Week five: let's get lost

I possess the navigational acumen of a hamster. Within the confines of my proscribed habitat I’m fine, but beyond that I lose all sense of direction as I dash hither and thither in a mad scramble for the familiar.

So I was more than a little glad to learn that the group I’m training with for the LA Marathon is named for a famous runner named German Silva. A native of rural Veracruz, Silva overcame his hardscrabble roots to become a champion athlete before retiring this year at age 40. But what resonates with me most is the way he won his first New York City marathon 14 years ago.

Here’s how the New York Times put it the day after the race:

As the runners headed out of Central Park onto Central Park South and were crossing Seventh Avenue at the 25.5-mile mark -- seven-tenths of a mile from the finish -- the unimaginable happened.

With a police officer gesturing for him to continue west toward Columbus Circle, Silva veered instead into the park…. As a second police officer pointed back toward the course, Silva turned and saw that [he] had taken 12 strides in the wrong direction….

Silva regained his composure quickly…. He reversed his course, took a right at Central Park South and the chase began. Silva lost 12 or 13 seconds, by his own estimate, but easily slipped into another gear…. Rapidly, Silva made up the gap as the runners continued along Central Park South for a final crosstown block before turning up into the park at Columbus Circle. Just before the 26-mile mark, … Silva gained the lead. …Even with that unintended detour, Silva covered the last mile in 5:15 to win by 2 seconds.

That’s my kind of marathoner.

My internal compass is so skewed that frequently I set off in precisely the wrong direction and proceed that way for quite some time before I realize my error. Consequently, on any given trip there comes a point where I doubt the direction I’m heading and double back -- even when it turns out I was right in the first place.

I’m from Chicago, a fairly forgiving town for the navigationally challenged. The lake is always east and the city radiates outward on a grid from a central point at the heart of downtown. In LA, no such luck. Streets wander and end without warning. Mountains push everything off course. And the ocean, somehow, is not always west. Once, on my way to a baby shower in Pasadena, I got so lost that I finally gave up and went home. I mailed the gift. When I’m behind the wheel, my nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son automatically add 15 minutes to an hour to the trip.

Somehow I manage. The day I moved to Southern California sixteen years ago I became a lifelong friend of Tom, as in Thomas Guide, and in more recent years I’ve accumulated a thick folder of MapQuest printouts. But the vagaries of urban travel mean there’s only so much a book of maps or a computer-generated directional device can tell you.

My personal GPS is my husband, Mark, an LA native who minored in geography in college and seems to have internalized the globe in both macro and micro forms. I simply call with my coordinates and destination and he – after a brief pause to marvel at my utter ineptitude in this regard– proffers the perfect route. The path from any given point A to any given point B is so obvious to him that although we’ve been together for 17 years, and although he’s known about my directional deficit from day one, he still can’t quite believe it. When he’s in a meeting or out of town and I call, it adds to the surreality to the exchange. Recently he was at an after-work cocktail party in New York when I phoned, seeking Hollywood’s elusive Argyle Avenue. Fortunately my directional difficulties are confined to vehicular travel.

Or were.

Now that I’m training for the marathon that’s all changed. Each Saturday morning, I’m dispatched with a group of other runners into the wilds of Burbank along routes that are increasingly long, winding and confounding. At first I felt confident that we would be fine. After all, I have the worst sense of direction of anyone I know. Surely everyone else in the group could follow the map and the written instructions provided by the coach and return us to the safety of our home base in Griffith Park. What I’ve learned is that runners are terrible navigators.

Sosanna, a veteran marathoner who trains regularly with AIDS Project Los Angeles, told me that during one of her training runs her group got so lost they took two extra hours to get back. A runner named Sarah told me that while vacationing with a friend in the mountains of Vermont they set out for a brisk 5-mile run and wound up running 11 miles before they found their way home. “It was miserable,” she said. At every turn in the road, my own running group is beset with confusion. “Where did we come from? Where are we going? How will we get there?”

Actually, it’s not that runners are inherently bad with directions. It’s that the act of long-distance running consumes every ounce of brain space. At a certain point the mere act of putting one foot in front of the other takes precedence over everything else. There’s no room to pay attention to where you’re headed or where you’ve been.

On our first day of training, our coach, Scott Boliver, warned us that “runners get stupid.” We become so absorbed in the act of running that a sort of mental vacancy sets in. We fall off curbs, stumble into traffic and wander into the paths of highly annoyed bicyclists. Even the pros are susceptible. When German Silva veered off course, he’d already been running for 2 hours in high humidity with a stitch in his stomach.

One thing I know: I have a great new excuse for getting lost.

10:31 AM Monday, October 27 2008 • Link •  
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