The country runner

Nobody exercised there, except through manual labor. The nearest gym was ten miles away, and I did not own a car, nor wish to pay dues. So I ran. Nearly every day for nearly five years, I ran. In the stormy season, I’d greedily await the lifting of the clouds, pacing indoors impatiently. In winter, I’d savor the half hour between the end of the work day and the point when I couldn’t see my hand before me, much less the path ahead. After a hurricane’s four days of downpour, I’d gamble that a sodden, weakened pecan branch wouldn’t crack my head open.

I ran everywhere in a three to five-mile radius: fields, trails, woods, roads paved and dirt, neighborhoods. People I had never met would say, “I seen you running, you still running?” My first season, I marveled at the carelessness of some trucker who must have spilled a bale of napkins to unravel over miles of road, until I realized that I was an ignorant Yank who didn’t know cotton when it hit her on the soles of her shoes. So running was my way of entering a foreign land, divining its curves with footprints, learning, soaking in.

It was a sensory carnival. The taste of pesticide infected my spit as I trotted along the perimeter of freshly harvested cotton fields, the poison upturned by the blades of the giant harvesters. Next it was the heavy stink of smoke, when the fields were burned to release the nutrition of ash into the soil, and next, manure, spread over the whole mess. In lovelier seasons, jasmine filled my lungs, dogwood blossoms and azaleas, birdsong, new ferns. I leaped across rivulets and puddles, investigated familiar paths turned new again with the changing of seasons.

In May, when the trail through the woods became so overrun with banana spiders that I tired of waving a stick in front of my face to prevent my head from being shrink-wrapped in dense, three-dimensional webs, I ran instead on the shoulder of the state highway. I’d switch to the opposite side when a car, or a semi loaded with pine logs, barreled my way. A neighbor told me that my image, jogging on the side of this highway, is immortalized on the street view of Google Earth. Though I have never found myself, I enjoy the idea.

In the hottest months, chiggers ate their way into the backs of my knees, no-see-um bites dotted my ankles, mosquitoes pierced my nape where the sweat dripped down under sun-scorched hair. Kudzu crept clear across dirt roads, consumed all other foliage, emitted unmistakable, sinister aroma. The roads in the wet season were mud and my sneakers and cotton socks stained red from sinking in, sometimes up to the ankle. It would not wash out.

People warned me about crazy rednecks who might abduct me or beat me with chains, but I never met any. People warned me about snakes. I did jump over a few, and others I saw in advance—a few weeks every spring, the big snakes, three feet long, would get wanderlust and I would come upon one lying across the road in a fat squiggle. I would stop: “Snake, I’m right here, and you are there. You can be comfortable there, I don’t want to bother you. I am going to walk way over here through the woods and behind you now. I’ll be gone in a minute. Thank you.”

But running was good. Alone, alive, away from people and people’s information. Omissions, ideas, insights rose from the path. Salt water seeped out of me, knowledge seeped in: the moon phases, which plants bloomed, which faded. The names in the graveyard, the unmarked stones. The taste of wild grapes, of sarsaparilla root. Barbed wire fences fallen and entombed by trees, ruined barns absorbed by forest, abandoned mattresses, beehives, and the hood of a 1948 Ford. Sweaters, condoms, beer cans, abandoned trysts. Passionflowers. The two oaks whose trunks twisted in embrace.

I knew where cows stared, rabbits fled. A loner fox, a pair of bobcats. Countless dead birds, squirrels, mice. A dead coyote on the edge of the cornfield, whom I had heard howling the night before. And human animals as well: the two guys who parked their red Ranger on the red road daily, their spot to smoke weed and eat ice cream, then toss the evidence—cardboard pint, plastic spoon. They waved, told me to mind the snakes.

Now I have a gym membership, live in the city, run on paths smooth and wide and populous with other joggers. But humans are territorial, and I am solitary. I miss patrolling my own beat, tripping, finding burs in my socks. Finding a narrow way through a strange world, rather than being guided over it.

26.2

I wake up before the alarm at 4 am, nervous. The unjudging softness of Zubu and Kiho calms and distracts. Oatmeal and coffee with soy milk. It’s still dark when I leave the apartment and bike to the shuttle. I arrive just as my coworker Dan, also an aspiring first-timer, joins the line, a happy surprise. We chat to quell our nerves and my queasiness as the yellow bus hauls us like schoolchildren along the interstate to Frenchtown.

