The increasingly parochial observations of a casual runner in his fifties. Was "serious" about "the sport" until personal and sociocultural inevitabilities prevailed.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The speckles resulting from a burst of moist verbal flatulence

This post is mostly a review of 2019, both my own and professional running's as viewed through my lens. I am presenting it in February because nothing about what I do, say or think at any time of year is of measurable consequence to anyone outside my small, if stubbornly expanding, sphere of avocational operation. Maintaining a blog that has long assumed the sole purpose of entertaining the same ten or eleven people (I think one guy lost his phone in a strange sexual escapade and can't afford a new one yet) comes with only the faintest sense of obligation to anyone at the other end of these words, and by now you probably accept that I keep this place on life support mostly to layer somewhat-padded insults on people and institutions under the pretenses of legitimately giving a damn about the underlying principles.

Sadly, most of te responses of those ten (or eleven) perennially grateful readers are made to me directly, since on average you're smart enough to not say what you think in the comments lest one of the blog's elliptically orbiting psychopaths seize on your information and suck you into a netherworld of shouting at unmoored narcissists and apocalyptically resentful loons. And those latter words almost as aptly describe certain New York Times, et al. columnists and pro athletes as they do my favorite citizen interlocutors. As a result, being something of a rake by inclination, I am provided ample motivation to persist in describing my dislike of certain trends in the running world even though the persistence of these trends will only serve to make the world more entertaining with every new year, at least for those of us who have chosen not to direct our diabolical gametes wombward and are therefore more naturally prone to regarding things we see as errant with more of a detached scowl of resignation than an engaged frown of despair.

Also, a number of events in the first days of 2020 inspired me to wait on this post, because these were gratifying events, and it's important you to understand that most of my grousing is far more a consequence of being a fundamentally contemptuous and unpleasant individual, covered in snot and the ineradicable funk of despair, than it is a response to acute personal difficulties. Just today, I heaved one of those silver scooters that should have been made illegal decades ago off the side of an overpass just to watch it explode on contact with the pavement 10 meters below, and such was my consternation over another near-collision involving one of those demonic devices that I failed to notice the young child attached to the scooter at the time until the whole assembly was fractions of a second from landing. I averted my eyes at the last millisecond because my temper is no match for my weak stomach. As world events continue to make me more cynical, I find I can summon less and less concern for such lethal outcomes. But before that tantrum, around January 5th, I finalized plans to have my mom visit Colorado for the first time in April. This summer, I will meet both my parents in Washington, D.C., assuming it hasn't been turned into a crater and perhaps even then. I haven't seen my dad in over seven years, so this is something. And this fall, I plan to go to London for the first time. I may also spend the summer away from Boulder, but that is unlikely even though the option is there because this is actually a nice place to live at all times of year, especially when you don't have to drive to and from a job.

This is where you should stop if you want to experience any sort of joy today that does not derive from schadenfreude, agreement with generally sensible opinions expressed in a perhaps mean-spirited way, or the realization that if someone who churns out shit like this can support himself in the world while avoiding paddy-wagons and straitjackets, anyone can.

I expect that from my perspective, the current year, barring exceptional events, will closely resemble the past one: Another stretch of time that, while generally prosperous and tolerable, should probably have been obviated with the artless jab of a coat-hanger at roughly the same time humans first walked on the moon. I will probably never ask my parents this question, but I suspect that if the gelatinous little embryonic glob that developed into the disaffected ape typing this stuff had appeared three or four years later, after Roe v. Wade became law, there is a good chance I would have been canceled before the pilot episode. I was born about seven months after my parents were married and, despite my panoply of flamboyant tics and other neurological challenges, I was a full-term baby.

(If I seem to project cynicism here, bear in mind that most of the time, I'm either irritated that I'm too  indecisive and bent on experiencing ordinary pleasures to feel at all suicidal, or have seized upon some temporary means of sublimating my resentment over continuing to exist -- one that does not and cannot involve my preferred chemical means and therefore has limited efficacy, and usually involves either talking to a dog or banging on black and white keys to make integrated noises.)

