And Then I Danced with the Kenyans

One week deep into sleep deprivation and already enamored with the international athletes and officials that had taken over the University of Oregon campus, I sat with the visiting teams to watch a perfect race unfold: the junior men’s 10,000 meter final. And as the setting mid-July sun dramatized the sky and a symphonic melody filled the Hayward Field air, I danced with the Kenyans.

Let me explain. For two weeks, I spent virtually all of my waking hours at the IAAF World Junior Championships, but I only actually saw about four events. I worked in the Athlete Village, interacting with international people constantly in one of the coolest experiences of my young life. My co-workers and I were anchored to our welcome desk, but on the day of the Opening Ceremonies, we managed to briefly escape. Armed with our signature dorm food salads, we entered the stadium just as the music started and people circled the track with every participating country’s flag.

Since we lived behind that desk, we were buried in our own World Juniors experience, but had not witnessed any of the big-picture effects until then. We sat in the athlete’s seating area and listened as each team would cheer upon their flag’s announcement. To our left, Brazil hollered and below us, Canada hurrahed. Midway through, it became apparent that we were sandwiched between the Kenyans when their flag’s entrance incited cheers all around us.

Excuse the non-smart phone picture.

Excuse the crappy non-smart phone picture.

Eventually, all 175 flags filled the track and the crowd stood for a live symphonic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Once the flags exited, the symphony remained and it set the stage for the event’s first final: the men’s 10,000 meter run. The cloud-littered skyline bled pink and red as the gun went off, and the symphony did not stop playing until the last runner crossed the finish line. The Japanese took the immediate lead, but two laps in I turned to my co-worker, pointed to a Kenyan in the middle of the pack, and said, “He’s gonna win. I’m calling it.”

Around us, the Kenyans brazenly cheered for their athletes with each passing lap. While their runners did not set the initial pace, they took off with a third of the race to go. A Ugandan latched on with the two Kenyans, and all three took the lead as if the 17 laps prior had been a convenient warm-up. Their pace quickened and they picked off runners a lap behind like it was part of a childhood game. I have become accustomed to the African style of dominating distance races, but watching it unfold with athletes my own age on the stage I have frequented my entire life left me breathless.

The Kenyan excitement grew in sync with the leaders’ increasing gap. Athletes and team officials rose to their feet and my co-worker and I were moved to do the same. With three laps to go, the Kenyans overtook the Ugandan. The cheers around us amplified and the team’s involvement with the race became a full-body endeavor. Several people sprinted to the front row and leaned over the barrier while others fell to their knees and praised some higher power.

With two laps to go, the Kenyans maintained the lead over the Ugandan. Those who remained standing began to dance and sing unabashedly. Their pure, unfiltered joy was so electrifying that I joined them in their dance and yelled, “I AM KENYA!” which in hindsight doesn’t make much sense, but in that moment felt like absolute magic. I cheered for the Kenyans in those last few laps like I would if an American runner was on his way to Olympic gold right in front of me.

But the race only intensified and the Ugandan somehow out-sprinted both Kenyans, leaving the runners with the lesser two medals and the team with complete devastation. The last 100 meters silenced all songs and halted all dances. While the elation I had absorbed moments earlier still remained, I watched dozens of people go from euphoria to anguish, and my heart broke with all of theirs.

The Kenyans arriving to Eugene. Imagine their smiles during the race. Photo courtesy of Marcia.

The Kenyans arriving in Eugene. Imagine their smiles during the race. Photo courtesy of Marcia.

Still, those few minutes of joy I shared with the Kenyans lifted me to a state of communal ecstasy that I have not experienced since an ODESZA concert earlier this year. This enchanted atmosphere only exists when a crowd of people simultaneously abandon all qualms and accept the present so completely that the past and future seem irrelevant at best. It’s the kind of feeling that Beatles songs promise will definitely come with LSD use and probably come with world peace. In short, it was bliss.

I spent over 200 hours at the World Juniors, but dancing with the Kenyans was my favorite moment because it was a moment of paradise. I learned so much from all the federations I interacted with, but no lesson so profound as what it means to believe in something with every atom of your being. While I also learned what it feels like to watch dreams perish, the physical outcome still seems secondary to the anticipation that precedes it. After all, the Kenyans came back to win the 1500, so I can only begin to imagine the exhilaration that filled the stands in those precious moments.

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No Trespassing: Subtle Rebellion for the Sake of Autonomy

On a recent run, I pranced through no less than three “No Trespassing” signs at the end of a dead-end country road. Desperate for dirt to escape the monotonous asphalt and charged by the early morning sunlight, I found the risk worthy, if not essential.

I knew that the dirt roads were there because I had ignored these signs many times before. In fact, in my previous escapade through the prohibited area, I returned to the normal road to find a man dressed in camouflage standing in a field holding a shotgun. I tried to stride by unnoticed, but he stopped me.

“There were three coyotes sitting up on that hill watching you,” he said.

I could not decide which unsettled me more: the man talking to me with a gun in his hand, or the image of three predators stalking me while I ran oblivious.

“The coyotes have been killing off the deer lately,” he continued. “I’m trying to get them.”

Though I despise hunting and thought the man’s attempts were likely quite illegal, I made the wise decision not to argue. Instead, I smiled politely and began to run again, wary that I had just turned my back to a gun and that, compared to a coyote, I was probably an easy target. Alas, I survived the rest of the run with no gun wounds and no trespassing violations, but I did not return to that route for a week.

