Thursday, November 7, 2013

Finding Meaning in Motion

As you've probably noticed, I don't blog as often as I used to. Of course, that (probably) has something to do with teaching four full sections of Freshman Composition courses at a University (I've never taught four full sections of anything, so the load has taken, ahem, some getting used to). Or, as a former professor said to me yesterday: "If you are teaching four sections of composition, there is no way that you are even remotely doing O.K."  But, admittedly, there's something else: something I realized last week when I stepped back into the racing scene; something I realized when I actually sat down to think about my goals moving forward as an athlete.

My first thought on that starting line and my first thought before I ease into the pool, clip into the bike or slip into my shoes has been for nearly two years: what, anymore, is the point? 

I'm not trying to be overly dramatic here, but setting goals-- and the attempt to achieve them-- is a huge part of who I am. I write in order to convey ideas, emotions, thoughts and to play with the expressive capacity of language. But I also write because I want to publish my work-- I want to become an established, successful writer. Of course words like "established" and "successful" require definitions-- but "establishment" suggests a regular rhythm, routine and presence: I don't want to be the one-hit-wonder of memoirs or blogs or even of a daily writing practice. I want writing to be a part of my life, just like training and breathing are. "Success", too, is not necessarily based in monetary gains in and of itself (although that would be nice) but rather the ability of my words to effect change in the world around me. If I can express something new and interesting that, in turn, inspires someone else to think or do something (or, even to write something) new and interesting, I consider my job as a writer fulfilled.  I know I'm not there yet, but I'm trying and as a mentor has told me: I have all the tools to improve. Perhaps what I need is more pages and more time. Or maybe a lot more coffee!

With athletics, however, my goals are no longer so clearly defined. I wanted to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Trials. I failed to do so. And then, I had a series of  injuries that have kept me away from the sport. Coming back, I've discovered I can no longer maintain the running mileage necessary to compete in marathons. I break down, my tendons snap and those are the types of absolute failures I'd rather not repeat. So, what's next? And why do I keep on practicing?

What, as an athlete, do I hope to achieve? 

I think, in this capacity, my athletic "career" (hobby? obsession? distraction?) shares something with my writing. It's about self-expression. I am many things, but above all of them, I consider myself the kind of person who willingly wakes up every day at 4:45 am so that I can swim or cycle or run and contemplate what it means that it took me X-amount of minutes (or hours) to cover a certain distance.

But it's more than that, too. Perhaps it has something to do with our idea of excellence. After all, the Ancient Greeks arguably invented athletic competition not only as physical endeavors to test the body's strength, but also as a measure of personal (emotional, intellectual and in a way, spiritual) strength. To win was to win on all counts: to be the best you could-- to be strong in all senses of the word.

This is embodied in the trail-tempo run I did yesterday with the team: how I  broke away from the group who followed the coach's instructions to run moderately hard and I decided to run harder than that. Down a dark canyon at dawn that was dusted in frost and up its sides on a switchback trail, Reno awoke to the dawn in the changing guards of lights-- as the sun shone brighter, the casinos resigned their neon lights to sleep until the next coming of darkness. Up the trail, hopping over rocks and drainage ditches, winding my way through the high desert with my breath forming miniature clouds to light my way: I felt like a champion.

I wasn't, I know. But I felt it as though it was real. The way I was out in front, leading. The way nothing could cause me to slow down. And the way, today, how I met all the intervals of the swim set the coach could give me: never deviating from the time I set for myself on the first one, even when my rest dwindled to mere seconds, off I'd go: five strokes to each breath and making it back with out an alteration in any of it, as though I was a machine.

But again that question: what is the point? 

I am not young, really, not anymore. I cannot run marathons. I cannot become a fantastic swimmer (although I think I've become a proficient one, which is an accomplishment I treasure.) I'm not even entirely sure that my 2:47 marathon time has much meaning aside from what I know it took for me to get there (the hours of running, the injuries, the sacrifices of not seeing family and friends, the toll--even-- on my writing.)

So, indeed: what does it mean?

I wish I had an answer. The only thought which comes to me-- again and again-- is this: Heraclitus (an ancient Greek philosopher) said that life itself is transitory. Most people remember him not by his name, but his idea that life is like a river or a creek: that you can't step into the same one twice. Things change, in other words, and change itself is the nature of existence.

