Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Collection of Random Thoughts From a 17 Mile Run Through Chicago on a Cool Fall Day

   Standing on my front step. Looking at the light rain. Hesitant. And finally into the street. The first steps are good. Not great. But better than what I'd feared. Tightness in both upper thighs and my right calf. But nothing that I can't run with. And the left ankle feels fine for now.

   East on 19th Street. Go by the old laundromat. Cross the weed choked railroad tracks. Come out onto Halsted and turn south. I feel good. Better than expected. But this is a long run, and it's dangerous to get too excited too early.

   Over the drawbridge, under the Orange Line tracks, out of Pilsen, and into Bridgeport. The doors are open at Freddie's. They're not open for business yet. But this is the first time I've seen the inside of the building since the fire. It's been completely gutted. Everybody inside is wearing a tool belt. And nobody is eating pizza. But it's good to see that there is work being done.

   A man mowing the lawn in the rain. I remember mowing lawns with an electric mower when I was a kid. Long orange extension cord stretched out behind me. One couple that I mowed for, seemed to always be fighting. I wonder where they are now. I wonder what they're like.

   East on 35th. Run by the ballpark. Tag the statue. Rituals can be helpful. They can help you remember things that might be easily forgotten otherwise. Over the Dan Ryan. Under the Metra tracks.

   Out of Bridgeport, and into Bronzeville. North on State. Through the ITT campus. Dodging students. Umbrellas in one hand. Cell phones in the other. Eyes locked on the phone.

   Traffic on State Street is light, yet slow. A cruising sedan parts the waters of a giant puddle, like a canoe on a small lake. A crosswalk beeps its signals for the visually impaired. I cross the street and make a soft left back onto the sidewalk. Careful with the ankle.

   East on 31st. Moving beyond the campus. Residential Bronzville. Vacant lots behind chain link fences. Old churches. Broken glass in the gutter. A lonely gas station. John J. Pershing Magnet School. The lights behind the windows of the classroom trailer seem dim. The fall weather suits the neighborhood well, and I feel comfortable and at peace as I pass through.

   Onto the bridge that takes me over a dozen or so sets of of railroad tracks. Outbound trains headed for places like South Bend, Indiana and Kalamazoo, Michigan. The skyline comes into view from the bridge. The dark and misty fingers of the sky grab the tops of the buildings like a chess player resting his hands on his pieces, uncertain of his next move.

   Onto the lakefront path. 31st Street Beach. An elderly man is talking to himself about the rain and the wind and the waves. And my first thought is that he's at least a little crazy. But I was contemplating the same things in my head. And he was simply giving voice to his thoughts. Is that gap so big?

   The man fades into the background, and I'm left with one of Chicago's best kept secrets. The south end of the lakefront path. Bird sanctuaries filled with wildflowers. Waves crashing into the seawall. Several miles of quiet open space. The rain picked up as I ran by the Fallen Firemen and Paramedics Memorial Park.

   Next to McCormick Place, I see a small group of ducks with their beaks shoved into small puddles. And I wonder what type of food there is to be found in such a spot. On the north side of Burnham Harbor, I see people fishing in the rain. They're the first people I've seen since the old man.

   Around the aquarium and into the downtown stretch of lakefront. The weather keeps all but the most determined tourists at bay on a day like today. And even this stretch is free of all but a handful of people and a few dozen geese.

   Ohio Street Beach. Oak Street Beach. People standing by the water. Just looking at it. That's incredibly common. Something about the massive body of water just draws the attention of people. I don't remember ever going for a run along the lakefront without seeing at least one person in that trance-like state.

   North Avenue Beach. One last water fountain, before heading into Lincoln Park and turning south to go home. Empty carb packets litter the area around the fountain. Many of this city's marathoners are only twelve days from Race Day. And they will have just finished the last of their long runs.

   There had been trucks scattered along the beaches. Gathering seasonal equipment, and taking it to storage until next year. And the same thing was happening in the park.

   I ran through Old Town. Boutiques and restaurants. Bars and condos. A world that always feels a little foreign to me. I pass the shop windows and give a passing glance to the things that I can't imagine even wanting, much less buying. With the one exception being food. I do love food in all of its delightful variety.

   The fatigue and the soreness were getting hard to ignore. It was a lazy summer, and the rust is still apparent. But there was no sign of injury. And fatigue and soreness can be beat. Besides, I wasn't settling for anything other than total exhaustion today.

