On Health

By JoAnna Novak

Essay

JNovak

There is no clear path around the Park District. I’m one of sixty-four second graders led across busy Wolf Road in Burr Ridge, a small suburb dense with green and white ash trees. It’s 1993. Cars idle as we dawdle through the crosswalk.

I’m in the middle of the line, my last name centered in the alphabet, but I wish I could fall back. I wish I could hide in the chapter book stacks at the library or chisel out my linoleum block print in the art room. As a new kid at Pleasantdale, I don’t like gym class, where I’m reminded of my lack of friends every time we form teams. I also don’t like this walk, which means we’re running the mile.

I’m not the worst-looking girl. But I’m close: chubby plus homely. I have round cheeks. A pudgy stomach. Legs like tree trunks rather than twigs. My hair is a brown mushroom, and every girl at my new school seems smaller and blonder than the last. Even my front teeth came in too large for my mouth. Sometimes I wish I could just be fat—really fat—so I wouldn’t be stuck in the middle.

The runner’s the disciple of travel,
Ambassador from determination;
All the wars a runner fights are civil,
The self-turned challenge, the primal agitation.
We tritely say that running signs the human
Spirit, community of close-stepping pack,
Second wind as individual omen,
We measure with matched morals on the track.

In 1931, Salvador Dali painted “The Persistence of Memory.”

In 2011, I was thinking about another marathon and Stefan Kiesbye talked me into a new kind of training.

The link between Dali’s picture and Stefan’s advice isn’t only that I sometimes felt like the monstrous form Dali dropped in the middle of his composition, or that as I became exhausted my watch melted and drooped. It has to do with persistence.

When I’m walking or running easily the thoughts I think usually stick around until I’m done, even if they weren’t very useful thoughts. But if I’m pushing, they drop away from me as surely as my lactic acid level and heart rate rise. So I can tell you that I planned this piece many times while running. Some of those plans might have been pretty good. I remember being pleased with them, but that’s all. The one I thought of this afternoon’s going to be the one, which is a pity. Or maybe not. Maybe those other ones were nothing more than the endorphins talking.

In Hilo (Hawai’i) I have a 10-mile loop that I run once on Tuesday, twice on Sunday. It gains about 1200’ elevation, which means a long grind uphill (leaving me short on endorphins), but it also loses that 1200’ – which can mean an exhilarating descent.

Here are the streets I run on: Wailuku Drive, Waiau Street, Waianuenue Avenue, Puuhina Street, Kaumana Drive, Akolea Road, Waianuenue Avenue, Peepee Falls Road, Wailuku Drive.

Here are the dogs: a yapper near the Hilo Door of Faith Church, a deep-voiced one farther up Kaumana Drive in an unfenced yard, a couple more little ones, the parrot that barks like a dog (near Chong St), and then on Upper Kaumana eight or ten big mean looking bastards in fenced yards. I look at each gate to make sure it’s not open. One nice little one, though, and then the laid-back guy at Peepee Falls Rd, who only barks when I’m walking.

Here are the landmarks: about half a mile out, the new version of the First Foreign Church, just beyond there is where C almost lost control of the Bad Ass Pink Chevy, scaring the crap out of us both, and about a mile out, the hospital where my mother and father both died. Then it’s on downhill to Rainbow Falls, where a falling rock put a scar on me I still carry, a couple of tenths farther to the ex-Hilo Memorial Hospital (where I was born, and had my appendix out, another scar). It’s now a Hawaii County Annex, housing Adult Care, which on my second loop always seem appropriate. It’s where we took bodies after the 1960 tsunami. That’s the end of the first downhill.

Then it’s uphill 4.7 miles. Turn and go past the guy who was nailing hubcaps on his garage in the late fifties, and still is, and on past the Kaumana Fire House, the Crossing Guard lady (always good for a friendly hello) the Door of Faith Church (for sale) the tsunami warning siren (3 miles), Crivello’s Malasadas and Smoked Meats (best malasadas and bean soup on the Big Island), up and up past the nicely-restored Ford Ranchero, the place where somebody spilled a lot of paint on the road, the dangerous blind corner at Akala Rd, the green condom,

Kaumana Cave, the First Abandoned Sofa, the Abandoned Projection TV, the dead mongoose, the Second Abandoned Sofa (6 mile point, the peak, where I turn around), the wooden bridge on Akolea Road, the place where, in 1959,  Jimmy Watt laid 180 feet of rubber with his father’s Oldsmobile 98, and – getting close to home – the old Excelsior Dairy (where the most beautiful girl at Hilo High held court), Boiling Pots (where most years somebody misjudges the Wailuku River and drowns), down the hill past the old Goo place, and finally home.

