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If you can fill the unforgiving minute ... with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run ... Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.
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Yearly Archives: 2009
It has been awhile since I stood here. Too long, really. In fact, it has been so long that the last time I stood here I was wearing short sleeves and a pair of skimpy nylon shorts; today I stand here at the spot where the woods part clad in wind pants, a long sleeve shirt, and a windproof vest. The windproof vest is very necessary; today, the wind howls through the trees, down between the shale walls of the valley.
The wind has brought changes not only to the way I dress to go out for a run, but to the very look of my trail. I normally run my trail so frequently that the eternal transformations of the seasons happen gradually and, accordingly, are not very noticeable. But now, having been away for awhile because work and darkness has forced me to run other routes, the metamorphosis from fall to winter on my trail is especially stark and startling — the last time I stood here the leaves on the trees formed a crimson and gold canopy above me and the gentle wind brought the sweet scent of mud, shale, and that distinctly earthy odor that perfumes the autumn air up from the river. The last time I was here, red and orange and yellow leaves formed a thick carpet beneath my feet as I crunched and shuffled my way through them. And when I finished my last run here on that day that now seems a lifetime away, I watched a red leaf lazily floating through the autumn air, almost ethereal, teased by the wind. Today, all that is gone and the wind is not warm and inviting and teasing — instead, the wind means business and has a very sharp winter bite. It has long since stripped the leaves, so instead of decked out in their autumnal finery, the trees stand as silent brown sentinels, branches reaching into a gray cold, drab sky. They have the look of just trying to endure the cold and wind of a Cleveland winter.
Even the birds are different. Gone are the tiny multi-colored warblers, carried on impossibly small and fragile wings to impossibly distant places. Only the cheery chirp of the scarlet cardinal and the happy laughter of the hardy nuthatch greet my ears this morning. It is otherwise quiet; the parking lot is empty and I probably won’t see another living soul on my run, except for the birds and the deer and the squirrels who spend their entire lives here.
This is one of those days you would rather not be running, the type of day you look for an excuse to stay in a warm bed under warm blankets. Rain threatens; the wind carries the unmistakable and indescribable smell of it and I know that I am not fast enough to beat it. From the movement of the clouds and from years of experience weather watching (every runner is a weather watcher), I figure the rain should strike at about the half-way point of my run. And when the rain begins to fall, it will not be pleasant. When mixed with the driving wind, the rain is going to be icy cold and perhaps even physically painful; cold rain driven by a strong wind has the feeling of a thousand needles biting into your flesh. I know full well that when I finish my run I’m probably going to resemble a drowned water rat. Yes, today is one of those days you'd probably rather not run.
So you may ask why am I here? The reason I am here, priming to run, is because of promises I made. No one will know if I break it, for it is a promise to myself. But I will not break it. So long as feel well enough to run and it is safe to run, I run. Cold wind and rain are unpleasant, but not unsafe. And, so, today I will run. Rain or no rain. Wind or no wind.
I’ve delayed long enough and I’m becoming cold standing here — I am dressed for a run, not for standing still — so with one final check of the laces of my Mizunos, I straighten up, ease into the effortless trot of the distance runner, and head down the muddy brown ribbon into the trees. After about a tenth of a mile the trail reaches the banks of the Rocky River and takes a quick turn to the right, where it then stretches, winding through stands of trees and underneath two bridges for three miles to the turnaround point.
As I run underneath the trees that mercifully block the wind, I can’t help but wonder — do other runners have a place like this? A special place where they can retreat and go to think or, if they prefer, not think? I hope so. A place like this is so special, it deserves to be shared.
Here, on this trail, I’ve found running is great for both thinking and not thinking. Although I run in many places, this is my special place, the one place I can come to think or not think. I used to run here much more frequently; I now return as a more occasional visitor. But I always return. Years ago, when enjoying a college student’s schedule I ran here nearly every day, I wrote papers in my head for my undergraduate classes on this trail. It was on this trail that I decided to go to law school, and where I studied for the bar exam when I finished. It may seem strange to think of studying for the bar exam while clipping along through the woods, but somehow it worked. Even today, on the rare days I can come here for a run, I still write my briefs and puzzle over how to attack and dismantle an opponent’s argument in the mental chess that is the practice of law. I don’t know what makes running conducive to figuring out problems — I suppose it is the increased blood circulating through the body that makes the brain sharper, more creative, more logical while running.
