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To this point I have been reluctant to say much about my running “career” in this space.  This is partly because so many real runners have written so much on the subject, so well.  Novelists, philosophers, ultra-marathoners, medical doctors, biologists – there is a vast and beautiful canon of literature, fiction and non-fiction alike, covering seemingly everything.  (A few of my favorites:  Murukami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running“, Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run“, and a very interesting book by Bernd Heinrich called “Why We Run: A Natural History” – a mix of evolutionary biology and a tale of distance running greatness that predates Scott Jurek’s adventures in the Copper Canyons by a couple of decades.)

And partly because I am such an incredibly average runner that I have little to say with regards to the act itself.  I can summarize my lifetime of running as follows:  I’m forty years old, and, at six foot two and 195 pounds, have a body that was built more for sacking small villages in northern England than racing from Marathon to Athens.  I’ve been running with varying degrees of consistency since I was six, and the main difference between now and then is that everything hurts a lot more.

I should say, though, that along the way I have had the opportunity of training with a few genuinely gifted athletes.  Most of them are among the most beautiful people I have ever met:  humble to the core, individuals who truly appreciated the gifts they were given, did it all for the right reasons, and got everything their bodies had to offer.  I once ran a couple of relay races with a man who finished 5th at the Boston marathon, which was an amazing privilege.

And others, sadly less so; you can be fast and still be a jerk.  But this is true of anything.  I know of no activity which, simply by virtue of excelling at it, guarantees one’s essential humanity.

So why write this now?  Because I think just maybe my relationship with running is undergoing a long-overdue evolution, moving to what I hope is a healthier place.  I feel like I need this to remind myself later by, lest I get caught up in bad habits again.  See, the thing is, I used to hate running, but I did it anyway, mostly to burn calories so I could eat like a fool and stay somewhat thin.  Now I love it, and seriously don’t know how I could live without it.  The problem, though, is that love has often been unrequited – and nowhere more than in my marathoning efforts.

I’ve trained for four marathons in my life.  Three I actually started, two I finished, and one I ran well – the 2010 Seattle marathon, where I ran the race of my life (again, that isn’t saying much.  I ran a very humble three hours twenty-seven minutes, or 7:56 a mile.  Not great, but at least I would’ve beat Paul Ryan.  And seriously – who lies about their running times?  That’s as low as it gets.)

Paul Ryan

Dude – you just suck.

Anyway, it’s the race that I didn’t even start that I’ve been thinking about the most lately.  This was the summer of 2011, and I had made up my mind to build on the success of that Seattle marathon, and see if I could run even faster.  Instead, I wound up over-training, trying to ramp too much too fast, and getting seriously hurt.  I trained for 18 weeks, right up to the end.  The last weekend the schedule called for 10 miles on Saturday, and 20 more on Sunday.  My left shin was bad – I mean, I knew I was in trouble – but I did the Saturday run anyway, with the help of a couple of Advil (“vitamin I”, as my friends like to call it).  When I woke up Sunday morning I could hardly walk, but I was so worried that if I didn’t get that last twenty miler in I’d bonk on race day (two weeks away) that I took six more Advil, wrapped my leg, spent the next two hours and forty minutes limping through the run, drove home, and discovered I couldn’t walk up the stairs to my house.

In fact I didn’t walk right for six weeks – and for the first few, I could hardly put weight on the leg at all.  I’m pretty sure it was a stress fracture, though I never had X-rays done.

Acupuncture

Electrostim on the shins. Good times!

In any case, it was obvious something had to change.  At first I thought that something was just – hey, no more marathons.  And that very well may be true.  But really what needed to change was my relationship with the sport.  I had to find a better approach, to acknowledge that I couldn’t just force it, grit my teeth and power through, at least not anymore.

So in June of this year I officially began Not Training for a Marathon.  I have circled no race dates on the calendar.  I am following no plan of pre-ordained mileage escalation and structured workouts.  I have just two rules this time around:  no more than four days a week, because I know my body must rest, and run what I feel.  My only real goal is to get to a sustainable place, whatever that might be.  If I can get enough mileage consistently, in a healthy way, that I feel I can ramp up for a marathon, great.  If not, so be it; half marathons are fun too.

I’d love to tell you that this is all going swimmingly, that I’ve matured at last.  That I’m running for the sheer joy of it, and not the stopwatch.  That every time something hurts, I make a change, or stop and rest, or do whatever I need to do to take care of this body, of which I’ve asked so much, for so long.

That, of course, would be a lie.  In fact I have fairly bad tendonitis in my left Achilles, and have been pushing through it anyway – some of the time.  But in general I think I’m doing a better job.  And one of the joys of never having been fast is that I have no particular past glories against which to compare myself.  Who knows?  Maybe I can still run another race of my life.  Whether or not my body lets me, we’ll see – but in the meantime, I’ll be out there, four days a week, rain or shine, doing my best to run what I feel.

