Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Solitary Runner in the Adirondack Park

downhill_hurricane_rdMore or less around this time, three years ago, I started to train for the 2012 Boston Marathon. Something like 117 degrees on the pavement, 95 or so ambient temp, that race was one of the hottest on record. It was the year before the dreadful bombing. And it took me practically six hours to complete. (I had trained to do it in four and a half.) Needless to say, I run slow and steady. Notwithstanding the suffocating heat of April 2012, I run a 10-minute mile—no matter what. When I think I’m sprinting: 10-minute mile. When I feel like I’m dragging: 10-minute mile. When I’m just perfect, trouncing along at a comfortable clip with a wacky spring in my step, dancing hands, and a bobbing head: 10-minute mile.

I enjoy the leisurely pace, most often because I run through rural landscapes, soaking in their (to me) intrinsic and needed sublimity while also stepping up and down and up and down into quickening challenges. Also, because I have very little drive for social, human-to-human competition. I compete only with myself or the raven croaking overhead, with how far that next tree or bend in the road or rocky outcropping appears on the horizon. Overcrowded, organized races are an anomaly for me, typically run because my brother asked me to or because I feel the notorious tug of the “I ought to’s” as part of a community or simply because I could bring a free beer back for my husband! I’m a self-described recluse (albeit along with said husband and three dogs); I choose solitude over socializing, introspection over conversation. Thus I choose to run… alone.

It’s Halloween weekend 2014. I arrived at The Mountain House in Keene relatively early Saturday morning, earlier than planned. It was empty. I had the whole place to myself—getting a feel for it, the home site for my new academic program in the park. Four lodging buildings, one garage, one stand-alone water closet, plenty of green space, and the panoramic view of the High Peaks all drew me in, tugging me away from a packed schedule of introductory meetings in Jay, Saranac Lake, Keene, Jay again, Keene again, and then on down to Long Lake, all before heading home to Clinton Sunday afternoon. I often play with the idea of actually, literally running to all of my meetings, combining work and play into a productive (if exhausting and ultimately—unless you’re a Dean Karnazes or some such ultrarunner—completely unsustainable) synergy.

It’s a flawed fantasy, to be sure. But the irony of thinking about running, about thinking what I could think about while running, all while driving strikes me as a telling symptom of modern living—akin to desktop daydreaming or countertop surfing. No, wait. That last one is for the dogs! Nevertheless it’s a quick—if trite—lesson in bringing one’s dreams to immediate reality: Think food. Search out food. Find food. Devour food. With no supervision there’s nothing to deter said dogs from achieving their goal from a countertop! Ok. So back to The Mountain House. By my lonesome I stared off toward those big rock candy mountains. I imagined myself on a quick run, maybe a partial jaunt up and down Blueberry ending in a trot around Marcy Field, maybe a spry hop toward Roostercomb, or up to Big Crow and Little Crow, or simply around Hurricane (not the mountain, the road), where I stood just now, thinking… Ach! The moment passed. My first appointment loomed. So off I went, saddled with the unfulfilled desire to stretch my legs and train my brain. Tomorrow, I promised.

Saturday night, November 1, 2014 closed with a glorious snow shower. Maybe half an inch covered the grounds of The Mountain House as I drove from a long, but fruitful day toward one of its buildings, the Alpine Lodge, the one in which I would crash for the night. The only light pollution came from the headlights of my car, which I quickly extinguished. Tonight is closer than tomorrow, I mused. Nobody is here to deter me; no appointments loom to derail me. I ran inside, kicked off my boots, dropped my pack into a bedroom, along with my sleeping bag and an armful of books, grabbed a headlamp, changed into some (unfortunately) threadbare running gear, and headed out into the night. I didn’t think to bring my reflective, “caution! can’t you see I’m running here?!” bandolier, so I satisfied my craving by running several laps around the property grounds. Nothing particularly strenuous—I’d save that for the next morning—and yet immediately I felt my muscles loosen and my mind expand. I probably ran for about 30 minutes, round and round, lost in the ruminations of student papers that needed grading, class preparations as yet unprepared, and the infinitude of logistics needing my attention to give this new academic program sustainable legs. Right.

Admittedly, these were not the contemplations of a neo-romantic, breathing in the chill of a fresh winter season in order to exhale the burdens of her everyday. In fact, it has grown increasingly harder to unshackle, to release myself from all those to-do lists and grown-up responsibilities. But it was a start. Although running in short circles is not something I undertake with any—and I mean any—regularity (as I will actually go out of my way, running however many extra miles, to feel as if the circuit I’ve chosen is less of a track and more of an unknown meander), tonight’s run proved favorable: My need to focus on potential obstacles in the almost-dark, headlamp-lit tunnel helped quiet the field mice in my head. And the simple crunch of a new snow underfoot later replayed as a lullaby.

