The Long Run

Washing Way

In August 2000, Charles Hubbard was passing through Reykjavík on his way home from a vacation in France with his wife and two daughters. They had an extended layover—72 hours to experience Iceland.  In this position most people would go searching for restaurants where they could sample the puffin meat or, if they were bird lovers, the festering shark. Then they might catch a bus out to the eponymous Geysir, or bag out for a while with the other trans-Atlantic travelers and psoriasis patients at Iceland’s number one tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon. But Hubbard (“Chuck” or “Turbo Dog” to his friends) noticed that his layover coincided with the running of the Reykjavík marathon.  He figured, what the heck, he’d join the race while his wife and kids went out for ice cream. And what do you know—he won.

Lucky Chuck: the prize for the top finisher was a round trip ticket to anywhere in the world on Icelandair. Hubbard was pleasantly surprised to win, but he did not at first think much of the prize, even though it was the most valuable thing he had ever won. In fact, he was a little disappointed because he wasn’t entirely sure how he would use it. “And sometimes you just want something that’s cool. You know, why not a taxidermied seal? Or at least cash,” he said, years later, when I called him up.

The year he won the Reykjavík marathon, he was in the middle of a winning streak, having won the last ten 50K races he entered. He even managed to run the fastest 50K on road or trail in North America that year. Mind you, it didn’t earn him much money; ultramarathons (any race longer than 26.2 miles—sometimes much longer) are notorious for having the lowest ratio of financial upside to suffering in all of sport. Chuck never even won a taxidermied anything in his long, illustrious, ass-whooping career.

I called him in 2007 (out of the blue, having gotten his number from directory assistance) in part because I wanted to talk about prizes. I had a theory that Chuck had been cheated by Icelandair, which I wanted to share with him—with half-earnest moral indignation about the injustice, and with genuine curiosity about Chuck himself. I had so often heard his name uttered with knee-jerk animosity by people who didn’t know him, I couldn’t help but wonder what he might actually be like.

But on an even more basic level, I just wanted to talk about running. And Chuck was game. He wasn’t really interested in my conspiracy theory, but he was happy to reminisce about the course and wax rhapsodic about the pleasures of placing one’s feet on the ground and being one with nature—deer metaphors and so on.

We were both ex-runners by that time. I was only 30, and so should have been just entering my prime as a distance runner, while Chuck was 45, which is by no means old for the sport. But both of us were done for the usual reason: our bodies were broken. It was time to take stock of what we had done to ourselves, and why.

*

In the summer of 2000, Chuck decided that, as long as he had won a ticket, he would return to Iceland the following year for another race: the Laugavegurinn ultramarathon. Ultras were Chuck’s specialty. Without knowing it, Chuck was about to begin irritating people in Iceland. They were accustomed to foreigners turning up and winning the marathon, just as Americans now more or less expect a speedy Kenyan to run away with the purse at the Boston Marathon, but Laugavegurinn had always been more of a local event. The race wasn’t exactly a secret, but it had never attracted a large international field. However, it was sponsored by the airline, just like the marathon, and offered a round-trip plane ticket to the top finisher. Many Icelanders regarded Laugavegurinn as their best chance to win a big race on their home turf and score a nice prize in the process.

Chuck was hardly ruthless or single-minded in his pursuit of victory when he came back to race in 2001, but he wanted to win. His strategy, on this tough 55-kilometer course across a rugged volcanic landscape, was to gain the lead as quickly as he could and try to hold it. He describes his race tactics as: “run real fast, kind of like when you have to go to the bathroom really bad, and only stop when you actually can’t handle it anymore.”  He not only stopped periodically during the race, but he shot a roll of pictures and picked up rocks (many of which made it back to his home in Minnesota, to the bemusement of the customs official who inspected his backpack) just because he thought they were cool.

There were moments when Chuck doubted the wisdom of this approach. About fifteen kilometers into the race, when he looked back and saw that his closest challenger—an Icelander who seemed to him to be seven feet tall and preternaturally white—was only a minute or so behind, he started to fear that he might not win.  So he decided to run faster.

The strategy worked. Chuck won, rock collection and all, by fifteen minutes over the lanky blond challenger and set a new course record. To him, it was just another warm-fuzzy feeling and a plane ticket. To the Icelanders in his wake, it was cause for war.

I first heard about Chuck when I was living in Reykjavík in 2002. I was there on a Fulbright scholarship studying Icelandic language and literature, but I spent most of my days wandering around town on foot or sitting in coffee shops reading gossip magazines. I went to the gym a lot.

