The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

“There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other.” ~ J. K. Rowling

This is a story about running.

For most of my life, beginning in high school you could define me in a number of ways; many of them somewhat tainted I would imagine. But above all, since the day that I joined my high school’s cross country team I could best be defined as a runner.

It was what I did; before work, during work, after work; in the city, through forests, on beaches and in foreign lands. I got lost in New York, took an early morning run through the Gettysburg Battlefield, watched the sunrise over the Washington Monument in D.C and ran between the columns of the Piazza San Pietro in the Vatican. Running was rooted in who I was. It both satisfied me and frustrated me to the point of throwing away a few pairs of perfectly good running shoes and swearing I would never run again. At times the ups and downs of running strained my marriage.

Unlike many runners I’ve never romanticized running. The whole notion of crediting running with opening some mystical window that reveals the meaning of life has always made as much sense to me as pouring a fine old single malt Scotch into the toilet. While I’ve loved the highs of running and hated down times with a blind rage I never bought into the mumbo jumbo, that absurd sports voodoo, of running as some sort of spiritual panacea. There’s never been any zen involved. It’s just exercise that occasionally provided the added bonus of sightseeing. It didn’t provide me with any philosophical insights or solve my problems or relieve stress. It certainly wasn’t going to get me closer to God unless I was unlucky enough for my heart to seize up in mid-stride and in that case there was never any guarantee that I wouldn’t end up looking for the ice water station in that other place.

This is also a story of my dearest friend Ivy (not her real name) who I met at a former workplace. She came from war torn Southeast Asia when she was a baby. When we met I was 45 and she was 25. I was a buyer and Ivy was the overqualified Microsoft certified IT person; both of us marooned on the dreary, godforsaken island of industrial distribution.

Over time we became friends, chatted during down time, went out for lunch and commiserated with each other about life at the rock pile. And then she found out that I was a runner and told me that she was a wannabe runner and gee wouldn’t it be great to go running together on weekends? With an expression that must have resembled the distress of finding out too late that the toilet paper roll is empty I had to gag back the response I so wanted to express, “Oh hell no, why would I want to waste my long weekend runs lugging around the dead weight of a newbie? What in the wide, wide world of sports would compel me to run a pedestrian pace and listen to whining about nagging aches, a little fatigue or needing to take bathroom breaks?” But instead I croaked out, “Uh, yeah, that sounds like a great idea.” Ugh.

For years my cardinal rule was to run solely by myself, free of chit-chat, complaints and anything slower than 6 or 7 minute miles. Oh there were those informal partners, the ones who I might happen upon in the middle of a run who were of the same mindset. Those partners were temporaries and we wordlessly agreed to pace each other. Churning along we would sidle up next to each other and issue the silent, mutual challenge. One sets the pace for a while and then gives it up for the other to set. No talking and no sound beyond lungs working and footfalls on the pavement. At the end it’s just, “Thanks for the run,” a sweaty handshake and goodbye for good. Those were always the best.

And then there was Ivy. Our first run was more jog-walk-walk-jog-walk-walk-“can we stop now?” The next few were more or less the same story and this was clearly going to be a problem. Weekends had always been set aside for long runs and clearly Ivy didn’t have 10 miles in her; 10 minutes would have been a lofty upgrade. And then one day she got shin splints and had to sit it out for a month. I told her that was a damn shame but resisted the urge to tell her the scurvy lie that shin splints never go away – ever. “Dude, I’m sorry but you’ll never run again.”

But alas the truth is that shin splints are not a forever thing and they didn’t deter Ivy in the least so when she did get better she was ready to go again. Maybe I should clarify something here. I did like her. At the office she was my “work wife” and I her “work husband.” I just didn’t want to run with her; just like I had no desire to run with my wife – you know, the real one.

One day, maybe it was in desperation, I suggested something a little different and we took a drive to Stinson Beach, an hour or so north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Stinson Beach, named after Nathan Stinson who had the foresight to buy that bit of oceanfront property in 1866, is 2 ½ miles of pool table flat sand. It’s a joy to run along that little narrow stripe of beach between waves and dunes where the ocean laps up to the sand hardening it just enough to make running comfortable. I’ve done up to 20 miles there, running multiple end to end laps.

It was at Stinson on this particular day that something clicked with Ivy and everything changed. I don’t know how long we went for, not far I’m sure, but there were no stops, no complaints, no aches or pains. She never revealed what it was that flipped the switch; the comfortable sand, the ocean air or enjoying the beach sounds while running. Maybe it was the thing that I most enjoy about a beach run; bare feet slapping the icy Northern California Pacific waters and then, after having covered miles, discovering that from your belly down you got drenched in splashed sea water and never realized it. It’s a clean, bracing feel that chills the legs and staves off fatigue. Maybe it was none of that. Maybe it was just meant to be the special day, whether it was running along the Pacific Ocean or past the local landfill. Whatever it was, she was coming off the back straight and turning the corner from jogger to runner. A slow one but a runner nonetheless.

