I love autumn. Here on the island, the yellow-leafed maples are intertwined with the evergreens, the skies are gray and rainy or blue with slanted light as the sun shifts south, the mountains wear their white winter coats, fog creeps across the water more often, the trails are muddier, the wind colder. As the world turns in this dying season, I’m reminded of how many times runners, too, inevitably fall in their own seasons of change, whether through injury, sickness, family traumas, work responsibilities, travel choices, or just plain ennui. But I also know, and am inspired by, how many times runners rise up in the face of personal difficulties.
I’m in one of those come-back kid, or in my case come-back crone, phases—my one-thousandth two-hundredth and seventy-third phase. I feel hope and joy in going out more days this month than last month, my long run is farther this month than last month, my total mileage is greater this month than last month, my total time is less, my fastest time is faster, and the steep hill I use to measure stamina did not defeat me. I went up without stopping. And that nagging thought in my mind that says, “You used to do all that in a week instead of a month,” I refuse to listen to.
The only negative, and it’s not really a negative, are all those lovely yellow leaves falling to the trails. They hide rocks and roots and holes and mud. As they rot, they slicken the trails. If I don’t concentrate on lifting the quads and pushing up with the calves and focusing on foot plants, I’ll engage in a spectacular face plant. I can hear John chortling now. He used to stand over me as I struggled to get off the ground, big grin on his face, and remind me that it’s a good idea if the mind and the body are in the same place.
Today the autumn sun is shining through those yellow leaves, the temperature is in the low forties, a long vee of snow geese are flying across the water, and the trails beckon. Run gently out there.
I drove to Easton, Washington, up in the Cascade Mountains, a couple of weekends ago for the Cascade Crest 100-mile trail run. The Board of Directors gave a remembrance of John’s life in the ultrarunning community before the runners made their last minute trek to the port-a-pots and the food caches and the water coolers, and gave their last minute requests to their crews and their pacers, and then found their favorite location among the starters.
I’d forgotten how frenetic those minutes before the start can seem; how exciting and engaging and inspired and hopeful each runner is. I miss those moments when preparation is over and just before the run begins. For thirty-five years, John and I were a part of all that. Sometimes he’d run, and I’d crew; sometimes I’d run, and he’d crew. Sometimes we ran the same race separately and sometimes the same race together. Some races were magic, the day beautiful and the run effortless. Others were a struggle, full of wind or rain or mental fatigue or a worn-out body. A few didn’t get finished, ending in the miles and hours before the finish line, a disappointing DNF, a time of reflection and adjustment for next time. All were pure joy though, including the times we didn’t run, maybe especially the times we didn’t run, the times we checked in runners or passed out race packets or worked the finish line or at an aid station or crewing or pacing.
The ultrarunning community is an amazing group of people. Everyone is going to be out there for a long day and, maybe, night as well, and no one can run these trails on race day without help. Not even those who pretend to be self-supporting. There are ribbons and glow sticks and persons stationed at confusing trail intersections; there are walkie-talkie people in touch with medical personnel; there are cots for resting and voices of encouragement. There have been hours and hours spent by selfless persons getting ready for an ultra long before the gun goes off at the start. In our chaotic world, this kind of planning and care and concern for one another seems rare to me. And always touches my life in enriching moments, often long after a race is over.
Six times John and I showed up at the Cascade Crest 100: twice to run, three times to volunteer at aid stations, and once to cheer on friends. We liked that this particular run maintained a local community spirit, yet always keeping to its competent acumen while remaining low-keyed and personal. No runner was put up in a fancy hotel, no sponsor’s name went over the run logo, no extravagant hoopla heralded the start, just ordinary/extraordinary people creating a time of wonder in the mountains for those who run. And, this year, they took time to remember John, now running those ethereal trails above the sun. Thanks, especially, to Kent Holder.
