Friday, July 22, 2011

Baby We Were Born to Run

This weekend it will have been one month since some friends and I ran the Great Lakes Relay. It's also been almost a month since my last post. These two things are very related. I've been wanting to blog about my experience running across Michigan since we got back, but I struggled with figuring out what exactly I wanted to say about it. My first few drafts all began with a detailed description of how we got involved, how creepy Northern Michigan is with cat-sized insects and 12 year-old (inbred, banjo playing) gas station employees, and an overview of my relationship with running. Now normally when I sit down to write for you all it takes me a little over an hour (or the exact time it takes me to finish a box of chocolate graham crackers), from start to half-assed edit. My Great Lakes Relay post just wasn't flowing, however, and I kept getting stuck. Frustrated, I would put the computer away and go for a run, take a cold shower, and go to bed thinking about what exactly I got out of the experience that made it worth writing about. After four weeks of the attempted blogging-quitting-running-bed routine, I realized that I had run almost every day for a month, which was something I hadn't done since my marathon nearly two years ago.

My relationship with running has been a long and complicated one. The other evening I was catching up with an ex-boyfriend from my college years, and he said it seemed as though I used to run because it hurt. I hadn't thought about it like that before, but immediately knew he was right. In high school I literally ran away from home to escape my parent's fighting. The first time my beloved baby brother, Alex, was incarcerated was while I was in college, and I ran ten miles as fast as I could, giving myself a stress fracture. When my parents filed for divorce, I ran twenty miles, then drank myself to a blacked-out stupor. When I stopped denying my brother was a drug addict, I ran until I thought I felt as miserable as he did. I was rarely happy while out pounding the pavement, but was grateful I found a way to redirect feelings and turn emotional pain into the more bearable, physical sort. But even after my glum college days were long gone, I was still in the habit of fueling my miles with negative notions. Until, that is, the Great Lakes Relay.

The GLR is a 270-mile relay race across Michigan done in teams of ten. Each runner is required to run at least 24 miles over the course of three days. That may not sound like much, but these miles are run through over-grown, six-inch wide trails that are topped with a good four-inches of sand. The trails are poorly marked, so at least once a day, a teammate gets lost, causing the poor sap to run even more miles while looking for his or her way back. Sounds gruesome, doesn't it? Well, it gets worse. The majority of the participants are not normal people like my friends, but finely-tuned running machines with hollow bones and a few dozen abdominal muscles. Normally when I find myself in a group of people who are a) in better shape than I am while still b) eating more than I do, I become very angry. I don't hate thin people, I just think that if I have to be around them I should at least get the satisfaction of knowing they'll never know what a beer and donut taste like together. The participants of the run across Michigan, however, mostly consist of the kinds of jerks who weigh one hundred pounds, run like goddamn gazelles, and could out-eat me even during a PMS week. My childish bitterness combined with the almost-overwhelming desire to fit in with them made me start the first leg I ran that weekend way too fast, leaving me a heaving hot mess after what should have been an easy five miler through the woods. After another run later in the afternoon, a six miler, my IT band was killing me and my hip was so sore I couldn't sleep that night. I ran the second day like I did the first: mad at myself, mad at my achy body, mad at all the people passing me, and really mad at everyone who was having a good time.