In stepping onto a starting line-- or even, of running the trails, of swimming hard interval workouts, of saddling up on my bike-- I can only say that I am still here, training despite all the reasons I shouldn't (or can't!) Despite the awful things that can happen to a person-- and, even, despite the good-- I'm here, doing the things I love.

I write and I run, swim and ride. Perhaps I haven't won recognition for any-- but recognition is not the thing itself. And the thing itself is why I wake up so early before the sun and why I endure the awful dry-cold of Nevada-winter and why I probably always will. It's those quiet moments: the light before a storm, the absolute quiet attention of a hard swim; the cadence of a sharp climb on a bike, the wind in my face, the rain and the mud and the rocks which slip from under your shoes  and the hard burn in the legs and lungs and heart and the fatigue and enduring it all anyway-- that define myself to me.

And so, for now anyway, that is more than enough.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

...And we're back: Race Report for the Race for Education, 10k

It's hard to believe it's been a bit over two years since I toed the line at a race. Two years since I nearly ruptured my achilles tendon during an interval workout in the winter rain at Cal's track. Two years since my coach (of the Strawberry Canyon Track club) wrote letters to doctors explaining how talented I'd been, how close to the Olympic Standard and how important was for me to be healthy (and how they should forgive my lack of health insurance--which they didn't.) Two years since the loss of running and the belief of those around me that I could, despite how I look, run fast enough to win races. And then, of course, the belief in myself that I could run at all. Two years since that awful time of long rehabilitation when I stared into my own eyes at the gym while completing set after set of eccentric heel raises only to fall off my bike and crack my hip on the wet pavement of the Oakland hills, misaligning my pelvis and spine (which required, in turn, more rehab.) And months after that, running up Mount Tam and spraining the largest joint in my foot on the way back down so that I could hardly (once again) walk and through all of this: hearing again and again that I would never--ever-- be a competitive athlete in this life.

And for a time, I wasn't.

What is it like to lose something that defines you? I thought I knew; coming out of what amounted to two solid years of injury, I thought I knew what it was like to be stripped down to the bones of yourself, the essence, to ask: what really matters? After all, I knew what it was like to use feet that had been used to solid ground to find footing in water. (I joined a swim team and learned to swim. I competed in swim races. I got more efficient with my handling of water. I won a few medals. I met incredible people on my team who, I am honored to say, became my friends.)

But I thought: that was loss.

The not -running.

I learned I was wrong, though, when I resigned from my position as an editor/ghost writer/graphics designer for a business in Walnut Creek in order to teach writing courses at the University of Nevada, Reno. It took everything I had to come home; all my savings poured into the transportation of what had fit into a 300-square foot studio cottage. Books, mostly; what I can't live without. Printed manuscripts of my work. Paintings my grandmother did (oil on canvas); a glass cat made by Spode my Dad gave me for Christmas-- an object I can't live without. I wanted to be closer to my family-- my parents-- and my partner even though nothing was the same. I wasn't a runner anymore-- or an athlete, really. But I thought I'd make it work. Teaching over 80 students to write and to think.

And you know, I tried.

The world, it seems, is composed of layers. Like Nevada itself with its layers of sediment, the present piles itself on top of the past so that, if you were to cut into time with a knife, you would see the versions of yourself, all piled up like sandstone or lime.
Back, running old trails (not fast) was a comfort, at first. So was being home: the ability to drive for twenty minutes to see my parents, a blessing. My life without the running-- or, competing-- was starting to become acceptable, even normal. I loved my new home-office. My garden. The word "home" had a new, deeper meaning: a place to sleep, yes. But also a place that defines.

I wish I could tell you what happened.

But all I can say is that everything changed. It had been foreshadowed-- the loss of a "home" years earlier, a place where my partner S. and I had planned to live, where a community college had wanted me to teach just a block from our old Craftsman style house  S. had rebuilt with his own hands-- our house that the bank took away. It was the house where I'd had a library to work in and a kitchen where we'd host Thanksgiving together for once and not be apart. Where two lives could converge and mingle and make something new and unexpected. And so, there was--and is-- the absolute loss of that.

And then, the news my teaching position at the University has been eliminated due to budget concerns.

So, the question: what is it like to lose the thing that defines you? became more streamlined, more simple and desperate and sad: what is it like to lose everything and still find something to wake up for and believe in?

