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.

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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Mary vs. Olympic shoulder angels

Forty thousand feet in the air and my mind was tracing a dirt path on the ground in worn out sneakers. Over and over again, I saw myself round the track, hit the final grass stretch before the finish line and blaze into a first place medal. Not even the turbulence could stop me.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything competitively. My last high school speech and debate tournament was an unmitigated disaster (by my own standards, at least). I was second in the State going into that national tournament. I finished somewhere in the teens. After the awards ceremony, all my friends went out to watch the fireworks over Mission Bay. I just stood there and cried, colors bleeding down my face and across the black bay water. I was so disappointed. Six years of pushing myself towards this one goal and I had fallen short.

I don’t often feel defeated because I’m not a quitter, and as Babe Ruth says, it’s hard to beat a man who never gives up. But that night, I felt defeated. I felt defeated for a long time.

Needless to say, I am nothing if not over competitive.

I stopped competing formally in college. Too busy to join the debate team. Then life and work and the real world kicked in and I never had a chance to go back to anything that might put me on a path towards a podium and a medal.

Not till this summer.

As some may know, I have been working as a sports reporter for nearly a year, and it has been brought to my attention that I may broaden my abilities as a journalist in this field if I actually had some experience in athletics (which I don’t, unless you count some intense games of ultimate frisbee, or that summer my church insisted on playing volleyball every Wednesday and I was named the MVP for the opposing team three weeks in a row).

So I signed up for the cross country team. They spent this summer training. I spent the summer in Europe. Aware that I would need to keep pace with everyone, I asked the coach for some things to practice while I was traveling around.

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Running through Czech forests, summer 2016.

In Prague, in Budapest, on the silver shores of Lake Balaton, Hungary and in the majestic mountains of Šumava, Czech Republic, I ran. I did 300 meter sprints that nearly killed me, again and again. I raced up hills. I ran for miles through forests. I’d get up before my friends to finish my workouts so we could spend the day together. I ran my way through Europe.

Coincidentally, I also ran my way into a bit of a hamstring problem.

One night at the English Camp I volunteered at, we watched “Chariots of Fire” (everyone was getting pumped for the Olympics two weeks down the road and Chariots of Fire is like, the greatest Olympic movie of all time).

Irish missionary Eric Liddell and self-made man Harold Abrahams are running these 100 meter sprints in ten seconds and because I’ve been doing sprints all summer, I know just how ridiculous that is to do. You guys have no idea how long 100 meters is when you’re running hard.

I really relate most to Abrahams. He has an intensity I resonate with when it comes to winning. He lives and breathes competition, so much so that the anxiety and the pressure of it seems to shake him to his core, but it’s what drives him forward too. And although he has something to prove to everyone else, you just know he really just needs to prove it to himself.

But when I would be in cold sweats outside a semifinal round, it was Liddell my dad would remind me of as I wrung my hands and paced the floor. Dad loved Liddell’s quote about God making him fast and that when he ran he could feel God’s pleasure.

That was Dad’s way of reminding me that I do what I’m good at not to prove that I’m good at it, but because when I exercise my God-given strengths, God is glorified in it.

In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.”

― Eric Liddell

By the time I touched down in the USA this summer, my leg and I were not on speaking terms.

I stretched, I iced, I ran again, because I am not a quitter. And because I didn’t know what else to do. Coach wants us to be at 12 miles by the time the season starts and I can barely manage eight.

Sitting on my sister’s couch, watching the Olympics and sitting on an ice pack, I thought to myself, I want to feel that thrill. Not even the thrill of winning, just of getting to compete again.

“Are you going to see someone about your leg?” my sister asked.

“Naw,” I said, shifting on the ice-pack under my thigh. “It’ll get better.”

Besides, I had other things to worry about.

All new athletes have to get a physical from the school medical staff. I showed up with like 50 wanna-be football players and spent the day having my blood pressure taken, my weight measured, my balance examined and my eyesight checked. It was all rather new and glamorous to me. I’ve never felt so cared about by strangers. This must be what being a princess feels like.

“You’re 5’11,” said a nurse measuring my height.

I gaped at her. There’s just no way I’m 5’11, ma’am.

“Let me see that,” I said, bending over her petite shoulder to see the chart. The stocky jock behind me snorted.

“Can I have a few of those inches?” he asked.

I’d trade, I thought as I walked to the last examination station. Thirty of us waited in a crowded line in the sun for the examination. Behind me, several football players were making some low-key cat calls (I’d like to assume they were directed at me, but they were probably intended for the blonde soccer girls a few heads in front of where I was). The guys were rowdy. The day was warm. And I was tired of standing on my bad leg.

