Monday, September 26, 2011

Pulling a fast one

Over the course of my career as a cross country athlete, one of the questions I have gotten most often is, “What do you think about out there?”

I’ve always hesitated to reveal the unglamorous truth, which is that, more often than not, I am simply thinking, “God, this sucks.”

Other runners claim to harbor only positive thoughts while racing. They are liars.

But really, isn’t a cross country meet just one big lie-fest? Do you really believe your mom when she yells, “Keep it up honey, you look great!” when you are 100 percent positive that you not only do not look great, but are in fact foaming at the mouth like some kind of rabid freak?

Unabashed lying isn’t reserved only for spectators.

Cross country runners almost have to be dirty, rotten liars to keep internal complaints (i.e. “I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than continue to subject myself to this agonizing physical and emotional torture”) from affecting external performance (i.e. stopping).

There are many methods of mid-race self-deceit. One of my go-to approaches is the comparison argument. It involves conning yourself into believing that the pain you feel is not nearly as bad as _______ (fill in the blank with the most terrible, awful experience you can think of).

Some runners opt to employ a hypothetical version of the comparison argument—that is, they choose situations that, though obviously painful, they have not actually experienced for themselves. Common themes for hypothetical comparisons include childbirth, crucifixion, shark bites and, due to the recent popularity of the film 127 Hours, amputating one’s own arm.

I prefer to imagine things I have actually survived. It gives the comparison more depth, as I can recall real feelings and images from the selected incident.

For example: “The burning pain in my lungs isn’t nearly as bad as the explosive diarrhea I got after eating Applebee’s seafood.” Or: “If I could live through a night at the Newark Airport HoJo, I will live to see the finish line of this race.”

Once I’ve exhausted my arsenal of comparisons, I usually resort to making promises that I have no intention of fulfilling. Like: “OK, if I keep my average pace under 5:45, I will reward myself with _________ (insert guilty pleasure of choice, i.e. an Egg McMuffin, a Taylor Swift CD, an episode of Kate Plus 8).

By the time I’ve written myself mental IOUs for two dozen Krispy Kremes and a puppy, the finish line is usually within sight, and the only motivation I need to keep myself going is the knowledge that I am within seconds of being done.

After catching my breath, gulping down several cups of watered-down Powerade and pouring cold water over my head, I punctuate the lie cycle with one last fib to ease the anxiety of toeing the line again in the future: Well, that wasn’t so bad.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Spectators need electrolytes too

Last weekend, I had to—excuse me, got to—photograph a cross country meet for the newspaper. As I was scrolling through my shoot, I realized that my photos were basically a fragmented visual chronology of how the race played out. So I thought, what if I applied the same concept to a written account of my experience at the same event?

After several days of drinking herbal tea and not shaving my legs, I was feeling pretty artistic. So here you go—my experimental venture into the world of fragmentary literature:

Boom! There they go. A lot of skinny people. Click, click, click. Did I get him?
OK, where next? Follow the herd. The herd is too slow. This camera is heavy. Leaders already at the turn? Cut across to the hill. Good Lord, it’s hot. Am I sweating? Rhetorical.

“Bill, where do we go to see him next? Wait, I can’t move that fast in these shoes!”

Watch out for rocks. And holes. Bump. Was that a child? Oops, sorry kid. Up the hill—God, this thing is heavy. Hold it out in front. Are you an idiot? Worth more than your life. Three points of contact. Like a football.

Up we go. Am I out of shape? Huff. Puff.

“Must be a lot harder running with that thing! Take it easy!”

Shut. Up.

“I don’t see him! Oh no, shouldn’t he be closer to the front? What’s wrong with him?”

Just in time for the front runners. Click, click, click. They look tired. Hot. Uncomfortable. Tell me about it.

“That’s it, Brian! Right on pace—you’ve got a good one going! Stride it out, now—just like we practiced. 10:25, 10:26, 10:27…Good job, Gabe! Work your way up to Brian, that’s it!”

“Oh my gosh, Dave, do you see the kid in front? How is it possible that he’s that far ahead?”

“Hey camera girl, get off the course! Runners coming!”

Click, click, click. Got it. Side step. Time to spare. Settle down, Mr. Panties-in-a-bunch.

