What a life. One day you’re a king, the next you’re a dirt digging peasant’s donkey. One day every girl in town wants your phone number, the next, you’re riding a crowded, nauseating marshrutka full of miserable people in a miserable traffic jam to get to a boring, tiresome job that pays next to nothing.
I've learned some valuable lessons in Russia. 1) I need to stand up for myself. 2) I shouldn't sell myself short. 3) In Russia, and maybe everywhere, you need to figure out how to write your own rules in life. I have never really thought about writing my own rules. I’ve always been one to play by the rules. I tend to take what is given to me, and often people give me a lot. Why, I’m not exactly sure.
The above 3 lessons may be summarized as "Becoming a man," but some days have been particularly revealing of how much of a child I can be at times. Let us take for example a recent track meet I participated in. A responsible adult, a veteran, semi-professional runner would have been prepared to put his best foot forward. By this point in life, I should know exactly what I need to do prepare, execute appropriately, and achieve a good performance. But I rebelled so completely from my former coaches system that I have forgotten the basics of how to take care of myself. I’ve forgotten what and when to eat, when to get myself to the line, to limit distractions, to be disciplined in my training, etc. Worst, when I don’t know what to do, I simply wait for the problem to revolve itself, instead of resolving the problem.
Maybe I’m being too hard on myself – I am in a foreign country after all. A new environment is prone to reveal ignorance. But this past Thursday was a complete disaster. Bear with me.
First off, the internet shut off on Wednesday morning and hasn’t been heard from since (it is now the next Wednesday, and I am sitting on a bench in the university to use the internet). Maybe they decided that since all the other foreigners went home to dodge the winter that we don’t need Wi-Fi in the entire dormitory. In any case, instead of calling my coach to make sure I had the schedule straight, which I had wanted to check on the internet, I just waited for the internet to return. I was overconfident, and was taking the route of complete inaction.
I’m completely embarrassed with my inability to problem solve. I also wanted to use the internet to look up a place to buy spikes, something I had put off until the very last moment because I was hoping against hope that the package my brother had sent would arrive. But he sent it very late and didn’t realize that the postal situation in Russia is quite different than in America. 6-10 days, says the US postal service, but it takes a month for anything to get to Novosibirsk. Again, I was overconfident that things would work out. To compound things, I got off to a late start because my schedule is poor – I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I can’t fall asleep before 1am anymore, even with a little melatonin, even when I’m tired all day and don’t sleep enough the night before. This is bad.
So it’s 1pm, I have no spikes, and all of sudden I realize my race is scheduled for 15:15, not 5:15. It was a fact I had known but then forgotten. I’ve never kept time on a military clock, but I am trying to switch, since Russia uses the 24 hour brain-bender, but my brain isn’t wired yet. So I started freaking out (again an immature response). I still didn’t know where to buy spikes, and I had 2 hours to get to the line of my first race since August. So I hurriedly made my way to the bus stop to encounter a few teammates heading to the track. I asked them where I could buy spikes, but I was also acting sheepish because I was embarrassed that I was doing everything so last minute. They told me of a store called “I Sport” in the center of town. Then a bus rolled up, the number 13 bus (unlucky!!), and they all hopped on. In my haste, I boarded as well, only to immediately realize that the 13 bus is incredibly slow and goes on the road with the worst traffic in the city.
But it was 1pm, the traffic shouldn’t be too bad, right? Wrong. I should have just gotten off the bus and called a taxi. Ok, so it costs $10, but it will take me 15 minutes instead of anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour. But I didn’t, I was too shell shocked and ashamed to make a quick escape from the bus in front of these female teammates.
So I twiddled my thumbs on this bus, agitatedly glancing in all directions every time I felt the driver apply the brakes. There was nothing to do but wait, but I just couldn’t relax. I haven’t been able to relax all week, I’ve been stressed, and this was the highest pitch. I waited on the bus as it crawled most of the 4.5 miles to the metro. And I mean crawled. Literally, a fit soldier could have army crawled faster than the traffic moves on Bolshevist Street in Novosibirsk on a work day. So 2 stops from the metro station I couldn’t take it anymore, and as the doors were closing I squeezed myself, my backpack, and my camera bag through the door and started walk/jogging to the metro.