The Stinson run marked the beginning of something that 9 times out of 10 I would have rejected outright. Stinson was the 1 out of 10 that began a running partnership that would last for years. Our arrangement to run on weekends required a rearrangement of my part. I decided to make my runs with Ivy as a sort of an add on to my regular schedule. I simply made Saturdays and Sundays double days; running with her in the morning and by myself in the afternoon.

The goal changed from gritting through the Ivy runs to helping her along. My aim for her was three fold; get stronger, get faster and stay healthy. Marrying those three means that you don’t just step out the door and put one foot in front of the other. The shoes have to be properly suited to the runner’s foot and biomechanics; improvement while staying injury free requires the correct mix of increased intensity and rest and speed requires efficiency of movement. And that’s just the short version. I’m not sure how Ivy chose her shoes. I was pretty sure that the first pair contributed to the shin splints. As for the rest of it, Ivy was not coachable – at all.
“Drop your hands and try to maintain an easy arm swing, your hands are all bunched up in your chest.”
“Okay,” she said, hands huddled under her chin.
“Open your stride a little on the flat and take choppy steps uphill.”
“Okay,” she said as she just did her own unique stride.
“Don’t look up at the top of the hill. Just focus on a few yards in front and take it point to point.”
“Okay,” as she gazed at the summit.
“Stretch.”
“I’ll stretch later.”

For twenty or so years I had steadfastly refused to run with anyone unless it was part of a team. I suffered through a girlfriend or two who gave it a try. There was one run with a twit named Chuck who, during a run in Golden Gate Park, opined that all Asians were, in his words, “lesser beings.” He apparently didn’t know that I was dating a Korean woman at the time so in mid-run I bid him farewell, picked up the pace and left him to the derelicts and the coyotes who roam the park when the sun goes down. It was a move that was mostly an allegorical commentary on his attitude and less annoyance with his pace. “You suck man,” he said when he returned with darkness descending. And then there was my wife and she was absolutely hopeless. She thought I was just nutty. “Why did I marry this American with his stupid running?” she would say to herself.

Ivy changed it all. We ran on weekend mornings, early, while my wife and kids were still in bed. Our start/finish was always at a place where we could get morning coffee after our run. After running we would stretch….wait, I would stretch and she would tell me the usual whopper about stretching later. After stretching it was coffee and an hour or two of conversation.

The Embarcadero in San Francisco was the absolute best. The Embarcadero is a promenade that runs along the bayfront starting at the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark and ending around Fisherman’s Wharf. The run doesn’t have to end there though. If you want you can go past Ghirardelli Square (on a good day you can detour over to the chocolate shop and get a free sample), then through Fort Mason where in hilly San Francisco you find the only hill on this run. You then drop down from Fort Mason to the Marina Green, past the yachts in the harbor on one side and the multi-million dollar homes on the other. Once past the Marina Green you pass through Crissy Field all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. The whole route, from ballpark to the Golden Gate is an endless parade of runners, nodding to each other in passing.

After our Embarcadero run we would visit the big Farmers’ Market at the Ferry Building where there was an endless supply of free samples; plums, plucots, pears, apples, oranges, sausages, cheeses and clumps of French bread dipped in olive oils. There were samples of baked goods and pastries and specialties like samosas and all of them were free, free, free. There were enough samples to make a nice meal.

But the best free part was the companionship We weren’t just running partners we had become best friends and confidants. During our runs and after we would vent about work, politics, the state of things, life in general and of course personal problems. We talked about movies and books and music. I was changed but not completely. Ivy was the one in ten. There weren’t going to be other running partners. But then Ivy wasn’t just a running partner now. She was my best friend.

I tried to keep my routine of reserving the Ivy days as double days but she had developed so much that the double days were done. During most weekdays we would run on our own though there were some weekdays when we would meet up after work (she’d long ago found a better job but we were close enough to still be able to meet) and go for a run.

As she continued to improve I warned her, “You need to start a running log so that you can track your progress, have a good mix of hard and easy and build gradually. It’s all part of staying healthy.”
“Okay.”
“How’s the log going?”
“I haven’t started it.”
“You know you are really NOT coachable.”
So I kept the log for her. She emailed me her workouts and I set up a log on my computer and gave her a suggested schedule for upcoming weeks.

The goal was to get her into double digit miles. With time, increased fitness and a bit of luck (because you never know when you’ll get sick or injured) the mileage kept gaining new heights. Nine and a half miles; we were just about touching the summit and we planned a Saturday run to actually get to the crest.

