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Today is Not that Day

Mike Baker, May 2018

If you have ever read my column, you probably already know, I’m going to ramble a bit and it will seem like I can’t find my way. Try and think of it like this: your running partner invites you to a trail he’s found and you go and run the trail with him. The best part might be that he gets lost and has to guess which way is right and in the end you get back to your car in one piece and maybe never find out how lost you really were that day but the company was pleasant enough and at least you weren’t at work. I ask you for that same generous indulgence.

I’m certain there aren’t an infinite number of excuses not to run but there are an awful lot of them. I know, for me though, all of my excuses boil down to the simple idea that I’d just rather not. Running is hard. Even when you’re fit and at the right weight and the weather is fine like a pretty lady is fine, it’s hard. Even easy effort faces the geography and the weather and your temperament. I always feel heavy at first. It seems a little impossible that I might even be able to do it. You know what I mean. There is that split second before you start when you say, “I can’t do this.” You start though and before long you aren’t necessarily worried about whether you can finish as that thought is transformed into, “How will I finish?”

I’m not suggesting I don’t enjoy running. I love running. It’s that there is the runner in me that says, “Get up and get it done.” And then there is also the middle aged civil servant that dreams my way, shuffling into the morning kitchen, lazily staring over the sink into the dark window’s reflection and can’t even remember why I was awake at 4 a.m. in the first place.  It is that other me that puts a confident hand around the runner’s shoulder and says with a car salesmen’s grin, “You don’t have to do that brother. Sip this warm coffee. Let your mind swirl around the last night’s reverie. There is always time for running later.”

Monday has always been my day off, until a brief spate recently when I ran on Mondays but that’s for another time, and this Monday I woke to a frigid house and checked my thermostat. It was 40 degrees with low humidity which is perfect running weather but, because Monday is my day off - I had made no plans to go and run and mostly, I did not.

I had things to do that morning including, but not limited to, jump starting my car and driving to the auto parts store to get a new battery. I called ahead and Antonio, the counterman at the auto parts store, said they had nine in stock.

I got there and running my car in the middle of the parking lot, I called Antonio again. “Should I turn the car off?” Yes, they could jump it if they needed to. “Where should I park?” Anywhere. Antonio, like most folks, operated at a level of confidence gleefully beyond his expertise and he went about testing the battery, changing out the battery, testing the alternator like this wasn’t my only means of transport, like this wasn’t a potential thing I could not afford. And all the while, I stood out by my car worrying and felt the cold crisp air and knew that I really ought to be running someplace. I looked at the sidewalk and the long slow hill down toward Ocala Rd. This weather demanded running but I still had to go work so I did not run.

The details of my job wouldn’t interest you. It suffices to say that I test the veracity of numbers and analysis and I do it sitting, drinking coffee.  My window looks out over a tree lined road and a park and all morning, I watched the weather slowly warm and I thought, “It is still perfect weather for running. I had all my gear in a bag. I just had too much to do.” Time passed as it does and it got to be 5pm, an hour before I leave, and I thought, “Leave now and go run” but I had taken so much incidental leave lately and I needed to make up time so I stayed and I did not run.

I got home, fed my dogs and put on a record I had just gotten in the mail and it skipped and, at first, I couldn’t see why it skipped but there, running diagonally from the label out to the edge of the vinyl, was a crack and I stood in my living room, shoulders slumped and thought I should run. And I stood there just listening to the record pop every time it hit the crack and then fling the stylus back a microscopic amount and start over again. I should have run.

My wife came home and we had a long night of cooking. It’s a lovely thing to prepare your meals for the week. It is lovelier to have your best friend with you as you do it and so, even tired and defeated, we worked in our narrow, tiny Pullman kitchen, glazed and sleepy, I staring out the same dark window from the morning. I had not run and now there was no time left to run.

