Monday, April 19, 2010

Born to Run (and run and run)

In faith that it would turn out well, my roommate, Christy bought me a present for running the marathon. It was a book (of course), one we've discussed and I've been recommended more times than I can count on all my toes (more later). Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. It is the unceremonious blow-by-blow of one journalist's personal struggle with running that lead him so far outside himself, he eventually woke up one day in the secluded canyons of Mexico and ran a 50-mile race through the mountains with a bare-footed man, a bunch of Indians, a super-star, a scraggly burnt out ex-kick-boxing champ, and a couple of crazy college kids who blew off their finals to tag along.

Last Friday afternoon I took a bus to the train station where I caught the next train to the airport, traveling first to LA and then to Tucson, AZ where I spent the weekend with friends from high school, one of whom got married Saturday. Sunday I spent nine and a half hours either sitting in the airport or flying after which I again took a train and then a bus back to my home. In every spare moment, I read. Upon arriving home again, Christy asked me, "How was it?!" I stared back at her blankly, bleary eyed from so much travel; trying to make meaning from her words was like waking up from a dream- a dream of dark, mysterious canyons, dusty trails, and beautiful, grippy bare feet...

"Kristin, how was your trip?" I blinked a few times, grinned and then asked, "Which one?"

I have read about running before, and it has been a wonderful thing. Often I find myself chucking aside my copy of Once a Runner or Ultra-Marathon Man to pull on my Asics and rocket down the street, my mind swimming with possibility or determination. But I've always felt something else, too-- a disconnect. The accounts I read or the runners with whom I happily share ideas, trails and advice always leave me feeling displaced. No, I don't run to think out complex issues. No, I can't run when I'm mad to blow off steam. I run best when I'm full of joy, when I feel lit up inside by potential or connectedness to the world-- and its impossible to say which comes first: the connection or the running. I suppose it isn't always the same.

I coached with Girls on the Run for two seasons, and it was a lot of fun. Still, often I found myself listening to lovely women (fellow coaches) sharing heart-breaking stories of low or budding self-esteem, how running helped them to form a positive body image, gain confidence in their ability, etc, etc... And yeah, I resonate with that, but only to a point. Of course I've had insecurities, and sure, a great many of them revolve around my body, and yes, hell yes have I hoped that my body would one day morph into a tiny, rock-hard version of what it is now on account of all the miles and pounding I've logged. But the truth is, it hasn't. And most of the time, I love it anyway, and I'm happy with the way that I look. But the point is, if I was running to love myself or to be loved, I would have quit a long time ago. To be fair, my confidence and self-esteem probably have improved tremendously since I first took to the roads with the team my sophomore year, but such a ethereal and intangible sort of theory just isn't enough to get me out there day after rainy, windy, chilly day. And I'm honestly just not that thoughtful all of the time- running for me is more basic than all that. It's more animal, less higher being.

And I've tried being great too, but that side of things never got too tempting, since I never excelled all that much. As I mentioned above I recently read Once a Runner, the fictional account of a tremendously successful college athlete who put in 160 mile weeks just to hit a sub 4:00 once in his life on a little black oval. And on one hand I totally got him- I knew the similar love and hate of a hard workout, the drive and impulse of a team, the fatigue of two-a-days, of recovering from a long run with a morning run, then an 8 mile workout in the same twelve hour period. But obviously I lost him whenever he won. And that sadness that continuously characterized the experience of the champions within that story; I found it so uncomfortable as I finished the book. 'What was the point of fulfilling their goals?' I found myself asking- and 'Why, why, why were they so sad when it came?'

And though on one hand, I felt irritated with his scathing perspective of the Lesser Runner or the exuberantly chatty-and-effusive Poet Runner (this might be personal), I pitied him also. The burden of excellence is huge. And yeah, maybe sad at times, because who really knows why it is chased, just that it seems that one must if one can, attempt to run one pure, perfect mile, especially if it is one of the fastest in the world.

Though obviously enjoyable and often inspiring, reading about running also forces me into a little soul-searching. I'm constantly wondering why I run. Not just races or even once a day after work, but why do I run to bus stops, to work every morning, to the top of hills in the rain or the dark- not just when I'm late, but all the time. It's part instinct, part just a feeling of hugeness in my chest, but its also just a desire to unlock, and to go. When Jenn, one of the college students in the story, describes her feelings about running I finally feel my heart leap. I couldn't put it better myself: "'I never discussed this with anyone because it sounds pretentious, but I started running ultras [races longer than 26.2] to become a better person,' Jenn told me. 'I thought if you could run one hundred miles, you'd be in this Zen state. You'd be the f---ing Buddha, bringing peace and a smile to the world. It didn't work in my case-- I"m the same old punk-ass as before-- but there's always that hope that it will turn you into the person you want to be, a better, more peaceful person.