But I was just so excited to be in this new, seemingly glamorous world of athletics that I didn’t even care. Also, I’m not a quitter.

We must have waited in that line for half an hour, and by the end of it, I’d been invited onto the football team as an honorary member (they said they needed a kicker).

Then it was my turn. I was almost done. So close to having everything I needed. Just one quick sit-in with the doctor and I would be finished!

She checked my vitals and said some friendly things that I don’t remember. Then she looked at my chart and asked, “Have you had chest pains during exercise this summer?”

Yes, I had checked that box. It was just once, I explained to her, right after that first round of horrible sprints in the summer heat. Just an ache. Only lasted a few minutes. No big deal. I’m not a quitter.

“You’re going to need to get an EKG before we can clear you,” she said.

My heart sank.

Instead of getting out of there, I found myself in another series of lines to have my insurance checked, my medical history reviewed, and my options clarified.

During the process, we discovered that I was one academic unit short of eligibility.

“To compete, you need to be a full-time student,” they told me. “You need 12 units. You have 11.”

My mind roared in frustration. How was I supposed to find another unit? I’m about to transfer! I have no classes left to take! And where am I going to find the time (or the money) for another class? I’m already working two jobs and I’ll be training all afternoon every day. Most of my night classes don’t end till 10 p.m. anyway.

I left with a piece of blue paper that had the number of a clinic in Chula Vista, a printout of my current class schedule (11 units circled in red) and a few fraying threads of my resolve to do cross country. I could feel my hamstring wincing all the way up the stairs to the parking lot.

But I’m not a quitter.

I spent a week trying to set up an appointment for that EKG. I found a 7 a.m. yoga class (which is full, but I am on the waitlist and I’m ruthless. So…). I also started going to the neighborhood hot tub to soak my leg (which is some mighty dedication to recovery, given the 90 degree temperature we’ve been scorched with this month).

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Hiking to church with the fam-bam, August 2016.

On Sunday, we hiked to church for evening service. My dad has done this periodically since we were kids. If the afternoon is too restless, we walk to church. A good way to simmer down before worship. And truly, one of the prettiest corners of San Diego you’ll ever see, especially in the golden stretches of evening.

It’s only two and a half miles and we were only walking, but when we got to the church, my hamstring was practically singing. I tried stretching it out a little with no luck. Fighting back the urge to cry, I washed the dust off my face in the bathroom sink and went to find a seat with my family in the sanctuary.

On Monday, I still hadn’t heard back from the doctor regarding my EKG, and now my coach was sending me emails asking if I had been cleared to run yet. I called up the receptionist again (who knows me by name now because I have called her every day for a week and a half). She said she’d personally inform the head nurse of my message.

It’s been a long summer and I felt myself running out of steam. I just wanted to compete again. How hard could this possibly be?

“Maybe God is closing this door?” my pastor said gently. I’m sure it would have been a helpful nudge to anyone less of a hardhead than myself. When people tell me I can’t, the Harold Abrahams in me rises up to say, Oh yes I can!

It’s possibly one of my worst qualities and has gotten me into more than one traffic citation.

“Why not just drop this?” my dad asked.

“I can’t,” was all I could think to say back.

Why not? Because I spent my whole summer abroad training for this when I could have been sleeping in or hanging out with my friends a little more. Because I can basically feel the blood shooting through my veins when I even think about running competitively, vying for a medal, aiming to win at something again. And because the idea of coming back to San Diego to compete in cross country this fall was one of the only things that soften the very difficult goodbye when I had to leave Prague again this summer.

I really needed to be able to do this.

So there I was, lying on the ground with my mind up in the air, somewhere floating around the sewage of lost dreams and abandoned ideas. I felt very much in a haze, the way Abrahams looks when he’s lost a race (which he doesn’t do often, and frankly, neither do I).

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All iced up in the field house at school, a week before the start of the fall semester, 2016.

All the anxiety built up on being able to compete and win was taking the fun out of running. And running is something that I have always loved to do.

Eric Liddell sat down next to me, taking the fuming Abrahams’ place. “God made me fast, and when I run, I can feel his pleasure.”

More prone to turn God-given abilities, these divine gifts, into my own self-serving aims, Eric’s perspective is one I have to fight to hold on to. I learn because God gave me a brain and it glorifies him for me to do so. I teach because God gave me a big heart and a steady hand and it glorifies him for me to do so. I run because God gave me long, healthy legs and a passion for movement and it glorifies him for me to do so.

