Saturday, October 14, 2017

Portland Marathon Recap #1: A Long and Uncertain Road

There are so many stories to tell about the Portland marathon, it’s hard to choose just one . . . so I guess I’m going to tell several. Bear with me. Because there was a time when I wondered if this marathon would even happen at all.

There's a pretty view out there somewhere. . . .
Late last year, when I went looking for a 2017 marathon, I decided that I wanted to travel, but I didn’t want to leave the country like I had for Berlin. A teammate recommended the Portland Marathon, so I took a look. At first glance, the course didn’t look too hilly, and I had friends in Portland who would be fun to visit . . . so I signed up.  Then, as luck would have it, those same friends invited me to their wedding, which was scheduled to happen exactly a month before the marathon. Perfect, I thought. I’ll use my long run that weekend to check out the course. Yet as time passed, the 2016 course remained stubbornly up on the race website, with no sign of being updated. Oh well, I thought, I guess I’ll just follow the old route and hope it doesn't change much.
Then, in June, Runner’s World published an article that made me second-guess my whole plan. It started with the sentence: “One of the country’s oldest marathons is at risk of being canceled this year after failing to secure permits from the city of Portland, Oregon.”

Um, what?

Feet are also having some
bad luck
Fortunately, the race organizers did eventually work things out and, one week before the wedding (less than six weeks before the race), the course was published. Whew! Crisis averted.

Or at least crisis number one. Because when my fiancé and I arrived the Friday before Labor Day, we found the Pacific Northwest blanketed by a haze of forest fire smoke. Is it even safe to be running in this? I wondered as I laced up my shoes. What if conditions got worse? However, two weeks later, the fires calmed down, and my Portland friends assured me that rainfall was taking care of the ash in the air. Good. Nothing left to do now except finish the training cycle.

Or so I thought. A week later, I returned from a long run to find a voicemail from my sister: “Hi, Allie? Don’t panic, but mom’s in the hospital. Call me back.” My mother had had a heart attack. Six hundred dollars and twenty-four hours later, I was in Pittsburgh, watching with relief as they wheeled her out of surgery, alive and intact. After a day or two, I started looking at my transportation options home . . . a plan that was quickly aborted when I found myself driving my father to the emergency room of a different hospital. He was also suffering from heart failure.

Thankfully, both of my parents were released from their respective hospitals within a week, and, thanks to the incredible generosity of two friends, I flew home to New Jersey feeling shaken but relieved. Surely that was the final hurdle I’d face before this marathon . . . right?

Pre-race pasta dinner (photo and apartment credit: Lisa!)
Finally, it was the night before my flight to Portland. As I lay in bed trying to will my eyes shut, I realized that I hadn’t received any alerts about checking in for my flight. Wow, that could have gone badly, I thought as I picked up my phone and opened the app. I was about to swipe right to check in when I did a double-take. Surely that didn't say . . . I couldn’t have. . . . But there it was, glowing right before my very eyes: the flight that had I thought was scheduled for 6:40 pm was actually taking off at 6:40 am—exactly 6 hours from that very moment. And I wasn’t even packed.
In the end, everything worked out. I not only made my flight with time to spare, but the plane was so empty that I was able to move back to the emergency exit row. (Extra leg room!) I stayed with my friends as planned, ate lots of pasta, and showed up at the starting line feeling as good as I could hope to feel at the end of such an uncertain marathon cycle. But the Portland Marathon wasn’t done with me yet. Stay tuned for the "irks and quirks" that awaited me along the course. . . .

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Pre-Portland: Fall 2017 Season Recap

After a few crazy weeks and a nearly-missed flight, I am finally in Portland . . . so I guess it's time for the annual pre-marathon self-pep-talk/season-review.
Posting a goal time (that I will fail to achieve) at the Strava mile.

The Challenges
The biggest challenge this season has been adjusting to a new coach. Trusting someone brand new is hard, and no matter how badly I want to fast forward to the point where I blindly believe everything he says, I'm simply not capable of that . . . at least not yet. But looking back at my previous coaching relationship, I recognize that I am capable of that level of trust, it just takes time, and certainly more than one full training cycle. So as impatient as I feel, I have to accept where I am and how far I have to go, and give it the time it takes.

