..me thinks that the moment my legs began to move, my thoughts began to flow ~ Henry David Thoreau
Sunlight bursts through clouds to bathe me in morning warmth. After the climb, after the wet and the grey, this feels amazing; this feels incredible. I left the house roughly an hour ago, and I’m fatigued. I’ve been running consistently for a few months now, maybe five, and today I’ll try to run 8 miles. This seems like a tremendous distance and leaves me excited I might someday run a marathon. Leaving before first light with streetlights my only illumination, I ran across a neighborhood heavy with fog and fear of the drug dealers and thugs I sometimes see circling the Excelsior District of San Francisco, bad people who do who knows what in the night of three, four in the morning. This is serious business. Two years ago the feds raided a couple of houses about four blocks away, after murders within a mile increased something like 400%; that any murders at all are somehow natural is twisted logic. But that’s life in Th’ City I guess. MS13. In 2008 they were suddenly here, they were vicious and larger than life as they created a state of fear in a neighborhood grown accustomed by just enough gentrification to forget the dark subtext of urban decay that was pervasive through the nineties. Boom, just like that, fear: a statement given by one anonymous crime scene witness described a homeowner working on his car in his own driveway one day when a man walked up and shot him in the head execution style, before the gunman made a point of lighting a cigarette and casually walking away, as if to say, “we own this place, we own your fear”; Just crazy. Recently at around 4:30 A.M, up early to run in freedom for a circumference of seven or eight city blocks, a car passed me with windows tinted so dark I couldn’t see inside, and as I looked behind I saw it slowly U-turn to follow me. And I bolted, ran the fastest I had run in my adult life. This scared me, excited me with adrenaline – with fight or flight, and I took flight and darted across empty Geneva Avenue and up a side street. They got bored and went back to whatever it is they do in the dark, and I Circled back to the house, looking over my shoulder for the next danger along the way; we all went back to our lives. Fear is highly motivating. But so is the joy of flight.
But this morning. After I crossed Geneva and ran up South Hill, after I climbed that steep half mile in deliberate, meditative rhythm deep in my head…after I crested that final rise to accelerate the flat, just as fuzzy light traced for me a grey outline of towering Eucalyptus with its owl call, I was at the park gate with tree’s drippy greeting of water wrung from the fog by the canopy. Consciously acknowledging the darkness, streetlight eyes adjusting to pull form from deep, formless grey, I climbed back into my head as I avoided ankle-turn pot holes and looked for the skunks that sometimes snuffle about and make me nervous. Urban wild and a clearing of civilization mind: when did this all become so crucial?
Running away from urban sickness into the wild above Th’ City is a new thing. After months spent circling my home in successively wider arcs as I slowly accumulated strength and speed from the scratch of probably fifteen years spent in an almost sedentary urban life – minus the snowboarding, I carry with me now a new understanding: that I have created something from nothing; that running has become the bigger thing, and after those same city blocks became just a rote exercise of left-or-right and always on pavement or concrete, to eventually annoy feet wrapped in old New Balance shoes found in that dusty sales rack at Burlington Coat Factory ten years past, I one day looked up at San Bruno Mountain with fresh eyes, at its wild looking island of green above the houses on stilts, with its radio and other antennae holding up the sky, and the mountain spoke to me. It said: time to venture forth, away from the house and the marriage in free-fall, away from the disconnected urban decay; it’s time to see where this running thing can take you. After all, you’ve run pretty far now – what, three, four miles?
But back to sunlight. It rained last night, which morphed into damp fog humidity, and sweat and stress from the climb up to the island from that sea of despair. I don’t drink anything until I get to the mountain, don’t carry one of those water bottles I’ve seen in the hands of some runners, and instead hit the fountain by the restrooms. That’s a few miles from the house, and I suspect running so far without drinking might bother my kidneys, but who knows. I do know it makes me dizzy sometimes, and this morning is no exception.
