The Mad World

1. I didn’t mean to get serious about running. I try not to get too serious about anything. But here I am. As is the way with most drugs, the hobby was all fun and games until I was a junkie, the crazy kind of addict who wakes up on Thanksgiving morning and instead of curling up to watch the parade on TV, drives ten miles to compete in a 10K Turkey Trot. It’s very disorienting.

Recently I don’t recognize myself. I wonder why I’d do a thing like a Turkey Trot, or any of the races I’ve run, several with less embarrassing titles. In the beginning, I assumed my hobby was just a new stripe of stress-reducing exercise, aided by the exceedingly temperate San Diego clime. I have a demanding work schedule. I’m raising two little girls. Marriage is hard. People find ways to let off steam. Then I realized I was experiencing something more complex, maybe more interesting. Certainly sadder.

Photo credit: Katy Regnier

2. Last September my friend Katy suggested we run together. We had enrolled our eight and nine-year-old daughters in a program called Girls on the Run, which is mainly a bonding/girl-empowering weekly meetup with light exercise, culminating in the girls running a 5K. My older daughter has a lot of excess energy. It seemed like a reasonable plan. Katy thought we might use the girls’ meeting times to go for runs ourselves. It was just making efficient use of an hour. Plus, like my daughter, I had what felt like a lot of excess energy.

San Diego is the fourth running-est county in the country. Athletes can train outdoors here just about every day of the year, and if they like they can do it along the pretty edge of the Pacific Ocean. Alongside runners, cyclists hum down highway 101 in packs of dozens. Surf competitions take place year-round; event tents cover the beach like little circuses. There’s volleyball and hiking and ocean swimming. There’s a lot of yoga. It’s warm all the time. It’s enough to make a rain-loving cynic like me sick. In a simple version of this story, maybe, eventually, I just got swept up in all that motion.

3. By the time Katy lured me in, she’d run a dozen races of varying lengths. From the outside it looked very suspicious. I mean, running long distances (more than, say, a couple miles) looks excessive, unnatural and showy to many non-runners. I had reservations. What about all the jouncing of my lady parts? Don’t runners struggle not to poop their pants? Katy reported that so far, her lady parts stayed fixed where they ought. She said she hadn’t shat herself once. Yet. While I acknowledged that *probably* not pooping one’s pants is a frightfully low bar when choosing a workout, I agreed to try running.

We set a goal. After three months of practice, Katy and I would run a 10k through Disneyland. This is how unserious my new hobby was. No one can be competitive about a run inside the Magic Kingdom. About 60% of the runners are in costumes. Along the route there are photo ops with characters. If you’re serious about this run, you’re being ridiculous. Katy (also a sewing savant), crafted us Mouseketeer Club costumes from breathable four-way stretch Lycra. We wore ears. You get the picture. We didn’t come to win. We just needed to be strong enough runners to finish 6.2 miles. Katy already was. And I’m foolhardy. It was a date.

4. When Des Linden won the Boston Marathon last month (the first American woman to do so since 1985), on the heels of Shalane Flanagan winning the New York Marathon (the first American woman since 1977), I joked to my friends that I knew why American women won those races again. I said: it’s because we’re angry women in the world right now. We are angry running. Running angry-fast. I laughed a little, but I was only partly joking. I wondered if anyone agreed.

Photo credit: Katy Regnier

5. We ran the Disney race and surprised ourselves by placing 11th and 12th in our division (women 35-39). From there, the problem escalated. I was a goner, really. I asked my step mom for guidance—in her thirties, Barbara was an elite marathoner—and she was kind enough to agree. She drew up a plan to train Katy and me for half marathons. Hills and speed drills. Miles and miles. Katy gave me her old Garmin watch. I monitored my heart rate like a deranged seismologist. I read blogs and articles. I tried on and bought and returned lots of shoes. Katy and I traced and retraced the edge of California. We got faster. I was so tired that at night that sometimes I fell asleep before my kids.

6. One day while I ran with Katy on the coast—not talking, pace easy—I noticed my heart rate tick up and up. I realized that whenever I run, even in training, I have the urgent feel of racing. I thought about this over the miles and realized the beginning of what is true: I am driven, bodily, by the irrational feeling that I accomplish something by running. Some task larger than my race goals. I say irrational because there is no virtue intrinsic to fitness. Sure, exercise is good for you. The immediate, anti-stress benefits of endorphin release are real. The bible would have us keep God’s temple nice, etc. (if you’re into that sort of thing). But I understood that somewhere in my consciousness, I equated my physical power, my muscles and steam in motion, as a proxy for political power.

When I say these days I don’t know who I am, I’m talking about every day since November 9th, 2016. I feel I’ve been teetering on the edge of madness for as long as our current president has been in office. The initial event was visceral, a sock to the gut. All that bursting energy—the gladness in casting my vote, the expectation of announcing the woman president to my daughters—was sucked out. I became ill. The weeks progressed. I showed up at marches with other people, mostly women, and I felt my anger dispel. There were many of us, lots of bodies sardined on the avenues, on streets, and in public squares. There was comfort in that, in moving myself toward that action. But the months and the news barreled on over us. The destructive policies are too many to name, the corruption too rife to describe. For the entire first year, I read Twitter instead of books. I walked around, coiled tight, waiting for magic relief; I allowed myself to hope that, eventually, the crimes would emerge there, on the Internet, like a fireworks finale, such that the only reasonable remaining place for the perpetrators—the fake president and his enablers—would be a dungeon somewhere deep in America’s correctional bowels.

