Runners love to congratulate themselves on how positive they are. We have all of these inspirational sayings about getting up when you fall, turning loss into opportunity, taking one step at a time… you know what I’m talking about. I bet you have your own favorite saying that keeps you going when things are tough. Take, for instance, the old saying about life handing you lemons and making lemonade. Well, if lemonade is the best thing that you can think of to do with lemons, then I feel bad for you and your lack of creativity. How about a lemon drop martini? Or lemon meringue pie? Or Lemonheads? Or, I have a better idea; how about this: THROW THOSE LEMONS BACK AT LIFE. AIM FOR THE CROTCH!
What is my problem, you are probably wondering. I guess I could sum it up and say that 2013 is my problem—the whole year. I should have recognized that things were not going to go well when I was driving to a client’s house (I tutor high school students for college entrance exams) early in the year, happily and mindlessly munching on a stale Tootsie Roll, trusting my teeth to do what they were designed for, when one of my upper teeth just fell out of my mouth. Actually, it didn’t fall out of my mouth so much as it detached from my gum and stuck in the Tootsie Roll. Horrified and still slightly unbelieving, I pulled the car over (I am a very safe driver) and looked in the overhead vanity (in my current state, this term does not apply) mirror. Yep. That just happened. My tooth fell out of my mouth. I posted this tragic occurrence on facebook to let the pundits weigh in, and my first response was: “Maybe it’s time to lay off the Red Bull.” This may be the case, although what the adoring public may not be aware of is that I had not been to the dentist in seven years. Well, what could I do now? I had to go to my client’s house, so I practiced in the mirror with how big I could smile and still not entirely reveal that my teeth are rotting and falling out of my mouth. I smile often (or at least I did until 2013 had its wicked way with me), and I was on my way to visit one of my favorite students. I decided that smirking would be okay, but not full-on, happy-faced smiling. A tutor with missing/rotting teeth just does not inspire confidence and respect.
I made an appointment to go to the dentist the following day, where I had a relaxing root canal during which I actually fell asleep. I may be the calmest dental patient ever, and I wasn’t even under the influence of any of dentistry’s famous gases. I had a new fake tooth made, which I had to use every ounce of my power to not request be made of gold and have the initials JC on it, and then some follow-up x-rays to ensure that this tooth was just an anomaly, that the rest of my teeth were, of course, strong and ready to chew on stale Tootsie Rolls to my heart’s content. And the x-ray revealed? Yes, you guessed it: another tooth that was ready to give up the fight. So, all-in-all, my dental escapades for the year will add up to about $7000, and I don’t even have any gold teeth to show for my troubles.
Dental problems are just one of life’s minor irritations, so I wasn’t throwing in any towels yet. In fact, life was otherwise going swell. I was training for a late spring marathon, the Vermont City Marathon, one of my all-time favorites in which I have finished runner-up in each of my previous two attempts, the second time less than a minute behind the victor. I had logged weeks of 100 miles, 110 miles, and 115 miles consecutively. My long tempo runs and marathon pace workouts were as fast as they had been five years ago, when I qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials, and I was telling folks that I was finally healthy and feeling pretty darn optimistic. That’s when life handed me, no, more like hurled at me, another lemon: plantar fasciitis. I even hate the sound of the name. When you say “fasciitis” it sounds like you’re slurring, which makes people think that you’re drunk, and since I usually am a little drunk, this is a bad injury for me, both to experience and to say. I suppose, in retrospect, it didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. I had been returning from training runs for a couple of weeks with extreme pain in my right foot, but I was only three weeks out from the race and thought that I could gut it out and then take some down-time after the race. This dream quickly died when, the morning after my hard 22-miler, my long-suffering Angie had to help me walk to the bathroom. I could not even set my foot down.
I could have weathered even this shit-storm, but I could sense that this marathon wasn’t the only race that I’d have to give up to this plantar fa-SHIT-y injury. And so the other races of summer have come and gone: my hometown race in Ames, Iowa, the local team circuit races, my beloved Hood to Coast relay, any fall marathon, and the cross country season. I have experienced all manner and degree of injuries before, of course, having run fairly intensely for 30 of my 38 years. In the past, I have done what my positive, forward-thinking, optimistic, Pollyannaish runner buddies have done and tried to make the best of it. I immediately scheduled physical therapy appointments as often as possible. I made a cute little list of all of the wonderful, self-actualizing activities that I could fit into my schedule now that I had two to three extra hours of time in each day.
Here’s a sample:
1. Buy and learn to play the guitar.
2. Become a champion masters swimmer.
3. Write the Great American novel.
4. Turn my small tutoring business into a multibillion dollar, multinational corporation.
5. Make a wallet from duct tape.
6. Hoard cats.
Etcetera. The items that I have managed to cross off my list are that I purchased a guitar (could play a C chord for about a week and then forgot) and made a really poorly constructed wallet out of duct tape. Otherwise I filled the extra time by sitting in the backyard on a lounge chair, delicately sipping (read: gulping) white wine, and watching my precious cat Stanley play in the bushes and chew on the mint plant in the neighbors’ yard. Day after day I resolved to get back on the proverbial horse and make the most of my rare free time, but day after day I found myself outside in the yard gazing into space, or, if I was lucky, gazing at my cat.