'When I'm out on a long run,' she continued, 'the only thing in life that matters is finishing the run. For once, my brain isn't going blehblehbleh all the time. Everything quiets down, and the only thing going on is pure flow. It's just me and the movement and the motion. That's what I love-- just being a barbarian, running through the woods.'"

The super-star among them, winner and record-setter of many hundred mile races out there, made a special impression on me as well. In high school, he ran at the back of his pack. He just wasn't all that fast, and although something obviously changes for him later in life, something of these formative years seems to remain. By the time McDougall reflects on all this, he is not just a reporter, but a participant in the story, and is preparing to run the 50-mile final event. He knows Scott now not just as a subject, but as something of a teammate as well, and says, "What Coach Vigil sensed about character... Scott had been all his life. The reason we race isn't so much to beat each other, he understood, but to be with each other. Scott learned that before he had a choice, back when he was trailing Dusty and the boys through the Minnesota woods. He was no good and had no reason to believe he ever would be, but the joy he got from running was the joy of adding his power to the pack. Other runners try to disassociate from fatigue by blasting iPods or imagining the roar of the crowd in an Olympic Stadium, but Scott had a simpler method: it's easy to get outside yourself when you're thinking about somebody else."

When the race finally begins, McDougall, though last in the pack, feels far better than he expects. At the half-way point he is at just over three hours, far ahead of his projected pace. Thrilled by all the success at this point in the story, my heart is pounding for him to crash through his expectations and finish in 7 or 8 hours. But he didn't- though he did cross the finish line, it took him over twelve hours. The first guys had been waiting for him almost as long as it had taken them to run the entire course.

Woah, what a let-down I thought. Then Scott walks up to him, McDougall says just what I felt, but the super-star ultra champ just claps his back and says something like: yeah, but it takes a lot more courage to race 12 hours than 7.

And the affect of reading these words in the wake of my wildly exciting forty-five minute improvement, nearly-10 minute pace 4:25 marathon was huge. It was as if I was handed the ability to drag my first marathon up by the armpits and raise it into the air, shouting "This is a success!" It took courage. And I have to admit, though it felt damn good to finish that marathon having run the whole thing with gusto, it actually wasn't as hard as the first one. It is easier to accept what happened that day, and harder to remember the Rock and Roll. So which one is the true success?

Well, the next one, I hope! And I have my eyes on a 31.3 ultra next spring, which I plan to love, love, love every step of the way.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My pit crew

Whidbey Island- Part II

I keep catching the drift of sunny blooms, and remembering last summer: the food bank and the Mormons and the Rock and Roll Marathon.

It is not possible to carry this one around with me without remembering the despair of last July, the four slow weeks that followed the painful failure of that particular run. In the weeks leading up to the Whidbey, I did everything I could to suppress the memory: the hot, long miles, the impossible clamp around my throat, the frantic short breathing, the burning in my gut, the swimmy-buzzy panic in my head. And now that it has past, and the thrilled, relieved whirring has calmed, I can't stop thinking about that hot, mid-summer day.

In college when I ran my last cross country meet a similar feeling of despair ensued. In the crucial moment, I had given up on myself and in the following days could only dwell on the concept of not being able to gain that crucial moment back. Though we lofty thinker-beings oft feel able to rise above the primal notions of mere time and space, we live and die by them, too. And a swell mile isn't the same as a swell mile at the crucial moment. You can't get it back: it is a conditional gift of a single place and time, and you either deliver or you don't.

In the third mile of the Whidbey Island last Sunday, we ran through a Hawaiian-themed water station and they tossed leis around our necks as we ran past. I caught up to my running partner and we laughed about it and compared times. We were going quick- our third mile put us around a 9:10 average our excitement at this small achievement carried us a few happy miles. I wasn't familiar with this pace, certainly not at this distance, but as I told C., I felt great and why not go with a great thing while it lasts? (note this odd optimism. something very strange was happening.) We passed and were passed by a man several times with whom we exchanged several jokes as we powered up and over smallish hills. "Good luck" we called out each time, "Good job!"

