Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Summer of Pervasive Blah

Be forewarned - this is a long meandering largely self-absorbed 2400+ word good riddance to Summer 2014.

The meteorologists will tell me that summer ends on or around September 21, but I know when I’m stopped by school buses on my way to work, when parking becomes an aggravating nightmare in Chapel Hill, and the line at Nanataco stretches almost out the door with chatty Duke students already stressed out about Organic Chemistry or whatever else they need to do to become our future neurosurgeons of America… that I can kiss summer goodbye – it is O-V-E-R.  

The soupy haze and underwear sweat will linger in the Triangle a few more weeks, but when we cross Labor Day that proverbial carefree time of year reserved for beach trips, nights sitting on wooden benches at Beer Study or Fullsteam, keeping a good running base up for fall races, or just “chill’n” (whatever that is) is done; we have reached that mental boundary and we are on to the next season.  Fall.

And there is so much to like about the Fall.  I would never ever bash FALL.  Ever since I was 22, fall is awesome.  My only reservation in moving into fall is that I feel like this summer never got off the ground.

It was the summer of the pervasive BLAH.

I know this is a blog usually about running, so let me rewind there.  As I alluded to last week after my epic, but completely predictable bonk at the surreal Continental Divide 10K, “my summer training never really got off the ground.” It certainly wasn’t like that last summer when I came roaring out of August, dropped a sub-5 mile – something I hadn’t done in 14 years and NEVER thought would happen again – almost broke 17 again in the 5K (ok, on a possibly short course), and proceeded to set personal bests in the 8K and Ten Mile all off a somewhat Zen and carefree training approach.  The best part was: I wasn’t setting any mileage records or making personal sacrifices in the name of running.  I raged for three consecutive days and nights at Hopscotch and still was able to hammer out a quick 8 miler at Umstead on the proceeding Sunday morning because simply, I LOVED to plug in my music, pump up some Future Islands or Marnie Stern and run, run, RUN.  And when you love what you’re doing, you don’t want to stop doing it.  It’s pretty simple.  I have no shame in admitting I felt on top of the world.  I felt like I had the energy of a 20 year old again but with the wisdom and grounded nature of someone in their 30s.  It was the best case scenario - life was perfect!

The last time I ran like this was the 90s...
sans the highlighter yellow jersey

Leading the Merge 25K!  What a difference a few months make..

The high carried on into the winter and suddenly I was logging some mega-miles at least by my standard.  I blasted through the half marathon split at the Merge 25K in 1:23 and proceeded with a 70-mile week... and that’s when the glory ride ended.  From there running never felt the same.  I burned myself out.  I was hoping for this cathartic Boston experience where I dropped a sub-3 and buried all the marathon demons for good.  I was nowhere close to sub-3, but I did at least experience what emotionally and culturally was one of the most important and significant marathons in history – and wrote a whole lot about the experience from start to finish.  I could check the box there – Boston was number one on the bucket list for over a decade.  Check check check.

But then whaaaat???

Using summer track as a benchmark, I’d say I wasn’t too far off where I was just a year ago, at least fitness wise.  I was hoping for the same slingshot to propel me into fall racing so I could crush that half-marathon PR.  But something felt OFF the whole time.  That wind never came.

Most people who read this blog (all 5 of them!!!) probably only see me in the context of running.  And most of the time, the thing I enjoy the most about running in all honestly isn’t the racing, isn’t the thought of getting in shape, isn't being healthy as admirable of an objective as that is, or being able to hit XYZ time goal – sub-3-5-18-1:23-whatever, or even the important social aspect.

Running is about being FREE.  It is that in my head for 15, 30, 45, 120 minutes of the day, on the days I run alone, I can be whoever I want to be. 

Running is the state of being that allows me for some period of time make sense of this limitless universe, of which I am one minuscule grain of sand floating in a space that stretches vast and boundless in every direction and infinite dimensions.  I write this and I realize that only in dreams or in my head while running does that last sentence even make sense.  Because as soon as I stop, take that shower, and sit down and start typing away – the power cord is ripped out, the faucet has been turned off, the flow of thoughts STOP.  I am back to being voiceless again.  I am back on Twitter or checking emails or stressing about work and in no time the 30 awesome versions of myself from the last 20 years I constructed and deconstructed out on the Tobacco Trail or down an empty summertime Campus Drive have disappeared into thin air.

