Monday, January 31, 2011

Emerson, The Wicked Dollar, and The Bumper Sticker

I have for some time struggled with the animosity I feel toward the proliferation of causes we seem to have these days. I even railed against it in a Facebook post the other day in which I wondered why liberals always seem to have so many more bumper stickers than conservatives. The post was intentionally contentious, and I’m neither a liberal nor a conservative, but I am driven to the edge when I see the back of a car that is plastered with every cause from here to eternity. “How can one person care about so much?” I often ask myself. Regardless, I was the same way as a younger guy, and the back of my old Ford Fairmont was plastered with every trite cliché and cause-du-jour that caught my eye. I even had a “Free James Brown” sticker at one point. In hindsight, I think to advocate for the early release of a repeat-offending, heroin-addicted junkie who put his life, the lives of innocents, and the lives of police officers in peril…was, in fact, a very poor cause. He needed the jail time. Godfather of Soul or not.

And, as is often the case, when I am angry about something as random as what stickers someone unknown to me chooses to put on their car, it’s a good sign that it’s time for me to do a little introspection. And, as I mention above, I probably feel the anger I do because I see the “old me” in those people. And, at the expense of sounding like I’m delving into psychobabble, I don’t like the old me at all. So I can project my inner anger outward. That feels better, if only temporarily.

And one of the things that I didn’t like about the old me is that I didn’t have a center. I didn’t have a clue as to who I was; I showed no real passion for one thing or another. I didn’t have a sense for looking into my heart’s center to see if I truly cared about or believed in the things that I espoused externally. And, to be certain, I’m not castigating myself here (at least not consciously). I think to be uncertain of one’s identity is the status quo of modern youth. It’s written a great many catchy pop tunes and for that I am grateful to this angst.

But I do begin to castigate myself a bit (or a lot, to be honest) when I look at who I am as a man in his early forties, with a child and wife, and I realize that I still have very little sense of my center or what I am intended to be in this life.

But, let me very clear: I don’t believe we’re intended to muddle through our lives with no sense of our true purpose. It’s a lie of mediocrity into which too many of us have bought. We are content to be happy for Susan Boyle rather than having the balls to be Susan Boyle.

I’ve been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson these days, specifically the essay “Self-Reliance.” And in this amazing piece of literature I have encountered a truth and emotional resonance that I have never before found. It speaks directly, unequivocally, to the rumblings my soul has felt for many years – and those rumblings scream, “Doug, wake the hell up and do what you were meant to do!

And what I was not meant to do, above all else, is follow the prevailing winds. And one of the strongest prevailing winds these days is this sense that if we are helping others, then we are bringing purpose and meaning to our soul. That if we give to causes, that if we give to those less fortunate than us…well, then, by God, we are being good humans. And “bollocks!” is what my heart screams when I hear this. My lot in life is not to be charitable to others simply so I can assuage the sense of self-betrayal that I feel at not bringing my own inner genius to fruition.

This morning, I read the following from Self-Reliance, which, as you may be able to tell, has lit a bit of a fire under me:

“Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots, and the thousand-fold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by-and-by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”

In my early twenties, I had the following encounter with a friend of mine from high school, who has always been wiser than his years would attest: We passed a homeless man on the streets of a large city. I gave him a dollar and immediately, a smile of self-contentment came over me. He sensed this, and asked me why I was so happy all of a sudden. I replied that I felt good because I was able to help my fellow man. He replied, “Did you really help him? Or did you just give him a dollar to make yourself feel good?” The asshole was right, as usual.

As I read Emerson’s lines above, and in full realization of the fact that what Emerson thinks of the notion of Charity is of little consequence to some, I ask the following:

Is the “system of entitlements” in our country really helping anyone?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Running With FiveFingers

In the running world these days, minimalist footwear and barefoot running are all the rage. And I have to say that I am an unapologetic bandwagon-jumper. Like many, I read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and bought in wholesale to its philosophical proposition: that human beings are designed to be able to run long distances very efficiently and that the bare human foot is a quite capable instrument on its own…without the aid of Nike, New Balance, Saucony, over- and under-pronation support, medial support, cushioning, and rigid orthotics, to name a few.

I was a fairly easy target to convert to the new religion of minimalism. My first marathon, run in the finest of running shoes, with more-than-ample training, left my feet and ankles crippled. A visit to the foot doctor followed and so did rigid orthotics. Add those to the finest running shoes money can buy and what do you get? In my case, three marathons later, it left me with feet that ached so badly they had to be iced after any run longer than 10 miles. Sure, the ankle problem was fixed, but my feet were still crippled after distance of any significance.

