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  • Writer's picturejulietertin

While in Purgatory

“The mountain is so formed that it is always wearisome when one begins the ascent, but becomes easier the higher one climbs.” Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio

I am, this moment, unsealing an envelope addressed to Eugene CurnowI’m not Eugene; quite honestly, I’m not even sure who he is (although I did some research and believe he is a WWII veteran who also invented a mobile pet clinic and authored a book). I did, however, register for a trail marathon named in his honor.

Two days before the race, I wrote myself a letter of intent. Eugene Curnow 26.2 is scribbled on the back.

I’m clockwork: steady, strong, always growing with the sunshine and fueled by health and hard work. My performance is average. I threw perfectionism out the window when I gave up studying violin professionally. It doesn’t mesh with my psyche. And I’m at peace with that.

The last several weeks I’ve been slogging. I’ll admit it freely; not only am I no longer average, but I’m barely passing. Every quarter mile feels like two and, though my lungs and heart are relaxed and happy, my body screams that it’s too tired to carry on.

I wrote:

I run for clarity. I run for stability. I run to exchange sadness for joy. I run because it couldn’t have happened any other way. I run to prove to myself that I’m cut from the good stuff. I run for backbone. I run because all of life is a goddamn process, and if you don’t flex your muscles you will not grow. I run because these are my days. Julie

[Sidenote: a gigantic bonus of trail running is that you are always amidst fantastic and weird people. I started the race feeling bolstered by two good friends and in the company of genuine folk.] This isn’t a race recap; I learned something while in the woods.

I’m another worthless English major, and I knew that part of the course with two sunny, slimy hills (following a series of hills) was affectionately nicknamed “Purgatory.” So I joked with myself:

“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!”

(Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy). 

I don’t typically have the fear. This summer has been different. Some fears I’ve dealt with well, others have crumpled me up and tossed me out the window. Stress has been gorilla glue in my joints, kick drums to my heart, bolts of lightning to my sleep.

At mile 13-ish, I came up on a sturdy little woman with good charisma. I ran behind her and we chatted (a thing that I love to do during races) about origins and experiences. I discovered that she’d run this race 11 times and even won it.

I followed her for a while, but I grew impatient of her dancing footsteps that at times were nimble, and at times (especially easy downhills) slow and caused me to stumble up on her. I’m clockwork. She was not.

“Excuse me,” she politely said as I drew close to her, “I call it my ebb and flow.” Her hydration back swished rhythmically. I had the thought of being mezmerized by it and content with her ease of pace, but determination got the better of me and I passed her to press on.

Ebb and Flow: to decrease and then increase, as with tides; a recurrent or rhythmical pattern of coming and going or decline and regrowth; to fall from a higher to a lower level or from a better to a worse state and return again. 

It was within a handful of miles  from the end that I heard, “Hi, Brainerd girl!” and she swish-swashed right past me. She was flowing, beaming. She was cruising.

I wasn’t envious. I admired her. She was in wise mind.

Though I had a steel-trap mental game to finish, my body felt smattered against the trail. I walked a long sunny flat stretch and had a few thoughts: maybe it’s not just the race that ebbs and flows. Perhaps it’s running. Perhaps it’s training. Perhaps it’s eating. Perhaps its marriage. Maybe it’s life? 

STOP ebbing, I yelled at myself. To ebb is to decline. To relapse. To recede.

Wait. That’s not how it works.

It took me more than a few steps (bad pun) to realize that acceptance is more than glorifying the times that it flows (10 miles before work, 20 miles just for training, a half-marathon because a friend is doing it). Nah, that sounds like perfectionism’s two cents. Acceptance understands the hard-earned 4-miler (which I had today). Acceptance understands the flow, sure, but it also is compassionate and encouraging for the ebb.

Right now, I’m the ebb. I hate it. But I accept it. Stay the course.

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