XC and MS

I just realized I have less than an hour to write a post if I want to keep up with my one-post-per-month goal.  Needless to say, I can’t write anything worth posting that fast.

Instead, I’ll share this: a video about a prep runner from North Carolina.  She’s run sub-17:30–enviable, even for some boys–and she has multiple sclerosis.  (For some context, she ran at Footlocker South today and missed a qualifying spot to nationals by one position–two seconds.  For her sake, I so wish Footlocker had at-large bids for individuals the way NXN does for teams.)  It’s cliché, but her story truly inspires me.


Why I Run, Reprise

A year ago today, after the Run of the Mill 5k, I wrote a post called “Why I Run“.  One day after this year’s Run of the Mill, my sentiments are the same: runners are incredible people.  I don’t say that as self-flattery; I mean it in an admiring way.

If you read last year’s post, I mentioned a runner I vaguely know named Katie.  It turns out that we’ve kept in touch off-and-on for the past year–yay Facebook–and that she’s going to college to run with one of my high school friend’s cousins.  The running community is strange like that.  (For example, a lot of post-collegiate runners end up marrying each other–that sounded…not quite right–so then you get an interesting web of athletes with the same last names.  The genes for being a good runner also tends to run in families, which complicates matters further when siblings marry other siblings.  Let’s just say that the predominance of speed in the Pacific Northwest is probably not going to go away any time soon.  But enough of this aside.)  She was in the senior all-star race (the division I ran last year) yesterday, and I didn’t have a chance to talk to her, but randomly enough, her mother walked up to me and said hello and then offered to let me leave my bag in their car while I ran.  I happened to have a parking spot about fifty meters away from the start/finish line (despite arriving 45 minutes before the race started; I got the last of two spots in the entire lot), so I politely declined, but the fact that someone who’s effectively a stranger (she was one of my dorm’s chaperone’s at cross country camp two summers ago, and I have spoken to her at a couple of races since then, but otherwise I don’t know her) offered to let me use their car for storage struck me as a very runner-ish thing to do.  It’s saying, “I’ve been where you’ve been; I understand.  Implicitly, I trust you, and I know you trust me, even though we don’t actually know each other.”  The running community is strange–in a good way–like that.

The second, probably more poignant story, from yesterday is that of the final finisher.  He was a big fellow–probably six feet tall and 400 pounds.  (As a slightly creeper-ish aside, after some Facebook stalking, it turns out that he appears to be the uncle of one of the leaders of another cross country camp I went to.  This may contradict my observation about running running in families, but who cares?)  While I was cooling down, I saw him walking, accompanied by the trailing cyclist, either a paramedic or a police officer, I’m not sure which.  One thing that struck me was the the paramedic/officer acted as though he was in no hurry: it was no burden to him that he had to snake back and forth on the trail as he peddled slowly along; it was no irritation that it took him a half an hour longer to finish his duty than it otherwise would have; it seemed to be more of a joy than a bother to spend time talking with this final finisher.  After I’d finished cooling down and was going back to my car, suddenly I heard shouting from the finish line, “Everybody, he’s coming!”  In my head, I suddenly understood why the finish line, clock, and timing mats were still up, half an hour past the posted time for the course to be reopened to vehicular traffic: the race management and the city permitted it to stay up so the last finisher could cross the finish line.  (The city of Mill Creek just won big bonus points in my head.  I understand that this obviously isn’t practical/possible in many circumstances, but kudos to the Mill Creek police/city officials as well as the race directors, the timing company, the volunteers, and whoever else for making it possible.)  Apparently, someone had asked race volunteers stay around, if possible, to cheer the last participant through the finish line, since it was his first event and he just came with his brother.  What turned out was probably close to a hundred volunteers, racers, and patrons of nearby restaurants and businesses lining up along the finish line, cheering and clapping as though he were the first one, not the last one, through the chute.

“Dav-id!  Dav-id!  Dav-id!”

I think he was honestly a little bit surprised.  If it were me, I would have been dreadfully embarrassed.  (In cross country and track, and to be honest, at RotM last year, my main motivation not to be last was my fear of the “consolation clap”.)  I think, though, he could tell that people–myself included–were genuinely excited for him.  Despite what the world would tell him, he finished, in a few seconds more than two hours.  Afterwards, I found him sitting, exhausted, on a bench.  I told him, “I don’t know how to say this, but, you inspire me.”  He just said, “Thank you.”  I hope he didn’t think I was just being polite, because I mean it.  I hope he wasn’t offended, because I wasn’t inspired because of where he is–I’m inspired because of where he’s going.  On the days that I feel challenged, I’ll remember the people who face such bigger challenges.

This is why I run.

USATF Cross Country Chamipionships 2013

The past weekend ranks in the top three this academic year (the other two being the weekends of the Forest Park XC Festival and the TubaChristmas and WUPops concerts.)  Funny how things like that work out.

