14 Remain

On Memorial Day weekend, I traveled to beautiful Burlington, Vermont to run the Vermont City Marathon. Despite the warm temperatures, I enjoyed the race and finished within the time I expect nowadays. Vermont marked my 40th state in the quest to run a marathon in every state in the U.S. before I turn 50 years old in December 2020. I started this quest around my 40th birthday, so I’ve been running marathons regularly for almost nine years. It’s been equal parts thrilling and frustrating because just when I think I’ve cracked the code on running these things time and gravity conspire to do a number on me.

There was a time in early 2014 after I suffered an ankle injury when I feared I’d never make it this far. It took a long time to recover from that injury, and I didn’t run a marathon for over a year after that. Truthfully, I haven’t been the same since. My right ankle still gives me fits nowadays, but we’re like an old married couple in that we bicker and ignore each other hoping that the issue just goes away. I still don’t fully trust the bastard because he’s always looking for an excuse not to run.

Despite my love-hate relationship with my right ankle, I’m still running and I’m on track to finish my goal before I turn 50 unless the right ankle reads this and reacts in a pure fit of spite. Stranger things have happened.

Friends ask me what’s next after I finish the 50 states. Well, I won’t be quite done with marathons at that point. I’d like to run a marathon on every continent as well. I’ve already run one on four continents, so what’s three more, right? Also, there’s the small matter of Washington, D.C. It’s not a state, but it seems weird to leave it out if you’re going to claim you’ve run marathons all over the U.S. By my count, that means I have ten marathons left for the remaining states plus another one in D.C. I need to race in Australia, South America, and Antarctica to finish off the continents. That leaves 14 marathons to go. That’d put me at 62 for my career, and that’s just enough for me.

After that I’ll hang up my marathon running shoes and retire to running 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons. Those distances accrue less abuse to the body, and let’s face it, if I’ve learned anything from this marathon challenge, it’s that I’m not getting any younger.

 

Certainty

Human beings love certainty. That’s why we have comfort zones (a controlled space where we can more or less predict what will happen) and why we put an out-sized value on the past (it already happened, so it can’t change). Uncertainty is nerve-wracking, a darkened path into the unknown that could or could not end well. What is to come is scary because anything could happen and we can’t control it.

Sometimes, certainty is not comfortable or enlightening. This past weekend I ran a wonderful little marathon in Northern Virginia that started and finished at a local suburban high school. The course was a double loop half marathon meaning that I had to run the course twice to complete the full marathon distance. Normally, I like these courses because it helps to know what the second half of the course looks like when I enter the inevitable battle with the mental demons that descend on me around mile 18. Those bastards love pointing out the uncertainty of the course and how it will imminently lead to my failure. With a double loop, they lose some of their ammunition.

The course started like many others – a rush of adrenaline on a luxuriously wide asphalt surface just outside the school. A couple of miles of gently rolling roadway begat more of the same until we entered a wooded trail just before the four-mile marker. This mile-long trek along a peaceful trail through the woods is normally a runner’s dream – no traffic or associated noise and pollution, but this trail had as many twists and turns as a Stephen King novel and meandered through the trees as if some drunken explorer had founded it back in the day. If the twists weren’t bad enough, the amplitude of the undulating hills seemed to accelerate. My legs groaned and the pace displayed on my watch slowed.

After a mile in the wooded path, I plopped back onto pavement, which, although undulating and unforgiving, felt like a relief from the twisting trail I had just left behind. Another mile-long section of trail followed that before I ended up on pavement again. The race course marshal obviously had a sense of humor and a mean sadistic streak, but I hadn’t seen anything truly sadistic yet. Until I did. What followed the short respite of relatively straight roadway was three miles of rolling, twisting trail. I felt like one of those sad, inevitable victims in a slasher film running an aimless path among the trees in hopes that the determined mass murderer wouldn’t be able to keep up with me.

