Runners

by Roger Hart

We ran through blizzards, thunderstorms, freezing rain, covered bridges, creeks, campgrounds, cemeteries, city parks, parking lots, a nuclear power plant, county fairs, and, once, a church service. We were chased by goats, geese, a crazed ground hog, guards (the nuclear power plant), a motorcycle gang, an armed man in a pickup, a sheriff's deputy, and dogs both fierce and friendly. We ran when two feet of snow covered the roads and when the wind-chill was thirty below. We ran when it was eighty degrees at seven in the morning. We ran on streets, sidewalks, highways, cinder tracks, dirt roads, golf courses, Lake Erie beaches, bike trails, across yards and along old railroad beds. Seven days a week, twelve months a year, year after year.

During the hot days of July and August, Ed ran without shirt or socks; I always wore both. Norm ran with a screw in his ankle and joked that it was coming loose. Ed was faster going downhill; I was better going up. The three of us met at a race and became training partners, competitors, best friends. We ran together on Saturday mornings, usually a twenty-mile run along the shore of Lake Erie or a twenty-two-mile route over hilly country roads near Ashtabula. We ran thousands of miles and more than a dozen marathons together, but most of the time we ran alone.

We gave directions to lost drivers, pushed cars out of snowbanks, called the electric company about downed lines and the police about drunks. We saved a burlap bag full of kittens about to be tossed off a bridge, carried turtles from the middle of the road, returned lost wallets, and were the first on the scene of a flipped pickup truck.

We ran the Boston Marathon before women were allowed to enter and before the Kenyans won. We were runners before Frank Shorter took the Olympic gold at Munich, before the running boom, nylon shorts, sports drinks, Gortex suits, heart monitors, running watches, and Nikes.

We ate constantly, or so it seemed. My favorite midnight snack was cookie dough or cold pizza. Ed enjoyed cinnamon bread, which he sometimes ate a loaf at a time. Norm downed buttered popcorn by the bucketfuls and Finnish cookies by the dozen. We all loved ice cream and drank large vanilla shakes two at a time.

Still, friends said we were too thin. They thought we looked sick and worried something was wrong.

We measured our lives in miles down to the nearest tenth, more than one hundred miles a week, over four hundred a month, four thousand a year, sometimes more.

The smells! From passing cars: pipe tobacco, exhaust fumes, and sometimes the sweet hint of perfume. From the places we passed: French fries, bacon, skunk, pine trees, dead leaves, cut hay, mowed grass, ripe grapes, hot asphalt, rotten apples, stagnant water, wood smoke, charcoal grills, mosquito spray, roadkill. And from ourselves: sunscreen and sweat.

Some people smiled and waved. A few whistled. Once or twice a woman yelled from a passing car, said we had nice legs. Others, usually teenage boys in sleek, black cars, yelled obscenities, called us names, gave us the finger, and mooned us. They threw firecrackers, smoldering cigarettes, pop cans, half-eaten ice cream cones, beer bottles (both full and empty), squirted us with water, drove through puddles to spray us, swerved their cars to force us off the road, swung jumper cables out the window to make us duck, and honked their horns to make us jump.

We saw shooting stars, a family of weasels, a barn fire, a covered wagon heading west, and a couple making love in a pickup; we ran with deer on a golf course, jumped a slow-moving train to get across the tracks, hid in ditches during lightning storms, slid across an intersection during a freezing rain, and dived into Lake Erie to cool off in the middle of a hot run. We drank from garden hoses, gas station water fountains, pop machines, lawn sprinklers and lemonade stands. We carried toilet paper, two quarters, sometimes a dog biscuit.

We were offered rides by The Chosen Few motorcycle gang, old ladies, drunks, teenagers, truckers, a topless dancer (not topless at the time but close, real close), and a farmer baling hay, but we never accepted a single one. We argued about the dancer.

We were nervous before races and said we'd quit running them when we weren't. We won trophies, medals, baskets of apples, bottles of wine, windbreakers, T-shirts, pizza, pewter mugs, running suits, shoes, baseball caps, watches, a railroad spike, and, once, five hundred dollars. Often we didn't win anything, although we never looked at it that way.

Ed liked to race from the front and dare other runners to catch him. I preferred to start a little slower, stalk those whose inexperience or eagerness took them out too fast, sneak up on them around twenty miles when they began to look over their shoulders. I felt like a wolf, and they were the prey. When I passed, I pretended not to be tired, and I never looked back.