On the perambulation front, there is no special need to take stock of terms of my own running anymore, not that I ever had a defensible reason to yammer about the staggering and stumbling I've done in the name of "competing." This is true even though the activity is as vital to me as it ever was, maybe even more so. My running has naturally settled into being a mostly unguided and enjoyable pursuit that I almost always share with a canine friend. Having no goals in this area or others has become more freeing than troubling over time. While I used to legitimately enjoy battling others and the clock, I see my half-assed post-alcohol quest to run a single satisfactory race as driven by a  need to complete a circle that only requires closing as long as I stubbornly choose to place value on my own supposed level of commitment. I don't owe anything to myself in this area, and it's become evident that people who detest living more often than they enjoy it are better off not having or pretending to have firm goals.

I was never fast by any reasonable measure, especially by the standards of those whose training I emulated. My times probably put me well within the top 1 percent of individuals who have ever recorded race results, but my fastest performances are about 20 percent slower than the world records, B+ efforts at best and firmly in recreational-runner territory. Three hours, a time few people manage to achieve, is an objectively terrible marathon performance; how could it not be when it's 50 percent slower than the record? This is like a golf handicap of 36. No one would call a golfer who can't break 108 for 18 holes anything but a duffer, no matter how many Instagram photos of his own spandex-clad ass and surgically bloated tits he posted.

People may be confused by my seeming eagerness to help runners improve in spite of having little apparent regard for their, my, or anyone's efforts or the sport of running as a whole. This seems inconsistent with elite-level distaste, but it's consistent with giving away money to strangers at Christmas despite idly wondering from time to time why any species as incompetent as ours has managed to establish ecological primacy and wondering when and how we'll be destroyed.

The answer is simple. I'm a big fan of palliative care, and since none of us asked to have the disease we call existence, I feel real sadness for most people who hurt more than whatever the average might be. I think people deserve to feel better when they're in pain unless they have established niches as purposefully reckless or adversarial assholes, in which case I usually hope for them to rally the resolve to swallow a few grams of hydrogen cyanide and put themselves out of everyone else's potential misery. I mean really, would you rather know that some 22-year-old incel with a small arsenal of firearms has just offloaded himself from the rolls of the living the one of the tools of his speculative trade, or would you rather read about another bunch of people being gunned down at work or while in line at a food-court Orange Julius? (There is also a nonzero chance that I dislike being as cynical as I can be as often as this occurs, and that I am employing a "fake it 'til you make it" approach to dealing with my grating misanthropy.)

Unless we have really tried to hurt others, we all deserve enjoy the rewards of our fruitless striving to avoid despair as we all march inexorably closer to our deaths. This is why I encourage all of you to adopt a more humanitarian perspective and waste money on charitable donations instead of a nicer smartphone, unless you have kids and have to waste all of your money on them instead, which is completely appropriate if they're not little scamps like most children are as often as they can get away with it.

But back to more uplifting topics. Although I was shit out there, and often because I was, I poured a lot of energy and commitment into my jogs. Writing frequently for a running magazine, especially in the pre-social media days, and being a high-school coach gave me additional reasons to try harder and record better results, even if I knew at a deeper level that this was a contrivance and that the kind of people who are inclined to put up with me in the long term have never cared how well I perform in races or whether I jog at all. But homespun motivation is still motivation. As a result of these contrivances and whatever else fundamentally drives me as a human, I didn't have the chickenshit approach toward trying hard in those days that I seem unable to shake now. Not most of the time, at least.

It's not the physical discomfort of running hard that prevents me from digging deep nowadays, and I almost wish it were because it would be a simpler matter to confront. What I put myself through in my last extended booze-benders makes the negotiable "pain" of running hard seem almost distant. Simply knowing that I can't run nearly as fast as I used to is a quite reasonable source of irritation that keeps most people who were once 2:24 marathoners from racing at all once they're closer to 100 than they are to their date of birth. I have run speed workouts with a number of different people here in Boulder, and while this has been a part of and produced some great friendships and encounters, I'm sure not one of these fine folks would describe me as having any sort of particular fire out there, and it may be hard for them to reconcile the post-polluted jogger they see now with someone who reportedly once embraced intensity and striving for excellence as much as they do.

