Maybe our lives are directed by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves more than we think. Time, a way of ordering events, becomes a necessary (and vital) ally when we formulate statements about what we are or aren't. "I'm not a runner," I said for the past six years, because I selected a handful of moments in which I was injured or not-running. Narrative is a powerful thing, especially when it's in our own voice proclaiming perspectives which seem like truths.
I ran in the Reno-Tahoe Odyssey recently, a 178-mile relay race that begins and ends in Reno, but which covers territory around Truckee and Tahoe, the Carson Valley and Virginia City. The team I was invited to join, an "ultra team" (which meant the standard 12-man team was pared down to 6) named "Six Strips of Fried Bacon" was comprised (mostly) of people who'd known me when my narrative wasn't "I'm not a runner" but something more along the lines of "I'm so much of a runner that I'm going to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the marathon thankyouverymuch."
These were my friends-- in some ways, my closest friends-- the people with which I shared running miles. These were the people who suffered alongside me, who pushed me to run farther, and who carpooled with me to races I couldn't afford to travel to on my own. And so, this race--the RTO-- was intersection of time: people who'd run with me and knew me as a "runner" met the me who says "I'm not a runner, anymore." I wondered, many times, why I torture myself like this.
Can a person go crazy from loss?
I wonder about this in the weeks leading up to the RTO, and the morning of the race itself when I find myself headed to our rendez-vous point at a teammate's house near Wingfield Park, where the race would begin. I'm early enough that I know it will be awkward if I drive straight there, so I invent reasons to stop along the way. I buy extra water. I tell myself I have to pee three times, and stop at two gas stations and a Starbucks where I order a coffee I really don't want, but drink, because it gives me something to do when I finally do arrive, and find that I'm the first person there, anyway.
I worry that friendship can be erased over the years when you stop doing things with the people who were your friends years before when you go away to graduate school, become broke, try to be a writer-- which leads itself to more broke-ness-- and then you end up pursuing another sport which has its own community, rules about spandex/lycra, and that requires not only special shoes, but also a helmet.
These days, I'm a cyclist. I'm also older and I've gained weight in my quads and hamstrings from the 200 mile races I do. And, I'm at that point in my life when I look at myself in the mirror and I don't recognize the face which stares back at me. It's a face that looks tired a lot of the time because I get up extra-early to train, I work a full time job and face a two-hour daily commute which cuts into everything else in my life. So, honestly, it's hard for me to remember the life I led when these five friends knew me, when I was a runner.
Maybe I'm in mourning for the young person I was once now that I've grown up, become a writer (sort of) and turned into an aspiring ultra-endurance cyclist who runs between 20 and 30 miles a week, sandwiched in between my full time job, the ghost writing I do and the 240-300 miles I spend in the saddle.
We pack the van. I add my water to the mix and shove myself into the backest-back seat, which will basically become my spot for the entire race. When we get to the start line, I'm "introduced" to people I knew, back when I was a runner. They don't recognize me.
One woman was a graduate student in another department who picked up on the guy who was a grad student in the History Department at UNR in a bar one night, before my first semester began. I'm amazed she doesn't remember: six years ago, she oversaw the graduate teaching assistants, and sat in more than one class I taught.
We went to a bar together with the cute boy, whom she left the bar with, but she called me the next morning to ask if I was all right.
At the starting line, though, she blinks at me like a stranger, and says: "Nice to meet you."
I leave the past as our first runner starts down the river bike path, and I crawl into my little hole in the back of the van, wondering what it means that I've been forgotten, or was not remarkable enough to remember, even during what I believe are the most remarkable moments of my life.
The pavement might be melting. Cynthia, Jim and Brooke (runners 1, 2 and 3) all take their turns to sweat and suffer from Reno to Verdi. I cheer them on and marvel that these five adults have somehow managed to make running a part of their adult lives. It's a feat I never mastered, and I don't know if I'm jealous, or simply wistful. Cycling with a full time job is no picnic, either, but running-- with its lack of equipment other than clothes and shoes-- has something elemental (primal?) about it.
I sit in the backest-back of the van and watch the landscape slide by. I can't hear the conversation in front. I imagine it's numbers-- splits and times, calculations to try and see if we could win. These were what the old conversations would have been, and I let my memory fill in the gaps I can't hear.
I keep reminding myself this is fun. There's a life-size bacon-man in a lawn chair strapped to the top of our van. Bacon-man carries a Bloody Mary in one had and a blue flag with a pig on it in the other. I never ask about why we are the bacon team. I just accept it, as I've learned to accept life, when it happens. Silently breathe, and simply do. As mindlessly as possible.
