Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tyranny of the Short-Shorts

The Terror of the short-shorts....
As I unpacked my gym back today I realized that-- once again-- I'd gotten my workout attire wrong. Monday, I'd unintentionally packed two shirts and no shorts. Luckily, I'd worn leggings that day... but still. Spinning indoors in leggings is no fun. I now know from personal experience.

Today, though,  I had the opposite problem: I'd packed a top and shorts [insert sigh of relief] but the sigh was quickly interrupted by the realization I'd packed the short-shorts. 

Let me explain: short-shorts are a pair of black Lululemon shorts with an inseam no more than 5" (think: band aid) and probably less that I'd bought right before my series of unfortunate injuries last year, back when I was running approximately 60-70 miles a week-- and back when I was (somewhat) leaner. Though I'm back on my feet now, I'm no where NEAR that kind of mileage (let's not even talk about intensity); and well, I have to be frank: my body's changed. 

How could it not? I swam 4,200 yards on Wednesday's workout and felt fantastic; since May, I've ridden my bike at least 65-100 miles each Saturday which doesn't count the rides I do on my own during the week. Before the time change, there were weeks when I was on my bike for 240-280 miles. My body has adapted to the water and the bike: muscles I didn't have once have now spouted and flourished. And then, there's the added layer I accumulated last spring when I decided to re-write and re-structure my entire master's thesis. Unfortunately, writing muscles aren't ones you can exactly see and have, in fact, the opposite effect on physique as, say, an exercise routine.

I was humiliated when I realized my mistake. I had three options: I could pack up, go home and work on my writing; I could wear my jeans in the spin class or I could grin, and "bare" it-- just wear the damn things and spin. 

So, I walked out the locker room with my tan line from my cycling shorts a good... 5" from where these shorts ended. I'm sure it looked awful. I know it looked awful. Every mirror in the place was like a torture device and the worst was to come since the spin room is 270-degrees of mirror. I hung my head low using my orange foam roller, lower still when I did my 3x15 eccentric heel drops to stretch and strengthen my calves. 

Out of nowhere, though, this woman, stretching behind me asks me: "What do you do?"

And I turn around because I'm expecting her to ask about my foam roller (I get that a lot-- orange is a pretty loud color) and expect to answer questions about where I bought the roller, how much it costs and if it really works better than the crappy black ones they supply at the gym. Or, I'm hoping that, anyway, dreading the other question that comes up about the nasty scar on my hip from a cycling accident that you can see-- and only see-- when I've got on the short-shorts. 

Instead, though, she asks: "Did you get those legs just by working out?"

I blink a few times. I probably looked down at my legs which look, simply, huge to me these days. (Did she mean the tan lines, I wondered?) It took a second or five for me to realize she was asking a serious question. 

For nearly my whole life, I've chased athletics so that I could at least inhabit the identity of "athlete" in lieu of what I thought-- for a long time-- was my only other alternative: fat person. 


Ugly girl. 

But there, in the middle of a 24-Hour Fitness gym a woman was asking me about my body, how I got it. Where it came from. And then, as if she were an angel, she said: 

"I'm so happy to see women who are strong in their bodies." 

Did I actually smile? I said, only, that I run a little, swim and bike a lot. 

Just like that, she nodded and stepped off her mat and left. 

But the exchange left me wondering: why is it that an athletic body is only as good as it looks? Or, is that only me talking? Why are we-- or I-- so afraid of such a small thing--- literally small in this case-- as shorts, when really our goals are so much more important? 

Dare I say: bigger?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

On Smallness

Slightly small-- what am I saying?-- I live in a shoebox and my life resembles its container.

There are phantom-figures here, the what-might-have-beens of past lives that flicker by in the darkness that pools in shadows beyond my lamp’s reach.   Don’t be morose, my mom would say, if she was here, so I’ll focus on the things that can be seen in the dying lightbulb’s light. The light. The what-is. Not the what’s -not.

A chair, colored fire engine red before a black desk. Two drawers filled with scotch tape, stray staples, a tangle of cords and a near-empty checkbook. There’s a beige love seat-- one and a half people wide that’s set at a diagonal facing a television whose conception pre-dated the digital age by a solid decade that is never used. Stacks of books piled into bookcases that form an “L” corralling the space I prefer to think of as the living room. The bed, the dresser, the rod where I hang the rest of the clothes- that’s invisible now, all cast in shadow by the bookshelf in front of it. 

I know, though, that cracks of light peek through, like little dappled stars between the bent spines and pages of the books I’ve read again and again.  In the kitchen-- or the cupboard, anyway- rest mismatched china from sets my parents had when married, then divorced. Mugs don’t match, either. One from Las Vegas. Two for Christmas that get used at all times of the year.Coffee maker that works half the time, and a wine opener that dangles from a naked nail on the wall. A cat who occupies the red chair when I’m not sitting on it. 

A single life, I might call it.  

I live in a room that stands alone, apart, unattached from other rooms. It’s an unusual  thing, to live in an unattached room. Studio apartments are part of an apartment building, after all. Studios are rooms attached to hallways, stacked on top ( or below) of other rooms and hallways.

Houses are conglomerates of rooms. Some configured around the living room, the room of a life, presented when guests happen by. Family-rooms, kitchens and mud-rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms and closets. All these rooms that have a structural attachment. The roof would fall down if one room were removed at random. A gaping hole would let the rain and snow, the wind, the sun-- the elements homes hide us from. The structure would eventually crumple, weakened without that cavity within which we place the stuffs of life.  Furniture. Books. Towels. Our bodies.

It fits together: Lives and rooms.

When you have one room, these rules just don’t apply. 

And so, I wonder: what is a room that is just a room, all on its own? And what does that say about my life?

Monday, November 5, 2012

When Writing is like my life

Do you ever have those weeks? You know the ones when everything goes wrong, somehow?  Or, not everything, but all the little things you count on to make life bearable when the BIG THINGS go wrong.  I mean, somehow it's OK if you car stops working if the toaster still toasts your bread. Or, you can handle those student loan letters just because you have a Timex watch that gives you not only the time of day, but also the date, the amount of time it took you to run seven miles that morning AND it just so happens to have an alarm that wakes you up precisely 8 minutes before the coffee maker starts to brew, which gives you twelve minutes of snooze time.

This was the week when all of those little things broke.

It began with the toaster. Once, my reliable morning compadre, it refused to toast anymore. Lightning strikes within (in lieu of striking workers, perhaps) announced it would warm bread no more. On a Thursday morning at 5:30 am, of course.

Then came the Timex. The plastic wrist-band miraculously disintegrated overnight to reveal, Friday morning, that it would no longer be a watch, but at best, a pocket-watch for all those who swim/bike/run with ample pockets.

I refuse to be upset about these things. It's hard to be, in fact, because these days there are so many OTHER things to get pissed off about. Toasters and Timex watches are small fry. There's student loans, for one. My latest lovely-life-detail: the letters that come en masse every day, reminding me of what a piece of scum I am for pursing an advance degree.

But I still run and swim and cycle. I'm stubborn that way.

I don't run fast, though. I wish I could. Maybe that would be the thing to make me feel better. But me and running-- well, I just don't "have it" anymore. I'm slow. So slow. I went to the gym tonight after work (since it was dark by the time I left the office and there was no way to run or bike outside) and ran a mere 4 miles before the 60 minute spin class. I swear everyone was looking at me, thinking: Look how slow that girl is running!  And she's fat!!

But I did it. I ran those stupid-awful-treadmill-slow miles and then took that spin class and sweat so much the instructor nearly slipped and fell on his ass when he tried to come over to "motivate" me.

Here is where I find myself: no toaster and no timex. I guess with my writing it's the same: no publications. Just words. Nothing that's fit to measure, in other words, or fit to consume (who likes cold, sliced bread? It's so much better toasted.) But I'm still going to do all those things I do, comfort or not.

I'm still going to run and swim and cycle no matter how slow or fat I am.

And I'm still going to write and submit those essays to journals no matter how many more rejections I get.

I'm an endurance athlete, after all. Perhaps it's time I become an endurance-writer.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Power of the White Jersey

Riding with the Diablo Cyclists in the "Tour of the Leaves" this past Saturday just North of Santa Rosa. I'm just behind Long, blending into the team with my new white jersey.

