Writers have this thing about running.
It clears the clutter out of your brain, sweeps the ephemera of phone numbers, deadlines, story lines and angles aside as all mental focus pours into the body’s performance and interaction with the terrain. I think it also appeals to us because we need to practice endurance and patience in our craft, and running gives us another form to express that. And it gives us time to be alone and re-center ourselves.
Last Wednesday morning I snuck off to Salem Lake to run the trail. Before I was consumed by e-mails, phone calls, daily newspaper headlines, links, blog posts and Facebook comments, I needed to rejuvenate myself.
The trail is a wondrous thing — a nearly seven-mile loop around the lake, albeit currently bisected by construction at Linville Road. It hugs the shoreline under the generous shade of stately hardwoods. The trail meanders along coves and other recesses of the lake, including a beautiful stream that pours over natural rock slabs. The woodpeckers hammer their song like tap dancing on the water’s surface. The water smells faintly of rotting fish — faintly, at least, to my deadened olfactory senses.
The landscape of this parkland maintained by the city of Winston-Salem is almost entirely unblemished by development, although the dam is being replaced at the low end, such that the hum and the sight of earth moving machinery are evident throughout the length of the lake. Naturally, the lake is almost entirely drained, accounting for the dead-fish smell.
I usually run in urban settings, marking distances in blocks, major intersections and shopping centers. In contrast, the natural scenery is relatively unchanging. The psychic effect is to make you focus less on covering the ground and more about being present in the rhythm of movement. Except that the trail is equipped with actual mile markers.
The first time I really got into distance running was the spring of 2008. One evening when I needed to clear aside work concerns I set out on my normal four-mile loop. I relaxed my stride, and a feeling came over me that I could run almost indefinitely, that I had all the time in the world. Detouring from my original course, I improvised the course as I went and eventually looped back to the house, covering seven or eight miles. I got the notion from that experience to run a half-marathon.
May 3, 2008 was one of my great days. I rolled out of bed and made it to the starting line at Center City Park in Greensboro, and ran the 13 miles of the half marathon, finishing by mid morning. I got in the car and drove 75 miles to Mooresville to hear Hillary Clinton speak at a stock-car racing hall of fame during her spirited primary contest with Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. My legs were so sore I could barely walk, but I loved the feeling of completing that half-marathon and being in the midst of an historic political contest.
Another run, another primary. Last week, I was similarly ambitious, but the effects of aging — or, more likely, inadequate training — humbled me.
I told myself I was going to run the entire seven miles. The challenge is neatly packaged; once you run three and a half miles, you’re fully committed. As it turned out, the trail was cut off somewhere past the three mile mark, so I had to double back. But I developed a blister on my left foot and I could tell I was pulling a muscle in my left buttock. I felt good and wanted to follow through on the goal, but I also knew I was risking further injury if I continued, so I alternated running and walking the last three miles. I ended up straining my right knee joint when I shifted my weight to relieve my left side.
Some days you come up short of your goal. That’s okay. I’ll be back when the repair work to the trail is complete, and next time I’m going to run all the way around that lake.