Lessons from One Fifth of a Marathon

On Mother’s Day, after three hours of sleep, I arrived at Hayward Field at 6:55 a.m. to watch the Eugene Marathon start. While I might have done this just for fun, I was there for one specific reason: to watch my mom start her second marathon. Among the thousands, I did not spot her, but I did tear up when all those strangers glided past me. Maybe I’m too emotionally invested in the running community, but whenever I see people run road races, I think about the transformative power of running and it gets to me. Something about the determination and bravery that it takes to step on that line is as moving to me as any art piece.

Three hours and three cups of coffee later, I drove to the Owosso Bridge, located 20 miles into the marathon. There, my real job began; I was to meet my mom and run with her through mile 25, just like I had three years prior in her first marathon. Over the previous months, she had talked nonstop about the marathon, so I knew the plan. She wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which would require a 4:10 final time–she ran her first one in 4:09.26–and a 9:30 minute/mile pace. Thanks to technology and her bib number, I also knew that she had passed the half-marathon mark in a 9:40 pace.

I stood shivering with a handful of other dedicated cheerers; the runners ticked by with the minutes. I watched a woman emerge from the path and plant an eager kiss on her boyfriend. I watched another woman burst into tears when her boyfriend excitedly said, “You’re averaging 10-minute miles!” He did not receive a kiss. By this point, Boston was beyond reach and I prepared to comfort my crying mother. But when I finally spotted her purple shirt 20 minutes after I expected it, she looked emotionally stable.

“What up,” I said.

“It’s not my day!” she said with surprising conviction. No tears, no curse words, just a 5’5” build trucking along.

Over the next five or so miles, we averaged two minutes slower per mile than she had trained for or anticipated. At times, I worried that she might fall off the bike path when she ran too close to the edge. I did my best to say inspirational things like, “Nick Symmonds has never run a marathon. You’ve done two! That means you’re way better than him.” Mostly, though, I worried that after the race, she would be devastated. Maybe I expected this because that’s how I would feel. Just a week prior, I had run my worst race of the season to cap off perhaps the worst week of my year. In the span of a few short days, all the things I had worked toward for months fell apart, and since I was entirely unprepared to deal with it like a person with actual perspective, I counted them as failures of my humanity.

So, while I jogged alongside and took selfies with my semi-delirious mother, I thought about all the things I could say to console her afterward. How I would remind her that running success is not evidence of human success and that it’s really the process that matters, all the training and the lessons along the way, not just the race.

With half a mile to go, I said, “It’s all you now. You know what to do” and sprinted to Hayward Field with enough time to pee before she finished. She crossed the line in four hours and 34 minutes; 24 minutes too slow for Boston. When we all went to greet her, to my complete surprise, she was totally content, maybe even happy.

Here's a really high quality selfie that shows how much fun mile 25 can be.

Here’s a really high quality selfie that shows how much fun mile 25 can be.

When I think about her response to a perceived failure versus my own, I think the difference is gratitude. She understood all the nuances about racing before I told her because she could already appreciate and recognize the gift of this marathon. With even the tiniest bit of gratitude, a world can change.

In my own world, after bad news continued to pile on in heaps, I stopped for a moment and listed all the things that made me grateful to be alive: watermelon, oatmeal, 30 degree mornings, college, my family’s support, Inca (my dog), Chance the Rapper, airplanes, etc. I felt broken, but my spirit was intact. The bad news continued to come, but rather than be moments of failure, they became moments of opportunity. I can still be hopelessly idealistic and chase after big, impossible things. I will still feel defeated and heartbroken when these things don’t happen, but I will also be okay. I am not entitled to a spectacular season or infallible plans, but I am entitled to do everything possible to make these things happen. My mom was not disappointed with her marathon because she had no regrets; it was not her day. She did the absolute best she could, and that was enough.

When I made my gratitude list, the most important thing, the thing that will always be at the top of my list, is this moment right now, this breath and this heartbeat, the tiny details that allow me to make a list, and to make another breath and another heartbeat into a moment with possibilities so endless I cannot imagine what might happen next. For that, I am forever grateful.

Fast Starts and Water Jumps: What I Learned From My First Steeplechase

After my first race of last cross country season, my coach asked me my thoughts.

“I definitely started out too hard,” I said.

“Good. Keep doing that,” he replied.

