Fear. Sea. Surf. (Part II continued from 8/2/17).

girlssurf2It was July 8th, 2017. We walked down the long, gently sloping path. The trees were decorated with moss ornaments that hung like flowing hair. As the trail dipped through the shade of the trees, the path eventually spat us out into an open area on a short cliff that overlooked the beach. The blue of the sky met the blue of the ocean in an embrace. I watched the waves curl over like a baby’s hand griping his mom’s finger.

The ocean always soothed my senses like the briny air, the tumbling waves, the water reflecting the sun’s light but that day was a little different. I was taking my first surfing lesson and fear played through me like a needle stuck on a record.

I was with a group of all women and three women instructors. The day began with getting our surfboards for the weekend. These surfboards were like foam icebergs; they were huge, thick and unsinkable. My board was 9’2”, and it was 4 inches thick and 2 feet wide. It was just as much of a workout to carry the board to the beach as it was to surf. We also learned about the intricacies of the beach like rip currents, and the best conditions to surf in like wind direction, tide times, swell intervals, and wave heights.

The lesson then continued on the sand. The next challenge was getting into our 5mm wetsuit. The ocean on the Oregon Coast hangs out at about 58 degrees and wearing a full wetsuit is pretty much a requirement. Everyone always wore boots, but the gloves and hood were optional, which I did opt out of. The suits were skin tight, and it was like trying to put on and wear one big suction cup. Once we were suited up, we practiced sand surfing.

We worked on our form for paddling out to the waves; we balanced in the center of our boards scooping the sand back with cupped hands. We pushed into plank pose when imaginary waves were coming while we were paddling out. We churned our legs like a hand mixer practicing turning the board around in the water while sitting on it and waiting for the right wave. When we saw the imaginary wave we wanted, we slipped onto our stomachs and slid back on the board until our toes touched the edge of the board, and we started paddling hard to catch the wave. The final step was pushing up into an almost upward facing dog or a push-up with the knees down, then “popping up” to standing to surf the wave. I was considered a regular which means my left foot was out in front and my right foot was in back. It is called goofy if a surfer puts her right foot out in front and the left foot is behind. My body pointed towards the right side of the board. My shoulder was supposed to point in the direction I wanted to go and both feet were parallel on the board just a little more than hip distance apart. On the sand, this seemed logical and simple enough. Until it was time to apply the lessons in the water.

I remember walking towards the water as the panic began to ring louder, yet I just kept walking. The waves began to move higher up my legs slowly reaching towards my chest. The power of the ocean shoved me back as I continued to push forward.

I practiced sliding up on my board and paddling and pushing up on my board through the waves. Prior to this moment, I normally hung out in waist deep water. Now I was in a full 5 mm wetsuit, on a surfboard, paddling farther and farther from shore as the waves continually crashed into me and my board.

I have to admit my first day surfing I was not really brave. I had never participated in any water sports before. In fact, I had never participated in any snow sports either like snowboarding or skiing. This really was a brand new experience, and I had nothing to reference. To begin, we rode on the white water. After a green wave breaks it turns into white rolling water that pushes towards the shore. That is what we began learning on. There were three other women in my group and one instructor. Our instructor stood in the water and gave tips and advice. She took turns helping each of us pick waves and telling us when we should paddle.

I will admit as I sat on my board my fears tried to creep in like a wild cat stalking its prey. I was concerned about my lack of experience in the water.  I was nervous about being in the wide-open ocean; there were rip currents, not to mention the waves. I also kept waiting for a fin to break the surface at any moment. But I didn’t budge. I didn’t let my fears chase me from this experience.

The first wave I caught I didn’t even try to stand up. The wave felt like it was moving so fast; it took me by surprise. It was like being on a roller coaster that was rushing down the tracks, and all I had to cling to was my board. Even though I didn’t even attempt to stand up, the thrill was just as strong. I felt my lips turning into a smile. A laugh escaped from my mouth. My heart was fluttering. I may even have squealed as the board started to reach the shore. When my surfboard stopped, I couldn’t wait to get back out to the instructor and try again.

As I was waited for my second turn, I was sitting on my board facing the shore. The waves moved under me as I stared at the tree-covered, rocky cliffs, the chunks of driftwood, and the seagulls floating and riding on the wind. The beauty of the landscape was powerful, and it began to ease my fears. A calm settled over me; I had inhaled the peace of nature.

I am not sure what I thought about surfing prior to this day. I knew surfers were toned, skilled and seemingly fearless, but I had no idea how tough and tiring surfing really was. On my first day of surfing, and I don’t even know if I can call what I did surfing, I rode the surfboard in on my stomach and sometimes on all fours, and I never stood up. I made it one hour, and I rode in about 8 waves before my body felt drained.

My initial feeling was disappointment, but I was overwhelmingly proud as well. I never thought I would push my limits like that. I realized how much fear and anxiety tried to live my life for me at times. The more I caved in to the fear, the louder it got. I realized I didn’t want to hear the voice of fear anymore. I didn’t want to hold myself back.

As I was driving home, I began to cry. It was like a pop-up rain shower that took me by surprise. I cried because I felt free. I cried because I didn’t let fear win. I cried because I unlocked a hidden treasure within myself. I honestly felt like I could face anything. My tears were symbolic of an awakening.

The next morning was the second and final day of our lesson. I wasn’t sure what I would be capable of because I was sore; my hands were like 50 pound kettlebells weighing my arms down. However, today I was determined. As I drove to the beach, I vowed to turn my disappointment from the previous day into satisfaction. I told myself I was going to stand up or at least attempt to stand up on the surfboard.

