Because It’s Here (appeared in The Good Men Project, June, 22, 2015)

ManRunningNearMountainsThe longer one runs, the more fluent one becomes in the use of its spare language. Whether rooted in English, Tarahumaran or Kalenjin, running talk does not usually hold audience with conundrums; it answers most puzzles by earnestly suggesting, what else but a run? Between runners, all of this passes for shorthand; as long as there are routes and races to run, it matters little to us whether there is a translatable answer to the question most frequently put to us by non-runners: in a word, “Why?”Asked why he cared to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.” With those three words he became a poet of mountaineering and of all sports; wisely, he answered the question with a clever dodge; he let the mountain speak to the mystery. He needed only to allude to the famous pinnacle, nature’s ultimate pièce de résistance, and others were able to form a clear mental picture of the thing he hungered to overcome, whether or not they cared to add its overcoming to their own bucket lists. Had he any words to add to his perfect utterance, the result would have been a subtraction.

But utramarathons, marathons, 10ks and neighborhood routes are not “there” in the same sense that Everest is, as a conspicuous, imposing terrestrial feature calling out to some universally human (if latent) spirit of adventure. The proving grounds of the runner are human inventions superimposed on a neutral geography, a compact agreed on by us and our GPSs or a few race marshals.

Yet make no mistake: there is a mountain. For each runner the contour lines and stratigraphy differ. Though the runner’s obstacles exist mostly in the realms of metaphor, they are in the end no less real than Mallory’s mountain. For some there is an encircling range, the ascent of which is the sole means of escape from poverty and prospects best described as mean, brutish and short. One hears this in the interviews of the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes who have, against all odds, clambered up a steep path that carried them through a narrow pass and down a leeward side. This seems appropriate somehow for a people who occupy—literally–the Great Rift Valley. Others have it more like Rasselas, the story-book prince whose only release from a life of courtly extravagance and unwholesome entertainments lay beyond the earthly ramparts insulating the Utopian valley of his boyhood. Picture Bruce Dern, gifted actor and fortunate son, with his streak of 17 years of daily running to blunt the toxicity of Hollywood’s fickle fame and a decade’s-long Vicodin addiction.

To each his own mountain, raised from unseen forces and pressures, formed of what complex aggregates others may only imagine. The bedrock is laid early. Assay the runner’s psyche and read his history in the strata. And don’t be surprised to unearth a skeleton or two. Who can know the story of Billy Mills and not know in his heart that it was the catastrophic tectonics of cultures in collision that raised the mountain up which he had to run? During a harangue by his college coach over a disappointing race, the fiery half Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian with the “white man’s haircut” is reported to have shot back, “What half do you suppose lost today?” We may be sure that Mills stood atop much more than three podium steps when, in 1964, he was awarded the U.S.’s first 10,000 meter Olympic Gold in one of running’s greatest upsets. The mountain wouldn’t come to Billy, so Billy went to the mountain.

Of our uplands, the greater part perhaps is rooted in accidents of our prehistory: the where and the when into which we are born, the lot we draw at birth, including the industrial diseases that are now part of the modern runner’s inheritance. A part too is owing to the accretions of our personal history. One feels this in ultra-runner Jenn Shelton’s confession, “I started running ultras to become a better person. I thought that if you ran 100 miles you’d be in this Zen state…It didn’t work in my case—I’m the same old punk-ass as before—but there’s always that hope that it will turn you into the person you want to be…”
Yes, there’s always hope; flowers are usually rooted in dirt, after all. But how long must we run the mountain before we realize that the mountain is us and that we have only to get out of our own way? Because its location in the psyche conforms to no point on a topographical map, there’s no telling the miles we’ll need to log before we may tag its summit. We haven’t the perspective to triangulate its true distance from us, and to know whether or not the summit we think we see is false.

Surely our mountains are made of more than molehills, but of what exactly? Only a great deal of digging will bring such facts fully to light: The names we were told could never hurt us, the insults added to injury, the hats we didn’t throw into the ring, the towels we did; and so much else that, by way of consolation, we convinced ourselves was immaterial. (No amount of EVA foam will fully shield our thin skin from the jagged memories that underlie these cushy figures of speech. This is the job of callouses.) Here too is all that we repressed and sublimated; all that emasculated, dehumanized or disempowered us; the prognoses and prognostications we couldn’t abide; the anti-depressants and statins we refused to take. Sleep, science tells us, cleans the machinery of our brains, but there are dustbins nearer the soul that its nocturnal housekeeping never touches. Neglected, the overspill may rise so high as to throw menacing shadows and summon storm clouds to its heights. Against these, we must add our day labor. These piles we may never disperse; but by years of sweat and by the counting of mile markers, we may rise above them. This is but one way of overcoming: the runner’s way.

Do we doubt that a figment of the mind has influence enough to call a body to run? How common is running in dreams? So common that even our dogs do it. Sometimes the illusion is so vivid that a body actually becomes involved in the running dream. The crux of running’s enigma is that others see only the running but not the thing being run. No wonder they’re confounded.

To run is to invite accusations that we are running from something. That, I think, is a weak light in which to view our striving. We runners are not so passive, not so reflexive. We run up and over mountains, never mind that we may be the ones who’ve put them there. We know that mountains do not give chase; they stand in our way.