At first his response baffled me, but when I thought back to my high school days, I realized that starting out harder than what seemed reasonable was a key factor in my ability to get faster and better. A fast start can easily sabotage an entire race and result in chronic fading, but eventually, a fast start will lead to a fast middle and a faster end.

My dad always told me that Galen Rupp’s strategy was to hold on to Bernard Lagat’s pace as long as possible, and each race he held on a little more. Rupp didn’t beat Lagat for their first 12 races against each other, but on his 13th try (which happened to be at the 2012 Olympic Trials), he won. The first time Rupp tried to hold on, he probably looked a little crazy, but all that mattered was his belief in himself and his refusal to give up.

Last August, I had a week almost entirely to myself because my parents were on vacation, all my friends were out of town, and I was done working for the summer. I had a lot of time for self-reflection, which resulted in borderline insanity, but it also resulted in an important, tri-fold revelation. Three thoughts entered my mind and have continued to swirl around it ever since: mountains, majors, and steeples. The first led to a tattoo and other adventure plans. The second led to a switch from zoology to English (the best decision of my college career so far). And the third became a reality last Saturday, when I ran my first track race of the year, and my first ever steeplechase.

Once again, I started out too fast, and after two laps of decent hurdling form and well-executed water jumps, I pretty much fell apart. Most of the race was a blur of splashing water and approaching barriers, but it was incredible. After the race, I explained to my coach that my over-confidence and over-excitement in the beginning led to my quick demise, but like before, he seemed pleased with my attempt.

(Photo credit: Irish Rose Photography) Look at how much fun we're having! Who wouldn't want to do that?!

(Photo credit: Irish Rose Photography) Look at how much fun we’re having! Who wouldn’t want to do that?!

The thing about steeplechase is that there are water jumps involved, and to clear these water jumps successfully the only option is to approach them fast and without hesitation. Otherwise, there are a plethora of things that could go wrong (and did go wrong in our practice in the weeks prior): accidentally hurdling it, falling forward on the landing, not making it out of the deep part of the pit, etc. Even successfully placing a foot on the barrier is not a given, so any good water jump requires, quite literally, a leap of faith.

This is probably why, when I first discussed becoming a steeplechaser with my coach, he made it clear that to be a good steeplechaser, you have to be a little nuts. I assured him that I was more than a little nuts, and he agreed that steeplechase could become my new event. After a single experience with the actual race, I still very much have no idea what I’m doing. My strategy to learn is to put myself out there in every sense of the phrase and hope that along the way, I’ll find out what it takes. Consequently, this is also my strategy for life.

Vulnerability is a terrifying thing. It can result in quite a bit of anguish and frustration, but more importantly, it also leads to some incredible heights. And to me, these heights are worth all the heartbreak along the way. Sometimes, when these ratios are skewed, it feels like I’m living in a state of perpetual heartbreak. I often care too much, so I am often disappointed. But alongside this comes euphoric (drug-free!) highs. This is also the reward for the leap of faith in a water jump; for a few moments, you get to fly.

Just like steeplechase, I think that to be okay in life, you have to be a little nuts. The world is a big, confusing, intimidating place. A lot could go wrong, so putting yourself out there seems counterintuitive to protecting yourself. Why risk feeling too much when there’s already so much outside of our control? Why add in barriers and water jumps to an already excruciating race? My answer, of course, is because it’s worth it. Because imagine the possibilities that exist when you leap without knowing what’s next. Because if you really want to know what it feels like to fly, you can’t hesitate. You have to just go, and you have to start out way too fast.

Living for Moments in a Materialistic World

I’ve always hated money. I hate thinking about it, I hate talking about it, and I especially hate that it’s the driving force behind our entire society. My professor recently put a quote from Fredric Jameson on the board: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” Even with climate change threatening to actually end the world, it is apparent that capitalism is not going anywhere, so it’s pretty useless to try to change it completely. Besides, capitalism is by no means the worst thing in the world. My biggest problem with it comes from the consumerism and materialism that have ballooned alongside it.

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday night, I sat in the cafe positioned in the basement of our school library. After a weekend of both literal and mental fog cultivated by layers of clouds and hours of school work, I was already in a mindset far removed from my usual optimistic self. Coupled with that, I had for the first time actually considered the cost of college, and the brutal reality of it was upsetting at best. If even in-state tuition with scholarship assistance would be unaffordable for the average person, I could hardly imagine how people managed to pay for private or out-of-state institutions. The amount that tuition has increased since my parents went to college 40 years ago is jarring.