After the 2009 Chicago Marathon, I took some time away from long distance to work on my running form (assuming it to be the culprit) and then came across McDougall’s book. I was so inspired by it that I took off out the door unshod before I ever finished. My first barefoot run was on a whim. I went three miles (way too long on my tender pads) but it still stands out as one of the top three runs of my life.

I can’t express the freedom I felt barefoot.

Let me offer that, on a very fundamental level, I am not “born to run” particularly quickly or well. At only 5’11”, I tip the scales at around 220 pounds. I’m made of wet red clay. Every time I take a step, whether running or walking, gravity is not in my favor. I hit the ground hard. I have short legs. My genes are suited to tending sheep on a grassy hillside in Scotland and not to running across the plains of Kenya.

All that to say that I probably have more trouble than most avid runners in getting my feet to land under my body and provide for a smooth, non-impact-producing stride. As hard as I may try to the contrary, when I am in “regular” running shoes, my foot lands way out in front of my body, heel-first, and jars the rest of my body. I’m not sure the exact amount of impact in pounds-per-square-foot, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of “ouch, dammit, my feet hurt, fatass.”

Without shoes, however (and in the Vibram FiveFingers), my feet feel free. I run with an ease that I have never come close to finding otherwise. I have rediscovered running. I am still as slow as constipation, but I feel like a real runner. My foot lands just under my body, on the mid and forefoot, and quickly glides backwards, minimizing impact. The fact that the FiveFingers has no cushioning whatsoever is irrelevant. I don’t need it. My foot pain is gone.

On Thanksgiving morning, on a bit of whim, I decided to run a half-marathon. It would be, by far, the longest distance I’d run in the FF and I wondered how my feet would hold up. Generally speaking, I’m a big proponent of the Galloway Run-Walk-Run method – especially for long distances. But with these shoes, it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t want to stop. Save for a couple of hills toward the end of the race (when my lack of cardiovascular training caught up to me), I ran the whole distance.

For me, for now, it’s back to basics. No fancy engineering, no rejuvenating moisture-wicking socks, no fuel belts, no Gu, no heart rate GPS watch (hell, no watch at all), no fartleks, no hill repeats, no lactate threshold training, no VO2 max workouts…just running.

With some very funny looking shoes.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Of Lightbulbs Dying

A lightbulb rarely dies of natural causes, at least in my experience. It’s usually the seemingly innocuous flip of a switch, followed by a momentary flash of light, concomitant with the audible “tzzzt” of the bulb’s final breath…and then darkness.

A violent death – the last gasp of a supernova. Think about it: when was the last time you were, for example, lounging in the armchair, tidying up the loose ends to “Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban,” the pleasing glow of the Sylvania Summer Daylight 60-Watt illuminating your studies, when suddenly, but ever-so-eloquently, you are cast into darkness as the bulb silently lets loose the last of its lumens, the 10,000th of its promised hours having been fulfilled?

I have never witnessed a lightbulb go gently into that good night; it rages, it rages, as out goes the light.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Broken, or "I'm Audi"

When I was about 23 years old, round about 1992, I bought a 1985 Audi 5000 Turbo Diesel from B. Don Massey, my good friend and major professor at UGA. At $2,000, it was, by far, the finest automobile I had ever owned. Although in those days, passenger diesel cars were not as common as they are now and as a result, diesel fuel was a little harder to come by and I often found myself fueling up my little Krautmobile next to a long-haul Peterbilt. Good memories, nonetheless. One thing that a poor college student does not need, however, is a cantankerous German automobile with a parts scarcity not yet alleviated by free global trade. When my brake master cylinder went bad, I was faced with a dire predicament: (1) I needed to be able to stop the Audi and could not do so without the assistance of the hydraulic braking power supplied by said part; and (2) having decided that said repair was necessary, locating the funds to make it possible.

A brand-new master cylinder priced at no less than $500. And that was just the part, no help included. Pricing the job from the local stoner Audi mechanic specialist (every town has one) was close to a thousand bucks. After a thorough search of the yellow pages and a not-yet-fully-developed execution of personal resourcefulness, I found a rebuild kit for $187. It was still a huge kick in the teeth. $200 was no joke to a college student. And I still had to figure out how to get a rebuild kit into the part that it was designed to rebuild.

Thoroughly flummoxed, I talked to B. Don, who can fix damn near anything. Honestly, I (selfishly) assumed (hoped?) that he would feel badly about my situation and offer to do it for me; because, frankly, the prospect of rebuilding a master cylinder sounded like something a mechanic did…certainly not a schlep with a drama degree who was working on a Spanish degree because he was too afraid to leave college. I couldn’t fathom how it could be done without years of training. But B. Don was having none of it. He told me that I should just do it myself. He’d lend me the tools I needed and I would just do it.

