Sometimes life stars you. Your film wins at Sundance. Your book becomes a bestseller. You win the Nobel Prize. You jump a mud puddle in a way that is absolutely exhilarating, that for just one moment is a symphony of perfectly choreographed synapses, and a stranger is there to see it and grins with approval. Look at dude! Look at upright human jump and run!
The point being, you take stardom when and where you find it.
One of the sheer, unadulterated joys of my life is trail running, usually on the mountain bike trails at Butts Park, on the Clinton-Jackson border, where I go nearly every day when I’m in Mississippi. I’ve been running for 40 years, but am relatively new to trail running, having been introduced to it by my buddy Les about three years ago.
I’ve never been all that competitive, but since I was a kid I’ve always loved running full out, synching my breathing with the rhythm of my stride, feeling my feet slam the ground and take off again, heart pounding. I dream of running, in strides 10 feet long. There was a time when I was a pretty fast sprinter (“I was once a great beauty!” the hideous old woman tells Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”), but my speed has declined with age. When I was young I could never throw or catch very well, and was no good at regular football, but I was invincible at roughhouse because no one could knock me down. I was sure-footed, which is probably why I took to trail running right away.
For years I ran on the levee in Jackson, a flat, open route that induces a sort of detached Zen state during a long run. While traveling I’d run in places like New York’s Central Park, or find local routes on the website runtheplanet.com. Now, wherever I travel, I search runtheplanet for trails. There is nothing like the constant stimulus of running on a primitive woodland trail. Complications can really foul up a day, but not on the trail. There, the challenges are their own reward, and it keeps you on your toes in more than the obvious ways. I’ve run up on snakes; I’ve burst into the midst of a herd of deer, so close that if I were a caveman I could have killed one with a club; I’ve run through a swarm of bees. I’ve run upon lovers in a remote, ferny glen.
One of the downsides to aging, aside from the fact that your muscles don’t snap as fast as they used to, and that you’re LURCHING TOWARD CERTAIN DEATH, is that you don’t do a lot of the things you did as a kid that are pure fun, and might actually help you when you really are old. Things like jumping and doing somersaults. You just quit doing these things. There are some behaviors you have to give up over time, but not nearly as many as most people seem to think.
Back when I climbed recreationally with my friend John – on a wall, that is, there not being any cliffs in Mississippi, I found that the beauty of the sport lay in its concert of mental planning (of your next move), manual dexterity (obviously), balance, physical strength and willingness, daringness, to fail. That was what I really learned from climbing: You will never get better if you’re afraid to fail. Because when you’re hanging by a thread, legs spread so that each foot is pegged to a different point on the wall, and one hand is crinched around a hold, and the next hold above you is too far considering what you’ve got to kick from, you have to just do it, as they say. You fail 20 times and then suddenly you make it, and you’re ready for the next level. It’s good for you physically and mentally, and it makes you see failure in a different light.
Trail running incorporates all those things, but on the fly. You’re moving very fast. You have to anticipate where your foot will land, and where that will put you in terms of where your next footfall will be, for 30 minutes, an hour, whatever. You learn to throw your weight around by jumping logs, threading your way through exposed tree roots, leaping over creeks and mud puddles, through twists and turns, up and down hills.
To rediscover this kind of thrill after many decades is a kind of gift. Like I said, running has always been my thing -- I can be depressed or anxious and all I have to do is go out and run and the bad vibes evaporate. So dependent am I on running that in the days immediately after I was diagnosed with melanoma I threw myself into running with a kind of mania. Before my surgery, as all manner of terrible thoughts were going through my head, I came up with a novel escape strategy. The melanoma was on my thigh, and it meant removing a big chunk of tissue and muscle, and the doctors wouldn’t know how bad it was until after the surgery. My immediate fear was not dying but losing my leg, because it would mean I couldn’t run the way I always had. I guess I could have run with a prosthesis, but at this point I was panicked. I wanted my leg.
Part of the terror of such a diagnosis, aside from the realization that your own skin is trying to kill you, is that you lose the illusion of control over your life, so I guess it really does go back to the fear of death, whether you acknowledge it or not. My idea was that if they told me I was going to lose my leg, I simply wasn’t going to do it. Instead, I would go out to Butts Park and run myself to death. I was convinced I could do it. It sounds pathological, I know, no pun intended, but the idea enabled me to at least feel that I had regained control of the situation, which was beneficial in a totally adverse way. People look at me strangely when I tell them about it, but it was liberating at the time. As it turned out, the melanoma was small and contained. There’s been no recurrence, and over the course of a year the gap in my quad has pretty much filled back in. It hasn’t affected my running at all.
Obviously, running has a psychiatric, curative effect, but it also taps into the brain’s most receptive pleasure zones. Over the course of my running life I’ve had a few moments of perfectly endorphic running, where it felt effortless, which I guess is the famed runner’s high. The first time I was about 15 and I just felt like I could run forever. I started running at around 4 pm on a track, and kept running and running and running until 10 pm. I never really got tired. Apparently I was cashing out on something, because the next day I woke up with the flu.
More recently, I was running along the promenade of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches in Rio, and owing to the breathtaking scenery and unsurpassed people-watching, I ran for 12 miles without even thinking about it. That won’t mean much to serious marathon runners, but it was a particularly satisfying episode for me. Running that 12 miles was as easy as taking a stroll.
The trails at Butts Park are used mostly by mountain bikers, so there are lots of challenging twists and turns and short, steep ascents and descents that, when I first started running there, caused my hands to touch the ground a few times. I only see a few runners out there, always alone, always young. We nod in passing. It’s a strange, marginal place, not particularly pretty; it was farmed to death at one time and has had many uses, including as a German POW camp during World War II. Today the network of trails branches out in every direction through mostly low, eroded, wooded hills abutting soccer fields and the Mississippi College cross-country training area known as Choctaw Trails. You pass along the edge of it on I-20 and would never guess there’s anything interesting there. Young pine trees, mostly. Though it’s not as beautiful as the trails I’ve run on with Les on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, where he now lives, right now it’s greening up and the fields and forests are blanketed with sweet-smelling white flowers. Also, because it’s spring, it’s muddy in places, which makes it more fun. There’s more leaping about.
My favorite parts of the trails are the natural obstacle courses where trees have fallen across the route and there are lots of exposed roots and mud holes. Because I run there so often I can run through a ridiculously complicated gauntlet surprisingly fast, and it feels really good.
There’s one section that’s particularly technical, where you have to make a long leap across a mud hole, and when your first foot lands, spring off of it immediately to leap onto (and off of) a fallen log that’s a couple of feet high, then leap over another wide mud hole in a curve of the trail, changing direction slightly in mid-air to bounce off some gnarly tree roots and keep going. I can run through this section perfectly, and I say that knowing that pride goeth before a fall.
A couple of days ago, as I came to this section, I saw another lone runner approaching from the other direction. I knew I had time to make it through the chicanery before we met, so I ran without thinking, really, and after I did my little high-speed hop, skip and a jump I saw the guy break out into this huge grin. I don't know if he was thinking: Look at old dude! or just: Look at dude! but it occurred to me that there was something extraordinary about something I had taken for granted. I glanced back and saw him slow down to carefully pick his way through the obstacle course.
The momentary euphoria I felt wasn’t about showing off – I thought nothing of it until the guy grinned. It was about the pleasure of knowing that sometimes your mind and body work seamlessly together. It was a very small thing, far smaller than the infernal spot that used to be on my thigh. But in the course of a lifetime, it was the kind of thing that matters.