The second sport

I'm clearing out my drafts folder and digging up some posts I never published, for some reason. I think I probably hesitated with this one because it's kind of personal. Anyway, it's dated March 10, 2015, just before the Tobacco Road Marathon.


I have a few stories about myself that have rooted themselves so deeply so as to become a kind of personal dogma.

One is that I'm great in a crisis but crack under pressure. If someone slices a finger or gets in a car crash, I'm cool-headed and ready to take control. But if I have a goal, something that's all mine, it's almost too much to bear and I crack when it's time to show up and perform. This goes back far, ya'll: I'm talking spelling bee, orchestra tryouts. I took these things really seriously. 

There was the last horse show with Derby. He wound up at college with me at a time when I was living really close to the edge, already skipping classes to pick up extra shifts at work to avoid getting behind on my rent. And now I had a horse with me, whose board cost more than my rent. (There is a long backstory here, as you might imagine.) Anyway, if you've ever had a pet you know how it is to get attached to an animal, and with a horse that you ride and trust over 4" oxers and water jumps, the attachment is just so intense. I loved him so much, I used to cry thinking about how lucky I was and how much I trusted him -- but it was an untenable situation and I knew I'd have to sell him. 

Back then I was still in deep denial about simple financial concepts, so in my mind the best way to do this was to spend thousands of dollars I didn't have (thanks to the credit card bubble of the early aughts!) to take my horse to the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida and compete with him. I rationalized it to myself by thinking of the ribbons I'd surely win, meaning I'd increase his value and get him out in front of a lot of people with money to spend on horses.

WEF is the biggest and most competitive horse show in the world, and because I never had the money (or, ummm, a five-digit limit on my credit card), I'd never been able to go. Year after year, with a mixture of awe, pride, and irrepressible envy, I'd watched others pack up to "winter" in West Palm Beach, secretly harboring the notion that if I could just get there, I would finally be able to show that I could hang just as well as anyone else. That just because I didn't have the money, didn't mean I was a lesser rider than anyone else. 

Maybe you can see where this is going?

I had my chance. I was wearing borrowed clothes, sleeping on a friend's couch (I'm still SO grateful for that couch!), and subsisting on a toddler diet of Juicy Juice, a loaf of bread, and a jar of peanut butter I'd brought with me from home. I tried to glamorize my situation in my head by imagining the Rocky montage, or vomit on his sweater / mom's spaghetti, or Elle Woods standing on line at the Apple store in that bunny costume. (I'm joking, kind of.) I was there and I was ready to kick ass, take names, etc. And everything was so beautiful. It was like a normal horse show, but nicer in every possible way. And the probably most famous, most admired rider/trainer/horseperson in the world was ringside, patting Derby on the neck. He had walked over and said to me, "That's a good looking horse."

When it was our turn, we went into the ring. I quickly oriented myself. I waited for the buzzer. I picked up the canter and headed toward the first jump. Derby refused the jump. I was thrust forward in the saddle, but righted myself: 4 faults. We circled back around. He jumped it. We headed toward the next jump, which he refused. 8 faults. I gave him a whack, and we attempted it again. He refused again. The buzzer buzzed us out; we were disqualified. Never mind that we'd been jumping perfectly in practice for weeks. When it mattered, I just couldn't bring it. 

Once of the few jumps we actually cleared.

Once of the few jumps we actually cleared.

It was like this for the rest of the two weeks I was there. We never completed a course, and it was my fault; my failure under pressure. The combination of financial pressure ("This better be worth it because I'm spending ALL of my money to be here...") and emotional pressure ("This is the last time I'll ever compete with my horse, this is the first and last time I'll ever be able to compete here at WEF...") was just too much for me.

I have such incredible regrets about this experience. The anger has subsided with time, but "if only" thoughts crept in in their place. "If only" I had more practice competing, I wouldn't have been so nervous, and I would have remembered to actually ride my horse instead of sitting there helplessly. If only things weren't so crazy and desperate, and I had more perspective, I could have at least enjoyed my last show with my horse instead of beating myself up and crying every night.

