Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Dreaming Big & Failing



Last weekend, I screamed until my throat was raw. Standing a half mile from the finish line of a marathon has that effect on a person. It’s a beautiful thing, witnessing thousands of people pushing themselves in that way—the culmination of an effort that can only be described as hard work.

Four weeks ago, I ran a marathon. I finished in my fastest time, but I did not accomplish my goal: to qualify for the Boston Marathon. In the aftermath, I’ve spent a lot of time feeling sorry for/angry at myself. And I’ve rehashed just about every moment of the race in my overly analytical brain.

But watching my fellow runners, coupled with the passage of time, provides a dose of perspective.

Does it matter if we take a few swings before we achieve our goal?

It’s a funny thing, telling people about your dreams. It’s risky and it makes you feel vulnerable. It’s terrifying, really. Even when you put in the work required to do the thing you want to do, there’s no promise of success.

What if I look like a fool?
What if I fall on my face?

It’s like any other dream: Maybe you’ll get burned. Perhaps you’ll fail. But you try anyway. It’s such a powerful idea, being brave enough to simply TRY. Putting your heart on the line for something that feels impossible. For the maybe. Hanging on for the what if.

As it turns out, people are proud of you regardless. Even when you feel that you indeed looked like a fool and fell flat on your face. You tried. And there’s beauty in the try, even when you miss the mark.
Here’s the truth of the matter: I run because it makes me feel like I have control over what my body can do. I don’t have control over much. I cannot will myself to have a child. But running? That I can do. That I can push and dream and stretch until it feels like my lungs are on fire.

I have the power to change things when I run.

That’s what dreaming and pushing yourself just a bit further does: it makes you think you can control just this one thing, when you realize you simply cannot control anything. Life is chaos. And our lack of control makes this world such a beautifully broken place—and it provides many an opportunity to dream every one of your crazy dreams. Even the dreams that fail mean something.

Is finishing a marathon in my fastest time but not qualifying for the Boston Marathon a major tragedy? No, it is not. It barely registers on the tragedy scale, were someone to invent such a thing. It’s a reflection of a greater experience: a lesson in understanding that sometimes, you will work very hard for something and you won’t get what you want.


And that’s life. Trying and failing, over and over again until you get it right. Picking up the pieces as you go, one painful step at a time. And finding it in your heart to wait for the magic, whenever it happens.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Finish



No matter how many miles you put in, there’s nothing quite like the race day experience. The competition. The spectators. The adrenaline. The air is electric. But for me, it’s all about the finish line.

It’s a place I dream about. The culmination of so many early mornings and tough runs. All the sweat and the pain and the effort that often makes others ask, “Why?” (and, rightfully so.)
The finish is where it all clicks. Everything makes sense. I wish I could bottle that feeling.
Last Sunday, we ran. We raced. We pushed. And then we rounded the corner. It probably wasn't, but it felt so dramatic. The finish line was there, waiting for us. I could see it. And I could hear the crowd cheering.

This is why I run—for that moment.

It seems insane to do so much for just a minute or two, doesn't it? I wish it was possible to show you what I mean; to let you feel all those feelings. It’s an experience that occurs at the conclusion of something so difficult it has the capacity to break you entirely.

Sure, the marathon is tough. But it’s the training that I find most challenging. The will to wake up at 3:30am to run 10 miles is not strong with me. But I do it anyway. It’s no different than the things we do for love. The sacrifices we make because the effort warrants the reward. That is what keeps me coming back, morning after morning.

There are a lot of really amazing things running does for me—physically and spiritually—but being present for the culmination of it all at once is true magic. That’s what the finish line feels like: a brain-shattering moment that hurts and heals, all at once.


How often, I wondered at my most recent finish line, do we get the chance to do something like that? To feel so alive and free, with absolutely nothing holding us back? If we’re lucky, we get to touch it for just a moment. That’s why, I explain to those who ask, those photos at the end show a smile on my face. 

That last stretch of road, leading to the conclusion of a long journey, is a sacred place. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Push.

I’ve reached the halfway point of marathon training. I ran 50+ miles last week.

Training for a marathon—despite the motivational quotes, viral videos, and commercials—is not glamourous. It’s exhausting. It wrecks your brain. It trashes your legs. It toys with your emotions. Kills your social life. It’s sweat and grit—and sometimes it’s tears and frustration.

During the week, my alarm goes off at 4:00 AM. I don’t know how familiar you are with that time of day, but it’s DARK. Like, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark.

Truthfully, I hate every second of waking up that early. All I want to do is crawl back into bed. But I get up anyway. I take my two dogs outside and I stand in the backyard making a mental list of all the reasons why I shouldn't run. I have a lot of excuses. Then, after my dogs finish their business, I go back inside and leave my mental list outside.

