Where do we end up if we never start?
I don’t write a lot about my running. It’s an activity that kind of fades into the background, a discipline that keeps me from putting on too much weight, keeps me physically ready for adventure and keeps my mind healthy. Any reader of this blog knows that I write a good deal about things like conservation of fish, life on the trail and appreciating urban oases of wildness. It’s not often I mention the foremost way I’ve built endurance over the last thirty years or so.
Yet, looking back on life, I see that my life’s story could be recounted as the tale of a single, long running trail that started along a town road in Jackman, Maine and wound around the eastern U.S., depositing me, most recently, on a newly completed section of the Westmoreland Heritage Trail just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My biography is written across the miles between these paths.
Thirty years ago I went out one September day after school for the first of what I’d call my great runs…
My chest swelled with pride (and oxygen) as I approached the turn-around point near the old wooden snowmobile bridge and the cemetery. The cool September air filled my young and untested lungs as the yellow birches and red maples whirled with my pivot. I could run – I’d just proven it over the last ten or eleven minutes; one mile licked, one left before I’d rest at the dilapidated old house beside the Moose River. And maybe I’d give it another try if I felt like it tomorrow.
I don’t know why Ryan had started associating with me. This being our senior year at Riverdale High in southwest Florida; he’d just been voted “most athletic” and I’d just been voted “most likely to succeed,” a sort of consolation prize for “biggest nerd,” which would have seemed more appropriate verbiage for the skinny kid who carried a Bible in his backpack and knew all the answers. Ryan could have bench pressed twice as much as me or could have simply bench pressed me, but this afternoon, I’d beaten him in a mile run out on the school track and this got me wondering whether I had unrealized potential in this realm. Maybe I just needed to try a little harder.
The heavy boots thumped loudly along the road shoulder as I prepared to crest one more rise in the Tennessee hills of Cheatham County. I’d started in the cool of the morning but the heat of the Tennessee summer was rising now and I longed to be rid of the heavy camo fatigues (and steel-toed boots). The trials of high school had ended a couple of months earlier and now the open arms of the U.S. military waited. I spun on my heel at the top and began to coast back homeward – 9 miles to go.
There were only two of us now, me and Fireman Schetszellar from Utah. It had all been talk through boot camp – we’d both claimed to be pretty good runners though his accounts of long runs through the western ranges had always sounded more impressive. We’d been put at liberty, here along the Lake Michigan shore, to race and the rest of the division had fallen away quickly. This was the last hill, thrusting steeply up away from the lake back onto base. I was smiling and the lungs were full. Then I noticed Schetszellar’s shock of red hair had fallen back out of my peripheral vision as well, and the finish line appeared ahead.
The thump of boots on railroad ties broke the silence more than I would have liked. I was running south along the lake north of Chicago, more motivated than I could ever remember being, the time now 2:00 AM. Forty minutes earlier, I’d watched, on a secluded section of the docks, a rolled carpet pulled from the back of a van by several men, that carpet pumped full of .38 rounds and the carpet dragged out a long pier into the darkness, from whence it did not return. The rain resumed now and I felt in my pocket for the little baggie containing a paper towel soaked with blood, presumably the only sample left thanks to the cold November rain. The outer base fence was coming up fast now and I vaulted a practiced vault over and between the barbed wire and into the dark interior.
The same Tennessee hills challenged me tonight that had years ago, I just had a pace to sustain tonight (and a longer run). I lived far to the north of Nashville now by myself – no family here in Tennessee and almost no-one who knew me. This made it hard to find a ride when I did something like blow up the engine of my big black Chevy Silverado. My security shift would begin at midnight and I intended to be present for that as the lights of the Nashville skyline came into view, including one particular glass-faced high rise where I knew that Alan at the front desk would already be eyeing his watch.
