Thursday, December 11, 2008

Running on Two Continents

Dear Deanna,

I knew, even before the starter’s pistol went off, that this letter would be for you. You’re the one who ran a half-marathon before, the one who sent me information about how to train. But it wasn’t until someone asked me why I was doing such a thing that I realized that I’d never asked you the same question, nor could I provide a very good answer for myself.

Not having a good answer caused terror to set in just before the race began. Did you experience this, joining the crowd at the starting line in Columbus? I was standing in front of the imposing steps to the causeway of Angkor Wat, and my hands were trembling so badly that I could barely safety pin the number to the front of my shirt. After all, you know that I am not really an athletic sort. I have never learned to ride a bike, become uneasy and clumsy the instant a piece of sporting equipment is placed in my hands, and have always been picked last for every team, from preschool Red Rover to Dunlap family reunion volleyball games. My body is not going cooperate, I thought, not for 21 kilometers. Why am I doing this?

The easy answer, the one that I use most often, is that I do it for the runner’s high, and that’s at least partially true. Maybe you use this explanation—being the mother of three small children is undoubtedly stressful, and maintaining a thirteen-year marriage (even if it is to my adored brother) must have its difficulties, too. I started jogging on a regular basis when I first moved to New York and felt lonely, then more when my relationship with Jeremy started to hit the rocks, and more still the summer after we broke up. Running through the streets of Jersey City could sometimes flip a switch in my brain, could allow me the luxury of daydreaming about how the next day would be better. But we both know that the runner’s high doesn’t always cut it, that sometimes you need life to cooperate. I remember a day a year and a half ago when I crumpled onto the living room floor in tears after a run, wondering why I didn’t feel any better. A few hours later, my friend Jason came over to hang out. A movie, a bottle of wine, a kiss, and suddenly the race course had taken a sharp turn, went stretching out in a different direction, one that led, eventually, to Cambodia.

Running in Cambodia is different than running in the US. In some very straightforward ways, it’s difficult to train here: stray dogs and chickens chase me wherever I go, moto drivers tease me, and it is always either muddy or dusty, resulting in red-stained sneakers and frequent coughing fits. But it’s difficult in subtler ways as well, producing some mutated reversal of the runner’s high. Cambodia is simultaneously beautiful and ugly, pure and corrupt, friendly and forbidding, and to run through the streets is to force yourself to see all of that. For a long time, I wasn’t sure how I fit in here, what I was supposed to be doing, or even if I wanted to stay. There have been many days when I couldn’t write about this place, couldn’t even think about it, but at least, I thought, every time I put my running shoes on, I was seeing it.

I think that’s why the idea of running the half-marathon through the famous temples appealed to me: that somehow I would see them differently if I looked at them in this context and understand the ancient and complex fabric of this place better. That’s not exactly what happened. There was so much adrenaline, so many people—it was hard to meditate on the secrets of the Khmer empire. All I had time to process was that, after weeks of feeling as though I was stumbling into obstacles, it was all a little easier than I thought it would be. My body did not fail me; the training you suggested had done its job and I ran every step of the way. But there was something else, too. I was used to the climate, I didn’t need to take a hundred tourist’s snapshots during the race, and I could speak some words of Khmer to the children who had come to give the runners encouraging high fives. This is a strange place, I thought, looking up at the carved stone faces that are over six hundred years old. But it is also a home.

And so, even after crossing the finish line, the running continues. That is the best answer that I can think of right now—that we run because there is always more ground to cover. We are in different hemispheres right now, and for now my course stays in Cambodia, but someday we will run a race together and prove to ourselves one more time that we are tougher than we think.

With love,

1 comment:

dunlapfabfive said...

Oh, believe me, the terror was so enormous I almost threw up before I even got to the starting line! Congrats again... it really is quite an accomplishment.

Keep running...