I like that loop because it takes me through much of my Hilo life (and my TNB life as well). The uphill is tough but the Second Abandoned Sofa’s waiting for me, and if it’s Sunday, then there’s Gatorade behind the highest boulder in the Kaumana Caves parking area (just past the green condom) and there’s water in the Abandoned Projection TV.

Of all the landmarks I’m most fond of Green Condom, unless I’m very tired and then Second Abandoned Sofa is my friend.

Let me tell you about that green condom. It was on the shoulder the first time I ran up Kaumana Drive, in January 2011, and it was on the shoulder the next to the last time I ran up Kaumana Drive, in late April 2011. I’ve always wondered about an erection lasting more than four hours, but how about a condom that didn’t move for nearly four months? Rain. A couple of small earthquakes. A guy running. No nosing dog? No offended person kicking? Nothing moved that sucker.

Every Tuesday and every Sunday I’d clear the Ranchero, watch my step on the bad shoulder near the spilled paint, and ease around the blind corner wondering if it would still be there. It always was.

Back in the fifties when we boys rode our bikes on Akolea Road (in those days it was called the Burma Road) we would see condoms. The Burma Road was a favorite parking place. It wasn’t paved then and there were almost no houses. Certainly we felt stirrings when we saw condoms, because we knew what rubbers were even though none of us had yet put one to its intended use. In 2011 I wasn’t consumed by sexual stirrings along Akolea Road, although I did have some memories – C and I made out there many times. But at nearly 68 I was usually too tired (9 miles down on the one-loop days, and 18 on the two-loop days). I hate admitting that, but it’s true.

So, the green condom. The first few times I ran by it I did have those boyish thoughts – well, actually adult boyish thoughts.

Did somebody keep it as a memento mori of the little death and then toss it out the window after pulling out of the lot and heading back down to Hilo? I wondered how it got where it was. The parking lot, where it must have been put to use, was a good hundred yards uphill. I couldn’t see a guy behind the wheel slinging it past his girlfriend and out the passenger side window. Maybe it slid from a pickup bed. Maybe the action was in the bushes and no car was involved. Playing the odds, I assumed heterosexual used-condom slinging. Ugh.

These questions kept me busy for a week, maybe two. Green condom, road, parking lot, sex, what happened here?

But by the third week that rubber had lost any sexual significance and become the raiser-of-different questions.

Why are there green condoms? Who buys them? Are there “rainbow packs,” just as with 3.5” floppies (speaking of the past)? Might Dali have had a green condom in mind when he painted the hanging watch? Did the rain wash it to where I found it – and why no farther? What, exactly, fastened it to the road and immobilized it? Why hadn’t it faded? Could DNA still be recovered from it?

By the fourth week it was simply a landmark, cataloged and stored away. If I was tired and felt like walking (not a rare event, with 1200 feet to climb) I’d say, “Shit, I gotta walk, but only from the Dangerous Blind Curve at Akala Road (4 miles from my house) to the Green Condom (4.1 miles from my house),” or I might say “Suck it up, no stopping until the Green Condom,” or – if I was feeling good – I might say “At the Green Condom, pick it up and hold it to Nice Little Dog,” but if it was going badly (for example, on the second loop on a hot day when the rats had gotten to my Gatorade behind the Highest Boulder because I hadn’t screwed the cap on properly), I might say, “Shit, I’ve had it, so I’ll walk to the Abandoned Projection TV and hope nobody stole the bottle of water I put there, and then maybe I can run home from there without collapsing, but at least if I do collapse I have my ID bracelet or somebody could take my GPS watch and use the backtrack facility and figure out where I came from, so they’ll know where to send Ruth my body, except if I make it to Akolea Road and the woman with the cockatoo is walking her goat I might get some water.”

Generally I didn’t think those thoughts as long run-on more or less grammatical sentences. No, it was more like, “Go Green Condom!” or “Rats! Shit! Maybe water! TV!” or “Downhill, hot, Goat Lady, maybe OK, maybe die.” Like that.