This morning, the sun flowed into the Mt. Erie forest, bringing dawn coolness as I climbed from the trailhead to the mountaintop. Later, the sun would stream with the heat of afternoon through my living room’s open windows, making me glad I’d gone to the trails early. The going was slow for many reasons: I’m old, I’m starting over again, I was waiting for John, the woods were summer-scented and visually stunning.
The boggy bottoms where the skunk cabbage stunk up the air a month or two ago were mostly muddy, decaying vegetation heading already towards fall and winter. An inch above the mud, swarms of mosquitoes kept me moving forward. In several places, I had to duck the drapes of ocean spray flowers that dangled over the trail. It’s a good year for ocean spray. The forest floor unrolled in buds of periwinkle blue, delicate white, bold yellow, and pale lilac. I’ll have to return with the camera soon.
I find solace beneath the trees. A part of me wants to linger, to run gently. But I’m finding that my runner brain has been kicking in a little more lately. I’ve set some mileage goals and some time goals. I’m keeping track again. I remind myself that I’ve won my age division or better in every decade I’ve been running. I’m wondering if I have another 50K in me in this my seventh decade. I’ve even checked some race results for ultras in the area. There are some fast 70-79 age-group women out there running. I’m impressed and inspired.
The last time John and I went walking, two days before he died, we managed about 100 meters. So I have a ways to go. And I’ll miss my coach. Some days are very lonely out there under the trees. Some days I talk to John while I’m heading up the trail. And some days, like this morning, I talk to the trees. It’s a journey. For all of us.
When I first started running, back in the seventies, I ran mornings, eight to ten miles before work. I liked the coolness of early day, the quiet before cars and busses began their treks from home to office or school, the solitude of the trails or roads, the darkness of winter or the yellow promise of summer. And when I got home from work in the late afternoon or early evening, I liked slipping into old clothes or pajamas and reading or writing or watching movies or listening to music and eating. I chose my first ultramarathon because it started at four in the morning. And I won that race, thanks to the brilliant aid from my daughter and my youngest son’s high school track team yelling “Go Mom” every lap. All this is not to say I didn’t sometimes run in the evenings. But morning runs were my joy.
Then I met John. Our first semi-official get together was to run the Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials course in Olympia, Washington. On a Sunday afternoon. In the heat. With lots of other people running around too. If he hadn’t been a talker and a storyteller, those twenty-six plus miles would have been a motivational challenge for me. I would have been looking for shortcuts home long before the finish line. I soon learned that John was an afternoon runner, an after work runner. He liked to shed the stresses of the workplace in the evenings. He liked that time wasn’t an issue after work. He liked to go as far as he wanted, as slow or fast as he wanted, or walk if he wanted. He felt freer in the evenings. Over time, I transferred most of my runs to the evenings too. Because I wanted to be with him.
When we went to walk the Camino de Santiago, our six-hundred-mile trek across Spain, we would talk about all the pilgrims that had also walked those trails, stumbled across those rocks, sat beside those rivers and crossed Roman-built bridges, slept under olive trees, and found shade in the coolness of medieval churches. For more than a thousand years, pilgrims had been walking. We felt their presence beside us, we felt their hands brushing against ours, we heard their laughter and understood their joy.
I’m back to walking mornings. Sometimes running. Back to the coolness under the leafy trees of springtime, back to the quiet. I miss my afternoon running companion, but I feel him beside me now in the mornings. I feel his hand brushing against mine. I feel his joy. I think he just might be a morning runner now.
After a week of rain and with the promise of some clearing, I went to the trails at Ft. Ebey State Park today. Last Sunday, I’d driven to a trailhead near Mt. Erie in Anacortes and couldn’t find a parking place. A rare, brilliant, sunny, weekend day had brought out the masses. As I adhere to the loneliness-of-the-long-distance runner philosophy these days, I turned around and went home. Today I was rewarded with, mostly, empty trails. And, mostly, silence and solitude as well. But as I went off down the familiar trails, I thought, perhaps, that there was too much room in my head for thinking about someone, for missing someone. So I concentrated on seeing, not so difficult, because beauty is everywhere at Ft. Ebey.