But the sun. It is blinding now, and warm, and suddenly the tule fog that wrapped me in murky head high moisture heat, with its grey all-around-me current, now flows like running water up the hillside, as the sun illuminates all with a glow, and I can almost see golden current-particles pushed by wind, like I have x-ray vision…and it’s contrasted by a deeply blue sky above just as I approach a curve on that wide dirt road called Saddle Loop, with its incredible view of San Francisco Bay below. The contrast between ground level grey pulled up the hillside by winter’s wind, and the deepest blue sky above, is disorienting. Like there is only one color in the world. And I’m casting a shadow to my left through the grainy flow, by winter’s sun to the South – on my right, and my motion shadow leaves a feeling of being followed. No, like I have a partner. I am not alone. And it looks, well, weird: I am not alone, and this is all interesting as we move together.
Now the sun glides around behind me from my right, as the trail arcs to the left into the grey flow, and I enter the flow to move with the wind and become one with the head high current, and suddenly a halo of light encircles my shadow as elbows angle down to create an impression…of wings. I have wings, and I am in flight. And the halo circle of light explodes into brilliant color. And I float, and I smile, as all the colors in the world are with me now, and civilization vanishes as my halo’d wing shadow coalesces into an immense, head high peace sign…in a circle of refracted light. And I laugh, and I know that with the run, I will never again be alone, and that anything is possible when I run farther.
That was my first transcendent experience on the run. Or, let’s call it runner’s high. Mind blowing, it awakened something within, cultivated a deep desire to run farther. Now, Running long is no longer a goal, but is a place, and for me it goes something like this: I train up, into the clouds, when vision and fire strike like lightning and this mortal coil cooperates – to fly…before I release the throttle and come to rest after attaining some milestone or connect-the-dots string of accomplishment across a race year; to drift back down and walk the Earth again. Walking on Earth, the reality of mundane place and pace – the domicile of the everyday, is definitely not the place of flying. Running long is some place else. I call this place ascension.
Ascension has been different things at different times. In early 2011, ascension was finding that special place of refuge on a mountaintop island of serenity in the archipelago of our Peninsula coastal hills, encircled by the crush of city life, a place of escape and contemplation, as I slowly trained my physical self to run long. It was a process, an ill-defined journey to a mythical, brilliant dot on a fabled Born-To-Run treasure map. Later, in November of that year, it was finishing my first race, a 20k trail, by pushing through a bonk and loss of my legs, where I had to pick my knees up with my hands on each step to make it up the last few hundred feet of Cardiac Hill out of Muir Woods. At that time I still had no idea what nutrition was – but at least I finally owned a water bottle, by then running in joy and discovery for roughly a year. Clueless and confused upon crawling up to the aid table, I remember consuming a handful of peanuts – not chips or cookies or other easy calories, and I put my poor liver through still more stress by forcing it to create glycogen from protein, like magic, for a joyful sprint-flight back down to Stinson Beach and my first finish. This first race experience was so extreme for me at the time, that looking at the race pics afterward, I was horrified to see what appeared to be not me, but something else: a glimpse of maybe some other being a thousand years old inhabiting my body, like I was possessed. The transitions in states of physical energy and conscious/unconscious mind I experienced that day were mind-blowing, they were so extreme…and I was hooked on racing.