Our goal was to qualify for the Olympic Trials Marathon, to run faster and farther, to beat other runners.

Did we ever have runner's high? Didn't it get boring? What did we think about? Why did we always look so serious?

Sometimes. Sometimes. Running. We didn't know we did.

One spring day it rained so hard the road was one giant ankle-deep puddle, and Ed was huffing and our feet were splashing and it struck us funny. We laughed until we collapsed, tears and rain running down our faces. We joked about the time Ed had to pee and caught himself showering a snake's head, the time we got lost during a winter storm and refused to turn around, and the time we ran by Don King's ranch and were mistaken for two boxers. (We never understood how anyone could mistake our skinny arms for a boxer's, but we loved it, too.)

We felt guilty about the time we ran into a church service being held in the middle of a covered bridge, and we were too tired, too inconsiderate, too stubborn to turn around, so we sprinted down the center aisle, dodging the two men with collection plates, and ran out the other end of the bridge while the congregation sang "Praise God from whom all blessings flow ..."

And the dogs! The ones that tried to follow us home and the ones that attacked us. Take the time Ed, Norm, and I were surrounded on a dirt road by half a dozen blood-thirsty, snarling, circling canines, each begging for a bite. We picked up rocks, stood with our backs to one another, and yelled at the dogs, yelled for help, yelled for anything. Then Ed threw a rock, not at the dogs but at the farmhouse where the dogs had been sleeping on the front porch. The rock hit the aluminum siding. Bang! Like a gun going off.

An old man came to the door. Looked at us, looked at his dogs, and I thought we'd done it now, and he'd lift a shotgun to his shoulder, shoot us, and let the dogs have what was left.

"Harvey, Louie, Princess, Tucker," the old man called. The dogs trotted back to the porch, and we raced down the road.

But another time we only yelled at a growling Doberman, told it to go home, and the owner jumped in his pickup, chased us down the dirt road, swearing he'd shoot us for bothering his dog. We ran through a field and across a four-lane highway, circled back through the woods, hid beneath the underpass, and then jogged into a gas station, where we celebrated our escape with ice-cold Cokes.

I was bitten by a Dalmatian, a terrier, a cocker spaniel, and a red-haired, knee-high mutt. Three of the dogs escaped after drawing blood, but I caught the mutt in mid-air and threw it over my shoulder as its teeth clamped down on my arm. The dog sailed into a telephone pole headfirst and fell to the ground, knocked unconscious. The owner, ignoring the blood running down my arm and dripping onto the sidewalk, screamed at me for killing her dog. But when she stroked the dog's head, it jumped up and bit me again.

Or the time a sheriff's deputy stopped his cruiser to protect us from a German shepherd as large as the Poland China hog in a nearby field. The dog jumped through the open window and landed on the deputy's lap, and, while they wrestled in the front seat, we ran, afraid of what might happen if either ever caught up with us.

We found pliers, purses, golf balls, bolt cutters, billfolds, money (once, over two hundred dollars, returned to an eighteen-year-old boy--no reward, no thanks), tape cassettes, CDs, sunglasses, school books, porn magazines, a Navaho ring, car jacks, a fishing pole, a pair of handcuffs (no key), an eight ball, and a black bra (36C).

We ran farther and faster. We sprinted up long steep hills by the Grand River until we staggered and our heart rates exceeded the two hundred twenty minus our age that doctors said was possible. We ran intervals on a dirt track: twenty quarter-miles in under seventy seconds, the last lap in fifty-six flat. We got light-headed, our hands tingled, and sometimes blood vessels in our eyes ruptured from the effort.

We ran because it beat collecting stamps, because we were running towards something, because we were running away, because we were all legs, lungs and heart, because we were afraid of who or what might catch us if we stopped.

One winter, while running twice a day, I was on my way home from a seven-mile run, and I couldn't remember if it was morning or night, if when I finished I would shower and go to work or shower and go to bed. I looked at the horizon and the stars, the passing cars, and the lighted barns for a clue, but I couldn't figure it out. Ed often said he once went out for a run and bumped into himself coming back from the previous one.

