Tag: Adventure

5May

Rolling With It

A few weekends ago, we attended the opening of a friend’s scooter rental shop. I had done a bit of editing for his promotional flyers, and he’d promised me an afternoon on a Vespa in return. “Sounds great!” I’d said, smiling wide and hoping no one would notice the muffled strains of panic issuing from the closet where I’d bound and gagged my common sense.

I don’t do well with things that roll, see. Just about everyone I know could tell you a story of how I forgot to brake when my bicycle started down that one hill or how I did a perfect 90° flip my first (and only) time on a dirt bike or how I fell off and was subsequently run over by that mammoth handcar I’d agreed to joy-ride through our college campus. And we’re not even going to mention my “experience” with skateboards. Much like dogs and Chuck Norris, things that roll can smell fear, and I’ve only become more afraid as the wisdom of passing years has confirmed that I really should stay as far from wheeled devices as possible.

My adventurous streak wouldn’t let me pass up the chance to ride a Vespa through the Italian countryside though. Plus, the girls were practically levitating over the idea of a family scooter excursion. I could do it. Surely I could do it. Audrey Hepburn made it look so… well, possible… and I see fourteen-year-olds riding them through traffic every day. How hard could it be?

Scooter ride - empty scooters“Hello Bethany. Come and ride on us. Come and ride on us, Bethany. Forever… and ever… and ever.”

Friends, you have no idea. I don’t know which was worse: that I had Sophie on the back of my scooter or that a few dozen friends and acquaintances were watching when I made that first tentative twist to the throttle. We were still in the parking lot, and my scooter sprang—sprang, I tell you—toward a parked car. True to form, I completely forgot about the brakes and only just averted collision by skidding my feet against the pavement. Hoping that the onlookers would think I’d totally planned to do that, I gave myself a quick pep talk centered around the word “BRAKES” and turned my scooter toward the road. Another slight twist of the throttle, and we were lurching forward like a drunk cheetah. “BRAKES!” my brain told me, so I squeezed the brakes for dear life… and we promptly toppled over.

As women began shrieking and men began running over to help, I had a full second to contemplate the strong, capable, dignified image that none of those people would ever hold of me again. Neither Sophie nor I was hurt (and I avoided inspecting the scooter under the principle that ignorance is bliss), but every drop of my poise was now splattered on the pavement, a tragic afterthought. Our friends helped me pull the scooter upright, and one kind man told me not to let emotions overwhelm me, just to breathe, to keep breathing. So I did. I breathed and reminded myself that I had come here to take on a challenge. And what if it was more challenging than I’d hoped? Now that I’d already dispensed with dignity, I had nothing left to lose by trying again. (Well, other than life and/or limbs, but I was trying very earnestly not to think of that at the moment.)

Sophie, wise child that she is, declared that she would not be riding with me anymore, so I left her in the care of our friends and set out on a little practice run by myself. The scooter wobbled and weaved, but I was able to get the hang of it after a few blocks—how to pull on the throttle without giving myself whiplash, how to slow down without resorting to bodily contact with the pavement. By the time I made it back to the parking lot, Dan and Natalie had returned from their practice run, and it was time for the real deal, the family scooter excursion we’d been promising.

Sophie would only agree to go with Dan, so Natalie took one for the team and climbed up behind me. The four of us set off into the Umbrian countryside just as the afternoon began to mellow toward evening. The colors were glorious: fields of glossy green rippling to each side, pink and white buds in various state of undress on the neighboring trees, blue mountains in the distance, and a warm goldenrod sun nodding down on us all. Natalie kept a running commentary behind me as we rolled along, and I found myself in an odd state of in-between. Half of me was loving the afternoon—the beautiful setting, the rush of movement, and the fact that I was getting this experience with my precious little family. The other half of me was vibrating with tension though. I had trouble trusting that I was in control of my scooter; I was all too aware that the slightest wobble of the handlebars could send my daughter and I down a ditch, off a bridge, or into the path of an oncoming car. By the time we returned the scooters, my whole body was shaking from the discordant mix of fear and elation and self-respect and chagrin.

I wasn’t planning to share this story in public, ever. In fact, I’ve been prepared to deny everything should any of the witnesses bring it up (mercifully, no one has). I found myself thinking about it this morning though in terms of our last few days of self-employment, and the analogy was so exact that I couldn’t not share it with you. See, self-employment is squarely in the category of things that roll.

Just because you’re running a business doesn’t mean that you’re in full control of it. These three years in the entrepreneurial game have included plenty of false starts and retries for us, and it often feels like we’re gripping the handlebars more to hang on for dear life than to actually steer the thing. On this side, there’s a ditch, and on that side, there’s bankruptcy, and what if one of these wobbles turns into a full careen? What if we don’t get any new clients this month? What if that quote is turned down? What if we’re already caught in the helpless sideways momentum of a crash?