I was hoping I was 1 stop away, but as it was actually 2 I ended up running down the street like a crazed person. No matter that it was snowing, I needed to move faster. Not only to make it to the metro more quickly, but also to make sure I beat the bus, as my actions were probably rather obvious and strange to my girl teammates patiently waiting in the traffic. I made it to the metro, and I beat the bus (which tells you how stupid bad the traffic was).
I took the metro two stops to downtown, and started running around town like a maniac looking for any athletics store. I made for the general direction that the girls had told me this mysterious “I sport” store was located, but I did not find it. The two stores I found did not sell spikes, and had never heard of this store that did. With 50 minutes until the race start, I admitted defeat.
I finally called my coach and told him that I didn’t have spikes. He let out a Russian curse, but told me to come anyway. His voice sounded urgent, and my body was swollen from anxiety driven adrenaline, so I ran to the metro and hustled to the meet.
I finally emerged onto the indoor track, dressed and present about 25 minutes before the race was supposed to start. Or, at least, when I thought the race would start. My panic was rather amusing to the coaches, who didn’t seem to anxious about anything. In fact, there wasn’t much happening on the track at all. They directed me towards one of my teammates and said his shoe size was about the same as mine, maybe I could borrow his spikes? So I asked him, “Hey, I need spikes, like, right now… can I please, please, please have your spikes.” Or something like that, in Russian. He gave me a bit of a puzzled look, and then informed me that the schedule had been changed. He was running the 800 at 15:15 and the 3k had been moved to 17:25… you know, THE TIME THAT I MISTAKENLY THOUGHT IT WAS TO BEGIN WITH!!!
AND NO ONE TOLD ME IT CHANGED!!!
Not only was the internet dead, so I couldn’t figure this out myself, but no one decided to let me know that there was a whole 2 hour time change. I asked the trainer, and he said he had posted the most revised schedule in the locker room at the university. Well, THANKS A LOT. I kinda figured something that important changing in the days before the meet would be worth having a conversation about, hey, maybe just a text message, or a message on Russian Facebook, anything!
So hot damn, I had 2 hours to kill after all. All that running around town like a crazed squirrel, not eating lunch, not packing any food or warm enough clothes, abandoning the communal kitchen with my dirty dishes, and pumping two hours’ worth of performance enhancing adrenaline prematurely into my system were all completely for not. In fact, I would have had time, as I had planned in my mistaken schedule, to comfortably research a store, buy spikes, eat lunch, show up at the meet, and perform.
Instead, here I was on the track, tired, dehydrated, hungry, feeling light headed and a throbbing in my frontal lobe, without proper warm ups, and a full 90 minutes to twiddle my thumbs again until I needed to warm up. It also wasn’t enough time at this point to leave, eat, buy spikes, and come back, of course.
So there was nothing to do but wait. I hate waiting. I managed to acquire some spikes that were my size, and even took my chances on drinking the tap water in the stadium and didn’t get sick. One kind girl on the team gave me half her Twix bar, so I was becoming semi ready to race. I donned my sweat stained Whirlaway dri-fit t-shirt and William and Mary half tights and began warming up.
Now I could finally start thinking about the race. I had no idea what it would be like, but people were saying that one of these random Russians from Novosibirsk Oblast could run a 3k in 8:20. Which is not bad, not bad at all. They pointed out my likely competitor, and I prepared myself for battle, completely unsure of my current capabilities.
As the race neared, I was told I would be in the second heat. The second heat is the faster heat, right? I didn’t get a clear answer (at least not one I understood) and I just sort of figured it had to be. As I watched the first heat I thought, “Well, those guys look like they’re running pretty fast.” I would have been able to know for sure except the meet set up did not include a visible clock anywhere in the stadium, let alone a scoreboard. What they had for a scoreboard was a display powered by a standard classroom projector on a wall near the finish line (which someone currently racing has NO WAY of seeing) and showed results from a race long finished. Let’s just say my relatives in Georgia have a better projector capacity in their basement than this stadium.
