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.  


Anonymous said...

The most beautiful tribute to running, ever. The kind only a poet could pull off, that really only you could pull off.

(Although it's possible you brought back my own x country days a bit too vividly...So, you know, thanks for that. :) )

I would have liked to have been there at the finish line with your kids and Paul and the pooping the pants picture. I am proud of you for your finish, but even more touched by your commitment to not caring as much about the (numbers of the) finish.

Even though you're totally going to kill that half marathon in April. ;)

It's great to see a post here. I thought my reader was taunting me!

Sarah Hina said...

You ran cross country, too?? Oh, FUN. :)

Actually, my senior year was pretty fun. I'd gotten slower by then (women get hips??), and wasn't as competitive, PLUS my best friend joined the team. So, there really was a silver lining back then, too.

And yeah--that half is still beckoning, but I'm not going to think about it for awhile. I had a little epiphany when I was out this morning: don't smother a good thing by obsessing over it too much. So we'll see how far that takes me. ;)

Thank you for all your amazing words here. I know you're someone who really gets all of this, and that means a lot to me.

Laurel said...

Oh, Sarah!

I was a late bloomer for running. Actually, I was more of a vine than a bloomer since I never really blossomed. I'm not fast. I'm not competitive. I'm just PLAIN. OLD. STUBBORN.

I never ran more than a mile until college. I conquered 3 miles the summer after my sophomore year when I was taking two semesters of Organic Chemistry in ten weeks. All I did was study and run. Time didn't matter to me but distance did. The philosophy stuck.

Somewhere down the road, I became a marathoner. What I love the most about the marathon distance is that there are a gazillion better, faster, stronger runners out there. I will never be what they are. But they will never run 26.2 miles. At that distance, you have to conquer something.

Somewhere in training and definitely on race day, you hit your limit before you are done. If you are the sort of person who wants to finish more than you want to quit, you will. Which makes it exactly like writing.

Also, when I train for a marathon, I don't give a hairy rat's ass how many calories that cookie has. Or the next six cookies, either.

Charles Gramlich said...

I was definitely a bit OCD when I used to run track. in High school. That was very very long ago.

Sarah Hina said...

Laurel, I love that you're a marathoner. I'm thrilled that you're a marathoner. You are, in fact, my new role model. (No pressure or anything.)

And YES on the comparison between running and writing! I was thinking of trying to include that in this post, but was already rambling on for way too long. A novel is a marathon, is it not? We hit those limits again and again, but something within us that is just PLAIN OLD STUBBORN won't let us leave it. And believe me: I've tried.

I think we have to continue finding ways of testing ourselves in life. And there's something about the simplicity of running that's very appealing to me. Those steps really stack up, but no one step is more important than any other. And no one's around to watch us do it.

Anyway. THANK YOU for sharing that with me. And just so you know--I will be making Halloween cookies tomorrow and I plan on eating an unspecified number of them. :)

Charles, I think a lot of runners like to obsess because running's relatively simple. Humans have a tendency to want to make things more complicated than need be.

Laurel said...

I don't feel any pressure. If you think I'm even a potential role model, that's your problem. I think there is medication for that ;)

Aniket Thakkar said...

I've never ran in my life. Even during the physical education exams in school, I jogged at best. Leave running, I'm a terribly slow walker. And still, reading this post, I feel you.

I believe you running on that street cutting the fog is somewhat similar to how I feel when I'm stretched over grass or swimming in the sea.

But it's still not too late for me. I guess, I should give running a shot too. Till then, I'm happy on the sidelines wearing Team Sarah t-shirts cheering you on.

Lovely pics by the way. You can easily pass off as their older sister in the last one.

Wendy said...

Great post, Sarah. I have long-admired anyone who runs. I always wanted to be "one of those people" but never was.

I would run if there was a bear after me, but only if there was a slice of pizza in front of me. Other than that, I have a really nice couch cushion that is worn to the shape of my ass and I feel like at this point in our relationship if I were to move on to any sort of physical activity it would be like a betrayal.

I just can't bring myself to do it.

Sarah Hina said...

Laurel, I'll stick with being sick, thank you very much.

Aniket, Lovely pics? LOVELY PICS? Now I know you're full of it. ;)

Thanks. It's funny, because I was certain I was done with running for the rest of my life until a few months ago. I think the key (to anything) is starting out slowly and not attempting too much too soon, which leads to burnout and/or injury. If you don't find some enjoyment in an activity, you're not going to keep at it.

But I would love to swim, and I know what you mean about the tranquility that settles over you when you're floating in the water. All seems right with the world.

Wendy, thanks for making me laugh. :)

I have an ass-cushion, too, you know. And I know JUST how jealous and territorial they can be.

As for being "one of those people"...never say never. We don't even have a secret handshake or anything to get started. I, for one, run to catch the pizza, which I then use to taunt the bear with. ;)

Catvibe said...

You make me want to take up running again. What a beautiful post this is, just full of what it feels like to run, from the pain to the full on joy of it. I used to run back in my late teens, then I started getting really bad back and leg pain because of it so I quit. But I did a bunch of 5Ks first, and collected a BUNCH of T-shirts in the process. But your words bring back what I loved so much about it, and those endorphins...I can just feel them. And yeah, who the hell cares about the numbers. That you do it, that you cross the line, there's the juice. Awesome shots, and so great that your kids see you doing this! Good for them and you.

Sarah Hina said...

Cat, sorry I'm late on this! I got caught up in the swirl of Halloween festivities.

I never knew you ran! I'm finding it to be pretty addictive, though we'll see how winter tests my discipline. I appreciate that you mentioned my kids watching. I DID feel like that was important, somehow. C., especially, thought I was awesome for, like, a whole entire day. ;)