Sunday, September 27, 2009

Two watery races

For those who have never finished last in a race, here is your opportunity to sample the view from the back—if not for entertainment, at least as a cautionary tale. And perhaps as reassurance (in case you should ever need it, not that you will any time soon) that a last place finish while unpleasant in some respects is not fatal.

For those who know all too well what last place feels like, maybe knowing someone shares your pain will help you carry it more lightly. At the very least, it will be proof that a last place finish while unpleasant in some respects is not fatal.

Either way, I hope my story serves its purpose—whatever that may be.

The two races, in order of appearance, are the September Splash 2-mile open water swim in Wildwood Crest, NJ, Sept. 26, and the Jack St. Clair Memorial Cross-Country Championships—women’s division (6k)--on Philadelphia's Belmont Plateau, Sept. 27. My order of appearance at the finish line in both races: not just last but so last that the timing had already begun for the race following mine.

The Swim

While I was confident that I could complete the swim distance, I was less confident in my speed, which went AWOL and has not phoned home. A 4600 yard swim during Labor Day weekend was the last significant distance I managed, and a combination of pool closings and my schedule sharply reduced practice time after that—not that my speed earns me bragging rights to begin with. Even so, I had some small hope that it might be just enough for, say, second-to-last place.

What I didn’t count on was an equipment issue.

In an open water swim, all swimmers are given and expected to wear swim caps. Quite reasonable—keeping track of swimmers is made easier by a uniform collection of caps. However, it’s especially helpful for these caps to stay on their wearers’ heads. For the most part, I’ve not had problems with this issue, although in a previous September Splash mile, I had made the mistake of wearing tinted goggles, which reduced visibility. As a result, I pushed the goggles up on top of my head, causing them to work themselves loose and come off—taking my cap with them. I thought I’d solved the problem by getting clear instead of tinted goggles for future open water swims, thereby eliminating the temptation to deep six them in mid-swim.

Indeed, for the next couple swims, caps stayed on—even through the Great South Bay swim which was more than twice the length of the one I did on Saturday. Problem solved, I figured.

Problem not solved. Some might tout the benefits of long hair as extra insulation against cold, and I thought of this as I put on my cap. What I should also have realized is that long hair can also get into the eyes and over the mouth of a swimmer taking a much-needed breath. Currents I can take. Chop, I can live with. Hair in my face when I take a breath--um, thanks but no thanks!

The first sign of something amiss came at the start when another swimmer warned me that my cap was coming off. I shoved it back on and thought nothing more of it…. just wanted to get on with the swim.

My start was, as I expected, slow. I had no plans to push the pace, and I figured that if I just kept at it in a steady fashion, some who had sprinted out too fast would come back to me. But even if they didn’t, I had no doubt my steady effort would get me eventually to the finish, and that I’d have a good distance workout--with a finish time that showed I could sustain a freestyle stroke over two miles.

Trouble began in the first lap of a two-mile oblong loop that had swimmers start against the current and then switch directions to swim with the current. Just before the turn-around, the cap had worked itself loose and my “insulation” was blocking my view—and blocking air from getting into me when I breathed to my right. This required breathing only to my left—going back to pre-bilateral breathing technique… and even resorting to breaststroke (here I should mention that the gulf between my breaststroke and, let’s say, Brendon Hansen’s, is wider than the Pacific Ocean). It also required stopping and holding the kayak while trying with only limited success to replace the cap.

These cap adjustment stops became more frequent. As I neared the end of lap one, swimmers passed me--swimmers finishing lap two. This didn't bode well for my time, but I pressed on, taking some comfort in the fact that at least I was still on the course.

At the end of the first lap, the kayaker who had been helping me asked if I wanted to just finish. “You’d have to do this over again otherwise.”

“Well, yeah,” I thought. "That's kind of the point, isn't it?"

I had signed up for two miles, not one—getting up at O-Dark-Thirty to swim those two miles. I wasn’t going to quit after a mile. And really, despite the annoyance of the cap falling off, I was feeling fine and knew I had another mile in the tank.

"I don't mind if you don't mind," I told the kayaker.

