When I was a kid, my favorite book was Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. I always identified with the hero of the book, Buck, even though he was a dog. Now though I wasn’t strong like Buck, wasn’t a great leader, or a ferocious fighter; Buck and I both loved to run. He did most of his running pulling a sled through the snow, while I did mine on the sidewalk, in the park, and on the playground. Eventually, Buck answered the “call of the wild” and went off to live in the Alaskan wilderness where he could run all he wanted, while I took my running to the basketball court, the football field, and eventually to track and cross-country, then road races, triathlons, marathons, et cetera, running to my heart’s content until I wore through the cartilage in my knee—but you know all about that.
I hadn’t thought much about Buck and The Call of the Wild for some time until last week–when I found myself in Alaska, on a path besides a road cutting through the wilderness, with the sun shining over the endless swaths of trees on either side of the road, with huge billowy snow-capped peaks in the distance. I thought about Buck then, and I thought about running, and I felt it–the call to run. I’ve already explained why running is the only really natural sport. In some ways, running is one of the few natural experiences we still have. Still, this last year I’ve gotten used to walking. It’s not such a bad feeling to be cutting through the neighborhood in the quiet evenings. But out there under that big sky, walking just seemed so inefficient, so pointless, like I’d never get anywhere on the road that ran straightaway to the horizon in both directions. To make matters worse, my lovely perfect wife and my 2 above-average sons (HH and Si-Guy) had just broken into a run and were moving down the path ahead of me. We’d walked from our cabin to the road, and while the boys set off together, my lovely perfect wife walked with me for about 20 seconds, before she said, “I think I might run a little too.” “Go,” I said, “If I could run, I’d be gone already.” And so she went. And so I walked.
I knew I shouldn’t run. My knee had been rather achy the week before as I hustled to finish sanding the deck we’d built last year—I had to stain if before we left or start all over again. This was not the worst kind of home project, but I did spend more hours working on the deck than I did training the week before we left, and it was hard on my knee. More importantly, my previous attempt at running had taken a long recovery, and we had a busy week planned, so the last thing any of us needed was for me to spend our vacation with a hot, throbbing knee and the mild despair that accompanies it. I definitely shouldn’t run.
Five minutes in and they were getting small in the distance ahead of me. I walked faster, but still, wasn’t getting any kind of workout. Maybe just a little running, I thought as they ran out of view, but I fought the urge. Instead, I decided to do squats and pushups. I’d walk two minutes, stop and do 20 body squats, then hit the ground for 20 pushups. I’d get up and walk fast two more minutes, then do it again. And again. It was easy. I felt like I could do sets of 20 forever.
After half an hour, I saw their small figures reappearing—first Si-Guy, just behind him his brother, my lovely perfect wife a stretch behind him. I turned around, kept up my squats and pushups, and eventually one at a time they ran by me, all smiling. When they’d stopped, I was a half mile behind. I hurried to catch up and found them all aglow with the joy of good run just finished. They all said they’d felt great and that somehow, the path had felt downhill both ways. As if it hadn’t been hard enough for me to watch them. Downhill both ways! Of course, that’s impossible, but isn’t that what running does sometimes—makes the impossible seem possible. Still, by this point I’d done enough squats and pushups to be tired enough to only shake my head and grit my teeth, and be glad for them, of course. I’m always glad for a runner who’s had a good run.
Later that day we met up with my lovely perfect wife’s brother (the bearded and appropriately named Tall Matt), his own lovely perfect (but French) wife, and their charming nine month old son (the only native Alaskan in our group). We went for a hike and I was glad I hadn’t run because my knee hurt a bit.
Two days later, we drove 2 hours to the end of the road and walked to the little town of McCarthy. Our final destination was Kennicott, an abandoned copper mining town turned national park five miles up the hill. There was a shuttle to Kennicott, but my lovely perfect wife and sons were going to run. She’d done the same thing on a previous visit. I said I’d “walk” up behind them, but really I was planning to run a few stretches—knee be damned, it was getting too hard to resist! Luckily, there was an adventure shop in town and I was able to rent a bike and ride up instead. The rear brake was rubbing against the tire with each revolution, but I didn’t care because that just made it harder and it tired me out enough to quell the urge to run. Later that day we hiked on the trail to the tip of the glacier and back. The next day, I biked back down to McCarthy. HH was the only one who wanted to run back down. He’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to sports, but his girlfriend earned a scholarship for track and cross-country and he’s been running with her this summer so he’s in pretty good shape. Both my kids, of course, are faster than me for the first time.
