The Pain I Live For

I realized earlier this month that running probably saved my life.

Last year, I ran a charity 5k organized by the club running team on my campus.  I raced it pretty hard and actually ran a semi-decent time (pleasant surprise), which made my non-running friends think I was some sort of superhuman.  I promise you, I’m not: I am dreadfully average.  After I finished, I ran backwards around the course (let’s rephrase that: I ran the course in the reverse direction.  I did not run backwards.) to pick up my friends and finish with them.  This entailed me running along happily with them until the last hundred meters where I proceeded to inform them that we would be sprinting/racing to the finish–no argument–and then to scream at them as we raced.  It was delightful.  (One of many things I miss about running cross country/track is having an excuse to yell at people on a weekly basis.)

Immediately after, one of my friends told me something to the effect of, “Ugh, that felt terrible?  Why do you do this?”  I said, “I live for that feeling.”

Which is only partly untrue.

I do often think to myself during races, “Remind me why I’m doing this?”  But at the same time, I love the raw pain.  Even when I feel dead in the middle of a race, the intensity makes me feel alive and strong and free.  Mostly, it makes me feel.

Running helps me feel.  Even in normal circumstances, my I struggle to process emotions.  They’re complicated and confusing and messy and a lot of times I just don’t know what to do with feelings.  Too often, I think, I express all my emotions as anger (or at least that’s what I think other people are perceiving.)  And at times when my life has been far from normal, this has manifested itself as the inability to feel anything.  I’m simply empty: I don’t feel joy or sadness or excitement or frustration.  Sometimes I can identify anger or pain or an sense of being overwhelmed, but this is pervaded by an overall feeling of desperate, vacuous emptiness.  It’s been in these times–when it’s hardest for me to get out the door–that running has helped me the most.  When I don’t know what or how to feel, at least I can feel the tightness in my lungs and the frantic beating of my heart and the burn in my quads.  I can feel the urge to kick to the finish line or make a split on an interval or slough through a workout.  I can feel something real.  For a few minutes, the pain makes me feel alive.  For a while, that’s all that kept me alive.

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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.

This is Where the Healing Begins

I’d like to start by saying that after everything that transpired this week, it is good to know that the remaining suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing has been apprehended.  Nothing can ever really bring closure to the few thousand people who weren’t able to finish their marathon–much less to those who lost limbs or, worse yet, loved ones.  But I hope and pray that the knowledge that justice will be served brings some peace through the trouble, pain, and anger.  Shalane Flanagan did an interview with Runner’s World after Boston, and I think what she said really reflects how I’ve been processing everything that happened:

More than anything [Joan Benoit Samuelson and I are] obviously sad, but we’re pretty much pissed. We take it pretty much personal. I just feel like more than anything we’re pissed off that someone did this.

I hurt for the people who didn’t get to finish, who may never run, who will never see their loved ones again.  I’m even frustrated for the all athletes–but especially the professional runners–who poured so much into this race, only to have their performances overshadowed by the horrors that followed.  But mostly, I was angry that someone would have the audacity to (attempt to) assault something so beautiful, something that represents so much, something that people work for and and love.  I’ve never even been to Boston–much less run the marathon–and I still respect and love the place.  So to me, and I believe to many runners, it was almost like a personal attack.

As a result, after the initial shock began to wear off (and for some, even before that), we all came out with our haunches up, defiant, angry, and ready to fight back.

Today, I ran at the St. Louis Unity Run for Boston.  The St. Louis running community is still nothing like that in Seattle, but it was nice to be with people who care the same way I do, even if I don’t know any of them.  One thing I noticed was that before the run commenced, they had a pastor from a local church pray–not just a generic “God bless America” prayer, but one that actually sounded like it might be prayed in a church (it turns out that the pastor was from a Church of Christ congregation).  That definitely would not happen in Seattle, but I thought it was a very nice touch.  Most of all, seeing so much blue and yellow in Forest Park today was incredibly encouraging.  Runners running to and from the two Boston remembrance runs today would glance at each other with a knowing look, as if to say, “We’re here because we care.”BostonMarathon2013_04

This is where the healing begins, oh
This is where the healing starts
When you come to where you’re broken within
The light meets the dark
The light meets the dark

~Healing Begins, Tenth Avenue North

See You Next Year

Boston.

