As any runner knows, it is conversations that help make the miles go by in training. The ribbing and joking, the racing tales and discussions about dating, and more. These are the graces that get you through hours on the road.
I think back to all those miles run with teammates in high school and college, and it was the conversations among us that built strong bonds. That kinship was vital to progress on many fronts. It developed lifelong friendships, for one thing. It also created memories, some of which are associated with unexpected events…
Like the time our Luther College team came around the corner on a country road to find a teammate that had run ahead hanging by his hands from a guardrail with his butt out over ditch. At the precise moment we spotted him, he let loose with a spray of diarrhea that was backlit by the sun. We all nearly crashed into each other laughing at the sight. He earned himself the nickname Dumpy that day.
Even if you don’t know the people you’re running with, there are moments when unforgettable things take place. So it was, that on a calm, clear fall day in Paoli, during an 18-mile training run with the Runner’s Edge club, that I witnessed one of the strangest, yet funniest things I’ve ever seen on a run.
We’d been on the roads for quite a few miles when we cut through a set of woods along the way. There were horse trails through the undergrowth, and moving along in single file, we all kept our eyes on the winding path below our feet. Suddenly, the group in front split and we found our lead runner Peter Crooke standing still and looking down at the ground. Now, from my perspective as the new guy in town, and after only a few weeks of knowing him, I already had great respect for Peter. His endurance and speed were remarkable. That fact was borne by his college success at Providence. He continued his racing prowess on the roads.
So I wondered what would make Peter want to stop in the middle of a run. The group gathered around him wondering the same thing. He pointed at a hole in the ground and said, “My shoe’s down there.”
“What?” someone inquired. They peeked down the hole. Sure enough. Pete’s brand new Nike shoe was stuck deep down in a slowly shrinking crevasse. He’d stepped into a wet spot in the Pennsylvania clay, and his entire lower leg splurched down into the muck. I peered down into the hole. I could see the back end of the shoe, but not much else. Eager to help, and always the nature guy, I shoved my hand down the hole and gave the shoe a tug. Then a harder tug. It wouldn’t budge. That show was going nowhere. Pete tried again, yanking and pulling but it refused to come out.
I walked away at that point because I found the scene too funny. I didn’t want to offend anyone or make them think I didn’t care about Pete’s shoe, and it wasn’t all that funny to Peter. Sure, he could get another set of shoes given that his family ran a running shop. But it was also the principle of the thing. Who the hell heard of losing a running shoe a foot deep into the mud? He stood there with an incredulous expression. Who could blame him?
Pete did get the shoe out at last, but it was filled with oozy mud. I seem to remember him considering whether to finish the run in socks or not. We had a long way to go, so he pulled the gooey Nike back on his foot and we proceeded.
In love with the absurd
During the rest of the run, I kept chuckling at the strange incident. So much of life was serious at that point. it felt good to find something absurd to laugh about. Perhaps I was laughing at the absurdity of my own situation, feeling so far away from home and trying to make things work the only way I knew how. Running into whatever joy I could find.
The guys on the Runner’s Edge team were really great. I valued their company and didn’t want to screw it up somehow. No one wants to be that odd dude that people try to avoid every run because the conversation is weird. I’ve known a few people like that over the years. Socially awkward. Trying too hard. Or just plain idiots. Have I been any or all of those at times? To be honest, likely so.
My long line of interests qualifies as a bit odd to some. From my longtime love of birds and nature to being an artist and writer willing to quote existentialism on the run (the irreversibility of time…for example) there are times when I’ve brought up subjects only to be met by avoidance or muted silence. Then the conversation moves on. I drift to the back of the group and recover my confidence. I’ve also been known to blurt put an ID on a hawk I’ve just seen or identify the call of a singing warbler or other songbird. Years ago before birding earned public acceptance, I generated many mocking comments from that habit.
The Odd Bird in the flock
So, I was cautious at times to avoid being seen as the odd bird in the group. But I’m not sure it always worked. I’ve always been something of a counterculture guy, especially on the macho Bro front, where the only acceptable talk was about sports, or women, or making sport of women.
Fortunately, the guys in the Runner’s Edge group were not like that. Instead, they were largely friendly and fun. But also smart and serious.
Passing the time
That’s what made a long run we did in the middle of winter so fun. The plan called for a three-hour training run at an easy pace. We took off at a sane rate. Everyone was relaxed and joking around as we cruised along. Then a fine rain started to fall. It turned into a drenching rain.But we kept on running and everyone felt good.
To pass the time we started a game in which everyone took a turn naming a city or place starting with the last letter of the previous players’ word. The game would go around like that until we reached a guy from a Philly background, and he was simply not quick on the draw. He could not seem to come up with names no matter how hard he tried. After a couple rounds, we all got laughing at how long it took him to put his answer together. We threw hints at him to no avail. The longer we traveled on the run, the funnier it got. I got to laughing so hard it hurt to keep on running at some points. He’d exclaim and complain that there were no cities or places that started with the last letter of the word before. A couple times I think we just skipped his turn and moved on. And that was funny too.
We weren’t trying to be cruel. It just wasn’t his schtick. But truth be told, he seemed to operate in a bit of a narrow sphere. He’d already entertained us that morning with a story about how he was approached by some kind of “movie producer” in downtown Philly. The guy walked up to him after one of his runs as he stood around in shorts. “Yeah, he wants me to appear in some movie he’s making,” our runner friend insisted. Someone asked, “Well, what kind of movie is it?”
The more questions we asked about his potential film career, the more it became evident that the producer looked him up and down and decided that he might make an ideal porn actor. He had the equipment, you might say. That set us off laughing as hard as hell. He made it all the funnier by his naïve denial that the film producer was probably a porn director. And so, between the porn story and the halting word game, the three-hour run went by quite nicely.
Rainy day blues
Unfortunately, the rain didn’t let up. The farther we ran, the stronger it got. Our body heat saved us even though it was barely 45 degrees outside. To our good fortune, none of us went hypothermic. Thank goodness for that.
Back at the apartment that Saturday afternoon, I took a hot shower, ate a huge meal of waffles and eggs, and crawled under my sheets to keep warm. I woke up six hours later. It was dark outside. I lay there wondering where the hell I was. The sleep was so deep that I could have woken up in a different dimension in time, for all I knew.
That’s often how I wake up from an afternoon nap. Sometimes a depressed sensation controls my mind for a number of minutes. I have to forcibly think positive thoughts to ward off a feeling of dread. That day all I had to do was think about the laughs we’d had out there on the run. No matter how much suffering takes place along the way, it is still the good times that tend to replace the bad. And when the bad times are intense, or we puke or collapse, shit our pants or feel the bear on our backs, we gather around and laugh about that later, or for years to come.
That’s what I’ve always loved about running. It helps you deal with the crap in life. And what’s not to love about that?