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Monthly Archives: July 2013

Before the temperature reached 86.

Before the temperature reached 86.

In late May, Margy, Katie and I loaded up our 1999 Lexus RX300 and headed east. Katie had taken a campus job for the summer before her last year of college. She would need a car. Katie would coordinate 12 service trips for freshmen entering Bowdoin in August. Starting this year, Bowdoin required all entering freshmen to take a pre-orientation trip. Lasting Tuesday through Saturday, a pre-orientation trip introduces students to Maine, Bowdoin, fellow freshmen and upper classmen. Most incoming freshmen choose an outdoor adventure. Some select service. It seemed like such a short time since we dropped Katie off for her own freshman pre-orientation trip. Since then, she had gone on a pre-orientation trip, led a trip as an upper classman and now would coordinate all of Bowdoin’s service pre-orientation trips.

On our way to Brunswick, we stopped in Chicago to visit a couple we have known since 1981. At dinner, they told a story about a neighbor, a larger than life guy, ex-military, a raconteur. One day, without any warning, our friends’ neighbor dropped dead. One minute, he was the picture of vitality, the next, he was gone. Our friend later had his own health scare. Once that happened, he said, “I realized that this is not a practice run. If I want to do something, I had better do it now.”

On a subsequent trip to Chicago, we visited another couple, old friends who adopted two boys, each of whom is handsome, energetic and suffers from subtle but difficult effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.

So in the time since Wildflower, I have thought a lot about kids and the fact that this is not a practice run.

Afton Trail Run 50K

This is my third Afton. In 2011, Minnesota’s state government shut down temporarily and the race relocated from Afton State Park, the usual venue, to Afton Alps, the adjacent private ski area recently purchased by Vail Resorts. The terrain is pretty much the same in the state park and ski resort. While “Alps” is a bit of an overstatement, the terrain features hills overlooking the St. Croix River that separates Minnesota and Wisconsin. Let’s put it this way: Vail is not embarrassed to put its name on these hills.

The park trails twist and bend almost as if a drunk ant laid them out. Some of the trails are smooth double-track wide enough for park service equipment to access. There is even a little bit of pavement under one bridge – about 25 yards. The vast majority of the trails are single-track, much of it rutted, laced with roots and cluttered with loose rocks of varying sizes. That sort of terrain is difficult when climbing, tricky and scary when descending. I am several decades beyond the age when falling on gravel and roots was fun.

John Storkamp

At about 6:20 a.m., John Storkamp, the race director  pictured above called everyone to a park bench. John wore a bandana to cover his long, reddish hair while large black earrings protruded beneath. John’s bodybuilder arms stuck out of his black tee shirt. John had lots of tattoos, more than last year, I thought. John took off his gloves. He stood on the park bench and addressed the 200 assembled runners. He said that small orange flags tied to wires sticking up out of the ground marked the trail.

“If these are on your left, you are going the right way,” he said. “If they are on your right, you are making it hard on yourself because you are going the wrong way. Turn around before you make your day any longer.” John also noted the nine-hour time limit.

“We are only going to start about one minute late, which I don’t think is too bad,” John said. “Go.”

We plunged down the hill with the warm orange morning sun filtering softly through the full canopy of leaves arching overhead. People stopped talking and the sound of feet slapping and skidding awkwardly on pea gravel covering the steep slope was all that accompanied heavy breaths of moist morning air that was already beginning to warm up. Even though I was in a small group to begin, the pack fractured quickly and I found myself alone. My breathing became rhythmic, deep. I had more than four hours to think as the leaves surrounded and passed.

Bottom of First Hill

I regretted not having taught Katie more. There were some things that we just hadn’t covered. I also realized that we may never get to many of those lessons. I recalled a passage from Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. The ferryman, a simple man whose only job was to ferry people across a river, spoke to Siddhartha, a very wise man whose life paralleled the Buddha. Siddhartha’s son had left Siddhartha so that the son could make his own way. Siddhartha was filled with regret and fear as he watched his son go off on his own, sure that his son would make many mistakes that Siddhartha could help the young man avoid if his son would only stay near and listen to his advice. The ferryman said,

“Do you then really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them? Can you then protect your son from Samsara? (suffering) How? Through instruction, through prayers, through exhortation? My dear friend, have you forgotten that instructive story about Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, which you once told me here? Who protected Siddhartha the Samana from Samsara, from sin, greed and folly? Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him? Which father, which teacher, could prevent him from living his own life, from soiling himself with life, from loading himself with sin, from swallowing the bitter drink himself, from finding his own path? Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path?”

In thinking back on the passage, I realized how much I had left untaught and how little that may matter. Ultimately, our children need to learn for themselves – even if we teach them all the right lessons, even if they stay near.

Our friend’s son had played three years for the Chicago Blackhawks, just won the Stanley Cup and renewed his contract for a very tidy sum. He’s 22. While I believed that his parents did a great job raising him and tried to teach all of the important lessons, I wasn’t sure exactly what they could have taught that produced such an outsized result.

Meanwhile, our friends in Chicago admitted spending about $150,000 per year for each of their adopted sons to get supplemental help to try to overcome the deficit created by their birth mother. Those were two lucky boys: They had adoptive parents willing and able to get the best possible treatment for them. But, in the end, their parents didn’t expect their boys to ever fully overcome problems that began before the boys’ birth and before their adoptive parents could do anything at all. Our friends needed to think about how to care for those boys once our friends pass on. So our friends enjoyed no control over their boys’ health before birth and assumed extraordinary obligations throughout and beyond the rest of their lives. I’m no theologian, but I think that saints walk among us all the time, usually without notice.

