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This year, my marathon Monday began exactly the same as last year: pack our lunches and books, watch the series of starts from mobility impaired through the elite men and first wave, and then head to the train station for the first leg of the journey. As with last year, my husband had left well before to get to the shuttle bus that would take him to his start in Hopkinton hours later. I wouldn’t see him until he passed us on the course somewhere in the latter miles.

As I pulled into the parking lot at the train station, Space Oddity played on the radio, and suddenly, tears were running down my cheeks. Only the briefest moment, and the strangest prompt–a song about an astronaut lost in the abyss of space–but the lyrics would stay with me all through the day. I hummed the song over and over, first the cheery bits, “This is ground control to Major Tom, you’ve really made the grade. And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear…” but then always the part when things go wrong too. It fast became the soundtrack to the things I remembered over and over–the police officer who told us to “just go home. People got blown up in there,” the sudden flood of texts and phone calls coming in to my phone, my uncertainty about where Christophe might be, and where the bombs. “Can you hear me, Major Tom?” over and over.

The train ride on Monday was just the same as last year, down to our sandwiches and the appearance of the cheerful man with developmental delays who patrols the cars each year, yelling out, “Going to Boston! Patriots’ Day! Some people want to see the marathon…Some people want to see the Red Sox…”

Last year was the first time I ever went to the marathon, though all my life I’ve watched it on tv every year. Last year was the first time my husband ever ran a marathon, or at least, he tried to. He had to turn back two miles before the finish line. Last year was the first time my sons ever saw me genuinely scared.

1464601_10152341004626462_8483145491376094191_nAfter last year’s marathon, there was the chaos that reigned around Boston for a few days, and then the fatigue, and the sadness. There were so many people who wanted to know what they could do to help us, but we hadn’t been physically harmed and hadn’t witnessed any of the worst of it either. We just went back to work, Christophe quietly picked up his finisher’s medal in the city a few days later, and our older son had nightmares for a few weeks. There was noise swirling all around us–calls for justice, cries of mourning, rousing renditions of the national anthem at a Bruins game–but I felt like the world had gone quiet the moment I stood by the side of the road between mile markers 21 and 22 and heard the news that there’d been a bombing. My whole body stoppered up, I began walking the boys against the flow of the crowd toward the city, the way their father had run twenty minutes before. So far out, we heard no sirens, and as the streets emptied and a low cloud ceiling moved in casting everything in gray, we stood our vigil by the medical station.

It seemed like that quiet that fell, that muffled woolen isolation that enveloped me while I waited for Christophe, stayed with me the whole year. He had decided to give the race another try, so the winter hours were consumed with his long absences for training runs, and my long hours home with the boys. The public clamor began in earnest a couple weeks before this year’s race and built through the one year anniversary memorials up to race day itself while I withdrew from it steadily. The marathon had never really left us, after all, and now, it was only the rest of the world’s attention turning back to us.

After our subway ride, we came up the steps onto the street into full daylight and a cacophony of sound. Taking up our position at mile 23, I began yelling for the runners, and all that freighted memory evaporated. I cheered myself hoarse. I cheered until waves of nausea choked me. I called out every name I could read emblazoned on a shirt or numbered bib. All the Michaels, the Sarahs, the Kates and Katies, and Vivek, and Paco, Paola and Akash, and Koji, carrying two tiny flags, one American, one Japanese, and a lumbering Asian man who slid me a glance and wide smile when I called out “Dong Dong!” which he had markered across his chest. There were the given names and the chosen names, the joke names and the serious names. I called out for V-Money and Nudey and Tranny. I called them by whatever true name they had chosen for us to call out, hoping it might summon them back from themselves in those hard middle miles.

As the hours went by, the runners graded from sinewed speedsters to the slower sorts, and finally, to the halt and the lame. But the crowds don’t diminish, not in spirit or in numbers. When a man stopped and bowed down, hands on his knees, his face a rictus of pain, the gathered spectators on both sides of the street raised a roar so loud it seemed to hit him physically. When he straightened and began limping down the course again, our cry of triumph set him laughing as he went, though the pain was, undoubtedly, undiminished.