One day in the weight room, when I was wearing a San Francisco marathon t-shirt, I was accosted by a couple of wiry young men with short shorts and prominent veins in their legs. They asked if I was a runner, and if I would care to come to a track workout with their club later that week. I had nothing else planned for the appointed day. Why not?

It quickly became apparent that I was not going to be able to keep up with them. First, I was the only woman out of a half dozen runners. Second, they were all sprinters, and I hadn’t been on a track since high school. After a few warm-up laps that were barely slower than my 5K race pace, they started the workout with 400-meter intervals, finishing each lap before I even reached the home stretch.  After three reps, I gave up. They concluded their set and began offering me suggestions about where I might find more appropriate training partners. They didn’t know any women.

“What about Gummi’s dad and all those old guys that meet at the pool?” one of them said.

“Yeah, she could probably keep up with them,” another agreed.

And so it was that I found my new running partners. They ranged in age from 47 to 72, and most of them were named Siggi (short for Sigurður, the most common masculine name in Iceland). The eldest Siggi was training for a 100-kilometer race in France that season. He was dogged—nearly unstoppable—but not very fast, which meant that I was indeed capable of keeping up with him, if not all the members of the group.  Most of the younger (fifty-something) Siggis were training for local distance races like Laugavegurinn, the Reykjavík marathon, and other half-marathons. As long as I was putting in the miles with them, I decided to train for these races, too.

The Siggis didn’t talk much on our runs, and when they did, it was about running. They argued the merits of Asics vis-à-vis Adidas. They compared injuries. They reminisced about last week’s training run on this week’s training run.  It was all running talk, all the time. (Except once. On a particularly foul Saturday morning, after we had been running in the freezing rain for about an hour and a half, and we still had at least an hour to go, one of the Siggis turned to me, cleared his throat, and started reciting a poem about an eagle who sits on a cliff and stoically observes a ship full of sailors sinking into the sea. When he finished, we lapsed back into silence and continued to run.)

It was from the Siggis that I learned of Laugavegurinn. The name was already familiar to me. Laugavegurinn (The Washing Way) is the name of both Iceland’s most popular hiking trail, where the race is run, and the main shopping street in Reykjavík. What these two places have in common is their proximity to natural springs that historically could have been used for washing.

The Siggis described the course: 55-kilometers of up-and-down, over rock, mud, and snow. There are hills, they said, in every direction, some pink, some yellow, some green, some black.  Hot water bubbles up from the earth alongside the trail in places, and vents in the ground release puffs of malodorous steam. There are sandy expanses of desert. Clear freshwater streams and milky glacial rivers.  Cliffs of columnar basalt. Forests of dark scrub birch. There are also huts maintained by a group called Ferðfélag Íslands (something akin to the Sierra Club) to accommodate backpackers, who commonly travel the route in four days. Runners in the ultramarathon typically cover the distance in five to ten hours. Or four hours and thirty-nine minutes, in Chuck’s case.

His name came up one day when we were standing around outside the swimming pool where we met for midweek runs. A Siggi shared the news from his friend in the race office: Charles Hubbard was returning to defend his Laugavegurinn title in 2002.

Someone hocked a loogey onto the pavement in the middle of our circle. At first I thought this was just ordinary spitting—a common enough practice among runners—but a look at the scowling faces around me told me that this loogey meant something.

“Who is Charles Hubbard?” I asked.

“He is the guy who keeps taking our prizes,” the spitting Siggi replied.

The Siggis all agreed that it was unfair of Chuck to return. He ought to give someone else a chance. The prize ought to go to a native inhabitant of their cold, grey island so he could go on holiday to the Canary Islands.  Icelanders needed it more than he did.

It’s hard to find fault with this line of thinking when you’ve lived—as I just had—through an Icelandic winter.  And the Siggis were not ungracious or xenophobic, by nature. They were always welcoming towards me, an interloper (young, female, American) in their brotherhood of wizened Icelandic men. They offered me rides to weekly runs and races; they waited for me on days when I struggled; they congratulated me when I made it onto the podium at a half-marathon that spring. But the thought of the prize, which they wanted so badly, being taken by this foreigner—it brought out their vindictiveness.