On Friday, Joe Newton and Charlie Kern of The Long Green Line came to speak and answer questions at the pre-race dinner.  My high school cross country coach idolized the York team, and though I’m not quite as enthusiastic, I admire them both greatly–moreso now that I’ve heard them in person.  They’re incredible coaches with incredible legacies, yes, but what struck me the most was their humility.  It’s not that I was assuming they would be arrogant, just that  their humility was of an uncommon level.

As an aside, Friday was grant day at the lab: basically, Christmas for PhDs, complete with jumping up and down, squeals of joy, and dancing of the happy dance.  It was delightful.

Saturday was raceday.  I ran about as I expected for a non-competitive phase, but it was the first time I’d felt good while racing since last summer.  (I’m hoping to race competitively again this summer, so that’s a good sign.  But we’ll see.)  I saw a few people I recognized from back home and lots of big names.  Since I volunteered at the pasta dinner, I had volunteer credentials that got me access to the finish corral where I got to photograph Shalane Flanagan, Kim Conley, Deena Kastor, Sarah Hall, etc. as they finished.  Afterwards, the quest for autographs began.

Part of what I was trying to do was take more than “running” pictures.  While I definitely wanted to take running pictures (I mean, come on, do you have pictures of Deena Kastor on your camera?), I also wanted to try to capture the atmosphere of cross country that I miss so much.  Since this was mostly an individual event minimizing the team aspect, telling that part of the story was a little bit harder, but I went into the day with the mindset that I would get pictures that weren’t just about who ran faster than whom or what times people clocked, but about the emotion, the pain, the passion behind it all.  I wanted to capture the story.  To encapsulate in a few thousand square pixels just how much people care.  Did I succeed?  In a limited sense.  I pushed myself to take non-running pictures, to get in people’s faces (via a zoom lens…most of the time), to seek out different shots.  Sometimes it worked.  Sometimes not.  It’s all a learning process, I suppose.

But you be the judge.  Here are a few photos from Friday and Saturday–a more complete upload may be found here.

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Week 4: Patience

I really don’t know what to write for this week, so I think I’m just going to use it as a teaser post for my coverage of the USA Cross Country Championships.

USA Cross Country Championships 2013, Open Women's

USA Cross Country Championships 2013, Open Women’s

I had so much fun shooting this–and just being around so many incredible runners and people.  More photos to come.  Be patient?

“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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I always thought I was an independent person; honestly, I still think I am.  I like the believe I have my life under control.  I like to know that my choices, for the most part, govern my future, for positive or negative.  I like having the confidence that I can handle whatever happens.  Honestly, I like the responsibility, even if I say I hate making decisions or I can’t deal with the pressure or I don’t know what to do.  Sometimes, when I say all those things, they’re actually true–but I still like my independence.  It’s paradoxical, I know.  Deal with it.

I hope you can manage paradox better than I can manage loss of control, because it’s about to get worse.  The funny thing is that the thing I think I miss most about where I am now versus where I was a year ago is the support system I had.  I don’t know if, or how much, I realized it, but in the midst of all the issues I was dealing with last year, and really, all the issues I’ve ever dealt with, I had a network of people who cared about me and loved me and prayed for me (even if I was angry at them because I thought they were condescending–and, arguably, I still think some of them were) and, perhaps most important, listened to me.  People to cover my back when I was too weak or tired or frustrated or generally incompetent to carry my own weight (BCXC 2011 ladies, you mean the world to me.)  People I could go to if I needed help with something big, small, or just plain silly (“Mrs. D., do you have any string that I could use?” “Yes, I think so.  Why?” “Um, I just need string…” “Oh, okay, here.  Just don’t do anything that’ll get you–or me–in trouble.”  I was stringing up a plush turkey in one of my friend’s lockers.  Shout out to the science department for supplying me with tape, string, acetone, lab gloves, coffee, and various other items.)  People who I could talk to about “deep” stuff (a couple close friends), shallow stuff (whoever was around), homework stuff (my genius friends), logistical stuff (it helps to be on admin’s good side), whatever stuff (sorry if I bored you to death).  I don’t have that any more.

Or do I?  Through all the changes, some relationships and connections will fall away, but others will grow stronger.  It’s those about which I care most.  There are still people who pray for me, talk to me (or email…or Facebook…or text…), and simply know me.  I still have my old network, albeit undergoing a time of metamorphosis.  Sure, I don’t have a willing supply of string and nitrile gloves–then again, I also don’t have anybody whose locker I would be pranking or car I would be “decorating” here.  But those people with whom I have and will remain connected: thank you, you mean the world to me.