That morning we changed instructors as well, so we could learn from someone different. My new instructor, Dani, and I had a great connection. The first question she asked me was, “What would you like to accomplish today?” Instantly I replied, “To stand up.” She smiled and nodded.

As we were waiting for a wave, Dani was pumping me up. She told me to repeat this mantra in my head, “I will stand up. I will stand up.” I had that in my mind as I caught my first wave, but I made it to my knees and rode the wave like I was a dog. When I paddled back out, Dani assured me it was okay. She encouraged me and told me to repeat my mantra again and just commit to standing up.

Dani and I picked out another wave together. She said, “That wave is yours!” as she pointed to a wave forming in the near distance. I quickly went from sitting on my board feet dangling in the water to slipping onto my stomach. I scooted back until my feet were at the edge of my board. Dani shouted, “Paddle!” I started digging my hands into the ocean pushing the cold water back as I repeated in my head, “I will stand up. I will stand up. I will stand up.” I felt the wave lift the back of my board up which was the sign it was time to stand up. I began to push up on the board with my arms, and I slowly popped up and brought my left foot forward on the board. I couldn’t believe it. My body finally followed suit on what my mind had been telling it to do. I only made it a few seconds standing up on the board before I “starfished” off. But for that fleeting moment, I was in sync and in perfect harmony with Mother Nature. It opened my eyes to a new level of being alive.

Natural Selection

picTrue intimacy requires vulnerability. It requires standing in your truth. It requires you to accept and reveal yourself as you truly are. This can’t be one-sided either; both sides must be willing to be open. Sometimes I have failed at this; other times I have been the one who was let down. I often feel misunderstood as I grasp at vulnerability with slippery fingers. But one relationship that has grown deep like roots has been my intimate relationship with nature.

My earliest recollection of connecting with nature, in a conscious way, was when I was 12 years old. I lived in Berwyn, Illinois and it was summertime. After my parents left for work, I rode my silver and orange Dyno bike to the local baseball field where I played Little League. I stopped my bike at the edge of the chain linked fence and walked onto the field. I slipped my shoes off and walked through the slightly overgrown grass as the blades tickled my ankles. It was warm, and my sweat beaded on my forehead below my baseball cap. The sky was as blue as the petals of a gentian. Butterflies dipped up and down like they were on an invisible roller coaster and crows cawed from the top of the metal fence. I decided to lay down right in the middle of center field, and I tucked my hands behind my head to make a pillow. I just stared up at the sky and the white cotton clouds; I let the sun take my face in her hands. I am unsure of how long I stared at the clouds, but I watched them gently move across the sky changing shapes.

When I was younger, I didn’t really seek out nature. I knew it was all around me, but we were more like acquaintances. Then my dad and I started to fish together when I was in high school, until he passed away in June 2014. My dad had a bass boat and had been a fisherman most of his life. We would wake up when the morning skies were dark. As we got to the boat ramp, the sun started to peer above the water line. My dad always found solace at the lake. He wasn’t a church going man, but he said his church was the lake. Those were the times he felt closest to God.

It was on the lake when nature started to come alive for me. I would watch herons stand stiff like stones waiting for unsuspecting fish to swim by. I saw ducks paddling by with their newly hatched ducklings trailing behind in a line. I saw the array of personalities the lake had as well. Some days the lake was smooth and green like a glass bottle. Other days the lake swelled creating whitecaps that violently rocked the boat. I also was able to watch the day unfold before me. In the springtime, my dad and I could easily fish for 12 hours. I watched the sun make its full rotation through the sky. Every second the sunlight changed the landscape around me. I began to long for the early morning fishing expeditions. I needed the wind to rip by as we sped across the lake to each of our secret fishing spots. I needed the sunshine on my skin as much as I needed the rainstorms. I needed that feeling of peace as my dad and I silently sat on opposite ends of the boat continuously casting waiting for a bite.

It was after my fishing experiences that I started to become an outdoors woman. It was then I started my relationship with nature. My time off of work was filled with hiking. I discovered my love of kayaking, running, and the ocean. I took my first big trip out of the country in 2008, and I spent 2 weeks in the south island of New Zealand. I did daily hikes, I snorkeled, I kayaked across the Marlborough Sound, and as I stood upon a mountain top I heard a thunderous avalanche on a neighboring mountain. I remember when I told people about my trip they said, “That isn’t a vacation!” No, I didn’t relax in the normal sense of the word; however, I was energized and reignited by nature. She lit my internal fire like I was a wood burning stove.

I remember one particularly harder hike I did. My leg muscles were tired, and I was clawing at rocks to pull myself up to the summit. When I made it to the top, I found myself alone up there gazing out over Mueller Glacier. I felt overwhelmed with joy, awe and gratefulness. My eyes teared up, and it was as if nature was standing in front of me naked, raw, and powerful. It was that trip that forever secured my love for nature and traveling.

Later that year I became a runner. That is when my relationship with nature grew even deeper. Running in nature makes me feel wild; I am one of the dandelions that grows freely. I feel like with each stride I step more into myself. Nature sees me for who I am, and there is no judgment. When I am on a run, there are no pretenses. I am in my purest, most honest form. Nature reciprocates that. Nature never pretends to be something she isn’t; she is unapologetically herself. Within nature’s vulnerability, I am able to be vulnerable. Nature is a safe place to be exactly who I am.

