The Backstory – Cruising Down the Erie Canal Trail
I think I went out too far this time. I lost track of time and distance tonight, and with a sunset nearly complete, I wonder why I’m still out here. This was suppose to be a quick 6 mile weeknight run with return before dark. Should I call The Better Half for pick-up? I could, and she’d be right here. But, you know, I’m a guy; hence, calling for the extraction team is not something I would do, unless I was bit by a rattlesnake or suffering from a serious heart attack. And, even then, it would have to be by helicopter, not Toyota minivan. No, I simply lost track of time and bit off more than I can chew on this solo training run on the Erie Canal Trail, and I think I can remedy this situation by making a U-turn and banging out the five mile return run through the dark. Wasn’t it Henry Ford who said most problems are solved by hard work?
The Erie Canal Trail runs through Upstate New York like a sinewy vein running through a thick, flexed arm, stretching from Albany in the East to Buffalo in the West. This 363 mile channel was built, in good part, by European immigrants, most notably Scots and Irishman. When completed in 1825, it served as a critical route for commerce between the Atlantic seaboard and the growing economy of all points westward. Later, the expansion of rail and the combustible engine contributed to the demise of the canal as a cost-effective means of shipping products, but today it is enjoyed by thousands of recreational boaters and anglers annually.
Running immediately parallel to this body of water is a well-maintained trail that was once an easement for mules pulling barges up and down the canal and, later, a trolley path between city centers like Rochester and canal villages, like the one that I now call home, Fairport. Now, it is a recreational trail for walkers, bikers, and, well, fatiguing runners like me.
As I catch my breath and check the Daily Mile app on my iPhone, I realize that it is on this run that I just completed my 4,000th mile in about 3.5 years. If I were to trot out the front door of my house and magically run 4,000 continuous miles east, I would end up in the suburbs of Milan, Italy. Running the same distance west would take me through the state of Oregon, into the Pacific Ocean, and on my way to Japan. What makes this especially compelling is that just 4 short years ago, the only running that I did was the path to the refrigerator! And yet, after all of my training, here I am, standing on the Erie Canal Trail near Pittsford, New York, feeling each one of tonight’s miles in the muscles, bones, and tendons of my 51 year-old frame.
No matter. All of these sensations tell me that I’m alive, and all systems are “Go!” In short, I’m loving it. As I complete that U-turn and establish about an 8:45 pace back to my home in Fairport, an inventory of running memories fill my bandwidth. Just what is it about running that adds so much spice to this old soul?
My first marathon was the 2014 Empire State Marathon in nearby Syracuse. For this 26.2 mile jaunt around Onondaga Lake, I nervously stepped off the earliest hotel shuttle bus trip of the day, almost 2 hours before start time on that cold, breezy late fall morning. Race organizers and volunteers were still setting up the starting area, and there was hardly another runner in sight! There were snowflakes vertically slicing the still dark air, and my fingers quickly grew numb. With no other shelter in site, I hid inside a porta-john to stay warm. At least it blocked the wind gusts! As I sat there on that cold plastic seat in the dark, I questioned my intelligence for getting involved in an enterprise as silly as marathon running. Why am I doing this? This is one of the dumbest things that I have ever done! I should be home working on my stamp collection! But, later that day, as I knocked out the miles, crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 19 minutes and high-fiving my friend, Bobby N., my outlook on things changed. My only question then was, “When’s our next race?” BTW, it got into the low 90’s during the 2016 Sehgahunda Trail Marathon at Letchworth State Park, so I’ve had a chance to experience some extremes.
The Training Runs
But, you know, if the races provide my life with crescendos of celebration, my day-to-day training runs comprise the sweet rhythms in-between, like a favorite 80’s song or the rumble of a V8 while cruising through town. Plenty of these training runs have been local runs on the Erie Canal Trail or at nearby Mendon Ponds Park, but I’ve also done some great running far from home as well. I’ve run within the city limits of big towns like Austin, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Orlando. These have been great little adventures, and, since I started running, planning for a trip has taken on a fun new dimension.
While training for the Marine Corps Marathon, I had the chance to run the mall in Washington, DC one beautiful July evening, after a day of conferencing for work. As I knocked out those 8 miles, I cruised past families with kids in tow and groups of chattering tourists traveling en masse. I also saw seniors, moving more slowly, with a sense of solemnity, as they studied the etchings in slabs of granite. One old warrior appeared to be searching for something he’d lost. An old friend? A brother? Perhaps he was thinking about a time when his responsibilities were in clear relief, like the chiseled words now under his extended fingers. And, there I am, cruising through, limited only by the capacity of my muscles and lungs, bathed in the freedom and sunny optimism that comes from running in this great Land of Opportunity. Thank you, veterans!
A nice portion of my 4,000 miles have been spectacular trail runs in the heart of nature, like Letchworth State Park and around Cranberry Lake in the Adirondacks. When I harken back to these locations that I have visited in my running shoes, I can retrace the routes in my mind, including the twists and turns, landmarks, and, perhaps not surprisingly, with a special appreciation of the terrain. I generally have zero difficulty falling asleep at night, but, when I do, I just retrace a favorite trail, focusing on detail, including not only the sites, but the sounds and smells as well. This is, I think, the special kind of bedtime prayer available to the runner.
Running in Upstate New York in the winter means soft padding for the feet and a muffling of noise. Oh, and light that is sometimes so bright one has to squint even with sunglasses. Sure, it’s cold, and clothing and gear selection is serious business. But, once a rhythm is established and one finds that sweet spot, it is as though there’s a soft, warm bubble surrounding the body. It’s like something supernatural – a runner’s spell that cheats the elements!
Of course, with running there can be pain and discomfort – it’s not all a pleasure cruise! But, hey, I’ll save all of that business for a future blog – I’ve got plenty of that material! The truth is that one doesn’t usually remember the pain all that well once a good, solid run is complete; those memories get filed in the back of the cerebellum and serve mostly as a backdrop for sweet satisfaction.
I have thumped out a lot of solo miles during these 4,000 miles, and I’ve enjoyed much of this time by myself. But, many of my miles have been spent in the company of friends, and this has been a special blessing. For purposes here, I won’t attempt to make a “list” of people whom I’ve met through running. Suffice to say that, for a sport that is enjoyed alone and often as “parallel play” in groups, it is a very social, even communal endeavor. I am grateful for the people whom I’ve met through this sport and the friendships we’ve made. To my running friends: thanks for all you have done for me while we’ve been on the trail – I appreciate it!
And, speaking of trail, I’ve made it back to my house just as the envelope of a moonless night fully descends upon me. I knew I didn’t need my extraction team! What will the next 4,000 miles bring? I know I’ve got two marathons on my calendar: St. Jude’s in Nashville in April and Loch Ness in Scotland in September….What else will fill the running docket? An ultra? The Boston Marathon? Some new PR’s? Who knows? But, one things for sure: I’m ready to roll! And, I hope to see you out there!