On October 14, 2014, ascension was pushing myself to test run 43 of my first 50 miler, TNF50 San Francisco, to prove to myself I was worthy of the act of pledging my entry fee and my commitment to toe the line (what idiot does this??). Ever the planner, I stashed a drop bag at the base of Heather Cut-Off, before pushing out from Rodeo Valley at dawn to trace an approximation of the course in what I later called my actual first Ultra, despite by then having finished two 50ks. Running out of water on that foggy, narrow singletrack edge of space along Bolinas Ridge on the out, to the turn around at McKennan, I intermittently experienced pain bliss as I pushed into deepening dehydration and stress, and arriving at the mythical turn around while faced with the bleak prospect of the run back, I remember yelling into the abyss above the Pacific to pull clarity from the fog, no doubt looking the madman to any passing ground squirrel. This was my first authentic low point: I was parched, miles from trustworthy water, I had 20+ to go, and was nearly out of calories. Bolting in determination and pain after standing still for an eternity of several minutes, the discomfort of movement faded to fuzzy logic, and near the old car in the clearing on that steep hillside, my consciousness began to expand, to move out and away, simultaneous to a cessation of the scream of painful legs, into a weightless rhythm and amazement: I was floating next to myself, in space to the right of me, marveling at my loss of gravity – my physicality, and at effortless running…at a feeling of drawing energy from the air all around. I had decoupled from discomfort. Astonished, I consciously leaned into it, even accelerated as I objectively thought the situation through. This was fantastic and new; this was weird. For a minute or two I moved with expanded consciousness and the freedom of true flight, feeling a connection with all that is – or at least my brain perceived it as such. The experience was so powerful that I recall that raw emotion to this moment, will never forget it, and is one reason I have continued to run farther afield, ever in search of that out of body experience and a perception of tapping into some ever present, universal energy source. Sound crazy? Of course it does, and I liken this mostly fruitless search to the unending hunt of an addict looking for his next, bigger high, a search that has touched upon esoteric experiences such as perceived spirit animals; non-verbal communication with and acknowledgment of communication by wild animals; stumbling with my daughter into a clearing on a local mountain to find a talking crow bouncing up and down on a post to emphasize its croaking annunciation to a man standing facing the crow in a trance for several minutes, as the man refused to acknowledge my questions, as if we did not exist (I felt as if we were invisible witnesses); a two foot tall fluorescent green bird with no tail feathers that appeared to me suddenly on a run, on a different day in the same mountain clearing, to simply stand and stare into my eyes without fear a mere three feet from my running self, and synchronous symbolisms and inspirations of other, odd sorts. I call these glimpses of weirdness opening the door, and hold no illusions that my brain may simply have imagined each event, of which there are dozens. Except for the crow talking to the man in a trance, which I witnessed with my daughter on that early morning run-hike to count rabbits in the fog. Weird as they are, I’m sure these experiences are not unique, as humans, and specifically trail runners, are nothing if not a diverse, creative and enlightened bunch, and all motivated by the thousand reasons. The search for meaning in the synchronicity and weirdness I sometimes find on the run is one of mine.
Mostly though, ascension is leaving on a run with a goal of 20 along a route that brings me along cliff’s edge with far out views above the sea, tracing Pacific plate boundary along the San Andreas to the top of the mountain and back, to clarified mind. Ascension can be flying downslope at 4 pace in flow-state, or cresting the mountain to kiss the sky, pushing through turns with purpose, gratitude and joy, with focus and the thousand close calls. Ascension is the path less traveled, breathtaking views from the summit of Earth’s surface below, and giving conscious thanks for the ability to experience all of these things. So, for me, ascension is flying high, physically and metaphysically, in meditation.
But achieving this state can be made difficult by absence of fire, or the loss of momentum, which is a place I call the in-between: life’s demands causing an absence from the run and mental doldrums. A loss of motivation, this can suck the life out of my running life. The in-between can be difficult to overcome, and for me, is described here. We’re talking real life peaks and valleys, right? Everyday peaks and valleys. The metronome swing between ascension and the in-between is beautiful and amazing in its contrast, and sometimes makes me feel as if I pulse with the energy of a star, pushing out and away against earthbound tethers of my own making, with self-defined universal laws of physics and metaphysics, limited only by personal responsibility and a lack of imagination. I can climb beyond preconceived limits in those moments of inspiration, but it is sometimes a brutal mental fight – and this is the important thing for me to remember: that I can recognize this concept, can manage it, can overcome my own mental ruts to strive for that higher place. This is transcendence, is truly powerful, and like nothing else, except maybe love.
Running long is not just the act, it is that sacred place I inhabit when I am conditioned – mentally and physically, where I have responsibly compartmentalized life’s demands, to run short or long and intricately in training-run tempo, alternating in balance with rest that, when I am at peak fitness is really never enough – yet somehow is, to focus deeply with fresh eyes, to run up and down mountains or surge around the track of one high school or another, in sunshine, rain or darkness. Running long is many levels of consciousness. It is a constant subtext of anticipation. It is the thread that weaves together the hours, through commute or while paying the balance due, always with one eye on the prize of starting my watch in excitement fueled by a yearning of my soul, the release of tension in this tightly coiled spring, with near-limitless potential and sometimes without logic or reason. Running long must be the secret to life. In Douglas Adams’ universe, this would be like the number 42. How could it be otherwise?
