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

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Sadness with no real name

The 3" x 5" index-card version of the end of my year is that I spent a low-key Christmas holiday with a couple of friends, went to a couple of token social functions, made use of the down time to learn a few new songs on my computer in the shape of a piano, became stuck many times trying to get past the prologue of my most recent never-to-be-finished novel, and did most of the stuff most people whose nuclear families are thousands of miles away do in the last week or so of the year: Wait it out and dodge the inevitable yuletide commercial, emotional and vocational mayhem as it comes. On the surface, an unremarkable smattering of events.

I did something different for Christmas itself in 2019. I have a relatively small family for someone my age; I don't know my dad's relatives very well, and on my mom's side, all but a dozen or so of us are usually hard to find and most of those with stable addresses are in New Hampshire and Virginia. Rather than give out "presents," I decided instead to give $50 to ten diverse and trustworthy charities in the names of friends and family members. Since we've all just been giving each other the same damn restaurant gift cards for years, making it a wash from all of our individual perspectives, this felt a lot more Christmas-y than most past years have. I have deeper reasons for doing this sort of thing, which on the surface appears to contradict the low regard I continually seem to exude here for my seven million fellow inmates in the prison of life, but actually makes a lot of sense if you consider that I see all of us as hapless victims of our own feeble composition, including the things we do to piss each other off.

That was the nice part.

About a week before Christmas day, I got notice from a longtime friend in Colorado Springs that he and his girlfriend would be coming up to Boulder for two nights, the 24th and the 25th, staying at a hotel a little over a mile from where I live. I have known him since the winter of 2011. We became acquainted when he, looking at my shoes from his spot next to me on a bench somewhere in Boulder, asked me if I was a runner. I smiled and told him sort of, which has been my honest answer for years. He then rattled off a series of numbers that would be unintelligible to most humans -- "1:47, 3:38, 7:55, 13:45" -- ticking each one off, index finger on thumb, as he spoke.

He was an intense guy. Robust, small, compact, anxious. And boozy, like me.

At that point in my life, I was as far from the world of competitive running as I have ever been. After turning 40 a little over a year earlier, I had not gotten my act together and taken up masters racing, or anything resembling serious training. Or serious anything. But I had been following the sport for long enough to know exactly what those numbers corresponded to and implied and that no one could pull them out of thin air.

He was always credible with me from the beginning, no matter his relationship with others.

I will skip a lot of critical stuff and tell you that he and I became close friends and over the next few years shared some close and memorable, but usually unhealthy, experiences. He had been on a long losing streak before I knew him and only recently have things changed. Until a the recent holidays, I hadn't seen him since November 22, 2016, the last day I got took a drink of alcohol. We were walking toward some church not far from where I live now. It was snowing. I woke up in the local "detox," which is actually more of a large room containing drunk people and minimally trained employees and thus best avoided by everyone, for what turned out to be the last time. My friend helped me get there somehow.

He and his girlfriend arrived by bus as planned on the 24th. At this point, I had offered to drive them back to the Springs on the 26th so that they wouldn't have to take the bus and I could see their place. They were excited to have me and Rosie, but I was concerned about, among other things, keeping Rosie in the set-up described for even a night. I knew my friend had been perfectly coherent on the phone in the days leading up to the trip, but this didn't mean a lot.

We were supposed to meet his ex-wife and son for a Christmas dinner, but no one had bothered to check if the restaurant would be open. It wasn't, and almost nothing was. Worse, my friend was starting to go into alcohol withdrawal. His girlfriend allowed that, while he had not been prone to extreme intoxication lately, he'd been "maintenance drinking" for at least weeks. That meant he risked a seizure if he didn't get more alcohol in his system somehow or go to the hospital. He wanted no part of any hospital. Almost nothing was open, but I managed to get him some alcohol, not a pretty kind, with the idea of getting them home the next day and getting my friend some medical help.

It didn't quite work out like that. We went out to lunch on the 26th, by which time they had paid for another two nights at the hotel. I told them I could drive them home on the 29th and offered to pay for an additional night, because the next two days were out. I am tempted now to second-guess not helping them get home sooner than I eventually did, but I don't think it would have made much difference.

