The Places That Scare You

The skies have cleared in Missoula and I’ve been running again. It feels so good. I went on a few runs in the particulate thickened air, and didn’t realize how bad it felt—how hard it was to keep moving and breathing—until I had a taste of clarity.

The skies gradually and intermittently cleared, but we basically went from smoke to snow in a single day after breaking a record of forty-two precipitation free days. And as I always say: strike while the iron is hot.

My body hurt from a month of inactivity, and I went from a month of maxing out with three slow walk-jog miles to running five. I tallied those miles in the woods, with my phone in my pocket to count the miles, but my headphones left behind. How nice, right? The woods….the solitude…the longish run…the meditation of feet hitting dirt and breath going in and out.

My motives were not pure, though, and my sedentary-too-long body could have used a little Katy Perry pick-me-up. Except that it wasn’t on the menu. The fact is I’m terribly scared of being in the thick trees alone. I prefer the open hillsides where you can see for miles, and the only wildlife hazards are harmless snakes crossing the trail and making sure the dogs don’t chase white-tails.

{Image by Blake Nicolazzo}

I think it’s good to go to the places that scare you, especially if they aren’t very scary, but sometimes even if (and because) they are. American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron wrote: “A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. ”

Look directly. What an idea.

I am not scared when I’m in the woods with friends, and most of that is attributed to the fact that when I’m with even one friend we yack it up so consistently that we’re not liable to startle a bear, and are far more likely to scare the wildlife than be scared by them. All bets are off when I’m alone in the thick trees. I hear things so little, so big, so not even there.

Birds flushing out of the brush or a chipmunk snapping a twig can freeze my blood when I’m alone. The hairs on my body stand up and my muscles lurch to a stop. What happens next is that I’m embarrassed. There is nothing to be afraid of. Birds and chipmunks? Really? “Pull it together,” I tell myself. Then there are the facts: these woods are home to bears, wolves, and mountain lions. There are things to be afraid of, but not so much so that I can’t put one foot in front of the other.

There’s another aspect to this madness. I forget to carry bear spray. Always. Actually, I forget to buy it, which is just downright silly because there are plenty of things, like these Frye boots, that I would never “forget” to buy. I also forget to put a bell on Lucky so the jingle can frighten off bears and so I know, when I hear the cracking, rustling sounds that lead to my bristling, that it’s just the dog exploring.

We humans seem to avoid doing the things that we know will help us. Ok, I can’t speak for you, but I know this human often makes things more punishing than they need to be.

Sometimes a perspective shift is all that is needed. Instead of seeing the shadows you can see the sunlight. Illumination makes everything less scary. Go ahead, shine a light into all the dark corners.

What about when you can’t see? There is a sweet, tree lined country lane that bends a hundred yards ahead of you. Instead of fearing what is around the corner, you can rest assured that there’s no way to know what’s on the other side unless you go there. You can stall out, or you can go.

The places that scare you can be external—woods, public speaking, pages of a book, standing up on a surfboard with your rash guard hiked above your belly—or they can be of a far graver version: they can be internal. (For what it’s worth you can shine light into those dark corners too…)

A hill rises before you. It’s a mile long and you’re not sure you can make it up the grade. You might have to walk and would that be so bad? You think it might be “that bad,” but what would be worse: going and having to walk, or not going and not knowing?

You can focus on what you might not achieve, or you can take it one step at a time, or until your favorite song is over, or until you reach that fence or that tree, or maybe, god willing, the top. The thing is: you will not know unless you try.

Today: go to a place that scares you.

Lesser of Two Evils: Mind vs Body

Over the past week the air quality in Missoula has ranged from “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy,” with conditions in the Bitterroot Valley, just south of Missoula, determined “hazardous.” At “unhealthy” you should limit prolonged exertion outdoors; at “very unhealthy” you should stay inside; hazardous air quality more or less speaks for itself.

