Tuesday, May 30, 2017

(Not) born to run

This weekend, for the first time since January and my thyroid diagnosis and dropping out of the Iditarod, I returned to a training mentality. Three runs over the weekend were less "gently test the waters" and more "visualize those far-reaching places where my body is laid bare and my mind soars, and assess whether I can thrive — let alone survive — on the journey to those places." There is still plenty of gentle experimenting in everything I do — I've conditioned myself to fear a fast heart rate and any form of stress, so I don't see myself charging up or down mountains anytime soon. But when I can lope along at a steady 150-160 beats per minute with strong legs and lungs, nothing feels better. I just want to do that forever. 

Eszter and Scott are in town for a couple of weeks amid their nomadic wanderings, and joined Beat and me on our long run in Golden Gate Park on Sunday. Golden Gate is a ripple of foothills — 7,000 to 9,000 feet — with endlessly steep and rocky trails, loose chunder gullies, and spring runoff surging through the creeks (luckily all spanned by some form of bridge, as my shaky phobia rears its ugly face amid rapids of any size.) Negotiating semi-technical terrain during a "run" is not a strength of mine by any stretch of the imagination, and I always feel a little intimidated when traveling with folks who are more athletic than I am, even if they're professed non-runners. This is especially true in my current state of fitness, when I never really know whether I'm going to have a "good day" or a "bad day" — the bad days being those when I might start gasping while walking 20-minute-miles. Happily, Eszter and Scott are easy-going and fun. The outing passed quickly amid good conversation about everything from religion to the ethics of cell phone use.

From Windy Peak, this is one of Eszter's classic photo genres: "people pointing at things in the distance." The four of us stopped at our looping route's "aid station" (a semi-frozen gallon jug of water in our Subaru) at mile 17, and then Beat and I continued for seven more miles into a more mysterious and quiet segment of the park. The granite crags and ponderosa pine forests reminded me of the northern Sierras, sparking happy memories of novice runs in the Tahoe area in 2011. Back then, my personal limits were still deeply obscured and anything felt possible.

Earlier in the day, while we hiked up Windy Peak, the four of us talked about how we got our start with active lifestyles. One of several writing projects I'm dabbling with right now deals with my running journey. A piece of the narrative puzzle came back recently when I read Mary's blog post about being a young runner. Why was I never a young runner? There was the time I followed a cute boy to cross-country tryouts during my sophomore year in high school, but only made it as far as waiting in the bleachers and watching girls race around the track for several minutes before slinking away unnoticed. For the most part I was fiercely anti-sport, writing articles for my high school newspaper about the insignificance of exercise, and forging a teenage identity around being part of a "punk" group at odds with the "jocks."

It went back to seventh grade, when students had their athletic aptitude assessed by the Presidential Fitness Test. One of these tests was the mile run, for which 12-year-old girls were given an arbitrary standard of 11 minutes and 5 seconds. For healthy, normal-weight girls — of which I was — an 11-minute-mile was supposed to be the bare minimum of what we could achieve with our basic training from gym class. I'd already experienced humiliating failures in pull-ups, tumbling, rope climbing, and other activities that may have been so bad they've now been completely purged from my memory. But I was going to run that mile. I knew I could run that mile.

I do not remember my time for the mile. The memory now comes in flashes, a sensation of my heart pumping sludge near the end of that lap around the grassy grounds surrounding my middle school. It was overcast in the springtime, and the scent of freshly mown grass made my eyes water. My legs ached as I sprinted toward my gym teacher, who was holding her watch and shaking her head. There were other girls sitting in the grass nearby, and in my memory they were smirking and giggling quietly. As a even younger child I'd always suspected, but now I knew without a doubt — I was desperately nonathletic.

I've been thinking more about these moments from my youth, and how my status as a "desperately nonathletic" person has followed me ever since. Of course the simplistic deconstruction of this narrative will assume I will always have something to prove, and my ego has driven many of the decisions I've made as an adult. If the standard is running a not-slow mile or completing an unassisted pull-up, I still haven't had much success. Because as the years pass, my limits become more predictable, and my body becomes less reliable — I realize that all of my running is not really about running. It never was, which is why I never cared to "race" until I discovered a race that could guide me 100 miles through the Alaska wilderness, and why I never cared to "run" until I watched friends travel light and fast into distant dreamscapes beyond Juneau's mountain ridges. Regardless of my capabilities and what arbitrary goals I can achieve, this will always be a journey. This weekend was a simple but good one, indeed. 


  1. Lovely - amazing how fast all that snow melted.

  2. I also thought of myself as non-athletic, darn that school rope climb! I started running because my dad started in his early forties. I don't know how you can consider yourself not an athlete, but I know how early events can haunt you. I still feel like I can't do any round ball sports because I was awful at them in junior high. I actually might like your long, rambling runs. All of my long runs were pavement pounders training for marathons.

    1. I do believe in varying degrees of physical aptitude. It's not like we would argue that we can all achieve the same level of intelligence if only we try hard enough. We work with what we have. I discovered a proclivity for endurance fairly early, hiking with my dad at age 16.

      Pavement pounder — my longest is still the half marathon (I think I've done two.) I can only make it about 6 or 7 miles before becoming grumpy, and then the weird pains set in, and by mile 13 I'm in a fair amount of pain even though I ran a comfy 9:45 pace. Paved road running is occasionally a good way to get from point to point, but purposefully doing it is not for me. (I do love road biking, however.)

  3. Oh Jill. If you've still got one of those anti-exercise columns from high school, you've got to run it!

    1. I'll have to go through the trunk at my parents' house again someday. I sorted through it a couple of years ago and took some photos, but the only Hawkeye column I saved is this one about shopping at thrift stores — 


      The anti-exercise article was not as witty as I remembered it, but the gist of it encouraged my fellow students to embrace the psychological benefits of real-life activity and not become mired in the hamster-wheel drudgery of fitness regimens. I used moshing (that thrashing thing that kids used to do at concerts) as one example of "real-life" activity. :)

    2. Moshing sounds like such fun! I'm sure I would love a mosh pit, seeing as how I just absolutely love crowds! Nope, I'd take the drudgery of a treadmill over a mosh pit any day. That said, there is something to avoiding the hamster wheel mentality. But that's easily avoided if you're willing to go out in rain, sleet, cold, etc. Now that's "real life!"

      Thanks for the article on thrift stores. Next time I go to one I'll have to remember that they have the "wisdom of the ages" instead of a bunch of old, used stuff.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. I can really relate. I was always one of the least athletic kids when I was young- the classic "guy picked last in gym class..." Then, even in the Marine Corps, I struggled with pull-ups, so it was the same thing- I always felt like the weak link and hid out because I didn't want to get ridiculed or feel like a loser. Somewhere along the line though, I found my groove. Now, I run ultras, do ultra-distance cycling, mountaineering, rock climbing, backpacking, etc. while all the guys who made fun of me in school and in the military are, well, let's just say not active.


Feedback is always appreciated!