A runner in orange came to high five our knot of screaming strangers and said, “I love all of you guys! Thank you!” Runners hearing me call their names sometimes seemed to jerk awake, and would smile, or flash a peace sign, or maybe muster only a nod. But we were doing, together, what defines this race and gives it its legend. We were staying to lift up, to ferry onward, to praise and to celebrate even the slowest among them. After Christophe ran past us, I knew we wouldn’t get to the finish line to see him cross, but I also knew he was heading into a gauntlet many rows of people deep who would bear him over that line with the sheer force of their will, and he would cross with our tribe of runners, who would bodily carry him, if it came to that. I was not afraid for him, this second time watching his back recede toward the finish line.

10264274_10152341004251462_3367539835904041648_nThe race had been reclaimed and restored to its rightful possessors–the runners, and the strangers who see them through. Last year’s race was fractured at its end. Runners couldn’t finish, were set adrift in the streets. Those cheering throngs who would see them through were splintered apart, body and soul. It was an extraordinary and a terrible thing. But by the end of this year’s race, though there are still the unhealable wounds, the race itself, the organism that is a ribbon of runners stretching thousands deep, and the flanking ribbons of all of us there to see them run, to bear them up, was alive again, and it was only the marathon once again. It was only the ordinary marathon: thousands of people helping thousands of other people do only the ordinary, extraordinary thing.

 

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0E358330-754B-44B3-A583-BBA2095D962AI grew up in Massachusetts, two miles or so from the New Hampshire border. Now, I live in New Hampshire, three miles from the border on its other side. I grew up in a smallish town, and now live in a decidedly smaller one. In both places I’ve encountered the pride and suspicion of the native. Fifth and sixth generation natives with long memories and tendencies to refer to houses as “the Gauthier place” or “the Cote place” long, long after any Gauthiers or Cotes have lived there. We’ve lived in our New Hampshire town for about five years now, and we might as well have just pulled in with Massachusetts plates about yesterday. This place can be fiercely tribal and suspicious of outsiders (as prospective Senate candidate and suspected carpetbagger Scott Brown may soon find out).

Every Sunday, my mother down in Massachusetts makes an elaborate supper for our large, local family. Given enough daylight and time, either I or my husband runs over there for the meal. Last time I did the run, I took a route that crosses the Powwow River four times. This river runs through my hometown of Amesbury, but gets its start up here in New Hampshire. The basin it empties backs up to a ridge a mile and a half north of us where Route 107 runs west to east through town. A drop of rain striking the north side of that ridge runs down to the Exeter River and on to the brackish Great Bay. A drop striking the south side will find its way to the Powwow, across the border to Amesbury, over the spillways on the lakes, then through downtown where it careens over a falls, past the remnant of the old water wheel and sweeps into a dark hole under the old mills. It flows through tire studded mudflats, under the highway, and finally on under the haunted Bailey Bridge where, they say, a carriage drawn by ghost horses passes some nights. There, the Powwow is obliterated in the courses of the tidal Merrimack, sweeping out to sea.

B000E42C-1513-4079-A760-8349663453D2As I ran the route the other day, it struck me as funny to think of being seen as an outsider in my little New Hampshire town. The arbitrary nature of the lines we draw, making this side mine and this side yours. This boundary a town, this a state. You, a native, me a foreigner. Our lines of convenience and commerce, and yet, the river finds the route of least resistance, going with gravity until it finds the ocean. I grew up along this river, and it is indifferent to the border it crosses, twice in a lazy oxbow up by the north end of Lake Gardner. I went away to college and lived along the tributaries of the Connecticut River. I went to vet school and lived along the Blackstone River’s feeder streams. And then we came back home, leaving my home state, but reentering my childhood watershed.

I suppose I will always, in the eyes of the natives of this New Hampshire town, be “from away.” But viewing such human comings and goings from down at the waterline, it looks decidedly like I never really left.