After an endless barrage of frantic questioning, he finally became sufficiently frustrated and said to me – in a tone that only those who know B. Don will fully understand – “Now, Doug, goddamit, you just take all the old shit out and put the new one back where it was.”

How f*In right he was.

Just take out what was bad and put in what’s not in its place.

A simple and substantial poetry that I failed to grasp at the time. However, left with no other options, I meticulously, yet clumsily, disassembled the faulty master cylinder and started piecing it back together with the kit, using only the rough illustration contained therein. Making notes along the way, I finally got it all to fit back the way it was (theoretically) intended and slapped the reconstructed part back on the brake booster.

After several failed attempts at bleeding the brake system, I brought the Audi to a shadetree mechanic who easily performed the task for about $40. And damn! Wouldn’t you know it - my brakes worked! My rebuilt part held. I can’t tell you how immensely proud of myself I was. I started listening to country music to celebrate my backwoods artistry. I told anyone who would listen, and many more that would not, about my newly-found skills. One would think it would be difficult to weave the rebuilding of a brake master cylinder into a coffee-shop conversation about Dostoevsky (and under normal circumstances, it would be), but forcing it proved to be quite easy.

What a lesson I learned from B. Don in those simple words. Just take it apart and put it back the way you found it.

I can’t quite express why this success with a menial mechanical task was so meaningful to me. Perhaps it’s because I’d been raised in theater, certain that my talents lay only in the realm of ethereal artistry. Perhaps it was a first step in asserting my independence as an adult. As a capable man, ready to accept the challenges of the world. Perhaps it was just a man thing, like masturbating for the first time. I just don’t know.

Years later, in 2001, after my wife and I were engaged and moved in together, we had a weekend visit from my best friend Steven Uhles and his wife Jo. Sometime that night, a distinct electrical burning odor came from the guest bathroom. With apartment maintenance iffy at best, and a clear electrical danger at hand, I decided to try and trace the source of the issue. Eventually, Steven and I realized the odor was coming from the bathroom’s wall outlet. After a short trip to Home Depot, a closing of the proper circuit on the breaker, and some clumsy splicing and cutting, a new wall outlet, sans odor, was operational.

Wow, now I was really proud of myself. I felt the need to strip to loin cloth and beat my chest. Maybe it was a man thing after all.

But wait! This was me: helpless, hopeless, sheltered, scared, timid Doug Elser – taking command of a situation and thinking my way thought it, even though it wasn’t at all familiar. Braving the unknown with a sense of adventure, curiosity, and confidence. Wow, sounds like maturity to me. Getting shit done.

And although a common – and familiar – malady followed (ManWhoThinksHeCanFixAnything-Itis), the decision to follow and trust instincts had begun to take hold in my life.

I’ll skip all the painful starts and stumbles in developing that skill from 2001 to 2010. I will say, however, that B. Don’s grand and (perhaps) unintentional metaphor guides me now at age 40 as a husband, father, and friend.

Take a good look at what’s broken. Make note of it. Think of how it should look. Use a manual if necessary. But then, without fear (rather, with a sense of wonder!), set out to putting that shit back together so it ain’t broke anymore.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A feeling I had twenty six years ago

Even as I write this, I'm hesitating to share something so intimate in so public a setting. Part of me thinks it's too private, part of me thinks I'm being an exhibitionist. But the truth is, I think I'm just a plain ol' narcissist and that I'm certain that everyone wants to know everything about me. Hee.

Spring is wonderful and hard for me. When the seasons change, I always feel a little blue, at least for a while. But spring is different. It's a marvelous season. But it's also the time of year that my mom died back in 1984. She was buried right around easter. So, it's this strange mix for me; I'm generally very energized by the longer days, the warmth, the beauty (as are most people), but some days this "funk" just appears. After so many years, I've finally come to understand what it's all about.

And it's OK. I mean, it really is. I think some wounds are there for a lifetime. And it's only when we let them cripple us or dictate how we live that they become an issue.

