“He asked could it be worse? Yes, it could! He could be dead! Or have a blood draw with his eyes open!* Or he could eat a poison pretzel. Those are all worse.”-Finn, responding to Coldplay’s question in “Fix You.” *He had a blood draw for an allergy test a couple months ago. We haven’t forgotten how bad it was.
There’s a legendary story about Paris in the 1920’s. It was the literary hub of the western world after World War I as writers and artists flocked to the city of light. Here two authors who couldn’t be more different met and formed a strong kinship. One was Earnest Hemingway, the brash young American reporter who liked to drink and fight and bluster. The Irishman James Joyce, who the New York Times once described as “the labyrinthine thinker of Byzantine thoughts” wasn’t a natural companion. Joyce was thin, physically weak, had bad eyesight, and was introverted to the point of being called a monk. Hemingway was stout, gregarious and affable, if not also often short-tempered. They did however share a common love for language and drinking. Here in Paris, a long mutual respect formed between the two literary greats.
The legend goes that during a night of intemperance at the Paris Ritz, Joyce was in rare form, baiting other customers with insults from atop his intellectual perch. When one patron had had enough and went after Joyce thinking him an easy target, the Irishman darted behind Hemingway and through his laugh called out “Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!”
True or not, I like this story. It came to mind recently while I was having a serious meeting with the school bus driver and the assistant principal. It seems that on the afternoon in question, our seven year old “Joyce” and five year old “Hemingway” were reviving this act. As the bus driver retold the events leading up to the brawl, I tried not to smile at the thought of it. I probably was though, and it probably didn’t help the situation.
Since the New Year, I have busied myself in two areas. Erin’s work schedule so far in 2019 has taken her to Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Turkey, and Hong Kong. I might be leaving some out. She’s also driven the famed Garden Route, gone on safari, and hiked Table Mountain. Oh, and she’s growing a baby inside of her as we speak. My wife is a boss, didn’t you know? With all that she’s been up to I’ve been the one who on most days gets the boys up, fed, packed, and out the door. In the afternoons I drive the taxi to swimming three times a week. I apply the band-aids, and I remove them too. I play soccer in the garage, I pump up the bike tires. I track down the missing library books, shoes, and the art projects that looked like recycling, but upon further reflection actually weren’t. I go to the birthday parties on weekends and eat the bad cake. I read How to Train Your Dragon every night. And yes, I’m the one to hear from the principal when the boys are in a fight on the bus.
And you know what?
I love every second of it. This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I can count on one hand the number of things I’m good at. Not the things that anyone can do (like burning toast because you push the lever down one too many times), but the stuff that I have a real talent for, is rare. Being a parent to these kids between 5 and 10 years old, that’s my wheelhouse. Diapers, naw. Teenagers? Drama much? No, the Lego-constructing-Nerf-shooting-living-room-fort building years are where it’s at. That’s my parenting sweet-spot.
Other than raising two almost-upstanding young men, I’m also still chasing the same running goals. Still. Chasing. It’s been a long road. Early in February snuggled between Erin’s trips, I was able to steal away to Iten, Kenya for a week of training and make-believe. Some people go to Florida to watch spring training. Some people get back-stage passes to meet their idols. And some people head to Nairobi and get on a small prop plane to Eldoret before getting into a shaky old van for another hour’s drive up into the rarefied air of 2400m (8,000ft) above sea-level. That is me. I packed a bag and set off to see what life is like for the fastest humans in history.
Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Center plays host to athletes from all over the world. It has a modern gym, lap pool, and dinning hall. I immediately fell in with a group of Irish athletes. The running was good, but the community and camaraderie were world-class. At night, after the day’s two training sessions, we would retire to the Iten Club, a small coffee house adjacent to the Training Center. Conversations with strangers from all over the world would flow easily as we posted social media updates, updated our training logs, and examined race results on the only reliable WiFi in the area. Some played dominoes, some enjoyed a cup of Kenyan tea, and others recounted stories of excellence or folly. There was usually a soccer game or a horrible 90’s American movie on the lone TV above the fireplace (I’m looking at you Hercules and Xena, The Princess Warrior).
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the running, but there was something special about that time after dinner in the cafe. It reminded me of Oxford twenty years ago. World-class talent on the edge of life-changing discoveries. Nights weren’t late as the next training session was always crouching in the back of our minds. But for a couple hours every evening we conversed in relaxed tones and laughed easily. We found community in the middle of the spartan lifestyle running demanded. And outside on the walk back to my room, the dark exposed more stars than I have ever seen. Between the altitude and the night sky, the entire experience was breathtaking. More than just the training, my week in Iten was filled with these amazing moments of humanness. In athletes 15 years younger than me, I recognized the unmistakable fire that comes from the pursuit of excellence. At breakfast we greeted each other as old acquaintances who were bound together again by common destinations. I don’t know Portuguese or Swahili or French, but the fist-bump is a universal sign for respect, and each run ended with one. If you’ve ever felt the pull of a running dream, whatever your age or ability level, I urge you to go to Iten. I plan to go back someday, “yet knowing how way leads on to way.”
Unfortunately since returning to Pretoria I have picked up a running related injury. Hamstring tendinopathy. It’s more irritating than painful, but it has brought my dreams back down to human size. Run a few times this week. Finish this race. I see a PT every couple days, and we are making progress in strengthening the tiny muscles that have brought the big ones to a halt. I head to Cape Town next week for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon and have downshifted my goals to simply enjoying the experience. Comrades is only a few weeks behind Two Oceans, and I’m considering withdrawing. I turn 40 next month, and I’m worried this is a precursor of more lameness to come.
If there is any comfort here, it’s that I’m learning that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of physical conditioning I can handle, and the level of gratitude and happiness I feel on a daily basis. So what if I can’t run like I used to? I can read more now. I can write more too. And if I’m looking for an age-group award, I’m still the best Nerf-shooting, lego-creating, fort-building, world-traveling, almost-forty-year-old I know.
Be good and keep in touch.