The long and lonely road . . . crossing train tracks
on my 3hr long run in Portland.
The next big challenge has been learning how to fail, although truthfully, I don't think I've learned this lesson yet. I failed in my last two long runs leading up to this marathon, and I'm not talking about just running "off pace;" I'm talking about quitting entirely. The hardest thing about these failures has been knowing, even as they're happening, that the stumbling blocks are mental, and succumbing to them anyway. The perfectionist in me wants to scream, Weakling! How will you ever get through this race if you can't even finish a workout? But I'm (hopefully) learning to reign in that voice, and to keep the punches from flying when I'm down.

The final challenge this cycle has been (re)learning how to train alone. When I ran my first marathon, I trained pretty much by myself; I had just moved to New York City and didn't know very many people, never mind runners. Now, things are different: I know tons of runners and have had the luxury of running with many of them for my last few training cycles. This year, however, that luck ran dry. My old training partners were taking breaks, and my new ones were focusing on the mile, meaning that they had zero interest in doing a ten-mile workout on Tuesday and another twenty-mile run on Saturday. Having had company for so many previous seasons, I kind of forgot: training alone is hard. There's no one to inspire you to get out of bed, no one to pace off of, and no one pull you along when you're having a crappy day. If nothing else, it makes me that much more grateful for runs where I do have company. Silver linings, right?

The Triumphs
If most of my challenges this season were mental, most of my successes were mental, too. For starters, I consider it a success that I finally stopped worrying over whether I was doing "enough" training. Frankly, it's scary to go from increasing mileage every single season to suddenly scaling it back, yet still with the goal of running faster than ever before. It's scary to abandon track work altogether when I've gone to that same oval every single Thursday for the last three years of my life. But sometime in the midst of training, I decided to put my own fears aside and just do my best with what I was being given. My new coach's approach to preparing for a marathon might seem gentler, but I chose this coach, with this approach, for a reason. I owe it to myself to see it through.

Teammates really are the best
The other triumph this season was learning to read my body. I've had to face a hard truth this year: I'm not 25 anymore. I can't just roll out of bed, throw on some shoes, and expect to start running at 6am. I also can't expect my body to recover like it used to. Case in point: about a month ago, I took a trip to the west coast for a wedding. While I was out there, I was scheduled to do my longest run of the training cycle. The next day, I felt fatigued, but certainly not "wrecked," so I was pretty upbeat about the workout I had coming up. However, two days later, I found myself a mile into the workout, straining mightily, and still not coming close to the pace I was meant to hit. At that point, I had a decision to make: try to grind through this workout feeling like crap and very obviously failing, or throw in the towel, jog back, and attempt the workout again the next day. I went with Option B. The next day, I found a middle school track and did all nine miles there--and nailed them. Now let me be clear: this is not a triumph because I nailed the workout. It's a triumph because, instead of berating myself for "failing," I recognized that my body had not yet recovered and gave it a chance to succeed on another day. I showed myself compassion and, by doing that, was able to make a smart choice. This is not something my 25-year-old self would have been capable of doing, but my 31-year-old self did it, so I am ready to call that progress.

The Bottom Line: I know I can do this. I can run this marathon the way I want to. Whether I do or not remains to be seen. But I did everything I could to give myself the best shot, and really, that's all any of us can ask of ourselves.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best sorts of novels are hard to categorize. (My theory is that’s why they get called “literary.”) An action novel would have a guy on the lam, running from an ugly past. A coming of age novel would show a misfit teenager trying to interact with her peers and manage her feelings for a boy. A family dynamics novel would portray a husband, daughter, and grandmother all grappling with the death of their wife/mother/daughter.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley has all of these elements, and more. It includes a fraught friendship between two men. A challenging yet beautiful marriage between a woman trying to escape her home and man trying to find one. The difficulties of parenting alone. How to live as a perpetual outsider, and the delicate balance between the need for privacy and the natural urge to form human connection.

