“I don’t exactly wish to make the claim that running made me a grown up, but I know its arrival in my life coincided to some degree with my reaching that state of being. I started running rather late, right after I turned 31, and I only became a grown-up in my early thirties as well. Became a grown-up, that is, as in coming off of automatic pilot to make conscious decisions and choices about my life, as opposed to drifting into grad school and early teaching and even a marriage in my twenties because those were the things one did.”
– Tom Hart, in “The Art of Losing”
How is it possible that I did not know Tom Hart?
He was in my running club, ran races at Fresh Pond in Cambridge, ran and walked at Great Meadows, taught English and coached cross country at Concord-Carlisle high school in the same town where I now coach. He loved Thoreau and Walden and books. How could I have not known this man, since in so many ways we shared similar interests and traveled down the same paths?
Tom Hart passed away in 2012, and so I never had the chance to know him personally. But he did leave behind his writing, and I recently picked up a book of his essays collected under the title “First You Run, Then You Walk,” which was published posthumously in 2014. The essays, written over a span of thirty years or so, offer a series of pedestrian thoughts, as the author calls them, on subjects such as attempting to break 5:00 for a mile, completing a 37-mile run on his 37th birthday, learning to love cross country by coaching the girl’s team at Concord-Carlisle, competing for age group wins when he turned 60, completing a 26.2 mile walk when he was no longer able to run, and his penchant for creating small rock piles on his walks around Great Meadows.
Some writers have a talent for simplicity, that is the ability to write simply about simple things, but in such a way that the commonplace takes on aspects of the sacred, and pedestrian thoughts catch the breeze and are borne aloft to unfamiliar realizations. As inspiration, Hart invokes his favorite essayists (and pedestrians) — Montaigne, Thoreau, Annie Dillard — and sets out to follow them by writing simply and honestly about the experience of traveling by foot through his favorite and familiar natural and urban landscapes.
But there is this other thing about the book, and that is that from the very first paragraph of the prologue we learn that the author is getting used to life as a non-runner, that state having come about involuntary when lung cancer led to the removal of one lung. It is remarkable that this, too, is treated as a simple thing, not especially noteworthy in and of itself but, of course, consequential in so many ways, not least in his ability to sustain the effort required for running or an other vigorous exercise.
And so he learns to walk. I don’t mean he learns to move his legs in a walking motion; he learns to choose to walk, to appreciate how walking allows him to attend to the world around him in a different way.
I don’t think that Hart had any intention of writing “a cancer book,” and he has little interest in, or time for, demonstrating what people often call courage, but is a kind of defiance. Before the cancer, he was justifiably proud of his running achievements, but at the same time, considered himself a perfectly ordinary runner. After the cancer had taken his lung, he wrote of how much he missed the running, but he also wrote of the unexpected pleasures of walking, and of finding ways to move on, to continue to grapple with issues of physical time and distance.
And this I feel is the great gift of the book, that its courage is the courage of the ordinary, always within reach, but always demanding an attentiveness and openness to new circumstances. It strikes me as a very generous way of traveling through life, and Hart’s writing is illuminated by this generosity, always inviting the reader to come along for the journey.
In the final essay of the book, Hart writes of a morning walk around Great Meadows through calf-deep snow, when there was no walking or running but only what he calls clambering:
“Today it doesn’t matter if I see myself as a runner or as a walker, because today there is no question that one can only clamber, which is neither running nor walking, but instead a rather effortful and unbalanced lurching sort of progress along hardly marked ways. Life, exactly! I clamber on, step by wobbly step. I pause a welcome pause and extend my arms in symbolic embrace to the woods spreading out around me. I know now that it is exactly and always clambering that is what I do, who I am. What better way have I really to describe my progress today, or my progress anywhere along my meandering life of choices good, bad, and indifferent? I claim clambering, and may I not offer it to you as well?”