not ripe yet

Lately I haven’t felt like writing. You may have noticed. For two weeks I have turned on the computer, opened a new document, and then repeatedly checked my email.

I have made the rounds of my favorite websites, become disenchanted by the headlines, and left promptly after checking the score of the ballgame. The only things able to move me to action are cooking blogs and the Joy of Cooking print edition. In the past week I have made apricot jam, coconut macaroons, shrimp Thai noodles, whole wheat blueberry muffins, banana walnut waffles, and six different kinds of pizza. I have been busy.

I realize that part of inspiration is the action you take every day. The people you choose to surround yourself with, the books you read, the music you listen to, the route you take to work. Maybe I need to start doing something different. Something that does not arrive from a few scoops of a bag of flour with some honey drizzled on top. Because right now my runs aren’t doing it. Mountain biking isn’t doing it. Reading isn’t doing it. I wonder if it’s because the world is not really an inspiring place to read about right now.

Lately our government held its people, and its future, hostage because a few egocentric white dudes couldn’t imagine not having their picture hanging on the wall in a handful of state-owned buildings. The world economy is in the shitter because people continue to put faith in the movement of some numbers they can never touch and that represent people and companies they don’t work for. Children are starving in Africa because their parents have nothing to offer the world except sad stories.

The only place I see progress happening is in my backyard. There everything has a season, a chance for some time in the sun before being carted off to the compost pile where it will become nourishment for some other life. A retirement stay with the worms.

Life in the garden begins with a seed and conditions deemed good enough to try. Those who survive the first few weeks in the ground are fragile. Sensitive to heat, cold, insects, mold, and infection. They grow, mature, produce, and die. Kind of like us.

When spring first came to Utah it was wildflowers and muddy trails, snowmelt on the run – trying to pull the rest of the mountain down behind it. The soil finally dried and the grasshoppers came. Then the butterflies. The last to arrive were the dragon flies. I recently came across an entire field of them mating. Or eating. I can’t be sure. But I ran through the dry grass with hundreds of wings zipping past my face and none of them ever touching me.

This month I pulled the last of the peas from the ground and the first of the beets. I thinned carrots that finally resemble carrots. I discovered tiny green tomatoes that aren’t so tiny anymore. Planted corn that might not make it. Boiled apricots into the first hours of morning. I yanked onions from the earth and dreamt of homemade gnocchi still maturing underground.

Gardening is a process much like writing. Both sound more romantic than they really are. Both require diligence, weeding, and a thinning of the unnecessary. And for me, both are an exercise of faith. That what I intended to produce actually made it into the rows and onto the pages. That I actually created something at all. This summer I have found more success in the garden. I am looking forward to the fall when the temperatures drop, the leaves change, and maybe I will too.

For now, I weed when necessary. Collect apples and apricots rotting on the ground and carry them to the compost pit. I watch young girls pushing baby strollers down the sidewalk. I wonder about the things they know that I do not. I wonder what I have done that they never will.  Apples continue to drop from my tree in the backyard.  The plums and pears look healthy and strong. They’re not ripe yet, but getting there.

when you are turning 30

You think about when you were five. You recall thinking you were going to get married at 22, have your first baby at 24. You were going to have four. That sounded about right to you. But then again, so did catching fairies in empty pickle jars on the back porch. And back then, you were going to be a doctor, a veterinarian, and a lawyer all in this same life. Because you didn’t think you should have to choose.

Then you got to be 22. And you didn’t think about marriage or babies at all. And you weren’t any of those things you imagined being. Instead, you thought about moving west. Because you had never been there. You apply for a newspaper job in the Bay Area. You get it. And then move 3,000 miles to someplace that might as well be the moon. You have no family there. No friends. Just a paycheck every two weeks and your name in print above stories you never thought you’d write.

When you are 26 you live with a man who wants to get married and have babies and live in a single family home in the suburbs of San Francisco. You think this sounds nice. For someone else. So you move out. And you move north. To a city where you have your own room again. Your best friend five blocks away. And you some space to breathe. You fall asleep listening to the sounds of cable cars rattling along Powell Street. You have a long commute. And a job that pays you well enough.

When you are 29 you move to Utah. For a boy you met when you were 28. You decide to leave California because you are getting by but not getting anywhere. You don’t dream about hunting fairies. You don’t play flashlight tag with friends. You don’t really play at all anymore. You realize you aren’t happy enough. And you aren’t really sure how much it will take to get you there. So you move 900 miles to figure it out.

