Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mortality and the Fear of Dying Alone

My uncle died earlier this week.
He was found on the floor in his apartment several days after the fact because he was missed at work. He apparently died of a “catastrophic event” (heart attack, stroke, etc).
Alone.
When I heard this, of course I began to grieve. Losing a family member is always hard. But more than that, whenever death strikes close to home; strikes those that share your genes—or those that pursue your same adventures—it is a shocking reminder of your own mortality.
I have been barely able to sleep since I found out. Over and over in my head plays the image of my uncle dropping to the floor, knowing he was dying, and lying there til the end came.
Alone.
How long? A few seconds? A few hours? I know there is nothing I can do to change history, but I still grieve for him and for the circumstances of his passing.
I cry, not only for him, but because I’ve realized my own underlying fear of being alone. Of dying alone. This just reminds me of how possible it is.
Oddly, for someone who frequently prefers to run alone, hike alone, live alone, think alone and just be alone, I am terrified of long term aloneness. Although, isn’t everyone?
Isn’t this why we have an endless amount of dating sites, singles groups, and strings of failed relationships in our pasts? God started the whole thing with, “It is not good that man should be alone”. And here we are.
I am comfortable with being alone. I don’t need to be constantly wrapped up in and entertained by another human being, but when it comes to acceptance, love, and forever, I have to admit, I want someone there.
Especially when I die.
2011 is going to bring about new challenges of how to be alone. They scare me, but somehow I have to gain the courage to face them.
I wish I could have been there to help Ronnie face the inevitable so he wouldn’t have been alone.

And please God, don’t let that happen to me.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Dreaming

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?
Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin
Like a house of cards, one blow from caving in?

Do you ever feel already buried deep?
Six feet under screams but no one seems to hear a thing
Do you know that there's still a chance for you
'Cause there's a spark in you?

You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine
Just own the night like the 4th of July

'Cause baby, you're a firework
Come on, show 'em what you're worth
Make 'em go, oh
As you shoot across the sky
--“Firework” by Katy Parry

If the first two stanzas were the theme of my 2010 (and believe me, they were), I aim to make the refrain my anthem for 2011. We all have dreams. Everyone’s are different, but no one’s are less important than someone else’s. I recently read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. This book was written by a man with terminal pancreatic cancer about a lecture he gave at his university. The lecture was filmed for his young children and it was all about living your dreams.

The book was very moving. How can you not be moved by a man who’s dying and gives a final farewell to his children (who are too young to understand) and tells them to live their dreams? Beyond those emotions, however, is something that was central to the book: Live Your Dreams.

I don’t know what anyone else’s dreams are, but I think I know mine. What I’m trying to figure out is when I stopped living them and just let life take me along in her steady flow. At some point I stopped being a dreamer and a planner and a go-get-my-dream-at-all-costs woman and simply began floating downstream. Although, life hasn’t exactly been a still-water tubing float. It’s been more like a careening plummet through the tube slide at a water park. It’s been a wild ride. Nonetheless, it’s been going along without my control…and I’ve allowed myself to go along for the ride. At some point I stopped making decisions that crafted my future and let someone else do it for me. I made choices impulsively and had to follow that slide to its splashdown end. 2010 had me in that pool at the bottom, treading water looking around for the next slide.

In my previous post I mentioned the many miles of trail I covered in 2010. 80% of that (at least) was alone. Just me and the mountains. And in times like that it’s hard to not get too wrapped up inside your head. The miles melt when you’re internally battling the problems and struggles of your own life. You can exhaust yourself physically and mentally out there before finding some sort of resolution—and joy. One of my favorite quotes is from ultrarunner Krissy Moehl in an interview, “There's a lot of issues in life and they can all be solved by a long run...sometimes the run has to be a little bit longer.”

I started 2011 by facing one of my fears (and weaknesses). It was empowering to know I could step up to something that scares me (under controlled conditions) and take it on. I want the rest of this year to be like that. I want to find that inner spark—the Dreamer that Was—and reignite it. I want to look at the world through the eyes of one who Can and who Will. I want to take the risks, face the fears, embrace the challenges and achieve the goals. I want to accept failure when it comes. I want to accept it, not by acknowledging failure, but by acknowledging that unfulfilled dreams are sometimes just the dream I never knew I had.

This year I have a lot of goals. Many of them are physical. I have a demanding race schedule that starts in 2.5 weeks and will culminate at the end of August. I will recover from injury. There are trails I will hike. I will learn to ski. I will climb Mt. Baker. My other goals are emotional. I will learn to face my fears—one by one if possible, but chances are they will all ambush at once. I will face up to my failings as a human and I will improve on them. I know some of these will be easier than others. Sometimes running 100 miles seems like nothing compared to the fears I know I will have to face. 2011 is already stretching before me. It is full of mountains made of land and of soul. It is also filled with fireworks and meteor showers blazing through the night sky.