One of the things I miss most about cross country (and track) is the team.  Sure, we were small, but we were tight.  Even when we had stupid girl drama, we were a team.  When we didn’t know if we had a coach, we were a team.  When results and relationships fell apart, we were a team.  I gave a lot of my body, my time, and my heart to that organization, and it pains me to leave it (and to see it in another year of “rebuilding” of sorts).  At university, I wear my old cross country and track shirts with pride.  I fought to get the fifth runner; I fought to qualify us to state; I fought to get us on the podium at state; I fought to get a distance coach; I fought to make the program better–not just for myself, but for my teammates, present and future.  I won a few; I lost a lot.  There was a coach at a cross country camp who asked us, rhetorically, “Why do you think gangs are so popular?  Because it’s a family, it’s support, it’s connections.  Cross country can be that for you, but in a good way.”  Really, though, it’s just a metaphor for what I want in life.

“It took a long time to make [Cristina] happy, and if you mess with that, I will turn on you.  That’s a team.” ~Grey’s Anatomy, Meredith Grey, to Owen Hunt

As an afterthought of sorts, I thought it would only be fair for me to tell you that my original conception of this post had a much more negative tone.  It’s still negative (duh, it’s me–the one with the perpetually half-empty glass), but a little bit less than it would have been.  About two paragraphs in, I got a Facebook post from an old friend basically letting me know that she was thinking about me.  That message changed my outlook and “made my day”.  Moral?  Don’t be afraid to say something encouraging to someone.  It makes a difference.

Why I Run

I suppose this harkens back to the speech I gave at my school’s athletics’ banquet, but I feel it’s worth repeating.

Today, I ran at a local race for the “top” graduating seniors in the state cross country field.  I would footnote this by saying that there were only nine females, and most of the people who qualify probably don’t even know the race exists, much less participate.  Regardless, for me, it was like a mini-Borderclash.  I’ve never been fast enough for any of the big/prestigious time-qualification meets–Borderclash, Footlocker, Brooks PR, Nike Cross Nationals, etc.  Heck, I could barely make it out of my district to state, and I was in a small-school league.  As insignificant as today was (there were only nine girls), this race was sort of like a tangible culmination to one of the things to which I’ve dedicated four years of my life.  State track and state cross country this year were that, too, but this was special.  For once, I qualified for something “different”.  I even got free clothing (and a free race entry!) out of it (don’t worry, it doesn’t impinge on my NCAA eligibility, not that it even matters).  I was eighth out of nine, but it doesn’t matter.  (I actually ran a pretty decent time for me, considering that I’ve pretty much been resting except for a sort-of-race three days ago).  All that matters to me is that I did it: I’ve had my eye on this race since I first learned of its existence, three years ago.

What ended up being even more special, though, is the people I encountered.  I saw a great deal of people I know to varying degrees from cross country camp or my district school or random other places, but three people in particular are outstanding.

First, I walked up to the registration tent, and the lady greeted me by name, which startled me; I realized it was Coach Karen, from a rival school our league.  She’s always been supportive of me and all the other runners, regardless of colors.  After the race, I spent a little bit of time talking with her, and was disappointed to learn that she would not be returning next year due to an internal snafu at her school which had left a goodly number of teachers and coaches as well as the principal “in the lurch”, so to speak.  She, along with Coach Laurel from another school, cared about all the kids out there running, not just their athletes.  Before we had a girls’ coach, and during track or at running camp, they took me under their metaphorical wings.  Coach Karen also showed me what it means to be an Ironman (at least as far as I can judge from the tattoo on her ankle 🙂 ) –on top of being a coach and a mother and whatever other hats she may wear.  I’ll miss people like Coach Karen (and Coach Laurel) next year–I’ll likely see my own (former) coaches over breaks and such, but for all I know, the coaches (and athletes) from other schools are now figments of the past.  I wish it weren’t that way.

The next encounter occurred during the race.  I met Katie last year at cross country camp, and I didn’t realize then, but she’s actually one of the fastest runners in the state.  You wouldn’t know it from her demeanor, though: she’s not arrogant or annoying or any of the other things that sometimes afflict talented athletes.  The special division in which I was running had a head start of about four or five minutes over the main race, so by the time I was twelve or fifteen minutes in, the lead males were catching me, and by the time I was twenty or 21 minutes in, the lead females were catching me.  Katie was one of the lead females.  As she came up on me, she said something to the effect of, “Way to go Joy, hang onto me.”  Needless to say…I tried for about 200m and then shouted at her, “You’re the one who’s run sub-eighteen.  GO!”  Those 200m she pulled me were important, though–I was starting to zone out, and she refocused me for the last stretch.  More important, though, was the fact that she took the time (and breath!) to say that to me, the mediocre runner who finished a good four minutes behind her.  That’s why I love the running community, but especially cross country: we care about each other.

The last person is my own (former) coach.  She’s…more than twice my age…and still ran two minutes faster than I did today, and about 1:20 faster than my PR.  Good heavens.  I cooled down with her after the race and we talked.  Well, she talked and I listened, mostly.  But I listen because I respect what she has to say and she’s almost always right (and maybe a little bit because I’m bad at talking).  I suppose that’s the cool thing: she makes time to talk with people, despite her absurdly hectic schedule, which goes back to the caring about people thing.

But yeah, it’s days like today that remind me why I run.