New Essay up at Tracksmith: Some Thoughts

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“Sakura”: Lydia Komatsu, 2017

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I love to bemoan the state of running-related writing. Ever since the demise of Running Times, anyone who enjoys good writing about our sport must necessarily put up with pages of puffery from the usual rags. 100 words on the season’s best jock straps. 1000 words on how to train for a marathon on less than 5 miles a week. 200 words on yet another stretching article. Sometimes I wonder if whether writers like Alan Sillitoe (“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner“) or George Sheehan would have much luck trying to place a piece in today’s general fitness mags.

I’ve written previously about my admiration for Tracksmith’s Meter magazine, which considers itself a literary review for runners. And I’ve been lucky enough to place two pieces there (one online, one in print) in the past couple of years, and now a third. Sure, Tracksmith is an apparel company. But they appear to be a company interested not only in profiting from the sport, but also in furthering the art of running, in all its forms.

“Sakura/Boston 2011” is partly a reflection on what it was like to watch Desiree Linden (then Davila) nearly win the 2011 Boston Marathon from my room on Yokota Air Base, Japan; I was deployed there for the tsunami relief after losing my Japanese grandmother. But for the longest time, I wondered about what it was like for Linden that day, on the other side of the globe.  And this year, over the course of a few interviews with the two-time Olympian herself, I was able to piece it together.

It was a challenging piece to write because of how I chose to build a braided narrative: mine and Linden’s. I didn’t feel like I could write a straight-ahead piece of reportage – my connection to the experience, what it was like, was a driving factor to write the piece in the first place. Early drafts were rough: there’s simply nothing quite so narcissistic as memoirist appropriating someone else’s experience. There was a significant risk of the piece turning into a “here’s how experience X made me feel Y,” which wasn’t my goal. So I did my best to use my experience as more of a lens to view what it was like for Linden during her electrifying performance.

But don’t take my word for it: check out “Sakura/Boston 2011” for yourself. I’ll let you be the judge of whether I was successful if not. The good news is that even if you hate what I wrote, you can enjoy more of my sister’s incredible artwork, which she created specifically for the piece itself.

 

Go, Tell the Tsunami

"Cloud and City" by Lydia Komatsu

“Cloud and City” by Lydia Komatsu

Longtime readers of this blog know that I wrote a series of posts about my time in Japan following the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. What you might not know is that I repurposed those posts into a seven minute oral essay on my experiences for the “Arctic Entries” storytelling event here in Anchorage. If you’re not familiar with Arctic Entries, it’s similar to NYC’s “Moth” as means of continuing the oral storytelling tradition. Seven storytellers get seven minutes (max) to tell one story a piece, on stage at Anchorage’s Performing Arts Center, in front of a couple hundred friends.

A friend recommended me for the December 2014 event, themed “Thicker Than Water,” and once accepted, I got to work writing a draft. I had this idea that I could somehow take twenty pages of material drafted for a new, unfinished, essay and turn it into this brilliant seven minute, fragmented story that would bounce around between various memories and wow the audience. After seven minutes of pugilistic story telling, I’d drop the mic and walk away to thunderous applause.

Drafting proved problematic. First, the draft was ten pages. Way too long. Then, I realized I had no idea how to tell a story with little regard for chronology without running the risk of completely losing the audience. I quickly abandoned the latter tack. But I still had the problem of length. On average, it takes about a minute to read (aloud) a page of double-spaced, 12-pitch font. At my first rehearsal, my story ran seventeen minute. That’s 7 + 10 if you’re a Humanities major like me. Not good.

Thematic control is so important to any short piece, and I had a hard time deciding what the story was about. Was it about being half-Japanese? Was it about losing my grandmother in the tsunami? Or was it about what I did or did not do as a part of the relief effort?

By my second rehearsal, the story was shaping, but still three minutes too long. So I flogged that pony some more, telling it over and over again, while Jen timed me and gave me feedback. The night before the event, I stood in the living room and told it once last time for the night: eight minutes. At least I was getting closer. At one point in the night, I ranted to my wife about the difficulty of condensing all this material down inside such a short timeline. The intro was taking far too long, and I felt like I was getting bogged down in the details. Frustrated, I gestured and whisper-shouted to avoid waking our son, when Jen stopped me.

“Wait, what did you just say?”

I paused, then tried to say it again, something about walking into my office, looking up at a tv, and watching Japan die.

“That’s it,” she smiled, “that’s your opening. One sentence that puts the audience exactly where you want them.”

The next day, I kept at it until about an hour before the show to ensure my timing was good, that I had a good handle on the story’s roadmap. You’re not allowed notes or props while telling your story, and I didn’t want to end up lost on stage, gaping through the silence into the dark. My last time telling it to Jen, I got it done in a shade under seven minutes, and I’m happy to report  that on stage, I made the time limit. You can listen to the story, recorded live, below.

Veteran’s Day: Catching Up

Well, it’s been a while, huh?

Man, a lot has happened since my last post in March. It’s been seven months, to the day. I look back at that post, and it’s hard to imagine trying to even summarize everything that has gone down since then. I won’t try and do it all in one post – I owe those of you who actually take the time to read my posts some actual details. But I’ll hit the major points tonight, and try to go from there over the coming weeks.

