I sat on a small bluff amongst a crop of trees. Before me lay Lake Calhoun…
Moments before I was biking home from work. I needed some air in my tires, so I pulled into a gas station. I didn’t have a gauge, so I decided to wing it, eyeball the pressure. But how do you eyeball air?
Luckily, I moved to the front tire when the back one exploded. For a moment I was jolted, then dazed. I didn’t know what to do. I had a blown tire and was miles from home. So I started to walk.
It didn’t take long to reach Lake Calhoun. I had a choice to take the bike or pedestrian path. I split the difference and walked between the two.
I’m a boomerang when it comes to trauma. In the heat of the moment I’m as smooth as sand. It’s only after the upheaval do the emotions start to surface. That’s when it hit me. So I set down my bike and sat on the small bluff.
The lake looked so composed. Not a ripple lapped to shore. How could that be with so much activity whirling about?
I don’t think I came close to hurting myself back at the gas station. Still, it was difficult not to think of Rodney.
Rodney was a year ahead of me in college. He was a few weeks from graduating. Already, he had a job lined up with an accounting firm. But first, he was helping his dad plant crops in the field. One of the tires on the tractor was lower than the others, so Rodney started to fill it with an electric pump.
This wasn’t a bike tire or even one you’d see on a car. This was a tire as tall as a kid and as wide as a shopping cart. Rodney didn’t stand a chance when it exploded.
When his dad reached him, he threw his coat over Rodney’s exposed skull. A helicopter would land in the muddy field and fly him to the nearest hospital.
Rodney was one of the nicer people you’d ever meet. He was easy going and affable. If you were a god picking winners and losers, Rodney deserved a better fate.
When he came back to college it was for therapy. He was still Rodney, but he was a different version of himself, like he needed to be reintroduced to others, to himself to the moments of the day.
Part of Rodney’s therapy involved working on his short term memory. He still had the long term, but even that was shaky. When we ate lunch in the school cafeteria, he brought up events and people, but he spoke like he could be convinced otherwise. The tire blast didn’t kill him, but it knocked him off course. There would be no job waiting for him. For the moment trying to remember would be enough.
I sat on the bluff and thought about Rodney. It never occurs to you how fleeting it all can be when you are in a car trying to make the next light or on your bike trying to pick up speed.
I had a hard time understanding how the lake remained so calm. Maybe it was always this way. How would I know? Over the years, I couldn’t remember a time when I gazed onto this body of water. I was young and filled with too much energy. Work was work and the only way to lower the stress was to exercise until the pressure ebbed. It seemed counterintuitive to work madly to reach a calm level. Why couldn’t calm be?
Behind me cars sped and cyclists circled. In front were runners, joggers and walkers. I didn’t want to leave my spot, but I didn’t think I could just sit there. I looked around and decided it would be fun to rate the joggers as they streamed by. There were so many of them and they were all completely unaware that someone was sitting on the bluff silently judging them. But the only way to truly gauge a person’s stride is when they are unaware of the competition.
Jogger #1: a guy in his mid 30’s. He is overweight but not obese. He has the build of a former athlete who forgot what it was like to work out. His legs actually look confused by the foreign nature of the movement. He doesn’t so much jog as stagger. He moves with the grace of a gunshot victim staggering to escape. It’s amazing he’s still upright. Score 3.5
Jogger #2: a woman in her mid 30’s. She presents fine form. Her pace is far from up-tempo but it is smooth and easy going like she knows her limit and is determined to stay composed. Score 6.0
Joggers #3: a group of guys in their 30’s. They look to be stockbrokers or corporate attorneys. They are probably out for a run to keep in shape for a weekend of rugby or lacrosse. They have confident strides and move aggressively. They stick together like fighter jets. They have stopwatches. They have personal bests. Nothing matters but their jog and they move through the crowded path like a swarm of killer bees. Score 4.5
Joggers #4: a couple, probably newlyweds. They look like they still think it’s still fun to do things together. They are not really jogging, but instead hovering above a brisk walk. Whatever they are doing, they are doing it together, in sync, their arms swinging in unison. This type of movement doesn’t happen without practice. The symbiotic nature of their jog is only an afterthought as the couple catches up on neighborhood gossip, vacation plans and the evening meal. Multitasking never moved so well and the Russian judge is pleased. Score 7.5
Joggers #5: a can-do mom pushing multitasking to the extreme. She is deep into a power walk, pushing a doublewide stroller and pulling a slobbering Rottweiler. She has a blue tooth device firmly ensconced in her ear and a highly caffeinated drink in her hand. She is walking, pushing, pulling, drinking and talking rather loudly. She sounds like she is already trying to get the twins early acceptance into Yale. She will not take no for an answer. Her stroller has a wide berth. If you are in her way, you better not be when she reaches you. Disqualified
There were many joggers with varied styles. Some were good, some were bad and others were plain ugly. Many passed by but I didn’t see any that merited a perfect score. I tried to recall if I ever saw the perfect jogger. The more I thought, the more I came to the conclusion there was only one.
Even with many different styles and strides, there is one thing all joggers have in common: nobody smiles. Just look around the next time you are on a path. Those on the trail are in pain or about to be in pain. Jogging isn’t about fun. It’s about breaking a record or meeting a goal. It’s about staying in your zone or pushing your limits. It’s a challenge. It’s a charge. It’s the medicine you really don’t want but still take. That’s why I could never understand Spider.
Spider was one of the joggers I came across on the well-worn trails, a regular I recognized by sight but really didn’t know by name. So, I assigned him a nickname like I did with so many others like:
Runs with No Butt, a rangy gentleman in his 70’s. He had curly, coarse hair and a ruddy complexion like he spent his whole life at sea. He was always on the path no matter the time of day. He jogged all the time. He shuffled more than ran for his feet never left the ground. I think he developed this stride early for he had defined legs but no back side. None! His shorts were one step from dropping around his knees. Even if the shorts fell, there hardly would have been a full moon.
