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Column: The pure joy of running as fast as you can

  • Joyciline Jepkosgei, of Kenya, crosses the finish line to win the Pro Women's Division of the New York City Marathon, in New York's Central Park, Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 11/6/2019 4:58:30 PM
Modified: 11/6/2019 4:58:21 PM

We walk together in the park almost every day, she and I. More accurately, I shuffle, shamble and stumble; she zooms, leaps and bounds.

There’s probably no way to describe the pure joy of watching her scour the woods for the prey that (thankfully) always eludes her by scampering up a tree or disappearing into a hole between the rocks of a derelict stone wall. It’s almost as if gravity doesn’t exist for her, whether uphill or down. Her occasional flying leap over a tangle of brush, like Pegasus in the old Mobilgas logo, never fails to squeeze an audible laugh out of me.

I presume that my enjoyment of watching Kiki fly through the woods is easily eclipsed by hers in doing it. I can’t believe that, traveling as fast as she is through brush, she doesn’t hit anything. It’s like when the starship Enterprise shifts into warp speed; I always wonder why they don’t strike anything solid. Young animals (including us, when we’re young) are impatient to see what’s out there, or what’s next, and luckily are equipped with the means to find out in a hurry.

Running comes naturally to most mammals, at least, and must be enjoyable. Why else would horses race around their paddocks, or dogs invite each other to zoom by planting both front feet down wide apart and wagging their tails? Why would tens of thousands of runners stream across the Verrazzano Bridge and through the streets of New York City in pursuit of a marathon finish? It’s fun, that’s why; and you don’t need any special equipment to do it. Ask Jim Thorpe, who won the Olympic decathlon gold in 1912 in a pair of shoes of different sizes that his coach found in a garbage can after Thorpe’s were stolen. (He wore an extra sock on the foot with the shoe that was too big for him.)

I was cooking something out in the kitchen the other night when the video of the last couple of miles of the women’s marathon appeared on the little TV set up in a wall cabinet. A young woman named Joyciline Jepkosgei was running all alone ahead of the pack. It was her first marathon; her countrywoman Mary Keitany was heavily favored to win. But as Jepkosgei said later, “I saw that I was approaching the finish line and I was capable of winning.” She had to be tired — you could see her willing her arms to stay down near her hips — but she actually picked up her pace (remembering the scene, it’s moving even to write about it). She was running each mile at least as fast as most of us who’ve run track have ever run a single mile. Looking on, you had to be awed not just by the toned musculature that was driving her forward, but also by the heart, lungs and brain pumping away inside. How could they keep that up?

Her finish naturally reminded me of Joan Benoit’s finish in the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon in 1984 (the pooh-bahs of athletics had finally, reluctantly, decided that women’s reproductive systems wouldn’t be ruined by strenuous exercise). She ran all alone into the stadium wearing her ball cap and streaked around it for a lap to the finish. Joan married a Hanover High alum, Scott Samuelson, the September after her victory, and I occasionally met her when we both ran Trescott Road. Always chipper, and always that silly cap. She ran New York again this past weekend, with her daughter, Abby.

What a long way we’ve come, and not only in women’s athletics. In Races and Training, given to me in 1952 by a long-distance-runner mentor, the author, a pioneering English ultramarathoner who lived in Natal, South Africa, noted that black men just couldn’t cut it in the distance events: “That will explain why, in athletics, the white man has always beaten the coloured man, whose brains are not so advanced. ...” That old Englishman, one Arthur F.H. Newton, lived long enough, if he was then still cognizant, to hear about Jesse Owens demolishing the Aryan myth at the 1936 Olympics. But how I wish he could have watched the Kenyans, Ethiopians and other Africans in the recent marathons. I can hear him: “My word!”

Like the elderly narrator of A River Runs Through It, I’m done. An orthopedist recommended way back in 1977 that I quit running. I continued, however, but only uphill, which reduced the pounding, and that worked fine. But multiple prostheses, fractures and implants — not to mention advancing age — have reduced me to the slow, shambling wreck that now almost every day sets the pace through the wooded park and gives Kiki the time and latitude to explore and hunt in a large, slowly advancing circle around me. I think of her as my surrogate runner, and envy the obvious joy of high-speed levitation that animates her so.

I could call her to my side and tell her old stories about my chums and me running trails in the mountains, of giving everything we had to beat Deerfield or Choate. I could tell her that, after they’ve crammed my metal parts into the urn with my ashes, I want my second-place medal from the 1951 Pie Race (the high point of my secondary education!) placed on top.

But she’d be utterly uninterested; it would be cutting into her hunting. Nostalgia and dreams are for old-timers; the ecstasy of running is for the young.

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.

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