My excuses for why I’m not going to perform well in a race while I toe the starting line roll up like opening credits in a movie. Written by: Lack of preparation, Directed by: Insecurity, Executive produced by: My shoes don’t feel right, Casting by: I can barely breathe and my ankle already hurts.
I don’t know if every runner goes through this. I don’t think so. At the start of long races especially, I see sinewy bodies and sweaty upper lips and slightly sunken-in eyes and veiny arms, and skin that’s probably seen a little too much sun but is stretched thin like an over-inflated balloon. The runners check their pulses and their watches, they give half hugs to the clan of other runners from their particular tribe, and off they go, all lovely, bouncy strides, hydration packs fused to their upper bodies, eyebrows cocked, and chins pointed to the top of the hill.
Me, I look more like Ichabod, deflated and sour, coming home from the village pub after another encounter with a much more viable suitor. I gut my way up and slip-slide my way down big hills and when I finish, quite frankly, people give me the “I’m worried about you” face.
I come to every race with a checklist of things I want to go through in my head during the two or three hours I’ll be out there. It involves personal stuff and life stuff and career stuff ... and, though I try to avoid it, it also involves thinking about what little ripples I can make in this country to prevent this whole thing from further slipping into a complete racist, crypto-fascist, authoritarian state.
But mostly, my race time is filled with thoughts of people who are no longer here and the fact that I get to be out there doing this when my two best friends and father are gone from this earth. There are reconciliations and rationalizations on being a parent, a partner, a brother and a son, a grandson, a cousin, a friend, a coworker, (a former coworker), and in all of this, a reconciliation with being truly anonymous.
On good days, I can pretty well parse through the bullshit of my own narrative, the things that I’ve been telling myself and attempting to show others about me for the last 20-25 years. The fact that I haven’t much to show for it so far is proof, to me—at least on these long runs—that they are maybe right, that I can do better, or at least do more.
I had a more full docket than usual this time up. I shouldn’t have been at the start of this race—this race being XTERRA’s Malibu Creek, a 22k grind up a bitch of a hill nicknamed BullDog paired with an equally unforgiving descent.
For starters, last summer’s fires melted one of the course’s critical bridges and decimated everything else to look like Maleficent’s magical dead forest, charred trees at every corner offset by a season of ridiculous rainfall that created new growth. It was the juxtaposition of where we are: nature’s harsh reality in the era of global warming deconstructed by the earth’s ability, in spite of our best efforts to the contrary, to renew itself.
I was running through a metaphor.
I also was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis in mid-March after battling a hack that had me death-rattling through every night since Christmas. A lifetime asthma sufferer, it was like taking an already deployed air bag and stomping out the last of it those noxious gasses. I’ve been breathing through a straw since January and didn’t have the miles or fitness or reserves to attempt this feat in any reasonable manner.
And then came the big one. Nine days prior ot the sounding of the bullhorn at the race’s start, I was spirited off to HR by my loving boss and told my services were no longer required by The Company I worked for. I was not given a clear answer or any type of concrete examples as to why, but those I already knew. The software maker I worked for had been acquired by a Private Equity firm last December and the purge had begun. I was out on the first life raft as all departments domestically started to shrink and jobs were moved overseas to India or outsourced. I’d been laid off by the same firm fewer than three years prior, so my line on their spreadsheet was already colored red for removal.
Though I was as mentally prepared as I could be, it was still a gut punch. As much as it’s easy to shrug and tell people the story and attempt to elicit some kind of passing sympathy, I’ve had to figure out what I could’ve done better, not to hang in there mind you—it’s a lost cause. Private Equity firms are debt-loading, people-loathing mechanisms, they don’t care about the product or those who make or use it. No, the why and how I got into that situation with those kind of people for the second time in such a short span was the question of the day. I am the embodiment of someone who gets cheated on and keeps going back to the well. I vowed the first time around to never, ever be in that seat where someone who I consider to be lesser-than defines my self-worth for me again.
Yet there I was, handing over my badge, shoulders slumped, defeated.
And so, here we are, back at the starting line, the Lawrence of Arabia of excuses flowing over the desert scape in CinemaScope. But this, THIS would be the race where I’m going to figure it all out.
I’m going to come up with a crafty ending to my book. I’m going to make a plan to be the most regimented stay-at-home dad this summer since Earl Woods. I’m going to start canvassing, for real, for Elizabeth Warren, nomination be damned. Every night, I’m going to have dinner waiting and a bath drawn for my partner and I’ll even put on a hazmat suit and weed the back 40. This race is the start of finishing something. That’s what it is. No more talk, just action. Run up the hill, run down it and cross that finish a new, or at least renewed, man. Do. The. Little. Things. And. The. Big. Things. Will. Follow.
And so, this new/renewed man slipped and fell on the course, mile nine, going down some moon rocks near the mountain’s peak. My ankle began to gurgle out blood and I sat there for a moment, doing fucking nothing. Just 400 yards down pitch from me were some paramedics and the search and rescue waiting. I was shot and they could give me a ride down the fire road to get my ankle wrapped. I had a race shirt and now I’d have a story.
But lo, a pair of saintly runners, because runners are saints, descended upon me and grabbed me by the hands and shoulders and lifted me up and dusted me off and one gave me a drink and the other asked me if I was OK and if could I walk. I nodded yes with my head down. I started to cry a little. Then I shook my head no, I trick I’ve learned from my five-year-old.
They stayed there for ten minutes or an hour, walking slowly with me, my hands akimbo and my head now back looking up at the sun and out onto the horizon and I saw the ocean and the infinite bend of the horizon. And I felt like an ass. I am so lucky to be here, right now, with these people who are taking time out to stand here with me, this sort of broken forty-something guy who’s all sweaty and gross and bleeding and not having a good month; who was born with a lead off third and is unemployed and STILL GETS TO RACE and fuck it. “Yeah,” I said. “Let’s go.”
And we went.
From there, my headspace was mostly filled with jumbled lyrics to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (one unfortunate byproduct of not wearing headphones is you get the worst songs stuck in your head, but that’s the way it goes.) I made it to the finish looking much worse for wear. With fifty yards to go, my son grabbed my hand strode across the final mat and collected my medal for me. In truth, the weight of it would probably have caused my collapse. And my partner handed me water while I sat on a nearby bench, head down between my legs.
Nothing got solved yesterday. Nothing changed. Nothing achieved. I was one of a very fortunate few on this planet who made it up and down a gorgeous and grueling mountain. And now, today, I need to get up and get my shit together so I can live and breathe and run up that hill again.