Nine days ago, I wrapped up a long run along the Banks-Vernonia Trail. I had the typical array of thoughts on my mind that day, about work, family, and a marathon that starts about seven hours from now.
I took the run slower than normal, as I am still wrangling with nerve issues in my right thigh. I had learned to manage it and still do what I enjoy doing. I don’t think I appreciated that Thursday afternoon just how precious and fragile all that was, how good I had it, and how I took every bit of it for granted.
The next day, my world was upended with the news that a cousin of mine had died in a head-on car crash. I remember in those first moments, the utter confusion that someone I had grown so close to was suddenly gone. I felt doubt and denial, that I hadn’t heard the name right and it wasn’t him. Then I was hit with anger and rage as reality set in and how unfair it was. And then sorrow flooded over me, at the overwhelming loss for his wife, family, and friends.
I left the office and almost threw up in the parking garage. I couldn’t believe what I had learned. Everything I’d been working on that day, everything I’d been interested in up to that point, and all of my worries ceased to exist. None of it mattered. I didn’t want to do anything.
Our family had planned a trip to Seattle that weekend, and we decided to continue through with it. When we arrived, we had plenty of time before dinner, and the others wanted to rest, which ordinarily would be a green light for me to put on my running shoes and get lost for a while. Instead, my mind immediately started creating reasons why I couldn’t run in Seattle, or around the airport, or anything. Not that night, nor the next morning. I stared at my shoes and felt empty. I ended up not running at all that weekend.
Then Monday came, and it meant driving almost four hours to Central Oregon for a golf tournament my company was sponsoring. I decided to stay overnight in Bend, and while I’d planned to run Monday afternoon, it didn’t happen. I again created the reasons why it wasn’t going to work out.
On Tuesday morning, I hemmed and hawed as I started packing up my stuff in the hotel. I had planned to drive the four hours back to my office in Portland and work a few hours, before picking my son up from school. But I kept looking over at my running gear. I literally pulled the clothing out of my bag, only to place it back in, several times. I knew I was dealing with depression, but it didn’t change the hollow feeling inside me and the absolute lack of desire to run. Finally, I grabbed my gear and threw it on the bed, saying aloud my intentions. Instead of driving off, I geared up and stepped out into the cold, early Autumn morning for a 90 minute run.
The trees were orange and red. The sagebrush bright yellow. The sky, gray most of the morning, was now deep blue in places. A storm off to the West drew near, but looked at least an hour away. It was now or never. I’d chosen a route that would circumnavigate Awbrey Butte. The start of the loop was 1/4 mile from the hotel, and I headed off and up NW Mount Washington Drive. The first two miles were continuously uphill with about 400 feet of elevation gain. Though it had been four days since my last run and despite the elevation, I was strong throughout the climb. Rounding the western flank of Awbrey Butte, I passed through a construction zone, then the downhill stretch past OSU and COCC, and finally onto Shevlin Park Road. Turning East, I continued past several roundabouts, until the road became Newport Avenue. Finally, I crossed the Deschutes River and joined onto the Deschutes River Trail, which took me back to the hotel along the eastern side of Awbrey Butte. It was a fantastic run, and I needed it.
That would be the only time during the week I would run. In the days since, I’d had no interest in getting back on the road. It means in the past seven days, I’d had just one run. I’ve thought about a lot of things these past days, including why I run, how I have acted on those feelings, and what I need to start getting away from.
Going from 35 miles of running per week down to just nine, you might pass off the last week as simply my taper for the Portland Marathon. But I purposely avoided packet pickup on Friday. The thought of running in a pack of highly competitive strangers was sickening to me. I’d rather be alone. To start running at the crack of a racing gun held by some person I’ve never met seemed like idiocy. I’m not a dog listening for its master’s command. I’d rather go at my pace and by my own drive. To run because I have turned it into an obligation and not because I want to, seems like the ultimate betrayal. I run to be free, not ritually enslaved to something I don’t enjoy.
