Year Seven

Yesterday I wrapped up the first week of my seventh year teaching. In seven years, I’ve taught at two schools, prepped and planned materials for thirteen different courses, taught about 700 different students, and written “what do you mean?” or “needs more evidence” on a mind-numbing-exhausting-overwhelming number of papers. 

This year feels a little different because I know I won’t be there after Thanksgiving. I have all freshmen (my freshman English teacher was the most influential I’ve ever had, and so while a lot of my colleagues like older students, I have a special place in my heart for nervous, insecure, wide-eyed 9th graders). I’m starting the year out with The Night Circus, a novel I’ve never taught before. I’ve already planned through November and graded first drafts on 100 papers. I am excited to do the very best I can for the months I’m with my classes, and I’m also excited to hand everything over to my long-term sub in 12 weeks. 

We have 80 girls on the cross country roster this year. By the time our season wraps up, I’ll be waddling more than running. The leaves will have changed and then fallen, and hopefully most of those 80 girls will feel a little bit stronger, faster, fitter, prouder of what they can make their bodies do. 

Year 32

Friday was my 32nd birthday, and in the weeks leading up to it, I had been thinking a lot about everything that happened since my last birthday.

 

We got engaged.

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I ran the Twin Cities Marathon.

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I coached our girls cross country team to the highest state finish in more than 20 years.

We got married.

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We went to Hawaii

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We bought & started building a house

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I got pregnant.

Hannah won nationals and broke the national sophomore record.

We took our wandering road trip.

I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on since 2011. 

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I know it is unrealistic to think life will slow down, and I don’t want it to, but I would also feel okay about having fewer major life changes between now and turning 33. Yesterday was a quiet birthday. Nick and I went for a run at the beach before work, and out to a delicious dinner after work. Kids come back to school on Monday, cross country season starts, and by early December, we’ll no longer be a family of two. 

This weekend was such a perfect way to end the summer that even though I’m excited about some new things I want to try in my classroom and the cross country season, it feels a little like I’m being ripped out of the house this morning. 

 

The [Taboo?] Penance of the Long Distance Runner

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Running Times, loosely modeled on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (not calling myself Rilke here!). I had been thinking a lot about how running has changed me, and the things that adult, teacher and coach-me wishes she could tell that insecure 14-year old on the first day of cross country practice. Before I started running (because I got cut from the volleyball team), I was an overweight, self-conscious 13 year old with frizzy hair and braces. I came in last in our team’s mile time trial at the end of the first week of practice, even though the time (still remember it: 8:12) was a PR (though I doubt I knew this term at the time). I wore flannel boxers and basketball shoes to practice. I had to walk more than once on the loop that would eventually become my warm-up.

I was trying to convey how becoming a runner totally changed the way I thought about my body, and in turn, myself. Instead of being embarrassed by it, for the most part, I was proud of what it could do. I wrote about how I eventually ran a marathon faster than that first mile time trial pace, and about how despite spending that entire first season of cross country counting down the days until the season ended, I now can’t imagine my life without practice at 2:45 each day. 

When I wrote the piece, I was coaching at a high school one town over from the one I myself attended, and now, I actually coach at my own alma matter. My high school coach is the boys’ coach and I coach the girls. We run the same routes, and some (though I try to be more innovative than this might suggest) of the same workouts. We return to the same park each October for our conference meet, and each October, I see this park magically transformed from the place where I’ve logged hundreds of long runs, fartleks, and tempo runs, to a place that still makes me short of breath with nerves. 

The piece I wrote for Running Times, though, was only part of the truth. Running did allow me to forgive myself for what I (still, to be honest) do consider the embarrassing failure of my adolescent self. I’ve grown to equate pre-running me with slothful me, lazy me, overweight me, worthless me. In part this is because running gave me something physical in which to take pride, and in the way that distance running has for so many others, the discipline of distance running really did change me as a person. I spent the entire summer after my freshman year determined to run away from the girl I’d been (slowest on the team, chubby, awkward). I can still remember running up Route 33 on muggy afternoons visualizing a varsity letter always a step ahead of me. The only person who wasn’t surprised when I made varsity on a team that went all the way to the New England championships the next year was me. I was too naive to understand that I wasn’t built like a runner, and that even novices don’t typically shave off minutes per mile in a year.

