Time compresses and leaps in starts and fits. A six month lease in my early twenties felt like a lifetime of commitment. That was six months of high-stakes productivity. Songs to be written, places to see, experiences to have. Who knew what city I’d be headed off to next? (high mileage Mercury Sable permitting.) Now a three year contract felt like a blink. In my thirties, I’ve settled into a rhythm of teaching and running that melts the days away. It all adds up to something, but the rewards aren’t as immediate or palpable as they were. Breakthroughs are more infrequent, but there’s something about a routine. Feelings fluctuate between boredom and comfort as the days tick off.
In high school, I could never fathom the sense of time in Homer’s Odyssey. Seven years stuck on an island? A windstorm that causes a year-long setback? It felt flippant with time in a way to which I couldn’t relate.
I’m definitely not comparing myself to Odysseus–I’m just a teacher with a guitar, a pair of running shoes, and a dog that makes uncomfortably long eye contact; not a bow, a sick boat and a loyal crew– but there is something relatable to his journey. The pull of home that caused him to brush paths with heroes, gods, demigods, monsters and new lands. That same pull has led me all over the world during my eleven years abroad.
As an international school teacher, it feels like I’ve spent a lot of time on detours. Late nights grading, planning activities schedules, talking to insomniac students in the dorms. These are the small detours. And then there are the big ones like taking on teaching social studies full time despite background and training in English. The tasks and pathways have shape-shifted depending on my many roles, but they’ve been constant. We tell ourselves that these are extra lines on our resumes, that they’ll serve us in the future in some regard. These detours are never exactly what we are looking for but eventually add up to a career. Every decision has compromise embedded in it, but some can feel like a big step in the wrong direction.
As my move back stateside approaches in June, my image of what it will be like grows blurrier. Recently it’s become clearer that running needs to be halted. Nerve pain and ankle issues are telling me to stop. The long distances have slowly pounded my lower vertebrae together to a point that my running form is painful and tottering. I can get through a workout, but the run spent holding my breath and hoping that this isn’t the run that pushes my body over the edge.
Running was supposed to be the backup plan next year if nothing turned up in the world of teaching, but that isn’t seeming to pan out either. Although I have enough experiences in education to fill over a decade, none of them seem to be the right experiences. I’m missing this or that. Applications and interviews have so far been dead ends.
I’m starting to have to pull the frame back a bit. Maybe teaching and running need to be shed for the time being. These giant parts of my identity need to be let go in order for the journey to continue. It’s nerve-wracking and sometimes terrifying to put both on hold. These two mainstays in my daily routine are melting away to leave behind who knows what?
Setbacks seem like detours until you’ve reached where you needed to be. Journeys sometimes only make sense once they’re done. A voyage is never a direct one, and sometimes you’re closest to progress when you feel the farthest away from it. Steps along the way can seem like detours in the moment, but end up comprising the core components of a necessary voyage to home.
There was a night in high school where it became too much. The dull hum of small town Bridgton, Maine had dipped its toes into our ears before deciding that the water was just fine and that it could make itself right at home in our heads. That hum had grown in volume over time creeping up to a buzz and then a loud rumble. Our eyes started to shake and our fingers started to tap. The asphalt of main street stretched out out out until, at 10pm on a random fall night, we started driving south. Three high school guys with nothing to do, we made our way to one of the only places that is reliably open in Maine 24/7: L.L.Bean.
I don’t remember much of that night except wandering the empty store, buying nothing, hitting a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through and getting some light and sweet coffee, and, as the sun was rising, the classic rock station playing Here Comes the Sun. There’s an achievement in itself to staying up all night. We made a few dumb phone calls, left a few voice messages. In the early morning we pulled back into our town’s beach parking lot and jumped into the frigid fall lake. The glint of those weary but vivid rays mixed with the sugary coffee and tasted like the present. The town woke up unaware of our night spent on the backroads of Maine.
There’s a secrecy to breakthrough moments. Something that’s often not worth articulating because it would evaporate in the explanation. In the world of ultrarunning, these breakthrough moments seem to exist along side those of bottom-of-the-well desperation. I had a few of both in my most recent ultra: the High Trail Nine Peaks in Ulju, South Korea. The course was a soul-sapping 105km loop over, you guessed it, nine peaks that added up to an ascent about equal to the elevation of Mount Everest from sea level. And to make it more fun? A midnight start.
As the sun rose after seven plus hours of running dark trails over peaks and through small-town roads (some not unlike Bridgton) a moment hit. The loaded spring of months of training released and propelled me into the day’s first hour. A dog in the distance barked and I barked back. The trail had become a reality of existence. The only thing was to move forward on it and let it unveil the scenery and experience.
The race was a quiet one. I was one of three foreigners and it felt like a disconnect, like I was kind of running my own race. Maybe it was in my head, but it felt like when other runners saw me they either wanted to pass me or were surprised at seeing a foreigner. This wasn’t true for the kind folks at the aid stations though. They took reliably good care of me. Other than that the trail was mostly a lonely one. Usually I relish the lonesome trail, but at another point after over twenty hours of little to know interaction the silence had started to feel like a weight. I found two other runners on the dark trail at my pace and formed a bit of a pack. We hiked along in stride, silently lapping up the dark kilometers. I imagined I was in the army, marching through the night under orders.
I started out the race feeling strong. Despite the daunting 105km ahead of me, I plodded off into the dark with the intention to put distance between me and most of the pack. My legs started to work the first ascent as headlights danced behind me on the trail. “Alright, Tim, 10 minutes and and all systems are go. Breathing is good, poles are working it, legs are feeling great and….” fuck! I was suddenly skidding face first down the trail. My pole had caught my shoe and used my momentum to fling me forward. I popped back up with a skinned knee and no small amount of pain. Great start, Cushing. Now time to keep moving. Don’t think about it.
As the night wore on, I kept to the plan. Keep sipping water. Check in with the body. Keep eating gels. The aid stations were efficient and progress was steady. By that first sunrise breakthrough, some confidence was starting to find its way into my stomach. My knee hurt a bit from that fall, but other than that all systems were go.
The day dripped away in hourly increments. A small headache set in that I monitored closely. These had had a habit of turning into full-blown migraines in the past, and I was determined to stave off this one through sheer will and lots of electrolytes. To my amazement, this strategy worked. In the heat of the day, the trail meandered through some of the most stunning views of the course. I popped in my headphones and queued upmy playlist. My legs kicked when I asked them to. I zigzagged through groups of hikers. At a popular peak a race photographer snapped my picture and I refueled before resuming movement.
The trail itself is probably best summed up in one of the only few texts that I sent out during the run: “This race is satan.” The flats were few. You are either moving up or down. As for terrain, take your pick of adjective: jagged, sharp, stabby, snaggy, agro, thorny. There were a few times when I woke from a running trance to realize that I was lost in a bramble patch. I had to trace back and find a flag, pick a new direction and push on. Lazarus Lake, the creator of the infamous Barkley’s Marathon could take some notes. I thought about this as I bulldozed through a few small trees to get back to the trail.
