I like to say that the less successful you are, the more you are allowed to brag. So: I graduated phi beta kappa, summa cum laude from Princeton University with a 3.94 GPA, won the creative thesis Fagles Prize for the book of poetry and analysis thereof I wrote in Comparative Literature department, mounted and performed in a second thesis production of The Seagull for which I won the Francis LeMoyne Page theatre award, and got my master’s at Harvard while studying theatre in Russia for a semester with the Moscow Art Theatre school. As you can tell, I am extremely unsuccessful.
It’s been a year now that I’ve been cruising through life on government checks, my payback for suffering through a two-year stint in an astonishingly soul-sucking nonprofit, which helped me to promptly gain ten pounds upon arrival to LA. When I finally was fired, I thought to myself, “at last! I will use this time to write and be creative, and become happy and thin.” But as you can imagine, other things came up, namely Netflix, and month after month passed with nary a webisode created. For an overachiever, I was certainly underachieving.
I am constantly haunted by the feeling that I peaked at age 22. My problem is: I am a wonderful student, and a terrible adult. Give me a hoop and I will jump through it. Tell me what to do and I’ll turn it around in a matter of hours. This is the girl who mastered the “write a 12-page A paper in a day” technique– and that’s after the grade deflation policy came into effect. But give me the wide-open world and an amorphous artist’s career and I am utterly lost. I promise you, there are moments when it takes nearly all my self-control to keep from applying to Harvard Law. Who would’ve known that the LSATs would seem like “the easy way out”? Yet with my fifth reunion from college rounding the bend and 85% of my friends becoming doctors, lawyers, or very wealthy wives, it seemed like I had nothing to show for my time out of school.
And so I did what any self-loathing honor student would do to maintain sanity: I created an attainable goal. Namely the half-Ironman.
When one craves challenge and a good ass-kicking, there is nothing quite so meaty and enticing as a hardcore race that tests the limits of human endurance. The long course triathlon was the physical version of my former academic life. It tested my discipline, my drive, and my ability to remain sane. It was as hard on me as I was on myself. I deeply enjoy pain because I’m German. You know, Nietzsche or whatever. So with just six weeks to get conditioned after returning from a trip to South America, my unemployed ass dove headfirst into a 240 minute bike ride, followed by a 30 minute run. Because what else was I going to spend my days doing? Obviously not getting a job.
My days of intense cardio paired wonderfully with my quarter-life crisis. Anxiety over joblessness was quickly replaced by an endorphin rush furnished by a life-endangering four-hour bike up the PCH. And as I felt the long-term relationship I thought would end in marriage dissolving, I swam my heartache into oblivion, fogging my goggles with tears and skipping ahead on the 90s breakup songs that recycled on my underwater headphones. Blackstreet and Boyz II Men, today is not your time.
Finally the day arrived when my wetsuit, bike, and Body Glide (you don’t want to know) all headed down to Camp Pendleton for the Oceanside Ironman 70.3. Chewing a banana in the cool dark of predawn, surrounded by terrifyingly lean-muscled and shaven-legged men, my headspace had room only for: we are really doing this. Eff.
Headphones are illegal in Ironman races, so all you have is you, your angry body and your crazy thoughts for six and a half hours. The swim at 1.2 miles is the shortest leg of the race, and you’re so busy trying to not get kicked in the face by the pack of buoyant old men you’re crawling through that monotony doesn’t really apply. It’s on the grueling 56-mile bike that things get wonky. Pedaling endlessly through the base with only “Tank Xing” signs to break up the scenery, your mind gradually starts degrading into a crazy loop, and you sink into the monomania of a very active version of Raskolnokov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But instead of debating the morality of killing an old lady, you’re very aggressively shit-talking everything around you in your inner monologue. It begins with the people you pass, and who pass you, according to pace. While I chirp a friendly, “Left!” upon passing, my inner voice is being a total dick. One girl it dubbed “asian cunt”, while a couple of corpulent triathletes became “Fatty McTri” and “Baby Beluga” respectively. As the ride stretches on, the shit-talking extends from other riders to the landscape. The headwind, for one, was a great enemy: “fuckin’ wind, think you’re gonna slow me down, fuck you. Fuck that. I’m going. Fuck you, bitchass wind.” And of course, hills were the worst: “piece of shit cuntass hill, think you’re gonna get me? I’ll get you, asshole hill. Fuck you, motherfuck-hill! Not gonna make me downshift!” This aggressive mindset, as though the whole world is out to keep you from finishing the race, is maybe the only thing that keeps you going. Unless you’re one of the evangelical Christian triathletes, who post inspirational Bible verse signs along the route. Though when I see those, I just start to shit talk Jesus.
The last leg of the race is the half-marathon, at which point you really don’t give a shit about what anyone else is doing, asian cunt or no, as your own body is your main enemy. You come up against the wall that is yourself, and you must pass through it. So you start shit-talking yourself. Come on, you unemployed piece of shit. You know you can do this. You’re gonna do this. Think you’re going to give up? Fuck that, fuck this, eight miles, what even is that? That’s nothing. By this point there are cheering spectators blasting Ke$ha on car stereos and volunteers handing out Gatorade, water and a variety of edibles beyond Power Bars: oranges, bananas, chocolate chip cookies, potato chips and even cola—it’s like the world’s most arduous picnic. And you grab those chips and think “this is the only truly guilt-free potato chip I have ever eaten” and you shove water sponges under your armpits because there isn’t anything glamorous about you in this moment, and you chug relentlessly along, little athlete who can, until at last you have completed your first half Ironman, and for the first time since moving to this town of rejection and deep personal disappointment, you really feel proud of yourself.
And you tell yourself: the next goal is to put all that energy into finding a job; a meaningful job in entertainment, where you’ll learn from those who know, and maybe find a mentor. Or perhaps just a lucrative service job where your days are still free, and you’ll shoot all those funny songs you dreamt up during your biking workouts and take the world by storm in a viral video frenzy. Because isn’t life just one big triathlon? Aren’t we always coming up against the walls within ourselves? Can’t we break through them and achieve anything?
But… you don’t find that job. And suddenly you’re back in New Jersey at your fifth reunion, still unemployed and anxious.
I went back to Princeton at the end of May, and all my doctor/lawyer friends were impressed by my “bravery” at going into a “creative” field, some were even jealous. I entertained them with my great sketch idea about a pediatrician gynecologist and told triathlon tales of rape via bike seat. Then I returned to LA and my unemployment checks. And I turned 27. And I wrote this… and I signed up for another half-Ironman. I plan on doing a full one next summer—a race where full body muscle failure, vomiting, and the shitting of one’s pants is par for the course. Because a girl’s gotta have her goals.