5:30 Sunday morning found me huddled at the kitchen table beneath the room’s only source of light, sipping tea and reading the Book of Isaiah. The fact that this is the most geriatric sentence on record (at least, on my record) is remedied only by the fact I was up that early to prepare for the Rooster’s Revenge trail race.
Why the Bible, you ask? Well, for the last six months or so, I’ve been reading deeply about Judaism—its history, philosophies, associated scholarship, and mystical interpretations, and suddenly realized that to try and understand all of this without having read the central text upon which all these other texts depend is like trying to build a house before building the foundation.
Thus, have I been making my way through the Old Testament, reading the same way I run—slow but steady, marveling at the strange landscapes into which my journeys seem to always take me. And, that morning, though I’m not all that into bibliomancy, I was delighted to happen upon verse 40:31, “They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Though I was hoping not to walk at all, it seemed a promising passage to carry with me into the race.
So Bible read and bags loaded, I headed out to meet my trusty training companions–Chris, Cullen, Terry, and Betsy–for our drive down to Mills River. At the start, following the de rigueur three or four trips to the port-a-lets, I had time to bask in how much I love small local races. Instead of fancy heatlamps at the start, there was a fire and promises of s’mores at the finish. It was also wonderful to see, after only a year of living here, how many faces I recognized.
After much arm rubbing and hopping in place to stay warm, the race began promptly at 9 with a cacophony of rooster calls from the pack–the pack which thinned out quickly due to the steep half-mile climb up a gravel road to get to the first of the single-track. I found myself a little short of breath, probably due to standing around in the cold, but I tried to trust in all the elevation training I’d done and push hard up the hill. It seemed to work, as I settled into a quiet little pocket–the lead pack ahead, the rest of the runners behind–where I remained for pretty much the entire race.
Wake-up calls came early, thanks to the 10 river crossings in the first two miles. Though I tried to glide over the water-smoothed rocks beneath the surface, I had to laugh at how I was less graceful flamingo than rampaging rhino.
Then it was a steady uphill grind through the lovely woods with time to let my mind wander.
While attending a Hebrew Day School for grades 2-6, I was schooled in the Old Testament image of God: patriarchal and mercurial, insecure and controlling. I attended a Conservative synagogue and, despite that I know now that questioning and even arguing with God and faith is the foundation of the Jewish tradition, I was instructed to simply accept and not question what I was taught. So when I left for public school, I left religion to languish in those stifling, private-school halls.
And now that I’ve begun this new set of studies, trying to answer or at least amplify the large questions that have lately been rising up in me, I’ve often felt lost–Why now? Why this? Will all this information ever cohere into anything resembling wisdom?
Before we’d begun the race, Aaron Saft, the Rooster’s mastermind, gave the pre-race instructions. All significant turns would be marked with a bevy of orange ground flags and a large blue arrow pointing the right way, while along the rest of the course, orange flags would be placed as “confidence markers” ever 100 meters are so to ensure you were on the right path.
I imagined what it would like to have such course direction for my interior life, wondered what “confidence markers” might look like to say, Don’t worry; you’re on the right path; just keep going this way. That these teachings make me feel more connected to the world, more like the person I’d like to be, is that enough? Does my next book need to come from this?
And these thoughts brought me nine miles in, to the course’s tipping point. Just as I stepped into a sudden opening among the trees–the path a tight seam of earth through a field of high grasses–there was a break in the clouds. As the grass was still wet with morning dew, the sun set every blade alight and the wind set it all to motion. It was like running through a river of cool fire.
A phrase from one of recent my Hebrew lessons popped into my head: העולם הזה הוא עולם יפה. H’olam ha-zeh who olam ya-feh (try saying it aloud; it feels good on the tongue). This world is a beautiful world.
And that, alternated with, They shall run and not grow weary, became my mantra from the rest of the race. Around mile 11, there was a series of seemingly endless switchbacks climbing up out of the dark woods, followed by a long set of more climbing up several gravel roads. I was thankful for the steepness of Bent Creek, my normal training spot, as I was able to set my legs to the running equivalent of granny gear and just crank my way up those long hills.
