Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Gift of Not Finishing

Last week I set out with my partner to do a 20-mile trail run in the South Yuba River canyon, from Little Washington to Purdon Crossing. There would be some elevation gain -- okay, 6,000 feet to be exact -- but we took the optimist's path, and set that detail aside. True, we arrived late to the trailhead (okay, noon on a blazing, 95-degrees-in-the-shade day and oh yes, there was quite a bit of non-shade on the trail). And between us we only had three liters of water. You wouldn't be wrong in thinking that we had taken our optimistic thinking too far, perhaps even into the realm of trail running for dummies.

Now when I have a goal in mind, I can get a little dogged (like, canine-sinking-his-teeth-into-a-toy-to-never-let-go dogged). Not to mention that we had cars parked at each end of the hike, so the exigencies of transportation created an added incentive. I wanted to finish.

By mile six things looked less than promising. The map was studied. The words "campsite" and "road" at one of the trail junctions flashed like Times Square billboards...more than eight miles further along. Running became run-hike-run, which became run-hike-hike-hike-run, and then hike. I wondered (however fleetingly so, it is not to my credit) about the appropriateness of leaving one's running-partner-in-extremis by the side of a road, and running the last five miles alone, just so I could "finish."

When we reached the road, at just over four hours and 30 minutes into the progressively slowing run-hike, I knew we were finished, and that what we'd done was more than enough. It was then, when I dropped my 20-miler chew toy, that I found the balance in the day.

The road was un-trafficked, in an area that brought to mind Deliverance (cue the banjo!), as unfair as that comparison likely is to the actual residents. We passed a couple of roads (or driveways?) leading off into the dense and uninviting woods. The next house, set back in the woods, was at least visible. At the gate, a tiny rock was painted with the words "inquire about our guest cabin." Was the cabin referred to the structure with the tin sheet roof and the caving-in walls, set some 25 feet from what seemed to be the house proper? Was there even a door on the cabin? Was the sign ironic?

And how about the large dog cage, empty of dog? I imagined a menacing one called it home. Already I was picturing big teeth, saliva dripping from the bottom of the dog's chin as it prepared to attack. I walked down the drive toward the house with trepidation. No dog. Just two little cats, heads popping up and then bounding away, tails pointed skyward. I knocked on the rickety screen door. A woman in her mid-fifties answered with a friendly smile. She offered her phone -- a landline -- to call into Nevada City, the nearest town, for a taxi. The area was off the mobile phone grid, naturally. She went back to cutting hearts out of a spot-patterned bed sheet. Still a bit worried, I asked after the dog, who was no longer, she told me. I breathed an internal sigh of relief.

But there was the pig. I had time. The taxi we'd called wouldn't arrive for at least half an hour. The women led me into her bedroom, adjacent to the kitchen where I'd come in, there, lounging and snorting at the end of her bed, on her own crib mattress (complete with sheets and extra bolster pillows) was Ruby, a 160-pound Vietnamese pot belly pig. Seventeen years old, arthritic and ailing, Ruby was a former service pig. She had visited hospices, hospitals and schools in her prime and had sported the pig-fashions of the day. I crouched down to pet and chat with Ruby. I looked at her baby book, which included a younger Ruby in a Sugar Plum Fairy outfit.

Inside myself, I felt a fresh flow of energy, as my internal rhythm re-calibrated from the truncated exertion of the run to this new, unlooked for experience, finding the adjusted harmony in the day.

In addition to the introduction to Ruby, the woman offered me stories: that retired miners liked to spend the summer at the nearby campground panning for gold in the South Yuba River, the very area which was the source, as she told me, of the wealth that had built San Francisco; that raising organic, pastured chickens to lay Omega-3 enriched eggs is hard work, best done by the young; that pig rescue organizations have a job on their hands (pigs start breeding at four months and are essentially as prodigious in their procreation as rabbits, much to the shock of casual pigs-for-pets owners); that her area (though not she herself) was the supplier of most medical marijuana to the Sacramento area, hence the unwelcoming cast to most of the properties around.

When the taxi arrived, 45 minutes later, the driver parched and unimpressed by the condition of the road, I was sorry to leave; and not sorry at all to have not finished the run. Despite my dust-caked legs and the twigs in my hair, I felt clean and refreshed. A day I might have viewed as a failure had been an unprecedented success.

We didn't force the run. Like water encountering an obstacle, we flowed around the challenges, finding the most natural course for that day.

The felt experience of that South Yuba day was like I was back on my slackline (like a tightrope -- follow the link to see what I mean), which I've been playing with, and perhaps it was the familiarity of the sensation that made meeting Ruby possible.

I've been practicing walking backwards on the slackline, also turning around, though I'm hardly beyond beginner in the forward walking department. What I've noticed in all of my efforts, is that I can literally feel, physically, in my body, how getting frustrated foils my intent, how I can only execute a maneuver once I let go of the angst-y need to succeed.

