Today is a day off. I suppose I could hit the track and waddle about a few go-arounds, but yesterday reminded me with bitter emphasis I need to be careful.
I'm a newbie. I can't forget that. Although I do know a thing or two about running, knowing is not the same as doing. And what I remember about the mechanics of running is filled with uncertainty; I am not sure how I did what was then so intuitive.
I remember the joy of fitness, and remember the wonderful days when running was graceful. Speedier people existed, but no one took more pleasure than I did.
When I was in my late teens, a favorite run had me cruising through the perpendicular streets of eastern Palos Heights, and then up the undulating blacktop of 119th Street in Palos Hills. Take 119th to LaGrange, where the road ends and the forest begins, and then the adventure begins.
"The woods are lovely, dark, and deep," Robert Frost once wrote. Such were these woods. The trails were more often travelled by horses and deer than people. People rode the horses, but few runners and walkers came through this way. The path was littered with hoof-holes and road apples, both requiring delicate steps from a runner.
The route I took was off the path. I started by going directly west, then would turn right, leaving the path and trounce and bounce up and through valleys made by glaciers long ago. A huge mushroom hung on a tree, like a shelf, all white and impressive. That's how I knew I was in the right place.
The smells of a forest are hard to describe. It is like a strong, hearty soup. Mostly, it is all one flavor, but, with each spoonful, a whisper of an individual ingredient comes alive. Pepper, carrot, beef, barley -- it is all in there, and occasionally they announce themselves personally and not merely by congress.
The woods have this, with oak and maple dominating the air, with leaves growing and dying all at once. Felled trees, working their way back into dirt, have a damp, rotted wood scent. When there is a breeze, this is fine, as it is never so strong to be horrible.
Animals left their smells, and depending on the season, the scent of forest flowers and insects wafted airborne. Wayward skunks might leave a calling card, but mostly, they remained unseen. Beetles en masse have an awful, pungent odor. I don't know if this is a device for protection or a mating call, but I was not impressed. Not when I gulped air by the gallon.
While Henry David Thoreau's view of being mid-wood would not equal mine, I too connected with a kind of minimal materialism. I ran, then, with little between the trees and myself. Just shoes and shorts and a bandana. I might have worn a singlet, but on hot days it was relegated to be carried by my shorts. I carried a quarter for a call home, just in case the run when sour. Used the quarter only once.
That particular bit of woods was the Swallow Cliff Forest Preserves. Better known as a toboggan run, it also served as an intense, difficult stair run (see stairs on left of picture above), up and down. I do not recall how many steps there were, but each was awkwardly shaped after years of weathering and erosion. Each step was a careful decision, and no cadence was possible. Physically difficult because each was long and high, intended to support slowly plodding sledders encumbered by heavy jackets and, of course, a huge sled, and not for thin runners hoping to touch each step with only one foot.
Typically, I'd run the stairs 2-3 times. That's a lot. These were no high school stadium seats, but part of runner lore. Bragging rights came from how many times they could be done in succession. I bragged my share.
The whole run -- I really have no idea how long it took, or how far it was. I usually started it in the morning, maybe 8 a.m. and finished -- later. Summer for a high school kid did not required a watch. Time meant little, and so long runs ended when they were over.