Sunday, April 28, 2013

I'm still beating myself up over it.

A view from the course, seconds before the finish line. I was thinking of making a series:

And a half-second later a tired, uncoordinated, sweaty finger caught my earbud wire and the iPhone flung end-over-end out of my hands and into the air. I was mid-stride, and took a few steps before I caught myself, turned, and abashedly retrieved the thing. It was a grassy end-strip at the finish, so there was no damage. But you should have been there.

It is a good thing to run hard for thirteen miles, give it your all, and then experience the personal triumph of the finish line, with your best time at that distance. It is another thing entirely to reach the finish line and do something so dopey that it inspires a collective, dispirited OOOOOOOOOOHHHHHH from the spectators. No, I'm serious. It's what happened. I was about to cross the finish line, and I dorkily pulled out my camera-phone, and then dropped it, and then had to go back and get it, and hundreds of people went OOOOOOOOOOHHHHHH, and the announcer made a joke, "SEE LADIES AND GENTLEMEN? THIS IS WHY YOU NEED YOUR OWN CAMERA CREW TO FOLLOW YOU DURING THE RACE." At which point I raised my arms triumphantly, or defiantly, and crossed the finish line. It took about seven seconds off my finish time.

Which ordinarily wouldn't have mattered. But I had, this year, set a half-marathon goal of 1:39:00.

Back in 1998, 15 years ago, when I was so depressed and had failed professionally at all my passions, I took on running as a way to clear my head and find some self-control. I was in a pretty bad space. I remembered liking running in my youth, and later getting kicked off the  track team in high school for various disciplinary reasons. But in my twenties I'd been inspired to run a marathon by an old friend who was no runner. This guy was a pale, bookish-type writer, who had the body-shape of a fire hydrant, and yet he was so inspired by the grand endeavor of The Marathon, that his passion had, at long last, sunk into me and lit a spark down under. So I was finally going to do it, too. Conquer a few demons. Show that old high school coach that I really had it in me. I was 28 years old. I was lost. But then I ran my first race: a Half Marathon. My time was 1:39:00.

So here I was, 15 years later. I've run 19 full marathons, now. I'm a changed man, and an older and wiser one. I've got a real job, now. I got a life. But I am getting a bit faster, in spite of everything, and I had this wild idea to beat that dumb twenty-something's time from my way back when: the young, stupid, carefree, lost me, from fifteen years ago.

There I am at the finish line in beautiful La Jolla, California. My three kids safe at home, and my sweet, surefooted wife a few miles behind me. And then there I am lamely dropping my cameraphone and going back for it. When I collected myself, finished, and finally hit the STOP on my RunKeeper app, the time read -I'm not kidding- 1:38:59. So I was going to have to wait for the official results to roll in over the wire. I spent a serious amount of time examining the location of the chip-timing registers, and trying to recall if I had pressed START too early, or STOP too late. Seconds mattered! Zooming in on the photo, you can see the gun time clock reading 1:39:07. But, even though I was in the first wave of runners, I was a bit behind the early pack, (I am not an elite runner) and these seconds become important as you begin to find yourself in the sport. So I waited, and considered it all. But... really?

Then why did you pull out your stupid camera phone RIGHT AT THE FINISH LINE?

I guess I don't know what's important to me anymore. Because, when I finally did cross the finish line, the first thing that went through my head was I wish I had shot video, because that was a hilarious, priceless, YouTube moment: I'm seconds away from achieving my goal time and I do something so stupid that THE CROWD GROANS -it's the stuff ABC's Wide World of Sports is made of.

So I still see things from a storyteller's perspective. And it is a curse. I cannot be still in the moment. I cannot bask in the glory or the beauty or even the personal achievement of life, without considering the placement of the camera, the angle of the light, the showmanship of the subject, or the literal superlatives to describe it so that those not present can one day understand. Even though I spend the bulk of my days raising my children and raising high the roof beams of some retired suburbanite's aluminum patio cover, I still can't help but be bothered by the Third Eye, the watchful faceless outsider of my second-self. Hell, I sit on the toilet and imagine myself onstage, sometimes. I am forever bothered by the all-seeing perspective of The Author and his sentiment.

There may be a quiet wonder of a man in your life who takes it all in, who lampshadedly stands back at cocktail parties and observes, who listens happily, and seeks the story of your drama, but who -if you're lucky, and he is a man of good will- carefully cherry-picks the bad moments of gracelessness, pity, mistake and self-doubt in your life, and then surreptitiously whiles away some private time to highlight your strengths and create the arc of your character, and then embolden the drama and heighten the action of your final story. He's the man who writes your biography, shoots your biopic, and pens your obituary. And you are unwittingly doomed to treat him right.

And, shit, sometimes I think that guy is supposed to be me.