Last night, I went to The Moth StorySLAM (@mothstories) at the Nuyorican, once again with a story prepared, and while my odds were better this time (apparently there were 20 total names in the hat as opposed to the 30-plus when I last went in March), I still didn't get called to the stage. It's too bad too, because while I wasn't that happy with how I had the story working in my head, halfway through the evening, even though there really wasn't one truly bad story tonight (a new experience for me), I think mine -- for all its faults -- would have probably been graded in the top two or three.
Doesn't matter. I was actually baffled by the winner again. Just like last time I was at the Nuyorican, the final person selected of the evening was slightly peculiar with a very peculiar story that had the crowd roaring but as much because of the what-the-fuck quotient as anything funny happening in the story. Also, and more importantly, the winning story arguably had very little to do with the them of the evening which was "Ambition."
To me, it seemed only natural what my story would be if only because I had no other personal stories relating to ambition immediately springing to mind. Ironically, one of my most ambitious (and unmet) goals over the past couple years was to use these storyslams as as personal deadlines and writing exercises. I've found that thoughtless free writing has been very helpful to me at times, and utilizing the themes for the Moth storyslams a a launching point could help me form a valuable writing habit and become a regular outlet. Sure, I could do that without going and signing up to tell the story, but of course, omitting that part is actually a bit of a cop-out, and having that hard deadline where I might have to stand in front of people and tell my story means that I need to focus on it at least a little bit more than simply sitting with the theme and writing a few pages at will.
But my ambitions in this arena have met total failure. I've intended to do this for a long time, and yet, I've only written and gone (including tonight) four times. The first time I went over two years ago, I was selected to tell my story, but the second time, I was among a large throng that didn't even get into the room. And then there was June at the Nuyorican where I wasn't picked.
I wasn't picked again tonight, and fair warning: I didn't write about my Moth ambitions. Of course not. I wrote about what occupied my brain most of the summer and has dominated the few posts on this blog over the past several weeks. But this is it: a slightly different (and much shorter) take on my triathlon experience. The last time I talk about the damn thing until I maybe decide to do another one. Starting tomorrow, Out of Focus will return to its more logical and organic (i.e., non-athletic endeavors usually featuring flickering images of light) state. But for now, for the last time, the story I would have told had my name been called last night at The Moth: The Guilt Complex after the jump.
I couldn't run a mile on a treadmill, but I thought it made perfect sense for me to do a triathlon. Earlier this year, this sleek, svelte, athletic machine-like body you see standing before you was heavier than it had been before in its life. I wasn't about to be qualify for The Biggest Loser, but I was too damn fat as opposed to just moderately fat. I needed to do something, and even though several of my friends who were all too familiar for my natural propensity towards root-vegetable-like laziness, I knew that something as mammoth as a triathlon was the only thing that would kick my ass into gear. But having the event itself as a goal was only a part -- and really, a minor one, at that -- of what it would take to get this film and television addict disciplined.
Now, let’s get one thing straight, because as I told people I was doing this and I saw their eyes widen as if to say, "I didn't know Aaron was actually insane and stupid," I quickly discovered that when people hear "triathlon," they actually think Ironman. A triathlon only means an athletic event in three parts, and in general, it means swimming followed by cycling followed by running. An Ironman triathlon is a 2.4 mile swim, followed by 112 miles on a bike, and to cap it all off, you run a marathon. Yes, the 26.2 mile run is last.
I’m not crazy. Or at least, not that crazy. For one thing, I hate running. I don’t want to run a marathon on its own, much less after swimming and biking. But something about the three together seemed appealing, and triathlons come in several different distances, the most common being the official Olympic distance: 1500 meters (or 9/10 of a mile) followed by a 40K (25 mile) bike ride and a 10K (6.2 mile) run.
I had a few friends who had participated in endurance athletic events through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program, and I figured that was a good way to do it. Of course, I thought it would be great to have the support from other people training for the same event, and I loved the idea of not having to worry about any of the logistics, plus having scheduled and coached practices would help me a lot. But the main reason I knew I needed to do this through an organization like Team in Training was because in order to receive all their support, I would have to raise $3000 for LLS. My grandfather passed away 15 years ago from Leukemia, so raising money to help cure blood cancers and support patients was certainly a worthy endeavor. But still, for me, it was something else. For me, needing to raise $3000 from family, friends and colleagues would give me something much more vital; something I knew was the only way I would discipline myself to work hard enough to make it through the triathlon and not flake along the way. I needed ...
... THE GUILT COMPLEX!
That’s right. You may be familiar with it even if you have never identified it by its proper name. I'm fairly certain the guilt complex is in my blood, brought over from the old country by my great grandparents at the turn of the 20th Century. Every good (and bad) Jew knows exactly what I’m talking about. Catholics too. The guilt complex is that one part of religious DNA that held even as disciples became apostles. The guilt complex is a motivational power that trumps all others. It didn’t matter how consciously ambitious I might be. There were certainly any number of other ways I could kick start myself to get into shape. I didn’t need to do a triathlon where I needed to master three events, two of which I had no real experience in whatsoever.
Signing up with Team in Training meant that not only would I go tell just about everyone I knew that I was planning to train for a triathlon, but I also had to ask them to donate money on my behalf. And so once I’ve put myself out there to family, friends and colleagues and actually taking their money even for a good cause … well … I couldn’t flake.
