On this perfect late-September Sunday I am gearing up for the next of countless long runs on the New Santa Fe Trail. The trail—if you don’t already know—cuts through the Air Force Academy on its way to Palmer Lake and points further north. To say that it is picturesque—especially when its ramblings steer you into perfect panoramas of Pikes Peak–is to say too little. Intoxicated by the abundant natural beauty of the setting and absorbed in the pain or pleasure of my runs, I often forget that I am on the grounds of one of America’s five service academies, nurseries of military leadership. But every so often I come over a rise and catch a glimpse of the Cadet Chapel or Falcon Stadium and I feel something in my throat . . . and it has nothing to do with dehydration or the gel I swallowed. Here is a metaphor for our lives. We dash or slog through them according to our style, distracted by pretty things and caught up in the striving. And we too seldom remember that we and our children enjoy our gleeful privileges under the stewardship of men and women who serve capably, freely and proudly. What comes as an epiphany to me is a given for our local veterans, who take every opportunity—and create a few too–to shine a light on the military service of men and women at home and abroad.
I confess to being no military veteran, never mind that folks often mistake me for one today at 45. (A few years back when I was being pled with to run with ID, I chose a military-style dog tag. That and the clean-cut look often fools people, though I am not trying to cut any image of which I am undeserving.) As a teenager I spent an hour before an Army recruiter and an hour before a Marine recruiter. Then I defiantly decided my half-baked plans were better than anything they were serving up. I packed it off to college and pulled a multi-year stint as a liberal arts student and not-so-conscientious objector. And the closest I got to running was having a roommate on the track team. Looking back, I regret the uninformed martial stance, the uninterrupted bookishness, and the macaroni-and-cheese diet that left me soft, stooped and weak at 22, a condition I failed to remedy until my mid-30s. I wonder how differently my life would have been had I taken the road of service encouraged by my mother. To contemplate that would be to write a book—and I’m not a big fan of the alternative history genre. So I will just briefly consider how a career of service might have changed my running.
For starters, a military career would have shown me the way to better discipline. I wonder how I could have improved—and still might improve–my running performance with something more than the willy-nilly approach to discipline and training that has had to serve me up to the present hour. While my discipline is serviceable on calm, sunny days, it balks at the mention of snow, rain, darkness, cold, headwinds, the track and the morning dew. You might call my discipline a fair-weather friend and not the kind you would trust to have your back in the trenches. Secondly, had I done my tour of duty I might have learned the value of helping and being helped (in a word, teamwork) through the accountability and synergism of running with, say, a platoon. I recently spoke to a retired Marine—an infantryman–at my gym. Still fit at 50, he contentedly recounted his experience of running a minimum of three miles daily with his platoon. They even ran aboard an aircraft carrier. How’s that for running on a business trip! It is no accident that we try to mimic the effects of a military cadence—think “I don’t know but I’ve been told…” and “Sound Off!”–with the up-tempo songs on our iPods. Still, our iPods don’t kick us it the rear when we are dragging, shame us when we set our expectations too low, or buy us that beer when we smash a goal.
A good friend of mine never fails to extend a heartfelt thank-you every time she encounters a person in uniform (firefighters and police officers included). In a city of service she is kept busy with gratitude. On my next long run through the Air Force Academy the very least I can do is turn off the electronic cadence and stop to observe a moment of silence…and then muster the self-discipline to finish the thing for our service men and women. And if anyone wants to buy me a Guinness at Jack Quinn’s afterward, I won’t refuse.