Night descended for a second time and I flicked on my headlamp. The end was the slightest bit palpable. Coming into the next town and one of the final big aid stations my legs found some bounce. My body was responding and some focus clicked in. I picked off five runners and left them behind in the dark. I came up on another group and blew by them. I churned into the aid station, grabbed some snacks and sat cross-legged as I made preparations for the hardest section of the race.
Exiting that aid station I still felt good. Maybe it was dehydration or hunger or exhaustion or delusion, but a punchy humor seeped in. I began an ascent with a few other runners in the distance. Something glowed in the woods. It looked like a golden levitating cross-legged Buddha in the forest, emanating light. This turned out to just be a sign warning of falling rocks that was catching light from my headlamp. The hallucinations continued. The reflector vests of the runners ahead of me started to dance. They were neon football pads and then animated frogs moving to the rhythm of Demon Days by Gorillaz in my headphone. “Rad,” I thought and smiled. My eyes were playing tricks but my legs were strong. I caught up to the dancing frogs and left them behind in my wake. That climb eventually hit a peak and brought me down. The trail was flat and I started to cruise at my fastest pace of the race, putting healthy distance between the pack that I had passed.
On the race profile there’s a sheer climb that I had been dreading. It was about 700 meters of straight up that I knew would hurt a lot at that stage of the run. I hit the climb and tried not to think about it. Jack Kuenzle, a dynamite runner who took the White Mountains Hut Traverse FKT last summer reiterated a mountain mantra on a recent podcast that stuck with me: “Slow is fast and fast is smooth.” My brother said the same exact words in a phone call before the race. I tried to focus on that. Small smart movements that could add up to success. The climb melted away. I passed a few more people, reached a flat and raced off into the night.
The end felt near. I was low on water, but getting closer. That’s when a painfully long stretch of up and down began. Frustration set in. I was thirsty. I wanted the race to be over. “Focus Cushing, focus,” I muttered intermittently. The hallucinations had continued and all the rocks seemed to have tiny playful faces on them like something out of Princess Mononoke. Mountain spirits. The rolling hills played mind games. I couldn’t tell if a large looming silhouette was another mountain that I had to climb or just a trick of the night. And then my watch shut down. I cursed as I fished out my battery and cord. Without the race gpx file the organizers wouldn’t count my time. Did the file save? Was all the data gone? I couldn’t think about it now. As I waited for the watch to kick on I looked behind me down the trail at a few headlamps that were meandering in my direction. They weren’t going to catch me. The watch flicked back to life. I started a new file and hoped that the other 20 hours of data was still on there somewhere.
There was one final aid station before the finish. I knew I was close but my headlamp was dangerously dim. I had to stop again. It was then that a small bell sound started to shimmer from behind me down the trail. Oh great, are we starting auditory hallucinations now? Nope. Two ladies blew by me, one who was wearing a tiny bell on her pack that taunted me as they churned on. I managed to muster a small “fighting!” for them. Batteries clicked into my headlamp and the chase was on.
When I got to the final aid station Tinker Bell was there but her friend had pushed on. We gave some encouragement to each other. “You’re amazing,” she said and grinned. I lit up at the unexpected words. A paradox of competition and encouragement is rife in ultrarunning. The same runners that we leapfrog battle with over hours of terrain can be our biggest encouragement. She took off a few minutes before me as I greedily downed some water. “How many more kilometers?” I asked the volunteer. “Six,” he said. I had this. First I had to catch up to that nice lady with the bell.
I chased Tinker Bell’s tinkling noise through the dark. Passed her. Kept going. The descent was on road and my legs felt strong. I wanted to catch her friend. I hit the final trail section that would bring me to the finish and just kept churning. I passed the friend. She looked pretty cooked. I’m sure I looked the same. But the finish line was near and I had discovered a little something left in the tank. I erupted into the finish area, and a wave of triumph washed over my tired body. Finish lines are emotional places for me. I’ve cried at a few of them. This time I just felt proud. Proud of the effort, proud of the training, proud of the people that had helped me reach the finish line. “You finished in 12th! Amazing!” a text glowed from my phone. Some friends had been texting me all race, and their company was important beyond words. 12th place didn’t seem possible. I had been in the mid 20’s three aid stations back. I started out the race only wanting to finish. All details to mull over tomorrow. I hobbled down to my hotel room for a beer and a sleep. And yes, in case you were wondering, the data was all on the watch.
I don’t know why I keep signing up for these things. It definitely has something to do with that high school decision to just get in the car and drive. That small itch to explore has grown into a big one. I’ve been collecting these snapshots of breakthrough moments since those teenage years, and there’s something about ultra racing that lets me punch through more frequently. The trail, the travel, the people. Main street keeps stretching ever forward, and I’m happy to see where it leads.
Every mountain has its own character. Some are stoic, plainly presenting themselves in dramatic stone glory. Some are playful, offering surprises around their circumference–streams, small waterfalls, meadows and groves. Some are just kind. My hometown hill is called Pleasant Mountain, and the name says it all. The 2,000 foot hump on the outskirts of downtown overlooks a large pond. It’s a walk to the mailbox compared to some of the mountains on the west coast or even in the White Mountains. During winter it morphs into a low-key ski resort. It’s the Tom Hanks of mountains–giving a smile a wink, and a wave to tourists who drive over the causeway at its base.
And then there’s Hallasan (한라산) here on Jeju (제주). This is a mountain that dwarfs Pleasant. It dramatically bears its chest–a stunning peak that, on a clear day, you can see from anywhere on the island.In my eight years on Jeju, I’ve run over and hiked it countless times through seasons, ages, different levels of shape. I became versed in the landmarks of its trails.
During my two year stay in Shanghai, I started to get nostalgic about the peak. The city crowds and dubious air quality of the city ground me down until the Jeju life I’d left behind began to feel idyllic. There was free entry to an 80km race I had done before so I naturally decided to venture over for the weekend. I had been training on the flat boulevards of Shanghai, and was surprised at how quickly my legs had forgotten elevation. The race started out well enough. We began at sea level at 6am, plodding up the road to the island’s center where Halla awaited. On the first real ascent I knew something was up. Muscles collapsed into painful knots as my legs kept churning. I cursed the flat streets of Shanghai that had allowed my uphill and downhill muscles to atrophy. And then another surprise: snow on the summit in late march. I had foregone crampons and had some near misses gliding down Gwaneumsa (관음사) trail to the snow-free terrain.
Before beginning the race’s last big ascent around the 50km mark a storm hit. This was no problem, a little sprinkle of rain never hurt anyone. I trotted up the trail and began the grinding climb. But, as I neared the summit of Yeongsil Oreum, I noticed something. The rain had turned to snow…and it was picking up. By the time the Eorimok trail spit me out into a clearing near the summit, it was white-out conditions. My thin jacket which was soaked with rain and sweat began to feel icy against the skin underneath. I didn’t quite know what to do. I could turn around and book it down the mountain, or push on the few kilometers to the descent on the other side. I knew there was some sort of shelter coming soon, but it was hard to say how soon in the white out conditions. I didn’t even know if it would be open. Turning around, on the other hand, would end the race that I had traveled and trained for. I kept going.