By the time I run, it's a mellow 80-degrees out and we're nearly to Truckee. The bacon team caught up to the team which was formed at work with the at-risk and vulnerable kids, and I spend my time talking with a young man who is on the cycling team for us. I don't know his past (I believe the kids I help are comprised of futures, not pasts), and I watch has his team's runner comes in and the exchange takes place. I don't think, given the minutes which slowly pass, that I will see them again.
I run through the dusky hue of a pine-pollen laden forest. I run by the Truckee River to Tahoe City. I swallow too many bugs. When I'm running, I slip into the past again, and I half-believe I'm a runner again.
My team cheers me on, and I start to feel better about myself. I sleep, dreamlessly. I watch the drunks who stumble onto the main street of South Lake Tahoe smile up at the bacon man on the top of our van, and point as if it is the Messiah. I run under 2:00 AM stars and 3:00 AM stars. Down Kingsbury Grade, I lose my quad muscles and never get them back. On the gradual climb up Jack's Valley Road, I lose the rest of whatever existed below my waist. Running, from then on, is a purely philosophical exercise.
Runners appear in the dark like deep-sea creatures, with their creative flashing lights. There are white and blue ones, reflective vests, tutus light with light sticks and battery-operated LED lights. I take over driving the van while everyone, aside from our runner, sleeps. I imagine I'm operating a deep sea submarine, and I have just breached the deepest depths of the utterly strange and improbable.
I do this in a van with a bacon-strapped to the top of it in the part of the night when drunks and crazies receive DUIs, and coyotes call out into the echoing black, around us. Andy, who ran the San Francisco Marathon with me back in 2008 and who would run with me on my long, solitary runs, stands out in the darkness with me. Everyone else is asleep, and he gives me control of the van and clipboard.
I track the splits of Suzi, who is running the lower half of Kingsbury, and later, of Andy, who takes us to Genoa. The night/morning is dark. Holding the clipboard and marking the miles, I'm official. I drive as gently as I can, so my teammates in the back can sleep.
When we get to Genoa, I get out of the van, into the coldness and the dark. Then, I run.
I run against bumblebees. Other strange lighted creatures. The memories I have of running before a doctor told me to "pick another sport" surface, and a I get a momentary high from everyone I pass. There are no frames of reference; I'm running so slow.
I undulate between elation and sadness. I'm thrilled one moment, because I'm running and I'm with my running friends. And yet, I can't forget the intervening years, the injuries and, well, life. I'm not as fast as I used to be. I want to puke. I'm hungry.
I'm lost in the darkness of night, and the empty road which surrounds me.
Is this loss?
I feel completely terrible after my fourth run, and Andy asks me to eat something, and gives me a half-sandwich-- a PB n' J. My favorite.
My stomach protests. Then, I can't believe I lived without that half-sandwich. I packed food for a Double Century. I regret not planning anything like a "dinner" or a "early/late breakfast". When I run, though, I can't really eat much. I swerve from hunger to nausea; full, to empty.
Years ago, I remember going crazy from this strange loss of running when I had nearly ruptured my achilles, and the running was over. It was a loss of control over my body and the perception that I somehow lost control of my life somewhere in the years between graduate school and my adult life.
There were the years when I was adjunct faculty at a community college and at a University, and the bills weren't quite being paid. My students wrote to me about the death of mothers and fathers, about recovering from meth, about the birth of one or more children. I read these words-- stories which struggled to make sense of life-- when I was doing the same. I'll never forget the one, rainy night at the end of the month when I'd nearly run out of gas in my car. I had been at a trail, running, and stopped for gas just as the rain began to pour. I didn't have enough money in my accounts to cover the cost of gas, and for the first time in my life I was stranded in the rain.
That was the year my ceiling collapsed along with my life. The year I tried to reclaim my running. Then, this was followed by the year when Ironman happened, when I discovered the way you lose yourself on the bike, and I would shake myself awake in my aerobars on many solitary rides, not knowing where I was or in what direction I was going. Somehow through that fog, I emerged with a home and a job with a salary and a car and chickens, and someone who says he likes to cook for me. And, and, and. Am I still running? How can this be loss?
I ask myself, not just during this race: who is this person, running? What are these legs, aching from a downhill off Kingsbury Grade? This thirty-something year old woman transformed into a deep sea creature of the night along with the vast sea of deep-sea creature-runners who traverse the Carson Valley with lights and reflective vests, some dressed as bumblebees, others as super heroes, all of them seeking for metaphors in the darkness about the unexplainable strangeness of ordinary life.