Eventually someone told me that they were running 68-69s each 400 meters. Well, hell, why am I not in this race, that’s what I want to run? Man, if they’re running that fast, then the fast heat is really going to be… Oh, wait. No… I’m in the slow heat!! Jesus….
So I finished warming up, feeling dead legged and emotionally exhausted, and made it to the line for my scraggly section of the 3k. There were 5-6 of us, and the one semi-pro guy who was supposed to be in the race with me wasn’t there. Well, I guess I’m on my own then. I took the lead from the gun and was completely alone for the entire race, except when I was lapping my meager competition.
That last sentence is not in any way bragging – it was just a simple statement of fact. I was, in fact, running slower than the athletes in the other section. Indeed, I was on my way to running the slowest 3k I’ve run since… well let’s just say I ran just as quickly when I was 16 years old. That’s 7 years ago now, oh how time flies.
In typical fashion, I ran the first 1000 meters on (my slow) pace, ran slowly over the 2nd 1000 meters, and then rallied (after a fashion) over the last K to run a time competitive with my naïve, blusterous, exuberant, blessed, talented 16 year old self. The difference being that back then everything I felt was magic and I everything I touched turned to gold. That was before I had ever really experienced failure. I was fueled forward then by youthful courage, determination, faith, and even hate and anger. There was nothing I wanted more than to run fast. I rarely raced poorly, and although the races were painful, the pain was somehow sweet. My family and friends would watch with joy and pleasant expectations as I rounded the track. Teammates and competitors alike looked on me with admiration, and I felt like I could conquer any track, win any race, climb any mountain.
None of this emotion was with me as I, lonely, rounded the turns of Novosibirsk’s lone indoor track. There was no fire, for there was no glory to be had. I was a man in a dirty t-shirt in the slow heat of mediocre track meet in the middle of Siberia. Sure, it would have been sweet to run faster than the fast heat blokes had run, but it wasn’t going to happen on this day. Not alone, not after everything that had led up to this race. No, this was just 15 laps of reminding my body that I was an elite runner once, and maybe I can be one again. But nothing in the running world is given to you, you have to go out and get it. It never gets easier.
And the day dragged on, slowly sliding down from the climax until I finally arrived back at my dorm room. But still my mind will not settle, still my mind grasps at random thoughts and keeps me tossing and turning at night.
This was one day of what lately has been an eventful, busy, stressful life. My life in Siberia has really been effecting the way I think, the way I feel, and the way I interact with others. I feel like I stand in a hallway. In this hallway are a million open doors, each with profitable opportunities and rich experiences just waiting to be had. But the wealth of good choices has left me in complete indecision. I’ve stretched myself too thin, I’ve been unable to commit to anything, and I’ve gotten half-involved in too many projects to ever masterfully complete any of them. What I want seems to constantly change, and what I need is a complete mystery.
At the same time, I feel like much of what is available here is against my nature. It is far too easy to booze, schmooze, and lose yourself in this city.
I’ve always envisioned my ideal life as a quiet one – with a beautiful, loving wife, a house in the foothills of the mountains, a strong daily routine, happy, healthy, and fit. But at the same time I envision myself as someone important, well-connected, and influential in my eventual career. This second vision has brought be to this grey, traffic clogged, mud smeared city in the northern reaches of Asia, where you can party like a tzar and suffer like a serf. The popularity I experience is greater than it ever was in high school, when I could do no wrong. But here I can do plenty of wrong. Some days it feels like everything I do is wrong. Every decision I make is the wrong one. I choose wrong even when I know better, like some other force outside of my control is guiding my life. I’m not one to believe in fate – it’s not fate that is guiding my choices. It’s more like a parasite, which intercepts my thought processes and spits out its own decisions. I feel like this place is slowly killing my soul.
And here I write, in a city of beautiful women but devoid of love, of endless opportunities but countless dead ends, of riches so plentiful it fills your mind with poison, and drudgery so inescapable it smothers your enjoyment of life.