My hands continued to get colder. Gloves might have been a good idea. I did the old hand tuck in the jacket but it didn’t help. I blew into my icy paws. I pinwheeled my arms wildly to keep blood flowing. A mad man in a red jacket on the top of a mountain in a blizzard. The image of Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining popped into my head. They were going to chisel me out of a snow bank tomorrow. Why hadn’t I packed gloves or a warm layer? Was the extra weight that much of a liability. I knew there was a waypoint coming up and I pushed through, the aching in my hands growing increasingly worrisome.
And then, like an Elysian hallucination, a hut appeared. A few friendly race volunteers ushered me inside where there were other racers in similar shape. We huddled around a gas stove with cups of instant coffee in our hands in silence. I regained feeling, procured some cheap gloves and a plastic poncho from the volunteers, took a deep breath and a long look at the side-winding wall of white snow moving past the door, and then set out into the storm again. I booked it down the mountain and managed the final stretch of road to the finish line as nighttime descended. Turns out my hands would have stabbing and painful chilblains, the initial signs of frostbite, for about a week. I had a few things to consider when I arrived back in Shanghai. A few lessons to learn.
It was with this humbling experience in mind that I planned my trip to Jirisan (지리산). I was in the mood for a challenge and had my eyes on the Jirisan Traverse (화대종주), a 40km route through the heart of Jirisan National Park. Most of what I knew about the trail I took from a helpful running expat blog that I stumbled across in my research. There were a few logistics to work out, but it seemed doable. I would go and stay in a small hotel near the trailhead, get up early, and arrive at the other side in mid-afternoon with enough daylight to meander back to the hotel in time for dinner.
I picked up my friend, another Tim, at 6am and we made our way to Jeju airport. It was in full frenzy for Chuseok holiday (추석), the parking lot full to the point that makeshift spots were being invented. Tim also realized at the end of our car ride that he had somehow ended up with his wife’s phone. While he negotiated with a cab driver to deliver the phone to his house, I circled the lot a few times. 15 minutes passed and nothing was appearing. I tried the art of inventing my own spot only to end up in a minor yelling match with a bus driver. Panic was setting in. We were going to miss our flight. And then, like the hut atop Halla, a van pulled out and a dream spot appeared.
We flew into Gwangju and grabbed a cab to the bus station. Time for breakfast. But nothing was open aside from the chains. There was one curry place that gave us some hope. One lady motioned us in, and then as we entered another lady decided differently and told us “no” holding up her arms in the unmistakable Korean “X.” We sulked off in confusion and disappointment. This is how on the first day of vacation and ready to tuck into local cuisine we found ourselves walking into a Subway. They hadn’t even made the bread for the day. Flatbread it was. A poster for the new “Sub Dog” mocked us from the wall. One of Tim’s best qualities is his unadorned honesty. “This tastes like ass,” he said.
From there, a two hour bus ride to the park. Despite the Subway flatbread-shaped bricks in our abdomens, we were feeling slightly better now that we had made it to the home stretch and were ready to chat a bit during the ride. We found our seats and began to ease into conversation, only to be silenced by a small gust of loud air. What the hell? It was a shush.
“No talking,” said the driver from his throne four seats ahead of us. His sunglasses peered at me in the mirror. This guy wasn’t fooling around. We looked at each other in confusion, soaking in the absurd scenario. We began texting each other about the ridiculousness of the situation. Every fiber of our being wanted to break the silence. It was like trying not to fart in church.
The Tims arrived in mid-afternoon and scoped the terrain of our mountain hamlet. It was on the outskirts of Gurye (구례), a small town to the southwest of Jirisan. We found an acceptable cafe and an exceptional lunch of mountain food. The banchan (반잔)were small courses unto themselves. Marinated black beans and mountain greens. The flower root deodeok (더덕) which tasted like an earthy ginseng.
That night we hiked up to Hwaeomsa Temple (화엄사)where silence descended along with dusk. We meandered up through three gates that travelers were meant to pass through as a series of cleanses. As we reached the top, the dull throb of a monk hitting a drum began. Another monk chanted from an unknown location. The noises pirouetted with the crickets and the breeze and built until a giant gong was rung. Small shockwaves to end the day.
We spent half the next day waiting out a torrential but expected thunderstorm. The small stream behind our hotel became an enraged river. The ionized air danced through the screen. When the storm cleared I strolled into the visitor center and used my shoddy Korean to inquire about the trail. The park ranger made the same “X” when I said I wanted to do it in one day.
“Impossible,” was her general message.
“Agree to disagree,” I thought to myself.
As I began to get my supplies ready, I glanced at a few final logistics. It was then that I found the one detail that I had invariably overlooked: the return trip. I had assumed that, at most, I was dealing with a 50,000 won return cab ride from the other side of the park. I also knew that there were some buses that I had assumed could lead me back this way. However, the buses were looking to be a seven hour odyssey that I wasn’t going to be able to navigate in sweaty running clothes. The cab ride was going to be 150,000 won that I wasn’t willing to spend. Anxiety rose in my chest. This needed to work. I had come all this way. I looked at different routes, different apps, different websites. There seemed to be no feasible options. Impossible was right, but not for the park ranger’s reasons.
I talked it over with Tim over a dinner of grilled deodeok in red sauce. It was simple but delicious. Perfectly browned on the bottom. Crunchy and chewy both at once. The quiet night outside our bright hospital lighting restaurant. By the end of the meal I had made peace with an out-and-back. I would run 21km into the heart of the park then turn around and retrace my steps. The anxiety of post-run transportation logistics dissolved but traces of disappointment remained.
I plodded out into the early morning, making my way up the initial ascent. The first climb traced the small stream that flowed behind my hotel straight up the mountain. It was a quiet warm-up to the day. The trail passed a few waterfalls here and there, making its way through flat riverbed rocks. I hit the first hut in the beginnings of morning. A few other hikers quietly moved in the morning fog. One snapped a photo for me before I moved on down the trail.
As the trail continued in the foggy morning, I started to focus on the gnarly roots and rocks. My legs moved at strange angles and my hiking poles extended like feelers to find a way forward. In the woozy fog, a hypnosis took over and the roots and rocks were the White Mountains of New Hampshire thirty minutes from Pleasant Mountain where I grew up. In short bursts it felt like home.
A few more peaks. A stop at a natural spring to fill up my water bottles. A chat with another hiker in my rough Korean. We were at least able to communicate where we were going before we reached the turn-off where we parted ways. Eventually I had stopped checking the GPS, confident of where I was headed. My legs started to adjust to the trail’s contours and I no longer had to concentrate so hard on every puzzle that the roots presented. A rhythm was forming. And then the sky’s stomach grumbled.
I ignored the first few rolls of thunder, passing them off as sonic anomalies in the valley, but then there was another, and another. Eventually it started to sound like I was standing in the parking lot of a bowling alley. The thunder was frequent. I began an inner monologue.
“Come on, I had planned this so well. The storm was yesterday, not today. Today was supposed to be cloudy but clear. I did the research, I brought the right gear, I had learned my lessons from Halla.”
Jirisan didn’t care about my mental complaining, it threw a few more strikes at me. I had moved from the bowling parking lot into the waiting area by the lanes.
“Maybe the storm is passing north? This is a big area, there’s no way this sucker is going to land right on top of me.”
And then the leaves started chattering with rain drops. The next words I spoke out loud.