This view is great, until it never changes.

This view is great, until it never changes.

When I did, I again had no qualms about the signs. Until I reached the point on the road where I could connect to another dirt road that is much less prohibited. To make that connection, I had to go past a bridge that often has construction remnants strewn about but rarely has human life present. I usually pass through that area without a problem, but this day, right before I turned the corner, I heard construction noises and voices getting closer with each step.

I darted off on a side trail, hoping it would spit me out onto the less prohibited trail that I sought. When it instead gave me a dead end, I navigated over loose rocks and scrambled up a dirt hill that did not, in fact, lead me to the trail. It took me to the area I had been avoiding all along; the area with real live people who definitely knew that there should not be a running girl emerging from the heart of their construction. So I ducked down and, in lieu of braving the rocks again, chose to bound through the knee-high grass as fast as possible because I am terrified of snakes (and I saw one on a hike the day before so clearly they were after me).

When I finally returned to that damn country road in safety, it became apparent that the lengths I took to avoid human interaction–and, likely, repercussions–were slightly ludicrous. I chose the possibility of encountering a snake or rolling an ankle over the possibility of getting in trouble with a random person I would never see again. But it also became apparent that I did all this because the ability to run on that dirt road–albeit illegally–means my own liberation.

The only thing missing here is some dirt.

The only thing missing here is a dirt trail.

Not only is it an escape from the road and a cushion for my legs, but it is a step into a path that I would guess not many brave. The “No Trespassing” rule is in place for a reason, but like many rules I find it unnecessary and intend to break it. I do not think that my running presence on a dirt road three miles outside of a small town will cause any trouble for anyone or anything, so the fact that a rusting sign can imply this irks me a bit.

I’ve never been one to thrive on excessive rules and regulations, or even societal norms for that matter. Things like school dress codes and texting games do not appear to advance civilization, so I do not prescribe to their influence. Even the obligatory greeting conversation (Person 1: “Hi, how are you?” Person 2: “Good, you?” Person 1: “Good.”) seems like a meaningless formality. These rules simply encourage people to embrace conformity and avoid intentionality in their thoughts and actions.

Even really big, really important rules are often wrong. After women could finally vote, they still could not compete in collegiate athletics or even run road races. We put way too much trust in our executives to make the right decisions and spend too little time considering their impact. I’m not advocating for anarchy here; I am simply calling for more thought about the guidelines and expectations that govern most details of our lives.

The feelings I got when I avoided that construction worker were the same I’ve had when I’ve pulled borderline all-nighters mid-season or loitered in dark parking lots until cops kindly request that we leave. Uneasy about the technical wrongness of the situation, yet thrilled that the incident will succeed without any formal consequences.

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Hay fields tend to go on forever.

There is a certain elation that accompanies getting away with something, and if it is a silly rule then this elation comes guilt-free. If you’re sneaky enough, you might even inspire others to go out and be the rule-breakers they wish to see in the world. Because civil disobedience is in.

Reconnecting with Society through Books

Books have always been my thing. I started reading the Harry Potter series in first grade and did not stop until a week after the Deathly Hallows release in 2007. In between books, I racked up hours devouring Sharon Creech novels and other fantasy series. This helped secure my annual victory in “Tons of Reading,” an elementary school class competition to determine the most avid reader.

By high school, I had read Fahrenheit 451 and was well into Gone with the Wind. But then life became busy and my pleasure reading was limited. Still, I managed to read classics like Animal Farm and Brave New World through my classes, and I savored every word.

But in my interactions with other readers I have noticed a glaring hole in my book repertoire. I have not read some of the most essential stories that seem to grace every must-read modern classics list. Against all odds, I have missed Kesey and Steinbeck and Vonnegut. I have not even read the great American novel, The Great Gatsby. When I fail to effortlessly quote and discuss these books–due to the fact that I have not read them–I feel inadequate as a self-proclaimed reader.

Imagine if a runner did not know about Steve Prefontaine or Joan Benoit Samuelson or Mary Decker Slaney. These people defined the sport of American middle distance and distance running. They paved the way for every distance runner that would follow. And they should be celebrated accordingly. Of course I know all about these runners because running is such a massive part of my life, but so is reading.

Alas, there is only one solution, and that is to read these books. So that is what I will do. I now present my list of Top 10 Books I Must Read Before I can Consider Myself a Fully Functioning Member of Society:

1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1972)

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)

3. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey (1964)

4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

5. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

9. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968)

10. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

As I compiled this list, I noticed an alarmingly common theme: all but one were published within a 20 year period between 1952 and 1972. This also happens to be the time period where I belong. My father recently said, “You are a flower child.” I am confident that these books will allow me to better understand my flower child roots and the era in which they began.

Surprise! I have already started my reading journey. In a recent week of strikingly sunny weather, I laid outside and read about war and time travel. That’s right, Kurt Vonnegut, I can now say “So it goes” without fear that my fraud will be detected. And I am well on my way to understanding Ken Kesey a little bit more through the eyes of Chief and McMurphy.

I will track the rest of my progress here and add a few thoughts as I finish the big ten. But for now, I will delve back into the Oregon insane asylum until I emerge one step closer to fully functioning personhood.