When I finally emerged from the last section of the wooded path on the first loop, my legs and my time had suffered. The slight downhill run on the longest straightaway of the course led me back to where I had started. As I ran by the halfway point, the thought of running through those trail sections again left me with an unsettled feeling. The grind was already wearing on me at the 13-mile point. Normally, I don’t start to feel it until around mile 15 or beyond. In this case, certainty, as in I most certainly had to run the trail sections again, didn’t help me in the least. In fact, it made me very uncomfortable.

The marathon is an exercise in determination, more mental than physical. Certainty helps relieve some of the mental stress in most cases. That’s why many marathoners have specific routines they follow that border on OCD. In this case, certainty didn’t help. Despite the sense of dread that hung over me as I dropped off the roadway onto the first section of trail for the second time, I kept going. The paths were just as grueling as the first time except my legs were lingering near the edge of exhaustion. My pace slowed markedly, but I kept moving forward. I did experience some euphoria when I emerged from the final section of trail and hurled myself down the home stretch. Because I had experienced that about two hours earlier, I knew the worst was over. Finally, certainty worked in my favor.

 

It’s Mental, My Dear

I ran a marathon yesterday, my 37th one. When someone finds out that I run marathons they often react in surprise that anyone would and could run 26 miles on purpose without the prospect of an Olympic medal being up for grabs. Fellow runners are a little more accepting of this especially if they run the distance themselves. There’s a kinship among marathon runners that makes us all feel relatively normal because to the outside world we appear insane. Nevertheless, if those on the outside have one thing right, it’s that the marathon is a mental case, but not in the way they would think, and not surprisingly, this idea extends to writing and life in general.

I would argue that most reasonably fit people can run ten to 15 miles without much of a problem. They may have to take walk breaks or even stop for a sandwich, but they could do it. Beyond 15 or so miles things get dicey because your mind enters into the fray. That little voice inside your head starts talking trash, and either you’re apt to listen or you’re not. Everyone has that annoying little voice in their heads, even long-time marathoners. The only difference between a marathoner and a non-marathoner is that we’ve learned how to put that voice in its place. Most likely, we’ve bound and gagged him and stuck him in a dark corner somewhere in our minds.

In order to do that, you have to really want to reach your goal. In this case, the goal is to reach the finish line. If you don’t really care about the goal, then that voice will overwhelm you and leave you in a heaping mess somewhere around mile 15. The same is true for writing. There are a lot of great success stories about writers. Just about everyone is familiar with J.K. Rowling’s story before she met great success with Harry Potter. Countless other successful writers have similar stories. If you read interviews with them, they all talk about those moments when they thought they should quit. That voice in their heads almost beat them.

Writers have to put that voice in their heads in its place much like marathon runners do if they want to be successful. It’s too easy to let it win. To add to the scrutiny, writers suffer no lack of criticism and negative feedback. That’s something that marathoners rarely, if ever, have to deal with unless there’s some band of roving running critics that I’ve yet to encounter. It’s easy for it all to become overwhelming and seem insurmountable.

I always tell myself to focus on a 10K (ten kilometers) at a time when I’m running a marathon (a marathon is 42K). This helps me avoid becoming mentally overwhelmed by thinking about the whole 26 miles. It serves as a distraction because I can blithely run past the crowds like I’m just running a 10K, except, of course, I’m doing it four times over. As a writer I use the same approach. Writing a novel is like a marathon in that if you think about completing 90 thousand words at once it can doom you from the start, but if you just focus on one chapter at a time, it seems less daunting.

Whether running a marathon or writing a novel, it all boils down to the mental aspects of the task. Both are endurance sports in a sense, and both involve tamping down that annoying little voice in your head. It helps to having coping mechanisms that work for you to keep you focused on your goal and help you ignore the doubts (for there will be plenty). Come to think of it, it’s not all that different from life itself.