One more vivid example of that physical-mental feeling in action happened one day as I rode my mountain bike home from the grove where I usually slackline. The ride is not particularly technical, but then I'm low-skill mountain biker. There's one particular rock, maybe the size of a cushy, upholstered footstool, that's been menacing me since forever (okay, for the past three summers). The trail winds around the rock in a sharp-ish turn, flanked by thick tie-your-bike-up mountain shrubbery. I have always balked at the last minute, and put a steadying foot down. But this one day, as I approached my rock-nemesis, I was feeling a nice post-slackline calm. What was the worst? A tumble in the bushes? A chain ring in my calf? Been there. Done that. I glanced at the rock and it seemed to soften, the path seemed to widen, and around I went, and have done ever since. No force. Just flow.

To me that experience feels like slowing down my energy, by which I don't mean sapping or diminishing my energy, rather I mean gathering my energy inward, moving toward my center, my place of balance, a state which can never be achieved through pushy frustration.

And that physical feeling, practiced over and over, gets in some sense dialed in at a cellular level, and slowly, slowly translates into life itself.

You can find this blog on Huffington Post, too...

Friday, August 19, 2011

It's Not About a Better Body

I have tried all sorts of different workouts in my time—in addition to all the outdoor things I partake of, from running and cycling (off and on road), to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and hiking, to kayaking, rock climbing and swimming, I do yoga and what’s variously called Physique57 or Bar Effect (or Core Fusion, or Nalini) classes. In what feels like another lifetime (during my law school years), I was an aerobics instructor. And I’ve tried all sorts of gym classes (despite my non-membership), from kickboxing, to step classes (yes—that goes back some years), to pole dancing and Zumba.

Some of these pursuits promise to make me longer and leaner, to re-shape my body to the ideal—I wish. Actually wait, really? Is that really why I’m engaging in a particular activity? Other activities promise me a calmer mind and Gumby’s hamstrings. The first sounds pretty good, the second sounds implausible, unless I’m willing to give up running (not!). Some of my sports make me no promises. My mountain trails have never spoken to me about their intentions for my body, or at least not that I know of.

What I do know is that far too many workouts are pitched as answers to the mythic pursuit of the perfect body. Mythic—because the very idea of perfection is a myth: Perfect by what or who’s standard? Society’s? By which we mean exactly what?—media generated images of beauty?—By which what I really mean is media manipulated and distorted (aka falsified—I mean you, Photoshop and your ilk) images of the unreal.

How can we possibly think that there is one standard of beauty, when we know (we really know) that each one of us is an individual with our own particular tastes? You think steak is the perfect food and my pick would be hummus. You feel perfect in pink and I feel best in black. You define musicals as the perfect entertainment and I’m not happy unless I’m crying in my theater seat, no soundtrack please. You get the idea. It’s no different for bodies.

To pursue perfection is a trap, a rat maze with no escape. Perfect is a confining concept, one that holds up a rigid not-every-person’s-ideal as a benchmark for all of us.

Instead, I propose we think of the pursuit of “excellence” over perfection. Excellence is individual, though paradoxically, also less subjective. That’s because excellence comes from inside ourselves, it is our mastery of the particular field we have chosen. It is investing our efforts at our personal maximum level in pursuit of our best self, holding our own selves to the highest standard. And this excellence is far different from perfection, that more confining concept, which implies the best of the best of the best, as defined by the whole entire world.

As Carl Jung said, “Perfection belongs to the gods; the most that we can hope for is excellence.”

So to burden our workouts with the end goal of achieving the perfect body is to pursue the impossible dream. Not because you can’t do it. Because the end goal does not even exist!

Uh-oh. If our goal is a chimera, where does that leave us?—On the couch with a box of chocolates? (Not that I don’t love my couch and chocolate). Of course not, or at least, not until we’ve finished our workouts.

We simply cannot be working out just for better bodies. The good news is that deep down we’re not that deluded. Studies have shown that women who are encouraged in a workout setting with the carrot of positive reinforcement about the health and happiness benefits of their exercise are far more likely to enjoy and stick with a workout. Whereas workout settings, which use the stick of negative self-image, shaming the participant into thinking she needs a smaller bum, thinner thighs or a flatter stomach, foster recidivism.

Why we workout matters.

Here’s why I do.

At one level, I work out because I want to be outside, rain, snow or shine, to feel the elements against my skin and know the seasons are changing by the taste of the air I’m breathing; because I want to be strong, to test my mental and physical endurance, to show myself what I’m capable of; because I will not go gentle into that good night, as the poet Dylan Thomas says; and so I can lounge on my couch in a state of well-earned-body-tiredness and eat those chocolates.

At another, deeper level, my workouts brings me great joy and that is reason enough. I am feeling pleasure in my very fibers, the pleasure of sweat, of effort, of turning “can I?” into “I can.” The other morning, running alone in “my” mountains, I started to wonder if my eyes were playing tricks on me. The trail in front of me was streaked with bands of unexplainable light. I blinked, wondering if something was in my eye. Then I realized that what seemed to be coming from inside my eye was actually the sunlight reflected off the veritable web of early morning, as yet undisturbed, silk spider filaments, which criss-crossed my path at ankle level. I was suddenly filled with such gratitude for the privilege of experiencing such beauty and my luck at being physically able, that I spread my arms wide and shouted nonsense-happy-sounds. Don’t worry, no one saw or heard, so you don’t need to be embarrassed and pretend you don’t know me.

