Running keeps the record of our lives
By Rachel ToorAs featured in the October 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine
The first reedy notes of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” send me straight to the periphery of a junior high gym, huddled with a group of nerdy girls, watching our more precocious peers leaning into each other and swaying. “Rock Lobster” is college dining halls cleared of furniture, dancing hot and sweaty with Lacoste-clad, Top-Sider-shod boys and dreading the arrival of the “Down, down” part.
One whiff of Charlie perfume would bring me back to my high school locker, waiting for my best friend to get her stuff together so we could walk home. Sno-Cones taste like teen spirit.
We store our memories in our senses. No one illustrated this more literarily than Marcel Proust. In the first paragraph of Swann’s Way the narrator bites into a breakfast pastry and it launches him into the seven canonical volumes of The Remembrance of Things Past.
We have all experienced this transport to our previous selves, occasioned by some particular physical thing.
Recently I went back to Durham, N.C., a town I loved and lived in for a long time — the place I started running — and enjoyed a Proustian pleasure in retracing routes that had filled so many hours of my life.
Starting out on the Duke Forest loop I remembered how Andrew had taken me there for my first run. It was raining and I tried to be miserable, but he made it fun. Going up the hill after the wooden bridge I thought about the time Audrey and I tried to run the trail days after hurricane Andrew (no relation) had blown through. The 6 miles had taken us more than two hours, an adventure of climbing over uprooted trees, crawling under thick downed branches. That was more than 15 years ago.
The concrete bridge was flooded, and as I waded across I thought back to when Ruth and I ran it last year, weeks after my mother died. We’d taken off our shoes and socks to get across. Ruth calls this course the “Punitive Trail.” There are, indeed, a lot of short, steep hills. But having lived in the West for six years, they seem trivial to me now. Still, in my head it’s no longer the Duke Forest loop but the “Punitive Trail,” because that’s what Ruth called it at a time when I found life punishing.
A day later I met up with Owen and we did part of the Sunday Morning Run, the part we always do together when I am back in town. Owen trots over from his office in the Computer Science Department, I meet him in the gravel parking lot, and, as usual, he runs about five steps ahead of me for 9 miles. His butt and distinctive gait are as familiar to me as my old house. As usual, I show up with an agenda of things I want to discuss with him. We talk about what makes for a good lecture; at what dollar amount (in net worth) did he consider someone “rich”? I trust him to tell me if he thinks I’ve gotten too gaunt. When we’re finished, I ask when we can run again.
There’s a section of Cornwallis Road where I remember another computer scientist friend, Jeff, spouting off his wacky sports theories. Cars were passing us and not moving over to share the road. I wondered if it was because of how we looked together — a buff black man and a barely-dressed blonde woman. We were on a country road well south of the Mason-Dixon Line and wondered if we might be killed.
If I had driven 20 minutes to Umstead State Park on Saturday morning I know I would have been thinking about sprightly young Handsome Dan. He used to show up at our weekly group runs in motorcycle leathers and then would strip down to running gear. Once, for miles, we talked about what it was like for a man to be that beautiful. He’s dead now.
There are spots I can use to gauge my fitness, where I recall the pain of past training efforts, where I struggle when I didn’t used to. I have done many runs alone, but I don’t remember them with the same clarity as when I get to a certain patch of loblolly pine, to a point where the trail narrows, and am transported back to the spectral company of a running friend.
These routes, these haunted places, resonate like harmonic chords. They touch something in me that is beyond consciousness. We experience our feelings about the land in different ways. For some, the beauty of nature is best sampled alone. For me, place and people are always connected. Geography has less meaning for me if I’m not sharing it with others.
The years blur but the snapshots of memory remain, trapped in my physical self and released by footfalls and exertion. Another North Carolinian, Thomas Wolfe, titled his most famous novel You Can’t Go Home Again. But you can — for moments. There are times when each turn, each incline, takes you back to a time and place when you felt fine in the world, rich with companionship.