Committed

73

(October 4th, 2008 before my first 5K race)

I was reminded on New Year’s Eve what it was like to be a new runner again. I was huddled around the Running Room store in Victoria, B.C. with fellow runners, and one dog, waiting for the fun run to begin. I was gently stretching my legs when a woman appeared next to me. She smiled and said, “You look like a runner who has been doing this awhile.” I took this as a compliment, and I smiled back. I told her I had been running for years. She said, “So can I ask you a question?” I nodded. She said, “This is my first run ever, and I don’t know how to put this bib on.” She had a nice Arc’teryx jacket, and she didn’t want to put safety pins through it. I gave her the rundown of other places to pin her bib. Also, since this was a fun run, and no timing chips were involved, the bib wasn’t really of importance. After talking about bib placement for a few minutes, she elaborated on one of her previous statements. “This is my first 5K. It is actually my first time running ever.” She paused. “I have a friend who has been a runner her whole life, and she is the one who talked me into running. She says she loves it.”

It was this statement that made me want to write this blog. I am not sure what it is about us runners where we try to share the joy of running with others. It is like we discovered this treasure buried in the backyard and we are holding it between our cupped hands, wide-eyed showing anyone who will look. But I think sometimes we don’t give enough disclaimers.

I told this woman who was about to embark on her first running journey that when I started running 9 years ago, I actually did not enjoy it; I didn’t love it. The only reason I stuck with it in the first several months was because I was stubborn and goal-oriented. I wanted her to know that she may not enjoy this run and that was okay.

It also started to make me think about other comments people have said to me. Countless numbers of people have told me, “I just can’t do what you do. I am not a runner.” I am not sure what non-running people think. Do they think I just woke up one day and had the ability to go for a 13-mile jaunt?  The way I become a runner was to just start and go for a run. It wasn’t a secret society I was initiated into. The only requirements were to step out the front door and go.

My whole life I was not a runner either. I had always been athletic. I grew up playing softball, baseball, and basketball. I even used to race my dad in the 100 meter dash in the street in front of our house, but I never ran over a ½ mile just for the sake of running. I even remember the first time I ran a mile, which was in college for my softball team, and I walked more than half of it. Needless to say, I was acquainted with the “I am not a runner” mindset.

In July 2008, I decided I was going to be a runner. Several things played into this decision. First, I had quit smoking on September 11th, 2007, and once I knew I had that addiction under control, I wanted to continue to make better choices. Second, I was nearing my 30th birthday. While I was in good shape, I never really worked out. I realized I wanted my body conditioned and healthy for years to come, so I needed to decide how I was going to do this. I love being outdoors, so I knew I didn’t want to work out in a gym. I thought running was the right way for me to exercise my body. Once that decision was made, I picked out my first race, which was a 5K for the Susan G. Komen Foundation in Nashville, TN. I knew if I had a race set and a goal in mind that would push me to train and stick with running.

I trained for 3 months for my 5K. There was no other way to describe it except horribly satisfying. Once again, I found myself not being able to run a ½ mile. It hurt. My legs, my lungs, and my body revolted against my grand idea of being a runner. They made their objections known through pain. But as I mentioned, I am stubborn and goal-oriented. I made a commitment to complete a 5K and that was it.

So every time I ran, I continued to push myself. Even if I could only go one step farther than the previous run, that was one step farther. It took almost a month before I could run my first mile without stopping to walk. I already mentioned I was stubborn and goal-oriented, but I also didn’t like taking the easy route. On my runs, I found the hardest routes possible.

By my house was a massive hill, and I incorporated it into my running route. I hated that fucking hill, and I hated myself for choosing to make it part of my running route. But one day, as my muscles burned and sweat sat at my hairline and fell like rain droplets, I crested the hill. I actually cried. It took me weeks to conquer this hill; it took me weeks to conquer running a mile. It took pain and uncomfortableness. It took perseverance and appreciating a small accomplishment. And I kept building on it.

After that first month, I improved quickly. It was like I broke through a self-imposed barrier. As the saying goes, “It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger.” I was nervous as my race day approached. I didn’t know what I would be capable of in the race. In my training, I made it to 3 miles of running, and I continued to run hills. So I knew I prepared myself as much as I could, but still there was the unknown.

On the day of the race, I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what my pace would be, if I would be able to run the whole 5K (which is 3.11 miles), and I didn’t know if I would be able to handle the hills and the bridge crossing. But I was all in. I was committed to this endeavor like a nun to God. I put my faith in my training and prayed for the best.

I was so worried about not being able to complete the race that I ran conservatively. At this point, I didn’t own a GPS watch, I never bothered to check the race map, and I never saw any mile markers on the course. While I felt strong through the whole race, I just kept waiting for the moment where my body wouldn’t want to continue. So I put one foot in front of the other just cautiously waiting.

I also found out how energizing a race could be. Up until this point, I always ran alone. This was the first time my running intersected with other people. There was camaraderie among the runners, and cheering and cowbell ringing from the onlookers. The hills I was concerned about were welcomed reprieves from the straightaway streets. I was also able to see downtown Nashville from a new perspective.

I still remember this so clearly, but I turned right onto Broadway Street, which was one of the main streets of downtown that was lined with Honky Tonks and restaurants, and I saw the finish line a few blocks ahead. I was in shock. When I could see how close I was to being finished, I realized I had energy reserves. I broke out in a quick sprint for the finish. (That first race was the first and only time I had any energy left to spare at the end).

