03 July 2006

On Running

On Running

To begin with, you need to know that I am more or less fat. Make no mistake; I am not the spectacular, Howard Taft sort of fat that requires plumbers to pry my obese body from White House bathtubs. Nor am I the wheezing, Rascal Scooter-riding sort of fat that cannot walk more than a block without experiencing a myocardial infarction. Rather, I am the sort of fat that perspires profusely on steep hills. I am the sort of fat that feels more at home in front of a computer keyboard than on a playing field. In short, I am the sort of fat that does not like to move around very much.

That is why it surprised me so much when my friend and colleague, Jerry, came up to me in the cafeteria of our small mission school near Four Corners one day and asked if I would help him coach the cross-country team. I was initially tempted to ask if he had taken leave of his senses. After all, I never used to run in Kansas, where the hills are few and the climate is normally bearable (if not exactly hospitable). Why, then, would I ever want to chase my students across miles of Reservation scrub brush, down dusty washes and up stone-studded mesas, beneath the relentless Arizona sun?

It only took me about two seconds to decide I was going to refuse, but I stared down at the ugly brown and green institutional tile beneath my feet for several more moments before responding.

“Wow, Jerry, thanks for thinking of me,” I began in what I hoped was a tactful tone. “But, you know, I’ve never been too athletic. Or even interested in athletics. Sprinting drills always made me vomit in junior high.” I pushed my Navajo taco-laden aluminum lunch tray down the cafeteria counter toward the desserts and chuckled as if I were joking. I was not, of course.

Jerry smiled his gentlest smile and helped himself to a heaping pile of spinach leaves and tomatoes. “Boy, this is great stuff,” he said. “You ever eat spinach salad?”

I knew from his smile that he was nowhere close to dropping the cross country question.

He loaded his plate high with fruit and walked with me to an empty table near half a dozen mischievous kindergarteners. “You know, Micah, all during my bus run this morning, I was praying about you.”

My stomach sank. So that’s how it was going to be. “Really, Jerry? Well, thanks! I can use it; my kids have run me ragged today.” Perfect segueway. All I had to do was tell the story about how Shaun had handed in a mostly blank paper for the math quiz this morning, and Jerry would begin his standard lecture about the importance of discipline for junior high boys who have no fathers at home. Unfortunately, before I had a chance to say anything, he raced on with his thought.

“Yeah, I told the Lord all about the situation from the time I finished my bowl of oatmeal until the time I picked up the first set of kids.” He speared an enormous stack of spinach leaves with his fork and stuck them in his mouth. “Do you ever get up early? I love getting up at four o’clock every morning so I can watch the sun come up. It reminds me of how Christ’s light pushes our darkness away as we seek Him.” I decided not to tell him that I hadn’t seen a sunrise in three months.

“Well, it sure does sound nice, Jerry.” The piece of frybread that served as my taco shell had gotten cold and lost some of its crispness, but the meat was good. I wanted seconds. Before I could get up, Jerry had finished chewing his forkful of spinach.

“You might pray about it for a while, Micah. The Lord wants us to take good care of our bodies, and I think maybe running would help you to do that. It’s done wonders for me.”

I decided I could do without another taco. Anyway, my junior high kids were in line for seconds, and they would probably devour whatever had not already been served. Instead, I started on my brownie.

“You’ve heard me talk about my schizophrenic episodes, right?” Jerry asked. I nodded. “Well, they used to be so bad that I couldn’t get to sleep at night. When I found Christ, He began to help me overcome them. For a while, I tried things like prayer and meditation, but they never completely stopped the episodes.” He ate a colossal bite of fruit cocktail. While he chewed, I looked around the cafeteria – we could really use some new paint on the walls. Maybe if I brought that to Jerry’s attention, he’d start talking about being encouraged by the church youth groups that came out to the mission to do work projects every summer. I took a breath to speak, but he had finished his fruit cocktail and gone on.

“After a long time,” Jerry continued, “I decided to start living a more disciplined life. I made lists of what to do and when. That helped.” He looked at me, suddenly more intense than I had ever seen him before – veins were bulging all over his weathered forehead. “But running was what really made the difference. The Lord used it to help me rely on him to overcome those monsters in my head. I was always sanest after a long, exhausting run that sapped my body of strength and made me realize I couldn’t solve my problems under my own power.