With a time of 3:36, I was third in my age group and the eleventh female overall. I was also proud to be with Cullen, who was first in her age group and got to take home a very cute ceramic rooster to commemorate that accomplishment (behind her is Terry, with a surge of energy from post-race pizza).
The volunteers were wonderful, the aide stations fully stocked, and minus the angry ground bee that set my forearm on fire around mile 15, it was a pretty perfect race. Next up is Shut-In in November, an infamous local race that is also a 30K, but climbs more than 5,000 very technical feet over those 18 miles.
As much of my writing these days tends to either originate from mid-run ruminations or grapple with running directly, I figured it would be kosher to include a race report on our writing blog (and Nickole was kind enough to agree). But let’s be honest that this will be less a race report (sorry hardcore runners who stumble onto this post) and more a report of my race, of what wandered in and out of my mind during all of those hours on the trails.
So let’s begin with the basics. The Yamacraw began at 7:30 am on Saturday, April 8, with the temperature at a pleasantly chilly 35 degrees. Instead of the standard mileage of a 50K, the folks behind the race were kind enough to include two free “bonus” miles, which left the course weighing in at a total of 33.1 miles. As for the course:
Aid Stations: 5
90% trail (the majority of this, narrow singletrack with technical footing)
8% gravel access road
2% paved roadway
Elevation Gain: 3,809 ft
Elevation Loss: 4,347 ft
Those are stats, but as Nickole’s questions around every such event remind me, the bigger, eternal fact of this race, of every race, is Why? Why train for months, logging nearly 700 miles in service of a single race? Why run that far? Why run at all?
The Yamacraw began with a flat, friendly, grassy stretch, designed to let the pack thin out and negate excessive passing on the more treacherous singletrack that was soon to come.
Then came the creek crossings. After five in the first four miles, I lost track of the number of times we plunged in and out of that wide-awake, bracing water, each new crossing at precisely the moment my feet had just begun to dry from the last one, long muddy stretches on either side of most banks.
On the first sustained early climb, I was grateful for my Asheville training, comprised of section after section of extended, sustained elevation; when the people ahead of me opted to hike instead of run, I was able to slip past them, pressing on up the path.
But how could I write about this race without focusing on its beauty? The Yamacraw runs through the Daniel Boone National Forest in Eastern Kentucky, a formally designated wilderness area packed with natural arches, wetlands, waterfalls, and much more. And what makes something “wilderness”? According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, it’s “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and, my favorite, an area that “has outstanding opportunities for solitude.” So here are at least two answers to the why of trail running: the opportunity to flee the stripmalls and highways, to go to a place where I am a visitor, a guest, a witness to a place not molded to human convenience and consumption and, yes, to be in solitude, away from the electric hum and crash of our cities.
As this was a cup-free event (meaning you need to bring either a hydration bladder, water bottles, or the like to refill with either water or an electrolyte-spiked drink), this was also a race where each aid station gave me insight into what it might feel like to be a Nascar driver pulling into a pit stop. The moment I cruised up to a table, the kindly volunteers recorded my bib number and raced around filling my bottles per my request, directing me to plunder the smorgasbord of bananas, pb&j quesadillas, m&ms, and more, As I jogged away, I amused myself with the mantra, “Seven miles down, only a marathon left to go.”
And in some of the most gorgeous miles of the race, we continued on, wending between lichen speckled cliff faces and beneath sharp rocky overhangs, waterfalls cascading past.
At the second aid station, there were Nickole and our puppy Solace–two more why answers. Seeing them after all that time alone a sharp jolt of pleasure, a moment of deep gratitude to be loved enough by my wife that she agrees to spend a day driving the KY backroads without the benefit of GPS (contending with a dog who has not yet grown out of her carsick stage), then standing at spot after spot, waiting for me to emerge from the woods and pause only long enough for a quick kiss and much thanks for her encouragement. Additional thanks to this video proof that my legs were still functioning happily at the third aid station (mile 16.8), where this was shot:
Around mile 19 there was the biggest water crossing of the day, broad enough that they’d secured a safety line to help people through the fifty feet or so of knee-deep water and slippery rocks. Feet thoroughly drenched, the first real, sustained climbing began. I was grateful for my Asheville training (thanks Cullen, Uta, Terry, and Chris!), comprised of long loops linkng together section after section of extended, sustained elevation; when the people ahead of me opted to hike instead of run, I was able to slip past them, pressing on up the path.
