New Slang: How One E-mail Changed My Life

By: Catherine Barrerra

One confession, followed by one bold assertion:
One, my brother is a recovered alcoholic.
And the bold assertion? I have the best running coaches in the whole, wide world. 🙂

Four years ago, right before I started running with Carmen and Ricardo (Troncoso, in case you are not from this planet, ha ha!), my brother called me from California. He calls all the time, he’s one of my best friends, but on this particular occasion, I could tell immediately that something was up. His voice was shaky, he seemed scattered, “Cath, hey, what’s up?” Pause, then, “Cath, I do have a drinking problem, can you help me?” His breathing gets louder, like the phone is morphing into his lower face. “I wanna get sober,” insert trembling sighs here, “but I need you guys.” Awkward pause, then, “Is it ok, I mean, would it be alright with you guys, if I came to live with you for a few weeks and try to get sober, it’ll be easier away from California, I want a clean start.”

And so began my journey into the world of recovery-programs. In fact, the day after my brother got here to Austin, I went with him to his first recovery meeting. He was nervous, he wanted us to sit right by the door, so if all the anticipated self-help talk got to weird or mushy, we could just bolt, fast and easy. But we didn’t leave, in fact, not for a long time until after the meeting was over. My brother did just what you see actors do in movies: that is, in the opening part of the service, he stood up in front of everyone, scared, but tall and strong, and he said, “Hi, my name is Dave, and I am an alcoholic.” It was the first time I’d ever heard him label himself that way, he was humbling himself, eating crow, making himself vulnerable. All the macho bravado disappeared right there on the floor. Put another way, he checked his ego at the starting line.

He has been sober for more than four years now. But as any of us with an addict loved-one knows, it is not just the addict who is transformed by sobriety, it is also his/her family and friends. Yep, I got my brother back, which is the best part about his sobriety. As a bonus, though, I’ve also been able to glean some moral guidance second-hand from his recovery-program lessons, because, well, he talks about its basic tenets all the time. So, logically, sometimes I philosophize back at him, “Tio (that’s what my kids call him), how did you know, ever since that very first meeting in Austin, that this stuff was gonna work for you? What clicked that gave you the strength to confront every ounce of fear, anger, sin you’ve ever known?” I’m asking because I love my brother and I really want to know how this kind of magic works, how it has cast this spell over him, but I’m also asking because whatever it is, I want to be able to apply some of it to my own life so that I can clean my closet of all my dirty skeletons!

And he says to me, “Because I surrendered. To a higher being, whether I’d chosen God or a hair brush or the smell of incense, that’s personal. But I had to learn to have faith that this world, and my presence in it, is being overseen by something larger, something more driving than what I’d ever fathomed. I used to think that I owned my universe, that I had total control over my fate. Now I realize that l was all about pride and ego. There’s too much stuff flying at us all the time, and all I can do is operate in the today with all the skills I’m learning, and I’ve handed over my trust to my higher being, to help me pave my way into a sober tomorrow.”

What the ???? Admitting that I know nothing? I’m 45, Tio!!!! I have my PhD, I’m a “retired” Professor, are you kidding me? I’ve relied on “science” to explain why cause “A” leads to effect “B”. And when that methodology has failed me in the past, I’ve indulged in countless hours of therapy to clear my head. And now my brother is suggesting that I throw all that out the window and start at Square One?!? REALLY???

I am not a formal religious practitioner. I believe that, yes, it is very, very good to self-reflect and try to be a better person, and I have a few personal techniques in place for trying to work on these ends, but I haven’t found yet my solutions in a particular institution. I know this is off-putting to lots of people, but hang with me here. Because with the words that follow, I’m gonna try to connect recovery programs and the corresponding faith they require in participants, on the one hand, to my coaches, on the other. Disclaimer: it is not my intention to suggest here that Carmen and Ricardo are saints or messiahs; however, I think that in the mere four years I have known them, they have taught me how to “rehumble” myself, how to dig way, way deeper than was comfortable for me, and hence, how to grow, both as a runner and as a person. How to check my ego at the starting line.

