Discovering Running

I ran the first official race of my adulthood this past Sunday – a half-marathon done in under 2 hours – of which I’m particularly proud. I’m not usually one to over-simplify but the real personal victory is having set the intention and then followed through with it. If my 20s taught me anything at all, it’s that adulthood does not require this criteria to be considered categorically “adult”. My personal line of demarkation between adolescence and the continued process of growing up is found in the silence and secrecy of what I do when no one is watching (which up until a few years ago was not much). Some people miss the required accountability of their youth but I’ve long enjoyed freedom from the weight of others’ expectations. At best, it is a time for recalibration; at worst, it is a rebellion.

My rebellion was a 12-year standoff that lasted well into my late-20s – a kind of hunger strike that whittled down many expectations I used to have for myself. Honestly, I’m referring to very run-of-the-mill 20-something events (crises of consciousness, breakups, traveling, dabbling in coping mechanisms, etc.). Thankfully, I still have no idea where my rock bottom is, but after an adolescence rife with over-planning, it seemed the right thing to do to let things happen to me. I worked hard but I set very few concrete goals that didn’t involve something loosely related to making rent. And many surprising, fantastic, exciting things happened fueled solely by blind faith and trust falls. There were a lot of high highs and low lows with very little investment. I believe exciting things happen (and will continue to happen) to anyone who holds out an open palm to the universe. But surprise is also a strangely addictive drug – a shiny fog that obscures the greatest facet of being human: our ability to choose. Through this lens, I am positively flummoxed at how I ended up crossing a finish line after 13.1 miles. That kind of thing doesn’t really happen to a person – you can only choose to do that. There’s no other way.

A few months back, I had a quick chat with Scott & Jenny Jurek backstage at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, near Boulder, CO where they live, work and run. We met through the ever-hilarious intersection between the world of running and the music industry. Scott is one of the best ultrarunners in the world, holding multiple records in a sport that only now is gaining recognition. It’s such a crazy sport people haven’t figured out how to make money off of it. It’s more rock and roll than rock and roll. At some point he said to me, “Rachel, I hear you’re getting more serious about running these days!” My response, I fear now, may have come off as defensive: “I’ve been serious about running for 6 years…” Of course, I have NOTHING to prove to this guy and I am not in the business of starting pissing matches. He runs races whose mileage goes well into the triple digits; I just hit double digits a few months ago. It’s near impossible to impress a guy like this – someone who has mined the recesses of his core and processed the raw material into fuel for seemingly impossible long-distance races. As sweet, accessible and genuinely excited about life and running as he is, Scott’s a one-man oil refinery. Scott and Jenny together are unstoppable. My response was a real-time, innate reaction, born of a tired decades-old dialogue between my ego and a metaphysical jury. What does it mean to be serious about anything? Why do I run? What does it mean to be a Serious Runner™?

I can only assume the answer is subjective and deeply personal for those who have the courage to ask. As a kid, I over-excelled as a way of gaining approval. This is not new behavior employed by kids of absentee parents, but I definitely put my stamp on it and made it my own. I wore busyness like a superhero’s cape, martyrdom as a mask and have made peace with being the villain in absentia even now. Between varsity volleyball, theater, my part-time job at the skate shop, going to shows, college classes, photography, etc. ETC. ETC!!! I was also a Serious Student. I was so serious, in fact, I was capable of applying enough pressure to completely detach expectations from reality, warp them, turn them inward and cast them off with such force they expanded faster than our universe. With the right technology, I’m pretty sure my mother could have witnessed light bending around my fear of inadequacy, so dense were my high school crying spells. To be serious became synonymous with burnout.

The more I liked something, the sooner I would quit and move onto the next easy, interesting thing. As a kid, I never had to practice anything. I never touched my violin outside of my orchestra rehearsals but sat as concert master 90% of the time. I never touched a volleyball in the off-season yet I was a varsity starter from the time I was a sophomore.  This may seem like bragging but the karmic retribution has more than caught up with me, trust me. At one point, I could never make a job, relationship or living arrangement last longer than 2 years. I was one of those lucky kids who could coast on natural ability and voracious curiosity well into my adult life, only working to finish something if it was fueled by the fear of letting someone down. If not for my own guilt about the cost of tuition and the thousands already invested, I might not have finished college. I’m thankful every day for the support my mother gave me during college, though much of it was eclipsed by my own task mastering. After I graduated, I became a dabbler – the smaller the project or investment, the larger the appeal. I wanted to be passably good at a lot of different things. Needless to say, I read a lot of books in my 20s.

Somewhere in the throes of my Quarter-Life Crisis, I became paralyzingly depressed and sought something, ANYTHING, that could make me feel like myself again (whoever that was). I learned quickly that when you feel lost, all you have to do is look back at where you came from. Even if it’s not where you want to be, there’s always a breadcrumb trail, some kind of context for where you are. My breadcrumb trail led me back to the crossroads where I rather passively quit being an athlete. I am blessed with some tall-skinny genetics but I was no longer strong, no longer graceful and no longer surefooted, physically or emotionally. Physical exertion had been usurped by mental exertion – the most debilitating kind because it never restores nor tires. It only depletes.  What followed can really only be explained vaguely: on one random day in my life, for whatever reason, I got so fed up with my own inertia I put on my shoes and started moving. I had a friend who offered to take me running and I didn’t have the energy to make excuses. Aside from being depressed, I was also broke. Any movement, any forward motion, any progress was better than none – even if it was a war-crawl on my elbows, dragging my legs behind me. And that’s pretty much how my first year of running went. I defy anyone who starts running to disagree.

The first time I went running was an exercise in letting go of what I thought running was. Running was not walking. Running was balls-to-the-wall obedience to arbitrary times and numbers. Running was not being able to breathe. Running was pain. Years on, I have found all these things to be true at moments but their truth exists solely in my willingness to think these things, their grip indirectly proportional to my ability to ignore them. The pain has now been channeled into focus, strength, lightness and the exhaustion of a job well done, maybe not every day but over time. Somehow I became a serious runner by not even recognizing I was doing it. Much like a houseplant that thrives when being watered then left alone, running was something I started doing away from my blinding over-attention. It’s something I continue to do by protecting it from the tyranny of my own criticism.  It was and continues to be the anti-serious for me, no matter how many official races I do or do not run. It has slowly become a part of my DNA and I can’t not be a runner now.

Sneaky, sneaky bitch!

When I was young, track meets and races symbolized the oppressive expectations of others and of myself, evident in the nerves and the sickness that preceded performance. My race on Sunday was a celebration of the years I practiced managing expectations and limiting my vision to what was directly in front of me, the task at hand. It was symbolic of my learning how to practice something, working daily through perceived pain while vigilantly protecting what makes running fun (it IS fun). It was proof I could engage in something for its own sake with little immediate incentive but unexpectedly abundant rewards. Most importantly, it was and continues to be a reminder that finishing something doesn’t mean stopping. It means pausing, appreciating, looking back and then moving forward to the next place.