It’s hard for me to walk in races–not because I don’t want to (with every fiber of my being, I would have happily laid down beside the path for a long nap), but because I find that the longer I walk in a race, even if the trail is steep enough that walking might be more efficient than running, the harder it is for me to begin running again when I hit level ground and the easier it is for me to stop and walk later, when I don’t really need to. So I chugged upward, buoyed by the Sheltowee Trace emblem secured to tree after tree: a giant turtle, the perfect spirit animal for an ultra, or at least for my ultras.
And the gift for making it to the top was five miles along a beautiful ridgeline, looking out over the grassy hills below. For most races, I memorize a poem to keep me company as I run. For the Yamacraw, I chose Jorie Graham’s “Tenneesee June”–a poem I find achingly beautiful, for it’s language, it’s deft handling of complex ideas, and it’s delving into both the body and the spirit. On that ridge and so many times when the beauty of that day threatened to overwhelm me, the lines that kept repeating were the quietest, most risky part of that poem: “Oh//let it touch you…” That exhortation toward vulnerability, toward lowering your defenses and letting the world in.
Then it was a steep plunge down switchbacks, where all those people I passed on the way up raced past me on the way down. After far too many rolled ankles, I’ve grown excessively cautious, the fear of wrecking an ankle and not being able to run nearly paralyzing at times, which makes steep, technical downhills my trail kryptonite. But it was clear after this race that this is what I’ll need to work on in the years to come–as much to learn how to enjoy them as to get faster.
The downhill, though, would not last long enough for most people and, right as we hit the marathon distance, the trail banked upward for what was by far the steepest part of the race: a long gravel fire road steep enough that a friend saw a truck stall out as it tried to make the climb. But suddenly, just as the people ahead and around me began to flag, settling in for the long, painful hike to the top, I was hit by a burst of energy that had me charging up all but the steepest bend of that road, delighted to have clear, unobstructed footing. Yet another why answer: there are few things I’ve found more astounding in a race than when–generally during the darkest doldrums of a race, salt crusted, leaden-legged, and feeling like I have nothing left–I find this reserve, this aquifer, of pure, joyful energy just waiting for me to tap into it.
Then the final aid station, where I let my body guide me to what it needed. I downed half a banana (anti-cramping potassium; good idea, body) and a handful of salty boiled potatoes–bland, perhaps, but in that moment one of the most delicious things possible; I was sick of sugar after the packaged bars, and the combination of pure carbohydrates and sodium was exactly what I needed.
The final miles were a blur of more dizzying switchbacks, these made especially treacherous by their composition of roots and rocks masked by a thick layer of leaves, and a set of wooden stairs so steep it was easier for me to climb down them backward, my quads so thrashed from the many descents that I’m not sure it would have even been an option to go down them normally. The temperature had risen nearly thirty degrees by that point and my water had run out with a long mile left to go.
And then the delightful breaking from the trees onto the Blue Heron bridge built to carry coal from mining company there, a cantilevered truss bridge nearly a quarter of a mile long and more than a hundred feet in the air, which gave the final stretch a surreal, floating feel. And I ran that length of planks as fast as I could, eager to see Nickole, eager to stop running.
I crossed the finish line seven hours and seventeen minutes after I’d begun running. It was the most beautiful and most challenging race I’ve run to date. But it makes sense to me that beauty like that must be earned and I’m already planning to return to next year’s race, where I’ll happily pay that price again.
Just past the Marriott’s doors, I asked a valet, “Which way to the river?”
“What river?” he responded.
I asked two more hotel employees and heard the same question. The river that bears your city’s name, I thought, but just thanked them and took a guess. My map had showed the Los Angeles River less than two miles to the east, so I ran toward the new sun and hoped for the best. In a city like LA, I figured, it was probably less natural landmark than trash-strewn aqueduct, anyway something easy to overlook, to forget. But still. It’s hard for me to trust a city that doesn’t know its own rivers.