After I sold Derby, I left college to apprentice with an Olympic medalist after a brutal weekend-long tryout. My trainer at home warned me that he was a monster, that he uses people up and gets rid of them (oh, and tries to sleep with them first), and he was, and did. He was abusive and kept coming on to me. I bailed after less than a year, effectively ending my riding career. I moved to New York (thanks again, credit card!) And I slowly began to see how my relationship with riding was characterized by brutality and the idea that I wasn't good enough, and how destructive that was.

With running, things are different. I still don't think of myself as a "real" runner, and, rather than feeling insecure about that, it produces a joyful lightness and a sense of discovery in my running. "I can run an 8:30 mile?" I thought when I did that the first time, with the same disbelief and pleasure as someone discovering, after twenty-five years, that she has a hidden superpower. 

In a piece for the Toast, a former gymnast who had a horrible fall from the parallel bars, falling onto her head, describes the rebirth she experienced after quitting and adopting a new sport (rock climbing):

I made a pact with myself: this time there would be no mean voice, no cursing at myself, no paralyzing self-doubt and fear of failure. There would be no destruction of a beloved thing to prove myself unworthy of it.

I regret that destruction. I regret the way I punished myself. That I couldn’t see my own potential and couldn’t fully appreciate the gift I’d been given. I wish I’d known how to protect myself (though I also wish there had been adults who’d done some protecting for me). I wish I’d known how to be good to myself.

There is beauty in gently carrying regret with us. It reminds us of what we had, what we could have had, what we lost, and what we don’t want to lose again. It reminds us to be kind to ourselves. It reminds us to be compassionate. It reminds us to be grateful for second chances.

I carry mine with me when I climb, and it’s a sweet companion. I squeeze my feet into impossibly small climbing shoes, tighten the harness, tie the rope and grip the rock with my bare hands. My body, arms and feet move in unison, along the rock face, up up up. Maybe I fall along the way, but that’s okay. When I get to the top, I lean back from the anchors to take it all in, some one hundred feet off the ground.

Above all,  running forces me to notice, and acknowledge, that being human is about being in a constant state of renewal and regeneration. Training is all about cycles of stress & rest, all in the service of getting ever-faster and stronger. Being a fast runner isn't an object you can keep in your pocket -- it requires constant nurturing and attention to *stay* fast, otherwise, you lose it. The metaphor of training is a beautiful one that has come to mean more to me than any personal narrative. We're not one way, rather, we are constantly becoming. And becoming is banal: it happens one step at a time, mile after mile, week after week. 

Well, I have a big goal this weekend. I really, really want to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and I'm pretty hung up on it. The sports side of me has completely doubled-down, and I found myself repeating "I'm a racehorse" (who knows where these things come from, but most of my sports idols are horses.) during my final tempo run last night. At the same time, I also want to remain human, keep my perspective, and recognize that if I don't make it, it is truly no big deal and I can always try again another day.

Until yesterday I was feeling pretty afraid of the pain. I had a worst-case scenario that was kind of haunting me: In it, I go out too fast and the pain comes early, and though I'm on pace I watch it slowly slip from my fingers during a long, ten-mile death march. (Haha, I've been fun to be around this week!) For the first time, I was kicking off race week afraid of failure, and I could feel the old stories creeping in. 

But last night I went to the gym, which was deserted thanks to Spring Break, and I was thinking back to when I trained for my first-ever half marathon, also in a university gym. I ran back then because I hated everything in my life at the time and it felt **incredible** to burn up all that frustration at the end of the day and fall asleep exhausted. Back then, running "fast" meant 9-something miles.

The who, what, and where of my life has changed since then: I have different city, job, and significant other.  But more significantly, the reasons why I run have changed. I'm not trying to escape something; I'm trying to become even more of myself, on a kind of elemental level.