So what’s at the top, anyway? First, there’s the view, the wide sunny prospect that allows one to finally see where one came from and where one might go next. Second, there’s a descent. There is, in every great running story, a watershed, after which it is clear to all that, whether the hero runs faster or slower or not at all, he no longer grinds against the weight of the world. From here, he may run on to new vistas, or retrace his steps home. Having run with a heavy heart for three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours, Forrest Gump suddenly stops and declares to his assembled acolytes: “I’m pretty tired. Think I’ll go home now.” A flat desert road on a day of no particular importance: this was the appointed time and place for Forrest to get to tell it on the mountain.

Whether tomorrow or a month from tomorrow, we’re sure to hear the words, “Why do you want to run that marathon? That treadmill? That track? That whatever?” We might just shrug and invite our questioner to join us. But if we’re feeling chatty that day, we might invoke the spirit of Mallory and answer (with an inward pointing gesture), “Because it’s here.

Forrest-Gump (1)

Because It’s Here may also be read in The Good Men Project, June, 22, 2015.

Adopt A Running Partner (The Long Run)

dakotaWhat do you call a running partner who’s always eager to run, perfectly accommodating of your schedule, not afraid to drive the pace but able to ease off uncomplainingly when you ask him or her to, and who’ll never push the boundaries of “conversational pace” with a tempo run yak fest? How about Buddy, Molly, Duke, Jack, Coco or any of the entries on a list of popular dog names. That’s right, I’m talking about man’s best running partner (other than the iPod maybe, but that was another story).

In an age when 1 in every 2 relationships is begun online, it won’t come as a surprise that one can find a four-legged running partner online as well. That’s where I met Dakota (the name his Foster dad had given him): on Craigslist. Dakota is a 2 year-old Border Collie who had been rescued from a high-kill shelter in New Mexico by 4 Paws 4 Life (find them on Facebook at or meet with them at area PetSmarts during Saturday morning adoption events.) The little I’ve been able to glean of Dakota’s history, coupled with his initial unfamiliarity with indoor spaces, and his high-level of canine sociability, leads me to suppose that he had spent his pre-running days carousing with a pack on a reservation, probably with no consistent and reliable source of food, human attention or veterinary care. Fortunately his physical and mental health was excellent, leading to his being deemed adoptable—a very fair assessment considering how well he has adapted to life with a family.

For the runner in search of canine accompaniment, there are many considerations. Endurance athletes should seek the companionship of dogs whose breeding suites them for the style of running in which the athlete participates most frequently. How fast does the athlete run? How often? How far? Over what surfaces? In what weather? There are few healthy dogs that wouldn’t make a great running partner for someone, somewhere. But the key is to find the perfect pairing for human and canine athlete alike. Some of this is just common sense. An elite runner and a short-legged, long-haired, pug-nosed, aging dog? Never should the twain meet—except on the couch over a good film or book. As a running partner, a pug—no offense to your improbably fleet pug—may be better suited to jogging around the neighborhood with a grandma (unless that grandma is Joan Benoit Samuelson). For the faster runner, numerous breeds of hunting, herding or racing dog may be his or her ticket to finding a running partner that can actually keep up. For help in selecting the breed of dog that is right for your running style, consult the Runner’s World article “A Breed Apart” at http://www.runnersworld.com/running-tips/breed-apart.

When running with a dog, I prefer trails over the road, which is not to say that a dog cannot—like a human—adapt to a sensible degree of road running. Asphalt and concrete can be hard on the paw pads. Walk barefoot across an asphalt parking lot on a hot day and you’ll think twice about asking your dog to run on a road in 95-degree heat. Bring water, especially of you are asking your dog to run long and in hot weather. Pay attention to your dog’s step and gate before, during and after running. Give your dog rest if you notice him or her exhibiting signs of tenderness or distress. If the symptom persists, seek veterinary care. Always remember that when your dog isn’t performing feats of endurance athleticism on the trails, he or she is a member of your family and unlike a pair of running shoes will be front and center throughout many of the 22 or 23 hours a day you and she are not running. Expect your athletically-trained dog to exhibit—like its owner—restlessness when weather or circumstances interfere with your regularly scheduled run. Unlike you, your dog cannot go to the gym and hop on the treadmill (though I’m sure there’s a YouTube video out there ready to prove me wrong).

With Dakota being my third Border Collie running partner, I’ve learned some of the ropes of running with canines, especially Borders (bred to uncomplainingly chase herd animals all day). Like humans, canines can anticipate a learning curve as they tackle the art of controlled running. Be patient with your new running partner. Expect a few tumbles as your dog masters running basics like don’t stop abruptly in front of your human: catastrophe will follow. Bring treats to reward your runner during and especially after a smooth run. Expect to be pulled into the occasional vigorous stride or sprint as a rabbit, fox or bird happens by. Do not expect to run a clean time-trial with a canine, as potty breaks of varying lengths are a requirement and can happen any time (and usually do just when you’re trying to make a mile split look good); be prepared. Keep your dog on leash in neighborhoods as well as urban and suburban trails. Become adept at using a retractable leash or at gathering in the length of your traditional leash to allow the safe and easy passage of fellow pedestrians and cyclists. Remember to cover your car seats if— following a hard rain—you’ll be driving to that trail with the red mud. Don’t be alarmed when your dog goes into a sleep coma hours after an exhausting run. Do read up on running with dogs. There are experts who think it’s a great idea, and experts who don’t. But then there are experts who maintain that human running is a bad idea. And we’ve all decided what to make of that.

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.)