Thus the Green Condom’s transformation. By the time it disappeared I was in much better shape than when I first saw it, and it was in worse shape. I didn’t make its portrait until the end of March, so I can’t show it to you in the flush of its smooth, plump youth.

I was saddened by its loss. It had been a good and true friend. Always there for me. First and Second Abandoned Couches and Abandoned Projection TV were also friends. Dead Mongoose lasted more than a month. I thought something would eat it, but no. I have not spoken of Abandoned Engine Block and its companion Abandoned Cylinder Head, newcomers who appeared in February, just below Second Couch, but above Dead Mongoose. To my surprise Engine Block didn’t yield up its oil for a couple of days, perhaps retaining it in some wretched hope it might turn over again. I had to run through it carefully until it soaked into the asphalt.

My friends the Abandoned Ones at the top of Kaumana Drive spoke to me of utility beyond breakage and abandonment, as did the condom (which, I hope, broke only after use).

Just as it took a few weeks for me to stop thinking about what the Green Condom had been used for and how it had come to be where it was, and to turn it into my landmark, it took me a few weeks to go in the opposite direction with the Abandoned Ones at the top.

At first I thought they were cool. Turn around at the Second Abandoned Sofa, exactly 6 miles out. What a thing! I wrote Stefan an email about it. But then when Block and Head appeared, and the oil spilled out, it didn’t seem so cool.

Yeah, landmarks. Sure. Landmarks that meant the rest of my run was cake, almost all downhill home. But shit, I’d say, people dumped their crap at the mauka end of Kaumana Drive for what? Not to make landmarks for me.

Was it to save a trip to the dump? Lazy bastards. A little work with a heavy hammer or a crowbar and all of the Abandoned could have been dumped for free. Then my knee started bothering me and then it was time to go to the Mainland. Sorry, the Continent.

But I’ll be running up Kaumana Drive again in a few weeks.

I don’t think my landmarks will settle back into being landmarks again, because now that I’ve written about them I won’t be able to flush them out like lactic acid.

I think I’d better heave Block and Head into the Toyota and take them to the metal dump. Maybe stink maile and grass will eat up the sofas. Hilo rain will melt Projection TV’s particleboard case. And I’d say the odds favor a new condom at Kaumana Caves. I can only hope for a mightily persistent one. Blue, I think. I like blue.

When I think of runners, I don’t think of myself. I think of the elite athletes I see at races sporting just their sports bras and spandex shorts, muscles galore. These women run a marathon in the time it takes me to run a half marathon. They have sponsors and trainers. They have people cheering for them! I don’t have that. I’ve been running for five years, but I’m 5’2″ and weigh 155 lbs. I wear a size 10. “Elite Athlete” is not in my genes.

It all started in 2005 when a friend asked me to join a 5K with her. The feeling I had at that first race – the energy of the other runners, the rush of crossing the finish line, and the knowledge that I hadn’t walked any of those 3.1 miles – was enough to hook me on running for the past five years.

In the beginning I was only running about 15 miles a week, while signing up for at least one 5K or 10K every month. But when people asked me if I was a runner, I’d say, “No. I’m more of a jogger, really. I’m not a very fast runner.”

Recently though, I’ve been wondering: What exactly makes one a runner?

I mean, aside from the awesome body, I’ve got pretty much all it takes to be a runner. I’m a devout user of body glide, which I learned to use after an awful case of sports bra chafing that led to cuts all the way around my rib cage and prevented me from wearing a real bra for more than a week while the scabs healed. I’ve got the always flattering spandex capris, of which I own more pairs than jeans. I wear the ever-so-cool water fanny pack. I suck down those awful carbohydrate gels for long runs. I own more sports bras than any person should probably admit to owning. I subscribe to Runner’s World. I even read books about running.

And it’s not just the gear. Like the hypochondriac I am, I self-diagnose with any number of running disorders from shin splints to plantar fasciitis. I know what plantar fasciitis is. I regulate my pace depending on the number of miles I’m running. I talk about pace. I go to seminars about running. I worry about the amount of water I drink in a day for fear of getting leg cramps after a long run (and limit my alcohol intake, which, admittedly, was a bit out of control before I started running). I eagerly seek out the advice of other runners, with whom I could talk about pace and shoe fit for hours.