Friday was bad. High school sporting competitions were first relocated to fields with cleaner air, but when the overall quality continued to worsen they were flat-out cancelled. The University of Montana Grizzlies played—only apocalypse could cancel that—to 24,000 fans.

One friend reported on Facebook that she was “Suffering FB induced air envy,” then she begged for rain. There was a lot of chatter about cabin fever and the general consensus is that it would be nice to get out of town “just to take a deep breath.” The problem is: where to go? There are fires all over, and even if you go to an area without fires there’s still the element of wind to blow smoky air into fire-free valleys. There’s also the chance that a new fire could sprout up anywhere, anytime.

The closest fire to Missoula is about fifty miles south in Hamilton where almost five thousand acres are burning and the blaze is 25% contained. We’re getting our share of that smoke, as well as smoke from all other directions. By far the most smoke is coming from Idaho, where the Mustang Complex fire is currently at 327,017 acres with 20% of it contained.

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It seems selfish; we worry about having cabin fever while our neighbors to the south worry if the cabin will make it. This is the warning down in Idaho: Residents returning to their homes are warned that hazards may exist such as weakened trees, rolling and burning debris, and thick smoke along roadways. Residents should be fully prepared to leave at a moment’s notice if there is a change in fire conditions.

So there’s a bit of smoke in the second largest city in Montana, but it’s not like we’re in Beijing, where their Air Quality Index (AQI) is regularly as bad as our worst. There’s a twitter site that regularly tweets the AQI in Beijing, and China has asked the American Embassy not to release its air data.

The research is clear: pollution causes oxidative stress to the body. Prolonged exposure increases the likelihood of cardiopulmonary diseases and inflammation, which takes its toll on all areas of the mind and body. With its increased respiration, exercise further increases risks. Outside Online published an article back in July about this, and cited Netherlands research that “estimated that the air-pollution effects of switching from a car to a bike for short daily trips in polluted cities would subtract between 0.8 and 40 days from the average life span—but the additional exercise would extend it by three to 14 months.”

I know this smoke is bad for me, but I also know what’s worse: staying still. My recent blog post talked about how statistics lie, and one reader said, “ I know when my gut tells me to go in a certain direction, I’m inclined to gather data that supports it.” It’s true, sometimes sadly so. More than one of my friends has suggested that I am capable of justifying anything, and—like most vices and virtues—the door swings both ways.

So.

I discovered a long time ago that physical exertion is crucial to my mental health. If walking and hiking are good, then running is better. I rarely run long distances, and with even less frequency run fast. It could be argued that I don’t run—but rather that I jog—but I don’t care what you call it— between touchdowns both feet are simultaneously suspended in the air. It both literally and figuratively moves me. I’ve been relying on running as a mental health counselor since before going for a drive was an option, and it’s the most dependable antidote to a bad mood that I’ve ever found. It is basically free—each run on a pair of one hundred dollars shoes costs just pennies—and you can do it anywhere. You can do it and actually go somewhere, or you can do it on a track, up and down bleachers and even on the stairs in your house if that’s all that is available. But however it’s done, it sure seems to work.

I play mind-over-matter with myself a lot. “If I think this doesn’t hurt, then it doesn’t,” or in the case of bad air quality, “I’m going to imagine that the sky is blue and the air is clear.”

I know we can’t all run. I dedicated a run last week to a runner friend who just had knee surgery and can’t right now. Last February I ran with thousands of others in honor of Sherry Arnold who was abducted and murdered while on a run. While on a run. That just isn’t fair, but so many things in life aren’t.

We get angry at forest fires for “ruining” some of our summers, and in this case our September, typically a glorious time in Montana. Some say the forests are angry with us for encroaching too deeply into wilderness areas, and that the fires are just doing what they do: staying healthy in their cycle of life and death. Fires help maintain soil health by converting ammonia into nitrogen, which is a crucial component to plant prosperity. Things like artificial fertilizer and chemical pesticides harm natural nitrogen cycles, so…in lieu of shoving an amateur science lesson down your throats: you do the math.

