I knew, even as I took them, were a lie, glittery and enticing like the best lies always are. They told people what I was seeing, but I myself was not in them at all.

This is not anything surprising. Every day of our lives we choose how we’re going to represent ourselves—we do it even to ourselves, in our own heads. When you say “this is who I am,” you aren’t stating a fact; you’re making a choice. That choice may be a positive, helpful thing that allows you to focus on the good in your life; it might also be a myopic one that conveniently allows you to ignore everything that doesn’t fit the image you have of yourself. Likewise, no matter how much we try to live-Tweet our existence, most people are well aware that what we post is only going to be a highly selective representation of what’s actually happening to us. That’s right, no matter how much we disdain the person who seems unable to eat, sleep, shit, or so much as breathe without posting about it, there are vast, complex, unfathomable human beings behind what we are being asked to “like.”

You know that thing cranky people say, “You’d stop worrying so much about people talking about you when you realize how seldom they do?” Yeah, I hate that saying. Not only is it one of those sayings that hides meanness behind a façade of wisdom, not only is it unduly critical of a natural human reaction, but most of all it misses the point completely. The precise reason we worry about people talking about us is because they do it so infrequently. If you’re being ignored, it’s easy to make people notice you; if you can make noise—and we are born making noise, almost before we can breathe—you can get attention. What’s a whole lot harder, though, is to make people see beyond the superficial. People decide, she is X, he is Y, and you, you are most certainly Z, and that’s it, there’s nothing past Z. You certainly can’t expect folks to invent a whole new alphabet just for your sake. You’re Z and that’s all that needs to be said.

And in truth, much of the time we don’t need people to see beyond the superficial. There is, oddly enough, an honesty about surfaces. Yes, the pictures I took of my trip to Reykjavik don’t even hint at the mess my mind was at the time, but why should they? The point was to get away from the mess, for at least a little while, by looking at something else—a mountain, a beach, a waterfall. If even I didn’t want to face the mess, why on earth would I expect anyone else to? Plus whenever we try to go beyond the superficial, the results are simply a different kind of artifice. It’s interesting how “awkward” has become such a huge social phenomenon. Why would anyone want to look at “awkward” pictures when that’s exactly what we try to avoid when we take pictures in the first place? But that is why we look at them. Awkward means anything that refuses to conform to the image we have of how things should be. In other words, awkward means real—or does it? Perhaps awkward simply means admitting the lie rather than revealing the truth, which remains ever elusive.

I say all of this because I find myself today, the day of a good friend’s wedding, musing over the fact that one of the biggest events of my own life is coming up in two months and I’ve hardly said anything about it. What’s more, I don’t particularly feel compelled to do otherwise. We have one engagement picture, taken by a stranger with the fiancé’s phone, and that’s pretty much it. I enjoy seeing the photos and posts of my friends who are getting married, having babies, buying new houses, traveling the world. I’m happy for them, and I hope they are at least as happy as their posts suggest, though what they’re really feeling is likely far more complex and mercurial. I don’t begrudge anyone a post, a tweet, or a selfie, on any subject their heart desires. The act of taking a photograph, or writing a blog post, or anything else that is created and shared, is of course an act of hope, because it assumes that we—or someone, at least—will experience the creation again at some point in the future.

I guess, though—and this is a strange admission coming from a writer—I’m at a point where I’m more interested in the things we don’t represent about our lives. Not all of these things are interesting or beautiful, but they don’t have to be. The thing about undertaking something that’s new and different for you—regardless of how anyone else sees it—is that it’s an adventure. Yes, there will be a beautiful picture of a waterfall when you travel to Iceland alone, but there will be so much more that isn’t so easy to capture or comprehend. Likewise, when you decide not to travel solo any more, you will almost certainly want at least some record of the event so you can treasure it in the days to come. But there’s an awful lot that happens in between making new memories and treasuring old ones. As near as I can describe it, that’s kind of what life is, the big in-between, which is not nearly as poetic as Shakespeare’s little life rounded with a sleep. Regardless, on we go through it, for better or worse, alone or together, recorded, retweeted, reposted, or otherwise.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Brews and shoes

When I think of ultramarathons, I inevitably picture a dirt trail through thick woods going up the side of a mountain—the Sierras, perhaps, or the Appalachians. Thing is, I live in rural Illinois, and while you can certainly find places here that resemble this picture, they just can’t compare to what lies further east or west (or north or south, for that matter). What’s more, many of the ultras I’ve run in these parts have not been in this kind of terrain—sometimes not even close. Case in point, the Brew-to-Brew ultra I ran this weekend, a point-to-point 44-miler stretching from Kansas City to Lawrence.

