Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Rock Bottom

Like most of us, I'm not immune to a bad day... but is it me or are there more bad days than there used to be? (I'd hate to say that there are more bad days than good ones especially considering I rode my bike outside for 91 miles in aerobars for the first time this past weekend, or that I ran for 17 miles the next morning feeling like a million dollars. No, there are still more good days than bad.) But today was not a bad day. It was the worst day I've had in a long, long while.


A bit of background: I am a writer. This means that I have to work a lot of different jobs to support the thing I do which, so far, pays me nothing.  Maybe this is why I'm an athlete: I understand what it means to put a lot of love and time into something intangible that may (will?) never give me anything back.  Since August, I have been what is called "adjunct faculty" at a University. This means I only hired on a semester-to-semester, and on an as-needed basis. In August, the university had a spike in enrollment and I found myself facing over 80 English 101 students. Considering the hours, the pay wasn't great-- but I was able to afford rent and groceries-- luxuries, I've come to find. And, really, I didn't mind too much. I like teaching-- especially when I can teach writing in a workshop setting, which is what I ended up doing for the latter half of the semester.

This semester, however. times have become extremely -- or, ridiculously-- lean. Enrollment dropped (as it tends to do in the spring) and I've been shuffled off to another department and so found myself teaching at a community college to help make ends meet-- which means more students, but I'm paid less for each class I teach. Granted, I love my students there, honestly: the folk who work and go to school in order to make their lives better. But the salary is much, much less. So much less that I've cut back from three to two to 1.5 meals a day; so much so that items like soap, deodorant and shaving cream, bread, chicken breasts and salads are no longer on the shopping list nor in my cupboards. And I guess it's been a good thing, learning to live without. I don't mind it, mostly.... who needs heat when you have blankets and two cats? A television when you have a book? Lights when there are stars?

I am like the Epicurean philosophers of the Hellenistic period perhaps, who practiced a denial of desires as a way to temper the disappointments of life. Only, I'm not sure I chose this path. Or, I did, not knowing the consequences of what it meant to be a writer and an athlete.


But today: today I woke up and listened to the wind through the branches of tree outside in the dark of pre-dawn ready to run my 2-mile repeats-- the thing I do on Wednesday mornings. I can't run with my team anymore because, for some reason, my body can't stand the cold (or, I'm always cold. But running in the cold is a sure way to get injured so I try and wait until the sun rises.) My running shoes-- long overdue for a replacement-- sat by the door.  As I sipped my coffee, I considered putting them on and trying to use them for just one more workout-- but instead, I decided that my racing flats would be better... although much less supportive, the wear pattern on them is more even. (Besides, that's what I wore on my 17-miler this weekend.)

So on go the Brooks "Green Silence" with the slim lime-green soles and I'm out pacing myself around Virginia Lake. My leg starts to hurt around mile 3.5 of my hard efforts. By mile 5 it feels like there's the devil's hand in my quad, raking fingernails through the muscle fibers in the wrong direction. I don't want to stop (clouds hanging low over the Sierra Nevada range in the distance and the silent-stillness of the lake was a scene I wanted my body to run through.) But it was the kind of pain you don't run through, if you're smart. The sharp-pain of "STOP" and for once in my life, I listened.

It's no mystery why this happened: it was cold out and (sigh) my shoes are worn out. And there's an easy enough fix: buy new shoes. But on my salary, I can't. And even with my new, third job (creating technical documentation for a software company) I can't until the first of the month. I hate to say it: but I cried. I've never felt so pathetic in my life; because even the simplest things (food! heat! shoes!) are beyond my reach.

I cried again later in the day when I returned from lecture en route to my "new job" to find I'd run over a nail and I had a flat tire on my car. Not usually a big deal (these things are fixable, you know?) the cost to repair the tire has left me with $5 until April 1st.

Needless to say, I cried this afternoon, too. The two rejection letters from literary journals-- stating my work is unsuitable for public consumption-- didn't help, either.

And I cried when I received the news of my positive review-- that I am a "talented" and "innovative" teacher. I cried at the pool after a 2-mile swim when I saw my coach and I had to explain to him that I can't possibly pay my remaining balance today (I have $5 to keep me alive) and he told me to buy new shoes.

And then, I had to explain that I can't even do that, now.

And I'm crying now because I feel so embarrassed and ashamed that my life has come to this. All because I wanted to write. To run and swim and bike and to be a positive force in the world. And, honestly, I probably should just cry and not taken the time to write a blog about how awful things are right now. But if I'm honest about my writing, these are the moments I have to write about and that I have to share.

Training is about making yourself better each and every day in order to, one day, do something extraordinary. But athletes are not our only heroes: with the anxiety and fear of each day, I've come to a new appreciation and understanding of other, more muted, heroes. The single parents, the unemployed, those who have disabilities which limit them in physical ways, perhaps, but never in the capacity to feel happiness or sorrow.