Civilization and its distractions
So I don’t have the market cornered, but I’ve been known to give a stellar audition for the role of king idiot. This can mean anything from forgetting my spare headlamp at T3/T4 of a Canadian hundred miler, and by default leaving myself trapped in miles of mud and water for a spectacular DNF when lack of traction in the dark devolves into race-ending tendonitis. Or, it can mean mentally checking out and missing a turn to make Rio Del Lago 100 a 105 mile race. On Sunday, January 26, 2020, it meant
reaching a boiling point after spending three insane weeks fighting illusory BED BUGS because Rebekah and I put the wrong two and two together when we began to accumulate insanely itchy bites. Do you know about bed bugs? We thought we’d somehow inherited a horror show by sitting in the wrong movie theater seats when we took the kids to the last Star Wars movie, or I stayed in the wrong motel room for Rio, or maybe we purchased a household item with unwanted guests in the box from an infested warehouse. Stories of insect terrorists and unfortunate consumers abound, and endlessly itchy bites had us thinking the worst and responding with brute force. Picture spending most of each weekend and anywhere from one to three hours after work each day – for weeks, vacuuming, washing and sequestering clean laundry to the island of a cleaned dining room table top, dismantling and reassembling furniture for inspection and cleaning…downsizing and purging all of your accumulated crap and unused clothing and trail gear and shoes, a maybe not so negative concept unless it is under duress…all while reassuring the kids as you bag their toys to suffocate suspected monster insects – most likely in vain as you conjure excuse after excuse and ready yourself to accept the blame if the landlord finds out you somehow infected his home with an unstoppable household pandemic.
This insanity was totally exhausting, and by the end of a third lost weekend, on January 26th at three in the afternoon, I had had enough: in total disgust, I sent Rebekah three words in a text: need to run. And I left, completely feral with trail lust: since I was not yet working with my coach Maxx again after our amazing 2019, I had no real desire to be conservative or guard against mistakes. I vowed to make the top of the mountain, ten trail miles and three thousand vertical feet away, by sunset, and I grabbed my headlamp, and I went for it.
Freedom, in flight. Down, then up that satisfying Mori Ridge climb – an average 20, 25% grade over about 2 miles, along the fog shrouded Sweeney Ridgeline and the Baquiano down, through town toward the foot of the mountain, into the trees; dark mood first shifting from sourpuss to contentment, then to outright happiness. And I thought: I am home again. I gave thanks for that precious extra couple of minutes of evening light we gain each week in January as I began my climb up Montara Mountain Trail, headlamp in waist pack, weekend’s hikers by then long gone, with trails to myself. Golden, sideways light of sunset warmed my climb through the eucalyptus, and the baby tug of depletion provoked my senses..and I could feel my soul “center”, as dopamine and Anandamide and the thousand chemical cues percolated to remix my senses; shaken, stirred. And I thought: this is why I’m here; no world is as good as mine. Now everything was OK as I leaned into it, singing the silent inventory of my gratitude list as I stepped over the roots and rocks, tread the slick eucalyptus leaves and the narrow channels surrounded by Manzanita and brush: we will win the insect wars; I am slowly recovering my fat metabolism again with dedicated diet and some fasting, running farther without so much as a single calorie, after harnessing that great energy force so well in 2019 for stellar results; three healthy kids; I am married to a beautiful, amazing, woman of steel who loves the run as much as I do…and I reaffirmed my vow to make 2020 another massively good year as I pushed up the mountain, just as Rebekah and I had pledged on New Year’s day. Just before…the biting.