“Fuck, this is going to land right on my head.”
I whipped out my raincoat, threw up the hood, and started booking it as the few initial droplets out of the spout turned into a steadier drip and then a full-on geyser. I could see the lightning now. It would burst and then 1…2…3…boom, the applause of thunder. This was getting dangerous. All that I knew from my wilderness experience was to form three points of contact with the ground. I pictured myself huddled on the trail hugging my knees and discarded this mental image. Something told me I needed to keep moving.
CREAACKK. A particularly loud thunder roll. I could practically feel that one grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me. I decided to consult the GPS for answers. My hand reached into my vest, the glow of the screen, and a look at the map, “holly jolly Christmas, there’s a hut right around the corner!” I sprinted that last half a kilometer with every bit of concentration I had. Roots and rocks flew by before I was spit out into a clearing. The dark mouth of the empty hut was calling my name. I had found shelter.
A fellow hiker appeared from the trail, an older lady who seemed much more nonplussed than I. Five minutes later, her friend emerged from the woods. They argued in quick Korean between the thunder strikes in our small space as I played out scenarios for the spat.
As the storm sputtered its final droplets, I tentatively jogged from the hut and down the path. The fog of the morning had been completely brushed away by the violent storm. I hit a more technical section of the trail–gnarly roots and high boulders–but paid them no mind. My attention was focused on the approaching turnaround that I had chosen based upon the label “Viewpoint.” It didn’t disappoint. I found myself on a bald rock with a full view from the heart of the park. The peaks licked the last bit of fog off their lips. The trees turned from opaque to vibrant as they greeted the sun. I whooped across the valley.
Returning felt quick. Maybe it was knowing that instead of a five hour bus ride at the end I had a hot shower. Maybe it was the transformation of the storm. My feet felt sure and focused, finding quick footing. By the time I reached that first hut, it was buzzing with tourists. I charged through in a hurry to find my way back to quiet trail, and descended down my rocky ravine.
The next morning, Tim and I took another hike to the temple and then jumped into the stream behind our hotel. On our return trip, we knew to sit in the back of the bus out of bus driver earshot. We talked about aspirations, writing and business ideas. We shared some of our stories with each other. The couple of other passengers didn’t seem to mind the chatter. Jeju airport was asleep when we arrived. Lots of parking spots. Mount Halla looked down from its dark perch as I drove in the fresh evening to drop him off.
Mountains aren’t your friend or even your teacher. They’re a collection of enchanted mirrors. You can spend time in the mountains and come out with a pleasant experience, emerging unscathed. Or you can come out with some tiny transformation. It’s those discoveries that keep you making the trip, tracing an initial path that will inevitably require a return journey back to wherever you came from.
Each year in late August or early September, some of the world’s most unhinged minds descend upon the tiny mountain town of Chamonix in France to hijack its tranquil mountain vibes. I’ve never been to Chamonix (or France for that matter), but I can picture the scene: a quaint alpine village on a quiet sunny day. A couple sits at their sturdy wooden table about to tuck into some fromage. Out of nowhere, their wine glasses starts to show ripples of seismic movement. Small at first but then growing in intensity. The ground begins to rumble. The husband glances at his wife with concern.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?” he states blankly.
“Je ne sais pas,” is all that she can muster in the short-lived silence.
And then, over the hill, the first few runners appear. But that’s just the drip before the faucet turns on full blast. Soon thousands are descending upon the valley. Decked out in bright goji red Salomon packs, the runners wield poles like walking spears. Their heads are wrapped in bright buffs bearing their banners of choice. An array of flashy sunglasses banded across their faces. Spandex shorts, rippling calf muscles, pumping arms. They are not here for blood though, they’re here for personal glory. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is ready to begin.
The UTMB is one of the biggest running events in the world. It is a soul-sapping 171 kilometers around the behemoth Mont Blanc with an overall elevation gain of 10,000 meters. For my New England folks, that is over five Mount Washingtons. This is one of the most elite ultra events in the world and pulls together some of its most talented (and deranged) runners. The event is quite a spectacle from what I’ve seen on the live stream. A sea of runners pulsing in anticipation before the starting gun. Dramatic music plays. A guy inexplicably walks on a high wire above the crowd, perhaps a metaphor for the balancing act of training, nutrition, sleep and luck that the race entails.
This year, one of the best runners on the planet, Courtney Dauwalter, convincingly took top female in the race while simultaneously breaking the course record by seven minutes. For reference, there has never been a top male finisher from the USA at the UTMB. Dauwalter is one of those runners who emits inspiration. When I go down ultra running YouTube rabbit holes, she inevitably appears in the videos of others, giving runners encouragement or advice. Her running stamina seems to extend to a large store of human compassion. Don’t be fooled though, she’s as rugged as they come. In 2017 she won the Moab 240 mile race outright.
In a post-UTMB interview, Dauwalter reflected on the race while casually holding a beer. A little weary, she still had her signature smile and described her own energy as a “tie dye jelly bean factory.” I couldn’t help but notice that she kept saying “we” and “our” as she broke down her race strategy. The interviewer also picked up on this and asked if the other part of “we” and “our” is her partner Kevin who crews for her during the race. Dauwalter confirmed this, and then pointed out the maybe not-so-obvious: ultra running is a team sport.
Ultra racing, especially at the higher distances, is contingent on people who help runners. There are the volunteers who assist at aid stations and checkpoints. There are pacers–running buddies who meet up with runners at pivotal times in the race to help their progress. There are crew–friends or family who dutifully await their insane loved one ready to give them whatever they need. This can be a candy bar or a make-shift blister surgery. It’s whatever the situation and conditions dictate.
This year, I’ve set my sights on my hardest challenge yet. The High Trail 9 Peaks will take place on October 30 in the Yeongnam Alps of Korea, north of Busan. This race is going to take every scrap of grit that my body has to offer. It begins at midnight and will take me 104 kilometers over nine peaks for an overall elevation gain of over 8000 meters (four Mt Washingtons if you’re counting). With the impending challenge, training has needed to reach a new level. I just arrived back from a trip to Jirisan National Park on the mainland for a big 42km training run in the rugged mountains, and have been doing weekly jaunts up Mount Halla to get even more elevation gain and descent under my legs.
As I’ve plodded away through my weekly training plan, I’ve been trying to envision race day. I’ll arrive in a tiny town with my gear and a goal but no crew. I won’t have pacers or friends at the aid stations to ply me with jokes and calories. Of course, there will be a slew of volunteers to offer aid and encouragement, but I want a way to bring my community with me–a way to turn the “I” into “we.”
There inevitably comes a time in the race when your jaw is on the ground. Legs are cement that firms with each step. Every small bump in the trail looks like Mount Everest. This is the time when runners need to “dig deep.” They need to, as they say, “dig in the pain cave.” They need to throw the gorilla off their back, look down and will their feet forward into a rhythm. Pain, along with sweat, drips from every pore. The splits reach diminishing returns and progress seems to flatline. The idea of quitting continually enters your brain and you swear to yourself that this will be your last ultra. “This is the sport of fools and masochists,” you say to yourself. “Maybe it’s time to change hobbies and take up fishing full time?” It’s at this exact moment that it’s important to have an ember inside of you. A faint glow that you can ignite into the tiniest of flames to burn that self doubt and deliver your body a different message. At some point you just need to tell your legs to shut the @*!% up and run.
