This Running Life
By Gordon Cherr
My forest passing is silent and, for once and so rarely, this run is completely comfortable as I am staying totally within myself. I have come to the Munson Hills, it is late Sunday, the forest is peaceful and quiet and late evening is now giving way to early twilight. The forest trails are deserted and I have it all to myself, at least, thankfully, from the mountain bikers who seem to have no qualms about tearing up the trails with their knobby tires, or by deviating from them to avoid a momentary stop or two to pass over a fallen log or under a tree limb overhanging the trail. Don’t they understand, the fun is in the going over or under, not around? What is the joy in destruction?
It takes effort, you see, and if you want comfort and easy, why, stay home on the couch and let the plaque build up further on your coronary arteries. I suppose that I am still fuming from yesterday, when I visited the Cadillac Trail, having not been there for about a year. The old eastern-most parking area is gone (damn it), there are now houses and tall privacy fences by the old entrance at Swift Creek Middle School (damn it). There are new houses everywhere along the trail (damn it), or so it seems, dogs insanely barking from fenced backyards (damn it), sediment barriers (damn it), and the peaceful and incredibly beautiful shaded pine forest at the upper end of the trail has been destroyed forever (double damn it). The trail itself is deeply scarred from more mountain bikes, side trails have been ripped into the surrounding hillsides by more bikers. Why does it seem that only runners and walkers can pass this way and love the land, and keep their intrusive impacts to a bare minimum?
But I digress…
It is just me and the deer in the ever increasing twilight on the serpentine trails in the national forest. Me and the deer…and the lightning and rain, in which I find a comfort and not a hindrance at all. The violent late evening thunderstorm has scattered the bikers and trail hikers and inline skaters to their cars in a panic. But it sends me out into the woods in tranquility. Don’t they appreciate that it is the rain and thunder and lightning which makes the moment more special? Thunder rumbles from one horizon to the other and I know that it might be safer being inside as the lighting bolts light up the twilight, but the forest denizens are not hiding either. Lizards skitter across the trail from underfoot, I see an old gopher tortoise plowing his way through the piney uplands in search of whatever, the deer stand clustered together in groups of threes and fours, looking at me quizzically, their large cupped ears swiveling around like radar dishes seeking more information about the one who passes this way. Their big brown eyes are open wide, not in fear or anxiety, but more in curiosity than anything else. They easily stand their ground so late in the evening and do not spook with my passing, and I feel their quiet acceptance with my presence here. I thank my brothers and sisters and continue on this silent journey.
My mind fast forwards to the previous weekend. I am in Charlottesville, Virginia, for the wedding of my nephew, and my family has come from the four corners of the globe. Seeing each other so infrequently, we all take comfort in this short moment of joy, all of those absurd family behaviors are largely forgotten (well, ignored is the best we can do for the weekend). It is exciting to go to somewhere, interesting to see new people, and most exciting to find new places to run and to explore. Charlottesville is no exception. Corey has joined us and that silly rhetorical question he always asks, “Are you going to run in the morning?” is music to my ears. We run in the mornings, we run in the evenings too. Running has always been a sort of gustatory experience for me, I smell the new smells and taste the new tastes and hear the new sounds everywhere I run, and Charlottesville smells and tastes and sounds different from anywhere else I have ever been. I like the new smells and tastes and sounds. I like the big hills. I like the young and obviously fearless black bear we see in the Shenandoah National Forest one morning, loping away, unhurried (nice stride), I like the busy running store we visit near the UVA campus (“Ragged Mountain Running”) and I especially like all of the runners we see out each morning and evening sharing the road (there are lots of them), and that tells me nearly everything I really need to know about this place. Most of all though, running with your children is always the best thing that can possibly be, and Corey’s girlfriend, Aisha, also runs with us once or twice, and I think that I have burned up much good karma this weekend, gratefully spending so much good time with these two, where we intersect on the road of life.
But I digress…
Daylight is fading now and perhaps I should be closing out this run, but once you are out on the Munson Hills, you can only follow the trails and go where they lead you. Just as in real life there are no guaranteed shortcuts out here. I am not terribly concerned about the fading light though, there is a three-quarter moon rising in the east and the trails are light colored in comparison to the surrounding vegetation, and the white sandy trail is actually rather easy to see and follow, now in the dark. Sometimes you just need to follow your instincts and think less, not more. The rain has stopped and the leaves of the overhanging bushes are heavy with water. It becomes a game to try to hit the leaves and branches with my head, each time I do that I get a little refreshing shower on my face and it feels good. I know these trails well, so the only thing that I know will happen (with any certainty), is that I am eventually going to hit a stub with one foot or the other and I will take a tumble out here. It does happen, several times, but in the end, it isn’t any big deal. There are worse things then eating some gritty Munson Hills sand. I suppose that if I hadn’t thought about it, it probably would not have happened. The truth is that in life, like in running, the imagined is often much worse than what actually occurs.
My mind continues to spin. I am sorry that Buster is not out here to enjoy this run, unfettered by leash or traffic, but I know that 10 miles is more than he really needs to run. Then for some reason I am thinking of Scott Jurek, who has won the last three Western States 100s. I remember reading that Jurek logs about 70 of his mountain miles every week with his malamute dog, Tonto. The pictures of Jurek and Tonto running together, which I have seen, always show Tonto running with his mouth agape, tongue wagging, and with this wild look in his malamute eyes, and I know well that look from Buster too. It is the look of one doing precisely what God put him on this earth to do. Sometimes rational thought is unnecessary; in fact it would only get in the way. I hope that I will someday learn this lesson.
Just a few days ago in the early morning twilight that comes before dawn, Buster and I were traversing some of the many miles of bridal paths in Killearn, when a strikingly beautiful red fox crossed our path. Upon seeing us, the fox seemed neither upset nor hurried, and he changed course and ran directly out in front of us for several hundred yards, often looking back over his shoulder and staring at us. Deep within, I felt with certainty that this was an invitation to play, to join in a friendly chase. The hounds and the fox! Buster went absolutely ballistic and while he is 50% beagle, I have never heard him bay like a hound until that very moment. Doing exactly what God put him on this earth to do. No, we did not give chase, I regret my hasty decision but perhaps it was for the best.
More significantly perhaps, I also recently read that precisely while Jurek was running and winning the last Western States 100, Tonto, left at home, had died. And while I do not know really anything about him, I do know in my own heart that given his choice, Jurek would undoubtedly surrender his last hard earned victory for but a few more miles with his best friend and pal. I cannot explain it, but such is the power of what we are doing when we lace up our shoes and hit the roads and trails of life with friends and loved ones.
But I digress…
For whatever reason, my last few months have been almost unbearably difficult. I don’t fully understand why. It was a personal thing. This happens to everyone, sometimes several times. Maybe you are suffering right now, too, or you have or perhaps you will. We all inexplicably go through cycles in our running and in our lives, and we, you and I, surely are no different. My friends (who include my children), and especially my best friend (and wife) Sharri, have patiently ushered me through this unsettling time. I love and thank you all.
I watched the sun set and the forest go very dark while I was running the Munson Hills last Sunday. I made it home, unscathed. I was up and running before the foggy dawn broke on Monday. I watched the sun rise and it was a gloriously beautiful sunrise.
Keep on trucking, my friends.