Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Long Road Not Taken

"When you think far, think really far" - the quote on my Road ID that I wear on EVERY run

Everyone has fantasies. No, not that kind of fantasy. I mean the kind that comes across your mind every once in a while, and you say "I know it's impossible, but I'd like to try that". It is something that's on the outer fringes of reality. Climb Mt. Everest, swim the English Channel, travel the world, train to be an astronaut. You know, it's there,but it's not really. It's not some wild-hair crazy out-of-universe idea, just one that a lot of "ifs & buts" get in the way.

Back when I was piling on the mileage, one of my fantasies was to run across America. I had no idea how I would do it. I had a job and a family, but the fascination has always been there as long as I've been a runner. When I worked at Cooper Green Hospital back in the 70's, I had a big map of the United States over my desk. At the beginning of the year, I would put a push pin in Birmingham and another someplace else; Seattle, San Francisco, Maine, etc. Every week, I would add up my weekly mileage and move the pin the appropriate distance towards my goal. I would even check the weather reports for where I "was" to add some more pseudo reality to my journey. Once, I began a 3 year trek around the perimeter of the United States - not sure if I ever finished that one. Back then, I was doing 2500-3000 miles per year, so I could "go" pretty far.

Reading about prodigious endurance events has always intrigued me, and books about running across America twangs a special string. About 20-25 years ago, I bought a book titled "Meditations From The Breakdown Lane: Running Across America" by James Shapiro. With a few maps and some clothes stuffed into a backpack, he covered 3086 miles from Dillon Beach, California to New York City in 80 days. That's an average of 37 miles per day. Looking back on it now, with all the "look-at-me" long distance headline grabbers going on seemingly every week, it doesn't carry the HOLY COW punch it did a quarter of a century ago. But, this journey by Mr. Shapiro fit right into my fantasy. He did the whole trip virtually unassisted. There were two stretches out west where it was too far between points of civilization to go it alone, so a support vehicle aided him, but other than that, it was him and the wide open spaces. To me, the book was fascinating and during all my push-pin long distance runs, it served as a fantasy reference book in hopes that one day I could actually plan such a trip. That's part of a fantasy - it's right there on the edge of reality.

Then, few years ago, I was in Huntsville to run the Mt. Mist 50K Trail Run and ran into an old friend, David Horton. David is from Virginia and I first met him a few years back when he would come down for our annual Birmingham Track Club 50 Mile Run. Well, David is a humble ultra-runner extraordinaire and he has performed many long distance feats that place him with the very best in our sport. Along the way, David has lived my fantasy - TWICE! In 1991, he set out to accomplish a new record for the fastest traversing of the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. The old record was 60.5 days to cover the 2144 miles. David ran from Push-pin #1 (Springer Mountain in Georgia) to Push-pin #2 ( Mt Katahdin in Maine) in 52 days, 9 hours, taking a week off the old record! He wrote a book that described his challenge titled "A Quest for Adventure". In it, he describes how he ran over 40 miles per day over very rough terrain to reach his goal, despite having no running partner. My fantasy has nothing to do with speed, but I envy the "here-to-there".

I said David lived my fantasy twice and the Appalachian Trail run was only half of the story, and only half of the book mentioned above. The second half takes us to 1995, when David, obviously having completely forgotten about the pain of the AT adventure, entered the Trans America Footrace. Folks, this is a 2906 mile race from California to New York! They run 64 days in a row, each day consisting of a stage of a set distance, averaging 45 miles! No days off, no whining, no bands at every mile, no nothing except getting up every morning and running another ultramarathon. When it was all said and run, David finished in third place in 449 hours and 26 average of 9:16/mile!

Fantasies, hopes, dreams. They're all out there and they're there for us to deal with individually. James Shapiro and David Horton happened to to have the same running fantasy I had. The difference is they crossed that chasm to reality. Do I feel envious? Of course I do. Do I feel they somehow took a little away from my fantasy? Not in the least. I salute them both, and thank them for writing about their journeys. When I read their books, I can run with them and my unreachable quest has become just a little bit more believable.

Wherever they take you, I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

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