It’s October Already?

Well, not quite yet, but by the time I write and post this, it may be.

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A lovely sunset to enjoy on my commute home…September is so pretty

September has gone by in a blur and I’ve fallen far behind. I haven’t told you anything about our wonderful trip to Lyon, or how amazing the weather has been for the past few weeks, or how my longest race to date (10 miles!) went, or that I’ve (finally!) re-started my graduate program and I’m taking a fascinating class in negotiation and mediation. Add in ongoing training for a 1/2 marathon, general life administration, and a full day, company-wide event that was about 5 months in the planning, and you’ve got my September.

But…I’m not going to tell you anything about anything right now. I think I’m just going to ride out the rest of September and start again when October rolls around this weekend. The wonderful Indian Summer has officially ended in Amsterdam. The windswept rain came in today, with more predicted for Saturday and Sunday. So I’ll make a cozy weekend of it, and settle in to write, maybe with a cup of gourmet hot chocolate sent from the other side of the world by a friend we made in Berlin. I’ll tell you about that, too.

Until then, enjoy what’s left of September, my favorite month. It’s been a good one this year, and I’m grateful for that.

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The Dutchiest Dutch Thing We’ve Ever Done (so far)

Great ideas have a life cycle. Imagine a circle, or, better yet, one of those steep looping Hot Wheels tracks that you or your brother had when you were kids. Great ideas start up high on the track, with momentum and energy and expectation. Everyone involved feels it and there’s a buzz of ohmygodthisisgonnabethebesthingever.

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At some point, that energy drops, just like the Hot Wheels car comes fast down the ramp and into the start of the loop-de-loop. And then, the Great Idea heads into the zone of Terrible Idea. It’s not a question of if the Idea will pass through this phase, or even when. It will happen. The question is: how long will the Great Idea linger in this low-energy, Terrible Idea pit?  Will there be enough enthusiasm and optimism to keep the car on the track, to zip through the entry ramp and complete the loop, where the Idea becomes so Great again that it actually inverts before it arrives at its measured, graceful completion?

(Terrible ideas, of course, start in that low, rocking tranche at the bottom of the Hot Wheels loop. They never make it around the circle, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get pretty far or cause a whole lot of trouble. Just because something’s not worth doing, doesn’t mean it won’t go wrong.)

My own Terrible Idea moment came when my right foot, clad in newly-purchased hiking boots, sunk calf-deep into a swirl of mud and muck that smelled like rotten eggs.

“If this is the low, the Terrible moment”, you may now be wondering, “where did this so-called Great Idea start? How far, exactly, have you fallen?”

Several months ago at a dinner with three American women friends and their respective Dutch partners, one friend mentioned wadlopen, a very Dutch activity that only takes place in the northern part of the country. Go ahead and click, because unless you’re Dutch or maybe Danish, you probably won’t know what it is, and the visuals help.

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We all had a vague idea (or at least I did) that it involved walking over mudflats when the tide receded, and it sounded like a fun, unique, adventurous thing to do. We won’t be in the Netherlands forever, we figured, so we should do as much “Dutch stuff” as we can. As the dinner went on and we all had a few more drinks (often the origin of Really Great Ideas…and lots of Terrible ones), we signed up for wadlopen.

The first weekend in September, six of us (one couple had forcefully declined from the beginning) found ourselves in Holwerd, at the edge of the Wadden Sea on a cool, grey afternoon, joining a volunteer guide and dozens of others to walk across the stretch of land where, hours before, the sea had been. It was going to be a 3-4 hour trek back to Ameland, the island where we were staying. (An island, I should point out, with charming shops and a lighthouse and a windmill and great bars with outdoor seating and fire pits and lovely glasses of wine and bitterballen, where we could have happily passed the whole weekend, clean and dry. But where’s the fun in that?)

The Great Idea of wadlopen had persisted right up until that first big, sucking step.

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Be very, very grateful that you still can’t smell through computer screens. Ugh.

After all, we were with people we liked, we had a great meal the night before, we were in a new part of the Netherlands, and even the first few minutes of the wadlopen were ok – a bit of water, a little mud – since the views were so nice and the novelty was strong. We were having an adventure! Even though we were warned by the guide that the first hour would be hard, nothing prepares you for sinking almost knee-deep into stinky mud, having to find your balance and yank your foot out, and then do it again and again. To say nothing of the smell.

It became hard to pay attention to the scenery, because we were now focused on where we placed our feet. Did you step where someone else’s foot had just been? Or should we make our own path, and risk falling into a deeper hole? All of us, at that point, were probably asking ourselves the same question: why are we doing this?