Destruction can be beautiful in a heartbreaking way, as can running in the midst of it. On my recent hikes and runs on Waterworks Hill I’ve often been alone. It’s creepy to pull up to a near empty trailhead, and when I’ve been alone I’ve thought 1) have I completely lost it to be up here right now? and/or 2) Oh Wow! I’m alone! I’m going to crank up my music and sing my little heart out!

But my stubbornness does not always serve me well. Friday was one of the worst smoke days we’ve had in Missoula—with an afternoon AQI to rival Beijing’s—but because my body begged to move and sweat, I headed up to the hill. I walked for thirty minutes, then said “What the hell?” and ran for another thirty. I went up there crabby, and came down decidedly less so. It worked. But did it? I worked all day Saturday and then was so headachy, fatigued, and downright irritable that I missed a good friend’s birthday party. I felt bad about it, so what did I need to do on Sunday?—you’re right, hit the hill again.

I walked with a friend, then the sky cleared enough to be noticeable and I decided to stay and run by myself for a while. I hadn’t needed motivational music since I went with a friend, and my ear buds weren’t in the car. I debated if I felt like running alone—and by alone I mean without the Rolling Stones, Wyclef, and Taylor Swift—and it turned out I did. It was, after the all, the way I’d started my twenty-plus year love affair with running: in silence.

But it’s not all that silent when you think about it, though it is without external distraction. I listened to my feet hit the ground and my breath and my heartbeat. I heard Lucky panting next to me, and I noticed him in ways I often fail to. There was no iphone app telling me how far or how fast. There was nothing to hold. It became a running mediation where I thought of nothing else but exactly what I was doing in each moment of feet lifting and feet landing, breathing in and breathing out.

Despite the lingering smoke, it was one of the best runs I’ve had in awhile.

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A picture of a smoky sunset from Hamilton, MT that I ripped off KPAX-TV’s Facebook page.

We Tell Ourselves Stories

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s a great line, and the first line of the first essay in Joan Didion’s THE WHITE ALBUM, published in 1979. In 2006 she used that brilliant line as the title of another book of essays, which is a collection gleaned from her first seven nonfiction books.

No topic is off limits for Didion. She writes about politics and gangs, the Hoover Dam and Georgia O’Keefe, counterculture and permaculture. She wrote bravely about the death of her husband, which was followed by the death of her daughter. She wrote about that too. Didion confronts dichotomy and contradiction head on, and creates heartbreaking portraits of both people and place.

She’s unapologetic and unsentimental. Her observations are astute, her prose is spare, and she untangles life in a way that makes the reader feel she’s looking her in the eye, saying, “I get it.”

There’s this theory in storytelling that the more intimate and personal the detail, the more universal the story becomes. It’s curious, really, and it seems the opposite would be true, but when a storyteller trusts the reader, the reader trusts herself.

I like to craft stories on paper. I’ve been writing a lot this summer, and I love the process of telling a story then cutting it up. I love choosing what to reveal and what to keep hidden, where to be overt and where to be a little bit coy. The end becomes the beginning, there’s a narrative thread for the reader to hang on to, and there are a few twists and turns in the middle. It’s on paper, a permanent record of sorts.

Back in May I did something different. I got up on a stage in front of a few friends and a lot of strangers and I told a story. No notes, not even an index card. I thought about writing on my hand or arm, but figured that would be weird. I practiced a little beforehand, but every time I did I blew it. I went over the allotted ten minutes, I forgot a detail, I told too many details.

When the time came to tell the story I thought about blowing it off, faking sick, or just saying, “I can’t.” I took ballet and tap dance lessons as a kid, and all year I’d practice for the recital and order the costume then I’d back out in the final hour. I’d tell my mother, “I can’t get on that stage,” and she’d say, “You don’t have to.”