I am consumed by the pervasive BLAH.

Maybe this summer we had some (ok, more that just some…) challenges.  For starters, it seemed to rain A LOT, or at least it always seemed grey – not like I would expect in sun-shiny Carolina, but somewhere like Connecticut, where the daylight is always a few ticks dimmer – only over the one summer I lived in Connecticut I didn’t need to ring perspiration out my shorts after an hour on the trails and carry my clothes around in biohazard bags. 

And maybe it wasn’t about the running or weather at all (WARNING – it’s about to get heavy-real-serious). 

Maybe a passenger plane was shot down over the Ukraine and some of the world’s best AIDS researchers were killed. 

Maybe a journalist/humanitarian was beheaded in Iraq, leaving the family pleading for privacy not to spread the horrific video of said event online. 

Maybe Ferguson exploded over a period of days over social and mass media and it felt like New Orleans, 2005 or Los Angeles, 1992 or every US city, 1968 or any other moment in time in the last 100, 500, 3000 years human beings have been generally or egregiously mistreated or discriminated against on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, or race – reminding us we are soooo far out of the clear on soooo many issues of imbalance and inequality even in 2014. 

Maybe Robin Williams – our beloved Mork from Nick at Nite reruns and any number of great movies commits suicide and it’s a reminder that the personas we see on the other side of these glass screens, even the ones that make us laugh the hardest, are not immune to the same crippling sense of powerless that we can let weigh us down if we lose the resilience to combat it. 

We have Syria.  We have ISIS.  We have EBOLA.  We have FRACKERS coming to extract natural gas from under our homes and poison our drinking water in the interest of energy independence because at some point some younger generation is going to be SCREWED when we run out of natural resources.

We have this persistent dread of the world coming apart at the seams, and maybe we can all dump buckets of ice water on each other in the cause of curing a terrible degenerative disease and forget about all of it for a moment because hey, that’s a good cause – right?  So maybe we can remind ourselves that there are always positives in a world where things always seem to be falling apart.  But quite honestly, lately that hasn’t worked.  Not for me at least.

But wait a minute, this blog is supposed to be about RUNNING isn’t it?

~ ~ ~

When people ask me how my summer went, how my running is going, how busy I’ve been at work – well, I hardly know where to begin these days.

I usually start with my Greece trip:  yes, this summer, in the summer of pervasive BLAH, I spent a week in Greece in early July.  I always wanted to go to Greece – and regardless of economic instability or whatever other reasons Americans have been told to avoid going there lately – Megan and I were going to be there this year no matter what.  3 days in Santorini, 3 days in Mykonos.

And in the fictional conversation in my head, people may say, “now wait a minute Tajlili, you spent a week on some of the most beautiful resort islands in the world and YOU are bitching about YOUR summer?!?  ##&# YOU!”

It’s kind of like that picture of Kanye West sitting on a bench in the background behind a smiling Kim K with a sullen look on his face before zip-lining, as if a fly fell in his 10,000-euro bottle of champagne.  Few really feel sorry for “sad-Kanye” (but I doubt Kanye really cares what any of us think)

What does it say about ME that I sadly, oddly can relate to Kanye West...??

The day before leaving, after one of our ferries was cancelled, and we had to scramble to make alternate arrangements and shell out extra money to get back to Athens on time, I had this sad-Kanye moment, where I sat poolside staring out over the Mediterranean and I wondered what the heck was wrong with me.


It wasn’t about missing the ferry or the end of the vacation.  It was a sort of dread that I hadn’t felt in years.

And almost two months later, I practically spent an entire Saturday in bed and when I finally mustered the energy to get out the door for a run, I made it not even a half mile down the Tobacco Trail and my calves were literally numb – and it didn’t feel like any injury I had encountered in a very long time.  It is the injury of “running isn’t fun right now at all and it is the last thing I want to do.”

I stop. 

I haven’t just stopped on a run in almost three years.  I turn around.  I text Megan to meet me for a walk because that’s the best I can do.

