Sunday, November 13, 2011

Running With Myself

Last Sunday I ran the RaceVermont Fall Half Marathon in Shelburne, Vermont. It was a beautiful morning for a long run—cold and crisp and clear. I don’t live in Shelburne. In fact, I live 275 miles away in New Haven, Connecticut. But I am trying to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Before last Sunday I had run in 8 of the 50. As I knock them off my list, I have to go slightly farther from home to find states I have not yet run in. That is why I was in Vermont on a weekend when there were closer races to be run.

This was a small race—limited to 600 people—and the course was really interesting. It followed roads and trails and it took us near the shores of Lake Champlain. There were a couple of medium hills and lots of pretty scenery. Some of the races I have run lately have been huge, with thousands of runners, so this felt intimate. We didn’t have chips to time us and there were no clocks on the route to let us know our pace.

I never wear a watch or any sort of Garmin—I have a Luddite view of running gear—so in this particular race I had no idea of my pace as I ran. I could have asked another runner, but a few miles into the race I decided I would rather run without knowing my time. I never run against the other runners, but I often run against the clock. This time I decided to simply run against myself.

At mile 6 the course started on a long downhill that ended at mile 8 and then turned around and went back up that same long downhill stretch, only at this point it was now a long UPHILL stretch. When I got to the turnaround point I felt strong. I knew I still had about five miles left, but I also knew there was a big hill staring down at me. I decided to push myself up that hill at the edge of my ability. The guy I had been running next to for a half mile said something like, “You gonna put the fast shoes on now?” I looked over my shoulder, said “Yeah, I think I will,” and chugged up the hill.

It went well and when I got to mile 10 the course left the road and turned into the woods. The organizers had decided not to put any mile markers on the stretch of course that ran through the woods; not only did I not know my pace, I also had only a rough idea of how much race was left. Again, I decided to run against myself and my own desire to turn it down a notch and catch my breath. I told my body to find its edge and keep it there—sort of like setting the cruise control on the highway.

(Me, looking pained at Mile 12.5)

It turned out that the trail stayed in the woods for two-and-a-half miles and by the time it emerged we were on the road only a half-mile from the finish line. Even here there was a point at which my mind wanted to coast a bit but my body overrode and pushed on, right at its edge. I finished in one hour, forty-two minutes, and fifty-six seconds for a pace of 7:51 per mile. It was my fastest half marathon ever.

Today I realized that in fact I wasn’t running against myself at all in Vermont. In fact, I was running WITH myself and that is what made all the difference. There was no clock, no mile markers for me to obsess over, and no goal other than to stay at my edge. And the company was good.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Sometimes I worry. More than I let on, even. Am I a good enough teacher? Where will we live next year? Will we have enough to retire on when we are ready? When will my parents die? Will their decline be traumatic? Will my daughter be spared some of the more painful parts of growing up? Will my marriage last? What will I do next?

During the day, it is easy enough to simply put these worries aside. At night it is harder. There are fewer distractions and the dark seems to be where these worries like to lurk anyway.

So, a few nights ago I woke up at 3 in the morning and my fears kicked in full-force right away. They were relentless and drove me out of the bed and down into the living room—into the light. I won’t say what they were because they were what they always are—irrational, exaggerated, and destructive. But that particular night the light did not drive them away.

I tried to write them away, but that didn’t work either. The only thing that really chased them off was the rising of the sun and the start of another regular work day. I find these worries have a strange aversion to daily routine—once I boil the water to make the coffee, turn on the morning news on NPR, and get started on Isabel’s lunch, routine replaces worry and another day begins.

That particular day was a Wednesday and on Wednesday the school where I teach has a School Meeting. I take my students up to the fourth floor of our converted factory building and we sit on the carpet, along with our Meeting Buddies---the kindergarten and first grade students. All of the other students of the school are there too, as are the staff, administrators, and many parents. We sing songs, recognize birthdays, hear announcements, and share with the school community details about what we are doing in our classes. It is a tradition I love.

As the meeting began we were singing a song about a river. It is a song I have come to really like, in spite of itself. The chorus goes like this: “River, take me along in your sunshine, sing me your song, ever moving and winding and free, you rolling old river, you changing old river, let’s you and me river run down to the sea.” It embodies the worst excesses of many folk songs about rivers, and when I hear 120 kids singing it full-throatedly, it moves me.

So, on that morning of hard-to-kill worries I was sitting on the floor, surrounded by happy kids, singing a song about a river when I noticed the hair of the second-grader in front of me. It was in two tight braids that were remarkably well done. I stared at those braids and started to think about the person who sat for a long time and patiently, lovingly brushed out this girl’s hair. Whoever it was that wove those braids spent a lot of time and effort doing something for this girl that she could not do for herself. Those braids spoke of patience and unselfishness and intimacy and love. By the time the song was over and I turned away from those braids, my worries had beaten a hasty retreat and I moved into my day ready for whatever it was going to bring. Just took a simple reminder.