So I toed the line today in a race. I wasn't going to win; my new coach's wife, Kristi, stood beside me on the line and I knew she was much stronger than I was today. But I was there: after all of this-- after all the reasons NOT to run, I'm back and I'm running. I'm still here, doing the thing that I loved, once. Running after my younger shadow: the girl who believed she was great. And I don't anymore, but here I am: even though my feelings towards it have changed and I can't say I care so much about winning.

Instead, I care about something more elemental and simple. I care about the running itself.

Before the race, the crowd around us counted down in unison the final 15 seconds to the start. On my left stood Kristi: we'd done a brief warm-up together along with my coach, Scott. I don't know her very well; only that's she's a dedicated, strong and incredible athlete. An athlete who had to endure the awful trauma of mending a son who had cancer. Needless to say, I was grateful to have her by my side. And to my right, I had two ten-year old boys who refused to leave the front line despite the announcer's warning that there were 12 of us "elite" runners going for the prize money. And of me, what can I say? I can't say, and that's the thing. But there I was, on the verge of tears because I was "back", but not-back; happy and sad, me and not-me: running is not so weightless anymore: I carries so much memory of what was, what could-have-been and all the things I've ruined.

Sprinting at the start, nearly tripping on the children: we rounded the Scheels parking lot, crossing Sparks Boulevard and began the first lap around the Water Park. The first time I checked my Garmin, we were cruising at 4:45 pace (much too fast)-- but the pace allowed the 12 of us to break away from the children and other runners in what was, really, a narrow lane. Ideally, I probably should have started slower.

Across Sparks Boulevard (a four-lane road) and around a water park: Kristi was keeping 5:45 pace and so, knowing what I know of the last two months I've been able to run at all, I backed off and held a more conservative pace. I wish I'd stayed with her-- but I couldn't. I'm not strong or fit enough. However, someone along this stretch yelled my name and cheered. I was so focused on maintaining my pace, I didn't see-- or couldn't see-- who it was. Whomever it was, however, made me smile and keep running. Sometimes even a name-- a single word of encouragement-- can do wonders.

The 10k racers re-joined the 5kers at various points of the race: I remember running behind a small (7 or 8 year old) boy who obviously did NOT want to be passed by a girl. He sprinted about 100 yards in front of me, but stopped, exhausted. He was rather disappointed I passed him, saying "gosh darnit" at the turn between the two races: he continued straight and I turned for the additional 3.12 miles.

I ran as fast as I could, really: feeling awful (I always forget how awful you feel during a race), but I can hardly say I was anything spectacular. I lost sight of Kristi after the 5K and 10K runners took different courses and focused on the two men in front of me. One, I'd catch in the final half mile during my "kick" the other, I assume, was too fast for me to see.

The final half mile was, for lack of a more eloquent term, a CLUSTER FUCK of cars and kids. I don't know why the race organizers didn't close the road (to a parking lot!) but they didn't. So, the last half mile had me dodging kids and cars, parents and strollers (from the 5K race) and people who just wanted to park and shop (and who were, obviously, annoyed by all the runners on the road.) So I wove my way home, averaging a 6-minute flat pace for that final stretch (.5 mile, I guess?) Feeling tired and full of lactic acid-- but mechanically sound.

I crossed the line. Finished. I checked my watch: 37:52. Not so great. But I did it and felt, well, uninjured, which is something. The volunteers pointed me toward a blue tent where I learned I finished second-- I was the only female runner in the 10K after Kristi.

After another 10 minutes in the morning cold, officials made it "official": I'd finished second and won $250. The first prize money I've ever won in any sport, ever.

I wish I could say I've realized something new or useful or interesting. I wish I could say I was back, elite and kicking ass! But life isn't simple like that: it's not "one-thing or another"; after all, no one hugged me and said they believed in me again. Because, really, I don't even believe in me again.

So, why would you?

What I felt today, though, was happiness. Sheer and simple and well, stupid happiness at being able to run. To put on the running tights and the racing shoes and the glittery headband that was my staple in the bay. To pin that number on my chest and set my watch and know that what lies ahead will be painful and awful and you won't win.

It's like life, in a way. And maybe that's why I'm still out here doing this.

10K: 37:52
Pace: 6:06
Place: #2