Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Forward Motion

I finished my (possibly) last marathon last month, in conditions brutal enough to make seasoned NYC marathoners quit the course before the halfway mark.  For those of you who have been following the blog for these past 7 (seven!) years, I won't bore you with the mile-by-mile recap.  Suffice it to say the course was spectacularly wonderful and cruel, as only marathons can be, and there was the usual cheering, cursing, gasping, and weeping...all before mile 14.  High wind speeds destroyed a few runners; bibs were being whipped off racers in the first .2 miles across the Verrazano bridge.  (A quadruple-pinned bib is, let me tell you, a difficult item to simply tear off from your body.)  Headwind was nearly consistent the whole race, adding to the already chilly autumnal season.  I wore full winter racing gear, plus a plastic garbage bag for insulation.  (Suffice it to say the race photos shall never surface.)
But, the most entrancing part of the race were the crowds - all of New York showed up to cheer and marvel at the runners - the energy from the spectators truly made the difference.  That will forever remain my favorite part of the whole experience, being taken care of by the New Yorkers in every borough.

Special thanks to my friends and family who, I can say with supreme confidence, supported my finishing to an extent they know not.  I honestly would not have been able to finish that marathon and get back on a plane immediately after (another great post in the works) without their help.

The picture of me after the finish line, where I befuddled the photographer by insisting, through my sobbing, that he snap a picture despite the snot and tears, is testament to the relief of knowing that I had not only completed the race, but also transitioned out of my life in NYC.  Having taken a new job in the Bay Area recently, I found myself with two weeks to pack up my 10-years-in-NYC life and move back to the Best Coast.  Never could I have predicted, back in February, that by signing up for the race, would I have to fly back to NYC to complete it.
So there I was, late September, in my little apartment off 18th street, staring at the multitude of things I had to ship to California.  I thought about all the times I had imagined race weekend: waking up in Brooklyn, heading over to the pier to take the ferry to Staten Island, and not checking any post-race baggage since I would simply hobble home afterwards.  There I haggled with myself, amidst a labyrinth of cardboard boxes, trying to determine if it was worth shipping my GU packets back with me or not.  (File that away under; "Things I Did Not Anticipate Having To Think About"...).  Six boxes and two FedEx packages later, I was shipping my life across the States once more, about to start a new chapter, with a small pit stop in DC for a 10-miler/family reunion.  On the plane home, I barely had enough time to re-envision what race day was going to look like.  In fact, I didn't even register that I needed another flight back to NYC in less than a month, nor did I completely think through the logistics of race day (which is why I was/am still so grateful for the support network I have).
I realized later that the most pressing circumstance of the whole move was affecting me at a subconscious level:
How had I managed, after all these years, to end up back at the beginning?

The move itself was whirlwind, and, in typical NYC fashion, left me with barely enough time to process what had just happened before I was jumping back into what seemed to be a life ala deja vu.  Nothing was terribly unfamiliar, and, having lived a semi-adult life already in the Bay, I felt like I was simply stepping back in time, yet with a better sense of who I was this time around.  While I may have settled into a routine here in Cali, there are times where I feel like I'm just visiting, and living an extended European vacation.  Never in NYC can you call your daily life picturesque (unless you count those special sunsets on the Hudson in winter when the sewage doesn't smell quite so pungent).  But here, running around in the foggy mornings, or in the clear midnights, it's a surreal transportation to some semblance of a Conde Nast travel poster.

I very clearly remember my first "returned" run, about a week after I had settled: I laced up my shoes around 8pm and headed out towards the foothills.  It's weird to run on pavement here - I actually snickered to myself thinking about how often people expect running on pavement will destroy you, and that being my only medium for so many years.  I was grateful for the pavement in that moment: feeling like NYC had followed me across the country.  I was breathing in deep gulps of the night air, so piney and purifying - when I turned into the local track at the elementary school.  Running around the sandy track, I saw a few faintly bobbing headlamps and heard the sounds of dog leashes clicking away down the street.  I was thinking about how odd it was to be running in the warm weather, and how much colder it might be for the marathon.  I was a little lost in my thoughts as I turned up an alleyway to head out the back of the school, when a quick flash of light swung up into my face and a small voice called out:
"Greeting Adventurer, what brings you here at this time of night?"

I barely registered the surprise I felt at being heralded by an 8-year old and his expedition companion.
I shuffled by, without missing a beat, huffing out a quick retort:


Duh, I caught myself thinking.  There it was: true New York indignation at being asked a question with an obvious answer in plain sight. "Adventurer" - that kid was having a very creative walk, and what a question to fall out the darkness to interrupt my thoughts.  In fact, that was the part that surprised me the most: having a simply absurd and yet strangely timely question posited to me in a dark back alley of suburban California.
What did bring me here?

Running, I had said.  Yes, running had brought me there, to that little path behind the school in the later evening, putting in the last bit of taper mileage before I was to fly back to NYC to race through all 5 boroughs.  But running, as I rolled the question over in my mind, had also brought me to many distinct places in my life.  I've often joked that every time I train for and complete a marathon, some major shift happens.  The first time, I started a fresh life in New York.  And this time, what might be the final time, I was starting a fresh(ish) life in California.  And I mention that because, honestly, there is no place like a run to really figure out your life.

Philosophically, I know that running has taken me many places, and not always in an obvious sense.  Running has taken me to places in my emotional and mental life that are strange and wonderful and challenging.  I've had time to reflect on who I am and what I want out of life, during those long silent 20-milers.  I've questioned my sanity on speed intervals, wondering why I torture myself.  Running has pushed me out the door into blustering weather and warm sunny days, into freezing winds and sweeping landscapes.  I've run in nearly every state and country I've ever visited, and run with people from all walks of life.  Running has introduced me to new and old friends, to new and old places, and to new and old versions of myself.    I wasn't a runner for much of my life, and then I became a runner, and then I stopped and had to start over and rediscover what being a "runner" actually means....
There are many things that bring you to where you are, but none so catalyzing as running.  It will not let up, it will not let you turn around, while at the same time chiding you for defeat at every step.  My lungs are a testament to its insistence - take a break from running for two weeks and see how it feels to return.  It surprises me every time, how quickly the practice can dissolve out of your system.  But then there are moments of arriving at gracefully easy strides, where your body says, "ah, that's familiar" and you relax because you've found that perfect pace where everything is effortless, and the thrill of unlimited potential rises into clear view.  You can feel how long it's taken you to get to that ease, and understand what it means to truly earn something.  Running has brought me from simply moving to moving forward.
And that's the most compelling part for me: the very idea that the most primal movement, a forward motion, can often transform your whole existence.  I've traveled from coast to coast, from 5Ks to marathons, from young to not-that-young, from 'I-think-I'll-run-a-marathon' to 'what-the-hell-was-I-thinking-AGAIN'.  Running has brought me joy, tears, aches and pains, insurmountable obstacles, and laughable benchmarks. It brought me back to school, back to my own life, and back to a place I've always known was home.
Running, very simply, always brings you full circle: you start, you go, and you return...and for all the places I've gone, or seen, or done, or been, running will always bring me back to the beginning.