I am not sure what made me stick with running in those first few months because I ran off sheer will. I suppose I secretly loved the screaming of aching muscles. I loved every new accomplishment. I loved being outside in nature. Then, I had my first runner’s high. It took 4 months and I was in the middle of training for a 10K (6.22 miles) race. I was struggling along on my longest run yet, 5 miles, and then I felt it. It was just this sense of joy that pulsated from every cell through my skin. Every strike of my foot on the greenway made me smile. My senses intensified. The birds chirped in a deep conversation. The sun seemed to grow brighter. I could hear the small river loudly coursing over rocks and pebbles. I shut my eyes for a few seconds just to absorb all the sensations. Then moments later, it dropped away like the sun setting behind the horizon. But, the feeling could not be forgotten.

In that brief moment, I went from just running because I made a commitment to do so to running because I enjoyed it.

Thrill

Photo

While I am friendly, outgoing and boisterous at times, I would definitely fall into the category of an introvert. I recharge by spending time alone and spending time in nature, but I also feel this deep connection to humanity. One of the reasons I love traveling is because I get to talk to all different types of people. Whether I am on an airplane, sitting at a bar, or running a race, I always connect with strangers.

Maybe this is the thrill people get from having a one-night stand. I have had people recommend one night stands to me as if they were casually suggesting their favorite Starbuck’s drink. “You should just totally pick the cute guy at the end of the bar and go home with him; he keeps smiling at you. Oh and by the way have you tried the new Starbuck’s Blonde Espresso?” The idea absolutely frightens me, and I never could understand the joy of having sex with someone I didn’t know. Yet, no one could ever explain the “thrilling” feeling to me either.

However, I think I understand. I think I might understand what people were trying to express. But instead of sexually connecting with a complete stranger for one evening, I enjoy intellectually and emotionally connecting with a complete stranger.

I just finished reading Brene Brown’s newest book “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone,” and I just returned from a recent trip to Victoria, B.C., Canada; the combination of these two things got me to think about how divisive our world has become, but how much I enjoyed connecting and sharing with people. How in fleeting moments, I just see another human for who they are, and they see me for who I am. This has really helped to shape me and my beliefs. I give most people the benefit of the doubt because I know we all have a story because I have heard those stories, and I have shared my stories.

One evening while I was in Canada, I was walking back the 1.3 km (.80 miles) to my hotel from a lounge, and I saw a homeless man in a wheelchair who appeared to have had suffered a stroke. He was in his 60’s, he was covered in a blanket, and he was slowly pushing his wheelchair backwards with his right leg: his only fully functioning leg. The streets were scattered with people. Several people passed this man in his wheelchair, and I was about to be one of those people as well until I heard him say, “Excuse me.” His speech still reflected the effects of his stroke. I stopped walking and answered him. He said, “Would you push me?”

I was surprised by his request, and it really affected me. It affected me because I thought this man has a lot of courage. See, that is one of my weaknesses: asking for help and relying on others. I saw his vulnerability as beautiful. Not vulnerable as in weak or needy, but vulnerable as in open and admitting that he could use some help to get to where he was going. That concept really is foreign to me.

So I answered, “Yes.” After pushing him for several blocks, he reached into his pocket for his cigarettes. He pulled out two and offered me one. I declined, but I thought it was a kind gesture considering this gentleman didn’t have a lot to offer, but what he did have he was willing to share.

As we continued this walk together, I became emotional. Just sharing in a vulnerable moment with a complete stranger was powerful. When we were close to my hotel, I bid the gentleman farewell. He asked if I had any money to spare, and I gladly shared the 5 Canadian dollars I had with him, and I wished him a good evening.

Time and time again I have these moments with complete strangers that make me feel like I truly understand life and human connection. It is seeing soul to soul. It makes me want to know, to learn and to see more people; it makes me want to be seen.

In 2015 right before Christmas, a year after I lost both of my parents to cancer, I decided to take a trip to the Ashram in the Bahamas. On the flight back home, I was seated next to a young Jamaican man. When he sat down, he smiled at me and I mirrored his infectious smile. As the flight was taking off, he began to make small talk with me. Within 15 minutes of the flight taking off, we had delved into deep, heart connecting conversations.

I found out he was on his way to Atlanta to move in with sister and begin college. He was 22 years old and had lived in the Bahamas his whole life. He said living in the Bahamas did not offer him a lot of opportunities. Two of his siblings had moved to Atlanta already, so he wanted to better himself as well and venture out. He admitted he was torn though because he was leaving behind two younger siblings. His mother had just passed away from breast cancer. She was the glue of the family. She was the nurturer and comforter. His father was tougher and rougher around the edges. While his mom was open and loving, his dad was rigid and closed off. He said he never ever really connected with his father, and they fought often. He admitted he really missed his mother, and he didn’t want to leave his siblings behind in the Bahamas; however, he really needed this new opportunity to better himself and his life, and he needed space from his father.

Because of his vulnerability and open heart, I found myself sharing my story as well. I began to tell him about losing both of my parents to cancer within 6 months of each other. I opened up about my relationship with both of my parents as well. I shared the stories of love between my parents and I, but also the triangle of dysfunction that bonded us. I told him about the journey I was on to travel and see the world, and how I had started to call myself an adventurer-explorer.

I had felt so alone that year. The people I was closest to tried to be there for me, but unless someone has experienced a big loss, empathy can only go so far. Most of the time it wasn’t even empathy that people were offering, it was sympathy. Other people can’t live in the day to day pain, the hour to hour pain, or even the minute to minute pain that someone else experiences from a death of a loved one. Unfortunately there is no “break” from the pain of losing a loved one, especially when it is fresh. While everyone else returned to their lives, I was left holding the pain and loss in my cupped hands as it continued to overflow the rim of my fingers. I was left to process it on my own. Then to meet a young man who was a different race, a different gender, and from different country and background, and have him understand me like no one had in a year was a gift. He was a beautiful, youthful, sweet gift. I can only hope I offered him the same peace and comfort.

