Last year, with crutches under my arms, I bumped into Wolf and, after telling him my tale, he wished me well with my recovery, and we parted. But when I ran into him again recently, sans crutches and cane, he asked – in a way that was more directive than invitation: so, when are you coming to the mountain? I knew what he meant, so my reply was: I’m not running (yet?!), Wolf. Without skipping a beat, he said: …doesn’t matter, come and walk, I’m walking.
Wolf was right, I remembered. When I’d last run on the mountain a few years ago, he’d indeed been walking – or doing something akin to a jog-shuffle. But that never stopped him from leading the Pack. And it wasn’t going to stop him anytime soon. Even though he’ll soon celebrate his 87th birthday… yes, 87.
And so this morning, under brilliantly sunny skies, I returned to the mountain. And to the Wolf Pack. With some trepidation, I confess, because these guys are serious runners. Some of the men (the pack is comprised mostly of men, with a few token women) have been running together for decades – yes, decades, when Wolf first brought them together.
Being a member of the WP may be routine to some, but a far cry from ordinary: They meet twice a week in the evenings for a one-hour run, and on Sunday mornings, their runs last about two hours, sometimes more. Through rain, sleet, snow; through sweltering heat or mid-summer humidity, health setbacks and family tragedies, the pack is there. Not always the full posse, but every time, at least a bunch of diehards will lead the way.
There’s some measure of comfort in knowing that, even after a multi-year absence, I can re-appear at the regular 9 a.m. meeting place, and one by one, the regulars will alight from cars parked in this direction and that. Wearing the familiar white and blue jerseys (mine’s deep in storage in another city), they congregate near the lake, the water shimmering under the sky-covered sunlight, little ducklings wading nearby.
The adventure begins with a preliminary warm-up, comprised of two laps around the lake before heading out on the real run – thereby granting late-comers plenty of time to catch up. I’m proud to say that I managed to complete the entire periphery (at a decent walking-pace) in the same time it took most of them to run it twice. Nothing like pushing through the pain… Yay for me!
As the group of 10+ set off through the grove of trees ahead, I felt a palpable sense of envy. I too wanted to head down that path, follow the route that I’d taken so many times before. I wanted to join the boys again – and by boys I mean a bunch of cajoling, joke-telling, business-talking, decidedly uncompetitive mostly middle-agers and seniors. But these thrice-weekly runs are so ingrained into their DNA, that for many the Pack is their extended family and I was the runaway child who had humbly, but only partially, returned to the fold.
I longed to find myself in a Forrest-Gump-like zen-zone, after steadily and rhythmically pumping the pavement; that zone where time stands still, it’s you and the run and a blur of people and cars rushing by. That moment of bliss flashed in front of me. Yes, I too had inhabited that zone many times before.
But then, I switched gears, stopped wishing for that which I could not have right now and focused on the fact that I was taking pretty serious strides, and swinging my arms thanks to the hiking poles I’d borrowed. Then I tried to recall the last time I actually ran (or jogged) en groupe before the accident. It took awhile to conjure up the memory, but it came to me suddenly, as I started to scale the gentle slope beyond the lake: it was with the Hash House Harriers in Mongolia. Yes, Virginia, there are Harriers in Ulaanbaatar!
While I continued to do laps around the lake on my own, I noticed how others were spending their Sunday morning: A group of women were engaged in a gentle form of martial-art like movement (note to self: join them some time!); a mother reading aloud from The Golden Compass to her school-age daughters; a couple heading out on the short dock into the lake, stopping for a long hug at the end; a couple jogging with a stroller in front; families, tourists, runners, cyclists and an incredibly wide assortment of dogs – retrievers, huskies, doodles, daschunds and more.
As I was coming around my last loop of the lake, a woman sitting on a bench, trying to restrain her rebellious hound, smiled back and, quite unexpectedly and cheerfully exclaimed: You’re doing really well! As if she’d been planted there, like an angel, offering encouragement from the sidelines. Merci bien, madame.