You’re gonna feel a little bit of pressure

My physics professor friend and I have plans to run a half-marathon together in the fall.  In high school this friend and I idealized natural talent over hard work. Getting an A without studying (or even better, not doing the reading at all) was a kind of transcendence, proof that you were smart and didn't simply "work hard." Somewhere in our mid-20s we realized we had it backwards. The half-marathon--for me at least--will be an apotheosis of that reversed-paradigm, favoring hard work over natural talent, the latter when it comes to physical stuff having presented itself as in absentia for the past 34 years.

I'm hoping I can fix my iPod because I need to start running for longer stretches than my usual half hour or 45 minutes. Fixing it is very low down on the list of things to do and Alex insists that it may be beyond fixing. It is after all going on 6 years old and we got it for free (along with the Powerbook). That was a momentous day for our band, buying the Powerbook, because it meant we had Pro tools and our capacity to record just skyrocketed. (It also happened to be the day my younger niece was born. My dad's birthday also...yadda yadda yadda).

For about 2 years I've been mostly running--when at the gym--just staring at the pretend track or 5K course. Alex often watches TV but I find that makes it even harder; you can never get into any kind of rhythm or flow. So instead I just think. Perhaps that's ill-advised for someone with thought patterns as obsessive as mine clearly are. But usually I just think through what I have to do that day or the next day. (The more tired I get the more uphill and impossible it all seems.) Sometimes I think back over the past week, pushing myself to remember it in as much detail as possible. And now with this half-marathon training there are two voiceovers playing on heavy rotation, one galvanizing and the other infuriating. The infuriating one is my father saying, about the elite marathoners, "You couldn't run one quarter mile at the pace they maintain for 26 miles. You could not keep up with them for one single time around the track." And when he says this I know he is not saying it to me in particular, it's not a put down. It's his awe and admiration for such natural talent and speed and grace (and of course, let's not forget immensely hard work, endless grueling workouts, leg pain that never goes away). It is like marveling at Einstein's miracle year or Mozart's symphonies. It's just like -- wow. Can you imagine? But when I feel that awful stitch in my side and I'm caught in the distorted Little Engine loop of "I don't think I can, I don't think I can", his voice in my head sounds like: "You worthless piece of sh*t, you waste of space and oxygen. Why do you even have running shoes? Why do you have a gym membership? You couldn't keep up with these guys for one lousy minute. On your best day with perfect weather, you couldn't sprint as fast as they run for two hours. And then you go home and make iced coffee and pass out reading Rolling Stone. You call that a workout? Pathetic. I know you're half Jewish but, Jesus." 

But there is the other re-occurring marathon voiceover, about having a baby, and that's the encouraging one. People who have done both report that having a baby is harder than running a marathon. I like to keep that in mind. I really don't see how it could be any other way, which reminds me of my sister and I comparing notes after Wally was born. We oddly had the same thought during labor: does getting shot hurt more than this? One would imagine yes, but we couldn't see how that could be. Then again we both had the odd luck of being induced with Pitocen then getting an epidural "too late" in the process. In Dara's case the hospital could not locate the anesthesiologist for several hours. In mine I thought I'd somehow be the 3rd person my Ob-Gyn had seen in the course of 3,000 deliveries who got induced and gave birth without pain medication. So seven hours after Alex had deflated the only partly inflated yoga ball, seven hours after I'd be strapped down with various monitors, the IV drip, the Pitocin (so much for a labor full of lavender baths and "walking it off"), I did finally break down and ask for the epidural. 

We were listening to Dylan and it was snowing outside.  I was told the window on taking the epidural was closing (still don't quite get what this means). With no one able to predict whether it would go on for another hour or another 15, I signed the waiver about accidental death, paralysis, blindness, and so forth and in come the anesthesiologist and his trainee. A NIMBY kind of thought passed through my mind in terms of teaching hospitals, great in theory but behind me I heard pieces of conversation that conjured up the early days of Driver’s Ed.

"My hand is shaking."

"That's okay."


"A little to the left."

For the women who have done both and say having a baby is worse than a marathon--did you have a natural birth? Were you induced? Were you running better than 7-minute miles? It doesn't matter. Pain is a private experience. And we distort and transmute the memories of it anyway. (Don't many posit that to be part of ensuring the continuation of the species?) I can't fathom how some of my friends did totally natural natural births. And say they'd do it again in a heartbeat.