What is it about team-gear? The matching jerseys of cyclists, the singlets teams of runners wear or the matching suits and caps of swimmers? Why this need to belong?


I've been a solo athlete nearly all my life. Or, all my adult life, anyway. 
For both races and workouts alike, I'm often the odd-man out. Or mismatched-single. Red top, yellow shorts. Cycling jersey I bought on sale that was really for little boys that reads "I love my bike" across the chest.  Swimsuits that have the most awful combination of colors (hot pink and neon yellow!) that usually do not match my cap and goggles. I wear what fits both me and whatever the weather's doing. After all, as I've been told, life is not a fashion show. 

Plus, mismatching is my own (subtle) nonconformity. My je ne sais quoi nonchalance that says I train hard, but not hard enough to look the part. 
There's something in that. Or so I've thought. 


My membership to teams has been, really, unremarkable. I was a member of several high school teams. But then again, that was high school. And I came from a very small town in eastern--rural-- Nevada. What else was I going to do with my time, if not cheer and run and run some more and pole vault and sing and dance and lift weights? 

I had a cheerleading uniform, a cross country uniform, a warm-up uniform, a track uniform, a dress for choir we were all required to wear, a nun's habit for the musical I performed in and at the end of it all, a graduation cap and gown which was really just another uniform among the many I wore.  

But that would be the end of my fashion conformity. 

After I drove away from Spring Creek at eighteen years old, I wouldn't put on a uniform for a long time.  


I didn't join a college team. I didn't run for Cross Country. I didn't cycle for the cycling team. Back then, I could hardly swim. I was an English Literature major, which is the middle-finger-to the-world-major if ever there was one (which is why it's so hard to get a job, maybe. Or so hard to say you do anything impressive to family members who ask. But that's another blog post.)

I participated in a few club sports, but none that really required a uniform. Unless you count karate which I did until the third or fourth semester when I found myself alone in a room filled with older men. 

Men that suggested I spar against their ten-year-old sons because I was no match for them.

I sold my gi at a garage sale. Some woman bought it for her twelve-year old son. Since I'd hemmed the pants and arms to fit my petite frame, it was sized perfectly for him, she said. 

And that was the last uniform I wore until I was 29 years old.


I guess looking the part is the visual marker of belonging. Or, of some level of expertise. If you look the part, you might know a bit about it, right? What is that saying: "fake it to make it." Maybe that's a part of a uniform's allure. You might be scared as shit or greener than the grass but hot damn, strap a jersey on that girl and she's a pro. 

But I fear: 

I never know enough. 
I'm never fast enough-- running or swimming or riding. 
I'm not thin enough.
I'm not the person who knows anything at all. 
I'm the sort of person who least belongs in a uniform. 

Or so I've thought all of these years.


So, what changed? 

Since I've graduated (last May with an MFA in Nonfiction), I think I've grown up. Or, at least, a little bit.

No, I'm not a pro at anything. And no, I'm still not a slave to fashion. Even sports-fashion. 

But there comes a time in life when it's nice to know where you are. When it's nice to be able to use the verb "to be" and follow it with a solid noun that others can nod and say, "me, too" to. 

I am a cyclist, dammit-- I ride with a club! An awesome club that knows routes that tangle their way through the Bay Area of California. I've spent hours with this club. Climbing hills. Riding in a straight line, drafting. Screaming-fast downhills. I'm not always in front. Not always behind. 
But I'm always a part. 

Something that says it's OK to have a jersey. It's OK to belong. 

For the first time in my life, I feel like I somehow, strangely, do. 

There are days I feel like I ride well. The most recent, climbing 14-20% grade for a few miles, my heart rate rarely below 190.  I can't believe I did it, but I did. 

There's others I don't do so well. But I do those miles, too, and there are people who hang back for me, who wait.

That is what being a part of a team or club is all about. 


So, I bought my white jersey and wear it proudly. Even if a corner of it already has chain-grease on it. Such is the hazard of our sport.

I imagine I ride faster with it on. 