This is what I saw: an immature bald eagle drafting on the wind; a submarine with its flotilla of escort vessels running south in Admiralty Inlet; two amorous ravens swiftly slipping through the trees; bicycle ruts and skid marks on the descents into the kettles; storm clouds over the Olympics; snowy mountain ridges and peaks stealing glances through the windows of the storm clouds over the Olympics; gorse; a baby in a backpack, sleeping; two yappy West Highland terriers straining at their leashes; one sedate full-sized white poodle; cat’s-paws on the water; yellow blossoms on the Scotch broom; winter wrens playing in the shadows of fallen Douglas firs; robins and towhees and flickers and juncos; a merlin far from the prairie; my first, of the season, rufous hummingbird; footsteps on the sandy beach, as seen from the bluff trail; blue fingers on the tips of Sitka spruce; green grass sprouting beneath brown ocean spray; trail signs whispering to turn uphill at the next junction; a seal swinging on a buoy; the buoy. Gray skies, gray water, gray world fading into evening rust and rose.
I’m reading John’s old running diaries. By 1984, the year the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials came to his town, I’d been running for six years, with several marathons in my own running log and one ultra. I didn’t know John yet. I was still bumming around Europe on a solo backpacking jaunt. I’m meeting him earlier than I actually did through his words in these early diaries. Before he started running, John was slamming tennis balls at opponents, biking long distances, and playing volleyball. 1984 changed all that. Who wouldn’t be inspired by a hundred or so young women running like gazelles around the neighborhood?
Because John was so physically fit, he made every running mistake newbies make when first hitting the roads and trails. His logs are full of achy ankles, swollen knees, sore quads, strained calf muscles. He ran dehydrated, dressed too light for the cold and overdressed for the heat, ran too far on not enough food, wore the wrong pair of socks with the wrong pair of shoes, signed up for every race within a hundred miles. And even when he was so tired he could hardly get up in the morning, he still signed up for races.
In his running diaries, he wrote down the usual “stuff” we all write down: distance, time, pace, weather, where and when, alone or together, hurt or healthy. But John wrote down something else that I find interesting. Maybe because it is one of those things I’m finding most difficult in these days of my early widowhood. He wrote down the shoes he wore. He had a lot of shoes—Adidas, Brooks, Reeboks, Sakos, Trilogy, Pumas, Shadows, 670s, Americas, New Balance, Quasars.
In the closet, in the garage, in the mudroom, John’s shoes are still lined up. The road shoes, the trail shoes, the muddy shoes, shoes leaning inward, laces hanging awkwardly, colors faded. I can’t seem to put them in a box or give them to charity. I will, in time, but not yet. Instead, I go back to reading diaries. I like the entry in early January, 1986, when he first mentions my name.
— [from when buckles meant 100 miles] —
—– [sort of: you have lots of time to get this done] —–
The only question people outside of the ultrarunning family know to ask is, “Have you done (a) Western or (b) Leadville?” Those two have been on national television. A few outsiders might know of Badwater (not the original). I was buying a pair of trail shoes and someone asked the question sequence. “Do you run ultramarathons?” “Yes.” “Have you done the Western States 100?” Hmmmm, “No.” End of conversation–probably a good thing. I love running, talking about running, or writing about running—probably boring to outsiders.
I thought on this as I pedaled home. My ego was bruised. I once won a 100 km run. The local newspaper editor killed the interview/story because he “knew” no one could run that far. I set a masters’ course record for 50 miles, but was second overall; thus was not the “winner”. I won a 34.5 mile whatsit, but the response is often, “Why the weird distance?” All my credentials, if indeed, that is what they are, were lacking. I had long ago failed the “serious runner” exam by enjoying runs–by “sacrificing the gift” and not going all out at every gathering.
