Mary vs the fear of falling

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I’m deathly, gut-wrenchingly afraid of falling.

Coach knows this.

He also knows that I like a good challenge, which is why, on a golden day last week, he called me over to work with the hurdlers at track practice.

“Warm up with these guys today,” he told me in his deep, rich voice that always seems to be laced simultaneously with layers of amusement, preoccupation and expectation.

Coach is the predominate reason I found myself on the track team this semester. And even though I got to know him well when I ran cross country, I’m discovering quickly that he is a different beast during track season. When it’s time for play, he leads the charge. But when it’s time to work, you don’t mess around with Coach.

At the end of the soft red track, nestled on the outer curve of the bend, a heap of hurdles were stacked on the grass.

It had been raining – you all remember the deluge, right? So the grass was green, and the mountains across Otay Lake were gorgeously carpeted in pear-colored sprigs. The sky was blue, the lapping waves on the surface of the lake were silver, the breeze was clear and golden. What a day to be outside.

Our team has been training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista since our own track was ripped up and turned into a dirt path over Christmas break.

I’m not complaining. This place is gorgeous. The equipment is top-notch and we always see Olympic or professional athletes from other parts of the country, or other parts of the world, practicing alongside us. Already I know I will never forget this for as long as I live.

“C’mere, Mary,” said Daniel, the very tall, very friendly guy who first taught me how to run a three-hundred without dying from butt-lock. “I’ll show you how to get set up for the hurdle stretch.”

He helped me shimmy the hurdles around and lift my leg up and over them.

Some of the other guys jumped in and added that I should keep my toes pointed up, or keep my knee pulled in tighter. Janet, my friend from cross country season, just gave me looks now and again to correct my form or attitude. With just the nod or shake of her head, that girl could change the tides of the ocean. She can also hurdle like nobody’s business.

Eventually, after my make-shift lesson in stretching and warming up, Coach meandered back in our direction, his great shadow stretching long and wide.

“Are you all about ready?” he asked, swaggering over from the middle of the field where he had been talking with the jump coach, the layer of preoccupation casually at the command deck of his voice. “Do four 300’s with the last three hurdles.”

“Not you,” Coach said to me, not even looking down. His eyes were still assessing my companions, all lanky-limbed and agile, as they made their way towards their lanes. “Go set up a hurdle down there. Take the top off. We’ll practice.”

I scampered away and quickly followed directions, a tiny knot beginning to form from the threads of my stomach. How was I supposed to actually jump over one of these things?

From the middle of the field, at the end of the jump zone, I had a clear view of everything. Everything from the pole vaulters at the bottom corner of the field to the sprinters practicing in their starting blocks. All around me was a whir of people, activity and sunshine.

Coach doesn’t stay in one sport during practice. Not ever. He watches the sprinters, keeps tabs on the hurdlers, talks with the distance coaches, and makes the long walk over to the throwers in the other field. And just when you might think he’s not paying attention, you can hear him bellow across the track, calling you by name, to tell you to dorsi flex or open your stride.

By the time he finally made his way back to me, my hurdle was set up and ready to go. Frankly, it was doing a lot better than I was. I was a nervous, jittery wreck.

Did I mention that I’m scared of falling?

Coach walked over to one side of the dismantled hurdle, top barely a foot from the ground, and said, “Go ahead, jump.”

And I did. Piece of cake.

He raised the top slightly and we repeated the process. Each time, he gave me a new instruction to follow – knees up, lean forward, use momentum. Each time I had to shake myself off and mentally give my face a little slap before sizing myself up before the baby hurdle.

A few yards away, Janet and Daniel were whizzing past, jumping over actual hurdles. I watched in awe. They made it look so easy, graceful even.

When my baby hurdle had grown to racing height and I had successfully gotten over twice, Coach said, “Alright, now go join them.”

I gulped. The hurdlers were running three hundred meters and then leaping at full-speed over literal obstacles in their path and, miraculously, not dying. I had not expected to get thrown in with the big dogs so soon.

But you don’t mess with Coach, and worse than angering him is disappointing him, so I picked up my feet and found the starting line just beyond the vaulters.

“You got this, Mary,” Daniel said with his ever-reassuring chuckle. “This is easy.”

There was nothing to do but go for it.

Red rubber track slid away beneath my shoes as I gathered speed down the first hundred meters. The second hundred meters makes up the bend in the track and then, then come the hurdles.

Something happens when you jump a hurdle.

When you run, the world rushes by in a blur of color and muffled sounds. But the second you leap into the air, your body slows down just enough for the world to look noticeably still. Objects in your peripheral vision become clear and sounds land crisply in your ears until your feet touch back down and you shoot off again. For a second, just one second, at the crest of that hurdle, it feels like time stops.

At least it did the first time I made it over. And it was a miracle I made it over that hurdle at all. I hit the next two and basically body slammed the last one.

A few more tries running around the track left me more out of breath, my shins beginning to splinter from the pounding, and the hurdles still an elusive foe.

Sometimes, I would get all the way up to a hurdle and then just stop, unable to make myself jump over it. My whole body would jerk to a halt or rear up backwards like a skittish horse. There was, unfortunately, a fair amount of yelping and shrieking involved in all of this as my life flashed before my eyes at each approach.

“Mary,” Coach called from the side of the field. “You have to make it over the hurdle.”

“Yes, Coach,” I said, smiling dumbly as my shin splints began a new chorus of screams.

On the walk back to the starting line, I ran into one of the hurdle boys. He stopped me for a moment.

“The hurdle, Mary” he said, “it’s all in your head. We’re all scared of it. But you have to trust your gut.” He pointed to his head, “You have to beat it up here first.”

I know quite a lot about how much some battles are fought in the mind. All of last semester, the cross country team trained on hills. I can get up a hill just fine, it’s the coming back down. It’s the staring down a long drop that rushes at your face as your tired body plunges seemingly toward the earth. It’s that fear of falling. There were some days where I would sweat my way up a hill just to get stuck at the top, heart pounding, mind screaming, throat tightening into unreasonable sobs. I knew I wasn’t going to fall down those hills. No one else had. But there was some invisible hand holding me back, pressing my mind into the dust, leaving me weak and shaking.

But I got over it. After a whole season of fighting that hand, I finally won. Now I run down hills, not because I’m no longer afraid of falling, but because I am stronger than it.

At the end of last season, when Coach asked what I wanted to do for track, in my mind I thought, anything but hurdles. Because even the thought of hurdles gave me that same heart-pounding, mind-numbing ache.

But I like a challenge, and Coach knows this. So when I asked if I could do the 400 hurdles, he said “Okay” without a single note of preoccupation or amusement. It was all expectation. Expectation that I would push myself, live up to my commitment to the team. He expected that I would learn how to jump a hurdle. And you don’t mess with Coach.

I knelt at the line, gave myself one last big pep talk, and shoved off. But as I rounded the bend, I was suddenly smacked with the view of a bare track. The hurdles were gone!

“Coach!” I yelled, continuing to run, though somewhat flailingly without a target hurdle to jump.

“Hey!” Coach shouted, amusement and expectation in his voice both battling for the upper hand. “Where are my hurdles at? Where’d you guys put the hurdles? She’s still got to get over them!”

The Papa Bear chuckle in his voice caused a string of giggles to erupt from the side of the field as the team scrambled to put the track back together.

I was ushered back to the start where I had to regive myself the “just do it” pep talk before beginning.

