Thursday, January 8, 2015

Back When It All Began

Do you remember the first time you engaged in a lifelong passion? Luckily for me, I have an oddly enhanced memory that allows me to freely travel back in time. I don't like to live in the past, but I certainly do love recalling those sights, events, and people that have inspired me or otherwise directed my life.

Perhaps that is why I jumped out of bed at 5 a.m. this morning and excitedly threw on multiple layers of clothes to stave off the arctic breeze that greeted me under a large, bright moon. A six mile, forty minute, morning run awaited me. Sciatica be damned: A few quick spins on the foamy thingies and I was out the door with excess giddy in my stride.

You see, thirty six years ago I woke up on Monday January 8th to learn that school had been cancelled due to several inches of new snow. The temperature, just like today's, was about zero degrees fahrenheit. When I awoke that morning, though, I was not a runner. Sure, I had run a bit in middle school, but I had not yet learned to love running.  My football coach was at least partly to thank for my running life. Only two months prior, in November of '78, he had watched me run 7:56 for 1.5 miles during gym class and then promptly suggested that I take up track and cross country. CROSS COUNTRY?!  I didn't even know what that was. It sounded weird and intriguing. Track, though, I had experience with and the track season was due to start in February. (Notice, now, how I move away from the fact that my football coach excitedly suggested that I go away.)

I decided to go for a run soon after learning of that snow day. I'm not sure why that run took place. Perhaps it was because I had planned to start training for track after school that day. Or maybe it was because I was already suffering from the mental condition that makes me do dumb (adventurous) things. Or, most likely, I went out for my first run in several inches of snow with the mercury contracted at zero degrees because I was just a typical ignorant fifteen year old boy who had no guidance and who rarely thought things through.

At 5'8" and weighing 128 pounds I was a sinewy, hyperactive, and poorly nourished paper delivery boy turned grocery clerk who was oblivious to the fact that there were proper ways to dress for such activities. Keep in mind that this was the pretechnological days of 1979.

I started by pulling my favorite pair of tube socks all the way up over my calves. Those red stripes were groovy. That's right, groovy. I said it out loud and gently touched them as I stood up: "These red stripes are groovy!"

Next came the blue polyester gym shorts. They weren't the super short shorts of the era, but they left a lot of thigh uncovered. They, too, were absolutely GROOVY!

I pulled on a long sleeve cotton shirt next. It was, for some bewildering reason, my favorite shirt. White and larger than my torso ever has been, it nearly reached the bottom of those shorts. I rolled the left sleeve back to reveal my Seiko watch. Already a number freak, I needed to keep an eye on the time.

Finally, I laced up the Converse All Stars. What else?! Mine were navy blue. When combined with those red and white socks my outfit (I thought) was profoundly patriotic. Did I mention that my long blonde hair was feathered and parted in the middle? True, there was a time when I had a full head of hair!

Flash forward to this morning. Similar temperature, but no snow. I encased myself head to toe in multiple layers of high tech breathable and wind repelling fabric before lacing up some light and cushy Hoka Clifton shoes. I also had the presence of mind to pull on a sock cap and gloves - two items that I never even thought about wearing in 1979. Now back to the rest of the story.

It only took a few strides in that snow for me to realize that my feet were going to get cold. I'd suffered from and dealt with painfully cold feet when delivering papers, though, so I knew a remedy. I went back into the kitchen and removed my shoes. Then I moved a loaf of Bunny bread and a package of hamburger buns from their respective plastic bags to a large trash bag. The bread bag went onto the left foot and the bun bag onto the right foot. The ensemble was complete when I put those groovy shoes back on over the plastic bags. My winter defense was in place!

Out the door I strode. Smiling. I wasn't sure where I was going, but I had read somewhere that I needed to run for 30-40 minutes. I ran along county roads in narrow tire tracks left by the few vehicles that had ventured out. It wasn't long before I pulled those long sleeves over my hands and clasped the cuffs in my fists.

I ran to my high school and completed a lap around the hilltop campus. I remember scooping up snow in mid-stride and launching a snowball at the stop sign in front of the main entrance. Over the next several years I smacked that sign with a loud thud every time I ran under it. I also remember thinking that I was the only kid who made it to school that day. My real reason for going up the hill was to see if anyone was sledding in the Practice Bowl. The bowl was quiet and peaceful, but I knew that it would soon be filled with screaming daredevils who would repeatedly fly down the hill only to crash into someone or something. That was why we were given snow days!

The hill also offers a great view of our city and the Ohio River oxbow it sits next to. Little movement  was visible within the muted white and gray scene. I ran back out of town. I took a right at the Five Way to avert going straight back home before I filled the forty minute prescribed run time. That led me over a small hill to another intersection a mile later. A quick glance at the Seiko revealed that I would get my forty minutes of running if I ran a loop around the neighborhood after climbing over the steep hill on Red Bank road. Groovy!

There were problems, though. Huge barriers bore signs stating that the road was closed. And since the road had not seen traffic, there were no tracks in the deep snow. I ran around the barriers and high stepped through the snow after I had been running into a cold wind (-15 wind chill) for a few miles. Going any other way home would add two more miles onto the run, so that was out of the question.

I soon found out why the road was closed. A bridge over a creek had been removed. The creek bed was about ten feet wide and fifteen feet lower than the road. It wasn't until I'd made my way down the steep rock covered embankment that I realized I could not get a running start that would allow me to jump over the creek. No problem, I thought. The extreme cold had surely frozen any water present. I leapt onto the snow covered ice without hesitation.

A loud SNAP echoed in the ditch when my right foot broke through the ice. This foot was encased in the hamburger bag. The short hamburger bag only extended a little higher than my ankle. The cold moving water beneath that ice was, unfortunately, deeper than the bag was tall. The hamburger bag instantly filled with water. My already cold foot may as well have been engulfed in flames as an intense burning sensation swept through it.

With the next stride my left foot found its way to the creek bed. Luckily, I had tucked the bread bag into the top of the sock (are you picturing this?!) and that kept it above the water line. Two more steps through the ice and I was climbing the other bank. My right foot ached with every step as I climbed over the steep hill separating me from warmth. All of my right toes burned even worse during the warming process, which took place while I ate breakfast in the afterglow of that first run. My next run was planned well before the adrenaline rush wore off. It took me years to realize that the lure of the open road and the freedom of self-propelled travel had become important to me that morning.

And that, folks, is how I became addicted to running. You will never hear me complain about running in the cold. I find cold weather running to be nostalgic.

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