At mile seven the real hills started and my stomach rumbled with hunger. I can't remember ever feeling hungry in the first marathon and I wasn't sure what to do. I pulled a honey-gel shot from my pocket and chewed it slowly, but my stomach still felt empty so I told myself the half was right around the corner, and truly felt that it was so. Again, this strange ability to not be overwhelmed with the distance. It must have been luck- or Imogen Heap who was now being piped into my thrumming brain.

At 2:03, we clocked in for the half marathon, our quickest half yet. (1:57 makes a perfect 9 minute mile pace) I knew that Mom, Christy, Pat, along with a few other close friends planned to meet us at the halfway point, but upon crossing the marker and seeing nobody around I seriously considered that I might have taken a wrong turn. Though I wanted to see them and had been looking forward to the friendly faces, I also desperately longed for the food. I knew that mom was armed with bananas and plumbs and nut-and-date bars and wanted to take as much as I could hold.

Nearly to mile 14, I saw them. My mother handed me two plums, a banana and half an energy bar, and I turned down a 1.5 mile path, what's known as a 'turn-around' so-called because at the end you simply turn around and trot back the way you came. On the way back, I spotted my running partner half a mile behind me, and met my friends and mother again on the other end, right around mile 16.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Whidbey Island- part I

They say marathons are like childbirth. That you have to forget the pain before you could possibly trick yourself into repeating the whole ordeal. And for the record, if I do happen to have a baby and its birth is anything like my first marathon, it will have to be knock-your-socks-off cute and exceptionally well-behaved for me to even consider growing another one.

And yet, yesterday at 6:40 in the morning I found myself rumbling along in a big yellow school bus through the winding back roads of Oak Harbor to the start of the thirteenth annual Whidbey Island Marathon. Since we’re on the subject of babies, let’s just call this one my little accident. I ran the half there last year, and it was exquisitely beautiful. What can I say? I am a sucker for the rolling hills, the mountains on the horizon, the sprawling, greenish bodies of water almost everywhere the eye falls. Isn’t this how most surprises happen: a proclivity towards persuasion by loveliness and a real ability to forget?

So there I was in my sweats, shivering next to heat lamp on a dock, sucking down a foil packet of chocolate flavored vegan agave, actually feeling quite good about my prospects.

My longest continuous run for this training, twenty miles, had been manageable, even kindly, and since a friend gave hers to me before she moved away (-but I would give it back in a second just to have her around again!), I’ve been biking to the preschool on Fridays. And there’s the occasional recreational ride when I’m not working or running or busy watching box-set television. My legs have just felt better, and my mind feels better, too.

And, okay. There’s this confession to make: I ran it with an iPod. Yeah. Okayokayokayokayokay. I know I said “I don’t believe in iPods.” And I don’t! Well, to the extent that they become isolating or a crutch or try to trick you into forgetting the task at hand. There’s just so much: the quietness of your mind despensing lovely, blockish exposition like ice cubes, or brimming over with frustration, or the occasional thrill of a new idea strolling across the marquee of your movie-theatre brain, making you worry what other things you haven’t run far enough to realize.

But, here’s the thing- you’ve just got to forgive me, because running a marathon is really pretty tough. I know in the age of ultra-marathoners and the Tarahumara outrunning gazelles, I sound sort of last-decade, and I’m sure if I ever become Western States material (more on this later), I will give up my (borrowed) iPod. But as we know from studying (and believe me, there has been some studying) my previous failures [read: panic attack at mile 19 that shrunk my airway to the size of a coffee stirrer] there is a teensy problem with my mind. It has some short-comings, okay, and if you run far enough you will find yours, too. So, in conclusion, I did not attempt to stifle the task and I made my small talk like always, but I needed a guide, some non-linear alternative to the grueling miles banging by, constantly reminding me how far I had to go.

I listened to choral music! Who could blame me? It was soft, and layered, and looked good on the mountains and with the gorgeous sun that streamed down. I accidentally ran a 9:30 first mile, and an 8:45 (!!) number two, and I knew, even then.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Phillip and Patrick just went home after a long afternoon of wine, delicious food and fascinating conversation. Christy is off to work, and I just hung up the phone with my mother. The buzzing of my head has decreased to a hum and the pots and pans stacked in the sink along with the exhaustion in my back tells me that good company has come and gone.

