Trail Running

An IT-band can be an awful running mate. The fibrous tissue runs from the hip down the side of the leg to the knee. It’s the gathering place for muscles in the front and back of the thigh. I bet the IT-band thinks of itself as community builder with all of those muscles coming together under its protection. Today I think it is a scam or trap for it has brought a pain to my knee that has stopped me in the middle of a trail about six or seven miles from my car. To go forward on the loop would allow me to finish the miles I needed for my training, but the distance back to the car was shorter if I simply turned around.

How had it come to this?

People run for many reasons, vanity, health, competition. I was running for vanity. My son commented that I looked like a whale and I believed it was true. Sure it hurt, but honesty is best, right? Running was cheap, I could do it at night by myself, and it was an old demon I thought I might exorcise. High school cross country had put a mark on me that I never really ever got over. I started running minutes, then miles, and one day on the White Clay Creek trails in Pennsylvania I had the bright idea to run a marathon. My health was good, the whale was back at see, and after a couple of marathons the competition virus took over.

I set goals. I followed crazy running programs. I went faster, harder, and farther than I thought possible. Things at home had become bad, so I also ran angry. My running face was more of scowl than expression of effort. I had become sick of the nagging, tired of the union, and afraid to move on. To compensate I ran more, raced more, and generally scheduled my runs so I would be away from the one who caused me such pain.

There were morning runs in the dark before work. Runs in the dark of night. Long runs on weekends at far away trails. Distance charts and heart rate graphs became my support system. A shoe rotation system became my higher order thinking. Running was about all I had. My barber used to laugh at me and say that I was too big to run marathons. Soon my body would agree and on a visit to my parents’ house I decided to hit the trails for an extra thirteen just because I loved running in York River State Park.

My legs were beginning to feel the wear and tear of all the running. My hips were tight, my hamstrings were short and there was a knot in my calf that I just accepted as normal. Despite all of the aches, I laced up my trail shoes and shouldered my Camelback and took those first few ginger steps towards something I have a hard time explaining. I don’t think I conjured this up, but who knows.

A normal run started as a struggle until the blood and breath found a balance that let the parts move freely. The first few miles of a long run are about the mind finding a peaceful message and then thinking only of that. Sometimes I counted. Other times, I concentrated on the sound of my breathing. On this day, my mind raced from argument to argument. The energy of it all becoming an obstacle that I could not avoid. To quiet my thoughts, I picked up the pace exerting an energy my IT-band would not ignore. I brushed off the first shooting pains and then there was one step that might be the closest I will ever come to being hit by a musket ball. My knee locked and I hobbled to a stop. After resting and stretching, I tried a few more steps, but the pain was too great. Even walking was too much. All I could do was wait the pain out and then get back on the trail.

“Hey, Chris, what’s going on?”

There is no way that after six miles on a cool and cloudy day that I should be hallucinating, but I had to be. Standing in front of me and dressed for a run was my grandfather, Big Daddy. I knew this could not be true because he had been dead for two years and before that suffered with cancer and lung issues that made him more sloth than trail runner. Besides those obvious maladies, my grandfather would never have worn shorts or a headband.

“Why’d you quit running? You were fast today,” he said.

“It’s my leg. I have a kind of tendinitis,” I said.

He nodded his head like he always did. His eyes were penetrating, but my grandfather was a man of few words. I’m not sure I ever had a conversation with him. He would ask a question and get an answer and that was it. The same worked in reverse, no extra words. He would take me on jobs and errands with him and all that either of us heard was the wind coming in the windows. He always had his hand resting on side mirror and I started doing the same just because it seemed like that was what I was supposed to do.

“You know, I ran ten miles to get to a football game once,” he said.

“I heard that story at your funeral. Why didn’t you just ride the bus?”

“My father made me work all day and I missed the bus. He was a tough man. Anyway, I just had to run. Come on, let’s go.” He held his hand out and helped me up.

Standing was tough. My muscles had cooled and the IT-band was tighter than ever. There was no way I was going to be able to run. Big Daddy had other plans.

“You’ve already been there,” he said pointing back down the trail, “let’s go somewhere new.” He started running down the trail with the bullish gate I would have expected from an old, dead man. I still had a hard time believing he was there, but I followed dragging my pain along with each excruciating step.
“Yep, my father was a tough man. He was until I put him in his proper place.”

I knew very little about my great grandfather. He seemed to have been a rough man who got what he wanted with force and very little sympathy for the feelings of others.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I let my father go. I made a life without him,” he said.

“And what did that do for you?”

“It made me happy.”

On the word “happy” my grandfather began skipping. He was smiling and light in the air. His movement was infectious and I found myself skipping too. Each step-hop took me further down the path with a physical ease and an uncluttered mind. There was a joy the skipping that had been absent from the hundreds of miles that I had run over the last few years.

I lost track of time. It was like we were riding in his tar splotched Dodge listening to the wind whistle through the cab with one arm out the window. Before long, he made a turn and we were heading into the parking lot.

We stopped skipping and he turned to me and said, “Life’s too short. Run away.”

Then he was gone.

I quit running for many years. I never stopped skipping though. His advice was solid and my new life has brought the kind of joy I felt that day on the trail. Recently, the vanity returned and I’ve been running again. This time, though, there is no reason for for aches, pains, struggles, or angry faces. I may as well be skipping because life is happy and if running is not in it for the day, I’ll row.

Thanks, Big Dad.

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