So here we are at the end of another August.
Hints and warnings that it’s time to give up the long habit of summer are everywhere. A week ago I stopped on my way home from work to run on the Battle Road trail, and for the first time this summer, I began worrying that I might not be finished by sunset, and that park rangers would come to lock the gates protecting the Visitor’s Center parking lot, and I would be stuck there all night.
The waning afternoon light and waking up in the dark are not the only signs that summer is on the way out. Here and there, yellow leaves are appearing amidst washed-out green foliage. Farm stands have pumpkins. There are fewer bushels of sweet corn. There are more spiders and they are busier than ever. I never noticed this before, but late August seems to be an especially urgent time for spiders, who, like all of us are putting in extra hours to prepare for the fall and lean times ahead. Every morning now when I leave my house, I walk through some poor spider’s masterpiece stretching across our front walk, or between the house and the car, an overnight tour de force that was supposed to provide bountiful snacking for the next two months. Truly, I take no pleasure in wrecking these efforts, thinking how easily all of our best work can be swept away so casually to drift off into a vaguely sticky nothingness.
Futility is on MY mind, too, as I face the usual end of summer reckoning and compare my meager accomplishments to the goals I set for myself when summer stretched out in front of me as far as the eye could see. One of those goals was to run as much as possible. Three months later, my running log reveals in great detail how that ambition was frustrated by this or that issue, by work, by unexpected events — some serious, some trivial — that distracted me from the important business of training and maintaining. Such is life, I guess, especially when you don’t feel the same energy to plow through. At the same time, summer was anything but gloomy. I actually did manage to run a lot, and I managed to derive pleasure from small victories here and there — discoveries of new trails, social runs with new friends, to name a few. but I didn’t race at all, which makes me a little sad. It was a summer for adjusting (perhaps too readily) to lower expectations: I ran fewer miles, and ran them much more slowly. But in spite of that, I managed to keep moving. In that sense, it was a good summer.
I thought a lot about coaching this summer, and had some realizations that feel important to how I’ll approach the fall. In a few days, I’ll be back at cross country practice, and I’ll be plunged into the day-to-day business of supervising fifty or so teenagers. I’m excited to introduce them to new routes, and have been running and re-running those routes for the last couple of weeks to make sure I’ve mapped and measured them properly. Although I enjoy being lost in the woods and am more than willing to explore an unfamiliar trail, the administration at Concord Academy strongly encourages me to have the same number of students at the end of practice as I had at the beginning. To that end, I try not to make our runs too confusing, and spend a lot of time thinking about how to keep groups together.
About a week ago, I was vetting a particular route that I’ll be using next week. The route included trails in the area known as Wright Woods, located West and across the train tracks from Walden Pond. Twenty years ago, before the Battle Road trail was finished, we used to make these trails part of our Sunday long runs. The specific routes varied, but there was a standard loop that included a narrow trail along the bluffs overlooking the Sudbury River where it opened up into what is called Fairhaven Bay. For various reasons, I haven’t visited those trails in many years, and I’ve never had the cross country team run the Fairhaven Bay loop. It would be too easy to get lost, and the footing is not the best for some sections. But last week, while exploring a new side trail, I suddenly found that it was taking me to that once familiar path along the river.
Running there again for the first time in many years, I remembered how much I used to enjoy it. I felt nostalgic for those Sunday mornings when we would make a great circuit of Walden Pond, Fairhaven Bay, Adams Woods, Mt. Misery, Lincoln Conservation Lands, Sandy Pond, and Pine Hill, ending at Walden for a swim. We grew strong on those Sunday morning trail runs.
It was a little different to be running there last week, late on a Wednesday afternoon. Instead of the sun filtering down through the canopy of trees above, the low sun seemed to reflect up off the river, slanting in under the branches on the banks above. The effect was beautiful but fleeting, hinting that it was late in the day, and only a matter of time before it would all fade into dusk. And instead of feeling like I could run those trails effortlessly, I lurched along the trail with tentative steps, eyes cast down, scanning for roots and rocks that would bring me to grief if I didn’t take care. It sure hadn’t felt that way years ago when we loped through the woods like deer. We were all more nimble then, our steps swift and sure, and we were at home on the trails. But now the thought of tripping or turning an ankle made me feel clumsy and a little bit out-of-place.
I did eventually emerge from the woods upright and uninjured and I made it back to my car before the sun dropped below the horizon. It had been a good run and a good way to bid farewell to summer, feeling grateful not only for the few miles that day but for the memory of other runs through those lesser-traveled woods. at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder about how long I’d be able to enjoy and benefit from running those more rugged trails. I guess it’s natural to become more cautious with age, but because it had been quite a while since I had run that particular loop, the contrast between my older and younger selves on the trail was that much more striking.
At the end of August, time seems to move faster. If summer is a habit, these are the days when we do the hard work of letting it go.
I was at school yesterday, attending a meeting for Fall coaches, and someone asked me if I was ready. I suppose he meant ready for the start of school, for the start of the season, for the first practice, or for the challenges to come. Of course he might have meant ready to say good-bye to the past few months, to long summer evenings, to ambitious plans to run a thousand miles.
Sure, I’m ready — I’m ready to be surprised by familiar trails in an unfamiliar light, by one or two surprises from my team when I meet them next week. But I guess I’m not quite ready to accept that the trails are off-limits to me just yet. I know it’s only a matter of time before the lateness of the season or some calamity restricts me to running on safer routes. For the time being, though, I’ll keep taking my chances, at least as long as the light holds out.