I remember the first time I saw an eagle in the wild.
No, it wasn’t on some adventure deep in the Rockies, or some other rugged mountain landscape. It was about six miles from home, in the middle of a city, and not far from the river that splits my community two.
Not 30 feet from the paved path I was running on, and overlooking the Arkansas River, there it was: A big, bald eagle, surveying the waters flowing by and likely looking for lunch swimming under the surface. It was one of the coolest and most random things I’d ever seen on a run, and to see it smack in the middle of Tulsa’s southern reaches made it that much more unreal. And yet there it was, in all of its regal glory, presiding over its domain. As it turns out, bald eagles have become a fixture along the river. You just have to know where to look.
More importantly, you have to be out there in the first place. If I hadn’t been on my weekly long run, I’d never have seen it at all.
I remember when I first started running more seriously, and how enamored I became with the little details I saw during even the shortest, simplest runs. I made a point to take my phone with me not to provide music or capture my pace, but to snap photos of how the downtown Tulsa skyline looked from a certain angle, or the way the glow of a sunset bathed the buildings in warm, fading light.
I’d come home and write notes about interesting people I saw, weird things I smelled and small epiphanies I had while I ran. I learned a lot about my city. One park I run through commemorates the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, something that for many Tulsans was left out of their history lessons despite being the scene of the single worst outburst of racial violence in American history. Years later, I still run through that park, reminded that we’ve yet to get past racial divides.
There were other details of the city to be gleaned from these runs, too. On a couple of occasions, I’d run at night. An urban landscape has an entirely different feel at night than it does during the day. Light from street lamps catches broken glass on the pavement and in alleys, making them glisten in a harsh sort of way. It’s harder to see people’s faces, thus more difficult to discern intent. But no one ever bothered me. A smoky bar served up whiskey shots next door to a private workshop where a bearded, tattooed fella in a plain white tank tinkered under the hood of a classic car. Nighttime in the city, away from the “safer” venues, is just as alive as it is in the day. It just feels more mysterious, if not risky.
And many times, I’d notice people. The suits and the slackers mixed at different paces, and transients often barely budged. On one street, I’d spot someone talking to himself while walking briskly, totally focused on whatever conversation was happening via Bluetooth. Around the corner, someone else, slumped against a wall, might be wallowing in his own puke, having drank too much bourbon the hour before. Down the street, a tattooed pizzeria worker sat out by the curb, getting one last smoke in before his break was over.
I see scenes like this every day when I run. It fascinated me for a long time, me being a guy who until that time had spent a lifetime living in suburbs and small towns, far from anything one might define as urban.
As the years have gone by, however, all of this has become normal. I still see cool stuff, but more often any run is more of me and the run itself, battling through fatigue, the elements, injuries and whatever else is motivating me or telling me to stop. And as I age, the chorus of inner voices telling me to bag it seems to get bigger. And louder.
Last week was one of the lousiest weeks of training I’ve had in a while. Fall is here, but Oklahoma rarely pays attention to the calendar. It was just another hot, humid week, and if you run much you know that heat and humidity sucks all the fun out of running. If I didn’t have a couple of races to train for, I’m not sure I’d even have bothered.
But we got a break this week. On Monday, cloud cover. Blessed cloud cover. Eighty-eight degrees in direct sun (plus humidity) is one thing. But 88 and cloudy is another. As in better.
I was out on a simple four-mile out-and-back run through a neighborhood that might be generously classified as “working class.” It’s on the upswing, but there is plenty of industrial desperation still waiting to be remedied here. Not that it bothers me – that sort of environment is way more interesting than any suburban scene I’ve ever trodden.
Anyway, I ran by a house where a fella was on the porch, working on some sort of machine, and he had his tunes on full blast: ‘80s funk and R&B. I ran past, reached my turnaround place and headed back. I’d pass his house again, this time from the same side of the street. On deck: Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching me,” featuring none other than the King of Pop. I’m not sure why, but when I got in earshot, it gave me an extra bounce, and I made sure to let the dude know that I wish I had his tunes with me the rest of the way. We both got a laugh out of that.
A day later, on a six-miler, I was on trails close to the Arkansas River again. I didn’t see them, but I heard them: eagles. Somewhere close by, the master raptors were calling out, and would likely be on the hunt for more fish soon. It got me thinking about all the other wildlife I’ve seen, usually when trail running through nearby wooded hills. Squirrels and rabbits, hurrying away from the path. An armadillo ambling along, rooting through the leaves for bugs. And on one blessed run, a massive owl that was silently gliding below the canopy, then extending its wings to make a full stop just a few feet away from where I ran. One of the most majestic things I’ve ever seen.
That’s when I was reminded why I still do this. Races are fun, and great motivation to get in shape. But for me, there’s no finish line or medal worth the weeks and months of training that it takes to finish a long-distance race. Instead, it’s the things I encounter along the way.
The random faces that make a city live and breathe.
The myriad of colors of a cool evening sunset.
The smell of fall from decaying foliage on the forest floor.
And timely reminders from the past, be it the cry of a regal bird of prey, or the music pumping from the speakers owned by someone getting their funk on during a warm autumn afternoon. Any finish line glory is gravy after that.