So, every now and then, I put pen to paper and let rip with a good-ol' angst-filled poem. So here it goes. Don't read this if you're in a good mood. But, hey, it makes me feel better...and that's all that matters, right? :)

Twenty Six Years

a feeling that I had

about twenty six years ago visits me

every year about this time.

as another spring brings

energy and light and rebirth

and people again start to smile,

a feeling that I had

twenty six years ago

stirs from a place that I don’t quite understand

and it wipes spring from my face

and smells and senses and blush and bloom

and a flush of warmth

and a coat of pollen

and a sweet musty scent

span twenty six years,

linked across time by a memory

so that every year,

it all feels as though

those twenty six years never passed

and that this spring bears the fruits

of the last and the last and the last

as if the spring itself never brought happiness

or life

or rebirth

to earth

and as if everyone else must feel the same as I

in what is

for me

a season of death

and the feeling I had twenty six years ago

is a scream and a wail

for a mother who left too soon

and drew her fingernails across my memory

as she slid down to death

scratching and scarring

all memory

so spring itself, you see,

is never a season of birth,

as the memory of twenty six years

coats all blooms.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


When we lived in caves, we were hunters, gatherers, foragers, pillagers, and, at times, we became prey ourselves. The “daily grind” consisted of getting to the point of laying our head on the cave floor alive at the end of the day. I wonder how we slept back then, without Tempurpedic pillows and white noise machines. I suspect we slept well. Even without a fleece blankie or a nice glass or two of Shiraz.

I think of this because I woke up this morning with a gnawing anxiety in my stomach. And I couldn’t think of a single specific thing to be anxious about. Sure, I had things to do. Sure, I have a toddler at home and that’s work. Sure, I have obligations, duties, societal pressures, oil changes and the need to make sure I choose the right deductible on my car insurance to spread risk accordingly. But I had no bad news awaiting me. I didn’t have to go into the hospital for chemo, nor did I have to finagle myself into a wheelchair in order to go to the bathroom. My house was warm, my bills were paid, my wife loves me and my child adores me.

It’s precisely the absence of real drama that has me so nervous.

If a sabertoothed tiger came at Anne and Anton, I’d have no problem with knowing what to do. I’d instinctively attack, defend, perhaps die. But there would be no ambiguity.

In the mundane – meaning, the civilized, routinized world in which I live – there is an abundance of ambiguity. I suspect by the time I finish my coffee and crank up the Chevy, I’ve faced more choices than my caveman ancestor did in a year. I don’t like all these damn choices.

There is terror in the mastery of the mundane. And that’s why my stomach hurts.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Defeat That I Can Live With

I finished my third marathon about a month ago, in record slowness.
Yes, I know, I still ran a marathon, and yes, I raised a heap of money for cancer research and those are wonderful things, both. So you don’t need to remind me to stop beating myself up, because I’m not singing that song. I’m just saying, after finishing those 26.2 miles at an average pace of about 13 minutes per mile, I got dusted by some speed walkers…no joke.

In Chicago this year, my legs and feet screamed for the last five miles. And not “screamed” in the way that the Kenyans scream around the course, I mean “scream” in the way that someone who’s in a lot of pain screams. Like a little girl. But the little girls lapped me too.

Maybe the marathon isn’t my event. After all, I have the density of wet Georgia clay. If gravity went away all of a sudden, I would be waving bye to all y’all as my big ass stayed pegged to the earth.

When I got all excited about marathons three years ago, I also took on this notion that one day I would complete a 100-mile ultramarathon by the time I turned 50.

I’m really rethinking that now. That’s an extra 73.8 miles of ouch. All at once.

You see, when I get something new in my head, I jump in rather untethered. I tend to take things quickly past the point of reason and set of goal of the absurd. On some level, I suppose the marathon was absurd. But I was able to get away with it. And, each time, completing the event was a special, deep, emotionally, spiritually, physically enriching experience. So, it was natural to think that completing 100 miles in one shot would be roughly four times as enriching, right?

I guess the thing I failed to consider is that finishing 100 miles is infinitely more than four times as painful…as I have learned by reading the accounts of many people who have finished a 100-miler.

Oh, and I have a toddler. And a marriage. And a job.

Am I quitting?

You’re damn right. For me, continuing to run marathons, not to mention ultramarathons, makes no sense. Too much time, too much pain.

And – the most important thing – there’s too much “new” out there that I’ve yet to experience. And I don’t need to keep myself from those wonders by keeping myself shackled to something that no longer makes sense to me. See, the freeing lesson that I am learning is that ridiculous goal-setting is OK. Actually, it’s great. And it’s absolutely OK to revisit those lofty goals and say, “you know what, this is not where I’m headed right now. I am going to shift direction.”

Doing that – admitting defeat, as it were – used to be a crushing experience for me. Another reason to tell myself what a failure I am (another “goal” that I am also choosing to abandon). But no longer. I am changing course without a look back. So, I’m not going to do a 100-mile run. But, hey, check this out: I finished three freakin’ marathons and, in the process of doing so, raised $14,000 for the fight against cancer. And I’ve got one hell of a set of healthy lungs to show for all my troubles.

I can live with that kind of defeat.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Outpacing Evolution

We live pretty fast, don’t we? Someone once said that in one day we are exposed to more information than the average person living in the late 1800’s on the frontier was exposed to in an entire lifetime. I don’t know if that’s true, but my guess is that it can’t be too far off base.