   I ran down Orleans, just south of Division. A stretch of road that doesn't seem to fit with any of the neighborhoods that surround it. Not Old Town to the north, or the Gold Coast to the east. Nor River North to the south, or the ruins of Cabrini to the west. Orleans from Division St. to Chicago Ave. serves as a cafeteria for many of the city's cab drivers. Indian, Pakistani, and Somalian restaurants populate this stretch of  the city. A small pocket for the locals, on the outskirts of a downtown area that is geared to the tourists and suburbanites that seem to prefer the comfort and familiarity of the big chain restaurants.

   I turned west, not wanting to get caught downtown. I ran by the home of the Jesse White Tumblers and a large community garden. And I turned south on Halsted, rounding the Tribune building. As I climbed my final bridge, I put my head down and locked my attention into a series of slow but steady strides. Up the hill. Over the tracks. No slacking on the pace. Crest the hill. And bring the head up to feel the rain as the downhill stretch begins.

   This is the spot that tells me I'm almost home. Just a few more miles to go. My steps were slow, and my legs were heavy. But I felt good. I wasn't moving fast, but I was moving clean. There was no hitch. No pain. I was almost 15 miles in, and I was fine.

   My head cleared as I moved through the West Loop and made my way back home to Pilsen. I wasn't thinking much about my surroundings anymore. I was just movement. Steady, flowing, movement.

   I saw a small bird on the sidewalk near the end of the run. It wasn't moving, but it sat upright and from a distance it didn't seem hurt. But as I got closer, I could see it's right wing was sticking out at an unnatural angle. And then I got close enough to see the raindrops collecting on its cold stiff feathers. Beads of water standing on the stillness of a vacant vessel. I stepped over it and made my way home.

   Nine and a half weeks 'til the Memphis Marathon. Time to move.

Into The Storm

"Everyone who has run knows that its most important value is in removing tension and allowing a release from whatever other cares the day may bring." - Jimmy Carter

   I got up at 6:00 this morning. I work at night, so it's rare that I'm up before 8:00 or 9:00. My dreams were strange and vivid, and maybe even somewhat relevant to the real world? I've got too much crap in my head right now. Unavoidable family stuff for the most part. Things that I am helpless to change, and equally helpless to let go of. I'm glad that my training schedule calls for a long run today. It's the only way I know to clear my head.

   17 miles. That will be the longest run I've done since I ran the Cleveland Marathon in May. I feel pretty far removed from that race. But I'm slowly making my way forward. And I do have time. The race is nine weeks from Saturday. If I can get back into a good rhythm within the next few weeks, then I'll be fine. I keep reminding myself that I ran my fastest marathon just three and a half months after my slowest. And most of those gains happened in the final two months of training.

   But that's looking too far down the road. Right now I just want to run. And I want to feel good doing it.

   The sky outside of my window looks something like an old blanket that's been left outside for months. It may have had some color to it once upon a time, but it's just a grey mass now. Cold and heavy and wet. And the trees are not made a brighter green by the rain, the way they are in the spring. They just look tired. I imagine the lake looks restless and agitated right now. It all sounds incredibly inviting. Time to lace 'em up. Time to run.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

When The Sun Comes Up

"Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must move faster than the lion or it will not survive. Every morning a lion wakes up and it knows it must move faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn't matter if you are the lion or the gazelle, when the sun comes up, you better be moving." - Roger Bannister

   I took my new running shoes out for a spin today. They're blue, silver, and white. They look like modern, sleek versions of R2D2. They're probably the shoes that I'll wear in ten weeks when I run the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. And when I look at them, I can't help but be frustrated by the contrast between how they look and how I feel.

   I feel banged up. But I'm not that far into training. At this early stage, I shouldn't feel this tight and sluggish every day. I've got a minor sprain in my left ankle that won't go away. It's not so bad that I can't run, it's just bad enough that I can't run well. I've given it plenty of rest, but it's not responding. So to hell with it. I'll run anyway.

   I ran ten miles today. Not too fast. Not too slow. About 7:45 per mile. The ankle held up. But it's a little swollen now.

   Other parts are more tight and sore than they should be too. But I don't see any point in listing them off. It's just difficult to get my mind in a good place, when so many things feel out of place physically. My body feels muddled, and my thoughts do too. Though I did experience a fleeting moment of clarity today.

   I ran through downtown to get to the lake. It was raining. A soft and cool rain, which is always nice to run in. Tourists and suburbanites littered the Saturday morning streets. They crowded under umbrellas, they scrunched their shoulders up, and they ran from one awning to the next. All in a futile effort to avoid a few drops of water. Judging from their body language and facial expressions, you might have thought that there were cannonballs falling from the sky, rather than tiny raindrops.

