Mary vs the javelin


In the dark, I nearly tripped over it. Someone had left it tucked under the lip of our doorway and as I stepped into the dimly lit hours of early morning, my foot snagged on the corner, sending a panicked shudder through my body.

IMG_20170330_143806
Me and the javelin.

My feet are precious to me. For five weeks, I have been trying to heal from a stress reaction in my shin (basically, a bunch of little hairline fractures running from my ankle halfway to my knee). For most of those weeks, I’ve been toddling around in a boot, which has limited my ability to do some pretty basic stuff. In the last week or so, I have been able to walk around without the boot from time to time. But it’s tricky business because my ankles are feeling pretty paranoid at the moment. The last thing I need now, I thought to myself with duffle bag in hand and tracksuit fitted snugly beneath my school sweater, is another accident.

Letting my eyes adjust to the dark, I searched for the culprit of my imbalance and made out the shape of a package. As I picked it up to place it in a less life-threatening area, I noticed it was addressed to me, from Northern Ireland.

Another shiver ran down my spine, only this time it spread warmth and excitement.

I knew what was in this box.

But I was running late and Coach will leave people behind, so I tucked the package beneath my arm and hobbled down to my car. No boot today. Today was my first javelin competition.

The story of how I went from nerd to athlete is almost as long and coincidental as the story of how I met my friends from Northern Ireland, but my transition from a hurdler to a javelin thrower is pretty simple. I got injured.

When I pulled into the parking lot at school, Marcus, Sarah and Serena were already there, waiting in their cars. Gold and red lights shone off the black pavement from the neon “Home of the Jaguars” sign above the field house entrance. I turned off my car and slid the package onto my lap. This couldn’t wait any longer.

Inside the well-taped box, tucked into layers of foam wrap, was a ceramic plate decorated with butterflies, fairy mushrooms, and a brooding castle against a wild sea. It was a plate I made last summer when I spent a wonderful day outside Belfast with some dear friends. Immediately, I was swept onto the wild breezes and grey sunshine of the Irish coast. Castles and country lanes danced before my eyes as my memory floated me back to a place I miss.

A door slammed and I saw Serena getting out of her car. Coach had driven up behind us in the school van. Time to load up.

“You guys excited?” I said, clambering into the middle seat — I had stowed the plate neatly in the back of my own car before climbing into the school van. My enthusiasm was greeted by some half-hearted smiles and a snore. It was still early.

Normally, we don’t go up on Fridays. It’s hugely impractical. Most meet events are on Saturday — all the track events, the jumps, and most of the throws. This particular weekend, hammer and javelin were the day before. Javelin happens to be my only event right now, and I haven’t had the chance to compete yet, which means I won’t be able to attend the conference championship at the end of the month. This weekend would be my only chance to qualify.

“Coach,” I had said during practice that Wednesday, “If I can’t compete this weekend then there was no point in my practicing javelin for the last two weeks.”

He heaved a big sigh, gave me an exasperated smile and then showed up at the crack of dawn on Friday morning to take me and the other four throwers to Los Angeles.

My sole ambition as a composer is to hurl my javelin into the infinite space of the future.”
-Franz Liszt

We drove to the shed on the edge of campus to load up our equipment, fog lingering over the grassy field. Marcus had spent the better part of two weeks teaching me how to throw a javelin across this field and the stretch of lawn above it.

Leaning against the shed were our practice hurdles. Even in the excitement of loading our javelins and hammer wires into the car, I couldn’t help but feel a little tug in my chest at the sight of those rickety, wooden frames. It’s been too long since I’ve been over one, too long since I’ve been able to run at all.

Equipment stowed carefully away, we began our trek north. By the time we hit the highway, Coach had awakened enough to be in good spirits. The girls found their chattiness, too, so the drive up was mostly a lively one — Marcus slept in the back seat.

It’s been a rainy winter so, these days, the hills of Southern California are dressed in the bright yellows and pinks of wildflowers. My favorites to see are the mustard plants. They are soft, yellow bunches that grow on pale green stems. They grow tall and thin, texturing the hill with waves of brilliant bulbs of color that parade back and forth to the rhythm of the wind. From a distance, they almost look like fairies flocking the hillside.

And fairies always remind me of Ireland. Of course, there they are known as the Little Folk, as I was told by my Irish friends.

My wee little Belfast family are more than friends. They came into my life at a pivotal moment. They appeared when I was in the middle of a painful transition. Opening their home and their hearts, they served as a wayside shelter, a reminder that God provides, that he promises good to us and he is faithful to fulfill.

