I was in an almost-one-year relationship that recently ended. It's a normal thing for relationships to end: the majority of them do, until they don't. I was hoping for the not-ending scenario, the way you do when you are within squinting distance of 33 and squinting distance of being in love and the outside of your fridge is covered with your friends' wedding invitations and portraits of newborns. The breakup wasn't even awful. I think I can say talk with some authority about awful, as previous breakups have included a four-year relationship where my ex-boyfriend came out as gay afterwards, and a disastrous blink of a marriage that saw me moving out of a not-moved-into condo with a freshly stress-fractured foot. I can say things ran their course, I can say it's been worse - but I can also say I put off telling my Mom for over a week.
So I'll tell people, and there is a pause. I tell myself that pause is the other person taking a breath or observing the weather and not at all related to pity. Anyways, when I get a pause, or even if I don't but think one is being considered, I jump in: "But, I'm running again these days. I'm actually consistently over 70km a week, doing speedwork, and I've even started to go back to VFAC." And if this person is part of my accounting life, they nod and smile as much as they can, and usually will let me change the subject to their job (and promotions), their spouse and child and the home they own and work on and decorate. Runners, though, they understand - there's the sad smile, that silver lining of sweat and sunrises and a slow build towards something.
Which brings me, after five years, to starting to show up to VFAC on Thursday evenings. The first time I was there, we waited in a muggy dusk as our coach stretched out the hamstring of a runner laying on his back. This was done before giving us times and assigning us to pace groups. I started and didn't feel good or fast - because I was not running well, or fast. The next week, I jogged over with Kristina and somehow got us lost enough to do an extra 3k on warm-up. While we should have been late to the workout start, VFAC time-space continuum meant we were still early. Early enough to arrive right in the middle of Drew giving a speech about a member who had just died - someone I had run with, years ago, who I didn't even realize was sick. Even though we're meeting in the same places and doing the same workouts, even though so many of the same people are still there, time has moved on and keeps moving on in occasionally heartbreaking ways.
I've done more workouts. Ones where I've forgotten my own water and gurgled down Brandon's in one swallow. Where the mosquitos swam into the sweat on my chest and I showered them off afterward. Always, running as hard as my lungs and my legs can handle, with a disappearing person in front of me, afterwards the hugs and the high-fives and the slow jog back into the West End.
I took a road trip with the same ex-boyfriend this past April to Flagstaff to visit Shannon. We drove through Washington, Oregon, one long day all of Idaho, until we saw the Wasatch range way into the distance in Utah. A night in a motel at the edge of Ogden, people rattling through the hallways, the dog barking all night. The next morning, billboards along the highway for Narcotics Anonymous groups and for encouraging fathers to stay with their children as the rain pounded the dirt and the dead bugs off my car. Even as it was raining, in the distance, we saw clear blue.
A small road and then a smaller road and then the big burnt afternoon sky, the dust deepening red. We drove past the bones of old mines, past crumbling cement plants miles from any towns. 2pm and a sliver of moon far on the horizon. The sun was hot and the wind blew without any bite of coldness. I took off my pants, replaced them with shorts, took of my shirt, replaced with a tank top. Finally applied sunscreen. We entered the Grand Escalante National Monument, pulled over on an unmarked road to pee and watch the dog throw up quietly and run through scrubs to a low ridge, where we looked onto other low ridges and felt the slow bake of heat. We wound up through forest, up as the snow patches joined into a blanket, another pull-over into the dried out landscape and the mountains in the distance. Late afternoon, at our campsite on the edge of a bottle green creek, we went for a run along the edge of a canyon in the shadows and dust to a waterfall. I could feel tired from the drive, sweaty and pudgy from a long, cold winter, with that edge in my stomach because I was with a person who I loved who I wasn't sure loved me back and it was just us - and I felt all of it, but also a deeper happiness - because it was beautiful and I could move in this beautiful place, could go and just keep going. All I wanted to do was keep going.
Two days later, we arrived in Flagstaff. My car covered in dust, my running gear crammed into the backseat. The first thing we did when we met up with Shannon was go for a run, the second thing we did was eat pizza, and the third thing we did was finally take a shower. I'd say the fourth thing I did, the next day, was visit the used book store in downtown Flagstaff. I found an old copy of The Wasteland and other collected TS Eliot poems. The time with Shannon was like an oasis: talking about all the things I'd waited to talk about, a cool evening in the Grand Canyon and a hot run in Sedona. Reading the tarot cards for her and her firefighting, jacked-up truck owning, topless car-washing, tattoed housemate Dwayne in the living room underneath the watchful eyes of the head of a deer that Dwayne had shot and killed the previous year.
We left, and cranked through Nevada, Vegas, Death Valley in a sandstorm until we hit the Eastern Sierras. In our tent that night, I started to read the Wasteland. I didn't understand most of it - this remains the case. I think some things you're not meant to fully understand. I got to the end, after the poem is so sad and so hopeless, until it finally isn't as hopeless: "these are the fragments I shore against my ruins." And its easy to think of life as one long, slow-moving ruin, against which we do the very best we can, with whatever fragments we have.
In my non-running life, I'm an accountant. I have the privilege of working with other accountants, some of whom occasionally go through tough times. Part of my job is working with these accountants to get them to a place where they do the work they want to do the right way. Sometimes, I've had people going through hard situations ask me, with more grace and grit than I could ever muster: "Okay, what do I do now? How would you deal with this?" It's not always easy to find the words, and the best I can muster is usually: "You go to bed. The next morning, you get up - even though it's really hard - and you go to work. At work, you do the best you can do. And you go home, and the next morning, you wake up and do it again. After each day, it's a bit easier."
This is all easy to say, and quite a bit more difficult, in real life, to do. What helps, when I need to muster up grace and dredge up patience, is running. The actual act of it, and all the very positive, inspirational stuff that comes with it that I try my best to ignore, until I can't anymore. And running is a part of me. Even when I'm not running - when I'm swimming or biking or stretching or rolling out or worrying over a pain or a tight spot - I'm running. I can be cynical and clever and rational, but this only lasts until things get tough.
I ran a 50km in Winthrop a few months ago. The weather was sunny, the far-off mountains and close-up wildflowers beautiful. I wasn't that fit and was coming in on fumes but I still ran and kept running, which can get you surprisingly far in races that distances. It was close to the end, all the parts of my body that could be sore were sore, and I was alone, running down singletrack to the finish line. I had food, I had water, nothing was devastatingly injured or broken. But it was still really hard to keep going. I counted breaths, I slowed down, and, finally, I told myself: "Be Brave." You can usually tell that you are not having your best race when you are reverting to some inspirational quote found on instagram. I said it and knew it was ridiculous - this wasn't Syria, was something I chose and could stop any time - but I kept saying it. At the end of the race, when Barry and Amber were waiting at the end, I was too tired to be anything besides really, really grateful.
So these Thursday evenings, as I chase ghosts of my faster, younger, lighter self through trails as the sun slants liquid through the trees, I try to find answers to why I'm still running and running this way. I'm not sure if I'm trying to get fast - I was faster once, and it was still not even close to enough. I don't have a race planned - when people ask what I'm training for, I say "life", and I mean it in the way that life can be difficult and its good to practice the basics of keeping going when things hurt, irregardless of where the hurt comes from. I can also say that it's good to be back, that I've been lonely and missed the community - this is more true. And finally, I can say that everyone has ruins in their own life and is doing the best they can to wake up in the morning. For me, I'm lucky enough to have found these fragments that help to shore me up against all the rest of life.