By my fifth and sixth legs of the race, I can hardly walk, and I'm amazed that I can start running when I do, after a mile or so on the road. It is painful, the stiff re-awakening of my joints, muscles and tendons.
In between my race legs, I sleep wrapped in my boyfriend's puffy jacket with a bag of pretzels as my pillow. I watch the dawn cast pink over the desert. I know I have over ten miles left to run and I can't fathom how I'll manage. I haven't had coffee, but I don't want any. I'm stuck in a haze of disbelief, fatigue and wonder. The world is so incredibly beautiful, I can't understand it. I blink at it, and I embrace its silence.
Bare chested, sinewy young men pass the van at another rest stop where park, just at the hinge of dawn. I stumble to the Porta-Potty, realzing what a luxury walking once was. One of our runners is out on the course, running the steepest paved road in Nevada and I know my turn is soon.
When I begin to run up Geiger Grade, my legs don't want to move. A young man passes me, hangs in front of me, and I pass him just before the summit. The downhill on the other side is the most painful thing I could have imagined, and it hurts so badly I want to cry. I do, near the end, wanting to be done.
Andy and Jim talk about taking my last leg, this horrible 6-mile section through an armpit of Reno. I remember Ironman, though, and what it meant to suffer and to finish all on my own.
I can hardly get out of the van because my legs are so sore, but in the hour or so which separates the distances I run, I decide that I’m going to run the final leg, and that I am going to be strong, I am going to finish, and I am going to finish this race myself because, even if you lose everything, you can still keep going and finish, because that is what you do when you are on a team. Or, when you are somebody's friend.
When we park in front of the Double Diamond Athletic Club, I limp out of the van and into the gym to use the bathroom. I take as little time as I can, but honestly, it’s hard to do anything. My arms and legs are set to slow-mo, and every motion is painful. I imagine that every person in the gym thinks there is something medically wrong with me as I limp back outside where I can take the retractable bracelet-thing from Andy, and start to run my final leg.
When I get outside, both Suzi and Jim are freaking out. Andy is running toward the van (it's his last leg of the race) and they think I’ve pulled an MIA. There are choice words about where I am versus where I ought to be.
I limp to the sidewalk and wait for Andy, knowing that this is not going to be my most favorite six mile run in the world, but I will do it because that is what it means to be a part of a team.
I have legs of concrete. Legs of rubber. Legs of cheese— any object that was not meant to be light and painless and made for running. A blister explodes and I think, at first, that I’ve impaled myself with a nail.
It’s not as hot as the start of the race, but I run alone along concrete streets and sidewalks. I play and replay the words: “Don’t stop, don't stop.” I don’t look at my pace, which is so pathetically slow. I just pass what few runners there are in front of us, and hold the pace I can.
I climb Windy Hill and a few motorists wave and honk support. I want to cry— I can’t even say how kind that gesture was at that moment in the race. On the downhill, my quads begin to cramp, and I can’t stop the tears which form in my eyes from the pain. I don’t want to let my team down. So, I keep running.
I make it to the exchange point, and give our baton-bracelet thing to Suzi, who is our anchor-runner.
Suzi runs until she simply can't, her husband, Jim, joins her. It is the most beautiful and compelling thing I've seen-- two people, a husband and wife, who have been instrumental in building Reno's running community run together, and stay together until the finish line.
The question of friendship comes back to my mind, and I remember the year of the Boston Marathon bombing, and wrote to Suzi from my graduate program in the Bay, worried sick that they were somehow involved. By that time, I was buried in my MFA program, writing my thesis/memoir, and not running much. But, they were my friends; and even though I was hundreds of miles away, I still wondered and worried.
The miles connected me to these incredible people, and I doubt that I will ever forget that. By the time we finish with a course record finish, I drop my hesitation about identities and needing to me one thing or another. These are the people who have helped to form the stories I tell myself about myself. They are my inspiration, my competition, and even after all these years, friends
Am I still a runner?
There are early mornings, out on the road, when I want to believe I could be. I'm not so sure I will be, though. Or, not in the way I once was. My life, it seems, has changed.
Maybe life is a continual cycle of loss, recovery and discovery. I loved my life as a runner, but as a cyclist, I love the feel of the wind on my face, and the fact that I'm just a girl on a bike (as another new friend told me.) What is there to lose by trying?
Is this loss? Or is it the result of losing one thing and gaining another?
Either way, I don’t want to give up the thrill of pace line tactics (or what little I know of them). Loss and life coalesce to form this strange narrative of memory and forgetting, of new and old; I take the bike for 200 miles, and at some point, always, I think and honor the runner in me, who had the courage to ask the question I still ask myself : “What if?”