Art Imitating Life

As a reader I often wonder how much of a story is from the writer’s life in some way. How much do they take from their own experience? Are characters based, however loosely, on people they’ve met or actually know. As I’ve mentioned here before, I often create my characters from real-life models. I take a basic feature of someone I know or have encountered and turn it over in my mind until I have a unique character for my story, but none of the characters I’ve created are true-to-form copies of actual people. It is fiction after all.

In terms of my life, I do take elements from it and infuse it into the story. Obviously, I change or enhance things to give them the fictional flair that make them more interesting. My latest novel, The Fire Within, is one of the most personal stories I’ve ever written because the main character, like myself, is a runner. The few moments in the story when he’s running is almost a direct quote from my life. The feelings and observations are not too far from how I feel when I’m running. In fact, many of the story lines were developed when I was on a long run and had plenty of uninterrupted time to think about the book.

While the book is about a runner, there are actually only a few scenes where he’s running in the story. After all, I want the story to have mass appeal, and as surprising at it is to me, only a small niche of folks would likely read a story dedicated completely to running. I wouldn’t even describe the book as being about a runner; I’d more likely describe it as a story about a boy striving for his dreams and overcoming some major obstacles to achieve them. I’d also describe it as a love story. Running is just on the periphery of the story – a common thread that connects all of the pieces in the 20 years covered by the novel.

Beyond the running parts, I also included parts of my own childhood and adolescence in the novel – changed to protect the innocent, of course. There’s a scene where the main character attends his eighth-grade dance, which is very similar to my own experience albeit eight years later than my time.

It’s impossible for an author to avoid leaving his DNA in a story. We all relate to the world based on our own experiences, so it’s only natural that we tell stories with these experiences in mind. In many ways, we get the opportunity to re-frame the story from a different perspective or change it in subtle ways that we wished it had played out in real life. It’s fun, and I think it’s what makes every story unique.

Nothing I write will escape the pull of my life experiences. Even the new project I started, which is science fiction, will have the imprint of the past four decades of my life. After all, art often imitates life.

Four Minutes

The plucky freshman toed the line in his lane next to the older boys. Bobby, tall and slender, looked undersized in his relatively bulky singlet that hung from his frame like a sheet billowing on a clothesline. He had the shirt tucked into his shorts, which were pulled up high. It looked ridiculous, but he preferred it that way. It made him feel intact, impenetrable. He shook his legs out and hopped up and down on the rubbery track tensing his calf muscles each time he sprung up into the air.

The other boys ignored him despite the fact that he had greeted them openly when he walked onto the track. Each of them had their own routines as they flexed muscles, stretched legs, twisted their arms back behind their heads, and jogged a few feet ahead and back all in the name of preparing themselves for the race. A physical and mental tension permeated the space around them like a fog engulfs a lone bridge in a valley.

Bobby could feel the sweat forming on his back. He could smell the odors of boys preparing to run. Some had over done it on the deodorant, while others had done without, producing a distinct mix of clean and musky scents that would otherwise be distasteful, but to Bobby, these were the smells of competition. A pit in his stomach ached, but a fire stoked there as well. It burned rapidly, fueling his desire to dig his toe into the track and propel himself forward, pumping his arms and legs like pistons in a fiery engine.

Finally, all of the boys settled into their positions. On the blocks, muscles tensed and legs shook ever so slightly in anticipation. One boy on the outer lane twitched as if he were starting the race, but his feet barely budged from the blocks. Nervousness and unsettled stomachs reigned over the runners.

Bobby held still like he was frozen in place by an irascible fairytale witch. He focused all of his energy on hearing the crack of the starting gun. His field of vision narrowed and all sound drained from his ears. He could see nothing but the lane before him and the bend to the left that awaited him. The rubbery track gave ever so slightly at the push of his toes. He could feel the compressed springs in his legs ready to uncoil the moment the gun fired.

CRACK!

