Somewhere back in March, the smart people organizing a trail run near Quantico decided it might not be a good idea to turn a couple hundred people loose on single track trail on a weekend morning.
In a race like that, there are times when you are gloriously alone. Alone with your labored breathing and beating heart and fear of failure. There are other times when you are gloriously tangled with others. Grinding out the miles in single file, sweat flying, arms akimbo, breathing the same air, trying not to step on the heels of the runner in front of you. In those circumstances, social distancing would be hard to maintain, even in the Virginia hardwood not far from the Marine Corps base.
It was the right decision, cancelling the race. But it cast me adrift. At least for a few days. I love running. But running becomes so much more with a goal, a goal like a race. A goal sharpens the edge, in the alchemy of endurance athletics, turning a simple run into something with purpose and meaning. And purpose and meaning have felt in short supply the last few months.
I started running in earnest in 1999. That was back when we worried about things like Y2K and the tech bubble. Quaint worries, in retrospect. I’d reached a point where I needed a change. Running was one of the answers. I spent a lot of time that summer on the C&O Canal, trying to convince myself I could run 26.2 miles. My jam: ”All Star” by Smash Mouth. I was basically a jerk in $200 shoes.
Somewhere along the way, change did come. It wasn’t what I expected. I got into it. I nerded out on the process. I started keeping a written record of my training mileage, and times. For years I marked my progress in pocket calendars issued by the state of Vermont. My spouse would order them special every year. I still find old ones in my closet. Each are a kind of diary of suffering. Small victories over pain. Now, it is all about the apps, which track with precision distance covered, time, calories burned, elevation gained. Out and back along the Custis and W&OD trails: 4.67 miles at a 9:24 pace; 791 calories burned. At 57, calories burned is a thing.
What the apps don’t capture is all the rest. The letting go. The head clearing. Somewhere in the act of running is a paring back. My sweet spot is about mile 4. That’s where I start to feel the cloud lift, the emotions untangle. On the other side, at least for a while, is something unadorned. A distilling to something essential. I suppose that makes running “essential work,” in the lexicon of Virus America.
Over the years, I’ve had moments of transcendence. On Jack Rabbit Road outside Bozeman, Montana. On Barr Hill in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. I’ve had moments of failure. Most often outside my front door. I’ve had moments of contentment, akin to the glow that comes from sweeping the garage. If I’m lucky, my feet fall into a rhythm and the world falls away and I capture a brief moment of clarity, a clarity without pretense. I felt that way this spring on a misting run on the Katy Trail, which parallels the Missouri River near Rocheport, Mo. The river was slate gray and angry, boiling with tree roots and rock. I felt small and humbled. A God Moment, as a friend and mentor might say? I don’t know. I do know that into moments like those I sometimes find myself speaking: Make me useful. Let me speak with Your voice, Your words. Let me love from Your heart.
Now we are back to meaning and purpose.
Since the order to shelter in place, my mileage is up. Strava tells me I’m averaging 6 runs a week, 26 miles total. I’ve got a goal: a marathon in October. I know I am better for it, all of it. A better father, a better partner, a better friend. Better for myself, too. How can I be good for others, if I’m not good for myself?
I bought a new pair of shoes recently. Went with my go-to: the Asics Nimbus. On a whim, I opted for bright orange. I guess I might still be that jerk in the $200 shoes.