I grew up on the railroad tracks. Ours was actually the second house down the street on Bayly in Louisville, KY. We were drawn to the deafening -- yet rhythmically mesmering -- passing trains. My brothers and I stood close enough to feel the shifting turbulent wind. We played on the tracks. We put coins on them as a train approached. After the train passed we ferreted our coins out from among the rocks to marvel at the flattened, distorted figures of past presidents. We walked the tracks to get places. The Crescent Hill pool was one mile up. We would see how far we could get balanced on a rail. The neigborhood bullies used the tracks too. Tommy Shooster was older, and much bigger, than us.
We were playing on the tracks after school with Mike Grabhorn, my best friend when I was nine. My parents were still at work. Mike's parents were home, but his Dad was best avoided for a while after he got off his shift. We saw Shooster and his gang approaching, but we didn't want to give ground. It probably started with shouted words, but soon enough we were throwing rocks. They were advancing, and they were promising to do us serious harm. We realized we were in over our heads. I ran for help. I ran like my life depended on it. Not panicked -- just absolutely committed. I ran clear to Mike's house, about a half mile away, and got his father. He threw his baseball coach's bag, and me, into the car and raced back down the alley to chase away the bigger boys. Then we went back to Mike's house, where his father sawed off a bat for each of us to carry.
As kids we routinely played chase games, either on foot or on bikes. We played kick the can or capture the flag at night. We played team tag across wide swaths of neighborhood. I can almost recall the kind of psychological immersion a child gets when fully engaged in such physical pursuits. I might have paused long enough to notice that I could not only feel, but see, my heart beating in my chest. Yet, physical facts seemed completely secondary. I had to get out of sight. We were playing, but the state of mind struck the sort of familiar note that let's you know -- I'm made for this. For a kid, play is as real as it gets.
I can only recall one adult experience that strikes me as similar. I went with my wife and two young children to a gathering near Harrodsburg, KY. The group, all young and outdoorsy people, hiked some distance to a swimming hole. We were deep in a river valley and didn't see the thunderstorm until it was nearly upon us. We retreated rapidly toward shelter, but we were still a couple miles away when the storm unleashed its full fury. We ran for it. My stout brother-in-law carried my five-year-old son and I hoisted my three-year-old daughter to my chest. She threw her arms around my neck and her legs around chest and clung to me like a baby monkey. I ran along the river bed, up the steep bank, and through the woods with absolute singleness of purpose. All of my capacities were committed to covering the distance between my family and safety in the least time possible. The challenge was all the more demanding because we were bushwhacking in unfamiliar terrain in a torrential thunderstorm. I would not, and could not, wish threatening circumstances upon my family. The state of mind called upon during such urgent situations, however, is best described as "ecstasy."
I put challenges in front of myself all the time, of course, and "rise to the occasion" to a greater or lesser extent. This morning I got up and ran four miles, still half asleep. Day before yesterday I ran through Slagle Hollow in Steele Creek Park in Bristol, TN, for the first time. I let myself get to places where I was uncertain which direction was back. That got me moderately engaged -- I had to focus and decide which way to go and run through some nasty overgrowth and climb in some steep terrain. That took about two hours. I'm currently planning a trek for Memorial Day weekend. I want to take three days to cover 107 miles. I will do a 50K, 50mi, and then finish with a marathon. That will be difficult, because it is on trails in the mountains around Damascus, VA. I likely will not have support. To finish, I will have to rise to the challenge. At some points, it will require an engaged and focused state of mind. I have committed to doing the event, so at some level I must find these states of mind rewarding. They are like the states I experienced as a child and then as a parent, but something is different.
I run for sport. While engaging, sports are always bracketed and placed outside real-life activities. Participation is optional. I've run into potentially life threatening situations during races, but the fact is unavoidable: I brought it on myself. How miserable can I let myself feel? On the flip side, when I run masterfully and overcome difficulty to achieve a great result, how ecstatic can I let myself feel? It is, after all, just a game.
Compared to other sports, running is at least stripped of many modern contrivances. A race demands little more definition than a start and a finish. The simplicity of running helps it resonate through my body like an echo of ancient proclivities. If I cannot always achieve that blissful connection in my races, I can at least take some solace in my childhood recollections. Speeding through the alley behind my house, completely ignited by my imperative, I ran for all I was worth.