One Siggi suggested that the race organizers ought to change the prize just for one year—make it a ticket to Europe, say, instead of a ticket to anywhere—and perhaps they could rid themselves of Chuck for good. They all laughed at the evil genius of it. I couldn’t tell if they were kidding or not, but I could tell this: the Siggis wanted that prize. And Chuck wasn’t about to hand it to them.

Getting back to Iceland was not as straightforward for Chuck in 2002 as it had been the previous year. Unlike some races, where the organizers will actually offer to help the defending champion pay for travel expenses, or at least waive the entry fee, the Laugavegurinn organizers seemed to be carelessly or deliberately making it difficult. The sponsors had signed the prize coupon three days before they awarded it at the 2001 race, and it was officially good for one year, so it would expire two days before the 2002 race. Chuck (a family man with a responsible sort of job as a geotechnical engineer) always made a point of traveling the day before. He had to pay a $200 surcharge to use the ticket on the date that he wanted to travel. Even so, he came. Though I ran the race that year too, I didn’t see much of Chuck. In spite of all the muttering about him I’d heard, I had no idea what he looked like. Still I scanned the crowd of 111 runners at the start, wondering which one he was. That would be my last chance to spot him for about seven and a half hours—the time it took me to complete the race.

I was hardly a contender for one of the prize tickets, but I entertained the notion during the first ten kilometers of the race, when I felt ecstatic and energetic and inspired, that it was hypothetically possible that I could win if I ran well. After the first steep climb, I began scanning the field ahead of me for women and trying to pick them off.

Looking back on the race now, I am liable to say things that sound corny and nostalgic—to wax poetic about the beauties of the landscape, and glorify the personal sense of achievement that I felt from finishing—but that’s not what I was thinking on race day. In the beginning, I was partly fantasizing and partly strategizing about winning, and partly imagining what I would do with a free plane ticket. Towards the end, I became fixated on bodily sensations, like the sharp twinge in my right buttock when I was running uphill, and the gummy paste, faintly salty and snotlike, that was forming on my teeth. Long distance running is best enjoyed retrospectively.

When I looked at my watch and saw that nearly five hours had passed since the race began, I began to resent Charles Hubbard myself. I knew the course record was 4:39’. I imagined this guy lounging around at the finish line barbecue, eating one of those funny-tasting Icelandic hotdogs made of lamb meat, and I was envious. The Siggis, too, were all out in front of me somewhere, no doubt soon to join their nemesis at the celebration. I resented them, too.

I had spent most of the last few hours alone with the landscape, only occasionally encountering hikers or other runners—sometimes passing and sometimes getting passed, but always exchanging a friendly greeting. A group of Canadians whooped and clapped enthusiastically when I went by, but most of the Icelandic hikers that I encountered just stepped out of the way, though one grunted the word “dugleg” (energetic) as I passed.

Most of the time I was alone. I had always counted solitude among the pleasures of distance running, but the scale and starkness of the landscape gave me an uncommon sense of isolation that made me eager to be done.

I wasn’t really as isolated as I felt. There are about sixty volunteers who support the race. They staff the finish and the three major aid stations along the course, and in other places you might find a lone volunteer standing next to a stream with a stack of paper cups, dipping them in and handing them to passing runners.

The toughest job might belong to the volunteer stationed at Þröngá, the last and largest of the rivers on the course, 51 kilometers into the race. At all the earlier crossings, the organizers had provided some material assistance; they laid ladders across one of the streams, and left a supply of plastic waders at another so that runners could keep their feet dry. But at Þröngá, an opaque grey river of glacial meltwater, there is only a rope tied from shore to shore at the shallowest point, which can be up to a meter deep, depending on the weather. The implicit attitude of the race organizers is: if you’ve made it this far, you’re tough enough to run the last four kilometers with wet shoes.

The river is at the bottom of a steep slope covered in loose, gravelly rock. My legs were getting slightly wobbly by the time I crested the hill and saw the river. I stumbled down the slope, expecting to stop at the bottom and size it up for a minute, but as soon as I got to the bank, the volunteer promptly and without prelude grabbed my hand and ran straight into the water. I was shocked (had he pinned me for a drowning risk?) and then delighted that this strange man was running across the river with me, hand in hand, and some fraction of the energy that I had felt at the beginning of the race seemed to return.