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my long, solitary days with no company but that of a child. I know my sentiments are shared by many a parent who has looked down the long end of a day, and then many days, of tending children. But I also got a surprising number of troubled or worried responses, fearing for my happiness, or wondering whether I actually enjoy being a mother at all. A second class of responses included gentle encouragement to enjoy this time while I can, as their childhoods are fleeting. This is risky territory, of course, as the last thing any parent of young children wants to hear is “cherish every moment, for they grow up so fast.”

IMG_4323As I pondered these conversations, what struck me most was the consistent use of the word “enjoy.” Did I not enjoy being a mother? Shouldn’t I try to enjoy these times while I have them? The thing of it is, there is a great deal, maybe the majority of many days raising children, that are not at all enjoyable. But happiness is not the same as pleasure.

When I tried to think of a parallel experience to offer up to those who have not had children, or who have never been their primary caretaker, I thought at first that there was no apt comparison. That maybe you just have to live it. But as I examined the idea further, it became clear that just about anything we deeply value is not all that much fun most of the time. Getting my degree in veterinary medicine was a daily toil of mental drudgery, glued, eight hours a day, to a seat that was in turn bolted to the floor. Once that portion was through, on we went to clinical rotations, where 40 days might pass without one day off, and I fell into a fitful sleep many nights dreading the sound of the pager buzzing at 3am. Was I enjoying myself? Was I having fun? I didn’t quit though, because it mattered to me. And it had its moments.

Then there’s running. I run for the sanity it restores, for the feeling afterward, for the strength it gives. Many, if not most, individual runs are unpleasant in some way. My chest constricts on a plume of freezing air and wood smoke in winter; I stagger in stew thick humidity in summer; in all seasons, my legs sometimes just feel clumsy and leaden and I can’t wait for it to be over. It’s not a pleasure, or enjoyable a lot of the time. There are those occasional moments when I feel like I’m floating, effortless, and the road is clear and quiet ahead of me, and the streams braid through the woods beside me. I run for the things running gives me, and because those moments do come sometimes, and I never know when. Being a runner gives me a deep happiness, but a lot of the time, I hate it as I’m doing it.
IMG_3095That’s what motherhood is like, at least for me. Only it’s compounded. In vet school, my mind’s presence was commanded in those lecture hall, but my body was not taxed. I could knit, make embroidered pillows, sketch, so long as my ears were open and I was awake. When I run, my body is taxed, but my mind is freed to travel. When I am home alone with my young son, I must devote my body to his particular needs, and my mind to his tyranny too. When I daydream during a game of Connect Four, and murmur vague assent to something he’s saying that I’m not attending to, I get his little tyrannical face in my face demanding, “Mom! Did you hear me? Wasn’t that a remarkable and good move I just made?”

To tell me to cherish every moment is stating a case that need not be made. I am conscious every day of how I love these boys in a way unlike the love I’ve borne anyone else in the world, or will ever bear. I am conscious of their growing up, and I have no desire to rush it, even were that possible. I do, in fact, cherish every moment of being their mother. That does not mean I enjoy it. It does not mean it’s fun all the time, or even most of the time. It doesn’t mean it’s pleasurable.

Walking the halls of my college the other day, I overheard a student say to another, “Yeah, but I mean the homeworks are so fucking boring.” This is the worst condemnation of anything in this college, of course. A boring class is a bad class. An entertaining teacher is a good teacher. Set up under that rubric, parenting is the worst thing one could possibly do to oneself, because it is profoundly boring, and irritating, and often rather unpleasant. Parenthood is a gross violation of the Ben and Jerry’s bumper sticker philosophy, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”

IMG_1008One night this week, I was lugging laundry up the stairs, checking on the soup on the stove, and on the boys sledding in the dark outside. I called Christophe, who was on his way home, to warn him not to run them over when he pulled in. Laundry basket digging into my side, a headache of two days’ duration pounding in my brain, and looking down at ancient food particles ground into the rug, I heard myself saying, “The boys are out there,” and I was yanked up out of myself. I was tired, irritated, having no fun at all, and those words “the boys” were like a plucked string within me. “the boys. my boys. I have sons. We are we and we have sons,” ricocheted around my aching brain. It does nothing for the pain, but I have room within me for the drudgery, the toil, and the wonder, the gratitude that is its undercurrent.