"I don't mind," he replied. "Let's get going!" Okay, the man's with me. We're good.

So off we started on lap two with the cap’s efforts to escape intensifying. The kayaker almost had me talked into turning short of the turn-around buoy but I was not going to have that. Somehow I reached it, and finally, we were headed back and with one or two more cap stops, the cap finally, reluctantly, agreeing to accompany me the rest of the way.

Problem solved, yes?

Well, yes, except for one thing.

The aroma of a barbecue wafted over to me from the shore. "And that's a problem?" you might well ask.

Don’t get me wrong. If I’d been hanging out with friends on the beach, my mouth would be watering. But combine the smell of cooking with the effort of swimming—in salt water with equipment problems surfacing every five or so minutes—and … no, you don’t want to know what could result.

Fortunately, the finish was close enough by that point that I could simply focus on the swim, count strokes and remind myself that this would be over soon. "It's just a swim. It's just a swim. It's just a swim."

And so it was--just a swim. At the finish, I was greeted by applause, assistance, and a digital clock that said “6:30.” Did that mean it took me six hours and thirty minutes to swim two miles? No. This was the elapsed time for the children’s quarter mile swim already in progress. They’d stopped recording my time. Never mind. If smelling barbecued food didn't send my stomach into overdrive, seeing my actual time would have finished the job.

All I could say about this race was that I’d done the two miles. Not gracefully, not fast. I seriously wondered if it was worth continuing to dream of the long swims I had targeted. Who was I to think I could do such things? All the talk I heard of people staying with different groups, pulling ahead of others, and all I could offer was that I finished very, very slowly, what I had started--nothing to be especially proud of, to justify any self-confidence.

However, I thought of the finishers’ medal I'd brought with me that day from the Great South Bay swim. That had been a longer swim with severe chop at the end, and I had successfully completed it thirty-five minutes under my goal time.

I could decide to judge myself by this wrestling match with a swim cap—or remember where I’d been and be confident that I could learn from my experience and move forward.

Meanwhile, why not enjoy the real value of the day: time with friends, a post-race lunch, conversation, and knowing there are good people who help others in a pinch:
  • Andy's offer of a ride to the swim and an emergency loan when I discovered I'd left half my cash at home by mistake (fortunately, I found it on returning home and was able to repay)
  • Bonnie's and a stranger's rescue during another post-race hair crisis
  • The kayaker, Cliff, who stayed with me the whole time during the swim, despite its taking forever

Those times of need that require us to depend on others may be what keep us human and help us to give back when others need us.

The Run

Not content to leave the weekend with just one race, I decided, very likely against my better judgment to return to a favorite racing venue: Belmont Plateau.

Although this was billed as a run, with the soaking rain during the night, I wondered if it would instead morph into a swim. No problem, in that case, as I’d already warmed up for a swim yesterday. My swimsuit, dry by then, was ready for service. But no, the puddles wouldn't be that deep, would they? So, running gear it was--but with retired shoes that I wouldn't mind getting wet.

Since I have spent much of the year not running any races due to one injury or another, I thought the wisest course of action might be to skip the race, and even on the way there, I wondered if maybe simply volunteering would be the better choice. I’d told Dave I’d be there to run and/or volunteer.

But how could I resist running on that soft, mushy, swampy mile across the playing fields, then return deep into the woods to reconnect with Parachute Hill? These were my old friends. I’d played on these fields and in the woods many times during those two summers of training for the marathon and during the races I’d run on this course through heat, through cold, through rain….

Speed? I had managed on occasion sub-9 minute stand-alone miles during practices, but aside from that, this course ate up my speed and spit it out at my feet.

So what? I continued to love it as one does a passionate, crazy friend, who teases you into scrapes that leave you exhausted but all the more alive. I have learned to love its long stretches, its hills, those puddles left by rainstorms, and I wasn’t going to miss it, even after noting that the eight women who made up the field included an American record holder, several Penn undergrads who ran track and cross-country, and assorted other faster runners.

No worries. I’d had practice finishing last. I had trained for that position and was ready.

With the start horn sounding, we all set off for Flagpole Hill.