In those waning moments when I do imagine myself racing -- and I did just turn 50, so I've experienced an inevitable inner monologue or two urging me to get back into it, kind of like the one that tells me to chase after college-age women in a dented MINI Cooper -- I don't really care about my times, but it would be nice to think I can summon the same kind of focus and drive, over months and in key moments, that I did as a person who believed that both his running and his overall life were for the most part on the ascendancy. This is all just so I can tell myself I didn't drink away anything I couldn't get back, however symbolically or metaphysically. It's kind of fucked up, since I have done very well in the areas that I and most people would judge important. Whatever the case, that's how things stand.

At a surface numbers level, I didn't record any race results in 2019, although I came alarmingly close after signing up for a Thanksgiving 4-miler but being unable to safely make the drive that morning in the wake of unusually severe snowstorm. I missed either zero or one running days, and for no clear reason decided to up my daily average to about 60 minutes, almost always in two runs and almost all of that time with my dog alongside.

I also don't like being seen running, or doing much of anything. I don't mind pictures of myself running, because those, while often grisly, don't require me to confront the full ghastly scope of how fucked up I look when trying to do anything other than stand very quietly in one place, or maybe tiptoe along. It only gets really bad when I try to ran what would have been around mile race pace decades ago. I look like a cartoon duck with some combination of a lower back problem and an unspecified mental disorder trying to get away from an unspecified assailant. I have a difficult time believing that any male under 35 who isn't held back by some kind of formal disease process cannot break 2:30:00 in the marathon given three solid years of trying if a wreck like me managed to do it.

In terms of my broader life, I made one very long road trip (two months) in the spring that started poorly but wound up being the best such trip I have made from Colorado back east since landing here, and enjoyed a shorter one by air in the fall. My sole non-disposable function at this point is to stay healthy and productive enough to feed, shelter  and exercise myself and my dog. Actually, I guess that's three things in one: Work just enough to still increase, or at least not significantly deplete, my savings throughout the year and provide the sort of entertainment for a deserving dog that also benefits me.

I am always working on learning more songs and staring at the slowly growing prologue of my latest long-form story idea, but for some reason I have decided that most of the stories I have dreamed up wouldn't be worth telling even if I had the skill to transform myself into a capable novelist, so I am not holding myself to anything in that area. Why bother making up stories to amuse other people when most of what people express these days is a bunch of lies anyway? But after again deciding to ditch Twitter (where I am an openly terrible person and creepily enamored of my own poison at times) and ice Rosie's Instagram and Facebook accounts (harmless, but time sinks and not without their own less-toxic annoyances), I finally got around to learning the sequencer functions on the synthesizer I bought months ago but have been using essentially as an electric piano since. I knew that once I did this, my life would be transformed, and it was. It's like having a hobby within an avocation. And despite my irksome nature regarding my lack of fiction-writing prowess, I've been adding content here and there, nudging the prologue toward completion. Seriously. The prologue. I can't write dialogue for shit and tend to describe the wrong things when telling a story, both verbally and on paper. I took a workshop early last year that taught me some valuable things in a short time, but I haven't done much more than plan to use those strategies if and when I decide to get serious.

On average, when I have my primary source of work available, I often top 2,000 words a day; 2,500 is rare but not unheard of. I rarely take entire days off. In at least once last year, I topped 50,000 words. This is not just unfocused rambling, like this shit. The point isn't to humblebrag about being productive on demand; it's to underscore how quickly I could churn out a workable draft of a novel if I could get myself to write what I supposedly want to write at that rate. That's close to a 400-page novel in less than three months. Unfortunately, although I think I have a good story in the works, I seem unable to work on it unless I can convince myself no one will ever read it. Obviously I have some major psychological barriers here, most of which revolve around why I have always sought out long-term projects involving lots of delayed gratification (distance running, fiction writing, medical school) while often managing to get an energetic two-thirds of the way home or so before being derailed by my own stupidity or simply quitting. Most of this contemplation revolves around why I became convinced such things were essential in the first place. That part is pretty easy, actually, but is too dour a subject even for this dump.