It’s no wonder we spend so much of our time forgetting, losing, and trying to find who we really
are. The industrial revolution changed the world in remarkable ways, most of those quite tangible. My pickup truck, the box of Cap’n Crunch our pantry now holds, the 10-day extended weather forecast from, all great marvels courtesy of that revolution. But less-tangible impacts are those that have lead us to self-help books and prozac. Whereas we’ve gone from pack mules to the iPhone in about 150 years, our brains remain essentially unchanged. But think of the pandemonium they are now in charge of trying to reconcile every moment of the day.

They say that in the Old West, folks drank whisky all the time because it was safer than water. Now we drink whisky all the time because it’s safer than having to face what’s in our heads.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Full Circle

Four years ago, I lost about 80 pounds. Shortly after reaching my goal weight, I went to my wife’s family reunion in the hill country of Texas. We rented a fantastic ranch called the Double B near Harper, about 20 miles north of Kerrville. It was there, while partaking of the great company and ample food and spirits that always accompany these occasions, that I began to run. For the first time in my life.

I went for a walk one day, just to try and get a few of those extra calories burned. There, on a lonely beautiful ranch road, among the gnarled live oaks pining for the sky, I just felt like running. I’d never had such a novel sensation come over me before. But it felt good and right. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Back then, even though I was a full twenty pounds lighter than I am now, I couldn’t run even a half mile without stopping. I just didn’t have the lungs for it. But it didn’t bother me – it felt so good to feel good again, after years of driving myself into morbid obesity. By the end of the week, I was almost able to run a full mile without stopping.

Coming back to the ranch this week, three marathons later, I remembered the eno

rmously steep hill comprising the last 400 yards to the lodge. Four years ago, I couldn’t imagine that one could be fit enough to run up that hill. Walking it was more than enough challenge for me.

This morning, I had a lovely five-mile run. Although it was already fairly warm and humid, low dark clouds kept the sun at bay, and the occasional breeze felt wonderful. I honestly wished I could have continued down that road all day. It was one of those peaceful moments that come rarely and, for a change, I was keenly aware of what a gift it was. I relished it, stopping often to take in the absolute silence, interrupted only by an occasional bird or cicada.

As I made my way back toward the ranch and approached the lodge, I was a bit fatigued. But then I spied the unconquerable hill of four years ago. I laughed to myself, thinking of how it had seemed so formidable, so impossible, such a short time ago. I attacked it with abandon, relishing the strain and struggle. Thoroughly winded, I rounded the corner and saw the beaming face of my son waiting for me.

You see, four years ago, we’d gotten to the point where we thought having a child was a dream that would never come to fruition. We’d come to accept, on some level, that we would never have a child of our own.

So as I saw Anton’s face mirror back to me the breathtaking love that I feel for him, I felt a sense of things coming full circle. And maybe that’s not even the right cliché to use. But it feels good, so I’ll use it.

Anton took off running toward me, with an effortless joy in his stride. The spring came back to my step, only seconds after conquering the impossible hill, and I met him as he bounded into my arms, the fruit of an impossible dream.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Coyotes, and time as an abstract

I wrote this a few months back , when summer night didn't fall till almost 9. It's a tale of my son's first run-in with time.


Anton had a hard time going to sleep this afternoon for his nap. A very hard time. It was late enough when he finally succumbed that both Anne and I thought/hoped he’d stay asleep through the night.

Ha, but the Toddler God laughs at such wishes!

And so, around 8:45 P.M, just as dusk was falling full into night, Anton wandered silently into my office, eyes nearly shut from the overhead light (but beaming full as always), and dove headfirst, blanket, paci and all into the comfy green chair in the corner. “Good morning!” he intoned, mouth full of cushion.

And now, a step back.

When I first heard the lyrics to “I Believe” by REM, I couldn’t really make sense of the line “I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract.” I probably still don’t understand it. Especially the part about coyotes. But, anyway, at age 19, “time as an abstract” really befuddled me. How was time an abstract? Seemed pretty concrete to me. 60 seconds, 1 minute, 60 minutes, 1 hour. I like the order of it.

Confused, I asked one of my smart friends, and I’m thinking it was Eddie Sperr, who had no issue explaining to me that time was an artificially designed construct, somewhat inadequate, geared at helping us bring order to a complex world. I don’t think those were his exact words, but he explained it well enough that I remember thinking, “Well, shit, there’s another freakin’ tater skin to add to the compost pile of life’s imponderables.”

I just made that up – “compost pile of life’s imponderables.” Liking the metaphor.