You see, it’s those early morning runs where things feel magical---they feel possible. As my lungs burn and my legs turn over, Boston feels less like a dream. Waking up that early feels like you’ve been let in on a life-altering secret; it’s desolate in a way that makes you feel special. It’s quiet in a haunting way that I find endearing.

Everyone else is sleeping right now, I remind myself. Dreaming their dreams, while I’m out working toward mine. Pushing just a bit harder toward the things I want.

The best thing I've ever done is surround myself with people who push me. They push because they care. And they push because they know tough love is the best way to tap into the part of yourself that doesn’t want to go back to bed at 4:00 AM.

My husband is one of those people. He wakes up early with me and trains alongside me—for a race he’s not even running. Last week, in the coolness of a foggy morning, we sprinted down a normally busy street in the darkness, side by side.

Arms pumping. Legs churning. Reaching for that faster pace.

As the female robot voice on my running app prompted a brief break, he said, “Your stride is getting smoother. It looks more effortless. And you’re finally picking up your feet.”

It was too dark for him to notice, but I smiled. All those early mornings were worth the effort. I was getting somewhere, even when it felt like I was just treading water.

But it begs the question: What are you actually capable of? How do you know?


So far as I can tell, you may never know. But that shouldn't stop you from trying. And pushing as far as you can go. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Happiness Paradox

Meeting someone for the first time is a fascinating experience. For me, it often feels like Groundhog Day. People typically ask a series of questions to spark surface-level conversation. The usual suspects are as follows:

What do you do for a living?
Are you married?
What does your husband do?
Where do you live?
Do you have children?
They are meant to be benign questions. A way to get to know you better. To fill the silence with your favorite thing: talking about yourself.
Recently, I had a conversation with a doctor (who I was visiting for the first and probably last time) with a similar line of questioning. When she reached the, “Do you have children?” portion I gave my standard answer (to a question that is asked of me often) and changed the subject. Typically, this conversation is easily forgotten. It wasn’t this time.
“Wait, you’ve been married for SIX years, you’re [glances at my chart] THIRTY and you don’t have kids?”
“Nope.”
“Aren’t you bored?”
“Never.”
“Don’t you want kids?”
“It’s complicated. But I’m very happy with my life, just the way it is.”
“Well, if you don’t have kids what do you DO?”
“Uh, whatever I want.”
It was clear from the expression on her face that she found this very perplexing. And I sensed she didn’t believe me, which was disheartening. But that conversation raises an interesting point: why do we have such a specific idea of what happiness looks like? And why do we fail to understand how someone can live an ‘unconventional’ life and still be perfectly happy?
Because we tend to believe that life is about checking items off a laundry list as we go. That graduating from college, getting a good job, marriage and having children is a recipe. Doing each of those things will guarantee a life of happiness. This isn’t how it works—how anything works, really.
Happiness isn’t your house. It has nothing to do with the car you drive. It’s not a rock on your finger. It doesn’t hang in your closet. Happiness is heartbreak. Acceptance. Picking up the pieces. It’s living in the midst of a broken mess and loving it all, just the way it is.
We tend to believe that things will make us happy (a new house, a new job, more money) but we fail to get to the heart of the matter: happiness is a choice. Our choice. It isn’t a magic wand and it doesn’t come wrapped in pretty paper with a bow on top.
It shows up on your doorstep at 2am, asking to use your phone. It tracks mud onto your clean floors. It delivers life-shattering news on an otherwise sunny, perfect day. And, if you’re lucky, it will break your heart.
Happiness isn’t pretty, friends. It doesn’t show up with sunshine and rainbows. It’s that last, and often untold, final step in the grief process—just after acceptance. It is surrender.
Surrendering to what IS. And it’s giving up every last coulda, woulda, and shoulda. Knowing that there was no more for you to do---you tried. You did everything else by the rules and it didn’t change anything. That sometimes good people are dealt an unwinnable hand. And this world isn’t the place for you to understand why. It’s where you find your happiness, no matter where that search takes you.
Having children is not a guaranteed path to happiness; any more than brushing your hair prevents cancer. Though it might be difficult to digest, living life outside of the ‘rules’ with a mess of a life is the closest we get to perfection.
It’s the letting go of what we thought it should look like that makes it so spectacular. And each time a stranger questions my choices (a bizarre cocktail of having no choice and having a choice) I dig my heels in just a bit deeper. I stand taller. I didn’t make this mess, but I cleaned it up and made the choice to move on.
There’s freedom in that place, but it’s best not to stay there forever. That’s why grief is described as a process---because while it does change you for the better, it’s not fit for human habitation. It’s a broken down shack in the middle of nowhere that doesn’t have running water or electricity. A place where you sleep on a dirt floor night after night and somehow manage to survive, despite the poor conditions. Where you realize that you really can make your life work with very little.
You need to be humbled to be free. That is a beautiful thing—and it helps to understand that you can choose. You always have a choice. As it turns out, I just wanted one thing: to be happy.

