Tuesday, December 9, 2014

My Anthem

The pale sunrise dusted the low clouds just as I reached the top of the hill and I realize I'm a runner, still.  

My breath is visible and stars still in the darker half of the sky above me, I marveled at the very simple reality that, for the first time in years, I was doing hill sprints. And, unlike the runner I was four years (a lifetime?) ago, I could run them strongly and silently, fearlessly without being sorry


This past weekend in Sacramento, thousands of runners toed the line at the California International Marathon. It was a starting line I toed exactly four years ago in an attempt to qualify for the Olympic Trials (on the then B-standard qualifying time of two hours and forty-six minutes.) 

I didn’t watch the race this year (I’ve done that, too, in the past: staring at the Sacramento news feed showing runners passing through the inflatable “wall” at mile 20, knowing what it feels like to run 20 miles at race pace and even though it’s painful, watching and wishing I was there)-- but I felt the gun go off in my bones as I ran through the empty, cold streets of Reno on my “long” run Sunday morning.

After all, I had a teammate in the race: a fellow Pendola Project athlete who was (like I was long ago) hoping for an Olympic Trials qualifying time. He (also like me) didn’t make it. My teammate succumbed to a bad foot injury at mile 23 which forced him to DNF.  Although I finished my race, I know the frustration of running all that way and not reaching your goal is a hard reality to take, to breathe and to, (if you ever can) accept.

And so here I am, four years and countless miles distant and I can’t help but look back. I see it differently now, of course. No, I’m not an absolute failure (and how long I believed that I was!) but that race truly was a pivotal moment in my life not only as an athlete, but as a person. 


I began the 2010 CIM as an idealistic 28-year old who believed in big dreams, in words, in ideas, in fairy tales and true love and that nothing possibly can go wrong in life if you simply, always, work hard. 

I also began that race as a runner (my first name “Rebecca” and the word “runner” are an alliterative pair for a reason, I thought.) 

When I crossed the finish line, though, so much of what I knew about myself fell away. It would take years to recognize that, of course (and maybe I’m only now beginning to recognize it) but it did. There are no absolutes and no guarantees of anything: endings are only endings if you call them that. Life is not a narrative, really, but a series of moments that can be constructed into one, if you are lucky.  And I was not the heroine of a story, I was not a girlfriend, I was not a writer. I crossed the finish line and everything I had told myself about myself was no longer true. I was not a runner. I was not (or wouldn’t be for very long) that man’s girlfriend. Writing was not only a matter of hard work, but time and money and distance (like the running itself)-- a thing of attrition, of holding on, of loss and loneliness and doubt. What I had once thought of as “hard work” was not really “hard”-- but I’m getting ahead of myself.  

Earlier today (while drafting this blog) I wrote: “I began the race as a runner, someone’s young but mostly nameless girlfriend who meekly hoped for a better life and who finished that race to discover that despite all the miles and all the pages and hours I’d poured into who I believed I was, I still crossed the line and failed to transform into anything remarkable.” 

But with a few hours of reflection, my affirmation (my mantra, my anthem) these days interjected: Fearless, but not sorry

Truth is always something to fear.

 Maybe that’s why I do these endurance events (there’s truth in the time and the miles)-- and so here is my revision: “I began that race as simply a runner without knowing that an athlete-- and a person-- is always and ever so much more than one, single definition. We are multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-lingual selves which coalesce in these moments of pain, love and beauty. I crossed that finish line and some of the old me fell away, making room for someone new it would take nearly four years for me to come to know, to accept, to love.”

Four years ago, I ran a marathon in two hours and forty-seven minutes which is a full minute slower than the Olympic Trials qualifying B-standard at the time (since, the time has dropped to a 2:43 and I doubt that I will ever be able to run that fast.) 

I wrote about the race extensively in my thesis for the MFA at Saint Mary’s College which later became a nonfiction book manuscript which got me an agent and which is still being shopped around, sort of. I can’t say that I know the details of that race by heart, but what I haven’t really written about (much) is what came after. 

I remember crossing the line, seeing my time and then understanding my time. I tried to cry and stumbled while volunteers removed the timing chip from my shoe. I was alone for a while there, and I wandered around, hoping to see a familiar face. 