It’s one of those iconic things where you don’t even need to use the full name to know what it is, sort of like how the sight of a “swoosh” automatically invokes “Nike.”  Well, to runners anyhow.  You don’t say “I ran New York” or “I ran L.A” or even “I ran Athens”–the hometown of the marathon.  If you did, you’d probably get some confused looks.  But “I ran Boston”?  You’re likely to get looks of awe or curiosity or congratulations or that inside look that only people who’ve run Boston can fully appreciate.

The marathon itself is a beautiful thing.  It’s the longest conventional-distance race (26.2 miles, for the uninitiated), but that’s plenty long.  For scale, the farthest I’ve ever run at once is about 16 miles.  I feel like I could pull off a half marathon with minimal amounts of specific training.  A marathon is different, though.  You have to respect the distance, what it can do to your body, your mind.  Boston takes that respect to a whole new level.  It’s not that it’s the hardest marathon there is (not that it’s easy) or that it fields only the best athletes (though they do come).  It has something to do with hard work, pride, pain, joy, tears, determination, heartache (or did I mean Heartbreak?), courage–and tradition.  It’s an intangible, inexplicable quality that draws people, myself included, to Boston.

April 15, 2013.

The 117th running of the Boston Marathon commenced with the elite division.  Originally all six US athletes who competed in the 2012 Olympic marathon were slated to race Boston, but ultimately all but two–Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher–dropped out due to injury.  They finished fourth and sixth, respectively.  That would have been the news of the day, until everything changed.

I had just gotten out of my last lab of the day and was going to drop off my bags in the athletics’ complex so I could go for a tempo run.  I stopped to check Twitter on my phone; aside from watching a live stream, following raceday tweets is the next best thing to watching a race in person.  You get little snippets of people’s triumphs, disappointments, encouragements, and all sorts of interesting commentary.  (I also really wanted to know if Joan Benoit Samuelson had made it in under 2:52:43–her goal of being within half an hour of her 1983 record at Boston.  She did, with a 2:50:29 for 47th place overall.)  But along with a few older tweets along the lines of “FINISHED MY FIRST #BOSTON!!”, “PR 3:35:08 #bostonmarathon”, and “bonked at mile 22…rode back in an ambulance which would’ve been fun if i didnt feel like crap”, my feed was starting to be overrun by tweets like these from running media companies:

BostonMarathon2013_02The mainstream media hadn’t yet begun to cover the situation, so what I was seeing was from the aforementioned running media organizations, runners, and spectators.  At first I thought it was a hoax of some sort.  That lasted for about five seconds as my feed filled with more and more tweets.  For about one second after that I thought, “I wonder what sort of explosion they’re talking about?”–but that didn’t really need to be asked.  As an offspring of the post-9/11 world, in the deepest part of my heart, I knew.  The real question was, “How bad is it?”  I reasoned in my head that the press crews from Flotrack, Runnerspace, etc. usually had spaces reserved in fairly close proximity to the finish line, and since reports were coming in that the explosions occurred near the finish line, it couldn’t have been that bad.  I suppose it depends on how you define “that bad.”

My next move was to text my friends in the running community. Weirdly enough, this year, I don’t actually know anybody who ran Boston.  The people I know who would normally go are either injured, pregnant, just married, or taking some time off from marathoning.  I have never been so thankful that people did not qualify for Boston.  Even though I don’t personally know anybody at Boston this year, the running circles from back home exploded in a frenzy of social networking activity.  (As an aside, the man in orange in the incredible photograph from the Boston Globe’s John Tlumacki, of which another version made the cover of Sports Illustrated, is actually a local runner from back home, so when photos and videos of him going down started surfacing, the club team’s Facebook page went into even more of a frenzy trying to verify the status of all of its members at Boston.  As an aside to this aside, I actually think that Tlumacki’s photo is quite brilliant.  Obviously, there’s always an element of luck to photography–especially live-action photography–but the framing, lighting, background, and even the colors of the runner’s jersey and the officers’ safety vests make this picture so powerful.  Perhaps most important, though, the dynamic motion makes this photograph into more than just an image: it tells a story.)