Much of the relay involves waiting for your teammates to finish their run, driving to the next destination, picking up the last runner, then driving to your next starting line. During the latter half of day two, I got to spend a few hours picking-up and dropping-off runners with my teammate Pat, who just so happens to be as enthusiastic about running as he is about drinking beer, which is a lot. Pat is also the only person whose genuine love for running rivals that of a race horse or my KitchenAid mixer. Even though he was clearly hurting after a grueling 10+ miler, all he talked about was how beautiful the scenery was, how excited he was to have a beer, and how much he... loved to run. I believe at one point in our conversation, he said something about how if you run with love in your heart, there will be no pain. I mean, that's nauseating, right? Just reading the phrase, "with love in your heart," makes me want to chain smoke unfiltered wall insulation and steal an old lady's seat on the bus. But when I woke up the next morning to run the very first leg of the very last day, that's exactly what I did. Standing in the middle of dozens of aspiring/current/and former college athletes, I accepted the fact that I couldn't run six minute miles and decided to enjoy my last run through the lush Michigan wilderness, even if IT band pain might cause me to walk. When the gun went off, I moved aside to let the serious runners pass and switched my iPod and my body to "shuffle." For the first mile I hung out in the back of the pack with a guy who looked barely awake, appreciating how nice the chilly morning air felt after three straight days of being in the sun. My pace quickened a little, and I caught up to a runner who had a grasshopper hitching a ride on her back. I helped her swat it off then continued to go faster and faster until I felt my body click into a challenging, but manageable groove next to a woman who was both significantly older and in much better shape than me. We took turns drafting off each other, slowly but surely picking off tiring runners as our pace stayed steady. After a few miles with her I started to regret pairing up with someone so fast, but was afraid to fall more than a few feet behind in case the defeat would cause me stop. Since my IT band felt surprisingly good, I was able to concentrate on my stride and on breathing in threes (three counts out, three counts in). A slight downhill gave us sight of the finish line off in the distance just as the opening notes to "Born to Run" came through my headphones. When it was over I looked at my watch: 4.4 miles in 35 minutes and no knee pain.

After spending three days driving, running, and camping in the middle of Nowhere, MI, I had hoped to have some sort of epiphany about perseverance, or overcoming limits, or what happens when I put myself in difficult situations, but I didn't. Nothing particularly new about my character was revealed. When I left Michigan, all I brought back with me was a pile of filthy running clothes, an exhausted dog, and the best run of my life, the ultimate trek that made me remember why I picked it up as an awkward fourteen year-old, and what now inspires me to run with love every day. Was it worth it? Spending three days slogging through sandy trails in blistering heat, sleeping on the ground, showering in small-town high school gyms, and driving a 12-hour round trip, just for those 35 minutes? You bet it was, and I'll be back next year to find them again.

Oh, I also learned how to poop in the woods during my Great Lakes Relay experience, but I'll tell you what; knowledge like that ain't worth shit.



(Me, at one of the finish lines. Photo c/o Pat Thurber.)





(Our team's badass jerseys, cleverly designed by Ashley Plummer)





(Runs really don't kill people, they just make them stronger/deranged.)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Me, You, and Tippecanoe

Last weekend was very important for two reasons. Firstly, it was Independence Day/my favorite holiday. Secondly, I went camping for the first time in my entire life. I'll give you a moment to get over your shock about that last statement.





Still don't believe it? Well, it's true. As the daughter of a computer nerd and a bonafide beach bum, my family spent our vacation time on the Gulf of Mexico, collecting sand dollars, swimming in the clear, calm waters, and nursing our sunburns in the comfort of luxury hotel beds. The only time I can recall one of us wanting to go into the woods was a week after Andy was born. While my eight year old self nearly suffocated my new baby brother with hugs and kisses on a daily basis, Alex wanted to abandon his role as middle child immediately. I couldn't blame him. Try as he might, he couldn't outsmart his older sister and couldn't out-cute his infant brother. My mother found him in his bed one day, sobbing into his pillow. "What's wrong, Al?" She said. "I hate having a little brother!" he wailed. "I'm going to take him to the forest and feed him to the lions and tigers!" He eventually gave in to Andy's charms, but I think that statement pretty much nixed any chance of my family spending time in the great outdoors.

When Mike suggested the idea that we spend Independence Day weekend with our friends camping on the Tippecanoe River I figured he must have hit his head and had completely forgotten who I was. I began to speak to him like Americans speak to foreigners. Loudly, slowly, with a hint of condescension.

"CAMP-PING?"
"Yes, camping."
"Camping, like, SLEEP ON GROUND? NO TOILET? CAMP-PING?"
"We'll have sleeping bags and a tent."
"Bugs. There will be bugs. Bugs are BAD."
"It's only for one night."
(I paused to think about whether or not I could survive outside for a full 24 hours.)
"Can I drink and smoke and blow stuff up?"
"Yes."
"Fine. But I might sleep in the car."