The thing is this languor and ennui is just something I go through every now and then.  I could rattle off the years and times where I felt this soul-sucking magnet attached to my body and all the times I eventually recovered only to relapse again.  I quit the track team my sophomore year because of it, but no one really noticed (I wasn't very good).  Because I was always a "smart" kid with top marks who never acted up or fell asleep in class – and yeah, I was ALWAYS high strung, grade obsessed and anxious, but that was just “Taj being Taj.”  Whiner.  Suck it up and deal with it.

I’ve always been able to drag myself to school, work, whatever I NEED to be at (which is better than most people who have this condition), but anything extra has been, is, SEEMS impossible.  The thing about these states of mind is they turn you inside out under a constant mirror of self-introspection, mining the past for some gem of explanation, and as a result you lose connection with the rest of the world and it becomes a swirling self-fulfilling maelstrom of isolation that leaves you paralyzed for days-weeks-months until it passes like a bad rash or a New England winter.  I walk around feeling like a ghost and through the worst of it I wonder – I FEAR – I question whether I can advance myself further – whether I can BE a parent one day, whether I can accept that promotion at work, or whether the additional responsibilities are just going to expose further my tattered mental fabric.  That one simple pull or tug will leave the whole cloth unraveled in a heap of string.

And I remember it wasn't that long ago I thought I had cured it:  I WAS happy last summer, last fall, and even into the dismally cold winter.  Maybe what I’m going through is a derivative of the post-Boston let down (it's a runner problem).  Maybe it has been exacerbated by my preoccupation with all the messed up stuff going on out in the world (and, feeling guilty there is nothing I do to fix any of it).  Maybe it has been a result of effectively working two jobs, while being short-staffed (and some weird stuff not for public disclosure) moving at a frenetic pace all day Monday through Friday except when I finally stagger out of my office and walk along the gravel path outside the glass building under the blazing sun around 1 PM and reassemble my brain to take it all in perspective ("will this matter in two weeks?  two months?").  Or the fact that everyone everyone everyone I know is getting older at such a rapid pace and moving into new stages of life, and it’s a reminder, “we ain’t here too long are we?” Shit, Megan just turned 35, and I feel as connected to her and as in love as ever, but holy crap - I remember my own mom being 35.

The thing about happiness, as I’ve realized, is it is fleeting.  If it isn’t there, it can’t be forced, no matter what the conditions are, yet we emphasize this so much as the end outcome of what we want.  Parents want happy kids.  We want to be happy with our work, careers, running, whatever… yet we are constantly undermined by reminders of what is better, brighter, shinier than what we have and how little time we have to do everything we want to do and BE everyone we want to be… and sometimes in the face of change, it is just freaking hard… and sometimes we don’t really know why it is as hard as it is to be happy.  The thing is right now – I’m not on the search for happiness.  Screw that.  I’m on a search for resilience.

I can’t rely on running, the great escape, right now.  When I listen to Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed "good kid, m.a.a.d city," the recent personal narrative album by Against Me! or Grimes’ “Oblivion,”  and it's harrowing accompanying music video if you know the back story, I listen and absorb the stories of someone else’s life and it’s eye opening, it's a learning experience, it’s something significant to this decade of my life, the present - that at least gets me out of being mired in Mount Ulla NC in 1996 – but my story isn’t one of conquering growing up in the hood, going through a gender transformation, or experiencing a brutal sexual assault.  I am reminded of something that I already know - that I don't have it so bad after all, but it somehow that realization never helps.

So I try something more uplifting, but when I put in my headphones and listen to the rapturous melodies of The Go! Team or A Sunny Day in Glasgow I hear the soundtrack to some brighter past that has escaped my grasp for the moment.  It isn’t like last summer when I was blasting up hills on Reedy Creek Trail to the whirling synths and Sam Herring’s theatrical bellowing on “Walking Through That Door.”

This post wasn’t really even about running anyway.  It’s about everything else.  The other 23 hours of the day fighting the pervasive BLAH before 10, 20, 30 more years pass by and I think to myself, “where did all that time go?”

“What was I so down about anyway?”  I just hope I can ask myself that question sometime this fall, but I will never have a short simple answer.

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