When you are turning 30 you have a new job that requires more than just showing up. You live with a man who walks with you to work every day and kisses you when you part. You learn to make your own pasta. And meatballs. You buy your first pair of cross-country skis and learn how to fight against cancer. You don’t have marriage or kids. Just a feeling that you are a little closer to figuring out what you want to be when you grow up.

changing everything

When do you stop making decisions based solely on yourself? At what age do you say I want to stay in your world – even if it means moving from mine? Or does it have nothing to do with age and everything to do with a person?

Does it always have to be flower petals and cake, photographers and attendants? Can’t it just be installing a bike rack on the back of the car, departing with a handful of boxes, and deciding to leave the window half cracked? Or simply, I pick the way you smile in profile in the dark? I choose your knee. And the way that it feels next to mine.

Why does it have to be your future, my career? Why can’t they exist in the same place? Could it be three years and snow, mountain passes and shared closet space?

I hope so. Because in January I am moving. Out of the state and for a boy. And for me.

I will be living 900 miles from a coastline, and 526 miles from the nearest Major League ballpark. I will be living in what is considered a red state. And I am not sure what will require the most to adjust to. The last big move I made was from Massachusetts to California six years ago.

I moved because I needed to experience something new, I needed to experience a new me. So I found a job. I paid my bills. I met nice people. I broke my heart. Then I moved again. Met more nice people. And one in particular. Now soon I will embark on a new adventure. To a new state, to a new life. One that I will share with someone else.

To be honest, I have lived with someone else before. Briefly. And it didn’t work out. But I didn’t move for him.

I used to tell D that he had “the unfortunate experience of being next,” after my last break up. Now, I’m not so sure.

Because we had time to date and break up and stay friends. Date other people and do the things that friends do. Like confide in each other. Eat cheeseburgers. Drink beer. And go home separately. Then one day we decided that maybe, just maybe, I would like to kiss you again.

Five months ago I watched a terrible thing happen. He packed up his room, kissed me on the lips, and moved away. To be fair, he wasn’t leaving me; he was going back to school to learn and grow and be better. I knew it was coming. Still, it hurt.

After he moved we had to learn to become better communicators, our nightly chats reduced to talking on the phone and appearances over Skype. The experience forced us to just talk to each other. About things. Like feelings. The distance required us to make an extra effort. I wrote letters and postcards that I sent because I liked the ritual of saying, I love you enough to wait in lines for stamps at the post office.

The distance also kind of upped the ante on our relationship. Making us project manage our lives, asking ourselves – what do we really see developing here? Three months into our 900 mile long distance experiment we decided to continue seeing more of each other. But in person. And in the same apartment – parking both our bikes and our lives at the same address.

We thought it would take a while for me to secure a job in Utah. Perhaps a year. Or longer. I searched job listings, sent in a resume, and got a phone call and job offer two months later. And not just a job, a good job. And one that I really wanted to accept.

My friend Allison has a theory that things that are meant to be should be easy. Kind of like water flowing downhill. You shouldn’t have to push against the tides, divert energy, resources, and everything you have, in order for something to work out. Especially, when it comes to love.

So soon I will be departing the city I have called home for the last three years. There are things I will miss. Like my friends. The food. Baseball. And the ocean. But I am answering this call for adventure. I am going to a state that is bluer and greener, drier and colder than you might imagine. I am going because the way to happy just might be through a little Mormon town in northern Utah.  Where the mountains are high, the temperatures are low, and there is much for me to learn.

I know how my life is now. And it is good. But I am comfortable. And I don’t believe you get better by staying the same. Changing everything is terrifying. It’s risky. And that is exactly why I am doing it.

over. for now.

Twenty weeks of training boiled down to 51.2 miles and 9:52 minutes. I thought three days out I would have enough distance from the race to write about it intelligently. Quite frankly, I thought I would have a lot more to say. But I don’t. Maybe I am still processing the experience. Maybe this is a classic example of how running or life or whatever goal you are working toward is more about the journey than the destination. Maybe that’s why not 36 hours after finishing I am already thinking about what to train for next. That is, once I can walk down stairs without holding onto the railing just in case.

But the Northface 50 miler in sum: I got through it. It rained a little. Then it didn’t. It was dark. And then it wasn’t. I was fast, until I was slow. I cried at mile 41. And then at mile 43. My family came. So did my friends. They were there at the finish. I placed 16th for women. And 67th overall. I am still trying to figure out how I feel about everything. However, I did learn a thing or two along the trail. You kind of have to learn something after nearly 10 hours running.

