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.