The next time you are engaged in your active pursuits, stop a moment, feel the “why” of why you are doing the workout. As Eckhart Tolle recommends in Power of Now, scan your physical-emotional being and ask, am I happy? I hope the answer is yes. If not, find the workout that gives you that answer.

This post can also be found under an alternative title on the Huffington Post.

Monday, August 8, 2011

An Overdue Thank You to My Readers

Today I received an elegant and gracious letter from a woman who had recently read Run Like a Girl. Each time I receive a missive like this, I am moved anew. Selfishly, I wrote a book because I am a writer and I love writing, the very act grants me inordinate amounts of joy. Yet, what started as this selfish act has yielded me a more profound result than ever I anticipated. Some of you, who have read the book, have been inspired or moved to reach higher, and discovered that you could. For the opportunity to participate in the tiniest way in that discovery, I am grateful down to my bones.

I’ll leave it to Yann Martel to say better what I am fumbling to express. As Martel wrote in Beatrice and Virgil (italicized explanatory note is mine), “Henry (the protagonist) had written a novel because there was a hole in him that needed filling, a question that needed answering, a patch of canvas that needed painting—that blend of anxiety, curiosity and joy that is at the origin of art—and he had filled the hole, answered the question, splashed colour on the canvas, all done for himself, because he had to. Then complete strangers told him that his book had filled a hole in them, had answered a question, had brought colour to their lives. The comfort of strangers, be it a smile, a pat on the shoulder or a word of praise, is truly a comfort.”


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Confidence to Race Nascar Rules

It’s been a couple of years now since I interviewed some of the women in my book. Granted, that’s not quite long enough for a really shocking “where are they now?” But I recently had the chance to catch up with Brett Buckles, who was, as some will remember, in the midst of recovering from a race career ending ski accident in Tignes, France. I was curious to know how she was adapting to her non-pro, or amateur athlete life in the slow lane (by her standards, not mine). And I should be clear here, when I say amateur, I use that term with the greatest respect. After all, the Latin root of the word is amare, which means, “to love,” as in—we do our sports because we love them, not because we gotta.

I also wanted to know if Brett had competed in a rodeo yet, one of the things she’d told me was on her list. She hadn’t…yet.

That’s because Brett is busy with about a million other things. To begin with, she’s coaching our future Ski Cross Olympians. There’s not much of a Ski Cross field in the North America yet, though it’s an established sport in Europe. It’s a fast and furious version of downhill ski racing, in which 4-6 people are on the course at the same time, competing head to head, with Nascar-style rules—“rubbing is racing.” No malicious contact is allowed, in case that wasn’t obvious.

The girls she coaches, 7-10 nationally, at any given time, are, unsurprisingly, slower to take to the sport than the boys. Fear, as you can imagine, is your biggest enemy in the sport, as it is in life, though perhaps a little more obviously when you’re hurtling down a mountain, trying to avoid skirmishes with others doing the same. Based on my fear of small rocks while on the mountain bike, I suspect I would not be good at Ski Cross. Before you leave the gate, Brett says, you have to be 100% confident in yourself. According to Brett, it takes considerably more effort to build the girls’ confidence in themselves. She blames at least part of this on how we are socialized, what she calls, “the being feminine thing,” which tells us we can’t kick ass and still be a girl.

Still. This is still an issue. Sigh. I wish for girls (and women, of course) the confidence to race Nascar rules, in whatever they do.

Fortunately for the girls Brett coaches, and injury notwithstanding, Brett-beats-all-the-boys-Buckles is still faster down the course than the 15 and 16-year old boys she coaches (I wonder how that feels for the boys?), so she can show her girls what’s available to them. So even if most of the time they are learning how to go faster by chasing the boys, at least they know, because they’ve seen it with their own eyes, what a woman can do.

Brett still feels the itch to race, if not professionally, and even if she finishes DFL (dead fucking last). When she has that goal out there, it’s the nudge she needs to push herself to the limit, or beyond—and that’s the pleasure zone for Brett in sports. She’s taken up mountain biking (no surprise) and may compete in triathlons, though she doesn’t love running (no surprise there, either, since even top speed isn’t going to get the wind whistling in your ears).

When she’s not training her girls, or herself, Brett is working on a career in journalism, writing on the gamut from snow sports to reggae music reviews. On the side she’s making jewelry. I think we can safely say that Brett has not confined herself to a darkened room to nurse her self-pity, something I needed to remind myself of on occasion, as I’ve traveled my own nano-length road (by comparison to Brett) to recovery.

p.s. I got out for a first mountain bike ride this past weekend and worked up an honest-to-goodness sweat—what joy!