Training & Racing

Fateful Steps in 1995

8 Comments Posted by: Sarah Lavender Smith, January 20, 2013

We compartmentalize and hide memories in mental storage units, and if you deliberately open the door to one for the first time in years, you can rediscover and rummage through all kinds of stuff that’s been sitting there the whole time.

I recently savored Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, about the months she spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 at age 26. With absorbing detail, she describes an intense relationship with her mother and the agony of her mother’s death from cancer, when Cheryl was in her early 20s. Orphaned (since her abusive father abandoned them years earlier), going through divorce and on the verge of becoming a full-blown junkie, she set out totally underprepared to hike some 1100 miles alone on the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to Oregon.

The adventure of those weeks spent solo in the wilderness, and the personal transformation that ensued, make a great story. But this book touched me in another way as well. It got me thinking about what I was doing back then, and wondering how this author could reach into her mind to pull out such a vivid memoir after so many years had passed.

You see, I was 26 in 1995, too. And until I read this book, I didn’t think much about the mid-’90s—that period between being a newlywed and having kids. For some reason, when I flashed back, I felt uneasiness and “ugh.”

Ask me what happened in 1995, and I’ll tell you two things with a smile: I ran my first marathon, and we bought our first house.

Morgan and me with our dog in our new house, late 1995, when I was 26 and he had just turned 29.

It’s also the year I graduated from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Ugh.

What I know for sure about life at the beginning of 1995:

We rented an A-framed two-story cottage on Virginia Street in Berkeley, next to an ugly apartment building where shouting broke out at night. I was in my second year of the two-year master’s program at the journalism school. We had a 1990 red Toyota Corolla and a 90-pound yellow lab named Sadie who slept between us on a futon. Morgan built the futon frame by hand himself, to replace the plywood laid on stolen milk crates that we put our futon on in college.

Morgan’s hair was brown, not gray. He had his first real job at a law firm, after a year of unemployment following his 1993 law school graduation, and he bought five dark suits to rotate wearing during the week. I took classes at the brown-shingled J-School on the north side of campus and spent almost all my free time interviewing people and writing articles.

When I entered grad school in the fall of 1993, we used WordPerfect for DOS and a UNIX-based email system called Pine that made me cry after several unsuccessful attempts to set it up. I witnessed the first baby steps of the World Wide Web in 1994 on a Mosaic browser. Late on Election Night in the computer lab, I sat transfixed and gasped when we were able to load a web page—pixel by pixel, more than a minute ticking by—and see election results next to a picture of Secretary of State Kathleen Brown. Amazing!

But the most amazing and unexpected thing to me about this period involves running.

I took up running on the first Monday of March in 1994, one day after watching Adam and Jennifer run the Napa Marathon. I wanted to do it, too, even though I hated running since junior high and never played a sport that involved running. Something about seeing all those average-looking people chug by on the final miles of the Napa marathon, with intense emotion and a sense of purpose etched on their faces, made me want to be in their shoes. If I trained for a year, could I run Napa in ’95?

I started slowly, clumsily, and worked up to three to five miles a day, three or four times a week. Then I found a beginner’s marathon training guide in Runner’s World. The magazine had marathoner Uta Pippig smiling on the cover, wearing her Boston and New York championship medals, and I stared at that cover photo the way I stared at teen celebrities in Tiger Beat when I was 11.

I measured routes with a car odometer or a map (remember when there was no GPS?) and calculated an average mile time to try to break a 10-minute pace. Then, I worked up to 9-minute miles. I wanted to run the whole marathon—no walking breaks—and finish under 4 hours by averaging a 9-minute pace.

On March 5, 1995, two months before my 26th birthday, I lined up at the start of the Napa Valley Marathon in Calistoga. I wore an oversized cotton Bay to Breakers shirt—the only shirt I owned from a running event—tucked into shorts pulled up too high on my waist. My bushy pom-pom of hair wagged like a poodle’s tail because I hadn’t learned to braid it. Outer thighs bulged with dimpled lumps, inner thighs rubbed together until they chafed.

But I took off running down the Silverado Trail toward Napa as if my whole life had been meant for that day and depended on reaching the finish line. After exactly one year of training, my legs and lungs got me to the marathon finish line in 3:56:32.

On the way to the finish line of my first marathon on March 5, 1995.

On that day in 1995, I felt a degree of accomplishment, pride, energy, strength and motivation that I had never experienced before. I can recall only one other day before that first marathon—my wedding—when I felt as elated. The difference between the two days is the marathon was mine and mine alone.

In 1995, I became a real runner. I found something I was good at and made me feel really, really good.

Not coincidentally, the joy I experienced from running grew in inverse proportion to the dwindling joy of going to graduate school.