At this point, most of the team, the jumpers and sprinters, had completed their workouts and the commotion had caused a fair number of them to criss-cross over to our side of the track. I could hear them cheering me on as I lifted off and rushed toward the first hurdle. But Coach’s voice, now determined and expectant, was the only one I listened to.

“Faster,” I could hear Coach say. “Get those knees up or you aren’t going to make it.”

“Lean in, Mary!”

“Control your arms!”

“Dorsi flex!”

My mind tried to grasp what he was saying, but literally none of it processed. I had one thought and one alone: don’t trip over the hurdle. Don’t fall.

In a blue and white flash, the first hurdle came and went beneath the current of movement I had created and I barely noticed it. The second one clipped my knee, but I crossed it as well, losing my balance for just a moment before pulling myself toward the last obstacle.

By this point, the team down by the last hurdle was just as intensely drawn into the trek as I was. I could hear them even in the faintness of the rushing track and the roaring road beneath me. But the only sound I listened to was my own little voice, a voice that is growing stronger, the same one that begged me to just pluck up and run down all those hills last semester.

Just get over the hurdle, Mary. Please, just get over the hurdle.

And I did.

It was truly something else. Once my toes were off the ground, it felt like they belonged in the air. That golden sunshine seemed to pave a road for my feet and in the split second that I found myself crowning the hurdle, I felt like I had wings.

It wasn’t a technically beautiful jump, and Coach was the first to say it wasn’t perfect, but perfection will be a lesson for tomorrow.

That day, I was content just to walk off the field a hurdler, knowing it wouldn’t matter that I was afraid of falling now that I knew what it felt like to fly.

‘welcome to track’

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Fall semester was behind me. I had left it in a parking lot with a couple B’s I didn’t work hard enough to deserve and nine traffic citations I didn’t pay on time.

Things looked bleak in the haze of San Diego’s dreariest winter.

The school was empty when I drove back onto the familiar campus, past the baseball field to the very tip of the last empty lot, and parked. Serious athletes don’t take winter break, I’m told. They train off-season.

I want to win. I want to win and I now have a very realistic perspective of just how difficult that will be for me, a new athlete and practically a fossil in terms of college-aged competitors.

I told Coach when cross country finished that I wanted to run a quarter mile in under a minute. He said if I work hard, we might be able to get it down to .64 seconds.

Ok.

So I showed up to my first track practice hopeful, fearful, and incomprehensibly underprepared.

Coach wasn’t there.

If anyone gets credit for my being able to survive a semester of college cross country, it’s Coach. He is unreasonably cheerful nearly all the time. He’ll push you, he’ll make you work hard, but he does it with a big, goofy grin and a joke on his lips. He’s never shouted, never even raised his voice. That’s not necessarily the norm in the world of athletic mentors. Occasionally, he would invoke my title as women’s team captain to get me to work harder, a little dig or a guilt trip or just a name to live up to, I suppose. It worked. Coach believed in me more than I probably believed in myself, so I ran my hardest not to let him down. As far as coaches go, he’s as “good cop” as they come.

My first impression of the track coach that blustery day was that he must be the bad cop to Coach’s good cop. Not super bad, just the sterner, more serious cousin. All I had seen of the track coach so far was some rather straight-faced concern.

Short, lean and sinewy, the track coach stood with his hands folded across his chest, a cap low over his eyes. He talked in calm, even tones, watching us with serious, hawk-like vision. I immediately added impressing him to my list of worries for the season.  

I didn’t see anyone I knew during the warm up. No one from the cross country team had shown up and, although I recognized some of the track athletes from the locker rooms and such, I didn’t know any of them personally.

Warm-up was a mile — that’s nothing for a distance runner. I laughed when I saw the track athletes try to cut off the last lap without the track coach seeing. He did see, and told everyone to get back on the track and finish the mile.

Then we did dynamic stretches and some other weird stuff, and I was panting and out of breath in minutes.

It was cold outside and the field looked grey and tired. I was wearing my cross country shorts and noticed that most of the track girls had on long, weather-appropriate pants. I made a mental note.

The track coach parsed us into different groups when the warm-up finished. He stuck me with the mid-distance runners and pointed us towards the starting line for the 300.

“Do three of those,” he said, “and then three 200s.”

This can’t be so hard, I thought to myself. In the fall, we’d pick up and go nine miles, up and down hills in 90 degree weather. I could handle a few laps around the track.

“What do you run?” a tall, lean boy with a nose-stud asked me.

“Quarter mile, I think,” I said. “I’ve never done track, so I’m just doing what Coach tells me to right now.”

“Nice, okay,” he said. “Quarter mile is fun. You should try it with hurdles.”

“Don’t scare her,” said the girl next to him with a grin and a groan.

Hurdles. I’ve heard about those.

Our feet found the line in the grass and my companions bent low into start positions. I sort of stood there, wobbling indecisively about which foot to begin on.

The track coach let out a yell and they took off. It took four steps for me to realize they were running a lot faster than I was, four more to realize I wasn’t going to be catching up. The bend in the track couldn’t come soon enough and by the time we approached the straightaway, I could feel my glutes burning. Actually, everything was burning. The cold air had scorched my lungs, my arms felt hollow as I tried to pump myself faster along the track, and every strip of muscle in my legs seemed to be singing in agonizing, disjointed harmony.

We finished, me coming in several seconds behind, and collapsed onto our knees. I was panting so loudly the sprinters down the field could hear. Someone made a joke about the new kid.

“You should stand up,” said the boy. “You don’t want to cramp up.”

He pulled me to my feet and the girl joined us as we limped back to the starting line.

“Man, this really works the hammys and the glutes, huh?” I said between gasping breaths.

“Yeah, it does,” the girl laughed. “You’re gonna look great when the season’s done, just you wait and see.”

A breeze had picked up and rustled through the trees that encircle our makeshift track. We practice on the grass because the rubber on the track has cracked, split and hardened so badly that it’s dangerous to run on. But we’re in good company, sandwiched between raggy soccer fields and a forgotten softball diamond.

“On your marks,” we heard the coach call.

I don’t even remember hearing him say, “Go!” Everyone just took off. I refused to let my pace slow down, but the burning was noticeably worse. When I crossed the finished a minute later and stooped over to find my breath, I felt the muscles in my legs tighten. I gently reached for my toes, hoping it would stretch them out, but it did little good.

“C’mon,” the boy was calling to me. “Walk it off.”

“How do you guys do this?” I called out, trying to raise myself off the ground, feeling an indescribable pain in my hindquarters that was, embarrassingly enough, starting to bring water to my eyes. “You’re like superhumans.”

The girl just laughed and came over to help me.

“I’m going to be honest,” I said, hobbling along beside her, “My butt is not handling this well.”

I was laughing as I said it, but the pain in my glutes had intensified and real tears were welling up in the corners of my eyes.

“You’re probably cramping,” she said. “Lie down flat and I’ll stretch you out.”

She took my legs and bent them toward my chest one at a time. It felt so good.

“Distances runners don’t use the same muscles that we do in track,” she said. “It’s pretty common to get back-leg cramps when we do this kind of running.”

I nodded my head to let her know I had been listening as she hoisted me to my feet. Immediately, upon being righted, the cramps returned.

My face contorted in pain and I let out a little “Oof.”

“Maybe you should sit this one out,” she said.

I plopped back down on the grass and winced through the onslaught of tightening muscles, which seemed impossible to stretch, while she trotted over to where everyone else was gathering for the last lap.

