Running Downhill?

copyright 2011 by Jack A. Urquhart

English: Studio publicity still for film Daddy...

I like to run.

I like the freeing way running takes me out of my head and anchors my consciousness in my feet, legs, lungs—in the rhythms of breath and stride.  I like running here in Lake County.  It feels great, skirting Lake Dora one morning, looping Lake Gertrude the next.

I think Christopher McDougall nailed the feeling in his “Born to Run” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) in proposing that running “unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure.”  And I agree with McDougall’s contention that we run when we’re frightened, when we’re jubilant—and when we just want to get away from our troubles.  I’ve written five or six stories featuring characters who run—usually to escape the terrifying stasis, the stultifying ‘standing-still-ness’ of their everyday lives.  To me, that makes perfect sense given the emphasis on collective accomplishments, professional and civic, that pervades modern life—negotiated endeavors that can reduce any sense of ‘personal satisfaction’ to nil.

Running can fill that void.

Which, I believe, is why the runners I know, or have read about, often cite running stories among their favorite memories.  I have a few myself.

Like the time years ago when I ran the Pawnee Pass Trailhead in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area high above Boulder, Colorado, my home at the time.  The route rises from approximately 10,300 feet to 10,800 feet over a distance of about 2.5 miles and terminates at Lake Isabelle.  On that particular day, in late spring I think it was, Isabelle was ringed with fields of pink watermelon snow, the lake itself tinted jade-green by glacial milk and stippled with miniature icebergs.  I was maybe forty-two at the time, but I still remember the thrill of running through the sub-alpine, spruce-scented forest, and the rare satisfaction of knowing that here was something I was well suited to do—a fact, I hasten to add, that has much to do with genetics.

A runner’s body, or so I’ve always been told, was part of my inheritance: my Dad’s slender build; my grandfather’s height, his long legs, big feet, and good lung capacity.  These were advantages I never had to develop from scratch.  Nothing unusual in that, of course.  Babes are born daily bearing their various hereditary gifts.  Some of us, by reason of physiognomy, are well suited to water, almost born to swim (think Mark Phelps). Others inherit the musculature and stamina for rough and tumble contact sports.  Fewer still are those rare individuals gifted with an amazing combination of physical grace, strength, dexterity, and an effortless precision that all but screams “Please!  Just let me dance!”

Speaking of which, my partner likes to tell the story of the day years ago when he was living in L.A. and lucky enough to catch sight of Fred Astaire dancing across Rodeo Drive.  A magical moment, is the way he describes it: a man—a living, breathing physical specimen in the simple act of crossing the street, yet moving like something truly out of the movies.  “Just imagine it!” RLB likes to say.  “Astaire floating, like it was the most natural thing in the world, across a distance of maybe a hundred feet—as if there were wings on his!”

I do imagine it.  Usually when I’m running well—not that I’m comparing myself to Astaire’s artistry, mind you.  But I digress.

It’s just that there is something wonderful, something with a bit of that Fred Astaire magic about being in my body when I’m running through space in a manner that feels right and comfortable and—yes, natural.  As if, as McDougall contends, I was born to run.

Which is why I wax anxious when, as in the past few months, my ability to achieve that elevated state of physical/mental consciousness is impaired by chronic aches and pains that don’t respond well to any of the usual remedies—injuries that don’t disappear after a few days off or a week’s reprieve.  Of course, as McDougall points out in his book, there is nothing unusual in this either.  He cites the sobering statistic that every year, very nearly eight out of ten runners are injured.  In fact, McDougall goes so far as to liken running to “the fitness version of drunk driving.”  Sounds a bit hyperbolic, until you consider that 80% ‘run down’ rate.

And I think it’s that rate that’s got me jumpy.  Probably a bit self-indulgent, but I’ve begun to wonder if I’m not already part of the road kill, my running days over and done.  And if that’s so, then what will I substitute for the thrill of achieving the minor goals that running provides?  As in, terrific, here’s 11th Street and the Fiest set on my iPod isn’t over yet; I must be ahead of pace!  Or the built-in incentive to push myself that a morning run sets in my path: Jesus!  Stevie Nicks launching into “Gold Dust Woman”?  That’s not supposed to happen till I hit Morningside Lane.  Better haul ass!

Then there’s the really heavy-duty motivators—those times when I’m feeling too tired, too hot, too old, and suddenly comes the crazy notion: if I can just make 6 km, then…then, my son will find an apartment this week; if I can push to 8 km, then number-one daughter is sure to find a job.

Don’t laugh!  You’d be surprised how often those little bargains have come to fruition—and not just in getting me to my silly mark.

