Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Poetry By Numbers

The starts were the worst. The gun would fire, and we’d all take off across the field like gazelles pretending to be lionesses, checking one another out from the corners of our eyes, elbows jostling, dirt flying into our eyes and open mouths. In general, I've found that legs don’t like transitioning from sweet apathy to full-blown sprint.  MY legs, at any rate, begged me to SLOW THE F*CK DOWN already. While the voice in my head could only repeat, “3.1 miles. 3.1 miles. 3.1 miles . . . ”
I think most runners start out as number-crunchers. The sport is rife with OCD-types. At first, you’re desperate to make it one lousy mile without stopping.  You celebrate when you do, but not for long, because one mile must, through some psychological law of momentum, turn into two.  You begin to wonder whether a marathoner might not be buried deep, deep inside you.  You start Googling how many calories a mile of running burns (and is that gross calories or net calories, and how does that compare to walking or gardening or scrubbing the toilet or....?).  You start approaching the bathroom scale not like a mortal enemy, but as a girlfriend with whom you’ve lately reconciled but are still a little wary of.  You start looking at that cookie in your hand and thinking, “It would take me 1.2 miles of running to burn off this stinking, good-for-nothing cookie.”  And then you eat it, anyway.  
The thing is, the fear started well before the gun went off.  It started a full day before meets, which always took place on Saturdays.  During track and cross country seasons, Friday nights were spaghetti nights.  I ate a big plate of the pasta (for the carbs) and got to bed at an hour too decent for any self-respecting high school kid. The problem was: I couldn’t sleep.  I’d stare at the green glow of my digital clock and think: 8 hours til I have to get up and do this thing.  7.5 hours.  7 . . .  

Sometimes, I’d wake up just before the alarm went off, in the dread silence of darkness, with my heart hammering in anticipation and my gut a quivering slush.  I rarely felt more alone in the world. 
The numbers obsession has gotten so bad with me lately that I’ve been daydreaming about buying this:  

It’s a Garmin watch. But really, they ought to call it A Runner’s Wet Dream.  This little baby has GPS tracking, tells you exactly how far you’ve run, your mile paces and splits, and what the heck your heart is doing (i.e. humming or exploding) at every step along the way.  I saw a guy at the starting line of my recent 5K wearing one of these bad boys, and got a little starry-eyed.  So it took up half of his forearm and vaguely called to mind a house arrestee’s ankle bracelet.  It has a fully-automatic training log feature.  Which means I could fully obsess about my numbers AFTER the run, too! And for the rest of my days, however many those number.
I’d usually see my dad stationed at the first mile.  He’d have his arm raised, staring at the watch on his wrist and chewing urgently at his mustache.  As I ran by, my spikes flipping up tiny divots of grass, he’d announce my time in a booming voice that would have embarrassed more if the pain had made room for it.  I was fast.  Somehow, in spite of my loathing for the sport, I was good.  Fear is a motivator.  I never knew how not to push myself.  I understood, by the time I crossed the finish line, my dad would have made it over there, too.  To not finish in the Top 10--or for my time to tick over, say, 23:00--meant that the fear was self-validating.  Because a stopwatch never lies.  
I have been running for 4-5 months now. I’ve gone as far as 6.5 miles and I had my first race in 18 years this past Sunday.  I finished in 25:09.  My father wasn’t there, because I didn’t tell my parents when the race was.  But I saw my husband and kids at the finish line.  Paul took some pics:

 (Pre-Race: Pain? What pain?)

 (Oh. THAT pain.)

(The agony after. Included as a 
"F*ck you" to vanity and because 
we have cute kids.)

Our daughter was particularly impressed with the awards at the ceremony afterward.  She got a kick out of the fourth and fifth place trophies, with golden sneakers sprouting wings from their heels.  The female first place finisher for this race was a high school cross-country runner.  With legs like a gazelle’s.  
There was the race my sophomore year in which I ran a sub-21:00 and placed second in the league.  Something happened during that race that was utterly unique to that day.  For that year's championship, we ran on a golf course bordered by a large hill and wood. I knew this course well. It had a loop we ran twice, and oh holy God, how I dreaded that hill.  The first time was bad enough.  The second time, with your quads seizing up and each breath like a blowtorch, was worse.  But not this time.  This time, I attacked the hill, and when I made it to the top, my stride lengthened naturally--like something simply unfolded inside of me--and I let gravity take over.  I could have run that hill over and over again.  I have never felt more at home in my body, more in control of my fate.  My eyes looked past the lead runner and out to the horizon, and my fear floated somewhere up into the sky behind me.  Runner’s high.  
I still have a hard time not pushing myself.  I ran this latest 5K as hard as any I ever ran in high school (if with less pliable legs).  But maybe, just maybe, I’ve gained something unquantifiable in the years between.  Maybe some runners start out as number-crunchers and, if they take enough strides, at their own deliberate pace, they can arrive at poetry. 
I like feeling my legs get stronger.  I like feeling I’ve been somewhere.  I like it when the river is shrouded in fog, and I run alongside it, my arm stretched out to the side, as if I might slice it, and the sun is a jewel left behind by the moon and I am just an animal enjoying the morning, like the river’s blue heron . . . solitary, if not alone.  
I think I’m going to pass on the Garmin.  Don’t get me wrong: I will always be number-happy--and a part of me is eyeing the Athens Half Marathon in April--but for now, I don’t want to think about racing or goals or how fast I’m running or what kind of cookies I’m feeling guilty over.  I just want to put one foot in front of the other, for as long as I can, and see where it takes me.   
There’s a street I love on the east side of Athens.  It’s a brick-paved road lined with big trees and old houses wrapped by large porches and gardens. I make a point of running down this street twice a week. Any more, and it would become mundane. Any less, and I would miss it.  The street is set on a gradual decline, and I let my legs kick out as I turn the corner.  I let gravity take over and the momentum flow through me.  The leaves are falling like a ticker-tape parade and they crunch beneath my soles.  It’s autumn.  And for a moment--though my head insists it’s chemical, that it’s merely endorphins doing their business--I know that my feet can surely fly.