The effect is mysteriously mirrored internally: As it has been since my junior year of college, Easter Sunday spins me away from the body of believers, again alone in my disbelief, disquiet, and confusion. For forty days, and increasingly over this past weekend, I have felt the sweet company of the Church's orbit toward my tiny corner of the universe, where Mark's mute terror and amazement have morphed into loud unhappy professions of my own frustrations with the faith. But today Christians move into the blessed joy of resurrection, an end to the doubt and emptiness of our sometimes-mundane existence, and so ends my movement with them. Here I stay- for now anyway.

I wish I could tell you why: the feeling that I am ready to let go of what I've increasingly allowed myself to admit is somewhat unrealistic is strangely akin to my intuitive sense about eating animals: the basic reluctant suspicion that there is simply more than meets the eye, that beneath the smiling, chewing, laughing warmth there is suffering that isn't heard. I'm desperate to find a Christianity that acts in concern for the environment, for suffering beings, that challenges me in my ability to support and give care to these basic human needs-- but I'm growing impatient, in myself just as much as in the Church. And while I certainly know myself to be a hypocrite in my convictions, such knowledge only intensifies my longing for accountability. I don't want to count on going away to heaven; I believe in kingdom stuff here, and now, and in what I eat for dinner. I want someone to call me up or come to my door and ask me if I've started eating locally yet, not when I've been to church last, not how many I've told about Jesus, whose late, late flesh (like most) is beginning to lose its taste.

I tell myself: I am a Christian, I just don't believe in afterlife away-from-here. I am a Christian, but that doesn't necessitate a love for the Old Testament, and a lot of people disagree with Paul; I am a Christian, but that doesn't definitely mean I hold a belief in virgin birth; in divinity; in literal creation; literal resurrection.

And when it comes so far, to this (I am a cat, but with dog ears and a doggy wet nose, and big dog feet, and rancid doggy breath, and a messy dog-tail, but a cat), maybe its just time to call it what it is. Maybe there is no Christian like me because I've stepped a step or two, too far.

In her book, Take this Bread Sara Miles tells the story of herself as a left-wing lesbian atheist who steps into a church to take communion, and finds herself so moved by the experience of being fed that she becomes a Christian and dramatically reorients her life toward feeding others. I picked up her book on Good Friday, hoping for peek into some radically progressive, generous Christianity that might tether me afresh to my faith. And I can't help but note ruefully how opposite my experience has been: that I spent my life thus far believing, then more or less stepped into a food bank to volunteer and found myself so deeply moved by the experience of being fed that I feel inclined to leave the church altogether. Its not just the food that I eat there, but the earnestness of the volunteers and the staff, the overwhelming care present in their secular tasks, and the sweet simplicity of sorting rotten fruit for hungry bellies.

Despite all this, I pulled myself out of bed this morning at 4:30AM (an hour not unknown to me at the grocery store!) to drive into Queen Anne, to the beautiful Episcopalian church my friends and I attend for the Easter vigil, a three hour-long account of the story of Christianity starting with Creation. Afterward they served a breakfast of eggs, croissants and champagne (hall-e-lujah!) of which of course I ate the fruit cup, and then went out for a waffle at my favorite vegan joint.

As I tuck myself into bed tonight (tomorrow I will inhabit my normal space in the wee hours of the morning: unloading frozen cases or trays of bread), the words of the liturgy run through my mind and like usual, I am mystically comforted and not irritated by their presence.

I want to close with another holy reading, one I've found incredibly comforting if not salvific- not yet:

Everywhere I saw bodies, and food.

Food and bodies had always been wrapped up in meaning for me: They were my way of understanding the world. But it would take decades to have these accumulated experiences make sense in a narrative, much less one I'd call Christian. It took actually eating a piece of bread-- a simple chunk of wheat and yeast and water-- to pull those layers of meaning together: to make food both absolutely itself and a sign pointing to something bigger. It turned out that the prerequisite for conversion wasn't knowing how to behave in church, or having a religious vocabulary or an a priori "belief" in an abstract set of propositions: It was hunger, the same hunger I'd always carried.

- take this bread, sara miles, xiv

Saturday, April 3, 2010


And the winds are rumored up to 50mph. Beneath the gusts and the layers and the pull-string hoods my head and heart are churning with the feeling that the time has finally come.

I have wondered and wondered when, have been watching for it like a second coming, but it came when I wasn't looking just as they said it would. Now on the eve of Easter Sunday, I find myself liturgically appropriate both in my massive unbelief, and my grief that god is finally dead.