Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mercury In Retrograde

Just let me get the races started, then I'm going to tell you a story that will make your (yeti) balls shrink to the size of raisins.

All week in my head I had been paraphrasing Spike from Knotting Hill, rehearsing the telling a self-indulgent tale of woe that would illicit great sympathy and nods of awe from an enthralled audience.  I had promised Alyssa Adreani, co-captain of the Start/Finish aid station at the TARC100, the first telling of the epic, at 6:05 AM on Saturday, October 10, just five minutes after the TARC 100K commenced.  I was eager to share, in part catharsis for the absolute absurdity of the previous five days, in part because Alyssa is (by nature and trade) an incredibly compassionate person, and I knew she'd appreciate the tale, and in part because I simply wanted people to hear how crazy my week had been.  The 100K started.  6:05 passed.  My story did not commence.

- - -

Thirty-six hours before, on Thursday afternoon, I had been in my classroom, hurriedly packing and cleaning, as I would be out the next day to prepare for the TARC100.  Getting home for my son's soccer practice was my last grasp at "normal" before the race-day whir of directing a 100K and 100-miler began.  As I stacked the next-day's papers in place and zippered my bag to exit, Ed McCabe, a great friend and partner from the Boston Rowing Center, entered.  Ed and I can spend hours discussing education, outdoor experiential learning, and life in general. This was the first conversation we've ever had that I've had to cut short, and I explained what, at that point, had been the previous 3 days as an excuse for not having the time to talk.  Ed, in his old, sea-dog sort of way, looked at me with his piercing, ocean eyes, and said, "Look brother: dont' worry.  I don't know what you think about astrology and all that shit, but let me leave you with two words: Retrograde Mercury." He went on to explain the idea, which I will summarize as such: Mercury in retrograde is an astrological phenomenon that makes shit bad.  Everything. Not one to believe in such snake oil for 99.9% of my life, the absolute farce of the previous days left me open to any sort of vaguely-plausible explanation.  Mercury in retrograde. There it was.  The best I could do. "And the best part, my friend?" Ed ended his explanation. "It's all over tomorrow." That was something I could embrace.  Mercury in effing retrograde and it effing ends Friday night before the race.

- - -

Immediately following the yeti howl marking the 100K start, I felt a bit of weight lifted from my shoulders.  As an RD, the bulk of the work was now turned over to the team, and I knew they were incredible (I will never be able to capture exactly how impressed by and grateful for everyone who helped make this race happen I am (I have tried multiple times already). Knowing how incredible most of them were going in, high expectations were shattered. Countless times). So, with runners several hours away, I was truly looking forward to sitting down and recounting the drama of the last week to Alyssa and the assembled audience of the start/finish crew.  I was actually smiling in anticipation.  As I met up with Alyssa, ready to weave the tale, my attention was stolen, "JOSH! We've got one last runner for the 100K!  He showed up late!  Can he still start?" Well, of course! A quick selfie with said runner, and he was off, into the dawning day, chasing those in front of him. And then we had to show the crews who would be trailing the runners all day how to get to the various support points. Story time was further delayed. 

Those very runners and crews are the ones who thoroughly changed the narrative I am telling now.  Leading to race day, the narrative had been defined by chaos.  By a series of events, each more absurd and implausible than the next.  If one of these had happened to me in a decade, it would have been par for the course of my life. To have all of this happen in just a matter of days?  I came to expect bad things to happen.  Yet, as the race clock continued to tick away the minutes and hours, so the day chipped away this narrative of negativity.  As the sun rose, it illuminated a new narrative, one encompassing of the entire human experience: lose and suffering, of those whose imagined race was stolen away, by a bad fall, a turned ankle, or an uncooperative psyche; joy, in the smiles and wry comments from those on course, from those volunteers who could act as goofy and preposterous as we all secretly wish we could but conventional social norms prevent us from being; to passion and grit, on the faces of runners half a day and more into the race; love, emanating from the volunteers to the runners, from the crews to the runners, and from the runners in return; and triumph, as each finisher crossed an arbitrary line, redefining what is known to be possible and impossible.