“Áfram!” (Onward!) he cried, as we reached the far bank. And onward I went, with spongy socks, towards the finish line where Chuck had indeed been loafing for nearly three hours. He’d won again, beating the second finisher by almost twenty minutes, but missing his own course record from the previous year by six seconds. By the time I crossed the finish line, he had befriended some campers, scored a warm beer, and passed some time with his new buddies in the campground sauna. All I got was a lamby hot dog at the post race barbecue, where I finally saw a long-haired guy in a backwards baseball cap step up to receive his prize.

Chuck was not to be stopped. (I, on the other hand, felt that once was enough, especially since I had moved back to the States and couldn’t justify the expense of the travel.) Not only did he shell out another $200 change fee to defend his Laugavegurinn title in 2003—this time he brought his mom. With all the photos he had taken in 2001, and all the stories he must have told, Chuck’s family had seen and heard a lot about the wonders of the Icelandic landscape. His wife, Ann (who never got outside of Reykjavík on their layover in 2000), and his septuagenarian mother, Marlys (who had never been to Iceland at all), decided it was time to come see it for themselves while the kids were off at summer camp. Neither were runners, but they would wait at the finish to cheer Chuck home.

The Hubbards’ trip did not go as smoothly as planned. First, their guesthouse in Reykjavík screwed up their booking so that, the night before the race, all three of them had to share a room. They went to bed early so as to be as rested as possible for their 3:45 alarm to catch the 4:30 bus, but in the middle of the night, revelers burst out of the International Reykjavík Accordion Festival, which was meeting nearby. The accordionists celebrated the white Icelandic night by playing their instruments in the street beneath the Hubbards’ window.

The next day was extremely warm by Icelandic standards, with highs around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It sounds pleasant enough to me, but for Chuck it was too hot. “I’m a big runner,” he explains, pointing out that larger bodies suffer greater physiological consequences in heat. At 6’1” and a race weight of 170 pounds, he had concave cheeks, sinewy arms, and little fat on his muscular legs—not exactly huge, just big enough to suffer more than scrawnier competitors when the mercury crept up.  Lucky for Chuck, Icelanders tend to be “big” too. And so, the more serious effect of the heat was the glacial melt, which was occurring at a faster-than-usual rate. This meant that the rivers were running higher and rougher than in past years, making them more difficult to cross.

In spite of it all, Chuck went out hard at the start, as he always did. Like each time before, he was able to take control in the early part of the race. He gained a comfortable lead. But it was harder than usual this time around.

He was already suffering by the time he reached Þröngá, and after wading through and scrambling up the next steep little slope, he was struck with a severe cramp in his leg; one of his adductors was frozen. For a while he couldn’t move, so he just stood and waited for the cramp to go away. Some hikers passed, perhaps wondering why this man with a race number pinned to his chest was standing there—taking in the scenery? No. He was hoping that nobody would catch up and pass him before he was able to go on.

When Chuck finally did reach the finish line (the cramp passed after a few minutes, and he slogged his way home) he was twenty minutes off his own course record from 2001, but the next competitor was still nearly twenty minutes behind him, just like every year before. Though Chuck doesn’t generally indulge in wild celebratory gestures, he was so grateful to be finishing, let alone winning another race in front of his wife and mother, he thought he ought to do a little something for the fans. So he cut loose, sort of: he smiled and threw his hands into the air.

Chuck’s streak had gone on too long. The “evil plan” that the Siggis had joked about was enacted in 2003. Though Chuck had won another plane ticket, it was good only for a round trip flight within Europe. If he wanted to come back in 2004, he was going to have to pay a full fare. When I called him, Chuck shrugged off my suggestion that this may have been a deliberate conspiracy. He didn’t really want to talk about the prizes, because “that’s not what it’s all about.”  Whether or not he believes it in the end, he isn’t concerned. And anyway, no calculated effort by the Siggis and the race directors, even abetted by the innkeepers and accordionists of Iceland, could have put an end to the Reign of Chuck. But the course itself had taken its toll.

Immediately after finishing Laugavegurinn in 2003, Chuck noticed a little bulge on his abdomen, which turned out to be a hernia. At first it was amusing (“I could play with it.  It was kind of fun—you bend back and it pops out, then you push it back in. I didn’t really feel it when I was running. Everything hurts a lot in that race anyway, so it’s like, you know, whatever.”) but it would have to be operated on before he could race again.

The hernia was the first of a series of medical problems. He would soon be diagnosed with stress fractures, osteitis pubis (an inflammation of the pubic symphysis joint), tears to the rectus abdominis (a shredded six pack), and pudendal neuropathy (nerve damage in the pelvic region, which can cause the sort of symptoms you’d rather not discuss with your friends)—on top of the arthritic toes that he’d been running around with for years. The ability to endure pain, which Chuck credits as the key to his success, was ultimately what finished him. Mile after mile, he ripped himself apart.