Arrangements were made to borrow my in-laws' tent and sleeping bags, I assembled and packed a few outfits I considered camping-chic (high-waisted shorts, t-shirt, bangles, electric pink lipstick, turban), and off we went. Now, I myself do not drive for personal/practical reasons, but I very much enjoy being the passenger through trips down windy, country roads.



That is until the sky gets all "Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde" and I find myself in the middle of a lightning storm that looks like this:



The lightning gave way to heavy rain just as we pulled into the campsite. I might have been a baby about this, but luckily I fell into a huge pool of mud five minutes after getting out of the car and was freed of any hopes I had about staying clean and dry. I should also mention that I was hanging out with the four badass ladies that make up Neon Love Life (check them out!) and their, "fuck-it-let's-drink-whiskey-and-rock-this-bitch" approach to the situation rubbed off on me, making things like peeing outside and finding a worm between my toes less harrowing than I thought was possible. I was starting to get the hang of the whole camping thing, and was even enjoying it. That is, until it was time for bed. I will never understand what you naturebots find pleasurable about sleeping outside. Perhaps you all don't look like this after five hours in a tent (if you have a heart condition, you may want to scroll through this close-up*):



"Hey Lora, sleep well?"


(Had Ashley and crew not gone to get coffee right after I woke up I was going to drown myself in that river.)

We didn't get to go tubing like we had planned, since the storm turned the river into a murky aquatic death trap, but we did get to do one last thing before we left..


("America")

All things considered, my first camping trip wasn't terrible. I mean, technically speaking, it was terrible, but I did have fun and even made it out of there without a tapeworm.

While I already have plans to go camping again next weekend (yeah, I'm really pushing my luck on this tapeworm thing), I think I'll always be the kind of person who would rather take a nap on the couch with a couple of spoiled poodles.


(post-camping poodles courtesy of Dorreen Carey)



* Madam Donut is not responsible for any medical/phycological damages that may occur from looking at these painful photographs of her face.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bare Naked Bike Rides

The first time I rode my bike topless was when I was six. I remember it being warm, and it being around dinnertime, since everyone's parents were out in their driveways, calling their kids home to eat. My best childhood friend, a cute and quiet boy named Eric, was sporting just a swimsuit to make trips through the neighbor's sprinklers more convenient, and when he jumped on his bike to escape his mother's demands that he come to dinner, I took my shirt off and followed him. The wind on my bare chest felt amazing as I stood on my purple pedals, sailing around the block towards my house. Though exhausted after an entire day spent in the sun, I felt like I could ride like that forever, free and naked as a bird. While I was busy grinning up at the trees, I heard our famously grouchy neighbor yell at my mother, "Hey Beth, why don't you get a shirt on that girl?" I slammed on my coaster brakes, stopping suddenly in the middle of the street as Eric zoomed out of sight. Why did Captain Killjoy say that? Did I do something wrong? He made me feel like I had, and I headed inside as fast as I could to put on my Robin (a la Batman) pajamas. I never rode bare-chested again. That is, until last Saturday.

Our friend Chris had mentioned a naked bike ride the week prior, but since the forecast called for uncomfortable temperatures in the mid 50's with a side of rain, I just assumed it was going to be one of things we talked about doing but didn't, like shopping at Trader Joe's instead of Whole Foods, or cutting back on our drinking. But thanks to Lucy the cat and her ability to rouse me from sleep by trying to suffocate me with her saggy, bald stomach, Mike and I woke up early enough to pump ourselves up for it. After filling our bellies with donuts, choosing "outfits" for the ride, and shaving the necessary body parts, we slipped on some vintage track suits from Mike's Catholic high school and headed out to the Map Room to meet our friends and down a bravery beer before biking to the secret start location (it's funny, I was much more embarrassed biking in matching red and yellow track suits than I was the entire naked ride). On the way over, I wondered how hundreds of people were going to get together, get naked, and embark on a massive group ride without being seen by the rest of Chicago. When we got there, I saw the solution was simple. What do you do with 1,000 unclothed cyclists? Like money, you put them in a hole in the ground. Voila! No spectators (except for the non-participants taking pictures. Do you take pictures of your mother with that camera?)!