I don't want to disappoint anyone, after all. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012


I never thought I'd win anything again in my life. Maybe that goes to show that "beginnings" and "endings" are more complicated than we think. 
When is the appropriate time to begin or to end a story? That's an easier question than when a life begins and ends. There's aways birth and death, but between those two extremes there's hardly a narrative thread that lets us know when one chapter of life begins and another is finally over.

In some ways, I wish I could say my running life is over. In many ways, in fact, it is.

I'm just shy of 50 miles a week of running which isn't much for a "distance runner." Yet, I still run and have that glimmer of racing-hope in the back of my mind-- usually at the end of a training run when I've got under a mile left to go and something left in my legs. I can still hear the cowbell jangling somewhere-- that old-running sound. And though I'm sure I'm not, I pretend I'm fast like I was, once.

I know I may never run fast again. I'm older. I've got chronic injuries. Those are enough reasons not to try and run fast again.

So, is the running life over?

My response? Perhaps this is dodging the question: the athletic life isn't over, even if the running is.


It began with a 1500 meter race I never planned on swimming.

There I was, water-logged just coming up from a 500-yard pull with water still in my ears and my lane-mate, Michelle, holds my hand in the ear high so everyone can see it even though I haven't heard what I'm volunteering for.

At 6:45 am on a Wednesday morning, I unknowingly signed up for a 1500 meter swim race. This was different, though, than any race I'd ever signed up for. I wasn't immediately nervous, not really. I could only think of a possible time I might finish in and meeting that particular goal. Win or lose, sport once again became about my personal best, regardless of all the other bodies around me.

I asked the coaches what they thought I could swim. One, Mike, offered the time of 25-minutes flat. That sounded fast to me (the last mile-race I swam was in 2011 in which I nearly drowned in Donner Lake to complete the distance in 31 minutes. Granted, open water is not at all like swimming in a pool-- there's no lines along the bottom of a lake to guide you, for one-- but I was also slightly afraid of water. Afraid of drowning. In that event, in fact, I nearly did.) So, after talking to several other members of my swim-team, I thought 26:30 sounded nice.

Do-able nice.

And so that was the time I used on my entry, thinking: if I make that, I'll have beaten my previous time by nearly four minutes. That's huge. That's something to be proud of.


In order to swim this race, I had to learn a bit about swim culture. How to dive. How to read the numbers at the odd turns. How to swim in the middle of the lane since, in racing, you get one all to yourself.

This was new territory for me, especially the diving.

Wait. Let me restate that. Diving with goggles ON.

THAT was new.

Dive after dive: my goggles ended up around my mouth like a horse's bridle. This prompted not one but several team members to bring-- or to let me try on-- goggles of their own. I had a stack taller than three kick boards at the end of my lane one day-- goggles of every shape and color.

I found a pair--psychedelic colored-- a local sports store that did the job just fine. They rest so tight to my face, there were moments I was afraid they'd never come off. Yet, that's much better than being de-goggled right as a race starts-- when you just want to GO, but have to stop and fix your wardrobe.


1500 meters is 60 laps.

I don't remember each one. There is so little of this race I remember.

I remember gripping the starting block with all four fingers of each hand, of hearing the buzzer sound and flying face-first toward the aqua-blue pool. And then there it was, my guide: the black line at the bottom of the pool.  A 5-stroke/3 stroke breath pattern before I decided 3/3 was just fine for me.

The turns. Making sure my feet hit the wall and I was more or less streamlined off them, gaining as much ground (water?) as I could.

But at about lap 15 or so, I noticed the coaches rise and stand from their table. (This was surprising to me since I had always thought you don't see or hear anything while swimming.) They were cheering for me! Coach Mike waved his coat like an out-of-control windmill.

Granted, I didn't know my time or pace; I just knew I was swimming and not drowning to a Beth Orton song that played on repeat in my head.

Back and forth.

To tell you the truth, I hardly noticed other bodies.

I focused on my shoulders and hip flexors, making sure both were engaged and constantly moving.


So when I touched the wall and turned to see my time, I nearly melted.

Not 26 or 25 or even 24 minutes.

22 minutes, 51 seconds.

The announcer called my name-- MY NAME-- my forgotten athlete-name over the speakers and said I won the heat.

First place. Eckland.