At thirty-eight years old it was time to stop making excuses. You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal?” Ten minutes on a stage isn’t a lot. Telling a story about how I met my dog is easy; it’s a story I’ve told many times. But fear is a power deterrent. I started my “story” by talking about how what we’re most afraid of is rejection. I needed to hear my voice tell someone else’s story before I could tell my own. Wrap your head around that one. {My friend Heather wrote a great blog post on fear yesterday. It’s good stuff. Check it out here.}

For some public speaking is no big deal, but we all have our things. I know people who dig in their heels like a dog headed to the bathtub if they’re pulled onto a dance floor. I know people who are afraid of success, intimacy, and abandonment. You know them too. I know people who are afraid to do things with their bodies while others are afraid of doing things with their minds. Some are afraid of both, rendering themselves paralyzed. People are afraid to speak up, stand out, fall apart.

And then once in a while you have to say, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and you just go for it. I washed and brushed my hair. I had a cocktail and ate a banana. I sat with my friends. I listened to others tell stories and I didn’t run out the back door. Then I got on the stage, said a few things I didn’t mean to and forgot a few things I meant to. And I survived. People laughed, but not at me.

Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” I’m okay with two steps forward one step back, but no steps forward? I’m all full up on that.

I was nervous about what I’d do with my hands while I told a story/freaked out on stage, and I had a dog biscuit in my pocket from Bernice’s bakery which I fingered like a worry stone while I spoke.

When I was done one of my friends let Lucky off his leash (we’d smuggled him in after intermission) and he found his way to the stage, but was terrified to go up the steps. Marc Moss, the mastermind behind the event (TELL US SOMETHING)  encouraged Luck up the steps, but it turns out the stage fright apple didn’t fall far from the tree. We can both ham it up just fine among friends, but on a stage…hell no!

Then I remembered the treat. I pulled it out of my pocket and Luck found the courage to make his stage debut. Here we are. When I first saw this picture I wondered what I was doing with my arm, then I saw my sweet boy reaching up for his prize.

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And finally, last but not least, here’s a link to the podcast for my story called “Picked By Luck.” 

You can explore several dozen Tell Us Something podcasts HERE and you can support future storytellers by showing up at the Top Hat on October 9th. The topic is “Forgiveness.” Um, what’s not to like? Ok then, see you there.

“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” Jim Morrison 

A letter to Joe: With sincere sympathy and complete contempt

Dear Joe,

Shame on you. When I first heard the breaking news about you being beat up I felt so many things. I felt sad for you and for the community of Missoula, and I felt anger at the guys (not men) who’d attacked you. I thought about writing you a letter offering to take you out for a belated birthday burger and beer at the Mo Club. I’m not gay, but I’d show you around the best I could. I thought about letting you know that Missoula doesn’t have a thriving gay and lesbian scene, but we do have some fine people. I told my friends how sad I was about what had happened to you, and we talked about the fact that Missoula doesn’t need another scar on its record.

Missoula is lovely and idyllic, but far from perfect. We act like a town, and forget we’re a city. This year we were nicknamed “rape capital” and had a federal investigation into how our community handles reported rapes. (Our mayor handled it like a champ.) We have a mess to clean up already, Joe; we certainly didn’t need you and your fake-gay-bashing-fiasco.

You weren’t the first guy to report a gay bashing violent attack in this city, but to the best of my knowledge you were the first to report a fake gay bashing. I have to ask: what the hell were you thinking?

When I was your age I did a lot of things without thinking, but my immature antics were more along the lines of your backflip gone awry. I’m no angel, but it never would have occurred to me to tell a lie of your magnitude then allow it to perpetuate. Did you know that people shared your story all over Facebook and that your story got tens of thousands of shares and comments? Did you read them and laugh? Your lie was so egregious that your story spread like wildfire. You crafted yourself as a victim, and Missoula was made to look like a jerk with egg on her face. But now, Joe, you’re the one needing a napkin. Check the mirror, kid, and go practice your flips in a swimming pool.

Are you even gay? Was your lie to paint Missoula as anti-gay because you are too? Why, Joe? Why did you do it? What in the world was your point?