Sticking with running through those first hard months is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. Becoming a runner, and everything that entailed (someone who took care of her body, someone who made fresh air, alone time, exploring new routes, pushing her body to the limits of competition and learning not to fear, but instead to relish, that pain) have defined me on and off the track. I worry about a lot of things, but I don’t worry about if I can endure something unpleasant for the sake of something that I think is important. 

After our honeymoon, my husband and I were showing his parents pictures and a few videos we’d taken on our trip to Hawaii. One of the videos Nick had recorded on his phone, mid-run. It starts out with the back of my head, my ponytail swatting around sticky with sweat and the wind from the Pacific muffling any other sounds. Then, I must have realized Nick was recording and I turn to wave, smiling hugely. When his parents saw the video, they both commented, clearly surprised, about how happy I lookedOf course! What in the entire world could be more joyful and free? I was running along the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii on my honeymoon while Connecticut got pummeled with the season’s 438th snow storm! Why wouldn’t I be happy?! Because most people associate running with grueling penance, tiresome drudgery, or side stitches and sore knees, I realized. 

Today, though, I spent a lot of time thinking about how the fact that I started running all those years ago to run away from something about myself cannot be ignored: my own penance. There’s a fine line between self-loathing and dedication, and I don’t mean just for me. I’m often asked what makes a given runner I coach successful, and usually it’s some combination of talent, hard-work, and willingness to be uncomfortable. This answer is something I’ve been surprised to learn makes people uncomfortable. I’m not sure what exactly about this it is that makes people uncomfortable: the idea of success requiring physical pain? The notion of masochism being, in some (if not all) cases, a prerequisite for success? The image of a teenager in physical pain for something as unessential to survival as sport? It had never occurred to me that there was anything shameful or taboo about success in distance running requiring not just a high pain tolerance, but a respect for pain.

Now that I’m pregnant, my relationship to pain, and as a result, to running, has changed. (I expect it will change again in ways I can’t even fathom once I face labor and delivery.) Pain can’t be the goal; avoiding pain is the goal. I’m running, wogging, or, increasingly, walking, in search of fitness and some peace of mind. Today, as I blew my nose into the hem of my maternity dress, I was struck by the realization that the peace of mind running brings me has always been deeply tied to my ability to endure pain.

Of course part of what I love about running I can still do: see new places, get fresh air, have some time to myself. But part of what I really miss, I’ll have to wait several months to experience again. I miss being in so much pain that I can’t think. I miss the high that comes from having made my body do something I doubted it could do. I miss being sore in the mornings or so hungry at night that I’d eat my shower curtain. Part of what running has always been about for me is about obliteration of something shameful (laziness, sloth, a past self buried deep inside), but also about the peacefulness that comes from the obliteration of consciousness. 

I am immensely grateful that I’ve been able to keep waddling as long as I have, and although it’s getting harder to stay comfortable and my pace is slowing, I do hope to be able to continue running for awhile longer. I am, as I hope goes without writing, beyond grateful that I have the luxury of contemplating missing physical pain during pregnancy when so many women are in scary, debilitating pain during pregnancy. But, as I’ve been a little surprised to find out, the escape that running has always offered me is more elusive than fresh air and solitude; it has to do with a mind-body synchronicity that’s almost spiritual for me. Figuring out what specifically I miss (after I blew my nose into the hem of a second maternity dress–not joking) was a relief, but at the same time, realizing that I’m still running away from something–or maybe more accurately someone–revealed a dark underbelly to something that I generally associate with pure, unadulterated joy. 

When Am I Going to Get Really HUNGRY?

Even though I’m 31, I don’t have many close friends who have kids, and those who do mostly had kids before I met them. Our daughter will be the first grandchild on both sides of the family, and I’m the first of my cousins to have kids. I’ve never been to a baby shower (not complaining). In the past few days I’ve been reading a lot of internet garbage about pregnancy and childbirth. Everything from healthy living mommy blogs with gratuitous photos of bellies to message boards to WebMD. Part of this might be because we go back to school next week and I’m procrastinating syllabus writing and unit planning, but I think part of it is because it’s hard to feel like I have a real-life community of nervous/excited/confused/bloated women to talk to.

I’m not a big group-joiner, so I don’t see myself making buddies at prenatal yoga or through our childbirth class, but all this internet mindlessness did get me thinking about what it is that’s surprised me about being pregnant.