"God can dream a bigger dream for me, for you, than you could ever dream for yourself. When you've worked as hard and done as much and strived and tried and given and pled and bargained and hoped...surrender. When you have done all that you can do, and there's nothing left for you to do, give it up. Give it up to that thing that is greater than yourself, and let it then become a part of the flow." — Oprah Winfrey

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Marathon-induced Perspective



It’s been a little over two weeks since the marathon. I’m walking normally (I was previously walking like Edgar, the farmer taken over by aliens in Men in Black) and have some much needed perspective. I've also signed up to run another marathon this fall. Which I’ve been told is borderline insane.

Each time someone throws around the word “crazy” or says they don’t know why (or how) people run marathons, I smile. Because somewhere in there, I believe they do understand. And I realize that all the best things in this world are, in fact, just a bit crazy.

Don’t get me wrong: I totally get how obnoxious runners can be to non-runners.  I really, really get it.
But I also know that running is has the power to transform. It’s made me someone else. Someone who understands that LIFE is about showing up and doing the work, no matter how broken you are as a human. And RUNNING? It’s about the same thing: waking up early to do the work, when every part of you just wants to crawl back in your warm bed and sleep for just a bit longer.

Running a marathon is the pinnacle of that experience. It tests you in every way possible—but it mostly calls upon your mental strength. It makes you question everything you know about yourself in the most painful of ways. Which is probably why I love it so much.

Here’s the truth: marathons make you want to give up. Throw in the towel. Stop what you're doing because for crying out loud this is so f*&^$%^ painful and why did I want to do this again?

It hurts, a marathon. It makes your legs and body very tired. And around mile 22, you completely forget why you began your journey in the first place. A lot of people give up at this point, physically and mentally—it’s what every cell in your body wants you to do. Just walk, your legs say. Let’s just stop this insanity, your mind pleads.

This is the uncomfortable part—the place where the magic happens. The part where the clich├ęs kick in: Finish strong. You got this. Just keep going.

You don’t train for a marathon thinking it will be easy, but you don't necessary have a complete grasp of the fact that it will try to break you. You can't wrap your head around that really, so you don’t. But that’s what it does. And it’s awful and amazing and all the things you expect it to be.

So WHY? Why do something that hurts so much and is so hard when you could just choose NOT to do it? I don’t know. Seriously, I have no idea. But much like life, it prompts further questioning.

Why not spend your whole life avoiding pain? Why not live a perfectly comfortable life and never take a chance? It would be easier that way, wouldn't it? Uh yeah, it would. But that’s pretty dumb. Also it’s completely unrealistic.

Because you can never run fast enough from reality, that’s why. Plenty of people try, sure. But I don't know anyone who has succeeded. So, I keep running. I run because I still haven't figured it all out just yet. And it’s the only place where I feel close enough to having (almost) all of the answers.

"Life does not accommodate you, it shatters you. It is meant to, and it couldn't do it better. Every seed destroys its container or else there would be no fruition."- Florida Scott-Maxwell

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Training Together

We're roughly a week and a half away from the marathon. And training for it is as difficult and wonderful as I remembered. This time around, however, my husband is running with me. Which certainly adds a new element of interest to the experience.

You see, running has always been my thing. It was the thing I did without him. And I wasn't sure how I felt about sharing it with him. Let's be honest: marriage requires me to share almost everything with my spouse. Selfishly, I wanted it to keep this one thing for myself.

But as we began training, I realized it was an enjoyable experience. There's just something refreshing about running alongside the person you've chosen as your life partner. You see people (even the ones you know quite well) in an entirely new light when you're struggling through something physically demanding together.

Sure, it isn't always an idyllic situation. We don't always get along. This is primarily due to our opposing personalities. I'm not a person who "flies by the seat of their pants" and I don't like to "see where the road takes me." It's just not my thing---and I'm married to someone who finds enjoyment in both of those activities. Your classic Type A/Type B scenario.

(I don't like reading instructions either. He ALWAYS reads them. Studies them, even. Thinks about them. Who has time for that?)

I'm a planner. I plan things---ALL the things. That way, I know what to expect. I like to feel prepared for the road ahead, literally and figuratively. And getting lost? Forgetaboutit. That's the best way to trigger a mental breakdown. It's happened: we got lost in Orlando, Florida in the pouring rain once and let's just say it was a defining moment. And thank God for taxicabs.