Tension is only half of the experience though. The other half incorporates and validates the whys of setting out on our own: to feel the wind full on our faces instead of through the seams of a cubicle, to follow the direction of our instincts rather than of someone else’s protocols, and to experience the unfiltered joy when our bravery pays off. And it does. Over and over again, we’ve found ourselves the grateful recipients of enough, which likes to sweep through the door at the last minute to remind us that we are in the presence of miracles.

We would always have regretted not choosing this path.

I have to remind myself of that on repeat when the bank account dips dangerously low and I’m confronted by how very little control we ultimately have over our future. Weeks like this last one tend to find me white-knuckling my way through prayers and giving myself pep talks that do little to assure. I want onlookers to think that we’re old pros at this, that we’ve totally got self-employment down, but the truth is sometimes as undignified as wiping out on your Vespa in front of a crowd of people you can’t unfriend. Lord have mercy. And please also strike them all with amnesia.

But then days like today dawn, days in which a single phone call or email changes our outlook on the next few months from terror to delight. These are the days when we remember why we love the roller coaster thrill, when the adventure of it all makes us grin and clasp hands and lean into the movement as if embracing a friend. We are still shaky, you bet. Exhausted too. But despite our weariness and the worries that we know will merge back into focus soon, we’re remembering how very much fun things that roll can be when you relax enough to roll with them.

Scooter ride - Having fun.png

28Apr

Greener Pastures

Come August, we will have lived in Perugia for seven years. This is liable to give me mental vertigo, all these days expanding and collapsing like accordion pleats in my memory. A trick of the light, and I am once again massive with child and complicated hopes boarding a one-way flight to Italy; the angle shifts, and my perspective accelerates through one baby, two visas, three homes, and the better part of a decade to where I sit today penciling summer destinations into our calendar. Time is often catalogued for me in terms of travel, and we’ve done so much of it in these seven years that my mind can’t quite grasp it all at once.

We realized on last week’s little excursion, though, that our view on travel could use some tweaking. We tend to think of travel as something grandiose and all-consuming, volumes of time propped between the bookends of journey. The farther we drive to get to a pasture, the greener it is, right? This is why we’ve spent Saturday after Saturday chafing against weekend chores and griping for want of air. This is why the idea of a staycation this Spring Break disappointed us. This is why, in seven years, we haven’t ever climbed the slopes of our own Mount Subasio.

Er, make that hadn’t.

Hiking Subasio - Victorious three

The forecast called for rain on Saturday, but we went anyway, the drive to explore our own backyard stronger than our desire to stay dry. And it was beautiful, all of it: the girls’ pride at making it up the mountainside by themselves, the clouds billowing like down comforters overhead, the wildflowers holding their own against the tide of grass and gravity, the towns laid out below us like stitching on a vast patchwork quilt. On the drive there, we’d listened to Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World.” Two hours later, I knew exactly what that felt like.

Hiking Subasio - Bethany on top of the world

Hiking Subasio - Assisi down below(That’s wee little Assisi in the center of the photo.)

Hiking Subasio - Sisters

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Natalie

Hiking Subasio - Wildflowers 2

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Sophie

I will never stop wanting travel on a grand scope—road trips and international flights and wildly new terrains underfoot. This weekend has convinced me though that we don’t need to keep holding our wanderlust at bay until schedules and finances align. We have a wealth of beauty close to home, perhaps even enough to fill the next seven years of Saturdays. The verdancy of far-off pastures may be up for debate, but I can say now with certainty that we’ve got a green worth experiencing right here.

Hiking subasio - Wildflowers 3

What’s your favorite “destination” in your neck of the woods? Or is there a place nearby you’ve been curious to explore? Where would you take me for a Saturday adventure if I came to visit? 

22Apr

Treasure Planet

 It’s Spring Break, but we have no tent in the trunk, no extra hundred miles on the odometer. We looked up at least a dozen possible destinations, but all of them said rain. Double-rain up in Cinque Terre where I most wanted to go. We’ve camped in the rain before, but none of us has the energy to face soggy sleeping bags this week, so staycation it is.

For reasons that have not only escaped us but are now doubled over laughing at us, Dan and I decided to allay our disappointment by watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend it for your next rainy Saturday night; it’s the kind of film that makes you fall in love with the adventure of life, the treasures in the world around us, and Ben Stiller. One thing it does not do, however, is calm pangs of wanderlust. Just take a moment to soak in the screenshot below. That would be the open road in Iceland. Iceland! Can you imagine?