When I heard that you’d waited three hours to report the assault I imagined how harrowing those hours must have been for you. It crossed my mind that you should have reported it immediately, but then I thought about you debating whether it would be safer for you to just keep the secret. Perhaps you were afraid that telling the truth would lead to further assaults from homophobic heathens. I thought about you sick to your stomach over what to do, though it turns out the only thing sick was your head.

I was on your side; a lot of us were. But no more. You’re just an attention-seeking jerk. On behalf of everyone who has ever had a secret but been afraid to tell the truth as well as those brave enough to speak up and demand justice: Ef you, Joe. Do you know about Savannah D.? That girl is brave; you are a coward.

I’m disappointed in your mild sentence as well as the fact that your jail time is deferred. That you only have to pay a $300 fine is ludicrous, but we are in a state where people are “allowed” to get seven DUIs. Oh, Montana, you’re lovely, but get with the program.

In reality, Joe, you were just a douchebag who slapped it hard on a backflip. On a busy downtown street. And on camera. The video is pretty hilarious, and all of us who felt sorry for you are now getting a good laugh on your behalf. So thanks for that, though it wasn’t worth it. Did you think you’d become infamous and get people to pay attention to you? Did you think your backflip video would become a youtube sensation and that something good would come of this? No, you’re just the guy who cried fake-gay-bashing-assault and smashed in his own face attempting a trick (or two) he couldn’t pull off. That’s the guy you want to be?

Nothing good will come of this Joe, except that now there will be more doubters of the people who actually have been assaulted. If that was your intention, you win.

And so now I’ll come to the apology part of this letter. I’m sorry I’ve been so hard on you. You are obviously hurting in some very deep place that is quite possibly inaccessible to you right now; maybe you don’t even know what you’re hurting from and are just acting out like a child. I pity you, Joe. I hope you get some help and you aren’t starting a long life of run-ins with the law. If you violate your probation your sentence will no longer be deferred and you’ll get a six month running start on the rest of your life. The prison system won’t help you, so go get some help for yourself now.

I hope you feel some remorse. I’d like to see you write an apology letter to all of the people who empathized with your pain and who supported you, and I’d like you to apologize to the city of Missoula. You probably have no idea how long ranging the effects of your actions will be on this community, but news flash: you are not an island.

Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but I’m pissed. I’m angry that selfish people like you pull stunts like this without thinking. So here’s the best that I can hope for: I hope that the scabs on your face last long enough for you to have some repentance for what you’ve done. I hope you feel ashamed when you look in the mirror and see those scabs, and I hope you spend some time in the sun and neglect to use sunscreen and that you have scars that last longer than the scabs themselves. I hope you learn soon, if you haven’t already, that karma is a bitch. Trust me on this one.

But I’m getting all mean again when I was supposed to be apologizing, and I don’t want to spend any more of my time writing a letter to a degenerate who probably won’t even take the time to read it.

Really, Joe, I just hope you’re sorry.

With sincere sympathy and complete contempt,

Jaime Alexis Stathis

Missoula, Montana

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Eventually All Things Merge Into One

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the movie A River Run Through It. The novella was published fourteen years earlier, and the story had that long to resound in our minds before the images and words came alive on the screen. And come alive they do; even the hardest hearts can’t help but get weepy. But there was more good done besides the softening of hearts, besides making people see themselves and their families differently.

According to the Missoulian, the fly-fishing industry saw 60% increases in business in 1992 and 1993. This was good news for guides, realtors, and the entire community of Missoula, where the story was hatched. It was also good for the Blackfoot River without which this story would not have existed.

The film was shot on other rivers in Montana—the Yellowstone, Gallatin, and Boulder—because the historic Blackfoot River was not what it had been after decimating from logging, mining, and agriculture. Because of the movie, millions of dollars have going to restoring and protecting the Blackfoot.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

The Little Blackfoot drains into the Clark Fork near Deer Lodge, and five miles east of Missoula the same river receives the Blackfoot. There are lots of ways to help.