Then there’s the actual running, which has gotten into absurd numbers of miles since I started training for my first marathon in May (500 miles in 4 months!). I mean, really, who goes home early on a Friday night because they have to get up at 6 a.m. on Saturday to run 20 miles? Not normal people!

So why do I still, after more than five years of running, feel like I’m not a real runner? According to Claire Kowalchik, author of The Complete Book of Running for Women, this is a common problem among women, who are more likely to downplay their roles as runners, whether because of body image, speed, lack of experience, or fear of what other people think. But Kowalchik asserts that if you run then you are a runner. The key is to tell yourself that you’re a runner and see yourself as one. She goes on to say that one’s running will improve greatly with the belief that they are a runner – encouraging one to increase speed and performance to become an even better runner. In her book, she quotes Tim Gallwey, “I know of no single factor that more greatly affects our ability to perform than the image we have of ourselves.”

With that said, my name is Rebecca Adler and I am a runner.


Note to iSelf

By J.S. Breukelaar

Salute

Must update the nano. All my music’s on my classic, but you can’t run with a classic, so the nano has my running playlist on it. Also, it seems, last year’s Halloween Party list, and I’m sorry, but “Monster Mash” just won’t get me off today. Neither, for some reason will Pantera’s “Cowboys from hell.” Must be all the glittering water and sunlight. ‘High noon, your doom’ just doesn’t feel right.

It’s that time of the week, time for me and my beat-up ASICS to hit the road. Not the track or the treadmill, just some good old asphalt. The Sydney Bay run is a short, hard run and you don’t want to over-think it. The terrain is basically flat apart from a two-story flight of steps leading up to the nasty Iron Cove Bridge.

My umbrella was stolen from in front of my apartment door, which is all the way at the end of our complex, with a long, separate hallway. It never rains in Southern California, and this week it does. Every day. The thief went off and stayed dry. I’m left to search for a new one. I’m a large guy and large umbrellas are expensive when you try to live on the cheap because your freelance money is stuck in some bureaucratic detour. I reject the small, collapsible ones. They are rickety and barely cover my shoulders. Rite-Aid has a large one, but it’s 13.99 and of inferior quality. The plastic handle feels like the dashboard of my old Escort, the spokes are flimsy despite being heavy.

I’ve never been a runner.  Then I moved to Boulder.  This brings to mind an atheist moving to  some similarly-sized Bible belt town.

New arrival: “Hi! I’m your new neighbor. I’m Mark.”

Neighbor: “Howdy Mark. I’m Chad. Great day for the move, eh?  By the way, what church ya’ll looking to go to?”

Except of course the Boulder version goes:

New arrival: “Hi! I’m your new neighbor. I’m Mark.”

Neighbor: “Namaste Mark. I’m River. Gotta love this Colorado weather, right?  So!  You a 5K guy? 10K? Marathoner? Iron man?”

I’ve never been a runner.  It’s the boredom that puts me off.  Just pumping one foot in front of another over and over again with no other real goal is not my flavor.  I do play soccer, tennis and basketball, which involve sprinting and jogging for maybe an hour or two at a time.  I skateboard, and I snowboard hard.  I practice Kenpo a few times a week.  I’m in pretty good shape.  But this is Boulder.  All that’s just dilettante shit.  No run?  No cool.

I had not been a good king. The people were gathering to throw me from the castle and perhaps kill me. I was doomed.

Fortunately for me, this was only a dream. Unfortunately, when I woke up from the dream, I didn’t really wake up all the way from the dream.

I had such an incredible fever that I didn’t know my dream from reality. This sort of thing is tough when you look out your window and hallucinate a massive mob of angry citizens marching through your backyard to get you. I took it upon myself to freak out.

Whoops

By Kristen Elde

Essay

One Friday morning, I was running the streets of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood when I tripped on some garbage and fell, bracing my fall with… my chin.

The sound was the worst: the dull internal clatter as top teeth met bottom. After lying prostrate in the middle of the dusty street for a split second, I scrambled to right myself. I made it to a sitting position and my thoughts went instantly to my mouth. My teeth: were they all there? A quick once-over with my tongue suggested they were. At the same time I brought my hand to my chin—but not before a nice crossing guard thrust a stack of napkins beneath it, urging me to apply pressure. “You hit the ground hard, honey. There’s blood—a lot of it.”

