I got into an online discussion with a friend who was trying to weigh her desire to join her running buddies in a longer road race versus the time commitment needed to train for it. She’s a busy gal, with a full-time job, lots of family around and plenty of things to worry about.
Something she said struck me. She said that when she runs, it clears her head. And that over the past year, it may have saved her. “I think I would have fallen apart without it,” she admitted.
That resonated with me. I’ve had similar thoughts, sometimes recently, and it became even more clear as a dreaded anniversary crept near.
Six years ago, my oldest brother died. And when everything settled down and I was left to my own thoughts, it was the alone time pounding the pavement or coursing through wooded trails that pulled me from an abyss.
Running may have saved me, too.
Mike and I were close. Some of it had to do with the fact that we shared a number of interests. We loved the mountains. Fishing for trout was a favorite, and later on, I got hooked on climbing Colorado’s high peaks after hearing his tales of high mountain summits. We climbed a few peaks together, including my first three 14,000-footers, and made a thing of it with all the brothers – Mike, Steve, and myself – are few years back.
Mike and I were also gym rats. I bumbled around the weight room with a little success while he mastered the art of weight training and bodybuilding. Naturally, we’d talk about all things lifting, and more often than not I’d be the one doing the listening as he offered tips and told of his experiences. Years later, I still can’t sniff the PRs he managed on the big lifts.
But I keep plugging away, and sometimes I’ll learn something new or set my own PR. Instinctively, I look around for my phone, thinking about shooting him a text or a phone call to talk about it. But that gets shot down pretty quick.
Shit. I can’t call Mike. I can’t call him because he’s gone.
Around the time when Mike was diagnosed with cancer (it was a blood disease similar to leukemia), other crises were afoot. My job was going down the crapper, and as he got sicker, my own prospects worsened. In January of 2011, I flew to Denver to visit him, not knowing if he’d make it for the next few days or if he’d pull through. A couple days after arriving, Mike grew stronger.
But then I got a call. My employer had a layoff, and I was caught in it. Twelve mostly good years there were over. It’s a hell of a thing to learn you’re on the street via a long-distance phone call from a hospital hallway.
The silver lining was being able to spend more time with Mike. I hoped he’d pull out of it, recover and then we’d be back at it, hiking up mountains and traveling the West. But it was not to be.
Mike’s condition eventually won. His death was slow – agonizingly so – and from everything I saw, miserable. Cruel, even. The whole family was there when he passed. The final moments unleashed our sorrows in a flood of tears and hugs, all of us hating the fact that he was gone yet glad he wasn’t suffering anymore. In the hours and days following Mike’s passing, we shuffled from here to there, buying clothes for the funeral, heading to the church to say our last good-byes, and then settling into the finality of it all.
A few days later, after being out of work for four months, I got a call. The guy who is now my boss, Tim, wondered if I’d like to interview for a job in Tulsa. I said yes, and we arranged for an interview time. I got the job, which necessitated a move. So I moved up to Tulsa while my wife Becca stayed in our soon-to-be ex-hometown east of Oklahoma City to get our house ready for sale. I’d come back on the weekends, then drive back to Tulsa before my Monday shift began.
During the week, I stayed at my sister-in-law’s house in a Tulsa suburb. She and her family had moved to Texas and were trying to sell their Oklahoma home, and they kindly let me stay there until we found a place of our own. The house, somewhere short of 3,000 square feet, was empty – no furniture, no TV, nothing. I made my home in the master bedroom, a cavernous space where I occupied a tiny sliver, sleeping on an air mattress and playing Angry Birds on my phone or reading a book when I got home from work. Aside from the job, I had a lot of alone time, time to worry about the future and mourn Mike’s death.
Before work, I’d head to the gym, and then two miles down the road I’d go to a local park that had a gravel trail a little over a mile long. Work was a great distraction, but my demons were there in that empty house on those long nights after work. I fought back on the trails. Running, it seemed, drove them away.