I never listen to music. I mean on the run – I like to hear my environment, feel the world around me, hear the rustle, the animals, the wind, feel my flow across the landscape with all senses. But that day I was fed up with losing my run motivation and life force, and my house to the insects, so I grabbed some ear buds on the way out the door, set my music to shuffle, and was thoroughly in my head listening to music as deep and expansive as my unfolding mood, and I climbed, tuned both in and out. I was running my HR way too high as I pushed to the rhythm, and by then could feel I’d already burned a little too much glycogen: three lost weeks battling insects, and I was a little de-trained, so a little fuzzy minded. But it was the work of passion, and as fog and dusk dropped a ceiling on my world toward the top to further distract me by softening the outline of nature’s perfection, with that sneaking, ill-defined curtain of twilight, I thinly reasoned that I had my headlamp with me so all would be well, while completely ignoring that I had entered that grey area where I am not altogether present, where anything can happen.
By the time I pushed through the fog ceiling and made the fire road at 1300 feet, up and out of the last technical, super cobbled sections – made so by hundreds of thousands of shoes and underlined by a beating of three 50Ks each year, the sun had dropped past the horizon, and I made the final push for my turn-around at the summit. I reasoned: I can burn it up, I can push the envelope and get this done. I can get home by 7.
The January summit was super blustery when I arrived – coastal-cold, and the fog that topped out down the mountain had circled back around to amplify the fading light; I left my light in my pack. The summit was cut off from the public last year, leaving anyone who now makes the journey to confront a gate with warnings about staying away. I faced that offensive chain link fence installed by powers that be to either protect several hundred feet of butterfly habitat at the summit from the public, or to install what they claim to be a new rain gauge – but which is probably more transmission, and specifically, National Defense infrastructure; Still resentful, I punched a sign warning of no trespassing, turned, and bolted into the deepening gloom.
As I made my way back down the rollers from 1700 feet, I played a game of focusing on how long I could run free of the headlamp. This is no big deal, I thought, as I know every turn, each fold and section of granite or gravel channel on the wide fire road, and back at the trail head I finally relented to turn the light on for the descent, which starts out smooth with gentle top soil benches before the rutted, super technical stuff, and it was all okay, something I’d done maybe 40, 50 times. Gravity, my friend, pulled me down into the deepening grey, and I could barely make out Sweeney Ridge in the distance – I know this, I got this, and I can’t see crap, and the brush was scratchy and distracting on my calves, pulling my attention like the music that was still playing, topsoil long gone after early winter rain, which left exposed rock mounds, and this is way more technical than it used to be, and I hooked my left foot and I slammed the trail HARD. And I laid there for a moment. Ouch, so lucky; where’s my bottle, that Orange Mud handheld with the leaky top that they gave me at the Auburn High track in ’17 that I have a silly emotional attachment to, and I crawled to my feet and scanned the trail with my light. Damn, that hurt; I’m lucky, I thought, with a little blood running down my right shin from the knee. After some minutes I spied the bottle off the trail by about 5 yards, wedged against a tree, no small feat to retrieve, on so steep a drop in the dark, and, finally back up on the trail, I brushed myself off. Shaken, thought I have to GO, and I bolted, as not my most confident self, but in as close an approximation as I could muster, and the freaking trail is way difficult now and I gotta watch it, as I worked to clear the jagged cobbles and the ankle twisters, and I failed miserably and slammed my right side HARD onto the rocks. And I lay there for maybe two seconds, stunned, before the pain hit like a bullet and a truck all at once. And I yelled at the world, in the dark, up on the mountain.