So Portland Marathon, as much as I’d thought of P.R’ing at a sub-four-hour time… can keep my tax-deductible “donation” of $150. I really don’t care about the dog and pony show of yet another organized group run. Not now. Maybe not for a while. The last thing I want is to be restricted or forced through some fake set of rules. I don’t like rules. I don’t like limits right now. I don’t want to think about what I cannot do. Someone very dear to me cannot do anything on this planet anymore, forever. So don’t put rules on me. Just give me space.
We needed an escape from all that constraint, so my wife and I headed to Pacific City for the weekend. I started writing this post last night, and I shut off the laptop when I figured out I needed to sleep on my feelings.
This morning, I plotted a course through town and over to Cloverdale, a small farm community about seven miles to the East. I wasn’t sure the exact route I would take, but I know the back roads well enough to make it up as I go. So off I went. I hit the road this morning because I wanted to; Because I wanted to do something this weekend in lieu of the marathon; And I wanted it to matter.
The scenery was beautiful. Sweeping, pastoral landscape of cattle and barns, bending rivers and golden trees. Wet, paved roads highlighted by bright yellow stripes around blind turns. But the air was relatively still and there was no rain. It was as perfect as it was going to get.
As the miles ticked up, I thought about my cousin and the many things we’d done together, along with our wives. The good times, the jokes, the brilliant conversations… and the utter loss that he is no longer here. Tears were close to the surface many times, but I felt a sense of calm and peace on the road. It wasn’t the same desperate, needy feelings I had last Tuesday. This was instead, a moment to be drawn out and soaked up. It reminded me a lot of the long run I did in my hometown after my father passed away. On that run, as this morning, I felt a sense of total peace, as if a hand were on my shoulder.
Reaching Cloverdale, I realized there were large buildings high up the hill above the town. Instead of turning around as I’d originally planned, I continued on and up the hill. Around the first turn, I saw an old Ford Falcon, nicely polished and on display. My grandmother had one of these. I used to drive it through town. A man was working on the car and I chatted with him a bit. He was getting it ready for sale. I pushed on and reached the top of the hill, figuring out it was the town’s schools, next to a small community college.
The run kept going. I was hitting double digits now, and had added a few offshoot roads to keep the miles adding up. I had a goal in mind and I didn’t want to come up short.
I was mindful that my pulse was slow and breathing very easy. Only once and for just a few minutes, was my heart rate escalated, as I climbed a hilly portion of the road. I was determined to pace myself out this time and not burn out early.
Ultimately, I ran 20 miles (32 kilometers), which I decided on to honor my cousin, who was 32 years old when he died. I felt like he’d been along the road and out in the fields with me on that run, and it wouldn’t be right not to recognize his participation. I wasn’t aware really, about my pace. I ended up running it at an average pace of 8:52, which if I’d done a complete marathon would have come in at 3 hours and 53 minutes! I would have P.R.’d after all, if I had decided to run the marathon in the morning. But this meant more than that. I wouldn’t have had the peace or healing from that, that I got from this morning’s run.
And that takes me to the title of this post: Running through grief. Not away from grief, but through it. Not escaping the feelings, but working through them. Running has always been an outlet for me, and yet in the darkest times, I run from it. Maybe I’m afraid it would mean running from the things I must face. But every time I run, even the times I force myself to get out there like I did last Tuesday, I realize just a few steps into the run that it is precisely what I needed to cope and be strong to face the challenges.
Years ago, I identified the connection between me running or not, and whether I was a caring human being, or a jerk instead. If I wanted to make sense of the world around me, I had to move the earth under my feet for at least several hours each week. But there is a big difference between knowing what you should be doing, and having the drive to do it. I recognize that depression is a roller coaster of feelings, and will be for awhile. We all grieve in our own way and by our own timeline. Even running, though therapeutic, cannot be forced. It has to happen when the time is right, as I found out this week.
As I run through this grief, I am challenged to hold tight to the things I love about this activity, and not walk away from them. I am also challenged to let go of the unnecessary dogma I have subscribed to over the years, perhaps to clear the way for a new chapter of my running journey.