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.

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