Alas.

7. When I say my running is sad, I mean this: everything I’ve done, the accomplishments and defeats of the last eighteen months, the miles and miles, seem now to be responses to the election. Things that should not be related can, with hardly any gymnastics, be tied back to the acute trauma of that moment, to the accretion of offenses that followed. I have felt like the victim of an incomprehensible theft; robbery on a scale so grand I can’t yet see precisely what’s missing or how it was stolen. Over the past year and a half, the crimes’ contours have slowly taken shape. I’m writing this on a Tuesday. Already this week there have been stunning revelations about multiple campaign stooges interacting with as many foreign entities. By Friday there will be more details. Today’s scandal is buried in tomorrow. News is old so quickly, these days. The outrage builds like plaque as those in power bend over to bolster a ridiculous president—over the months it has become clear there’s no crime so egregious that they’ll end the farce.

8. I brought my daughters with me when I voted in the 2016 election. The polling place was their elementary school. I cried when I voted for the woman candidate. In the booth I grabbed the girls and hugged them and told them what an important day it was and kissed their safe rosy faces and felt hope and power. I was energetic, spinning like a buzz saw, sparks flying.

9. What felt like madness in me deepens. It converts to motion. I propel my body forward, sometimes in pain, as a way to tap that sparking power, to pretend I can pull everything crooked straight again. I am going somewhere, I think. The country goes backward. But I dream I am going somewhere. I lie that I am going somewhere. I am getting what’s mine. I am tired, so something must have changed, some difference made. I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. I just have this good memory of power.

Photo credit: Mary Birnbaum

10. On a particularly grueling training day, here is what I tell myself: be the tree. If I am doing sprints or hill repeats and I feel my air start to go ragged and my legs drop like anvils and my heart rings like a big red alarm, I look around and find some big, still landmark in the distance; the tower of a tree, some silent beige house, and I rest my gaze there. I run at the beacon and I think, the tree is not tired. The house is not tired. It doesn’t care. The still, silent forms do not care. In this way, perhaps I slow my thudding heart; I try to achieve some stillness in motion. Maybe lots of runners do this. They become sort of irrational and pleading as they try to go on. Be the effing tree, I say. Be that free.

11. I thought I could show up on November 8th 2016 and cast my vote and help usher justice forward. But who cares that my electoral politics are opposite: it was people who look like me who allowed this deed, who see that it endures. White men and women. White women, some with swinging ponytails, maybe in athletic shorts and tank tops. In a visor and racing glasses, smelling like coconut sunscreen and sweat. Able-bodied women. Women able to take time in their day to run, maybe. Women whose babies are safer, from birth, than the babies of women of color. Women who—in a thousand ways—benefit from systemic racism and the permanent precarity of other bodies. Women with the merest, freshest taste of loss. All this unfathomable destruction to humans and earth will have been done to protect people who look like me. Me and my outrageous fortune. I run to those fireworks that aren’t coming (the theft is plain as day); the white establishment will douse them all, while the rodeo clown does his dance.

12. It’s Tuesday today and I’ve got a tender calf and an iffy tendon. My achilles aches. My psoas muscles, those body-long bands, feel taut as piano wires. Ice packs chill both legs; I’m on my way to shin splints. My step mom says that’s how I’ll fracture my tibia, if I’m not smart. Everything is sore from the chase.

13. Of course, I can’t speak for Shalane Flanagan or Des Linden. I don’t know what makes them tick. Who knows why they won those races. They are heroic runners, for one. Elite racers spend years learning how to be the best. And then, some days, it’s just their race to win. Certainly, if anger actually made a person fast, there are women suffering in some severely oppressed and under-resourced regions who would be flying. Given the opportunity.

I know only what sets me in motion, what urgency lifts my knees even as air is short. It has been that preposterous hope that I’m getting somewhere, that we will get somewhere, even as we—we supposed liberals, we desirers of equality and justice—seem not only to be running in an entirely separate event from the GOP, but also to be running the same tired track that got us here. I’ve been angry running, suffering in my body a little bit and a lot, thinking that someday I’d finally claim the stolen power I chased. But the end game for us is not getting more power. (Mary, you had never lost it.) It’s when people who look like me are willing to give it up.

Mary Birnbaum is editor of Lunch Ticket’s Diana Woods Memorial Prize in Nonfiction. She holds an MFA from Antioch. She has contributed to Lunch Ticket and The Week. Mary was the 2018 recipient of Disquiet International’s Nonfiction Fellowship and a finalist for Chattahoochee Review’s Lamar York Prize. She resides in Vista, California with her daughters and husband. If you like, you can find her on Twitter @ailishbirnbaum