A week and a half ago I ran alone in the late afternoon, nine miles along the Reformatory Branch trail from Concord Center to Bedford Depot and back.
A couple of days later I ran with the team, covering about the same distance while mostly following the Battle Road Trail from Lexington through Lincoln and finally back to Concord.
Two runs through yellow woods, superficially the same, but in two different worlds.
My solo run was an anomaly, a Sunday afternoon run that felt like it should have been on Sunday morning. But most of my regular running buddies were racing that day, and even if they hadn’t been, I’m not sure I could have gotten up and out of the house in time to join them. Instead, I took it easy, ate pancakes with my family, tried to catch up on a few things, and let the morning slip away. By early afternoon, the pancakes and the perfect fall weather had worked their magic and I was feeling much more optimistic about life and running, and so I decided I would head to the trails after all, intending to run slowly for as long as seemed reasonable.
The group run had been planned for weeks. The entire team took a bus to Lexington Center for our annual “migration run” back to Concord. The tradition started several years ago as a way to provide the challenge of a longer run for everyone. While the distance is not the far for the experienced runners on the team, for others it is the longest run they have ever done, and it is a huge, huge accomplishment that is often more meaningful than the times they run for 5K. Of course, over that distance the group spreads out quite a bit, with some runners taking 20-30 minutes longer to complete the run. This year I ran with the slower runners.
On my Sunday run, I had started from school, and felt pretty good as I eased into the pace over the first mile or so. The air was crisp, and my legs had life in them. Thus encouraged, I decided that a run to Bedford — 4.5 miles each way — sounded about right. But almost as soon as I made that decision, my legs began to feel heavy and my stride more labored. These were familiar signs, and characteristic of my problem these days, which seems to be a delayed response to the onset of exercise. For whatever reason, my body doesn’t seem to get the message that I’m engaged in vigorous running and is miserly in allocating resources to my working muscles. I’ve learned to live with this, though, and knew that by slowing down or stopping, I’d be fine. So I slowed down, and after a couple of miles stopped for a couple of minutes where the trail intersected Route 62. Although I had been running no faster than eight-minute miles, my heart was pounding and my quads felt heavy. I ignored these feelings and possessed myself in patience. After two-three minutes, I began to run again, and was pleased to observe that my body was more responsive.
On the migration run, I had started out slow, “sweeping” for the group. We were probably running about 11-minute miles, as we climbed the big hill out of Lexington Center. I made conversation with the kids, and made sure no one was having early problems. After a mile or so, one of the kids started asking about bathrooms. I knew the Battle Road Visitor’s Center was open, so when we reached that part of the trail, we made a detour, and I directed him to the restrooms there. And then I waited. The minutes went by. Of course by this time, all of the other runners had long since disappeared down the trail, and as I stood in the chilly air, I considered how long it might take us to overtake the back of the pack. I glanced at my watch. Five minutes, six, seven… I wondered whether I should be worried, but then finally my kid emerged, and we were on our way again. Muscles that had warmed up were now cold again, and I felt stiff as we picked up the pace. In fact, I was having a hard time keeping up and I realized that my companion was actually running pretty fast. It took us only a mile and a half to catch-up with the others, at which point my companion passed them and continued on, while I attached myself to the back of the group and resumed my sweeper duties.
on Sunday, after pausing to let my heartbeat settle and my cardiovascular system catch up with my intentions to run a halfway decent pace, I started up again and almost immediately felt like energy was flooding back into my body. The eight-minute miles that had been a struggle now came easily, and I knew that I was picking up the pace. The Reformatory Branch Trail is very flat, and there’s nothing to stop you running fast if you care to. I felt like I was making good time, as I passed a family with kids on bicycles, and saw a runner or two coming from the other direction. A mile earlier, I had wondered whether nine miles was doable, but now I even entertained thoughts of going further, before deciding to stick with the original plan. I reached the depot in about 38 minutes, paused briefly, and then turned around to run back.
Four miles into the migration run, I was no longer running with a particular person or group, but had instead settled into a routine of running ahead to overtake one group, and then waiting for the last runners to catch up. In this way, I kept them all more or less in sight, more or less like a sheep dog. “No Runners left behind” had been our motto this year, and I was trying to live up to that sentiment on this long run. Also experience had taught me that a high school freshman, running along a gentle and unchallenging trail with no turns, is more than capable of getting lost. Indeed, once you take your eye off him, it is a certainty he will go astray. So I was playing it safe. But even though at first it had been liberating to run a little faster, all the speeding up and stopping was wearying. I calculated that the run would take at least ninety minutes, even though I would probably cover about the same distance that I had run two days earlier.
On that earlier run, I had run my fastest (and easiest) over the last two miles, well under 7:30 pace. But it wasn’t really about running fast, it was about running without any expectation that I had to run fast or slow, or any particular pace — it was about not worrying whether I could keep up or was leaving someone else behind. Runners know — even if they can’t ever explain it adequately to non-runners — that these are the moments that justify all the rest, these moments of effortless effort, of mental repose in the midst of quite demanding physical activity. Take all the other things away — the training, the racing, the camaraderie, the health benefits, the self-satisfaction — and you’d still have these moments of clarity and freedom to keep you going.
It’s not the same when you’re running with the kids. It’s not bad, just different. Sometimes it’s so different that it doesn’t feel like running at all.
Over the summer I worked at a running camp where one of my responsibilities was to lead/run with a group of high-schoolers that mostly ran at 10-minute mile pace. At first, it was nice, but after a few days all of the group leaders started feeling a little antsy, and would start sneaking off for solo runs at their usual pace.
As I ambled slowly toward Concord, keeping my eye on the young stragglers making their way through the light traffic to finish the longest run of their lives so far, it struck me that there was a symbiotic relationship between my “normal” running and this other running in which I chaperoned others at their pace, not mine. The normal running keeps me fit enough to chaperone. The chaperoning has its own satisfactions, and perhaps even gives me a reason to stay fit.
I won’t pretend there’s no conflict, or that there aren’t Tuesdays when I long for the clarity and satisfaction of Sunday. But for better or worse, they’re both part of my running life now, and I don’t really want to give up either one.