Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Have you lost your mind?

I awoke this morning before the sunrise.  It was still dark in the house, and mindful not to wake Rosemary, I felt around for the clothes I had left out the night before.  I put on a ragged flannel shirt to protect me from the morning chill, and a wide athletic belt around my waist to carry a water bottle and a baggie full of peanut brittle.  I laced my favorite running shoes on, and left the house.  Still dark, I drove 15 miles north to the border of New Mexico where there is a stretch of road over a pass in the Franklin Mountains called Anthony Gap.  I parked my truck on the side of the road and looked ahead to where I intended to run.  A little less than 8 miles uphill and over the pass, then back down until the road meets with I-10.  The skies behind me in the east were slowly starting to brighten.  I figured the sun would be above the horizon in a half hour or so and warm me on my jog up.  I did not want to run on the shoulder of the road.  There was far too much traffic to make that a comfortable option.  Besides, I have always found jogging on the pavement to be boring and tedious.  There was a maintenance road of rock and dirt that ran parallel to the highway.  It was more of a trail really, since only the sturdiest 4-wheeler would be able to navigate through the numerous arroyos that were bridged by the main highway.  Even though it was rough and uneven, I figured I would run on that trail to avoid traffic and not allow the smooth pavement to make my run monotonous. 

I placed the bottle of water in my belt holster after taking a sip, and bit into a generous chunk of peanut brittle.  I looked at the trail ahead of me.  A few miles uphill before disappearing over the mountain pass.  My hands were freezing, and I could not wait for the sun to rise and warm me up.  I blew my nose, muttered to myself, “Have you lost your mind?” and headed uphill on the uneven, rock-strewn trail.

I started running almost 12 years ago, in July 2001.  Although I have always been an avid mountain and desert hiker, the extent of my athleticism ended there.  On the contrary, I did not feel that I was in very good health.  I had struggled more or less, mostly more, with cigarettes since Air Force Basic Training way back in 1982.  Cigarettes were part of Air Force culture.  Half my Basic Training squadron was composed of fresh-faced, innocent kids, first time out of mom’s house, and had never before touched tobacco.  While conducting drills or policing the grounds, our drill instructor set aside five minutes every hour or so for the smokers’ benefit.  “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!”  Half the squadron, myself included, started smoking just so we could take a break from the drudgery.

By 2001, a stressful and sedentary study environment in grad school gave me a two pack per day habit.  I was not picky.  I smoked whatever JB’s Smoke Shop had on sale.  That usually meant something called Premium Basic, which I could get for $1.15 per pack.  A lit Premium Basic was the perfect companion during countless all-nighters spent buried in school work, and I puffed constantly while struggling with insanely difficult physics problems.  But my breathing was getting more labored, and my throat burned more and more often.  I knew I had to quit.  I had managed to quit for over four years back in the early 1990s, but had started up again soon after enrolling in University.  Since then, I could never completely stay off the cigarettes.  I managed a day or two numerous times before finally caving in to the lure of nicotine.  The first puff after two days deprived of cigarettes always made my head spin.

In July 2001, I was walking in the marshlands by the Rio Grande with my dog Comet.  For some reason, on this particular day, I felt full of caged energy.  It must have been the coffee.  I walked along a dirt road atop a dammed up arroyo, and for no good reason just started running.  I ran with soaked water shoes as fast as I could, with Comet happily following close behind.  I managed maybe 100 meters before I stopped and keeled over out of breath, wondering what had just come over me!  The next day my legs, especially my inner thighs, were quite sore.  I had awakened muscles I had not used probably since the Air Force.  I ran again though, this time a little further.  Just a little.  I was a runner for only one day, and I was already hooked.  I would trade in one habit for another.  My last cigarette was in October 2001, and I have been running ever since.

I continued to run almost exclusively on dirt trails.  This was easy for me since I lived in a rural area.  Every powerline that crossed the desert was sure to have a rugged maintenance road running with it.  The desert was full of sandy arroyos that made for difficult but satisfying running.  And of course, the Rio Grande had dirt roads running parallel on both banks for as far as anybody could possibly run.  I was soon running over 10 kilometers every day.  Running was the perfect escape after a long day filling my head with theorems and equations.  If the day was too busy, if my emotions were running amok, if personal dramas were overwhelming, I could easily renew myself with a run in the open air.  Running in the desert felt nearly like a primal instinct.  I felt unleashed from the world when running around in the desert with nothing between me and the harsh environment but the thin cloth of shorts and T-shirt.  I loved the rush of adrenalin after a long run along some cattle trail.  Running to the top of the Chupaderra Hills and looking down from when I came was almost like spiritual epiphany.  Every time I hit the trials, I felt young, unencumbered and free!

I still get occasional surges of breathless emotion, even after 12 years of running.  I sometimes run several miles into the desert, maybe on the top of a ridge, far above the desert floor.  I have left the mundane city far behind, and as I climb in elevation, listening to nothing but my own footfalls and labored breathing, I can feel the air cool, I can see the desert flora change, and the horizon widen below me.  When I reach the top, spent from the exertion of miles of uphill running, I can turn back to look at the seemingly endless expanse of desert that I ran through to get to this spot.  I can see the tangled maze of arroyos and notch canyons that carve through the mountain’s alluvial fans.  The wind may pick up, and I see that a monsoon cumulonimbus has suddenly formed over the horizon.  Rain is threatening, and I have a long way to run to get back to my parked truck.  But for this moment, this special place where few people tread, a place deep in the desert and far above civilization, for this moment this place is almost Holy.  To think that I reached this place with nothing but the power of my own two feet, I sometimes feel a need to be grateful.  There may be nobody to be grateful to, but running to places where I am surrounded by the vastness of the desert wilderness leave me feeling joyous, humbled, even awed at my total insignificance in the midst of the whole.  I still cannot help feeling grateful at my ability to run into this momentarily sacred place under my own power, before I run back downhill, out of the desert and back into the more familiar, trivial, mundane world.