   And then I got to the lake and I saw other members of my tribe. Dozens of them. Wearing only shorts, shirts, and running shoes. Shoulders back, heads held up, and big dopey grins soaking up the simple joy of running in the rain. I fed off of that instantly. My body was still sore, but I didn't care. I splashed through puddles. I bounded up and down the occasional lakefront hill. I leaned into the turns. And I too had a big dopey grin to accompany my thoughts as I remembered, for a moment, why it is that I run in the first place.

   I wish I could say that that lasted. That I turned some metaphorical corner, and that I'm back on track mentally if not physically. But it didn't. And I'm not.

   I'm not in a panic either. I'm just going to do the one thing that I know to do. I'm going to run. And I'm going to hope that this stuff blows over. And regardless of what happens, whether I'm feeling strong or feeling hobbled, I'm going to run that marathon in ten weeks. And I'll run the best race that I have in me that day. Whatever that may be.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Soft Footsteps

   I was ten years old when I saw it for the first time. We'd moved to a new neighborhood, and I'd met a kid that lived down the block from me. His name was Kirk, he was also ten years old, and he had leukemia.

   I knew that that was a serious illness. And I understood that it would kill Kirk at some point. I was old enough to grasp those concepts. But I'd never given much thought to how the disease would affect his life on a day to day basis, prior to his death. At ten years old, the idea of "day to day life" was so automatic, that it never seemed to warrant any conscious thought.

   Kirk was small for his age. When we played, he often ran out of energy. When we rode our bikes, he went around the obstacles that I would jump. He was quiet and soft spoken.

   There were times when we were playing with large groups of boys, and the play would turn loud and rough with the collective energy of the pack. Kirk would head home when that happened. It wasn't that he didn't like the rough play. He just couldn't do it. He'd never say goodbye, or let me know that he was going. He'd just disappear.

   A lot of our play happened inside the house, with action figures and toy cars. We'd mimic the chase scenes that we'd seen on TV, or jumble the identities of the action figures, combining characters and story lines from pro wrestling, Cold War era action movies, and the NFL. Like a lot of young boys, we idolized grown men that were stronger and faster than the next guy. I think the wistful aspects of that play were especially acute for Kirk. He was never going to grow up to be a man. Strong and fast, or otherwise.

   A year passed. His trips to the hospital became longer, and more frequent. Sometimes he was at school. Most of the time he wasn't. And then one day I looked out of my bedroom window and saw an ambulance driving slowly down the street, coming from his house. I really think that I knew at that moment that it was over. A few hours later, his older sister called our house. Kirk had passed away.

   I was sad about his death. But I wasn't grief stricken. There was a general melancholy lingering about my thoughts and feelings, but it was a quiet and peaceful sadness. Maybe that came from Kirk himself. He'd seemed at peace with his fate since I'd met him. He accepted his illness and its consequences with a soft dignity and humility. If he was suffering through any internal torments, whether physical, mental, or spiritual, I never noticed it.

   I remember one night that he'd come to my house to sleep over. When I woke up the next morning, he was already gone. My mom explained that she'd heard the door shut in the middle of the night. She looked outside and saw eleven year old Kirk walking down the dark and empty street by himself. He'd gotten cold, and rather than ask us to turn the heat up, he'd quietly made his way down the block to his house. It was just a few months later that he left this world in the same manner.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Me & My Beast

"All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up." - James Baldwin

   I haven't done much serious running over the last four months. Which is to say that I've been running all summer, but I've done it sporadically, usually at an easy pace, and rarely for distances beyond eight or nine miles.

   I had been writing a lot over the first two thirds of that stretch, but that has fizzled as well.

   I feel like the two are related, though I'm at a loss to explain that feeling in a succinct manner.

   After I finished the Cleveland Marathon last May, I knew that I was ready for a break. That was my third marathon in eight months, and I was physically and emotionally drained. So I reigned it in. I ran when I wanted to run, and I rested when I wanted to rest. I filled my summer with greasy food and cold beer. I indulged my social life in ways that I'm unable to do while training.

   I very quickly let eight months of work fade away, and let my body go soft.

   But not all of that time went to idle comfort. I spent a lot of time at this keyboard. Some of it for this blog. And some of it for other forms of writing. I dusted off an old fictional character and saw him develop and grow in ways that he never had before. And I saw a new character born as well. I worked through the early periods of gentle exploration with her. Slowly and gingerly seeking to discover who this person is. It feels like watching a bird hatch from an egg. I try to nurture it and keep it warm, while letting it emerge from its shell at it's own natural pace. A beak pecking through the shell here. A wingtip emerging there.