Brew-to-Brew is an odd race. It benefits the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a serious and significant cause, and yet it starts and ends at breweries, which means many beer-themed (and beer-fueled) relay teams: “Team Lager-rhythms,” “Team All About That Beer,” “Team Brews Brothers,” etc. The race is 44 miles, a substantial distance, and not exactly flat or easy, yet most of the participants do the relay, not the solo, on teams of as many as ten people, meaning there are a small number of camelbacks and a large number of costumes. Lots of tutus, a few feather boas, Captain America, and a giant bottle of pale ale all passed me up at various points along the way. The course itself crosses the state line between Missouri and Kansas, from the warehouse district of Kansas City to the shopping district of Lawrence, over levees, across train tracks, up and down hills, on busy city streets, on remote rural roads, over dirt, gravel, asphalt, and concrete, and at one point runners have to get into a boat to cross the creek. That’s right, there’s a boat, though I’m not sure if the distance from one side of the creek bed to the other is counted as part of the 44 miles. In short, this was nothing like my idealized vision of an ultramarathon—and yet it ended up being one of my better races.

Why? I’m not completely sure. Luck, in large part, because no matter how well you train and how carefully you plan and how super-duper badass amazing a runner you are, stuff can and will go wrong. I did in fact train reasonably well, though my longest long run, a solid 22-miler, still only covered half the total distance of the race, and even in the twisted algebra of experienced runners, where if you can run X number of miles, you can surely run 2X number of miles, this made me uneasy. The weather, always fun in its unpredictability and equal unwillingness to be what you want it to be, looked to be good, then great, then not so great, then horrific, as the week before the race progressed. Perhaps T.S. Eliot was thinking of ultras when he penned the line about the month’s cruelty, because the first weekend of April can be anything, sunshine or snow or gale-force winds. The Saturday before the race, 40 mph winds came roaring at us from the west. Guess what direction the one-way race was going?

Yes, things got tough after those first 22 well-trained-for miles. Yes, the wind was at times like one giant fist of fury slamming into me. But it wasn’t always tough, the wind wasn’t always furious, and a lot of things that could have gone badly went well. The porta potties, for instance. Solo runners were given license to jump the lines, and let me tell you it was worth it to be running all 44 miles just to be able to move to the front of the ridiculously long queues. Every kindergartener knows that cutting in line is one of the worst things you can do, on par with stealing from the church collection plate, so I felt bad for about a nanosecond as I sashayed past the cross-legged relayers holding it in, but I left that bad feeling with the bad smells in the pottyhouse and went on my way.

What especially went well was the fact that I didn’t actually run it solo. After the first 22 miles—the point where the race really was starting for me—my friends running on a relay team caught up to me, and from then on I had very welcome company. My running companions told jokes and funny stories (ask Don the one about the kayak and the electric fence sometime, you won’t regret it) and just kept me going however they could. Whenever we approached another aid station, we’d hear raucous cries of “BUFFALOOOOO!” (the name of my running group, minus the extra O’s) and at one point there was even a triumphant bugle riff to greet us. I kind of want a bugle-ist to follow me around during work to motivate me when the morning’s coffee buzz wears off.

I finished in 8 hours and 50 minutes, which isn’t all that fast but isn’t all that slow either, and in fact I ran the whole thing without having turned on the GPS function of my watch. I never had any idea at any point how far I’d gone or what pace I was running, so I didn’t really care all that much what my finish time would be so long as I got there before the finish line got packed away. Sometimes you care about doing well—it is a race, after all—but other times you run for other reasons. I’d like to say that I did this one solely out of the desire to benefit CFF; two of my relaying friends have a young son with cystic fibrosis, and every year they organize a group of Buffalo to run this race and raise money. I did want to benefit the foundation, and their boy; CFF is the real deal, an organization that knows what it’s doing and gets results. But let’s be honest: I could, as I have in past years, simply donate to the foundation without running for nearly 9 hours, and doing so would have also benefited, at least a little, all those poor suckers who had to wait at the porta potties while I jumped ahead of them. No, something else compels a person to run an ultramarathon like this one, and I don’t think I really knew what it was until I was running it.

Every runner will tell you there comes a point, perhaps several points, in a race when you’ll ask yourself why am I doing this? Usually you don’t answer that question until you cross the finish line, exhausted, elated, triumphant: yes, this is why, because look, look what I just did. That wasn’t how it happened this time, because the answer came to me before the ending, and it had nothing to do with triumph, because running an ultra is not just about being super-duper badass amazing. It is also, I admit, about being petty, wanting to tell every relay runner who zipped by me in the late stages of the race hey I’m running the whole distance, what are you doing? It’s about being selfish, happily jumping the 20-minute line to pee. It’s about needing help, desperately, at the point where you just want to stop moving and you don’t even care that you’d end up being buried in a shallow grave somewhere in east Kansas. And it’s about the swell of gratitude you feel when you get that help.

No, you don’t always run the perfect race on the ideal trail; if anything, far more often, in a race or otherwise, things will not be even remotely perfect or ideal. Yes, there are trails that resemble the pictures in my head; there are places in the world so wildly beautiful they can’t even be imagined, merely sought after, hungrily, because who wouldn’t want to seek such untamed, uncontained beauty? But all this, too, is the world: railroad cars and shipping containers, levees and gravel roads, factories, farmhouses, and in the midst of all that a small field newly blooming in violet hues. It’s necessary, I think, to see it all, even the parts that may not at first seem beautiful or interesting or in any way desirable, because, well, there it is around you—and within you. How can you look away?