Thursday, June 4, 2009

you get what you give

The night was black. We carried flashlights, but never used them. The walk from the dining hall to the cabin was about a half-mile. We followed a wide trail from the parking lot. We were accustomed to getting by with the faintest light – generally by looking up and noting the faint gray gap in the tree canopy. We made the walk every night, after cleaning up from the night activity and meeting to de-brief. This night there was no light. We knew to use our peripheral vision. There was no point trying to see our hands in front of our faces by looking right at them. But we couldn’t detect the movement of our hands anywhere in our field of view. We only knew where to walk by the feel of the trail under our feet. We were mesmerized by our heightened sensitivity to everything around us, even while nothing around us was visible. If we spoke, it was quietly – respectful of our amplified perceptions. When the distance felt right, we felt for the narrow gap in the forest leaf litter that was the narrow trail to our cabin. Mildly surprised at our own intuitive capacities, we entered our cabin and turned on a light.

The days at Otter Lake Conservation School were long, absorbing, and exhausting. Each instructor was assigned a group of 8-10 sixth-graders, who we took responsibility for through the majority of the day. Kids came to us excited and energetic. We matched that energy and raised it. Our kids slept well at night. We took turns sleeping in the dorm. It was one room packed with side-by-side bunk beds. The lights went out at 9:00 for story time. Story time was simple. Start with a vivid description of a comfortable scene and something animate [the sand dunes rose and fell in the distance. A small green lizard warmed itself on a smooth rock]. Allow enough movement to carry the scene, but branch continuously into superfluous details. Speak evenly and slowly. [Ivan, the lizard, turned its head side-to-side. He lifted his left front leg and right rear leg at the same time, and held them in the air. He put them down, and lifted the opposite two legs. Ivan looked left and right again]. Before Ivan could even get off the rock, someone would start to snore. Within a few minutes, he was joined by a full chorus.

Instructors had a short amount of time off just before lunch. This was a good time to collapse after the always-busy morning. It was also a good time for a light jog. Our persnickety nurse said to me one day as I jogged past: “where do you get the energy to run?” Most runners have likely heard a similar question from non-runners. Like me, you probably thought something along the lines of: “running gives me the energy to do everything else!”

Nippert drives the 30 minutes to Cheyenne Canyon almost every afternoon. He does his workouts in the morning. The canyon run is auxiliary. I’ve been joining him for those runs while I’ve been here. We run slowly, but climb out on the Columbine trail for about 1000 vertical feet and then come back. Each afternoon last week we ran to Gold Camp Rd and returned for about 1 hour total. This week, because we have both started to taper, we turn earlier for a 45 minute run. I wrote about yesterday’s delayed workout. I waited until about 9:30 to run a workout that included a handful of surges. The weather never did improve. I wrote my story through the wet afternoon and mechanically put running clothes back on when 5 o’clock rolled around. We drove straight toward the mountain, though all we could see through the rain-soaked windshield was a huge dark grey pillow where the mountain used to be. My eyelids drooped as I slumped back in the passenger seat. Nippert got out at the canyon. I just stayed in my seat, looking forlornly for a break in the clouds. “Let’s go!” Howard had to remind me.

The first few steps were by far the hardest of the whole run. It was like a tug-of-war, but the twist was this: one team had lashed my body with thousands of thin, stretchy filaments that bound me up like a fly in a spider web. The other team tied a rope around my waist and started to pull. I suppose you’ll want to call this my “will.” [and why not the other, inhibiting team?] Over the course of the first 10 minutes, thankfully (and predictably) the filaments stretched, broke, and fell away. By the time I trotted back to the jeep I felt completely revived.

I often have the experience of gaining energy from a run. I don’t think it is the same as an endorphin rush. There is something else that happens, best described as a sense of well-being, either during or immediately after exercise, that I think is related to endorphins. That is often a cue to relax. I get wound up and uptight before big runs or events. Afterwards I feel good, in a peaceful kind of way. That, I think, is endorphins. The energy gain is something different. It is more like two teams, stagnation and effort, have settled their dispute in the tug-of-war, and effort has won.

My runs during the week at Otter Lake were like that. At the time most suited to retreat, the battle was escalated instead. Those runs were of insignificant length and intensity. They kept effort on top, though, so that I’d be ready on Friday after the busses pulled out. Moments after watching our kids, often tearful, waving from the bus windows, I returned to the cabin to change into my running clothes. I ran out the long drive for the camp, and crossed the road toward Crotched Mountain.


  1. 30 years ago I was a camper kid at Otter Lake as part of one of the many school groups- lessons learned there impacted a lifetime of choices and beliefs about being good stewards of our earth. Thanks for being a part of it... sure glad I was.

  2. I imagine a lot of folks who came through Otter Lake were affected this way... thanks for commenting!