Nothing I can write in a few paragraphs will do this novel justice. If rock solid character development and unwavering attention to the details that make us human are what you look for in a novel, then Twelve Lives may soon be your favorite.

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review: I Want to Show You More

I Want to Show You More I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I consider myself a fairly harsh critic of short stories, because so often they conclude and leave me feeling disoriented or dissatisfied. In this collection, Quatro delivers 15 short stories that are not only complete within themselves, but they do what only the best short story collections can do: they demonstrate that they belong together. Some characters recur, but so do some themes and some key symbolic elements, all transformed and yet recognizable as fragile ties that link back to prior stories or wind forward into later ones. In this way, I'm glad I read the collection in order, because only when I was a few stories in did I start to recognize the ways in which they were all linked. A mother, a lover, running, survival, dependency, independence . . . these are just some elements Quatro renders with the searing truth and emotional vividness that can only be achieved by the best sort of short story collection.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Self-gentrifying (AKA moving)

Sometimes, it's the little things that improve the quality of life. Sometimes it's the big things. And sometimes, it's a mixture of both. When you move, it's definitely a mixture of both.

The big thing
This week, we (R___ and I) moved apartments. We didn't go any farther than across the street, but it's worth noting that the building we moved into didn't exist three years ago (at which time we couldn't have afforded a building like this anyway).

It has been seven years since either of us moved, so I will now proceed on to . . .

The little things
In no particular order, here is a list of what excites me about this new apartment. By the end of the list, it should be fairly clear why we decided to move.
  • A bedroom door that closes
  • A bathroom door that closes (and locks)
  • Closets
  • Window screens that don't have fist-sized holes in them
  • Kitchen counters
  • Air conditioning
  • A roof that doesn't leak
  • A shower that doesn't leak
  • Hall lights that are actually on when it's dark outside
  • A shower drain that does what it's supposed to (i.e., drain water)
  • A doorman who can accept packages (i.e., prevent other people from stealing said packages)
  • Laundry machines that are less than half a mile away
  • Did I mention air conditioning?
Some of these are pretty basic standard of living things, or at least 21st century, first-world-country, middle-class standard of living things. But some items I intentionally kept off the list because I'm slightly ashamed to be excited about them. Like the size of the apartment. And the fact that it has a dish washer. And the roof deck (which has a grill on it!).

Is it okay to be excited about these perks (which I didn't ask for and certainly don't "need")? Do I actually deserve them? I want to say "yes, of course I deserve nice things," and "screw anyone who claims otherwise," but then I pass a woman camped out on the PATH train steps whose shoes are missing part of their soles and who asks me for a dollar every morning, and I have to wonder Should I really be allowed to live so comfortably? I don't have an answer, but in today's political and economic climate, it's the sort of issue I think about more and more.

At least now I can do my thinking from the comfort of an air-conditioned apartment. As someone wise may or may not have once said: may my thoughts be clearer and my cold showers fewer. Sometimes it really is the little things.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Review: Difficult Women

Difficult Women Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beautifully written collection of short stories about exactly what the title proposes: difficult women. Or, in the post Hillary Clinton era, Nasty Women. Women who are troubled and troubling. Women who are not supermoms, or supermodels, or perfect wives, or "cool girls."

To anyone who appreciates good writing about flawed characters, this collection is for you. However, I must offer a warning: it is dark. The subject matter is not uplifting, and there really is no reprieve to the heaviness of the content. The only way I'd recommend improving a collection like this is, honestly, to structure the stories to give it some rise and fall. Let some of the pieces be shorter and brighter, maybe add some comic relief in between the soul-twisters and the stories that make us cringe.

Nevertheless, an excellent collection. I hope to return to it again, as an older woman, and get something completely different out of the reading. I don't think I'll be disappointed.

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Review: All the Rage

All the Rage All the Rage by Courtney Summers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did not feel the rage.

I wanted to. And I felt plenty of other things. Annoyance. Boredom. Exasperation. But not rage. Well, except for when I reread the book jacket. I am enraged that any publisher would allow such a misleading description be written on a book. Kellan--the very first character we meet in the book description--does not ever show up in the book! So for anyone who was interested in the dynamic between a rape victim and the perpetrator, forget it. All the Rage is honestly a book about bullying, plain and simple. And not even a very good one, in my opinion, because the main character, teenage loner Romy, is so unredeemable.

