For most of my life, I ran either the Chicago streets or most recently, the Chicago Lakefront Path. Running in Chicago is exhilarating: the lake path is used by runners, walkers, and bikers and is well traveled. Running from Hyde Park along the path, heading north toward the City, the view can be breathtaking, and Lake Michigan provides a feeling of openness despite the crowded skyline looming ahead. Lake Michigan itself changes, seemingly with my moods, though I dare not ascribe such power to the moods of one lonely runner. The roughness and crashing waves on some days mirror my dark moods, and on others the placid glass-like calm hypnotizes me into a peaceful reverie while running.
Lately, I’ve been running in Michigan, on two-lane roads out in the country. It is quite a different experience, and one that I enjoy for its contrasts to running the Lake Path. I see the occasional walker on my runs, but mostly, I see only cars and pick up trucks as they zoom past me on the roads (and a very few of them, too). Once, I saw a farm dog that followed me for about a half-mile or so. The feeling of seclusion on the runs is oddly not one of loneliness. The farmhouses that dot my path remind of life beyond the wide open, snow covered fields. The sky is huge, and like the lake, it can mirror one’s moods, or serendipitously change it. The blinding glare of sun shining off the snow or roads can bring joy, or the cloud covered and menacing sky can bring serious contemplation. Either way, the shifting light and the connection with the elements brings a sense of completion to one’s day, even if it is only the beginning.
It’s been pretty darn cold here – today when I made the turn to head back into Three Oaks, I went full force into the North wind, with nothing to block it on the wide-open rural roads. The weather channel said it was 12 degrees with the wind chill. Even though it was a hard run back home, I enjoyed the challenge, and the chill felt surprisingly welcome after running for miles with the wind at my back.
Running has been an important part of my life for the last 25 years or so, but I have gone years at a stretch when I was not running. I’ve also spent a few years getting myself into more competitive racing shape, but that has gone by the wayside since children have complicated my life. It took me a while to be comfortable with where I was, running-wise, and not to worry about not running fast enough, or competitively enough. Running in rural Michigan, I am less worried about my mile pace especially since (unlike the Chicago Lake Path) there are no mile markers every half mile. Out here, I am never really sure how fast, or slow, I am running. I am just happy to be running. Period.
Running is sort of like writing. It causes pain, and it takes mental concentration and a willingness to endure a certain amount of discomfort. But in the end both writing and running pay dividends in mental health, in making sense of one’s life, and in remembering why it is good to be alive and healthy.
The other good thing about running here is that I can accept limitations. When I was running more competitively, I would be angry, upset and otherwise down on myself if I went out for a run or completed a track workout and didn’t run fast enough. As I have aged, my body has changed, and it may no longer be able to handle the exertion that was required when I was running for different reasons. Now, I am running to clear my head. Running is like meditation, I think, though I have never meditated. It takes concentration, but ultimately, one can lose oneself. There are miles where my mind is totally clear, and I am not really thinking about anything – I just am – in the weather, on the road, on the earth. Feeling, but not thinking. Moving without conscious effort. Or conscious only of the effort. Running brings a sense of serenity, and I can be out of my body in the most extraordinary way—letting go of the very mechanism that is moving me forward.
I’ll admit it – I do hope to someday run fast – to feel that sense of speed, power and joy that comes from racing a body well-trained. For now, though, I will make a conscious effort to exercise my mind and body. To run and write might be the perfect equation for creating a centered life.
My family good-naturedly drove with me to take these photos since I didn’t run with a camera in my pocket. I didn’t post photos of the Chicago skyline since it is well-know. These photos of my run today were taken later, when the sun was not shining. The sun was shining bright, glaring even, during my run which is maybe why I ran so far today.