I knew track was going to be different. Coach had already kindly warned me, with a self-amused laugh, that I’d have to relearn how to run if I did track, that it would be hard work.

I’m not scared of hard work, but I’m definitely a little scared of pain. And this hurt. I’m scared of being the new kid, and I certainly seemed to be one in that moment. I’m scared of being a failure. And Coach wasn’t here today with his firm, friendly smile to gently say, “Come on, Captain, keep pushing. You want to be a quarter miler, don’t you?”

I could hear the track coach tread the green till he reached my spot of turmoil on the grey grass.

“Do you have asthma?” he asked, bending slightly at the waist, arms still crossed over his chest.

I was still panting pretty hard, and the tears streaming down my face must have painted a pathetic picture.

“No, Coach,” I told him between unsteady breaths, trying uselessly to stand and bracing myself for the scolding I deserved for sitting out a lap. “I’m fine, I promise. It’s just that… my glutes really… really hurt.”

He looked at me for a moment with his sharp eyes, which I noticed for the first time seemed to have Coach’s same cheerful glint. Then his face burst into a smile and he laughed. It wasn’t a mocking laugh. It was one of relief and amusement. To my surprise, he let out a bellowing sigh and nodded his head understandingly.

“Distance runners don’t get that much, but here we call it ‘Butt Lock,’” he said, holding out his hand to help me pull myself up and start again. “Welcome to track.”

refusing the bitter cup

I could barely open the door against the rush of the highway and the gush of the winds that raced along the brush of California’s most beautiful coast. Rain slammed the shoulder of the road and I slammed the door, both of us in foul moods. Pulling my coat tightly across my chest, I trudged around the front of my car to inspect the tires.

One was flat. I may not know much about cars, but one tire was definitely flat.

I stood there on a flooding highway halfway between Oceanside and Orange County, suited in twenty five years of disaster experience. I know how to handle misadventures.

Call Dad.

That’s always step one.

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It was only noon, but the sky was so dark it felt much later. A single split in the horizon let in streaks of gold through the grey and purple clouds that insisted on drenching the hair had I so carefully coiffed that morning.

Slipping into the passenger side of the car, I pulled out my cracked phone. His cheerful voice filled my ear like a guardian angel.

“Hey kid,” he said.

“Dad, I have a flat tire,” I said, getting right to the chase. He didn’t sound surprised. He has twenty five years of co-piloting my disaster experiences.

“I’m on the 5 heading North,” I said. “Camp Pendleton area.”

“What are you doing up there?” he asked curiously.

“On my way to a little high school debate reunion,” I told him. “Sam and some of the old gang are in town and we were all going to get together. Looks like I’ll be a little late now.” My tone was snippier than necessary. I’ve not been a very nice person lately.

“I’ll call AAA for you,” he said.

“There’s a rest area up ahead. I’m going to pull in there.”

We hung up and I waited for the whooshing traffic to thin before braving a trip to the driver’s side to get in.

The rest area was on a little hill overlooking the Pendleton valleys with tall reeds growing along the curbs and a steady stream of visitors parking, using the facilities and then continuing on their journeys.

I walked around my car several more times, getting a good look at the tires. The left front seemed low as well, but suddenly I worried that maybe this is just what tires look like. Maybe it wasn’t flat. Maybe I was being a panicked female who didn’t understand auto mechanics. I surveyed the bevy of people coming and going around me.

Two chummy looking bikers were chatting by their wheels and I took a step in their direction.

“Does this tire look flat to you?” I asked without so much as a ‘hello.’

They both meandered over, leather stretching and chains jingling, and kindly began to examine my car.

“Naw,” one of them said, scratching his scraggly red beard. “It’s low, but you’ve got some miles on it.”

The other biker knelt down by the tire and pushed a metal something-or-other into a knob on the inside of the tire and listened for a sound none of us heard.

“Nope, this one is actually flat,” he said. “No pressure at all.”

He then proceeded to check the rest of my tires for me and show me where my spare was. The left front was indeed low as well. I silently padded myself on the back for spotting it earlier.

“Have you called a tow?” they asked. I assured them one was on the way. They wished me good luck and I thanked them profusely as they hopped on their bikes and rode out into the storm.

The rain had somewhat settled but the wind was tossing like a frightened horse. I found shelter inside my car while I waited for the tow truck.

I had texted Sam to let him know I had gotten a flat tire, and at some point in the flurry of the last twenty minutes he had called to say he was sorry I was missing the first part of the lunch reunion but that the group hoped I would still be able to meet up with them.

Sam and I go way back. Nearly ten years, we recently realized. He’s one of my few friends from high school with whom I have genuinely stayed in touch, though that’s more his doing than mine. He is the kind of person who is intentional about friendship. I’m the organic, wherever-the-wind-takes-us kind of friend. We get along pretty perfectly.

Two summers ago, I flew out to New York City where he has been working so we could bus ourselves up to Buffalo for Evan’s wedding. Evan just recently moved back to L.A. with his wife and baby girl. Everyone is growing up.

Everyone but me, I thought to myself as I tried to fix my make-up in the mirror. I had been nervous about this lunch anyway. Nervous about seeing all my old friends with their spouses and hearing about their careers and plans, and then getting to tell them all my glamorous stories about community college.

I had tried to make myself at least look like a grown up. I fixed my hair, did my make-up for the first time in weeks. I even put on uncomfortable shoes! Sometimes I wonder if prim-and-proper high school Mary would be disappointed in my life choices these days.

Staring at myself in the tiny frame of the car mirror, I realized how fake I felt trying to impress everyone.

I love where I am. I love my local college. I love that I get to teach and write about sports and compete on a college team. It’s just not the path I had planned on traveling when I was in high school and we were all dreamers together. Certainly not where I thought I would be at twenty-five.

In high school, which I’m realizing now was much longer ago than it feels like sometimes, I had pretty much everything figured out. I knew I was going to get a steady office job, save money, buy a car and eventually an apartment of my own. I figured by this time I would have a husband or steady someone and maybe even some kids. I’d be a grown up. Like the rest of my high school friends are now. The ones waiting for me to join them for lunch.

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The tow truck pulled up just as sunshine broke across the sky.

A nice, older man helped me check my tires again and declared my spare “too flimsy.” So I climbed into the truck and watched my little car get hoisted onto the back bed. In minutes, we were sailing back down the highway to Oceanside, farther away from lunch and my impending destiny with my past.

The tow man was quite nice. I feel like the girl I had been in high school would have had all kinds of lovely questions to pass the time with and make his job a bit more pleasant, or at least less monotonous with some light conversation. But I found I had little to say, so we drove through sheets of wet green hills and grey-gold sunlight in silence.

He delivered me and my car to a tire repair shop of the Old Coast Highway and I was told it would be a two hour wait.

I almost cussed. Two hours. There goes lunch.

I’ve been almost cursing a lot lately.

Actually, I’ve just been cursing. As someone who has staved off the habit of swearing for a quarter of a century, the few times I’ve let a bad word slip from my mouth have been more of a surprise to me than to the people who have heard it. It never tastes good coming out, but it’s the overflow of a bitter spirit so what is one to expect?

Just a few days earlier I had been playing pool with some old college friends who have all moved on with life, who I rarely see anymore. As the evening wore down, so did my facade of general gaiety. Finally, someone just asked me out right if I was okay, to which I responded, “This has just been the worst [expletive] Christmas.”

