cypress forest

perhaps in his third life vincent van gogh
comes back as an astronaut
and finds that the sky is just as he dreamed,
drifting like a fishing boat through the glory of stars,
eyes open until they blur and the coils
of the galaxy grow soft, until he sees
brushstrokes in the vast expanse
of darkness and feels his heart
climb into his throat, with only the gentle
hiss of his radio and his heartbeat
in his ears, mimes cupping the yellow
sun like a sunflower, traces the stroke of the milky
way with one gloved hand like the edges
of a leaning cypress, a forest of stars above him
and far below, like a careful whorl of blue
and green paint, the whole world
full of love underneath him, and knows
with a certainty in his heart like astrophysics,
somewhere far, far beneath him, beyond
what he can see, lies a wheat field,
and a long stretch of sunny road that leads
all the way to tarascon.
—  s.s., the astronaut

münster marathon | september 6

this is out of chronological order for my trip, but i really want to write about the marathon while it’s fresh. and this requires no photo uploading/editing/organizing so it’s an easy one. this is mostly for my record of the experience, so it got a little long!

i rolled into münster from amsterdam early saturday afternoon. it was cool and drizzly and with its old trees and medieval buildings, it felt like like i was in some elfin harry potter dreamland. i dropped my stuff at the hotel and proceeded to get wildly lost trying to find the race packet pickup. it wasn’t far away, but there was all kinds of exciting hubbub in the city center [a band, beer, a bike show!], which i paid more attention to than i did to my map, on which all of the “straßes” had started to look the same anyway. eventually i got my bearings and my gear. the sky had cleared so i went for a short shake-out run on the greenway, then for a pre-race meal of pasta and a beer. i slept like the dead for about six hours before tossing + turning through the early morning.

race day brought glorious temperatures in the 50s – a dream after training through the steamy north carolina summer. at breakfast, i think i confused the server by refusing all of their food [which sounded delicious, and was, i confirmed the next morning] and asking only for coffee and bread, on which i spread the peanut butter i’d brought from home. as a bonafide peanut butter fiend, i’ve become well acquainted with its absence in other parts of the world, and made sure to bring a stash so i could eat my usual pre-long run meal. 

as i started my ten minute walk to the start line, the atmosphere felt similar to big races i’ve done in the past – anticipation buzzed among the runners, the energy absolutely palpable by the time you reach the start chute – with the interesting added element of not being able to understand a word anyone was saying. it was breezy and chilly as i snaked through the crowd toward the 3:45 pace group [at this point, i had no idea if i was under or over estimating myself with that choice], taking stock of the people around me and the general goings-on. sadly, there didn’t seem to be many women in my area and i also noticed that many people were without earbuds, in contrast to most races i’ve run. a woman was singing over the loudspeaker. the song selection was bizarre – coldplay’s “fix you” and another that’s escaping me now, but the theme was love conquering all [it seemed to do that a lot in the 90s] and was originally by a phil collins-type. just before 9am, a man came on the loudspeaker, with techno in the background, exclaiming things in german that got the crowd happily riled up. i was thoroughly enjoying the whole spectacle and wouldn’t have minded it going on for a while, but this being germany, the race started promptly on time.

at first i kept my music off because there were so many spectators and bands and i wanted to take it all in. eventually as things evened out i turned on my trusty tunes [the jane doze mix tapes] and quickly felt myself move into the zone. the first 12-15 kilometers of the race wound through the city center and historic areas with some bits on the “promenade” as well. a few [blessedly short] stretches were on cobblestone. saying that it was beautiful would be an understatement. i felt like i was running through a different world. there is absolutely something to be said for participating in an event like this in a place where every single thing is new to you. i wasn’t ready for how invigorating it would feel and i heard my mind say “holy s–t, you’re really doing this!” more than once.

the course went through some suburban neighborhoods, which were also teeming with people. this was, hands down, the best spectator race i’ve ever run – they were everywhere and very lively. by 20k i was out in the countryside. [it’s probably worth mentioning my naivety here: it had not even occurred to me that the race would not be measured in miles. obviously i knew we were on the metric system, it just wasn’t something i’d thought about. so throughout the race i was constantly trying to convert using 5k/3.1 miles as a guide and i rarely knew exactly where i was distance-wise] as it turns out, the rural areas outside münster are spectacular and very reminiscent of tuscany. there were stone barn buildings, long roads lined with cypress, forests, fields, horses. people walking out to the ends of their driveways to watch the runners. i was in disbelief at the beauty and serenity. i’m not sure if it was the point i was at in the race or that my mind was so content, but i felt like i was running my fastest and easiest throughout this 12-13k. i didn’t even have to think about what my body was doing and my mind wandered. i thought about what the past year has been like. i tapped into moments i hadn’t re-lived in months: how desolate i felt at the beginning of this year when my loss seemed so vast and irrevocable, when i felt lost and insecure, hollow and confused. i thought about how, at that time, i couldn’t have fathomed a sliver of the happiness that was now so literally pumping through my veins. i thought about how i’d figured out what i needed and made it happen and i was filled with an immense gratitude. i realize this sounds like a lot, but the goal of this race and trip was to help me channel something devastating into something magnificent, so these thoughts were part of my process. and besides, your mind starts to do strange things when you’re closing in on three hours of running.

around 32-33k [roughly mile 20] we started to move back into the suburbs. i looked at my watch for the first time and was pleased. this was a fun area to run through because of the spectators. there were so many families out with signs, tables of provisions, noisemakers, kids in costumes. it made for such a lively atmosphere. somewhere in the neighborhood of 21 miles i felt the first inklings of fatigue, which turned into the real thing around 22 or 23, as usual. luckily my head seemed to be ready for this too and its constant [and ruthless! my mind seems to get a mind of its own when it’s time to do work] stream of monologue – you’re not tired, you just think you’re tired. keep going. you’ve f—–g got this. remember why you’re doing this. move faster. – pushed me through those last, seemingly endless kilometers. before i knew it, there was only one to go. we were back in the historic center, on cobblestone, the crowd was thick and loud, and i could see the streamers of the finish. i realized i’d finished in 3:42:15 [which meant average 8:29/mile and a pretty significant new PR] and a few happy tears came.

now, american race planners could learn something from the germans. i rarely get a beer after races here because the lines are always so slow and long. but there? i waited about four seconds for a large, delicious german beer, which were unlimited for runners. nice work, münster. i slowly sipped my beer, made sure to keep walking, and just enjoyed the post-race chaos. later that afternoon, i showered, stretched, rested, and emailed some family + friends about the race before going out for a burger and a huge beer. i was too tired for much else. my real post-race celebration started the next afternoon when i met a musician + some lovely locals in brugge and then closed down the bar with said folks around 5am. but that’s another story for another day.