The last three weeks of my Russian adventure were a whirlwind: so much so that I often didn’t have time to record my thoughts or, if I had time to record them, I didn’t have time to post. What follows is a blog from the week of 21-25 May, which includes my first international racing experience.
Within the span of about 12 hours this week, I lost the credit card that was my lifeblood during the span of my Russian stay, my iPad’s power cord died, and the elevator button for my floor in the apartment building quit working. My computer power cord—my second this year—is nearly burned through from the extra voltage, and my computer itself has had enough European 220 voltage coursing through its veins that powering up is nearly enough to make it overheat; suffice it to say when I meet with Brescia University’s human resources folks ahead of my first day on the job, I’m heavily considering setting up my direct deposit for the first semester using Apple’s bank account instead of my own. In the middle of the month, the city shut off the municipal heating pipes, and as part of the annual inspection process, water was shut off for my street. It’s been nine days of baths drawn one boiled tea kettle at a time, and no end is in sight.
I’ve had an amazing, informative, invigorating, grueling, challenging and love-filled time here, but even the stuff I use to get through life is worn out, quitting, and ready for me to go home. I’ll do that in just about two weeks.
Before going home, I had to ring up a couple of final, short trips to neighboring cities I’d wanted to explore. One of those was Barnaul, a city which has a proposition for a new name but also a fascinating history and above all, a beautiful geography. By the time I arrived, though, perhaps the biggest attraction was the working shower.
When someone asked me Saturday night what I did in Barnaul, my answer probably sounded uninspiring: I wandered around the city, essentially, took some pictures and ate. That was really the essence of what Barnaul offers on a very short trip. There was a sold-out rap show happening at the arena, and there were plays and an opera that had just wrapped the night before I got there.
I began to enter a nightclub near my hotel, but when the bouncer told my I’d have to remove my very blazer-like jacket because it had a zipper and could be dangerous in a fight, I decided that wasn’t the spot for me and made an about face out the door and back to the hotel room.
I took several nice runs: two at a track near the hotel and another through the city, and those were relaxing pieces of the mini-trip.
I also met up with a fellow Fulbrighter for coffee and together we explored the flea market in the central park. My prize haul was a five-inch metal bust of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, along with a couple of pins that nearly finished my collection of towns I’ve visited in Russia.
My return from Barnaul was frantic. After getting off the four-and-a-half-hour bus ride, I had to visit the regional library, where packet pick-up was taking place for the race I’d signed up to run the following day, the Za-Beg All-Russia Half Marathon. (I’d just signed up to run a 10-kilometer segment of the course, which proved to be a very wise idea.
In a couple weeks, I’ll be charged with giving some advice to next year’s crop of Fulbright scholars at the annual pre-departure orientation in Washington, D.C. One of the most important pieces of advice I think I can give comes in two phases. First: try new things. Try all the new things you can, whenever you’re able. But second—and no less important: try the things you normally do in a new context. Try going to a burger place and enjoy the Russian take on something that’s been familiar for a long time. Go to an old movie house and marvel at the freedom—and questionable decisions—of people rolling in with their own food and drinks from home. Run a road race, like I did last weekend.
Here’s the thing: that race was fancy. Anything you could ever ask for was there on the Wow scale. The starting line had a stage and a live band on top of it. There were jugglers and clowns along the course to distract from the pain. The refreshment stations offered choices of bananas or citrus options. There were pace runners with balloons on their wrists showing their target time.
But…there were no clocks, anywhere. The one thing absolutely vital to the event, and it was absent. I found this to be a particularly apt wrap-up of my time in Russia: all the bells and whistles are present, but sometimes when it comes down to the core necessities, well, they’ve been left at the door.
So I trusted the pacers and followed their lead. When the hour and ten minute and then the hour and twenty minute pacers rolled by me, I kind of packed it in and switched my goal from a respectable (for me) time to just finishing the darned thing. My legs and back were beyond dead from the previous night’s festivities, my stomach was in a perpetual cramp most of the race, and the blister underneath a toenail on my right foot was wreaking havoc on my mood.
And then I finished.
And then I got a text with my chip time. Those pacers weren’t on their A-game, let’s just say. My time was about 20 minutes faster than I’d been led to believe, and there was some instant regret: I wish I’d pushed it a little more in the race’s last quarter, when I’d pretty much tanked it.
I’ve been to races before that had literally nothing but a spray painted starting line and a clock. This one had everything but the time. There are some cultural implications to that that I’m still trying to process, and I’m sure much of it is associated with making the event fun and accessible in an attempt to grow the country’s running culture, which makes sense. But the important thing is that the encounter was a new lens on a familiar event, and that’s one of the best outcomes of an away-from-home experience.
When I was a little boy, I dreamt of representing America in international races. I ran laps around the high school track as a kid, and in my mind, the eight rows of aluminum bleachers were replaced by a sold-out Olympic stadium. As I grew up, I realized my body was not built for that reality. With age sometimes comes the wisdom of degrees, and for me, the reduced degree here was that I got my chance to represent America overseas, even if my Team USA jersey was leftover from two Olympic games ago and bought in the clearance rack at TJ Maxx. Not the glamor I’d hoped for. And yet, there were actual international runners in the race, from a handful of countries around the region. And I fought as hard to get to run as I did to train my wintery body into a passable runner over the span of just a few weeks. Before I could run, I had to be approved by a Russian doctor, which meant a cardiogram and physical once-over. The weather, as Siberia worked to exit winter, gave me pause every morning leading up to the race as I waffled back and forth over whether it was really worthwhile.
In the end, I’ll look back on this experience fondly: a chance to do a tiny fraction of what had been a lifelong dream. Fractions, sometimes are all we get, and they’re far too easy to pass by. So take them, when you can, and enjoy.
Fulbright Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.