For those of you who weren’t aware, we lost my grandmother, Tokuno, in the tsunami. Even as I type these words, it doesn’t seem real. It’s hard to think about, really. She died when the tsunami hit the rest home in Kesennuma at which she spent portions of her weeks. Some were evacuated to the roof of the building, but unfortunately she was not one of them. We don’t have a lot of detail on it, and it’s difficult to even try to imagine, so I try not to think about it too terribly much. It was an absolutely agonizing several days as we waited for word from our family, glued to televisions, Skyping with relatives who were not in the affected area, and watching news reports on the internet. For some time, there was simply nothing. For all we knew, we lost everyone. My dad carried an especially heavy burden for those days, as he received only a 30s phone call from his brother in the wake of the tsunami before the call terminated. For days, we knew nothing other than that. There was simply no information. Then, as we slowly started establishing accountability, we finally received word on the death of my grandmother. My youngest sister was the first to learn, and it was she who had to notify my dad. Finally, at least we knew.

In the wake of that, I pushed hard within my chain of command for release to deploy to Japan for what was beginning to be known as Operation TOMODACHI, which is Japanese for “friend.” Through the hard work of a dedicated network of peers, supervisors, and what I can only see as divine intervention, I was able to navigate the complex military bureaucracy and soon found myself deployed to Yokota Air Base, Japan. What followed over the next month, I consider the most honorable thing I have done yet in my career. My role was small, miniscule even, in comparison to the dedication the US military poured into that mission. But I count myself a lucky man to have been able to participate for even a brief period of time. Hopefully, I can capture in writing some of my experiences there and share them with you all.

Because life is life, while all this was going on, Jen and I were undergoing a major transition. We decided to leave active duty and pursue an opportunity with the Alaska National Guard, so as all this was going on, I was assembling application paperwork, conducting interviews, and praying for the best. Shortly after returning, I received word I was selected, and thus began major preparations for a huge life transition. Also no small potato! The summer passed quickly, between work, prepping to leave, and everything else, not a day was wasted. We sold cars, bought a new one, filed paperwork, and generally tried to figure out how we were going to live in a radically different location.

Oh, and there was also a lot of running. While in Japan, I didn’t have a lot of time to train, so I just tried to stay as fit as possible. Coming home and getting back in the groove was no picnic, but with the help of my friend and mentor Matthew Whitis, I got back on track. There were successes: at the age of 34, I posted a 4:47 mile / 10:44 2 mile in a local track series in the dead heat of the SC summer. And there were frustrations: my 5k race times were nowhere near where I wanted them to be. But through it all, I trained hard. Looking back, I consider some of those workouts achievements in and of themselves. The last track session I hit in SC was 20 x 400 with 200m jogs, alternating sets of four between 78 and 83s per quarter. I haven’t done a workout like that since college.

The move was incredible. Everything just seemed to keep working out and falling into place, to include finding a buyer for our second car literally days before we drove out of town. We spent time along the way with family (I built an earth oven with my pops in MN, which was super fun), and caught the fall colors on our way up the Alaska Highway in Canada. We saw wildlife, and scenery that would literally blow your mind. And then…we were here, in Alaska. Not for long for my better half, though. After ten days here, Jen got on a plane and spent four incredible weeks in Ethiopia. While there, she supported a new clean water/well rehab project and taught health and hygiene courses to the types of folks who still think disease is caused by evil spirits. You can learn more about her work at http://www.projectwuha.com, and I simply can’t express how proud I am of my wife.

Which pretty much leads us to the here and now. To be honest, I’m not sure where Run For Something is going in the future. Recently, I re-connected with some old friends, who have established a new NPO called Team Run For Veterans (www.teamr4v.org), and the focus will be on supporting athletic opportunities for disabled vets. Supporting vets has been on my mind for a while, and my new job up here in the AK opens some unique doors. I’ll continue to support Mocha Club’s clean water work in Sudan, but I’m considering making this year more about R4V. Today is Veteran’s Day, and to be honest, I’ve had vets on my mind for some time now, wondering how I can better support my own brothers and sisters.

Oh yeah…running…well, by now you should know me well enough to realize I’m 100%. 100% stop, or 100% go. I’m happy to report it’s still 100% go these days. My first act as an Alaskan was to participate in the Bonny Sosa Tuesday Night Run racing series here in Anchorage, and I didn’t suck. In fact, I manage to place top three in five consecutive trail races. The running scene here is vibrant and a rock-solid aspect of the community – the Bonny Sosa runs are essentially cross-country format trail runs, all hand-timed, and require only a 5$ entry fee. Volunteer-supported, and city-led. The courses are held secret until the time of the race, and each race, which occurs weekly in the fall, is held at a different location. One night, we saw over 1000 Anchorites ranging from newborns to octogenarians out there for the race. It’s one-of-a-kind and a definite kick in the ass.

It’s not going to be like SC, where I could race and train on the track and roads year-round. We’re officially in winter, and the snow ain’t going anywhere. But I feel strong. Strong-like-bull strong. Strong enough to post solid track workouts at altitude, and follow them up with a 3.5hr mountain bike ride of 24 miles and 2400′ of elevation change starting from 7500′. Strong enough to stomp treadmill workouts on the same day I post PRs for a 1000m row on the Concept2 (3:29 if you were wondering). Strong enough to get out in the backcountry on my splitboard and feel like I have miles of travel in my legs. Strong like…well, you get the idea. There’s a turkey trot in a few weeks, and if conditions aren’t heinous, I think I can get under 17. After that, Jen and I are looking at cross-country skis and running snowshoes for winter fitness, but we’re still learning the winter ropes up here.

Over the coming weeks, I want to tell you all some stories, and share some ideas and passions. If you want to hear about anything in particular, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section. I’ve already got a suggestion to talk about strength work as it relates to endurance, and I think it will be interesting to talk about how runners get through harsh winters and emerge ready for summer/fall racing. I’ll be honest…posting every day just isn’t realistic right now (or ever probably), but I think if I set the bar low enough (weekly sound good?), we can see some success. Jen, Eric, and Megs – thanks for your encouragement and re-igniting the embers of creativity. Until next time, true believers…