The Spectacle of Skill

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Late spring in New England.

I went for my first run here in South Africa on Tuesday. As I suffered in the heat and altitude, I thought back to the memorable runs which have come to define this sport for me. I like to think that training is about chasing times, but if you get into any runner’s head, it is often more about chasing a feeling. The run that came to mind is not the most memorable, but it is part of the foundation upon which I have built my love for this sport. It is one that I turn over in my mind often. This run is still in me.

Opening Farewell

In the early summer of 2000, I had wrapped up my second year of college. I was fit and looking forward to spending a summer on familiar roads training and adventuring. It was May, and that time of year always feels like rebirth on the coast of Maine. The days finally last past dinner and the temperatures flirt with comfortable. Near the end of the month I traveled with my good friend Zach from our home town on the coast to the Mountain towns of western Massachusetts. He was headed on a cross country road trip with a group of his college athlete buddies. I was dropping him off at the rendezvous point and bringing his car back to Yarmouth.

The drive was filled with plans and goals and dreams of what the summer might hold. We cranked the radio and opened all the windows as we bombed through the small New England towns. Finally we stuffed the Delorme Gazetteer between the seats and pulled into the driveway of an older farm house painted golden by the sunlight of the late afternoon. After driving for most of the day we exited the car with the giddiness of caged animals, and as the sun sank slowly, we laced up our shoes on the tailgate of the old Volvo for one last run before we parted ways for the summer. Behind the farmhouse stretched a half mile wide field of thigh high grass and golden rod. Not being familiar with the local roads, we opted to follow the worn parallel tire tracks which stretched off across the field. To start, our strides were short and our form was tight from the hours spent in the car, but we soon found that old familiar rhythm.

The warm sun was descending in front of us as we each took one of single tracks flattened by years of tractor and baler wheels. A few minutes of easy conversation passed as we crossed from the field to edge of the forest. Here the path turned away from the openness of field and dipped under the canopy of the budding trees. Making a slight right turn, we followed the covered trail up an imperceptible incline and mirrored the erosion a small brook on our left. While we were definitely climbing, the gradual slope was never taxing, and our conversation only ebbed at the steeper angles.

The trail stretched onward west ahead of us as the day light faded over the hill. After half an hour and the loss of direct sunlight, we decided that we should turn and head back to the farm house. We didn’t realize just how high we had climbed as we started back down. Our suddenly pace quickened encouraged by gravity and the knowledge of the limited time remaining. Our conversation trailed off like the last of the daylight through the trees. The sound of exhalation and foot strikes on last year’s leaves filled the space around us as we moved towards our tomorrow.

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With an ever quickening pace we ran stride for stride. Our acceleration wasn’t intentional, it was just what felt right. We weren’t racing, we weren’t even being competitive with each other. We knew there would be another time for that. No, we were flexing our abilities for our own sake, wielding what it meant to be young and strong and full of potential. We felt our breath change to the familiar lung searing sensation as we banked left to see the end of the forest trail and the beginning of the field ahead. Finding another gear, but by no means our last, we burst out from under the canopy like Roman Candles into the darkening twilight sending the early season fireflies scattering. In sensing the immediacy of the moment, our strides lengthened again and our hearts pounded out the tribal beat familiar to runners across human existence. We were playing, like children do, with all of our being present. With matching strides we chased each other and ourselves across that field. And in the that moment, devoid of distraction we were our truest selves. The moment could not have last more than a minute or two, but in that time I found something eternal.

The rest of the group that was headed west with Zach was waiting for us when we eased back on our internal throttles and slowed to a walk next to the barn. Some applauded and cheered and laughed, recognizing as only athletes can when passion is personified. Our heart rates slowed and dusk settled over us as comfortable as an old cotton sweatshirt, heavy and familiar. We slapped hands and smiled but said nothing to each other about what had just happened. Some understandings don’t require words. We  knew all that needed to be expressed.

Someone pointed out the creek from the woods crossed the property on the far side of the road. We spent the last ray of that day’s sunlight dunking our heads in the cold western Massachusetts mountain water as it spilled over the rocks. The purity of that moment spent striding across the field with our lives in front of us stems not from the absence of time, but rather from the timelessness of it. In that instant we were the purest manifestation of ourselves. And on runs such as that one we were truly capable of transcending ourselves.

 

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