I am the Hero

It’s been a challenging year here at wendyvogelbooks.com.  I’ve been a cancer survivor since 2011, and last summer it decided to drop by for a visit.  It ate my left hip, which has been replaced by the T-800 (with built-in rocket launcher and smoothie machine), and has proceeded to enjoy my liver, bits of lung, and the top of my skull. This is not a nice cancer, and has already outstayed its welcome.

There’s a quote from the podcast Welcome to Nightvale which I have printed on a T-shirt.  It says, “Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you.”  It’s always been quirkily cute, a little a-ha moment of pondering if you’re the hero of a story, or just a side character in someone else’s tale.  The truth is, of course, that we’re all both.

But suddenly the quote hit home for me.  I wasn’t the hero after all.  I’m going to die a lot sooner than I expected, and it’s not going to be pretty.  Someone will learn something from, or be moved by my death to do some wondrous thing, forever relegating my life to the trope of: “inspiration for someone else’s heroic deeds.”

And then I thought about it some more.

I used to be a marathon runner.  Last May I ran a half-marathon, and a couple of obstacle course runs over last summer.  In August my hip broke out from under me, and the world crumbled into pieces.  Now all I do is doctor’s appointments.

But today I walked two miles without a cane.  I got out there onto my old running path and limped along.  I’ll pay for it tomorrow, and that’s okay.

The point is, I’m overcoming this.  Fighting through it.  And that got me thinking about how we write stories.

A hero’s story is never a smooth passage from one point to another. That’s a boring story which no one would ever want to read. As writers, our job is to make the hero’s life a misery.  We throw obstacle after obstacle into their path, each one getting more and more difficult until the final battle, which seems hopeless.  Surely this time the hero will fall.  There’s no way to triumph over such a powerful antagonist, the boss monster that eats lesser heroes for brunch.

But that’s what I’m doing.

The obstacles in front of me have grown.  Beating cancer the first time was pretty easy.  It ran and hid, licking its wounds to the point that the reader forgot it was ever there.  Reconstructive surgeries piled up, but I plowed through.  I ran more. Biked more. Wrote books.  Got published. Got popular.  Signed contracts and gave lectures and mentored in both of my professional fields. And now the cancer’s back, stronger than ever.

And I’m beating it.

The fight is slow.  There won’t be a climactic final battle to leave the readers cheering over a decisive victory for the good guys.  But today I walked two miles without a cane.  After spending all of last fall on a walker, I’ve gone from needing my husband to lift my legs into bed to walking two miles without assistance.

The obstacles in front of me have gotten bigger, because a hero’s journey is one of ever-increasing peril.

I’m not a side character in someone else’s story.

I’m fighting the boss monster.

Because I’m the hero, and that’s what heroes do.

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Why a Mud Run is like Writing

In my world, everything is about writing.  I’m always people-watching, thinking about how the things I experience in real life might translate into fiction.  It’s far too easy to get into my own head and stay there.

But today I did my first mud run.  If you haven’t seen one on TV, it’s an obstacle course run that includes a bunch of mud pits.  They’re designed to get you filthy, and they’re a serious test of whole-body strength.

I was not ready.

I’m a runner.  I’ve done four full marathons, tons of halves, and I run all year long.  I thought that was keeping me pretty fit.

Nope.

Today’s run was only a 5K (3.1 miles for Americans).  I run longer than that every single time I run.  So I didn’t think this was going to be a huge challenge.

Here’s the course map.

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That’s 42 obstacles.  And that long part with no obstacles is a ridiculous hill run.  The yellow dots in the green space are places where we had to use a rope to get up the trail because it was so steep.

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That’s me at the top of one of them.

The rest of the obstacles included fording a river (which felt great by that point… the skinny chicks were freezing, but if there’s one thing my thighs are good for, it’s standing in an ice cold river), climbing under and over canoe piles,

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and climbing a couple of these things:

There were mud pits that wanted to suck the shoes right off my feet,

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which is why we duct taped them on, and a horrible rope swing thing that went poorly for everyone in my group.

So what’s this got to do with writing?

First, this was a great break for me.  When you’re horizontal on a slick hill climbing down a rope into a river, there’s no room in your head for anything else.  There’s only here and now, and that’s occasionally a very good thing.