Walter Mitty in Iceland.png

Dan and I have been to Iceland… sort of… in the sense that we once spent a half-hour hour layover exploring the grounds of the Reykjavík airport. We couldn’t see any mountains or geysers or lagoons from where we stood, but the landscape fascinated us all the same. Each tuft of grass, each scribble of green or beige or wine-red against the volcanic gravel was like a character in a fairy tale. The sky reached all the way down to the ground there. Within a minute, we were cloud-damp and windswept and smitten.

(Please enjoy this high-definition, award-winning documentary we made there upon discovering how very similar the Icelandic turf is to a trampoline:

You’re ever so welcome.)

A piece of my heart is still there in that wild and wonderful country, and there is nothing for it but to go back one day. I won’t be able to reattach that part of myself, of course, but I can visit with it as we traipse among the fjords and up the volcano slopes. Maybe on the way home, I can stop by the Highlands to commune with the part of my heart forever rooted to its glens, then down to visit with the piece I lost on a Portuguese beach. I stopped checking items off my travel wish list years ago when I realized that each check mark represented a longing awakened rather than one fulfilled.

Beach toes

I wrote in my profile that I’ve got this whole colorful, spinning planet of ours under my skin, and that becomes truer the more of it that I see. I have room for oceans in here, for limitless hues and textures of sand, for all the forests and waterfalls and summits that I’ve seen, pressed cheek-to-cheek with all the ones that I have not. With so many types of terrain held in me at once, it’s no surprise that wanderlust can be a real, physical ache sometimes.

I didn’t realize when I started writing this post that today is Earth Day, but the significance is not lost on me—that I would feel tugged inside-out by the trillion different points of our planet on the day set aside for acknowledging and respecting her. I grew up thinking that environmentalism was at odds with human advancement, but now I believe the opposite. We need the infinite variations of green on a mountainside to stir our creative impulses. We need the roll of waves to smooth the sharp edges of our souls. We need the wind flying across prairies to reawaken us to freedom. We need the intricate art of flower petals to show us the signature of God.

Purple wildflowers

And sometimes we need the ache of wanderlust to remind us what a treasure we have in this place we call home.

15Apr

The Ride of Our Lives

“Self-employment is like nothing else on earth,” a friend told us three years ago when the job that had brought us to Italy ended. “One month, you’ll be feeling wildly successful, and the next, you’ll be praying for enough money to put food on the table. It’s a roller coaster. You’ve got to be prepared for that going in.”

We were. At least, we were prepared to the extent that I had been as a kid plunging into the dark of Runaway Mountain for the first time, gripping the safety bar and reminding myself over and over again that the coaster had never killed anyone. (I didn’t think…) Dan and I truly didn’t know what to expect, but we were sure that self-employment was the right direction for his career. We had considered other options, prayed at varying degrees of desperation, talked the whole thing over every which way we could, and finally wrestled our fears into a shaky semblance of trust. This was what my husband was meant to do, I was certain.

That certainty came at a heavy price for me though. On the last day of Dan’s day job, we found out that he would not be receiving his final few months of paychecks, that the tenants renting our house in the States were being evicted for failure to pay, and that our Italian bank account was blocked. I kid you not. If you can stomach a bit of raw honesty, here is an excerpt from my journal entry that day:

“I don’t know what to do with the tension curled up like a thousand knuckled fists inside my belly. I want to pray, but I keep thinking about what a friend going through tough times wrote on her blog this morning: “I still believe in the power of prayer.” Well I don’t. If you believe that praying effects change, then you have to believe either A) that we are convincing God do our bidding or B) that God is withholding his will until someone thinks to ask for it.

I’m much more willing to believe that prayer is simply a good spiritual practice for focusing and connecting our thoughts with God, but I’m so not in the mood today to commune. I need answers, both global and personal, for trusting that he will have anything to do with the outcome of the tangle we’re in now.

It’s not a good place to find myself.”

I think that I worked as hard on trust those first months as Dan did at establishing his new biomechanics business. While he was wrangling website code and traveling to meet clients, I was wrangling fears as thick-limbed as gorillas and traveling my own daily—and sometimes hourly—journey out of panic. At the time, I was working as an English teacher, which helped keep us afloat… but it also tugged the energy out from under me like a cartoon rug. I worked during the hours that my little girls needed me most, and Dan’s business trips made our home life a logistical nightmare. We were exhausted and strained and frayed all the way to the core.

I’ve found, though, that this kind of desperate, minute-by-minute living is the ultimate breeding ground for miracles.  Even as expenses continued to mount—our car’s epic breakdown, a drug operation being discovered in the basement of our rental home, and the Italian government booting us out of the country… all within the first four months of self-employment (seriously, Universe??)—we always had enough. We even got Disney World, and the kind of care that I felt from God during each last-minute upswing bolstered my courage enough for me to quit my job.