Fighting gravity is hard
10,731 feet. That was the total elevation gain during the race. It doesn’t sound like much spread out over 51.2 miles. But it is. Because what goes up must come down, and that downhill wrecked my quads. I signed up for the Northface 50 miler because I wanted to learn something about myself I didn’t know before. Well, here’s what I found out: I suck at running downhill. As strange as it may sound, running downhill is much more difficult than climbing. At least for me. Because I haven’t yet learned to stop fighting gravity and to simply trust myself to fall downhill on two feet.

Sometimes it is best to be in the dark
We started at 5am and spent the first 90 minutes running through what remained of the night. Nearly 300 headlamps bobbed up and down as we began our first ascent of the day. We looked like a traffic jam in the Headlands. From the terrain I knew we were climbing. But because I couldn’t see anything, save for the three feet in front of me, I didn’t know how far, or how high. Sometimes it’s easier not knowing exactly what it is you are getting yourself into. Because if you could see all the uphills you would face – maybe you wouldn’t do it.

Say hi to strangers
Running/suffering is always easier with other people. During an ultra you often spend a lot of time alone. And it can get lonely out there on the trail over the course of 50 miles. Sure the views are nice, and the sound of nothing but your feet hitting the dirt is meditative. For some people. But I don’t always like me. My brain is rarely supportive, offering up cheers like, good job Kristen! Keep going! It typically forgets who it is speaking to and whines, saying things like Who got you into this? When you find that Kristen you go punch her in the face. Not productive. I find talking to other crazies on the trail is much more helpful.

It is not ok to cry
I cried. I admit it. At mile 41 and again at mile 43. It was my first 50 miler and my arches hurt. So did my knees. And I acted like a baby. On Friday I warned my first pacer Andy that he had the very difficult job of keeping me on the trail from mile 32 to 45. I warned him that I might have a meltdown or two and it was his task to make sure I didn’t go hide in the bushes. I don’t think he expected it to happen. It did. That kid should get a medal for delivering me to Emily for the last stretch. The truth is, I was on course but lost in my head. I started focusing on how far I still had to go rather than putting one foot in front of the other. Next time I need to remember to remain in the present, working only to get myself to the next bush, the next rock, and forget about checkpoints and finish lines.

You are where you are because of help from other people
Sure, I put in the miles. But that is about the only thing I did by myself. And really, most of that I did alongside a team of other runners all working to accomplish the same goal and with coaches who knew what they were doing. But I did have Team Munson: the loudest pit crew at the race.  They are special cohort of people who called and texted and flew in from Boston and Los Angeles and rallied from San Francisco to make sure I was never alone on the trail when things got hard. Who strategized race logistics and rented cars and bought plane tickets to be my side when things got really hard. And who I absolutely cannot imagine my life without.

They made T shirts and grabbed me food from the snack table in case I was hungry. They stood out all day in the cold to watch me hobble by for a few seconds. They kept me going when I wanted to quit. And let me cry when I needed to. (Thanks Andy.) They stood at the finish line waiting with hugs, or on the other side of the country for a phone call. Thank you all, I really could not have run that sucker without you.

By the numbers:
20 weeks of training.
51.2 miles
10,731 elevation gain
21,462 total elevation change
Time: 9:52
Place: 16th women’s

Photo courtesy of T-shirt designer and photographer Allison McCarthy. To see more of her race photos visit

http://www.flickr.com/photos/allisonmccarthy/sets/72157625414519361/

running with coyotes

My legs felt like lead for two days. Not a good feeling when you are lining up for your first 50k. And one comprised of 7,100 feet of climbing.

Maybe it was just nerves. Maybe it had something to do with my speed workout Wednesday. Maybe I am just starting to feel tired after several weeks of 20 plus mile Saturdays – something I have never done before. But Saturday, as I jogged to the start, I mostly felt excited. Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge I felt it. And winding along Highway 1 to Stinson Beach I felt it. And even more so when I passed a coyote running along the roadway. I recognized it as the same feeling I get when I am traveling: I am going someplace new.

