Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gear Check

I once dropped a shoe. With running there is so little gear - a pair of shoes, some lightweight clothes to whisk away moisture, perhaps a water bottle - that the mind can wander from a simple gear check that sports like hang gliding or parachuting require. In those more dangerous pursuits an untied knot has deeper repercussions.

It was the first cross country race I ever did in high school. The course was a mile up a hill, a mile down, and then a half mile along the flats. I was more of a climber then and was in front for the uphill portion of the race only to be passed on the downhill. When we hit the flats my left shoe which had been dangling fell off, and I scooped up it with my hand. I felt pretty good and passed the four people ahead of me while still carrying the shoe in my hand across the finish line.

My coach did not know what to do with me. He didn't want to stifle the enthusiasm, but he shook his head about the race. "Never seen anything like that," he began, and after a slight pause added "It is a little easier if both of them are tied."

I thought about that as I headed south to my high school reunion.

Reunions are those times to check our gear, to examine what we carry. My friends came back with new business cards. They came with stories of honeymoons and grad schools. They came with diapers and strollers.

I returned with a few good rambles about endurance events (including my last 50k ski race coming soon to a winter team near you). There is a part of going to these types of events that makes one long to be able to tie more tightly those long ago memories, to fix just a few things - the "If I only knew then what I knew now" syndrome of regret for those times when it mattered more to be tender or brave. Granted the other parts of reunions are the drinking and the boasting, so perhaps in the end not much is either remembered or forgiven, but I wanted to believe that I would come back and share.

I like to think I did well, that my stories brought back those warm moments, but this, like the missing shoe, went a little bit off course.

During the first night of the reunion, I went wide to hug a mutual friend (who happened to be one of the stars of the show Top Design), and as I expanded my arms to say nice going, another friend leaned forward. The net result was a margarita pile up worse than any happy hour at Chevy's. After I quickly returned with towels, the drench friend didn't seem too upset, stood there half smiling and acknowledging that, of course, this would happen to us. "Oh, Arthur. don't worry about it," she said gently with a slight laugh, but in my heart I knew that there must be an easier way to relive the awkwardness of high school.

I can't say that that the Alumni Mesa Race the next day was my comeback attempt at grace for the reunion. Only a good dry cleaner could do that. But the hope was that I could relive some of those memories running through the gentle warmth of a Santa Barbara day. The old track coach has since left the school, and his replacement was someone who just finished 15th at the LA marathon with a time of 2:47. He would be racing. It was clear at the starting line that I wasn't going to win this event, and my only hope for dignity was to try to come ahead of the guy pushing his two children in a stroller. I figured that my unencumbered lifestyle gave me an edge. "Just beat the stroller," I mumbled to myself. Just beat the stroller.

It turns out the guy could push like an expert shopper in an after Christmas sale. For the first part of the first lap he was right behind me, and as it looked like I would drop him since he had to navigate the steps next to the science building, the LA marathon guy offered to help carry the stroller up the stairs. My big gravity advantage was neutralized. After helping the parent, the track coach burst past me (I think he could have made a sandwich or composed a haiku in the time differential of our races) and I was left to the man versus chariot competition.

I spent the next ten minutes hearing the wheels behind me rumble while two kids felt the breeze of their father's efforts. Somehow I managed to hold onto second place. Though the head of alumni development is going to send me a t-shirt as a prize, what I will remember more was that chance to go back to the paths from long ago and finish them this time with shoes on both my feet, that somehow I am starting to make it around this world a little more complete.