You may have noticed that the things I report enjoying the most rarely involve other people, and, with the exception of Rosie, are incapable of returning affection. None have the capacity to issue judgments, for good or for ill, or render decisions about anything I do or don't do. It would be a lie to say that I find no joy at all in social activities and dislike individual people by default, but at any moment, I can easily summon up a misanthropic reverie sufficiently powerful to discourage me from leaving the house. Since undramatically becoming single over two years ago, I have added things to my life that I once had but couldn't sustain because I was too volatile a shitbird, such as Rosie and a personal vehicle. A relationship has not been one of those things. I think this sums it up: At different points in the past couple of years, both my therapist and my regular doc, who are both women a little younger than me, both expressed surprise that given all the fortysomething fitness freaks littering the area, etc. etc. etc., I seemed to be beating long odds by not winding up randomly in some divorcee's bed. Both are now my ex-providers, but not because they gave me 40-Year-Old Virgin-style shit for being single; I lost my health insurance last July and have absolutely no intention of spending hundreds more per month, or a dime more, in the service of preserving or repairing the foul primate carcass I am forced to schlep about with depressing regularity. All conversations arising from this reality invariably turn extremely dark and morbid, so I will defer further comment. Anyway, I can readily accept that, just like some people insist on doing marathons despite their bodies clearly not being constituted for running, I spent 20 years operating on the statistically reasonable idea that I was at least as cut out for intimacy as the next person. This is not the case. This sounds like something someone would say in the aftermath of an ugly break-up, or just plain self-pitying nonsense. But it's not that. Despite ostensibly being reliable, self-sufficient and in possession of most of the basic qualities required for workable intimacy, I really just don't see the rewards being at all proportional to the risks to my equilibrium. I also produce gigantic boogers out of proportion to my nonpareil sexual prowess. Finally, I can take the easy way out and say that, on average, I have practically no respect for human beings anyway and justify this with a glance at any opinion poll or disphit screed from some cross-waving hemorrhoid getting his dander up in some backwater Klan haven. Yes, there are millions of people in the U.S. and it's not hard to find plenty who basically agree with me on things that aren't on the fringes. But whatever the case, I have all sorts of cognitive mechanisms in place for maintaining the belief that people are gross, with a nauseating range of toxic fluids seeping out of their various unclean holes most of the time (see above).

This curiously refreshing and simplifying set of convictions notwithstanding, since around mid-November, I've been doing some things that not only require me to meet new people and place me in their midst but are designed for this very purpose, even though most people are liars and usually have something else unseen and despicable about them. I knew I would have a gap in my workload until last week, and rather than devote most of the temporary additional free time to working on personal writing projects like I often say I will when I know I'll have such a break, I did some wandering of somewhat familiar offline landscapes, often finding myself in places I only go when I really need human contact of a certain sort.

That's as good a segue as I need to mention one more aspect of my interface with the greater running world, which is rapidly shrinking. By that I mean that I feel less compelled than ever to follow professional road and track running. I don't think this relates much to the ever-growing gap between my own running and performance-oriented running, because I was more engaged in "the sport" for most of the years I was an intermittent wino between my mid-30s and my mid-40s than I am now; I may not have been happy with a 37-minute altitude 10K, but at least I finally got my ragged ass across some finish lines. And it's not merely because I have other, resurgent interests. More than anything, I'm tired of running being used as a punching bag by asshole runners so they can promote questionable (and often contradictory) ideas in the mainstream media. 2019 was a year of amazingly bad ideas piled on a sport that's never going to be treated seriously anyway, at least not until USATF is gutted and restaffed or simply obliterated and replaced with a cadre of people whose attitudes about professional and organized distance running are less cynical than my own.