I immediately regretted saying it, but I tried to look natural and composed. I tried to look like I was just over it all – the lights, the fuss, the happy people with happy plans.

“It sounds so much harsher when she says it,” my friends were laughing, still a little awed by my slip up, though not impressed. They curse all the time. I hadn’t done anything except take the sourness in my heart and pour into my mouth. They kept playing their game and I kept stewing in the corner, wondering how I could have gotten here, feeling so far away from the ever-hopeful, ever-gleeful, ever-principled little girl I was in high school.

Mind you, it wasn’t just the curse word that made me feel like I had drifted into unknown waters, like I was becoming someone I hadn’t planned on being. No, it’s been a year of marked choices. A year of giving up ground or giving up hope in small ways, ways I didn’t think would make a difference. But there I was, a stranger in my own body, a ghost in my own future.

From the tire shop, I texted Sam with the update, grabbed a stack of unfinished Christmas cards from my trunk (because it’s never too late to send out a Christmas card), and walked down the street to a diner.

As soon as I stepped in, I knew I had made a good call (one which, frankly, I don’t think high school Mary would have made).

A Mexican-American-Greek menu took up most of the wall surrounding the counter, wrapping around a corner and over the door where a little bronze bell hung fastidiously from its post.

It was nearly one o’clock, but I still hadn’t eaten breakfast so I passed up the huevos rancheros and the gyros and ordered french toast and a coffee.

It was a good choice.

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There I sat, next to a large window overlooking a drab street in late December with a plate of buttery french toast and a stack of cards to people I miss.

I felt so at home. For the first time in a very long time I felt a little bit like life was back to how it should be. Back to me ending up in strange places through a series of misadventures. It felt like Prague, like Madrid, like that sleepy town in Ireland where I accidentally found my great-grandmother’s cottage, like that island mountaintop in Greece where I watched snowflakes dance on lonely winds before disappearing into the nether.

I was alone, but not lonely. I was wandering, but not lost.

I’ve been struggling lately. For the first time since I moved back to San Diego from Prague, I have time to think. Since the summer I came home, I’ve kept life so stock full of things to occupy my mind with I haven’t had time to miss the place I left, except in little moments here and there. But as the semester ended, a fresh wave of heartbreak swept back over me for something I left behind a year and a half ago.

It’s a wound that keeps opening back up, that refuses to heal, no matter how much I smother and stifle the emotions that keep it exposed to the sting of bittersweet memories.

It’s been especially hard with the holidays bringing everyone back to town. Everyone with their families and careers. Me without Prague. Without a clear purpose.

Presumably, these are my own insecurities projected onto dear family and friends, but I have this nagging fear that people will see where I am now and raise their eyebrows, or worse, extend to me their sympathies. I’m afraid people will see me at community college working two part time jobs and think, “I guess she peaked in high school” or “Maybe she didn’t belong in Prague either.” I’m not where we all thought I’d be. I’m not where I thought I would be. And worse, I’m not who I thought I would be.

To guard against these doubts of my own creation, I became something I swore I would never be. Bitter.

It’s been building up all year in little increments, propelled forward by my poor choices and in every step I have taken off the Path. Little ways to guard my affections and feelings that started as sarcasm and a few exaggerated sighs turned into cruel judgments and stony expressions.

I don’t like who I became this Christmas. I don’t like who I’ve been turning into all year.

And, not surprisingly, it didn’t protect what was soft and precious and hurting inside. The bristles I used to surround my heart turned inward until I felt hardened all over.

There was not much pain, but there was certainly no joy either.

I walked back to the tire station feeling a little better. French toast and good coffee will do that to the spirits.

They gave me my keys and I called Sam. The group was finishing up and I was still an hour and a half down the road.

“I’m just going to go home,” I said. “We have family plans tonight and I’ll never make them if I get stuck in traffic. But let’s do this again!”

Radio on, engine purring, and clear skies beginning to turn a soft pink, I headed homeward.

And then, because this is me and when have I ever told I story where I didn’t end up crying at least once, I just completely broke down.

I cried from Oceanside to Del Mar. Every bottled up emotion from the last eighteen months came spilling out.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it at least every other blog post: it feels so good to cry.

And as my car found its way down the coast, racing the sunset, I realized I would rather endure the pains of life than be the person I’ve been for the last few weeks. Even if it means hurting and being disappointed, even heartbroken, I’d rather keep caring, keep hoping, keep pressing on with joy. Is that not what we’re called to do as Christians? To hope, to trust, to rejoice always?

But I also realized that it’s a choice we make, not to be bitter. And that’s something I don’t think high school Mary would have understood. As a girl, I had no large exposure to loss, rejection, disappointed hopes, crushing heartbreak, the foils and betrayal of life’s unexpected turns. I have lived through those things now. So I may not be the bright-eyed idealist I once was, but I am better equipped to navigate this winding road God has put me on, this road that looks nothing like I once thought it would.

And if bitterness is something that creeps up slowly over time by natural evolution, a change brought on by our environs and life experiences, then that means that the battle to keep it at bay must happen over and over again during the course of our lives, however long they be.

It will be a choice we make every day to choose to start again, fresh and full of hope.

new year’s resolutions for millennials

Downloads1.jpgIt’s that time of year again. Time to look back on the year and take a moment to realize just how poorly we’ve transitioned into adulthood.

With the burning desire to prove our parents’ friends (and the entire editorial staff of the Huffington Post) wrong about who we are as individuals and as part of the most condemned and berated generation of all time, we turn to our laptops and iPads to tap out our resolutions for the new year.

Hope, promise and eager anticipation for a fresh start to hum through our veins (the humming could actually just be coffee or wine or too many Christmas cookies in one sitting – who knows?) and the glimmer of our future selves becomes momentarily visible.

Ready?

Here we go. Basic New Year’s Resolutions for the very basic millennial.

  • Drink more water. (This is basic. Like, if we can’t figure out how to add water into our daily routine, mankind has not evolved nearly as much as the history books say we have).
  • Read 20 books. (In February, this is going to change to 10 books and we’ll probably get through two in total and read the first three chapters of four more).
  • Start showing up ten minutes early. (I don’t know about the rest of us, but because of who I am as a person, this is never going to happen. We’re putting it on the list so we can point to it when under social duress).
  • Start reading the paper more. (It’s important to know what’s going on in the world. That said, I don’t actually think any of us can afford a subscription to an actual newspaper, and now that I think about it, I’m not totally sure how I would even go about that. Where do newspapers come from anyway? So this will probably be a “Google news” thing that slowly turns into a “I read the first several paragraphs of stories that come across facebook instead of just the headline.” Baby steps).
  • Hit the gym, baby! (Ha! Hahahahahaha! Okay, joke’s over. Moving on).
  • Do my own taxes. (Mom’s been doing mine for long enough).
  • Detox from social media. (And then blog about the experience, complete with photo documentary of what we did with life while not on Instagram which we shall post as “latergrams” captioned with pithy, soulful quotes from “Anonymous”).
  • Build on my savings account. (From now on, we’re only taking money out for emergencies and brunch).
  • Travel. (We’re making this one as vague as possible so that next December we can be like, “Oh yeah, I totally visited my friend in Riverside for like a weekend. What a great place!” and it will still count).  
  • Spend more time in nature. (This is never going to happen, but it’s on the list).
  • Finish things I sta-

You know what, this is silly. It’s 2017. I am literally drinking from a bottle of wine labeled “White Girl.” The first load of laundry I’ve done in two weeks is tumbling gayly in the dryer. And I just parallel parked my car in the dark. I’m pretty sure this is as good as I’m going to get.