And he also does this thing where he only talks when he has something important to say. I mean, seriously: how does he fill the awkward silences? And how, exactly, can he keep things to himself? It's a concept that escapes me. The first time we went on a long run together, I asked him if we were going to talk while we ran (something the mostly-female group I run with does regularly) and his reply was that he'd rather focus on his form. And if I'd like to talk about something, I was more than welcome to bring it up.

So we ran in silence.

But an Uptight-Plan-All-The-Things-And-Worry-About-Them person like me can learn a thing or two from a Just-Relax-And-Enjoy-The-Ride guy like my husband. I've been with this man for a decade and can tell you this: he doesn't freak out about much. He's a calm guy. And a perfect mate for someone who has never been described as "calm" before.

And if you know anything about running and the torture it can sometimes bring to your body, a calming presence is a lovely addition to the party. In fact, it just might be the best thing. Especially when you don't have anything important to talk about.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

On Sailing Ships

An epic moment came back to me this morning while taking a shower. {That's where all the best thinking happens, by the way.}

My senior year of high school I broke up with my boyfriend. I was preparing to head off to college and after months of listening to him tell me he wasn't good enough for me, I realized he was right. I broke it off and moved on. Months later, while home from school on break, I saw him at a party. He begged me to take him back.

"That ship has sailed." I responded, and left the party.

All these years later, that moment has stuck with me: I had the right words in that moment. It was memorable because that doesn't happen often for me. The ship had sailed. I moved on. And it was time for him to do the same.

It's an interesting thought, those ships. How many times in life do they sail away, leaving us stranded on the beach wondering what happened?

How many times has a ship sailed away without you noticing? So often we're dragged out to sea, holding for dear life to a rope that no longer belongs in our hands. I like to think that we'll always, in some way, be tethered to the things that have escaped us. The problem lies in our inability to fully let go. Perhaps it's denial. Or anger. Or simply an unwillingness to accept reality.

But that's easy for me to say--and much tougher for me to do. Letting go is really, really difficult. It hurts. It doesn't matter what it is: friendships, our youth, former successes, dreams we had for ourselves. Those things make us feel vulnerable in a way we'd rather not explore. They remind us of our inadequacy and that makes us uncomfortable. As humans, we HATE being uncomfortable. So, we do everything in our power to avoid it.

We hang on to sailing ships, even when they're sinking.

We avoid tough conversations with the people we love, because we don't want to hurt their feelings.

We even avoid our own truths just to save face. Things look cleaner on the outside that way.

But the thing to remember is this: your ships will sail, no matter what you do. Your past will sink further and further away until it's a distant memory. And the last thing you want to do is find yourself chasing something that doesn't exist.

So, what are you still chasing?

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Friday, January 3, 2014

Naming the Dream

Dreams are funny things, aren't they? (The ones you dream while you're awake, that is.) They have a way of nagging you while simultaneously causing you to seriously doubt everything you believe about yourself. It's enough to drive you over the edge--or to give up. Which is likely why so many people die without ever pursuing their true passion.

Dreams can be scary and overwhelming. And easier to ignore than pursue.

What have you hidden away and shoved down so deeply that no one will ever find it?

And what exactly are you waiting for?

No, seriously. What? Your death, so the ones you love can find your passion tucked away in a box in the attic alongside old photos and crayon drawings of people with giant heads on stick bodies?

Editor's note: the crayon drawings of people with enormous heads on puny stick bodies are inhabiting my attic. Art, clearly, is not my life's dream.

Or is it your imminent failure, so the voice in your head can finally shut up already? I know you have a dream, without even asking you what it is. And I know it kills you to tuck it away day after day until it just goes away and you don't have to think about it anymore.

And I know how much that hurts. {And I realize that much like problems, your dreams have a way of floating back to the surface.}

In the spirit of telling those voices to shut the hell up already, I'm going to tell you my dream:

I want qualify to run the Boston Marathon. Yes, THAT Boston Marathon.

And I'm terrified that I won't be able to do it, so I've kept it to myself. I tucked it away in a box. It sits next to all the medals I've earn running other races--ones I hoped would satisfy me somehow. But that's the funny thing about a dream. It cannot be silenced with anything but the real thing.

I find it helps to create a list of all the reasons why you shouldn't pursue your dream.

Here's mine:

It's going to be impossible difficult.
It will be hard on my body.
I have a full-time job--and a long daily commute.
I've only run one full marathon previously.
I need to shave 1 hour and some change off my finishing time in order to qualify.
And I'll probably fail.

Then, throw your list into the nearest trash receptacle.

When I strip away all the outside noise, my dream remains. It stares me in the face often--even in the moments when I'm not sure if it can be accomplished. I reached a point where I knew shoving my dream to the side was affecting me. So, I did something that felt scary:

I said it out loud.

To my husband, who I immediately conned into running my second marathon with me. Which will be his first.

Hey, if you're going to have a dream you might as well drag someone else along for the ride.

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