We’re three years into being on our own now—Dan an entrepreneur, I a freelancer—and I’m finally getting used to the ride. That is to say, my knuckles are no longer white and I am no longer actively preparing myself to live under a bridge. I would in no way call this experience easy. Having to provide work for ourselves, to keep forward momentum and always be on the cusp of some new possibility is exhausting. That’s the flat truth of it. However, we are also sustained by this work: by the thrill of doing what we love, by the freedom of directing our own time and energy, and by the unknown heights of potential climbing in the dark ahead. We are still sure that this was the right direction to take.

A family who has been friends with us for years finally asked this week what exactly Dan does, and we both laughed in understanding because “entrepreneur” is such a non-description. It means someone who starts businesses, sure, but that doesn’t exactly bring my husband’s day-to-day activities into focus. Actually, come to think of it, there is no such thing as a day-to-day activity in Dan’s world. There is only one day at a time and whatever menial or creative tasks will advance the project he’s pursuing. Today, for instance, he’s spending the morning on the computer working on Training Lot—a platform he’s setting up to help people make and market training videos online. Later, he’s going to join a pizzaiolo friend to film an authentic Italian pizza-making process, then he’ll put the video up as part of a publicity push to get votes for a startup contest he’s been selected to participate in.

Here’s my favorite of the promotional videos he’s made so far (though I might be unfairly biased toward those two bilingual girls of ours):

We’re on a part of the roller coaster right now that I think of as the Sideways Spiral of Death—you know, the part where the g-forces are sucking your brains into outer space and you’re doing your damndest to see through the stars and avoid throwing up if possible. This is all part of the startup process. I know this because we’ve been through it several times now, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Dan’s in the phase of trying a new venture that’s all momentum and effort and wild uncertainty, and I’m right there with him pushing past the exhaustion and clinging as loosely as we dare to the hope that this idea will be one of the success stories.

Only time will tell. It feels crazy vulnerable to be telling you all this. I’d much rather you think of us as stable and prosperous in this life we’re carving out for ourselves. I’m tempted to wait on telling you the self-employment stories until we have it all figured out (which we will someday… right?), but then I couldn’t give you the chance to be a part of them with us. And I would really value your companionship today.

Here’s how: If you took five seconds to open this link and click “like” on Dan’s video, you could help him advance to the next round of the Summit Kilimanjaro startup contest. He was already chosen as one of the top 200, and if he remains in the top 50 by Friday, he’ll be eligible for some awesome networking and publicity opportunities. He doesn’t have all the connections or financial backing that some of the other contestants are using to get ahead, but he does have a pretty great business idea, and your thumbs up would be a huge help. Really, five seconds. (If you then shared the link with all your friends on Facebook, we would both do a happy dance. Just saying.)

If any of you have struck out on your own before, I would also love to hear how the experience was/is for you. The more of us on this coaster, the more it will feel like a party rather than a death trap, non? And hopefully I’ll have a new miracle tale to share with you (quite literally!) in the near future.

7Apr

Open-Source Parenting: Adventure

The weekend before last, spring burst overhead like a cosmic dandelion puff. Sunbeams settled on our noses, songbird gossip tickled our ears, and last year’s snapdragons made a grand re-entry if only to outdo the wild daisies carpeting our town.

It was terrifying.

The first good weather of the year, see, held me accountable to a promise I’d made to Dan: that I would let the girls out to play. As in, by themselves. Without any form of parent nearby. At the little park which is only partially within sight and earshot of my window and which has a second street exit within neither.

I promise you that I have worked hard to curb my paranoid instincts about mothering. My imagination has always been a worst-case scenario handbook with an apocalyptic bent, and each of the girls has toddled at least once within a hairs breadth of tragedy; by all logic, I should be a vigilante-helicopter mutt of a mom. I try not to let the crazy limit my daughters’ development though, which is why I agreed that this would be the spring of going out to play. But oh, friends… the disasters that played out in my mind as soon as the girls left my sight. They were kidnapped at least three times a minute during that first hour.

Playground privileges
(That tiny speck of pink in the park is my heart walking around outside my body, NBD.)

The girls went out to the park every afternoon of the week, and while those accumulating hours of non-tragedy helped bolster my resolve, they still weren’t easy for me. Villains and bullies and natural disasters lurked in my peripheral vision every time I peeked out the window. I kept running a cost-benefit analysis on the girls’ independence; did their healthy development really outweigh the risk of whatever [unlikely] [but unspeakable] evil could befall them out there? Could I live with myself if something happened?

