Two towns over was an aviation school, and I resumed my flight lessons there. One balmy autumn day, I filled an old backpack -- one with no support or padding, something that looked like it came free with a vacuum cleaner in the 1980s -- to hold my pilot material, then rode off to the airport. At the front desk, I asked about getting a lesson. The person at the desk signed me up for a few hours later, and I camped out at the airport, realistically unable to do any differently given the selected mode of transportation.
Finally, my time came up, and I met the first in what would be a string of instructors. She grilled me on my background, and we scheduled a time to fly later in the week. The process cascaded from there: by the time I finished college, I had a multi-engine commercial instrument rating and had logged about 300 hours in a variety of small planes.
Early on, that total took physical effort to achieve. Once or twice a week, hunched over like a mobile Quasimodo, I would mount my $200, ill-maintained steed for a pretty brutal 15 mile ride. The wind-swept expanses regularly turned 12 mph average (zero-wind) speeds into 8 mph slogs. I would show up late for lessons and appointments, sweaty and smelly and with a sore back. But my instructors were forgiving, and each one who left for greener, not-me-and-my-various-smells pastures passed me to the one they thought would be most sympathetic to my situation. The bike was, after all, what I had.
Over Spring Break during my freshman year, a tornado ripped apart our school. It was in all the papers. Since the college was out, the toll was almost exclusively property damage, and boy howdy was there property damage. I heard about it on the news to kick off a week of visiting my brother in D.C., where he lived in a gigantic basement apartment in Howard/Shaw. It was so large he gave me my own room with an arched doorway. Where by "room" I mean "partitioned 8'x6' section" and by "doorway" I mean "twin sheets hung from a rafter", and by "arched" I mean "with a rafter about an inch higher than the top of my head". This last item was often appreciated up close by my taller brother.
I didn’t know it at the time, but his neighborhood was anything but up-and-coming. The one run I remember took me across a few nearly-deserted streets, up by Howard University, and back. Two blocks from my brother’s apartment, I passed a group of 4 30- and 40-something black guys moving furniture, two of them schlepping a dresser while the other two struggled to lift a bed in the front door. I stopped, my Northwestern neighborliness showing.
“You guys need help?” I asked innocently.
The four of them looked at me like I was possibly crazy. Then the oldest one laughed. “You just out for a run?” he asked.
“Yeah, went over to Howard. I’m almost done.”
“Thanks for the offer. Really. But, uh, we’re good.” The whole group was smiling at this point.
“Enjoy the rest of the run!” one of the others said.
I told my brother about the encounter when I got back to his place. Being young and inexperienced, I just thought they were making fun of a kid running; it took a while for him to explain the massive racial baggage of his neighborhood, the historically black areas of DC that white people were just scared to enter because, well, black people. He told me about the unsettling infrastructure problems, about local crime rates and policing. (Now, of course, the neighborhood is full of rich, white people who’ve dropped $800k on townhouses that need work or a million plus on those that were either stripped to the studs and refabbed or torn down and rebuilt.)
At the end of the week, I got on the plane and headed back to Minnesota. There, I found a campus that was in no shape to be occupied. School administrators felt the same way, and we were given a respite of several weeks while they sorted out the housing situation.
I stayed with my first flight instructor, by then a pilot for a regional airline. The first day after returning, I went to campus (where we weren’t supposed to be) and got the janitor to let me into my room (where we were definitely not supposed to be), expecting to find all my pilot kit waterlogged and ruined. Instead, my roommate had carelessly tossed my backpack on my bed before he left, saving it from flood damage.
I took the bag out to my loaner car, then went back to grab my lacrosse stick. Because in order to run, I would need the stick. I did a tour of my typical route on foot. It was a longer run than normal that included dodging downed trees, avoiding dumpster zones, and taking in 360-degree views of buildings with particularly interesting damage, but it held me in rapt attention. The destination was all the destroyed buildings, empty lots where familiar sights had been, and washed out roadways, and I totally missed the fact that I put in about 6 miles doing the loop.
