Saturday, July 08, 2017

Losing My Religion

I’ve met God across his long walnut desk with his diplomas hanging on the wall behind him, and God asks me, … Didn’t I realize that each of us is a sacred, unique snowflake of special unique specialness? Can’t I see how we’re all manifestations of love?
I look at God behind his desk, taking notes on a pad, but God’s got this all wrong.
We are not special.
We are not crap or trash, either.
We just are.
We just are, and what happens just happens.
And God says, “No, that’s not right.”

Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can’t teach God anything.

― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

My favorite local coffee shop in town does that thing where they have two tip jars, and wherever you put your tip is answering a question. For example, this morning’s question was “Which Harrison Ford?” The two tip jars were labeled “Han Solo” and “Indiana Jones.” I’ll confess, I paused a long moment deciding in which jar to drop my coins. (I mean, seriously, could there be a more difficult frivolous question? They are both my #1 answer!) 

I have a pretty good time checking out what categories they come up with every day, and studies show that these “category” tip jars actually garner more tips than unlabeled jars. This is because it’s the very nature of our brains to want to put things into categories. 

Categories, and their corresponding labels, help our brains make sense of large amounts of information quickly. I’ll skip the cognitive psychology lecture for you though. What’s important to know is that the labels our brains create (aka schema) work really well for most things in this world, but they create a lot of problems when we apply them to human beings. It is much more difficult to imagine and see people for the complex individuals that we are, and our brain actively fights this by wanting to categorize everyone. This, of course, is how we end up with ugly things like racism, sexism, classism, etc. 

Lately, I’ve been pondering not only how we put others into categories, but ourselves as well. We see ourselves in very specific ways, and sometimes I wonder which came first - the labels we have for ourselves, or the behaviors that give us those labels. And what happens when those things change, but no one wants to change their label for you?


When I was 22, I was nearing the end of a six-month road trip with my friend Charlie, and her biggest stress in those final days of traveling was what she called “ having an identity crisis.”

“Who am I,” she asked fretfully, “if I’m not a nomadic adventurer living out of a van?” 

It was a label she was about to lose - one that she liked very much. 

Here’s a good test of the labels people have for you. When people introduce you at a party, what’s the tidbit of info they share about you? Mine, without fail, is always exactly the same. 

“This is Gretchen. She runs hundred-mile marathons.” 

Although I completely, 100% identify as a Runner with a capital “R,” I still cringe lately when I hear this introduction. It’s not just that I have to bite my tongue and politely refrain from informing people that there is no such thing as a hundred-mile marathon, that a marathon is a specific distance of 26.2 miles (okay, unless you’re in South Africa, but I digress). It’s mostly the fact that then I have to talk about myself. Specifically, I am obligated to talk about running “hundred-mile marathons.” 

But lately, I feel completely talked-out on the subject. I’ve written thousands of words on it. Like, what else could I possibly have to say about it? I didn’t even write a race report for my last hundred-miler because meh. I didn’t care to. 

When I run into people around town, or see friends I haven’t seen in a long time, the conversation inevitably starts with, “How’s the running going?” And lately, the answer is always, “Oh, I’m not doing much running lately.” (And invariably, no one believes me.) 

Like I said, I completely identify as a runner, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. When something has been such an ingrained part of your life for so long, it doesn't just disappear. I also don’t think you need to be actively doing it to still see it as a part of you. But here’s the thing: I’m starting to realize that might be the only thing people see me as. A runner. 

Before training for ultras sucked all of my time away, I was many things. A rock climber, a painter, a knitter, a skier, a photographer. I think it’s fine that I don’t have as much time for those things; it’s all a choice. But I still see them as part of who I am. Labels that fit me.

You know what I’m getting off on these days? Teaching. No joke. This is what’s taking up all of my time. 

It’s not because I’ve become some crazy workaholic. Ha! Never. It’s because I’ve somehow reached this magical little place in my career where things are interesting and exciting, where I am supported professionally and creatively, where I have confidence in my skills but a drive to learn moremoremore every day. It is quite possible, in fact, that it is learning that I love more than teaching. 

I struggle to explain it all adequately, but somehow, the passion and creativity that used to go into writing, that used to fuel me through 80-mile training weeks, is all going into my classroom. And it’s FUN. 

It seems ironic to me that “teacher” is a label that most of my friends do not ascribe to me. Or maybe they do, but it just doesn’t sound as exciting as “runs hundred-mile marathons.” 

