“On Tents and Running and Other Stuff”

All freshmen at my university are required to take an intro composition class (the only exception being engineering students, who can attempt to test out).  Since it’s required for approximately 1500 students, the quality can vary greatly based on instructor, class dynamic, etc.  It has an annoying workload, but I happen to like my professor fairly well, even if his personality/sense of humor confuses me deeply at times.  I suppose the best way I can describe him is a cross between my high school world literature/AP language and composition and world history/AP European history/art history teachers, but more cynical, which I sense is more related to worldview than any inherent personality trait.  Regardless, he grades a lot like my world lit/APLC teacher did, so I feel like my writing capacity is at the very least being challenged, if not actively improving.

All to say, this is an essay I wrote for my composition class.  The curriculum is standardized to a degree across all the classes, so everyone writes a “personal essay” along with four other essay types plus a research paper.  Our assignment was to write a personal essay about a place we hadn’t been in a while.  Even though I knew it could go terribly wrong, somehow, I decided to write about running.  Thankfully, this one turned out alright (at least judging by my grade).  I actually ended up liking this essay fairly well, though–behind my athletics’ banquet speech, this is probably my favorite of my running-related composition.  So I thought I’d share it with you.

I know the ending is kind of tacky.  No, it’s really tacky.  (Especially the first sentence of the penultimate paragraph.  Oh horrors.)  I was clawing for depth/implicit meaning…and kind-of-sort-of failed.  That’s why writing about running is risky for me–I can’t always get beyond myself and find substantive meaning.

I did change a few things here from what I submitted, since some of the people involved could, hypothetically, stumble across this blog.  And not, the original title was not “On Tents and Running and Other Stuff”.  It was “Personal Essay”, which is redundant for a blog post.

After (what seemed like) a long walk from the school bus, I chose a suitable spot on the grass and told the boys to put the eighty pound frame down; I put the large, but significantly lighter, Rubbermaid box down nearby.  (Being female and older than all my peers had its advantages.  Namely, making other people carry heavy items I could just as easily carry myself).  I opened the white-topped box.  A slightly stale, musty odor filled my nostrils; old grass shavings filled the crevices and creases of the forest green tarps I began unfolding.  The boys tugged the cover off the frame and began expanding the metal structure, like a butterfly inching out of its cocoon.  Soon, a frame became a tent, tarps became sidewalls, and a grassy patch near the eleventh hole of a golf course became home for the next eight hours.  Cross country season had arrived.

In western Washington, every bona fide cross country team owns a tent.  Not to have a tent is folly: knowing it is going to rain in late October in Seattle is as close to knowing the future as any human will ever get.  Besides, on the occasion that it is sunny, shade is a pleasantry afforded by a tent’s canopy.  Regardless of the weather, it is critical to have a base camp: a place to hold team meetings, to use as a changing room, to sleep after races, for parents to convene, to store the mountainous assortment of spike bags, shoes, three-foot long foam rollers, backpacks, food, clothing, and whatever other personal belongs people managed to drag with them.

Our tent had been to Portland, Oregon, for a major national meet, to obscure state parks in the very western-most part of Washington for tiny twenty-person races, to fancy golf courses near Microsoft’s headquarters, to dilapidated golf courses near neighborhoods I wouldn’t enter willfully unless I were accompanied by body guards, to rainy dual meets at our home course eight minutes from our school, to sunny eastern Washington four hours away for the state championships.  The settings changed, but the tent always stayed the same.

Well, almost always.  One season, we had not been anchoring the tent to the ground because the base stakes had vanished into the abyss, also known as the athletics department’s storage trailer.  All was well—until one day, a strong gust of wind caught the inside of the tent like a sail.  Except, with three sidewalls attached, the structure acted more like the drag chute of a fighter jet than the sail of a yacht.  We watched, eyes widening, as the sidewalls billowed and the entire tent began lifting upwards and tipping backwards towards the thistle bushes behind it.  As we let out a collective “Whooooaaa,” vocal inflection matching the rising of the tent, we rushed to grab the legs.  Too late, the tent came to rest on its top.  Fortunately, no harm was done to the tent—but the coach did purchase stakes that week.  At the next meet, we conscientiously hammered iron garden stakes into stone-infested ground.  The winds came, and like the Big Bad Wolf at the second little pig’s house, huffed and puffed until it finally blew our tent down.  But because the tent was anchored to the ground, rather than merely overturning the entire frame, the wind actually fractured two of the metal beams, causing structural failure.  Needless to say, we had no tent at the next meet.  Even after our coach replaced the beams, the frame never folded down quite as nicely as it had before it was visited by the Big Bad Wolf.  Some things did change.