But of course, the truth is that there are no neat, tidy, segmented spans in our life. A second is forever, it is never, it is now. Deep, man. But as Eckhart Tolle said (at least from what I could glean out of the 37 pages of The Power of Now that I was able to stomach), all that really exists is now, one long continual moment that is our lives.

I so very much like for things to be clear, clean, neat and tidy. But from what I’ve seen of life, it is seldom a methodical thing. Embracing the fact that the “abstract of time” is good for little more than helping me figure out when the next Episode of Dexter is – has gifted me one of life’s terrifying freedoms: nothing is as it seems but everything is mine to change.

Better said, life shouldn’t be a game of watching the clock, neither literally nor metaphorically. If we stay busy trying to compartmentalize things into neat packages, we won’t ever really see what we’re putting in those packages. And we’ll miss out on the fact, the wonder, that we can control so much more of ourselves when we start accepting things without constraints.

“Good morning” made sense to Anton. He’d slept for a good long while, and it was barely light outside. I guess he figured he’d awoken a little early, just in time for sunrise.

He believes in coyotes and time as an abstract, even though he can’t verbalize it yet.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

It's All About Perspective

After posting about my adventures in getting through last year's Chicago Marathon with an acute case of (ahem) "lower GI distress," I read a post from the blog of my running hero, Anton Krupicka, about having to withdraw from this year's Leadville 100 at mile 78 due to similar distress.

Tony, as he is better known, has one of the most beautiful and efficient running strides that I have ever seen. Even if you don't know jack about running, take a look at this video - especially the slow-mo portion - and you should see what I'm talking about. He was born to run...and run long.

Tony holds the time record for this race, finishing all 100 miles at an average pace of 9:45 per mile (at an average elevation of 9K - 12K feet with over 15,000 feet of elevation change). It's a brutal 100 mile run, as if any 100 mile run would be anything less than brutal.

So, again, the guy's my hero. Not just because he is so physically accomplished, but because his attitude toward running is so much more philosophical than technical. He seems to grasp the intrinsic fact that running brings us to a very primal state of being. One, as he puts it, that we tend to be "divorced" from in this modern age.

I was sad to see he didn't blow his own amazing record out of the water this year. But I learned a hell of a lot more about running by reading his post about having to withdraw. This monster ran seventy-eight freakin' miles battling giardia, for God's sake. And while, on some level, it make me feel a little silly for making such a big deal out of my struggles with 26.2 miles, it makes me realize that we all fight adversity. Obviously.

And while some adversity is certainly greater than other, judging it on a scale of 1-10 doesn't do any good. Applying a scientific metric to what is a physical, spiritual, and emotional experience sort of misses the point. It's what we learn from that challenge that enriches us and allows us to grow.

After all, Tony is one of the top 5 ultramarathoners in the world. In the standard marathon, I'm slower than Oprah. It's all about perspective, dude.

Friday, September 18, 2009

God Enough for Me

Note: I began writing this shortly after last year’s Chicago Marathon. With this year’s race less than a month away…well, I figured it was time to finish.

God Enough for Me

In his book Ultramarathon Man, Dean Karnazes tells of running more than 200 miles without stopping. Of this experience, he wrote, “The pain is the point.” When I first read that statement, I thought it was pretty cool. It made sense to me, at least on a cerebral level. After all, I’ve been through enough tough times in my life to apply my emotional suffering – and its subsequent catharsis – to Dean’s notion that the same holds true for physical pain.

This past Sunday, in running the Chicago Marathon, that cerebral knowledge became etched into who I am, rather than what I understand.

I’d taken on this marathon, my third, out of a vengeance against last year’s Chicago, which was canceled because of heat just as I had reached mile 16. But it began to take on a much more significant meaning when I decided to become an American Cancer Society Charity Runner. I’m tired of seeing people die too damn young from bodies that have turned against themselves. My wife’s cousin Barbara was married to one of these victims, Michael McLendon, who died in January.

Those who know me well may tell you that I am given to bouts of agnosticism and even downright atheism. For some reason, those bouts are balanced by moments when I feel so close to God that I feel as though I could reach out and touch him/her/it/them. Depending on who you talk to, I’m either schizoid, possessed by demons, or really onto something. I prefer to believe the latter of the three choices for reasons that need no explanation.

That said – and as a result of currently being in a decidedly non-agnostic frame of mind – I will tell you that one of the blessings of meeting my wife Anne is that I have gained an enormous new family that has welcomed me as if I were their own. I don’t have very much family of my own, so this was one hell of a freebie that God threw into the deal, pardoning my pun.