The sound of the gun unleashed a fury of motion in him. He still couldn’t see the other boys next to him. He could only feel the pulsing muscles in his legs as he propelled himself forward on the track. He ran into the tunnel pumping his arms and legs in an efficient and furious motion. His breathing ratcheted higher and higher, but he contained it as if he were doling out precious oxygen in small allotments to the needy muscles in his legs. He didn’t want to overfeed the beast. It was like a hungry dog that would devour whatever he put in front of it. His heart thrummed loudly like the pistons in a race car.

Four turns later, Bobby blew through the starting point again. His arms and legs still pumped in a fluid motion that was a sight to behold. He floated. His eyes were narrowed and focused on the track ahead of him. He sucked in air and forced it out with each pounding step. Together, all of this motion moved in a beautiful orchestration of human strength and endurance.

The cheers of the crowd around the track fell on deaf ears. Bobby heard nothing but the pounding of his own heart and the hissing of his own breath. The rest of the world was a blur of silence. He ran in this trance for four laps unaware of where he was in relation to his competitors. He didn’t really care. He loved losing himself in the run. He loved the feeling of his legs burning, his heart thumping, and his lungs pumping. Like an airplane, he needed to get to a certain speed to take off, but when he did, it transported him to a different world, one of a strange euphoria that coddled him like an addict tripping on his drug of choice except his drug was the thrill of the race.

The moment he broke through the finish line, he came back down to earth. The tunnel faded and the crowd came back into view. He heard a roar that deafened him momentarily and he looked out of sorts like someone who had just woken up from a dream and struggled to discern the difference between the dream and reality. He put his hands on his head and sucked in air as he walked further down the track to catch his breath. He looked back and several runners were still crossing the finish line. His coach and teammates flogged him with congratulatory yelps and slaps on the back. The race clock read 4:03. He had come perilously close to a four-minute mile.

Writing with Passion

Last week while on a run, a story idea took hold in my mind and over the course of my five-miler in the dark morning hours, I stacked ideas upon each other like tiny Lego pieces until I had a great outline for a story. When I returned home, I rushed to my computer and quickly captured the essence of the outline before it dissipated in the chaos of my workday. The clarity of the ideas and the beauty of the story flowered in my mind with great passion. I was visibly excited about the story and words flowed from my frantic fingertips and zipped across the white space on my screen with nary a pause or question.

It’s not often that this happens with such ease. I’m always thinking about the things I can write, but sometimes the ideas are only half-seen like the tip of an iceberg and require some extensive thought to hash out and become full-fledged stories. In fact, this describes most of my ideas. But occasionally, an idea comes to me in its fullest form and momentum takes hold as I fill in the blank spaces with a gusto reserved for Italian opera singers. That was the case on this morning.

The amazing thing about these occurrences is how they manifest themselves physically. Each step I took on that run not only propelled me forward, but I felt like I was floating effortlessly along the trail. Even my usually dull headlamp seemed to brighten in the space before me. The rhythm of my breathing accelerated but not in a way that suggested exhaustion – more like accomplishment. My lungs drove the machine that thrived in the creation of a good story. I have an unbridled passion for running, which is only exceeded by my love of writing. There’s a symbiosis there, and when the two come together, as they did on this morning, everything is amplified.

Later in the week during my usual writing time, I sat down in my chair with my laptop perched on my legs and started filling in the gaps of the outline. I thought back to my run and how the ideas flowed freely. I recaptured that feeling in a motionless sense, and once again, the words flowed from my fingertips as if I were possessed. By the time my hour was up, I had a bunch of pages written and was well on my way to creating the story I had originally envisioned.

It felt good to get it out, but I didn’t want to stop. I could have spent the entire day writing, but, unfortunately, there were other obligations to meet. I tore myself away from the laptop and ventured out into my day. I could not quite get the story out of my mind. I didn’t want to lose that creative trance that made writing seem effortless, easy.