 

finding the barrio: a love story about tacos

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On an almost vacant lot between Telegraph and the 805 North freeway entrance sits a very unassuming taco truck. The blue and white lettering are quaint and the awning set up over a few plastic tables and chairs does just enough to provide shade from the persistent sunshine of Chula Vista’s early winter days.

I first met this taco truck on a late-night newsroom food run last year. I was with people I haven’t seen in months, people who, at the time, were just about my whole world – a new world, a world whose predecessor I still missed. Funny how time washes everything downstream, gently and without stopping.

Anyway, the tacos were a thing to behold. Perfect, greasy, authentic Mexican tacos, and they were inexpensive to boot.

I don’t actually think I ever went back. Not with them. Not while I was in that world.

Spring semester ended with layers of heartbreak and change. Summer happened.

I traveled. I traversed back to a place that still feels very much like home, and then I left it again. More heartbreak, and some literal injuries as well.

And then I came back to San Diego, face-to-face with a new job teaching high school, a position on a sports team, and some noticeable vacancies in “people I love to be with” department.

But I am getting good at this. I am learning how to move from one world, one future, one plan to the next without even needing to take a breath at the key change. So I threw myself into my new neighborhood of life with vigor.

Life is full of beautiful coincidences, but my favorite this year has been teaching and taking Spanish classes simultaneously. I would teach my students gendered articles and verb conjugation patterns in the morning and then in the evening immerse myself in relative pronouns and expanding vocabularies in my college courses. The time in between, I practiced. I practiced with my growing group of friends on the cross country team. I practiced with the lady who lives two houses down from me. I practiced with old pals from school. And I eavesdropped on basically every conversation in Chula Vista. I was getting to know my neighborhood through new ears. God bless the barrio.

One day, I decided to take my students on a field trip to the taco truck. It is right down the road from our little school and I figured the possibility of food might get more Spanish out of them than I had been able to up to that point. My assumption was correct. They did beautifully.

I marched my little underclassmen up to the window of the truck and made brief introductions to the man at the counter. He thought it was hilarious that I taught Spanish (soy una guera) and that I had chosen their truck for our prodigious field trip.

We ordered without making too much of a mess and then we hurried back to school with our treasures. And just like they had been that cold winter night last February, worlds ago, the tacos were delicious.

I went back once or twice during cross country season. It’s the perfect spot, right on my way to college from the school, so I’d “carb up” on my way. (Though I might add that running on adobada is not a smart idea).

Softer than a whisper, quicker than a pleasant dream, Autumn disappeared. Cross country began to wind down, and I saw these new, very important people in my life less and less. My schedule loosened without daily 3-hour practices, and the extra time went into the attic of my affections and began digging up old memories of the place I miss most.

“Where are you?” my teammate David texted me one day after practice. I was sitting in my car dreaming about tacos.

“Parking lot,” I said.

“Food?” he asked.

“Tacos?” I replied.

“OK.”

He found my car and I drove him to the taco truck.

Peering down from behind the window, the man said, “Hey, you brought your class here once, right?”

“Yes, that was me,” I laughed. He gave me a twinkly grin and said, “Cool.”

David and I, and our teammate Corey, go for tacos on a weekly basis. Someone texts, “tacos?” and within an hour, we’re all chowing down, listening to the rustle of cars and the crystal ring of perfect skies.

Cross country effectively ended after the State meet and Corey and David were the only people from the team I ever saw, and it was always for tacos.

I brought my little sister one afternoon and the guy looked down at me with the same twinkly grin. We said our “Hi”s and “How are you?”s and then he looked at my sister and said, “We know her here.”

People say Tacos el Gordo are the best tacos in the South Bay (though, I personally don’t consider anything north of the 54 “South Bay”), but they’re wrong. Tacos el Ranchero on Telegraph is the best. It’s indisputable. And I eat there several times a week now, so I would be the expert.

“She eats here without us,” Corey moaned to David over a mouthful of asada. David just nodded. He goes without me, too. When the taco calls, you must answer.

Finals kept me busy, busy enough to stay out of that drawer with all the old memories. But they ended too.

On Monday night, the cross country team celebrated the end of the season with a banquet at La Bella’s Pizza Garden. Awards were had, tears were shed, pizza was eaten en masse. Eventually, the dinner ended, like all good things, and people went their separate ways.

A few of us stuck around for a while to play pool in the arcade room. Our numbers trickled away until it was just me, David, Corey and two of our steadies on the team.

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The lights of the restaurant flickered off for a moment, letting us know we had overstayed our welcome, so we picked up our bags and walked into the cold, dark streets of downtown Chula Vista.

“I’m hungry again,” said Melissa as we walked to our cars.

“Tacos?” said David.

Corey and I nearly screamed. Yes, tacos, always tacos.

“We have to take you to this place we know,” said Corey.

“They have the best tacos,” I promised.

Melissa and Jesse looked skeptical, but it was three against two. Tacos won.

But by the time we pulled into the lot, the awning and plastic chairs had been taken down. The side door of the truck was open and only one customer stood nearby, waiting for his order to be finished.

“Are you still open?” I asked, peeping into the truck’s kitchen as someone in the back bustled over a sizzling stovetop.

The man turned and was about to say they were closed, but his head stopped mid-shake and recognition lit his eyes.

“Are you the teacher?” he said with an excited smile. “! We love you here! You can order whatever you like! We are open for you!”

My friends, mis chicos, and I all lined up and put in our requests as the truck continued to close up from the outside. After saying our thanks, we took the plates to the hood of someone’s car and ate. We ate delicious tacos and talked about nothing and just stood around for a long time. And the longer we stood there, the more I realized this was another ending of another world. Most of my teammates from cross country will not be doing track, for varying reasons, most of which are based in mature, adult rationales. But it means starting over for me. It means trying to make new friends and build a new neighborhood.

I’m feeling very much the nomad these days.

So I’ll probably just keeping coming back here, to this taco shop.

It feels nice to have somewhere to belong at a time when everything else seems to be concluding, even if that place is on a vacant lot between a busy street and a freeway entrance.

Mary vs. Biology Lab

Let me preface this by saying: Science and I have never been friends.

In tenth grade biology lab, the day we all had to skin and dissect limp, dead rats, I paid a boy a hearty amount of Snickers bars to skin mine for me, because I one-hundred percent was not going to.

I barely slid through Chemistry junior year with a passing grade, but only because I am really good at faking competent answers on homework. I don’t even remember what we did that year, just that I cried for hours when I realized how much math was involved.

And I’m pretty sure third grade life science is what initially triggered my very intense obsessive-compulsive need to wash my hands whenever I see insects, dead animals, or basically anything that crawls, clicks or slimes its way through existence. That’s right. Third grade science birthed my OCD.

So, of course, I put off my college science GE’s till the last possible moment. Finally, my counselor gave me the look that said, “it’s been years and I want you out of my office, please just do this already.” So I bit the bullet.

I signed up for Biology 100 and its corresponding 101 lab.

Friends, it’s been a battle.

ROUND #1 – MARY VS. LAB PARTNERS

Now, I’ve been at community college long enough to know that if you don’t like the people you sit next to, you will fail the class. If you like them too much, you will also fail the class.

