Recently, my online book club featured the nonfiction book Running Home: A Memoir by Katie Arnold. Katie is a long-distance runner and in the initial narrative she talks about a race in northern New Mexico where the path begins in the dark, follows narrow paths with rocks and brush, goes to the 10,440 ft. summit of Pajarito Mountain, down canyons, and across calderas. She trips and falls, she goes to the brink of dehydration, and she keeps on running, for hours.
Reading this I thought about it as an allegory for life in general and for many of life’s special events. It is a little longer than what I normally write in full.
Running is linear, almost tiresomely so. You’re moving forward through space and time, sometimes for a very long time, over a very long, sometimes idiotically long, distance. Even when you’re running in a loop, your progress is forward—arms and legs aligned, you take one step ahead and then another until you reach the end. Your mind, though, takes a more circuitous route: jumping from the past to the future and back again, like a movie reel or a time machine. Sometimes it projects a whirring jumble of memories and impressions, zooming in on minute details. Other times it pans out and makes cinematic leaps. At the beginning of a long run, you may be excited and impatient to see what will happen. Did I train enough? Will I make it? What’s going to happen? So many questions. You’re running to find out.
The middle miles are the hardest. The early thrill has worn off, and you still have so far to go. You just have to put your head down and do the work. There’s no glory in the middle, but it’s beautiful in its own way, because at last your looping mind has nowhere to go but right where you are: your shoes striking the ground, dust puffing up around your ankles. Can you smell the pine trees? Like magic, they’ve been there all along. It’s every runner’s dream—maybe everyone’s dream— to make this feeling last.
Eventually you cross the threshold where you’re closer to the end than the beginning. You can’t see it, but you can feel it. With each step the finish is calling you forward, reeling you in. It’s a force bigger than you, invigorating and impossible to resist. You’re running home.
There’s no way to enter a crater without going down. The trail into the Valle Grande, the largest of the seven calderas, pitches down through thick forest, loose rocks, and bare roots at a nearly thirty-five-degree angle. I leaned back on my heels in a semi-controlled slide, grabbing for branches and tree stumps, anything to keep myself from somersaulting all the way to the bottom. My shoes and socks filled with pebbles and dirt, and sand sloshed between my toes, but I was too impatient to stop.
It was then that my brain detached from my body, a kite cut loose from its string. It was no longer calling the shots, as it had been all morning—slow down, speed up, don’t trip, don’t fall, eat more, drink more, keep going, don’t die. Instead it said to my body, you take it from here. Suddenly I was all legs, no thoughts. It was much easier this way, and faster.
I was struck by how similar her thoughts on long-distance running are to life and its events. There is so much to do, so many details, and we may become unsure if we are doing the right thing in the right way. It all seems an impossibly long way away. Maybe we hesitate, have doubts, and think about quitting, but we don’t quit, and we go on. At some point things begin to come together, to make sense, to give us a feeling of a reachable goal. We see that we are closer to the end than to the beginning. Then, almost too quickly, there we are. We are at the finish line. It is over.
It took me six years to get through four years of college. Two years of community college and I thought I was headed to the 20 miles away State college. At dinner I mentioned that I had been accepted but didn’t see a way to get there without a car. My dad’s replay was “Take the bus.” That’s all he said. The tone let me know that there was no negotiation. Well, if I had talked to more people, maybe a counselor at the community college, or gone to the State college and talked to people there, maybe I would have been able to keep going to school I checked the bus schedule and that couldn’t get me even close to campus until after 10 a.m. and I would need to be back on the bus by 2 p.m. A quick look at the class schedule told me it wouldn’t work. So, I quit.
I got a decent job, but the nagging thought of getting my B.A. stayed, and after a little more than a year, sitting in my room one night, listening to O.J. Simpson and fellow USC Trojans, I knew there had to be a way.
I had some savings, there was money in the company retirement fund I could withdraw, and with a wallop of faith I applied to a different State college, somewhat closer to home. By then I had bought a car and used my retirement funds to pay it off. It wasn’t easy and my last year was filled with a part-time job, anxiety, and grave concerns, yet soon I was done. The future unsure but I had that degree.
I had kept running through late night part-time job shifts, asking for new tires for my car instead of any other Christmas gifts, panic attacks, therapy, and other trials. I’d gone across the caldera, up the mountain and back down, and I finished. Just keep going. One foot in front of the other. Head down. Know the goal yet live in the present.
Every Day Is A Good Day. VJ