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being for the occasional musings on running by the author of the books


With a good hour to kill before the start of the Bozeman Marathon, I perched myself atop a fence post to watch the Rocky Mountain sunrise. I hoped to run fast this morning and with a pink sky looming over the Bridgers anything seemed possible. Other runners passing time before the start of the race paced or jogged past my perch. Some of them I regarded, others I ignored, as my idle mind drifted this way and that. There is a certain stillness that is available only in the moments before intense action. When the race started, I'd be there running. For the time being, I was right there doing nothing in particular. It sounds idyllic, does it not? It was. Mountains, skies, human bodies preparing for exertion—it was an elemental morning. Except, when I studied the runners moving by my fence post I saw that a great many of them were wearing what I could tell were the carbon-plated super shoes that had so disrupted our simple sport over the preceding few years. And these runners did not belong to, shall we say, the sport's elite. They were my middle age or older, they were stiff, they were heavy. Most of them, I estimated, would be lucky to break two hours. In spite of all this, they wore the shoes of Olympians. What possesses noncompetitive runners to spend hundreds of dollars on shoes that may marginally improve their times? And what possesses me, a runner who on a good day can still place in his division, to resist? For me, it's surely in part a combination of pride, personality, and my allegiance to an antiquated distinction between natural and artificialI. But more than any of these, it's plain old self-consciousness. I wouldn't want to be seen as the kind of person who would wear high-tech elite racing shoes while churning out seven-minute miles. It would be embarrassing. But these runners had, to my eye, lost the capacity for embarrassment. These were the kind of people who might ask me sincerely why in a world with fast shoes they should run in slow shoes. What could I say to them? How could I try again to explain that the point is the running itself, not the times that can be engineered by the mad scientists at Nike? I didn't know what to feel. Part of me wanted to laugh at these ridiculous creatures made doubly ridiculous for the fact they couldn't see how ridiculous they were in the first place. Another part of me wanted to curse how fake accomplishments cheapen real ones. A third part of me inclined toward pity: What kind of emotional depravity must a person know to be susceptible to the ad campaigns of Nike? Who thinks that if they can buy their way from a 2:08 half to 2:05 they'll deserve their own private Wheaties box? Super shoes neither stand for nor encourage athletic excellence. They stand for and invite only entitlement. You can spend your way to a time that five years ago you would have had to work for. It is once again a way for wealth to tilt the even ground. How could a sane person not rant that these shoes represent everything that's wrong with our results-focused and number-obsessed sport? Who could argue that in its granting of unearned benefits it's any different from doping? But here's the thing about running: the self-righteousness, the offended sensibility, the inner ranting—you can leave them all behind simply by moving your legs. When the race started, I ran. And because I didn't look back, my problems were all behind me. Ahead of me, the sky was still pink, I was back in paradise.

I was running fine last summer in Bozeman, maybe even well. But not by a mile was I expecting to wake up one morning to find I'd been incarnated as a better runner than I'd ever hoped to become. And yet.

Early on my first morning visiting my parents in Lake Oswego, I laced up my shoes and jogged down to the path along the river. We were expecting heat later in the day, but conditions were ideal at sunrise. With the trees looming above me, the river sparkling below me, and the air filling my lungs with the rich oxygen of home, I took to the path like any animal returned to its native habitat.

There are days—any runner knows them—when we surprise ourselves. This, for me, was one of those days. It was as if my legs had been removed in the night and replaced by the legs of a superior runner. It wasn't the speed itself that enthralled me. It was the ease of the speed. The farther into the run I got the faster I went. Yet no matter how fast I went I never could never feel like I was straining. I wasn't quite foolish enough to think I was without limits, but it sure felt to me exactly as if I were without limits.

But if my body was not my own, my thoughts mostly were. I recognized myself in my mind. If I had undergone a metamorphosis in the night, I thought, would I of all people be the one to know it? Yet was this awareness itself not evidence enough that I was still me enough to notice that I wasn't? It gets metaphysical quickly, this running.

Maybe I should stop thinking, I thought, and simply enjoy what had to be due simply to the elevation change between the Gallatin Valley and the Willamette Valley. I had long wanted to be the kind of person who is graceful enough to accept life's gifts when they are given.

And so I ran as only this particular animal on this particular day could. What choice was there? If a runner knows anything, he knows this.

Later, back at my parents' place, I reflected that whatever mystery had produced this run and elevated me, however briefly, into a different class of runner was the same mystery that assigned me the ability I usually knew myself to possess. The fact of an easy seven-minute pace is every bit the miracle of the six-minute pace.

I went out again the next morning. I ran fine, maybe even well. But I was the same old me again, as I reasoned I had been all along, even if for a single morning I felt like I was someone else entirely.

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