Before we get to the rest of that run, however, a little background: Despite the hungover disbelief with which my admissions of daily running at AWP are often met, these runs are my only real way of confirming that, yes, year after year, the conference does indeed take place in a different city. Without running, it would simply seem as though each spring I’m wormholed to the same bizarro waystation of a fluorescent-lit convention center, with its labyrinthine set of escalators and unmarked hallways, and a hotel with geometrically patterned carpet, slow elevators, and bad wifi. But, due to my runs, I can say with some assurance that my very first AWP was in Vancouver because I can still recall the wind along the seawall there. Three years ago, I was in Boston, skidding across pedestrian bridges slick with black ice, and two years ago it was Seattle, huffing up and down steep hills redeemed by morning views of the Cascade mountains.
But my run in LA, however, made me wish I’d slept in, stayed inside, or had somehow learned to love treadmills. As I ran toward the river, I quickly understood it was not just nature the city had forgotten. Block after block was filled with men in various states of disrepair, many slumped in doorways or flat on their backs along the curb. I turned my headphones up to drown out whatever was being shouted at me. But by the time I was fully immersed in what I later learned was Skid Row, it felt too dangerous to turn back. And I couldn’t simply turn north or south, as the narrow cross-streets were choked by tents jammed close as a series of sidewalk squares, rigged from grocery carts, boxes, and ragged blue tarps. I relinquished my planned route and turned left at the first major intersection. That roofline of synthetic blue was the closest thing I saw to a river.
And as I ran into streets increasingly clean and populated, what struck me most about that long sad stretch, with its awnings scrubbed of even the ghosts of past signs, its shop windows soaped or hastily painted over, it doors ajar, buildings gutted and open to any squatter who wandered in, was how truly forgotten it seemed. I could not remember seeing a single new billboard or poster or ad of any kind, as though these people’s desires—a population that nears 18,000—that these people’s needs, with no money behind them, were not even worthy of recognition, let alone encouragement.
Two weeks later, I’m still haunted by those images. Though I’ve lived in marginal neighborhoods before, in Oakland, in San Francisco, at least those places were viable; there were families and shops and bus stops. I’ve never seen a place so completely abandoned. And no matter how much fun I had at the conference—and I enjoyed it a great deal—for better or worse, that run will be what I know I’ll remember.
Now, where are you going again? That’s the question we get most often.
When we first started this journey, I’d simply list our event locations in the order in which we’d plan to travel, ticking off the calendar in my head—well, this March we’ll start in Birmingham. Then on to Iowa City and Lawrence, Kansas. Then we have a few things in Little Rock, then AWP in Minneapolis. . . after that, we hit the road for real this summer, first to Asheville, then up to Tennessee for the Sewanee Young Writers Conference, then to teach at Murray State’s low-residency program and at Poets House in New York, then—oh, yes—a blissful week to write in Western Massachusetts, that will be a welcome break. After that, three readings in Provincetown and then events and workshops in Boston, Buffalo, Colorado, Taos, and Santa Fe. . . . After that, we head home, but we’ll still head out for a few more few more jaunts, to Rochester, Minneapolis, Columbia College Chicago and Charleston South Carolina, and then there’s Salt Lake City, Delray Beach, Sanibel Island, and oh, here’s some great news—we’ve been asked to teach in Thasos, Greece, next summer. . . .
That answer, I quickly figured out, was definitely not the best approach. It required me to align the logistics in my head with a dizzying, carnival ride of a shuffle that made even me nauseous, and worse, the answer was the equivalent of info dumping, making the inquisitive friend sorry for even asking. Now, if the one I was talking to didn’t excuse themselves and sneak off to another corner of the proverbial bar, they were left with the conundrum of how to respond. . . . And there are two basic choices here, either enthusiasm or dismay. The irony, no doubt, is that I still can’t choose exactly how I feel myself.
Because despite each event that goes well—each city that we drift through without experiencing theft or flat tires or a flu that leaves us curled on the floorboard for days—that dismay—that downright fretful what-the-hell-were-you-thinking response—never quite dissipates.
It isn’t only this break-neck, beat-the-streets book tour that splits my nerves at times, but of course, my recent resignation from my tenure-track job. I mean, all writers understand how hard it is to get a full-time job teaching poetry, and anyone who knows me remembers how hard I worked to get my job. It seems crazy, downright ludicrous, to let that kind of security go. And there was nothing wrong with that job, truly, no batshit crazy colleagues or unreasonable committee work; just a good, steady opportunity to teach poetry to some good and (mostly) steady bunch of students.