The stats thus far:

June 9 – June 30:  77.75 miles
July:  116.3 miles
August:  115.75 miles
September:  125 miles

Longest run:  13.5 miles

Highlights:  5:45 mile on the track (second fastest ever!), six miles at 6:52s (also on the track), eleven miles at 7:38s (roads, with hills)

Lowlights:  left achilles, right ankle, living on top of a hill, Seattle traffic (looking at you, white Volkswagen who swerved at me and then honked afterward), neighborhood dogs, blueberry-flavored Nuun (gack!)

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Fall arrived this morning.  I wasn’t sure it would be putting in an appearance at all; the rainy September days have been warm in the Pacific Northwest so far this year.  But today’s coffee walk was decidedly crisp, and my usual Seattle techie uniform (shorts, hoodie, smartwool socks, and Keens) not quite up to the task.

I love the fall, for a whole host of reasons:  from carving pumpkins to watching football to drinking apple cider, to the leaves turning and the days growing short, to the anticipation of winter ahead.  Generally speaking my favorite season is whatever one we happen to be in at the moment, but fall is special, the moreso as its onset is no longer ruined by the dread of returning to school.  Such is life in the working world; the last of my summer vacations ended long ago.

Maybe it was having a five-month old (five!) strapped to my chest, but for whatever reason, a distant memory from my own childhood crawled up out of my subconscious as I was shuffled over to the Hi-Spot cafe.  This has happened more and more of late,  something about the triple-barreled process of divorce and remarriage and starting a family having left me feeling more connected to – and valuing – my own deep past than I have in years.

Anyway, what came to mind was this.  When I was growing up, there was a tradition in my family, whereby my dad would, sometime around Christmas, perform from memory the entirety of Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee” for we kids’ benefit.

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tails
That would make your blood run cold…”

You are perhaps familiar with the poem – but if not, the link is above.  You’ll thank me later, I promise.

So.  Your humble author is no poet – but I was challenged to cough up a bit of doggerel once, as part of a class assignment.  I’d forgotten about it until this morning.  For no particular reason, I think I’ll share it here, with apologies to basically everyone, and Klee Kai owners* in particular.

Schip

Gratuitous picture of a Schipperke pup. Over-simplifying: this plus Siberian Husky equals Klee Kai.

*I got nuthin’ but love, guys.  Miniature huskies are a great idea.  Really.

The Klee Kai’s Lament

From Anchorage to Nome
Where Athabaskans roam
And March winds blow all unfettered

Four dozen proud teams
Paws twitching in dreams
Let’s find out whose alpha is better!

Tomorrow they’ll run
O’er land with no sun
All save this one – whose master won’t let her

For a cruel twist of fate
Keeps me locked in this crate
Like some uselessly floppy-eared setter

##

From Anchorage to Nome
Claws and teeth; fur and bone!
Legs churning and harnesses straining

Through cold winter’s night
They’re soon lost from sight
Running free after months endless training

Ten days, maybe twelve
Across endless ice shelves
Hearts taxed and strength slowly waning

While I lay back and growl
Snap at hands, bark and howl
Stuck here in the south where it’s raining

##

From Anchorage to Nome
At last, far from home
Raw meat instead of beef jerky

And there at the end
Victorious with friends
Deeds praised until time has grown murky

I’d run the Iditarod if I could
Race hard through Spruce woods
But I’ve missed my chance to make history

While I might look the part
With dad’s proud Husky heart
My mother, she was a Schipperke

Scrub Jays
I’m not much of a birdwatcher.  I love the activity; I’ve even got myself a nice new pair of binoculars.  But my knowledge base is thin – pretty much everything I know about birds I’d learned by the sixth grade, the result of a childhood spent tromping around Washington state with my parents, rubber boots on feet, gortex jacket on back, bird book in one hand and daily species list in the other.

(An aside:  I did have the opportunity to brush up on my skills in college. Vertebrate Zoology 201 featured two full weeks of lab devoted to good ol’ Class Aves, but unfortunately the TA made the mistake of telling us we were going to be tested on the exact same specimens we were using in class.  In my usual fashion, I figured out that while telling sandpipers from sanderlings was hard, remembering that the sandpiper was the one mounted on a stick, while the sanderling had been prepared posed on a rock, was easy.  I got a 4.0 in the class, but I still don’t know the difference.  My loss.)

My mom, on the other hand, is a mighty birdwatcher, an Audobon-certified master, fully capable of picking out peregrine falcons while she is driving sixty miles an hour down a country highway.  An enduring scene from my childhood:  the squealing of tires that would ensue when my mother would shout – “Charlie!  Stop the car!” at my dad while we were hurtling down I-5, our little pop-can of a 1980 Mazda surrounded on three sides by angry semi drivers wondering what the hell was wrong with us.

