The text came on Friday.
“I have to run 17 this weekend on Sunday. Are you going?” it read.
I was, and that was more miles than I had planned but not out of the realm of possibility, so I did what any long-distance runner does: I replied yes, and that sounded perfect. That’s how a weekend plan is hatched.
With Sunday taken care of, I reached out to another friend to make a plan for Saturday. We decided to meet at the gym for an 8-mile run with enough time for me to finish and take a yoga class – the perfect reward for a subzero morning, and part of my continuing attempt to regularly do more than just run, run, run.
The rest of the weekend promised cross-country skiing, downtown coffee-having and as much Olympics coverage as I could find. There’s something to be said for shared custody, and while it’s nobody’s first choice for how to raise kids, it happens, and here we are.
The windchill was well below zero when Lisa and I met on Saturday morning. I had on the usual amount of absurdity: Tights, tank top, long sleeve, fleece, windbreaker, wool socks, mittens, hat, balaclava and a chemical handwarmer tucked into each mitten and both shoes. This is what it takes to run through the South Dakota winter.
Lisa and I did an out and back along the bike path, waving to the runners and bikers we saw and chatting about everyone we know. I’ve known her for many years, and it’s been great to connect again.
We finished with icy braids and eyelashes and I went inside for yoga. For a change I had remembered to bring dry clothes, and I put them on and stepped into the room, which is warm but not the stifling hot yoga I’ve taken other places. Still, I began to shiver and had chattering teeth and goosebumps the entire first half hour of the class. It’s not easy to hold a pose when you’re shaking and your fingers are turning white.
It’s weird to be so cold when you’re finally done running – there was never a moment when Lisa and I were out there where I felt cold. It always hits later.
The rest of the day was exactly what I had hoped for: Lunch and coffee downtown, a phone call from friends and a trip for an afternoon beer (or a chai latte, which is what I chose instead) and more Olympics.
Everything was setting up well for a lovely Sunday run with Nanci.
So when I woke up and it was still 9 below, I texted her.
“I have no plans today, do you want to wait for it to warm up,” I asked.
“I like the way you think,” she said. “Noon?”
We agreed to that, and I settled back into my chair, a mug of coffee and a book of essays by Yiyun Li called “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” where she chronicles her suicidal depression and the power of literature to get her through it. I’ve read another of her books, “The Vagrants,” and loved it. And sometimes that’s all it takes for me – one book I loved, and then I’ll read anything else I see by that person.
It also reminded me of “Darkness Visible,” an essay by William Styron originally published in Vanity Fair and then expanded into a short book, a copy of which I gave to a friend almost exactly a year ago that I still think about. What’s meaningful to you and what it ends up meaning to someone else is one of the gifts of literature. And that’s really what Yiyun Li writes about.
This is what I was thinking about when I began to assemble all the gear one needs for a long winter run. The chemical warmers, the layers, and, this time, my hydration pack and the hope it wouldn’t freeze.
I met Nanci at Pasley Park and we did what anyone does: Decided, oh why not, let’s just run the entire loop. There’s no difference between 17 and 20, after all, and the thought of an out and back made me want to cry.
We set out.
Nanci is the kind of person who is soft spoken, gentle and always, always kind. She’s funny and fast and loves to share stories. So as we started and I realized that for no reason at all I felt fairly awful, I dreaded telling her.
I started to feel really, sickly hot. We decided to stop every 40 minutes or so to drink something and eat something and use that to break up the loop. At 30 minutes, I stopped us under a bridge using the excuse of getting out of the wind to refuel.
And still I felt terrible. “I have to just relax and get in that groove of the long run,” I told her.
“I’m fine with whatever,” she replied, and I knew she was. That makes it even worse – you don’t want to let someone down who is that kind. We talked about upcoming races – Boston for her, Zumbro for me, Afton maybe for both of us. We lamented the weather.
“Every day Russ talks about the first day of spring and the day we change the clocks,” she said. “Every day.”
“What day is it,” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
We doubled over laughing.
“That pretty much sums up marriage,” I said.
A while later I finally had to confess: I felt awful and it wasn’t getting better. I had made a concerted effort to drink water, to get a ton of sleep, to be ready for actual mileage this weekend, and it all somehow fell apart. At mile 8, I called Patrick off his bike across town, veered off the bike path and ran 2 miles to his mom’s house, where he picked me up.
I don’t know what went wrong. I felt silly when I got done and sat for a while, let my clammy skin warm up and cool down at the same time – maybe I could have powered through. Nanci did. And giving up won’t get me anywhere on race day, I know that. But I couldn’t make it happen, and those 2 miles across northern Sioux Falls until I found a place to land were terrible.
It’s unfair to compare it to what Styron or Yiyun Li or anyone else goes through, and I don’t mean to, but these words were in my head as I ran, this Chinese writer who works only in English, and wondering if it removes you or reveals you to put all your artistry into a language not your own.
“There is this emptiness in me,” she writes. “All the voices in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: You are nothing.”
Later in the same essay, she says, “It is either a dictator or the closest friend I have ever had … what if this emptiness is what keeps me going?”
When we got home, I took a hot, hot shower, laid on the couch with the Olympics on and woke up an hour later feeling completely foggy but much, much better. Maybe that’s all I needed. I hope so. Nanci texted that she finished, was really cold, but finished and told me to feel better and recover. “We’ve all been there,” she said.
We have, and I have, too. It’s hard to not be disappointed. My week I hoped would end near 40 miles topped out at 30. This isn’t where I want to be two months out from Zumbro. Then I remind myself it’s still better than where I was last year at this time, and better than all the people who aren’t out there at all.
And I’ve kept up the yoga and the weights and the miles, for the most part.
It was one bad run.
It wasn’t a bad weekend, with the reading and the conversation and the coffee and the friends and the knowledge that it’s just another attempt, and you can’t make them all.
Yiyun Li talks about how terrifying it is to try to face things in yourself you don’t want to, and this is one way she describes it: “The nearer I get to what I want to say, the further I deviate from it. Any word is the wrong word when it’s too close to the unspeakable.”
Here’s to trying again, to always trying again.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear every other Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.