Long-distance runner Jeff Swain loses himself in the Allegheny Forest.
“I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow.”
—Inscription in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, 1338 BC
This notion of bringing together opposites has been a recurring theme in the books I’m reading lately. The above inscription comes from a book I checked out of the library on Friday, In the Valley of the Kings, by Daniel Meyerson and I found it relates to running.
You see, running is the way for us to confront it all. The Past. The Future. And we do that by grabbing hold of both of them, one in each hand, and pulling them into us and into the moment where it all matters the most—the Present. The next slap of the foot on the asphalt. The next piece of food you put into your mouth. The failure to live up to expectations. The personal disappointments. The weakness of the will. We confront them all when we run. And, if only for the briefest of moments, we own them. We become the master of ceremonies. One-on-one against the total indifference of the cosmos, we will ourselves into being. Our heaving chest and screaming legs tell us so. We’re alive.
The training gives us focus. Getting into marathon shape becomes our obsession. Are we getting our miles in? How are we feeling? What are we doing to properly hydrate? How’s our nutrition? Do we need to alter our diet? What kind of shoes should I wear? What about gear? All these questions give us something to focus upon. And each time we answer one, the world gets a little clearer. After all, isn’t that what we’re really searching for? Isn’t all that we want out of it, really: clarity?
Throwing ourselves into what it takes to run a marathon enables us to bring some order out of the chaos that is life. Everything else in life seems manageable because we can put it in the context of our greater focus: to run the marathon. Got a toilet that won’t stop running? I’ll get to it as long as it doesn’t interfere with my run time. Or a fridge that’s leaking water? It’ll still be doing that when I get back so why worry about it now? A yard that needs mowing? If I let it go another day so I can run it means I won’t have to cut it again so soon. When you’re in training, dishes pile up. Rugs go un-vacuumed. Spouses are neglected, or their needs put on the back burner, during training. This obsession becomes the line we walk and weigh everything against. It’s a razor’s edge but, man doesn’t it make us feel we’re alive?
My Saturday long run was a trail run. I took the advice of Robin Havrie, The Lure of Long Distances, and decided to try finding myself by getting lost. In the book, Havrie describes the moment he became a long-distance runner as the time when he got lost running in the woods where he grew up, while back home visiting family. Cut off from everyone, no cellphone or water, and totally exhausted, Havrie had nothing to go on but his will. And it was learning that he could use the force of his will to make the body do something it was saying it could no longer do, run, that he knew what he was: a long-distance runner.
We were up in Bradford visiting my in-laws over the weekend and this gave me the opportunity see if I could feel what Havrie felt. I was going to run part of the Allegheny Forest. I was going to run the Indian Pipe Trail, a place cut off from home and someplace I hadn’t run before. According to the Tuna Valley Trail Association, the trail is named after the Indian Pipe plant, also known as the ghost pipe plant. I saw them along the trail during my run. They have an opaque color, kind of a real thin slice of mother of pearl about them. The website says the plant has no chlorophyll so it is unable to get nourishment from the sun by photosynthesis. As a result, the ghost pipe gets its nourishment from the soil. The lack of chlorophyll also means a lack of color.
The forecast called for heavy rain and the sky didn’t disappoint. Things opened up on our drive out to the trail and I had to run the wipers on full power. Sue and her sister led me out to the trail so I’d know where I was going. The entrance to the trail, off of Route 346, is a nondescript wooden sign that’s easy to miss. In fact, we did. We circled back and turned into the entrance, basically an opening cut into the trees, expecting it to open up into a parking lot before the trail. By now, we were behind a pickup truck. After about a quarter-mile climb the truck pulled over and a gentleman got out and waved us over. It turned out he knew we were lost even though we didn’t. The trail is actually a lease road used by loggers and oilmen. It was open to the public but if we wanted to park we were going to have to park on the side of the road.
We parked the cars and I said goodbye to Sue. I took a moment to drink a G1 and eat a granola bar, hoping the rain would let up. When I was finished, and the rain wasn’t, I decided it was time to go. I knew from the map the trail was approximately 7.5 miles out and back for a total of fifteen. Since it was pouring, and was supposed to continue all morning, I left my Nano behind in the car.