Over the next few days, my friend tried to drink as little as possible without getting sick. (I can only hope that most of what's in this narrative is outside your own direct or indirect experience.) I kept tabs on them at the hotel while doing my own stuff and becoming increasingly depressed about the entire situation. It wasn't just that my friend was in bad shape generally. It was almost as if his praise for me apparently doing so well was further license for him to proceed with the desolate grind of drinking himself to death.

On Sunday, I put those two, Rosie, their bags and a backpack in my MINI Cooper and headed south into the sun at about 2 p.m. The girlfriend rode shotgun and my friend was in the back fouling up the small interior with the kind of funk that even someone with good hygiene oozes all the time after drinking cheap vodka and those 24-ounce cans of Natural Whateverthefuck that apparently go on the cheap. He was also starting to berate his girlfriend for potential and wholly imaginary defenses -- he was drinking something out of a soda can that hadn't been in the unopened can. Rosie was anxious as hell, and I considered turning back even before we got a dozen miles south. But that would have been dumb.

The next 90 or so minutes were miserable, but could have been a lot worse. I ran out of wiper fluid passing through a construction site with endless concrete barriers on both sides, so I could neither get the grit and smudges off the windshield nor pull to the side of I-25, which if course was as busy as it always is. Aso, addition to having to way to avoid the sun in the southern half of the sky at this time of year, the verbal bullshit and dog anxiety were getting worse. Fuming inside that cramped space, I cared only about avoiding getting into a wreck.

When we got to the apartment, which boasted an amazing view (it's hard to avoid having one in Colorado Springs), it turned out to be something other than a one-bedroom. It was a studio with a couch at one end and a bed at the other. Getting to the bathroom from the couch meant climbing over some portion of the bed. It was neat and clean, but not suitable for guests. But there was no way I was turning around and driving at that point -- none. Instead, I decided I would try to nap and take off in the middle of the night to avoid morning commuter traffic in Denver and elsewhere.

The nap didn't happen. The berating continued. This was one of those classic pathetic incoherent grousing sessions where the person with the interminable list of grievances is eventually proven wrong about something even to his satisfaction, then switches polarity and starts ranting about how he must be responsible for every bad thing in the world. Just blabbering fucking nonsense, but it goes on between many many couples more or less continually. You just won't ever hear about much of it. All of this was interspersed with earnest apologies and promises. He meant it. He is only a jerk to other people because he thinks he failed in life.

The U.S. has attended 27 of the 28 Summer Olympic Games held every four years, with three exception owing to global warfare, since 1896. This means that a total of 81 slots have been occupied by American men in the 1,500 meters, with the total number of individuals being fewer thanks to an indeterminate but significant number of duplicates. Heading into the 1988 Summer Games, that number was 57. As a runner, I know the pain of coming agonizingly close to achieving an important competitive goal and seeing it slip away for all manner of reasons.

By about 1 a.m., Rosie was sleeping at the end of the couch and the girlfriend had taken a sleeping bag and headed for the balcony, despite the sub-freezing temps. (She would pop in and out once or twice more in this manner. In good times, these two really do take great care of each other, but this was not a good time.) We decided to watch the 1,500-meter U.S. Olympic Trials race on YouTube. Some no-hoper took off early in the apparent hope of helping college teammate Jim Spivey make the Olympic team, while literally every other man in the race sat well back in a tight pack. My friend had control of this group at the bell but eventually faded to fifth, less than 1.5 seconds away from an Olympic berth. Someone who had run 47-point for the 400, getting outraced by a few of the tiny number of people in history capable of pulling that off.

