A Runner’s Story*

Through the Looking Glass


Another solid day of training goes into my book of runs I have entitled A Runner’s Stairway to Olympus. It is part story and part diary from the adventures of a runner and the parts they play in his life – and a character called Coach.

Each run, each race starts to play their part page by page like the days passing. Each thought a succession of experiences becoming a reflection of this flow of life.

The part of my head that writes needed that run. I needed it to charge up the creative juices. The part that runs needed to run. I needed it to set my body free. The fresh air and just being out there leaves me wondering where there might be. I keep looking for it on each run.

My running is my anchor. My writing is the exploration of a timeless land. The two elements make for strange bedfellows. Did I mention I’m a creative writer major who gets a rash from English majors who say they like my writing – what the hell does that mean?

Ten easy miles slips away just like that in a little under an hour. Nothing fancy, just happily loping along forest trails and a nice capper to my five mile fartlek this morning. This pleasure I get from running everyday makes the miles easy to do. Smiling helps. So does running well.

I found out about a literary and running web site that publishes poems, short stories, news, coaching, and ideas about Tai Chi Chuan called Running Around In Circles.  Coach was the one who told me about it – an old running friend of his from years ago who has decided to preserve some of the memories of the sport alive.

Slippers, a beer and time to review what I wrote down. A story has to start somewhere and for that purpose this one starts at the end of two world wars, the dawning of the nuclear age, and the rebirth of the modern Olympics.

Making history’s short list for the 1948 leap year includes the brave new world of Gandhi and the Hell’s Angels for major headliners just as the Big Bang Theory starts making waves toward comedy.

The London Olympic Games and post-bomb Boomers move stoically forward. The chase to break four minutes for the mile resumes and the 57th Street Art Fair comes of age.

Almost forgotten along the way as an afterthought is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declaring a global community for everyone though the way it looks today we’re still working on that one.

The birth of a bohemian rat cat poet is part of this roadshow along with the Beat Poets travelling the roads of America from ocean to ocean raking up the miles in a beat-up Hudson.

Not one of them ever said growing up was all ice cream and cake. There is always a tear or two along the way. Even a torn page, though we all wish there wasn’t.  After all life in Hell’s Kitchen or elsewhere is an everyday affair of dreams and scars alike.

The story of our runner begins among the trees. They say children start to remember things by two or three, and possibly earlier.

I remember running for my life on enfant wobbly legs being chased across the family property by a big box that was making loud strange growling sounds. I’m not sure if I understood or enjoyed the experience but it certainly brought out the fight or flight instinct in me to run for my life.

I called it The Box. For years it lived in my bedroom closet or under the bed chewing on a variety of bones picked from my imagination. One year my parents moved and The Box got used for packing and I never saw it again after that.

I grew up with family stories about great grandparent missionaries taking a boat to Quebec fleeing the heads that would roll during the Reign of Terror and the Committee of Public Safety with Napoleon just around the corner searching for a new world of hope an ocean away.

During the bitter prairie winters the missionary and his wife travelled the barbed wire highway of fences on their horse-drawn stone boat with hot rocks, buffalo blankets, medicine book and family bible in tow. In summer it was rutted dirt roads if anything in a buggy.

It was a hard journey that took them from farmstead to farmstead never knowing what they would find. This calling was their personal test of faith and love for each other. Their lives would end on the prairies buried side by side as a final testament to that love.

It’s early in the story and time for a workout with Coach. All I can say is he grows on you. Coach says I don’t care if I grow on you or not. I’ll too old to care and like those kids on Caution May Contain Nuts say, “I don’t care.” Which makes me wonder about him just a little bit more.

Coach calls these track sessions meat and potatoes. Sometimes he calls it bull work. Sometimes he says the Chinese called it kung fu which meant a lot of bloody hard work. Which meant fingers did get broken and noses did get bloody in the old days.

He also likes to call it memory work as in you’ll never forget this workout.

You’ll try but you won’t . I learned that from direct experience. Whatever he calls them they always involve a lot of running into the same red brick wall over and over again while he feels inspired. For this one he was inspired.

Coach’s wall is a leg sapping, bone numbing, emotionally draining. mind destroying, will breaking celebration of training that he calls, “The place that no person in their right mind would go but does anyway to see if they can.”

Three sets of twelve times two hundred averaging twenty eight seconds each with a two hundred jog sounds long just writing it down. I shouldn’t forget to mention Coach gave me a generous one lap jog for a break between sets.

The first set was easy. Twenty eight’s all the way. Well, there was one twenty six and he told me to settle down by asking me, “What was that?!”

The second set became a no man’s land past the fifteenth rep and not even half way home. In the background I can hear his encouraging voice yelling, “You’re doing fine, a touch under twenty eight. Stay relaxed, enjoy yourself.”

Enjoy myself?

I’ll pretend doing it isn’t so bad.  Who am I kidding?

In the back of my mind there’s a pretty fair image of Gollum going, “My precious, I love you. Give me more.” That’s it I’m having a mental breakdown. Then Coach appears out of nowhere saying, “No your fine. He’s my friend as he scratches my imagination under the chin.”

This would lead the average person to believe that Coach was in their head but I am too tired to argue as I start cackling to myself. Coach looks at me oddly with a grin on his face and asks me if I’ll be alright.

The last five I feel like I’m stumbling around in some dark alley like a drunk at twenty seven seconds. I ask a dumpster which way to the bus. The industrial green dumpster says it doesn’t know and asks if I want to hang out with it for a while.

Then I hear a voice above the ringing in my ears.

Its Coach saying, “The hallucinations come just before losing consciousness. Try not to wobble too much. You’re doing good staying on your feet. The world will return to normal in a few minutes. You’re a good lad.”

I’m sure I heard him say something about anoxia and pink elephants as I wander away. Don’t even know where I was going. Maybe I’ll do a cool-down? Seems like a good idea? Now where are my legs? Where did I leave them?

Coach looks like an ancient Druid alchemist hunched over studying his Book of Visions flashing me a thumbs up like he’s having a eureka moment. Wonderful! Sure, when I have any sense of feeling return to my body I’ll be happy too.

He tells me he keeps a note book by his bed for when he wakes up in the middle of the night with a training idea. Who is this guy?

On the other hand being able to write down 36×200/200j/26.9 – 28.1sec does make it feel like a Tony the Tiger bowl of frosted flakes moment. Surviving is a special memory all of its own. 

..to be continued…