Friday, March 22, 2013

Stories from the road

Today I was thumbing through the anthology 'Runners on Running', when I came across this great essay written by Roger Hart titled simply 'Runners'. You can read the essay for yourself HERE. If you don't want to take the time to read it, Mr. Hart is basically recounting some of the great experiences he has had while running with his buddies. It occurred to me while reading his essay that I've been running for a few years now and I've got quite the store house of memories from running. Having spent much of my running career in west-central Minnesota, where the weather is primarily affected by low and high pressure systems from three regions of the continent, many of my best (and worst) experiences have been weather related. There were a number of times when Scott and I, rather than fight the ever-present gale force winds, decided to let it work for us and asked one of our significant others to come pick us up on the side of the highway miles from town. Many's the mild spring and fall night when two or three of us would become possessed by the sudden and urgent desire to get the guys together for a late-night run, singing Christmas carols or show-tunes through the quiet Morris streets. One of Scott's favorite memories to bring up is the time I got blamed by the team for a rapid influx of bad weather because, in my haste to get to practice on time I opted to throw my recyclables away in the trash and then taunted mother nature to 'do something about it'. Well she did I can tell you that, we all got a spanking that day. There is, however, one memory that sticks out vividly among the rest. Here is the tale.

It was another gloomy, overcast fall day in Morris. The cross-country season was nearing it's end and the prospect of another long, harsh Minnesota winter weighed heavily on my mind. Most days I looked forward to practice, but after seeing the chilly rain come down all day my energy felt prematurely low and I dreaded having to leave my warm dry bedroom and get soaked to the bone outside. As a captain however, I felt it was my duty to embrace discomfort and lead the team faithfully through our workout, which on this day was mercifully, an easy run of 40 minutes. Scott and I layered up and jogged over to the P.E. center at about 3:45 as was our custom and at first neither of us were very talkative. However the jog seemed to energize us both and by the time we got there we were both curiously amped up. As the rest of the men's team filtered in it appeared our strange enthusiasm was contagious and our bunch of scrawny distance runners could hardly wait for Jeremy to finish chatting with us so we could go outside and uncork this weird desire to run and be merry. Well the rain had been coming down steadily since the previous night and there were very large puddles everywhere. The broad highway ditches, being repositories for street and lawn run-off, were like swimming pools. The temperature was hovering near 45 degrees, and though initially chilly on our scantily clad bodies, once we started running it was plenty warm. We all ran as if possessed and I remember one of our shorter runners sprinting into a waist-deep ditch and actually beginning to front-stroke his way to the other side. We sprinted toward every puddle we could find and in short order their wasn't a single one of us who wasn't thoroughly soaked from head to toe. Some of us were belting out show-tunes as we caromed through town. I can only imagine what went through the heads of the stoic, conservative Morris natives when our rowdy bunch blew past their houses and cars. While we were all partaking in our glorious puddle romp, a very fast moving cold-front was overtaking Morris and as we neared the first mile the first ominous snow flakes touched our cheeks. The advent of snow seemed only to intensify our crazed state however and soon we were racing pell-mell away from campus and out into the country side, the group now beginning to string out as the slower runners struggled to keep up. As we neared our halfway point (being 2-3 miles away from campus) a fierce north wind began to blow (which was perfectly in our faces) and the temperature began an alarmingly rapid descent. It was at this point when the more aware among us began to realize that we were in a bit of a pickle. We were already slightly chilled and absolutely soaked to the bone, the temperature was dropping dramatically, the wind  was now howling out of the north at 20+mph, none of us had more than a cotton t-shirt and a pair of our famously short-shorts on, and we were nearly 3 miles away from campus. A nervousness began to edge into our laughter. No more leaping into puddles, lot's of 'oh shit, it's getting cold out here'. As our fingers began to numb, and the shirts began to freeze on our cold chests, our mental fortress of immortality started to crumble. Campus and warm showers seemed to be a very long way away indeed. I've never been one to handle physical emergencies well, so as my core-temperature began to drop, I instinctively picked up my pace to get back to campus faster. Somewhere in my chilled brain however, it eventually dawned on me that some of the guys had been dropping back quite a while ago and there was a good chance that our fanatic initial pace had set them up for a very difficult last couple of miles. I forced myself to slow down and look backwards for them. By this time so much snow was falling and being whipped through the air that visibility was reduced to a half mile or less and I could no longer make out the shapes of more than one or two of the guys behind me. Snow was literally piling up on the north side of my face and body, and running was beginning to feel very awkward as my body stiffened. At last we crossed the highway and were on the campus grounds, just a half mile to go until warmth! I don't remember running next to anyone that last few minutes but I know my friend Dugan was just in front of me and reached the door first. He was so cold he immediately ran inside and the door closed behind him. I tried to grip the handle but my fingers were too cold to hold onto it. I panicked momentarily, the thought passed through my head of making it back to campus only to freeze just outside the door. Necessity being the mother of invention, I realized that by putting my whole hand through the handle I could use my wrist to open the door. I did that and was inside, success! Three other guys had made it back before me and we stood in the entrance exchanging knowing looks, we tried speaking but our tongues seemed as frozen as our fingers. Gradually more guys made it back, several going straight to their beds in the dormitories to warm up. The rest of us went to the locker room showers, turned on every faucet as hot as it would go and sat beneath them still in our clothes, no one said a word but I made sure to double check that everyone had made it back ok. We must have sat their 15-20 minutes, every one of us shaking uncontrollably as our bodies struggled to regain warmth. Eventually some other team came in to shower and we picked ourselves up off the floor, toweled off and got dressed. Someone, I don't remember who, said 'I'm sure we'll all remember that one for a long, long time'. Indeed every time I get together with my mates from cross country that run always comes up, with a big grin and a laugh, the time when we all nearly froze to death on an easy day. We may have nearly died and nothing could hurt quite as bad as ALL of your appendages thawing out at once, but in the words of Roger Hart "we learned we were alive, and it felt good. God, it felt so good". Here's to the memories on the run, and to many more...