Talking to Dauwalter, the interviewer asked what she had been listening to during her race. She grinned and said that she had an old iPod Shuffle full of “bangers.” I love this concept–a playlist of songs that will keep the serotonin pumping. In the darkest of moments, this might be an important tool to have in the goji red Salomon running pack.
This brought an idea to mind. What if my friends helped to put together a bangers playlist? This would give me a way to connect with community out on the trail in those dark moments when the way forward is bleak and the leg cement is at risk of fully drying. So, if you would, please leave a comment with some song suggestions. I’m looking for good tunes that will give me a kick and keep me plodding along. Hopefully we can meet up in person down along the trail sometime soon. In the meantime, let’s keep running.
I’ll add songs as they roll in to the playlist here that we can all use.
Spend enough time running and you’ll eventually come across the concept of “kick.” Traditionally I perceive kick to be like NOS in Fast and Furious. A switch that turns on. You’ve probably witnessed it in the Olympics. A runner will be a little set back from the leader, desperation creeping into their features as the finish line nears. And then a new look of determination washes over them. Legs move faster. The windmill speeds up. And before they know it the leader is watching someone zoom by on the right to overtake them and steal the race.
I first heard about kick in one of the Prefontaine movies–maybe the Jared Leto one (both were pretty subpar if we’re being honest). Prefontaine had notorious kick. His strategy was a bit different though. He’d turn on the NOS from the beginning, burning through seemingly limitless rocket fuel the whole damn race.
As I began to transition to longer distances, kick began to mean something different to me. It wasn’t just zip on the track or a local 5k. It began to signify a general furnace for running in general.
Ultra running has a way of spacing things out and sometimes reorganizing the sequence of normal events. In an ultra, runners can hit a wall, fall into a pit of despair, puke up whatever is left in their stomach, keel over, be unable to move their hamstrings, hopes dashed. And then some magic washes over them. Suddenly things seems fresh. They bounce back up and, instead of just cranking out the homestretch of a length of track, they run up and down an entire mountain with fresh legs. This process can repeat a few times in the course of a race. In ultra running, kick doesn’t just last the stretch of a track in a 10k. It lasts the entire 10k.
Beyond races, I think that there are longer cycles that we go through. Cycles even beyond seasons. That there are some thing that require more than a little patience. Urges and inspiration come and go through the turnstiles.
I’m not sure where my kick comes from. In a word, it’s elusive. There are weekends where I can barely pry myself out of bed. A tight ball of anxiety, ideas, regrets, plans. The wheels spin in uncontrolled frustration. This is a state of mind that has had a habit of washing over me since my teenage years. A paralyzing tincture that my brain seems to have in limitless supply. Other times, I’m ready to get out there. Nature practically pulls me out of the door and I bound off down my running route.
There are sluggish days and springy days. Legs one day will be generous and the next make you want to crumple up into a roadside ball. Part of running is exploring how this works for your body. Trying out diet, sleep, and mileage (often with the help of a coach) until you get the cocktail that works for you. Unfortunately, often once you figure out what suits your taste, things will shift. What works one week leaves you a wreck the next. You’re left again completely depleted kneeling at the altar of kick, hoping for more energy the next day.
Last year was a hard one for training. No races. A gridlocked world. What’s there to work toward with no concrete goal? I dutifully ticked away 80km a week, but it felt like a chore. Run was a routine not a privilege. I found it increasingly hard to get out there. The days became oppressive. They boogeyman was at the door. So I opted for a change of scenery, fleeing Jeju for a summer in the USA.
After a few weeks running the backroads of Maine, I took my legs to the west coast where my brother and I attempted the Timberline trail around Mount Hood in Oregon. This 41.4 mile loop was ambitious for two guys who had just spent a week drinking beer in a little motorboat with fishing poles. We had done some haphazard hiking, but nothing on the scale of what we were about to attempt.
In the frigid 5am alpine air we started plugging away. The first few rays of the day projected onto Hood’s snowy peak. We ticked off sections of Timberline like hours on a clock. Our circular journey going up and down through the mountain’s ravines. Two brothers in lock-step with the day making our way around the mountain.
The run had highs and lows. A section of downed trees that presented a labyrinth to progress. Encouraging strangers. A section where an army of bugs descended and didn’t let up for 10km. Expansive vistas and lush meadows. Many hours past our desired finish time as the sun descended, my brother’s truck came into view. We had arrived back at the beginning of the Mt. Hood clock at the other bookend of daylight. We tailgated with some Pringles and a few sips of Rainier before the frigid alpine twilight drove us into the truck.
At a certain point I noticed it was back. The desire to run for the fun of it. Mileage and routine lost much of their importance. It’s like you look over to your right and the copilot is suddenly there again. I returned to Jeju with a newfound direction for my running. Fitting that I found it again in Prefontaine’s Pacific Northwest.
There have been a few setbacks. A race that I was planning for turned out to be on Parent’s Day so I had to scratch that plan. A shooting pain down my right arm that turned out to be a pinched nerve caused by a crooked neck laid me up for a week. With each setback I kicked back. Last weekend I found myself at the base of one of the Mount Halla trails. The familiar trailhead was fairly quiet in the 6am light. The morning felt fresh and my legs felt fresher. I grinned and started my watch before flying up into the forest, arms and hands playfully swaying as if they were painting the very trees into existence.
There’s a classic song by The Contours where the protagonist confidently proclaims a newfound ability to dance. “Do you love me now that I can dance?” the singer repeatedly croons as the song gallops along with a rock and roll shuffle. I always admired the simplicity of the song’s narrative. In my mind, the story it tells operates in three phases:
Phase one: he can’t dance so he is rejected and sad.
Phase two: he disappears for a while and learns how to dance, perhaps with the help of a dancing maestro.
Phase three: he triumphantly returns with the inexplicable ability to dance. His new signature moves include the mashed potato and the twist.
America is obsessed with these types of transformations. This song’s premise immediately conjures up examples of similar character arcs in popular culture. These are most commonly in the form of a movie montage–Karate Kid, the drumming boy in Love Actually and Rocky to name a few. The song is basically the plot to Footloose. Avril Lavigne’s Sk8r Boi kind of flips it on its head. Perhaps the most famous real-life American transformation is Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil at the crossroads. Johnson left a mediocre guitar player, but returned a soulless blues legend.
For some reason, this song by the Contours has popped into my head a few times as I’ve floated in the water, waiting for waves. I usually think of it after taking some hard spills. Learning to surf has brought me to some low-points where I’ve considered walking away entirely. These were their lowest during the first few months of getting into it. I’d go to the beach full of hope and leave drenched, exhausted, embarrassed and down. The experienced surfers seemed like gods on the wave, seamlessly gliding into swells that crested and broke while they curved backs and arms and legs with poise–they danced along the wave break, walking the board or weaving from wave top to wave bottom. These locals formed a crowd in my mind, an inner circle. It was like they spoke a foreign language that I desperately wanted to learn. I projected judgment on their behalf as I struggled to stay on my board even in still water.