I’d gotten into a running habit before Mike got sick, but things took off once I moved to Tulsa. It was cheap – the price of shoes, socks and some tech clothes. It turned out to be a great way to explore my new hometown. Every slow, lumbering run was interesting. I’d see something new, work up my miles and get a little faster.
Not long after, I discovered a park that had a huge network of trails that ran wild through wooded hills that were left as close as possible to their natural state. I’d run plenty on pavement, but this trail running thing was brand new. I learned that trail runners were different. Most runners obsess over mile times, distances and splits. Trail runners get into vertical gain a little, but mostly run hard, have fun and replace all the calories they burned with burritos and beer. This was something I could get into.
For a brief period, I ran with a weekly run group, but most times I explored the trails by myself – in the furnace of the Oklahoma summer, in the rain and mud, and even in the snow. I’d run myself ragged on big hills, trip over tree roots and rocks and go through the painstaking process of tick-checks. I spied snakes, lizards, deer and hawks. Squirrels and rabbits, too. I watched sunsets through the trees, breathed in the scents of fresh redbud blooms and listened to cicadas blast their noisy calls on sweltering summer days. I loved running with friends, but these were experiences I mostly had on my own.
These were the times I’d think. Sometimes pray. I’d rage at God for how Mike died, then calm down and express gratitude that I was still healthy, and able to enjoy these runs on the trails when so many others couldn’t or wouldn’t.
I’d like to tell you that I found peace and healing inside the folds of a new church congregation, but it never worked out that way for me. Too many places of worship were too busy fighting the culture wars for my taste. But I found God anyway. God was in those woods, tolerating my griping, reminding me of my blessings, and listening in. Being there when I was unlovable. That sort of thing matters when you reach a point of being a jerk, something I can testify to rather well. Sometimes I’m not the easiest person to be around, prone to poor judgment and selfishness. Things that Mike wasn’t but I was.
Over time, running became bigger. Slow two-mile jaunts around the neighborhood turned into five-milers. And then 10. Or 12. Within a few years, I was knocking our half marathons, 25Ks, and on a bitterly cold November day, my first marathon. The process was one that required some mental toughening, sharpening your mind in the middle of 20-mile training runs, and the day-long recovery periods that followed.
But I found something out there. I found a rhythm, a meditative cadence that cleared my busy mind of the stresses and insecurities that confronted me daily. I’m not one of those crazies who pounds out 80 or more miles a week, or runs insanely long races, or any of that. But I miss it when I stop. Normally I come back from a run feeling spent, and in a good way, like I went to war with my demons, beat them back and stood atop a hill looking at the battlefield when it’s over, me still alive and my foes in retreat. I’m not one to make easy war metaphors; that dishonors real warriors. But when negativity and grief and self-loathing and worry rage at your gates, it feels like a fight. You use the tools at your disposal in order to win.
Mike wasn’t much of a runner, at least not in his final years. More of a cyclist, a hiker and a lifter. But I think he could appreciate it just the same, like he would after a long day in the mountains or right after coming off the saddle after a 30-mile ride through Denver. He’d get it. He battled through plenty of his own struggles and won them all except for the one that finally claimed him.
I was thinking of Mike at the end of my last trail run. It was a short trip, just a few miles on mostly empty trails near dusk. When I got through and reached the trailhead, the sun was dipping into the horizon, setting the skies and their clouds afire with hues of yellow, orange and red. I snapped a photo with my phone and suddenly got the urge to text it to Mike. Look how beautiful it is out here, dude! And then I’d remember.
But I grinned anyway. I knew that Mike would understand, that he knew running for me was a gift from God, the salve I needed – and still need – in this stage of life. I was sweaty, dirty and spent and more content than I’d ever be, even if only for a few minutes. I was at peace.
I hope my friend decides to do that longer race, mostly because I know where she’s at, and have felt that calming, inner-warmth that comes from a good run.