I don’t know that this joyride through my career will last forever, but I’m onboard until the tracks run out. And since summer vacation began in mid-June, I’ve been dipping my toes back into some of those other identities. Rock climber, guitar player, maybe even writer. 

In the past, my training has been fueled by my love of racing. For some reason, it’s not fashionable for non-elite runners to admit to competitiveness. This is especially true, I think, for women. But I’ll go ahead and own it. I have always loved racing. Even when I’ve had less-than-optimal fitness, I’ve nearly always toed the line at races with an intention to throw down my best performance. I mean, otherwise, what’s the point, right? 

I love running, but signing up for a race has always been what gets me out the door to train. I am religious about writing out a season-long training plan for myself, and meticulous about recording the results of each day’s workout. 

Or at least, I used to be. 

At the moment, racing just isn't as sacred as it once was, and the daily prayer of going for a run is most often left unsaid. 

So I guess it’s not surprising that a waning interest in racing over the last few years has led to a dramatic drop in my running mileage. That’s okay. I have other labels to embody. 

Since the Broken Arrow Skyrace in mid-June, my racing calendar has been completely blank. It’s something of a disconcerting feeling, but there’s also something new and exciting about it. It’s as though, with no specific goals to train for, I am rediscovering other reasons I love to run. 

Community appears to be a big reason. At least half of my runs in the past month have been with friends and/or group runs with the Donner Party Mountain Runners. These people give me a reason to get out the door, and they are completely awesome to boot. 

Meditative alone time is clearly my other motivation. I’ve written many times before about the relationship between running and writing, so it comes as no surprise to me that when my running mileage drops so too does my inspiration to write. Most of my writing is an act of reflection, a processing of my experience or that of others, and that reflection nearly always begins when I am out on the trails. Without that uninterrupted time for my mind to wander, to give my thoughts the freedom to follow any path and see where it leads, I find it nearly impossible to squeeze my enormous emotions and jumbled ideas into the inadequate packages of words, sentences, and paragraphs. 

We all take on roles and identities throughout the course of our lives - ones that evolve and change. Child, student, athlete, nerd, musician, parent, teacher, artist, lover. The ones that stay with us the longest may have the most impact on shaping how others see us and how we see ourselves. Girl, daughter, runner, friend. 

While it’s not so easy to shed these various identities like dirty clothes at the end of the day, maybe we can still claim them even if it’s not who we are every day. When I am injured, I am a runner. When I am uninspired and write nothing, I am a writer. When I only lace up my shoes one day a week (or month), I am a runner. When I write horrifically bad poetry that no one will ever see, I am a writer. When I run three miles instead of ten (or 30, or 100), I am a runner. When the only writing I do is writing comments and feedback for revision on student papers, I am a writer. 

What I find somewhat surprising is that, of those two identities - runner and writer - the one I miss the most right now is writer. 


The more labels I pin to myself, the more I feel I am defying any single one of them. Of course, we all defy our labels, in spite of our brains’ need to have them. Is this because we are all “unique snowflakes of special unique specialness”? Not exactly. I think we just are who we are, and human beings can be a difficult puzzle to solve. 

I think that for people to understand and connect with one another, we must, as author John Green encourages in many of his writings, imagine others complexly. This includes how we imagine and see ourselves. Snowflakes are unique, but puzzles are complex. 

This summer, I have embarked on a quest to rekindle the fire of my various passions. No teaching - it’s time for EVERYTHING ELSE! 

This includes running, which, I’m not kidding, I feel like I’m completely rediscovering. In a very low-mileage way, that is. I returned from an early morning track workout with DPMR one day this week and declared, wide-eyed, to Andrew, “God, I feel so good!” Like, what a wondrous thing! Who knew? 

It also includes writing. Even if all I manage to cobble together is a collection of confusing and somewhat unrelated thoughts about labels and identity and running. 

Running and writing: the Han Solo and Indiana Jones of my identities. They are both my #1 answer.

New identity: Ski Mountaineer. (Mt. Shasta summit, 14,180') 

1 comment:

  1. Great column, and I've been enjoying your writing for a long time!

    I was never in the "100 mile" category, but running helped me really re-orient my life during a difficult part of raising kids, and it was very central to me. And my last real Capital-R Race was a 50K, about 7 years ago. And people in my circle still talk about that as if it's the most unimaginable distance ever run.

    When in my head my "run" down/up Bright Angel Trail was the ne plus ultra.

    Now I'm on to other things, but I still keep poking at "running" to see if I want to get back into it.

    No hurry, really.

    Enjoy teaching, it's a great career, and what I've always eyed as my "post corporate" job.