At the start I was happy to see some of my teammates. Especially the other newbies who looked about as freaked out as I felt. I have a tendency to go out too fast so I held back the first few miles. The lead pack was mostly men and the very talented Devon Crosby-Helms, who wound up winning the race. I knew I should stay behind her. If I was in front of her, it meant I was going out way too fast and I would hate myself at mile 20. Fine, at mile 15. So I put my head down, looked at the trail ahead, and just climbed. Several years ago my mom gave me a porcelain sign that I keep above my kitchen sink. It reads: Run your own race.

So I did. Although, I am not sure ‘race’ is the right word for it. In truth, I don’t know what I am doing yet. I had never run this far before and I had no idea if and when my body would break. So during the first downhill, not knowing how my body would respond to the pounding 10 miles later, I pulled up and just enjoyed the view. I was alone. The sky was clear, and l was happy.

The week before I ran 25 miles by myself in the Marin Headlands. During one particularly long incline, a coyote appeared in front of me on the trail. He was about 100 feet ahead, but kept turning around every 20 feet or so to make sure I was still behind him. I was. And I was gaining on him.

Eventually, he pulled over and settled in the bushes off to the right. He was digging at the earth with his back paws as I passed. We made eye contact, both of us more curious of the other than anything. For some reason I nodded at him. I guess I felt I should thank him for pulling me up the trail. A few miles later a bobcat popped out of the grass to my left. There were hawks flying overhead. I was alone, but I couldn’t stop smiling: I had never run with a coyote before.

Maybe I will never know what I am doing up on the trails. Maybe each race you are just supposed to learn something new about yourself and how you respond to discomfort. Maybe racing is just another way you get to call yourself out – smoke out your weakness and chase it down the trail. Or, let it get the best of you. Maybe the point of racing is to learn to regroup, and find a new strategy for not letting yourself down. Or to just keep you moving forward. Maybe I will never figure it out.

But I do know this: I love putting on my running shoes every day. It is a vacation from my head that always seems to be working overtime. (And typically on unproductive things.) Racing is a barometer I use to measure myself – how fast am I today? How tough am I? What do I need to work on? The fact that other people are on the course doesn’t matter. I have always been able to push myself whether I run alone or in the company of others. Saturday I wasn’t there to ‘race.’ I was there because my coach told us to sign up for the 50k to get in our miles before the big one. So I did.

And I learned this: I like the 50k distance. I didn’t feel like keeling over at the finish. And I remain terrified for the 50 miler next month. Seventeen weeks ago when I signed up for the Northface race I thought I would be able to wrap my brain around the idea of running for 9 plus hours. I thought I would be more comfortable with idea. I’m not. But I also know that next month will be different.

Because Andy will be joining me where I stopped Saturday. He will be responsible for delivering my tired, sore legs to Emily at mile 45. And she will be the one who will see me at my worst and who will carry me the last 5 miles. And that is fitting. Because she is the first running buddy I ever had, and she is always the person who leads me out of the dark places.

At age 13 we decided we were going to teach ourselves to run. We ran loops in our suburban neighborhood, adding distance a quarter mile at a time. We rewarded ourselves with enormous pancakes breakfasts complete with bacon. And eggs. Moreover, we understood even then that it is important to celebrate each new milestone.

So for the past 16 years we have cheered each other on at 5ks, half marathons, and marathons. We have been there for each other through breakups, health problems, and moves. But also for good things like graduations, new jobs, and promotions. I have no idea how things will turn out next month. I just know that I want to run. To push through the inevitable pain and exhaustion that will come, and take notice of how lucky I am to be exactly where I am. And then binge on waffles afterward.

two years later – still hoping.

Nov. 5, 2008

For two years we watched as things went from bad to worse to I-don’t-think-we-can-dig-a-hole-much-deeper-than-this. We listened to both sides blame each other for our country’s failures. We watched as the economy imploded and financial institutions crumbled.

For nearly two years we heard about how change was coming.  Change was needed. And change did come – and not always for the better. So we took our chances on a relative unknown to catalyze this transition. Overnight our country invested in hope. Overnight barriers were brought down. Overnight we suddenly have a new chance at a better future for us all.

But I can’t help but wonder: Now what? … I know that there is still much to do even before we can begin moving forward. But I am straining to be patient. I can’t stop scanning the headlines. I can’t sit still. I find myself in a familiar place once again – waiting – for what is to come.

Nov. 2, 2010

Re-reading those words I wrote almost two years ago is a bit eerie. Perhaps not because of what has happened since, but because of what is about to.

