Saturday, June 20, 2015

Jenn, Lance & Me

Jenn Shelton keeps popping up in my life. You might be thinking "Who's Jenn Shelton?" She's a minor celebrity. A world-class ultra-marathon runner and a pretty good writer. She had a bit part in Christopher McDougall's massively bestselling Born to Run. Mostly as comic relief. The book made it seem like when she wasn't winning races, she was either lost, or drunk, or wiping out. I read an interview with her once where she said she was unfairly portrayed in Born to Run. To paraphrase: “Maybe everything written about her was technically correct, but it still wasn't fair. And not great for her career.”

Possibly, it wasn't fair, but I doubt it was bad for her career. The very fact that I read an interview with her suggests that Born to Run put her on the map. Maybe not in the ultra community, but definitely for the rest of the running world. I read Born to Run years ago, but suddenly I'm bumping into her left and right, figuratively, of course.

Last week, on a beach vacation, I read Scott Jurek's Eat & Run, his 2012 autobiographical account of his unlikely ultra career. In this book, he name-drops Shelton three or four times. As if he's trying to capture some of her status. The irony of this is that in McDougall's 2006 book, Shelton is portrayed as a star-struck kid when she meets Jurek. Now Shelton is the star. Wholesomely pretty, always smiling in pictures. Self-deprecating, acting like she doesn't have her life together. Living day-to-day, but on her own terms. She represents everyone's wild little sister. She's one of the few marketable ultra-runners.

When I returned home from the beach, I had two Trail Runner magazines waiting in my mailbox. Six weeks ago, I grabbed one in a book-store. I loved it and decided to subscribe. This always ends the same way. I'll buy a magazine at a newsstand for an absurd price. I'll see that I can subscribe for a whole year for a few dollars more than I just paid for the one issue. I wait and wait, and when the magazine arrives, there are two of them. The new month and a copy of last month, the one I've read three times while waiting for my subscription to start. Not only did I overpay for the first copy of the magazine, but I wasted eight percent of my new subscription on a magazine I've already memorized.

Jenn Shelton is a contributing editor for Trail Runner. And so far – two magazines worth of content – a pretty good one. An engaging, clean, thoughtful writer. In the July issue, she writes about a Grand Canyon running adventure with Lance Armstrong. If I have a hot-button, Armstrong is it. OK, I have more hot-buttons than I can count, but Armstrong is high on my list. Before I even started reading the article, I was crafting a letter to the editor in my head – full of contempt and smug self-righteousness. This kept my mind occupied on a scorchingly hot eight mile run.

Armstrong isn't a hero, he's a cheater. "Everyone else does it" isn't an excuse. He has no place in competitive sports, even for recreation. Gains made on performance enhancers don't disappear when the cheating stops. He dumped his wife after she nursed him through cancer. He dumped his girl-friend, Sheryl Crow, when she got cancer. I'm a counter-culture type – disdainful of those embraced by mass-media and the rest of the masses. Lance Armstrong was the anointed "prince of the fitness crowd." With his EverythingSTRONG brand and his stupid yellow bracelets. It made my eyes roll, and my head shake every time his name was mentioned, which, at his peak-popularity, was several times a week. I enjoyed his fall from grace. His clipped wings, his plummet from the clouds.

See? I'm really down on this guy. Judging him without really knowing anything about him. Unfair? That never stopped me before.

Eight miles is a long time to mull over a single subject. Eventually I softened a bit. The trail racing community hasn't banned Lance, so he has joined it. And why not? It's a perfect fit. The sport is littered with broken souls and checkered pasts. Substance abusers trading one addiction for a (questionably) healthier one. Runners who have hit the woods, not just for solitude, but to escape society. The mentally ill, the lonely souls, ex-cons, the chronically injured. It seems like every time I read something about the trail running, I'm reading about redemption.

I fit right in. A long history of alcohol abuse, social anxiety, OCD, and Tourettes. I've been a lifelong runner, but as a trail runner, I feel like I've finally found my sport. I might even say I found my identity. But this is something I work to avoid – gaining identity from activities. I've spent too much of my life putting myself in boxes : a runner, a writer, a drinker, a liberal, a guy with OCD. I took these definitions, I drew a circle around each of them, and I said "these are me". Over the past few years I've worked to switch my thinking. To see myself as something more than the contents of these circles.