Could you imagine the guilt?
That’s the guilt complex.
An appropriate and sizable enough guilt complex can push you up any mountain. I can flake on myself, but I can't flake on people who believed in me and parted with their money in my name. And so, I trained. And sometimes I did flake, got scared that I was falling behind, and felt guilty that I was going to fail, so I trained again. And trained harder. And pushed myself harder. At first, I had to stop every two laps of the pool, but several weeks later, suddenly I was swimming a full mile without stopping. At first, I couldn’t run that mile on a treadmill. Then I couldn’t run two outside. Then I couldn’t run three or four. But weeks later, next thing you know, I could five. And six. And seven-and-a-half. Oh, I still hated running; bored me to tears and hurt like hell. But I could do it.
The thing is, one part of me didn't give a shit about the guilt complex. Sure, intellectually and even emotionally, the guilt complex was all powerful. But physically? My body didn't give two shits about my unemployed friends and their $10 donations. It didn't like this heightened activity, and it made its feelings known. Aching, lingering muscle soreness, but it didn't stop me. So my body tried some tricks. First, that nasty carpal tunnel that had been hiding behind 20 years od too much typing? My wrists figured all the leaning on handlebars could be the trigger to make it flare up. But that didn't stop me, so my body took some more drastic measures.
One day, I was headed out to an early morning cycling practice, and carrying my bike down the stairs, my foot decided that maybe I’d take it back to bed if it slipped out from under me. I fell down the stairs, landing on my ass but scraping and gashing the inside of each bicep. But no … my foot miscalculated. I went upstairs, cleaned my wounds and went to practice anyway.
A few weeks later, my body tried to mess with me again, this time by distracting my brain. I’m not usually a klutz, and I’ve only been in an accident or fallen off my bike once in my life. But again, early on a Saturday morning while headed to a bike practice, I was riding in to Prospect Park when, in an attempt to injure me, my hands said, “Hey brain, look over there,” and as my brain turned and went, “Ruh?”, the hands tried to fix my gear shift by both pushing on the same side of the handle bars, making me wipe out scrape up the knuckles of one hand and get a nasty huge hematoma on my right calf. (PSA: I was wearing a helmet. My temple hit pavement. Always wear a helmet, even if you’re riding smarter than I was.) I didn’t make it to practice that day because this huge swelling dark spot on my calf scared me enough to head to the ER.
And yet, I was still determined and not deterred. My body was sore and I kept getting injured, but the guilt complex prevailed. At that point, I had raised almost all the money. But my body was still pissed at me, and without warning, just as I was hitting the seven-mile-plus running distances two weeks before the race, it decided to pull out its trump card. I guess I was asleep when my right knee told the rest of my body, “Leave this to me,” but boy did it start hurting. As I was running. Almost every time. During those last two weeks, you're supposed to rest, not train as hard or for as long. Tapering they call it. Keep the muscles active, but rest for the big day. But even doing short runs was hurting.
And still, I had come so far. I knew I could do this thing, and all of it. My goals were now even higher than when I had started. Originally I told myself, If you wind-up walking half of the run, that’s fine. You’re not a runner. But now, even as I still hated it, I WAS a runner. I could do it. If only my knee would agree. So I went to an orthopedist, he told me nothing major seemed wrong and I likely just had some common patella inflammation. He gave me a cortisone shot, told me to up my Advil, and I should be fine.
The day of the race arrived, and I was still a little nervous about the knee. It hadn’t completely stopped hurting, but I thought I could power through. I beat my body! And yet, my body was sneaky. It apparently had a connection to the weather gods about which I was completely unaware. From the time we arrived at the transition area at 5 am, through the start, it rained. I think it stopped raining a bit while we were swimming in Long Island sound, but that didn’t matter because the sound got nice and choppy, forcing me to swallow salt water and even retching once or twice. I could quit now, right? I gave it my all.
NO. THE GUILT!!!!!
It pushed me along, and by the time I got out of the water, it was raining again. Because of the rain, I had set all my bike stuff in a garbage bag so it wouldn’t get wet, but after taking off on my bike, I realized I had forgotten my biking glasses. Sure there was no sun, but during the bike course, as I averaged 17 mph and had the rain and wind pelting me in the face, the glasses would have been nice for my eyes. It was also warmer swimming in Long Island sound on this horrid late September day, and while my body wasn’t that cold, my waterlogged feet were freezing and growing numb. I counted down every mile until I would be back. BI was looking forward to the run less than ever. Running in the rain was something I enjoyed even less than running not in the rain. But I couldn't quit now, so I put on my running shoes and took off. About a mile in, I landed in a big puddle and was beyond miserable yet again.
But next thing I knew, after nearly an hour of wet misery and seven total hours outside in the rain, there it was. The finish line. And as I charged through it and suddenly realized that now my summer was really over, that I had made it, through all the obstacles and the pain and the rain and fulfilled the goal with flying colors ... as I ran over to the food tent and started Hoovering pizza and bagles and peanut butter and Gatorade and water, I noticed, the guilt was gone. And as annoying as it was, it had done its job. I needed it. It had helped. And frankly, it's not such a bad crush, because in the end ... I had won.