Overuse of the Verb To Be

before the race
Good writers use a variety of specific and vivid verbs to avoid repetition …


Recently my colleague, Jane, suggested that we think of people as “doers rather than things.” She wrote that if we can make this change we allow people to move on, to be something other than a “static” idea. And this week I’m struggling to embrace her ideas – I struggle to see myself and my family as a “work in progress.”

Over a year ago I wrote about the Boston Marathon bombing; I wrote about the strength and purpose that I find in running long distances outside. In that same blog post I complained about an injury and admitted to grumpiness. I concluded that I could live without running and that I’d get over being grumpy, but that I loved being a runner. I recovered enough to spend thirty straight days in the back country that summer. I carried a heavy pack for over a hundred miles and I felt strong. After I came out of the mountains, I ran three long trail races and worked-out harder than I ever have. I was a runner.

Turns out I was also blissfully unaware. As I amped up my training time I also collected nagging injuries, nothing serious – just tight this and tender that. I ignored my aches and pains and kept running. I suppose I was the only one surprised by my eventual inability to train. Last June, I completed a half-marathon thanks to a generous injection of steroids and gritted teeth. I haven’t been able to run more than a few miles since then. Not running makes me feel like I want to gnaw my arm off.
It’s not that I can’t exercise. The problem is that I’d begun to think of myself as a runner. Now I just make excuses. I feel the obnoxious need to explain myself, to reassure innocent bystanders that I am, in fact, a runner.

The thing is I also claim to be a writer and a teacher and a mother. Until recently I didn’t see the potential danger of these characterizations. I was proud and certain of the descriptions. I wore them around like armor, flashing them to prove my competence. I’m not sure who I thought was paying attention.

Most of us feel a genuine need to know who people are – we naturally seek common ground, or at least understanding. So we ask people, “Who are you?” “What do you do?” And most of us curate our “I am” responses. We present our best selves and edit for context. So what happens when our go-to-answers are out of reach?

One of my best friends likes to remind me that experiences make people happier than the things they buy. She read this somewhere and she has become an ambassador of “experience happiness.” Instead of buying toys and gadgets, she’s builds elaborate experience gifts for her family and makes beautiful photographs of their adventures so that it’s easy to remember the fun. I think I’d rather collect fun than categories. I’d rather remember the experience of running a race, than lament the bygone notion that I am a runner.

In some ways mothers are always mothers, writers are always writers, but at least right now in the middle of pre-teen parenting chaos, two full-time jobs, and hunting season most static identities feel too big. The categories are hard to leave behind, but change is essential to being human. Accepting that my self-imposed characterizations aren’t helpful and that they do change, should be empowering. It is at the very least inevitable; we are all works in progress. So today I will do some teaching, some parenting, and maybe even some writing. And if I’m lucky, in time I will do some running. Or maybe I will buy a road bike. Or start swimming. In any case, my focus will evolve. Right now I cannot be a runner, but I can seek experience. And change. And progress. I can always be a seeker.

~ Sarah

The Song of the Ungirt Runners

We swing ungirded hips,
And lightened are our eyes,
The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
We know not whom we trust
Nor whitherward we fare,
But we run because we must
Through the great wide air.

The waters of the seas
Are troubled as by storm.
The tempest strips the trees
And does not leave them warm.
Does the tearing tempest pause?
Do the tree-tops ask it why?
So we run without a cause
‘Neath the big bare sky.

The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
But the storm the water whips
And the wave howls to the skies.
The winds arise and strike it
And scatter it like sand,
And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land.


Running On

Wolf Creek Wrangle - 2

In better days…

Background reading: Thousands in New York, across the world run for Boston

Yesterday, on our drive home from the gym, my workout partner feigned interest in an ugly new house on our block.  Her ruse worked – I looked away from the sidewalk and missed the runner working her way up the hill with her dog.  My girlfriend knows I need the distraction – she worries I might roll down the window and chuck gum wrappers and car-trash at the woman and her German Shepard.  Usually this time of year, I’m training for a race.  Usually, I am consumed by long runs with my training-partner-husband and my old, brown Lab.  I am calculating miles, logging speed workouts, running through spring puddles.  Usually, I’m the girl running up the hill.

Not this year.

At some point this spring a sesame seed-sized bone under my left toe cracked.  I kept running until it hurt too much to run, and now my left foot is hermetically sealed in an inflatable, plastic boot.  I can lift weights and ride a stationary bike, but I can’t run.  This makes me grumpy – really grumpy.