Anne’s father, Tom, has a sister in Texas, Joan, who along with a wonderful man named Jack Moore, gave birth to three of Anne’s many cousins: Scott, Debbie, and Barbara. I really love these people. To say that they are “salt of the earth” would do them all a great disservice, because it would belie the fact that among them all there exists a wonderful, ebullient, lively, creative, artistic and fun-loving vibe. They are originals. But to say that they are not “salt of the earth” would at the same time do them a great disservice because it would belie the deep and abiding spiritual strength and grace that I have seen so many of them exhibit.

So, to see that extended family lose Michael – who couldn’t have fit into that family any more closely had he been born into it – was not easy to bear. From the time I met him, I always wanted to “be like Mike.” He had so many of the qualities that I admire in a man, a father, a husband. Chief among those qualities was an incredible enthusiasm for life coupled with a quiet, deeply grounded calm and strength.

You see, I’ve got the enthusiasm part down. But I’m not so good about being grounded, nor calm, nor strong.

I hate the fact that I won’t get to know him any better than I did. So I asked the family if I could run the race in his honor. To my delight, they were delighted to have me do so. That felt good. We all kicked ass in the fundraising department, bringing in well over $5,000 for the ACS. That also felt good.

And so on race morning, I stood at the start line. Calm and determined. I had 76 donors on my side, and Michael’s name, as well as that of my Uncle Jim (who died of cancer a month before the race) and my Aunt Janet, who passed some 20 years ago from the same disease, ironed onto the front of my jersey.

I knew it would be another unseasonably warm day, but at the start line, it was still in the 60’s, with a nice breeze coming in off Lake Michigan. I knew the course would be littered with water and Gatorade stations, so I felt confident that even if the predicted high of 78 were reached, I would be fine. However, it reached a record high - 86 degrees – and turned the marathon into yet another brutal endurance test.

Nonetheless, my pace was strong and consistent through mile 20. I stayed to my gameplan, stayed well hydrated, and was looking at a sub-five hour marathon, which would have been a personal best. I felt strong.

Little did I know how irrelevant my goal of finishing in less than 5 hours would soon become.

I’ve always had a nervous stomach, as long back as I can remember. During the course of the first 21 miles, I’d taken in a whole lot of Gatorade…serving the dual purpose of hydration and providing calories. Those calories come in the form of sugars, and lots of them. One of the neat facts I learned about sugar – after the race – is that it does a very good (or bad, depending on your perspective) job of pushing waste thru your gut and into your waste disposal system.

All that to say that some “accelerated digestive locomotion” came into play.

Just about the time I got the idea in my head that I’d be able to run the last several miles without stopping, my guts sent a telegram to my brain, saying “Hey, thought you might like to know that the levee’s gonna break here in a few minutes.” I dismissed the queasiness, as I’d experienced it in my first marathon and never had anything come of it. However, as I approached the aid station at Mile 21, my guts set aside their genial formalities and put the small intestine on full alert. Great, massive, seizing cramps immediately put the whole race into jeopardy.

Fortunately, a row of portable johns was within yards. But, like the scared kid whistling in the dark, I walked past them and attempted to reach the next aid station. I didn’t make it. The “troops” began to advance and it was clear that there was no retreat. Thank God for the porta-john.

I emerged, grateful, and certain that the incident was an anomaly. Returning to the aid station, I came across a friend of mine (a high school principal whose students were manning that particular station). How odd it was that out of the millions of people in the city of Chicago, out of the thousands of volunteers, out of the 20+ aid stations, here would be someone – at that precise moment – with whom I had a bond. And although this was the first time we’d actually met face-to-face, it reassured me and heartened me to have that connection.

Later that night, at dinner, he would confess that “you didn’t look so good.”


Sidestep for a moment: Probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my life is learning to accept and cope with Panic Disorder. For those of you who’ve ever had a panic attack, or suffered from the disorder that comes from repeated, prolonged exposure to panic attacks – you’ll know immediately that this situation was an enormous emotional challenge for me. For those of you who have not had a panic attack – try to imagine, if you can, being entirely certain that you are going to die. That is the insidious trick that panic plays on your mind. And although I have been treated for it for many years, and have learned to be almost entirely unafraid of panic attacks, there are certain times, certain situations – like ones where your body and mind are taxed to their absolute limits – that they still have tremendous power over me.

From the moment I knew that I was going to be sick – just before mile 21 – panic visited me immediately and attempted to assist in my body’s coup. This utter, complete, base fear comes straight from the adrenal cortex. Many psychiatrists agree that panic attacks result from the fight-or-flight response gone awry. Adrenaline and cortisol flood your bloodstream as if you were in a real emergency…but the damned thing is that there is no real emergency. As an example – think of how you feel when a car has pulled out right in front of you and you react quickly, instinctively, intuitively. You’re able to do that because of the fight-or-flight response. It really is amazing. But think about how you feel after you steer around that potentially deadly accident, get control of your car, and slowly realize that you’ve escaped. The adrenaline and cortisol begin to leave your bloodstream, your breathing begins to slow – but you likely feel shaky, bewildered, out-of-sorts. In panic attacks, the surge just won’t stop.