I don’t have any easy answers yet—and probably never will—but a little trip we took yesterday helped put things into perspective for me. The four of us were sitting around the Sunday lunch table feeling worn down and antsy from our week when we decided the only thing for it was to hit the road. Half an hour later, we were merging onto the highway, and half an hour after that, we were winding up to a little town we’d never visited before. No maps, no guidebooks, no agenda whatsoever (aside from gelato, which is my goal in everything).

Trevi

We only stayed an hour, but it was a gorgeous, living-out-loud kind of hour. Downtown Trevi is laid out like some kind of medieval maze, and we took turns choosing which direction to explore. The girls didn’t want to speak Italian—“We’re tourists today!”—so we snapped pictures and skipped and called to each other like the boisterous Americans we still are. I couldn’t stop grinning. Exploring like this might just be my favorite way to experience the world.

The girls exploring Trevi

It always has been, too. The way Natalie and Sophie were running down stone tunnels and peeking into courtyards of olive trees yesterday is exactly how I used to run down creek beds and peek into dogwood thickets as a kid. The neighborhoods I lived in growing up were so much bigger to me than they were to adults, who always let themselves be limited by things like road signs or propriety. I wandered and scouted and burrowed and built and destroyed and imagined and braved. My knees were perpetually scraped. I couldn’t wait to go outside. Knowing that there was a dangerous element to my explorations had only sharpened the experience for me, a sprinkle of chili on my chocolate.

I watched the girls bound up a twisty side path and thought of an article from The Atlantic that my friend Dunny sent me a couple of weeks ago. It’s long but well worth the read if you’re fascinated by this latest generation of overprotective parents (myself included) and how our preoccupation with safety might not be the best thing for our kids. The article features a playground in North Wales that is set up more like a junkyard than anything; old tires, mattresses, and tin drums are at the kids’ disposal, and a playground supervisor only intervenes in the case of actual danger—say, if a kid’s fire gets out of control. Do you know how much I would have loved playing there? Exploration and imagination were always far more thrilling to me than regulation-height swing sets; I suspect they are to most children.

I wrote in a recent post how I owe every joy of my adult life to the high level of independence granted me. This is not an exaggeration. Being able to chart the terrain of my own life from a young age is why I live in Italy today with an entrepreneur husband and two little girls who think anything is possible. Our life is full of unknown turns; we rarely know where the next month will take us, and sometimes our choices feel as helter-skelter as our wanderings through Trevi yesterday.

There is so much joy in a life of adventure though. The reality of risk heightens our senses, keeps our prayers earnest, and reminds us to appreciate. The low times provide contrast for the highs, and we learn as we go. We cultivate grace as a survival skill. We do our best to trust and to keep on trusting that we’re not doing this life alone, that divine love is holding us as surely as the ground beneath our feet. We look forward to new experiences, new places, new reserves of courage on tap.

I don’t want to be painting our lives too glibly here. If I were writing this on a day when our bank account was drip-drying, for instance, or when bureaucracy had us in a stranglehold, I would tell you how I sometimes petition the universe for boredom—just a little predictability, just enough of a nice stable rut for me to catch my breath. I know the truth though: living greatly means risking greatly. And the question I’m left with on this side of our weekend is… Could I live with myself if I didn’t let my girls experience this for themselves?

Unknown archway

Your turn! How do you cultivate a sense of adventure in your children? How much independence do you think is appropriate? Do you have any tips for parents like me who can’t help imagining sinkholes and trolls under the playground slide? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

3Nov

Pulling a Pheidippides

I’ve never quite been able to forget that the first person to run a marathon, the Greek hero Pheidippides on whom the modern day race was founded, DIED FROM IT. This fact has concerned me on more than one occasion, but never did it seem more relevant to my life than last Sunday afternoon as I lurched over the final bridge of the Venice Marathon and stumble-sprinted toward the finish line. I was more than exhausted, my muscles already pushed a full hour beyond their former limits. All four limbs and the top of my head were tingling as if ice shavings had replaced the blood in my veins. My heart was beating so quickly that it finally achieved liftoff and flew ahead without me, and at a mere two hundred meters from the end, one thought crystalized in my mind: I was about to pull a Pheidippides.

They say that completing a marathon is largely a mental effort, and in retrospect, I think that my finish-line-death-sprint experience had more to do with the sensory overload of the day than it did with physical strain. You can only dig your nails into your mind with excitement and awareness for so long before reality starts to blur around the edges. I’ve already admitted that calm-and-collected isn’t my jam when it comes to running, so I have no additional dignity to lose by confessing that the second our 5:55 wakeup call came on Sunday morning, I jumped into carpe diem hyperdrive. Let me tell you, no one has ever put on athletic socks as fervently as I did that day.

