Monday, December 29, 2008
High Plains Running
I went for the craziest ten-mile run of my life this morning. Six inches of cold, powdery snow fell two days ago and then a steady 25 to 30 miles-per-hour wind started blowing from the West. Sometimes after a storm, the wind comes down the East slope of the Rockies and out into the Plains, sweeping everything not tied down out ahead of it. The snow streaks across the roads and freezes into a super-slick layer of black ice or gathers into drifts many-inches deep halfway across the lanes of traffic. On a short drive from Billings to Laurel yesterday we passed at least five cars that had spun off the highway and into the ditches on either side of the road.
I am signed-up to run a half marathon in New Hampshire on February 15, so I am on a training schedule that had me doing a ten-mile run today. It seemed like a good idea for me to get out into the cold and the wind—(mid-February on the coast of New Hampshire might just be the same)—so I put on my new Secret Santa running shorts from my cousin Nicole and an undershirt beneath my running shirt and out the door I went.
I got on First Avenue and headed uphill, slowly running my way out of the valley. It was very windy and as the road turned slightly east of north, it struck me that the wind that was whipping me along from behind would soon enough be pummeling me from the front when I turned back for the return five miles. The snow from two days ago was still very light and powdery and the wind was such that the blowing snow never got any higher than six inches off of the ground. It whipped across the fields and across the road in a serpentine motion—looking more like smoke or steam than snow.
The way the blowing snow looked combined with the way it stung my ankles and lower calves to make me think of malicious spirits. I was reminded of Tolkein’s description of Ring Wraiths or the movie depiction of Voldemort in the first Harry Potter film—before He Who Shall Not Be Named has found a body to inhabit.
There was one advantage to the relentless wind that I could not have predicted in advance of my run. Wildlife on the sides of the road couldn’t hear me coming until I was right next to them. In this way I managed to get within 20 feet of a bald eagle as it stood in the snow and picked at the frozen carcass of a mule deer. When the bird finally saw me it didn’t lurch or panic at all. It fixed me in its sharp yellow eye, held steady for a long moment, and then simply opened its wings into the strong headwind and with a slight change in the angle of its feathers it rose up and drifted away in a graceful arc to the east, out over a stumpy cornfield.
I watched the bird for a long moment and then continued my run. By the time I had gone another quarter mile up the road the eagle had circled back around and was once again tearing chunks off of the roadkill deer.
Once I had gone five miles up the road, out of the valley and into the high plains, I had gotten into a rhythm and felt the impulse to just keep running and running and running. The land is so big and the sky so open and the morning so extreme that part of me wanted to be extreme, too. What would happen if I just kept going? How far could I go? My body felt like a machine and the motion was hypnotizing. What I really wanted was to be that eagle and be carried on the wind for as long as it would blow. I felt myself disappearing into the landscape—a tiny dot in the vast sage and scrub landscape. I had no sense of struggle, no awareness of the cold. I was simply moving and wanted to keep moving.
Eventually I turned around, into the wind, and the run became work again. A friendly woman driving by stopped and asked if I wanted a ride back to town. She was apparently moved to pity by the crust of ice coating my lower legs and my beard and mustache. I politely declined her offer and made it back to Grandpas Andy’s house, glad I had made myself go out and sure that my half marathon would be better because of it.
I am also glad that I have my memory of that eagle and of the feeling of self-abnegation that running can sometimes bring.