I pulled myself off the floor and immediately drove over to school.

I sat on the examination table and let a trainor bend and prod my leg in all directions. Then I sat on more ice and was told not to run till the start of school. So much for 12 miles.

But I felt better.

It has been a wonderful experience to compete in the Olympic Games and to bring home a gold medal. But since I have been a young lad, I have had my eyes on a different prize. You see, each one of us is in a greater race than any I have run in Paris, and this race ends when God gives out the medals.”

Eric Liddell

The nurse from the clinic called back and I scheduled an appointment for the EKG. Hopefully it comes back clear, but if it doesn’t, I know I’ll find a different race to run.

Because I am not a quitter, and not every race is on a track.

7 Rules for Road-Tripping with Friends

“I have sandwiches and eggnog!” I shouted across the street at a disgruntled driver sitting in a warm car, engine still running.

“Is that what took so long?” he asked as I shoved backpack and camera bag in the back seat and slipped our lunch sack under my chair.

“Not exactly,” I mumbled, glancing at the clock on the dashboard. We were getting a late start.

Alberto, sports editor for our college paper, had tasked me (or rather, I had volunteered in a moment of stupidity and lack of foresight) to cover the cross-country beat as the season drew to a close. This had absorbed more than one of my Saturdays already and was about to eat up a whole weekend as he and I hit the road to cover the state championship in Fresno.

I was going to take the pictures. He was going to do the interviews. I’d write the story and he’d pay for all our coffee refills during the 9-ish hour trip up north.

Wait, 9-ish hours to Fresno? How?

Ah, so you’ve noticed. Fresno is only six hours from San Diego. Very observant of you.

We were actually going to Chico first.

Let me explain.

Because we are both cheap, starving college students, we decided that we’d rather spend a little extra time driving to Chico to stay with some friends than to each get a hotel room in Fresno. See old friends and save money? What could possibly go wrong?

And so our road trip began.

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“Do you mind if I take my shoes off?” I asked, already freeing one set of toes without fully waiting for an answer.

“What?” Alberto laughed. “Who asks that?”

“It’s part of road trip etiquette,” I said, taking the other shoe off. “You’re supposed to ask in case someone really has a problem with smelly feet.”

He chuckled again.

“How do you know this?”

“I looked up road trip etiquette last night,” I admitted. “You know, just to make sure this was as seamless as possible.”

“Seriously?” he said, mouth slightly agape, not sure whether to laugh or . . . just continue gaping stupidly. “You actually researched this?”

“I did.”

“What else did it say?”

“Oh, basics, really,” I assured him. “Stuff like, help pay for gas, give timely instructions if you’re navigating. Those sorts of things. Most of them only apply to large groups anyway and there are just two of us.”

Alberto seemed appeased.

“We should make our own road trip rules,” he suggested, looking contemplatively at the bumper and brake lights in front of us.

“What, like as we go?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “Rule number one: Don’t ride with Alberto.”

“Hey!” he snapped back (the way a very fluffy bunny might, with lots of unintimidating fury). “I’m a great road trip companion. How about: Don’t insult the driver!”

“Eh,” I shrugged.

We compromised.

RULE NUMBER 1: DON’T INSULT ALBERTO

We chatted about poker strategies most of the way to LA (mostly I listened or referenced that one month in high school when I got super addicted to facebook’s Texas Hold ‘Em app). It was obvious when we finally hit the big city – all our radio stations fuzzed out on us.

This is the real beginning of any road trip and the test of true friendship: the moment when you’re out of range of familiar radio signals.

The battle over the radio began mildly enough. I would occasionally and nonchalantly skip past a song I didn’t care for or he would laugh passive-aggressively whenever Katy Perry graced the tin can we were driving in.

I made a fuss over that song about not being able to feel your face because I don’t get it and I think it’s stupid but then I felt badly.

“You can change it back,” I said with a simper. “That’s technically a road trip rule. You’re supposed to let the driver choose the music.” (I have since discovered that the official rule has an exception for trips lasting longer than 90 minutes. Ours was definitely longer than 90 minutes).

“Yeah,” he said with a sarcastic snort. “But there’s also a rule about being a decent human and not letting people who ride in your car suffer. I’m not going to make you listen to something you hate.”

He has no idea, I thought to myself, how much Rachel Platten I’m planning on listening to this trip.

So was born the new rule.

