Nothing is ever perfect going into an ultra. No matter how intense or careful the preparation, murphy’s law dictates that something will pop up in the days or weeks leading up to race day. In my case, I usually manage to self-sabotage by overtraining, over-racing or ‘over-life-ing’. As my friend Leah would say, you can’t put ten pounds of shit in an eight pound bag. Despite knowing this to be true, I inevitably find myself covered in a couple of pounds of shit hours before race start with a look on my face that says ‘again?’
Now that I live in Geneva with the Alps at my doorstep, you wouldn’t think I would need to travel anywhere to train… But I can’t deny that sometimes I just feel an innate need to get away. Sometimes my brain just gets blocked and I need to find a way to hit the reset button. I don’t know if it is about escaping (itchy feet?) as much as it is about searching for a new environment to help clear the cobwebs, but either way, this weekend provided the perfect excuse to hop on a plane. It’s too cold in Geneva to comfortably do a run over 2 or 3 hours (for my thin blood anyway) and the snow conditions still aren’t great for skiing. But I’ve been desperate for some long-ish days of training. So, after a quick google search for ‘direct flights from Geneva to Europe’, cross-referenced with google earth to see where there were large amounts of green spaces, I wound up on a solo mission to Sintra, Portugal, less than 24 hours later.
Sintra is a little piece of Portuguese heaven. Just 20 miles west of Lisbon, it is accessible by train from Lisbon city center or directly from the airport via a 60 EUR cab ride (which is the lazy option that I took – I’ll admit it that on a three-day trip, I don’t waste time mucking around with public transport). A UNESCO world heritage site, Sintra looks like it was created out of the imagination of an eight-year old girl. Brightly-coloured buildings line the streets with ice cream shops on every corner. Christmas carols blast from speakers installed in the trees, synchronized throughout the entire town. A castle in fisherprice reds and yellows beams down on the city, viewed high above in the distance through a cacophony of vines and overgrown trees.
When I arrived here on Thursday night, I immediately set out into town to find some food. Outside of tourist season, and outside of Lisbon, Sintra is dead to say the least… but it didn’t take too long before I found myself stepping into a local haunt down a deserted side street. Everything about it felt right: not a tourist in sight (except for me) and no burgers, fries or caesar salads on the menu. Just local dishes served in clay bowls, wine available by the mini gallon, and what appeared to be the Portuguese mafia dining on the second floor. Perfect. Two octopus salads and one cheese board later, and I was ready for bed.
On Friday morning, I set out with no real plan in mind – I wanted to reach the ocean, but didn’t really know the best way to get there, so I just headed West and gave my feet the freedom to choose the exact path. I wound up on some busy roads, but also on some interesting detours through small ‘mountain’ villages and along narrow cobblestoned pedestrian paths in various states of disrepair. When I finally reached the ocean, it was pouring rain – one of those epic downpours where the raindrops seem to penetrate straight through to your bones – but it didn’t seem to detract too much from the day. I was in exploring mode, and a little bit of rain wasn’t going to stop me.
Saturday was more successful. I found my way deeper into the ‘dark green’ splotches on google earth, enjoying getting lost on the dirt roads and trails through the Serra de Sintra (Sintra ‘mountains’). (Side note: yes, like a new Swiss snob, I put any ‘mountain’ under 1000m in quotation marks, and this one only reaches 529m at its highest). The Sintra mountains contain a castle and palace at every turn it seems, with the Moorish Castle, the Pena Palace, the Sintra National Palace, the Palace of Monserrate and the Quinta da Regaleira all inside. Another time I will come back to actually spend time visiting these places… on this trip, I was happy to take in blurry versions of the historical sites as I ran past.
As I finish my third – THIRD – post-run meal inside yet another Portuguese local restaurant, I am pondering heading out for a night run to experience the magical silence of this place in the dark. But then again, with the generous sizes of the wine pours here, I’m probably just going to head to bed early… one more run ahead tomorrow before I jet back to the ‘bustle’ of Geneva.
To see my runs on Strava, click here! I am delighted to announce that I was selected by Strava to represent them in the 2017 Western States Endurance Run… follow me as I ramp up my training to get ready for the adventure of a lifetime!
