THE RUNNER

I first met the runner on a path laid down for cyclists and joggers, on a frosty day; I could hear his steps coming up behind me, pounding on the surface of the paved trail that wound through the woods with an apology to the trees cut down, then I could hear his breath. That first day we did not speak, I merely recognized my age as he flew past me like a machine in gray sweats, with a woolen cap pulled down over his ears, his gloved hands swinging rhythmically like the pendulum in a grandfather clock, his body understated. Some runners ran like fish in a bucket gasping for air; some ran like inflated porcupine fish or frilled lizards or any of the other bluff creatures made by God, hiding their walking with exaggerated movements of the arms meant to feign running; some ran earnestly but with absurd defects in their stride, bouncing like human pogo sticks afraid to hurl their entire souls into what lay ahead, they ran with a leak, dripping away what was needed to reach the horizon; some ran hard but with legs that landed on the pavement like trees felled in the great north woods, some dragged themselves along with feet that were flat tires. The runner was like the arrow fired through the twelve axes by Ulysses, passing perfectly through all the holes. He lost nothing on the way; he did not cower, he did not wince when the road did not show its end, he did not retract from clutching the burning coal in his hand. When pain was given to him, he refused the bulky heavy bag that is thrown over the back of the donkey, he would not to load it onto his shoulders. Instead, he melted the pain and drank it, it was absorbed by his body like water was by sand, there was only the wet spot of something gone left in his will; his grace digested the torture and his beautiful stride remained. His fleetness had armor that weighed nothing, yet no bullet could penetrate it, the miles bounced harmlessly off him. When I saw him pass me, I felt like bowing down. I was a jogger. He was a runner.

Probably, we would never have spoken. Eagles do not speak to balloons. But, as it happened, he began his daily circuit through the forest-covered park at the stone bridge, warming up where I warmed up.

"Morning," he said, the first to speak.

"Morning," I said back, like a young boy though I was old.

"Nice clear day. Perfect weather for running."

"Yes," I said, though I would end up numb and frozen while he, wearing the warmth of his speed, would hardly notice that it was cold enough to snow.

"Beautiful day," he said again. You did not perfect the skills of conversation when you ran as well he did, you left the pack, the rest of the world behind, you became the sovereign of your solitude, you began to speak like trees do with branches and without words.

"Itís the kind of day Robert Frost would have made into a poem," I said.

Something inside him was lit by that, he was alone and sometimes read books. In his Spartan diet of brief exchanges with other souls about the weather, there was the need of spice; nothing that would slow him down, maybe a poem. "Whose woods these are I think I know," he said, but he could not remember the rest of the poem. "This forest is beautiful in the snow," he added. He was like Christian without Cyranoís words.

"Snow on trees is Godís supreme creation," I replied.

He smiled, and said, "How far are you going today?"

"The same as always," I told him. "Two miles."

"Thatís good," he said, like an art teacher who must praise every childís drawing.

"And you?"

"Today, itís fifteen," he said. His tone of voice tried to keep the distance from rising too high.

"Nice to meet you. Maybe Iíll see you again," I told him as he began to leave, like lightning ninety minutes from the earth.

"You, too," he said.

I did not ask to run with him: that would have been like asking to be his ball and chain.