We shared in one another’s pain, in one another’s journey, and we saw each other for who we were in that moment. There were no barriers, no masks, no bullshit. There were two human beings opening their hearts to one another. The conversation flowed and moved with ease like a sweet lullaby sung to a baby. For 2 hours and 15 minutes, it felt like we were the only two people on the plane. When we landed, we wished each other luck, encouragement and condolences. I felt my heart welling up with good will for a human I had only known for 135 minutes.

All I wished for this young man was peace, hope, and a bright future.

Fear. Sea. Surf. (Part I).

IMG_3968

I didn’t learn to swim until I was 12 years old. My mom never learned to swim, and I could even go as far as to say she was traumatized from her water experiences. It was so bad that my mom even wore a life jacket in a pool that was 4 feet deep; she was 5’ 4”. Since my mom was so afraid, she never let me near the water because she knew she wouldn’t be able to save me or help me if something happened. So the easiest thing for her was avoidance which unwillingly trickled down to me.

So finally when I was 12 years old, I was able to take swimming lessons at the YMCA for a few months. I made it as far as becoming a “guppy” according to the YMCA standards. According to my standards, I was skilled enough to not drown. Since I had such a late start learning to swim, the water felt as familiar to me as walking on the moon would. Mixed with that, my parents didn’t take me to the pool, the lake, or the ocean to swim. The only time I was ever close to the water was when I was fishing with my dad.

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I have always been obsessed with bears, sharks, and moose. Ever since I was a little kid, I loved reading about the ocean and sharks. I think a lot of people have similar stories, but I remember seeing the movie Jaws when I was 9 years old, and I was making Easter eggs with my dad. For one, I was way too young to see the movie, and two I don’t think turning a majestic animal into a horror movie was the best idea. That movie changed the view of sharks for decades. The ripple effect of fear and distaste for sharks is still felt today. I was one of the many people who feared sharks, but I also knew sharks weren’t “killing” machines.

As I said, I was obsessed with sharks. When I was a child and my mom and I went to the Brookfield Zoo, I would always get something from the gift shop. I remember when I bought this set of ocean animal information cards. Each card had a picture of an ocean animal with detailed facts about the animal on it. I loved looking over and rereading the cards. It had everything from Great White Sharks to Hammerhead Sharks to Moray Eels to Polka Dot Groupers.

My parents also bought the full set of Encyclopedia Britannica which I read all the time. My favorite subject was the ocean and sharks; it was a whole other world. I would stare at pictures of the Anglerfish and the Viperfish and just be in awe that these creatures existed in the deep depths of the ocean. I also read every shark entry I could find. Even though I was informed about sharks, I still feared them. However, I feared them because they were so large and graceful and moved through the water with ease. They had perfected their craft of hunting marine mammals and fish, then mix in their blade like teeth that cut with surgeon precision; I respected them immensely. Sharks were all the things I wish I was. They just existed with ease, grace, beauty and this absolute comfortableness in the water. I feared their power; I feared the respect they commanded.

Then there is the ocean itself. I recognized the specialness of the ocean from the first time she spoke to me, and I laid eyes on her when I was 16 years old. The power and the vastness of the ocean is breathtaking. It is hard to not be hypnotized by the waves as they start to develop then casually, yet forcefully, roll towards the beach. The sound of a wave breaking makes me take a deep breath and inhale the salty air.

I really do have this entangled mix of fear, awe and respect for the ocean. Just as the waves well up, my emotions always do too when I am in the presence of the ocean. However, I always enjoyed the ocean from the safety of the beach. When I would venture in, I would linger around the water that was waist-deep. Friends would try to lure me out further, but I always stayed where I was comfortable. Now pair my swimming experience with my fear, but fear based solely on respect of the ocean and its inhabitants, and this made for a strained relationship

Throughout the years I tried to push my comfortability level though because I don’t like to have my life dictated by fear. So in 2004, I went on a cruise to Mexico with my mom, and I did go snorkeling in the ocean, even if I stuck close to shore and other humans (more potential choices for the sharks).

In 2008, I went to the south island of New Zealand for 2 weeks. Once again, I went snorkeling, but this time with seals. I may have clung to a lifebuoy for 90 minutes straight that floated on the ocean surface and frantically jerked my head in all different directions, praying that the 90 minutes of snorkeling would hurry up and end, but I did get in the ocean, with the sharks favorite meal, in about 30 feet of water.

In 2012, I decided to challenge myself in a new way. I had been a runner for 4 years at that point, and I cycled once a week for cross-training. I thought, “Why not do a triathlon?” I was very selective on which triathlon I was going to do. I picked a sprint triathlon that was 8 months away. The sprint triathlon was the shortest triathlon distance I could do. I also made sure the swim portion was in a pool because I wasn’t quite ready to venture into a longer lake swim (at this point I lived in Middle Tennessee so the only options for the swimming portion were a pool or a lake). The swimming portion was 200 yards, the cycling portion was 14 miles, and the running portion was a 5K (3.11 miles). The format worked to my strengths as well. I was a weaker swimmer, so it was nice to get that out of the way first. I knew I was a strong runner, and I had no problem running exhausted and tired, so having the triathlon end with the 5K run was a confidence booster for me.