But Jessica and I? Well, we sat down, looked at the numbers, and realized that if we live simply with our savings, we can manage by teaching guest workshops, taking on freelance editorial work, and holding low-residency positions, as I do now at Murray State. It was the plan we made, and even though this career-jolting announcement garnered a ridiculous amount of “likes” on Facebook, in reality, it leaves most of my colleagues and friends a tad incredulous.
When they ask about this move, I reassure them I’m fine, say, really, we’ve thought everything out, but at the same time, I’m also reassuring myself. And when natural suspicions arise, I halt them best I can, say, No, everything was great at my university; I’m going to miss my colleagues and my students just terribly. And I do miss them, keenly so. I say, I was actually coming up for tenure early. I say, I can’t tell you how difficult a decision it was. Because it was a difficult decision. I love teaching, deeply so, and UALR was good to me.
So I say difficult, but it’s in a way that makes it a silly, inadequate word, something wearing mouse ears in the long, crowded line at Orlando’s airport. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that once that last long semester was over, once Jessica and I arrived in the green promised land of Asheville this past May, I promptly curled fetal and set my own weeping raincloud as a crown above my head. The darkness was palpable, grainy and deep; the fear thick enough to eat with a spoon, each mouthful sticking like wet newspaper in my throat. I couldn’t convince myself that I deserved this life, that I would ever write a word again, and to be honest, I didn’t write anything remotely worth keeping until a solid two months later—until now, really, on a friend’s fiber farm in Western Massachusetts—when I quit my quivering and gave myself permission to give this life a try.
You see, folks ask the question—Again, now tell me where you’re going? —and after I give them an answer (albeit a much-abbreviated one now), sometimes they reply with the word brave, but behind that adjective is worry, something in their eyes letting me know brave is the flipside of foolish. Perhaps they realize the only other people they’ve known traipsing around the country this much were either following The Dead or were in a garage band of some sort, a motley crew of hygienically-challenged boys who survive on a steady diet of Taco Bell, PBR, and truck stop coffee.
With friends who know me well, their worry shines through in a bevy of follow-up questions—Now, where are you going to sleep again, in the back of your Honda Element? On a fold-out futon, you say? Well, what about health insurance? And what about a doctor if you need one? And your pets at home? Who’s taking care of them? And how are you packing enough clothes for all those climates? I mean, you’ll be traveling into autumn, right? And how do you arrange these readings? I mean, who is handling all these details for you? How can you keep track?
I’ve got suitable, pragmatic answers for all of these questions, but I won’t bore you with them here. If you ask me if this is the right decision, well, I can give you that answer, but not until a few years from now. I will tell you that I believe it’s a lot easier to regret the things you didn’t try than the things you did. Jessica and I are trying to make time—not our careers, teaching or otherwise—our sacred asset, and this was the only way we could figure how to approach it. We’re not sure how it’s all going to pan out; it’s a test of faith and a blind leap. But I swear, things are coming back to me, swiftly, and I’m experiencing time again, as only I did when I was a child. Opening our lives in this way, as hectic as it may sound, has created a void for poetry to enter, an empty space that accepts creativity as it is—unnecessary, elusive, impossible to force.
Take this morning, for example. I remembered the word scythe. Jesus, isn’t that a beauty of a word? I wrote it down in my much-neglected notebook and watched it slither, sounding of tall grass cut with one muscled, shining blade. It’s housed in the same box with absinthe, a word that also shushes with dreaming, so I wrote that down too. I hardly call that a poem, but there you go. Then, of course, after I sat a while, came ardor, a word I used to carry around with me like a raw almond under my tongue. The ardor I used to have for poetry, and now, after all my scrambling and procrastinating and self-pity, that old love returns to me, tentatively, but bearing gifts. In one hand, she holds the quivering of pigeons in the darkness of the rafters in the barn here. In the other, the delicate popping of roots—basil, maybe, or young dandelion greens—the whole plant eased from the dirt.