I’ve never been to Boston (though I’ve always hoped to, and I still hope to–perhaps even more now than ever before).  I didn’t know anyone there.  I’m halfway across the country right now; home is on the opposite coast.  I should have no reason to feel so connected to this tragedy more than any other tragedy.  But I do.  I believe that it’s because the running community truly is a community.  Something about the shared sweat and tears and joy and triumph brings us together in a way inexplicable to those on the outside looking in.  It lifts us up when times are good and holds us together when they aren’t.

As much as I view viral quotations (which, half the time, aren’t even real quotations) on Twitter and Facebook with skepticism, one by Fred Rogers struck me.  He wrote in his book, The World According to Mr. Rogers: Important Things to Remember, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”  This is so true.  For one, it was a crowd of runners.  That whole deal I made about community?  It matters.  Secondly, humans as a whole have somehow managed not to evolve ourselves away from the run-to-help-rather-than-away-from-danger complex.  That’s a good thing.  It wasn’t just a few people–everybody rushed in to help.  Medical professionals in attendance originally to assist struggling runners, spectators, race staff, police officers, National Guardsmen who ran the rucksack race earlier in the day, runners who happened to be medical professionals, runners who happened to know that if someone is bleeding, you should put pressure on the wound.  Everyone, runners and non-runners alike, stepped up.

Runners are some of the strongest people I know.  If you want to tear someone down, runners probably aren’t the best target.  Marathoners, least of all.  By nature, I think, running draws a certain personality type (why do you think cross country teams tend to have the highest GPAs of all a school’s sports teams?)  And let me tell you, it’s not one of shrinking violets or defeatists or quitters.  Despite the steely picture I’m painting, runners are also an incredibly compassionate, passionate, community.  We love the race, but we also love each other.  I think this image from the Life in the Day of a Runner Facebook page says it all:BostonMarathon2013_03I think of the Tom Petty song (I like the Johnny Cash version better):

Well I won’t back down, no I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down

Gonna stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won’t back down

Well I know what’s right, I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I stand my ground and I won’t back down

And, on a slightly more pious note, from 2 Corinthians 4:8:

 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

And finally, I’d like to leave you with this cartoon from the New Yorker, drawn by Christopher Weyant.  If you don’t have a vague understanding of the baseball culture, this won’t make sense.  But it’s so true.  As my former principal/advisor says, “We’re pullin’ for ya.”BostonMarathon2013_01See you next year, Boston, for the 118th running of the Boston Marathon.

Week 9: Self-Control

Sorry, this post is even later than it was going to be because WordPress kindly deleted the 800+ word draft I was in the process of publishing.  Grrr.

When I was in elementary school, self-control was one of the items on our report cards in the “behavioral/social” category, along with things like “respectful”, “works cooperatively with others”, and “waits his/her turn”, each to be graded with a +, ✓+, ✓, ✓-, or -.  I usually got a ✓ or ✓- for self-control (teachers rarely gave out -‘s, except in cases of blatantly egregious behavior.)

It’s funny; I have extremely good self-control about some things but rather terrible self-control about others.  For example, I never drink soda, almost never skip my workouts, and always do my homework on time.  On the other hand, I spend too much time on the computer, don’t practice the piano enough, and have not-so-great eating habits.

I think part of this issue may stem from my background as an infant in China.  I’ve been told that when I was a toddler, I would clutch food in my hands and not let go until my muscles relaxed as I fell asleep, leaving little caches of Cheerios in my crib.  Even now, after living in a land of plenty for almost two decades, I still have a slight tendency to hoard food.  I almost never leave food on my plate, even if I dislike it.  A little voice still emerges in my head, saying, “But you don’t know when you’re going to eat next,” even though, in reality, I can say with 95 percent certainty that it will be within a few hours.

People think I’m incredibly healthy, but they only see me when I’m coming back from a workout or eating dinner in the cafeteria.  They don’t see me when I’m at my worst–eating a whole box of cereal in one night or going though a twelve-ounce jar of peanut butter in three days.  I eat healthy foods–in unhealthy quantities.

It’s difficult as a runner.  For one, I don’t really fit the stereotypical distance runner profile.  I feel awkward working out in sports bra, and probably not for the reasons I ought to feel awkward being seeing in a sports bra.  I know some of my increase in weight is due to muscle mass, but even that I struggle with.  For runners, though, a pound is a pound is a pound, whether it’s fat or bone or muscle. Don’t believe me?  Consider the difference in body type between competitive swimmers and runners.