It would be unfair to portray this race as the start of his downfall. He smiled through much of what turned out to be repeated viewings and reminded me that he had beaten or would go on to beat everyone everyone else in the final. (Such is the nature of the 1,500 meters, at least when El Guerrouj is inactive.) In fact, he continued to race creditably for another couple of years, competing again in the U.S. Nationals in 1989. (Curiously, through 1988, the Olympic Trials and the U.S. Championships were held as separate meets. If that seems dumb, consider how much worse USATF is than its predecessor TAC was in most respects). But whatever the root-level factors at work, the existence of videos like these don't help. When you're feeling low, the higher points in your life seem that much further out of reach, out of reality. When my friend, and people like him, aren't just remembering but watching their own salad days from within a haze of alcohol, the resulting emotional storm is mawkish and not at all helpful.

After this, he moved back to the bed and dozed for a few minutes, but then the insult-contrition cycle started anew. It went on for what seemed like an incredibly long time, and I have no reason to think that this wasn't a typical night. It was hard to do absolutely nothing; simply driving off in the dark or trying to play the diplomat were both bad choices. In the end I waited it out, got a little sleep, and woke up to the sound of light snoring at about nine. I gathered my things and headed out. I had wanted to get some photos of us, but there was really no opportunity. I got a few shots of Rosie and Pikes Peak before heading home, taking my time by design.

I texted later to let them know I'd made it and to thank them. I had an exchange with the girlfriend that ended in me suggesting a medical detox in town. There was really no reason for him not to go. Neither of them is working, and they're in no danger of being unable to pay the rent; I'm not sure of the nature of the social security payments, but I don't think they will be discontinued anytime soon. My friend knows he has no choice but to stop under supervision or not stop at all, but he made his choice clear, as I knew he would. His girlfriend's text -- "Tell him thank you for everything, but it's my life" -- was no less a kick in the face for my having seen it coming.

My friend holds a master's degree in economics, but none of that matters to him now. He seems to feel cheated by life, as if the islands of fun like those minutes we spent on his couch come at the cost of too much shame and regret to sustain friendships, let alone sobriety. But no matter what, he is loyal to me. I don't quite understand it, but I internalize it. I also realize that a lot of people helped me at a point when I was probably more intent on dying than my friend is now (he has notions of invincibility despite a flagging liver and other signs; I if nothing else knew, and often hoped, I was rotting and dying even faster than it looked). I don't think anyone else with any means is looking out for these two right now, and even if I can't twist anyone's arm, I can be in their lives. I think my friend is a little perplexed by my own loyalty to him, and I have seen this cause a few tics of what look like wonder -- I really don't know. But it is better to not question the reasons for being in a position to make vital progress where others might not get access or even be aware of what's happening. Besides. the more I give up on society in general, the more important my friends and family become. One of the more vexatious aspects of living as a social animal is accepting that getting past the many hurdles I have in terms of fitting comfortably into everyone else's world means enlisting some of those same flawed humans.

(PS - I am aware of having been sufficiently explicit here without being absolutely explicit, an editorial decision I have my reasons for abiding by.)

(PPS - This took me a while, and is sort of why I didn't bother with any sort of year-end review. That, and there isn't much to review. I managed to go another year without recording a race result, but I think I ran every day if I count the supposed day off that wasn't, which was Nov. 1. I may forgo another rant about how fucked up coverage of running is in the non-running media, where most news consumers see "major" running-related items, because it's clear that a combination of self-aggrandizement and self-immolation is motivating those angling to be a low-level sport's voices (or at least the voices of everyday people who shuffle around in running gear). But since I have as little personal investment in this athletic sector as I do in jai alai, and have repeatedly reiterated myself on this issue a number of times in succession on more than one multiple occasion, fuck it. High-school and college running, mostly the former, is where it seems to be at for me now. Road running is now the parade of "LOOK AT ME!!!" bros and ass-wagging Texas natives it was bound to become when people born around the same time as me insisted on having kids of their own. It is a crybaby-choked toilet, but I can't resist watching some of the turds bob around and clog the bowl, so I doubt I'm done. But I hate this blog now, because I'm pretty much one of you.)


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, sincerely. Sometimes it's better to just tell instead of "write," but I haven't fully learned to trust the results of that.

  2. It worked for me in that it was visual, serious material, not judgy, showing what life is like. Though I know not really the point, made me think that at the end of a career, where does one go, what do we do, where do we end up. Good stuff. Thanks for sharing it.