Every chance I found to tell my previous tale was interrupted.  There were more pressing needs to attend, happier moments to recognize and celebrate, more delicious food to "sample" and serve, other, more important tales to tell and hear.  As night fell on Saturday, a campfire was lit and an intrepid band of souls hunkered down for the hours until the sun would rise again. In my mind, I saw countless generations of humans sharing in this act.  Perhaps our ancestors had not been running 100K or 100-miles, but they had gathered, they had told stories, and they had celebrated the greatness of others before and amongst them. Through the night we stood vigil, waiting for those out on the run, those out on the "hunt" (for what exactly, only they could really know).  When they returned, we cheered, we comforted, we sent them back to the fray, to again await their safe return.  For the first time in the three years of the TARC100 I did not feel a deep fatigue during this night-long ritual.  Fatigue, and the accompanying despair it can often bring, were absent, replaced by a deep sense of gratitude for all those I was sharing this experience with: for each volunteer, sacrificing their time and energy (and sleep!) to help others and doing so with such grace and passion. It was beyond inspiring.  To every runner, who made me appreciate the great focus and determination it takes to raise the bar for yourself. And to the families and friends of each runner, who I know sacrifice much more than we often acknowledge, to allow us to chase these invisible barriers and boundaries, and then are there to make sure it happens.  I've heard that a race is a celebration of everything that came before it.  On this night, I truly learned what this means.  

- - -

In the very earliest hours of Sunday, shortly after the 24-hour mark of the TARC100, I finally had a chance to tell Alyssa the tale that would shrink her yeti balls to the size of raisins.  Even as I told it (and, to be certain, I told it with some relish), in the back of my mind, the story of my "suffering" over the past week, had lost its luster.  What I had seen and experienced over the previous 24-hours, in the 100-mile stare of runners, in the tears shed by competitors and their families, in the celebrations, and the positive energy that flowed around the course, made me want to tell a different narrative.  It made me want to tell this story, the one about how a group of people can take something of significant personal value (running a race) and turn it into a manifesto on humanity.  Turn it into a statement that, despite the pain, the suffering, the negativity that too often pervade our society and world, we are, even in very dark moments, able to move forward to what will be an outcome worth celebrating.  

Perhaps my prose has become hyperbolic or cliched, but, lest my sincerity be doubted, a mere 32-hours before the end of the TARC100, I had gone through what had been, quite possibly, the single most absurd week of my life.  By the end of the race, none of that mattered, and, despite (or, perhaps, because of) having only had two hours of sleep in the previous fifty-six, I was acutely aware of that fact.  I was genuinely happy and grateful for all I had seen transpire.  I was genuinely in awe of every person who had been involved, in every capacity, to make this race happen.  

As I gathered the very last load of gear to return to my house Sunday afternoon, I found myself alone for the first time all weekend.  The beach at the start/finish area had been cleaned and I stood in the dimming sun, staring out across the pond, to the changing foliage reflecting off the water's surface.  My eyes teared up, as I thought about what so many people had just done.  About what so many people had just shared over the previous day and a half.  I had been privileged enough to share a small part of each of those journeys.  All traces of our tragedies and triumphs had been erased, and that I found to be the most beautiful part of all: To the rest of the world, what was done at the TARC100 will be of little immediate consequence.  But for me, and I hope for most that shared in the journey, it will serve as a reminder of the need to strive to do great things.  Not for ourselves, but for those around us.  For those that support us, and for those who will one day need our support to "cross that line," however they define it.  It is in those actions, outside the confines of a race, that we will make such things as the TARC100 of great consequence to rest of the world.

I left the race in time to coach the last half of my son's last soccer game that weekend.  I could barely keep my eyes open, but seeing those kids run and play and giving them high-fives as they came off the field reminded me of all the runners I saw cross that line.  It had just been hours before, but felt worlds away.  And still, it was intimately familiar.  

Driving home from the game, fighting the sleep demons that were now firmly rooted inside my head, I started to laugh (probably a little deliriously): Effing Mercury. In effing retrograde. 

This had been a 100-mile journey that had brought me to an entirely new world.

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