That is a reminder I have needed this semester, which is why the plate they sent meant so much to me.

When El Camino College finally greeted us with the open arms of opportunity, I was ready to greet it back.

For context, I have been training with the javelin for a week and half. The doctor finally approved me to do limited activities on my boot and javelin made the most sense to me. So here I’ve been, a wanna-be-hurdler with zero background in sports and a hefty injury on my right leg, learning how to throw a spear with three weeks left in the season.

Coach sauntered out of the parking garage towards the sunshine and the rest of us scrambled along behind, carrying poles and wires and metal balls (and, in my case, an enormous box of Cheezits).

Only four or five other schools showed up over the course of the morning. It was a small crowd. Track meets host hundreds of contestants, but the field side of things — especially when only half the events are being thrown — is understandably smaller.

“Should we take bets on how far Mary is going to throw today?” Coach asked. He was fully awake now and his proclivity for teasing had arisen with him.

“I already know,” I said, standing up on shaky ankles. We were sitting on the cement slab where the bleachers were set up. Across from us was a cone shaped field with a runway on one end and a hammer cage tucked away in the middle-right side. I stepped onto the edge of the red-track runway where a thick white line ran across the width of it and counted out thirteen loose footsteps into the grass. Turned to Coach, I said, “About here. This is my margin.”

Immediately, Sarah and Serena were at my side.

“But watch out for the line,” they said. “If you step over that line you scratch and your throw doesn’t count.”

My head jerked up instantly. I hadn’t heard this rule.

“You can’t even step over it as you’re walking off,” they said. “You should probably do some practice leads just so you get it.”

Lining myself up, I stepped out with my limited range of motion (even without the boot, I don’t have a lot of give on my right foot) and threw and imaginary javelin into the air. But I had to catch myself as I leaned forward and my feet ended up well past the white line.

“Scratch,” said Serena. “Try again.”

The second time I went through the motions on the right side of the line, but exited in the wrong direction.

“Scratch,” said Sarah. “Wait for your javelin to hit the grass, too.”

Suddenly, my head was spinning. I was having trouble just remembering to block and release up. Now I had to worry about the stupid white line too?

As the girls busied themselves with the Cheezits and Marcus took off to warm up for the hammer, I slipped away down the sidewalk, out of view.

For twenty minutes, I walked myself through blocking movements. Step out. Pivot. Pull. Block. Push. Follow-through. Release. Don’t step over the line.

Using the cement blocks in the sidewalk as markers, I ran through the steps until the soccer players in the field next to me had all but forgotten there was some weird girl doing Karate Kid motions by herself in the middle of campus.

Pausing to give my shoulder a rest, I was struck with a feeling of loneliness. I missed my hurdlers. My distance kids. My gang of misfits and rabble-rousers. I missed warming up with everyone and running in circles around an unforgiving track, telling each other we’ll be better people if we can just survive the day. It’s been such an incredible experience, being part of a team, and having to sit on the bench for the last few weeks has been isolating and discouraging. Half the reason I signed up for javelin in the first place was just to have a reason to keep coming to meets. Anything to stay in the uniform, you know? (The other half is that I’m fiercely competitive and I don’t like being told to quit).

My perk from the morning had disappeared into nerves and loneliness. I sat back down with the girls and listened to their cheerful banter as we watched Marcus throw. They explained the finer points of the hammer event and helped me wrap my bad ankle with the medical tape in our first aid bag. It was a shoddy job, but it held together.

IMG_8919
Warming up.

The morning passed away serenely. At one point, I fell asleep stretched out on the concrete and upon waking up, I discovered Coach had balanced a Cheezit on my forehead.  

Coach came and went. He knows everyone, so this meet was a busy social occasion for him.

At last, the time for women’s javelin had come. It was the last event of the afternoon so the remaining athletes and coaches collected near the field to watch.

“Okay Mary,” said Coach, pulling me aside. “This is just the warm up. It’s called picking. Just practice throwing a few feet in front of you. Throw at the same time as the other girls in the line. You wouldn’t want to hit anyone.”

His deep, gravely voice was a familiar comfort. I don’t know if every coach is given an internal fear detector to help them locate which of their athletes needs a pep talk the most or if it’s just my coach, but he always seems to know when to remind me that he’s right there, that we’ve got this.

IMG_8929
Picking with my Lady Jags.

Serena and Sarah made space for me between them in the picking line and walked me through the process of spotting my mark and aiming for it.

The tall girl next to us was panicking almost as hard as I was. It was her first time to, but she didn’t have teammates here to help her like I did..

