Beyond the Huffing and Puffing, Runners Are the Great Noticers

IT has been 10 years since I started to run, tentatively at first, with no real conception of how far I could go except that I could never run more than a mile. From these beginnings, I've become not exactly a "serious" runner but at least a faithful, recreational one. Three or four times a week, almost every week for 10 years, I've taken to the road to mend my mind and put a few miles on my old shoes.One of the things I like about running is that it gives me plenty of time to think. And one of the things I've been thinking about lately is why I like to run. Sure, it has allowed me to eat an extra cookie or two without gaining weight. But what I really like is that in an odd sort of way, it lets ordinary people become poets. It gives us a way to see the world at close range and at slow speed, with just enough blurring vision (from all that jogging up and down) to let us find beauty where we missed it before. Hundreds of thousands of runners take to the sidewalks each day, and discover city side streets, suburban cul-de-sacs, mountain pathways, and country lanes. Runners are the silent guardians of city mornings and suburban evenings. We are the ones who notice when the corner drugstore has a new sign or the house on the corner has a new coat of paint. After all, we have to do something besides huff and puff. So we become the great noticers. And there is a poetry in noticing. Perhaps runners notice the world because we see it at human scale again, without the encumbrance of a car or bus or train, and at seven or eight miles an hour, the perfect tempo for observation. Then again, maybe we notice it because we have no other choice. We see it so often that it's bound to sink in. It's no coincidence that runners are the best direction givers. We've learned, by heart and by sole, how pieces of landscape interlock, how one street leads to another and forms a neighborhood. We know the short-cuts and the cut throughs. When I visit my hometown, I am amazed to find that places I thought were far from where we used to live are actually quite close. It's strange that I understand the town's topography better now than when I lived there as a child. But I wasn't a runner then. Now, I feel as if I don't know a new place until I have run in it. I "took my first steps," so to speak, in Chicago. It was autumn, and my path lead through piles of leaves in Lincoln Park. Right from the start, the world looked different. It was supercharged with light and ripe with the acrid scent leaves have when they are old and falling. When I moved to New York City, the same thing happened. The streets I trudged with a briefcase and a bag of groceries looked totally different when I was on the run. They looked cleaner, freer. I dodged the sidewalk vendors on Broadway, went flying down the wide, questionable blocks of Amsterdam (where I would not dare walk), and pounded up and down the long sliver that is Riverside Park. I also got to know the alleys of Chinatown and the pedestrian boardwalk of the Brooklyn Bridge, truly one of the worl d's great running tracks. But running is not just a way to notice the poetry of the city. It is also a window on the natural world. If you can find navigable trails and briarless paths, a run through the woods is a way to discover the first small flowers of spring, the purposeful leaves of wild dogwood trees. You feel a part of the natural landscape. Like many animals, you are running through the wilderness. Perhaps not for the same reason. But nevertheless, there you are. My favorite place to run, the place where running felt the most poetic, was the village outside Boston where we used to live. There, town quickly gave way to countryside, and in only a few minutes I could be jogging through pine forests, past geese-covered ponds, and centuries-old homes. There's a small scale in New England scenery that is especially kind to runners. It gives the illusion of conquering great distances in only a few miles. And it gives us many things to notice. Now I run in our new suburban neighborhood outside Washington, D.C. It is not quite as picturesque as some previous places, but it's still pleasant - in a "micro" if not a "macro" way. I enjoy getting to know each window, shutter, doorway, and backyard gate of the houses in our subdivision. Because the houses are so similar, I am becoming a student of minute differences. I usually run late in the day, when smells rise up out of just-watered lawns, and the sun burns a bright orange on the horizon. Often now, I find my eyes drawn up to the sky. I have just returned from an early evening run. My beacon for most of the trip was a bright disk of a moon in a pale blue sky - a morning sky, really, which somehow got lost in the late-day haze. I have come inside full of images and energy. It's often that way when I run, but I usually feel foolish admitting it. I wonder how many other runners feel the same way.

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