Even at that one tent-less meet, the single tarp we laid on the ground symbolized home, rest, safety.  You could fall down from exhaustion, gasp in pain, embrace teammates in congratulation, cry from disappointment, or jump up and down from excitement (if you had enough energy left).  We could relax, eat, and do homework in relative calm after our races.  We could gossip about other teams—so long as their tents were set up on the other side of the field.  We could leave our belongings unattended, guarded only by the unspoken, sacrosanct eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not enter another team’s camp or touch its property without permission.  According to my own team, the slightly less-menacing corollary to the eleventh commandment should have read, “If you mess with Joy’s stuff, she’ll mess with you.”  Thus, everyone who had items they wanted kept safe put them in my bottomless black Under Armour bag.  As a result, I accrued a collection of homeless iPod earphones, spike keys, and not-so-lucky socks by the end of each season.

But as much as it was a place of refuge and safety, the tent was a place meant to be left.  One year, the third runner on the boys’ team panicked in the tent thirty minutes before the state championship race was to begin.  He had fought through a difficult season of physical injuries and mental frustrations; compounded by the fact that it was his senior season, he froze and refused to put on his racing spikes or leave for the starting line with the rest of the team.  Rather than face the challenges and risks inherent to the course and its competitors, he wanted to remain in the relative safety of the tent.  The coach was desperate: the alternate runner was slower than the top two runners on the girls’ team.  After much pleading, commanding, and reasoning, the third runner eventually put on his spikes and left the tent, but not before badly unsettling the confidence of the team.  Though there were many other influencing factors, the boys’ team finished eleventh that year—they had been seeded between third and fifth.  The tent was a safe place, but not a safety net: it could not protect from fear or the failure that followed.

Rather than a security blanket under which to hide, the tent was a place meant to be left behind.  The tent was where we would prepare us mentally, analyzing race strategy; where we would prepare physically, stretching our muscles; where we would prepare outwardly, donning our racing spikes.  But after preparation, embarkation.  In this respect, the tent served the same purpose as high school.  High school is a safe environment to learn information and practice skills and study how to perform tasks.  In high school, failure has few to no true long-term consequences: you might receive a poor grade or even have to retake a subject—but compared to failing board examinations as a medical student or making an error on a patient’s case as a doctor, failure in high school is nothing.  Yet despite this level of comfort, no one wants to stay in high school indefinitely.  By the time students are seniors, if not sooner, most are usually anxious to leave the safety of the classroom: like baby birds ready to alight from the nest, they want to be challenged, they want risk, they want to prove that they can use their accrued knowledge in the real world.  Likewise, the tent was a place to grow, to practice, and to train—but not to stay.

Humans cling to what they know.  We know best what we cling to most.  In general, we act in a manner that minimizes vulnerability and risk and maximizes personal security and comfort.  It is this self-reinforcing cycle that can yield situations like that faced by our boys’ team: situations in which something, once considered safe, becomes dangerous.  The third runner was seeking what he thought was refuge by remaining in the tent—a constant, known entity in a setting of turmoil, energy, and risk.  But in reality, staying in the tent posed the greater risk: his actions endangered the success of the entire team, of all the effort committed to the season by six other athletes.  The tent changed suddenly from a safe haven to a death trap, like a seatbelt in a car underwater.  Yet, it is important to remember that the probability of drowning because you drove into a body of water and could not detach your seatbelt is much lower than the chance of dying because you crashed on dry land not wearing a seatbelt and were ejected through the windshield.  Thus, the proper response is not to avoid wearing a seatbelt because the car might crash into a lake, but to be aware of the potential, albeit unlikely, dangers associated with this safety device—and continue using it as it is intended.  In the same way, though our greatest securities can become our greatest menaces, we shouldn’t fear them simply because they exist.  Rather, we should use them—and respect them.

Two years after that calamitous state championship, I returned to the same golf course for my final high school race—for what I knew could be my final cross country race, ever.  After a long day of races, it was time to tear down camp.  First, the sidewall tarps peeled off to be folded (by the girls’ team—the tarps always seemed to fit back into the Rubbermaid box more nicely that way), then the frame collapsed, then the canvas cover coaxed back over the top.  Finally, we began what seemed to be an even longer walk back to the bus, the boys hauling the tent, me carrying the tarp box. What I knew and loved was over, the future, uncertain.  But I had no option to remain in the tent.  It was folded, covered, and soon to be locked in the storage unit.  My only choice was to begin, to go forth, to compete.  And thus, as cross country finished, something new began.

tentIn case you were wondering: yes, the backs of those shirts say “FTW”.  It was supposed to stand for “for the win”.  Our attitude towards the shirts/slogan was FTW–in the other sense of the term.  Not one of our coach’s…brightest…moments.

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