My hands lost their sensation and I let myself fall beneath the surface of the water, missing whatever else he had to say about me. After so much doubt that I'd ever do anything remotely athletic again-- after the months of pain and depression, I'd won something. I could still do my best. If I'd had more time to reflect, I might have cried a little bit, though being surrounded by water, the gesture seemed futile. I was surrounded in sweat and tears already.

I could drown in it, if I'd wanted.


Two members of the cycling team I joined had come to watch me. They cheered, too and congratulated me when I got out of the pool.

This victory was so unlike all those running-ones in the past.

I know I'm really not that fast of a swimmer.  And yet, to have had friends come and watch me, to have the camaraderie of a team and to have faced an old fear makes this small victory no less sweet. In so many ways, it makes it better.

I had friends to come and support me.

I had a goal I could meet... and I did it.

And, though I hate to admit it, there was the distant jangle of cowbells as my fingers touched the wall that final time. I'm a champion in my own mind, perhaps, but a champion still.

How it feels to know that.

Friday, October 19, 2012

On Decadence & Lance Armstrong

Before I get into the new turn this blog-- and my life-- are taking, I thought I'd post some of my thoughts on Lance Armstrong. The recent news of him stepping down from the seat of his charity, his loss of endorsements and reputation in the public eye have, more than anything else, saddened me. Which is why I wrote the following essay. 

I know so many of you won't share my opinion, and that's OK. I understand that doping is wrong and perhaps the worst thing you can do in the arena of sport. I remember once, while running the San Francisco Half Marathon, I saw a man cheat. Instead of running around the cones on the Marin side of the Golden Gate bridge, he cut straight across, gaining a good quarter mile on the rest of us. No one saw him but me and felt myself burn inside. 

Cheater! I thought. 

Tried my best to catch up to him so I could say something nasty. Pass him. Show him that cheaters never win. 

But I never did catch up. He had gained to much ground on me. 

So, it's not like I don't understand why people are upset or why all of this has happened to Lance Armstrong. I do. Very much so. It's just... Lance was unique, I believe, because of how he brought a previously "silent" sport to the forefront of American culture. And of how he represented a narrative we, as Americans love so much: the loser (or, in his case, the sick person) who regains health and becomes a champion. 

He represented, for a time, the best in all of us. 

And that is why I wrote the following piece. Yes, what he did was wrong. But then again, we are the ones who crave such exceptional bodies to perform and do the things we can't. 


The Decadence of Sport: Why Lance Armstrong is so Important

Lance Armstrong is one of those names that seems more like a cultural institution than the name of an individual citizen. Yet, I can remember a time before Armstrong when no one wore those yellow plastic floppy bangle bracelets, a time when the sport of cycling wasn’t even on the American radar. And then came 1999 and Lance’s triumphant win of the Tour de France despite his battle with testicular cancer. 
I remember that victory. 
I watched it with my dad.
I find this remarkable because neither my dad nor I were cyclists and we hardly spent time together at all. I don’t think he even owned a bicycle and I had just purchased an aluminum-framed Canondale that I rode on my own when I needed something to do with my legs while my mind churned out essays. And I hardly saw my dad-- and vice versa-- due to habit since my parents were divorced shortly after I was born.  And yet despite those things, 1999 and again in the years of Lance’s reign, that was the thing my dad and I shared. 
His wins. 

As we all know, Lance has been stripped of his medals, his titles and his victories. 
This is the year 2012, the year the Tour nearly saw French cyclist Remy di Gregorio bring a resurgence to the old-time world of French cycling. Nearly. Instead, he too was found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs and was barred from the three-week-long race.  And let’s not forget this year was also the year in which the Olympic Games held one of the most stringent drug testings ever recorded; officials will hold blood samples of athletes until 2020 when advancements in technology will enable us to strip a gold medal from someone who had won it nearly a decade before.

What is happening to sport? 
I still cycle, just like I did over ten years before, working my legs around that crank shaft to work out the kinks of thought that just don’t come out otherwise. Up mountains, descending into solitary residential roads, I wonder about these recent turn of events and our own historical moment.
Perhaps we are in our own 21st Century Decadence.