Training and participating in this triathlon was a huge feat for me. I didn’t even enjoy swimming in pools in the summer time. I would always quickly dip in then just cozy up in the chaise lounge and read a book. Now I was spending two days a week building up my swimming strength in a local indoor pool.

When race day came, I was super nervous about the swimming portion. At this point, I still wasn’t overly confident in the water. I ended up lining up towards the end of the swim line because my time didn’t officially start until I jumped in the water. When I hit the water, I started off as I had practiced so many times. I freestyle swam with my face in the water, and every other stroke I tilted my head to take a breath. However, this only lasted for one length of the pool. My semi-formal swimming form quickly melded into something that resembled a lame otter. My head stayed poked above the water line, my feet flutter kicked, and my arms most closely resembled the breaststroke: a very loose interpretation of the breaststroke. I remember my dad walking the lengths of the pool yelling encouragement as I attempted to swim. (Later he told me I looked so awkward and slow and he felt bad for me, but he was proud of me for even doing it).

Honestly, I was proud of myself. There were only two other people who had a slower swim time than me, but I did it. Every time I swam in the pool I was uncomfortable, but I continued to push myself. I successfully completed a triathlon that I never imagined I would have even attempted.

In 2016, I went to Hawaii, more specifically Maui, which is where Tiger Sharks love to hang out because it has a protected ocean shelf. I have to say it is pretty hard to go to Maui and not get in the ocean though because it was like a warm, inviting hug. I did find myself in the water up to my shoulders as I playfully ducked in and out of the waves. Swimming in the ocean and turning back towards the shore to see the mountain peaks wearing the clouds like a halo was a treat. Once again, I even went snorkeling. This time I spent more time engaging with the fish and turtles instead of panicking about the possibility of a shark encounter. Now, I wasn’t totally reformed because I did still have a few moments of fear, but I was able to smile and take in the underwater scenes.

In 2011, I made a promise to myself that if I ever moved to Oregon, I would learn to surf on the Oregon Coast. At that time, Oregon felt so far from my grasp that it felt like an easy, empty promise to make, and considering it took over 5 years for my move to Oregon to happen that promise drifted from my mind like a rogue cloud.

That is until July 8th of this year.

The Last Frontier

PinkHueMy flight landed at 11:24 p.m. on Thursday (June 15th) in Anchorage. The sun was setting, yet it was still daylight, or otherwise known as civil twilight, and the snow-peaked mountains glowed with a pink hue. I had arrived to run my 25th half-marathon in my 19th state.

I was tired after my flight, but the moment I was driving in my rental car, in the daylight, I re-awoke. I felt like I could have went out for a night on the town. When I arrived at the hotel close to 1 a.m., it seemed the other guests in the hotel lobby felt the same way. Alaska was like the casino that pumps oxygen in to keep the gamblers lively and awake unaware of the hours that have passed them by, except Alaska was pumping its visitors full of light essentially creating the same effect.

That night, well early that morning, I finally lay down at 1:30 a.m. I saw the light nosily pushing its way in on the sides of the metal blinds. But I was able to roll over and ignore the intrusion…for 4 ½ hours.

Then, I found myself wide awake at 6 a.m. I continued to turn back and forth in the queen-size bed forcing my eyes shut because I was tired, but the light did not relent. In fact, it was encouraged, so I conceded.

My three main goals for this new day, that never really ended or started but just sort of continued, were try this vegan, but still served meat, restaurant named Middle Way Café, get my race packet at the Alaska Airlines Center and go on an epic run.

I am happy to say I loved Middle Way Café. In fact, I have eaten breakfast there three times now. I am already a vegetarian, who still eats eggs and fish, but my doctor informed me I had a milk intolerance. So now I am essentially a vegan, who still eats eggs and fish. While there is no “category” for me, I guess if I haveNe to classify myself I would say I am a disgruntled milk intolerant, no meat eatin’ gal who loves farm fresh eggs and fresh fish. So my vegan breakfast burrito, with an egg added, was actually amazing, even though it was cheese free.

Next, I headed to the AAC (Alaska Airlines Center) to go to the race expo and pick up my race packet. Outside the AAC was a very large green blow-up seawolf head, which is the mascot for the University of Alaska Anchorage. In case you are wondering if you missed some new hybrid species of animal, you did not. The seawolf is a mythical creature that is part of the Alaskan culture. It is strong, generous and humble. I thought this seawolf was the perfect creature to embody for my race on Saturday. After watching a large group of exuberant runners take their picture with the large green blow-up seawolf head, I walked inside and briefly perused the expo and received my race bib as well.

The day was shaping up to be beautiful and productive. It was right at 60 degrees with clear skies and sunshine. I ended up asking a local runner, and worker, at Skinny Raven Sports where there were some non-road running paths. She was awesome, and told me 3 different areas to run, but she also warned me about black bears. Apparently they were quite active this time of year and of course Alaska was bear country. I heeded her warning and decided to run on a popular bike trail that followed the coast named Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

There were many places to pick up this trail, and I decided to begin my run at Point Woronzof Park and run towards Kincaid Park. Before I headed out on my run, I decided to Google what I should do if I should happen to encounter a black bear, and a moose for that matter. I have been obsessed with bears since I was a young child, so I already knew black bears were more shy and timid, but they are wild creatures and deserve respect as all animals do. In case I did encounter a bear, I was supposed to walk away from the bear without turning my back, make my presence known by calmly speaking to the bear and slowly wave my arms in the air. The one cardinal rule was never run from a black bear because it may trigger the bear’s chase instinct. This all seemed simple enough. Basically if I encountered a moose, I should give it space, and if it decided to charge I should try to get behind a tree. If I didn’t make it to a tree and it decided to stomp me, then I should curl up into a ball and protect my neck.