What has come is this: the bleeding has stopped. We are in a period of recovery. And for many, getting better isn’t happening fast enough. So folks are back to talking about how change is needed. Change is coming. They didn’t get what they were promised, and they are cashing in their ballots for a new deal.

Last night, after the Giants won the World Series I finished my beer, high-fived a stranger in a bar, and then went home to read up about some of the ballot measures I didn’t really understand. I found that most of the California ballot was pretty tame. Then again, this is not an election about changing everything – it’s about holding ground. Prop 23 is a perfect example of trying to salvage the incremental progress we have made.

I showed up to the polls this morning because I like standing in a room with a group of people who all believe enough in something to show up at 7am and write it down. No matter who your candidate is, what cause you are supporting – Election Day is about hope. It is the one day you either say something, or shut up. And then hope that something good will come out of the experience. Maybe not tomorrow. Or the next day. Or even two years later. But eventually.

Growing up, my mom always took us with her to vote. We would be hanging from her legs, peeking from behind a heavy curtain as she marked off her ballot. When we were older, she would disappear behind the curtain and then not tell us who she voted for. She just wanted us to know that voting was important to do, and that it is your business.

“Did you  vote yet,” a coworker asked me this afternoon.

I answered by pulling back my jacket and revealing the red sticker on my shirt.

“I wish I was more excited,” she said. “I’ll never forget 2008. I cried standing in line. A lady actually had a heart attack at my polling station. I wish I felt that way now. But I should vote. I’m going to go after work. I already called and reminded my sons.”

I smiled. Because not every election is about making history. Sometimes it’s just about showing up because you have a voice and should use it. Because you are one of the privileged few with a choice. Elections should not always be about needing sweeping changes, sometimes it’s about giving eventually the time to work.  Because there is still much to be done before we can move forward.

until it all comes apart

For the past four days Tibetan Buddhist monks have constructed a sand mandala in the foyer of my office. Working in a group of four at a time, the monks first etched the outline in chalk, and then began applying millions of grains of colored sand in an intricate pattern they recall from memory alone.

Hunched over the table they held cone-shaped instruments with a grated surface called a chak-pur, which they lightly tapped with a metal rod to release the sand in a steady stream. Sand painting is a form of ancient meditation. Each mandala is home to a deity with various healing properties such as compassion. The monks invoke the spirit of the deity through this process of precision and patience.

Yesterday, I stopped to watch them work. Silently, carefully, they erected the mandala out in the open for anyone to see. Until they finish and tear it down.

The creation of a mandala is a testament to focus. To unity. And impermanence. It is the literal representation of the importance of the journey. Because the final product is left intact for only a matter of hours, perhaps days, before being consecrated with prayers, and then swept into a pile of ordinary gray and deposited in a nearby river. The idea is that the water will disperse the blessings throughout the world. The act is a reminder that nothing we do, nothing we create, is eternal. And that with this knowledge, we should do it anyway.

This morning I paused to watch from the balcony above as they neared completion of the design. A few people entering on the ground floor paused to take out cameras before heading up to their offices. The monks finished the mandala at 11. And at noon, they were going to wipe it all away.

By 11:45 the foyer was packed, and the banisters lined with more than 200 faces eager to watch the consecration ceremony.

The woman to my left, a softspoken mother of two, turned to me and whispered, “A few times when I passed it and no one was around, I just wanted to shake it. I wanted to ruin it. Isn’t that terrible?”

“No,” I said. “Isn’t that why we are all here?”

For some reason, watching it all come apart is far more interesting than watching it go up. I know this. Because not two hours earlier just a handful of people stopped on their way to the copier machine, as they returned from meetings, or headed to the kitchen to refill their coffee, to watch these men quietly invoking blessings for us all. I know this, because I was one of them. And I was also one of the many standing there to watch these men sweep away every grain of detail they so diligently placed over the past 96 hours.

As the monks began chanting dozens of digital cameras clicked, chirped, and flashed in the background. None of the photographers seemed to realize they were making a spectacle of the meditation. None seemed to understand that they were kind of missing the point of the exercise. The monks, however, didn’t appear to notice any of us at all.

After the final chant one monk circled the mandala and then cut through the design like a pizza until there were 12 equal parts. Then another monk used an ordinary paintbrush to push what remained into a pile on the center of the table.

“It’s still beautiful,” the woman to my left said smiling.

And it was.

This video is a timelapse sequence of a monks creating a very similar mandala. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ga5s_qYgJS8