In late Nineteenth Century France, there was an artistic and literary movement called the Decadence. It’s the opposite of what it sounds like: you might think richness, a profuseness of art and texture, and an overall progression forward--but you’d be mistaken. That would be the Industrial Revolution, which came before the Decadence. 
Instead, I’m thinking of the 1880s and 1890s when “progress” had finally become old enough for skepticism. People were bored with advancements in science and technology and the “ease of life” each produced. Nothing was interesting anymore.  Society took a pessimistic view of all things. Writers created anti-heros. Art no longer revered “beauty” but instead, distortion. Decadence, therefore, could be aligned with decline. 
I learned about the Decadence when I was in my own intellectual decadence, enrolled in a graduate degree program I had no intention of using.  I read texts in French, wrote in French, spoke French to an office which contained a handful of other graduate students who couldn’t understand me since they came from other departments and studied other languages. The best way to describe my life then would be to assign whatever verb you like best with the tag-line adverb languorously.  
And, as luck would have it, it was the Decadence that stood between me and the beginning of a life outside academia. It was the day of my oral defense and suddenly the Decadence became the question du jour
After nearly an hour of answering every question with the confidence that comes from years of languorous studying, I lost my edge when I was asked: “Can you discuss the plot of the novel, À Rebours?” 
At that point, I swallowed hard, thinking, I might not pass this exam. 

Sport is a type of Art. 
It was the late 20th century articulation of culture, distilled.
Granted, sports’ methods are not the same. Instead of manipulating a medium, you manipulate a body. But just as Art has its system of aesthetic principles, its underlying --and guiding--philosophies, its big names-- so too, does sport. 
There is the athletic body: an aesthetic object with parameters we, as viewers, have come to expect. There are the rules that guide each sport, that challenge of excellence that peeks through the stitches of regulation. And then there’s the undeniable display of virtues that peal your ass from the seat when you see them in action. 
The underdog pulling ahead.
Triumph over adversity.
Beat the odds.
These clichés speak of progress and hope. The same principles that define a nation, and a single soul. 
And that’s what Lance was, in those years he dominated the Tour. He was our work of art. His body spoke of tragedy and hardship. His body, in winning, offered hope to viewers like my dad and I, perched on the edge of our sofa. Neither one of us cyclists, really, he made us feel the victory the way good art produces feelings in foreign bodies, moving each of us to tears. 

The novel of the French Decadence is called À Rebours
Against Nature.
Or, Against the Grain.
It’s narrated by a man, Des Esseintes, who is rich, but who chooses to live outside of town in order to retreat into an aesthetic existence of his own creation. He coats a tortoise’s shell with jewels, only to watch the creature perish from the weight of it. 
It’s a novel I didn’t read, though there were many-- particularly from Nineteenth Century France-- I didn’t. Since most are of considerable length, I developed a study strategy to pass the comprehensive exam at the end of the MA program: read the first three chapters, the last chapter and at least two critical articles about the text as a whole. 
In other words, in terms of claiming to be an “expert” of French literary history, I cheated (badly.)
I had notes. I had text books. But these were things I borrowed for a period of six months and put back once I-- expectedly-- got around to forgetting about them. 

Which is why my palms sweat when they asked me about À Rebours.
Tell us about the end, they said.

I hadn’t bothered to read the end of that particular novel. The end didn’t matter; the novel-- even from its first page, was a stunning example of decadence. Gilded-- fatal-- turtles. Defiled young men. Pipe organs that dispelled booze and mournful music. So Decadent, in other words, you didn’t need to read any further: the work was so anti-progress, it was against its own unfolding.
So: I cheated. 
I hadn’t read the book. I relied on notes and critical texts and four of its many chapters (you think I counted them?) to get me through the exam. 
In case you were wondering, I passed. 
But that’s not the point of this essay.
The point is there’s nothing about that to set you on the edge of a sofa with your son or daughter. There’s no heroism in meeting goals no matter what it costs you. 

