Sensing the mild panic she'd stirred, Mattie's ears rolled back, her tongue bouncing. She moved her head in quick jerks from the geese now forming up in a tight circle, to the path ahead of her. The look was one of desperation, "Please let me go after them!"
I delivered my own sharp warning, "Mattie!" And she relented, falling back in step with me. We rounded the water hazard and disappeared over the steep hill that links holes 11 and 12 just as quickly as we'd started it, leaving the commotion we'd caused behind us.
When I'd set out some 3.5 miles prior, I did so with tempered expectations. Since Thanksgiving, I could pinpoint my mood in one word: exhaustion. Following my sub-60 at the Army Ten Miler, I hadn't taken much time off. In fact, I went full steam ahead into an intense half marathon program to prepare for my soon to come Boston program. Yes, a program to train for a program. Between running, playing hockey (as cross-training), work, and the recent death of my grandmother, I was, in a word, exhausted.
Normally during points of tension in my life, I've turned to running as the release valve. You can run off a bad day at work, a bad night (or week) of eating, a bad anything. But what happens when the runs become bad? Last week, I was at a loss. My grandmother's death, I soon knew, had taken a bigger emotional toll on me then I thought. This is really the first time in my life I've had to grieve, and quite frankly, I don't know how to do it. I thought running could save me, instead, it made things worse.
I did what I thought once to be unthinkable: I chucked the training program. No more intervals. No more tempo runs. No more pressure for pace or distance or PRs. I decided it was time to get back to basics and just run for the pure sake of running.
So this week, that's what I've done. No watch. No headphones. No prescribed distance.
There's a Tom Petty song that goes, "This ones for me. This ones for me. Not for anyone else. This ones for me." It's sort of become my mantra over the week to take back my running.
I've taken to the golf course that loops through our neighborhood and followed the five mile golf cart path. Before I break into an easy trot, I can smell the brisk cold in the air that stings your lungs until you've warmed up your chest. The cold energizes Mattie and she alternates between quick dashes and her best impression of a bucking bronco.
In the dark, without headphones, senses are heightened. Like I said, you can smell the cold, the traces of burning fireplaces, the dampness around the marshy water hazards. I can hear only the steady clip-clop of my shoes over the path. I can feel the clouds of warm breath blooming in front of me. On the golf course, I embrace the unique feeling of being alone and having that entire expanse of running path to myself.
And so we run together down the long fairways and steal glimpses into the backlit dining rooms of folks getting home from work. Other parts are lit only by moonlight. The sun, long since dipped below the horizon, still creates a pristine, electric sky that silhouettes the trees like black spires.
At the 14th hole, Mattie and I emerge from a short tunnel. With no more roads to cross, I stop for a moment, unhook her, and she darts off ahead, a white flash of fur. Perhaps feeding off her exhilaration, I feel my legs turn over faster. The pace drops naturally to tempo. There's no pressure to run it that way, no guilt or anxiety if I don't hit the splits. My body's just ready to go. And it feels wonderful.
Mattie and I flow through the night. My legs burn. My lungs suck in the cold, stinging air, but I push on. Not because I have to. Because I want to.
Overtaking the last hills, Mattie gallops up next to me. We stop and stand together for a moment, huffing and puffing, then begin the slow walk across the 5th green, under the fence, and back to the house. But before we make it to that fence, I stop for a second and close my eyes. I have the urge to lay down and catch my breath. So...I do. I lay down, legs and arms outstretched and take in the night sky. I start to think about my grandmother and how she used to ask about my running, but never really knowing just how much work I'd put into it in the last five years. Her reference point was always the New York Marathon. "What about the New York Marathon?" she'd ask. "Have you run that yet?" I like to think maybe now she can watch me and know.
Most of the stars are out now and I follow a plane blinking by overhead. I can feel the blood coursing through me and my heart pulsing in my head behind my eyes. When my breathing is under control, I lay for a minute longer. I can hear Mattie's jingling collar getting closer. She must be finished smelling whatever caught her nose. I start to call to her but my face is so cold, it's hard to talk. She's on me, sniffing and licking my face. "All right," I say. "Let's go in." And we finish the walk to the back door.