Rites of Spring (The Long Run 2012 May)

springDid your mother ever tie a string around your finger to make you remember things? Mine did. The next day I’d see the string and remember to take that permission slip to school, to be kind to my sister, to walk the dog, to bathe, to eat. Apparently, I was a very forgetful child. That was before I grew into the creature of habit I am today. Who needs a string on his finger when he’s tied to his daily routine? But just because one remembers to do a thing–the same thing every day–doesn’t mean one remembers the reason he or she does it. And isn’t that the more important thing to remember? We can go months or years doing things without remembering why we do them. Take me, for example. All winter long I had run a hundred and twenty miles a month–most of them on a treadmill. And would you believe I’d completely forgotten why?

My amnesia was even threatening to carry over into the next season. Spring had come. But I’d forgotten to spring ahead. The vernal season was advancing apace and I was sleepwalking on the treadmill, the occasional sub-seven minute pace notwithstanding.

Then came my wake-up call: a sunset. Not just any sunset, mind you, but a sunset viewed from Palmer Park—in the month of May. I have it on good authority that any sun that sets on the snow-streaked slopes of Pikes Peak is apt to deliver its wake ups with enough force to jolt a sensitive viewer into a spiritual epiphany, into one of those “Ah!”moments reserved for Zen masters and children at heart.

But if you’re anything like me, you’re no Zen master, and many moons have passed since you looked at the world with the fresh eyes of a child. I’m sad to report that save for the occasional passing mood, I had in my winter of discontent grown as immune to nature’s wonders as to the dose of caffeine in my morning coffee. But there was just something about this sunset that struck me with enough force to jar my senses awake to the splendors of where I live and to my preferred means of enjoying those splendors.

I don’t remember what drove me out. Probably the pleading eyes of my border collies Meg and Levitt, in perpetual need of exercise. But one night in May I swore off the treadmill for the trails. It was one of those rare evenings that seem to roll off a dream picture reel in ribbons of Technicolor film. And yet I was (I nearly had to pinch myself to discover) in the midst of reality—and in the middle of a city, no less. The red-brown trails were hedged in the most verdant foliage, embowered at intervals with the fledgling leaves of scrub oaks, starting up from winter slumbers. The air was redolent with the pollens of trees and wild flowers, the larkspur’s figuring in unabashed prominence among the latter. A hawk hung kite-like over the same plot of ground while I covered miles on foot, sizing up its wingspan from a dozen privileged angles. Running amid such wonders I could imagine I’d been granted admission to a preserve whose sanctity was ensured by higher decree.

Meg and Levitt gave chase to the bounty of birds and hares that nature had summoned in her vernal frenzy. Nature’s cup was overflowing and we three were on hand to lap up the spillage.

As runners—especially as outdoor runners–you and I have a leg up on most in appreciating nature’s gifts. We, more than our less kinetic kin, understand that our bodies are of nature and not of civilization, though we may sometimes improve them with lenses, prostheses, joints and valves. As runners, you and I gasp for air (and thus develop a fuller appreciation of its life-sustaining necessity); as outdoor runners we experience the headwind, tailwind and crosswind more as the hawk than as one who has never traveled fast or far except in the heated or air-conditioned bubble behind a windshield. We understand the workings of our legs and feet, as they negotiate the rutted and rock strewn earth, more as the mustang and the mountain goat than as one who knows nothing but the velvet ride of a four-point suspension. Humidity and temperature register more with us than to one who catches half of the forecast in the fourth mile of a treadmill workout. We stand humbled and prostrate before the fury of a midday sun, and need never lounge at poolside or under UV lamps to get a little “color.”

But even we as runners are susceptible to the hypnotic suggestions of the treadmill and the elliptical trainer. Something about the invariance of temperature and humidity, the predictability of belts and pistons, the regularity of a favorite training program performing before our eyes, can lead us, like the proverbial siren song, to forget what we’re about.

I know that my words will resonate with some of you (I’ve heard you express similar sentiments). Still we must be on our guard against an appreciation that is purely academic and never or seldom experiential. My words, being just one more voice in the buzz of civilization, can’t speak for nature; there is no proxy for nature. So if you haven’t shed your winter habit yet, now’s the time. Step away from the hum of the treadmill and out of the fluorescents and you’ll get a picture that is worth more than a thousand words—or in the present case, 935 words.

(Epilogue: Written in 2012, this article recalls a perfect run from the year 2011, when Meg and Levitt were my border collie training partners. As of this writing they are both alive and well and living with my ex-wife in Woodland Park, Colorado.)

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