I’ve said before that running gives me energy and purpose; it’s taught me about endurance and dedication.  I now know that my training schedule also kept me sane.  Running forces me outside in to Wyoming’s dubious spring weather.  It allows me to carve out quiet space from my busy working-mommy days and gives me a sense of control amid the chaos of teaching and writing.  It has also made me a part of a very specific community: I am a runner.

A few weeks ago, on another 5 am drive to the gym, I learned about the Watertown lockdown.  We sat in the driveway listening to the radio, eager to hear about the impending capture of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect.  I looked around the dark streets of our peaceful community.  I tried to picture armed troops moving through our streets, banging on doors, waving guns.  The images from the radio didn’t translate.  I could not imagine an invasion of our quiet neighborhoods.

But I can picture the runners at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  I can feel the collective relief and joy of finishing the race.  I can picture the smiles and the energized hobbling that follows any race.  I can feel the sweat running down the backs of my knees and I can taste the cold post-race beer I always stash in the car.  I know what it sounds like to speak to a fellow runner – a stranger – about the grueling last miles of a long road race.  I know that sense of belonging that engulfs a finish line.

Wolf Creek Wrangle

my youngest son waiting for me at the finish line

One of my oldest friends wrote about the communal sense of accomplishment that surrounds distance running.  He told me that he can’t “think of a greater gathering to celebrate humanity and what we can accomplish than a marathon.”  The young men who bombed the Boston Marathon violated a sacred space.  They created terror and destruction, but they also eclipsed the accomplishment and heart of thousands of people.

I could survive without running.  I’d likely even get over being grumpy.  But like my marathoner friend, I can’t think of a better way to test my resolve and dedication than training for a long distance trail race.  I know something certain and simple every time I cross a finish line: I know my body and my mind.  And now I know that our racing has become an act of defiance – a celebration of not only personal accomplishment, but of freedom and community.

– Sarah


In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami claims that most of what he knows about writing fiction he learned from running every day.  Murakami is both a renowned novelist – he’s been called one of the world’s greatest living writers – and an accomplished distance runner.  Murakami runs nearly forty miles a week.  He never takes more than one day off from exercise. He ran his first marathon, in Athens – in July.  And Murakami insists that pushing his body to its physical limits is essential to his creative ability. Without running – long and hard – Murakami couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t, write.

I am a slow runner.  But I am steady and my dog pulls me up the hills.  For me running has become like brushing my teeth – an essential habit that isn’t always fun but at its best becomes a mindless, preventative activity.  I wake early most mornings, force myself into sneakers and an orange traffic vest while my old, brown dog bounces in circles at my feet.  The first two miles of my morning shlog are painful.  The dog pulls at his lead and I jerk back reflexively.  I tug my ski beanie down and pull my neck gaiter tight, leaving just enough room to see the icy trail under my feet. I curse the darkness and the wind.  I hate myself for getting up and the dog for his enthusiasm.

Haruki Murakami argues that the creation of stories forces writers to confront the “toxin that lies deep down in all humanity.”  In many cases this altogether human danger lies adjacent to our most creative ideas.  We must dig and fight and struggle in order to create our best stories.  Murakami reminds writers that we need our strength.  This is difficult and “unhealthy” work. And so he runs upwards of 2000 miles a year – to build his strength.

There is great energy to be found by pushing yourself physically.  My runs teach me about endurance and dedication.  I find hidden energy and purpose on the backside of gravel coulees and along windswept game trails.  I’ve learned how to close my mind to all but the essential sounds of life: breathing, moving, pumping.  And this in turn teaches me about telling stories.  Writers must find dedication and endurance.  We must close our minds to all but the essential sounds of a story.  We must dig and fight and struggle to tell the truth. Murakami points to a basic and primary connection between the physical and the creative.

By mile three, I’m writing.  I sift through memories and brainstorm beginnings.  I plan careful prose on downhills and compose workaday correspondence on gradual inclines.  Big hills are quiet space.  I suck air and think only of my footfalls and a shortening, scrappy stride. But at the top of my favorite hills, I feel good – sort of hyperaware and supercharged. Words and images flood my tired body.  I have new ideas.   My runs give me the energy and strength to confront Murakami’s human “toxins.”

– S