Six months ago, I decided to be reckless. I was out running by a lake near my home in Asheville as that all-too-common feeling of stuckness squelched my every step. I needed a change — what else is new? — something to plan, somewhere to run. As I literally ran in this moment of desperation, my thoughts latched onto the notion of a half-marathon.
I’d run my first half four years ago as part of a 25th birthday celebration that also included my baptism and a coastal trip with my parents. After triumphantly finishing that race under two hours, I’d unofficially decided to run a half every year thereafter as a way to keep me physically in check, geared toward some grand physical goal.
Well — the ensuing four years have come and gone without a single subsequent half-marathon to my name. So, I drove to a McDonald’s after my run by that lake (gotta stay fueled) and researched various races a few months down the road. And I only searched one part of the country:
In that moment of spontaneity, I decided it was finally time to return to the Golden State after nearly three years away. I stamped my ticket to the La Jolla half-marathon in San Diego that day and started training for it.
A week ago, I flew out to California and carried the torch beyond that one spontaneous decision in October. I couldn’t wait to see California again, but I also worried about our big reunion and the emotions that would ensue.
In the end, I suppose I got exactly what I asked for: good times and unbearable times.
I Love California
Firstly, I exceeded my race expectations. I didn’t think I’d trained hard enough in the weeks leading up to Race Day, and I went into the race anticipating a slower time as a 30-year-old compared to my youthful 25-year-old self.
But as it turns out, I finished faster. Three whole minutes faster. 1:53 compared to my 1:56 from five years ago. I couldn’t believe it.
Beyond the finish line, the race itself inspired me. Thousands of runners of all ages and shapes and sizes. And the crowds! So many bystanders scattered along the 13.1-mile course on city streets and backyards. Little kids gave passing runners high fives, others rang bells and cheered, and untold numbers of volunteers handed out water and mysterious cups of “purple power” every single mile.
A Muslim woman handed me some water at Mile 7, and that moment has stuck with me far beyond Mile 13.1.
The views blew me away; I’d forgotten how gorgeous California was. Seeing Lady Pacific again made my heart leap: an endless swell of blue lining the horizon, mirroring the infinite Blue Ridge I’d left behind back East. I remembered my love for living out here those four years my story panned out that way: inspiration and Instagram-able moments at every turn.
After the race, I met some old friends, and over the next couple days I made some new ones, too, putting faces to names I’d only ever seen digitally. I surfed on the couch of a guy who had surfed my own couch in Asheville, and the poetry of it all makes me even gladder to be part of this transient bedrock of a community.
I also ate my first In-N-Out double-double with animal-style fries in three years. Above all else.
I saw and did a lot in four days. Most of it good.
I Hate California
Toward the end of my four-day trip, I remembered all too well why I’d left California three years ago. Why the road of #RunningTo beckoned and why I left Paradise behind.
Because once I dove beneath the crashing ocean waves and the breathtaking cliffs, I saw the shipwrecked framework of a vibrant life that once was. Friends who were no longer. Seasons that had transpired and transported others away. A part-time tutoring career that had turned fully stale.
I drove past my old apartment in Fullerton, wincing at memories no longer. I walked downtown and saw the same homeless man limping along from three years ago. I went to one and two and then three coffee shops downtown, including my favorite, sitting at that lone window seat of old. Remembering.
Everyone and everything that has remained and yet stands no longer.
By the end of that final day in Fullerton, I couldn’t wait to return to the Blue Ridge. I hopped a red-eye flight back to the Southeast and trudged back to Asheville.
I certainly didn’t regret reuniting with California — not the race, not the reunions, not the escape — but gosh did it still sting.
I’m glad I was reminded California still exists. To see the Hollywood sign again and remember its dimensions on the hillside while basking in the crisp, smoggy air.
And yet it was awful to be reminded California still exists. Shadows of my old life taunting me, telling me how I ultimately failed. That I’ll never get this whole “living somewhere” notion right.
Yes, California represents significant life growth. I wouldn’t be who I am in Asheville without California.
And yet I can’t ignore what else that state represents.
The striving. The failing. The never quite enough.