Chuck wanted to finish the 2003 season, since he had qualified for the 100K World Cup in Taiwan. He went, but failed to finish on a day when the temperatures were in the 90s. (He thinks the heat had as much to do with it as the stress fractures that were diagnosed three weeks earlier.) When the next racing season rolled around, Chuck decided not to go back to Iceland; without a ticket that he could use from Minnesota, and with all the suffering that running was causing him, it didn’t make sense to return. He was saving himself the next 100K World Cup in Amsterdam—the last race of his career, where he finished 114th.

My own running career ended, ironically, on a bike. Most long-distance runners trash their knees eventually by wearing them down. I trashed my knee abruptly by clenching my brakes hard to avoid crushing an oblivious idiot named Rhonda who had stopped right in front of me in a narrow bike lane on busy road. A more skilled bike-handler than myself could have probably walked away unscathed, but I crunched knee-first into the asphalt with my foot still clipped to my pedal and was left with a shredded posterior cruciate ligament and mangled cartilage. Following reconstructive surgery, I have a joint that serves most of my daily purposes. I’m back to riding bicycles and walking up and down staircases at will, but running ultras now seems out of the question. Even running around the block causes me pain. I miss running. Some days I just long for it, and other days I try to do it, in spite of the limp that comes out when I get tired, and the soreness that I know will follow for days afterwards, and the fact that I will just end up feeling disgusted with myself anyway when it takes me 11 minutes to run a mile—one mile—when I used to run 20 miles at an eight-minute pace. I was never fast compared to an elite runner, but I was blazing compared to what I can do now.

At some point last year, I turned to running vicariously through words, writing about the glories of the sport. It was a pale substitute for actually running. Writing is too much like watching, and ultrarunning is possibly the worst spectator sport there is. But it was the best I could do.

I also started looking at results on the Internet for all the races I had run in the past to see where I could have finished that year, if I were still running my pace. And I tried not to think about how pathetic this activity was. When I looked at the Laugavegurinn page, I noticed that Chuck’s name was absent from the results each year since 2003. Thus my conspiracy theory was born.  But I also began searching for Chuck’s name in the results of other races, and I noticed that he hadn’t really been running at all since 2004.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it. That’s when I decided to call.

It started with a couple of phone interviews, which I billed as research for my writing about Laugavegurinn; it seemed less weird than calling a stranger without an ostensible reason. Chuck spoke extensively about his injuries and the treatments he was undergoing. He was preparing for another nerve decompression surgery, the logistics of which remain unclear to me, though he seemed rather proud that he would have symmetrical smiley face scars on both of his butt cheeks. Following the operation he would be unable to walk or sit or squat or do much of anything remotely physical—and in fact would have to lie on his stomach for the better part of a few months. But someday, perhaps, he might run again. At the thought of this, he began to describe how it felt to draw energy from the dirt and rocks and trees and rain, and dance from one step to the next, unaware of his feet, with his ears and eyes and nose wide open, his five senses thrumming. He said the earth itself gave him energy when he ran—it transformed him. That’s when the deer metaphors started. It might have been funny if he weren’t so obviously pained about his loss.

You would have to love running a lot to run until your pelvis and abdominal muscles exploded. I loved running too, but I stopped when it hurt, or at least slowed down to where I could catch my breath and curse my misfortune and my feet and all of my opponents. I could never have broken myself the way Chuck broke himself because I didn’t love it in a way that compelled me to suffer for it, and to always go faster no matter how much it hurt. I wondered: why would anyone do that?

It’s pretty clearly not for the prizes. There are much, much easier ways to get a few hundred bucks, or a plane ticket, or a t-shirt.

I don’t believe, as Chuck professes, that it’s really about communing with nature, either. If it was just about the trail and the rocks and the trees, why not hike? It’s less painful, and it enables you to see more because you’re not so blinded by the sweat running into your eyes, literally or metaphorically.

There may be something to what he says about the joys of placing your feet and feeling at peace. This euphoria probably has some biochemical basis—endorphins or whatever—and moreover, I think I’ve felt what he’s talking about—that flying, invincible feeling when things are going well—which I sometimes worry I will never have again.

