The Tiny Madness of Forgetting – Part 2
I hate to get philosophical at a moment like this but when I run I am running away from Death. I believe this is true of everyone who runs whether they know it or not. Like the Yaqui Indians say, Death is the runner at our heel. We can feel her breath just behind our ear.
A giant demon pounds the earth, his wide black hooves cracking the red clay, his foul sulfurous breath staining the air. He has a thousand heads strung around his neck and his sixteen arms wield swords and axes and cudgels that he swings at you as he runs. Do not be afraid.
Buddha said that in the Book of the Dead as a kind of joke. It is only your mortality bearing down on you. While your legs are fresh he runs but as you tire, his legs become a chariot, his arms become a team of skull headed stallions.
Do not be afraid. Jesus said that in the Bible. I believe he was being serious. Too deep into a twenty mile run, when turning back would give no succor, his cool palm on our necks, his whisper, “Do not be afraid,” in our ears. He offers us all the miles left for running to spend in his mercy.
Take my last twenty miler: the last few hours spent trudging through flea infested, ankle deep sugar sand in noonday central Florida sweltering summer heat. There is no short-cut to an out and back finish, just one long stretch of the same bad news.
I have seen lizards and bugs, spiny low laying palms and gnarly bushes that have cut my ankles two dozen times at least. There is no way to quit. I can see the whole damn trail of my own damn footsteps ahead of me waiting.
It’s like the rabbit in the desert coming round full circle on his own footsteps only to discover Yosemite Sam waiting with his fork and knife, hanky tied around his neck and long loping dog tongue drooling wet. I would laugh at the image except I am the rabbit.
The truth is this trail is pretty. It’s that scrubby land that made the pioneers love this place enough to tough it out two hundred years. If you stop to welcome in the warm gracious sun everything swells with color and life, in deep bright greens.
The demon has gone. The trail, the sky, the piney scratch is so quiet and empty. Here is a good place to stop and tell you about my friend Jaime. Jaime is an ironman who often trains to the point of total catastrophe, heals himself and then starts the process all over again.
His injuries never happen running or swimming or biking. They happen playing soccer or snowboarding or getting out of bed on a cold morning. One day his body, overwhelmed and disgusted, breaks. He never sees it coming.
Many of us, to a lesser degree, are just like Jack. We train along a razor’s edge and pray we will know we are close to falling off. The truth is we are always close. Falling off is the way it will always end. It is only the degree that we are aware of it happening that changes.
How many times have I blindly overreached the landscape of my endurance to not have seen this coming. I am the fool walking off the cliff, a bundle over my shoulder; blissfully unaware how preventable this all was. One foot over the line sweet Jesus.
I start walking. I run a bit. I walk some more. I do this for five miles until I am almost back to my car. This trail winds a bit at the beginning and the end. It takes you through a pretty grove of shady trees, trimmed grass that even in the dogged heat, is still damp.
It is there in the beginning, I imagine, fooling you into thinking your whole run will be idyllic and sweet. It is at the end like the punch line to every cruel joke to remind you of how foolish you were to believe it. I come around face to face with an old cracker man, dressed head to toe in denim.
I think to warn him and then realize he probably knows. He came here on purpose. He is at home here and likely a friend to this place. Maybe he has come to watch. Maybe, he has come to let out his lungs full of other people’s air.
Here is a good place to stop and tell you about my friend Francisco. This happened before I started running. I was leaving Orlando and happened to run into him as he headed out on his afternoon jog. It was hot as blazes but about to rain. Jose looked so calm and poised, smiling and bright eyed.
I found out later he had HIV. Death had caught and inhabited his body so he had no choice but to make friends with Death. He is dying of stage 4 lymphoma right now, skinny but smiling exactly the way he smiled on his run; few people abide in such grace at moments like this.
Don’t be afraid. I am telling you that right now. Run if you can but walk when it’s time to walk, breathe when you need to breathe. We all finish somewhere. We all run the race we wanted to run whether we believe that or not.
Sitting in my car after my run I fake a smile. You have to start somewhere. You have to make a home for catastrophe, share your bed with your own imminent loss of memory, lie to Death until you believe you are unafraid. Death won’t care either way.
Tomorrow I will lace up my running shoes and put my first foot out of the car. I will hesitate. I will feel the gravel rolling under my shoe. Do not be afraid. Death runs with us all. He will follow us out to the hills; he will amble among the front of the pack, as well as the hindmost runners.
It is a new day. Act accordingly.