I curse the first half-mile of mountain trails, sweat forming around my hairline, the taste of salt familiar on my lips. This is not a margarita, I think as I embark on my first outdoor run of the season. This is hard work.
Turning off the old power cut I head south onto the footpath, my heavy breathing subsides a little as the land smoothes out beneath my feet. Folks around here call this The Grassy Trail. Following this afternoon’s thunderstorm, I find the packed earth is pleasantly spongy beneath my feet, which eases my concern for the inherent threat of a repeat sprained ankle. Scrolling the path carefully by sight first, my feet land and lift safely from the uneven piles of quartz and mica-flecked soil.
Running has always been a litmus test for my psychological determination. I have not been blessed with a runner’s body by any means. I do not move with ease or even an ounce grace when I run. Close friends have confided that they always knew which rugby player I was on the field by the wide, swooping circles my calves made as I sprinted downfield, pigeon-toed and all. It’s a wonder I never threw a knee out running with such disconcern for anatomical precision. But the fact that I can and do run, despite physical oddities and a pear shaped body and two foot surgeries behind me, is what gives me psychological strength in magnitudes much greater than any muscle mass I maintain because of the exercise itself.
Running has always been one of my wisest teachers.
The first twenty minutes are always the most unpleasant. Arrows of thoughts with the expert aim of Icarus test me every step of the way. When I get to the first turn off The Grassy Path: “Just dart down this path here to the west. You’ll be at the river in no time!” When I cut across the footbridge at Ohle’s pond I have to slow to a walk for fear of mossy footboards giving way beneath me: “See how much better that walking feels? Just take it easy. No need to run.” When I get to the fork in the old forest road: “Turn back north now, cut down by Michael’s old house and come down on Fire Fly Lane. That’s all downhill from here.”
But I press on, picking up my pace and relaxing my eyes on the scenery around me. At the pond’s edge I startle two white-tailed deer and I am mesmerized as they take one synchronized leap over the path, a good five feet into the air, landing on the west slope and bounding down into the safety of a rhododendron thicket.
Emerging from the shade, I cut across the only part of this loop that resembles a tended field and feel the flash of warm sunlight across my body. In springtime this burst is enjoyable. During the summer the field is sweltering. Halfway across the clearing I hit my stride and my mind is lost in the safe heaven of runner’s delight: heartbeat pounding in my ears, legs churning on autopilot, lungs finally done resisting.
Flashback to soccer tryouts in the late-August sun of the southwest hills in Portland, Oregon. Ashley Allison is at least half a mile ahead of me, charging up the paved sidewalk in city-heavy-heat like a bull on the loose. “Don’t cheat,” she sneered as she sprinted past me, “Don’t cheat.” Behind me, Laura Gustafson whimpers in defeat never finishing the run, dropping soccer altogether and officially making me last place (instead of second to last) in every training run of the season. Between us, lie fifty other high school girls, all running to compete for the same spots on the team, none of us sure of who would be cut. Today I run under the same sun that watched me grow into a solid Left Defense player for an undefeated season on that soccer team.
It is the same sun that hovered over many a rugby game, shivering on west Idaho snow patches on the side of the pitch, delaying the game for thirty minutes to let our husky bodies thaw just a little bit more beneath the yellow rays that came from above. Later, the warmth of it showed up on my sunburned cheeks. Ninety minutes of play meant ninety minutes under direct exposure, cold air temperature holds no sway over UV rays. At the drink up that night our rosy faces glowed with the sweat of the day, the evidence of sun, and the warmth of beer.
It is the same sun that drove me to the river every morning after my 6am run during the summer of 1998. Training for my second season of rugby, I gave up smoking for good and six mornings a week put on my too-tight Whitman Motherruckers tank top, fleshy parts of me rolling out below the waist but not a soul around to see me huff it up that dammed hill and along the grainy shores of the Sandy River, determined not to be the slowest this next time around.
I spill off The Grassy Path and onto the gravel road. The final stretch before me parallels the South Toe River, which runs low these days under such unexpected high temperatures and cloudless skies. A rickety, red Toyota truck rusting from the bottom up pulls alongside me and we ride side by each for a few dozen yards. He is a stranger to me but neighbor all the same. We smile at each other in the sun and he gives me the three-fingered wave (the other two still curled from previously holding the steering wheel; mountain driving). Ten more yards and push to the car, then three, two, one, slap.
Time for a dip in the river.