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Shine on, You Crazy Diamonds

06/28/2010

My colleague, David Montgomery, wrote a terrific piece for the Post last year about his experience running Tom’s Run Relay . He enjoyed it enough to run it this year as well.  Tom’s is unique in that it is a run and not a race, a 200-mile team-building experience put on by the Coast Guard that sounds grueling, but is in fact, tremendously fun. Check out David’s account.

This year, I had the honor of being invited to join the team of the director, Roger Butturini.

Being a loner when it comes to running, I wasn’t sure if this experience was for me, but David reassured me Tom’s Run was a terrific experience, and in the end, I was most glad I agreed to participate. As it turned out, meeting these wonderful people and running Tom’s was to date, perhaps the most fun ever I have had running, and in some way, a profoundly life-changing experience for me that I am still trying to figure out completely. Here are some ramblings on–and a few details of–my own experience with Tom’s.

The run has been over (officially) for weeks now. But not for my feeble brain. It just keeps on running, poor thing.  I would have posted about it much earlier, but alas, it seems my brain–at least when it comes to writing (and calculus) travels at a snail’s long-distance runner’s pace. My only hope is that the comparison carries over completely–which means in writing about Tom’s, it will perhaps finally arrive at some further destination. Or, in absence of that,  that hopefully others will contribute, and maybe  Zeno’s Paradoxes and some other goodies will be involved and we will find our belief in plurality to be false, and that we are all one; we will prove space-time illusory; that there is no destination, only the journey, and finally that we will all have indeed already arrived at our destination before our running/writing/thinking/calculating has even begun (and then we can neatly solve it all with calculus). But that’s a lot to put on the experience of one run.

M’kay,  so maybe it’s not just Tom’s. I have certainly mentioned before that like any long-distance runner, more than once, I have run to that point where, thoughts racing, I experience that particular time-space distortion, where boundaries fall away,  and I find myself once again staring face to face into the gaping maw of eternity. No doubt, there is something weird going on with long-distance running in general, something extra-sensory about it that upon your first experience will knock your socks off, where your usual perceptions will break down–really;  something Philip K. Dick could have written about maybe (and I must say, during that first leg of Tom’s, running through the foggy, bullfrog croak-echoed, blossom-scented, bouncing headlamp, half-moon-lit night into the dawn, his name and Bradbury’s came up more than once. Indeed, we all told each other our favorite works). But lemme just say, long-distance running experience noted,  if you are going to pin all of that aforementioned inspiration to deduce and calculate metaphysical mumbo jumbo on an experience of any one run, let it be Tom’s.

Yeah, the ol’ subconscious has been stewing and brewing on this one, taking its good old time. And whether or not it will arrive at any conclusions,  it does seem, at least, that it has been up to something.  Really, I have known consciously that there was something unique about this running experience that I could not quite wrap my brain around–something that made it truly special, and I hadn’t been able to put that into words just yet. But enough time has passed for me to at least give it a shot.

As you can see I am not quite there yet. But I am hoping writing (and perhaps your insights as readers) will finally get us there. However, this may be a big one involving much time and thought: this may be the edge of that vast ocean of “why” run, “why” anything; so watch out! I take no responsibilities for where your thoughts might take you.    ; )

As I have mentioned many times, when it comes to running, I am a loner. Be it long weekly runs on city streets or on the trails, quick daily runs on the hamster wheel, or races,  I mostly run alone, and I like this. It is time well-spent with my thoughts. I prepare to write, I work on music, I do math, I plan, I dream. It is quality time.  The exception to this alone time is an occasional run with my husband, or during ultras–the slower pace and long distance make conversations and camaraderie with fellow runners possible, perhaps inevitable.  And Tom’s took it step further– I was part of a team. It being my first experience of a relay, I was afterward indeed enthusiastic to write about it immediately –especially the colorful cast of characters involved, and to approach it McDougall-style even,  to take creative license to the point of practically spinning yarns about our fetes, and granting each member of my team the legendary status he and she deserves. But at the end of the day, it is just a race, or not even, but a run, rather, (yes, I am comma happy without apology) and we are all just regular people, after all.  Aren’t we?

