Thursday, 27 June 2013

"perhaps the real benefit of endurance sport isn't physical but spiritual, that enduring the ceremony and imbibing the potion of hormones that our body releases puts us in a state so receptive to self-exploration that it would be damn near sacrilegious to ignore it."

Friday, 21 June 2013

Fill my memory with light

These callouses on my palms, dirt still jammed under my fingernails and bruise on the inside of my foot do not match up to where I am sitting.  It’s Monday morning and as my co-workers pound out emails and talk TV shows, I am out of the loop, thinking about scenes from the Fight Club where Ed Norton’s unnamed ‘everyman’ comes to work battered and without explanation.  I am, ironically enough, also utterly unaware of what they do with their weekends, though I have my suspicions that it’s fairly pedestrian based on the looks they give me as I tell them, in a cursory manner, where I’ve been.  “I cleaned trail all weekend”, I say, “down on the coast.”  “In the rain?” they ask, “why?”  To run it, of course; but they are just bewildered and I’ve lost them already.  Already, before I can tell them it’s to feel the power that comes from surging up and over moss covered rocky cliffs and hurl down long, narrow tunnels of birch and spruce trees canopying knee deep mud puddles; to be with the rugged, kind people who relish this time of endurance and exertion; to hold court with those of like mind and break bread.  And maybe get a few scratches and blisters along the way.  What the hell – it’s summer, you gotta cram in all the adventure you can.

And there’s something to be said, some noble thing to be said when you can drive for a couple of hours to a house you’ve never been to that is home to folks you’ve never met and not once think that there is anything wrong with it.  And there is equally something amazing to get there, to walk through the front doors of a 140 year old homestead to kids who have just met and are already playing on the floor together, and to see straight away that these strangers who have opened their doors and kitchen, guest house and lives to you are going to be your fast friends before even the first pair of sneakers are soaked.  There is something to be said for the hope it renews, the civility it nurtures, the excitement it breeds.  Something good, something we all need but does seem hard to find.

The trail in question -- a combination of grown over horse-logging roads, immaculate & sinewy single track, & freshly rehabilitated ATV double track – had all of the signature marks of being well loved and run almost daily.  The moss on all sides was thick and fragrant with a four inch swath cutting straight to the soft undergrowth down the middle, cut branches collected to the sides in various states of decay, and brooks were bridged with fresh hewn short logs strapped together as only a seasoned MTBiker knows how to do.  Every corner revealed a new series of fast challenges over roots and rocks, down steep embankments, up and over large downed trees.  Our host had us out there to spit and polish it up for the first Annual Herring Cove 11 & 22k Race.  Our reward, he had said, after the raking and trimming, talk and removal of loose stones, would be to run it together.  Sounded good.

The evening before we had all met and gathered around a table that filled, emptied and refilled with food and woven conversations over and over again as the kids played together and dogs chased each other through the woods and fields.  We had been given a strip of a local hurricane that morning so as the sun went down the light turned orange and yellow against low hanging clouds.  Talk was studded with dreams for a clear and wicked summer of racing as we tried, in our Maritime way, to connect families and friends into an ever-narrowing world of four, three, two degrees of separation.  Kids tired and food dwindled, once the fire in the stove started to cool and thoughts of an early morning start crept in, we went to bed, strangely confident that all would be well, that no doors needed to be locked, that having your kids close and your sneakers and kit packed and ready was more than enough to create safety.

Clouds gone and heavy dew on the grass, 5:45am coffee with the host settled into slow talk of the day’s work.  Maps from the night before were rehashed and flattened out.  We collected rakes and saws, loppers and gloves and threw them together with our hydration packs and runners, gels and compression socks -- weird and fitting warriors and their armour and tools.  A couple of local sailors had been recruited to come out with us – neighbours whose land the trail cut across and good old boys who had more than enough gumption to help us out for a bit – even if they did openly express their head-shaking disbelief at why any of us would think that running through the woods was any fun at all.

The trail was heavy in parts with wet leaves and mud pooling up in the low sections, but the raking was easy – a light breeze and the freshest of air.  As we wound and leap-frogged our way over the moss and solid bedrock it started to dawn on me how important and nurturing it was to live like this, how not so long ago this was nothing more than a dream, how hard I had worked to get here, with these people, doing this.  At 43 and my kids 8 and 10, I see that these years are all about being the man that my life has lead me to be, that their memories are as dependent on my initiative as their physical health is tied to my knowledge of what is best for them.  I see that the world I bring to them, the world that I cultivate around me, needs to not just be satisfying to me, but safe and important and interesting and fun for them, filled with cool people who in turn do important and interesting things.  That we are those people.

We get back to the house mid-afternoon,  quickly kick off wet shoes and swap them for dry ones, stuff a couple of gels into us, throw down the tools and before most of the folks who stayed behind have even realized we are back, we are ready for the ‘reward run’.  The kids, seven of them in all, ranging from 1 – 10 years old, are playing some crazy game with the hammock.  My two catch a glimpse of me and come over.  “Are you going running AGAIN?” my daughter asks, smiling and planting one fist firmly on her hip.  She’s just so little, but has the mannerisms of her mother.  It’s utterly adorable.  “Uh, yeah, I am.”  She nods.  “Cool”.  I’m off the hook and off running.

The pace is fast:  we are moving hard and quick and letting warm muscle carry the day.  Over our freshly cleared and narrow trail we accelerate into corners we hardly know at all, grabbing trees to slingshot sharp turns and leap, feet churning air, over jagged rocks and jettison straight off shear drop offs.  We whoop and holler, push at each other’s heels, urging more speed and passing.  We stop on top of a rock overlooking a beaver pond, sweaty pouring off al of us.  I snap a photo:  we will want to remember these goofy smiles, these first days of a new friendship.  And the kids will one day want to remember us like this.

