Monday, December 26, 2011

Rangeley, Maine: ‘All my pores are open’

For the last several Christmas breaks, we’ve traveled to Peaks Island, Maine, off Portland, for a pre-Christmas stop with my parents and then driven with them to the northern Maine town of Rangeley. Rangeley is home not only to Saddleback ski area, but it also has many other small-town charms, including a great ice skating pond in the middle of town and a great sledding hill in the middle of a golf course.

I haven’t been running much since I had an episode of deep-vein thrombosis after a long flight to Manila in mid-November, but, now cleared by doctors to exercise on all sports that don’t include the risk of head injury (there goes downhill skiing), I’ve been slowly building back.

This morning, I checked the local Rangeley map and found a route along the Harold Ross Road, named after the legendary New Yorker editor who had the good sense to hire E.B. White. I admit to running slowly before reaching Harold Ross Road; to get there I had to run a good three-quarters of a mile along the Saddleback access road, and it was steep, befitting the beginnings of a good mountain road.

But once I reached the turnoff, I relaxed and fell into a steady rhythm. It had snowed an inch or two overnight and that made for the best type of winter running. I had soft landings. My footfalls were almost silent, save for a slightly squeaky land and push-off. The north wind pushed me south.

I registered only a few things along the way: some street signs – my favorite was Stub and Luraine’s Lane -- and also animal tracks. The deeper I ran down Harold Ross, the greater the number of tracks. I was running on a deserted road as well as an animal highway.

The most common track was moose. I stopped and put my running shoe next to a hoof print, and the hoof was significantly longer than my shoe, probably a size 12 man’s. I paced off the distance between prints, and one stretched five feet. I started out again and ran along the ridge, up and down, over streams, and pass pine wood, looking for but not finding moose.

Fifty-five minutes after my start, I returned back to our rented house on Rangeley Lake, called Windy Cross, perhaps because of the wind and also all the crosses in the house. I found my father, Mike. I had tried to persuade him the night before to go into the hot tub next to the house, and he had demurred, saying “let’s wait until morning.”

He was carrying bags to his car, getting ready to return home with my mother, Mary.

“Want to go in the hot tub, Dad?”

“Sure!” he said.

Five minutes later, we opened the hot tub and stripped down to our shorts. Barefoot, we made the short walk across snow and ice before submerging in the warm water. It was wonderful. (Check out the video.) Afterward, I asked my father how he felt and he said, “All my pores are open.”

How does that feel?

“I am feeling generous and benign,” he said.

We laughed, and he and I understood exactly what he meant. All is good.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Estonia: Running in the deep dark

During winter, I often run on weekdays in the dark. For the past few days in Estonia, in the far Baltic north, I’ve been running not in the dark but the deep dark. Night here in mid-December stretches for close to 17 hours; the sun sinks by 3:30 p.m.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but when I set off at 6:45, as I have in the last few days, it feels like late in the night, not early in the morning. The sun won’t rise until after 9 a.m. So when I set off, there’s no dawn peeking around the corner.

I’m in the university town of Tartu, and it feels very European. Fanciful truffles are in the windows of shops. Women wear thigh-length wool coats and knee-high black boots, brightly colored scarves knotted around their necks. Men, hair stringy, rush by in suits, scarves, cigarettes between their fingers.  They all watch their steps along the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Town or along the bridges that are for pedestrians not cars. Christmas lights are everywhere, strung up on lamp posts and bridge posts and high in the air above Town Square.

The Christmas lights don’t only raise holiday spirits, but they also raise spirits, period, it seems. They provide light. This morning, I ran underneath a string of holiday lights along the Mother River and up and over an impressive pedestrian bridge, passed by a few bikers wearing winter coats and scarves that flew behind them, flapping in the breeze. Then I headed along the river again on a long stretch of blackness.

When it’s dark, I often feel a lightness of being. I’m concentrating on not falling and I watch the ground for holes or humps. I’m not thinking. That is freeing mentally and sometimes, when my pace is just right, I can run for a mile or two and not realize it. Night makes you feel invisible. Night also makes others invisible, of course, which can be a problem. But when you see an occasional person, and when it's exceptionally cold (as it is in Tartu), and when wind is cutting across your stride, it is possible to relax into a rhythm and lose yourself.

On the run this morning, I retreated into this zombie-state and only snapped out of it when I looked up the sky and saw light. It was limited to a large circle in a bank of low-lying clouds. I couldn’t figure it out at first. But then it dawned on me that the lights from the street, Christmas decorations, and a nearby mall had reflected upon the clouds. It reminded me of one of those spaceship movies in which the scene is all black until shafts of light reach to the ground. Only in Tartu, the direction of the light is up, not down.

I don’t know why, but the scene almost made me laugh. It was entirely a man-made phenomenon, and it seemed a rare one. I thought to myself it’s not often on a run when you think of nothing in the dark and then you look up and think of spaceships.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

First run

I missed running. I didn’t know how much until now. I’m just back from a run, my first in 24 days. On my last run, I had to stop after three minutes. I could barely breathe. Days later, I learned that I had blood clots in my legs and my chest. I stayed in a hospital for three days and left with a pile of blood thinner medication and the words of a doctor not to exercise for a while.

So that stopped me. It stopped me not only from physically exerting myself but it also stopped me from thinking about running. I put it all out of my mind. I focused on my legs, my heart, my breathing, making sure I did a kind of internal body check-up several times a day. Everything was stripped back to the basics of being able to live.

My run today, then, is a step back to reclaiming something lost, or maybe even it is reclaiming my life. I didn’t have a euphoric moment. I ran for 25 minutes. I ran slower than normal, half the distance of my short daily run, consciously checking on my breathing. Was I breathing too hard? Was my chest contracting? Was that slight pain in my leg a sore muscle?

But when I finished, I felt a trickle of sweat twist and turn from under my running jacket and flow down my right thumb. I opened the door of our house and called for our dog, Juluka, and she knew what that meant; she shook her nine-year-old legs and bounded out the door. I ran around the block with her, tossing a tennis ball ahead of us so that on first bounce she could leap and snare it, and she did, again and again.

We stopped in an open area under pine trees. I stretched. I felt the aches of calves, of my lower back, of my shoulders. My hair was damp at the edges. Then I walked back into our house, took off my running jacket (which was wet on the sleeves), fed the dog, boiled water for black tea, and thought for a moment about how the pieces of a carefully constructed life are coming back. I really missed running.