Once among the crowd, I couldn't help but catch their excitement. And joy. They were the happiest group of people I had ever encountered, and they were naked in a pit in weather so miserable I thought I heard Frank McCourt narrating the scene. A couple got married. Kids started dancing. A girl fell over Mike's bike then exclaimed, genuinely, "I fucking love this day!" I stopped being nervous about freezing to death, figuring that since so many people showed up despite the chill, the ride was going to be worth it.

And, oh, it was! The adrenaline rush from biking up the first street instantly soothed my shivers and lifted my spirits. Even when we had to stop and wait for the (awesome and efficient) ride coordinators to block off the streets, I wasn't so much concerned with the cold as I was enthralled with the surrounding riders, like the guy next to me, who, after helicoptering his man parts around for a while, sighed and said, "Yeah, my mom was going to come, but she got sick." Soon after the penis helicopter landed, we made our way down the Magnificent Mile, and then cruised into Streeterville, down one of a handful of Chicago's very slight descents. Though hardly going ten miles an hour, I felt as fast and free as I did that summer day when I was six, when I ripped off my shirt and pedaled after a boy. That's when, right as we entered Lincoln Park, I pulled off my bikini top and grinned up at the trees, loving the way the wind felt on my chest.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Boozy Sunburns

It's late at night and our windows are open.  Our dog and two cats, Ramona, Lucy, and Thor, are perched in their respective sills, listening to the drunken laughter of Cubs fans walking home after the game and the neighbors' hounds bellowing in harmony every time their master leaves their lavishly decorated patio to freshen a party guest's drink. It's summer.

Unlike anywhere else I've ever been, summer in Chicago happens over night, as though it sneaks into the city while most people are sleeping and paints the trees green. My neighborhood is suddenly full of people I haven't seen before because they holed up for good after snowpocolypse hit. These same people have dug out their warm weather garb and are strolling down the sidewalks in short shorts that barely cover their pale, plump, winter's booties, but we're all Midwesterners here and the bacon we eat seeps into our brains, causing a chemical reaction that makes us accept this as attractive, so we don't mind at all.

Soon North Avenue Beach will look like a little Jersey Shore with hoards of people covering up every last inch of sand so the stragglers have to lay out on the bike path. Foster Beach, on the other hand, will have plenty of room for gay picnics and doggie play dates, both of which I hope to be invited to soon. I don't know the rules about drinking on the beach, but I've always done it, and am looking forward to doing it again.

Ramona and I have been taking longer walks to enjoy the sun, and my olive skin has finally started to sport some color. I know I should be wearing sunscreen, but the first few weeks of sun feel so good that I can't bear to block it's rays. I may or may not be letting myself get a little too much sun, just so I can have that dizzy sensation at night that feels all tingly and good when I press a cold bottle of beer on my pink shoulders. I'll wear sunscreen starting in June. I swear. While I'm getting darker, Ramona's fur is turning a milk chocolate color on her back and she is losing her fluffy undercoat that kept her warm during hours of jumping in the snow.

I know it is summer because only in summer do I write silly, meandering blog entires that don't have a point. My apologies.

It's late and should be dark, but Wrigley Field is illuminating the sky, giving it a dusty rose hue. The birds are chirping.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ode to Dog

It's Ramona's estimated 2nd birthday month (I think it's important to note that right after I typed that, she farted)! Hooray!
And I say "estimated" because we didn't know her as a newborn pup. It wasn't until she had already earned her street cred in West Town that we met, when she was about nine months old. And crazy. And scared. And not allowed in my dog-free building.