My last few picks were horrible. I could hear Coach from the sideline saying, “Pretend it’s your ex-boyfriend and you’re mad at him. Throw it, Mary!”

Next came practice throws from the runway. I was a mess. The javelin wasn’t even sticking in the grass when I threw it. It just sort of hit the ground and slid a few feet, like an underachieving lizard on a poorly constructed water slide.

And, of course, everyone was watching. At least in track most people are too busy watching the winner to notice the loser.

But the tall girl was struggling too, so I commiserated with her and we had a good laugh. Then I complimented some girl on her American flag muscle tape and another girl on how pretty her throw was, even though it didn’t stick (“You’re like my mom today, thanks,” she said with an an appreciative smile).

The official called us over and asked if anyone wanted the rules explained. Everyone — not just my teammates, the whole flight of javelin girls — looked at me.

“Yes, please,” I said with a sheepish giggle.

Fully aware that everyone had recognized me as the baby of the group, I held my head high. I was the first to throw — also terrifying — and I could hear my teammates cheering me on.

All I had to do was get the javelin to stick in the grass and I would have my mark, I would get to compete at the Conference finals in two weeks.

Step out. Pivot. Pull. Block. Push. Follow-through. Release. Don’t step over the line.

I lifted my eyes just in time to see my javelin plunging into the earth, tail still skyward. Instinctively, I clapped my hands and looked for Coach amid the several dozen smiling from the bleachers.

“It stuck! Coach, I’ve got a mark!”

It wasn’t just my own teammates applauding me. The whole flight of throwers and most of the crowd were laughing and clapping their hands. Not because it was a great throw — it was the shortest of the round — but because they knew I had accomplished my goal. I got a mark. I made a start. I had begun.

IMG_8952

My second throw was even better, and I got another cheer when my javelin passed the first mark by a foot. The third throw swelled farther out still.

The fourth throw was flat and came down short, but at that point, I was happy anyway. Happy to be in a uniform. Happy to be part of the team. Happy to be in the sunshine doing new things in new places.

I cradled the half-empty box of Cheezits all the way back to the car. Coach said he was proud of us so he took us to his favorite burrito joint in LA to celebrate. The food was delicious and portions were big. I had already decided not to finish mine when Coach informed that I couldn’t be a thrower unless I could eat like one. My teammates nodded in agreement silently as they chowed down on burrito-y goodness, the deepest contentment etched across their faces. So I sighed, reexamined my plate, and strategically conquered the whole thing. And the throwers officially claimed me as one of their own.

With food on our stomachs and a long, long morning behind us, the ride back was fairly quiet. I slept for a lot of it. When I did wake up, in those first few moments of almost-consciousness, the jumble of the school van down California’s golden coast reminded me of another coast and the familiar bus ride that took me from Dublin’s airport to my lovely wee friends in Belfast. They, too, claimed me as their own. For reasons I’ll never understand, they just opened up their hearts and let me walk right in.

Since leaving Prague two years ago, I’ve been struggling to find a place where I belong. Maybe that’s why I’ve taken to sports so intently this year. But every time I think I’ve found my feet beneath me again, something trips me up. It’s been one injury after another for two seasons now. I’m doing everything I can just to stay fit for a race in two weeks I may never get cleared to run. All my pool sprints and now bike workouts and gym hours — I know very well it might all be for nothing if the doctor says I still can’t run on this leg when the time comes. And that’s been so disappointing.

Harder still is having to shoulder the disappointment alone. Because I do my workouts separately, I never see my kids anymore. Janet, Corey, David, the distance boys and the hurdle crew and all those rag-tag sprinters who’ve wormed their way into my affections so steadfastly this year — I don’t see them now.

IMG_8936

But for two weeks I have been able to train with the throwers, these crazy wonderful kids who have turned into sweet friends. I have been able to learn a new skill, one I have been interested in but never thought I’d have the time to try. I’ve walked into a whole new world, right here at the end of the season. What an unexpected gift.

It’s as if God is reminding me once again that he will never leave me empty handed. That, even though my life might not unfold the way I envisioned, it will not be barren or bleak. It will be filled with his grace and mercy, overflowing with blessings like sunshine, roadtrips and Cheezits, like friends in unexpected places and ceramic plates that show up outside your door like rainbows after stormy weather, like teammates who will cheer you on for not falling over the scratch line and coaches who will give up their Friday to drive you three hours north so you can throw a spear into the ground and make it stick.

the truth in these lines

“Hold still,” I said, gesturing tyrannically to my classmate who was giggling uncontrollably in his chair. Pen poised a breath above my sketch pad, I gave him the sternest look I could muster. “I will never get this right if you keep moving.”