On double digit day we went to the Embarcadero and started at the baseball stadium. The plan, 5 miles along the bay front, to the Palace of Fine Arts, turn around, done. On this day Ivy brought a co-worker along and he turned out to be the weakest link. We ended up at 9 miles. Years later she would complete more than 10 miles and while I was happy for the accomplishment I was more than a little heartbroken; she’d done it with another friend. She’d always been my own protégé, my own partner and I’d always hoped it would be me to get her to the summit.

Even though I didn’t get Ivy to double digits it was fulfilling to see her progress. She never did improve on the form; hands tucked into her chest with no arm swing and the choppy steps that you reserve for uphill running. That is unless she was going uphill. It was then that she opened up her stride. Not uncoachable – outright stubborn. On the other hand she’d become a runner; not a plodder or a jogger but a real runner.

She’d reached the point to where she disdained running with co-workers and other friends because they were too slow. She got competitive in workouts,
“See that guy up there? Let’s catch him and pass him.”

Even though in practice she occasionally blew off my training schedule she at least accepted it philosophically, complaining to me one day that a friend of hers would string too many recovery days together. Like many runners she hated hills but even more she hated the notion of giving up in the middle of one. And no wonder. Her genes were very kind to her because the quads she developed were such that I gave her the nickname, “quadzilla.”

There’s a scrapbook recorded in my heart of the memories of years of running together; the different venues, the snacking on free samples, assuring her that the run at Wildcat Canyon was dotted with bathrooms that turned out never existed unless you count bushes. the occasions when we got lost and the satisfaction that came with every goal we hit.

But the best memory of all is of the nurturing times. Those times when one of us was recovering from an injury or had a cold or was, as was sometimes the case, just not feeling it. It was here that love set in.

After an injury or an illness one of us invariably lost fitness and had to work back into shape. It was during those times that the other would ease back during our runs together; slow down the pace, back down the miles, stop and walk for a bit or just beg off altogether and go straight for the coffee.

I was recovering from the flu and we were out running in Berkeley. I kept having to stop to cough up a lung and catch my breath. Ivy simply stopped running and we walked until I could run a bit and then she’d wait again while I hacked up something green and ugly.

Ivy was prone to nagging injuries (yeah the bogus running log and phantom stretching thing) and there were times when I’d notice that something wasn’t working as it should.
“Are you limping?”
“No.”
“Yes you are. Let’s stop and walk.”
“No.”
“Okay, you go on limping ahead. I’m walking.”
“Fine, we’ll walk then.”

One morning we were running along the recreation paths in the rich little community of Orinda and Ivy’s stride started listing to starboard a bit and we just stopped and walked our workout while sneaking peeks into the backyards of the rich folk.
“Look at that garden.”
“That one has a tennis court AND a pool.”

That was not the me of years before when I wouldn’t suffer stopping to walk. In those days it would have been, “Why don’t you turn and walk back and I’ll catch you on the way back.” But that’s not to say that we didn’t do that as well. There were those times when one of us was in a zone and the other would simply concede,
“I’m not into it today. Keep on going, pick me up on the way back and be careful.”

We went through a period in which we entertained the idea of running in a race together. Well, lets qualify that. Together meant that we would start with each other but once we started running I wasn’t going slow down if she couldn’t hang and that was fine with her. We did one race together for Susan G. Komen and that was only because we supported the cause. The idea of doing a half-marathon came up now and then but I’d long ago given up on the whole race thing. After I’d hit 30, when it got to the point that I couldn’t see the lead pack anymore and race promoters doled out medals and athletic swag bags to everyone, I no longer considered them races. They had become happenings; timed runs in a sardine can of humanity, dodging elbows and the oblivious ones who insisted that they needed earbuds.

But Ivy wanted to give it a try and so she signed up for a half-marathon in Disneyland. She ended up running that half-marathon and it didn’t turn out well. From home I tracked her progress online. It was pedestrian. I thought that she would leave her comrades behind but they all finished before her. After the race, she told me her finish time; it was a glacial pace.
“What happened?”
Early on she twisted her ankle and was in significant pain. As she put it, though she was not going to not get the finishers’ medal. She limped through the whole thing and finished and in that sense I admired her courage for doing that.

It was a short little note written on a scrap of paper. “Thank you for everything. Love, Ivy.”
It’s only one simple line that pierces memory. A six word portent of life as a highwire act. One bobble, one misstep, one gust of air and it’s all done. Everything changes. Nothing is the same and there are no do overs.

Not everything has a happy ending, and not everything has an ending. Some things just kind of dribble away or cut off abruptly.” ~ Susanna Kaysen

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