Since I returned from a short trip over my 40th birthday, family and friends have been asking, What did you do? What did you get? Did you have fun?
The answers take explaining — I ran through time. I got my life. I wouldn’t exactly call it fun, but I definitely had a good time — so I stick to pleasantries. It’s easier to chat about Mother’s Day, which came two days later and which Morgan and I celebrated with Pacific Coast Trail Runs’ event in Redwood Park. He did the 20K and I did the 50K, remarkable in part because it was unremarkable. It certainly was challenging, beautiful, invigorating, sociable — all the things that have hooked me on long-distance trail running — but the main surprise is that somehow, sometime not long ago but I can’t pinpoint when, I reached the point where running 31 extremely hilly miles doesn’t feel like a huge stretch.
My birthday run, on the other hand, was special.
I woke up on the morning of May 8, my 40th, alone in the guest room of my grandfather’s old house on the East End of the Ojai Valley, where I spent my childhood and adolescence. I looked out the window to the back yard — past the lawn where our dogs played and the family gathered every Thanksgiving for group photos, past the garden where I picked roses and ate all the cherry tomatoes — and knew I had to get on my running clothes and walk through those orange trees to reach the track that lies less than a quarter-mile from the back door. The track is at The Thacher School and named in honor of my grandfather, David S. Lavender, who died in 2003. He coached track there during his three decades of teaching English and writing books that made him a noted historian.
I returnd to Ojai last week to sit in meetings with the school’s Board of Trustees (can I really be grown-up enough to be a trustee of anything?). Thacher is one of the country’s top-ranked prep schools, and the only one with stables housing 120 horses because riding and caring for a horse is integral to its 9th-grade curriculum. It’s a rare (some would say rarefied) place, but to me has always felt homey and in harmony with its natural setting. I lived in the dorms and graduated from there in 1986, but before I became a student, I was a “faculty brat” since my dad worked there, too. From age 4 on, I spent virtually every afternoon there taking care of my horse or knocking around with friends.
Nobody there knew it was my milestone birthday last Friday, and I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t feel like talking about it or celebrating. I was there on business, not vacation and not with my family. But for an hour that morning — before the sun came up and reheated the valley to 90 degrees, before I had to get dressed in clothes to blend in with the faculty and administrators — I could be a kid again.
The track overlooks the Ojai Valley, a cradle of orchards sliced by roads and dotted with small buildings, resting in the lap of mountains whose ridges and crevices are covered with muted tones of bare rock or chaparral. Here and there on the hillsides, a burst of ivory from a tall, blooming yucca plant flamed upward like a candle tip. I had butterflies in my stomach as I walked to the track because I was daring myself to do something I objectively knew I probably couldn’t do: break a 6-minute mile.
I began running slowly to warm up, no one else in sight, but in my mind I wasn’t alone. Looking at the tennis courts, I could see my brother playing tennis with his buddies; looking up the hill, I could picture my sister trotting by on the bay mare we shared. Looking down to the baseball diamond on the lower playing field, I saw my dad throwing the Frisbee for his dog. On the mountainside by the stables, where stone pillars mark an outdoor chapel, I saw our family gathered for my siblings’ weddings and, more recently, for Grandpa’s memorial. And everywhere I pictured Morgan, who became my boyfriend there in the fall of 1984.
Running proved difficult with such a distracted, nostalgic mind. I focused my sight on the same tree I used to look at when I was 15 and would occasionally run laps, but that made me feel as though I were 15 again — I could feel my cheeks burning, my inner thighs rubbing, my breath wheezing. I hardly ever ran during high school. I would run two laps to warm up during the one season I played JV soccer, and that’s about it. I could ride, but I couldn’t run.
I planned to do a few shorter intervals before attempting the mile, but when my watch read 3:04 after an 800, I knew it wasn’t the right day or setting for a sub-6 1600. For once, however, I didn’t feel too badly about slowing down. I realized the numbers on the stopwatch reflected a lack of speedwork more than my age. I could regain a sub-6 pace — if I wanted to, if I worked at it. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. And then it hit me: I’m 40 and don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I can let myself — for a day, at the very least — be proud of how far I’ve come and where I’m at. I gave myself permission to leave the track without running the timed mile and embarked on a run around my old neighborhood block instead.
The Block, as we always called it (as though it were the only one in town), is a large semi-rural square that makes a three-mile loop. I ran down to Grand Avenue and gazed at my childhood house, where Mom’s rosebushes and Dad’s avocado trees look scraggly but live on in spite of the home’s changes in ownership and remodels. There’s a pool in the back yard, and when Dad turned 40 and I was 5, all the grown-ups at his party jumped in that pool with their clothes on while I tasted their whiskey sours. Will my daughter, when she turns 40, remember when she sat coyly on a barstool during Morgan’s 40th birthday bash?
Then I ran past the break in the orange orchard where I first rode a two-wheeler, past my preschool and my old best-friend’s driveway, past the fences and rock walls that doubled as balance beams and forts. I took in the pepper trees, the olive trees, the oak, cacti, oleander and sagebrush, thinking this is where I’m from, this is the place that made me. Then I ran as hard as I could back up Thacher Road, to my grandfather’s old house and the school’s entrance.
What gifts I have been given, and how much I appreciate them: to have a place like this to call my home town and to remain connected to it; to feel healthy, grounded and loved in spite of all the ups and downs in relationships, all the changes that scattered the extended family all over the map. To have discovered running. And to think — assuming the good luck holds — I’m still just approaching the halfway point. I may have a run like this ten years from now, when I turn 50 and my kids are turning 18 and 21. And I may end up like my grandfather in his 90s, telling the grandkids stories about running track and climbing mountains a half-century earlier. I hope so, anyway.