Yes, I do occasionally feel these moments of epiphany.  Can you tell that I love to run?  

The only time I stopped running for any length of time was when I had to nurse an injury.  I stopped for three weeks when my left knee hurt.  I stopped even longer when my calf muscle was strained.  I stopped for a couple of months when I was forced to rest my painful hip.  Deprived of running, but compelled to continue exercise of some kind, I decided to ride a bicycle instead.  I could never get used to the bicycle.  I crashed every time I tried off-road riding in the desert.  I found cycling on the highway with the traffic to be nerve wracking when I was not bored stiff with the monotony and tedium.  I was too used to my slow humping over the desert rocks and brush, with eyes glued to the ground lest I step on a camouflaged rattlesnake.  But cycling was better than nothing.  I found that if I did not run, or at least strain my breathing and heart rate once every few days, I would become cranky.  I had too much pent up energy.  I needed to move!

Running is a low maintenance activity.  It requires no special equipment.  It can be done nearly anywhere and at any time.  Along with eating, sleeping and sex, it is as basic, primal and natural an activity as I can imagine.  There is something about the simplicity of it that I find aesthetically attractive.  There is almost an elegance and ease to running.  There are no rules to follow, and the form seems to come naturally.  Unlike most athletic events, the runner is unencumbered with gear.  All that is required is to get up and propel oneself forward.  I have learned to keep the intense desert sun off my bare skin.  My sleeveless, bare-skinned days are long over.  On sunny days I will run with plaid cowboy shirt with long sleeves to cover my arms.  If it is not too windy, I will jog with my wide brimmed cowboy hat to keep the sun off my face.  I am the only person I know who regularly jogs with a cowboy hat and shirt on.  You can’t say I am not fashion forward!

I recently started wearing my stopwatch again after years of going without.  I found that I suffered as a result of going without – I was running much slower than I imagined I was.  As I get older my comfortable pace gets slower and slower, and without my stopwatch I never realized just how slow I was going.  I have not challenged myself in a long time.  I entered a half marathon at a friend’s request two years ago, but I loped along at such a slow pace I never even noticed I had jogged over 13 miles.  Besides that event, I have not been in a competitive race since 2005.  I say competitive, when the truth is I have no chance of ever winning any race I enter.  I can barely even place in my age group.  For me, if I enter a race, I can only truly compete with people who are going at roughly the same slow pace as me.  At the first 10k race I ever entered, I was 1 kilometer from the finish line and I was simply pushing myself to pass the two people just ahead of me.  Just ahead of me to my left was a kid no older than 12.  Just ahead to my right was a man no younger than 70.  C’mon!  Surely I can go faster than an old man and a little boy!  Nope.  They both passed the finish line just ahead of me.  That is about the extent of my ‘competition’.

Since I started wearing my stopwatch again, my times have improved.  I even started keeping a log again, and I found myself running more to meet my weekly goals.  I still do not find most races intriguing enough to enter, but I will be making a single exception next Sunday.  Throwing all reason aside, I signed up to run in the Bataan Memorial Death March, held annually at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.  It is not officially a race, but a commemorative march to remember and honor the veterans who endured a forced march at the hands of the Japanese during WWII.  I considered joining a team and marching the entire route with a heavy pack on my back.  But I decided instead to run the entire route, which runs mostly on sandy desert trails with very little pavement.  That is my kind of race.  I am a little nervous about the distance.  It is marathon distance, just over 26 miles, and well beyond my comfort zone.  I have entered two marathons in the past, and both ended in terrible knee pain.  What makes me think this will be any different?  Who was it that said repeating an action and expecting a different outcome was the definition of insanity?  I cannot remember, so whoever said that must have been wrong.  Of course he was wrong.  Obviously.

So I have been logging extra miles in preparation for the Death March.  That is why I woke up before dawn this morning, to hump over the Anthony Gap.  The first 4 miles was pretty easy, even though they were all uphill.  Anything less than 10 kilometers is a routine distance for me.  Suddenly the trail disappeared in a tangle of creosote and cactus, and I was forced to run downhill to I-10 on the shoulder of the highway.  Monotonous pavement running, and all downhill!  The pounding on my knees began.  Then I could feel my thighs start to chaff.  What?  My thighs have never chaffed before!  My mind raced to think of what I could wear in the Death March to avoid painful chaffing.  Assuming I could survive this one.

After running just shy of 8 miles, I reached the on-ramp of I-10.  I was half way finished, and now I would have to turn and go back the way I came.  I stopped and gave my legs a good stretch.  They still felt fine, even though I knew they would be stiff as rods by the time I reached my parked truck.   I placed the bottle of water in my belt holster after taking a sip, and bit into a generous chunk of peanut brittle.  I looked at the road ahead of me.  A few miles uphill before disappearing over the mountain pass.  My hands were warm but slightly swollen, as they tended to get during a long run.  The sun was well above the horizon, which brought warm weather along with a seasonal stiff wind.  I would be running into the wind for the remaining 8 miles until I reached my truck.  The chaffing on my thighs was beginning to burn.  Great.  I blew my nose, muttered to myself, “Have you lost your mind?” and headed uphill on the smooth shoulder of the highway.