So after reading what I should do in case I encountered the different Alaskan wildlife, I took a brief walk down the road and picked up the trail. The weather was warm, the trail was inviting and the trees felt like old friends. I instantly felt comfortable and my legs were energized. If running through the woods wasn’t an enough of a reward, the view of the coast would periodically show itself through a break in the trees.

I was the only runner on the trail, but there were a lot of cyclists and people leisurely strolling along with cameras and binoculars hanging from their necks. There were enough breaks in people though to where I was able to enjoy one-on-one time with the trail and the surroundings. I was only going to do a 3-mile run, but I didn’t want my run to end, so I thought a 4.50 mile run sounded better. I ran farther out, so I could also enjoy a nice walk back to my car to stop and sightsee a little more intently.

So when I was about 3.25 miles into my run I realized I hadn’t seen any other people in about 5 minutes. I was coming around a bend in the trail, and there ambling down the trail in front of me with his head down was a black bear. I instantly stopped running because I remembered the one cardinal rule of encountering a black bear: don’t run. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I had so many emotions running through me. As I mentioned earlier, I have been obsessed with bears since I was a child. My parents had bought me an encyclopedia set (yes, pre-internet) when I was around 9 years old. I read and reread about all the different bears, moose and sharks and fish of the ocean. My mom and I would also go to the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois every weekend. I spent hours watching the bears sleep, feed, fight, and roughhouse. So needless to say, the first emotion I felt was awe. I thought, “Holy shit!” I started smiling in disbelieve, but it also started to register that a bear was walking towards me because my thoughts went from “Holy shit” to “Oh shit!”

I started to walk backwards slowly, but I realized the bear still had not seen me. He was walking towards me faster than I could walk backwards. I know black bears don’t like to be surprised and that is what can cause them to react to a human. So I thought I better let the bear know I was there, but let me tell you it goes against your instincts. So when I first tried to alert the bear of my presence, I apparently wasn’t speaking loud enough, and I may have been using my library voice, because he never looked up. I realized I was going to have to be louder, so I started my one-sided dialogue again while I slowly waved my arms in the air, “Mister Bear?!” I called out. (The bear continued to follow the trail towards me with his head down). Shit, he still didn’t hear me. I cleared my throat, “Mister Bear?!” (Damn, I hoped this wasn’t a female bear, and now I offended her because I confused her gender). The bear finally looked up and made eye contact with me as his ears pointed upwards. Great, I finally got his attention…now what. As I continued to wave my arms slowly I calmly said, “Mister Bear. Hey, um, I need you to get off the trail please. Okay?” He stopped walking and looked at me just for a second more, and then he veered off the trail into the woods.

It was at that point I realized my heart was pounding like a war drum. My palms were damp, and my jaw had dropped open. I stood astonished for a few moments feeling my blood surging through me. I thought I better wait a few moments before I started running again, so I turned around and started to walk back in the direction of my car. It was then I started smiling again. I just had a beautiful and safe interaction with an animal I had loved and respected my whole life. It was just him and me there on that trail. I felt so thankful. I could not believe Mother Nature gifted me this present.

It took about 5 minutes before I started running again, but my smile never left my face.

Sacred Interaction

Race

My latest adventure had me on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona on May 26th to run my 24th half-marathon in my 18th state. I decided to run a trail race in Kaibab National Forest which overlooks the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This race consisted of a half-marathon, a 50K and a 50 miler.

Running is one of my biggest passions, and trail running is a seductive extension of that. The trail is like a snake charmer, and I am the snake. I am lured into a trance. It makes me think of something my belly dancing teacher once said when we were learning how to do sword balancing on our heads. She said, “The sword, or whatever you are performing with, is your dance partner. You essentially become one with it. You have to feel it and move with it. The moment you take your focus off your dance partner, the sword, it will fall.” That is exactly how I describe trail running: Nature and I commune as one. It is a sacred interaction. The moment I am not giving the trail my full devotion she lets me know. (I can’t count how many times I have tripped, fallen or skidded up or off a trail). Once I am connected to the trail, I move with her over rocks and roots; in stride, I leap over fallen branches and logs, I wind up and over hills, and hop-scotch over washed away trail sections. Even though trail running is more strenuous and tougher than road races, the reward is much greater for me; trail runs and races are always an adventure.

Even getting to the start of this race was an adventure. Once I was at Kaibab National Forest, I drove 28 miles of rocky, dusty road that twisted through a mixture of Douglas Fir, Aspen and Ponderosa trees. Walls of tan and red rocks were the backdrop, and Kaibab Squirrels were scrambling about with their stark silver tails waving behind.

Once I arrived at the start of the race, which took almost 90 minutes, it was an intimate affair. Between all three races there were 425 runners. Trail runners are a different breed of runners but in a good way. There is an aspect of loving and respecting nature, possessing a certain amount of grit, and mixing in a little bit of bad ass. Trail runners and races seem to be greener as well. Case in point was the bathrooms. There were two rows of 10 “bathrooms” back to back. They were tall, skinny camouflage tents with zippered doors. Upon entering the tents, there was a large yellow bucket with wooden panels over the sides of it and a toilet seat. Instead of the typical blue chemical filled port-a-porties, these bathrooms offered buckets of sawdust and a scooper to cover up one’s excrement. It seems funny to be discussing the bathrooms at a race, but if you are a runner you understand the pre and post-race importance of the bathroom. I loved that this race was thinking and acting in the environment’s best interest.