   But after a while the writing grew stagnant. The process became sluggish and cloudy. And my head grew soft.

   I've been picking both of those things back up as of late.

   I'm running the Memphis Marathon in less than three months, and the miles are beginning to pile up again as I become more committed to my training. That is a relatively straight forward process at this point. I know what I need to do, it's simply a matter of doing it. There are frustrations over the degree to which I let myself go over the summer, but I know that I can put that aside. There just isn't anything useful to do with that stuff, so you set it down and walk on.

   The writing process however, is far less straight forward. There are the standard problems of writing to work through. Sorting through the words that stream through the head. Trying to sort the honest thoughts and feelings from the comforting lies. Trying to figure out what fears and disappointments and regrets are lurking beneath those lies. That stuff is always a big part of the writing process. In fact, that is the very reason for writing. Writing is simply searching.

   But it isn't enough to just find those truths or expose the lies. Because the discovery doesn't bring instant resolution. If anything, it breathes life into some things that are big and powerful and at times terrifying. And you find yourself sitting there with this beast, and you know that it has to find a home. It can live, sometimes it has to live, but it can't live with you alone. It'll kill you. So you want to let it out into the world.

   But that's not so easy to do. The beast may belong to me. It may carry my name. But it also knows everybody that I know. And if I just set him free, there's no telling who he'll cross paths with.

   I remember reading Long Day's Journey Into Night in an English class. The story itself was dripping with the tension of desperation and fear and love and suffering. But what really hit me was the story of the author himself. When I learned that Eugene O'Neill had sealed the manuscript and asked his publisher to wait until 25 years after his death to publish it, I was dumbstruck. Not only had he decided to live alone with the beast, he'd agreed to let it climb into his coffin and follow him into eternity.

   Maybe that's where my connection between running and writing comes in. I haven't yet figured out what to do with my beast. I keep breathing life into him. He grows in front of my eyes. And I'm not as afraid of him as I used to be. But I know that I can't live with him forever. So for now, until I find a way to set him free, I take him running with me.

   It takes a while to wear him down. He's a strong runner. But I'm stronger. He grows quiet as the miles add up. And when I get home, there is a moment of peace, I can almost believe that we could be friends. And I can sit in front of this keyboard and breath yet more life into him.

Monday, September 12, 2011


   Flags waved. Songs were sung with trembling voices. And people all across the country asked each other to remember where they were the day that the planes hit the towers.

   Thousands of lives were lost on September 11, 2001. And in the ten years that have followed, millions more have died or had their lives, their families, their homes, shattered beyond repair by the wars that were fought, and are still being fought, in the name of those attacks.

   I can't tell anybody else how to feel about that. I can't tell anybody else what to think about those attacks, and our collective response to them. But I can hope, for myself and my fellow Americans, that as the dramatic images and stirring words of the anniversary fade, we find our way to a place of thoughtful and compassionate reflection. A place of honest reflection. I can hope that we consider everything that happened that morning, and everything that preceded and followed the attacks, with an open mind.

   And I hope for those things, because I believe that this is the best way for us to truly honor and respect those that have died. I can hope for those things, because I believe that honest and thoughtful consideration of our place in the world, and of those that we share it with, is the most effective means of limiting the deadly conflict that puts such a tremendous weight on the hearts of so many people around the world.

   My own thoughts on the topic are numerous and muddled, and often conflicting. I find it difficult to believe that a world without war is possible, yet I find it immoral and unacceptable that we should strive for anything less. I believe that as Americans, we are guilty of unspeakable atrocities, both historically and in the present moment. I also believe that as Americans, we are responsible for acts of profound beauty, sacrifice, and heroism, both historically and in the present moment. And I believe that those truths, as well as many others, need to be considered in any worthwhile discussion of September 11.

   I don't want to elaborate on the specifics of those beliefs right now. Because that's not the point that I'm attempting to articulate here. I simply want to remind myself to thoughtfully consider those beliefs, how I got them, and what impact they might have on myself and those around me. And I want to hope that my neighbors will do the same.

   (Below are three pieces that offer viewpoints that I found thoughtful and honest. The first was published about a month after the attacks. It is a long article, but well worth your time. The other two were published yesterday, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks. One is a quick read from a faith-based perspective. The other is a four and a half minute video clip discussing the media treatment of the tenth anniversary.)