With labor, the point is, as a friend of mine named after a Dylan Thomas poem says, “to get them here.” It doesn’t matter how you do it—natural, narcotic, clamps, vacuum suckers, epidurals, c-sections—just get them safely over on this side. And of course as many others have pointed out, there’s no other invasive and immensely painful procedure for which people would specifically request--insist on--no pain medication at all (unless you’re referring to my dad’s uncle during open heart surgery). Anyway the “So what?” in labor is different from the "So what?" of running and writing. With labor, the process doesn’t matter, it’s the end result that does. With writing and running, unless you’re in it for a competitive sport, it’s the process. It’s the zen you bring to the mountaintop, not the one you find there.* 
I had an environmental journalism professor at Dartmouth, Bob Braille, who liked to tell a story about a time when he was a running coach. There was a student who would inevitably finish last in every race or was it finished really poorly in one crucial race anyway and Bob Braille said, "So what?" He was great at big, dramatic pauses and I remember just sitting there in the room at Baker Library, late winter sun pouring in, looking around the table. It was one of those small classes, 12 students at most, so it had this intimacy to it. You almost felt on the spot in the silence. I don't even remember if he went on to tell the rest of the story, or if he just let it reach its natural conclusion in our minds. 

You ran fast or you ran poorly. You did much better than you expected or you're the greatest skater in the world and on the day it really counts you just can't land that triple axel. Later, if you're Michelle Kwan, you say, "It wasn't my day." So what? We knew what the so what was. That it didn't matter. That impressing people, getting an A on a paper, having others marvel at how fast you can run, that those things don't matter.

When we were doing track in junior high Heather and I used to be so sad and anxious about it. We were the slowest ones. We always came in last or nearly last, walking, bent over, holding our sides. The gym teachers yelled at us. We sometimes cried at night after my dad sang "Goodnight Ladies". (In my memory Heather slept over nearly every night.)  We dreaded gym the next day. My dad reassured us that no matter what happened, the next night we'd be tucked in cozy and safe again, listening to stories and songs, with Heather on the little mattress on the floor next to me, a few hours later Dara crawling into the bed on the other side. It wasn't true, entirely, of course terrible things could have happened to prevent our return to that halcyon scene, but it was true that what happened on the track, no matter how painful or embarrassing, didn't matter. We might come in last again, we might even get yelled at, but so what?

One more thing about the writing classes at Dartmouth. I thought it was really cool that a school that in some ways cared so much about pretense and pedigree had chosen for its Fiction Writing teacher (Ernest Hebert) and Environmental Journalism teacher real writers. Not people who studied anywhere impressive or even had any advanced degrees so far as I know. But they actually wrote, articles for the Boston Globe or novels that got reviewed there. Writers who were praised sometimes and criticized at others -- who felt like king for a day or a lousy piece of sh*t who on his best day couldn't write a greeting card. But in either case they moved on and said "So what?" and got back to the task at hand which in their case was writing. (Neither of them, so far as I know, has yet delivered a baby.)

*"The only Zen you find
on the tops of mountains
is the Zen
you bring up there.” Robert M. Pirsig


  1. From HS to Jewish athletes to giving birth to slanted-sun seminars in Baker Library to marathons and what matters, this blog looks like it's coming at you from forty directions, but that's the beautiful illusion; it wraps around itself like a Mobius strip into a single seamless surface.

  2. what a beautiful post, rach. i've been training - not more than 35 minutes at 12 minute miles and am looking forward to the enjoying a leisurely jog through the vermont fall and covered bridges. it's so frustrating how the process gets muddied by self-doubt, worries of humiliation, failure that contort the experience. so frustrating.

  3. yeah, and that's why they say not to tell your child he/she is smart. results in immediate laziness. it was, like, a proven scientific test.

  4. Hawkeye - what a fantastic comment. I keep reading it. Eli - Thank you. I'm so glad to hear you are training -- was afraid to be one more nagging voice asking about it. Leisurely jog through multicolor trees sounds perfect to me. And it *is* so frustrating--the self-doubt, memories of failure, imagining future ones. That famed runner's high does not attend every workout, more like 1 in 5 at most, for me.
    Kristine- I didn't know that to be proven but it makes so much sense. Funny how it's always a put down when someone is not the best in something but went very far (Madonna criticized for her voice not being phenomenal). Instead of the reaction -- isn't it impressive how far she got? Which reminds me of Eli's passing obsession years ago with that show Drive or was it the idea of the show without having seen it? Same function either way.

  5. Funny, I've come to realize the same reversed thinking in recent years. You just can't teach determination.

    As far as natural child birth vs. marathon, I've done neither and therefore should not comment, but I have to believe that birth is harder because there is no known end point.

  6. Exactly re: determination. Childbirth vs. marathon -- this is any kind of childbirth, I think, enhanced or not.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts