Running at a loss for words

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Chillin’ at the start line at Mount Hood

I’m never sure when I pass someone running in an event if I should say “good job,” or “keep it up” or something like other runners say to me when they pass – which is a far more likely scenario. I always credit their encouragement to the fact that I look like I’m about to fall over dead and they probably want to see if I’ll respond, just to make sure they don’t have to flag down someone with a defibulator.

I do pass other runners on occassion. The difference is that the person passing me could be anyone from a lithe, 20-something college track star to a senior citizen, but the person I’m likely to pass – my “road kill” in running vernacular – is someone who looks to be further along on the spectrum of risk for myocardial infarction than I. I worry about coming across as a condescending jerk; panting “keep going, you can make it,” as I pass slowly enough for there to be an awkward pause if the person doesn’t respond.

I just finished three legs of a 198-mile relay from Mount Hood to Seaside, Oregon. This means I was one of a twelve-person team, running the course in shifts over about 30 hours. My portion added up to 17 miles and change, the longest I’ve ever run in a 24 hour period – impressive, I know. I’m not inclined to be modest about it.

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I OWN six of those hash marks

Having taking roughly a twenty-year hiatus from the running thing, I have a new relationship with the activity. Running and I weren’t on the best of terms when last we parted and we grudgingly reunited out of necessity. I simply can’t afford the time for a spin class at the Y. With the commute and the gab session that invariably comes in the locker room as I’m rushing to dress for work, such a jaunt takes up a good half of my morning. Running gives me a chance to exercise the dog and can be tailored to fit whatever chunk of time I happen to have.  During the summer there’s the added benefit of not leaving the kids on their own for extended periods, nor does taking a run around the block require my getting them motivated to accompany me to the gym.

Beer on the boardwalk

Beer on the boardwalk

Running makes me sound way more badass than I actually am. No matter how modestly you approach it, you can’t tell someone you just completed a 198-mile course with a team of people over the better part of two days without sounding like you’re part of some highly-trained, lean-muscled super-squad instead what you really are, part of a group of sweaty, slightly off-kilter people who really need to work off the beer.

I do have to remind people that what I’m engaged in is not jogging. Jogging is what one might have done in the eighties with leg warmers listening to Olivia Newton John on a Sony Walkman. Leg warmers are not badass. Olivia only had that one badass scene at the end of Grease. To be more precise (and I’m plagiarizing but I don’t know from where): joggers will run in place while they wait for the light to change at an intersection. Runners will just stand there and look pissed. I’m fairly accomplished at looking pissed while running. In fact, I’m pretty good at looking pissed even when I’m not running.

We had a conversation about the whole “good job” statement in our van while en route from dropping off one runner to the point where we’d pick him up and replace him with the next. Is it appropriate to say something encouraging to someone who is going to end up a hash mark on the back of the van as “road kill?”

Those of us moderate-to-slow-runners agreed that it was nice to hear something encouraging from those passing. This was a relief to our one ringer in the van; a 20-something speedster to whom we referred all our questions during the trip about current social memes, body piercings and hipsters (he was quite forthcoming). Our ringer probably never had occasion to feel abashed at being told “nice job” by someone passing him, and was personally responsible for about 98 percent of the road kill hash marks on our van. I was proud of my six, and especially relieved that it wasn’t also necessary to weigh them against the number of times I was a hash mark on someone else’s van, which probably numbered in the dozens.

Morning Run outside of Mist, Oregon

Morning Run outside of Mist, Oregon

On the morning of my last leg of the run, it was my birthday. I was feeling every single one of my 45 years in what seemed like every muscle in my body as I left my sleeping bag and stumbled out of the van to run my leg in the dark.

Dawn came behind pink clouds, revealing a low mist over the fields and trees and sleepy animals. Good job, cows, I thought. The decorated vans carrying runners to the next leg of the race had curtailed the practice of honking their encouragement at dusk the previous evening, out of respect for the farmhouses scattered along the route. Instead I saw an occasional hand raised out a window as they drove by.

I came up on a woman plodding along slower than I and managed to pass, congratulating myself for scoring at least one hash mark on this leg.

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Finish line in Seaside

“Good morning,” I said, excited to remember something to say that didn’t condescend.

She didn’t seem winded or in need of defibulator paddles. She seemed, in fact, like she felt a lot like I did at the moment: the soreness warmed out of her legs, enjoying the morning breeze, both of us forgetting that we were engaged in an act for which our legs might well punish us days and weeks afterward.

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The badass Boise Bunrunners

“Good morning to you,” she replied. “Such a beautiful day.”