Monday, October 31, 2011

The Running Bug and the Web We Weave

For nearly 30 years now, I have run.  And for equally as long, I have been asked why I do it.  It is an appropriate question, and one that is never really easily answered.  I can usually respond to that question with an explanation that satisfies me, but rarely can address it to the approval of the questioner, unless the person asking is also a runner.  I guess it would be like me asking a Proctologist why they Proctologize.  But then again, I didn’t daydream about being a runner when I was in the second grade either.
The honest truth is that not only do we each run for our own personal reasons, but our individual motives change as we continue on our journey.  I can assure you that as a 26 year old, I ran for much different reasons than I do today.  When I was young, I didn’t worry about my health, or my girth, or my immortality, and I can assure you that today, I no longer train with illusions of running PR’s or with the belief that I will be young forever, and never lose a step.  Although I pushed it back for as long as I could, the reality of aging finally set in and now I begrudgingly accept it.   But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
But even with my glory days far behind me, most mornings I set my alarm for a time long before dawn, throw on my reflective vest and a headlamp, go out the door, and run.  And most days, when the run is completed, it is still dark.  No wonder people ask me why.  If I was anyone other than me, I would probably be asking myself the same question. 
But running is a bug, and once a bug bites you, it grips you tightly.  As I habitually weave my way around the neighborhood, spinning the same web day after day, month after month, year after year, I realize that I have no other choice. I don’t question why I do it, even though, as an objective observer, I know it doesn’t make sense.   I am a runner, and therefore, I run. 
I can remember when I was younger, living in North Carolina, around August of each year, as the humidity set in, big ugly spiders would show up out of nowhere, and would start spinning webs around my porch.  At around dusk they would come out, and start spinning their webs, very meticulous in their approach.  It was really a thing of beauty to watch them weave their calculated well-engineered webs, strand by strand, spoke by spoke.  I rarely stayed to watch until that night’s web was finished, but the next morning, there it was, a completed symmetrical snare, sometimes perfectly undisturbed, and other times with a fly, or a moth caught within its clutches.
I never really thought much about it back then in my youth as a runner, but have come to realize that I am much like those spiders, and this is yet another reason I run.  Did those spiders ever want to sleep in, and skip a night of web-weaving?  Who knows? As a spider ages, does he ask if it is worth it to continue spinning the same web night after night?  Probably not, because in reality a spider doesn’t have a choice.  Their nutrition, their sustenance, their reward is all built into that web. 
In much the same way, at a certain point in a runner’s life, the run becomes to a runner as the web is to the spider.  As we weave our way around our running routes, spinning our own webs in for form of miles, we realize we need it to sustain us.  We rarely question why we do it.  We just know we have to.  We are the species of human known as runners, and running is what we do.  It becomes instinctive. 
And for as long as the body allows it, the runner will not willingly not run.  He can’t.  To not run would leave him hungry, mal-nourished, and without the bug of nourishment.  Running is the web we weave.  And the web is what sustains us.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Roads Whisper My Name

I do a lot of driving through the North Georgia Mountains and the Carolinas, and I've noticed that this part of the country has its share of quiet roads. Quiet, however, does not exactly mean silent. These roads actually talk to me through their tranquility, and they whisper my name, barely audible, but undeniable. They soothingly grab my attention, and once they have gotten it, under their breath, they always utter the same two-word refrain. Like a gentle breeze, they plead. "Run me."

Whenever I hear the call, I find myself for one brief moment rearranging the rest of the day in my mind, and, once that is done, I imagine myself pulling over to oblige the call. But there is always a reason I don't. Either I have an ultimately unyielding agenda for the day, or there are people waiting at the other end of my travels, or I'm just not ready to take that kind of risk, so the thought is fleeting. I have therefore always denied the invitation, tricking myself in to believing that maybe, some day, I'll return to answer that call. But thus far, though the roads are always inviting, I have not accepted the invitation. 

The roads that whisper my name are always roads less traveled, and that's what makes them so compelling. These whispering roads of which I speak all have a similar character. They are, for the eye's eternity, tree-lined, with an abundance of shade, and the roads themselves are always ascending until they ultimately stretch beyond view, only adding to the mystery and intrigue. Perhaps, if just one time, I chose to pull over, and accept the road's request to run, it would make all the difference. But so far, I have remained indifferent.

There are risks in the unknown and unrevealed, and these roads gently dare me and seemingly taunt me to find out what lies just beyond my view. That's why they continue to call out to me, and goad me by saying "Run me." The roads that whisper my name remain an unaccepted offer, and an unsolved mystery, because I continue to stay true to the paths I know, where I feel safe and protected. They remain an invitation I have yet to accept. But the temptation grows to some day give in to the plea. "Run me." 

Whispering roads are not like the roads I run every day, which have less and less to say as the years go on. The familiar roads no longer talk, as they did when they were new. They are reliable and predictable, and I run in peaceful communion with them, but there is little new on roads that I have come to know so well that I could traverse them with my eyes closed. They are, at the same time, safe, and somewhat monotonous. 

