On a November morning we were running fast through a filbert orchard littered with yellow leaves. I looked up from my feet to see pink light flowing from behind the rising sun into an oncoming storm in the west, giving birth to double rainbows that silhouetted skeins of geese. Suddenly I was immersed in my body, in leaves, in sunrise, in goose calls, and became very alive in the place where I live. Was there a better time than a pastel morning in autumn to decide to celebrate my 60th year by rerunning the Boston Marathon?
I’m on the eve of my third Boston rodeo. In 2013 it was bombed. In 2014 I was caught up in the healing of the city, and ran so hard that my immune system was trashed for months. But marathon runners have a startling capacity for selective amnesia, and three years began to seem like a reasonable rest. In my defense, I couldn’t have known that the Willamette Valley winter through which I would be training would become the worst in years, a near constant deluge that soaked my shirts and filled my shoes.
Writing is remembering, and the following paragraphs are entries that attempt to capture the essence of my once-weekly long training runs for Boston 2017.
Training for the Boston Marathon “begins”, even though beginnings and endings are highly arbitrary boundaries in the world of real things, and especially in running. At dreary dawn the things in my world are covered in the granular emery paper of another ice storm. There will be no driving to the usual meeting place near the University of Oregon. So I run slowly from the house through the almost dark, the almost silence. Only the gray scritch of new sleet rises from beneath my shoes. Monte is the only runner at the rendezvous. We jog carefully across the footbridge and a four-mile loop of Pre’s Trail. Even the wood chips have temporarily jettisoned the concept of friction. Ice accumulates on our clothes like an oppressive New Year’s resolution that we’d like to break. At the coffee shop we brush off melting ice and reward ourselves with lattes and turkey-avocado croissants. Then I shuffle and slide the two miles home, alone in the indifferent ice to ponder another winter of training.
A four-mile jog after six days with the flu. Derailed. Decoupled. Deranged.
Sixteen miles begin in frosty darkness. At six miles we cross the Frohnmayer Footbridge just as the full moon sets and swells and yellows, teetering above the eastern end of the turbid river. Dorris Ranch awaits, with its two-mile loop of closed canopy gallery forest along the Middle Fork, and the slick squish of rotting hazelnut leaves. Just outside the orchard is a short hill. We scrunch into the incline, top out, then begin running very fast on the downhill side. We barely slow down when the route levels off, and I punctuate the four miles back to Eugene with frequent F-bombs. *&%$#.
Only six solo miles this morning, finishing in a wringing wet dishrag dawn. I’m resting for a crack at a sub-6-minute mile this coming week.
About six years ago I stood atop Kelly Butte with Richard Leutzinger and several other running buddies and announced that I wanted to break a six-minute mile when I turned 60. Richard unleashed his huge smile and gave me that sideways shake of his head that always preceded a pronouncement.
“You MIGHT be able to do that.”
Richard understood that there are no guarantees. He became very ill. So last May we helped him complete his 100th career marathon by relaying his Eugene Marathon number around the course, then finishing with him at Hayward Field. He left us on July 23rd.
Richard, our running buddies helped me run a 5:54 mile.
I wanted you to know.
The birthday mile is in the bucket, and marathon training resumes. Sixteen miles begin under moonless starlight. I forgot the Vaseline, so I pit stop at the 7-11 for a tube of Carmex. On Pre’s Trail the cold egg of dawn cracks and spreads across a cast iron pond, gray water mirroring the hunched silhouette of a Great Blue Heron not yet engulfed by incoming fog. At twelve miles the sun breaks free above the Willamette River. My black running tights find a small scrap of the yellow warmth for my lower legs. We run faster.
Eighteen miles. There is no rain. There is no dawn either, only a slow unfurling of gray light as we travel the dark gut of riverine cottonwood trees. There is no clear water along the Clearwater Bike Path. The tufted silhouette of a Common Merganser bobs past on rippling overcast, maybe headed for a quiet eddy holding a breakfast of small trout. The sloughs are blue as tempered steel, but soft skinned and pocked with drops cut loose from bare alder trees. Geese, hundreds of them, ply the battleship sky. Our watches tell us we are running too fast. We sag off for 200 meters, then run even faster. At sixteen miles the last vapors of peanut butter toast leave my lungs as carbon dioxide. My mind soon follows, abandoning legs and arms to churn the last two miles on their own. Next to my right arm, my running partner watches me vanish: “You better grab your soul before it gets away too.”