On a clear, cloudless and particularly crowded day at Jungmun Beach people were out in force. From shore, the water was dotted with surfers lined up like ants. These were mainlanders and locals of all levels. I paddled out and gave nods to a few familiar faces as we floated. The break was good and consistent and had me full of promise. I caught one wave, a left, and felt my body react automatically to the waves thrust. I glided up into position and felt an exhilarating acceleration toward shore. I dropped into the water at the end of the ride full of humming. Then I caught another. And another. My confidence was swelling a bit. Maybe I was getting the hang of this. And then I accidentally dropped in on a local.
As I was popping up on a wave, I looked to my right just in time to see him hurtling towards me on a direct collision course. The waves tumbled us together before spitting us out close to the shoreline. We untangled and he started to furiously examine his board. “Are you OK?” I asked.
His board was a tiny bit dinged and he was so mad that I didn’t mention the cut that I had sustained on my forearm. He huffed and scolded. I tucked my arm behind my back to hide the blood that kept welling up in the shallow gash as he marched me across the beach to get my info. I knew I deserved to pay for the ding for my breach of surf etiquette, and didn’t want to use the cut for false sympathy.
It was humiliating being led across the beach like a misbehaving child, chided by the local surfer for my drop-in. I went from feeling bad about the ding to feeling like he was overreacting. I clenched my jaw a bit to take my mind off the pain in my arm. Maybe it was a bit more serious than I thought and was worth mentioning? We got to his scooter and he took out his phone with exasperation to get my information. It was only then that he noticed the cut and softened a bit, asking if I was alright. I told him I was fine and to just let me know the cost of the ding repair before turning around to make my way back down the beach, trying to preserve a bit of pride.
I shuffled along back to my board, hand clenched over my arm to stop the bleeding, feeling a mix of frustration and humiliation. The sunny day had soured. The brightness suddenly felt overbearing and my stomach clenched. I felt a smoldering judgment from the other surfers scattered across the shoreline and the waves and my ears and cheeks burned. This was my movie opening where I am humiliated by the cool kids. It was time for my transformation montage. But first I needed to get some bandages and iodine.
I kept at it, returning to surf whenever possible. The arm healed over the course of the coming weeks eventually turning into a slight pink divot in my arm. The summer turned to fall and then frigid winter. I surfed through snow and rain. Wearing boots and gloves to combat the frost was a must. On Christmas day some surfers wore Santa hats at Iho beach while they cheerfully stormed the break. The waves and faces became familiar. I knew the direction a swell would take, what a break would do. I started to be able to decipher a clear line even on the choppy days.
In surfing, youdon’t have the option of behind-the-scenes progress. My bumps and spills all happen in broad daylight. But I’ve realized that this is the process for everyone. You learn how to dodge beginners and anticipate their mistakes. Sure there are collisions from time to time, but you try to roll with it. As long as you get back on the board and keep paddling for the next wave you’re fine. There’s no room for self-conscious doubt and embarrassment. The best thing to do after a wipe out is to grin and get back out there.
The fallacy in the American transformation story is that mastery equals success. There’s a top of the mountain to get to. I always wanted a follow-up on what happened to The Contours’ protagonist. What happened when the song ended. Did his target of affection run into his arms with admiration? Or did she shrug it all off with a “so what” and still walk off with another guy? Did the cool kids beat let him into their group or decide that something else was suddenly the new cool and beat him up anyway?
It turns out that this group of Jeju “cool surfers” is imaginary. I don’t know where I got this narrative. Maybe it’s from Point Break. Either way, there is more nuance to the social structure of the Jeju surf crew. Sure, there’s a shared knowledge and experience that the more wizened surfers have–there might even be some chat groups made where they discuss waves and the days of surfing they’ve put in–but they don’t have some secret midnight council where they perform rituals, banish amateurs and adopt new members. In surfing, coolness comes from a respect for the process.
Looking back I’m amazed at the progress I have made in a year, but there are still lessons to be experienced. Perhaps the dings that the process leaves are more meaningful than the end point. I see the surfer who I collided with from time to time and we exchange nods before looking out at the horizon for incoming waves, both looking for the same thing. He asks me how I’m doing from time to time. The scar from that bright day at Jungmun sits on my arm indistinguishable to all but me. You wouldn’t notice it unless I pointed it out. But sometimes I glance down at it and my mind drifts off to the waves that I’d rather be playing in.
My 2020 round of running started in Portland, Oregon. While visiting my brother there, we set off into the city on a long run, moving from his residential locale to the iron and glass of downtown. In the intervening zone, we passed an oil change center, a destitute mall, tents on sidewalks, graffiti under a bridge. The grit of the dreary Pacific Northwest muted by clouds and the threat of rain. We hit the river and crossed Steel Bridge, feet pinging on the grated metal. I looked down and saw the river flickering through the tiny openings.
We meandered through the city. Up the gondola to the hospital where he works, then down the hill on winding roads to a farmer’s market. We greedily ate some food cart tamales that smoked in the chilly air, then hit a donut shop.
“You should sell a running food tour of Portland!” I joked as we made our way back to the river. His beard framed a grin. Then over the Hawthorne bridge–the bridges curvature making the ascent seem protracted as we dodged bikers and runners. The suspension bridge stretched time. Eventually we were descending. And then back to his house. 21 kilometers in the books.
At some point, I decided to give up treadmills (or the “dreadmill” as runners jokingly call it). Maybe it was my two years in Shanghai that burned me out on them–countless hours spent pounding away on the spinning mat while an air filter whirred next to me. Hiding out from toxic air. Watching episodes of old HBO shows that I had missed while I sprinted. I watched all of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire. Eventually the treadmill mat formed a hole big enough for me to slip my running shoe through.
On that fraternal morning run through Portland, I decided to avoid the treadmill for the year. It would be a challenge. Each kilometer would be earned by a step on soil or concrete or gravel or tree root. From Oregon I went to Hawaii for a few days before journeying back to Jeju. Runs up to Diamond Head Crater and Ala Moana Park. Grinning through the rain showers that would come and go a few times in one run. The thrill of exploration, pushing it just one more kilometer, one more kilometer, before I decided to turn around and make my way back.
There is a different feeling when mapping out a new route in a strange land. The body is attuned to elevation, turns in the road, intersections, noises, and weather. The brain processes a million stimuli as the body cruises. This is rewarded with the awe of new sights. Topping Diamond Head Crater or coming around a bend to stunning views of a jagged coastline. There is something about the novelty that pushes the body. The mind converts new stimuli into running fuel. Discovery.
Upon arrival in Jeju after vacation, my running regimen resumed. Approximately 80km a week on the farm roads around my apartment. Early morning slogs through chilly morning air. Post work 5k’s to blow off steam. At this point, after seven years of running these roads, every turn could be anticipated. Every distance had been mapped. The trees and cracks in the pavement all familiar. I began each weekday morning with some light yoga and a 10km loop, snapping a photo of the sunrise each time from my favorite spot. The weekends were reserved for longer runs and surf sessions. Sundays were a chance to run my favorite Jeju trail to check in with horses that hang out on a nearby oreum.
