At 4:30 in the afternoon, as the shadows grew longer and the sun lowered toward the horizon on the bay, my ability to fulfill the run I had planned seemed as likely as me hopping out of the car and sprinting a 6-minute mile down the sidewalk. Sure, technically it was possible if my life depended on it—I broke 6 minutes before, years ago—but nothing at all lined up to create the necessary conditions.
I was idling at a red light at 40th and Broadway in Oakland, the corner with the car wash. Like much of Oakland, it shows signs of too-cool gentrification. The carpeting store across the street became Clove & Hoof, what Yelp calls “a hipster butcher shop” (as if that’s not an oxymoron). Nostalgia mixed into my dark mood as I flashed back to the gray-haired man at Anderson’s Carpet who helped me pick out flooring there years ago. “Millennials,” I mumbled as if it’s a bad word, for no better reason than I was feeling old and annoyed by the population surge that has made even these rough and ugly corners of Oakland feel crowded.
I had to take my van to be washed and get air in the tires because we’re driving to Southern California the next day (today) for a board meeting and to visit my kids at The Thacher School, and I had parked under a tree full of birds that produced a shit storm and covered my vehicle in golfball-sized splotches of white goo. My van literally looked polka-dotted with bird shit. And I’m already self-conscious of showing up as a trustee to these board meetings with professionals who drive expensive sedans while I’m in an aging Eurovan with a poptop and UltraRunnerPodcast stickers, as awesome as my van is. The bird shit was just too embarrassing and dirty, even for me.
My planned workout for the day was very specific: a 9-mile loop from my house to the ridge of the Oakland Hills and back. First 3, warm up through the Upper Rockridge neighborhood, past Lake Temescal, to the overpass of Highway 24. Next 3, push the pace and run hard up Old Tunnel Road and Skyline Boulevard, with my heart rate at about 85% of max. Final 3, return home while practicing smooth downhill running, working on leg turnover. Once home, do at least 20 minutes of core/glute work, pushups and arm weights, and active isolated stretching. The whole thing would take close to two hours.
It was a key workout in the week—one of three quality days when I push hard. I’m endeavoring in this training season to follow coaching adages of “make your easy days easy and your hard days hard,” “know the purpose of every run,” “fit in strength conditioning at least three times a week …” etc.
As a result, this month has gone quite well so far. I started the new year with a 50K training run. I got over 70 miles the week of January 11 and also did all the requisite conditioning, balance and physical therapy exercises I promised not to skimp on. I got over 60 miles last week, which was deliberately lower volume because it included a hard speed workout early in the week and then a trail marathon last Saturday. The trail marathon was a peak training run for the Sean O’Brien 50K on February 6, the first of a string of races to build up to Western States 100. At that Crystal Springs marathon in Woodside last Saturday, I hammered the pace harder than planned and achieved that coveted state of “flow.” I broke 4:10 on a hilly, muddy course, a pace I doubt I could have achieved for much of last year.
I guess it’s predictable that three days later, here at the car wash, I’d feel tired. I also have a scratchy sore throat. Mostly I’m stressed from having to revise a major feature article, having another challenging project looming, getting ready for presentations at this week’s board meeting, and handling myriad financial and household matters.
I really wanted that two-hour hard-effort workout, but I had slept in following middle-of-the-night insomnia, so I didn’t get out in the morning. I ended up working all day, optimistically wearing my running clothes with a plan to get out. Before I knew it, it was late afternoon—the time when it becomes dicey to run the planned route at dusk, when so many cars, returning from work, snake by on those narrow roads. And how the f— would I find two hours now? I had to get home, do laundry, pack …
My stomach tightened with stress when I saw the long car wash line. This errand would take at least twice as long as I anticipated.
Goddamnit, I just needed to get out and run! So I put the van in park and talked to a nice worker at the car wash. Could I please leave my van there, and have one of the workers drive it through the line and check the oil and tires, and I’d be back in a little while? Sure, no problem ma’am, he said. I gave him 5 bucks as a tip and my phone number to call in case there was a problem.
I didn’t know what to do with my purse. So I took out my wallet and phone, left my empty purse in the van, and carried my iPhone in one hand and wallet in the other for everyone to see as I walked away from the car wash, as if advertising, “Sure, go ahead, come jump me and steal my valuables that are in plain sight!”
I crossed 40th and Broadway with no idea where I would run, what pace I would run or how long I would run. I just wanted to get going. East or west? Toward the hills, or Lake Merritt? Head for the hills, so I hung a left, on a side street parallel to Piedmont Avenue. I broke into a run, feeling stiff and slow—but relieved, like the sensation of stepping into a steamy shower when you’re cold and stiff.
The cemetery! Why didn’t I think of it before? The sprawling, historic, 225-acre Mountain View Cemetery sits on the hill above Piedmont Avenue in North Oakland. It’s a popular place for runners and walkers (and stoners), but I don’t go there much, probably because I don’t like contemplating mortality. The last time I visited was 4th of July to drive to the top and see fireworks over the bay. The time before that, I taught my then-15-year-old how to drive on its winding, almost-empty streets.
I paused at the entrance to the cemetery, took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. The traffic noise subsided in the background. A web of roads and pathways bordered by green grass and monuments beckoned. I had no idea which way to go. I decided to make my run to the top of the hill as zig-zaggy as possible.
The meandering miles that ensued might best be described as therapeutic. I ran by feel, adjusting the pace to whatever felt nice and manageable, and looked around to take in the details and names on the innumerable headstones and monuments. Instead of dwelling on mortality or morbidity, I studied the designs and appreciated the aesthetics. I let my mind wander. The phrase “some is better than none” popped into my head.
The other day, I told one of my clients, “Some is better than none—just do what you can.” She kept skipping her scheduled core conditioning workouts. The extra 20 minutes they took on top of the scheduled runs just felt too hard, and not enough of a priority, to fit in. I told her to get on her bedroom floor, do a set of pushups, and plank for one minute. Then work her butt with a set of bridges or clamshells, and do 30 seconds of planking on each side. “It’ll take five minutes, max. Try it! Some is better than none!”
Then I thought of, “Do what works.” My friend, who had a baby a year older than mine, told me “do what works” when I was a new mom. It was the best parenting advice I ever got. Set aside all the do-this-not-that from parenting experts, and instead do what works for your child at that moment.
This run today, it’s what worked.
Once, when I was struggling to write an article on deadline, someone said, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” Just get something out. Some is better than none.
So much of my stress is tied to perfectionism, to wanting to get it just right or not do it at all. I overthink and underproduce. That’s the case with this blog. I neglect it because I want the posts to be just right, meaningful, memorable. Tight, not meandering. But just getting out there and wandering—exploring and thinking along the way, as I did on that spontaneous cemetery run—is pretty darn good and worthwhile, even if it’s not perfect.
“Know the purpose of every run.” The purpose of that day’s run, I realized partway into it, was to relieve stress, appreciate the beauty of the moment and feel better all over. Yes, I skipped a scheduled hard 9-miler. That means I have a real life outside of running, which also is a good and healthy thing.
I returned to the car wash after 45 minutes and 5 miles with my mood transformed, full of gratitude and feeling healthier. And my van looked awesome!
Now I’m hitting the road. Look at that: I spontaneously cranked out a meandering, thoughtful, imperfect blog post.