¡Venga!

“¡Venga, venga! ¡Ánimo!” the abuelos, madres and niños cheered from the sidelines. I was just some giri (white, non-Spanish person; usually North American) to them – some slow, struggling foreigner – and yet they were rooting for me like I was the winner. I was far from winning anything in that half-marathon, but these people cheered with such energy and passion. Those moments are what I need to remember. In a beautiful way, they don’t fit with my experience here. I encounter negativity and inefficiency, the enemies of my American culture. I encounter disdain for my dress and accent. Then, for 12 miles, there was compassion, concern, and encouragement. Even recently, I was going for a short jog by the river, and I passed a group of friends lounging in the spring sun. One of the girls and I made eye-contact. “¡Venga!” she shouted. I smiled back with a thumbs up. Motivation doesn’t feel very Spanish. For the half-marathon I expected a few people to come out because that is race-culture, which I assumed would transcend the national culture. I was right, but not nearly enough. Lots of people were out, enthusiastically helping and supporting. They believed in me when I didn’t, and that doesn’t happen very often. I tend to swagger around believing that just about anything is possible if we really put our minds to it. In the tempering of this arrogance, who should lift my spirits, but the citizens of the city where I experience my defeatism. They smiled and gave me water. One of the volunteers was on a bike, cycling around, checking on the stragglers (me). His form of encouragement turned the air blue. Even as I ran and knew that the words coming out of his mouth were some of the most vulgar terms I was going to hear this year, I was surprised to feel my spirits lift and I ran a bit farther and longer because of it. Honestly, the only reason I made it as far as I did was because of the sideline rooters. Every “venga” and “ánimo” and “si, se puede” was little push to go on to the next kilometer and then the next. What I find is, it’s easy to remember the pain in my abdomen and my legs and my whole body, but it is better to remember why I went so far, and who carried me there.

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No Need To Panic

One of the most frustrating things about learning a new language is the inability to express the correct emotion. During my half marathon for example, there was a desperate moment where I needed a bathroom.
“Hay un baño?” I asked a bit frantically*. But no one seemed to understand that this was no conversation piece. They shrugged their shoulders casually.
“No, there’s no bathroom on the race.” Asking again, I tried to look panicked to express how important a toilet was. But the response remained nonchalant.
“Well, there might be one in the bar just down the road, but I doubt its open.” In Spain, a bit of pessimism is normal. It’s also sensible to have a little doubt as to whether a place is open. Nevertheless, I took the detour to the bar and barely acknowledged the staff as I went into the restroom. When I got back to the course one of the race volunteers finally seemed to understand that I hadn’t simply wanted a tinkle break. He asked me if I was alright and if I needed an ambulance.
“No, I don’t need an ambulance. I want to keep trying.” I looked around and took a deep breath. I can do this. I can keep going. I was only at 8k out of 21k. I couldn’t stop there. So with a quick smile and a dose of determination I made my way.
At 19k, I experienced the same situation but opposite. I had just made it to the top of a big hill and I had to pause at the intersection for the policeman to stop the cars for me. My body giving out is a different post, however it did. I knew at that moment my legs weren’t going to take me any further, even if it was only 2k. Now there was nothing that needed immediate medical attention, I just couldn’t run anymore. The policeman saw my look of defeat and came over.
“Are you ok?” I shook my head.
“I can’t finish.” It was everything I could do to keep from crying.
“I’m getting the ambulance,” the policeman decided. 
“No, I’m not sick,” I repeated, “I just can’t finish.” But no matter how much I tried to downplay the situation the policeman didn’t understand. I finally got him to agree with me, and he let me just wait for the van that marks the end of the race to pick me up and take me to the finish line.
Even now as I look back, I am confounded by my inability to communicate a sense of emergency when I needed a bathroom and a sense of simple defeat,  but non urgency, when I couldn’t finish. In studying a foreign language, I learn words and expressions, but I never thought that I would have to relearn emotional communication. I still do not know what I could have done differently to express the correct emotion. At least I made interesting friends along the way and I have a story to tell about the time I tried to run half marathon in Spain.
* For practicality,  all dialogue is in English. But everything happened in Spanish.

Losing

I tried to run my first half marathon last week. I made it just shy of 12 miles (out of 13.1). I had just made it to the top of a very long hill. I paused, and realized my body couldn’t make it another step. I lost. I had been losing the whole time. From the start I realized everyone’s pace was faster to mine. Then, at 8 km, an intestinal torment required a detour in the course. Not to mention the nausea and 3rd-to-last place positioning that caused doubts and questions and exhaustion for the following 11km. I have enough blog fodder from just those two hours that I no longer have an excuse not to have a post every week (of course material has never really been the issue). In fact, I think, minus some book reviews, the next month or so will be just that. And why on earth would I write again and again about such a humiliating experience? In truth, I am partly inspired by Pat Conroy’s autobiography, My Losing Season. I read it a while back and wrote a brief report on it for work. Here is an excerpt:

“Conroy is sharing the lesson one can glean from those gut-wrenching times in life when we cannot win, despite our grandest effort or most desperate plea to the muses that control our fortunes…[It] explicitly conveys the importance of recognizing the impact loss can make in your life. Dealing with pain is allowing the furnace to reshape you, take out impurities and make you into something that is unique and beautiful.”

Americans are a society of winners. We hail the champion, the underdog who made it, and I love that about our culture. I love that we are optimists and happy-ending addicts. But there has to be space for our “losing seasons”, and without sounding whiny, this is mine. Not just the race – the learning curve of the past months has kicked my butt, and I am putting along in last place here with doubts and questions and exhaustion. And so I will write because that is a way of working things out. And it’s funny and sad and hard, but so is every story…any one worth reading at least…So if you will bear with me I’m fairly certain this ends very well though that can hardly be seen now (but it will-one day it will).