So there I was, leaving the aid station at mile 21, fighting those attacks, trying to forge ahead. But feeling an enormous sense of dread and fear.

After a few minutes of running, it was clear that the sickness in my guts was there to stay, at least for while. I stopped running and began walking. I seriously considered dropping out. The thought of Gatorade now made me sick to my stomach, so I grabbed a bottle of water from a gracious volunteer. Just to keep my mouth from drying out. I couldn’t really drink it, as every time I took a sip, the ferocious cramps came back.

I grabbed that bottle tight and held onto it for the rest of the race. It was my lifeline. And it acted like a stress ball in helping me find an outlet for my mounting fear and panic.

Within another mile, I reached “critical mass” again. I couldn’t imagine how I’d make it thru another four miles. I saw a police officer guarding an intersection. Sensing that I wasn’t well, he began to approach me. I pleaded with him to help me find a restroom. He pointed to a small travel agency just a few yards away. As I turned to dash to its door, I tripped on the curb and fell hands-first onto the sidewalk. Instantly, both of my legs seized in horrendous cramps. As I yelped in pain, the officer began to signal for a medic. But I pleaded with him not to. “I’m fine, I just fell, I’ll be OK once I get to the bathroom.”

Sitting there, in that small restroom, in some travel agency in Little China, in this city of Chicago, hundreds of miles from home, alone. But then a funny thing happened. For the first time since I’d gotten sick, I thought about the three people whose names were ironed on the front of my jersey. I thought about how many times, in their last months on earth, they must have been so sick from the chemotherapy. How many rushed visits to the bathroom they must have had. I wondered if they had panicked. After all, unlike me, they truly were looking death square in the eye.

All three – Michael McLendon, Jim Arthur, and Janet Elser – fought bravely and in a way that is probably still difficult for me to understated. On some level, I felt ashamed and weak to be so panic-stricken and terrified. After all, I am a grown man, a husband, and a father, right? I couldn’t help but begin to feel that this was a test. I walked out of that travel agency with renewed courage and a real sense of purpose.

I might just wind up in the medical tent. But dammit, if I do, it’ll be because they had to pick my big, collapsed, sweaty, dehydrated carcass off of the pavement. I was going to keep going. As much as I knew that the people who had supported me in this fundraising effort would understand if I had to drop out, I knew that I couldn’t…and that I wouldn't.

So, 86 degrees, heat index in the 90’s, not a bit of shade, sun pounding off the pavement, stomach cramping with every step…22 miles down, four to go.

Just keep walking. Keep clutching that bottle. Listen to the cheers of support from total strangers. They are on your side. They do care. Just ride that panic like a wave. Close your eyes, think of the heavens, picture the faces of all those that you love, smiling down on you. Think of the prayers coming your way from all over. Feel that. And tell the fear to go to hell.

Mile 23 approaches. And so does another low point. As nausea begins to come in waves, I can’t decide if I’m hungry, or sick, or both. I grab a handful of pretzels from a stranger’s bag. Seemed like a good idea, until I put one in my mouth. My mouth was so dry that I wasn’t able to chew. I almost heaved. I took a few sips from the dented water bottle. I still almost heaved. My stomach was having no more. Another visit to the luxurious portable bathroom facilities.

As I left the station, I considered – perhaps more strongly than at any other time – cashing it in and heading for the medical tent. Panic had actually stopped speaking. And I just had to ask myself “Are you being insane?"

Yes, totally insane…and totally determined.

Three miles to go. That’s just a 5-K. Hell, I could do that in my sleep. One foot in front of the other. Fortunately, my stomach calmed – no more mad dashes.

I wish I could explain the range of emotions I went through as my body teetered on the edge, half-stumbling, half-walking for the hour that it took me to manage those last three miles.

I don’t know if God works in a way that allows those who have passed on to lean down and touch us, to help us along when we’re weak. I don’t know if that’s a silly, childish fantasy designed to assuage us in moments of great need, of great fear. But I do know that I saw the faces of Michael, Jim and Janet every time I closed my eyes. I saw the face of my mother who has long passed. Of my friend Brent who passed from cancer. And I know that seeing those faces gave me strength and a feeling of purposefulness, of resolve, that kept me on my feet and that brought tears of joy to my eyes when I crossed the finish line.

That’s God enough for me.