I'm going to summarize my stance on the issue of intersex athletes being allowed in women's races by inviting you to look at any of the pro-Semenya pieces in major media outlets and in some running e-pubs. They have two things in common: They avoid using the word "testes" to describe the testes of intersex athletes ("special gift" is the best euphemism I've seen yet) and they suggest that a legitimate controversy exists over the performance-boosting effects of testosterone. It is a fact that essayists who engage in tactics like these know they are pushing a wrongheaded idea but have personal convictions or many just evil instincts that compel them to whine, bitch and muddy the waters with falsehoods and red herrings. This is the strategy of creationists and others damaged by religious ideas. So when you read one if these, understand that its author was knowingly trying to deceive you. If you're OK with this because it feels sufficiently progressive, you're an idiot. Anyone who lies to a wide audience is just a turd. Two friends have expressed what I consider to be an honest opinion on the inclusion of Semenya and other women with internal testes in races. One, a truly sweet guy whom I respect without disclaimers and whom I often wish I were more like more of the time, embraces the "Let the bitch run" mantra and lists her various life adversities (a black butch lesbian from a racist country, as he himself put it). He even added that the opinions of the world-class biological women in the 800 meters shouldn't matter. I find this boggling. The other person, a woman, opined that if scuttling the sports world by basically making women's races mixed-sex events was what it took to destroy the patriarchy worldwide, so be it. One thing these opinions have in common, including the trash in the Times, is that they come from people who are joggers at best (and I am one as well), making all arguments about the limited sphere of pro running facile at best. Perhaps that perspective makes it easier to look at a woman who has worked for the last for years to get her time down from 2:03 to 1:59 and say "Fuck that, she has it easy" and throw a social-justice wrench into the elite sports world. My problems with this would largely abate if pro running were not a zero-sum game with limited slots at the very top level, but I would still find it odd.

The explosion of articles about the Nike Oregon Project's culture of eating disorders and obligatory intrasquad aloofness and rancor features some of the same disingenuous opinion writers, and this time they concluded that Alberto Salazar's existence implies that men shouldn't be coaching women and that by some perverse extension the issue of eating disorders on women's teams would fade nonchalantly into the background. I have to emphasize that just because these ideas are being dumped into major media outlets doesn't imply that actual runners find this goofy crap useful, and I have a decent sense of what actual runners think of those columns and columnists because runners tend to be chatty in small groups, and tend to congregate in mountain yoga havens. The whole thing, as I may have already mentioned, is driven mainly by attention-seeking, not earnest and deliberative ideas.

I still haven't decided whether to write a full-fledged article about this stuff; the invitation exists, but I don't think this will happen. I need to quit caring more than I need a contrived sense of literary gotcha and a couple hundred clams, and any attendant headaches in the form of assured flak. After all, I am obvious intent on finishing that novel. It's very interesting even to non-runners, at least as it unfolds strictly in what's left of my cerebral hemispheres.

When I was 15 and just starting out, I was aware of a greater running world beyond high-school competition. I read Boston Running News (now New England Runner) when it came once a month, and gathered occasional local-ish results from the Boston Globe. I sometimes watched meets on TV. But really, none of that was required to keep me going. And it has really started to feel like what I do now and even what I used to do bears little relationship to the circus of magic shoes, blossoming doping scandals and the stuff I just mentioned. I might suspect that this has more to do with me than the running world per se, but a lot of my runner-friend contemporaries are expressing similarly jades perspectives. It doesn't feel like just a matter of me getting older and crustier by nature, though it would be foolish to discount this as a factor.

A week and a half ago I slipped on wet spot in the hallway after mopping the floor and smashed my face a good one on a dresser on the way down. I didn't have a chance to even throw an arm up and my right cheek hit the edge of the thing about a half-inch from my right eye. That's my bad eye, and my first thought after getting up and heading off to stanch the blood was that even if had gouged the eye out, it wouldn't really affect my overall vision. Maybe that's optimism, but I think walking around with a hole where an eye used to be would prove an inconvenience even if the missing eye hadn't been doing its job for 50 years. It's almost completely healed now, and will leave a small crescent of a scar. I don't know why I am including this detail other than to suggest that I was a half-inch away from probably not writing this, at least not now. Unfortunately I have no way to guard against the next similar mishap unless I simply lay in bed, unmoving, and not all the porn on the Internet is enough to keep my restless self supine for long.

So in summary, my approach to diminishing my own boredom and angst basically consists of abandoning serious goals and focusing more on basic experiences with friends and family. I am almost always amused and of course not so often content. I live like a combination of a college student and a widower, dragging a happy dog about town in between generating passable pablum to allow the perpetuation of the process. And having slowly constructed this ghastly pile of verbal excrement over a period of weeks, I can hope that I have semi-permanently shot my blogwad and will have nothing to add in the weeks and months to come.

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