Every minute pre-race was duly seized and catalogued in my mind as wonder. The fog outside our hotel as we walked to the bus station primed my imagination so that even our cramped forty-minute ride to the starting line, during which I was repeatedly stepped on and elbowed in the face, felt like the beginning of some epic adventure. Once we arrived, the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among all 8,000 runners made even standing in line for the porta-potties an engaging activity (and made the pee-gauntlet of men who didn’t bother with the porta-potties an object of understanding laughter… though later, after I’d spent an hour waiting in the start canal guzzling Gatorade, my laughter had developed urgently jealous undertones). I paid attention to the pearly cast of the sky, the mismatched shoes of the guy stretching behind me, and the exact position of my armband; everything mattered in the larger context of Marathon Day, and I wasn’t about to let any of it slip my notice.

Marathon - D and B

Getting one last marital hug in before the starting gun.

The race began around 9:30, though it took several minutes more for those of us in the nosebleed section to make our way up to the starting line. Once we were there, however, it was as if a tidal wave rolled up underneath our running shoes and lifted us all in a cresting rush of energy and direction onto the road. I’ve never felt anything quite like that communal forward momentum, and I didn’t encounter it again during the race. Almost immediately, the marathon changed for me from a group exercise to an individual challenge. I found my stride within the first kilometer, and my focus narrowed to a small bubble around my own head. I concentrated on breathing evenly, navigating the road (which hugged the plentiful curves of the Brenta River for the first 17 kilometers/10½ miles or so), and maintaining appropriate levels of shock and awe that I WAS RUNNING A MARATHON.

Refreshment tables, many of them accompanied by live bands and cheering spectators, were set up every five kilometers, so the race naturally subdivided itself into half-hour increments for me. Just about the time my strength started to lag, I would round a bend into Partyville—cups upon cups of Gatorade, cookies and bananas given out by the handful, little kids waiting to give high fives, the occasional bystander adventurous enough to try pronouncing my name. The encouragement of strangers made more of a difference than I would ever have thought. Each new chorus of “Brava!” drew me out of the intensity of my own headspace and reminded me that I wasn’t alone on the road. You could almost see the change in atmosphere where crowds gathered to cheer; every single runner on the road picked up speed. Weary athletes who I had seen slump into a walk only seconds earlier caught a second wind. Grimaces turned into smiles… or at least grimaces with a facelift. Even rubberneckers who had clearly shown up to watch out of curiosity with a generous side of WTH?! provided boosts of incentive to do what we had come to do and run.

Marathon - First 5K

Stay tuned for my exciting new e-course on taking cell phone pictures through your armband while running AND looking like an off-balance penguin while doing it!

The race got very real for me around kilometer 32/mile 20. That was the farthest I had ever gone in my training runs, so I had no empirical evidence to suggest that I might be capable of doing more. Until that point in the marathon, my mind had been able to kick up its feet with the assurance that my body could handle its task. Now, however, with each new step marking the farthest I had ever run in my life, the race became as grueling psychologically as it was physically. And this was when the bridges started—17 of them, the second being the 2½-mile-long (read: interminable) Ponte della Libertà taking us over open water to the islands of Venice.

My carpe diem drive went into desperate mode once my feet reached the cobblestones alongside Venetian canals. This was it: the last stretch, the true test of my endurance, the magic of running through a floating Medieval city coupled with the pain of pushing my body beyond its limits. My focus shifted constantly with my mind scrambling behind trying to keep it in line. My mental dialogue during the final 5 kilometers/3 miles went something like this: Ow ow ow can’t do this anymore CANNOT, hey look at that basilica! Wow, I’m in Venice, this is horrible, must remember all the encouraging comments and emails people have sent me; they think I can finish, so I must be able to. Oh God, another bridge. I can do this, I can’t do this, I CAN do this, look at me passing three semi-ripped men in a row, I hate existence, no I don’t, I’m carpe-ing the *expletive* out of this diem right now, I’m going to die. What a pretty canal!

My favorite thing about that last insane stretch was a fat old Venetian woman leaning out of her window and shouting, “Come on, what are you wimps slowing down for? You’re basically at the end by now!” At that point in the race, I was in no mood for live music or high fives any more; the thought of lifting more limbs than absolutely necessary had become unthinkable, and I was pretty sure I hated everyone in the world who wasn’t struggling up those bridges with me. However, that old lady’s crusty pep talk was just the kick in the pants I needed to keep running. Plus, it got me smiling just long enough for the photography team to catch me looking [inaccurately] like a congenial and capable human being as I crossed the Canal Grande into the final kilometer of the race.