During my runs, I’ll put on music or an audiobook. I’ve worked my way through a small library of books on my runs over the years. Recently I’ve noticed a strange effect. Vivid scenes from these books will come back to me mid-run. I’ll spot a stone wall or a familiar bend in the road and it will trigger a memory from one of these listening sessions. They are always incredibly random scenes that spring from the depths of memory: one of the jester scenes from Hartley and Hewson’s reworking of Hamlet or one of the heated debates about colonialism from Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. Books that were listened to and buried five years ago are brought into vivid forefront from a stone wall, a tree, a farmer’s barn.
I wonder how much of our memory is tied to place. What is the biological function of this? This year has been a forced exploration of the stationary, but it has bolstered my memory. These repetitive runs reinforce the stories that I listen to, and ask me to revisit them. Connecting to an oral tradition with moving feet and headphones. As I run, I hang memories from the trees and hide them in rock crevices to be discovered later. This is done without realizing it. Memory becomes blended with the local landscape. A library hiding out in the orchards.
On my bucket list is the dream of running across the entirety of the USA, coast to coast. The romantic idea of plodding along day after day toward the other edge of the country. It looks poetic from a distance, tracing a mental line.
The running app that I use spits out my year end totals in December. This year I ran 3,858 kilometers with 65,161 meters in elevation gain. That’s nine Everests. That’s enough distance to get me from Cali to North Carolina, ocean to ocean.
But this year most of my miles were spent on loops, exploring the familiar. No outward discovery, only an inward one. And that type of discovery is more arduous and slow to come by. Repeated scenes and turns in the road might be growth or stagnancy. It takes time to decipher which.
I’ve stumbled upon a certain genre of YouTube video in my watching algorithm lately. It’s thru-hikers who condense their journey into an hour of footage. It seems like these videos have certain conventions: the thrill of the journey’s beginning, a few moments of desperation, the finding of quiet on the trail, friends met along the way, the thrill of finishing. Classic hero’s journey stuff. Each video always ends with some maudlin reflection about humankind’s relationship to nature and tries to eke out an epiphany. The journey definitely had value, but it’s clear that it’s near-impossible to put into words. These videos try though. It’s fascinating to me.
It makes me wonder what purpose a thru-hike or a run across the USA would serve. One of the most insightful comments made in one of the YouTube videos was in a candid moment in which a delirious hiker addressed the camera on the verge of tears. It was late in his journey on the Appalachian Trail and he starts talking about the trail speaking to him. “I’ve realized that I don’t confront things in the moment as much as I should. You know what? I’m going to be better about that.” It was a simple but sincere observation. The journey hadn’t given him special overarching insight, but had provided perspective on what he needed to work on in the real world. He had arrived at a starting place.
3,858 kilometers in 2020. I wonder if this distance would have served a different inner-purpose if spread across the entirety of my home country. I think there is something to be said for making the time for such a sole pursuit. Maybe there will be a day for that. In the mean time, I keep plodding along through the orange orchards, tilling connections to my home soil.
One of my last runs of 2020 was in mid-blizzard. Jeju snows differently than most places. It comes in waves of wind and white-out, punctuated occasionally by gaps of blue sky framed by tangerine clouds. I ventured out into the sideways snow, intending to do a 10km run at most. But as I got to a fork in the road I went left, extending the run. I knew that this was committing to at least 14km. And then at another turn-off I went left again, extending to a half marathon. I felt wild taking slugs from my water bottle, stomping my feet into snow-drifts. When the wind and snow kicked in hard I whooped and hollered, letting the Jeju wind rip the sound from my lips and disperse it across the orchards. Despite the familiar trail I thought for a moment that, “This was discovery. It might even beat Hawaii. It sure as hell beats a treadmill.”
each footstep’s handshake
greeting new and old terrain
body over land
Recommended reading (both are read by the author on Audible)
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran
I won’t call it a mid-life crisis because I’m only 34 and plan to live until at least my mid-80’s. Mid-life crises don’t happen until the middle right? So I have 8ish more years until that. It has to be something else that’s pulled me into picking up surfing.
I had this vision once in my early twenties while living in Maine of driving clear across the country until I hit California. I’d find my way to Hawaii and settle down for a relaxed existence on the beach and pick up surfing. It was one of a million plans that I seemed to have bouncing around in my head at all times, and so I was easily discarded. But it did have some steam for a few months. From then on, it was a brief flicker from time to time that left an impression. It was still illusive though, and I had no solid plan. I kept it as an ember.
Maybe it was this vision that I was chasing when I packed up my car with music essentials and started driving west in my beat up Mercury Sable. The dream of the west coast where all unknown urges would be realized. Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” blared it’s pristine drop-d tuning over my tinny speakers. Robert Plant crooning, “going to California with an aching in my heart.” That line always crested like a wave for me, the silence after the matter of fact statement flooding with pensiveness.
But I didn’t make it to California. I made it to Kentucky, and my car broke down, and I worked for a few months in a deli slicing meat, bagging groceries, and selling cheese. The giant wheels of apricot-colored parmesan that I attacked with cheese wire every day were a poor substitute for the west coast sun. I had to get out of there, and the job in Korea appeared like someone propelling down from a helicopter, hand outstretched, to my life boat of prosciutto slicing and olive scooping. I blindly grabbed the hand and didn’t look back, escaping to an unknown island in Korea.
I lived on Jeju Island for six years and never tried to surf once. Jeju is one of the best spots for surfing in this country, a sport that has exploded in popularity in recent years. I had friends who surfed, and would occasionally spot a board strapped to the top of a car on the highway, feeling a pang of ache for my lost dream. I never took the initiative to try it myself though.
Returning to Jeju after two years in Shanghai, I had a chance to reassess what I had missed. The nature of Jeju contrasted with Shanghai’s sprawling metropolis. The outdoors called, and eventually my mind started to turn back to that ember that I had held for years: the itch to surf.
My plan was to go to Maine for Christmas, and then work my way back to Korea from there. I’d fly to Oregon to see my brother for a few days and then go on a solo trip to Hawaii, that vacuous vision, where I would take surf lessons and get the basics. By the time I got back to Jeju, I would be a competent surfer. After a cold few weeks in Maine and a damp five days in the pacific northwest, I was ready for a tropical getaway.
Hawaii was a shimmering dream. The days were ideal, and time flowed. I cruised in my rental Jeep listening to local radio for the first day, mapping out Oahu, discovering rush hour traffic on my return to Honolulu. I ran my first full evening there along the shoreline under Diamond Crater, and took in the coast and the waves.
I booked a surf lesson on AirBnB, carefully weighing all of the instructors before deciding on one that seemed to fit my pace. Matt turned out to be a good-natured Frenchman who had relocated to Oahu many years ago to pursue his dream of surfing. He was pro for a few years, and now is building a business teaching lessons and taking people turtle watching on paddle boards. We met at the Waikiki Aquarium at 7am, him pulling up in a battered surf van packed with various boards and leashes. “Let’s do it bro!” he said and I jumped in.
The wind was enormous that morning, and we stood on the shore overlooking the waves in silence. I felt like a warrior in my newly bought convenience store swim trunks and my breathable running shirt–the closest thing that I owned to a rash guard. Matt and I were ready to brave the elements, and I was primed to become a surfer. “Very windy this morning!” Matt said with confident enthusiasm. This seemed to be his only mode.