Bodies don't lie

I am watching Matt’s feet – I shouldn’t be, I’ve learned from many stubbed toes and hard falls that I should either focus further ahead or slow down and fall back a bit; but nope, I’m focused directly on Matt’s feet.  His stride is nearly flawless, each foot striking the ground just slightly past mid-arch, not too heavily on the toes, his heel off the ground by a good quarter inch.  On flat and soft trail he opens it up, each pad falling directly and firmly onto the dirt at right angles to his hips.  He accelerates almost effortlessly.  It’s really cool to watch – one foot patting past the other in rapid, now slower, short and then longer strides. Running is such a beautiful thing.  I love everything about it, I’m thinking, as the sun cuts through the trees and a breeze chills my boiling head.  I’ve been at work all morning and this is just about as much freedom as anyone could handle.

It takes exactly one second for an ankle to turn and, while I don’t see it coming, I wince with sympathetic pain as Matt’s foot turns over from the outside in and we’re both stopped and swearing, sucking air in over our teeth.  I’ve got my hand on his back, but I know that there is nothing I can do except agree as he talks his way through it – so stupid, he’s saying, ugh, I hate that.  And all I can do is go yeah man, that’s terrible, you gotta watch out, do you need some tape?  Let’s just walk it off.

Every runner worth their metal knows that ‘walk’ is not a four letter word – sometimes you just gotta do it:  up steep hills, over unstable rock bridges, down really slippery embankments… and after you twist your ankle.  So we walk, it’s a beautiful day out and even though I’m already pushing this from ‘long lunch’ to ‘late’, what the hell?  I’d much rather be here anyway.

As Matt shakes it out, curses it out and rubs it out I’m busy watching his feet again – a trail runner’s ankles are naturally tough, conditioned that way from multiple over turns, strengthened from use.  After a couple of minutes we’re off again – I knew it wouldn’t take long, I’ve come to admire Matt’s tenacity in the time we’ve run together, including a 28k jaunt through a snowstorm so wicked that every trail, street and sidewalk we went down were utterly empty.  The wind that day seemed to pick the world up and roll it over and every time I looked at Matt he was smiling:  I know I’m lucky – not everyone finds a hardcore homie as solid as that.  His strides are shortened a bit now, his steps are tender, but I can see that that is all coming from his head:  his calves are straight and the quiet brush of his soles across the ground are indication enough that he’s fine – indeed, if he weren’t fine then the footfalls would be heavier and his shoulder would erratically be leaning in and then away as his spine tried to figure out where the weight should be bearing.  Nah, he’s fine, and we’re off, back to a good pace in just a few minutes.

Track star and cardiologist Dr. George Sheehan was famous for telling us to “listen to the body”; the problem with that, and which trail running quickly cures, is that we’re generally not very good at even knowing HOW to do that much less actually going through with it.  Listening to the body, I’ve come to believe, is a pretty complicated system of snaps and gear grinds, but ultimately very simple and a lot more natural than, say, sitting on the couch watching TV for endless hours.  To do it you really only need one thing – honesty.  Yup, it’s true – while the mind (what we think) is perfectly used to projecting worry onto an unknown future and forecasting insignificant heaps of doom for you to fear, or just outright lying in order to protect some wacked out idea of our precious self, the body (how we are) ONLY lives in the present and so working being beyond issues of control and manipulation, ego and narcissism, can’t ever lie.  Your body has everyone’s best interests in mind – the only question is, are you listening?
It starts with breathing and the heart; in them we come back to thumping reality of running, our lifeforce that we’re feeding by being outside, with the trees and the rain and the sun and even howling winds, bitter cold and blasting snow.  From there we can talk to the skeleton, it’s comfort in being erect and stable – an easy thing to correct if it’s feeling strained.  Muscles, the screamers of the body, however, they like to complain.  As trail and distance runners though we have learned, often the hard way, the importance of compassion – for others first and then ourselves, that it’s ok to hurt; that, as William James says, “Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction”  Pushing through, let’s be clear, is not masochism – quite the opposite, it is born from a great reverence for the human spirit to urge it beyond ‘normal’ confines of comfort.  And really, we all know perfectly well that adventures, decidedly, do NOT happen in the confines of our ‘comfort zone’. So, since ‘into the unknown’ is where we all must be going, at least we’re going together, and so compassion is a natural response to our fellow travelers.  

We listen to the pains to ‘see’ what they are saying and then decide if action must be taken, or if continuing IS the action to be taking.  My friends and I run to get to that point where listening to the body becomes second nature.  We go to the woods, as Henry Thoreau said, “to come back to our senses”.  Once we have learned to hear the breath’s sharp intakes and to discern the difference between distress and effort, once we have come to know when a muscle is complaining or really hurt, then we can listen to the body/mind as it attempts to perfect form and technique.  A person who listens to all the voices is, in the end, the fittest of all trail and long distance runners.  It is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other, but that’s a lot more complex than we may have first though.

At the car Matt and I shake hands, ‘thanks for the run, man’: it’s a nice bit of formality and brotherhood we unconsciously practice.  ‘Speed day tomorrow’ he says.  I tell him to take good care – rest, ice, compression, elevation and al, that good jazz.  I’m thinking about hills and loose rocks, the perfect temperatures for sweating it out on another long, and perhaps harder run myself.  Later today, back at the office and answering emails, I’ll taste salt on my lips, adjust my leg and back to sit straighter, and smile when I see a message from one of the runners that just says ‘we don’t do this to be more fit, we do this to be better people.’