Perchance, the day will come when I wake up discovering that the same old road is no longer the comfort I had always thought it to be. Upon that realization, I may just hop in my car, and point it north, without any particular final destination, and without any specific activity to complete. I may drive with no other purpose but to hear, and be ready to respond to that whisper I've heard so many times before. "Run me." That road I choose may turn out to be a dead end, or it might possibly be a new beginning. But answering that whispering road might make all the difference.

Friday, October 14, 2011

And the Old Man Died

The old man poked his head out the front door to be sure that the coast was clear. He was about to do something drastic, and he preferred to have no witnesses. Perhaps, he was a little embarrassed about it. But he was frail and weak, with seemingly nothing to look forward to in his future, and he knew it. So the old man decided it was time to end his sorry old life. And he was going to do it by running.

He peered out to the neighbor's houses, first to his left, and then to his right. There was nobody else stirring in his well-maintained neighborhood, and so he knew that his time had come. So the sorry old man slowly closed the front door behind him, and sheepishly ran out to the street. And he attempted to put an end to a life whose dreams had left it long ago.

As he slowly jogged down the street, he thought his heart would explode. Was this how it was going to end? He felt way too old for this kind of exertion, and the old man could feel the blood rushing to his head as he pushed on. He wondered just how long it would be before his demise would come. His legs were screaming for a break, but he ignored the body's pleas to stop. He was an old man on a mission, and he pushed relentlessly on.

He ran for about a mile, a loop around the neighborhood, and finally, he saw his house coming up on his right. When he reached it, he stopped, gasping for air.  He could go no further, and so, right where he started the attempt, he stopped, stepped back inside his house, and collapsed motionless on his living room floor and just lay there. His whole body was pounding with every heartbeat, and he felt sick to his stomach. His chest hurt, and his legs throbbed, but that day, the old man didn't die. He lay on the floor, his mind racing, wondering if he was making a big mistake with his attempt to kill himself off.

For the next couple of days, eradicating himself was the last thing on the old man's mind. That one attempt seemed like it was enough to discourage him from ever trying again. He hurt all over, and he was close to resigning himself to settling on just being old and miserable forever. But by the third day, he was starting to revisit the thought of eliminating his sad old self again.

On the fourth day, he continued his attempt, and ran again. Just as the first time, he closed the door behind him, and he ran another mile. And a funny thing happened. Though it wasn't nearly enjoyable, he found it didn't hurt quite as much, and he actually felt a little better a little sooner afterwards. And the next day, the thought of trying again wasn't so for out of his mind.

The old man found that each time he ran, it became less and less painful, and now, instead of collapsing in the middle of the house after a run, he was actually starting to plan the next one. He purchased himself a running log, and began monitoring his progress. He bought himself a watch, and found that soon, his runs started getting quicker and quicker. He was finding that he was having dreams of the future, and had something to live for. He was starting to actually feel younger than he ever had before. But in reality, the old man was succeeding in his quest. The old man was dying.

The old man started entering races. At first, he could not run one all the way without stopping. There were often very few people, if any, behind him, but the old man didn't seem to mind. After all, he was an old man, so it was positive that he was doing this at all. He continued running, and he continued racing, and he continued to experience a slow death. His weekly mileage increased to 15 miles, then through the 20's, and even into the 30's some weeks, and his race times dropped. 40 minute 5K times dropped to 35 minutes, then 30 and even 25 minutes and lower.

The old man was now 6 months into his running, and in one action, was getting in better and better shape, and inching closer to his inevitable death planned a half year earlier. He was actually starting to feel very good. But his running indicated that he still had a serious death wish. He ran more than ever, and was still getting faster. His life was becoming full, and his dreams were starting to appear in vivid color.

As he approached the finish line of the race this day, he looked down at his watch. 22:10. Never in a million years did the man dream of running such a fast time. As he crossed the finish line, with one last big push, he went to stop his watch to immortalize this race. Then he looked at the watch, just to be sure it was true. The watch was blank. The battery had given out.  Watches can also die.

At the awards ceremony, the trophies went three deep in each age group. He waited and wondered as they announced the awards in the youngest age groups first. Finally, they announced the winners in his age group. First place, and then second place in his age group were announced. His name was not called. Then they announced the third place winner. It was him. The old man had won third place in his age group. The 25-29 year age group.

He went to pick up his award, and as he proudly carried it back to embrace his young bride and baby, he knew that he had finally accomplished his goal. He had finally killed off the old man, and replaced it with the fit, youthful 26 year old he had wanted to become when he first started running.  Looking back, he realized it was a slow, and sometimes painful death, but he knew the old man would not be missed. He liked who he had become much better.

He gazed at his blank watch one more time. How ironic, he mused, that at the exact same time, the watch stopped never to beep again, and the old man died.