I once broke a rib. Or maybe two – it’s been 23 years, so I forget; the scale of pain with broken ribs is something else, so, one, two, what’s the difference? Anyway, after driving all the way to Whistler-Blackcomb that year for snow when the states were iced over, I took off on the first run of my first morning, freaking STOKED to be back there after that stupid 26 hour drive, and halfway down an insane section of icy moguls I slammed and compressed my right chest, to crack a rib, or two, that finally snapped when I sneezed in that hotel shower on the drive home only two days later; first run, broken ribs. Awesome adventure. Back up on the mountain in the dark, I couldn’t move – I was afraid to, and regret rained like cats and dogs, bracketed by the critical voice, and it was a drubbing of dismay and personal insult as I breathed, shallow and labored, and assessed whether I could move, and where is that freaking bottle again, and what the hell were you thinking, FOOL, with your stupid, carefree descent in the dark, and your fuzzy intellect telling you that you could just go for it like that? Bed bugs made you insane, and when they sucked the life out of life, you acted the impulsive fool, and what have you done to your ribs? Blood, in three places – blood makes mud I like to say, and with a painful thrust I got to my feet and finally located the bottle that would not die, and I had 8.5 impossible miles staring at me, to make it home with screaming right thumb and elbow, gashed shin, dripping knee and….
The Human body is an amazing thing. It can create chemicals that make you silly and high on life – and on the run, and chemicals that can make you sad and pitiful, or erratic, or hallucinatory, and it can produce chemistry that kills pain in a pinch if you are in partial shock and you don’t have some kind of compound fracture or a heart attack. In the dark, I began to move, carefully, slowly, and on the flats below the switchbacks I picked it up, as things began to loosen up, and everything was focus in the dark to avoid falling again, a probable final time, on ribs that felt maybe cracked, but which were now numb – thankfully. And I wondered about my race year…
I made it home three hours later, at 9, fully aware that when I finally stopped moving I would not be able to move again. My amazing wife, who was waiting, worried, and super frustrated, beyond all possible odds, forgave me for needlessly worrying her; maybe she just took pity as I limped in the door. And I considered both my luck and ill fortune in creating a situation where, after two months spent, first healing the grapefruit ankle that I pushed through to set a hundred miler PR at Rio, before beginning the daily search for the elusive fire and passion generated by and for the run, so I could run to again transcend my every-day, in ascension…and a house I just wanted to burn to the ground…that I was back at square one again. Unable to move with freedom, unable to run. Running long was again out of the question. The irony is, after a little more due diligence and finally talking to the right pest expert – and trust me, there are WRONG pest “experts”…after never quite finding a single bed bug, we discovered that we just had mites. Not bed bugs, not an end of the world scenario of daily household torture – although it seemed that way. Mites, simultaneous to the slowly building drum beat of a global pandemic, that increasingly became our daily background noise, and that compressed our moods and threatened to stomp joy in the dirt and stifle laughter as it transformed our lives.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
There are sounds you hear only in a hospital. A sound of chimes that indicate the track of patient vitals, the rhythm of a heart beat..high pitched rings, rhythmic flat tones, and irregular beeps. Something that sounds like a doorbell. And the dreaded code blue, which is an announcement I will let you decipher. These and countless other alerts punctuate the atmosphere with regular, random urgency as we work over weeks to rebalance the air systems at a well known Bay Area medical center, converting room after room into dedicated one-and-two patient mini environments, for the possible coming crush of the sick. These days, I don’t run – or, I do so far less often. There are other priorities. As I work, I digest the suspicion of somehow having made some proto-Faustian bargain to remain employed by holding a skill that, in midst of an unfolding global pandemic, Bay Area hospitals need to prepare for what, God willing, may or may not materialize. I hear of millions of unemployed in the U.S. now, and I count myself both lucky and frustrated to be kept from the run, day after day, by continuous last minute requests of our little company to stay until the job is done, no matter the duration. The project to bring entire floors of a once empty hospital building back online, as well as various rooms and wings at satellite locations, has become everything. Each day it is thus: no run today, or this day either; and yet again….just keep working.
This work started, after that work stopped. On March 16th all seven of the Bay Area counties called shelter in place, and our other clients closed their doors. I had two days with no work and a warning from our employer I might suddenly have a lot of free time. We each toil away at whatever it is we do to survive, and after decades of survival, I’ll take whatever time off I get when it comes, and I thought when the work stopped: maybe I can run in freedom now, get back out on the mountain; maybe I can clear my head. But the schools are closed now and the kids are at home, and Rebekah needs my help, and the hunt for food has become something else, with long lines and sometimes empty shelves. On the 18th, though, I got the call, and instead of time off work, here I am in the hospitals.