At age 57 I tucked tail, ran here and there in the Willamette Valley of Oregon all through spring and part of the summer, and then went to Leadville. I ran for a while; 27:13:41 (might, or might not, be close), got a hug from Merrilee, an old fashioned handshake from Ken, a finisher’s sweatshirt, and a buckle.
Where was I running? Why did I pause? Which pause led to a question? Which question had no immediate answer? What was the first book purchased because of a “pause point”? These were the questions that formed the basis for today’s internal conversation as I ran.
I started running as a release from some problems at work–daily behavior and conversations that lead to what I now know as psychological violence. The cool morning air veiled me in an hour of solitude that was the release, the escape, the magic carpet–the gift that would become part of my life. The first few weeks, maybe as many as eight or ten, the running was a mechanical release with only the barest knowledge–I was running about an hour. There was no more knowledge needed.
The mechanical curiosity of “Can I run a 10k?” came and went. I can look at the inside cover of the first running book to see when the questions about running started being answered. February 23, 1985 is the date of my first marathon. All questions now created by running revolved around pace and training. April 13th a few more questions, still centered on pace, some about heat and hydration were answered as I ran my second marathon. Three weeks later I was at the starting line of the Avenue of the Giants Marathon. A shift was about to happen.
I ran with eyes turned upward. I ran, almost pirouetting as I went, with no regard for pace. I don’t think I actually stopped while on the course. I can clearly recall slowing too much for some runners. It was the first marathon I felt was done with little conscious discipline. I turned where a race official said to, but other than that the “Giants”, those huge, majestic, and ancient trees took all my attention. The next day I walked amongst them. No answers were being sought. I just walked beneath those huge branches a hundred feet and more above me. That was enough–no questions seemed to call. I drove home.
As spring turned to summer, my running routes slowly became the trails I stumbled across. The quiet was there. The voices stilled. The running was less structured. The running library had competition from Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold. The Monkey Wrench Gang competed with Catton’s Overshoot as my feet found Capitol Forest; a multiple-use forest a few miles west of Olympia. I also know that the different tree barks, needles, cones, and silhouettes were not yet asking me to stop and see what I was passing through.
A month free from pay-to-run runs let me think more about the where and what; that led to the ‘ologies—biology, geology, climatology, criminology, dendrology, ecology, meteorology, metrology, glaciology, lithology, nephology, orology, selenology…
The rocks at my feet or in the nearby Cascades needed to be seen. The wind that whispered or roared and pushed the rising and falling tides and moved the morning fog to where is should be begged of learning. The glacier was once over a mile thick here—that thought should cause you to stop and look up.
The ‘ologies came calling as the trails and seasons changed.
Scribbled notes were attached to the cobwebs of my mind. They were put there with no particular purpose. They come back with a simple, “Do you remember…” inserted into a conversation. I need to see more of what I pass through. I cannot do that when racing. What if I were out longer than a day? What if what I saw went from a few things to many and I did not keep notes?
They weren’t notes, not notes as we kept in school. They were notes made on the scratchpad in my mind from standing in front of a tree staring at the bark, at the leaves (even learning to see “needles” as leaves was a learning point). The forests detracts from the rocks, from the sky, from the trail. They demand. They command. A giant redwood on the Aptos No Creek Marathon stood at a switchback and its presence caused me to skid to a stop. The idea of a sub4-hour trail marathon vanished; gone. My eyes went upward. My neck craned. I paused to wonder… how old, how tall, how long have you waited. A book was needed.
That could be it. The redwoods hold a special place in my heart, but in the Pacific Northwest they have a surrogate, the Western Redcedar. The redwoods are two state lines south. The cedars are around me almost every run. Do I have more books about trees than books about other things?
No. In a totally invalid statistical study I removed (randomly) ten books from the shelves that are never completely organized. There are no books about trees to be seen in the stack–not a one. There are two books about running. There is a book about tides. Tides, as surely as trees, have caused many pauses.