So don’t worry about me; I’m utterly happy with my lot. Happy and content, with everything I could ever have dreamt of. Just not always enjoying myself. It’s not always fun, but that’s not why I signed on in the first place. One day, when this is all over and they’re grown up, I will have my freedom back, but pierced through with nostalgia. I also know, there is not treasure enough on the Earth to entice me to rewind to the beginning and do this all over again. It is the province of young parents to lament and mewl, but we know the glorious mess we’re in. It is the province of old parents to remind us that it has an end. Blessed be the mess, and blessed be the end.

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Thousand mile retrospective

Around this time last year, a friend goaded me into trying to run 1,000 miles in 2013. It wouldn’t average out to too terribly much–about 20 miles per week given that I would have to take two full weeks off to go to an island and capture gulls for science. No running out there. I agreed to the challenge, and today, I hit the mark with ten days to spare.

If I’d run it all at once, as the crow flies, I could have been on Jekyll Island, Georgia by now (which is lovely; I’ve been), or along Ungava Bay in Quebec, or in the middle of the Atlantic, having overshot Bermuda by a couple hundred miles.

I thought maybe I’d hit 1,000 on a longish run, and be someplace back on the more scenic sections of the roads around here. Instead, I wrapped up just exactly by my house. No witnesses, unless you count the dead opossum that’s been hanging from a crooked branch in a shrub around the corner for over a month now. No finish line festivities, no post-run drinks and snack station. I’ve run mainly on either side of the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, stitching through over and over with my routes through every season.There hasn’t been much fanfare over the course of the year, but both solitude and traveling on foot have their own rewards, and I reckon by now, I’ve reaped about a thousand.

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January on Currierville Road in Newton, New Hampshire.

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Powow River on its way into Massachusetts at the end of February.

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Following Malcolm down South Road in March.

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Following Christophe down 1A in March.

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Coltsfoot and Coors Light in April.

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Charleston, South Carolina in June.

Roadside cemetery, Rome, Maine

August, roadside cemetery, Rome, Maine

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Porcupine retreating.

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Dying white admiral in Mount Vernon, Maine.

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Danvers Swampwalk in September; the last 90 degree day.

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Most of the way somewhere.

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Chase Road, Newton, New Hampshire, when the beeches have turned.

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Burrows-Brookside Sanctuary, South Hampton, New Hampshire in mid-October.

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Bullfrog traveling the abandoned road through Georgetown-Rowley State Forest.

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Woodsom Farm in Amesbury, end of October.

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Our next door swamp in November.

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Merrimack River from the Amesbury side

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The old hat factory by the river in December.

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Amesbury’s Great Swamp early in December.

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Bradley-Palmer State Park in Topsfield, Massachusetts after the first snows.

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Circling back round into East Kingston again.

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Finish line.

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Yesterday, I decided to run someplace new. I get predictably weary of my same old country roads, so on my way home from work, I stopped off at Georgetown-Rowley State Forest for a five mile trot along the trails. It was raining, standard issue for November, but quite warm at 60 degrees, so I set off in my shorts and t-shirt. Part of what I love about hiking, trail running, or otherwise venturing off the asphalt is the sensation, however mild, of taking one’s life in one’s hands. The risk was minot this particular day; the state forest is hemmed in by roads on all sides, so I would never be more than a mile or so from aid, and even if I got lost and night fell, the weather would make for an unpleasant but very likely survivable period until morning. Still, I had the faintly giddy feeling of wondering whether I were making the right turns, and assessing the various boulders and root overhangs as possible bivouacs.

It was this kind of day.

It was this kind of day.

When I was about halfway through my run, looping past the parking lot, I saw a pickup truck pull in. Pickup trucks always make me somewhat uneasy, and anyone pulling into a state forest in waning light and increasing rain also raises my alert level. I made a second loop of the trail, circling up behind so I can keep track of where the pickup truck’s occupants were. They were a pair of grimy looking men and they walked off into the woods, no packs or anything else with them, apparently out for a stroll in the woods on a damp, cool evening. Feeling comforted that I knew where they were, I headed off for a loop in the other direction.