I read once (in a work by an 18th century French philosopher) that the human qualities we consider "essential" like "love" or "justice" or even, really, "faith" are dependent upon the more base needs (shelter, food, clothing) being met. In other words, you can't experience romantic love if you're starving; you can't contemplate the nature of the universe if your body is not capable of functioning in a more or less "comfortable" state. I never appreciated this, quite, until now.

I can't be an elite anything like this.

I can't write like this. I can't (literally) run like this.


But I am writing. And I know I'll run again. If anything time does, it moves on at a steady pace. And, according to another ancient philosopher (Heraclitus) change is the only constant in these lives of ours. I can't stop, I know.

I love my students too much to. And I love writing and training. And I want to be the best I can be in the Boise Half-Ironman, my first race of that distance. I can't stop trying.

But it was a hard day, admittedly. I cried a lot. I'm still crying. I feel so pathetic and awful.

I can't wait for this to pass.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Life in Motion

It's strange that I'm not moving, or that's what I think now after a CompuTrainer session which began at 9:00 am this morning and ended around 2:30 pm with 104 miles logged with breaks only to manage hydration (in and out) as well as 2-minute and 30-second planks between 20-mile efforts (gotta get that six-pack, eventually. Even if it's a six-pack of chicken!) The world is moving... still. Even though I'm sitting here, on the edge of my office chair and on the cusp of rumination.

For some reason, I'm obsessed with origins lately-- both mine and others'. Why things are the way they are and how people come to be the people we meet. What are the moments which form a person-- and are they always the same moments? Or, is who we are dependent upon our interpretation of the past, our shifting lens which changes as we change and our understanding of our past-- and of ourselves-- is never the same, but rather a function of the present moment and who we think we are within it.  This is why I love to ask other athletes: "Were you always an athlete?" Often-- mostly-- the answer is no, but what follows is an explanation of personal evolution, of finding one's self (literally) within the physicality demanded by the sport. Of course, my results are skewed because I asked other athletes-- other endurance athletes -- and I can't claim that, say, a painter or a musician would have a similar response.

But who's to say they wouldn't?

The pattern seems to be something like: some general sense of feeling lost and not-a-part-of. Then, a marriage of solitude with the sport itself ("I decided to swim in my free time because I didn't fit in with the other kids my age" or "I started running every afternoon because I couldn't connect with the other people my age and I didn't want to sit at home...") And the reliance on that activity to fill the empty hours (the empty soul?), let loose of companionship and finding solace in the time when time doesn't seem to exist because you are moving through it, or past it with the wind or water cutting across your face.

Then there's always that first race-- or workout-- that moment when all that solitude meets community; when one body is placed against several. The unexpected "win" (this, I gather, is key. This validation that all that time spent alone was not wasted. That there was, instead, something gained by hours of uncomfortable training in the pursuit of.... what? Does the person even know? They won't say they do, but deep-down they do, even it if it's so deep, it's beyond admitting. The desire to win, to be a part-of; to counter the very thing that made the love of the training begin....)

For me, it was running: I'd been rejected from twelve MFA programs when all I wanted to be was a writer. I was in a graduate program (French) I wasn't really passionate about and I was the only graduate student in the program at the time. I was an outsider in every respect. It's not surprising (to me, now) that, at 26 years old, I decided to do a lot of long, slow runs on my own. To think about my life, I suppose, but also to feel like I had some control over it; that I could choose to see the dawn from the top of some lonely sage hill or run through a storm if I wanted.  Through the running, I ran into a solitary, safe place of elemental things: arroyos and rock-faces; trails and clouds; sun and rain and all of it again, and again and again. Morning after morning; nothing filled my mornings but running. No one to make me stop or go but me.

It was the most incredible sense of freedom I've ever felt when I was 26 (nearly 27) and running without limits--- without, even, a race in mind. Just running because I loved it, or I loved how strong it made me feel when every other aspect of my life made me feel weak and pathetic (no teaching prospects, no publications) ; like there was nothing left.

It's no wonder, then, that when I won the Lake Tahoe Marathon, my athlete-life became my life. Or, I think I understand myself the best when I am in motion.  After all, those are the times when I feel I'm pitted against the rest of the world (its people, its ideologies, the reasons why or why not, beauty vs. its opposite, etc.)-- the times in which I shine. Me: Ms. Unexpected. Ms. You-Look-Fat-But-OMG-You're-Strong. Or, when I am more than my body: when I think I can't but, do: out-powering the limits I set for myself.

These are the stories athletes have: it's about how you come better than yourself, or better than you thought you could be. A personal best, yes; but it's more than that. It's about how some of us (the outcasts, the weirdos, the awkward-speakers) enter the world, again. How we learn to speak and stand on our own two feet (or how we kick, stride or circle them); how we learn the cadence of our lives. How we learn to love again and do, with an efficient heart, a good heart, a heart which-- due to the miles and miles, the self-questioning and testing, has come into a knowledge of itself-- a wise heart.

So maybe we endurance athletes feel like we are always moving-- but somehow, I am starting to believe, we are the ones who most know what it's like to be stable. Or, what it means to be truly standing still. Even when we're moving.