The windows around the front door look like aliens. I seem to be the only one who recognizes it, but it’s so obvious. They are tall, skinny aliens with arms that reach down to their knees. Their bug-eyed heads are elongated just like the aliens on TV, except that the top comes to a little point like a dollop of whipped cream. As a kid, I ran up the stairs feeling their noodle arms reaching out to grab me and pull me out of my world and into theirs. I always felt them just an inch behind me.

Standing in the laundry room, if I tapped unexpectedly on the metal surface of the washer or dryer, the noise might be startling, and suddenly I was thinking, “What if that’s the signal?” The signal for ghosts or aliens or whatever might be waiting in the ether for its moment, its chance to come abduct me or just to show itself, thereby ruining the reality on which I had an already tenuous grasp. I would do it again to disrupt the signal — rap on the washer once quickly, try to make the exact same noise — was it once for yes and two for no? I don’t remember. Do it again just in case. What if I have said something I don’t even understand in their alien language? Tap out a complicated rhythm to indicate a scratching out of what has inadvertently been written on the paper of time-space continuum. If all else fails, run out of the room and all is forgotten.

I experienced life in fast forward and slow motion at the same time, a contortion that threatened to tear the flimsy tape of continuity. It starts with the combination of silence and the ever-present humming in my ears. No one is speaking, no power is running, yet there is a subtle ringing in the upper reaches of my inner ear. Careful about tuning in to that. It’s not an imagined noise. It’s the sound of the ear existing. Catching air or whatever.

Listen too hard, and things get twisty. Internally, things are faster. Externally, I am surprised by the slow sound of my own voice. It comes out syrupy. I try to talk faster to catch up. I try and think slower. Things are out of sync.

I had dizzy spells for no reason. When I was still very young, they were fun. I would lay on the soft carpeted floor of my bedroom and let the experience envelop me. I didn’t have a word for it, yet. It had not occurred to me to ask if this is normal. The room shook. My heart raced. I just lay there and enjoy the natural high of overactive nerves.In high school, it would become a problem when I had to grip the sides of my desk to keep from falling out.

I have trouble wearing nail polish. I can’t keep it on. The minute there is a crack, I have to peel it all back. I chip it off, bite and scrape, leaving little flakes on my desk, clinging to my skirt, and stuck with sweat to my palms. I’m bent on deconstruction. When the nail polish is gone, I start on my cuticles. You would think I could outgrow this. You would think I’d eventually figure out there is nothing but blood under there, but I don’t. I keep digging. If not cuticles, then scabs or zits or dry skin — have you ever soaked your feet in a warm bath until you could just run your fingernails along your heel and come up with an inch long strip of skin? It’s not really skin anymore.

I learned my triggers, and then I felt funny about using this word, “triggers.” It’s got to be some kind of AA jargon, but I’ve never been in AA, so I must have picked it up from one of my friends who went to AA or NA, and I feel like a phony for using their lingo. I mean, they’re the ones with the real problems, right? Who am I? What right do I have to sit here and feel sorry for myself? But anyway, phony or not, I know my triggers: Alcohol, laziness, Sunday evenings, those things make it harder. Coffee, sex and exercise make it better.

I like to read about philosophies and religions that point us toward making peace with ourselves. I like Buddhism, but I don’t like to sit still for meditation. I don’t like to go to church or listen to preachers. I want a teacher, but I wouldn’t listen. I’m all I’ve got, then. But I do like the idea of oneness. I appreciate the fantasy of melting into a larger identity, not just for the delight of finally getting out of my skin but for the escape from being a person who must get dressed every day, and go to work, and pay bills, and be nice to people. Briefly, I can imagine that if I melt into the larger whole, I would be something much larger, much more magnificent than my little self with my little job and my chipped nail polish.

Sometimes I practice so-called magic, making creative use of salt water and a handful of herbs, knowing intellectually that it does nothing, and yet the ritual gives me comfort. I direct my unruly energy toward a cup of salt water on my desk and feel better about things without knowing why, exactly. The logic of the anxious is a bit more flexible. Solutions don’t need to make sense if the problems don’t make sense. I was sitting at my desk thinking the world was going to end, and a cup of saltwater made me feel better.