I mean, aren’t we?  (let us revisit this question)

Let me first say, again without apology, that I have never been so high from a run. Afterward, I was floating for days. Certainly my first post-race impressions were influenced by this (un?)natural, chemically-enhanced mental state. I mean, I know for a fact that my brain was indeed pickled from running and lack of sleep, so I had to give it time before I could reflect clearly, and for my thoughts to be no longer  “under the influence,” if you will. But of course, this inevitably lead to the thought, if one follows the philosophy that long-distance running is a natural state for us humans, that perhaps the state of mind it produced, as well being natural–maybe more natural, maybe more open and even enhanced in some manner, brings us perhaps to a deeper sense of truth. So maybe writing in such a state makes more sense–well, at least as far as accuracy of the description of the experience is concerned.

And of course, then I had the thought that after I “came down” (again, if you will), that I would reach a sense of greater mental clarity, and have a better sense of what was special or perhaps not so special about this run, indeed I even expected the sinking realization that there was nothing particularly special about it–that it was simply my endorphin-bathed brain painting a rosier picture of the cast of characters and the events that transpired. And strangely, this took me back to McDougall’s book.

Perhaps the dramatic literary style of ” Born to Run” is not simply for impact. Maybe McDougall had also been writing from that same place, that post-race endorphin rush and imaginative delirium that would be the natural result of any raw physical experience of long-distance running in a breath-taking natural setting with a tight-knit band of colorful characters, an experience I have found to be not unlike Star Wars (the original) on acid. How does one write about that sort of experience less dramatically? For anyone who has lived it or something of the like–even a tiny taste as what I have had–it IS a dramatic experience. It boarders mythic. I can’t even begin to touch it with mere words. Though sadly, I must try. Ramble on, I will.

I can break it down into a few simplicities.

For one, the run was mostly on my beloved C&O Canal tow path. The route begins in Cumberland, MD (for most teams that’s at about 2 am on dark, foggy Friday morning after a sleepless night), and continues on the tow path to Fletcher’s Boat House, then follows the Capital Crescent trail up to Bethesda where it winds through Rock Creek Park and ends at the Naval Hospital in a nice, neat 200 miles–hopefully at 11 am on Saturday. For us, it was 11:30am. Not bad considering we were down a few people before we even started.

I have spent a lot of time on this tow path. I have run races on it,  some long ones, and I have cut my “running teeth” on it through every season and weather condition, speed and distance.  In fact, it is partially responsible for my long-distance running. I have learned its topography, its flora and fauna, its feels and smells and idiosyncrasies. It is my playground and my training ground, my testing ground and my home in ways that I can call no other place home. It is by far, my favorite place to run, and I am always overjoyed at the opportunity to experience it in some new way. For that, Tom’s was perfect. I could run with others on it, experience it through their feet.

So there’s the other thing. These new people: all strangers before this experience. Now I call them family. Let’s get back to that earlier question about our runners: we’re just regular people after all, right? Sure. But the experience of them, of each other, is unique.  The experience of running alone will bring people closer. It has a way of opening people up. Add that to a situation where the comfort of sleep is taken away, and force us to trust and rely on one and other, and you begin to learn what the word team really means.

As it turns out, after I gave it some time for some settling, clarifying thought and introspection, the “special” feeling did not fade. The weirdness I couldn’t wrap my brain around did not dissipate.  If endorphins did indeed paint a rosier view for me, something about that proved itself and stayed with me, and I’ve simply had to come to accept it as a true picture of how things were.  So let me cut to the chase: I do believe the experience enhanced my own perceptions of it, rather than distorting them.

I remembered how at some points we stood in the darkness, waiting, worrying, tensed for our chance to spring into movement, watching for our teammates, reduced to bouncing blue LEDS, to come jouncing along the path toward us, growing larger from that point of total darkness until they became recognizable. For me, it became a game of how well could I recognize the gate of my teammates, who mere hours before, had been strangers.  It was hard to escape the surreality. Staring into darkness watching for tiny lights after sleep deprivation can produce some strange sensations, and at one point I was struck by the sheer beauty of how all of us at this point had been reduced to nothing but bouncing, shining, tiny blue lights.

There is something about an experience such as this that takes a group of friends and strangers, pulls them far outside their comfort zones and plunks them down in an austere and beautiful setting, that strips away all that is bunk and reveals life for what it truly is; shows humans as who and what we really are. And, baby, we are magnificent when seen in this light.

So that’s it, I guess. It gave us all a chance to really shine- and relax and have fun while we were doing it.

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