I am a reluctant and deeply untalented runner. This beautiful fact is the main way I have found to practice being bad at something and just doing it anyhow. For five years I have remained stunned at the gifts I have limped away with, no matter how graceless my path becomes. I stumble, I quit, I trudge, I walk and I lapse altogether in this endeavor, but there is some kind of gem that brings me back again and again. And that gem is failure.
The wonderful thing about failing is that life offers us an endless supply of practice opportunities. Each day we can burn the toast, snap at our handsome partner when they didn’t deserve it, piss our co-worker off, miss a deadline, get a ticket, or just put together a terrible outfit. It happens. I mean it happens all the time. And maybe we don’t catalog these little events because they are so common, they become unnotable. Or maybe they feel humiliating or squishy so our defenses kick in and erase the painful emotional tendrils as fast as possible. It’s actually what we are built for. Pain Amnesia. I mean if we could really connect with the brutal feelings of agony in each daily moment, why would we keep having kids? How could athletes rehab their knees over and over just to have them blow out again? How could we keep submitting our poems to journals only to have them brushed off by busy, underpaid, distant editors with little time to cushion our fragile egos? Our minds do us the favor of forgetting so we can stay safe, but also, and more importantly, so we can try again.
For me, running has been my true vessel of fantastic failures. I mean I am TERRIBLE at it. People don’t really believe me when I tell them that because I’ve been doing it for half a decade now, which is hard to believe as I type this. But I am not being self-effacing or asking for support or anything. I know I suck at it and somehow through some kind of divine endowment, I am able to engage with it anyhow. I’m the kind of lady that likes to do things I’m good at. There is nothing that feels more searing to me than a bout of humiliation or letting the world get a glimpse of my emotional slip as I run from a zombie invasion or some other catastrophe that is clearly not interested in the showcasing of my undergarments. I hate shaving but then get mad when it’s time to look fancy and my stubble comes to the party. In my life as a writer, I have nights when I feel so much more invested in how an audience reacts than having done the writing. It’s hellish on a Leo ego when the crowd flatlines. Stab me instead. So when I tell you I’m bad at running, I MEAN it. I’m slow and graceless, no rhythm or gait for it. I don’t pick it up like people do with languages or musical instruments. It’s a struggle and I don’t even really improve much. When I put the practice in, I can go for long periods, but then I’m a bad student as well and never try to do exercises to fix my stride or get quicker. I’m afraid of trail running and have a recurrent daymare featuring the sound of an ankle snapping. I use the word snap because it types itself out across my mind, like a predictable and boring scriptwriter. There are tons of things I don’t do to become a “better runner” because as it turns out, I am not running so I can improve.
THIS IS ASTONISHING
I hate being bad at anything. Or I used to. But then I started running. At 38 I decided I had a good life, I wanted to feel happy in my later years which meant getting off the couch in the present and investing in my body. I did, after all, live here, and years of shitty landlords taught me a good deal about what happens to a neglected house. I was done being a shitty landlord to a perfectly good life. The truth is, I am in love with Ginger and I thought about how someday we’d be retired and together and it’d be nice to be able to travel and hike and DO SHIT. I knew that living life in front of Ellen shows and bags of chips wasn’t the key to the future I wanted. I started slow. Then some kind of intervention happened where my favorite non-profit arts organization, RADAR Productions, lost a bunch of funding for a residency they do that really changed my life. I wanted to help so I did something pretty much insane. I called my friend Sarah and asked her if it was possible to get off a couch in December and finish a whole marathon by the end of July. And in particular, the SF Marathon with it’s cruel terrain and gorgeous vistas. She sounded doubtful, but said she’d help me. And so by using the love for this organization and my fear of humiliation, I decided to go public with my task assuming that failing to either raise the money or finish the race in public would be too much for me to handle. The combination would help me to do it. I had no choice but to do it. And I did. (You can read about it here.) Now maybe it’s codependent that I could not make this commitment to myself and my health and instead I needed to do it for some other reason, but that’s the best I could do then, so Thank the Goddess for Co-dependency, I say.