Romy starts miserable and stays miserable. We might be able to empathize with her if we could get any real backstory to offset what a drag she is . . . but nope. (Allegedly she used to be part of the "in" crowd, before she tried to report being raped, but we never see much evidence of this, or of the person she used to be.) We might be able to root for her if she were nice and/or honest to anyone, ever . . . but nope. She shuts out everyone who tries to be nice to her (her mom, the black love interest Leon, who I'll get back to), and us, the reader, too. Which makes her boring and unsympathetic (except for the fact that she was raped, obviously, but fictional rape victim, sorry to say, does not automatically make an interesting character).

Speaking of boring, the love interest, Leon, is boring. He has zero dimensions outside of a) being black, and b) being interested in Romy. The race element is completely ignored for 99% of the book, which I find a horrific oversight on the part of both the author and her editor. In such a small town of petty--presumably white--people, I feel like his being black should be a HUGE DEAL. But Romy never really thinks about it, and no one ever reacts to his presence (minus one tiny scene that is really just a plot device to get them to fight), and so he might as well have been one more bland white character as far as this book is concerned. Then, as for liking Romy, I sincerely don't understand why he has any feelings for her, other than possible physical attraction (which seems unlikely, since she takes such pains to cover herself up and keep from attracting sexual attention--apart from the statement lipstick and nail polish of course).

The most interesting character, in my opinion, is Romy's stepfather Todd. He has a disability that keeps him from being able to work, and yet he does his best to live a normal life and maintain his dignity as a man despite people accusing him of being useless. He tries to be a good husband and father, both roles which he is taking over from another man. These, again, are huge topics that would warrant their entire own novel to explore sufficiently (and, of course All the Rage doesn't have the capacity to do it). Nevertheless, I found him to be the realest character in the book, and I hope someone does write about this sort of character. I'd be very interested in reading such a novel.

I haven't even gotten to the plot, but I think my point has been made. Without a protagonist you can root for in some way, and without a relatively nuanced cast of characters to support that protagonist, any novel will fall short. Also, just to be clear, I am not questioning the importance of talking about rape in this review; it is a serious topic and it deserves to be dealt with in an impactful, tasteful, engaging manner. I simply do not feel that, as a YA novel, All the Rage did it justice.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

Review: The Girls

The Girls The Girls by Emma Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm somewhere between 3 and 4 stars with this book, so since I'm in a generous mood (and since the last few books I read weren't exactly mind-blowing), I'm going to round up.

The writing in this book is good. Emma Cline is a master of details (both sensory and otherwise), being intentional and precise with what she says and doesn't say. Her words paint a vivid picture of specific characters living in a very tangible time and place . . . at least in the portions of the book that tell the story of how one young girl came to be mixed up in what I suppose is a hippie cult. The real story of the book. The only story that I cared about.

I've read a lot of books that flip between past and present, some which do it effectively, and some which don't. I fully understand Cline's decision here to couch the "real" story being told in flashback; she must do so in order to allow her narrator, Evie, to reflect on the events with insight. However, the "present" story is not compelling at all, and each time the story jumps between past and present, the reader is left to flounder for a few sentences, trying to find their footing in the chronology of whichever story is now being told. For me, these awkward moments jerked me out of the story, and it always took a few pages for Cline to pull me back under her spell.

Nevertheless, I did find the core elements of this book--a coming-of-age story; a story of confusing adolescent desire bordering on obsession; a story of loneliness; a mystery where the perpetrators are known, the act is implied, and so the true mystery is in how these things came to happen; a story of a cult--very compelling. And so, for any readers who also enjoy these elements and are willing to be patient in order to reap the rewards of good, literary writing, I would definitely recommend this book.

