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.

Rise and fall

We drive up from the city, out from under the clot of clouds and smoke. We follow the Lolo River up toward Lolo Peak. The hills are nearly bare; what snow still clings is a week old and sunken into the brush. I hope I haven’t rented the set of cross country skis for nothing, but Patty says the pass usually holds a miracle, being the gate between mountains, the border of two states, and the dumping point for abundant powder. The road steepens. We crawl into an earlier time zone, beginning our hour anew. We crest the pass and coast into an oasis of pure and blinding whiteness. The pines are draped with thick white, painted onto every needle and branch. The land is so white that the sky’s blue seems as brightly dark as a marble. Our floating island of winter teems with revelers in colorful snowpants, sledding and skiing and loosing their joyful dogs. We snap on our skis and push ourselves into the storybook, and our plot unfolds, a double line through vastness. Here are blind curves and downhills: lean in, you’ll either fly or fall, and both are true. Bend at the knees, point your skis like an arrow, and let go.