Downhill. Not too fast. Plenty of time. Finish line. Spot? Crap, the other photog stole it. I guess this works. Crouch down. Flags! Overzealous runner moms! Out of my frame!

“Woo hoo! Way to go, all the way through!”

Click, click, click. Boring. Blow out. No expression. Wait for the stragglers. Much more dramatic.

Whoa, turbo. Working hard for 58th place. Right on.

Gatorade? Thanks, I’d love some. Cheers.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Talking shirt

Even though I ran cross country competitively for more than a decade, I will be the first to admit that it isn’t the most exciting sport to watch.

There are no big plays, no big hits, no juicy hot dogs and cups of beer. Instead, there are dozens—sometimes even hundreds—of competitors to keep track of on a course that is probably long, hilly and annoyingly spread-out.

The only thing giving cross country even the smallest iota of entertainment value is…the shirts.

Clever t-shirts have been making long distance running more exciting for competitors and spectators alike since Stop Pre.

Over the years, I came up with quite a few designs of my own, although they never seemed to catch on with my coaches or teammates, presumably because they were sort of counter-inspiring.

For example:

The problem is, my humility, coupled with my not-so-secret disdain for cross country, made it difficult for me to come up with catchy, positive phrases that would help build team confidence.

But when I was listening to the radio in the car the other day, I realized that during my competitive racing years, I had completely neglected a potential gold mine of ego-pumping wordage: pop artists.

Of course! Is there anyone more arrogant and self-absorbed than a young modern music star? I could just jack some lyrics, slap them on a t-shirt and…voila! Here are some of the samples I’ve cooked up so far:

Orders can be sent to my email address.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

There's a map for that

The advent of Garmins and TomToms has made the art of map-reading all but obsolete. Some might even argue—cough, Miss Teen South Carolina, cough—that the art of map-having is equally outmoded.

Much to the chagrin of cross-country runners across the…um…map, young America’s inability to comprehend basic cartographic concepts has led to countless moments of public embarrassment and disappointment.

In high school, we always arrived at cross country meets absurdly early, which gave us plenty of time to walk the course as a team and review confusing twists and turns. (It also gave me extra time to scope out the bathroom situation and look for “secret” toilets so I wouldn’t have to wait in line every time I had to go, which back then was about 25 times in the hour leading up to the start of the race.)

As we navigated each bend and curve, I always found myself making mental notes about various landmarks. Like: OK, remember to make a left at the big aspen tree with the yellow leaves. Or: Hang a hard right at the red tool shed.

Pretty soon, though, all of my directional breadcrumbs started to melt together. Wait a second—I would think—was it left or right after the stinky mud puddle?

Trying hard not to let my mounting panic show through, I would ask one of my coaches, as nonchalantly as possible, if I could borrow a copy of the course map—you know, just to go over everything one last time.

Then I would usually disappear to one of my previously-scouted secret bathrooms, where I would stare at the map for several minutes in a desperate attempt to make sense of the jumbled smattering of lines and arrows.

But alas, I knew it was to no avail. I could memorize the turn sequence all I wanted, knowing full well that in the heat of battle, all would be forgotten. Sometimes I even acronymed the dang thing. For example: (L)iberals (L)ove (R)epublican (L)eaders. But even my catchy-though-factually-inaccurate memory-joggers (ha!) were flushed from my brain as my leg muscles hogged the blood supply.

At the larger races, I could get away with following people the whole way, which took some of the pressure off. Plus, those courses tended to be fairly well-marked.

But at the smaller venues, the course markings consisted of a few directionally ambiguous arrows haphazardly spray painted on the ground. And during my last couple years of high school, there was always a good chance that I would be in the lead—which is how I earned the nickname “Wrong-Way Andrus.” (From my own father, no less.)

It is also how I ended up losing a divisional title to one of my biggest high-school rivals. Out of all my racing heartbreaks, that’s the one I still haven’t quite gotten over. It’s like a cross-country-themed version of the music video for U2’s “Stuck in a Moment.”

Anyway, I’m not exactly sure what the moral of the story is. Pay attention in geography class? Stuff a Garmin in your sports bra? Stop listening to U2 (which you really shouldn’t have been doing in the first place)?

I don’t know. Maybe I should ask Miss Teen South Carolina.