This time, for some reason, I had had enough. I cried Uncle. I laid my broken body down and decided that this time when I got knocked down, I wouldn’t get up again. Maybe it was the fact that I was missing two teeth. Maybe it was the cold, rainy start to summer. Maybe I, like Stanley, was high from chewing the leaves of the neighbors’ mint plant. I just couldn’t face cross-training and smiling and making the damn best of it.
I am sometimes accused of lacking a little thing that some like to call perspective. I mean, really, two teeth and an injury and I’m just going to stay down and shake my tiny fist at the universe? I watch the news; I know that people every day lose their homes to natural disasters, their loved ones to random violence, their dreams to illnesses and bad luck that I can’t even fathom. Just last night on the news there was a woman featured who had lost all four limbs and part of her nose to a bizarre confluence of events that began with a simple kidney stone. And there she was, soldiering on with her artificial limbs and her reconstructed nose. I have all four limbs and my entire nose—I’m only down a couple of teeth. But we had a little saying in my house growing up and it goes like this: It still sucks to lose your wallet. Someone in my immediate family, although it’s fuzzy just who, lost his/her wallet. I’m going to say it was my brother (primarily because I don’t want to keep saying his/her, and he/she, because gender ambiguous singular pronouns are a pain in the ass). So my brother loses his wallet and is complaining about it to a friend, when he realizes that this particular friend to whom he is complaining has a parent dying of cancer. He immediately stops his rant, blushes, and apologizes with shame. His friend, a wise and generous kid, says, “No. It’s okay—it still sucks to lose your wallet.”
If plantar fasciitis is a wallet, then, I did lose something far more precious about a month ago. Those of you who have read/seen my blog posts in the past may remember that I have a fierce love for my loyal companion, my cat, Stanley. He had some weight issues, a chronic kidney condition, asthma, and, as it turned out, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. My dear Stan has always had to drink non-stop to keep his kidneys going, and I have a bag of IV fluid at the ready in case I need to give him a little extra boost by administering sub-cutaneous fluids to him. I suppose I won’t go into detail, because I do, after all, have to somehow bring this blog back around to running, but the myriad health issues finally got the better of Stanley, and I had to say good-bye to him in the middle of August. If the events of the year had heretofore conspired to render me punch drunk and wobbly, this was the final devastating blow, the uppercut that knocked me not merely to my knees but all of the way out. Towel thrown in. (You do know that the phrase “throw in the towel” comes from boxing, right?)
Unless I’m going to post this on a boxing website, I’d better return to the running metaphors. Or the Bible. Ecclesiastes, and, later (arguably more famously), The Byrds, sang about seasons. To everything there is a season. One of the lines/lyrics is that there is a time to break down and a time to build up. At the risk of sacrilege, this is bad news for me. An entire season? Often runners will have a bad race, and we chalk it up to the events of the day randomly conspiring to yield a poor result. Not enough sleep, or poor weather conditions, or outside stressors, or biorhythms, or barometric pressure, can all be blamed. But what happens when race upon race, or day after day, hands us lemons? This is not just a bad race, but a bad season. If an entire season ends up smelling like a lemon, perhaps we need to search past the old culprit of the barometric pressure to place our blame—or to bring about change, if you want to put a positive spin on it (which I’m still not sure I’m quite ready for). Maybe there is a lemon tree in our backyard. Maybe we need to chop it down and replace it with a fragrant/narcotic mint patch. And, although I am not one to think that things happen for a reason, maybe we can put one of the lemons to good use. I certainly have thought about how my season of sitting in the backyard, pouting and placating myself with a glass of wine rather than getting up and learning to play the guitar, allowed for my beloved Stanley to have hours upon hours upon days of extra time exploring the outdoors, playing in his “jungle” of bushes or sniffing in the mint. Those moments are so precious to me now. There has been a season of breaking down, so I must then plan for the season of building up. It’s okay if I didn’t bounce back up quickly this time—I just have to bounce back up eventually. In boxing, you get a ten count before you’re declared knocked out. Get up on one, or on three, or even on nine—when you’re ready.
Whereas it does suck to lose your wallet, if you have hoarded duct tape like I have, then you can make hundreds more.
I ended up sending my hideous duct tape wallet to Oiselle diva Sarah formerly-Mackay-turned-Robinson. She and I had made grand plans to rock the Vermont City Marathon side-by-side, so when I had to stay home it was a blow to both of us. In order to “cheer her up,” I sent her my duct tape wallet. (I have some fascinating methods by which I try to cheer others up.) I had amassed the duct tape for the intended purpose of decorating our marathon race fluid bottles, so I had to find a new use for it. Recently Sarah sent me a message declaring that the ugly wallet has survived her house move and will be making the trip to the Chicago Marathon with her for good luck. She expressed her condolences for my season of discontent, but she added this, which means so much to me:
KEEP THROWING YOUR LEMONS. JUNGLE CHICKEN ALWAYS WINS.
I smell the winds of change in the air. Fall weather is blowing in. It can’t be long now before the season of building begins. I have, in addition to hoarding duct tape, hoarded two new kittens—Frankie and Skittle. They are playful and tiny and wonderful, and recently they have taken to crapping on the guest bed at night. You’d think I’d be annoyed—another lemon drop!—but I don’t mind too much. I don’t really like having guests stay overnight, anyway.
P.S. This blog is dedicated to two childhood friends, Audra and Alison, who have parents fighting cancer. Despite my earlier statement, I actually do have some perspective, and I think about and pray for you every day. You have amazing families.