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Review: The Endurance Diet: Discover the 5 Core Habits of the World's Greatest Athletes to Look, Feel, and Perform Better

The Endurance Diet: Discover the 5 Core Habits of the World's Greatest Athletes to Look, Feel, and Perform Better The Endurance Diet: Discover the 5 Core Habits of the World's Greatest Athletes to Look, Feel, and Perform Better by Matt Fitzgerald
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

I came across this book via a podcast (it was either Running on Om or Running for Real; I forget which one), and whatever I heard Matt Fitzgerald say in his interview clearly made me want to check out his book. Unfortunately, after reading the first chapter-and-a-half, I concluded that his ideas probably could have been fit into an essay. However, I was ready to soldier on, in case there were more meaty ideas later in the book, but then I came to a half-baked argument that was so unscientific in nature that I simply stopped reading. (Essentially, the argument claimed that the diet was what made the difference in athletic performance, entirely ignoring the multitude of other factors that could--and mostly likely did--impact performance.)

For anyone seeking firmer evidence-based guidance on diet or nutrition, this book probably is not worth your time. (Of course, I could be wrong, seeing as I didn't even read through the first hundred pages.) I would love to read a book on this same topic, however, if there is one out there that has more rigorous science backing it up--so if anyone knows of such a book, please send me your suggestion!

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Brooklyn, and the Seed of Self-Belief

The Brooklyn Half Marathon. The largest half marathon in the United States. And of the twenty-odd halves I’ve run, it’s probably my favorite . . . which is why I’m running it for a fourth time this year.

2012, first timer
Every year has been tremendously different. The first year I ran it, I hadn’t yet discovered coaching, or Garmin watches, or Gotham City Runners. I wore a cotton tank top and a wristwatch from Target. I had a blast.

The second year I ran, I was coming off of having run the Boston Marathon a few weeks prior. I didn’t even really want to run Brooklyn, but my coach convinced me that my fitness would pull me through to a PR. He was right. I was elated.

The third year—last year—was probably the best race I’ve ever run. I started smart, and when everything started hurting and the pace on my watch looked scary, I didn’t let the pain or fear win. The race photos are proof.

2016, barely standing
So now here we are. Year four. A lot has changed in the last few months. I went through some rough patches this winter, and despite miraculously PRing the B.A.A. 5k last month, I don’t feel like I’ve had the training season I wanted. It’s pretty simple, really: the miles in my training log over the past few months are not of the same caliber as the miles I put in at this time last year.

This concerns me.

I say “concerns” and not “worries” because I’m not worried. This race will turn out however it turns out, and I don’t have to prove anything to anybody.

. . . but, that’s not entirely true. I have to prove to myself that I am mentally strong when it counts. And that’s why I’m struggling with what to let myself feel, and what to force myself to think going into this race. Because us distance runners, we can’t fool ourselves. We can sing platitudes from the rooftops, we can psyche ourselves up at the starting line, but we can’t run 13.1 miles (or 26.2 or 50) on smiles and adrenaline alone.

What I need is a deep-seeded belief about myself. It must be one with roots that can’t be yanked out by one bad run or a scary weather prediction. But a belief needs many weeks of training—both mental and physical training—to grow, and I didn’t have that this season. Now, too soon, I’m in taper week, and I don't know what my belief is. And that’s why I feel so uncertain.

I know what needs to happen next, because I’ve done it before. I know that in the days leading up to the race, I need to coexist with this belief, whatever it is. I need to let it sit beside me and take the time to recognize it.

I know that when I reach the starting line, I need to lift the belief up to eye level and let it fill my vision. And then, the moment the gun goes off, I need to let it go. If it's real, it will take hold inside of me and become my strength. But if not, and I grab onto it and try to force it inside, I risk turning it from a belief into a demand. And demands are harsh. They’re unforgiving. They feed the voice inside that says “you could have, should have, would have.” They feed the idea of failure before the race has even really begun.

I have less than 24 hours until I step up to the starting line, and I still don't know what my belief is. I’m continuing to sit with it, attempting to identify its shape, its texture. I’m trying my best to be patient, even as time winds down, because I know that I can’t bully myself into running great race. I can’t even bully myself into running a “good” one. But I also can’t act like it doesn’t matter, because it does. I know that much about myself.

