Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Inspiration (Point?)

There is a trail I used to run once a week when I first moved to the bay area three years ago to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. That was back when I was an "elite" runner, or so I thought. Moving from the Reno/Tahoe area, I thought the difference in elevation would make all the terrain down here easy and, well, moot. Just like I thought running held the key to the meaning in my life. How wrong I was... on both counts.

Yet, this was the first trail to challenge me: it was my introduction to "rolling" terrain: constant ups and downs, I was forced to learn to change my stride to match my pace unlike those long, steady climbs I knew back home which taught me to be steady and consistent.

But aside from that: this is a special trail. Maybe it's due to the name of the place it starts-- Inspiration Point-- or maybe it's the view: on a clear day, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge (even the color of it), the Marin Headlands, Suisun Bay, among others. I remember early mornings-- long ago, when running was a part of my life like breathing-- when the fog would literally roll over the crest of the hill and I'd run right through it feeling the cold moist that had just recently been ocean water. I remember running there at dusk just as the sun went down and I'd trace my way back in the low-light of summer-evenings. I remember the way I learned to run that trail and how, after months of practice, I could do the entire thing at a sub-7 minute pace and feel as though I was ready for more.

But then there is a period of time two years when I stopped going to Inspiration Point. I was injured, after all, and was unable to run-- first due to a ruptured Achilles tendon and then to a nagging and sharp pain in my foot that was diagnosed first as plantar's, then as cancer of the bones (I never did have the scan done to confirm this) and finally, as a severe sprain of the Lisfranc joint which may never heal. It was a horrible, challenging time: a time when I had to find a new definition of myself and a new source of meaning in my life. A time when I wondered what it was all for: all the running, all the miles and all that belief I'd conjured up in myself that vanished the second I could no longer run. 

Well, I'm running again-- sort of-- but that question I began to ask myself two years ago is still here. Still, even, as I ran from Inspiration Point today at 5:00 pm when the summer sun wasn't set yet, but the difference in temperature from the inner and outer sides of the coastal hills causes a strong breeze to sweep across the trail.  I set out despite having swam for 80 minutes with the Master's team this morning, knowing I'd probably feel awful the entire run. Past the iron gate and up: running the periphery where there's gravel and dirt and not the hard pavement trail most walkers use. Not a single other runner on the trail at first: the first quarter mile I struggled to find a pace. But after that, I settled in and the running became how I remembered it. Like dancing: fluid; a negotiation with myself and the terrain around me.

It was funny how quickly all that old passion came back; how, when spotting another man running, I increased my speed and passed him, not caring how uncomfortable I was. And all those old thoughts: that I am a runner, an athlete, that I matter in a way that is larger than myself and that my life has meaning. The wind in my face, at my side, at my back; the cows looking on as though they are watching something extraordinary (or do they stare for some other, secret reason?) How I began to wonder when I could race again; when I'd get my name back; when I'd go back to the track and run intervals, faster and faster and finding meaning in that silent struggle, something which said to me, again and again: you matter. 

The entire (paved) trail is 8.25 miles out-and-back. I normally only run 5-6 on days I swim. Today, I made a deal with myself that I'd split the difference and run 7 miles-- adding an extra mile to push myself but not the additional 1.25 since the thing I want to avoid more than anything right now is injury. Out and back. Not stopping. Not even up some of the hills which made my heart beat fast. Not even when I wanted to. Coming back, I passed the man again and my heart cheered, silently. My total time: 52 minutes for a bit over 7 miles.

Nothing extraordinary, even though I felt as though I'd conquered the impossible, today. Some silent something, somehow. Something real. 

But that thought-- and feeling-- isn't quite what it was two years ago. Today it was tempered with-- what? age? wisdom? I'm not quite sure-- but the sense that a person's worth is more than a number. We aren't entirely our social security numbers or the figures on our bank statements, the number on a scale, the time it took us to run this distance, the number of years we've lived, the cost of the house we live in, the number of times we've been married or divorced, the number of facebook friends, the number of carats in your diamond ring and the culmination of voices which say "I approve of you." Are we more? Or, I should ask: am I more than all those numbers?

I honestly don't know.  My rational mind says "of course." But running was my measure. And the thing that replaced it-- my writing-- has  been no more helpful. I get rejections in the mail nearly every day for the things I write. Maybe I'm just an awful person, I wonder? Maybe I'm not good at anything?

And so, that's the allure of Inspiration Point. Of the Lafayette Rim Trail. Of all the places I run. It's the way I tell myself you matter in a world that tells me again and again-- in spite of those rejection letters and injuries-- I might, one day.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Why you have to FAIL

I wish this was a blog about how hard my training is going. In some ways, that would be an easier post to write because, after all, physical strain is something that's tangible and real in a way that psychological stress or strain is not.  Yet, it's not all doom and gloom here in my little world: I've gotten my mileage up to about 50 miles a week and I'm happy with that. I still swim with the Master's Team Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings; those are my "double days" when I get out of the pool and run. Tuesdays and Saturdays are my long runs (one medium-long, one long-long) and Sunday a day to run and just enjoy it.

I never thought I'd be able to enjoy running again. I'm not fast. I'm not fit. But for now, I'm moving and it means so much to me to be able to wake up, pull on those smelly shoes and hit the trails with nothing to power me but my own body.  Which isn't to say I don't like swimming or cycling: I do. Swimming is keeping my ankles loose and stretches the tendons from the running efforts which tighten them so that I've managed to stay healthy (fingers, arms, legs and eyes crossed while knocking on wood) so far.

And so, what's up, you ask? Well-- a lot, actually. A few months ago, I was accepted to the Tin House Writer's Workshop-- a HUGE honor for me-- but since, I've struggled with my writing. What on earth was I going to submit? My self-confidence shrank as though submerged in cold water and it hasn't-- even now-- recovered. To assuage these demons, I've spent every night for the past three months working on this new project I finally submitted last night because I was literally sick of looking at it (the deadline is Saturday.) I simultaneously wish I could un-submit it and clean up all the errors and incorrect nuances I can see now in the clarity of the morning after; but then, the sane part of me argues that I've done enough and I should just let it go.

But-- and how can I say this-- my life is defined by failure in ways I never thought it would be. And maybe this is what happens to us all in one way or another. I was reading On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates the other night (research for my new project) and she had this interesting thought that the premise of boxing is failure and therefore, boxing is this unique metaphor for life while nothing is a metaphor for boxing. We all fail and are measured by those failures: it's the "didn't quites" that matter most. I don't mean not trying or giving up-- I'm talking about those moments in life when you pour yourself into something and try and try and try and then you come up short.

Or maybe I'm just trying to make myself feel better. My book manuscript was rejected by Hawthorne Books today-- a publisher I've admired for so long which said my work simply wasn't their cup of tea. And how awful it is to hear that! Does it mean that my writing is crap? Or, is my story-- my life-- trite and uninteresting? Either way, I immediately thought of that quote by Joyce Carol Oates and I don't know: maybe failure is a painful indication that you are still trying.

Just like I keep trying in the pool when I really don't want to swim a 50 meter butterfly but I do because I can. Or, when I'm running those hills around the Lafayette Reservoir and I don't want to keep going, but I do and I can and then, I simply do. Those moments might be failures, but they are also small victories. At least I'm out there. At least I haven't given up on my story, my voice and my body.

I still want to be an athlete again. And there is not a moment in my life I can remember when I didn't want to be a writer. I hope it happens. And I hope I and Joyce Carol Oates are right about this failure-thing. Lace up the shoes again. Snap on the swim-cap. Pump up those tires and type, type, type those stories.... victories are born of many failures.