Monday, December 14, 2015

Just you and me, Pheidippides

Unforeseeing one! Yes, he fought on the Marathon day:
So, when Persia was dust, all cried "To Akropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
'Athens is saved, thank Pan,' go shout!" He flung down his shield,
Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the Fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine thro' clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died--the bliss!

                                  --Robert Browning, Pheidippides

My running habits have changed quite a bit over time. When I first started the run/walk program, I would usually head to the treadmill at about mid-morning. As I started to run outside, in preparing for races, I would go earlier in the morning. The reasoning for this was that I felt very self-conscious. I would get up at 3:30 am, sometimes 4 am, and I would run for however long my plan called for. The additional benefit of this was that at the time our apartment complex was located on a highway. Going out really early meant there were almost no cars on the road, and afforded me an additional level of safety.

Sometimes I would see foxes, deer, or coyotes running around that early. They would be my 'running partners' and offered a perspective on a place I've lived most of my life but very rarely see. I'm not really a person who believes in 'spirit animals' but I will admit to feeling a certain level of camaraderie with them. In the pre-dawn hours we were the only things moving, aside from very few automobiles. The world was ours and it was as if I'd stepped into some pre-historic version of New England. A forest along the bay where the wind blew very cold, and the pot-holes were plentiful.
My very favorite runs have often been my long runs. They provide a chance for real solace, and the overcoming of a feeling of uncomfortability. I probably shouldn't say 'overcoming' because you don't really overcome that feeling in the sense of 'putting an end to it'. It is more that you figure out how to live with it, and minimize the effect on your mind. One of my marathon plans called the work level "comfortably hard" and I think that applies here.

I live with a lot of unwarranted anxiety before long runs and races. There are a couple of reasons for this: As much as I love long runs, and find a lot of fun in them, somewhere in my mind I find them to be insurmountable. Also, with regards to races, I am antsy in a crowd of people I don't know. Usually by the end of the run, I've found at least one person to talk to, but the feeling of isolation standing in a chute is not one I've ever really identified with as a feeling of community, or camaraderie. It is a gaggle of strangers. I feel out of place in that situation, and it adds to my ill-at-ease sensation. I have a couple of ways of coping, though.

Back in those early days of my running, I started an early morning mantra as I bulked up my weekly long runs from 20-26 miles back in September of 2013. I'd stand in my driveway, about to head onto the road, and say to myself, “Just you and me, Pheidippides.”

I mean, OK. So I haven't had an imaginary friend since I was six years old. Back then it was Frosty the Snowman (don't laugh at me, I was six.) But if you're a runner, you could do worse for an imaginary friend than the spirit of Pheidippides.

As has been written about for a long time in running circles, Pheidippides was the legendary runner who ran to notify Athens of the Athenian victory against Persia at the plains of Marathon. He also ran to Sparta days before requesting aid. I don't need to hash out the legend here, if you are a runner, you know the story. If not, there are many places for you to find the story.

The point is, like a lot of long-distance runners, I feel a kinship with this character from whom I am separated through hundreds of years of time. Whether or not he really did the deeds in his legends, it is generally considered true that the Greeks used messenger runners to cover large amounts of land. These people must have had the same feelings we did: a torrent of emotion wrought on by incredibly physical grind. Fear at the unknown, ease in one's confidence, sorrow at pain and reflection, and joy at the mastery of one's physical movement. We're not so dissimilar even separated by this much time. That character and that mantra pulled me through some very trying long runs through the very early hours of the morning in 2013.

Over time, I've begun running later into the afternoon and night. This fall I started doing a handful of runs in the early morning again. This was out of necessity of having to get up for early mornings with the baby, but also because it feels organic to me. My training hours have modulated from early morning, to mid-day, to afternoon, and now late evening. The obvious next progression was a return to mornings.

There is a remarkable peace in my urban setting during the early morning hours. The city is for the most part asleep, save for people delivering newspapers, bakery trucks shipping out bread and supplies. The actual hustle and bustle of my little city is hushed. The roads, for the most part, belong only to me, the stray cats, the raccoon, and the possums. Being that my slice of earth is so dense, it also means that a 26 mile training route can take me from my city, to some nearby farmland, into the woods, before returning back home. I can cross state lines twice, if I want to, and I can change elevation quite a bit for someone who live at sea level. These things feel epic to me, because I never would have imagined running so far unsupported a few years ago.


The early morning fog dampens my eyes  
the rhythm of covering ground sings in my bones
I long to cover hills, cross wide fields and return
weary and worn and satisfied from that truly hard work
I gaze into the distance of time and space,
geography within my own mind
My heart dreams of Big Sur

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