The other runners quickly gapped me, and soon I was taking a solitary run, occasionally encountering course marshals who guided me at forks in the paths through the woods. Otherwise, I was on my own—and realized it was a lovely place to be on my own, the trees hovering over me, the puddles that I decided to run through rather than avoid.

This was my first race (aside from a couple of low-key track meets) since last December—and so all that mattered was simply to run--not race. And know my limits.

If my foot or knee began to hurt too much, I’d pull out rather than risk a setback. But as I progressed through the course and realized that my moving parts were working, the relief was palpable.

And there in the woods, I felt that I was not truly alone—that the trees, the raindrops, the squirrels, the gravel, the packed down dirt were my companions, my friends from way back.

It would be time soon enough to emerge, circle the playing fields again.

And during that last lap, the men who’d started soon after I’d reached the top of Flagpole Hill for the second time, dashed past me as I approached the turn toward the finish, setting out on their own sojourn in the woods. In no particular rush, I stopped to give a couple of them room to pass me. And I couldn’t resist joking with a couple of spectators, “I bet you didn’t know this was a co-ed race.”

"Go co-ed!" they called.

Reaching the finish, I relaxed a few minutes, grabbed some water, and after the women’s award ceremony (I won a medal, there being only two of us in the 50-59 age group), took my post near the finish of the men’s race to cheer and help collect tags.

I was glad to cheer in all of them, first place to last. No two journeys through those woods were the same, and we all emerged with something of value, I believe.

As for me, I kept my hat on today, but the thoughts in the brain under that hat roamed free. Perhaps it was they who were trying so hard to push the cap off my head the day before—they wanted to skip across the water, play with the fish, leave the everyday world behind, enjoy the adventure.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

September 11, 2009

Eight years ago on this date, my heart was broken. Yet I also realized how important the family bond was, as e-mails flew back and forth with assurances from various family members that, yes, we were safe. Many had no such assurance, and for them the heartbreak has not ceased. But even though my family was safe, the sadness of hearing about those final, desperate cell phone calls or even about the determined ones from Flight 93, punctured everyone’s sense of safety.

So it seems odd on this day to think about comfort—so many had that comfort ripped away from them.

And comfort, a kind of wealth in itself, sometimes gets a bad name. It’s unevenly distributed. A surgeon bursts out of the OR and the family knows the worst from looking at his face. A phone call in the middle of the night rouses parents or spouses or children from their place of comfort. Someone roots through trash cans, not having known anything like comfort for perhaps years.

Further, “comfort” suggests ease, relaxation, needs being met so smoothly and seamlessly that they are barely perceived. It is envied by those who don’t have it and yet also derided as a state of stagnation by preachers and self-improvement gurus.

It is subject to challenge. Everyone urges us out of our “comfort zone.”

And while I recognize that personal growth often requires risking what’s comfortable or safe, it might be time to look at what exactly “comfort” means and why we sometimes need it as much as we need to risk it.

The word comes from the Latin “fortis” or “strong,” and “confortāre to strengthen” ( But the “giving strength” aspect of the word has faded and become obsolete, replaced by the more current understanding of the word as enjoying ease.

The old sense of “comfort” has more to do with “fortification,” shoring up, strengthening. It is more double-edged. Fortifying can involve shoring up but also involves testing, ensuring that a structure can withstand destructive forces.

In this sense, it can call for a step into the unknown, a step away from the tv or away from “comfort foods,” trading the romance novel for Romeo and Juliet.

My students, while discussing what they liked and didn’t like about reading outlined both senses of the word “comfort.” One student said that while he enjoyed “leisure reading,” he didn’t so much like the kind that required a lot of note taking, figuring out what the author meant. Another student said that she enjoyed reading because it took her places she couldn’t otherwise go. And it seems to me that definition of reading bridges the gap between reading for entertainment and reading for study—as well as comfort in the sense of ease and relaxation versus comfort as strengthening, which would seem to me to both serve the same purpose: helping one negotiate life.

