Monday, May 11, 2020

Yes, I can do that

I called my mom on Mother’s Day and we talked about the weather. It was hot in the Pacific Northwest, she told me, very hot, unusual for this time of year out there. I told her it was windy here. Big, heavy-looking things were somersaulting past my window, tumbling their way toward the state line. Was she having a special meal for Mother’s Day, I asked. “Popcorn,” she said. She loves kettle corn, and I figured my sister must have gotten her a bag. “That sounds good,” I said, and it did. Everything sounded good to me; I was ravenous. I hadn’t eaten much the day before.

I didn’t tell her this, though, and I definitely did not tell her why I hadn’t eaten much. The fact is I’d spent 14 hours of the previous day on my feet, running a self-created, self-supported 100-kilometer race. I’d even come up with a goofy name for it: the MoHoLa 100k, a shortened form of my last name and the park where I was running, Homer Lake. The name had a nice, legit ring to it, even if it didn’t really “count” since it would never be officially recorded anywhere except my own Excel-sheet running log. There was no medal, no T-shirt, no swag bag, and obviously there would be no aid stations or volunteers or other runners—no one but me, my husband for support, and a friend who promised to stop by during the difficult middle miles to run a dozen with me at a safe social distance.

All of these details I kept to myself as I made pleasant small talk. It’s not that we’re estranged. Whatever grudges I might still hold against her for any perceived parenting wrongs are petty and inconsequential. My mother simply doesn’t understand my running. When I started running marathons in my early 40s and told her what that meant—26.2 miles, and yes, all at once—it was like I’d told her I was training to become an astronaut. “Can you do that?” She didn’t ask why I did it; she couldn’t get past the idea that this was even in the realm of possibility for me.

When I started running ultras, I didn’t tell her what that meant. Even a lot of runners don’t know what an ultramarathon is, at least initially in their running careers, and I didn’t relish the idea of telling her that now I was running even more than 26.2 miles all at once. Because my parents and sister live in one of the greatest ultrarunning communities in the country, frequently I’d coincide a visit to see them with some interesting race I’d found, and while I’d let them know I’d be spending one day running, I didn’t tell them the distance. My sister, sworn to secrecy, knew, but she betrayed that during one of my 50-milers and my mother’s face the next day was a study in baffled horror.

A friend recently mailed me a book she thought I might like, a memoir about a woman close to my own age who cares for a 120-acre ranch in the Colorado Rockies. It’s a wild and brutal existence at times, the woman tough and adventurous, and while I’m enjoying it a lot, it’s the kind of book where at times I wonder what on earth ever gave me the idea I should write a book about my own pathetic little existence. The author, Pam Houston, intersperses stories about the ranch with stories about her childhood which make the reader understand perhaps some of the reasons she became fearless in the face of just about everything else. Her father was unspeakably abusive. Her mother was alcoholic and anorexic back in an era when those were seen as hobbies rather than disorders. Houston’s mother tried to get her to take up a similar non-eating regimen to keep a slim figure—“Look!” she’d say, tearing up a piece of bread and throwing it down the sink, “it’s like we’ve eaten!” and they’d have nothing at all themselves until evening. When you read something like that and the worst aspect of your relationship with your mother is you don’t talk about your own crazy hobby with her, you count yourself fortunate.

And the truth is even a lot of my running friends, who know what ultras are, who run ultras, who do things as baffled-horror-inducing-to-non-runners as I do—they didn’t understand this venture of mine. Sure, all of the usual races have been cancelled indefinitely and runners are going a bit mad with the withdrawal, but running by yourself for all those miles, all those hours—they didn’t ask if I could do it, since they knew I would, but they sure asked why. And even now, having done it, I don’t have an easy answer. It was just something I wanted to do. I like running. Right now, I need running—need it to feel like I can move again, breathe again, to feel healthy and alive and working toward an achievable goal.

I got that, all of that, in fourteen hours and twelve minutes of constant motion on a calm, sunny Saturday in May. The next day I called my mom and talked about the weather.

Does it sadden me that this person, who at one point was so close to me we occupied the same space in the universe, no longer knows much about the things that truly matter to me? A little. And yet, my mother lived 36 years before we briefly occupied that space together, years I know almost nothing about. (She doesn’t even talk much about our time together in the same body. My mother is tiny but both her births were shockingly quick; she almost had me in the car, my father likes to say, and that’s pretty much all I know or care to know about that.) How much does it matter that we’ve been perhaps more tangential in each other’s lives than enmeshed? That time still happened. The connection still matters. Right now that’s all of us, really, connecting only fleetingly, saying less than we can, but we keep going nonetheless.