Things weren’t going especially well in life and it wasn’t with great optimism that I left the double-wide along the river in West Virginia and started running for the hills. No, not the hills but one special hill I’d had my eyes on. This sleepy hamlet had already gone to bed for the night but I was just getting started. I had a monster to defeat, a foe about three quarters of a mile long with a grade that slowed all the trucks to a crawl. I sensed a strong metaphor to my own position in life as I started at the bottom and began grinding my way up.
My foot was going to be OK, I felt. Jack was leading though, always strong, always the leader. He’d pushed me to new heights as a runner as much as he’d pushed me intellectually. The trail seemed level here but this was really the start of a very gradual 10 mile climb along one of western Pennsylvania’s nascent rail trails. We’d end somewhere 20 miles off later tonight. It was a great evening to be alive and to give it everything I had.
I was catching up, against all odds (and in opposition to all common sense). I’d never run an ultra marathon before, or a marathon. And the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge was no place to wet your feet in the sport, unless you were, like most, a walker. I’d been dogging two army runners for about a mile, pushing them a little faster than they would have liked, I felt, at about 5 miles in. And suddenly one of my competitors had had enough and dropped out in a steep ravine. Cresting a rise, I looked behind across a vast distance and saw no-one. I looked ahead and also saw no-one.
I looked away to Algonquin Peak on a bright early October day, thousands of feet above sea level at my own vantage point high in the Adirondacks. I’d decided I’d like to run up New York’s highest peak, a date with Marcy that I wouldn’t miss for the world and I certainly felt at the moment that there was nowhere I’d rather be today. I finished the energy bar, put my face in the stream for water and resumed a lugubrious pace upward, not sure what I’d do when I hit the ice of the summit.
Whittaker Station seemed a good place to stop on my way up and lunch. I’d been making a habit of mountains lately and this West Virginia rise had seemed a place I needed to see, not only for aesthetic reasons but practical. I needed to see if this juncture was as I suspected it was before walking here from Georgia next year. Soft sheepish clouds floated by, very near it seemed and then it was time for a little stretch on the way up to the abandoned lumber town at the crest. The grade was gentle, yes, but the rise would last for two hours.
I couldn’t truly say it had been a run – it was just the most extreme thing I’d ever done. Over the last three days I’d covered eighty miles through unmaintained trails and beaver bogs with sixty pounds strapped to my back, usually in the rain. I was nearing Lake Placid now and was as close to delirious as I’d ever been; that’s a hard thing to assess though. These last miles were downhill but everything hurt now and everything was plastered with mud. My foot throbbed from the puncture it had sustained two days earlier. It was all good though. I’d rest big for the fourth of July tomorrow and then get on with the final thousand miles to Maine (at a more comfortable pace).
I was on Pittsburgh’s Sixteenth Street Bridge now, a rose in my hand and a lump in my throat. In many ways, this marathon-class run wasn’t like any I’d done before. I was running because I didn’t own a car now and I was running because I was never going to see the lady working in the building on the other side again.
I tucked in tight behind Peter and just tried to keep up. The urban jungle was the domain of runners like Jack and Peter and they wove through the crowded sidewalks in a rhythmic slalom. I never knew what I’d be in for when I showed up on Long Island and today I’d been inducted into the 3-man “bridges of New York City” run, an invitation-only event for the best-of-the-best runners, as we certainly liked to style ourselves. Horns blared, sunlight glared, the crowd milled and three tired runners crossed the Hell’s Gate Bridge back to Astoria for the final stretch.
Nipmuck was all a marathon through the woods should be. It was October in the wilds of western Connecticut and I’d spent the last two weeks in New England getting ready with little rocky runs in New Hampshire and on Maine’s Acadia. Still, I was under-trained but hoping for the best. Fortunately, I found the best waiting for me in these acres of birch, beech and maple – an easy trail by New England standards, and a first half that I could float through. Starting the second half, I felt good and knew I’d finish and the T-shirt or even trophy would be beside the point. The golden wind-enlivened forest was my reward today.
They haven’t all been great runs. I’ve failed and hurt and quit. But I can’t imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t taken those first long strides along the shoulder of a quiet road in the Maine woods.