The promise of tomorrow, November 2, presented partially cloudly, speckled with glorious spurts of sunshine ripping through the grey. I was up with the sun, slightly sluggish yet determined to hit the road with the rubber on my feet rather than my tires. So I opted to run down Hurricane Road from the driveway of The Mountain House, the spot just before that first major dogleg to the right, almost directly across from O’Toole. I would run down the road and onto 9N/73, over to the ADK Café, then back up Hurricane Road, in order to end at my digs for a quick shower and a change before heading out to my first meeting. Straighforward plan. Not a straightforward run.

uphill_hurricane_rdIn the neighborhood of a mere five and a half miles round trip, the run presented itself with an irresistible economy. And the run down was indeed relatively nice, even if a bit slickery in the upper elevation. With a few close calls, I coasted a couple of feet on early black ice when my heel struck the ground, until finally I moved onto the leaf-littered, partially snow-covered shoulder. When running down a steep grade, I tend to use a heel strike to help keep my balance and soften the blow on my knees. (On ice, of course, this is incredibly unbalancing.) Uphill, largely without worry about the ground beneath me, I’m on the ball! I love running up and up and up, keeping my weight on the balls of my feet, often feeling the carriage of my whole body inside each step. I suppose now I should admit that while I have, unavoidably here, identified myself as a “runner,” I am no runner per se. I never ran in school; in fact, I came rather late to the recreative sport (a story for another entry!). Instead, my nose has been buried in books for, well, for my entire life. Professionally, let’s say I’ve been so buried for 20 years and counting. Consequently, when I claim to be a solitary runner, what I’m claiming is a behavioral hobby. So you’ll understand the perverse tug-o-war that took place between consternation and elation when I began my run back up Hurricane Road.

I had the road to myself for the length of that run. A glorious, deserted morning. Alone I ran, seemingly skyward, through what appeared teasingly as false summit after false summit. My relatively nascent familiarity with the road’s winding and rising topography definitely played me for the fool. “Almost there,” I’d huff to myself. “Just beyond that next rise,” I’d convince myself. “Nope,” the road slapped back. “Another and another yet to go.” Did I actually admit I love running uphill?! Yes. Yes I did. And I still do. Unlike a flat route, this run forced me to clear my head. I had no room for any other thoughts than foot placement, arm swinging, the cadence of my breath, and when—dagnabit!—that next Eye of the Tiger-like song would emerge from my poorly programmed (because who has the time?) iPod Shuffle!

I was alone on the route, alone in my head, alone in my body. Still running a 10-minute mile. And I. Was. Content. (Tired. Utterly worked. But content.)

So, yeah, I probably enjoy—and actively seek out—my solitude more than most. And I compulsively look to inhabit that crucial balance between peace and struggle through my running habits. But I equally appreciate thinking within a crowd. (Of course, this is largely mitigated by the distance afforded me as a writer, itself one of the most solitary exercises out there.) I might not—scratch that, definitely won’t—make for a good running partner, but writing is, for me, “being social.” And so I hope to hear of your own self-propelled experiences and resulting contemplations. In exchange, should you like, I’ll continue to share these, my own reveries of a solitary runner in the Adirondack Park.

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Janelle A. Schwartz teaches literature and environmental studies at Hamilton College. She is the author of Worm Work: Recasting Romanticism, and the founder and general director of Hamilton’s soon-to-launch Academic Program in the Adirondacks. Sited in Keene, this experiential, interdisciplinary semester considers the nature of place and place-making through stewardship and the liberal arts.

Janelle is working on her first travel narrative/memoir, Land and Sky and Chocolate Milk, about the relationship between solitary running, the contemplative moment, and land use in Alaska, New Orleans, the Adirondacks, and some other sites in between. Alaska used to be home for Janelle, but she is thrilled to call the Adirondacks home (home at last!) as of this coming summer.

2 Responses

  1. Eric says:

    Very nice. As I woke this morning to the quiet beauty of the first dusting of snow in my valley, and allowed myself to begin to dream of skiing the mountain trails, this post feels just right. It’s the inner space of rhythmic movement in a beautiful place that draws me outside. I love especially the line “helped quiet the field mice in my head.”

  2. KRISTIN says:

    I love this. Running is my favorite place for contemplation as well. It provides the perfect combination of beautiful scenery, solitude and awesome music. Impressed that you love to run uphill!

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