The other thing I realized today is that I couldn’t have done it by myself.  I needed a hand out of some of those mud pits.  I needed a butt-boost up the rope on the huge wooden scaffold.  And I needed my friends to get me to do this in the first place.

That’s like writing.

The image of a solitary writer tapping away at a keyboard with a lap full of cats is pretty accurate, but nobody succeeds at this game alone.  Whether it’s the butt-boost of your writing group pushing you to go deeper into your characters, or another author offering you a hand with a cover blurb or blog hop opportunity, smart authors learn early that we’re not a solitary bunch at all.  It takes support to have the nerve to get started, and it’s sure nice to have some folks there to cheer you on.

I pushed myself today, and I’m sore tonight.  Tomorrow might be worse.  But I’m stronger for having done it, and I’ll be stronger still for having learned that my usual running habit is not enough.  Falling back on what I’ve always done won’t get me to this particular finish line.

Next time I duct tape my shoes on, I’ll be a lot better prepared. And that makes all the mud worth it.

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2016 Flying Pig Half Marathon Highlights

I’ve tried to explain to a lot of non-runners why I love running big races.  I talk about the electricity in the air at the starting line, the amazing view of the ocean of bobbing heads as we trot up the bridges.  Cheering fans who got up at 6AM to support the runners and the joy of seeing a finish line when you’ve run as far as you possibly can that day.

Today a spectator summed up why I love it so much.

I wear a pink ribbon shirt that says “Survivor” in big black letters, because I earned it.  And there was a guy about halfway through who yelled out to me, “You go, survivor.  You’re exactly where you need to be!”

And he’s right. That’s the reason I love it so much.

When I line up in my corral with 30,000 other runners and they play the national anthem, and we shuffle toward the starting run and start picking up speed, when I hit an easy stride and know I’ve trained enough and I’m not injured, when the music is playing and the road is lined with cheering fans, that’s when I realize why I do it.

Because at that moment, I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

There’s a perfect feeling of rightness in time and place.

That amazing feeling usually lasts at least six miles, until the bottom of Gilbert Hill.

In the past eight years I’ve run four full marathons, four halves, and the first leg of the relay three times (including the year I got drafted onto the relay team for my husband’s office, when the race took place five weeks after my double mastectomy and nine weeks after the end of chemo…slow, but I made the handoff).  I only ever didn’t finish once, the Walt Disney World Marathon 2012, which I attempted to run five days after my third round of chemo and got eleven miles in before I bailed at a medical tent…but that’s another story.

In all those races I’ve developed a strategy which is this:  start out way too fast, hit the wall about 2/3 in, and plod the rest of the way like an extra on The Walking Dead (I wouldn’t even need horror makeup…a mile from the end of the race and you’d totally believe I’d been dead for a couple of weeks as I shuffle along trailed by a swarm of bees who are very interested in the Gatorade I’ve dumped down my chest because I suck at drinking and running at the same time).

You won’t find this strategy in any running magazines.  It’s just something I’ve perfected over a lot of early morning mileage.

So here are a few things I thought about during the run.

Best spectator’s sign:  A picture of Dory from Finding Nemo that said, “I will never run another…hey, is that a race?”

Best meteorological moment:  Full rainbow over the Covington/Newport bridge.  Bonus points that “You Can’t Stop The Beat” was playing on my iPod at that very moment.

Best uh-oh moment:  High fiving the line of old people parked in their wheelchairs outside the senior apartment building in Covington, and later thinking about how many other people I’d high fived before them and how sweaty and sticky I was by then and how I probably just shared about a billion germs with the barely-still-alive oldies.  Hope somebody sanitized them before they went inside.

Best water stop guy:  The maybe nineteen-year-old kid handing out water at Eden Park yelling “Do you feel the Bern?”  No matter your politics, it makes me smile to see young people interested in government for the first time.

By the time I finished the race I was soaked with sweat, my face and hands slimy from Gatorade spills, orange slices, and Swedish Fish (marathon running is like Jungle Jim’s International Market on a Saturday…you can literally eat your way through), sunburnt on one side of my face, and smelling like the nocturnal house at the zoo.

But I was exactly where I was supposed to be.