How we never caused an accident, I’m still not sure.  Maybe fortune favors the drunk, the foolish, and the amateur ornithologist.

Anyway, I’m not much of a birdwatcher.  But I’m good enough that when I recently saw a scrub jay hopping around Capitol Hill near my Seattle home, I thought to myself – whoa.  Didn’t we used to have to drive to Eastern Washington to see those?

Image

(The photo isn’t mine.  I’m not much of a photographer either.)

The answer – a rare ornithological win for me! – is yes.  Eastern Washington or, say, Central California.  Now the birds are here.  The scrub jays, like so many other Californians, are moving in.

Now whyever would they be doing that?

Hint:  it’s warmer in central California and eastern Washington than it is here in Seattle.

A lot warmer.

Sockeye
I went to the locks yesterday.  The sockeye are running, and I wanted my daughter to see them.  I realize I swore up and down I wouldn’t post pictures of her online, so let’s just say the photo could be of be any ten-week-old (!) seeing a salmon run for the first time.

Image
Now maybe your impression from the picture is – hey, that’s a lot of fish.  I’d agree!  It was even more impressive in person.  They were jumping all over the place, the viewing windows were packed, the harbor seals were living large – it was straight out of Wild Kingdom.

But the thing is, it isn’t a lot of fish.  There won’t be a sockeye season in Lake Washington this year.  I looked it up – the state doesn’t open the lake for fishing until “significantly more” than 350,000 sockeye pass through the locks.  This year’s forecast is for maybe half of that.

In fact there hasn’t been a season since 2006.  I myself last fished the lake for sockeye in 1988, when I was in high school.  Friend of mine had an aluminum boat; we went trolling.  We even caught a couple.

Does that ever seem a long time ago.

Chinook
I found this postcard a little while back, when I was wandering through a gift shop somewhere in the San Juan Islands:

Image

Swiftsure Bank is smack in the middle of the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Go to the upper left corner of the state of Washington, and then swim another 10 miles northwest (bring a drysuit – that water is cold), and you’re there.

I won’t belabor the collapse of the commercial salmon fishing industry here, other than to say that particular area of the state has historically been one of the hardest hit.  But if you Google “largest Chinook salmon ever caught”, the top hit is a story about a sport fisherman landing an 83 pounder up in Alaska last year.  Now I’m not saying Edward Moff, whoever he might have been, didn’t land a monster fish, even for his time.  He thought enough of it to have his picture taken – and this was 100 years ago.  He wasn’t exactly using his iPhone.

Then again, they didn’t have hatcheries back then, either.  Nor did they grow genetically altered fish in ponds.

Time to Remember
This list could go on forever.

Sea turtles, which used to live in such abundance that, while you couldn’t quite walk on their backs from Spain to the “New” World, they certainly could keep your men fed along the way.  Las Tortugas got its name for a reason, before it became a set in a Disney movie (here’s lookin’ at you, Captain Jack!)

Or the black sea bass I once had the fortune to see, while scuba diving off Catalina Island.  Majestic fish.  Grouper family; peaceful to a fault.  Once incredibly abundant, but tragically unafraid of scuba divers – even those with spear guns.  Now they are so rare that if you see one you don’t dare tell anyone, for fear word will get out, and someone will try to catch it (which is as illegal as it is immoral, but even so).

The recent extinction of the black rhino – and that really is forever.

I hope I have this quote correct; speaking as a Caucasian whose family immigrated to these lands about a hundred years ago, the specter of cultural appropriation always makes me nervous.  But, turning to the League of the Iroquois (by way of http://www.greens.org):  “…have always in view not only the present, but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”

Now the Iroquois had a planning horizon of seven generations to go along with this system of thinking.  Tragically, near as I can tell, the world today is being managed to the remaining life expectancy of the old men that run it.  Well, maybe that plus a year or two, a little margin of error to hedge against potential advances in medical technology.

I mean, to be fair, according to Wikipedia, James Watt (Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, for those of you who weren’t born yet, which is kind of the point) didn’t actually say, “After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”  But he did have the worst record for protecting endangered species in the history of ever, and we can be pretty sure he wasn’t interested in managing to time horizons that are effectively infinite, which is bloody well what we should all be doing at this point.

Well.  If the Iroquois had wisdom, and Edward Moff had himself a 94 pound Chinook, we at least *do* have our iPhones.  So I submit to you that it is all of our responsibility to fight against sliding baselines, those subtle shifts of expectations that arises when you yourself have never seen a thing, but only heard about it, or read about it.

See, we now have the ability to generate institutional memory with a bandwidth and fidelity unprecedented in human history.

Think about what power that is.  And then go use it.

Teach your children well.  And somewhere in between the preschool admissions and the SATS, the LSATS an the GREs, find time for the birds and the turtles and the fish.