1. I sort of imagined I wouldn’t look pregnant for a few weeks, and then BAM would look 7 months pregnant. I still feel like I appear to be ambiguously full/overweight.

2. Had I realized that strangers might stare at me (when running, when trying to discern if I am in fact full or pregnant), I would have realized I’d hate this, but since I didn’t realize how many people openly stare at pregnant women (or probably anyone who stands out for any reason), I’ve been surprised to feel extremely self conscious almost anytime I go out in public. I don’t even like seeing people I know and love that I haven’t seen in awhile because I get nervous they’re going to want to look at (or worse–TOUCH) my belly.

3. I kept waiting to get really hungry, and I’m kind of sad that that’s never happened. I also haven’t had any weird cravings. Or, at least not what I’d call cravings. I decided maybe I’m just really bad at self-denial all the time, and so eating a bowl of ice cream after dinner or some chocolate in the middle of the day is nothing remarkable. I’m running about 20 fewer miles a week than I used to, which I guess is enough to make up for pregnancy ravenousness. Which is too bad, because one of my favorite things about running a lot is getting really excited about dinner (or dessert). I was hoping for some 3pm “MUST HAVE A MILKSHAKE RIGHT NOW” episodes.

I’ve been really lucky (it seems it really is just a matter of luck) to be able to continue running and feeling pretty good. I’ve been running between 20-30 miles a week this trimester, usually 6 days/week with mostly 3-5 mile runs. I’m not sure how much longer this will be possible, but I’d love to be able to run with some of the new girls when cross country starts in the fall.

A lot of the things I’m not supposed to or can’t do haven’t seemed appealing. While there was a time in my (grad school) life when I’d have an afternoon snack of a latte and a chocolate covered espresso beans, I’m okay with my one cup of coffee in the morning. I’ve probably had about 10 turkey sandwiches in my life. I’m a little squeamish about raw fish anyway, so I’m happy to have an excuse to get my avocado rolls without eliciting eye rolls from sushi-loving companions. And, since all cheese made (and most sold) in the U.S. is pasteurized anyway, I’ve not minded reading the label before continuing on wholeheartedly with my goat and brie cheese loving ways. But the things I do miss…

1. a good, hard, exhausting, crash-the-rest-of-the-day long run or race (followed by calf-slicing pain when trying to walk downstairs in the morning)

2. wine (especially sipping a glass of wine while I cook dinner and catch up with Nick about our days)

3. disregard for sleep (I used to be an “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” person, particularly fond of pre-dawn solitary writing or running time)

Luckily, I have a feeling that the first time I try to run after the little scone arrives, it will probably be hard, exhausting and, even if I can’t crash for the rest of the day, will probably result in pain walking down the stairs in the morning. I’ve also heard that I’ll have no problem finding a way to be sleep-deprived.

Cross Country Running

We’re home!

I decided not to bring my laptop on the road, and I do not have the patience for typing on a tablet.

But, now, we’re home and safe and glad to see our cat. So glad to eat healthy food, in fact, that I had a kale salad and beet juice (I thought it was berry juice!) for lunch.

I felt pretty good for most of the trip and we were able to run in a bunch of new places. There is nothing that makes me feel more like I’ve really explored a town as much as an early morning run. Since we decided to document our trip, I actually arrived back home with a lot of pictures from these morning explorations.

 

 

first stop: Sutton, WV, where I worked for the Kerry Campaign in 2004
first stop: Sutton, WV, where I worked for the Kerry Campaign in 2004
morning run through Wash U (and then Forest Park) in St. Louis
morning run through Wash U (and then Forest Park) in St. Louis
my favorite trail of all time: the Levee Trail in Salina, KS. So peaceful and open.
my favorite trail of all time: the Levee Trail in Salina, KS. So peaceful and open.
Rapid River trail in Rapid City, SD
Rapid River trail in Rapid City, SD
post-run view of our Cody, WY hotel
post-run view of our Cody, WY hotel
Rankin Ranch in Missoula, MT
Rankin Ranch in Missoula, MT
crisp morning along the Yellowstone River in Billings
crisp morning along the Yellowstone River in Billings
Cedar Lake, Minneapolis - magic running place
Cedar Lake, Minneapolis – magic running place

 

post-run ice cream on the terrace at UW-Madison with my college teammate, Britt
post-run ice cream on the terrace at UW-Madison with my college teammate, Britt