If you follow my Twitter feed (@martinjdugard), you’ll have seen a recurring photo of my office white board counting down the days to the State Meet. It's always 154 days from the first day of practice to that last Saturday in November. Right now the number is at four, which means State is getting close. 

Today’s practice was a five-mile run along the Pacific on the San Clemente Beach Trail. The surf was glassy and the morning sunlight just right; the kind of warm autumn day that can make you feel slightly guilty to be a Californian. The negative ion effect of the crashing waves made the vibe all the more enjoyable. Not much for me to do coaching-wise, other than sip my coffee, click the stopwatch purely out of habit (there was no set goal pace, and thus no need to keep track of time), and stand sentry over the team's warm-ups at the little picnic kiosk just north of the pier.

I've got relatives that have lived in San Clemente since 1964, when it was nothing more than a sleepy surf town that got crazy when the Marines from Pendleton paid a visit on Friday nights. When I became a runner I'd run all the way from my Aunt Peggy and Uncle Gordon's house up on the hill down to the pier, then hook a left and run south until Richard Nixon's secret service detail told me to turn around because I was getting too close to the Western White House. I’d shortcut back up the stairs on T Street to begin the long uphill miles to Pacific Coast Highway and then grind the steep climb back up Palizada to their house. I hated that run. There was nothing easy about it. Just pure suffering. And yet I craved the challenge because it made me feel like I was doing something nobody was doing, and still remember the satisfaction of getting it done.

I liked it even more when I beat my Dad up that hill. He was the fastest runner in our family until I took him down. I was fourteen. Running faster than my Dad was my first step toward manhood. Becoming a man doesn't just happen. There’s no road map. And once you start there's no turning back. It was scary and confusing and pretty fucked up sometimes, if you want to know the truth. The hardest part is that you have to go it alone. You can't own your victories if you don't own your sins. 


 My team warmed up with a jog to the end of the pier and back, and directly under the T Street pedestrian bridge. San Clemente is pretty hip these days, but it's still a sleepy shoreline when you get right down to it. No carnival arcades. No fancy hotels on the sand. But with the number of days to the State Meet set at four right now, my anxieties about the competition make it hard to focus on anything else — even the thirty people coming to the house for Thanksgiving. Strolling down memory lane was a fine sedative.

The beach trail is just off the soft sand, running parallel to the fence dividing the railroad tracks from the ocean. In the summer it's flat and hard-packed, jammed with runners, walkers, joggers, dog walkers, and Starbucks-toting women from the Talega development walking four abreast. We do our runs at 6 a.m. in July and August to beat those crowds, because it's hard to run while weaving through the masses. The workout then is usually at a pace of steady or tempo, both great rhythm runs to develop economy and endurance.

Back in the days when I ran here as a teenager, and again during those summers when I pumped gas at the Chevron on El Camino Real and ran the beach late at night after work, that was the pace I ran San Clemente. Some of those days I was confused, just a boy trying to figure what his path through life might look like. A lot of those days I was angry, partly because I couldn’t discern that path — though also because I liked being angry. Rage made me relevant.

But mostly, if I'm telling the truth, I felt lonely. I had nobody. Running gave me strength I couldn’t find in books or records or those pretty beach girls who never looked my way.

Sometimes I think running is about competition. Sometimes I think it's the practices which makes us better and stronger. But mostly I believe it's about the memories that come from physical exertion, and how those snapshots of life we carry around inside us are more precious for the struggle.

I'm not sure what's going to happen on Saturday. I have no control. We could win a couple titles. Or we won't. Either way, we'll eat a little tri-tip at the Dog House Grill and make the long bus ride home from Fresno. Win or lose, sometime halfway through the drive I'll take out a legal pad and make a list of how we can be better next time.

It's a lesson I learned a long time ago in San Clemente.