It has been a few weeks since all the snow melted from Battle Road, the five-mile long stretch of National Park that runs from Fiske Hill in Lexington to Merriam’s Corner in Concord. Although it will likely be another couple of weeks before the trees release their leaves to form a canopy over the wide, well-graded gravel trail, Battle Road is eminently runnable now, and that’s a welcome development.
On many days this winter, I found myself driving along Route 2A on my way in to Concord and passing the entrance to the National Park Visitor’s Center. In spite of the barren landscape and high snow banks along the highway — or maybe because of them — it was impossible not to dream of warmer days when all that snow would be gone and the gang would resume Sunday long runs from the Visitor’s Center to Great Meadows and back.
But February seemed to drag on forever, and March this year was ten degrees colder than normal. Day by day I would look for signs that the snow was melting off the trail, but progress was painfully slow. And then, when the weather finally did turn warm, a slew of April commitments — weekend track meets, races, marathon weekend activities, and other things — kept me from joining my buddies for that long-awaited return to the Sunday trails.
So by the time I finally made last weekend, it felt more like mid-season than opening day. Certainly Kevin and Terry were in mid-season form, choosing routes of 16 and 20 miles, respectively, grateful but no longer astonished to feel dirt beneath their feet. The nice weather had also brought out the usual assortment of families with kids on their tiny bikes, hikers with and without those strange poles they carry these days, and, of course, lots of runners. One of the appealing things about Battle Road is that it has become a common resource for runners in the metro Boston area. On any given Sunday, you’re likely to see collegiate teams pushing the pace of their so-called recovery runs, clubs like ours gathering for more mellow miles, and even locally-based professional runners looking for a few miles away from the career-shortening asphalt of the city. It can be a little startling to cross paths with Olympians and NCAA champions, but it does produce a pleasant communal feeling.
As I shared the early miles with my friends, I thought about how — somewhere along the way — I had begun to think of Sunday long runs at Battle Road not as a means to an end, i.e., training, but as an end in themselves. I used to run long on Sundays because I learned that’s how one was supposed to train. I wanted the benefits, and so I pencilled in that big effort on the weekend. But now, I don’t really know what I’m training for. If anything, I’m training the rest of the week so I’m fit enough to join in for the Sunday long runs. I don’t want to run marathons; I want to run with marathoners.
Many years ago, a group of us would head to the trails of Lincoln for our off-road mileage, sometimes ending the run with a swim at Walden pond. But those trails were narrow, with roots and rocks, and all the other delightful, ankle-turning variety of real woods. It was charming but challenging. It was also harder to run with a group, and conversation was a little risky since losing your concentration of the uneven ground could lead to a tumble. So we gradually moved to Battle Road. It was more convenient and the parking at the Visitors Center was free. Also, it was easy to accommodate virtually any distance and diverse groups. I’m sure the people who flock to Walden are delighted that our wild pack of runners has found a new venue and will no longer be sneaking up behind them along the trails leading to Thoreau’s cabin.
I suppose that Battle Road is tamer than Walden, and that real trail runners would scoff at calling it a trail at all. I’m OK with that. The trail, such as it is, has become very familiar and comfortable, and so it is generally a good a barometer for how things are going in my running life and my life in general. On Sunday, I managed to run 10 miles, the most since sustaining a slight hamstring injury several weeks ago. So that was encouraging. Sadly, I’ll miss this Sunday, but then if all goes well, the week after that, I’ll be doing the standard 12-mile loop. And if all goes well after THAT, I’ll extend the runs some more until I’m able to do whatever the group is doing. I have little ambition other than to show up every week and run a little more than the week before.
It’s a little strange to think about how this ritual is such a cornerstone of my life, and how much I look forward to it. But I also know that in the course of these weekly runs, I’m storing up the kind of psychological reserves that will, some day far in the future, enable me to make it through another winter. I look at the photo that I chose for this blog and I don’t see an empty road. I see time itself stretching out in front of me. And while I know that MY time and that road are both finite, I don’t feel at all morbid. Instead, I feel fortunate, as though I’ve just received an invitation to an event that I know I’ll really enjoy.
I find myself hoping that all the other runners to flock to Battle Road, including that group of professionals who went flying past me a few minutes ago, feel the same way.