Sixteen miles and a rare solo run beginning at daylight on a Sunday. I miss my partner’s rants, miss laughing that crazy energy into moving bones and muscles. This morning I have only the river, a clay ribbon of high water frayed in places by shooshing rapids. I gather the sound into my arms, smooth the rough edges with hands in motion, pull the oblong form of it alternately into one hip, then the other, carried along by the force. A flicker chatters maniacally from big cottonwood, accentuating his calls with deep hormonal drumming on a large trunk. At eight miles I shed long sleeves, then turn upstream and east. The sun (yes, the sun!) flashes between limbs into my squinting eyes. Four blessed miles of mind body motion. Then the inevitable twisting two-mile slide into exhaustion.
The first twenty mile run. Saturday morning rain begins as gently as a morning-after lover. We follow her lead, running slowly downstream along the river trail. But her steely eyes still carry that warm wildness. Great Blue Heron flaps off Alton Baker Pond, perching on cyclone fencing, breast feathers drawn sideways into ashen streamers by the wind at our backs. We know the drill. After five miles we’ll cross Owosso Bridge and begin paying our dues when we turn back upstream for five more miles into her petulant headwind and rain. I’m alone from after twelve miles, soaking wet and beginning to tire. So I run upstream and into the wind, hoping for a tailwind the last four miles. This helps. But at nineteen miles the storm unleashes her slashing truth. Torrents of brutal honesty, oblivious to my outstretched arms, wash the last of me into a muddy gutter along Franklin Boulevard, away into the complicit river.
Backing off to 17 miles. Weekly long runs are a process of pushing mileage forward, retreating for a week, then reaching further. I begin running early and alone. Predawn and solitude provide cover for creatures leering out from the dark recesses of my brain. So I run east to meet the light that grows and spills downstream to meet me. After seven miles I greet my companions in the parking lot. They cajole. They tease. They are Light. The Unwanted turn their glistening eyes away, slither back into their crevices to await another darkness.
I’m not a fan of destiny unless it overlaps with intention. I intend to run the Boston Marathon on April 17. This intention spools backward in time to one last 20-mile training run. I intend to run this 20-miler on Saturday morning, but my intention sometimes carries unintentional baggage. I spend most of Friday night in an emergency room gulag with Dad and his recalcitrant gall bladder. Two hours of sleep and 20 miles of running aren’t compatible. So on a sunny Sunday morning I trot south to the Willamette River, then east toward Dorris Ranch. At eight miles I’m running toward Clearwater Lane, the sinuous Middle Fork on my right, steely winter water healing itself in April sunshine. Muscles warm and lengthen into riverine loops twining around my bones, carrying me along in that rippling lupine rhythm of wolves and coyotes. Maybe this unfettered animal joy is the Why, not the Boston Marathon with three-quarters of a mile of screaming throngs lining both sides of the finish along Boylston Street. But this is false dialectic. Even after twenty-two sunlit miles, the answer is still “all of the above.”
Nine days before the marathon, and I peel back to a 13-miler. This is a marathoner’s version of resting. The 22-mile vision quest of last Sunday is in my rearview, and I’m back with my running tribe. My running partner and I separate from the others and follow the receding river downstream on the familiar Owosso Bridge loop. Spring cottonwood leaves unfurl, gathering above and around us. But I am either unable or unwilling to leave my body, and am barely conscious of this soft unfolding. Instead I’m focused on the rhythm and breathing of motion. The pace quickens early, and I slide willingly into this higher gear, knowing the run is short, curious of the outcome. The miles slide behind us with increasing speed; a series of 7:40s, then 7:38, 7:33, 7:22. I love the breathy rambling freedom of running faster than I should, of not acting my age. But the paradox of aging is inescapable. Even though I’m in the best marathon condition in years, my numbers for Boston pencil out to something very close to a personal worst time. And yet there is the inhale, the exhale, that breathy rambling freedom.