It matters, and so I will keep trying to find that belief. And when I do, I will run with it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review: Marlena

Marlena Marlena by Julie Buntin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Curiously, this book felt more like a memoir than a fiction novel . . . and I think that's a compliment. Ultimately, Marlena is one long character sketch that--as any good novel-length character sketch should-- reveals more about the narrator's character than the one being sketched. It also walks the fine line between YA and adult fiction, and does so successfully without being too nuanced for the former audience or patronizing to the latter. That in and of itself is impressive.

I can't say I actually "liked" the book, because it's so very gloomy from start to finish; even the happier moments are bittersweet, because you know how it's all going to wind up in the end. As such, I think the novel was genuine and true to its characters, but it also felt like one long drawn-out road to the inevitable.

One thing I did like, however, apart from the authentic, multi-dimensional characters, was how the setting felt almost like a character itself. It established the tone and mood perfectly: the feelings of desolation and utter boredom, tinged with just the faintest undertone of danger.

Buntin is clearly a talented writer, and while I can't say this was on my top 10 list of favorite books, I look forward to seeing what else she produces.

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Monday, May 1, 2017

The Breakup

I hate this post. I’ve tried to write it no fewer than four times. Here’s number five—hopefully the last.

I fired my coach.

There. I said it. Now you know.

Not that I’ve been keeping it a secret, but it feels like a secret. It feels like I did something wrong. Even though I know it wasn’t wrong, it was right . . . and absolutely necessary.

Damn, though, it was hard. It still is.

I’ve never broken up with anyone before. Not a coach, not a boyfriend, no one. So while I’ve watched others do it numerous times, I have never had to experience the process myself: the anger, the sorrow, the paralyzing indecision.

There were just so many factors.

There was the fact that I knew J, my coach, was going through a number of life upheavals, between quitting his job and then moving across the country to a place where he knew virtually no one. I’ve made that move myself. I know how jarring and lonely it can be. Then, there was the fact that I felt frustrated—furious, really—at my own inability to perform: something that, coach or no coach, I knew was still up to me at the end of the day. And finally, there was the fact that J has brought me farther than I ever, in my wildest dreams, imagined I’d come.

Four years ago, I was a 3:21 marathoner. I did no speedwork, took virtually no rest days, had never eaten a Gu, and thought that running around a track sounded “boring and torturous.” Then I met J, who, after meeting me twice and IMing me a handful more times, said to me one day, “I could help you shave six minutes off your half marathon time.” Um, yeah right, I thought at the time, 6 minutes off of 1:30? I doubt it. But I was intrigued, and eventually I decided why not? I could try this coaching thing, and if I hated it, I could just quit.

Fast forward to 2016, the best racing year of my life. I PRed every single distance I raced, from the 5k all the way through the marathon. I broke the tape at my first race ever. And that six-minute promise he made? Well, I’ve dropped that and some, running under 1:20 in May.

That kind of progress is impossible to ignore, and even harder to walk away from. We had a track record together, a proven track record, and there is no chance—I repeat, no chance—that I could have dropped even a fraction of that time on my own.

And yet, coming into 2017, things were just not working. An absence I had felt vaguely throughout the last year became even more pronounced when he moved hundreds of miles away, and no matter how hard I tried to upend the pattern, we just seemed to be going in circles. Running was feeling worse and worse, and I was starting to wonder if this was the end of the road for me. Maybe 2016 was it. Maybe this big dream I had decided on, of chasing an even faster marathon time, was foolish. Maybe I didn’t really want it.

But I did. Deep inside, where we keep the truth protected from everyone and everything, even from ourselves, I did want it. I just didn’t know how to go after it.

I was stuck, and something had to change.

So I wrote, and I thought, and I wrote some more. Hesitantly, I reached out to runners I respected, and talked with coaches who were (and were not) willing to take me on. Eventually, I found someone—a new “J” in fact—who seemed like a good fit. He was local, coached only a handful of athletes, and had very definite, very different ideas about how to train. It wasn’t until we were sitting across each other and I was listening to him describe those ideas that I realized what I really wanted was a complete change. If I was going to make a change, I wanted to go all the way and change not just the coach, but the whole philosophy, too.