I did a quick survey of the already crowded lab before finding an open seat next to a perky woman in her thirties and a boy with braces and a baseball cap. We were joined by a guy who came into class late, swinging his motorcycle helmet in one hand and pocketing his other into a brown leather jacket. Two weeks into the semester, after the usual dropouts disappeared, we gained a chirpy girl with a big smile and an insatiable giggle and a quiet guy who we had previously dubbed “the class nomad” because he moved from lab group to lab group for weeks before settling on ours.

Perfect. I found the breakfast club.

Mary: 1
Biology Lab: 0

ROUND #2 – MARY VS. LECTURE

It should be noted that this class happens after I’ve already had a full day at work and a three hour cross country practice. Lab begins at 6:45 and runs till 9:55. The professor does not let us out early. Ever.

“The emotional stamina it takes to attend this class is more than I think I’m capable of,” I told the perky woman, who I refer to as our lab mom because she takes such good care of us when none of us feel like being adults.

She just laughed at me.

Following our weekly quiz, which I always nail because…I’m good at faking stuff…our professor does a little overview on the lab material and the science behind all the stuff we’re going to do. I usually sleep through that part.

In fact, our lab books are pretty thick and well-sized, so they double nicely as pillows and I get a quickie fifteen-minute power nap in before we have to do things that involve hazardous substances.

Mary: 2
Biology Lab: 0

ROUND #3 – MARY VS. THE MICROSCOPE

I may not be good at science, or listening to directions, or staying awake during class, or behaving like an adult in general, but I am phenomenal with a microscope.

Motorcycle Guy and Baseball Kid usually man one of our groups’ two scopes and Lab Mom and I work the other. The Nomad and Smiley Girl just watch and offer moral support.

The first microscope lab, all we had to do was identify color threads and whatever. It was like a How-To-Use-This-Equipment-That-Costs-More-Than-Your-Life type of lab. Easy.

The second lab, they had us looking at cheek cells, plant cells and weird little pond organisms.

This was a bit of a bust and we ended up drawing a lot of fake pictures of things we didn’t really see in our microscope. Eventually, Lab Mom and I found something in our pond water that was not supposed to be there. He looked like a legless naked mole rat with a pincher for a tale. We named him Humphrey and he is my best friend.

So far, so good.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 0

ROUND #4 – MARY VS. HUNGER

This is where things get ugly. As previously stated, I come straight from practice. Sometimes I am able to get a hearty meal in before class, and sometimes I just chug a gatorade like it ain’t no thang.

It is a thang. Gatorade is the bomb.com.

Anyway, I’m usually hungry and out of sorts when I get to lab, which Lab Mom likes to make fun of because she thinks it’s hilarious that a twenty-something still hasn’t figured out how to feed herself.

Smiley Girl has a habit of naming off foods she’d like to eat, randomly and in the middle of class.

This usually does it for me and, after stamping my feet a little, I sneak out of lab and head to the campus cafe. After eight o’clock, all their hot food is half off.

There is a reason for this. Half-off food from the cafe has less soul than a dementor and less taste than a Kardashian.

Tears usually follow the stale bean and cheese burrito I inevitably end up purchasing. Stiff and like unto cardboard, the tortilla barely merits the name. Say nothing of the substance they claim is “bean and cheese.”

But it’s food and it’s cheap, so I eat it.

“Chocolate? Pringles? What’s your poison tonight?” my professor will ask with a smile as I slip back into the chaos of a lab that is in full gear.

“A burrito,” I say with hints of remorse in my voice.

She smiles knowingly.

“These are the burritos you’ll remember,” she assures me.

I hope not.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 1

ROUND #5 – MARY VS. THE PROFESSOR

I like our professor and, on some level, I’m pretty sure she’s okay with me. She’s pretty relaxed, very down-to-earth, and just weird enough to not be intimidating.

As much as I love faking answers, the journalist in me refuses to half-hash the lab questions we don’t know (unless it’s drawing something because, literally nobody cares). So I sidle up to the professor to ask her leading questions about the lab work until she gives me the answer we’re looking for. On the whole, it has been an effective practice which has harmed no one, but whenever Biology Lab wins the hunger round, I find myself getting persnickety. And the professor tends to notice.

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“I think the book is wrong,” I began after hailing over the professor to show her an inconsistency in the respiration equation written in our lab manuals. She perused the question for a moment and then we scribbled some practice answers.

“Hmm, that’s interesting,” she said. “I’m not sure why it’s written like this, but I’m sure there’s a reason.”

“The book is wrong,” I said again, not sure why this very decent explanation was not sticking.

“I’m not going to let you come to lab anymore if you’re going to troop in from practice all famished and cranky,” she told me.

Ten minutes later, we saw the lab proctor from the Biology class one room over come in and the two of them had their heads together over the question for fifteen minutes.

“The book is wrong,” I whispered to my lab group again.

I enjoy being right and pushing buttons, but now whenever the professor calls my name in roll, it’s with a sigh – “Aaaand Mary,” as if she’s already exhausted that I’m there.

Ultimately, I have to win over the professor if I plan to pass the class. And that’s slow going.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 2

ROUND #6 – MARY VS. LIVING THINGS

img_20161011_202906At some point this semester, and I can’t say which point because I have mostly tried to block it from my mind, we did an experiment with little mice. Cute, harmless little mice that will haunt my dreams for years to come.

I’m sorry, I just don’t do super well with animals of any kind. Like, I appreciate them in theory, and if I don’t have to touch them or anything they’ve touched, we’ll all be just fine. But this experiment required a little hands-on contact.

Our mouse was a hero for the duration of the lab. He did great. A real trooper.

Not as much can be said for my own behavior. I had several meltdowns (not as bad as the one I had over the mudworm, but definitely worse than the one over the cheeks cells).

We had successfully put our little guy back in his habitat with the other little mice when Smiley giggled and said, “Oh no! We didn’t get a selfie with him!”

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 3

ROUND #7 – MARY VS. DEAD THINGS

Easily our chillest lab session (identifying animals) was also my most traumatizing. I mean, the bookwork was fine. Answer questions. Draw pictures. Talk about the structural difference between sponges and jellyfish (“Doesn’t one of them poop?” asked Baseball Kid. “No,” answered Motorcycle Guy, “They don’t have that thing for digestion. What’s it called? The complete gut.” Baseball Kid nodded and Smiley said under her breath, “The Complete Gut – that’s totally a band I would go see.”). It’s a grand ole time until you have to leave the table.

From one wall to the other were pictures and posters of animal intestines. Jars of tapeworms and mudfish (a boneless fish with fangs coming out of a hole on one end of it’s body) and other things you just can’t unsee were strewn over the counters. I needed blinders to get from our table to the microscope.

Then, just when I thought I was safe next to the taxidermy table, waiting to have my lab book checked so I could leave, I noticed a jar of blood orange liquid behind a cute grey squirrel. Inside this sickly jar of death juice was a tiny white weasel.

Obviously, I screamed.

I tripped backwards a little bit and fluttered around until someone directed me away from the monstrosity. Unfortunately, he directed me right into a wall display of arachnids the size of my palm.

Obviously, I screamed again, much louder and with a little sob at the end.

“Will someone please just get her out of here?” said the professor with a sigh, not even bother to check my work.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 4

ROUND #7 – MARY VS. THE DRUDGERY

Drudgery is a real thing and it becomes harder to deal with the later the hour. To keep myself as engaged as possible during bio lab, I have resorted to christening everything that ends up on our lab table with a proper name, doodling in the margins of my lab book, and writing correct answers in the most unreasonable way possible. “Turnt up,” “Super duper effective,” and “Chillin’” have all made it into my written answers more than once. I also used Tinder as an analogy to explain hydrogen bonds. By the end of the semester, the whole lab group had taken to my particular style of “street responses.” That, if nothing else, was a victory.

