Relaying the Message

May 11, 2011. The baton is valuable in all relay races. Here a track athlete prepares for the start of a relay. The GWOC track meet took place at Fairborn High School.In Zen there is the saying, “The sound of the rain needs no translation.” Here we are warned away from the futility of having words and our understanding of words do the work of nature and our most innate means of experiencing it, that is, through our various senses and our intuition. When one’s running becomes as natural an act as the rain’s falling one does best just to run and not to participate in the clumsy business of clutching at words. The very best authors of running are always those whose mouths are mute on the subject and who take no pains to peck at a keyboard. They do best to put their labor—or their play– where it is certain to result in the greatest good. Their legs and lungs are eloquent of all their words can never say, and steer them wide of the sticky doors to publication while leading them on to the widest syndication. When we watch footage of Emil Zatopec winning one of his three gold medals at the 1952 Olympics, do we care one jot what the commentator—in dated turns of phrase and 50s stage voice–is saying? How much is really lost with the audio? We’d do no worse to play Vangelis–or maybe more to Emil’s liking, “Má vlast”–over the whole affair; it matters that little. Emil’s strength and joy and a hundred other ineffable expressions are the things that make an impression on us through even so limited a medium as a reel of grainy, black and white film. The words are just dust kicked up by his footfalls.

With writers we have learned to read between their lines for what is most important to us. Poets—who choose their words with the utmost exactitude–offer us more betweens than lines separating them. The running journalist, in quoting the poets of her sport—the George Sheehans and the Chris McDougals, hands the relay baton to one who wears her own colors. The poets of running may in their turn hand off to the classical poets (as Sheehan was especially fond of doing). We may all, by learning to read carefully, follow along at the writer’s—any writer’s–pace. And when the running journalists, running poets and Poets Laureate have put all they can into the endeavor, the natural runner is the last to be handed the baton, and is called on to close well down the backstretch. He is all that stands between where the writers, whose energies have all been spent, have left off and of our breaking the tape of a perfect understanding. But he is a great deal, indeed; it is not without good reason that he is called the anchor. Read of his feats at second hand and you haven’t really followed him; try, if you dare, to run with him, and you’ll get more by that attempt than you would by all the reading in the world. In the beginning stages of a track relay, lines matter. In the latter stages, they are forgotten. What is remembered is the anchor’s superaddition of athleticism.

That runners read running journalists is a clue to the solemn fact that many of us have not yet learned to elevate our running to anything like the natural dignity of the falling rain, and that we still require translation both to understand and to explain to others exactly what it is we are doing on our lonesome trails and backstreet routs at hours when the civilized world has not yet found its legs. With regard to the runner’s language, we may have a few of the necessaries down, enough for tourism, enough to make a start. But we require language coaches and primers to read until we are comfortable enough in our fluency that we may begin to offer up a few original sentences. Ultimately we may come to use our new language without self-consciousness, to even think in it. Some day we may use it to compose running poetry or even to put the best of that poetry to rout with silent performances that render onlookers speechless. A Zen saying holds that “when the pupil is ready the master appears”; nowhere does it say that the master can’t be oneself. Before such proficiency is achieved, we will have gained a passable fluency when we can give something like a satisfactory answer to the question: “Why run?”

The mythologist Joseph Campbell, in deconstructing the hero’s journey—a ubiquitous pattern of storytelling–identifies a stage he calls “the meeting with a mentor.” It is the stage directly preceding the pivotal “crossing the threshold” stage. For most newbie runners, the journey begins far from a Boulder, a Mammoth Lakes or an Iten, Kenya—communities in which the molding of runners is a kind of cottage industry. A great many of us begin the journey as born-again runners, setting off in gray sweat suits from cul-de-sacs with nothing more than the remote memory of a high-school cross-country coach to consult for guidance. But there are always magazine subscriptions, bookstores and the internet. Coaches are but one kind of mentor. An effective one may teach us the how of running, to the extent that such things may be taught. An effective running journalist may suggest to us (and repeatedly remind us) why we should want to run at all; their highest duty is to help the bulk of us make sense of the call we continue to hear even after realizing that running is something at which we will probably never be great (chances are their own realization of this fact stood as a marker on the course to their becoming writers of running).

It is no accident that the words of coaches, writers and sometimes even the unrehearsed utterances of our more quotable runners become the more intelligible parts of speech that constitute our running mantras. A runner writing for runners enjoys advantages beyond the obvious. Twenty minutes into his long run, a line comes to him. But before he can claim it, he’ll have to carry it in his mind for the next two hours. He repeats it until it finds guaranteed lodging in his gray matter. By the time he is able to jot it down, it will have stood the ultimate test of a mantra: to be concise and catchy enough to cohere while the thoughts surrounding it are a roiling alphabet soup. Many of the running journalist’s most memorable lines had first to be remembered by their author, had first to survive this gestation. Any part of speech that is jagged or ungainly is worn smooth after an hour or two of tumbling through the mind of an endurance athlete. These are the tools our mentors of printed media impart to us, to stand proxy for their instruction and wisdom in our time of greatest need; they are the runner’s talisman, a concealed weapon against deteriorating form and morale. From our place in the middle of the pack, our running heroes cannot avail us; they are literally miles ahead; they elude emulation and have passed from visualization to vanishing point. But with the words of coaches and writers, we may always run stride for stride, no matter what kind of day we are having.

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