So finally, I did it: I had the hard conversation with J1 in person, when he was in town, and the next week I started paying J2. I have no idea if J2 was the “right” coach to choose or not—time will bear that out. But what I do know is that within a week or two, I already felt better. And, no surprise, I’m already running better again, too.

To speak in metaphors, when I look over my shoulder, the path behind me looks unimaginably long . . . it seems impossible that I could have covered such a distance. When I look ahead, I can’t see where this road goes, whether it climbs uphill or swoops down, whether it twists or turns or just keeps going on for endless, endless miles. I can’t see the finish line, but I’m not looking for that yet. Right now, I’m focused on a spot, a few yards ahead, where I can still see the seams in the pavement. I have a plan to get there, and I am going to focus on executing that plan. This is how I will proceed: a few yards at a time, little by little, step by step. Baby steps. But they’re still steps. And they’re moving me forward—exactly where I want to go.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: Lazarus is Dead

Lazarus is Dead Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the most unique books I have read in a long, long time.

Beard examines the story of Lazarus through a novel, inherently a work of fiction, yet he weaves historical asides throughout the book that paint an even more compelling, almost "convincing" picture of this man who was said to be Jesus' only friend. Lazarus is presented to us as both a character in a story and a man who was once alive on this earth, someone who is intimately knowable through Beard's imagination but also inherently unknowable because so few records of his life are available to us.

As someone who was raised Presbyterian and attended Catholic grade school, I always saw Lazarus as "just one more" of Jesus' miracles. He was just another chapter in the life of Jesus, no more or less important than the other chapters we learned about. And yet Beard raises (and answers, in his own creative way) questions that never occurred to me: why did Jesus choose to raise Lazarus, of all people, from the dead? Why was Lazarus dead in the first place? And what happened to Lazarus after he was brought back? How could any of us live our lives again, after coming back to life?

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Review: The Troop

The Troop The Troop by Nick Cutter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Terrifying. Grotesque. It's been a long time since I read a horror novel, but The Troop reminded me why I have such a love-hate relationship with this genre. I love that a good horror novel can create such a strong emotional reaction, but at the same time I have to wonder why I'm putting myself through this torture voluntarily. I was sincerely afraid I'd have nightmares from reading this book!

Let me start with a trigger warning: if you have vermiphobia, do not read this book. However, if you don't know what vermiphobia is, then you're probably safe (or as safe as anyone who voluntarily reads horror novels can feel), so go ahead and turn the page.

Imagine a horror-infused Lord of the Flies with a little bit of modern science thrown in, and you'll have this book's essence in a nutshell.

The setup: a scoutmaster and his five Eagle Scouts have been dropped off on a small island in Canada for a 3-day wilderness excursion

The plot twist: a very ill man arrives on the island . . . and his infection spreads

The horror: (don’t worry, this is revealed extremely early on in the book, so not a spoiler) genetically modified tapeworms

What I love most about this book is the way the boys’ characters are all so distinct and their interactions play out so realistically, despite the impossibilities of the story itself. In fact, the most horrific part of the book might not actually be the tapeworms, as grotesque and scary as they were; the most horrific part of the book was the horrific things humans are able to each other in the name of science and survival.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review: The Girl on the Fridge

The Girl on the Fridge The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What incredibly short stories! Oftentimes a few paragraphs long, or a few pages at most, these stories were extremely quick, which was a nice way to experience reading: I could sit down, zip through a few, and set the book aside with zero stress.

However, perhaps due to their brevity or maybe something else, I was often left feeling frustrated. Where was the story? These seemed to be more snapshots, introductions to interesting situations or ideas, but rarely anything that felt like a full and complete story. This is a problem I find myself facing with many short story collections, where the "stories" feel more like character sketches or introductions to full stories that then fail to materialize. So in many ways, this collection was just one more that left me unfulfilled.