There is something about trail running that appeals to the beaten-up crowd. The misfits who feel uncomfortable in polite company. Those who prefer to compete against themselves rather than against others. Pace is all but meaningless on an ungroomed trail. Speed is sacrificed to technical-ness. The ability to navigate through a rock-garden without turning an ankle. Crossing an ice-glazed stream without dunking your feet. And of course there are the hills. Hills on the roadway are rounded down to save gas, to protect car engines. Natural wooded trails tend to follow the most efficient route. Sometimes this includes switchbacks, but usually the trail is a straight line up a hill. The fastest way to the top.

The hills and terrain can be brutal, even scary. And for many (most?) trail runners, this makes a running path even more appealing. There is an element of metaphorical self-flagellation in the trail community. Embracing punishing routes as preferable, maybe even enjoyable. As if the purpose of the run is to serve penance for our weaknesses, our vices. Society won't punish us, so we need to punish ourselves.

My beach trip last week was to North Carolina's Outer Banks. There is a park there that consists of nothing but sand dunes. All of my runs in North Carolina were run barefoot on soft sandy beaches. Uneven foot-strikes and poor traction. An attempt to toughen myself up. But my favorite run of the week was hill repeats on the dunes. Simultaneously burning my quads and calves with effort. And the soles of my feet with scorching sand.

I saw hundreds of runners in North Carolina. Virtually all of them on the bike path adjoining the main roadway. I saw a few on the beach, but in hard-packed sand down by the water. None in the soft, uneven sand where the tide rarely reaches. And certainly no one running the dunes. I have to believe that if Jenn Shelton or Scott Jurek or even Lance Armstrong were there, they would be blowing past me with a big grin on their collective faces. Running away from – or possibly chasing after their demons.

After reading Shelton's essay, I'm unable to write a rebuttal. There is nothing to rebut. Jenn is not apologetic for Armstrong. In fact she's kind of mean. She calls him a prima donna. A guy motivated by a soft bed and a good meal. Not as mentally tough as the trails-heads in her circle. But she also calls him a friend. She is not judgmental of his past sins. They have nothing to do with their relationship. They like to run, to joke, to poke fun at one another. Besides being a great runner and a fine writer, Jenn seems to be a pretty good person as well. I'm glad I'm getting to know her.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Teresa Gunn

“Hey Teresa, can I buy you a beer?” This was a safe question in the mid-eighties. Beer was cheap. Miller or Bud, maybe a Heineken for an extra fifty cents. No getting blind-sided with a Dogfish Head IPA or a Troegs Mad Elf at eight bucks a bottle. It was a simpler time. Beer was refreshing, maybe a way to a buzz. For flavor, you ate food.

Teresa was a rock-star – at least to me. A staple of the DC punk band circuit. Leader of the Teresa Gunn Group. She was hot. Pretty, womanly, worldly. Eight or ten years older than me, in her mid-thirties. I had a huge crush on her. My ex-girlfriend had shared a joint with Teresa in the bathroom at her most recent show. Now this was my moment to bask in Teresa's glow. It didn't matter that I was on a date. That date was disintegrating anyway. I was drinking too much.

Part Blondie, part Patty Smith with a sprinkling of jazz thrown in. I never understood why Teresa didn't break out into a national act. Her recordings were clean and professional. Her stage presence, charismatic and assured. She was the real-deal. And she was playing in a shitty little bar to forty people. Half of them the group I came with. She was about to call it quits. But right now, she was having a beer – with me.

Before she packed it in, she rebooted. She took one last shot at stardom, at a music career. She created Urban Burlesque. An attempt to catch that metal/punk wave swelling at the end of the eighties. Bands like L7, an all-girl heavy metal group with a strong punk following. Joan Jett, rising from her ashes with yet another hit and now a heavy metal sound. Teresa put out a single, a pair of songs clearly worthy of airplay. She moved to California to make it big. And I never heard of her again.

Until recently.

And not for lack of effort.

Once the world wide web was up and running, anonymity became difficult. Everything is on the web. Anyone with any notoriety at all is on Wikipedia. My father, a mid-level government appointee for a few years under the George H.W. Bush administration has a Wiki page. Anyone who ever recorded anything, including my 9 year old son, is on Youtube. When I google myself, my life comes up. Past jobs, my resume, road-race times, quotes made to the newspaper. But not Teresa Gunn. Until very recently. It took almost two decades for her to show up.

Four years ago, I was certified as an indoor cycle instructor. I started an early morning spin class at a local fitness center. This entails coaching a one-hour workout two mornings per week, plus uncounted (and uncompensated) hours pulling together play-lists of songs for my classes. Mining through thousands of songs from my music collection, trying to create a fresh and motivating set of music. At age forty-eight, I was suddenly re-immersed in music in a way I haven't been for decades.

