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A Sense of Place–that can only be gotten from a race.

10/14/2010

As an ultra marathoner who was looking for a good training race, the Freedom’s Run marathon proved tops. With its varied terrain, plethora of hills, and inclusion of portions of the C&O Canal tow path, it was perfect for this.

Plus it happened to be all around my old stomping grounds: Harper’s Ferry, Shepherdstown, Antietam, and the C&O Canal tow path.
I lived in Shepherdstown and just outside for 10 years, and in that time I have put many miles on the tow path: be it training, racing, or even long, healing runs.
So each portion of the course held a lot of memories and special meaning for me.
I once blogged of the tow path:
“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.”
The FR experience was this for me: a fresh perspective on some good, old familiar territory, just as I had hoped and expected. What I did not expect was to come away from it with such a new perspective on my own running and my relationship to my environment, and such a deep appreciation for fellow runners and friends.

A marathon, though it is a race and so requiring constant concentration, struggle  and push, still has those basic elements of a long run. So the neck and neck, just-for-fun-and-camaraderie, friendly competitive sparring that makes up most shorter races is interspersed with slower, more contemplative moments in which one can enjoy the weather, the solitude, and the rhythm of deep meditation that is long distance running.
At some points, as I often do on a long run, I imagined I could feel my brain burning new connections as I ran: the present and the past coming together in unique new ways. Memories of tow path runs in every season, weather condition and state of mind surfaced with every step. And yet I felt fully present–enjoying the race itself as a new challenge, a new experience of time and place. I was reminded of how despite similarities, every experience, every moment is unique; indeed, how we ourselves, are ever-changing.

The Antietam portion proved to be an even more meaningful experience than that of my beloved tow path. Running long puts us in a state of mind where we are often more perceptive and receptive; more thoughtful. I had spent much time knocking around these battlefields, but had never experienced them in the state of mind brought on by the long run.  Not sure why, but as long as I had run in this area, for as many hills and mountains I have tackled, I had never really tested my strength and endurance on those Antietam hills. It was quite a challenge for me–physically and emotionally.
As I struggled up some of them, I couldn’t help but imagine what a hellish experience they might have been for the Civil War soldiers fighting and dying here. And here I was struggling so–on a happy occasion, in perfect weather, in a fresh, well fed and hydrated state, in sound shoes and mind. My heart went out to them. At that point, in a way I had never experienced before, these strangers that but a few generations before had given their lives here, all became my heroes, and gave me a strength I didn’t know I possessed. So I tried somehow to give it back to them, to push up those hills in their honor.

The topography here has been well-preserved. Indeed, at one point I remembered having seen slides of photos taken after that bloodbath, the rows of bodies that once lined these very sections of road. It was sobering, but strength-inspiring, and a subtle reminder that despite the passage of time and changes in our surroundings, we are never far from our history, nor are we ever entirely separate from our environment: there is an impression we leave, a part of ourselves the we contribute every time we visit a place, and a part of that place that remains with us when we leave.

It was palpable now.

I was truly grateful then to be having such a positive, healthy experience of this chronotopal place.  Interspersed with these graver notions, was a sense of celebration, of fun, and a deep sense of hope for humanity-that we can overcome these dark moments in history in turning this hallowed ground where so many fought and died into a shared space for quiet contemplation, education, and now even into a race space:  a personal testing ground, an opportunity to come together and work hard, to help each other press on, to dig deep and find our inner strengths, to remind ourselves again of what we are truly made of, of our own humanity.

The runners around me brought on a good spirit of competition, but at the same time seemed to all be helping spur each other on. The feeling was strongly one of camaraderie.  We strangers would all pass, fall back, pace together, fall back and pass again in true marathon form. But after a while we fell into a rhythm, adapting to each others’ paces and ran together wolf-pack like. And every once in a while I would see the welcome familiar faces of fellow running club members  also running that day.

Afterward, it was much fun to share time, beer and race stories with friends and fellow racers. In a town where I had grown and changed so much, the finish could truly have been designed with me in mind.  From Antietam and Sharpsburg, we ran into Shepherdtown, which in itself felt like a homecoming for me. We ran over the Rumsey bridge–which years ago I had watched being built, that I had run over so many times en route to the tow path or back home.  We passed the spot where I had wandered around hiking and healing after my very first marathon, over the trees I had run under after my mother’s death, passing within view of the tiny park where my husband and I exchanged marriage vows some 10 years ago.

Everyone and everything accelerated and seemed to converge then in a sense of urgency: the wolf pack of runners I had run the race along side, my fellow club members, my friends, my husband. All running or cheering the runners, pushing me to dash up the last hill, and round the corner to the finish.

In some ways, ending a marathon feels a little like what I would imagine it to be like to die. It is the final cap of a mighty long,  fine celebration, full of hardships and trials, reprieves and elation, and you watch yourself from some greater vantage point, giving it your all, your last final push, your last blast of breath.

One last crowd scream-fed fly down one hilly hair-pin turn into the stadium, awareness shifting to feet adapting to the switch from pavement to turf, the sight of the numbers,  the sound of my heart pounding through music, a medaling, a few high fives, and a futile attempt to remove the sweat from my stinging eyes; and the experience, the day, was now another part of history.

For me, one who had been seeking a mere training race, the experience proved to be truly priceless.

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