Yes, the fall of Lance Armstrong is a historic moment. 
Most will remember it as a moment that governing authorities on sports finally decided to enforce the rules. 
But really, it’s more than that. 
We, collectively, created Lance Armstrong and his peers. We wanted them: these super men who fought off cancer and rode up steep mountainsides like they were walking to a corner cafe for coffee. They were our art, embodying our personal and national philosophies, our inability to ride or run or swim like that-- to talk to our dads-- but man can Lance ride a bike!
Now that Lance is no longer the icon he was, I wonder about those afternoons on the sofa with my dad-- and what it took to bring us together. I’ve heard art described as a lie-- but maybe it’s one of the good ones. A necessary “evil.”
Or, maybe it just means we, as individuals, need to try harder to become our own heroes from now on. It’s time, in other words, for us to embody our own dreams with our own bodies.
And perhaps that’s Lance’s most profound reminder: Excellence is beyond the external. It comes, first and always, from within.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A long overdue update; and an end to (this) story

It's 2012 and one day ago my 30th birthday and so I thought I would finish what I started: to let you know how I fared in my attempt to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the Marathon Event. I've started countless drafts of this only to leave them incomplete. Some of them made my cry; others made me angry. But what each attempt shared was this sense of incompleteness; of something half-admitted. And now that I'm no longer a twenty-something, perhaps it's time to state things plainly. Perhaps it's time to face the truth.

I didn't qualify for the 2012 Olympic Trials. I injured my Achilles Tendon severely last spring and rehabbed the injury as aggressively as I was able. I was back on my feet two months later and trained as though I were already in the trials: double-days-- double-days with cross training mixed in. By mid-summer, I was doing 20+ hour weeks (running, cycling, in the pool) in addition to working 40 hours each week. I wouldn't have admitted it then, but I was exhausted. I can remember more than once "zoning out" at work, only to "wake up" and find myself two-thirds up Mt. Diablo as the sun reached the western horizon to my right. 

But I hoped and held onto that dream that I could do this. I knew I had a challenging semester: three courses, a job, a teaching internship and yes, training. I woke up at 4:00 am to make it to the pool to swim and then to run after. I did intervals Tuesday/Thursday mornings by the light of morning stars. Looking back, I can't believe I didn't realize how tired I was; how worn thin. How little there was of me to give to anything. No wonder I didn't make it; no wonder I became injured again. 

The highlight of my season was a 17:36 5k Cross Country race I ran with the Strawberry Canyon Track Club-- a team I tried with last spring and to which I still belong, though my commitments prevented me from attending any of their practices this fall. It was a bittersweet victory: that race truly felt like flight: I ran faster than other athletes who had already qualified for the Trials. I thought, (without that inner-critic I seem to carry with me) that: "Wow. I can really do this. I can be an extraordinary person. Finally."

But then came the day I ran an 18-mile tempo with a fast and fit young man to pace me. And I did it, but it didn't feel good. I didn't feel right. My stride was off, somehow. And then the pain began again, back in that Achilles tendon. I tried to ignore it for as long as I could. I even substituted cycling on my easy running days-- only to lose control on a steep descent and slide across the paved road, bruising my hip and scraping my right (injured) leg. 

And so: the race I was supposed to run came and went; my running shoes sat by the door. I have been trying to find some wisdom in this; some way to tell myself that I am not a failure; that there is still something in this life worth fighting for, and worth believing in. I can't help but mourn the life I had, rough though it was: I had hip issues, tendon issues, stress fractures in 2009. I hadn't had my period in three years and my feet quite truly looked like something Stephen King might have dreamed up. But the sort of happiness I felt on those early morning runs is like nothing I've ever known. A true freedom; a dance with sunlight and cloud and leaf. I can't wait for the day that I'll be able simply to run again-- not fast-- but to step and glide and slide across the silent paths of a long distance runner. 

I didn't qualify for the Olympic Trials. I wish I had; if only as a way to say that dreams are worth believing in; worth following.... that they are worth giving up everything for to achieve. But despite my failure, I still believe that. I still believe in the beauty I saw those many days; the beauty I glimpsed, sometimes, in me... 

Once, at a coach's Christmas Party years ago, a 1500 meter Olympic runner (from the '84 games) told me I had to be grateful for every step I took, no matter how fast or how slow. Being me, I'd said something like: "I'm not fast, and there's nothing to be grateful for in that." But now, two years later, I understand. I am grateful; each step I ever took was wonderful. And what I wouldn't give to have more in me. 

Perhaps I do. 

But for now, I have to keep believing. My spirit: waiting to run again.