Tides and ships and fog are part of our life on the island, but I did not live here when the running-driven book collection started. I looked at the books. The book about Death Valley was bought after one of our trips when we camped and ran there–a singleton. Unseen in the picture are the three books about ravens that were next to Matthiesssen and Hutto’s books.
It could easily have been ravens, or a single raven, that finally forced the needed learning, haphazard and random as it may be, to start. Birds are ever present. They are barely visible high above and clearly heard under the brush at my feet. Birds are large, small, skittish and quick to flight or bold and full of curiosity. They tell of seasons changing–with some luck and blind trust they can be used as a compass. Ravens or owls or all the birds I have seen or ever will encounter? Could one more book selection (randomness of the draw guaranteed) tell me?
No. The only clues offered from these six would be of the eclectic nature of the reading in this house. A last resort is to seek assistance from the local research center.
“Do you remember the first book I bought because of pausing on a run, or why?”
“Owls, you bought a book because of an owl in Capitol Forest–on the trail near Wedekind.”
Owls? Yes, that would work. We watch migrating birds high overhead. We see an eagle, seldom up close, and it often flies before we are through looking. Quail are skittish and gone to the bush before truly seen. Owls, thank goodness, are curious. They wait to see what you are doing. One watched me as I changed bottles one day. An owl can cause me to stop and sit–the sudden stillness on one or two occasions caused a slow descent on the branches as it watched me for sudden movement. They are large, medium, or small. The live in trees or in burrows. They are beautiful in the silence of their movement. Yes, an owl seen on a run could cause a pause that would pique the curiosity that would lead to buying a book not related to running.
August 10th of 1991, my mother’s 79th birthday. The first birthday I was near enough to visit in several, perhaps many, years. The 10th was on a Saturday. Kathy and I were in grad school at the University of Arkansas and neither of us had classes on Friday; coupled with Monday’s schedule we had a three and a half day weekend. I called mom telling here we would be down Thursday evening and to pack for a weekend trip. She was always ready to travel.
We went down into southern Arkansas, farms and pines, a small town here and there. Mom was a steady stream of historical comments. She was born in 1912. She was the first in her family, son or daughter, to go beyond the eighth grade. She went to St. Vincent’s Infirmary in Little Rock, Arkansas and became a nurse — a Registered Nurse, an RN; the kind that had a funny-shaped piece of starched cloth that she would fold just so and–Presto! She had her nurse’s cap. What I have long wished I had was her knowledge of plants and trees. She would combine her professional knowledge with some pieces of ground up “weeds” to make an ointment, a salve, a poultice. She made me a toothbrush from a Sweet Gum tree once. Now she was looking into the woods along the road as we drove I do not know where.
“Slow down,” she said as we drove down a shade-darkened dirt road. Kathy and I looked at the gigantic cottonwood trees and tall grasses alongside the road. We wondered what was on her 79-year-old mind. “Stop,” she said, “Yes, here,” added as if she could read my curiosity. She got out. We got out. She walked along the road, head half turned to the trees. She stopped, looked at me, smiling as she said, “Come here.” We followed her. She pointed, smiled again and said, “See the trail?”
“Yes, I could see a trace of a trail.”
We walked a few minutes and came to the edge of the woods. The trace continued along the edge of a recently planted field. She pointed to the next patch of trees a quarter mile or so away, “We would walk along here, then through those trees to school. School was about three miles from home.” The whole mom-is-senile thing vanished. She had taken us home; her home of sixty-five years ago.
We found some old buildings, almost hidden in a willow thicket–brambles and briers had grown into an impassable barrier. We bent and looked in. She said she didn’t think anyone had lived here since 1965–twenty-five years ago. I was sort of sure, but I asked, “Was this home?”
“Yes, this was home for my first fourteen years.” It was quite a voice; a whisper; a cracking with emotion; knowledge all the others are gone. We walked a bit more, but there was no more conversation.
We took two days to get back to where she now lives — not home, just an address; a place to pass time, years and days.
