I’ll get the boring stuff out of the way first. I finished the half-marathon in 83 minutes, running a much faster pace than I expected. It was a master class in ‘running your race’’. A precisely executed distillation of 5 months of training. It was a gorgeous, crisp fall day. The course was a beautiful loop along the Charles River, through Harvard Square, and on to a fast finish where I picked up 7 more places in the last hundred yards, putting my speed and interval training to work at exactly the right moment. I had achieved everything I intended when I signed up for the race back in the summer.
The real run happened 3 weeks before however. This was the one that made all the training worth it, the one that transcended the ordinary, the one that reminded me of the value of presence, awareness, and listening when the universe is trying to tell you something.
I started from the house I grew up in. I brought my family down to my parents house on Cape Cod for the weekend. No special occasion, just some quality time for my 2 young kids with their grandparents and cousins. Once the tourists leave but before the New England winter starts, there are a few glorious weeks there, when the weather is mild and you can actually find parking at the beach. This was one of those weekends, and everyone was easing into Sunday, my wife playing on the floor with our baby daughter while my dad made pancakes. As I had for a dozen Sundays before that, I quietly slipped out the door for my ‘long run’ that week. The bulk of my training behind me, I had started tapering in anticipation of the race. The target today was 12 miles.
It was cold. As summer turned to fall, more of my runs had started this way, numb hands and face, the icy air cutting right through my techy t-shirt and running shorts. I had learned long ago that layers are nice for the first mile or 2, but a recipe for overheating at any real distance. I ran a post-Thanksgiving Turkey Trot in upstate New York once, 26 degrees at start time. I wore a hat, gloves and pants because going outside without them seemed insane. I was stripping all of them off by mile 4. Better to deal with a couple miles of discomfort than have to carry an armload of gear home.
So for this pleasant fall run, I used some mental practices to take my mind off the temporary chill. I focused on being present to the scenery, my breathing, and every other sensory input I could hold my awareness on. The low, orange sun creating shadows through the trees, the surprising elevation changes on the narrow road out to the main drag in my little hometown. The trickle of a stream into a boggy area hidden in the wooded uplands down the road from my parents house. The cadence of stride-stride-breath, stride-stride-breath.
At 2+ miles I had warmed up a bit, and was approaching the bay, which also helped. Large bodies of water retain and radiate the summer’s heat into the early fall, something you have much more appreciation for when approaching them on foot. I was so dialed into the warming air, the sun on the marsh grass, and the feel of the road that I almost missed the dead rabbit right in front of me, vaulting over it with a brief, pitying shake of the head. For several strides, I was shaken out of the zone I had been, ruminating on the cruelty of nature, red in tooth and claw. Another thing I’ve learned is that when I get mentally stuck on something I find upsetting, anxious, or even overly rational, I tend to run bad.
Running has become a vehicle for something akin to meditation for me, the place I am best able to practice awareness and being in the present moment. As I continued over the marsh for a brief detour along a tidal creek and to a bayside beach, I readjusted back into the flow state I had been in before, just being with the magnificent sensory inputs in front of me. I paused for just a moment at the beach, taking in the massive arc of the bay, the salt smell, and the clarity of the air that made the blue of the water and yellow of distant dunes so crisp and distinct.
From there, it was 9 more steady miles through the town center (a general store and old church), and down the rail trail between 2 big ponds, also giving off humid heat, and into the hilly woods that served as the town’s watershed and back door to my neighborhood. Those last couple miles are my favorite. An ancient cartway which, based on circumstantial evidence and common sense, almost certainly follows the old trail the Saquatucket band used to visit their cousins who lived over near Nantucket Sound.
By the time I got back, I felt a lot of things: calm, accomplished, grateful that I grew up in such a beautiful place. I didn’t set any personal records or accomplish anything notable from a performance standpoint. But I felt rooted in time and place, appreciative of my ability to experience natural beauty, and had a deep knowing that regardless of how I performed in the half marathon, runs like this make the training worth it.
3 weeks later, I’m on the starting line in Cambridge with a mass of other people trying to ignore the cold. We’re milling around, jumping in place, and chatting with strangers. Anything to ward off the chill and distract from the pre-race jitters that every runner feels. The race starts and waves of runners surge forward. The first mile or so of any large race is a bit chaotic. You’re essentially in a human stampede. Runners are feeling out their pace, trying to manage adrenaline, running onto sidewalks jockeying for position. If you’re not careful, you can ruin your whole race in this first stage by getting caught up in the chaos instead of keeping your awareness on the race you intended to run. Some high school Cross Country teams take advantage of this by designating a lower-ranked runner on their team as the ‘rabbit’, whose job is to sprint ahead in the first mile and try to goad the other team into burning themselves out early.
Right around 2 miles in, as the field of runners thins out and people start settling into their pace for the next 11 miles, I see a gap opening up as runners dodge some roadkill. As I approach I notice….it’s another rabbit.
I’m a skeptical person by nature. When I read about ancient pagans trying to divine the future by reading the entrails of animals or the flight of birds, I roll my eyes. My rational mind knows this is just a coincidence, but it’s still one I let myself notice. And in noticing it, I drop back into the flow state from my training run – fully present to my surroundings, grateful for the experience I’m having, and re-focused on my intentions for this day. And I end the race more than fulfilling those intentions. I feel a little bad that a couple of rabbits were the cost of hearing what the universe was trying to tell me, but I promise to hold on to the lessons about awareness and intention, so their sacrifice won’t be in vain.