Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Oceanic Constellations

Becky is a swimmer. She's lots of other things, too, of course--like small business owner, mother, triathlete etc...). But Becky has a particular love for swimming. As a child she liked the water. Swimming was a different thing. On Long Island, swimming was gross and involved slimey rocks. If it was a babysitter trying to get her to a swim lesson, she'd use that catch all, "I'm not feeling well," to avoid it.

Flash forward to college. Becky started thinking that maybe she'd like to do a triathlon. The catch--it meant she needed to really learn how to swim, not just paddle around, as she'd done as a child. She took a beginning swimming lesson and she fell in love. For Becky, swimming is something more than it is for most of the rest of us. Since birth she has had an eye condition called "strabismus." Her eyes work independently of one another. When she was born, one of her eyes was turned all the way in. For years she underwent different types of therapies to help her eyes understand how to work together. A patch over her good eye, for example, was used to force her bad eye to face forward and work properly. Still, she often sees double, she's been wearing bifocals since the age of 20, her depth perception is way off, and she has headaches more days than she doesn't. Swimming, it turns out, is the only time (except sleeping) when Becky can rest her eyes. "It's a total release."

Not one to do things halfway it seems, Becky zoomed past the usual swimming goals and into long distance swimming. Her first "real" long-distance open water swim was off St. Croix--5 miles in the open ocean. Swimmers are ferried out on boats to Buck Island (the first place to be designated an underwater national monument by JFK). When the conch shell blows, the swimmers head out across the ocean and back to St. Croix. The first time Becky did it she had a good case of butterflies as she started to swim. After about 500 yards the ocean floor drops away. Becky was awestruck by the sparkling starfish, hanging above the bottomless dark blue sea. "It looked like constellations." I was envious when she described this world upside down, the sky in the sea. Her next thought was, "I'm good. I can do this." She did. And she's since done the race a couple more times, including one year when she was stung by a Man of War early on (I won't even get into the excruiating pain she described and the systemic reaction she had the next day). Did it stop her? Of course not. Her most recent swim was a 10-miler in northern Vermont near the Canadian border--brrrr.

Becky has a special bracelet in the traditional St. Croix design. It's called the Cruzan knot. On days Becky has something challenging to do, she wears it. It reminds her that she can get through it, whatever "it" is. "I can swim 5 miles in the ocean," she thinks, "I can do this." In these economic times, running a small business, as she does, she needs that reminder more often than usual. Her Cruzan knot bracelet reminds her to be brave about new things. Even if something makes her very very nervous, and is way outside her comfort zone, she knows that the worst that can happen is that she doesn't succeed (whatever that means); at least she'll know she tried. And that's something she hopes she's passing on to her son..oh, and we can take inspiration from her, too! We all have our challenges. We all need our own Cruzan knot reminders.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

It's too late...not

By sheer coincidence the two women I interviewed today were both 63 years old, and going stronger than the majority of women half their age. I felt so inspired and energized after talking to each of them I almost went out for a second run--decided to write this blog entry instead, read the Peter Carey novel I'm loving, and roast up some of the yummy farmer's market veggies we bought yesterday.

Justine was the first woman I interviewed. She took up running at the age of 50, as a way to de-tox and shift her focus away from the fact that four weeks before her 50th bday her husband of 20 years had up and left her with about as much warning as if she'd been a one-night stand picked up in a bar the night before. Running gave her something to focus on and stopped her feeling sorry for herself. It was, as Justine put it, "An intervention in that feeling of waking up alone."

But then, as running does, it took on a life of its own.

A young nephew of Justine's told her about running the NY marathon and Justine thought, I can run an hour on a treadmill, I can run a marathon. She was right, though it took a bit of time to execute--a stress fracture kept her out of the first marathon she trained for and a fractured tibia kept her out of the second. She'd bought a book on marathon training and was following it religiously. The only problem was that it was a regimen for a 17 year old--run 2 miles day 1, and run 17 miles day 2, and so on...No wonder she was injured.

At work and at home, among colleagues and friends, everyone said, "It's too late." An insightful orthopedist told her, "You'll figure out how to do it." And she did, running her first marathon at 55 years old. She's still going strong.

"I never thought of it as 'sports'. In high school I would wonder if the gym teachers would notice if I told them for the third straight week that I had cramps again, so I could lie down instead of participate."

Justine has never run with a partner. She runs alone and it's "a singular thing," just for her. In her work life, in the film business, she's very social. Running ensures she carves out some quiet time.

More important though is that it reminds her of what she's capable of. "I can do this, and if I can do this, there are a lot of other things I can do," she often thinks on a tough run. Too, runs change every day, some are good, some are mediocre, some are awful. How a run starts may not be how it ends. "It's like life," she points out. Sports reinforces and reminds us that life is constantly moving in different directions, often all at the same time, and we can accept and adapt to the constant change without feeling defeated.

And Justine reminds me that it's never too late, no matter what people say. How lucky is that?

More anon on the other amazing 63 year old I spoke with...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

More women finish...

...the crazy Leadville 100 race every year, than men. I should back up and add the qualifications and explanations that provide the necessary context for that statement. Last night I came across this fascinating (to me) statistic in Christopher McDougall's book, Born to Run (which is a fast, fun read about all sort of crazy trail running peoples). Apparently at the Leadville 100, an infamous (and maybe a bit insane) 100 mile trail race in Colorado every year, 50% or less of the men who start actually finish, but 90% or more of the women finish.

That's a pretty extraordinary difference. McDougall doesn't speculate as to why, nor apparently does anyone else, at least not anyone he quotes. So I have a wide open field in which to speculate. Some possibilities--women have a higher "quitting" threshold; women don't start races (or other things) that they can't finish; women approach daunting challenges with more humility (think the tortoise and the hare); women are tougher (have higher pain thresholds etc...); women are proportionately less crazy, so there are fewer of them to show up at the starting line and those who do are certifiable, whereas some of the men are only part of the way to certifiable?