We lost toenails and we pulled muscles. We suffered frostbite, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, sunburn, blisters, dehydration, and tendonitis. We were stung by bees, bitten by black flies, and attacked by red-winged blackbirds. Sometimes, after a long run or a speed workout, or after a marathon, our legs would be so sore, the Achilles so inflamed, that we could barely walk, and we'd limp or shuffle painfully when going from the couch to the refrigerator or from the front door to the mailbox.

We treated aches with ice and heating pads, or soaked our legs in DMSO, sometimes in Epsom salts and hot water. We tried medical doctors, surgeons, chiropractors, acupuncturists, podiatrists, sports therapists, trainers and quacks. We were given shots of novocaine and cortisone, told to take ibuprofen, Tylenol, and aspirin. We were warned that we were ruining our knees, our hips, damaging our feet, breaking down too much blood, that we would suffer arthritis and degenerative joints.

But sometimes it was like floating, like sitting on top of a pair of legs that you didn't think would ever get tired or slow down. It was like the legs were yours and like they weren't. It was like being part animal, a running, flying animal. A horse, a bird. It was like feet kissing the pavement and effortless strides, the body along for the ride. It was like sitting in Ed's '67 Corvette, that monster engine gulping high-octane fuel and turning 6000 rpms, your foot ready to pop the clutch. Like freedom and invincibility. When we ran around corners, we were jets sweeping in formation.

We all had a resting pulse in the low forties and body fat of seven percent or less. I was six foot two, raced at a hundred and forty-eight pounds, and went through a pair of shoes every six weeks.

Once, I experienced chest pains, a sharp stab beneath the ribs. A Saturday morning, twenty-two mile run. Seven steep hills. We raced up the first hill to find out if it was my heart or not and when I did not drop, we raced up the second and third. After six miles the pain eased off, and Ed said if it had been a heart attack, it must have been a mild one. Thousands of miles later, a doctor unfamiliar with a runner's heart sent Ed to the emergency room where he was poked, prodded, hooked up, and given oxygen until Ed said enough was enough, pulled the IV and ran home. Two weeks later he set an age-fifty record for the mile in a local meet.

Although we ran faster and faster, we never ran fast enough. We failed to qualify for the Olympic Trials. Still, four times we drove for hours and slept in our cars to watch others compete for the three Olympic spots.

Then, just as we once stalked other runners, time stalked us. We began looking over our shoulders and thinking about the marathons we had run instead of thinking about the next race. We slowed down. Our bodies balked at hundred-mile weeks, and it took longer to recover from a hard run. Sometimes when the weather was bad--very hot was always worse than very cold--we took a day off. Sometimes we would skip a day because we were sore or tired. We stopped giving the finger to those who ran us off the roads. We gained five, seven, ten pounds. More.

Now, Ed has a granddaughter; Norm has "screw pains," and I have a retirement clock and deformed toes. We've turned gray, lost hair, and joined the AARP. We run twenty-five, thirty miles a week. From time to time, we race, no marathons but shorter races, three, four miles, maybe a 10K. We measure our lives in days, months, and years.

Ed and Norm still live in Ohio; I moved to North Carolina, then to Minnesota. We no longer run together, but we keep in touch and reminisce about the time the Star Beacon ran a front-page article about a group of snowmobilers who had ridden nearly ten miles on a day when the temperature was five below. We had passed them on our way to a twenty-mile run. We argue about who threw the rock at the house, whose fault it was we got lost, and which one of us the topless dancer really wanted to take for a ride.

We complain that we're running slower than we once did and make jokes about timing ourselves with calendars and sundials.

Sometimes when we're running we'll spot other runners ahead of us and the urge to race comes back, and we'll do our best to catch them. Last fall while I was running in a park, I overheard a high school cross-country coach urge his runners to pass "the old, gray-haired guy." I held them off for nearly a mile although it almost killed me, and, when I had completed circling the park, I ran by the coach and said, "Old guy, my ass."

But my ass is getting old along with all the other parts. When I sometimes fantasize about one more marathon, the fantasy seldom lasts more than a day. Fast marathons, hundred-mile weeks, ten-kilometer races under thirty-one minutes are things of the past.

And what did we learn from running seventy-thousand miles and hundreds of races, being the first to cross the finish line and once or twice not crossing it at all, those runs on icy roads in winter storms and those cool fall mornings when the air was ripe with the smell of grapes, our feet softly ticking against the pavement?

We learned we were alive and it felt good. God, it felt so good.


© Copyright 2001 Roger Hart. This work first appeared in Natural Bridge, the literary magazine of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.