“It was Plato who first taught us that, while we might try to pull in the opposite direction, we cannot escape our past and how it will inform our lives. When we return to the river’s origins, we must do so with open eyes since the source is not there to be reinterpreted, only understood.” —Robin Havrie
The Allegheny Forest is in northwestern Pennsylvania, not far from the borderline with New York. Two hundred million years ago this land was under the ocean, making it a great place to go fossil hunting now, which I occasionally do. It was also the part of the world responsible for the first great oil boom at the end of the nineteenth century. For a brief period in time Bradford was a boom town, full of prospectors looking to strike it rich. Some did. Most didn’t. Its fortunes were short-lived as the oil in the hills was quickly tapped out and bigger deposits were found in Texas, followed by the Middle East.
The rain picked up as I went into my first climb and I didn’t get any relief until the road narrowed enough to where the trees formed a canopy overhead. By then I was soaked through, and not even a half mile in. But the soft ground felt comfortable under my feet and my body relaxed and I settled into form. Sometimes when I run at home I leave my contact lenses out so I can’t see too far ahead of myself. This way I can focus on what’s in front of me and not get too concerned about what lies up ahead. This trick actually works, especially when running hills because I can’t see how far I have to climb; I can only see, and deal with, what’s in front of me. I had my contacts in yesterday but they didn’t do me any good. With the heavy rain I couldn’t see much past the brim of my cap.
The road was lined with ghost pipes, bluebells, and goldenrod surrounded by overgrown ryegrass and ferns. These gave way to the trees, mostly maple and birch, which provided the cover overhead. The natural landscape was broken up with small oil pumps and their lines leading to holding tanks. Every so often I would catch a whiff of petroleum in the heavy air. There were no animals to be found. Everything but me decided to stay under cover and out of the rain. But I did come across some bear scat and lots of round black berries, the kind that are poisonous to humans, but that long-beaked birds like jays like to eat. But no animals, not even human ones. The only other person I came across was a young guy riding a four-wheeler across Interstate Parkway at the halfway point.
The lack of any life added to my enjoyment. It was just me and the woods and the inclement weather and the little red signs with the white arrows I needed to follow so as not to get lost. No people. No animals. Just signs of people and animals having passed through. Not even music. My music got left behind in the car, rained out. I was lost in the forest and lost in myself. The terrain varied from hard dirt, to clay, to mud, which I sunk into if I tread to heavily. Most of the road was rocky, though parts had been washed away. Other parts were flooded over. I had a grand time picking my way through. It was rough going and I had to walk sometimes, up a steep climb that proved too slick, or to pick my way through where the road had washed out. Or if I needed a moment to capture myself.
I was met with a pleasant surprise at the end of my run. Sue’s mom and sister showed up with two cartons of chocolate milk for me. I don’t often run trails so when I do they tend to take more out of me than a run of similar length on asphalt. So their visit and gift was a Godsend. Later, after I showered and they picked up Sue from the hairdresser, we ate pizza and watched the Penn State football game. I’ve made it a point to add more trail runs into my itinerary and to run more often without music.
Training for a marathon is real. It makes us authentic in a way the rest of life cannot. It represents us at our most base level. There’s nothing artificial about it. It’s you and the road, and the distance, and the time. And do you measure up? Do you have what it takes? The marathon is a way of proving ourselves as individuals in a world where, for most of us, our basic necessities are beyond well met. It’s James Dickey’s Deliverance where we go back into the woods, back to the savage, to re-discover ourselves. And the savage is mean. It’s cruel. It’s not intentional and that’s what makes it even scarier. There’s no enemy to be reasoned with or fought against. No opponent whose motives we can uncover. Nature is blind. Nature is indifferent. Nature knows nothing of good or bad, happy or sad. Nature just is. Take it or leave it. That’s the level we’re at when we run. We want to see if we can take it. Because, if we can take nature and its ultimate indifference to our suffering we can take anything. Nature in its indifference presents us with the ultimate cruelty and if we can accept that fact and meet it head on, tackling something rational becomes a helluva lot more manageable. That’s why Dante made the last circle of Hell cold. Indifference represents total separation from God. It is the worst kind of suffering there is because, in effect, you no longer exist. You cease to be. Better to be hated than non-existent.
Read more of Jeff Swain’s column, Man on the Run, on The Good Life.
Image credit: bradhoc/Flickr