Sunday, May 24, 2009

Kind of Freedom

The front wheel spun right down the middle of the double yellow lines. The rush of air in our ears was the best indication of our speed – and it was exhilarating. We rode while the city slept. Down Frankfort Avenue in Crescent Hill. Over to Grinstead Drive and up to Bardstown Road. Out Bardstown Road toward Beuchel and our accidental bounty: Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.

We had to spend the night at my house. Chip’s parents were strict, and wouldn’t have let us get up at 3 in the morning for a bike ride. We thought we’d just sneak out and ride, but I told my parents what we were doing. Our defiance was intact. Everyone else was sleeping. Even kids who got to stay up late, or kids who spent their evenings looking for trouble, had finally spent themselves.

We felt liberated. A bicycle had always been my golden ticket. It started with my star spangled red white and blue bike with the banana seat and coaster brakes. I rode it the mile to Field Elementary during first grade. By the time I transferred to St. Matthews Elementary in third grade, I moved up to a ten-speed. I paid a dime to ride the city bus, or when the weather was good I rode the 4 miles to school with my friend Mike Grabhorn. The traffic along Frankfort Avenue required that we ride carefully, and in accordance with rules that others understood. We had to comply. We occasionally bailed out to the sidewalk. I collided with an older lady and her groceries one time. I realized the responsibility implied by my speed.

I had friends, and childhood crushes, in other neighborhoods. My bicycle took me across the city to those places. I would ride across Cherokee Park and visit Joel Morrill, a fun kid, younger than me. I liked his sister Whitney, who I got to see when I was there. She laughed at my antics, like when I carried Joel piggy-back while running around the block.

Our midsummer’s night ride was free of any objective, and any need to worry over the daytime rules of the road. When we stopped for doughnuts, joining a sleepy policeman, I was reminded of the other sides of the freedom die. This was the second time I had been there. The first was when my family visited my older brother at Boys Haven, after he had run away from home. I can’t recall that he ever lived with us again after that.

Freedom for me is good lungs. When we played capture the flag at camp Piomingo, the counselor for an opposing team warned his kids not to bother chasing me. When my younger brother wrecked his bike a distance from home, or my friend Mike got in a serious rock fight at the railroad tracks, I ran – long and fast – for help. When my family got home from a long trip together, I went running. I just ran until I got tired. Then I turned around and started running back home.

I would regularly ride with Chip to where our friends lived in the Highlands neighborhood. Tyler had a basketball hoop set up behind his house. His buddy Willy would join us for two-on-two. Willy was a wise-cracking, prep-dressing, trouble-causing neighborhood prankster. To this day his compelling personality keeps old childhood friends in touch. At the time, though, I had little patience for his shenanigans. He had an especially annoying habit of getting goofy when the game wasn’t going his way.

I don’t remember what started it, but one time Willy hit my bike with a big stick. It was lying next to the basketball court. We had probably gotten into an argument – I remember often getting angry with him if he was on my team and I thought he wasn’t trying hard enough. He hauled off and hit my bike – the real and symbolic measure of my freedom. I could feel the blood rush to my face and limbs. I ran straight for Willy, yelling “my bike!” He bolted. He ran like he was being chased by a rabid junkyard dog. Down the alley, over fences, and across the yards he had grown up around. He tapped all his athleticism. He needed to. Eventually the pursuit bled off some of my heat. I circled back to assess the damage to my bike.

As I approached the guys I saw a nickel in the alley and picked it up. I tossed it up in the air. My limbs, saturated with blood and adrenaline, were still ready for a fight. I could scarcely feel the weight of the nickel. I said I was glad I hadn’t caught Willy. Tyler still likes to tell that story. My bike was fine.


  1. "Freedom for me is good lungs." Love that.

    I appreciate your weaving of childhood tales into this journey towards Western States. How we craft our own narrative and weave our own histories and memories together into something meaningful is most fascinating.

  2. Your flashbacks have caused me to think back to days of youth, when the seeds of a love for running and trails and adventure were sown.

    I'm taken back to when I reveled in being the fastest girl at Glen Forest Elementary in the 600-yard run for the Presidential Physical Fitness Awards... to building an imitation horse-style cross-country course around our woods and sailing through the trails with their daunting, solid jumps for the sheer joy of it (except for the day I sprained my ankle landing on a piece of wood that had tumbled off my father's firewood pile)... how I lightly outjumped every girl at Ellen Glasgow Junior High with my unorthodox barefoot style in the high jump (and then lost to my second-placed rival when I was forced to wear my slippery Keds at the regional track meet)... training in Schenley Park all summer between junior and senior years in college to run the Pittsburgh Great Race, only to chicken out at the sight of the crowds on the TV news previews and give my entry to someone else... as a young adult, running for hours in the 2600-acre Hill Forest with my pony who was not quite old enough to ride (Roadie is 26 now and still going strong!)... my anxiety over contesting my first 5K --the Great Raleigh Road Race-- knowing full well I did not belong in a running competition, yet taking the silver in the 30-34 age group anyway... only a few years later, running my first marathon --the Marine Corps Marathon-- secure in the knowledge that I would never have to do that again (that was 30 marathons and 25 ultras ago).

    Your flashbacks took me back in time, had me recall a lifetime of running for joy and adventure. I'm grateful to still get to experience that child-like freedom on the trails (wearing shoes now, of course). I hope there are decades of such good adventures still ahead for all of us.

    -- Sylvana