“Now,” he concluded, his veins beginning to retreat, “would you at least prayerfully consider it? These kids need something to do after school, and I think you’d benefit from it, too. You could stand to lose a few pounds, and you’d be amazed how much better you’ll feel.” He smiled his gentle smile again and took a swig of apple juice.

I carefully chewed the last bite of brownie while I sorted frantically through excuses. I wasn’t busy after school, I really could use the exercise, and running hadn’t made me vomit in nearly a decade.
Then, in a very soft voice, Jerry drove the final coffin nail: “Micah, if you don’t do it, I’m not sure who else I can ask.”

That afternoon, as I struggled up an impossible trail through a stand of dead mesquite to the top of a sandy wash, I cursed my helpfulness. No amount of good will or virtue should be able to justify such pain. My calves were aflame. An invisible rapier was plunging deep into my side with every step, and I would have been drenched in sweat if I hadn’t already run out of moisture. I wanted nothing more than to stop, turn around, and limp home.

I tried to tell myself it was for the children, but that was hard to do when Shaun was literally running circles around me and taunting me: “What’s the matter, Mr. Micah? Can’t you go any faster than that? I could’ve made it to the mesa and back by now!”

I wanted to reply, “You rotten little monster! I’m only doing this so you won’t hang out with your no-good cousins and piss your life away with drugs and alcohol!” What I did instead was grin and gasp out Navajo puns about my name. (Early in the school year, one of the kindergarteners helpfully informed me that the Navajo word for “fat” was k’ah, which explained why my junior high students laughed every time the class clown, Clint, called me “Mr. My-K’ah.”)

Just as I reached the top of the wash and began to slow down, Jerry came running by. “Keep going, Micah. I know it hurts, but you’ve got to set a good example for the kids. I need you to do this.” Then, before I could protest, he was off to stop Clint from pushing his little brother off the edge of a cliff a hundred yards away.

I kept going, but my body, that hated prison, was beginning to fail me, as it always had done in such ventures. I knew I would not be able to complete the run unless we turned around soon. The loose red dust at my feet felt like hands clutching at me to slow me down, and every once in a while, an errant mesquite bush reached out to imprint itself on my bare legs. The very landscape seemed to be conspiring against me. Then, without warning, another wash loomed ahead of me. Before I had time to think about toiling up the other side, I had plunged down into the dry stream bed. Toward the bottom, I tripped on the root of a tough little pine tree and fell on my face in the sand. Brilliant.

Shaun, my faithful satellite, wouldn’t let me rest even a moment in my ignoble position. “Clint, come here! Mr. Micah fell on his face!” He circled me giddily.

I scrambled to my feet and began a half-hearted lope toward the other side of the wash. “Hey, Shaun,” I managed to gasp out, “Are you going to stand around shouting for Clint all day, or are you going to run?” With that, I attacked the far bank of the wash, which seemed to be steeper than was geometrically possible. Even Shaun seemed to be having trouble with it. Then Clint poked his face over the edge, and the bank got even steeper.

“Hey, Mr. My-K’ah, you’re all red. You look like you’re going to explode. And why do you have so much sand on your face?” Clint was delighted to have such a rich source of comedic material to work with. I was slightly less so.

I slowed down for a moment so I could get enough breath to talk. Then, I said, “Clint, your brother called you a little girl and ran off toward the mesa. I bet you could catch up with him if you wanted.” I breathed a silent apology to God and Clint’s brother and continued up the side of the wash unhampered by mockery from the top.

We finally made it out to the mesa and back. It had only been about ten minutes of running, but as I stretched out in the cool darkness of the school gym afterwards, I decided it had felt more like ten hours. I simply had to find some way out of this nightmare before the next day’s practice. I would corner Jerry in the hallway and tell him simply and firmly that running was not something I could do. I would tell him how painful it was, how it seemed like the least natural activity known to man. I would quote St. Paul’s words to Timothy: “For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (I Tim. 4:8, KJV). Somewhere in the back of my head, I knew none of this would work, so I also resolved to become violently ill if nothing else availed.