Three months and sixteen days later; five years and fifteen days after my father had died, I got the phone call saying we needed to come to Russellville for another funeral.
Twenty-five years and some have come and gone. We were given that last trip full of history, memories, and parental love.
Mother’s Day — a bittersweet happiness flows forth.
Kitty Hawk was behind us. We entered Virginia and suffered the return to the noise and traffic of well-traveled highways to get to the engineering marvel of the bridge that took us over and under the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on U.S. 13. We wanted breakfast. We wanted out of the traffic. Maryland welcomed us and we resigned ourselves to even more traffic when U.S. 13 junctions with U.S. 50. The mention of us having traveled U.S. 50 near Great Basin National Park on the other side of the country in Nevada was barely noticed. We got something to eat in Salisbury and continued on U.S. 50, eyes peeled for a less-traveled way to work our way north.
Kathy pointed at a sign pointing left, “Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge”. I turned off and we wandered here and there watching for a trail or a dirt road where I could park and we could get out of the car for a few minutes. It was late in September of 1994, most of the creeks, streams, or still backwaters were empty. I saw a wide spot and pulled in. The quiet slowly took over. “Frogs,” was Kathy’s first announcement. Things were still green, fall had not yet taken its grip to shake change; to enforce its presence. Frogs of several voices croaked and rumbled and remained hidden. Song-makers took over as we sat in the grass and ate who-knows-how-many-days-old sandwiches. I finished my sandwich, got up and walked a few steps toward a long deserted dirt road. I noticed a sign barely sticking out of the tall grasses of the marsh.
Kathy will know. I know she will. “Who was Harriet Tubman?”
“Oh, many things, depending on her age. Slave, escaped slave, abolitionist, one of, I suppose major persons, the Underground Railroad people.” Kathy was on the other side of the car, still sitting on the grass warmed by an afternoon’s sun. “Why?”
“She was born near here. Down that way, I think.”
We walked a bit here and there, found a few houses that looked to be in various states of restoration–materials here and there as if it was an interrupted project. I suggested it was an ongoing job, probably volunteers since there was no sign of officialdom.
No highway noise made it this far. The quiet and the aged buildings slowed our looking in dust-covered windows. Water crossed the dirt road a hundred yards down the way toward some other buildings; buildings more dilapidated than the ones we first saw. We could put only the vaguest of dates here. She was an adult during the Civil War. I guessed at 175 years old. That would be another reason for the slowness of the restoration–historically correct work would be slow–painstakingly slow if a person cared–and looking at the work completed I thought craftsmanship and pride was here.
We walked along a game trail to the paved road and turned toward the car. An hour and more had passed and no one had passed. The noise and bustle of the morning has gone from our minds. “Greenbrier Road,” Kathy pointed. “No house numbers,” I offered. An abstraction of when numbers became needed in addresses followed as we got to the car. I was just about to say something about which way might be shortest way back to U.S. 50. We did need to get to Annapolis. An old pick-up was rattling its way, not much faster than walking pace, toward us. I waved and an old black man, the driver, waved back. An old black woman smiled from the far side of the seat as they stopped. “Good afternoon,” I said.
There is a distraction of watching when listening to old people talk. They think with ‘most every word. “‘Afternoon,” he nodded. I asked how to get back to the highway. The woman leaned toward me and asked, “Cambridge?” I heard Kathy say yes. I turned. She was at the car and had the map in her hand, “Yes, Cambridge.” He pointed ahead and told me, “About a half mile down there, turn right. It’s a few miles to town,” then turned to her. She nodded and smiled in agreement. A half hour later we were back on U.S. 50.
Somewhere in a box are some slides from that trip in 1994. We were on our usual not-quite-direct method of travel returning to the Pacific Northwest from Arkansas. Arkansas was two weeks behind us. That part of the world we call home was some unknown time in front of us. We still stop here and there and are often rewarded with signs almost hidden by tall grasses and history that we need to see and think about.