The comfort of a favorite novel or section of the newspaper allows the brain to take needed rest and so recharge. A familiar dish can connect a person with some happy time in her life and so evoke that happiness and security. While traveling, people often seek out foods from home. Shakespeare’s book store in Paris was, I admit, was one of my favorite haunts while visiting there because of its wide selection of English-language books.

Yet at the same time, if we don’t seek out places that test or challenge us, we can find our strength diminishing, just as an athlete who doesn’t stretch her limits as well as rest can find herself not performing as well in her sport.

But what does this have to do with eight years ago?

I tried to imagine and found it too painful what it would be like to board a plane thinking it would be a normal flight, the problems nothing more than a bit of turbulence or a crying child in the next seat. And I thought of the fear and shock of seeing strangers with murderous intentions taking over the plane, knowing bit by bit that my life was about to end violently and painfully and that there was nothing I could do about this fact. What would I remember? What would I want loved ones to remember? What control would I have over those last moments alive? I don’t know.

I remember once upon hearing that there was an Amtrak collision in Chicago that I went through a heightened state of fear and anxiety because my sister was planning a business trip via Amtrak to Chicago. I remember my relief when I learned she was not on that train. And my response when I learned that was to e-mail her and tell her I loved her since many would not have that chance and wish they had.

I wonder if, on that plane or in the World Trade Center, or in the Pentagon, I’d be thinking of risks I wish I’d taken, times I wish I’d ventured out, tried something new, found strength not just in the familiar but in breaking away from the familiar, stretching my understanding of “comfort.”

What would I long for? My thought on September 11, 2009, was to take the simple step that a busy day allowed—nothing huge or dramatic, certainly nothing heroic on the scale of what people did that day—but, at the very least, something that affirmed life and being alive.

I took a walk/run in the rain—in pouring rain—through my neighborhood park. My knee had been hurting the day before, adding to the longstanding but slowly healing foot injury, and I had given in to discouragement, given into the rain, wanted to stay indoors. But it seemed an admission of defeat to do this.

I wanted to give those who died an act of healing and hope, however private. I would, of course, have to listen to my body—the knee felt better but I had to take it slowly. Yet taking it slowly might have its own benefits. In training for races, I obsess with times, with distance, with achievement. On this trip, which was more tour than training, I would take the time to notice whatever caught my attention—such as the tennis courts, turf glazed and leaf covered, a floral mosaic.

Stopping to look, I realized I didn’t have my watch. Just as well. This was an invitation to set time aside, live in the space around me instead.

I wanted this to be the run and walk that I would remember in my last moments, wherever I was. I wanted to remember splashing through puddles like a kid, getting wet fearlessly. Eventually, I untied the jacket hood, drawn tight around my head, observed no clock but ran or walked whenever I chose.

Wandered down to take a look at the now swollen stream ford where the high school runners crossed on a brighter, warmer day.

A succession of asphalt, dirt, grass, and cedar shavings led me to the edge of the park. The voices of the landscape urged me to speed up, to run, to run up the hill leading to State Road, and so I did, crossing when I arrived to take cash from the ATM at the Wawa, where there’s no charge—an unplanned stop, a gift—and then back downhill, through the park again—across the grass, where I looked up and let the raindrops tickle my face. Took a detour to follow (loosely) the western side of the Upper Darby High School cross-country course.

Unlike the runners, however, I chose the footbridge instead of the ford to return to the road—just to stand in the middle and watch the water tumble over the rocks below me. And listen to its roar, drowning out, for the moment, the roar of traffic, the clatter of trolleys. And to the muted yet distinct patter of raindrops. The Nature Company sells sticks that when shaken sound like those raindrops—people buy tapes of that sound. Yet I was hearing the real thing.

And the abundance of water, the rain, the stream, the puddles—maybe one day they would soothe and quench the fires of loss, of pain, heal and cleanse. But it will take time and many walks in the rain.

I was in New York recently, within a block of what is now called “Ground Zero.” But a powerful sense that I was trespassing held me back from proceeding further. This was a gravesite. So much agony for so many. To walk on it, to gape at it, even for the purpose of paying respects felt somehow invasive. The voices of the victims ask of us to live, to comfort, to grow, to remember forward. And walk in the rain sometimes.