One of the most difficult tasks in life is sustaining a sense of wonder about the world and daily experiences. So much of our existence is taken up by routine and obligations that finding a thrill can be tough as the years go by.
Even the places we love can fall prey to familiarity and equivocation. That is all the more problematic among those that have traveled between the dark goalposts of anxiety and depression. It’s easy to cease taking risks to run to either end of that field? So we stay in the middle.
But that’s all the more reason why it pays to take a road trip now and then. Bust out of the routine. Dare the skies to confine your spirits. Which is how I wound up standing in front of the Luther College fieldhouse during a two-day junket to pick up some new antique windows for my art, share a proof of my new book with the co-author, watch a track and field meet with some former teammates, and immerse myself in a trip back in time by running a route our cross country and track teams called Wonder Left.
The route was named for a sign that once stood out on Route 52 at Meadowlark Lane. It read WONDER CAVE and pointed to a local attraction that is apparently not on the tourist docket anymore, because the sign is gone.
Yet the route we ran so many times is still there. It is just as challenging as it always was. The first two miles are an uphill climb from the Oneota Valley floor to highway 52. The last 800 meters increase in grade from 3% to near 9%, and the road itself curves so that you can see the painful trouble to come. “Look what you get to do!”
At the top I paused to catch my breath and turned around to look at the incline. “Damn,” I whispered to myself. We used to tear up that hill at 6:00 pace, each of us racing to keep position in the pack of 20+ runners cruising together for the first three miles. It was insane in many ways, but it’s how we rolled.
I chose to run into the cold northwest because at the start, the harsh chill was blocked by the hills. My legs felt fine until that steep section when the heart rate shot past 170 bpm. Then the road opens up for a mile and there is nothing left to block the wind. It whipped across my face in a vortex that forced me to warm the cheeks with alternating hands. Finally the turn to Meadowlark lane arrived. I glanced right to check once more if the Wonder Cave sign is there. But it is not.
I’d always thought the route was mostly East-West, but it is not. The Strava map shows that once you turn left it dips down toward the river a bit and then it’s a long, winding course through steep hills. The roads in winter are often caked with compressed snow that sometimes turns to ice. Whole packs of fat tire bike riders now love to ride from downtown Decorah up to Bluffton and back on those backroads. We runners learned how to cope with icy roads by running on the road edge in fresh snow. Or lacking that option we skated along in the worst sections trying to keep our balance. But I never fell, nor do I recall anyone else going down for the count.
Those dirt roads dip up and down through the backwoods around Decorah, passing farms and flocks of wild turkeys grazing in the cornfields. The scenery is so gorgeous it is always tempting to stop and take it in. So I did.
Starting up again, I could hear my soft footsteps padding along on the dirt and gravel road. Then I let the pace pick up, dropping briefly below 8:00 per mile. I was running without hindrance despite a nagging knee injury that had been bugging me for the last two months. The only thing that hurt during those middle miles was the scrape on the arch of my right foot where two days before, I’d stepped on one of the bones our dog chews. She’d left it on the stairs and I walked down last week and took the sharp blow in the heart of the fascia.
Running to extremes
On I went until the shadows dissipated and the road opened up into bright sunshine. A sweet russet-colored retriever greeted me with loud barks at the final turn out of the woodlands. I called out to the dog in a friendly voice and he dropped his head and walked in circles. Not all farm dogs are so accommodating. That’s a lesson learned many times and long ago.
Turning onto Pole Line Road I tried to recall how many miles I still had left to run. Before the start I’d texted my wife and told her that I always thought the route was 9.3 miles. That’s what I’d always written in my running journals, except when we cut across the intramural field, which shortened the loop to 9.0 miles. Many times we covered the distance in 54:00.
There were also many days it was far colder than my recent run as well. A teammate once forgot to wear nylon shorts on a -14 below day…and was forced to hold his own crank in a warm hand the last four miles to keep from getting frostbite down there. Yet I’ve also run that loop on days so hot and thick the mosquitoes could barely fly through the morning mist. It is a course for all seasons, Wonder Left. A run that has piqued my sense of wonder many times over the years.
As I entered the last mile my hips began to tighten. I knew it would happen eventually. That part of my body has a general weakness made worse by age and sitting too long at the desk, perhaps a combination of all three. So I stopped to stretch and get back into a rolling stride. Then the road climbed the last hill up to the college campus. It hurt to keep going, but it was nothing that I had not experienced before. Pain is confined to no era.
Trotting down the road to the fieldhouse, I watched with curiosity as my Garmin ticked off the last couple tenths of a mile. Standing in the circle drive I looked down to see that the route was exactly 9.3 miles.
That confirmed a whole bunch of beliefs about my life, especially that I’d been honest with myself about distances all those years ago. After all, what good would it ever do to deceive ourselves about how far we run?
Then it was time for a shower in the same classic locker room where I’d stood naked with my teammates so many days all those years ago. All we ever hoped in the wake of those runs was that the water would get warm while we stood chatting about the workout or the day’s events. That showering together thing never bothered any of us. It was part of the honesty of effort, training and adapting to whatever circumstance life threw at you. I understand that age-old ritual is no longer part of athletic life. The coaches at Luther tell me the kids no longer shower together. Perhaps they are too afraid of being seen naked, or some other learned assumption that took over culture.
A pinch of reality
I will admit that a teammate once pinched me on the ass during a shower and I was a bit surprised. Commenting later to a friend about the incident, he calmly said, “Well, maybe he’s gay.” Even during the 1970s when prevailing opinions were quite different, I never believed that being gay was a crime, or even a lifestyle. It was just something you were, and are. It’s all part of being honest with ourselves. All it takes is a pinch of reality to realize that life is far more complex than we typically imagine. But also far more simple.
As for my recent Wonder Left journey, it was good to run that loop again and find out through satellite date that the distance we claimed in our running journals was truly accurate. Of course it also brought back many memories of hard efforts and striving to become a better runner––but hopefully better person in the process as well. So it does help to realize you weren’t lying to yourself about the distances covered and the honesty of that effort. That’s a sense of wonder unto itself, and it’s always good to know there’s still some Wonder Left.