It was hard for either of us to keep a straight face, mostly because not just this project, but the whole class was a bit ridiculous. I was only taking the beginning art course because I needed one more humanities class to transfer and this seemed like the easiest one.

It’s not easy.

It’s not easy because a beginner’s class is about learning the basics, and the basics are boring. We spent one class just drawing straight lines on a paper with different instruments to become familiar with their pattern and texture.

Me, draw a straight line? I’m sorry, but no thank you.

 

IMG_20170213_164522

I find myself continually torn by the half of me that is always teetering down the roads less traveled and the half of me that desperately needs to be the teacher’s pet. The two do not agree much in this classroom.

“My glasses are probably making this difficult,” my classmate said. His jet black bangs swept over wide-framed glasses that were indeed making this difficult. Blind contouring required me to keep my eyes on my subject without ever glancing at the lines I was tracing on my paper. I was fairly certain his glasses were not going to be accurately placed.

“Alright,” I said, removing the guard paper from above my right hand and looking down at what I had drawn.

“What do you think?” I asked him.

He just nodded, a little taken aback by what he saw. It was no masterpiece, but we discovered, along with the rest of our classmates in their turn, that focusing on our subject and the nature of the line, rather than on performing the task, created an element of sincerity in our haphazard portraits.

After blind contouring was a continuous line exercise. We had to map out each other’s faces without ever letting our pen leave the paper. It meshed an understanding lines with a foresight of strategic direction and was considerably harder to accomplish. We were just blocking out features, trying to find ways to connect them all, to turn our meandering lines into meaning.

My classmate seemed more nervous to draw than to be drawn. It was certainly odd sitting still on a chair in a warehouse-esque room lined with creaky easels and spattered paint supplies, letting yourself be captured by someone else’s observations. What would they find?

A lot of my life has been about lines lately. I am seeing them everywhere. There are lines that separate the lanes I run in on the track, lines that mark the places where we place our practice hurdles, lines that form stairs I can barely walk up anymore with this medical boot on my right foot and lines in my hands from the soft creases of usage.

In fact, from the moment I get up till the last glimmer of wakefulness leaves my eyes before falling asleep at the close of day, my whole world is lines. Only now I’m beginning to recognize them.

We don’t tend to notice lines because they are hidden behind shading and shadow, behind texture and depth and color. But lines are the basis for everything we see. So in my pursuit of lines for an art class I’m becoming more intrigued by, I have found myself searching the those foundational grids in my own life.

Where are my lines?

IMG_20170322_154306

Most of my life is taken up with track and field these days. So what lines can I find there?

I love running, I love my teammates and coaches, I love the challenge of doing something that seems impossible. Those are the basic lines, the outline that traces all the reasons I have poured so much time and energy and will into this. Those lines are shaded in by feelings of excruciating pain, immense joy and sometimes overwhelming discouragement. I keep getting injured, which has added texture to this picture I could never have imagined. The shading and color distract from the original sketch. It’s not that they aren’t part of the reality, it’s that they aren’t the foundation. The pain and frustration, the loneliness of practicing in a pool by myself until my shin heals, the agony of trying and failing are part of the reality of track. But they don’t define the image, they only add to it.

I’ve been doing this with everything in my life: school and work and friends and future plans. And in all these lines, I have seen truths I would not have otherwise noticed or been reminded of.

Once I could pin-point the basic elements, I took up my proverbial pen and began a continuous-line contour of them. How do they connect to make a picture larger than just lines? Why would something I love so much, like track and field, come into my life so late and so hugely, and then why would it remain always just out of my reach with one injury after another keeping me off the field? Challenge and the hope of victory, those flighty temptresses, floating just beyond my fingertips — how are they reconciled with my sheer delight in the friendships I have made this year, or the incredible new perspective I have gained on the human body?

I don’t even need to ask if all these things are connected somehow. With God as the great artist, there is, no doubt, no line unfinished or without purpose.

Our homework that week was to do self-portraits with both blind contouring and continuous line. Sitting on my carpeted floor with a mirror balanced precariously on some books, I gathered my paper and pencils and began what is actually quite an intimate experience: staring into the face of yourself that is presented to the rest of the world and looking for whatever is real.

I don’t look like the person I was two years ago when I moved home from Prague. I look more like a journalist, less like the vagabond I was. My face has gotten older. It’s thinner, tanner, freckled.

The sketch I drew looked surprisingly like myself, rough though it was.