I was somewhere fairly deep into the woods on a single track mountain bike trail when I came upon a pop-up, camouflage-print hunting blind tucked against a rock outcrop. The hair on the back of my neck rose as two things occurred to me: 1) There might be someone silently crouching inside that blind watching me, but I can’t tell and I’m not stopping; 2) It’s hunting season.

I’m usually fairly good about checking what hunting activities are permitted on various public lands before I venture onto them. But this time, I didn’t think of it. I did a quick inventory of my clothes as I flailed and pinwheeled down the trail, driven by a panicky desire to get away from the blind. I was wearing bright orange shorts and fluorescent orange and pink running shoes (good) and a white t-shirt and white cap (no good). Pleased that I at least had one main article of clothing in blaze orange, I nonetheless considered the fact that my torso and head, both portions of my body toward which I feel a good deal of affection, were the color of a deer’s hindquarters, and that I was, at that moment, crashing through the woods in a troublingly deer-like manner. I considered my options. Perhaps I could take off my shorts and wear them on my head, and fashion my white t-shirt into a crude sort of bloomers? That way, if I got shot, it might merely be in the rump and not the brain or chest.

These were good choices.

These were good choices,

but this is just asking to get shot.

but this is just asking to get shot.

I considered further that I was unsure which portion of hunting season it might be. I work in Massachusetts but live in New Hampshire. At home, it’s muzzleloader season. But in Massachusetts? What was I about to be struck by? An arrow? Shotgun blast? I began to imagine myself lying facedown in a pool of blood. Would I be found? Would the hunter panic and just leave me there? Most definitely, he would. There could be no question; I was about to be shot and left for dead.

The light was getting dimmer, and when I stopped to get my bearings at each trail junction, my glasses fogged up hopelessly. “So this is how it ends,” I thought, which I think at least once on every outdoor adventure, and it’s never yet ended. After seemingly endless turnings, I suddenly popped out at the gate by the parking lot. I stopped to read the notices at the info kiosk and found a wealth of information it would have been good to know at the outset of the adventure. IMG_5036

Catching my breath, I thought how I had just narrowly avoided being struck in the head by an arrow. As I walked back to the car, the conviction became less clear, and I began to think that the hunter would probably have come to my aid after shooting me after all. As I was putting away my things in the trunk, I remembered that I had, of course, been wearing orange, and so had really been quite safe. By the time I slipped into the driver’s seat and switched on my book on CD, the whole thing was patently ridiculous, and I drove away.

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On tribalism and cyclists

I was out for a run last weekend and pondering the strange non-relationship I have with cyclists. I didn’t know it as I was running and pondering, but that morning, a couple towns over, a driver with no license careened over the center line, across the opposing traffic lane, and into a group of cyclists. Two of them are dead.

I don’t bike much, partly out of fear of that sort of thing, but I feel a solidarity with cyclists. We are all out on the pitted, potholed roads, edging around blind turns and hoping we’re visible to drivers who are hopefully not texting. We get crowded off, pushed around, and recreationally honked at by people who seem only to want to see us jump.

We have so much in common, cyclists and runners. And yet, I can hardly ever coax even a nod of the head from one of them. To clarify, by “cyclist” I mean mostly the young to middle-aged male with a sleek road bike and full spandex. Women, older men, and most people out on some thick-tired, wide-seated cruiser bike will happily greet me, most of the time. But the cyclists, with a grim set to their mouths, largely ignore my attempts at even the slightest interaction. This is quite noticeable and awkward since I am a runner and travel against car traffic, and they are cyclists and travel with it. This means we pass within inches of each other in many instances. And yet, my waves, nods and hellos go unanswered.

