The Eighteenth Mile: Thoughts On Disappointment and Change

To say that I am disappointed in the nation right now would be understatement on the level of gross hyperbole. Everyone I know and talk to seems to be either at a loss for words, or actively attempting to share their words only to be threatened with violence in response. I have been, until now, in the former camp, and this will not be some grand treatise on how to end racism in the United States, but instead something with a bit more broad a scope. I only hope that it may be useful to someone, as I suspect it will be useful to me to let all of these ideas out of my head.

~*~

I went for a run yesterday, the day that I had intended to run the half in Newport, Oregon, before our trip was cancelled. I intended yesterday’s run to be the culmination of a month in which my exercise has gone almost entirely to plan. In addition to spinning on the Peloton a little over 250 miles this month, I had run 172, and had my long run in front of me. I’m not usually a high mileage runner; I cap out well below 150 most months, and have in relatively recent memory run as few as 70 miles in a month. Despite the disappointment of almost all of the races I intended to run this year being cancelled, including two marathons and a total of twenty starts overall, I remain fit and strong and I was eager to go. I passed on my good friend’s offer of a cigar the night before, got up early, had some oatmeal and a bowel movement, and struck out for what I anticipated would end up being 17-20 miles. I selected a five mile route to tack on to the front of my usual run on the trail, which I tend to cut off somewhere around eight, and set off after a good long stretch and a short warm up.

After mile one, I was running past Hanscom Park and my GPS watch chirped, compelling me to look down at it. 10:04 was the time for my mile. That was strange, I thought; I generally compete in double digit miles running splits in the high sevens, and most of this month my long runs have been at a sub-nine pace. Last week, I ran fifteen miles at an average pace of 8:42. I attempted to pick up the pace, and used the downhill coming up to lengthen my strides without exerting more effort. Garmin again chirped at me at mile two: 10:24. I felt like I was running high eights or low nines, but I was running over ten even with the downhill. I suspected then that my body was far more tired than I had realized, but resolved to pick up the pace, earn those twenty-eight seconds back, and keep it sub-ten, which felt sub-optimal but acceptable at the end of such a grueling month of training.

In the middle of mile two, the two metatarsals right of my big toe on my right foot began to ache. I can generally count on that old injury not flaring up for the first ten miles of a run. Shortly after that, the rain that wasn’t supposed to begin until after ten o’clock started coming down hard around 7:45, and quickly I was drenched. By mile five, my shoes and socks were saturated and, in addition to adding weight, I felt the blisters begin to form. By mile seven, my knees drew the attention away from my right foot with an incessant throbbing, and I took my backup pack of NSAIDS and acetamenophen earlier than I had intended. The entire time, my pace held around 10:30, which for me is almost insufferably slow, but I just couldn’t get my wheels to turn any faster. I was frustrated, and more than once considered turning around early.

At mile eleven, near Aksarben Village, I did turn around, knowing that to get home would mean getting to mile seventeen, regardless of my pace. At mile twelve, my pace fell to an 11:04, and I just couldn’t seem to move any faster. At thirteen, heading uphill, my knees began to cry out, and it was all I could do to ignore them. Frustratingly, thirteen is the distance I race most frequently; I’ve probably run fifty half marathons in the past ten years, so for that distance to be such an enormous struggle got into my head and started tearing at my self esteem. On last week’s run, I passed thirteen miles at a time of 1:54. This week, I was near 2:20, a time so slow for me that I wouldn’t even want to run it as a pacer (my PR in the half is a 1:43, set last year at the Good Life Halfsy in Lincoln, and I tend to pace 2:00 to 2:10). I told myself I just needed to get to seventeen, be done, go home and see Sonja and the kids. At fifteen, I sidestepped to avoid a puddle and tweaked my left ankle so badly that for the next half mile I couldn’t feel the pain in my knees anymore. By the time I got to seventeen, I was physically and mentally broken down and ready to be done. I had completed the run, but I had done it in as ugly a manner as I have ever done a long run, and I was deeply disappointed.

~*~

My wife, Sonja, recently received some very disappointing news. It isn’t mine to share, but if you love her, this would be as good a time as any to say so.  The graduating class of 2020, including around 150 students who were in my classes, of course missed out on prom, spring sports, and walking across the stage in front of their families, among other things.  I often tell my students that how we respond to disappointment and setbacks defines us as people, though I must admit that this sentiment is much easier to profess when you aren’t the one who is disappointed.

In the face of Sonja’s disappointment, much like that of my beloved students, I’ve felt somewhat helpless. As I’m sure most of you know, it is usually impossible to take away another person’s pain, and that fact in turn can cause distress of its own. During the pandemic, I did what I could think to do for my students, and I emailed them all every day, following up with those who would write back as often as they liked.  Yesterday, I did the only thing I could think to do to comfort Sonja, and I made a dinner I knew she’d enjoy. I got out some very nice steaks, and made green beans the way she likes them. I also went spelunking in what is admittedly a rather cavernous wine cellar for someone of my station, and emerged with a bottle I thought she’d enjoy. Sonja doesn’t love old wine as I do, so I went with something old-ish, a 2000 vintage Merlot from Chateau St. Jean, which we visited on our second trip out to Sonoma. I decanted it for an hour while I prepped vegetables, the steaks resting next to me on the kitchen island, as I occasionally massaged a little more sea salt or Sandhills Seasoning into them.