Amazing how, when we stop trying to force the bigger picture we have in our mind’s eye and seek to understand what is really before us, written in the little lines, the picture of our lives suddenly becomes clearer. It isn’t prettier, necessarily, or more skillfully done, but it looks right. There is truth in those lines.

 

Stockholm Syndrom and the quest for self-betterment

It’s dark and chilly when I shove my heavy track bag into the back seat and pull out of the drive. Coach isn’t kidding when he say’s he’ll leave you behind if you show up late, and I still have to pick up a teammate.

Kae lives close and we’ve been carpooling for our early morning meets. After several reminder texts, I still haven’t received a confirmation that he is up and awake and ready to go, which is pretty distressing, but I roll with it. For the first time all semester, I’m actually on time, so that’s put me in an insatiably good mood.

The sky is still wrapped in a dark blue blanket of early morning when I pull up outside Kae’s house. I wait a moment, letting the half-a-pancake I hurriedly ate for breakfast roll over in my stomach.

Nerves.

The porch door opens and Kae comes out shirtless and carrying a bundle of blankets, track uniform spilling off the top of the pile in his arms.

“Give me a moment,” he says with a smile, racing back inside. When he comes back out, still shirtless, he’s carrying a pot of chicken, beans and rice and a handful of incense sticks.

“Okay,” he says, “I’m ready.”

I look at him, mouth agape, shock robbing curiosity of its chance to speak.

It’s going to be quite a day.

By the time we crest the hill and wind into the college parking lot, the sun has pulled away the covers of night, steeping the sky in brilliant shades of pink and orange.

Our teammates are arriving alongside us. Several laugh out loud when they see Kae get out of my car, half-dressed and eating chicken and beans.

“And rice,” he tells us.

Serina, the captain of the women’s field team, grabs a set of keys for the shed and sets out for the javelin poles. After stowing my bag onto the charter bus grumbling in the parking lot, I follow her.

“We need a table,” I say. “Coach Lynette wants something to put the food on.”

“There should be one in the shed,” she replies.

We rummage around looking for equipment and the alleged table, finally finding it covered in cobwebs behind the old barbeque.

Trunk open and windows down, with javelins and the rusty table spilling out of the car from every angle, we drive back to where the charter bus is waiting for us, Coach standing just outside the door.

“Got it all?” he asks.

Yup.

This is my second track meet ever. It is going to be a much bigger one than the last and I’m entered in two events, not just one. Our destination: Cal State LA.

I sort of sleep on the way up and when the bus finally rumbles to a stop, I feel drowsy and achy. I am currently rocking three injuries: shin splints, a pulled quad, and an old hamstring thing that resurrects itself every few months when it feels like my life is getting too simple. The bus ride has done nothing for any of my maladies and I fall down the steps onto the sidewalk feeling rather beaten.

IMG_6365

The team meanders through the campus, past the track and onto the baseball field where the check-in and staging takes places. Tents have been set up around the perimeter of the field and athletes are warming up around the diamond. At the bottom of a blue horizon are snow capped mountains, framed by palm trees. The breeze is cool and the sun is warm. It’s a beautiful day in California.

My first race is not until noon. It’s only nine.

We locate the women’s restrooms, spend twenty minutes tracking down milk because Coach brought two boxes of dry cereal, break the rusty table and duct tape it back together, and walk the circumference of the very large track field and its stands which are already filling up with spectators. Janet offers to braid my hair. I agree readily.

“You take care of her today,” Coach tells me, pointing to Janet. “You make sure she pushes through these hurdles.”

I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic because we all know that Janet is the mother in this situation. She’s the women’s team captain, a hurdle monster, and my personal stay for emotional and mental support.

“We’ll take care of each other,” I promise Coach.

When he leaves, I look at Janet.

“You ready?”

“No,” she answers with a smile.

“Me neither,” I say. “I’m beginning to remember how painful the 400 is. Real, physical pain, Janet.”

“I know,” she says with an understanding grin. “We all know. If you don’t feel pain, you’re not running it right. It’s just part of track.”

Noon rolls around quickly enough and I find myself warming up around the baseball diamond with athletes from colleges and universities all across Southern California. It’s intimidating. I feel like a tadpole in a pond full of frogs with really big legs.

From the staging area, we are escorted onto the field. I’m in heat five and I’m freaking out.

I have never run a flat race before. In fact, it’s been weeks since I even practiced the 400. A quarter of a mile is a long way to sprint, even if it is just one lap around the track.