Emotion sometimes builds, provoked by a din of validation as techs and IT specialists work to connect and calibrate the data ports, and the Intellivue monitors, and a thousand other points of technological light, in repetition. Showing emotion is not considered cool, so when at first it snuck up on me – hit me like an emotional wall, I worked to stifle it, no matter the amplitude: who is going to occupy these hospital beds? Who will live, who will die? I am healthy, but Rebekah is on the “front-line” – an RN, and what if she gets sick, or we get sick? What happens if I am one of the unlucky ones because of some genetic quirk? What about the kids, mom, everyone’s parents. I never created a will…
My grandfather survived the 1918 flu as an eleven year old boy who developed Parkinson’s disease as an older man; that was a common thing, like Polio survivors going on to later develop post-polio syndrome. Like Guillain-Barre Syndrome, that my father suffers; yes, it does return. There’s always a legacy with pandemic disease, and isolation. Being locked in an iron lung – a 1950’s era ventilator, and doctors commenting outside a patient’s room loud enough for patients to later recall – comments like “what do you mean, this room isn’t empty yet?”, implying surprise that a patient was still alive – described by polio survivors and their descendants, inform me now that this current pandemic is nothing new, that history may not repeat but it certainly does rhyme. Anyway..the emotion, when it hits, is abrupt. It comes from nowhere, a sudden realization or random acknowledgement of the obvious reality no one wants to address. Like an elephant in the room. Like those who denied the reality of an unfolding global health emergency, before global pandemic, to make political hay at campaign events and as a result has thrown every American family that looks to them for leadership under the bus – an outright denial of the obvious until it was too late to prepare. Elephant in the room, but whatever. None of that matters now, as the dead are piling up, and I maybe make their beds. I need to stop thinking; want to just run, to clear my head of this darkness, in flight, in freedom; but I have to focus on the task at hand, because all of this sucks the life out of life. Long days, head down…
Different people process this new paradigm of social distance and stress in different ways. I work, and I don’t run now – or run rarely due to the schedule of the hospitals. I sometimes stalk the people I follow on Strava, see that others are able to get out to run more often, and that they process coronavirus statistics in a more interesting and detached sense, by calculating the number of cases to get at the second derivative of the presumed logistical curve of overall cases..in hopes of seeing we may be, hopefully, halfway through this nightmare (note: you have to log on to Strava to catch this conversation, and the map of the run makes a pretty good statement as well). I say now: whatever it takes. In France and Spain, the authorities use Strava to track down runners who break the prison quarantine of their homes to run, to keep from going insane, and I count myself lucky to get out at all for little runs these days without harassment. But there is insanity out there. In the U.S, runners have been attacked, punched in the face as they tried to claim a couple of extra feet on the trail to stay safe as they run past people who think this is all a hoax, people with no grasp of what is going on right before their own eyes. So, I ask: How many virus particles does it take to make you sick anyway, each time I finally get outside to run free and clear my mind. The denial of reality, prompted by conspiracy theories and dead wrong fictions presented as fact to muddy the waters, for whatever end, makes no sense; it’s all a hoax, right? And of course that’s just crazy dangerous. In the end, because of this nonsense, all Americans will suffer, like in some horror movie where no one takes the zombies seriously until it is too late: what do you mean, they’re at the front door?!?
On one run in March, Rebekah and I ran along our coastal trail – ran together for the first time in months because of the demands of work and a house that needed cleaning and a new puppy and hungry kids and the thousand other things that keep us both busy, only to find beaches so crowded we had to cross the highway to avoid loitering, shelter-in-place masses; how many virus particles does it take to make you sick anyway? Out of morbid fascination, I have tracked the number of cases nationally and locally – followed actual numbers provided by Johns Hopkins University, whose expertise in doing so stems from their work during the Spanish Flu, a century ago, which wasn’t Spanish at all, but rather a pandemic strain that originated in the U.S. Actual numbers: 62 cases in the U.S. that we knew of on March 6, 2020; 495,750 cases in the U.S. that we knew of on April 10, 2020. Now there are 35,000 dead Americans in only six weeks, and I wonder how different the total would have been if leaders who were warned by the intelligence community in February, long after the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, providing a road map for preparation and containment, had prepared instead of acting in denial until it was too late. Dad has shared his lifelong friend in NYC is now dead of Covid, and that my sister, who works for the New York City department of public health with a normal job in normal times, was reassigned to find mortuaries for the dead; all hands on deck, right? Her walk to work each day has been past the trucks the military has parked on the streets so New York City would have somewhere to put the bodies, because there is now nowhere else to put them. This all hits home to amplify my thoughts as I prepare hospital rooms for those who hopefully will be alive on the other side.
