“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking…”
I pulled off my headphones. We were 16 hours into a 17-hour flight from Dallas to Sydney. I wanted to hear what he had to say.
“I know this has been quite a long flight…”
Gah. He sounded apologetic. Not a good sign.
“…but there is heavy fog covering Sydney, and it’s not expected to clear for a couple of hours.”
I cringed, waiting for his next sentence. I didn’t know exactly what it would be, but I figured it wasn’t, “As a result, we’ll arrive ahead of schedule!”
“We will be rerouting to Brisbane. We should land in about an hour.”
How far is Brisbane from Sydney?
“We apologize for the inconvenience…”
No, seriously. How far is Brisbane from Sydney?
“…and thank you for your patience.”
I settled back in my seat, 84A. Actually, it was an entire row: 84A, 84B, 84C. I was on my way to Australia via the world’s longest commercial flight—Dallas to Sydney—on the world’s largest commercial airplane, the Qantas Airbus A380. Massive doesn’t begin to describe the plane. Boasting two levels (including a grand staircase leading up to the second deck), the A380 can hold 853 passengers, though in its more common “three-class” situation, the number drops to just under 600. A first class ticket will buy you your own suite, including a small bed and a shower. Business class will get you a full recliner, an additional seat for visitors, a table, a sink, and a workstation. And economy class will get you… to your destination. Economy on the A380 is called the “Red Zone.” There, an army of rows in 3-4-3 configuration wait to be the first seats dumped when the plane starts running low on fuel.
You can guess which class I was in.
But I can’t complain. The powers-that-be were smiling down on the passengers of Qantas Flight 8, and the main cabin was far from full. As a result, the moment we hit cruising altitude of 39,000 feet, seatbelts were unfastened and there was a mad rush for empty rows.
I, of course, missed the mad rush. I was too busy adjusting my pillow and blankets and fiddling with the television and swallowing sleep aids, oblivious to the greatest scramble to claim property since the Homestead Act of 1862.
An hour later, I realized my mistake. Gathering my pillows and blanket, I maneuvered my way down the aisle in search of an unoccupied row. I walked back a few rows and then back a few more. And then a little further back. And further back. And further.
All the rows were taken, one lucky person in each row, fully sprawled out across the seats. The people in the middle rows hit the jackpot, with not 3 but 4 seats to their name.
Finally I arrived at row 84, which I believe was a structural component of the empennage. At any rate, it was the last remaining open row. I added my collection of pillows and blankets to the cellophane-wrapped pillows and blankets that were already in seats A, B, and C, and lay down.
I slept for the next 14 hours.
Yes, for real. With the help of some melatonin and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, I was able to doze on and off for a solid 14 hours. I didn’t read any books or magazines. I didn’t watch any movies. (I tried to watch one, but after 30 minutes I turned it off.) I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t even listen to music. I listened to one podcast of This American Life, which meant Ira Glass and the “fasten your seatbelts” announcements constituted the whole of my entertainment.
I guess I was more tired than I realized.
For too long my schedule had been tight and unsustainable. Every day was a Tetris game of work and to-do lists. Often, the pieces fell faster than I could maneuver them into place. I needed to hit the reset button. So I did.
What I didn’t realize was that I’d have to re-learn how to play the game at a simpler level.
Isn’t it strange that we have to teach ourselves to relax? That it takes practice to let go? Even if what keeps us busy is good? Or fun? I had grown so accustomed to looking at life as a checklist that I had forgotten how to slow down and take each moment for what it is.
Traveling is a great way to be forcibly reminded.
“Excuse me?” I said as I approached the first flight attendant I could track down. “How far is it from Brisbane to Sydney?”
“Oh, it’s just over an hour—flight.”
“Oh. Like… on another plane?”
“Yes. The airline will arrange a flight for passengers going to Sydney.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
An hour later, we arrived in Brisbane. I called my friend who had taken the train to Sydney to pick me up.
“Hey!” he said. “Are you here!”
“Yes! Kinda… I’m in Brisbane!”
“You’re in… Brisbane.”
“Yeah. The flight was rerouted. So…”
To Qantas’s credit, they did charter a 737 specifically for our motley crew of travelers. And after a 2-hour detour through customs, a bus ride from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, a 1-hour line to recheck our luggage, and a short but additional flight, we arrived in Sydney.
It had taken 31 hours to get there, but I made it. And once I stopped trying to control or even anticipate the situation, I was fine.
They say that when you travel, you have to expect things to go wrong—or at least, not as planned. They are right. Travel plans—like training plans—are written in pencil. There are too many moving pieces for everything to go exactly as scheduled. Itineraries are dynamic. That’s what makes traveling (and racing) such an adventure. You never know what’s going to happen.
It’s good to do things that are intimidating and out of your comfort zone. Intimidating things teach you to let go. Intimidating things teach you to adapt and relax. As the saying goes, you can’t control the situation, but you can control how you react to it.
I had only just arrived in Sydney, but already I felt more confident in my ability to not freak out when things go awry. By the time I took the ferry across Sydney Harbor and past the famed Opera House, I was feeling pretty darn pleased with myself. Race day? Work? Pshaw. I had just traveled halfway around the planet, and I was cool as a cucumber. I needed only a redirected flight to Brisbane to realize it.
But a little melatonin and some noise-cancelling headphones didn’t hurt.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story. Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.