Bethany's first marathon

Yay! I hate you all!

It wasn’t until I crested the seventeenth *double-expletive* bridge and saw the finish line straight ahead that I lost whatever psychological control I had been using to hold myself intact. My veins flooded with icy tingles, my heart left my body, my vision began swarming with tiny Disney bluebirds, and my mind shrugged helplessly and said, “I got nothin’.” I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be thinking about. I definitely couldn’t remember why I had signed up for this. I was about to faint and/or die right there in front of the Doge’s Palace, but I didn’t really mind too much because at least then I could stop running.

Something about this line of reasoning tugged at me though, and I slowly realized that I was so eager to stop running because… [and you might want to brace yourself for the profundity of this statement]… I was currently running. Without any conscious input from my brain, my legs were still moving forward. Some instinct had taken over when energy and intention had crashed and was keeping me in motion. Frivolities like discernible heartbeats and motor control were no longer part of the picture; there was only the pure, inexplicable reality of me, running.

Granted, the victory of crossing the finish line was tempered by the fact that I was basically a decapitated rooster at that point. However, my mental faculties returned once my legs stopped moving, and I realized what I had just accomplished about the time someone hung a medal around my neck. I had done something that, up until that very moment, I had never believed myself capable of doing. I had run 42.195 kilometers without stopping, giving up, or pulling a Pheidippides after all. My final time of 4 hours and 38 minutes wasn’t too shabby either, especially for a new runner. I wasn’t merely a runner anymore though; I was a marathoner. 

Marathon - Finisher

Yay! I love you all!

A friend asked me the following day to rank on a scale of 1 to 10 how inclined I was to run another marathon in the future. I had difficulty nailing down an answer. If you had asked me during the first hour and a half of the race, I would have ranked my willingness at a 10; during the final hour and a half of the race, I would probably have answered something like negative infinity. Even in the thrill and buzz immediately following the finish line, I don’t think I would have given you more than a 2, and when my friend asked me the next day, I finally settled on an uncertain 4. A week later, however, my post-race aches and pains have dissipated, and the memory of accomplishment has far outstripped the memory of effort. For various reasons, I haven’t been able to go running since the marathon, and I find myself antsy to lace up my shoes and hit the track again. I’m not planning any long runs for the immediate future, but there is a part of me that wants to see what I could do with this challenge in the future, knowing as I do now that I am strong enough. I’m not ready to stop surprising myself yet, and given how very much the marathon asked of me in the end, maybe the biggest surprise would be deciding to do it again.

We’ll see. I’m only now at a 6 on the would-I-do-it-again scale, and other challenges have caught my attention for the time being. Still, the value this experience held for me seems only to be increasing with time, and if you asked me to rank from 1 to 10 how glad I am to have done this first marathon, I would have to go with something in the neighborhood of, oh, say, 42.195.

11Oct

The Biggest Tiny Rebellion Of My Life

It feels like a confession, something to be whispered from behind a screen amid pleas for absolution. In fact, I’ve visibly shrunk each of the three or four times I’ve managed to say the words aloud so far; nervous laughter and a wild urge to hide under the table always follow. This is an admission I never thought I’d be in a position to make, but here we are in the final three weeks of Before, and it’s time I finally owned up to it. Kindly disregard my nervous laughter and crazy eyes while I put this out in the open: I’ve been training… [pause]… for a marathon.

Now, you might think this an unnecessary level of drama for an activity that ordinary people all over the world do on a regular basis FOR FUN, but I am no ordinary person. One might even call me extraordinary… as in, She spends an extraordinary amount of time sitting, or She is extraordinarily bad at [fill in your sport of choice]. It’s okay; I laugh at my drunken-squid volleyball serve too. I came to terms long ago with my lack of athletic prowess, and it’s always presented a good excuse to bow out of team sports and workout regimens. “Sorry but I’m allergic to any physical activity more grueling than mopping the floor. Actually, that too. If you care to discuss this further, you can join me at my wondrously be-pillowed computer chair where I will be spending the foreseeable future.”

However, I had the foresight [or lack thereof?] to marry an optimist, and in my very active and very motivated husband’s opinion, couchpotatoitis is not a valid condition. I beg to differ, of course, but Dan can be eerily persuasive, which is how I found myself panting on the track below our house in $20 running shoes and complete anguish of body and soul three years ago. It was… not fun. Running felt a little like going for a spin in the dryer and a little like stuffing decorative pillows down my trachea, but not quite as pleasant as either. I managed three minutes that first day before melting down, clawing at the smoking goo where my face had been like a good Indiana Jones villain.