But strangely, running is also good for not thinking. Here, I’ve also discovered that I can simply lose myself in the cathartic primal act of running with its steady timeless rhythms — the continuous beating of the heart, the soft recurring sound of footfalls, even the whisper of the wind whistling past my ears. In the early days of my running career, I rarely felt the need to lose myself in running; my brain was always fluttering through something, bounding sometimes erratically from topic to topic, like how one of the kingfisher birds that live here rarely spend much time stopped any single place. In those early days of my running career, if I had nothing to think about, I would invent mind games, like counting cars when I ran on the road or counting down from ten-thousand. Always my mind was moving.
But after being diagnosed with cancer at age 26, running took on a new meaning and I learned to love running for its uncanny ability to let me forget things, to escape from a world that seemed to be spinning out of control at a dizzying pace. I’ve always liked to be in control of things, and law school only made that not so always positive aspect of my personality much worse. For a person who likes to be in control, cancer is an absolute nightmare. Cancer is the ultimate loss of control; it becomes clear that even your body is no longer yours. Instead your body belongs to doctors who decide what drugs to poison you with and what tests and indignities you need to endure. I was diagnosed with cancer at an advanced stage; fortunately, it was a kind that responds well to chemotherapy and remains curable even when caught very late. But the chemotherapy was not easy. There were all the side effects you can conjure up as defining chemo — hair loss, nausea, fatigue. I imagine someday people will look back in abject horror at oncology at the beginning of the 21st century with its burn and poison and cut approach just as well look back in abject horror on the idea of bleeding patients in the 18th and 19th centuries. At least I really hope someday people look back that way — it will mean we have found something better and without the horrific side effects.
A runner for years before diagnosis, during treatment for cancer my runs became a respite — forty-five minute intervals carved out of each day when I could escape from the reality and indignities of tests and the endless rounds of chemotherapy to a place where I was in control and free. Although I’ve always loved running, running used to be just something among many somethings that I did; after being diagnosed with cancer, running became far more than just a something. In a lot of ways, running became everything — the one element of my past self that endured through the indignity, the loss of control, the onslaught of drugs. During these runs, I found I did not want to think at all, or even play the mind games. Instead, all I wanted to do was lose myself in the quiet solicitude that marks the life of a long distance runner. All I wanted was the quiet. I relied upon it as I relied upon food and water.
That’s why it seemed particularly and terribly unfair that I was struck with lung problems from my chemotherapy, just when I needed running the most. Not everyone who is given the drugs I received develops pulmonary complications, but I fell in the unlucky group that did. The entire cancer experience seemed grossly unfair -- I mean, seriously, a 26-year old runner with cancer??? -- but this …. this was beyond unjust. This was just plain cruel. Stubborn, I refused to quit running. Every day at the appointed time I would show up and try to run, to try and carry on like usual, just because that just seemed like what was right. But instead of a reprieve from cancer, my runs became a daily struggle of will and a constant reminder that I was sick. I coughed up blood, I gasped for breath on the side of the trail, I was forced to walk. Every day I felt like I lost the battle, and was ultimately losing the war. I became your protypical runner deprived of her endorphins times ten — moody, gloomy, and irritable. There was nothing glorious or heroic about these runs — like the trees, I was just trying to endure the only way I knew how. But how terrible a struggle it was until one day, things just started to improve. By the end of treatment, my lungs had mostly healed from the chemo, though they still trouble me from time to time. Today, for example, I am feeling the dull ache in the right side of my chest and my breathing is ragged.
I try not to dwell on the pain. All runners know that running is about managing discomfort and sometimes even outright pain, and so recognizing from experience that this pain is not a harbinger of something disastrous, I use my mind to overcome it, to ignore it, to push it down and away. All the while I keep running, gliding silently beneath the trees, reaching the turn around point, slapping the tree with my right hand (tradition), and turning back on the three mile trek to the car. At this point, the rain begins, and as anticipated, it comes from the side, stinging my legs and exposed face, soaking my hat. I can feel the cold droplets falling down my back. The droplets soak the already soggy trail forming puddles and I am soon splashing through the cold mud.
In remission, running has taken on a different importance. For one, it has become the measure, the yardstick of how I am doing at any given time. I gauge my health by the numbers on my watch. I know that it is dangerous to treat running this way; all runners have bad runs, and what you dismiss as just a bad run sends my mind to places I would prefer it not to go and conjures up demons that bite at my heels. A bad run is a hideous, haunting reminder of the gravity of the disease I have been diagnosed with, a stark and terrible demon that gnaws at my psyche. It fuels the fires of my deepest and darkest fears. A bad run makes me wonder is it back? Only with time and a series of negative scans, I’ve learned bad runs are sometimes just that — a random occurrence, an inevitability when you run every day.