When I first met Carmen and Ricardo, I got hurt all the time. I got achilles tendinitis so accutely that my ankles looked like they had been injected with tennis balls. But, as the “owner of my universe”, I thought I had everything under control. I went to group workouts when it suited me, and I did the prescribed reps on my own when I deemed that best. Unilateral decisions, I thought I knew what I was doing. I was driven, diligent, and, well, way too proud.

So finally, after several false starts, an email arrives from Carmen that suggests she is finding my stubborn temperament (and eternally injured status) a bit of a drain. She writes (here I improvise), “I think you need to decide if you want to know how fast you can run. You don’t have to want that, but you need to be honest with yourself about why you are in this.”

I read her words. Then I reread. And then I reread again.

And I am annoyed!!!! Because OBVIOUSLY I wanna see how fast I can run! I mean, I get up at 6:00 on Saturday mornings (or, sometimes I do, depending on how scary the workout sounds) to flail around that track ’til I think I’m gonna vomit, I mean, what the????? Ok, maybe I’m not very precise with the paces Carmen has carefully set for me, but I so totally know what I’m doing. I mean, whhhaaaattever! I go immediately to my husband. Kids in bed, house quiet, I turn to him, “Steve, I’m so totally freaking out, I mean, what does this mean, right?” I shove the laptop at him. “Read this email!” It’s silent as Steve reads. And then he says, “Well, do you think you do want to see how fast you can run?”

You know that Shins song “New Slang”, made famous in the movie “Garden State”? Natalie Portman hands Zach Braff her earphones while they’re in the doctors’ waiting room, and she invites him to listen to this one song, which she insists “will change his life”? Well, folks, Carmen’s question to me about what I wanted from running  was, ultimately, my personal “New Slang”. That email changed my life.

Because I had to dig deep. I had to ask myself why I was afraid of trying to run as fast as I could (what if I couldn’t run fast?) I had to follow someone else’s plan (I’m inherently a cynic; I think I know way more than everyone else). Just like my brother, I had to begin to learn to check my ego at the start line. I had to admit that even at 40 years of age, I still had nagging fears and insecurities, it’s just that, as an adult, I had developed more complex and sophisticated techniques for hiding from them. And, ultimately, I had to have faith that Carmen and Ricardo had my best interests at heart.

But it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Fast forward three years. We’re at Zilker Park doing 1k reps. It’s the end of summer. This is relevant because “end of summer” means “beginning of race season”, starting with Zilker Relays and IBM. This time of year is anxiety-provoking for most of us runners here in Austin.

Anyway, workout explained, off we all go, quickly breaking into our different pace groups, me with my pack of four or so, Carmen moving back and forth among all 20 us. And I start talking about the beauty and poise in the running forms of my teammates in the very front pack. Carmen suggests that I stop talking and focus on myself. I don’t hear her because I am talking, but I’m also gasping for air because we are running these 1k’s hard. I am trying to make people laugh and feel light, because this is really hard running like this, so I keep talking. By the time we finish that first rep, Carmen is annoyed with me. She says so, in front of whomever is within earshot. I am so in the doghouse. Man, I wished there were a doghouse nearby so I could have crawled into it right then!

I finish the workout as prescribed, and then I go home. And I replay in my head the morning’s events. Because, yes, my ego is hurt, Carmen “scolded” me, and adults generally don’t like to be scolded by other adults, particularly competitive adults like me. And when I am suffering from a wounded ego, I get defensive, and then I get angry, and I want to deflect all blame away from myself, throw it back in the face of the evil, mistaken, terrible person who did this to sweet little me. 😦

Deep breath.

Pause.

Reflect.

