Dateline: Thursday, March 26 – an undisclosed location in eastern Massachusetts
I’m jogging slowly along the trail, peering through the trees to find a likely path for cutting through the woods that separate me from a big, beautiful, empty 400m track. I know this is not the most direct route to take. However, it would not suit my purpose to go in by the main entrance where there is a barrier and a sign informing the public that the campus is closed. I don’t want any trouble. I don’t want to put anyone at risk. But on this particular March afternoon, I very much *do* want to get in a track workout, and when the urge to run 800s takes hold of me, I become a lawbreaker.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve tried to plan my runs to avoid people. Instead of running from my house, which would mean sharing sidewalks and roads with my neighbors, I’ve driven out of the city, parked in some remote lot, and run on roads with little traffic, vehicle or otherwise. But a track is almost by definition a gathering place, so it’s a little harder to find one where I can be alone. That’s why the track I’m stalking now is perfect; it’s never much in use in normal times, from my experience, and now the fact that it’s closed adds to its appeal.
Nevertheless, as I emerge from the woods and slip in at the back gate, I see that there is another human being on the track – a walker. It seems probable that, unlike me, he has a right to be there, but I find it easier to pretend that he’s a fellow bandit. Just in case, I retreat to a random runway that keeps me far from the oval itself and begin my elaborate routine of dynamic drills. I’m already thinking about how to avoid him if he’s still walking when I start running, but five minutes after I arrive, he departs, and I have the track to myself.
Drills finished, it’s time for strides, and as I accelerate into my first one, I see something that had escaped my notice during my drills. There is a police car parked on the access road about 100 yards away from the South entrance of the track. It’s near enough that anyone in the car will be able to look up and see me as I run the first turn and backstretch. In my head, I begin preparing my story if the cop drives up and asks me why I’m there.
I know what I WON’T say. I won’t say that I have a long history of trespassing, that I am, in fact, a repeat and unrepentant offender.
Yes, I have been doing this sort of thing for a long time.
As a teenager, I used to go with my friends to the Boyden Gym at UMass, hoping against hope that someone had left a door unlocked so that we could slip in and play basketball in the cavernous expanse (six full-length courts!) of the gym on the second floor. It was an early, guilty pleasure, and one that I have experienced many times over the years.
When I became serious about running after college, I found that winters in Boston made it imperative to find indoor track facilities. As an open (rather than a collegiate) athlete, the choices were few. Thus, began a long habit of sneaking into buildings where I had no right to be. I have at one time or another paid a visit to most of the college tracks in the area, returning to the ones that had lax security, or the ones that didn’t seem to care about a few runners so long as they didn’t show up during team practices.
On a few occasions when the usual haunts were closed over Christmas break, my friend Richard and I would sneak into the old Armory building on Commonwealth Ave on the weekends. The Armory had a funky but fast 200m banked track that would be assembled for the indoor season and then taken apart in the spring. The two of us would try to be as inconspicuous as possible as we made our way through the building to the hangar-like room that housed the track. I seem to remember that to avoid attracting attention, we’d leave the lights off and run our workouts by the meager light that filtered in from the skylights and high windows. Knowing that we were trespassing and in danger of being found out helped lend an urgency to our efforts. I think I ran some of my fastest workouts there, thinking every rep would be my last.
Why was it so hard to find a place to train, we would ask ourselves? Surely, the track was there to be run on, and that was all we were there to do. It wasn’t as though these facilities had any cause for concern from a couple of skinny distance runners just trying to knock out a dozen or so fast 400s. We would gladly have paid for the privilege, we told ourselves, but there was no way to pay dues. So we just kept sneaking in when we could.
It hasn’t been only indoor tracks. Almost anywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve always had to trespass on someone else’s track when the urge for intervals struck. For example, I’ve been to Atlanta twice in my life. On one of those trips I managed to get kicked off the track at Georgia Tech. (In retrospect this was not surprising, as I attempted to start a workout of repeat 800s at the same time that the football team was practicing. Whether the Georgia Tech coach thought I was a distraction, or possibly a spy scouting for a rival university, he wasted no time in bringing my attempted interval workout to a premature end.)
Three years ago, when I traveled with Tyler to Japan, he and I managed to sneak into the stadium where his Marathon would start and finish a few days later. We were fortunate that a local track club was there already, and Tyler was able to blend in (more or less) and manage a quiet set of 200s without alarming any of the polite but extremely rule-conscious officials who seem to be everywhere. While Tyler was running, I was practicing my excuses in Japanese, but fortunately for all concerned, I had no need to use them.
So why does a normally law-abiding person like me stoop to a life of crime when it comes to finding places to run? I think it’s because I look at tracks as public goods, as necessary to healthy society as open spaces and other natural resources. I believe, therefore, that no one — certainly no small-minded local institution — has the right to bar entry to a runner in search of a workout.
(I hear the objection that in these days of social distancing, there is a social good in keeping tracks closed for health reasons. We wouldn’t be well served by allowing runners to take to the tracks in thick crowds. But in my experience tracks are rarely crowded with runners in training; far more frequently tracks are overrun (pun intended) by walkers, or made uninhabitable by soccer teams practicing on the infield. In my own defense, almost every time I’ve trespassed, it has been on a near empty track.)
But all these reflections will have to wait. I am here, at liberty for the moment, and I still have a workout to do. Time, as they say, is of the essence.
I complete my strides with no interruption from the local constabulary. It’s a little cooler than when I arrived a half hour ago, but that suits me fine. I’m fully warmed up and comfortable, my body and brain alert. I’m in my element now, alone with six beautiful and empty lanes.
I start my watch and attack the first turn. It’s probably a bit too fast but I can’t help it; I’ll have to correct for this pace soon, but not just yet. It’s funny; even now I wonder if I’ll be allowed to finish, or whether someone will show up suddenly and start yelling at me to clear off. Instead of discouraging me, this idea encourages me to savor each quick step.
Is it possible, I wonder, before the effort forces me to focus entirely on the workout, that the reason I take such pleasure in what is about to be a hard twenty minutes of running, is the adolescent thrill of stealing these moments?