In the weeks that followed, thanks to the little grove of trees by the stone bridge and our allegiance to our habits, we began to meet more often, and to talk more, learning about each other in bits and pieces, forming random atoms of conversations into molecules that began to take the shape of souls. Much of the talk was technical, interesting but superficial, it was like the hair of our bodies. From the runner, I learned that LSD meant "long slow distance", and was the healing valley between the peaks of days reserved for quality work, the bodyís way of leaving the field fallow; that fartlek was a Swedish training method that threw intense moments of acceleration into the steadier pace of distance training, so that the body became accustomed to variation, learning to integrate speed into its base of endurance, and to develop its ability to respond. He told me that in races, even the best sometimes became locked into a kind of mechanical gait from which they could not escape; beyond it nothing was possible, and beneath it there was only total collapse. Fartlek kept the lead molten, did not allow it to solidify in your body, to paralyze your chest and arms and deaden your legs. He told me about the tricks of road racing, of marathons and 20 kís; about keeping the body hydrated, about the fuel the runner must put into his body, about Bill Rogers and how to run down a hill, and how to change your stride going up a hill. "A plane that is not aerodynamic will disintegrate in the air and blow up into a thousand fiery pieces," he said. "A lot of runners are like bad planes, and when they take a hill, they come apart." He told me about surging, about the ups and downs of the spirit, the fluctuations of courage, and the importance of alertness, of stepping on the inner gas when you could see the will of your opponent sagging towards a temporary low point. By the time he could pull out of it, the distance between you would crush him. The runner warned of the danger of euphoria that could prematurely draw you out of your pace. "Like those amateurs who froze to death on Mt. Everest, the beauty of the peak could kill you." Especially in the marathon, with everybody cheering, you had to refuse to be the hero they wanted you to be, you had to stay inside yourself like the Buddha. "No one can help you," he told me. "If your body begins to give out, you will be like a mouse on a glue trap." He told me the story of Pheidippides, the Greek soldier who fought all day against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, weighed down by his armor, his helmet, his shield, and the thought of death, then ran the 26 miles back to Athens to tell the city that they were saved. He fell down there in the marketplace from exhaustion and died, and the modern marathon was created to subject future generations to the torture that had done him in. The runner smiled. He told me about the marathon runner years ago who had quit, then changed his mind after riding several miles in a motorcar, and jumped back into the race. He told me about Abibe Bikila, the Ethiopian who ran like water flowing down a hill, who won the hearts of the world with his bare feet overcoming the cobblestones of Rome in 1960. He told me about Frank Shorterís golden moment, and about the spiritual ecstasy of Eric Liddell as he raced about a track, propelled by passages from the Bible. "God reached into him through running." He mentioned Miruts Yifter, who ran with the herd till the last quarter mile, then became another creature altogether, turning into a horse while the others remained men. For the runner, this world was everything, it was like the history of his country.

Although I shared some things with the runner, some passages from Robert Frost, and a line from Rilke he liked Ė "I feel another world is very near to me, perhaps no more inhabited than the moon" Ė what I shared with him was mainly the chance for him not to be alone. For him, the opportunity to have a hole in his pocket, to lose some of the thoughts he always kept to himself, was a blessing, and he cherished our little chats as we stretched our legs, grimacing with pleasure, and leaned against trees, seeming to try to push them over. I cannot deny that I admired this man, especially as I saw him run. He would not compromise his form of worship by bringing me along with him, but I respected him the more for it; I have never wanted to be a burden to anyone, which is why I am alone and speak mainly to pieces of paper.

However, even as I admired him, our little drops of shared life began to bring me to a clearer picture of him, until, one day, at last, as I saw him running into the distance like a Platonic ideal, something utterly perfect before our efforts have turned it into a shadow, I felt a sudden surge of sorrow for him spring into my heart, and also a dark shaft of anger, which pierced me in the center of my strange love for him. The runner had no wife! The runner had no children! The runner had no friends! The job he did from home was barely useful, except for the brownstone that grew over his head because others were in love with unnecessary, clever things! The runnerís soul, certainly, did not live from what he did to make a living, he lived from running, which was his food, his shelter, and his clothing.

And what did this running do, except tear him away from the rest of humanity? Except steal his tremendous energy from fields that needed to be planted, from children who needed to be loved, from knots that needed to be untied, from visions that needed to be painted? What did it do but seize his great will and detach it from all the cries and longings of the earth, hurl his loneliness at lonely people, build vacuums with his disappearance? I saw a world dying, without fruits on the trees, milk in motherís breasts, or tears that had hands, I saw machines that killed men, and empty frames on the wall without paintings in them. And I saw the runner giving his last ounce of strength to a gray road in the winter. I saw him locked in the jail of his prowess, I saw him imprisoned in his running shoes, I saw him frozen inside the ice block of his determination, with politics, science, economics, and art on the outside, I saw him proving the same thing over and over again as though he would never believe he was not a cripple, I saw him hurling himself at the road that led nowhere, I saw his greatness broken by legs no other man had.

Runner, I thought! What are you running from? How far do you need to go to escape from it? How many miles away is the refuge? How many miles away is life?

Of course, I knew that these thoughts might only be the product of my jealousy. I could not flee, so I must stay behind and live. I had no grace with which to deceive myself, my body which quickly became clumsy could not excuse me from the world. I could not plate my evasion with gold. I could not win my soul over with the demagoguery of my body; my body spoke few words. I must give to the world, though he had so much more to give it!

The runner is a great man, and I am glad I met him. Whenever I see him flying down the path he knows so well, running as though he had no body to hold him back because of the omnipresence of his body, I wish I could be like him. I wish I could run after him and keep up, run beside him and hold silent conversations of rushing together through the woods, share trees at high velocity, see the faint trace of the moon that sometimes lingers in the morning, like an inner vision cast into the sky above the clearing. But I cannot run with him, and so we have grown apart.

He runs too fast to live among men, and I not well enough to live alone.

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