RULE NUMBER 2: DON’T LISTEN TO MUSIC PEOPLE HATE

We snaked up the sloping chest of the Grapevine with concerted but casual effort – as one does – and then slid down the backside like a kid shooting off a plastic slide. We fizzed in and out of radio stations and random conversation topics with a comfortable, amusing tension. Thankfully, we both really like Taylor Swift. She served as a great third-person mediator and the radio had her on every station all the way up the Central Valley.

When the radio crackled and hissed at us, we turned it down and talked about life instead. Things like the pros and cons of country living, or whether or not I’m weird because I was homeschooled or if I just got a set of really odd genes.

I don’t know where the time went to, I really don’t. Cell service came and went, as did lunch (my sandwiches were baller, in case anyone is wondering. And the eggnog was on point as far as decisions go. I know how to earn my keep).

Eventually, Fresno pulled into view and we turned off the road to fill up the gas tank.

“You want a turn driving?” asked Alberto, getting out of the car. I closed my Spanish textbook and agreed. You can only do so much homework on the road, you know.

“So this is where we’ll be tomorrow?” I asked, settling into the driver’s seat. “Fresno?”

Alberto confirmed monosyllabically.

“It says we’re four hours away from Chico,” he said, looking at the GPS on his phone and then up at me. “Is that right?”

“Wait, four hours?” I said. “That can’t be right. That means it’ll be four hours back from Chico to Fresno tomorrow.”

“What time does the race start?” he asked.

“10 a.m.”

“I definitely thought it was only like a two hour difference when I planned this,” Alberto said.

We both sat quietly for a moment.

“It’s going to be an early morning for us, isn’t it?” he said.

I slammed the gears into drive in response and grumpily shuffled the car out of the parking lot.

“I’ve never seen you drive,” Alberto admitted. This is true. Normally, I’m the one begging for rides home from school. But I can drive.

“I’m actually a very good driver,” I told him. “I’m not good at driving, but I’m a very good driver. I follow all the rules, like using my blinker and stopping at stop signs. I’m just not good at doing things like changing lanes or remembering which is the brake and which is the gas.”

Alberto visibly tensed.

“The key to driving with me is learning to play Chipper Check,” I said soothingly.

“Which is?”

“California Highway Patrol,” I explained. “CHPer Check.”

He nodded.

“Alright,” he agreed. “I’ll keep an eye out for cops.”

“It wouldn’t hurt to check the right side for me when I merge,” I added.

Alberto moaned into his hands but came up laughing.

RULE NUMBER 3: BE A GOOD CO-PILOT

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The sun went down quickly after that – it probably didn’t want to witness me with free reign on a California freeway. Alberto did a good job helping me navigate the I-5, which is a lot like playing tetris except that if you lose you die.

“Can I fit in there?” I asked Alberto as we came closer to the back of a truck inching along the right lane, the car in the fast lane not far behind us to the left.

He looked over my shoulder and said, “Yeah, you got this.”

By the time we reached Sacramento our friends had begun texting us coordinates to meet up in Chico. The last hour between the capitol and our destination seemed like eight years – mostly because the passing lane disappeared and I am nothing if not an impatient driver.

We found the restaurant our friends had picked and staked out a booth for our group. It was a cool joint. Very NorCal.

I was nearly bouncing in my seat, I was so excited to see the group again.

“I don’t know why you’re so thrilled about this,” said Alberto, who was clearly worn down by the nine hour drive.

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen everyone!” I said, beaming with anticipation.

When the rest of the gang entered the establishment, I knew we were in for a night. They were in rare form. Truest to character was Ernesto, who called my name all the way across the restaurant and ran past half a dozen tables before burying me in a bear hug, causing several heads to turn curiously.

Anna, Mason and David all slid in beside Alberto and I, giving us the run-down of all the best appetizers.

“You may as well not even come here if you don’t get the beer cheese,” Anna said authoritatively.

“Yeah, and I could use a pretzel anyway,” added Ernesto.

Most of the gang I had seen at some point during the semester – journalism conferences, award banquets, the odd meetup in New York City… But not David.

He turned his head to me and said over the babble of our table, “It’s been years, right?”

“At least two,” I said.

“Where were you, Russia?”

“The Czech Republic,” I said. “In Prague.”

He nodded and Ernesto nudged me right as the waiter dropped off our waters.

“Are you married yet?” he asked loudly with typical Ernesto jest (which sounds a lot like rudeness if you don’t know and love him well). “Did you find a Czech husband?”

I grinned and shook my head.

“I can’t believe you’re not married yet,” he said again, very loudly, a big smile growing on his face.