With that in mind, when I sat in the cafe thinking about money and how the college I attended could inhibit someone’s freedom for years after graduation, I was already spiraling into cynicism. So, when I glanced up and saw two refrigerators stocked full of plastic bottled water and soda, I almost gave up. Not only did those refrigerators house ridiculous amounts of environmentally treacherous plastic, but everything inside of the plastic was unnecessary. Oregon has some of the best tap water in the world, and there was a drinking fountain located twenty feet from the refrigerator, yet in five minutes I still saw a handful of people purchase bottled water. The frivolity of soda speaks for itself–it has zero benefits for health or the planet. It’s fortunate that I was positioned where I could not see all the other pounds of packaged food that surrounded the refrigerators; otherwise, I might have made a scene.

Let's take a break and look at this beautiful Oregon scene.

Let’s take a break and look at this beautiful Oregon scene instead.

Of course, I am not immune to this culture of convenience. Sometimes I decide to sleep for twenty extra minutes instead of packing food for the day, and then I end up buying overpriced items that contribute to the world’s useless waste with their packaging. This term, I have become increasingly intrigued by coffee, and for awhile this meant the accumulation of very wasteful, very not reusable paper cups. Even though I now only buy coffee if I have my reusable mug, I’m still wasting money in the mere act of buying the coffee instead of making my own. Because I am a consumer and I decide that a short-lived burst of caffeine is more important than saving the equivalent of 30 minutes of work. The more I take stock of the waste I accumulate daily, the more I realize that it represents exactly what its name suggests: wasted time, wasted money, and, eventually, wasted life.

This is where my issues with consumerism take root. Somewhere along the line, we decide that the act of living is in itself not enough. We lose the magic of the intangible and look for satisfaction in things we can touch, things we can own. We find jobs that pay us just enough money to fund our need for the things advertisements promise will make us happier–clothes, makeup, technology, fancy drinks. We become enamored with brands that we believe represent our best selves and use these purchases to show everyone that because we drink Dutch Bros. and because we wear Nike, we are automatically trendy and fit in with the molds of society.

We claim that we really do love these material things, that even though they are more expensive and lower quality than their small business counterparts, they are still the best. The brand name means everything and if we fail to purchase the newest version or variation, then we fail to maintain our carefully crafted identity. Because somehow, material things have become so important to our lives that they define us. Instead of living for experiences, we live for things.

Though as a rule I hate shopping for clothes, I have experienced retail therapy exactly twice in my life: once the day after a breakup, and another time two weeks after my best friend left for an 18-month long mission. While I limited my shopping to second hand stores, I still felt the soothing promise of new (to me) material goods to heal my fractured self. And it totally worked, but only on a surface level. I felt better after these endeavors, but in both instances it took weeks more of immersion into books and creative outlets to actually feel whole again. I was accustomed to sharing much of my life with these people, and despite the media’s tendency to suggest otherwise, things are no replacement for real human relationships.

As I become increasingly aware of the influence consumerism has on myself and those around me, I realize that I have a choice: I could turn to cynicism that would likely regress into apathy, or I could live my life in a way that rejects it. For the sake of my remaining optimism and basic enjoyment of non-conformity, I intend to adopt the latter approach.

This is the magic of the scene outside Cougar Hot Springs.

This is the magic of the scene outside Cougar Hot Springs.

So, a few weekends ago, I found myself in a place directly oppositional to all things consumerism: Cougar Hot Springs. Because when you sit naked in a pool of naturally heated water in the middle of the Oregon forest surrounded by a dozen other naked strangers, you are completely removed from the material things that normally represent to others who you are. The only branding that can possibly define you is anything you might have tattooed on your body, and I really hope that people don’t get actual brands etched into their skin. Being naked with strangers forces you to take full stock of who you are and what actually matters to you, and when you can see yourself free of the chains of society, then you are actually free to live.

I’m not advocating for a nudist society, but I do think that being naked, whether metaphorically or literally, is the biggest departure we can take from consumer culture. In this state, not only can we express ourselves with our ideas and personalities and values, but people will see us as a product of these abstract things rather than as a product of our possessions. Unconcealed, we become the most authentic and beautiful versions of ourselves that we can possibly be. And amid that authenticity comes a liberation from the false comfort of things and a gateway into a life marked by moments, not materials.