We drove up the coast a bit more to a cliff overlooking a sea of choppy but surfable waves and then started working our way down to the water. I clutched my large foam board, my fingertips barely wrapping around the rails, readjusting every few steps to prevent a drop. Matt confidently strolled with his shortboard ahead of me. And then we jumped in.
My first float on a board made me doubt the whole endeavor instantly. I couldn’t find a spot on the giant foam board where it didn’t tip and try to throw me off. Matt gracefully paddled circles around me on a board that seemed half the size, giving instructions about placement and paddling. Eventually we battled out to some wave breaks and got ready.
It happened fast. Matt yelled, “OK it’s coming!” and I felt my board spin into position. He was tossing me around, getting me primed for the wave. I wasn’t ready. “Now! Paddle! One! Two! Three!” I felt him give my board a shove and I was off, the surge of the cresting water throwing me forward. I put my head down, almost kissing the board. I tried to do what I had been trained to on shore. Push up, place the back foot, and then the front. My result had the grace and fluidity of a robot standing on an exercise ball. I fell forward, the wave swallowed me up, I tasted brine on my tongue and salt in my sinuses. And yet I was grinning.
I paddled back to Matt. Was that a hint of skepticism that I detected for the first time that day? He said in his French accent, “slow it down, plant your back foot. Here we go!” And another wave grabbed me and threw me off of my board. “Whoo! Yah!” Matt yelled. I battled back, and we repeated the process again and again. Paddling to different spots, making small talk before I awkwardly slipped off my board and had to reposition. He told me about his wife and daughter and his love of Hawaii and surfing. The wind was kicking up more and more, and my arms were getting tired. I kept getting smacked down, but this is what I had come here to do, right? Learn surfing?
Matt kept giving tips, and I kept pushing down my discouragement. And then, on one of the final waves of the day, I got to my feet and rode a wobbly invigorating ride. “Alright, bro! You surfed!” Matt said, masking what I’m sure was impatience. I scrutinized his face, but could only detect that chilled out enthusiasm that had been a constant through the session.
We made plans to go later that week when the wind died down. After practicing pop-ups on my hotel bed for a few days, I met him at the same spot and we jumped into the ocean. The surf was more reliable, the waves coming in smooth lines that hummed and crackled. There were occasional rain storms rolling through mixing with periods of sun. I looked out over Honolulu and followed the shore down to Diamond Head and breathed deep. Almost on cue, Matt called out, “I think there’s a whale!” I scanned the horizon just in time to see a massive humpback breach and then looked right to see a full rainbow connecting the city to the sea. “Yah!” Matt yelled. “Alright!” I said. And we grinned.
Since getting back to Jeju, I’ve stocked up on the requisite gear: a long board, a thick wetsuit, a roof rack, and began the frustrating business of reading surf forecasts. It’s erratic, to say the least, and on the good days people swarm Jungmun Beach, the most reliable spot on the island. I’ve slowly been working my way from the small beginner waves to the bigger ones, standing up more frequently, gaining confidence, working up to turns. It’s a process. But waves need to start somewhere. Some travel thousands of miles before finding a shoreline.
There were many doubts that swirled around in my head at the outset of my surfing dream, when I was first driving across the country before my breakdown in Louisville. It was ephemeral and out of reach. What felt like a detour to Korea, actually turned out to be an entry point into the sport. Years of waiting and slight envy at people actually surfing slowly transformed into the plan to do it myself. Without those years of slow maturing, I’m not sure if I would have had the patience to keep getting back onto the board. I don’t think I would have had trust that I was making imperceptible progress with each fall during my early twenties. At that time, I might have walked away after that first windy session.
Part of youth is the generation of dreams. The overwhelming possibilities of what can be. The standing at the beginning of a million paths that sprawl in different directions, and the impossible task of choosing one. What you don’t realize is that these paths aren’t exclusive. They cross each other, and even circle back sometimes, perpetually churning and reforming like waves in the sea.
Recommended listeningMemories in Beach House by Seaside Lovers. This is an album that I picked up based upon the cover alone. The record itself is a beautiful see-through sea glass. From the album drop on track one, the ocean is conjured and I float away on a tropical dream. This is the quintessential soundtrack to summer.
As spring comes to Jeju and with it a series of stunning moons, I find myself reflecting on a project from grad school that my advisor, Gale Jackson, put into motion a few years ago. It was a time when I thought I’d be leaving Jeju for good, and so I started to say goodbye over the course of the springtime months through poem.
Gale told me to “look at the moon” and encouraged me to write. I started jotting down a haiku each evening and then compiled my favorites. Haiku should be written fast like brushstrokes, and I slowly painted a picture of spring. It’s interesting to retrace the footsteps – to see the journey from cold to warm as the earth woke up, and to apply meaning to familiar images through a newer lens.
Last year, I took a trip to Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms. I arrived at peak time when there were fluffy pillows in the gutters. I wandered the streets snapping photos, admiring the silence that the city and the season has to offer. I walked into Nijo castle at night and the illuminated trees took on eerie and mythic personalities with their translucent pinks and whites.
I was supposed to make the same trip this previous weekend. Again, the timing would have been perfect. I had the weekend circled, and as I waded through the day-to-day of work I held that on the horizon. But as events played out in the world, the trip drifted away and I found myself planted on Jeju spending much time at home, wandering the surrounding farm roads with my dog, and running my familiar trails on the weekend. The weekend where I was supposed to be in Kyoto drifted by like an easy petal in the wind.
When the global news became serious, at first there was disbelief, and then frustration, and then fear and then acceptance, and now? Now, I find myself wondering what can be done. I think for many it’s been a good chance to reconnect to family and friends, which I’ve been doing, but also it’s been a chance to reconnect to the land. This week a calm has set in as I look around my island. It’s not without the flavor of uncertainty and fear, but my day-to-day has been in stronger contact with the details. I’m trying to take this as a chance to notice, and to see where the past lines up with the present to form a clearer picture.
Reading these poems again, I think about how I felt in that month before leaving Jeju and moving to Shanghai. The mounting electricity of spring that builds and propels you to the full splendor of summer. Trees shake off their delicate scales to show something more verdant and enduring. And it was at that point that I said goodbye to Jeju.
Now that I find myself more or less stuck here on the island, I realize that that electric energy of leaving Jeju might have been that of staying–that my nightly check-ins with the night sky had built an appreciation for something that I have often taken for granted: where I was. When I left Jeju I missed it, and when I came back I forgot that I had. When I wrote the poems or wandered Kyoto I wasn’t enamored by the transitory cherry blossoms of spring, but by the enduring heartbeat of the island or the city. This is an awareness that only honed observation can bring.
And so tonight as a reminder of that I’ll tilt my head to the sky and pause for a few seconds to look at the moon, knowing that it’s a meeting spot for all of the places where I’ve felt the comfort of place. It’s home to a thousand translucent threads of time, space and memory that it only takes a few moments of pause to connect with.
Recommended Reading: The Essential Haiku from Bloodaxe Books. An essential collection from haiku masters Basho, Buson and Issa.