Agustin is standing behind the fence looking out over the field. I walk over to him after the gun sends off the third heat.

“I’m so nervous, Auggie,” I say. He and I were captains of the cross country team last semester. He is different now. More light-hearted. Being just one of the team has made him more laid-back, but I still lean on him when I need some captain-y advice. He’s still got the good stuff.

“Remember,” he tells me, “it’s okay to come in last. Just make sure you look good when you cross the finish line. Keep your form, keep your technique.”

I laugh. To keep form you need to have it. I run a bit like a drunken sailor.

An eternity of very short seconds later, I’m curling into my starting blocks, waiting for a gunshot I hope would never come.  

How many times had I run this race in my head this week? Dozens, at least. Only in every quiet moment of my mind. Push into the curve. Maintain along the straight-away. You’ll feel tired at 250, but so will everyone else – keep going. Hug the bend. Sprint the ending. Finish. Dear goodness, please finish this race.

There was the gunshot. The rest is a blur. My most vivid memory of that race, and it’s not very clear, is the distinct feeling of my quads seizing up during the last hundred meters.

I cross that white line and nearly faint.

IMG_6320
Corey, that dear soul.

Corey comes over, wraps his arm under my shoulders and helps me off the field, back to our tent.

“You did great,” he promises me. “Even Coach said so.”

“What was my time?” I ask.

“Seventy-four seconds.”

I moan. I was shooting for seventy.

At the tent, I can’t get my heart rate down. My breathing is heavy and my body seems to be revolting against me.

“Do a cool down run,” says Janet.

I can barely stand, but I pick myself up and jog lightly along the outfield till I reach first base. Then, isolating myself to a corner near the mesh fence, I plop myself resolutely in the dirt.

My breath slows and my vision becomes hazy as shadowy figures jog past me on their course around the baseball field.

Why am I doing this? I ask myself. It’s a good question. One I have been avoiding for a while. I am no good at track, it would seem. It isn’t a career for me, or even a way to secure a scholarship. It’s just something I’m doing. Something I’m strangely addicted to. But why?

I’m not here because I’m overly competitive, as some have suggested. I don’t tend to do things I’m bad at. Just ask anyone who’s tried to get me to play volleyball. If I was just here to win, I’d have walked away several injuries ago.

And I’m not here because I don’t know when to quit. No, I’m not a quitter, but even a rational person knows when it’s time to move on. So there must be some rational reason for me staying, right? So what is it?
At the end of cross country season, I told myself I was a better person for having chased impossible dreams. That doesn’t seem to be a good enough answer anymore. How is this making me a better person. What am I really learning here?

Why am I spending so much time and energy on something so painful with so little reward? Yeah, I can understand shedding your blood, sweat and tears if you’re in line for a gold medal. But I’m just trying to drag myself across the finish line. And for what?

“Are you okay?”

Kae is warming up around the diamond and sees me sitting in the dirt on the edge of the field.

“Do you need water?” he asks. I shake my head but he comes back around with a bottle for me anyway.

My second race is at 3:30 and it comes too quickly. I have no energy. I’m still shaken from the ‘open four’ and even getting through the warm-up seems like a challenge. My shin splints are practically singing and my hamstring has joined the chorus. All I want to do is lay down and hibernate for a few months, but I have a race to do. A race with ten ominous hurdles.

Janet walks me to the staging area and we put on our spikes. She’s heat one, I’m heat two.

“I’m ready for this to be over,” she says with a chuckle.

Me too.

Her heat takes off quickly and here I am again, pacing out my blocks and waiting for the call to stand at our marks. I’m in lane eight.

Lane eight is for the slow kids. It’s also the blind lane because you can’t see where everyone else is on the track until they pass you or you reach the final hundred meters. But I practiced in lane eight all day on Thursday and it feels familial and welcoming. This lane and I have something in common: we’re both kind of on the outside of this whole thing.

Pop. There’s the gun.

Off I go, with all the grace of a driver who’s been pulled over for a sobriety test. Every time I jump a hurdle, I fall a little into the lane next to me. I have zero energy left and I can feel myself slowing down. Immediately, I realize I am never going to beat my time from the last race: 1:31.

But as I round the second bend, I see hurdle seven lying down in the track. Someone knocked it over in the first heat and it was never righted.

I panic.

Do I jump over it anyway? Will I be disqualified for not having a hurdle?

My pace slows down considerably as I finally decide to hop delicately over the fallen obstacle, but the damage has been done. I am running too slowly to jump the next hurdle, which is standing up as it should be.