Over the course of the next week, I spent more time running than biking, and when school finally came back into session, there were daily reminders of the storm, from hail-battered cars to the never-ending stream of construction vehicles on campus to the citywide cleanup efforts that we all pitched in on.
I returned to the usual running route though, with just a little more need to dodge assorted debris fields. So it was as school wound down, and since my roommate was in the orchestra and they played graduation, I stuck around an extra few days after classes finished to enjoy the quiet of a near-empty campus. It was so gorgeous, I don’t remember a thing about it except having a ton of time to play beach volleyball.
Spring gave way to summer, and I went back home to Port Angeles. As my old newspaper job was a year-round gig that required constant attention to detail, it was not possible to be a summer fill-in more than a day every week or so. Instead, I took a job at a restaurant downtown. My shift started at 6 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m. I would arrive (on bike) around 5:55, hastily change into my really crappy work clothes, stay on my feet for 8.5 hours, then take my “lunch” at the end of my shift. The owners didn’t like that I refused breaks, but near as I could tell, the only reason people took breaks was to smoke. As a non-smoker, that seemed rather pointless, a needless extension of my work day.
And when I got home, I would wait until before dinner to head out on a run, knowing I might get to the wall and just decide not to leave. Old habits might die hard, but when new habits and old habits get together, the result is a 4-mile run that ends with a wall session and maybe another 1.5 mile run home. Not the worst situation if you’re trying to get in shape (which I wasn’t) or trying to get out (which I was).
It's around now that a typical running author waxes eloquently about the quiet calm of a runner's life, time spent on the roads pursuing a deep passion, discovering the mysteries of existence through the power of bipedal motion. There's the sense of calm borne of regular thrum of footfalls on pavement, or irregular, muted steps along a forest path. Can you ever truly describe the emotional peace carried on the ocean waves and delivered at the foot of the mountains, the miles between spanned by joy and suffering, delight and dismay, pleasure and disappointment, layer upon layer of experience deposited like geological strata beneath your feet?
Probably not. So I'll just skip a bit instead.
At the start of my second year in college in September 1998, the cross country coach -- with whom I had made acquaintance because I was by this time Sports Journalist of the Century or perhaps slightly less than that -- subtly tried to recruit me. He failed, as he would fail twice more, but I was flattered by the suggestion. It wasn’t until the second time that I realized he did it because he saw potential (for once this isn’t a faux-arrogant-author comment; this was reality). Had I known then just how good a runner I could be, I probably would have joined the team.
First semester of my second year in undergrad drew to a close, and I had also taken up volleyball more rigorously as a down-time hobby. Friends in the dorm began playing almost daily as the days shortened, even when it was chilly outside, and we started honing our skills for a future in the club scene that none of us yet knew was in our future. I also joined an intramural soccer team, playing goalie with several disillusioned high school varsity guys who didn't make the college team. November through March the college varsity team put up its own players (and a couple coaches) as an IM squad, and whether we won or lost -- it was always close -- the bitterness and violence of those games was surprisingly cathartic for my clubmates.
I had also taken up the actually potentially deadly sport of casual drinking. (I mean, even more than freshman year, when I binged a few times and felt like garbage immediately after -- though that was probably more potentially deadly than my sophomore escapades.) In spite of that, rather than tacking on the proverbial the Freshman 15, I managed the Freshman minus-5 and quickly dropped another few at the start of my second year. In spite of this loss of potential energy, I was climbing up the potential well, my body primed for greatness.
If only I'd known what I could be great at. To be honest, I didn't have a plan except enjoying myself -- which is really all anyone can ask for. The Second Training Plan, the unexpected one that had seeped into my late-teenage life, was changing me, but I was changing in other ways as well. I could either embrace more athletic advances or just keep doing whatever the hell it was I was doing.
Next up: Going for Distance!
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.