I started the journalism program in 1993 full of motivation to become a hard-news reporter. I had been a reporter and editor at our undergrad college paper, and then as an associate editor at a weekly paper in Sacramento when we were first married. I knew the satisfaction of seeing a bylined story in print, and I had done a few stories that felt like they mattered, like the one about state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown’s tobacco lobbying, which I heard really pissed him off. Doing stories like that felt important. But did I actually like doing them? Could I handle the deadlines and be willing to drop everything to cover breaking news?

After my first semester at the journalism school, I landed a coveted spot working part time as a stringer at the San Francisco bureau of the New York Times. The bureau chief was a tiny, brittle woman. Sometimes she would compliment me and share advice in whispery, confidential tones, and other times—completely unpredictably—she’d shoot me withering looks and tell me what to do in a tone that suggested I was utterly dense and how dare I waste her time. Feeling off balance whenever I was around her or doing work for the Times, I began to dread calls from her and from the editors in New York.

At the J-School, my faculty advisor also put me on edge and filled me with a sense of inadequacy. She always seemed grumpy and critical, always smoking and frazzled. As the school’s expert in political reporting, she was my mentor and pushed me to try for a job at the Capitol in Sacramento or D.C. Years later, if I’d spot her out and about in Berkeley, I’d duck and hide to avoid what I assumed would be her disappointment in me.

Now, nearly two decades later, I drive by the Graduate School of Journalism on the Cal campus and feel no nostalgia, just a vague queasiness. During the two years I went there, the deadlines, egos, competitiveness and constant uncertainty about whether and when I’d have to chase a story filled me with anxiety. I did it—and did well enough to earn a couple of merit scholarships and a reporting prize—but more often than not I approached assignments with a fear of failure, followed by relief when it was over.

Then I took up running and began going on hour-long runs around campus and up the Strawberry Canyon Firetrails. Those runs gave me an escape from the obligations at the journalism school and restored a feeling of wellness. I didn’t want to face the fact I was unhappy and uncertain about my career plans, but I couldn’t deny it.

Graduation loomed in the middle of 1995. One friend got a job at the Washington Post, another became NPR’s correspondent in Jakarta. Others headed off to start their careers in small TV markets in the Midwest. They were ready and willing to go anywhere. I, however, was married—the only one among my peers to marry so young and to have a spouse with a potentially lucrative career. It didn’t make sense for me to move away from the Bay Area to pursue a reporting job, if that meant jeopardizing Morgan’s job—and I didn’t really want to, anyway. We wanted to buy a house. I wanted to focus on starting a family.

In the summer of 1995, I got a staff writer job at a San Francisco legal affairs newspaper, which involved covering courts and the Bay Area legal profession. I quit seven months later, after I was sent to cover a mind-numbing, esoteric patent infringement trial in federal court involving a home test kit for HIV. I had no clue or care as to what the attorneys on either side were saying. Then I got a reporting job at one of the East Bay suburban daily papers, which I liked better and didn’t mind cranking out two or three simple stories a day. But I should have known I was a square peg in a round hole on those nights when I had to cover the cops beat, and I’d monitor the police scanner while silently praying, Please don’t let anything happen. 

Meanwhile, in the fall of 1995, Morgan was earning enough that we were able to make a down payment on a sweet two-bedroom in Kensington, next to Tilden Park in the Berkeley Hills. We packed up and held a garage sale to sell all of our parents’ hand-me-down furniture so we could make a fresh start. Not even 30 yet, we were buying our first home and planning for kids—and I was so excited.

Our garage sale right before moving day in 1995.

Our first house!

Without really realizing it at the time, I made a subtle but significant shift in 1995 away from pursuing my own career toward riding the coattails of Morgan’s. The dissatisfaction and lack of passion I felt for my job made it easier to transition into a support role for him, and to embrace the opportunity to become a mom.

With my two-day-old baby, Colly, in 1998.

Happy times with baby Kyle and 3-year-old Colly, 2001.

During the decade that followed 1995, I went in and out of jobs and freelancing while having and nurturing two babies. While my husband became successful, the professional side of me stagnated. I can’t complain, because I truly love where we’ve ended up. Also, I know I deserve a lot of credit for supporting Morgan and enabling his—make that, our—success.

But ever since 1995, I’ve had a nagging sense that I missed the boat on developing a meaningful, prosperous career that I could have devoted myself to, built upon and made a small but significant difference in the world. I second guess the decision to go to the journalism school and ponder all the other graduate programs or career paths I could have or should have entered. Or maybe still can and will.

I understand more fully now why running and racing marathons “clicked” within me in 1995 and has been my passionate hobby ever since. Running gave me something my fizzling, ill-fitting career never did: joy, pride and success.

It also gives me independence, which I don’t want all the time but need in small doses. Running is “my thing,” separate from marriage and family. It lets me be me—unbridled, free, out in the open. I get out of it what I put into it. It’s dependable, always available, always suggesting a new goal to set and work toward. It brings out the best in me.