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The naming of plants, animals and bacteria has been low key, except for the time our experimental plants did super well and the professor used them as an example in front of the whole class.

“Whose are these, anyway?” she asked, trying to read the names printed alongside the two test tubes. “Who are Ben and Jerry?”

On the whole, the class didn’t appreciate the humor, but I thought it was hilarious.

Mary: 4
Biology Lab: 4

ROUND #8 – MARY VS. NEIGHBORING LAB GROUPS

One horrifying evening this semester, someone removed a chair from our side of the lab table so the Nomad moved down to the end to work with the other lab group.

I felt furious. Heartbroken. Betrayed.

After all the work we did to convince him to join our group, after he had been wandering grouplessly for weeks, he was just going to abandon us for the two mad professors at the end of the table?? I couldn’t believe it. And all over a missing chair.

Harsh words were exchanged. Mostly from me. I’m pretty sure nobody else cared.

He did rejoin our group the next week (“I’m glad you’re back but I’ll never be able to trust you again,” I told him. All he did was laugh. Nobody takes me seriously…). But he was a changed man after that. He sped through the assignments, even taking out a third microscope from the shelf because we weren’t going fast enough. He doesn’t joke around with us anymore. He just sits there and gets work down. Sometimes, I even find myself copying his answers, which just goes to show how far we can fall when we leave our true friends.

I don’t know what the other lab group did to him, but it breaks my heart to see him so studious.

Mary: 4
Biology Lab: 5

ROUND #9 – MARY VS. THE FINAL

I am completely unconcerned about the final, mostly because this has been one of the easiest classes I have ever taken, but also because we won’t have to interact with anything but a pen and paper. What could possibly go wrong? Also, I have 102 percent, which, if you’re struggling with the math there, is somewhere around an A.

What I am kind of bummed about is saying goodbye to my little group of people. Not just the lab group, but the neighboring mad professors who stole Nomad for a night (and who give us their answers when we lose track of where the class is because we’re all too busy talking about how to find a DJ who will provide a smoke machine pro bono for Smiley’s party), and the semi-cute guy who we tried to set up with Smiley (mistake), and the water polo girl at the other table who also complains about being hungry and tired all the time. And our dear, dear professor, bless her patient soul.

Biology lab has been fun because of them and I’m not looking forward to going back to classes where no one gets to know each other.

I guess that’s another point for bio lab.

Mary: 4
Biology Lab: 6

I suppose there are worse things I could be doing with my Tuesday nights. Why not spend them in a drafty room where they tear apart the ligaments of dead cats, which smells constantly of pine oil, and is probably haunted by the ghosts of a thousand lab experiments gone horribly, horribly wrong?

Besides, every semester needs one good adventure.

what I have learned as a college athlete

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“Hold still, Mary,” Ernesto said as he adjusted the lens of his very spiffy camera. “This is the last time I bring you a pumpkin spice latte before the photoshoot.”

I was jittery.

Cold sunlight was just beginning to break over the concrete tips of the football stadium and where we stood on the red and gold turfed endzone it was still chilly. My cross country uniform wasn’t doing much for warmth and the PSL hadn’t settled my nerves the way we had both hoped it would.

“I just feels weird,” I said as Ernesto finished setting up the lighting tripod. “The whole team is wearing this uniform right now because they’re at an actual race, and here I am with the uniform on getting my photo taken like a fake, wanna-be athlete.”

“The school thanks you,” said Ernesto crisply. He works for the PR department and was doing a favor for his latest project. We’ll see in a few months how much I’m going to regret it.

“What’s it like anyway?” he asked me, adjusting some knobs on his camera and then directing me to stand closer to the lighting pod.

He must think it’s odd, watching me make the transition from fully-fledged nerdling to almost-athlete. Those are two different worlds and we’ve both spent a long time in one, giving quizzical looks at the other.

“I mean,” I paused. “It’s different. I’ve been injured for most of it so it’s hard to say.”

“What have you been learning?” he asked as he directed me into position. “Tilt your head. Besides running, of course. Hand on your hip. Or do they even teach you that? What do they do? What do you do at practice? Okay, too much hip, Mary. Calm down.

I let him push me around from this angle to that and thought about his question. What have I been doing? What have I been learning?

It’s a question that has followed me into every practice, every ice bath, every hot shower, every evening class I sit through with nothing but food and sleep on my mind. And, eight short weeks later, as I sat on a sunny slope in Irvine, the bib number from my very last race still pinned to my jersey, it was there still.

For weeks since then, I have tried to write everything down. I’ve tried to explain what this season has meant to me. And I can’t. There just aren’t words for it.

So instead, for the sake of just finally getting this off my chest, I’m going to answer Ernesto’s question as best I can in just a few highlights.

As a nerd, trying to be an athlete, this is what I’ve learned from one semester of college cross country.

Firstly, ice is amazing.

Ice is the great healer. Pulled a muscle? Ice it. Feeling sore? Ice it. Shin splints? Ice it. Break a leg? WHY DO YOU KEEP GETTING INJURED? GET YOURSELF TOGETHER, KID!

I have been injured so much this semester, so I would know. It’s painful, strapping an ice pack to your leg for twenty minutes or immersing your body in a frigid whirlpool till your skin is all red and numb. But I guess sometimes the healing process requires a little pain before the gain. And there is so much to gain.

Secondly, the “Dumb Jock” stereotype is a lie.

My grades have really taken a hit this semester. ‘A’s used to come so easily to me. This semester I’m relieved if I pull out a ‘B’. I used to think that athletes who were allowed to slide by with ‘C’s were just “dumb jocks” – probably just laziness or poor priorities or too many hits to the helmet region. I was wrong. It’s hard to be a student athlete! It’s not just that you’re losing three to four hours every day for practice that you could be using to do homework or study, it’s that after practice, all you want to do is eat and sleep! I don’t think I’ve been awake for a full biology lecture all semester and I spend half of Spanish class distracted by how hungry I am. I eat all the time and I feel like I should be sleeping a lot more than I have time to.

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Exhausted after a race.

Last week, I heard some of the football guys talking about how stupid they all were. I turned immediately and reminded them that anyone who balances athletics and academics is superhuman and they should all be super proud of themselves. Someone had to say it.

Thirdly, every second counts.

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Sprinting the finish of the Pacific Coast Conference Championship.

After every race this season, I have spent the next several days reliving each moment, trying to scrape out the missing seconds. Where could I have gone faster? Where could I have pushed harder? The obvious truth is that every step of the race matters. This becomes painfully clear when you look at winning times separated by fractions of seconds. You think, why didn’t he just push a little harder during mile two? Why didn’t she concentrate on her technique a little more – over the course of a 5K, that would have made a winnable difference!

Learning this lesson on the course has been brutal, but applying it to life has become a joy for me this semester. Details mean a lot in the real world too. If every day is a long run that you have to get through, technique becomes important and it is produced by force of habit and continual concentration. Things like being nice to people. Assuming the best. Trying your hardest. If remembering to pace your breathing gives you an extra edge on your race, appreciating the pina-colada scented shampoo in the girls’ locker rooms is the extra edge your day needs. So are fresh towels and packed lunches and Sergio, the rubber ducky who floats in the ice baths in the trainer’s room. Little things make a winnable difference.

