As you've probably noticed, I don't blog as often as I used to. Of course, that (probably) has something to do with teaching four full sections of Freshman Composition courses at a University (I've never taught four full sections of anything, so the load has taken, ahem, some getting used to). Or, as a former professor said to me yesterday: "If you are teaching four sections of composition, there is no way that you are even remotely doing O.K." But, admittedly, there's something else: something I realized last week when I stepped back into the racing scene; something I realized when I actually sat down to think about my goals moving forward as an athlete.
My first thought on that starting line and my first thought before I ease into the pool, clip into the bike or slip into my shoes has been for nearly two years: what, anymore, is the point?
I'm not trying to be overly dramatic here, but setting goals-- and the attempt to achieve them-- is a huge part of who I am. I write in order to convey ideas, emotions, thoughts and to play with the expressive capacity of language. But I also write because I want to publish my work-- I want to become an established, successful writer. Of course words like "established" and "successful" require definitions-- but "establishment" suggests a regular rhythm, routine and presence: I don't want to be the one-hit-wonder of memoirs or blogs or even of a daily writing practice. I want writing to be a part of my life, just like training and breathing are. "Success", too, is not necessarily based in monetary gains in and of itself (although that would be nice) but rather the ability of my words to effect change in the world around me. If I can express something new and interesting that, in turn, inspires someone else to think or do something (or, even to write something) new and interesting, I consider my job as a writer fulfilled. I know I'm not there yet, but I'm trying and as a mentor has told me: I have all the tools to improve. Perhaps what I need is more pages and more time. Or maybe a lot more coffee!
With athletics, however, my goals are no longer so clearly defined. I wanted to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Trials. I failed to do so. And then, I had a series of injuries that have kept me away from the sport. Coming back, I've discovered I can no longer maintain the running mileage necessary to compete in marathons. I break down, my tendons snap and those are the types of absolute failures I'd rather not repeat. So, what's next? And why do I keep on practicing?
What, as an athlete, do I hope to achieve?
I think, in this capacity, my athletic "career" (hobby? obsession? distraction?) shares something with my writing. It's about self-expression. I am many things, but above all of them, I consider myself the kind of person who willingly wakes up every day at 4:45 am so that I can swim or cycle or run and contemplate what it means that it took me X-amount of minutes (or hours) to cover a certain distance.
But it's more than that, too. Perhaps it has something to do with our idea of excellence. After all, the Ancient Greeks arguably invented athletic competition not only as physical endeavors to test the body's strength, but also as a measure of personal (emotional, intellectual and in a way, spiritual) strength. To win was to win on all counts: to be the best you could-- to be strong in all senses of the word.
This is embodied in the trail-tempo run I did yesterday with the team: how I broke away from the group who followed the coach's instructions to run moderately hard and I decided to run harder than that. Down a dark canyon at dawn that was dusted in frost and up its sides on a switchback trail, Reno awoke to the dawn in the changing guards of lights-- as the sun shone brighter, the casinos resigned their neon lights to sleep until the next coming of darkness. Up the trail, hopping over rocks and drainage ditches, winding my way through the high desert with my breath forming miniature clouds to light my way: I felt like a champion.
I wasn't, I know. But I felt it as though it was real. The way I was out in front, leading. The way nothing could cause me to slow down. And the way, today, how I met all the intervals of the swim set the coach could give me: never deviating from the time I set for myself on the first one, even when my rest dwindled to mere seconds, off I'd go: five strokes to each breath and making it back with out an alteration in any of it, as though I was a machine.
But again that question: what is the point?
I am not young, really, not anymore. I cannot run marathons. I cannot become a fantastic swimmer (although I think I've become a proficient one, which is an accomplishment I treasure.) I'm not even entirely sure that my 2:47 marathon time has much meaning aside from what I know it took for me to get there (the hours of running, the injuries, the sacrifices of not seeing family and friends, the toll--even-- on my writing.)
So, indeed: what does it mean?
I wish I had an answer. The only thought which comes to me-- again and again-- is this: Heraclitus (an ancient Greek philosopher) said that life itself is transitory. Most people remember him not by his name, but his idea that life is like a river or a creek: that you can't step into the same one twice. Things change, in other words, and change itself is the nature of existence.
In stepping onto a starting line-- or even, of running the trails, of swimming hard interval workouts, of saddling up on my bike-- I can only say that I am still here, training despite all the reasons I shouldn't (or can't!) Despite the awful things that can happen to a person-- and, even, despite the good-- I'm here, doing the things I love.
I write and I run, swim and ride. Perhaps I haven't won recognition for any-- but recognition is not the thing itself. And the thing itself is why I wake up so early before the sun and why I endure the awful dry-cold of Nevada-winter and why I probably always will. It's those quiet moments: the light before a storm, the absolute quiet attention of a hard swim; the cadence of a sharp climb on a bike, the wind in my face, the rain and the mud and the rocks which slip from under your shoes and the hard burn in the legs and lungs and heart and the fatigue and enduring it all anyway-- that define myself to me.
And so, for now anyway, that is more than enough.