But, we carried on. We had no choice, and I think (perversely) that was part of what made it ok. We had started out on a trek we had to finish. If we didn’t, the tide would come in, the water would rise, the sun would set, and we could drown. There was no turning back. So, no point in complaining…let’s get on with it.

And little by little, I’ll admit it became fun. It was partly the absurdity of it, but it also helped to know that I was doing something many Dutch people never do, and I was doing it with friends. We were laughing even as we struggled. We were making dorky jokes about Mordor and Mount Doom. We shared snacks (stroopwaffels!) and took photos, and compared the filth of our shoes. We commiserated about the distance to the end and dreamed about the dinner we’d have to reward ourselves. Once we were out of the sucking, awful mud, we could look around and enjoy the beauty of the landscape again, knowing that as we walked, the sea would soon fill in where our steps had been, leaving no trace of our journey.

And so, the Great Idea was redeemed.

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All the mud was worth it. Yum.

For the rest of the weekend, we enjoyed those little shops and visited the lighthouse on Ameland.  We rewarded our adventurous spirits with delicious pannenkoeken. We packed up our smelly, filthy clothes and shoes with a promise to deal with them once we were back in Amsterdam. (Miraculously, they cleaned up and look as good as new.) We took a leisurely drive home, stopping at the Afsluitdijk, a famous Dutch landmark and engineering marvel that we hadn’t seen before.

And of course, before the car ride was over, we were planning the next adventure with our friends. There’s another Great Idea out there, taking shape, building momentum, waiting for us to send it down the ramp…

 

What running taught me

Mon Dieu!  I have been delinquent in keeping you lovely folks up to date on all the goings-on around here. It’s been a busy time. We just returned this morning from a wonderful long weekend in Lyon (more on that soon). The weekend before we were with friends and enjoying a particularly Dutch adventure (more on that, too) in the north of Holland.

But for now, as I relax after a slow, hot, not-so-great training run, and with my first race in years just 6 days away, I figured I’d take a few minutes to share a bit more about my return to running. As I mentioned last time, I spent a couple of years recovering from a very painful injury to my heel and foot. It was so bad that I had pretty much given up on running completely. But after many months of finally being pain-free, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could start up again. When I was encouraged (pressured?) to be part of a company team for an annual race in Amsterdam, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for my “comeback”.

As I often do when tackling a new project, I made a plan. I dug out my list of physical therapy exercises and started the calf stretches and one-legged squats. I downloaded a walk-to-run app and eased slowly back into running. I joined a running group to give some structure to my training. In the first weeks, I obsessed about my heel and how it was feeling. I paid attention to every little twinge, worried that it was a relapse. I rested, stretched, massaged, and did whatever I could to be sure that I was protecting the site of the old injury.

Several weeks into my training, on a long run with my pace group, I noticed a little pain in my knee. We were running distances I had never done before; on this day, the knee discomfort started around kilometer 14 or 15. I remember being surprised by it – less by the pain itself, and more by the idea that some part of my body other than my foot could hurt.

Later that day, I realized that for the previous months of preparation and training, I had been completely focused on my heel, worried only about protecting and strengthening it. So focused, it turns out, that it never occurred to me to pay attention to pain or discomfort anywhere else. I was running as if I believed that the only possible injury I could have was a recurrence of the old one.

I don’t think my approach is an unusual or even a bad response to injury. We do need to protect parts of ourselves. We need to strengthen these tender areas, baby them a little. That’s fine at first – necessary, even. But if the goal is to return to full health, then shielding something too long can put us at risk in other ways. Maybe we opt to remove ourselves completely from something – a sport, an activity, a relationship – in order to stay safe. Or, we may find that our focus on the hurt or broken part has blinded us to other things that need our attention – both opportunities and vulnerabilities that we fail to see.

I’m not going to get all “Zen and the Art of Running” on you (mostly because I haven’t read the book), but I do find that this time around, running is giving me more than it did before. In the past few months, I feel like I’ve developed a greater general awareness. I have more trust in my body and its ability and potential. My injury and the pain that came with it felt like a betrayal of sorts; my normally healthy body suddenly had limitations that frustrated and (literally) hurt me.  But now we’re back on steady ground. I take less for granted, and try to pay more attention – not just to the parts that have been damaged.

When physical activity of any kind brings you challenge, focus, peace, growth, and health, you’re on the right path. Whatever does it for you, keep at it. Do it more.