Alberto gave me a quizzical look as David joined in.

“I bet she won’t get married until she’s 28,” he said. “I mean, there’s just no way.”

“You don’t know her like I know her, she’s not going to wait until 28,” said Ernesto, leaning over to me and adding in a poor whisper, “We’ve got a bet going on this, actually.”

“I say 30,” Mason said, joining in from out of nowhere.

Alberto looked completely floored at this point. His face matched how I felt.

“What is this?” he asked me in a much better whisper than Ernesto had managed as the rest of the crew began spitting back their bets and rationales.

“No clue,” I said, smiling and turning several shades of red. My friends are kooks. “Just go with it.”

“TWENTY SIX! I SAID TWENTY SIX!” Ernesto was yelling gleefully, half raised from his chair, as Mason pointed a mischievous finger at him and yelled back, “THIRTY.”

By this point, most of the restaurant was watching our table with mixed interest and disdain.

Alberto and I just sat there, grinning awkwardly, until they settled their bets and calmed down enough to enjoy the appetizers that had appeared during the debate.

“Glad that’s settled,” said Anna pleasantly.

Stuffing our faces with calamari and beer cheese, we continued the gaiety with steady vigor, if not steady volume.

“It’s good to see them all again,” I whispered to Alberto. He nodded.

RULE NUMBER 4: JUST GO WITH IT

We split passengers between cars and made our way to Ernesto’s flat. It was nearly eleven o’clock and Alberto and I were both very aware of our early morning commitment. Anna chatted in the back seat of the car, asking us about the new staffers and why we still weren’t meeting deadline. All four of our Chico chicos had been either editor-in-chief or managing editor of our paper at some point and they all had a vested interest in how things were going.

“We’re almost out of gas,” I mumbled sleepily to Alberto between Anna’s running commentary.

“We’ll fill up later,” he said.

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Ernesto’s flat was tidy – considering that college boys lived in it. We sat around on couches and the backseat of someone’s car that had been taken out and stuffed in a corner of the living room.

For reasons I still don’t fully understand, Ernesto has a polaroid camera. We took pictures.

That actually entertained us for quite a while until it was sufficiently past our bedtimes and I had fallen asleep in the armchair. They woke me up as they were gathering coats and I followed them out to the car in a sleepy trot.

Neither the gas gauge nor the clock made an impression on my sleep-deprived senses (and may I point out that at this point, I was the least qualified person to be behind the wheel and we should all be grateful I didn’t plummet us headlong into a telephone post or a stationary cow).

Mason had agreed to let us stay with him for the night and his two roommates were also former staffers. Cue reunion numero dos. (See all the Spanish that’s coming out now? That’s because second languages only come fluidly when you’re too tired to speak your native tongue).

So we stayed up for another hour with Kasey and April.

And then I quit.

I sank into the pull-out trundle beneath Kasey’s bed and slept for a solid, beautiful four and a half hours.

At 5:30, Alberto and I were both up (if not conscious) and gathering our things in the dark. Without a word of goodbye to any of the sleeping housemates, we slipped out the front door and wandered the lonely streets in the cold til we found our car.

We hadn’t filled up on gas the night before but I had recalled there being a quarter-ish of a tank left. So I didn’t even look at the gas gauge (again). I did check the clock on the dash as Alberto pulled up the GPS.

“We’ll get there exactly at 10:00,” he said. “But I bet we can shave a few minutes off since it’s so early in the morning.”

I was a little uncomfortable with that arrival time so I sped past several gas stations leaving Chico which was still blanketed in chilly darkness.

As soon as we hit the open road (a one-lane highway with exactly two exits for about thirty miles), I realized we had made a mistake.

“The gas light is on,” I said, suppressing the anxiety clawing its way up my throat.

We consulted the GPS. The next station was twelve miles up the road and then eight miles down a street that led, for all we could tell, directly to the capitol of Nowhere.

“We actually might not make this,” Alberto said.

“We definitely won’t make the race if we have to drive that far to find gas,” I countered. My voice was shaking and I could feel my hands tensing on the wheel.

Carefully coasting down hills (a skill I perfected in college during my starving student days) and shooting up the other side, we monitored the gas light and took turns groaning loudly about how stupid we were to have not filled up at, literally, any point prior to getting on this fate-forsaken highway.

“We are never making this mistake again,” we both promised each other.

RULE NUMBER 5: MAKE GOOD CHOICES

I filled up the tank and Alberto ran inside to grab donuts and coffee. We ate our breakfast of champions while plowing down the 99. The GPS said we were now going to arrive at 10:20, precisely 20 minutes after the women’s race would have started.