During this period of unfolding sci-fi insanity, I have been able to get in one or two runs each week, after the long work days, with the random frequency of good intention and deluded self assurances: “I’m gonna ramp my training when I start up with Maxx again at the beginning of March”. Then in the beginning of March, after I started with Maxx, it became: “I can let the first week slide, most races have been cancelled this year anyway”. Each time I dropped the ball, I would stoop to pick it back up, promising myself I would run with it when I had a mental break, a little rest. Finally, after three weeks of intense personal pressure to get my butt out the door for a run after ten, eleven, twelve hour days in the hospital with up to an hour’s drive each way on top, all the while watching Rebekah set PR after PR in her training under Maxx’s guidance, I threw my hands in the air and just let the ball roll away, out of view. I was burnt out, frustrated at trying to light a fire without a spark, and I finally just let go of all intention to run. Sometimes it’s just like that. Just let go…
Something from nothing
All earlier sentiments about running long and finding that next level of consciousness or personal satisfaction aside, in the end, it all just boils down to finding the run, somehow. Just run. And, there are certainties, some things I understand as personal truths. When I run, I am a better person. I sleep better. I am more relaxed, I am a joy to be around. Yeah, I can be stubborn, or clueless sometimes; I am male, and I am human. But when I run, I am a better human. When I don’t run I tighten up, and feel like a crumpled up piece of paper. If I don’t run, my muscles and tendons slowly tighten, almost like someone is cranking an invisible winch to apply increasing tension to my entire being. Feeling the crumpled piece of paper for weeks, months now, I have to find the run, it is an imperative; Just set me free. Dammit.
I was finally set free from work this past week – no more hospitals, no more working around Covid patients, or over-hearing clinicians on the phone in the next room sympathetically offer “..so you had a false negative test result, please continue to self-isolate…”. There are whispers of more work, but I will ignore the whispers until that last possible moment, as I finally focus on the run, in freedom. One run, two runs, three runs, four. First things first, but I guess be careful what you wish for.
Civilization. Complex systems and the specialization that makes them possible. Who knew these constructs could be so fragile? Who knew that a decent haircut and a dynamite pair of Hamachi Nigiri could become so difficult to find, that in this crush of humanity that is 21st century America everything could suddenly just stop? In this world of taken for granted, each man, each woman, seems an island now – caged, isolated. But, I hope, maybe more reflective. How can we not be? I saw a meme floating about, a woman’s voice stating “it feels like nature just sent us all to our rooms as punishment”. Eventually we will make it to the other side, and we will rebuild whichever reality is most important – and, hopefully, authentic. Real. We will start again. And then we’ll see which myths have been shattered, reborn or created from scratch. Through it all, I have the run.
What a gift.
When I first put my thoughts out there by way of this blog post I was angry, like so many other Americans, regarding how top decision makers first cavalierly brushed away the danger of pandemic, thereby losing valuable time as a result – and even made political hay in the process, before later using that very danger and the misery of others to their own vanities and political ends. I have had to step back from my biases to examine what is truly important in this era of Covid19. I believe that in these difficult times it is far better to simply shine light upon the darkness, rather than to attack it, and to let others use their own subjective lens of interpretation to draw their own conclusions. Although I firmly believe in NOT censoring my own thoughts – and thereby keeping my authentic voice, I feel it best I remove from this narrative certain statements, and have done so.