Fourthly, the human body is literally just so cool.

I eat a lot these days. I have portioned out a part of my budget for protein bars and gatorade and calcium supplements. I fastidiously pack lunches every night. I stretch. I do yoga. I sleep literally whenever life doesn’t insist on my being conscious. The harder I run, the more I realize where and how my body needs to be strengthened. And I think that’s pretty cool. Despite the injuries, despite the exhaustion and the extra work of trying to care for this body that I’m running into the ground, the decrepitation has been delightful. God gave me this amazing body that functions like a machine – the better the materials I put in, the better the product that comes out. I don’t take it for granted anymore when all my muscles and joints work, when nothing hurts. I don’t take it for granted that I can run right now. What a precious gift, to have a body that allows me to do that.

Fifthly, ego is not your friend.

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You may have picked up on the fact that I’ve been injured most of the season. I don’t know, maybe I’ve mentioned it a few times.

I’m super competitive and I joined Cross Country to compete. And I compete to win. It’s not like I’m expecting first place (though that is always what I aim for, and I’ve had visions of crossing the finish line for a first place medal since June), but my “reasonable target” was to make the top twenty in a race. I need about a seven-minute mile for that. With hard work and blood and sweat and tons of tears (because it’s me, and I cry over everything), I thought a seven-minute mile was doable.

Well guess what. It’s not actually super doable if you spent the whole season sitting on ice packs in the trainer’s room.

This season has not lived up to my hopes for what it could be. Mostly because when I am able to run with the team, I’m not fit enough to keep up with them, and I’m always nursing an injury so I haven’t been able to chase after their times.

This has been one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned this season. My ego – my desire to be running with the front of the pack – will not help me win a race and it will not help me heal my legs. Why? Because ego is what stands between you and the critique you need from a coach to improve. Ego is what stands between you and the rest you need to power up. Ego is what stands between you and the people who could be your friends, friends you will need when the race gets tough and the season gets long.

Let passion be your fuel, and wisdom your coach, and leave your ego off the field. There is no place for it here.

Sixthly, everyone has a voice inside their head.

The few times this season I have been functioning well enough to join in team practices have been the few times we have been doing the most ridiculous workouts. Sprinting up the football stadium’s sixteen stairwells for forty-five minutes (that’s how I got my second injury this season. Goodbye soleus!), 500 meter sprints, Indian runs, etc. I think that’s when I began to appreciate how hard Cross Country really is. It’s not just running. It’s not just endurance. It’s not just toning and speed and technique. Cross country is a mind game, and you can be prepared for the distance, the heat, the waves of competition, but you cannot begin to understand the battle that will happen in your mind until you’ve been in it. This incredibly loud, convincingly desperate voice will tell you to hold back, to take it easy, to give it your all next time, to stop, to quit, to give up. It will tell you that you cannot do it. You must prove it wrong.

Seventh-ly? They’re not kidding about team bonding.

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Picture day! Trying out our new uniforms for the first time.

It’s hard to explain the dynamic of team spirit. It sounds like such a cliche. I never would have thought that genuine friendship could actually infuse strength and energy into a team, but it does. As soon as we all started making an effort to get to know each other, to spend time together outside of practice, to invest in each other, our times started improving. Our energy picked up. Our drive improved. It was like, suddenly, instead of being alone on the course, there were these forces of goodwill pulling me along, insisting that I believe in myself, because they do.

There has not been a single day this season when someone from the team hasn’t come up alongside me and shown me what it means to be a teammate. Sergio taught me how to spit while I’m running. Janet taught me how to breath properly. Jesse taught me to fight through the injury. Cristal taught me to keep pushing. Joe taught me how to pull my shoulders back. Agustin taught me how to open my stride. Melissa has beaten self-confidence into me with a horsewhip and then given me a good kick just to make sure it sticks. And everyone else has just been there, every day, all season.

So I make time for the outings. They want to go play laser tag on Saturday or carb up at a restaurant before a race? Count me in. Weekend runs? Let’s do it. Heck, they even talked me into getting a Snapchat, which I more or less regret. But there’s just not a lot I wouldn’t do for these guys. They’re my team. They’re the first one I’ve really ever had. And they mean a lot to me.

Lastly, disappointment and failure are not the same.

This season feels like a disappointment to me. When I first thought about joining the team in March of last year, I had visions of being competitive, of being a dark horse coming from nowhere to sweep up. All summer long, I trained nearly every day, despite travel and extensive time-commitments. And the more I ran, the clearer I could see myself crossing the chalky white finish line to take first. I’ll be honest, a lot of what I saw myself accomplishing may not have actually been physically possible, but I’ve always had my head a bit in the clouds. I may still be telling people I just wanted to be in the top 20, but I wanted first. I compete to win.

So the string of injuries, the missed races, the increasingly frustrating practices made for a long, sad season. And up until the last moment of the last race, I still had my sights set on qualifying for state. As a team, we had qualified for the Southern California Championship, and as we warmed up in the foggy morning, the other girls joked about blowing their times so we wouldn’t have to go to Fresno in two weeks. So many better things to do with a weekend.

“No don’t,” I whimpered, even though I knew they were mostly kidding. “I need you guys to qualify or I won’t be able to go!”

The girls laughed, but I could hear they were tired. They were at the end of a long season, one of many they had had. This was my one and only, and I had only been able to race half of it.

“Qualify as an individual,” they told me. “You only have to be in the top hundred.”

So from the moment the starting signal sounded to the last pounding beat of my heart as I crossed the finish, I argued with that voice in my head. I want this, I said. I want this as much as the girl in front of me. I want it more than she does. I want to go to Fresno.

I finished tenth from the bottom.

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Disoriented after finishing my last race, I was escorted from the finish line to a water table where I promptly threw up behind a nearby tree. What a way to finish.

Coach walked up to me with a smile on his face and said, “Well, did you have fun?” And that’s when I knew my season was over. And this incredible sinking feeling clamped onto my stomach and it hurt.

It hurt because I fell so far from where I had hoped to land. But it also hurt because the end of this season means the end of this time I’ve had as a college athlete, and I have so loved every minute.

Maybe thinking I could jump into college sports was a ridiculous notion. Maybe seeing myself as a state champion was laughable. And maybe the disappointment and the gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing frustration and heartbreak of this season could have been avoided if I had been realistic from the start.

Why did I even join Cross Country? I thought to myself on that sunny hillside in Irvine, the race finished. I had walked away from the rest of the team, sat down on the edge of the course, and stared out at the big, empty hills in front of me. Ernesto’s question from early September still simmered in the back of my mind. At least this time I wasn’t just wearing the jersey for a photoshoot.

How short the season has been.

I shook my head. It’s easy to feel sorry about the outcome. Easy to fall into despair. Easy to feel like I have nothing but disappointment, foolish hopes and a couple of big “I told you so’s” coming my way. But I know better.

This season of running has challenged me. The struggles with injury have pushed my boundaries, opened me up to new possibilities, helped me forge friendships and inspired me to levels of humility I didn’t know existed. The pursuit of this unachievable goal has driven me to the peaks of self-mastery and instilled in me patience and persistence. The failures, setbacks and losses have taught me kindness and empathy, and I am stronger for it.

I may spend the rest of my life on a continuous wave of disappointments, but this season has taught me for certain that I am a better person for having chased impossible dreams.

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