Jerry has a way of convincing you that you really want to do something even if you know in the profoundest depths of your viscera that you truly, inarguably do not want to. That, to make a long story somewhat shorter, is why I was running the same dusty trail under the same blazing sun the next day. Even Shaun was the same, except that his orbit had become somewhat more elliptical. One thing was different: today, every muscle in my body was screaming at me in unutterable anguish. Every jolt of foot against ground sent an exquisite wave of agony through my body. My thighs were tight, my back was tense, my knees ached, and my abdomen felt like a nest of writhing adders. Our pre-run stretches, sit-ups, pushups, and bench presses hadn’t helped; if anything, they made my muscles even less yielding.

The first three minutes of the run held more pain than the entire previous day. I didn’t know how my muscles could function under such duress, and I kept expecting myself to shatter or fold up into an origami crane or something. And, of course, my stomach began to feel queasy as I struggled up the side of the second wash.

Then, about three and a half eternal minutes into the run, my muscles began to relax and move more easily. My body loosened up and started functioning more closely to the way I wanted it to. I found myself able to jump over narrow ditches without wincing in pain upon landing. I discovered I could run down the sides of washes and back up without wanting to scream from the pain. It was miraculous; I wondered if the patron saint of fat men had finally awakened from his long nap and begun interceding for me in Heaven. Of course, I am a Protestant, so that hardly seemed likely. Nevertheless, I was running without pain, and it felt too good to question.

Two minutes later, something even more amazing happened: I found myself wanting to run. Some inexplicable force flooded me, filled me with longing to keep run and never stop. My feet’s impact against the ground suddenly felt good. My muscles were no longer pained. Instead, they felt strong and powerful; they grew mightier with every glorious step.

My mother tells me I ran before I could walk. Apparently, my balance was so bad that I could not keep it long enough to stand in one spot. “You were like a little whirlwind,” she always says with a half-sigh, half-chuckle. Then she gives my shoulder a nostalgic little squeeze and offers me food.

That was what I imagined as I felt that sudden, vital boost surge through my being: My 18-month-old self taking those first hesitant steps, then finding himself unable to stay standing and beginning to fall and moving his legs to keep his balance and going faster and faster until it feels like he is flying. He runs and runs, overjoyed to be doing something besides crawling with his hands and knees on the ground. He is going on his legs like the Big People, and he keeps moving and moving until finally he gets tired or loses his balance or reaches Mommy, and she is proud, and he knows he will do that again – often.

My legs pumped rhythmically, my hands grasped the air in front of me, my feet pounded the red, soft-packed sand of the Arizona high desert, and my body forgot it had ever done anything else. This was what it was made for, this rush of motion and purpose and triumph. Then, less than a minute later, it was gone. I suddenly lost the rush, lost my glory, lost my ability to expand beyond my bounds. But I had tasted it for a short time, and that was how the addiction began.

That winter, I ran four days every week. I ran with my students, with other teachers at the mission, and alone. I ran up rough hills, over rocky mesas, down roads of red sandstone, past windmills and water tanks, and around innumerable goat-pens. I avoided sheepdogs and snakes, raced my own best time, stained every pair of socks I owned with fine, red desert dust, and probably amused a great many Navajo grandparents who wondered why the fat bilagáána from Immanuel Mission was in such a hurry – and what was wrong with the old chítii he normally drove.

My body, which I so often had despised for its weakness, was beginning to change. It was becoming harder, stronger, faster, better. My k’ah melted slowly off of my frame, and as my muscle waxed and my fat waned, I gained new physical abilities. I could leap over ditches and climb up remote canyon trails. I could choose where to move and how fast. Granted, my endurance was limited at first, and I was often forced to reduce my speed to a slow trot, but I could push myself to go farther and faster every day. I did not have to stop until I chose.

I began with short runs: five minutes into the desert and five minutes back. At my beginning speed, that normally meant about three-fourths of a mile. I tried to increase my time by a minute each way every day. I slowly began to range farther and farther from the mission. I ran beyond the mesa, up the bus road toward the Carrizo Mountains, where I encountered ATVs and horseback riders on remote paths. I ran in the other direction, down to Waterfall Canyon, where I met a lonely Vietnam vet named Scuddy Benally and his one-eyed dog, Ashkii. One day, my day of greatest triumph, I ran five miles in 50 minutes. I felt immortal and omnipotent that afternoon as I chased my shadow away from the setting sun, back toward the mission’s front gate.