I’ve been enjoying this summer swimming, on average, five out of seven days. Sometimes it’s a quick dip and sometimes a longer soak. Sometimes I just sit alone or with a friend and listen to the water move rocks underwater. Wonderful swimming spots on the Blackfoot, Clark Fork, and Bitterroot Rivers (as well as the chilly but lovely Rattlesnake Creek) are all within minutes of downtown Missoula. We’re damn lucky.

On Sunday I chose Council Groves, a place I hadn’t been to in a few years. Council Groves has good swimming, and it also has good history. It is a sad story, really. It’s where the Flathead, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille Indians signed a treaty in 1855 to give up their ancestral hunting groups in exchange for a reservation in the Flathead Valley. The Clark Fork flows through the state park with such force that every year the topography is a little bit different. There are deep swimming holes, shallow pools to lounge in, channels to follow, and little waterfalls over what I consider to be the most beautiful river rock anywhere.

There’s no hunting there these days, but there’s fishing, tadpole catching, and rock collecting. There are cottonwoods and old ponderosas to sit under when the sun becomes too much, and wild mint to discover. Tell me, what more do we need?

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Oasis.

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Free Rock Massage.

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Holding Beauty.

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Fishing/Rock Hunting Dog.

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Evidence that big water runs through it.Image

Splash!

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Despite it all this big tree stands.

City Love

I posted a few pictures yesterday on Facebook in an album titled “Missoula Marathon 2012.” That is what the event is called, but in addition to a full marathon there’s a half-marathon, a relay, a 5K, and a Kid’s run. A lot of my friends “liked” my album and the individual photos, and with each click I almost felt obligated to clarify: You know I “just” ran the half? Right?

But there’s something odd to me about the word “just.” Just is one of those words that has a wide range of meaning—everything from morally right to deserved to only.

In the case of my marathon it means “only” or “no more than” the half. Sort of like when people say “we’re just friends,” as if being more than friends would be better, when in fact sometimes it’s not. Or like when people say, “I’ll just have the bacon double cheeseburger, with fries, and might as well have onion rings,” then when asked if they want a drink say, “Okay, I’ll just have a diet coke.”

In a lot of cases “just” is quite a lot.

I ran the half-marathon in 2008, and in 2010 and 2011 my mother came out and we “just” walked it. After I ran the 2008 half-marathon I was with a friend who told his mother I’d just finished the half-marathon to which she replied: “What happened to the other half?” She was being funny, but for some reason it stuck with me. Is the other half necessary? Is it too much? Is it more than enough?

A lot of people run full marathons, sometimes multiple marathons in a year. Sometimes marathons on challenging terrain. Sometimes marathons with a live band at every mile. Sometimes marathon that hurt their bodies beyond repair.

Some people never run a full marathon; I am one of those people.

I’ve thought about it. I love running and its ability to reset me when my wiring goes haywire. I love that running requires so little and gives so much, and I will do it until my body tells me not too. I’ll do it when it’s too hot, too cold, too icy, too dark. That said, I’m not physically constructed “like a runner,” and definitely fall into the category of built for comfort and not for speed. I don’t think running a full marathon would serve me well, so I gratefully accept my ability to run just half.

Just half is a lot. It’s 13.1 miles, and in Missoula that is all on pavement. It starts at 6:00, which means a wake up time around 4:00. On July 8th the sun rose before 6:00 and there was light popping over the hills before that, but still…waking up that early is just not just. It feels downright inhumane to be awake at that hour wondering: have I eaten enough? Have I pooped? Have I hydrated? Have I completely lost my mind? {emphasis on that last one.}

But then you get downtown and start to feel the energy of the thousands of other runners taking school busses to the start. You’re glad you have a rack of ponytail holders on your wrist so you can give one to the woman who can’t believe she forgot. You see bodies that have trained and bodies that have not. You see runners, walkers, and hand-cyclers. You see wheelchairs. You see t-shirts announcing the runner is running in loving memory of someone. You think: maybe I haven’t lost it. You know: I can do this.