My lead leg mostly clears the top but my trail leg decides, in this pivotal moment, that it would much rather do a tango with our hurdle instead. We collide.

Both the hurdle and I come crashing down onto the track, which is still warm from a day in the sun, and my cheek rests gently on the rough, red surface. My knees and hands are burning but I barely feel them. My mind seems to still be racing though my body is pinned beneath a hurdle. All I know is that, for these two seconds, my body is no longer hurling through the air, racing a clock it cannot beat. I’m just chilling on the ground, and it feels pretty good.

The respite is brief. Following a collective gasp from the spectators and fellow athletes around the track, I hear calls to get up, to keep going.

As if I would quit.

I pull myself up and try to pick up enough speed to make it over hurdles nine and ten, which I do, barely.

Later, I my mind would return to those last two hurdles and the complete lack of firepower in my legs and I would think, What kind of spell are you under that you keep coming back to partake in this misery every day?

I sprint wobblingly to the finish where Coach is waiting for me with a grin on his face. As Janet picks me up around the waist and Corey comes over with water, Coach looks into my exhausted face and says, “The first time the hurdle draws blood is your birthmark, everything after that is a battlescar.”

And that’s it. That’s all he says. Now I’m a hurdler.

We go back to the tent and I fall asleep for a while. The rest of the evening passes in din of chatter, trail mix and homework assignments. Eventually, I drag Corey to the stands to watch the men’s 5000. We both agree we’re much happier as mid-distance runners.

IMG_6275
Napping, stretching, eating, doing homework. #tracklife

I’m still feeling defeated. I’m a little ashamed of how relieved I am that I fell over the hurdle, because I needed those two seconds on the ground, because I’m not sure my body could have kept going, because I was worried my time would be so much worse than last week.

I’m still feeling a little detached from this whole experience, still feeling like I don’t belong, feeling like maybe I’m wasting my time here. Maybe everyone’s right – I’m twenty-five and working two jobs. I’m years behind in getting the degree. Why am I frittering away my time with college athletics. Isn’t it time to grow up?
Corey and I climb down the bleachers and cross the field to the start of the 4×400 relay race. Our girl’s team is a bit sparse. Runners one and two are short-distance sprinters. They don’t run the 400 very often. Runners three and four have already done two big events today and they’re tired.

But there they are, all lined up and ready to go.

It’s the same routine.

On your marks, set, gun shot.

I stand there on the side of the track and watch four young women do something incredible. They run together.

Every blood-bursting second of excruciating effort, they push through with unshakable will. And more than with their individual events, they lay out their spirits here because there is a girl at the end of the lap waiting earnestly for them to pass the baton.

This is teamwork.

IMG_6359

Even from the sidelines, I feel myself flying along the track with them and I want so much to be a part of it. I am reminded of why I got into sports reporting years ago, why I feel so strongly that athletics are an important part of our community, why I filled out a request form to join the school’s cross country nine months ago.

This is does make us better people. This turns us into people who are not afraid of pain. This teaches us the irreplaceable value of working together. This inspires us to dream, and then insists that we work to reach those dreams. And if our hopes are disappointed, it teaches us to hold our heads high, walk it off and say, “next time.”

This is whole experience – the pain, the practice, the teamwork, the hopes, the hopes crushed – has made me a fuller person. I can empathize with the human experience in a way I couldn’t before. My perception of people and what drives them has broadened. I have been taken from my high-horse, I have been humbled, I have been broken and rebuilt.

And yet, none of this is why I have stayed in track. We can get life experience anywhere.

I’ve stayed because I love it. For whatever unexplainable reason, I love this.

The grueling three hour practices, the indescribable pain of pushing every muscle to its farthest fiber, the agony of defeat and the alluring promise of a brighter tomorrow, and this team. These people. My coaches and friends.

Maybe it’s a luxury I can’t afford, to spend so much time doing something with no practical impact on where I plan to go in life. But at least I know why I’m here.

When this very special season of my life comes to its early end and I have to say ‘goodbye’ to this team I adore so much, I will hold my head high and find another race to run, another team to love, another impossible dream to chase. Because this is life, the unending search for joy and self-betterment.

 

Mary vs the fear of falling

img_20170126_170208

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’

collages1

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.”

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

img_20161208_144134

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.

pictures7

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.

img_20161129_203330

“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.

img_20161005_173858

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

jaglyfe

“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.

sweet-dreams-cross-country
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.

img_20161030_005142
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.

img_20161008_110333

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.

img_20160907_172722
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.

img_8823
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.

img_8785

once a teacher

img_20160906_085443There it was. Bright red and gleefully tucked beneath the clear folds of plastic wrap and blue ribbon, my very first “Teacher’s Apple.”