It’s hard to say why I went back. Maybe I didn’t want the previous day’s horror scene to be the final impression I’d leave on the world of sports. More probably, I didn’t want my sacrifice of dignity to have been in vain. Almost certainly, Dan’s infectious enthusiasm had altered a sliver of my mind into believing that I could improve my health and energy and self-esteem by making this a habit, and I must have hoped against all personal logic that running would get easier with practice.

So I kept at it little by little, a few hard-won kilometers a week, and finally last year, I was able to run five kilometers all at once. Granted, I ran just slightly faster than might an asthmatic penguin, and I was certain of keeling over dead every one of my last thousand steps, but I did it. I, a woman who feels about exercise the way some people feel about spinal taps, had just done the impossible. I came home and informed my husband of the fact; he suggested in turn that I consider running the Venice Marathon with him.

To understand what happened next, you need to know that I have a tiny but decidedly weird rebellious streak. It springs on me out of thin air and prompts me to do things that are wildly against my nature just to prove to myself that I can. It’s why, when I was seventeen, I speared my fork into that pot of grubs in South Africa and ate a bite, convulsing with horror all the while. (The memory, still! Gah.) It’s why, a few weeks into my freshman year at university, I let a group of guys I barely knew smear electric blue dye onto my hair. And it’s why this past spring, after weeks of wringing my hands and gnashing my teeth, I agreed to let Dan sign me up for a couch potato’s worst nightmare.

Truly, something insane had taken over my brain. There was no evidence at all to suggest that I might be capable of running 42.2 kilometers straight at any point in my life, ever. In fact, there was plenty of evidence to the contrary, not the least of which was my shortness of breath and inclination to faint while Dan filled out the registration forms. The whole idea was absurd. But then, there was that compelling, delicious thrill at the idea of doing something absurd. I wanted to throw logic to the wind and see what would happen. The tang of adventure was unmistakable.

There was more to my decision than pure spontaneity though, and this deeper reason has stayed with me on those long training runs that leave everything impetuous and smug about me trampled in the dirt.

So often as an adult, and especially as a stay-at-home mom, I get lulled into a static sense of identity. Daily routines ripple by until my eyes glaze over and I stop expecting anything more of myself. It becomes an insidious lullaby, this subtle internal chant of This is who I am and always will be. I’ve heard people say that our personalities are fully formed by the time we turn twenty and then stick there for good; implied in that, I think, is that our habits and preferences and modi operandi are likewise preserved in concrete once we hit adulthood.

I don’t believe it though, at least not for myself. I am utterly unwilling to accept that my personal growth was designed to stop when I became a legal adult (or a wife, or a mother, or a desperate housewife of Expatria). I see how it could easily happen, how I could just settle into my skin and shrug away my discomfort with parts that fit poorly. After all, I don’t have the time I once did to spend on identity development. However, I’m not content to accept stagnation as a normal part of aging. I’ve met too many delightful tattooed grannies to believe that we’re stuck in our own stereotypes of ourselves. Change is always possible, forward motion is always possible, and it’s vital to my peace of mind that I be able to surprise myself every now and then.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m hitting the track three or four times and week and surprising the hell out of myself with amount of sweat I can generate, the number of kilometers I can go past my limits, and the sheer force of determination roused like some hidden dormant beast previously unknown to science. Make no mistake, running is still hard hard hard for me. There is nothing easy or graceful or inspirational-footwear-commercial about this experience of mine. I in no way feel like the same breed of human as the lanky runners who pass me on the path, chatting easily with each other as their perfectly defined legs leave mine wobbling in their wake. I haven’t mustered the guts yet to call myself A Runner.

But I should. Because no matter how fraudulent I may feel among long-term athletes, the fact remains that I am there, with splatters of mud tickling my calves and sweat dripping down my sports bra and lungs pulling deeply at the air and muscles taut, active, alive, running. This is my personal rebellion against stasis. I am proving to myself, over and over again, that I am not set in stone, that I am still capable of surprises.

The biggest surprise still remains to be seen. The marathon will be a full ten kilometers farther than my longest training run; that’s an extra hour of pushing myself, and there are no guarantees that I will be able to finish. Now that I’m at the end, my five months of training seem hopelessly short, so unconvincing in their results. If you can believe it, though—and be aware that I can hardly believe it myself—I’m thrumming with excitement over the challenge. Three years to the day after writing my first [uncomplimentary] post about running, I’m going to wake up in Venice, take a train to the starting line, and wage the biggest tiny rebellion of my life so far. And maybe then, with my shadow keeping time on the cobblestones beside me, I’ll summon the courage to stop shrinking and nervous-laughing the worth of this risk away.

Update: How Marathon Day went down.

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