Witness the one I made back in Colorado, 1997 it was, while running endless indoor loops in the deep midwinter.  Here’s the arrangement I proposed in order to keep going: If I can make four miles, then I’m that much closer to San Francisco, that much closer to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow—my life partner, waiting at home for me (hopefully preparing our dinner).

Fast forward a year to February 1998, and it was a done deal, as if I’d made a bargain with the universe and all I’d had to do was run—something my gangling body could do.

So, what happens—not if, but—when that isn’t true anymore?

Like yesterday.  Like sometime around the 4 km mark when my knee screamed “Stop, fool!” at the precise moment when, and I’m not kidding, Fred Astaire—still alive and well in my iPod—began crooning “Something’s Got to Give”  (Jesus.  Sing!  Dance!  Act!  Was there anything the man couldn’t do?).

What happens when I can’t run anymore?  And yes, I know there are other ways to move through a space—cycling, in-line skates, swimming, etc.  But none, none, it seems just now, is as well-suited to my poor body, my famished soul, as running.

Just life, you might say.  One finds substitutes, one copes, one moves on.  And you’d be right.  In truth, I accepted long ago that life is all about loss, all the important components dropping off, a piece here, another there, as we run the downhill drag.  Until pretty soon all we have left is our memories—and sometimes not even that.  I’ve accepted, I think, that living is more about coping, more about adapting than celebrating.

All the same, I can’t help hoping that I can hold on a bit longer to the jubilation of striding along—impelled and empowered by my skinny legs—through all this miracle of creation.

So I’m hoping that the universe will honor the deal I put forward yesterday morning—the one about taking a month off, if only everything can be made right again—knee, tendons, calves.  How does that sound?”

One month wouldn’t be too much to pay.  Even two would be a steal given the thrill of trotting along in the cool morning darkness, the setting moon playing peek-a-boo from behind the clouds, the whole of creation catching its breath right along with me as the first rays of the new day break on the horizon, as the water-color wash of dawn streaks east-to-west across Lake Gertrude.

Lord, what a bargain that would be!

About jaurquhart

Jack Andrew Urquhart was born in the American South. Following undergraduate work at the University of Florida, Gainesville, he taught in Florida's public schools. He earned a Master of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was the winner of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Award for Fiction (1991). His work has appeared online at Clapboard House Literary Journal, Crazyhorse Literary Journal, and Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies. He is the author of So They Say, a collection of self-contained, inter-connected stories and the short story, They Say You Can Stop Yourself Breathing. Formerly a writing instructor at the University of Colorado’s Writing Program, Mr. Urquhart was, until 2010, a senior analyst for the Judicial Branch of California. He resides in Washington State.
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5 Responses to Running Downhill?

  1. Miss Mary says:

    Lovely. I better understand what it is you love about running. As to: “I’ve accepted, I think, that living is more about coping, more about adapting than celebrating.” – what if, instead of merely coping, we look for other things to celebrate?

    Don’t give up, dear heart. This man hasn’t.

  2. jaurquhart says:

    Excellent advice, as always, Dear Friend. Not to worry: I won’t give up. (I hear fast walking can be rewarding) 🙂

  3. KatieQ says:

    Hi Jack! Dad sent me the link to this post and I’m so glad he did! As you know, I’ve been plagued with running injuries off and on so I’ve recently taken up swimming. I LOVE IT. I’ve never been a great swimmer. I’ve lacked technique. But, I just recently taught myself how to breathe correctly while swimming and I’m so glad I did. As with running, when I’m swimming it’s just me and my thoughts. My rhythm. My pace. For me, doing laps has a calming effect – similar to yoga. I’m so focused on what I’m doing, I forget the outside world. And, guess what – IT NEVER HURTS! I’m not sure what your experience is with swimming, but I highly recommend it (at least while you’re recovering from your injury). I hope you are back up and running soon!

  4. jaurquhart says:

    Hi Katie. I’m so glad you stopped by, and thanks for the tips about swimming. I’ve often thought about taking to the pool but–even tried it for a while decades ago; but, as with you, my technique has always been a deterrent. Still, there is certainly much to recommend exercise that “never hurts.” Surely, given all the retirees in this little burg, there’s a pool close at hand.
    PS: Your Dad says I should clarify my problem: I have lateral and anterior knee pain; no swelling, but even walking produces low-grade pain (about a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10). Feels like I need to drag my right leg a beat behind whenever I’m ambulatory. Oh well.

  5. Karen Berner says:

    Jack, this was a great post. I hope you can find something that gives you the same feeling as running. Sorry you are in pain.

    I love your partner’s Fred Astaire story. What a sight that must have been! Astaire was a god.

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