The Fellas, a group of guys in the late 50’s. They were well off for they had nice clothes, deep tans and were exercising while others commuted to work. They met every morning for a walk or a jog, depending how their bodies felt. They were no longer in their prime and their numbers fluctuated with injuries and flights to warmer climates. But no matter the numbers one of them showed every time. He was the constant and it was surprising for he was built like a bull and moved like a cannonball. His frame was more suited for bocce, but every morning he was out there in the thick fog and thin morning light, outlasting all his buddies until he eventually became a solitary runner, trudging along.
The Linebacker, a guy in his early 50’s but he moved like he was 85. Even though he could no longer outrun a melting glacier, he still retained the chiseled presence of a hurricane. In his prime he must have been a terror. He was a former Viking when they were the Purple People Eaters. Sometimes he jogged with his wife. Mostly, he jogged alone, hitting the trail by putting one foot in front of the other. No longer able to blitz, he still moved through the landscape like a force of nature.
The Steady, a woman with long, black hair. She had an olive complexion and dressed like she was ready to jump into a J Crew catalogue. She never ran or jogged but always walked with two immense Newfoundland dogs that moved like giant bulwarks.
They say over time pets and owners start to look alike. That was not the case in this situation, but the woman handled the dogs so well, they looked a part of her. I never saw her without them. There was a regal nature to their walk like she was not in a city park but a country estate. It was always nice to see her. Sometimes I caught a reserved smile. It was nice to see anybody on the paths that looked happy. That’s why I always liked running into Spider.
Spider was long and lean and moved through the terrain like an afternoon breeze. He looked like he could stay on the path for hours. Although he was by far the best runner on the trail, he never jogged like he needed to prove it. He jogged because he liked to jog. There was a groove to his step. Whenever I saw him coming from the other direction, I knew there’d be a big smile on his face.
Usually, Spider and I intersected from opposite directions with a slight nod or wave. Sometimes he would pass from behind. He usually let me know with a word of encouragement. And when he swooped around, he did it so smoothly I had to question my effort. He was a gazelle and I was a mule. He was always going to pass me. In fact, there was only one time I was able to return the favor.
It was the hottest day of the year at 108 degrees Fahrenheit with 80% humidity. The streets started to bubble. The air felt like a wet T-shirt. Even the trees drooped. For most, the day was simple: stay in and survive. For me, with no rational thought in my brain, I thought it would be fun to test my limits. I never ran in 100 degree weather and I thought it would be a great idea to not only jog, but to go around the Minneapolis chain-of-lakes, all three of them. Heck, why not? At that moment I was in good shape and didn’t have a next-of-kin. Greatness or tragedy awaited. I kicked open the door already in stride.
It didn’t take long for me to wind through the Kenwood neighborhood and hit the path that would take me around Lake of the Isles. I kept a brisk pace and quickly moved around bends and curves until I peeled off for Dean Parkway onto the path that would take me around Lake Calhoun.
It was unbearably hot. The heat and the humidity were suffocating. There was no reason to be outside but for some reason I was finding my run surprisingly easy as I carried my thin frame over the sparsely populated path. The joggers were few and far between. One thing they all had in common: they all had racing numbers.
What merely was a jog to test my sanity now turned into a challenge to knock off one number followed by another. For the first time in my life I was the gazelle and the rest of the joggers were parking meters. For some irrational reason I was burning the humidity like jet fuel. I was passing each and every runner and gaining momentum.
By the time I reached the south side of Lake Calhoun, I knew I was maintaining a pace that would not allow me to stretch around Lake Harriet. Instead of slowing down, I decided to speed up and shorten my route. I pushed myself around the bend and moved past more and more runners. There had to be a finish line and I wanted to blow right through it, raise my hands into the air and keep on running.
Then I saw him.
It was Spider and he was wearing a number.
Never in my life had I passed Spider. Never did I think of passing him. The thought never crossed my mind. Why would it?
Instead of swooping around, I geared down and trailed. I don’t know why I did it. I was flustered. The heat and the humidity started to settle. Before I knew it I was clamoring Spider’s space and almost clipping the back of his heels. Spider was moving slower than his usual gait. But then again, how fast was I going? All I knew is we had intersected and I didn’t know what to do for the axis of the earth had tilted and the roles were reversed.
“It’s all right.”
Without looking back, Spider repeated himself.
Then it hit me… why I slowed down. In some way I was paying respects. But this had nothing to do with title or power. I don’t think it had anything to do with running.
I quickly picked up my pace and swooped around with a wave and a nod. I then sprinted the length of the lake until I saw the finish line. I raised my hands and crossed the line. Two people who manned the finish cheered, “Way to go number…”
I kept on running and peeled from the lake. I pulled onto Lake Street and moved into the Uptown neighborhood. It wasn’t until I reached James Avenue that I finally shut down my run in front of two ladies who were walking to a store.
“Running in this weather,” They said. “Are you crazy?”
“I did it,” was my reply.
I jogged for a few more years but already I was feeling my body breaking down. I started to walk more. Biking also became my mode of transportation, but that was before the flat tire…
I got up from the bluff and stretched. It had been a while since I jogged on the path in front of me. I still saw the regulars from time to time, but not as much. I even tried to remember the last time I saw Spider.
It wasn’t at any of the lakes. Instead it was at an intersection by the Walker Sculptor Garden. I was on one side of Hennepin Avenue with my bike and Spider was on the other. He was still jogging, but this time he was pushing a baby stroller. Even with the passing years, Big Daddy was still out there doing what he did better than anyone else – smiling.