But if that’s it, why race? Why pay an entry fee for a sensation that is free? Moreover, the laconic notes on the spreadsheet where Chuck recorded his race results suggest that he did not often have the euphoric sensation while racing. He writes:

“delirious”

“barfed”

“first sports-related IV”

“rain and mud – poor training”

“wrong turn, estimate extra 3 miles”

“streak of consecutive 50k wins (16) ends on bridge with ruptured bicep” (He slipped on some wet planks and had to hook his arm over the edge of the bridge to avoid sailing into the stream below.  He finished the race in fourth place, in spite of the bunched up muscle tissue severed from his humerus.)

And, next to his entry for the 2002 Laugavegurinn race: “dog tired – son of a bitch!”

I am left to the conclusion that the glory of victory must have had something to do with it. He really wanted to win. Even though winning would not gain him much more than renown in the small community of people who chose to spend their hours on the same ludicrous pursuit. He wanted to win as often and as decisively as possible. And Chuck himself might not even be able to explain why.  I’m sure he must realize: there are easier ways to earn respect and love.

I never really cared that much about winning—not even in those first, delusional ten kilometers of each race, when I hoped that I might. I never expected to win when I signed up, because I never wanted to train that hard, and I never believed that I possessed the innate physiological gifts to be a champion. And yet I continued to enter races. And when I reached the inevitable point in each race when I knew that somebody else had already beaten me, I just carried on more or less happily to finish. Why?

The best I can come up with is that you have to have a reason to get up every day. And sometimes the reasons we come up with are a little arbitrary. Why not running? It is the most elegantly simple of all sports. Perhaps I run because I have gluteal muscles, and quadriceps, and calves, and tendons binding them all to my bones, and lungs, and a heart, and a certain restlessness that may have roots in my brain, which makes sitting at this desk a great agony at the worst of times, and an act that requires some effort at the best of times, because movement of any kind is the state of being towards which my body naturally tends.

*

On my way back to Albuquerque from a trip to Denmark in July 2007, I had a 24-hour layover in Minneapolis. Chuck and Ann came and picked me up at the airport. The logistics were tricky, as they had never actually seen me before, and all I could remember of Chuck’s appearance was a backwards baseball cap, but Ann picked me out of the curbside crowd by intuition, and the fact that I was holding a Danish shopping bag. They brought me home, where I met the whole lanky family and their cats, then spent the night on their pullout couch. In the morning, Chuck gave me a tour of the basement, where he displayed the ceramic plate he won at the Bighorn 100 (the prize of which he is most enduringly proud) and a collage of his photos of that course. He showed me sculptural art he made out of animal bones that he and his friends had found while running. He showed me photos of tree stumps, gnawed by beavers, along the path by the river where he used to train. We decided to go walk there.

I know many people would see this visit as strange. My mother needed to be told several times what I was doing, dropping in to stay with some guy I had seen once at a race five years earlier, then spoken to for a couple of hours on the phone, just to—to talk? About running? Indeed.

As we walked the river bottom, we repeated some of the same discussions we’d had already about Laugavegurinn. We talked about the Siggis. We talked about our injuries. We talked about our shoes. We talked about the most beautiful places we’d run. We lamented the fact that neither of us was at our race weight anymore, and made jokes about our “muffin tops.” (Though he still has a body mass index that’s lower than average for a guy his age, he no longer looks sinewy. As for me, I never did.) We talked about a few other things that weren’t, strictly speaking, running-related. Then we talked about how much we missed running—because somehow, walking in this beautiful place really wasn’t the same as running there—and we talked about how people who weren’t runners couldn’t really understand this, though perhaps that isn’t true.

What is true, I suppose, is that the things we said would bore people who are not interested in running. But our reasons for doing what we did, and our feelings about it, were far less unique than we were ready to acknowledge. The thing that made us run was as simple as habit, and as complicated as a compulsion to experience the widest range of sensations, physical and emotional, of which a body is capable—whatever the cost. Most people have a way of going about this, by means more or less destructive than ours.

Of course we knew, even then, that people could live without running. And we knew that we should be grateful just to be traveling that path amidst the trees. We knew that there are people who have suffered much greater losses. But in that moment, we still wanted to be runners. We were not—and might never be—ready to celebrate how our feet touched the earth over which we had once seemed to fly.

 

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Photo by Arnþór Snær 

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About Laura Sewell Matter

Laura Sewell Matter is an essayist come mother / high school teacher / very occasional mountain biker. Read her full bio here.

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