The runner’s high that I had experienced on my second day of running came and went and eventually became less frequent as my body grew more accustomed to exerting itself. But I no longer needed it to appreciate running; I found myself enjoying the fact that my body was in the best shape it had ever known. I could run two miles without being especially tired afterwards, and I could run five miles without collapsing. I felt stronger and more capable, and sometimes, I even caught occasional glimpses of what Jerry had said about spiritual growth through bodily exercise.

The running didn’t last through the winter. Cross country season had ended, and I had a new Herculean labor to perform for Jerry: Teaching the fundamentals of basketball to sixth-grade girls. It was, I admit, better than coaching Shaun and Clint, but just barely. My free time vanished, so I cut back to two runs per week, then one, then one every once in a while. My lack of time, coupled with the bone-chilling winds of the harsh high desert winter and the physical demands of basketball practice, made my desert runs impractical and seemingly redundant.

My last run of the winter was on a gray November morning when the cruel wind was blowing across the desert, kicking up clouds of red dust. I decided to head once more toward the mesa, but not the close outcropping we had touched on my first desert run; instead, I was going to touch the part of the mesa that I had determined to be about a mile and a half away from the mission’s gate. I started out at a 10-minute-mile pace: relaxed, but still a bit of a challenge.

I followed the bumpy, potholed sandstone road toward the mesa, jumping from one side of the ditch to the other as I encountered obstacles. About five minutes out, I broke off from the roadside trail across the trackless desert floor. My legs were feeling good that morning, so I took a couple of detours that required jumping over holes. I ran down the side of a wash and up the other side faster than I would have thought possible three months before. Then, as I approached the mesa, I saw a longhorn bull roaming near my goal.

The bull gave me pause. On one hand, I wanted very badly to finish the run. On the other hand, the bull did not look happy, and several of his cows were also nearby. I pondered what I would do if the bull charged, and I decided I would not be able to escape it if it did. So, without reaching my objective, I turned around, went home, and showered before school, and that was how I stopped running in the desert.

I stayed in shape through the rest of basketball season, but by softball time, I was content to limit my physical activity to sliding into second. My paunch began to regroup, and I almost welcomed the old familiar feeling of too much flesh around the waist, hips, and thighs. It seemed like returning home after a long, arduous journey. But the tricky thing about running is that it doesn’t let you go completely back. When you’ve run five Arizona desert miles on a hot August afternoon, something in you changes. In the melting away of flesh, the molding of muscle, you undergo a transformation regardless of whether you want to, and that’s something no amount of Navajo frybread can chase away. Even when it has been months since the last time, you still get cravings.

The morning I was going to return for good to Kansas, I awoke three hours before my alarm was set to go off. I squinted in the darkness at the clock’s dial, double-checked the alarm’s setting, and scratched my head in confusion. I hadn’t awakened before my alarm clock’s raucous buzzing in months. I tried to roll over and get into a sleepy position; no luck.

I resignedly got up and walked into the front room of the tiny trailer I had inhabited for the past year. All my possessions were packed away except my clothes for the day and an extra T-shirt and pair of shorts that I had put out just in case something drastic happened. I changed into them, pulled my socks and shoes on, and left for one last desert run.

I decided to head for the mesa, using the same path I’d taken months before on my last run. This morning stood out in sharp contrast to that one; it was still dark, but I could tell it would be one of those gorgeous, cloudless Arizona days when the sky is bluer than turquoise, the sun brighter than anything you can imagine. The desert air was still, and the wind had decided to stay in the Carrizo Mountains for the day. My feet pounded the trail, and at first, my muscles were stiff from disuse, but they loosened up after a few hundred yards of ten-minute-mile running. The fresh morning air felt magical on my face.

I ran hard that morning, harder than I ever had before. I got to the mesa in record time, and then I kept going for another ten minutes beyond my mark. Something in me ached to continue, to keep running until I was completely exhausted, but I turned back because of the long road I had to drive that day. Nevertheless, I ran hard, fast, and far that morning, and as I hopped over the cattleguard beneath the mission gateway, I felt victorious. I had run not because I had to, not because I thought I needed it, but for the sheer joy of running, for the feel of the solid land beneath my feet, for the feel of my muscles striving together, united in purpose. I had run for the feel of the morning light slowly pushing the darkness West across the enormous, unblemished sky.


Unknown said...

well written sir!

Anonymous said...

I really like this story. Your writing is great. Keep up the good work!

Chris said...

Can't wait to reach that excercise nirvana. You write vividly of both highs and lows. Thanks.