The thing about old wine, even old-ish wine, is that you’re often setting yourself up for disappointment. So much can go wrong; it can be stored improperly, for example in a place that gets too warm even for just a day or so, which will ruin it entirely. It can have TCA (cork taint) like any other wine can. It can just not last as long as you want it to and be outside its drinking window — not all wine ages well. I gently worked my ah-so down around the cork that I suspected would not have lasted nearly two decades, and I poured the wine slowly into my decanter, allowing the shoulder of the bottle to catch the sediment. Then I set it on the table, and grabbed a second bottle of a more recent vintage as a backup plan, a contingency plan against further disappointment.

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~*~

I don’t know precisely what’s going on in this country right now, but I know these problems aren’t new. I know that my heart hurts deeply for so many of my students, past and present, and for so many of my friends as well. I have been, and for the most part will remain, in a listening mode. I have agreed to be part of a series of interviews about race in America, being hosted by a former student of mine who I deeply admire, though what I will seek to address most in that discussion is the issue of privilege, which is the only position I can authentically speak from. Acknowledging that indeed we are privileged and then efficaciously utilizing our privilege to advocate for others is the only thing that a person in my position can do. I cannot truly empathize; I didn’t get the talk, I won’t have to give the talk to my children, and I am never in danger because of my skin color. Thus, I feel at this time that the most important thing that I can do is to listen, try to understand, and seek ways in which to be an advocate.

~*~

I got to mile seventeen, and I had fourteen miles of water working its way around in my shoes, pooling in the odd pocket between my pinky toe and the one next to it, a space created by my mild case of Charcot Marie Tooth which is also the cause of my high arches and hammer toes. If I didn’t get the water out of there soon, experience told me, it would rot away the skin pretty quickly and could become a real problem. My knees throbbed, and my shorts hung heavy and wet. I felt beaten. Then at sixteen and a half miles, I deliberately attempted to alter my thinking, and to focus not on the plethora of things that had gone wrong, but on those few small things that were right.

Humans are superior distance runners in part because we are water-cooled creatures. The consistency of the rain had prevented me from having to sweat, and as a result I had never been this well hydrated closing in on the seventeen mile mark. Also, though the rain had not been expected to start until after my run ended, I had opted not to wear a shirt, thus I was spared the horrific chaffing that would surely have befallen me had I worn one. Best of all, I knew that not far away, my family was finishing up breakfast, and that soon I would be home and able to rest, perhaps sprawling out on the couch and cuddling with my kids with a movie in the background. As I approached mile seventeen, I made a decision. I couldn’t go back and change anything from the miles I’d already logged, but I was going to choose a better ending for this run than a seventeenth mile run at an 11:45 pace. As my Garmin chirped at me, signalling my run was over, I decided that it wasn’t.

After three hours of running, anything resembling a sprint was out of the question, but I tightened my stride and quickened my footfalls, emphasizing a midfoot strike and letting my arms do as much of the work as possible. I splashed through puddles rather than moving around them, and didn’t bother to duck my head as I passed under sodden branches hanging low over the trail; the water transferring from the leaves to my bare chest and head felt good. I turned and ran up the hill, the really steep one that I sometimes train my cross country runners on, and I pumped my arms and increased my inhalations — another human trick that enables us to run better than most animals over long distances. As I neared the top of the hill, I again heard a chirp, and glanced down to find thatI’d run mile eighteen, some of it uphill even, at a pace of 8:12. Somehow, I managed not to collapse. I finished my run free of the disappointment that I would have otherwise carried with me all day. On the whole, it was still a pretty awful run by my standards, but I had chosen the way that it would end, and I would choose to dwell upon that. I got home, said hi to the family, grabbed a beer, and hopped into a warm shower.

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~*~

When writing about things as superfluous as wine and running, I’m aware that the applications to more dire, urgent matters are not always clear, perhaps even not always there, but in this instance I think there is at least one important takeaway. As human beings, we have agency, we have choice. Our autonomy is perhaps our greatest strength, which in turn is what makes taking it away from others such a terrible thing.  Today, and hereafter, I want to choose to listen even more than I already do, and to speak only when what I have to say can contribute to finding solutions to the problems that the people I love so deeply so bravely face each day.  I do believe that we can choose a better ending than the one we seem to be moving toward, though unlike in running, we have no alternative but to choose it together. No matter how hard you pump your arms as an individual, no matter how much pain you can endure, you won’t fix any of these issues flying solo. Together, however, I am as convinced as I have ever been that real change in this nation is a possibility, and more than just possible, it is a moral imperative.  It becomes our moral imperative to choose a better nation than the one in which we currently live.

Mark

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