Chill air, predawn, last minute Port-a-Potties, stretching and milling about. Chaotic, jittery energy like a crowd before the band comes onstage. The national anthem pipes in, so I put my hands together and close my eyes and pray instead: May peace prevail on earth. We herd behind the starting line, the countdown, a cannon boom, fireworks. 1200 humans wearing paper numbers applaud, shout in gladness and lurch into motion.

The first daylight breathes into the atmosphere. We are on a plain, mountains rippling on every horizon, cloaked in morning mist, crossing railroad tracks toward the old factory. Quiet except for footfalls as runners fan out in a lengthening snake, absorbed in movement. May peace prevail on earth repeats and repeats. The sky and land are open and clear, with plenty of space to echo it.

I take this gently, gently, because I want to avoid the crippling stab of pain that cut off my last run three weeks ago. I haven’t run more than a handful of miles a week since. It was far too early to taper. Yesterday the PT guy raised his eyebrows and said my run ought to be “interesting,” but that I could safely run the last miles at a seven out of ten on the pain scale if I had to. “But if it’s not fun… just hop a ride, y’know?” The guy at the Y said he figured I’d hit a wall at mile 20 or so. But what do they know? As little as I do. Still, now that I am moving, the nerves are gone. The questions are still there–will I do it? what will happen?–but it is one step at a time and the questions are satisfied with each tiny yes.

I visualize the early air as a cold pack for fragile knees. I remind myself to enjoy no-pain while it lasts. I run lightly, unhurriedly, past the five-hour pacer and the 4:45 pacer. I promise not to pass the 4:30 pacer too soon, if ever. I decide to be wholly positive. The day dawns beautiful, sun dripping down the mountains, coloring the rocks and trees, and it is precious to be alive and flowing. I feel taken care of by the warming dome of world.

Three, four, five miles and still barely a twinge. Six, seven– one quarter done already! I imagine my physical state as a percentage: 98% pain free. 97%. 98% again. Gratitude. Disbelief. J. has the Reillys praying for my legs. I prayed only for a spiritual experience, a learning experience, a peace experience, not results. The sun shines full now, and we pass aid stations of shouting volunteers holding paper cups of water and energy drink. I start popping energy gummies every mile, though I am not depleted yet. Cloying sweetness in my teeth, a personal IV drip of preventative fuel.

At mile nine we turn toward low mountains, cross the powerful, broad Clark Fork for the first time, birds diving below the bridge, and head for shade and the race’s one hill. A slow climb, and I steel myself, realizing that the only fear remaining is of not getting up and over this hill without my illiotibial band snapping into disharmony. Stay on the flat surface, one step at a time, use those big quads, those hamstrings, those arms. No pounding. 13.3 miles and the climb begins. Et voila, it is nothing! Up like a ski lift. A cowboy on a horse welcomes us to Montana, tipping his ten-gallon hat with pride. I begin passing people. A swarm of encouragers in Viking hats and togas bellows us onward. Loners park their cars and their dogs by the course and watch us roll by. Couples watch from lawn chairs in driveways as if we were television. I smile and clap and cheer the people clapping and cheering us. When I pass a boombox, I run dancing, to thank people for the tunes.

In no time we are at the plateau, the river sparkling below. The sun’s heat brings salt from skins. Descending, we join the half-marathoners at mile 16. 98%. Still amazed, grateful, strong. A man in a tuxedo plays beautiful music on a grand piano he has pulled to the edge of the course, alongside the singing river. I nearly cry from music and sun and trees and being a drop in a mighty stream of runners. “Bravo!” I shout. “Brava!” he replies.

We cross the one-lane bridge. Now comes the long flat stretch before town. Natural beauty gives way to blander neighborhoods. I use the length to pass and persevere. My toes twinge, then subside. Can it be? 18, 19, now farther than I have ever run. 97, 96, 98%. We cross Reserve Street and the streets are full of people. Nearly to the final five miles. I am sick of gummies, it is getting hot, and Mile 22 seems unusually long, but all this passes. Time is telescoping. We turn away from the finish line for a final loop south, extra blocks tacked on to round out the mileage, but nothing but positivity is in my body. I run through sprinklers, put my hands in the air. People shout that I look happy for being this far in, steady, springy. I pass some people limping, walking, belabored. They are so close. They must make it…

At Mile 24 I call J. on the cell phone I’ve been carrying, still running, and tell him I’ll see him at 4th and Higgins in twenty minutes. Can’t wait. At Mile 25 I find energy yet unspent, and decide to sprint. Running hard, the joy of throwing caution to the wind, letting everything go, we’re so close. My knees hurt, and I let them. I pass up drinks and quit the gummies, vowing never to consume one again.