But the first thing I did was try to do a 5k. I signed up for the Pride Run with my friend Beth. I finished the thing upon my first try but I had to walk for about a full minute of it. Instead of crossing the finish line in triumph, I fell into Ginger’s arms in a heap of true despair living in the entire darkness of those walking steps. I didn’t finish it the way I imagined so I named the whole thing a failure and just sobbed like a baby. Snot and everything. A real scene.
This past weekend, many 5ks, a few 10s, a coupla half-marathons, and a marathon later, I had the opportunity to visit this race again for the 5th year in a row. To be clear, I made several bad choices leading up to the race. One is that I didn’t train for it. At all. I’ve been spending most of my time on the elliptical machine at the gym watching ESPN and doing almost no road work. I knew I wasn’t totally ready. On top of that, I saw a new trainer the day before and worked muscle groups that hadn’t seen any action since The Breakfast Club opened in theaters. And not to be totally outdone by my own questionable choices, Mother Nature chimed in with her Red Wave that very morning, making it clear I’d be lugging my barren, sloughing uterus around Golden Gate park with me and all the other gays. My old co-workers would be there, my new clients, old friends. Plenty of people to embarrass myself in front of. And on the fifth anniversary of this whole thing, my left hip locked up early and I had to do some walking. I finished the race with my absolute WORST 5k time of all the timed 5ks in my life.
And it felt fine. I ended up running alongside people I hadn’t seen in years, chatting with them and catching up. I got to cross the finish line with an ex-coworker who was finishing her very first 5k ever. I actually got to enjoy the park, thank the volunteers as I passed them. It felt just fine to be bad at it. To have made bad choices and let that be ok. I mean for me, that’s the biggest victory I could have. That’s how I got better in the last 5 years.
Being bad at running has given me a ton of incredible gifts so I thought I’d list a few of them. My Treasure Chest of Failure’s Spoils.
1. I run without music or a phone. Which means for as long as I’m out there, no one can find me. Time is mine and mine alone. I could be anyplace. So life becomes solely about the moments I have on the run. There is no email. No FaceBook. There are no errands or phone calls. I am entirely unplugged and just with it, the breath, the footfalls, my slow pace in my body. There is no way around the fact that I am choosing this solely for my well-being and that must mean I have grown some value for myself.
2. I have loved getting to know my city this way. I feel like such a citizen as I cruise through these neighborhoods and smiling at the people I may never see again. Sometimes people encourage me, tell me to keep it up. Other times they nod back in their run as well, we runners all in it together, no matter how slow. And then I become a citizen of my body this way, counting my breaths, a moving meditation covering more ground than I ever thought.
3. I found that if I can do this, I can really attempt anything. It made me realize how much joy I rob myself of in this fear of humiliation or looking foolish. If I let myself be bad at something and like it, imagine how much fun shit I’ve been avoiding because I fear that awkward beginner place. Running has given me broader possibilities in life, and a friendlier relationship to being less than great, which is a much more common experience than being exceptional.
4. My body is healthier. Period. And my willingness to be slow and awkward lets me go to the gym and work out, hit the street and jog, and really practice the idea that what other people think of me is none of my fucking business. Of course people will judge me. Notice I’m pudgy and slow. But they notice that anyhow and I still have the responsibility to take care of my body. I live here. They don’t.
5. It’s a great way to see a city. I’ve gone running in Palm Springs, Chattanooga, Sudbury, Albany, Los Angeles, New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Akumal, Isla Mujeres, Greenfield, Portland, and who knows where else. I remember waking up Christmas morning in a hotel in Chattanooga TN and running over that river saying Merry Christmas to all these strangers until I found myself weeping a little with the endorphines and the strange open heart they bring.
6. Runner’s high? It’s real. I experience it as an alchemy of wholeheartedness that re-shifts my focus each time, and always ending each run with meaning on top.
7. Being a terrible runner helped me find my new profession of being a health coach. That’s a whole other story, but just take my word for it.
And 8. My lucky number: Being bad at running, truly failing at it, taught me that sometimes the attempt and the practice are the destination. I don’t run to become a better runner. I run to practice failing in life because each failure gives us a million gateways to possibility. And in every way, those great failures have brought me here. And it’s a good day.