In the eighties – in my twenties – tape-mixing was one of my favorite pastimes. Hours spent splayed on the floor in front of my stereo. Recording songs from diverse bands in unrelated musical genres that nevertheless flow. Songs, once paired, seem as though they they have belonged together for eternity. Mixes to distract me on my morning commute. Mixes to keep me company on road-trips. And mixes to energize me on the way to races.

Over the past four years, I have sifted through and incorporated a vast and eclectic library of music. Pop hits, punk classics, country twang, classic rockers, show tunes, even kids' music. It is only natural that I would want to include some of my favorite songs from the eighties DC club scene. Songs that few have heard, yet remain some of the best music I know. The Slickee Boys' Jailbait Janet; Tru Fax and the Insaniacs' King of Machines; Martha and the Muffins' Echo Beach. These songs I've used. I bought them on Teresa Gunn? She's not out there. The only Teresa Gunn songs I listened to for more than twenty years was the music I owned – that one Urban Burlesque single. And I've only listened to those two songs over the last few years. After I grabbed a turntable out of a recycling pile.

So she's been lost – at least to me. Each time I googled her name, I wouldn't find anything useful. A couple of old reviews, positive reviews, from DC's city paper. That's it. No videos on Youtube. No followup band. No greatest hits CD. Not even songs for sale on

My assumption is that at the promising start of her career, Teresa expected fame and fortune. She expected to become a rock star. A real one, with more than a small local following in Washington, DC. She was doing more than creating art, more than jamming with her friends in a bar. She was living a lifestyle. Creating an image. She was hard at work, and watching less talented acts “make it” instead of her.

I know this feeling. My “art” is writing personal essays. Taking an arcane topic – like Teresa Gunn – and poking at it until it gels. Until it paints a picture. Often a picture of society, or a bit of society, but invariably a self-portrait as well. It's a popular format for long-form magazine articles, which is what I aspire to write. Frequently, I'll read an article and think “I can do better than that. I have done better than that.” Like most artists, those of us who never transcend the art-as-a-hobby-phase, I wonder why a few break out, while I'm forced to keep my day job.

I'm not looking for fame or fortune. But I would like to make my living doing something I truly love. Change my avocation into a vocation, as the saying goes. I won't do this as a spin instructor. The ten or so people who regularly take my class cannot possibly support me and my family. But as a writer? Maybe that is a reasonable goal. And so I write.

This is about more than making some money. At age fifty-two, I'm feeling mortal. I'm wanting to leave a mark on the world. My footprint so far is very small, and not so deep. A wife, two children, small extended family, a handful of friends. Some, especially my wife, would argue that my dedicated career as the finance manager of a non-profit community center is enough of a mark to leave behind. That I have impacted a whole town. But to me it feels more like a job than a calling. Maybe I'm important to the organization, to the town, but I'm certainly replaceable. So I write.

A year or so ago, I found Teresa. Well, I found her website, and then I found her. We exchanged a few emails. I asked her where I could find her digital music. During this exchange, I learned about what she was now doing with her life. Because it is well written, I'm not going to try to improve on her biography:

In 1998 Teresa turned her artistry into social action through the founding of Musicians for Education, a collective of artists of the same heart and vision. She developed an original music program called "Street of Dreams". Street of Dreams has become a fully accredited high school to college bridge program for kids who are trapped in the juvenile justice system due to the generational effects of drug addiction, alcoholism and poverty. The children served by Street of Dreams come from homelessness, incarceration and foster care. Gunn's devotion to providing creative and educational support to children in the "system" has produced a highly innovative and successful arts-education model.

Failing as a rock star has let Teresa become a true star. The most important person in the lives of the kids who have graduated from her program. I still love her music, the few songs that I can find. Teresa pointed me to a handful posted on Youtube. One of my favorites, Sister Digs the Sharpies, has made its way into my spin class. My riders haven't commented on it yet, but in time they will. One of them will ask about it, and I'll spout off about how the great Teresa Gunn Group was the best that DC had to offer in the eighties. I might even mention Street of Dreams.

The lack of Teresa Gunn Group and Urban Burlesque on the internet is proof to me that Teresa has found something more important to her than her music. As a blogger, I understand self-absorption, self-promotion. This is where I live. Teresa doesn't do this, not with her prior rock-star life. She has moved on to something bigger, more important, more impactful. I doubt this is where she thought she would land, just as working in a community center isn't where I expected to be at this point. While I would love more Teresa Gunn music to listen to, Street of Dreams is clearly more important.

Check out the Music for Education/Street of Dreams website.