I remember Steve finding me, of him explaining how hard it was to navigate Sacramento’s surface streets. I remember calling my coach, his surprise at how well I’d done and how it was so hard to hear what he said because of the sound of cheering (welcoming other runners to the finish line) around me. 

I remember the steam from the shower I took in the hotel room and how it filled the entire space like a sauna because I was in there so long. The silence and the water and how I didn’t know what to say or how to act or what to do. (I had failed, I thought.) I talked myself out of crying. 

Then, my memory jumps and I’m out of the shower and the thing I say, again and again is: “A 2:47 isn’t bad, is it?” I ask this a million times to nearly everyone I know or see or talk to-- and, until very recently, I still asked myself this question. It’s as though I’m asking: did I or did I not fail to accomplish a goal in December of 2010 when I was 28 and young enough to still shoot for something that crazy? 

What a mantra-- or, anthem-- to have! Did I just fail? Those were the words which led me back into my life as a graduate student, a girlfriend, an unpublished writer (arguably all containing some trace of “failure.”) My life, I thought, slipped from potentially extraordinary to, simply, ordinary. 

I finished out the semester in my graduate program (and the following three semesters) by attending all my classes, writing papers and reading responses, attending lectures and readings, reading voraciously. I kept running (too much, probably) and injured my Achilles during a track workout so much so that I could hardly walk for three months. And so my former life slipped away: no longer an elite runner, no longer elite anything, no longer even a casual runner, the adjectives slid off my skin and ran down into the watershed of the heavy rains in the bay area that winter until I was left, only (frighteningly) with Rebecca. 

But I look back now and see that I hadn’t lost everything, yet. I didn’t know all a person could lose (but you can.) I envision our lives as nets held up by the definitions we have out ourselves and how we relate (and how important we are to other people around us.) 

When I am 31 and not a runner and back in Reno and unemployed and single, the net breaks and I fall and fall and fall with the snow, with the cold when my ceiling breaks loose last January and then I truly believe life is over. 

But on one of the many nights I’m alone, then, I remember the finish line at CIM in 2010 and that is when I begin to revise that question, my question: Did I fail?

I begin to consider that maybe crossing that line was not the end. Maybe it was my beginning.

It’s been four years since I’ve ran a marathon. I don’t know if I ever will again. 

But I text my teammate that I believe he will do better, he is so strong and he will not only finish a race, but exceed every expectation he has for himself and I believe my own words.

My words as they echo in my mind. My new anthem. Fearless. Not Sorry. 


I am awake before dawn these days, most days (every day.) Today, I am running at 5:00 am across Reno’s dark streets to a hill I knew and ran when I was a “runner” and when I had big dreams of being an Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon. 

There are stars above me. 

I run through the darkness and the cold. 

I set my watch and stretch and work through my movement prep alone in the cold silence of a December morning. 

In the instant before I begin the hill sprints, I wonder if time is a funny thing: the light from stars takes so long to travel here, I wonder if the stars could see me, looking back? This was my hill four years ago, this is where I began my big-dreams. Do the stars see me four years ago, struggling up the hill, coughing out my lungs, slamming my feet hard into the pavement, driving up?

Or do they see me in time-lapse?

I wish they could see me now. 

I am not fast. 

I am not thin. 

But I am strong and silent. I set my watch and go: I can hardly hear my foot-falls up the hill. I feel the effort rising in my chest and my instinct is to back away from it. But I remember my affirmation, my anthem: Fearless.

I push into it, myself long before the timex beeps. 

I wish I could be a runner again. But I know that life-- that time-- has passed. 


I am not thin. 
I am not a runner.
I am not elite.

I am not any of the things I was when I ran CIM in 2010 and dreamed big dreams. 


Yet, I wonder. 

I am strong. 
I am graceful.
I am an athlete.
I am surrounded by other athletes who believe, who train and who have "anthems" of their own. 

And, yes, even after all these years, I am still the sort of dreamer who runs beneath the stars.


Bob Corman said...

That's an awesome story, Rebecca.

Rebecca A. Eckland said...

Hi Bob,

Thank you for that kind comment-- and thank you for reading! :-)