I tried to make sense of all of this as the terrain undulated beneath my feet and the sun rose, changing from warm orange to bright white.

I’m Well Aware

A few miles into the race, I got a rock in my shoe. Ordinarily, if the rock is not too big, I just try to ignore it. But it was early in the day and the rock was too big to work around. So, I stopped and sat on a picnic table. I removed the rock, tied my shoe and began to run again. A man in a red shirt had passed only a second before I got back on the course. We were on the top of a hill with a view east looking out over the St. Croix shining silver in the distance in front of some feathery green meadows rimming the Wisconsin horizon.

Afton is a small race. It features only three age groups: “Open” for those under 40, “Masters” for those between 40 and 50, and “Grand Masters” for those over 50. I like to keep track of who is in my age group. The man in the red shirt could have been almost any age. He was trim and muscular. His head looked to have been shaven beneath his running hat. He wore water flasks on his Fuel Belt.

“Have you done this race before?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“How many times?”

“Four or five.”

I wasn’t getting a lot of conversation from this guy.

“Do you just run or are you into triathlon or anything else?” I asked.

“Just running,” he said.

“So what’s the longest race you have run?”

“100 miles,” he said in a matter of fact way.

“Wow,” I said. “Just out of curiosity, how old are you?”

He turned his face and torso toward me. I felt uncomfortable.

“You and I are age group rivals,” he said in a way more animated than he had been. “You beat me last year. I was second. I’m John Maas.”

I felt hot and very uncomfortable. For the first time in my life, I realized that I was someone’s nemesis. I didn’t like it; I don’t do Snidely Whiplash well. I far preferred my persona as a scrawny geezer, friendly but anonymous, running with the pack. Then I recalled last year.

“I’ll bet that you are unhappy with me,” I offered. “Last year, you would have set the age group course record.”

“I’m well aware of that. I finished and thought that I had it. I thought that I had set the record.”

I’m sure that I turned beet red – or more beet red than I already was. I felt extremely embarrassed. I felt like I should let him win this year. I felt bad about beating him.

That feeling passed in just about 15 seconds, though, and I began to push. I opened a small gap.

Several miles later, I needed to step off the trail for a bathroom break. While off the course, John built about a 250 yard lead on me. I could see his red shirt in the distance as we ran the level part of the course paralleling the St. Croix River. I could hear the water lapping the shore and the breeze rustled the leaves lightly. It felt a little cooler by the river but the air was warming and accumulating moisture.

I worked very hard and caught up with John. For the last several miles of the first 15.5 mile lap, I followed John closely. Sometimes I ran right behind him, other times I gave him about 25 yards’ lead. I measured him, learning that he descended much better than I did on the rocky, rutted trails but that he did not climb as well or run as fast on the flats. It would be a mistake, I thought, to be even with him during the last few miles before the finish. I thought that he could beat me on that section’s tricky, twisting descents with loose rock and roots.

At the halfway point, we refilled our bottles and headed out together.

“I can tell now what’s going to happen,” John said. “You and I are going to keep one another in sight until the last mile.”

“Geez, I just don’t know,” I said to John.

To myself I said, “Fat chance. I need to make sure that this guy is nowhere near me by the time we reach the last mile. Otherwise, I’m dead.”

Once again, I pushed. John fell back a little. Then a little more.

The sun rose higher and the temperature climbed into the mid-80’s.

I began to think about kids again. This time I wondered what in the world my parents had done to so abuse me that I thought that running 31 miles on a hot, humid Saturday morning was a good idea.

“They seemed nice at the time,” I thought. “But I couldn’t be this bent as a 54 year-old without them having pretty well fouled things up.”

The Last Mile

I thought that I could hear the music from the finish line and looked down at my watch. I had to be getting close. Not so much. I had thought that I was entering the last mile but I was about a mile off. At that stage of the race, an extra mile seemed like an extra eternity. I trudged up the final big hill, conscious of lifting my knees high to avoid catching my foot on a root like last year and falling into the rocks, dirt, branches and roots. At the top of the hill, cars lined the road but the run to the finish seemed to take forever.

At the finish, I didn’t indulge in any celebration. I just took a few steps beyond the finish line and stopped my running watch. I glanced back down the course: No red shirt. A volunteer offered something to drink or eat or medical help, if I needed.

“Shade, please,” I said.

The volunteer pointed me toward a picnic table under an awning. Runners and families had gathered there to share a picnic lunch and to get out of the sun. They were chatting happily, telling stories about their runs and enjoying brats, beer and beans on a hot summer day.

A toddler stood shirtless in front of me, the closure of his diaper showing above the belt line of his grubby shorts. His cheeks were iridescent pink, smudged with dirt. His eyes were bright, clear, and blue, his feet bare. The boy played between two picnic tables, oblivious to the adults chatting with one another.

I sat down heavily.

The boy paused for a moment and looked directly into my eyes. He broke into a broad, seditious grin. Then he turned and ran off into the grass, his wispy white hair trailing in the breeze, illuminated by the noon sun.