It’s an idea I have loved since I first spotted it in the soft colors of Norman Rockwell paintings kept in a book beneath our living room coffee table. Giving the teacher an apple. How classically, iconically American.

Needless to say, it wasn’t really something I experienced in the Czech Republic. Oh, I was begifted with plenty of little treasures, but apples were never a thing there as far as I could tell.

So beginning at my new little school this year, ten minutes away from where I grew up, has been…Well, it’s been a long time in coming.

My tumultuous year away from my Czech students in Prague was reaching an excruciating peak in March when I was contacted by this little school to see if I was interested in a teaching position.

I wasn’t.

Already, I was mapping out a survival plan for my remaining three years of college education here in San Diego and teaching part time at a tiny Christian school was just not in the cards. It wouldn’t be Prague, you know? And I would be too busy.

But I have trouble saying, “No” to people, so the next thing I knew, I was in the middle of a phone call with a board member and then in the middle of an interview with the entire school board and then negotiating hours.

None of it held any large office space in my mind. I was in the middle of several meltdowns in April and May, mostly involving finals and anxiety about my trip back to Prague in the summer for some final goodbyes and a little closure.

And all the while, I assumed I would turn the job down eventually. Something wouldn’t work out. Because how could it? This school wasn’t mine. It wasn’t Prague, remember?

And yet an insatiable curiosity kept pulling me along. This was no longer an inability to be an adult and say, “No, thank you, but I just can’t.”

There was a turning point, I remember.

During the full-board interview, after being sufficiently and terrifyingly grilled on my values, virtues and skill sets (most of which I may have slightly oversold), the Chairman leaned back, pointed his sharp eyes on me and said in his gruff voice, “Is there anything you’d like to ask us?”

I thought for a moment, whispers of my little Czech students still echoing in my ears all these months later, and said, “Tell me about the kids.”

All heads turned to the Chairman, who had been to this point the most intimidating figure in the room. He softened. He smiled. He said, “Let me tell you about them.”

I don’t remember what he said, but I remember how he said it. He said it with the same tenderness I have felt for my own little okurky. He said spoke about them with affection and hope, as though he could vividly see all the promises held in their futures lined out like golden stepping stones and he wanted more than anything to help them jump from one to the next.

And I knew that feeling so well.

So I took the job.

img_20160909_111227
Harvey, the fake owl that sits on my candy bowl. He is a dear friend.

I rearranged my school and work schedules. I found minutes in the day I didn’t know existed until I had all the time I needed to make everything fit. I read text books. I made lesson plans. I drafted a friend into decorating my classroom for me.

And on the first day of school, I found myself on the receiving end of an apple. The girl was quick about it. She placed it in my hand and then dashed away.

For three and a half hours, I made my way through high school level English and Spanish. Then I packed my things, locked my classroom and dashed off to campus to begin a round of back to back college lectures.

All week, I was in and out so quickly, I barely noticed the flurry of paperwork and signatures and beginners ‘how to’s’ I still needed to walk through. I did notice the other teachers graciously asking, “How’s it going? Are you doing okay?”

And I was, surprisingly.

After teaching several hundred students of all grades in a different language in the Czech Republic, a room of six high schoolers who all understand English seemed too easy. It was like training for a marathon and then running a mile.

On top of this, it was good to be back in the classroom. Indoctrinating a new generation of children on the importance of adverbs and explaining complex grammatical concepts with shoddily drawn stick figures. Having a little room with a little desk to sit behind (or on, as is more often my case). Having tiny people just bursting to ask questions, push buttons and grow into themselves.

img_20160907_120636img_20160912_111531

It wasn’t until Friday, the end of the first week, that I felt it. A realization. A revelation. A homecoming.

As my new students waltzed out of the room, practically singing, “See you on Monday!”, tripping over themselves to get to lunch, I felt a little tug on the cords of my heart. The same tug I always felt when school let out in Prague. It would be a whole weekend before I saw my students again.

My new school isn’t my old one. I knew that going in. I am very aware of it now. And I know that nothing will replace what Prague was to me.

But I think God knew I needed to be back in a classroom. I think maybe he’s been wanting me here and I was too stubborn to go on my own, so he just kind of pushed me into one.

When the Chairman bustles into my classroom with his gravelly voice and his broad smile and asks, “How are you doing?” – I tell him I’m doing well, that I like it here, that it feels like a good fit.

But the truth is, it’s more than that. It feels like home.