Risky Business


By Gordon Cherr,


I am busting up and down the hills on the Killearn Golf Course at first light, having the place nearly to myself this frosty morning, like most mornings. I like to run the golf course early, when I can see the tracks of the critters that are out even before me, in the dew of the low cut green grass on the fairways. Well, the grass is actually in its winter brown suit right now but I am so “dorphed” out in this run that the grass looks pretty good. These colder mornings are even better though, I can easily spot the tracks of those who have preceded me, their trails are readily apparent in the hoar frost. Usually a dog or raccoon has run through here before me, and that makes me pick up the beat and try to catch whoever or whatever it is.

Sometimes it is the Three Amigos. The three old guys who have no more business being on the golf course than I. I see them many mornings, golfing even before the sun is up, laughing and cutting up on each other, walking from hole to hole. They are always good for a wave and a smile as I run by. Their golfing skills are utterly lacking, they could care less, you can actually feel their kinship to one another as you pass; it is that strong. I have seen this before in runners too. Jerry McDaniel and Bill Perry are a good example. Their bond of friendship seems equally strong and it positively infects everyone who runs with them, and I am sorry that I run with them so infrequently.

But this morning I am totally disassociated from the effort. I am dreaming instead about pueblos and petroglyphs, the Grand Canyon, the Sonoran Desert, of beating tom-toms and Indians and of the great Native American running culture which preceded us all in this place. I have just finished reading and rereading Running Wild by John Annerino (Thunder Mountain Press, 1992). Annerino is a photojournalist in one life, and a runner of epic proportions in another. He is a wilderness ultra runner, convinced that the Hopi and Navajo, Havasupai, Paiute and Anasazi, among others, were runners of legendary prowess for reasons of both culture and trade. And that before the Spanish introduced the horse to North America these people ran great distances for pleasure and for commerce because it was simply the best way to get around. And to this end, after much research he sets out to explore and recreate some of their running routes, to show that it was possible.

Annerino’s efforts are not haphazard, he trains and studies religiously in his effort to run the Grand Canyon, lengthwise. But what he chooses to do is dangerous, perhaps deadly. He is willing to take the risk. He chooses to have little support on these multi-day runs and carries nothing more than two bota bags for water, some gruel for food, and a Navajo blanket for shelter. His efforts are as honest as honest can be. And his writing is full of the richness of the desert southwest – you can see and feel and taste the land he passes through and the torture that he sometimes feels, the elation and depression which follow each other. His writing and his running are spiritual:

“When I finally reach the vicinity of their rustic camp, I am covered from
head to foot with a half-inch layer of snow. The night has somehow grown
darker, and I am alone in these black mountains, alone in my dream of
running the big canyon. Standing in ankle deep snow at the edge of
Hassayampa Creek, still silenced by winter’s embrace, along the
very route Walker’s “Hassayampers” used to escape the deadly
clutches of the Sonoran Desert, I cannot hear a sound except
for my breathing, and all I can see is the dream of the canyon journey
beyond. Soon, I will be running wild though the last frontier in the
American Southwest to be explored by non-Indians. I only hope that
it won’t prove to be my final destination. I don’t know but I was about
to find out.


As I run, a song plays in my head; there’s no stopping it, and it drums
me for miles across the Tonto:

‘It is night, my body’s weak, I’m on a run,
no time to speak, I’ve got to ride, ride like
the wind to be free again.
‘And I’ve got such along way to go, to make it
to the border of Mexico.
‘So I run like the wind, run like the wind…’

I run, run like the wind, dancing with joy along a pathway that arcs like
a rainbow from one end of the Canyon to the other. The running is
pure fantasy; it is the running-flying dream come to life, there is neither
effort nor hint of pain. It is pure flight. I suck in deep breaths of crystal
morning air; I blow heavy drafts of carbon dioxide across my lips. My
arms swing back and forth in graceful cadence to my legs, which bound
and fly over the terrain . . . It’s here, somewhere in the reverie of the Tonto,
with the sun slowly burning over the edge of the Desert Facade far to the
east, the silver strand of the Colorado River roiling and glimmering
below the multilayered tiers of stone stair-stepping from rim to river,
that I realize I am having the finest hour of running in my life. If I go
no farther than Boucher Creek, this incomparable feeling of flight is
the payoff for all the pain and torment I’ve ever felt, because, now,
finally, I’m running wild through the Grand Canyon, floating through
my dream.’

And (more painfully):

‘I continue running but not consciously. I feel more like the wax
figure of a runner, and that my movement is triggered by the most
atavistic of instincts: to get water and survive. Even if I could sit
down and wait for my road warrior friend to come screaming over
the horizon, to rescue me, I wouldn’t make it. There is no shade in
the middle of this holy land, no water, no aid station, no pueblos, no
villagers cheering me on. Nothing. Worse, the only finish line is
some nebulous point, five sleeps west of here. Yet my body keeps
racing the sun toward the fleeing horseman. Is he real? Or have I
already reached that point where I’ll get down on all fours and, in
a deranged effort to quench my thirst, start lapping up the hot sand
as if it were snowmelt tumbling down from the sacred heights of
the San Francisco Mountains?

. . . my support crew hears its own strange voices when I finally
reach Black Falls in the white heat of noon. ‘As soon as you came
around the bend’, Craig told me later, ‘we heard this gasping —
a death chant. You stumbled over to the water and fell in.’ I remember
collapsing face down in the water, my overheated body hitting the water
with what I imagined was a perceptible hiss. I remember lying there
a l-o-o-o-n-g time, trying to cool down my inner core, wondering what
happened to the horseman, wondering if ancient traders suffered the
same way . . .or if they used the ‘secret way of traveling . . . which
is the old way . . . How else did they run a hundred miles a day, day in
and day out? I still didn’t have a clue. I was only trying to run forty.”

Ultimately, Annerino’s exploits are about taking the risk of experiencing real life. Maybe his risks are greater, but isn’t this the essence of nearly every run, every day? Running is a risky business of heart and head, and experiencing that risk is what makes the brown grass look so special on this chilly morning. It is what makes for the incredible contrast of the dark green of the slash pine against the deep blue sky when you run the Munson Hills. Or it is the special bond between some runners, chatting on the trail and running comfortably together, like Jerry McDaniel and Bill Perry.

I’ll be out there tomorrow getting my fix. Hope to see you.