A decade after I started running roads, I switched mostly to trails and started racing ultras. I’ve been a trail runner ever since. (Photo by Corey Rich)

More tame than “Wild,” I took steps in 1995 when I was 26 that put me on the path to become the person I am today—the person who now, in my 40s, experiences some wild adventures through running and travel. Ultimately, I’m grateful I figured out early on that I wasn’t cut out for the life of a scrappy journalist after all. Most of all, I’m grateful for and happy with the life I built with Morgan.

But without my long-running “career” as a runner, I doubt I’d feel so content.

***

Buy Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail from Amazon—I recommend it!

Your Comments

8 Comments so far

  1. Gretchen says:

    This is a beautiful piece, Sarah. I really appreciate you sharing this personal history. I’m a big fan of reflection and looking at our own growth. I think it helps guide us in moving forward. And hearing about someone else’s process is similarly helpful. I think you’ve built a beautiful life, Sarah. Good job!

    Two other things: I ran my first marathon in ’95, too! I swear I know exactly the Runner’s World with Uta, and I used that same training plan in my mission to qualify for the 100th Boston in ’96.

    And, looking at those pictures of you from the mid-90’s with the curly bangs and long hair – we looked even more alike back then! :)
    Gretchen recently posted..For the Ski PatrollersMy Profile

  2. Sam says:

    Wonderful article. Let’s not forget that raising children to adulthood and supporting a family are very valuable and under-appreciated “careers”. And you appear to have succeeded and enjoyed it so much. Congrats!!

  3. Thanks for sharing that. How the vicissitudes in life can reprogram our well made plans. Sometimes surprises come along and we realize there are so many adventures and so many different roads to take.
    The Universe speaks and we only need open our eyes and ears to it’s suggestions and guidance.

    Your life adventures are inspiring.

    All I can say is you’re going to have a really great book out there someday.

    BTW Thanks for the tip on the “Wild”. Just downloaded it to my kindle. Soon as I finish “Running On Empty” I’ll read it.
    Pete Ferguson recently posted..Biking, Running, Dogs – Time Down With Injury -thoughts-My Profile

  4. ScottD says:

    Now look at you…you’re out of control!!!

  5. Carmel says:

    I love what you say about the story feeling important, but not liking it. I feel that way when I work on a big, important project with the professionals I work with. I realize my role as project manager matters and is important and there’s something inside me that swells with pride, but it’s not from liking it. It’s mostly that I survived whatever the task was. Thanks for sharing your story.
    Carmel recently posted..Christmas Dinner & a Farewell (for now)My Profile

  6. Mark Tanaka says:

    Beautifully written self-reflection. This pairs well with your Eldrith Gosney post– looking forward and back. Maybe something to do with the new year, since you don’t have to make resolutions to lose weight or get in shape, right?
    Mark Tanaka recently posted..Return to the Diablo 60kMy Profile

  7. Anna says:

    A great piece! I just got into running a year ago so it’s wonderful to read about how a top female runner from East Bay started out in this lifestyle.


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My 2014 Race & Family Travel Calendar

Lake Chabot 30K, Feb. 22. Race report.
"Uncool 50K," March 8
Night Sweats Marathon, March 24. Related post
Diablo Trails Challenge 50K, April 19. Race report.
Miwok 100K, May 3. Related article
Pacing at Hardrock 100, July 9 - 11. Report
Family trip to Honduras and Costa Rica, late July. Costa Rica report
Crystal Springs 50K (pack training run), Aug. 9. Report
Grand to Grand Ultra self-supported stage race, Sept. 21 - 27
North Face Endurance Challenge 50M, San Francisco, Dec. 6

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I use Honey Stinger waffles, chews & bars for long runs.

Wear Road ID for safety when you run, www.RoadID.com:

This Fenix flashlight is perfect for nighttime running; see this post on the lighting system I recommend.

I recently discovered the Nathan Quick Shot Plus 10 oz. hand-held bottle with a pocket, and I really like it for shorter races when all you need to carry is a gel, your car key and a small amount of liquid.

My 2013 Race & Family Travel Calendar

mid-February: Telluride
Way Too Cool 50K Mar. 9. Race report.
Oakland Marathon, not racing but volunteering as leader for the 3:40 pace group, Mar. 24
Lake Sonoma 50M Apr. 13. Race report.
mid-April: exploring Vancouver for Spring Break
East Bay Triple Crown Series: Tilden Tough 10M May 19, Lake Chabot Half June 2, Woodminster 9M June 16. Short recap.
Marin Ultra Challenge 50M training run, June 22. Story & pics.
6-day Maine biking trip, trip report.
8-day Colorado River rafting trip! Trip report.
Aug. 11: Skyline 50K in the Oakland hills. Injured.
Pine to Palm 100M Sept. 14 Injured.
Berkeley Trail Adventure 50K Sept. 28. Finished 1st F!
Rio Del Lago 100 Mile Endurance Run Nov. 9 Injured.
Quad Dipsea, Nov. 30 Injured.

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