In short, I’m not sure how we’ll hold it all together, but I’m learning. Learning to pay attention, learning to let go. Learning, most importantly, that poetry is real and valuable work in this world, and even though it makes me feel like a fool, I accept my chance at this position. I thank my wife for giving me courage to jump, for holding my hand even when I became afraid and began to let go of hers. I also thank the moon, as goddess-silly-new-age-crap as that sounds. The night before last, it was the second full moon in a month—a blue moon, to be precise—so bright that even out here, miles from the nearest town, I could follow the silvering of birch leaves turning in the wind and stopped to bury myself in the milky fur of the white dog here at this farm. He’s a Maremma Sheepdog, and I don’t exaggerate to say that white dog was glowing just like a ghost I saw once as a child, a big ghost of a dog guarding the top of the stairs. He kept me safe then, and he keeps me safe now. I know this doesn’t make sense, so let me say this plain, let me get back to the moon that night, the way it took pity on me, the way she finally moved the churning waters back. I’m not drowning or sinking to the bottom of the sea, no. Instead, I find myself on this empty expanse. It’s no place, not exactly. But with all the wrack cleared away, it’s everywhere I want to be.
After six glorious weeks in Asheville, we spent six days back in Little Rock, which was just enough time to see friends, figure out how to pack the suitcase equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife (three months of touring from the citified streets of New York to the dunes of Provincetown to the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico will require many costume changes), and celebrate a new age of marriage equality–both in our kitchen and somewhat more publicly on The Oxford American‘s website. Then it was back on the road, this time headed to Sewanee, TN, to serve on the faculty of the Sewanee Young Writers Conference.
Located on the Cumberland Plateau, just south of Nashville, Sewanee has an interesting history. In the 1800s, school was in session during the summer, where the school’s higher elevation and accompanying cooler temperatures offered the monied set’s aspiring heirs a respite from malaria, yellow fever, and cholera. Fortunately for me in 2015, its woods, many of them lush old-growth forests, are ringed by a twenty-mile perimeter trail, which I’ve been exploring section-by-section; though the near-daily rain means I’ve been running less on trails than through shallow riverbeds, flanked by flotillas of alien-appearing mushrooms–red behemoths like beached crabs, buttermilk flattops like a cache of silver dollar pancakes, and miniature clusters of pumpkin-orange fungal bouquets.
Nick and I each have a workshop of ten high schoolers and we’ve been trying out parallel teaching–giving them roughly the same readings, writing exercises, and assignments, and comparing notes to see where we can both learn from and bolster the others’ approach.
The underlying theme of our workshops is awareness. We began with Nickole’s wonderful exercise of using ostranenie, the defamiliarization of overly familiar objects, as a way into to truly experiencing the world we most often take for granted; in concrete terms, our students spent a couple of hours looking at, listening to, smelling, tasting, and feeling an apple (for details, check out her guest post on Write All the Words).
What I’ve found I love most about working with this age group is that they’re up to try pretty much anything. Realizing their abilities to recognize and describe the visual far outstripped their other senses, I took them to a meditation labyrinth and had them take turns leading each other through it with their eyes closed, noting how differently they experience the world when sight doesn’t first impose its primacy.
They also happily explored the University Farm, first researching either chickens, goats, or bees to both inform their time there and to see how they might take something from the natural world and, by exploring it as a metaphor, use it as a back door into writing about personal material that might otherwise be difficult for them to approach in their poems.
We read Lia Purpura’s fantastic essay “Against Gunmetal” about the need to find fresh language instead of relying on cliches, especially when describing ubiquitous things like the sky, then happily tromped to a nearby cemetery (happily, because what Harold & Maude-loving teenager doesn’t relish getting poetic beside a tombstone?) where each student selected their own grave site and wrote a letter to its inhabitant describing that day’s particular sky.
And tonight, midway through the conference, they turned in their poems to be workshopped. Nickole and I were thrilled to see how early drafts had grown into moving, surprising poems in which the students allowed themselves to risk both clarity and emotion, to step out from behind grand abstractions and impenetrable images and be truly present on the page. We saw them using their poems to ask hard questions and then explore possible answers–or to try and accept that such answers are not always knowable. It made me not just remember how much I love teaching, but what poetry can really do for us as both writers and readers.