“The thing is,” I said with forced calm as I watched the speedometer tick upwards of 80, “This isn’t like other sports. You can show up late to a football game and still write a story. You can miss the first half of almost every sport that exists and still get photos and action.”

“I know, but cross-country is a one-shot sport,” Alberto said through his fingers. He looked like he was on the verge of hyperventilating. As sports editor, he needed these photos as much as I did.

“Right,” I said, talking myself through the terror of our quandary. “You have the starting line and the finish line. And we’re here to shoot an athlete who can run the 5k in 16 minutes. Alberto, by the time we get there, she will have crossed the finish line.”

He moaned into hands.

“They’re going to kill us,” I said. “We came all this way only to miss the story because we didn’t want to spend money on hotel rooms.”

In between our frantic snippets of conversation and Alberto’s tortured groans, flashes of slumbering orchards and silent lakes rushed past us. The sunrise was incredible, reflecting in a brilliant array of colors across the surface of the reservoirs to our left and lighting up the fog banks hiding between the rows of trees to our right. Every five minutes placed us in a new, breath-taking scene of tranquil, country bliss.

I’d be slamming my fist on the wheel one moment because their was no passing lane to get around the truck in front of us and the next I’d be cooing in awe at the sparkle of golden sunlight giving halos to every leaf in the orchard beside us.

“It’s hard to be upset on a morning like this,” I said, Taylor Swift still blasting on our speakers.

Alberto kept checking the GPS arrival time.

“We’re down to 10:19,” he said. “If we can just get to 10:15 we can get her crossing the finish line.”

Overly optimistic, I thought.

And then luck turned our way.

As we left Sacramento, joining a spotty caravan on the nearly-empty highway, two ritsy cars sped past us. They were brightly colored and hitting speeds which we had dared not go.

“Okay,” I told Alberto, easing my foot onto the accelerator. “There was a time when I used to be a bit of a speeder. I’ve put those days behind me, but I think today justifies a temporary relapse.”

“So, no more ‘good driver’ then?” he asked.

“We’re going to tail these to cars,” I said, already positioning myself behind them. “If they slow down, we’ll slow down. If they speed up, we’ll speed up. If there are speed traps along this highway, they’ll get those two cars first.”

“And if we get pulled over?”

“We’ll split the ticket,” I said.

“Deal.”

And that was that. We followed those Saturday morning cruisers almost all the way to Fresno before slowing down to a much more comfortable 75 mph. Arrival time: 9:52.

RULE NUMBER 6: SPLIT THE TICKET

We still missed the start of the race, but I was there at the finish line when our champion crossed it. Until one o’clock, when the event finally drew to a close, we rotated between finding runners to interview and framing shots for our spread.

The team invited us to get lunch with them and we accepted, happy to put something more substantial than gas station donuts on our stomachs. We sat at the edge of the table, exhausted from our long morning, and listened to the team banter back and forth. Alberto and I are both a little late to the college scene and, halfway through a cornbread muffin, I realized just how young these kids were (it was probably their third helpings of the soft-serve ice cream that eventually tipped me off).

Alberto looked at me with his let’s ditch face, an expression I’m getting pretty skilled at recognizing.

So we said our thank you’s, congratulations and goodbyes and hit the road again. Just six hours home now.

As soon as we stepped into the parking lot, embraced by soft sunshine and a cool breeze, I stretched out my arms and sighed deeply.

“So glad that’s finished,” he said.

“Me too.”

RULE NUMBER 7: KNOW WHEN TO BAIL

I didn’t mean to, but I slept a lot of the way home. When I woke up, we were coming up to the Grapevine again and the light was thinning out.

“My arms are sore,” I said, lifting them up curiously.

“Probably from driving this morning,” Alberto consoled me. “You drove for four hours and it was pretty intense.”

“Was that really four hours?” I asked, counting them back in my head. “It seemed like it wasn’t more than twenty minutes.”

I guess time really flies when you’re breaking the law.

“Well, I’m happy to have you behind the wheel again,” I told him. “And I never want to drive over 65 ever again.”

Alberto chuckled and I kicked off my shoes.

“Seriously, Mary?” He rolled down a window. “Your socks smell horrendous. This shouldn’t be allowed. We’re making this an official road trip rule.”

I smiled and fluffed my jacket against the window.

“Do what you want,” I said. “I’m going back to sleep. Wake me when there’s food.”