On the more positive side, running usually keeps the demons at bay. It silences them -- runs the life out of them. I think every cancer survivor lives with demons — every person who is in remission worries about whether it could come back. Sometimes, usually in the quiet darkness at night, those demons keep me awake. It is those days I long most for morning and for my opportunity to escape to the quiet emptiness of the roads. For in running I find my solace; the cold grip of fear no longer dominates my thoughts; it is scrubbed away and released, dissipating in the heavy morning air. When I’m bothered by demons, I run fast — for I am stronger than the demons that have been plaguing me. They can’t keep up. They try to match strides with me, but I am too strong for them. They fall back, farther and farther until they are left sucking air on the roadside while I run along free.
It may sound a bit melodramatic, but I do truly think running saved my life by teaching me to endure and be disciplined — do you know those runs on days you don’t want to do it? Hopefully you’ll never have to find out the way I did, but the truth is they teach you to persevere in ways you never dreamed imaginable. And do you know those runs where you don’t know if you can get through because the miles are going by so slow? They teach you to take things one step at a time, if necessary. When the enormity of my cancer overwhelms me, when I feel like crawling under my bed to hide, I call on the discipline and perseverance ingrained and earned by many miles spent pounding the road.
In many ways cancer is the ultimate destroyer of life — it strips you of even your hope. I think if cancer has an opposite, it must be running. Running injects hope because it is the ultimate activity of life — nowhere do I feel more alive than I do running. When I run, I feel like I could live forever, and yet at the same time I feel vulnerable. So perhaps it is not so curious that cancer with its terrible devastating force actually made me love running all the more. I don’t think I ever knew what it really was to love running until I found myself lying in bed on a beautiful spring weekend morning, lingering in the hazy cloud of fuzzy sickness that followed each round of chemo, merely yearning to engage in the simple act of lacing up my shoes, to feel the dirt underneath my feet, to run under that impossibly blue sky, to just run, not for time or because I have to, but because I wanted to run. I promised myself then if I made it through to the other side, I would run many, many miles before it was time for my last sleep.
Hope is such an extraordinary, dear thing. Sometimes I find my hope would flicker like a candle, teased by the wind, and I worry that it will be snuffed out altogether. Other times, like today, I find the flame burning bright and strong. And so that is why I am here, putting six more of miles underneath my heels this Christmas morning. Not even the cold rain that has begun to fall hard can rob me of my hope, can put out the flame. Hope, and running, are both gifts — and so even if it means running in the cold rain under a slate-gray sky through drab woods, I will not waste the opportunity and the moment — I will not waste this gift of cherished time to keep promises and run many more miles before I sleep.
Hope in my heart has placed wings on my heels as I finish my run. I’m glad I kept my promise today. Run long, run strong.
I am standing on one foot, in the dark and cold on my front porch, using the bluish-light of my headlamp to see as I slip on my running shoes. Underneath the blue light, I kneel down to tie them. Shoes secured, I crunch my way down the stairs. Due to the ice lining the sidewalks, I’ve added sheet metal screws to my shoes for traction – a runner’s trick to hopefully stay upright on slick sidewalks and roads. But on dry pavement or my concrete steps, the screws make a crunching sound.
This run begins where most of my runs begin – at the foot of the driveway. I click the start button on my Garmin and slip off into the darkness. It has been dark now during my morning runs for months now, but at least the eternal tug of war between dark and light is starting to turn in my favor. I don’t mind running in the dark that much, but I worry about sleepy drivers and the footing. Hence why I undertook the precautions this morning – a headlamp, some reflectors, the screw shoes.
I see few runners on these morning runs now that it is cold and dark. I see even fewer walkers. Some days, the bone chilling cold chases me inside, but mostly I prefer the wild and cold darkness to the heat and sterility of the treadmill, though, so it is outside for me today.
Running in the winter in Cleveland takes some special skills. For example, even with traction devices, you have to exercise caution in running over the slick patches when you see them. You shorten your stride, adjust your center of gravity, and take smaller steps. Sometimes you high step and almost prance over the ice. If you do slip, your best bet is a controlled slide. On the worst icy days, it is usually best to live to fight another day by resorting to running inside.
Today’s run through the cold and dark is uneventful. I run my loop and return to the house. As I return, the faintest red light is just beginning over the southeastern horizon. I crunch my way up the concrete steps and slip the gloves off my hands to undo my shoelaces. I carefully slip them off and fumble through my pockets for my key. Slipping it into the lock and turning the knob, I return to the warmth of the indoor, carrying my snow encrusted shoes in my left hand. This is not a memorable run – instead it is the type of run that will blend in with all the others as part of the collective experience and be forgotten as just another run in the winter of 2009-2010 in Cleveland, Ohio.