I have been in Geneva now for over three months and I think it has finally sunk in that this is my home. That I don’t have to return ‘back’ to the field. That life really is this easy.
However, as I write these words, sitting here in my lovely modern apartment, I have an uncomfortable mixture of feelings underneath my general state of bliss…. No doubt, the overwhelming feeling is a sense of relief to have the chance to rediscover ‘normal’ life. I get to wake up with electricity, walk along the river whenever I please, and if I want to, I can stay out past midnight without breaking any security rules. I have put golf-victor-four-four and kilo-quebec-four-nine-nine (my previous security call signs) to death, and am free to roam as plain old Stephanie Case. Exact whereabouts unknown – free and insignificant.
But there is no denying the more negative feelings, which creep out when I’m having a quiet moment. There’s the inevitable guilt that comes with confronting and accepting the rather obvious privilege of being able to leave the field when so many others – victims, beneficiaries, national staff – do not have that option. Guilt from feeling like you’ve ‘sold out’ and chosen the easy path. Guilt from not feeling enough guilt. It’s a vicious cycle.
As humanitarians, when we are in the field, we complain until we are blue in the face about all of those stuffy people in headquarters who don’t know what things are really like in the ‘field’… we imagine them sitting around all day in air conditioned offices, eating cake and drinking tea, while we are slaving away doing the real work on the ground. We become immersed in and consumed by the immediacy of our surroundings and anyone outside of that bubble simply doesn’t ‘get it’.
But then when we suddenly become one of those stuffy HQ people, it can be hard to process. For so long, our value, our legitimacy and our identity can be tied up in the intensity of our work. What happens when that disappears? Sure, it is a relief to be able to have regular office hours, to have time for coffee (and cake) breaks and to work at a less frantic pace. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still working hard and I believe the work from HQ is important… however, it can’t feel like anything less than productive when you’re used to being in constant crisis mode. And it is hard to wrap up one’s identity in desk work.
I’ve certainly felt a bit of shame for being so ‘weak’ compared to all of the die-hard humanitarians and human rights workers who are still in the field – the ones who didn’t need a break like I did. And I feel overwhelmed by small decisions and tasks, like paying bills, running errands, and choosing what to do on the weekends (I know, boohoo, right?). Sometimes, rather than embrace everything that ‘normal’ life has to offer, I find myself retreating home, thankful for my little sanctuary and the routine of staying indoors (I’m gradually ridding myself of this habit, thank goodness). My weekends are most often spent heading out to the mountains in solitude for some serious ‘me time’. I’m used to having so much time alone that it is occasionally a struggle to be social.
During the first month, it was also pretty terrifying to come to terms with the fact that I was waking up without stress. I figured out for the first time that for the better part of the last five years, I have been chronically stressed. I never thought that the absence of stress would be a hard thing to get used to, but it was unfamiliar. I kept waiting for a meteor to fly through my bedroom window to bring me back to the chaotic equilibrium to which I was accustomed.
As one anonymous contributor noted in the Guardian series, the Secret Aid Worker,”The reality of leaving [the field] is complicated. Aid work is like a drug: the highs get you very high, but the lows can threaten to consume you. Like a drug, too, it is all-consuming, and it is tough to kick the memory of the habit even after you leave it behind.” A recent survey of more than 1000 humanitarians revealed the challenges that people face returning home, highlighting why so many of us stay in such a dangerous and taxing profession. “Some told us that even a short amount of time in the field creates a sense that they no longer fit in at home after their assignments”, wrote one of the professors involved in the research. “This is especially true for those who’ve worked in conflict zones and in emergency relief.”
Ultimately, as much as I loved life in the field, I know that leaving it was the right move – and one for which I’m incredibly grateful. Whether it makes me less legit, less strong, or less interesting is beside the point. It has made me happier. Last Christmas, I was so stressed out and run down that I couldn’t even sit around the dinner table with my family and enjoy a simple meal. ‘Normal’ seemed exhausting. I didn’t know how to interact with the people I loved so much in such a calm and cheerful setting. That was a big wakeup call for me that it was time to get out.
Coming to Geneva has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I’m not trying to claim it has been difficult. But it is an adjustment all the same. I’m not sure exactly what normal will look like for me in the short to medium term, but I’m excited to figure it out, step by step… and running the whole way.