‘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.”

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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.