I did run the next day as that was the start of my training week and the weather was similar. It was 40 degrees and crisp and it was hard work starting out. The first 200 meters of the Greenway toward Myles Johnson is a hodge-podge of surfaces that don’t exactly feel like the same trail as they lead you to the bridge that leads up the big hill toward Myles Johnson.

There’s a drainage trail that’s always crumbling, a trail maintenance staging area with a huge pile of sand and a view of the cow fields on your left and a meandering series of S curves that always leave me uncertain where I am until we come up on the bridge. I’m always a little startled by the big hill that comes next. This is where the Judge started telling me about a trip out of town he’d taken recently.

I’ve been running with the Judge for years but lately I’ve been heavy and for a few years I was a drunk and he hung in there with running on my slowest days and forgiving my late morning cancellations. I’m saying all this to tell you that I ran hard today to show the Judge I am better, that his old running partner is still here. It was hard but it’s that thing about running, that satisfaction you had as a boy when your father asked you to do a thing and just assumed you would do it correctly and you did it correctly and he gave you an “Attaboy!” It’s that feeling you got from the “Attaboy!” that running gives me.

It’s hard work and maybe you make it harder by pressing up the hill or the watching your footfalls down the hill so that your feet roll under you instead of heel breaking so that you accelerate and push deep into hard breathing because you catch runners only on the uphill but you break their will at the crest as you pass them and they come apart just a little because everyone slows down once they hit the top of the hill so right then you really drop the hammer. You finish and hear your Dad’s Attaboy and it all feels right.

This morning I decided that I would not pass up another good morning to run. We’re coming in on Summer weather and so there are only a few days like this left, maybe. It’s more than that. I mean, if you wake up and your legs feel good and you put your feet on the floor and you feel sturdy in your posture, drink a cup of coffee, get dressed, strap on your go fasters and get out the door before reason sets in, how many days like that are left for you to have in this life?

I get that you might have a plan. You’re going to Boston and there is a method that must be followed, there is preparation that must be made if you are going to execute on the qualifying race day and then be ready for the big show. I do not mean to disparage you. I understand. I am saying that there is no goal, for me, greater than the joy of running, of getting from one place to the next on my own steam. My feet, my legs, my will took me from the trailhead and up the mountain and this glorious view from Preacher’s Rock is mine because I took it.

There is, in my newly born heart, no difference between that moment and just going and running the three-mile loop in my neighborhood. One is obviously majestic and once you’re up on that huge flat rock, your gut aches at all that creation laid out in front of you. It is the kind of glory you hug in your memory, desperate to hang on to every detail for as long as you can. It is the kind of memory that carries weight. This is all true. The three-mile loop though is that run you do when no one is looking. No one cares. You do it bored and restless. It probably has a soundtrack. You just want to finish. You shouldn’t. You got out the door for a reason. You love running.

I started running using the telephone pole method. You run to a pole and walk to the next pole. I started on this same loop, day after day, until I ran two poles and then three and then I didn’t stop. This loop has seen that. It’s seen fast weeks and slow weeks. It is as reliable as any clock and twice as confounding because as long as I linger before leaving my house, it is still there waiting.

I had put an old pair of shoes on the trash the night before and unwilling to look for a newer pair, grabbed those shoes and headed out to my porch to put them on. I have sat on my porch hundreds of times putting on my shoes. This pair had another run left in them.

Maybe the night before you had that anxiety dream where the Devil hunts you down and in the morning, you take to the lamp lit road and you chase the Devil out of your neighborhood. Anyone can step away from the world and mediate all day, John said to me once, try sitting down to just sit when your kid is sick, the mortgage is due, the sink won’t drain. You make that deal. I don’t have to go to the trail today if I just cover the loop in my neighborhood. You finish the loop and you’re warmed up and you think, one more loop gets me six miles. You roll your head and sidelong look at your house, keeper of coffee and donuts and trot out for three more glorious miles.

Like the man said, Today, “Today, we get to run.”