I am Hopeful. More than that, I am Dreaming.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Introspection

     People have told me I am an elite athlete, even if I don’t set records, just because of the demands I place on my body. Inside I think, I’m not elite. Those people are athletes. I’m just this average person who needs to lose a few pounds. I just happen to run and hike a lot. I realize that the truth is probably closer to the outside perception than to the internal one, but I don’t feel like an athlete. I don’t know what it’s like to be elite. I just know what it’s like to be me.
     Being me. I have always struggled to accept myself for who I am, and lately, for who I’m not. I am not “normal”—whatever that means. I often forget that running 50 miles at a time isn’t normal. That climbing a 14,000ft mountain as a side trip on a hike isn’t normal. That knocking off a 65 mile loop in a weekend backpacking trip isn’t normal. That having backpacked across the country three times isn’t normal. I forget that the way I approach distances that 99% of people only cover in a vehicle is the way that others approach a Sunday matinee. Casually. Without any thoughts of danger or failure. I never think twice about a distance. I don’t look at elevation profiles. I throw some food in a backpack, plan to drink from the streams and I go. I forget that running into a grizzly sow and cubs at 50yds is a thought that makes most people shit their pants. I just hope I have my camera out. I watched 127 hours and as Aron looked into his camera and said, “And why didn’t you tell anyone where you’re going? Oh right, cause you’re a badass.” I thought to myself, is that why I go and do and push and run?
     The simple answer is no. A more complex answer might be yes. Truth be told, I am insecure. I have never thought I’m good enough, fast enough, strong enough, thin enough, pretty enough, smart enough or any other “enough”. Nothing I do meets my own unattainable expectations of “enough”. So, I throw myself into the hardest physical endeavors I can. Not because I think I’m a badass, but because I desperately want to do something that will make me approve of myself. I lose myself in the wild and in the challenge. In the moments that I break my body I find out how “enough” I really am. It doesn’t matter anymore that someone is faster, or prettier, or stronger. I am at my limit and I am meeting it head on. I like coming back home after throwing myself against the brick wall of an endurance threshold and knowing that the bruises are from crashing right through it. And I like knowing that I’m going to do it again…soon.
     That however, is how I got injured. How to break a body in under 2 years: Run it, literally, into the ground. 60 maybe 80 miles a week. Year round. Make your taper and recovery weeks 40-50 miles a week. Spiral into guilt tripping despair if you miss a run. Drag your exhausted ass out into the rain for a 20 even though you ran that far yesterday and should probably be sleeping. Don’t count your bike commute, weight training, or the 50 miles or more you backpack on the weekends as exercise. Be sure to consume about 1500 calories a day less than your body is expending. That’s right. Stupid, I know. Somehow I thought the harder it was the more “enough” I would eventually become. I thought I could outrun the doubts. I thought I could reach some sort of ideal me only through a lot of suffering. In reality I discovered that I am capable of a lot more than I give myself credit for. I also discovered that if I take care of myself I am going to be happier, healthier and more successful than if I just endlessly beat myself up.
     Normalcy still plagues my thoughts. This summer I ran and backpacked seemingly endless miles. They were the happiest hours of my life so far. But all the time, the pressing question that rang constantly in my head was, “Why am I not like other people I know?” Why I can’t be happy with the things that made my parents, my friends, my siblings happy? Marriage, babies, the 9-5, a home? Why instead do I like to climb things? Mountains. Passes. Rockslides. Trees. Canyons. Why do I thrive on freedom, adventure, life on the edge of what-comes-next? I would think these thoughts of inadequacy as I climbed. I would think about how not normal I am. How much happier I would be if I were like them. I would think until my head hurt and I was crying with the frustration of it all...and then I would put my head down and hike faster. I don’t know anything about what it’s like to be an athlete, I only know what it’s like to be me…

It’s 80 degrees and I’m drenched in sweat even though I’m stripped down to my bikini top and a sarong skirt. My glutes and hamstrings are burning with the effort of propulsion. They strain to push me and my backpack upward toward the sun and sky. I can feel the rapid bumping of my heart in my temples. Finally, at the top, the screaming turns to exhilaration as freshly oxygenated blood floods into the suddenly resting muscles. Joy rampages through every cell at the sight of a new valley sprawling in front of me. The sky is blue. The mountains are jagged and snowy. Sinuous rivers glisten. The forest is thick and untouched. I whoop. My voice rebounds off the granite outcrops. I am happy. I am whole. I am.
            A new thought comes to mind: “Are they really as happy as I think they are?”