If I write down everything that makes me anxious, somehow, this makes it better, too. I apply words like a salve to this mysterious wound. I practice these home remedies until it stops hurting, and then I live like a normal person until it starts hurting again.

I think I’m dying. Okay, maybe not dying exactly, but definitely in need of an oxygen tank. Meanwhile, these guys are standing around in their short shorts and florescent mesh tank tops looking like they could go another three miles.

In what could only be described as a historic effort, I just completed a 5K. I say historic because it’s the first time in history that a Bloom not only signed up for an athletic competition but actually paid to do so. See, prior to today, I happily subscribed to the age-old Bloom philosophy (circa 1946, Brooklyn) of “why run unless you’re being chased?” You have to admit it’s a good point. I mean, this is supposed to feel good?

The backstory: my wife Julie and I booked a trip to the Grand Canyon. The trip is a few months away but we thought it’d be fun to buy a guidebook and learn what one can expect from a visit to the giant hole. After flipping through a few photos, it became perfectly clear what we could expect: sweating.

The people in these photos were nothing like us. For one thing, they were all about 6 feet tall and incredibly tan. What’s more, they genuinely seemed to love the outdoors (NOTE: My beef isn’t with the outdoors itself. Just bug spray, the way your skin smells after you put on bug spray, and the lack of TiVo access). Anyway, there they were in their flannel shirts and hiking boots, exploring one of our nation’s greatest treasures (no offense to Bea Arthur), and all together looking very, very fit. It soon became clear to Julie and me that if we were going to make the most out of the Canyon, we needed to:

a) get in better shape.
b) invest in self-tanner.

And so our quest to get in shape began (not to be confused with previous quests of the same name, which incidentally date back to the last millennium). We started by asking each other “what’s our first move?”—a reasonable question we could’ve answered had our mouths not been filled with pizza. The next morning however, we got serious. And that’s when, in a moment that could only be classified as pure insanity, we signed up for a 5K that was only two weeks away.

It takes guts to jump into something like that. It takes stupidity to do it when the race is part of the Bryn Mawr Running Club, a local group who runs, get this, for the fun of it. We had two weeks to prepare. Julie did this by running on a treadmill five days a week. I took the less conventional, albeit more creative, route of humming the score from “Rocky,” hoping that I could somehow conjure some of Rock’s fighting spirit without having to do, well, anything that resulted in sweating.

Two weeks later, Julie had run roughly twelve miles. I, on the other hand, had come up with roughly twelve reasons not to run the race (Reason #8: Running Sucks). The day of the race arrived. We pulled up to the running park and I instantly felt like I did in summer camp when I’d be standing on top of the high dive, looking down at the pool waaaaay below, scared out of my mind. The only difference there was that all the other kids were just as terrified as I was. Here, at the scene of the race, I was surrounded by real runners who were, you’ll love this, running a mile just to warm up! I had a bad feeling.

The clock was ticking down. While most used this time to stretch and talk strategy (“I’m gonna weave through the post and then, WHOOSH, I’m gonna find the pocket!”), I had more important thoughts racing through my mind (“Didn’t we pass a Starbucks on the drive over?”). Suddenly, it was time to race. A man with a megaphone assembled the herd to the starting line and, I’ve got to admit, for a brief moment, my feeling of dread had vanished and I was genuinely excited. “Who cares if I’m not a runner,” I thought. “We’re all one big group here!”

A siren sounded and, no kidding, the next thing I remember is seeing a cartoonish blur fly past me. It’s possible that at one point I, quite literally, ate someone’s dust. I can’t really describe what happened next, namely because my brain stopped forming memories after I got lapped by a middle aged guy with a portable oxygen tank. What I do remember, however, is forcing myself to keep going. So did Julie. And eventually, we crossed the finish line together. And while I’d like to end this by saying I learned something from the experience, the honest-to-goodness truth is that it was slightly less fun than undergoing lengthy and unnecessarily invasive dental surgery. Now where’s that guy with the oxygen tank?

I write a letter to Nikki, in my diary, each time the doctor takes a scalpel and carves out another mole.

He takes nipping strokes through my epidermis, dermis, and down to the fat, and drops the tissue—suspect for malignant melanoma—into a vile that’ll go to some lab in New Hampshire.