That evening we hiked into the woods for some open-air camping. The next morning we hiked down to the Copper River to fish. This was the toughest of all, up and down steep hills, pushing our way through thick woods. When we got back that afternoon, we were all spent—hot, tired, thirsty, hungry. Still, it wasn’t like running.
Finally, it was our last day in Alaska. I was back on the roadside path with Si-Guy, who was doing ½ mile repeats in preparation for his junior year of cross-country. He’s been training diligently all summer, running and swimming. In fact, he just started swimming this summer and has improved tremendously. He even did a triathlon the weekend before we left for Alaska, thanks to my gentle prodding, of course. He’s liked running for years, but he’s never been crazy about it like I was at his age—I remember lots of summer days when I’d meet my cross-country team in the morning for a run, then in the evening, when my non-running friends would jump on their bikes and head to McDonalds (our typical hangout) I’d run along. It was always a fast four miles, sometimes with a hot apple pie in the middle. But I just loved to run and I’ve always hoped he’d get the bug like I had.
Of course, he’s probably better off not obsessing. He might be faster, but there’s more to life than being fast. And it probably wouldn’t have done him any good to be too serious about it before now because he’s been growing so much—freshman year he was just over five feet tall, not even a hundred pounds. Now he’s almost caught up to me—he’s 6 foot tall and weighs about 130. I don’t push him, but I do encourage him to run, help him keep his log, tell him what kind of workouts are best, et cetera. Most days he’s pretty willing to listen. The main thing is that he enjoys himself, but I also always tell him to be ready for a breakthrough—that every year on my high school team there was at least one runner who’d make a big jump forward and that his time might be coming, that he might get a lot faster. Hopefully, that’ll happen for him, and he’ll enjoy it even more.
Anyway, he was doing half-mile repeats and I was walking back and forth on the path, and my knee felt pretty good, better, in fact, than it had all week and we had no more hikes, no more activities planned, just a long day of travel ahead of us, and then….under that big sky, with the tall trees on either side of me and the sun shining down, I felt it again–the call of the wild, the call to run, and I set out…running. Carefully, yes, not with the wild abandon of Buck, but running nonetheless—running–and I went about a minute before I stopped. My knee felt fine. I waited until my son went past me on his next repeat and then ran another minute—again, my knee felt good. This doesn’t mean anything, I told myself, because it felt pretty good last time I ran—it was only the next day that it got sore. So it might get sore tomorrow, I thought, but I didn’t care. Because I just wanted to run. I did another minute. And then another. I manipulated it so every time I ran it was on a slight uphill—the less impact, the better, I figured. The road was not, as described to me earlier in the week, downhill both ways. But even though I was running uphill, it did feel downhill in a way, almost effortless. When Si-Guy had finished his sixth repeat, we ran together for probably two minutes. I didn’t know how fast we were going and I didn’t care—just to be moving like that again felt so good.
We stopped and stretched and walked back to the cabin. All the while I was waiting for my knee to react, to get stiff or sore, but it didn’t. We flew home that night, and even the next day, my knee felt fine. I went for a steady hour on the bike and though I didn’t stand up on my pedals, my knee felt fine. Sunday I rode 90 miles around Lake Winnebago with my brother-in-law in the Ganther Race the Lake. It was the longest ride I’d ever done, with some hills, and again my knee felt good, only a little stiffness as it warmed up and a little more afterwards. As far as the race goes, we were way back in the pack, but it was tremendous fun and I’d say we performed admirably for a non-running runner with a bad knee and a former powerlifter with a penchant for smoked meats.
So I guess the point of this long travelogue is that I’m feeling more optimistic about running again, moreso than after my last attempt at it. I’m still going to wait, start to do some intervals on the bike, strengthen my leg and knee as best I can, ride a Century in September. All this will help me suppress my urge to run, fight back the call of the wild for another month or two. Of course, the call is always strong in the fall, when the weather cools, when the leaves change color, when the air gets crisp. Hopefully then, I’ll be able to, like Buck, really answer the call of the wild, answer it with some real running.