Even in “normal” life, I let people think that I don’t care about clothing or appearances, but in reality, I’m pretty sure I just tell them that so that they don’t look to closely.  It’s like hiding behind the bulwarks of uniqueness and individuality, when in reality, you just don’t know how to fit in.

Perhaps even more than appearances, though, is the effect of weight on performance.  I know what you’re thinking now: flashing lights and alarms are going off in your head, screaming, “EATING DISORDER!”  I recognize that, and understand all too profoundly the risks.  I know far too many competitive runners, mostly female, but some male, who have felt the need to be faster and seen losing weight as a quick fix.  The hardest part is that it is.  It’s estimated that one pound lost translates to between five and nine seconds faster in a 5k, assuming no changes in aerobic capacity, etc., with times improving logarithmically with distance (and, presumably, with the amount of weight lost), for all you math-type folks.  (Unfortunately, I can’t find the Runnersworld article where I originally read this, but I’m sure there are studies out there, considering there are studies saying pretty much anything you might want to be said.)  And that’s where the temptation for so many lies.  Lose one pound and drop from 19:05 to 18:57?  That’s a good deal, especially for only 3500 calories–a great deal when it means going from league champion to state qualifier, or from decent high school runner to Division III athlete.  What about another, and another, and another?  Most runners do not set out with the goal, “I’m going to get an eating disorder!”–they just want that edge.  And I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a strong temptation, even for those of us who are fairly mediocre runners.

At the same time, I don’t want weight, appearance, or even performance to become an idol.  Eating disorders and idols aren’t the same thing: you can have an idol without the eating disorder, and though I suppose the opposite could also apply, it seems less likely.  Over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve come more and more to see how inconsequential I am and how great God is, and why all that matters is who He is and what He’s done.  I stood in church this Sunday so incredibly grateful for His grace, my life, and His Church–a place I am so glad to find myself.  In everything, I want to remember what is important.

I was talking with one of my best friends yesterday, and I mentioned that in college, I can go days without saying more than a few words (e.g., “Do you mind if I take a shower now?” or “Do you want coffee in the morning?”).  To this she responded, “Silence is good, in moderation–kind of like speaking.”  I think the same is true of eating.

Live, Love, Run

Erin Finn is currently one of the premier high school distance runners in the United States.  (I had the privilege of watching her race at the USA XC Championships.)  Unfortunately, she actually missed Footlocker Nationals this year, but in no way does that diminish her talent.  Why am I bringing her up?  One of her comments in an interview with Flotrack resonated with me:

“Sorry to bring up Foot Locker again, but this taught me not to hinge seasons on individual meets, titles, or times.  To have a perfect senior year, I want to enjoy each race that I compete in.  I want to remember that I compete for fun because I love running.  I want to have a wonderful time with my teammates and friends, train hard, and soak up the last bits of awesomeness from high school track and field.”

As someone who has relatively recently completed her high school career, I couldn’t agree more.  I can’t even begin to compare myself to Erin Finn, but I understand where she’s coming from.  Looking back, I miss cross country and track so much.  Even as much as I disliked the running-in-circles-eight-times part, I would still go run track all over again in a heartbeat.  I suppose it’s like that with a lot of things.

And that’s why I want to live with purpose now.  Sure, I knew I was going to be done with track on May 25, but not everything is that way.  Life happens; things don’t go as planned.  I could have a horrific accident and never be able to run again.  I could have a traumatic brain injury and never be able to speak again.  There could be a natural disaster and I might never be able to go to school here again.  Sorry to jump to the extremes, but it illustrates my point.  I don’t mean to say to live as though we are going to die tomorrow (that might lead to some irrational behavior).  I do mean to say that we ought to live as though we recognize we could die tomorrow, but probably won’t.  I mean to suggest that we should value what we have–life, time, hobbies, even the menial, daily chores of existence–as a fleeting gift.  Live, breathe, rejoice, love, run.

Erin Finn, 2nd place, Junior Women's 6k, USA XC Championships

Erin Finn, 2nd place, Junior Women’s 6k, USA XC Championships

“I want to enjoy each race that I compete in.  I want to remember that I compete for fun because I love running.”