I don't even know which one of those speculative answers I think is the right one, but it's fun wondering and whatever the reason--women finish.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Don't believe everything your brain thinks.

I saw a great bumper sticker the other day, "Don't believe everything your mind thinks." It was particularly apt in my case, because I had just had one of those experiences where my mind was convinced of one thing, based on prior experience and knowledge and all that supposedly bullet-proof "evidence" stuff, and reality was something else.

I was trail running (if you're thinking I've been doing too much of that lately, the answer is that I have been doing a lot--I don't know what too much would be, but I'll let you know if I get there) and we were following a map of the trails in the area. We got an intersection that we "knew," because we'd cross-country skied on the same trail all winter. So of course we were certain about where we were on the map. But then things went wonky. Where had the trail gone? If the vista was here, then the trail should be there. Except "there" was only a bunch of scrub bushes and we tried to run through them, but it was pretty clear there was no trail there, much less anything as wide as a fire road, which was what the map showed. We berated the map. Thank goodness we were so much smarter and could find our way without the map.

Oh. That's the vista? But that' s not where it is in the winter. Turns out, it doesn't matter where things are in the winter when we're xc skiing, map points are different for the summer folk. Just because we had a pre-conceived notion of where things were, didn't mean we were right. Suddenly the map was back in our good books and everything seemed clear again. As soon as we got out of our way, things got much easier.

I don't think I need to tie this in a bow for you to see where I'm heading from a "what did I learn from this?" perspective, so I'll leave it at that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Defining the Divine

I don't believe in god--at least not the one with a capital G, called by various different names depending on religious affiliation. But I do, to the horror of some of my other atheist friends, believe in the divine, in a spiritual energy in the world that I can't quite understand, but that I "feel" exists, and to which I contribute my own energy.

On Saturday I did a three and a half hour run (I'm calling it my personal, non-sanctioned marathon) on the Pacific Crest trail from Donner Pass to Squaw Valley. About two miles into the run I was at 8900 feet and the views opened up in every direction--mountains, lakes, cliffs, spires, bright green scrub bushes and tall fragrant pines, the occasional bright red flower, and the sky, stretching out beyond my eye, meeting the horizon at infinity. The sun shone its brightest and the cool mountain air tasted delicious. I had one of those moments when I felt the divine in the world and the divine in myself; the expansiveness of possibility seemed real and endless. And I thought about all the things I needed to get on--no more procrastinating.

Then I thought about an email story I got earlier this week for my book, from a woman in Santa Barbara, CA, who introduced herself in her first line to me as a "Christian." Well, I'm not one for religion, so it was with one eyebrow raised that I read her story about god coming to her while she was on a treadmill and basically telling her she was good enough to do a marathon and, while she was at it, she ought to do it for a good cause and raise money for canncer with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Team in Training. As I was feeling all "divined" and such on my trail run, I realized that my knee-jerk reaction to this woman's treadmill vision was pretty unfair. After all, if the same story had been told, but the location had been, say, a mountain top, and the "divine" was nature, and not her god, then I wouldn't have batted an eyelash. It wasn't as if she'd said that her god had told her to invade a country or start a war. No, her god had suggested she was a better athlete than she imagined (and she's a speedster, clocking in at 3:13 for a marathon), and that she could put her athleticism to a good purpose. Great. Cancer research can hope for more visitations on treadmills.

Who am I to define what's divine for each one of us? What's important is that we find it in ourselves, and that it opens up new windows on our capacity.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

In sickness and in health

Last week I interviewed two different women (for projects other than Run Like a Girl) who were fighting diseases--one a form of stomach cancer, for which she has already undergone four surgeries; and the other Type 1 diabetes, which has already necessitated a kidney transplant and a pancreas transplant may happen as soon as February 2010. I was struck by their ferocious strength and refusal to be treated, or even to think of themselves, as victims. Of course there are bad days, but in the main they both expressed how critical it was to greet each day for what it was going to bring.

They are both athletes, but they have had to change their definitions of the athletics they pursue, taking joy out of getting out on the tennis court or on the bike, rather than "winning." Both told me how important the athletics they pursued were to helping them understand how to break down challenges into achievable bite size pieces--something critical to fighting a serious disease, which risks overwhelming the psyche if it can't be parsed. If you think about it though, really all of life is like that. If we let it, it can seem insurmountable. Or we can break it down.

As these two women reminded me, athletics is a place that teaches us how to take things one day at a time. I might be training for a marathon (or a triathlon, or ski race, or some other goal), but what matters today is getting out there today. Tomorrow will come soon enough on its own.

Monday, August 3, 2009

California Girl

Planes, trains and automobiles and far too much stress to get out to CA, where we wondered if this was possibly one big mistake. Why were we here again?

A week along, I remember why. Running yesterday on a trail I'd xc skied in the winter, down into the Euer Valley, it was like an old familiar friend, but new. What last I saw as a winter wonderland, sparkling snow trees and and an undulating desert of white, was now green and gold, the mountain tops purple-grey, the smell of pine and the sweet-sharp scent of something else I can't yet identify, though I've plunged my nose into any number of the scrubby bushes along the way. I half expected a cowboy to appear and tip his hat to me graciously before continuing on his way.

A great run, a gorgeous ride, these things aren't going to make the real live challenges we face of sorting out how CA fits into our East Coast life, but breathing in the beautiful world through all my pores as I'm borne along by my own two strong legs somehow makes it seem more manageable. I can only take one step at a time, whether it's running or living.