Am I ready to be done? Yes… but how did this happen so fast, so easily? No time for reflection: here is the final turn, and J. on the corner. “I love you, J.!” I shout. He shouts back, and tears squeeze from my eyes as I round the turn and sprint over the bridge. The arch of balloons in view. May peace prevail on earth! One last push and the magnetic tag around my shoelace beeps over the finish line. 4 hours, 31 minutes. A woman puts a medal around my neck and I stumble to the photo booth, then to the shade tent. Food sounds unappealing, but I slurp on a triangle of watermelon. The crush of stinky, exultant runners, crowds and lines, swallows me up. I am dazed, stretching, bug-eyed from lack of sleep, exultant, disbelieving, proud, grateful, glad.

There was no wall to hit, no significant pain to overcome. It was pure joy. I was tired, so at times it seemed unreal, condensed. The emotions are slow to absorb. Did I really just do that, run 26.2 miles without stopping? At last I make my way back to the bike parked by the shuttle ages ago, coast home and fall into a chair, kiss my love, put my feet up and ice my knees. It’s done and it was all wonderful, and I will never do it again.

What I think about when I think about running

(with apologies to Haruki Murakami)

Maybe I am fickle and awkward. Maybe I am incapable of being wholly diligent or wholly focused or wholly anything. Maybe my art is stacked in the corner. Maybe the dishes are scummy and the pans burned. But I can run. Yes, I can put one foot before the next. I can take this body and run.

So it is that, after running an eleven-mile race and loving it, I decide to train for a marathon.

*

“Franklin Bridge, you are mine!” I shout, standing on its planks with my arms in the air. It’s just a length of concrete spanning a gap on an unused road in the Rattlesnake wilderness, but there’s no disappointment, because I ran eight miles to get here. Each stream crossing is a minor triumph. Each turn, each water fountain. Celebrate everything.

*

I hear that more people get interested in long-distance running during recessions. Perhaps it is about control. Clearing mountain ridges, accomplishing something quantifiable, proving endurance. Or maybe it’s about momentarily evaporating from the world where control matters at all. The sky changes above, the runner the witness scrolling across the earth. Then the mind blinks, body parts pacing as if by their own command. Now there is only motion, only breath. A leaf blown along the path.

*

A withering 19.8-miler reminds me of the obvious: I’m not invincible. Not used to running in the heat anymore, despite moving here from Georgia, where I ran year-round, often in mud, often in 90+ degree heat, with overwhelming, fudgy humidity dragging at every swing of the arms. It takes several days of training for a body to remember how to sweat, how to transfer the heat from inside to out. It takes gradualism and forgiveness, patience and humor. Bodies are finite. Nowhere but in running am I quite so aware that there is only this step, then this one, then this.

*

It’s in my power to sculpt my body, to whittle it with sweat and new muscle and to toughen it into a hungry machine, dashing across open road, sizzling with aliveness, consuming and replenishing itself, strong even asleep.

Also in my power is to push it beyond, until it talks back with pain, to which I must surrender. It whispered at first, but on mile twelve of a short loop to Bonner, just a jaunt, just as I marvel how free and well it’s going, a sharp ache stabs my kneecap and slices around the edges. It’s not the dull throb of a week ago. This one says: You Stop Now. And says it again, again, again.

There’s talk of pushing through pain, but that’s exhaustion, ache. I know those pains, and the choice to push through or rest, but this is a different message. So it’s about stumbling now, behind a row of small houses stuffed with columbine and dutchmen’s-breeches, hidden from the road, my pace a crawl as the swollen river hurls past at the speed of sound. I am crushed. I used my power to wreck my legs, at least temporarily, in a minor but crucial way.

But after an hour of self-pity, something about this small crippledness electrifies me. I stand, try a stretch, wash up. It hurts now—not now—now. What will it tell me next? All of this is learning: running, not running. What will I learn now, stuck sitting in the afternoon sun, witness to the season’s first bee having at it with the mallow flowers? I would have witnessed nothing otherwise, had I never stopped moving.

For even running, I must surrender: how fast, how far, how comfortably or uncomfortably. The temperature of the water, the energy of the food, the feel of the shoes. Whether at all. There’s only the freedom of beginning, and of each single step after. All that is mine now is to lay off until the big day… show up at the starting line… and go. And see how far.