Runaway Thoughts post #1
Some of my most vivid memories relate to running. It’s something about the way your senses are heightened because the rushing blood brings keener feeling to every inch of your body, from the heaving of your lungs to the air gliding past your cheeks. The intricacies of life become dominant as all work and responsibilities are benched so you can get out and move about the world for a bit, unhinged. You get to run away.
I was in college just a few short months ago, yet it feels like another lifetime when I was slipping out of the Flyer News office to steal an hour of open air on the bike path just off campus. I’d throw on some athletic shorts and an old T-shirt, lace up, and head out the door. Within just a couple minutes of dodging the noisy hubbub of crosswalks and car exhaust, I’d greet the sweet earthy smell of the Great Miami River, reflecting whatever hue the sky donned that day. The brick-and-pine cloisters of the University of Dayton campus, filled with promise and hectic responsibility, fell away to a big sky and nothing but the sound of wind and the occasional ring of the Carillon bell tower.
I solved so many problems on that bike path, and drained so much excess caffeine from many oft-frenzied days of studying and frantic scribbling, typing and page designing for the student newspaper. It was my escape. All the structure and responsibility just didn’t matter for a while. Nobody could call me, nobody could email me, nothing could touch me.
I found something new there sometime during my sophomore year. If I ran about two-and-a-half miles away from campus, I’d find a spot where the path dipped down below the level of a dam into a sort of flood plain area. If I went about a half mile further, the road curved so that I couldn’t see anything of the modest, but charming city skyline behind me. The signature cross and blue dome-topped chapel and all other mainstays of campus faded to trees and grass and flowing water.
I’d stop. I’d take out my headphones. I’d breath. And in all the madness of tests, papers, girls, extracurricular activities, work and my future, I’d find some quiet solace.
I was a four-hour drive from my tiny Northeast Ohio hometown, and a good twenty-four minute run away from the culture and demands of college. Out there, I was just myself, unattached to any of the expectations I felt during most waking hours of the day.
My thoughts were my own. I wasn’t clumsily trying to find my place in the complicated maze of a Catholic school that in many ways was polarized by distinctly separate religious and party cultures. I was never a frat boy — or a “bro” — and was beginning to learn that the quintessential guilt complex associated with Catholicism was no longer working for me.
In those rare moments on that bike path I think for the first time I really connected with how lonely adulthood can be. I had nothing but time and space to reflect on what I was doing in school and how it fit with my goals for when I graduated. Nobody could or would say anything in response to my thoughts because they belonged only to me and that river before me, as they flowed on as naturally and honestly as its swift currents. And everything was for me to decide or figure out on my own when I was there because I had to run another three miles before I could reach another soul worth confiding in for feedback or affirmation.
It was in that spot that I challenged my beliefs, talked myself down from countless hours of anxiety, thought about my family and what life would be like when I finally had to graduate and leave the kind of true friends I never thought I’d find before I went to UD, even in a social scene that wasn’t always easy to relate to. It was the place where I just dreamed, wide awake to the possibilities and challenges before me, and it was perhaps in that nook of the world, away from all the noise of campus and rushed visits to my hometown, that I saw life most clearly and objectively.
I didn’t immediately find the benefit of escapism when I started running 11 years ago. When I was in high school I ran for a very competitive cross country team that had won or placed second at the state meet for at least 15 years in a row. A big part of me was determined to be one of the top seven runners so I could compete at the state meet. It was this crazy, surreal concept to me, that spot on the winner’s podium. It was the place I’d seen in pictures speckled with the faces of people whose names had become that of local legend, and they wore the same high school jersey I’d found in my perhaps otherwise inconsequential Midwestern hamlet.
In a small town – one square miles in my case – high school sports are everything, and a state title is a golden piece of immortality that guarantees bragging rights and pride well into any of the dull and sleepy years following graduation day. But I wasn’t after that. Part of me, for a lot of different reasons, always wanted to leave town and move far away as long as I can remember. I wasn’t after lifelong bragging rights, but a feeling I’d seen on the faces of so many great athletes who had gone before me, who trained on the same roads, and dirt and gravel paths as I had.
So I dedicated myself to running. A lot. I knew I wasn’t a natural athlete, so I trained through cold winters and hot summers to get faster, and a few times I was one of the top members of my team. I would have stayed there had it not been for a couple nasty stress fractures that benched me for a total of six months throughout high school. I always got up to fight my back again, but it was hard. My ego took a huge hit every time I found myself having to struggle to regain all the hard work I’d already done. And after a while, I think it broke me mentally a little bit.
Running wasn’t much of an escape for me. Fighting back from injuries while I watched my teammates excel on what seemed like far less effort than it took me to get back to the spot I had before – ahead of many of them – was too much to make it fun.
I accomplished plenty for myself as a high school runner. First of all, I didn’t have a prayer in hell to be anything resembling a contender when I started as a chubby seventh grader. Just finding that fire within me to say “hell no, I’m not settling with this,” and making the choice to get better was my first victory. It changed my life. It taught me discipline, and helped me realize my strength behind a lot of insecurity and self-doubt. I broke five minutes in the mile and several races at small meets my senior year. I got under 18 minutes for a 5K, a meager victory at best for any elite runner, but a huge milestone for me after climbing back from several months of injuries.
What started out as the best thing I ever did became a major source of stress for me in high school.
But in college, and especially on that bike path in Dayton, Ohio, I finally found some peace in my running. There was no pressure to beat anyone, no clique to try to ignore or occasionally strive to fight my way into. It was just me, breathing and striding and figuring things out on my own. I discovered something new and special about running when I stopped taking it so seriously. I realized that it was something I could do just for myself, and no matter how much things changed, when I ran, I always just felt like me, untouched by any of the changes happening in the world around me.
Now, 2,000 miles away from Dayton, my feet propped up to alleviate legs tired from the first week and a half of the five months of marathon training, I still have yet to find a spot like that barren spit of Ohio flood plain. But training for this long-held dream of completing 26.2 miles has helped me rediscover that this passion — like an old familiar friend — will be with me wherever I go.