The next morning I returned to my story and the words once again came without much effort. I realized the passion I felt for this particular story transcended time and place. Whether I was running or sitting in my chair, this story had a life of its own. I just lived in it. I knew then that I didn’t have to fear losing my momentum on this story. It would come whenever I needed it because I had a story to tell.

Turning Points

My current novel is progressing slowly, but I feel like the story is really coming together. I enjoy writing it because I love the determination of the main character who is forced to deal with incredible obstacles yet remains positive and undeterred. The scene below is one of the turning points later in the novel. I decided to share it here because I think it captures the essence of the main character and demonstrates how seemingly insignificant moments can actually be those seminal ones that set the direction we take in our lives. It also reminds me of the quote from Epictetus, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” In this case, Bobby, the main character decides to pursue a dream that he had otherwise given up despite the obvious challenges he faces.

The cool hands of the morning brushed across his face and startled him awake. Bobby opened his eyes and surveyed his room without moving his body as if he were frozen in place. Despite being covered by the comforter, he felt a chill in his body that started at his toes and ran up his legs. He sat up and rubbed his hands across his face and through his hair. It had been over a year since he had lost his legs and he still had these feelings that presumed his legs were still there. He looked down at the cold plastic prosthetics propped against his bed on the floor. He didn’t need to look under the covers to prove he couldn’t feel anything. He knew.

A muted light angled through the blinds in his bedroom. The clock by his bed said 7:30, but he felt no rush since he didn’t have his eight o’clock class on this day. He could take his time. He lay back down on the bed and pulled the comforter tighter around his chest. The instantaneous warmth relaxed him, but a nagging thought fluttered in his head.

He recalled the video of Oscar Pistorius running the 200-meter race in the Paralympics, and suddenly, he had an intense desire to run. He wanted to get some of those blade-like legs and see how fast he could run. He wanted to reclaim that feeling of running around the track where the crowd dissolved into nothingness and the sound disappeared like it was sucked into some black hole. He need to transcend this earth and forget about his newfound limitations. He wanted to prove to himself that he still had it in him to run.

These feelings confused him. He had no idea where to begin, how to get the legs, or how to prepare to run as a Paralympic athlete. He really didn’t understand why he felt this way, but he did know that he was as sure of himself as he had been when he decided to attend Harvard or when he enlisted in the Army. He had never been more sure in his life. He had to run and he had to get into the Paralympics. He may not be able to represent his country in the Olympic Games like he had once dreamed, but he could certainly represent it as a disabled athlete who had sacrificed for his country. He wasn’t going to let his story end any other way.

Adrenaline pumped in his veins. His mind raced around the possibilities. Suddenly, his goal became very clear. He imagined himself on that track in Athens poised over the start block next to Oscar. He could hear the start gun fire and feel his muscles tense as he propelled himself forward on the blades that stood in for his feet. He didn’t know what it would sound like to run on these blades, so he imagined the sound as if it were the same as when he had his real legs. The blades pounded the track in lockstep motion with his arms. His breathing burned and ached in his lungs. He thrust himself forward through the finish line and cut the air above his head with victorious fists. The visualization excited him, made his heart pound. He hadn’t felt this excited about running since he ran on the college track team.

The vision overwhelmed him and he squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his head into his pillow. He had to think about what to do to get to the point where he could run again. He opened his eyes and stared at his fake legs. It felt hopeless. He had barely mastered walking in the prosthetics. How could he possibly think he could run in them or anything like them. Doubt ridiculed him. He turned over in his bed and faced the window. He could see up through the slight cracks in the blinds and saw the crystal blue sky outside. A beautiful day beckoned him, and that’s when he understood the possibilities and doubt melted away. He would run again. He had to. There was no other option.

A fierce determination steeled him as he sat up in his bed and attached the prosthetics to his stunted thighs. He pushed himself up with a renewed sense of confidence and walked to the window next to his bed. He opened the blinds to morning outside and stared into the deep blue sky. A new day had dawned and once again Bobby was taking a new direction.