The three different race distances all started at different times. The 50 mile runners had started their race at 5 a.m., the 50K runners had started their race at 6 a.m., and the half-marathon runners started their race at 7 a.m. The excitement around the starting line rose as the race inched closer to the beginning. Even though the half-marathon started later it was still chilly, which was putting it mildly. Runners were huddled around fires absorbing any warmth they could, and the Ponderosa trees allowed the sunlight to filter through as well.

The race announcer called everyone over and started the countdown to the beginning of the race, and his voice echoed above the crowd, “Three, two, one, Go!” And the 190 half-marathon runners poured onto the trail. I knew from the start I would have to walk parts of this race. We started at about 7,000 feet of elevation and in the first 1.5 miles we would be gaining about 1,000 feet of elevation. This ascent began almost immediately after the start of the race. I hiked this first part as hard and as fast as I could keeping a steady pace, and so did many of the other runners. When the hill, or what seemed more like a mountain, peaked we were met with our first water station and check-in point. One of the things I really love about trail running is the aid stations. Unlike road races that have water stations almost every mile or two with plastic cups, trail races are much more limited due to the trail space, and there are typically more solid foods to eat as well. Since most trail races are green, they don’t offer cups either. You are expected to carry your own bottle and fill it up. At this first station, I checked in and my race bib was marked, and I refilled my water bottle and was able to begin running.

I remember when the first signs of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon began peeping through the trees. I shouted to the runner ahead of me, “Look to your left!” Then I felt a surge of energy and begin pushing ahead. Less than a ½ mile later the view of the Grand Canyon came into full view. All I could say was, “Holy Shit” which I did say aloud. It looked like a proud warrior with his chest puffed out. It was a rich shade of red, and it layered up like a tiered cake. I felt a deep sense of love and joy creeping up from my belly. I felt so grateful to be in this race, on this trail, in this moment. I heard a woman behind me exclaim to her friend, “Oh my God! I think I might cry! I saw the Grand Canyon before I turned 50! It is amazing!” I knew the exact feeling she was having.

After about a mile or so of a steep and slippery, yet rocky, downhill, I entered my meditative zone. My legs felt fresh and light; the trail was calling me to follow her. The trail gently rolled along for a few miles, and I ended up passing 10 people because I felt so damn good. The second check-in and water station was upon me which seemed so quick. I told the race volunteers I loved them because they had potatoes at the check-in station. Potatoes!! So when I am on long runs, the one food item I crave and actually dream of is mashed potatoes. So creamy, so buttery, so potatoe-y. So I happily grabbed a piece of boiled potato, made sure I checked in, and I filled up my water bottle and headed out.

The next section of the race was an out and back. The great thing was this section of the race was all downhill. I was able to coast and use different muscles in my legs. But what wasn’t so great was watching the people struggling coming up the hill I was now running down. I knew what lie ahead, but I stayed in the moment and enjoyed this part of the course.

At the end of the downhill was another steep climb which led to Crazy Jug Point. It was another lookout point, and it was a check-in station. The view just opened up and the vastness of the Grand Canyon could be seen. The red and tan layers of rocks spread out like a buffet. The base of the Kaibab National Forest was covered in green trees and reddish- orange dirt. I stood mesmerized just for a moment to take it in. The view, the air, the joy, the pride, the gratefulness. I said a silent thank-you to the Great Spirit and bowed my head. Then, I marked my bib with the red marker to show I had visited the check-in station, and I was on my way again.

Since this was the out and back section, runners were now headed in both directions, and all the different runners in each race had started to cross paths. The beauty of racing is the camaraderie. With every last runner I passed, we exchanged encouraging words, “Nice job! Keep going! You’re doing great! Good work! You got this!” Some people even offered heartfelt smiles and high-fives. There was a feeling of unity and understanding because we were all in this together. We were having the same shared experiences.

I knew the downhill I just enjoyed was turning into an uphill now. So I turned my run into a fast-paced hike again and just settled into my new pace. While the start of the race was cold and brisk, it was no longer the case. The sun seemingly laughed and was now showing how bright and hot she really could get. I had a hat on, but I pulled the hood of my running shirt up to protect my ears and neck. It actually trapped a nice breeze that flowed down my back.

The hill finally started to yield, and I was able to pick up my pace again. I ended up at the check-in station that I first checked in at before the out and back section of the race started which meant I had boiled potatoes waiting for me again. I made sure to check-in, fill up my water bottle and grabbed a potato. I started down the trail that would eventually lead me to the finish line.

A mountain biker who had unfortunately came out for a ride on this day was trapped among all the racers, but he offered me the best news I had heard all day, “This last part of the trail is all downhill.” I made him promise me he wasn’t lying, and he was convincing enough. So I trusted him, and luckily he was right.

My legs were tired and the day had turned hot, but this was a great section of trail. I had the whole trail to myself. I couldn’t see anyone in front of me, and there was no one behind me either. I was left with my thoughts, the trail, the shade trees and the sunshine.

As I continued my journey down the trail, I started to see runners who had finished the race already and were walking back to their campsites scattered throughout the woods. They shared words of encouragement, “You are almost there! Nice work.” I picked up the tempo of my feet and started to push even harder. I heard another runner who had completed the race say, “You’re almost there; it’s right around the corner. Finish strong!” Just as the runner had stated, the trail suddenly opened and I could see the finish line and the race tents.

As my sweat dripped down and the trail dirt stuck to me, I was covered in proof of my accomplishment as I passed under the finish sign while my fellow runners clapped.