This puzzles me. I can count on a greeting, however slight, from any other runner on the road. Even the well-muscled young men nearly sprinting down the road in sleeveless shirts and dark, wrap-around sunglasses will muster a curt nod for a fellow runner. I’m guessing cyclists are the same with other cyclists. Humans are tribal after all. But I think our true tribe is broader. I think our tribe is anyone willing to risk his poor, soft body and its brittle interior bones, unprotected as a shell-less snail, on the side of a road where oblivious, texting, speeding drivers wield their multi-ton murder weapons. Our tribe is all of us who wear embarrassing technical garments. The cyclists have their spandex and gaudy jerseys, we have our short shorts and water bottles in fanny packs that we call “hydration belts” but which are fanny packs. We are all detested, derided, and despised by drivers (though probably the cyclists a bit more, I grant). Our tribe should be all of us who do something other than sit around and eat beef jerky and Red Bull all day.

Cyclist, if you and I meet on this empty road, you can say hi and I swear I won't tell anyone.

Cyclist, if you and I meet on this empty road, you can say hi and I swear I won’t tell anyone.

I’m a runner, but I greet all the walkers I meet on the roads, and I try to make sure my greeting doesn’t sound like I’m saying, “Hi, people who are not as serious about exercise as I so obviously am,” but merely, “Hi, fellow traveler!” I greet everyone on the road, even in the situations where I meet them both coming and going. Those situations strike me as so awkward that I am tempted to dive into the bushes rather than have to figure out what to say or do the second time we meet. I spend a lot of time seeing someone approaching and trying hard to appear lost in my own thoughts,  or looking intently at something else until the very last moment when I can pretend I have only just seen the person and look up brightly and say hi with feigned surprise.

There’s a lot of thought that goes into these brief interactions, and I am a New Englander by birth and therefore diffident and not good at breezy, casual interaction. So if I can manage it, cyclists, then I think you can too. Lest ye forget, this is not the Tour de France. This is Route 108 in East Kingston, New Hampshire, and we both look profoundly silly in our outfits. Let us embrace it.

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Slow is my pace!

Sometime in the last few months, I decided I was done with running races. I’ve done a few half marathons, and one 5K, and I’m all set. It was good, for a while, to have a race set up as training motivation, but at some point, I realized that my motivation is actually internal. Also, I find spending money on races unpleasant. I did set an arbitrary goal of running 1,000 miles this year, and I’m currently at 675, so that’s going well.

For the most part, I run to maintain my sanity and my health. To do that, I don’t have to go very fast. Sometimes, when I’m trotting along, I hear my younger son’s anthem, the one he howls whenever we’re hiking and he is fatigued, or bored, or hungry (basically all the time). “Slow is my pace!” is his plaintive cry.  I like it as a general motto.

D89A4747-79C6-4C64-AE6F-D6EBB0287B7FYesterday, I was out running with my older son, and I assure you, slow is his pace too, though he whines  a lot less. As we plodded up a hill on the way home, I saw that a tree by the road had been cut down. The road guys repaved the road and regraded the shoulder this month, and this tree was canted out over the road and must have been some kind of problem. It had not been an attractive tree. It was a big, muscley pine diverging into two badly proportioned trunks about ten feet up. It was inelegant and fairly glowered over the road. Several times, running past it, I got the feeling that it was about to fall on me. But when I saw it was gone, I felt a little pang of loss. Not because I particularly liked the tree, but because I suspect that so few people had ever really looked at it, and so almost no one would note its absence. It was situated on a blind curve that takes substantial attention, when driving, to avoid oncoming cars, so not many drivers would have the chance to notice it, and it wasn’t really remarkable in any way anyway. But I noticed it, because at my running speed, objects take a very long time to pass. Laboring up the hill by that tree made it take even longer. I had many opportunities to stare at that tree.

Like the progression of plants in the swamp, or the extraordinary work of carrion beetles undertaking a vole carcass, or the gradual growth of the hogs down the road, my pace is slow. Humans intervene sometimes, and a tree is suddenly a stump, or the hogs are gone to the slaughter one day, all without warning. Most of my life, I am moving at this usual human speed of fast, but when running, my pace is slow. Not as slow as the growth of a homely pine tree though. And much as I found it ugly and ominous, I feel a bit of nostalgia over this old survivor, now fallen into oblivion. Such are the thoughts I have on a run, for the miles are long, and my pace is slow.

 

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