It was Valentine's evening, and Katherine and I were just closing up the little grocery where we worked. I'm sure we were probably mopping to "H to the Izzo" when our pal and fellow employee, Jill, came to the door with a dog who didn't look anything like her beagle mix, Flash. I went outside to meet the pup, who was so adorable and small, all shiny black with chocolate eyes and ears that stuck to the side of her head when she was scared, making her look like a sad baby seal. I know I heard Jill tell us about how she found her tied to her porch that morning, after the poor thing spent an entire night outside (in CHICAGO, in FEBRUARY), but my main concern was when I could take her home. "Really, you'll take her?" Jill asked. "Of course," I said excitedly, denying to myself that once I brought her home, Mike would have to meet her and would probably shut the idea down because he is reasonable and doesn't do things like piss off the landlord who doesn't like dogs and could kick us out on the street if he knew one was residing in his building. I could live under the Metra tracks, I thought, as Jill and I piled the dog supplies in my car.

I debated calling Mike on the way home to break the news to him before we arrived, but my new friend put a stop to that. She cried all the way from West Town to Ravenswood, and would only calm down if I petted her as I drove. Snow had accumulated outside of the building's door by the time I got home. Not wanting her to leave tracks in the snow for any chain-smoking landlords to find, I carried her across the walk, into the building, up the stairs, and crept quietly into our apartment. It smelled like cream and vegetables, the French version of comfort food Mike makes on special occasions. Candles were lit on the table, and the whole place was spotless. He had made the perfect surprise Valentine's dinner.

"Hey babe," he said as he entered the living room. "How was... what is that?"

"Look, we don't have to keep her, it's just that Jill found her tied to her porch..."

"Who's Jill?"

"And she spent a night outside in the cold, then had to go to the vet to get spayed..."

"We can't have a dog in here!"

"I know! We don't have to keep her, but she's had a bad day, and she's so cute."

The little seal dog peed on the floor.

"Yeah," Mike huffed, "Adorable."

After cleaning up the mess, I put "Dog," as she was being called, in her crate so we could eat dinner. It was mostly a quiet one, with occasional snips about the dog from Mike, and whines about Mike from the dog. I messed up. He made me a lovely Valentine's dinner, and I brought him a mutt who peed on the floor. I volunteered to do dishes in an attempt to make amends, and Mike went to let her out of her crate. When I finished and went to apologize and plead my case for her, they were snuggling on the couch, Mike letting her lick his face.

"I can find a good place for her tomorrow," I reminded him.

"You know we're keeping her," he sighed, nuzzling his face into hers. "She seems like a pretty good dog."

Mr. Leko never caught on that we had her, and a few months later we moved into a dog-friendly apartment. "Dog," now "Ramona," who her first vet said would top out at 30 pounds, packed on twenty-five more of pure muscle, making it clear that we were two more Chicagoans with a pit bull mix. We discovered that Ramona is the best swimmer at the dog beach. Ever. She can swim out to where the docked boats are, and will not stop looking for the stick you threw until she finds it (or gets distracted by a goose). We found out that she doesn't like other dogs, which led us to find out that doggie boot camp is pretty damn expensive. We found out that she's a faster learner than most people's five year-olds, and much sweeter as well. We found out she loves kids, will take shit from the kitties, loves to shred paper, and the only stuffed animal she will not murder is her moose. I found out that I have a lot more patience than I thought I did, and a willingness to put in time, effort, and resources toward a creature who destroyed half of my DVDs. I found out that Mike is a sucker for cute animals, and while I will not bring any more home until we are homeowners, I know that if I did, he would cave (and I love that). Mike remembered, after having spent ten years with his last dog, Sequer, how awesome it is to have a wrestling buddy and someone to play soccer with. Ramona has made us better in just about every way possible, except one surprising and slightly nauseating thing. I have discovered after taking in this funny, intelligent, loyal and loving stray, that I am one of those crazy people who talks to their dogs, even in public. I guess that's because she's my best friend.




My cats, on the other hand, are trying to kill me. But that's a story for another day.