You hear the Star-Spangled Banner and you put your hand over your heart. You might tear up. You see the guys running in superhero underpants, the girls running in tutus. You smile. But the national anthem ends, the shot is fired, the fireworks go off, and so do you.

Afterward you’ll hear about the ten-year old who finished (just the half) and the woman who ran NOT just the half after sustaining a traumatic brain injury twelve years ago and had to learn to walk and then to run. You’re in awe.

I didn’t train for this event. I hadn’t run more than five miles since last fall and I was technically unprepared. The week before the marathon I googled “ running a half-marathon without training” but the results were inconclusive; I was going to have to find that answer within myself, and myself said, “YES!” Then it said, “maybe,” then it said, “yes” again. I caught myself on a yes and signed up less than twenty-four hours before the event. I made my decision they way I’ve made most of my decisions in life: would I rather try and fail then not try and not know?

trytrytry. yesyesyes. trytrytry. yesyesyes. trytrytry. yesyesyes. trytrytry. yesyesyes.

There were times I was propelled along by the energy of the runners all around me, but most of the time I was in my own little world. I enjoyed toggling back and forth between running with thousands of others runners and going within, telling myself I was “just going on a nice Sunday run across town, listening to music, enjoying the views.” The body is powerful, but the mind even more so.

I made myself a killer playlist that had about eight days worth of songs on it. Some of the songs I’ve loved in my past didn’t deliver the way I’d hoped, and some songs that I’d added on a hunch got me turning my legs over in ways I didn’t expect. House of Pain “Jump Around.” Gwen Stefani “The Sweet Escape.” Tiffany “I think we’re Alone Now.” Kid Rock “Bawitdaba.” Sugarland “Stuck on You.” Barry White “Can’t Get Enough.” Sublime, “Santeria.”

Wow, there really isn’t a lot of shame left in my game…

Because I went into the event “untrained” I told myself I could walk some if I needed to, but it turned out that if I ran at my own pace I didn’t need to. It took me two-and-a-half hours to finish, with my miles averaging out at 11:40. I almost felt guilty because at the end I had some juice to spare, but I stopped myself: why is it necessary to push ourselves to exhaustion or injury? Why can’t we just enjoy ourselves?

The Missoula Marathon has been rated among the best in the US, and was ranked #1 by Runner’s World in 2010. That’s great. It’s great for our community and for the runners who get to experience the improvements every year even as the event continues to grow. If the Missoula Marathon has growing pains they are not apparent; every year the efficiency improves but the hometown feel remains.

Formal and informal surveys alike continually name one thing as the factor that makes the Missoula Marathon so incredible. Everyone agrees that the scenery is lovely and the climate is dry and comfortable, but it’s the people that really make it special.

The marathon volunteers give us water, sort our bags, and cheer us on. My bus driver told every single person who got off to “have a good run.” Then there’s the man playing his grand piano on his lawn across from the Bitterroot River just after 6:00am. There’s the guy with the record player. There are the dozens of people who set up sprinklers in front of their houses, some rigged high on ladders so you can run through a shower. There are the people drinking coffee wrapped in blankets sitting on tailgates, the kids in pajamas, the mothers in robes. The dogs. There are the kids handing out otter pops (I got pink!) and the coolers of ice with signs to “help yourself.” There is so much cheering, so much support, so much city love.

I don’t live in Missoula for the skiing, the fishing, or the mountain biking: I live here (and love it) because of the people. Missoula people are so awesome. My close friends, my extended friends, the barista at the coffee shop, the stranger who changed my tire, the three-year old (also a “stranger”) who gave Lucky a tennis ball at the Big Dipper last night. I’ll say it again: Missoula people are so awesome.

Yeah, I guess it’s just the people.

Thanks, again, Missoula.

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