Because one of the coolest things I have learned under the guidance of the Troncosos is that my pride can get in the way of my running. In turn, as I’ve discovered via my brother, a lot of my pride is just a facade to cover up my fears. So on that infamous morning, I get showered, pour myself a hot cup of coffee, turn on music, stare out the window at my backyard garden. And in that moment, I have this revelation, that I’m scared I can’t run fast, that my best days are behind me. I mean, on the one hand, I tell Carmen that I wanna run faster, and so she draws up thoughtful workouts to help us achieve these ends, but with the assumption that we will dedicate 100% of ourselves, emotionally and physically, to her hand-crafted workouts. On the other hand, I’m suddenly aware that I’m so dragging my feet about giving 100% of myself emotionally, maybe because I still feel raw from my dad’s death, and the possibility of not being a “good” runner right now feels like it might just be the end of me. The idea of running held me together through my dad’s last six months, even as I was injured for much of it so I couldn’t compete the way I would have liked. But the training kept me focused and distracted from my dad’s deteriorating condition. And I guess in the back of my head, I reasoned that once he was gone, I would rediscover my running potential, only then would I really be able to give 100%. But that time had arrived on that hot August morning, like I was suddenly broken out of a six month deep freeze, and what if, finally freed up to run new PR’s, I couldn’t produce the times I’d promised myself? Oh, God, what if my PR’s had all been just flukes?

Easier than addressing that fear, though, was to hide behind my infamous chattering and mindless commentary, blah, blah, I’m-not-really-trying-on-this-workout-in case-I suck-it, blah, blah, I-am-trying-to-convince-myself-this-workout-doesn’t mean-anything-to-me, blah, blah.

And Carmen called me on it. She knew what I was doing to myself, she knew how much I wanted to relearn to run well, and she knew exactly what it was gonna take to get me there.

My brother says that the ugliest enemy we will ever face is fear: that people won’t like us, that we’re not smart enough, that we’re not rich enough, or, in this case, that we can’t run fast enough. A natural tendency is to hide all our self-doubt behind a screen of pride, “I could have beaten her if the weather had been different” or, “My splits would have been better if I’d really tried” or, “I didn’t run so great today because I was jabbering on and on, ostensibly to lighten up the mood among my teammates, but in reality, to distract myself from the possibility that maybe I can’t run fast anymore.” And that kind of faking it doesn’t benefit any runner bent on improvement. I bet each fib I tell myself, each rep I hold back just a little to assuage my ego, I bet that translates into a loss of “X” seconds per mile. And as we all know, “X” Seconds Per Mile are what motivate us!!  So I’ve had to try to get honest with myself.

The sum of all this? Four years later, I’ve finally learned that to push myself physically requires that I absolutely and positively MUST surrender myself emotionally, but all under the protective wing of my fabulous coaches. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t allow myself to be vulnerable or even open to just anyone. But four years is a significant amount of time to “work” with someone, so that mutual appreciation is able to develop. Carmen and Ricardo are certainly aware of my flaws, and I, in turn, recognize that they are human. But my coaches KNOW me: they know how fast I might be able to run someday, they know at what pace I should be running my 400’s at this particular stage of my recovery, they know how my feet get stiff like slabs of rock so that they don’t bend at all. But they also know why I don’t like to come to workouts on the Tuesdays before a big race (I go into my head during that week– Carmen noticed it, not me), and they know that sometimes when I talk too much during a workout, it’s because I’m afraid I might not be good enough for me. I trust Carmen and Ricardo as my coaches because I think they see running as a holistic endeavor. If we want to run faster, and as we become more and more focused on peeling a second or two from each mile pace, McMillan alone cannot secure the way. At this point, I think, when we are really pushing ourselves, we have to be willing to dig deeply and honestly into our hearts and our heads to uncover why we hold back just a little at the end of a race, or why we go out just a little too fast on the first rep of a workout.

I’m listed in the “recovery group” of our team workout plans. I will run fast again one day. I believe that. And at that time, I will be very, very happy. But along this 4-year old running journey, I have gained so much more than a list of race times that make me proud. Yes, I’ve had to dig deep on that last 100 meters of sprint reps, gone to that place where there is the taste of blood in your mouth and your legs feel like lead weights. But I’ve dug even deeper in my emotional life, because trying to figure out what scares me and how I might be able to remedy those things is a workout I plan to incorporate permanently into my “life schedule”.

P.S.: I have the best running coaches in the whole, wide world.

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One response to “New Slang: How One E-mail Changed My Life”

  1. Elena says :

    beautiful writing

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