August 28, 2011

A Good Run

Born to Run. It's a song to many, a book to some, and lunacy to others. Which means, of course, that it's all of those things. But to me, it's also false. One look at my feet, and you'd caution against a brisk walk. You might prescribe inserts, orthotics, motion control shoes, and lots of sitting on my ass. You might, in other words, tell me that I got my childhood right - at least as it relates to my feet.

We're going to skip ahead now, past the part where I wax nostalgic about virgin laps and track-stained Nikes. We'll skip past previous races, all of which were probably more dramatic, on some level, than the most recent. We will arrive at our destination - a well manicured golf course - and toe the line. Literally.

But before the gun, a couple things: This post won't ever wind around to have anything to do with coffee. Sorry about that. It's basically a race report, with a little something else tacked on at the end. And that something else isn't a barefoot advocacy piece.

Still, that's a point that needs to be addressed. I knew that going in, and I knew it once I decided to ditch my Trail Gloves. Though they may be in Merrel's "barefoot" line, no shoe really is. And certainly, one that has any EVA, a rock plate, and rubber lugs doesn't qualify. Even still, the Trail Glove is decidedly minimal. It's light, zero-drop, and flexible. It protects the foot, but doesn't really get in the way. It is, in short, a good shoe for a lot of things. But it wasn't right for this morning.

But while the shoe didn't feel right, a lot did. The temperature crawled near 80, the air just thickening, but not yet suffocating. The grass was soft, trim, and uniform. It felt good on my - yes, bare - feet. I hadn't tapered, really, but had done enough to leave my legs feeling capable - if not altogether fresh. And even my stomach - frequently unhappy - seemed appeased by the engineered nutrition I had choked down at 6 AM - a sticky sweet vanilla Powerbar.

And so, as I warmed up, I felt good. Physically, yes. But mentally too, which marks a departure from my first several races. For those, I felt some mixture of terrified and exalted, ready to run - if only to run away. But with experience comes perspective, knowledge that my legs can do this, that no distance is a monster, and that respecting all of the present truths yields positive results. Respect your body; respect the distance. And then run. Not against the distance, or the clock, the other people in the field, or even yourself. Don't run against any of that, but with it.

There is a purity to that line of thought, which I have to admit, felt more tangible because of what I was - or wasn't - wearing. No shoes, feeling the grass between my toes, the Earth at my soles. Short shorts, slit up the side, and a tank top. My body was free to move, and as the sun shone down on the green hills, it was hard to imagine a more appealing surface to move over.

Preparation complete, myself and the other runners began to trudge towards the line. We looked left, right, and forwards, evaluating the course and each other. How fast does he look? Where is he lining up? Do we have to start on a hill? The tension vanished as the gun sounded, spooked like a dear. There were no voices, no music, just shallow inhalations and soft steps.

I started at the front, and opened comfortably. My feet found the ground, and I let my body go. I pressed my thumb to my pointer loosely, like a politician driving home a point, and lifted my feet. My body went, and as it happened, it was going faster than anyone else. I hadn't intended to lead the race - but then, I had intended for there to be a faster pack at the front. The role of rabbit could have been played by several experienced locals, or even one over-eager neophyte. But the bodies behind me sank back, as I found my pace. And as I made the first turn, I saw that I had opened up an already comfortable lead.

I smiled, and bounded down the hill. I lifted my feet, letting them land softly under my hips, my arms dangling acutely in front of my chest. I wouldn't have a rabbit to chase - but neither would I be anyone else's. I had started relaxed, eager more to run than race. And now, alone with the hills and the grass, I felt that this could be a very satisfying run indeed.

The course undulated over hills and around them, the grass varying in thickness, and once, giving way to gravel. I let my legs to what they would, moving naturally, going along for the ride. There was a degree of effort to this, of course, felt in my tightening calves and dry mouth. But there was no pain, and no exhaustion. I felt like I could do this all day - and moreover, I felt like I wanted to.

As I passed staff and onlookers, I heard shouts of encouragement, and snippets of whispered queries. Mostly, they focused on my lack of footwear. I saw a mass behind me, bright colors and driving knees forming a procession. I hoped that they were enjoying themselves as much as I was. I hoped that they were running with the course, and not against it.

I continued, surging and slowing when my body told me to, blissfully ignorant of my pace, the distance covered, my cadence, or any other complicating factors. I crested the final hill, and that ignorance disappeared, replaced by a time. Some part of me felt a surge of frustration. Why wasn't I ahead of that pace? I should be faster. But the anger couldn't hold, not against the other stimuli. This had been a beautiful run, invigorating and satisfying. 19:30 wouldn't alter that.

The finish was a mass of congratulations, high fives, and more barefoot comments. I milled about, discussing my run, their run, my "shoes", their shoes, and other sorts of things runners discuss post-race. You ran well. You too. I wanted to go faster. Me too. This hurts. That hurts. Yeah. Next time. Next time. I drank water, then coffee, then chewed an orange half. I accepted a purple protein drink sample, considered dumping it, then swallowed. It tasted like medicine.

I received a medal declaring me "Top Male", and a litany of jokes sprang to mind. But it was a family show, so I held them. Begrudgingly. The ceremony finished, and people began to drift back towards their cars. I stopped, briefly, to discuss the pros/cons of barefoot running on grass once more, before returning to my car. There, I deposited my medal, and my Dad removed his stuff (I told you, a family show).

I tip-toed back over the gravel, and returned to the course. My legs felt lively, and my mental state was somewhere like nirvana. I set off, once again, at a comfortable pace, even more calm this loop than the previous. I finished, in what must have been another 20+ minutes, feeling like I had just set out over the hill for the first time.

I began to run a third loop, then stopped, thinking it better to quit while I was ahead. Better to end a run feeling like you could do more, rather than knowing you couldn't. Better still since I was present for the running I did, engaged in the whole of it rather than the minutia.

"To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now."

Thich Nhat Hanh

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