Yet I cannot say I did not enjoy it at all. The ideas and characters and situations Keret presents are fresh and unique. The stories cohere in a vague way that I might only identify by rereading the book in its entirety, but they always felt like they belonged in this collection, no matter how banal or bizarre. So the next time I have novel fatigue, I just might pick up another collection by Keret. Because sometimes, freshness and brevity is worth a little frustration.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

On Failing

Here is what failing feels like: it feels like two lead vices clamping around your legs as you fight to keep them in motion. It feels like dread, in that moment right before you look down at your watch. It feels like sliding backward down a hill that has no end. It tastes like metal. Looks like darkness. Sounds like silence, where there should be the deep, tremendous roar of will.

I’m running. And I’m failing. And I don’t have any answers.

Before I sound too self-pitying, I should point out that by many people’s estimations, I’m not failing. In fact, if you look at the “official record” of what I’ve done so far in 2017, you might say I’m succeeding. I’ve run a handful of races and placed reasonably well; I’ve even won a few. But is winning the same as succeeding?

Depends on your definition of success.

If I show up to a race and the only women there are at my fitness level, with my experience, then yes: I want to win. But there are plenty of women out there who are fitter, tougher, more talented, and harder-working than I am. If they show up, I will not win.

And frankly, I don’t care.

What I care about is, when the race is neck-and-neck and it comes down to who can dig deeper in those last miles, or moments, or seconds, that I don’t let up. I don’t care if my name is rendered in lights or entirely forgotten. I don’t need an extra medal, or a trophy, or a podium, as nice as all of those things are. What I need is to know that, when it comes down to it, I care more and can push myself harder than the woman next to me. If, in the end, she is actually faster and wins the race, so be it. Good for her. But as long as I ran right to the brink of self-destruction and gave it everything I had, all the way through the last centimeter of the race, I’ll be happy.

Happy . . . but perhaps still not succeeding.

The beauty of running is that I don’t have to care about winning for the sake of winning. Running is not like basketball, or soccer, or tennis, where there is one winner and one loser, and if I don’t win, I failed. In running, I can lose to tens or hundreds or thousands of women and still succeed. But in order to do that, I have to beat myself. I have to beat my own fastest time.

That is how I measure success.

So right now, I am failing. I am failing at races, I am failing at workouts, and I am frustrated as hell. However, I’ve heard some smart people insist that failure is not the end of the journey. So tomorrow, I’ll lace up my shoes, strap on my watch, and try, try again.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Review: I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the Sun I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First off, I just have to say this up front: page 333 cites Brancusi's The Kiss as "one of the most romantic sculptures ever made." So of course, I looked it up.

Let's just say it looked better in my head.

But that's the thing about writing about visual artwork: it can look better in your head. And it should! Loading down a piece of writing with every single detail of a painting or sculpture would bore the reader to tears, but a few lines of slightly vague yet compelling description that appeals to all the senses can do wonders. Jandy Nelson does wonders.

Before I get too far into the discussion of artwork, let me backtrack. This novel is not about artwork, per se. It's about artists--lots of them--and about passion and love and identity. Also, it's a YA novel, so the romances are (of course) over-the-top in the best sort of way: all fireworks and melting insides and desperation and agony (but written in much more eloquent, unique ways that I just described). Nelson accurately captures the essence of quirky teenagers struggling with the fine line between being true to their themselves and using their quirks to alienate themselves and others. She also looks at the idea of "what's allowed" in love and romance, in both teenage and adult life. And she does so with compassion and a narrative that moves at the pace of a skittish colt.

Jude and Noah are teenage twins, competing for their parents' love and the love of the world around them. Noah is the dreamer and the model child; Jude is the rebel. Yet when tragedy strikes, their role reversal could not be more abrupt, and the ways they hurt each other and shame they feel as a result drives the narrative forward with the sort of "what will happen next" urgency of a murder mystery. I enjoyed how the past and present were intertwined by allowing Noah to tell "what happened" and Jude to tell "what is happening," and I was impressed with how Nelson managed to conceal facts from us, the readers, even while the characters themselves knew what had happened.

My only criticisms were that 1) by the end, it felt a bit like "everything plus the kitchen sink;" I feel as though limiting the melodrama of the narrative just a bit, particularly at the end, would have done it a great service, and 2) every loose end tied up a little "too" perfectly. Otherwise, however, it was a quintessential YA novel, perfect for lovers of art, romance, and family drama all rolled into one.

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