Wye Island NRMA

Wye Island NRMA

Friday, May 23, 2014

Sacred Sites

Every culture has places that are essential to the construction of the group's identity - sacred sites.   Some sites are consecrated through trauma, suffering, and struggle, such as Gettysburg battlefield or the Lincoln Memorial.  Others are places of origin in a group's folklore, where a movement started or a people emerged.

I hadn't considered that runners also have sacred sites before my visit to Boston in April for the marathon's festivities.  I witnessed how Hopkinton and Copley Square have attained a profound cultural significance in American distance running. For tens of thousands of runners, qualifying to compete in the Boston Marathon and crossing its finish line is the sport's pinnacle. Another storied site is Iffley Road Track in Oxford, England, which Roger Bannister sanctified by running the first sub-4:00 mile. Franklin Field, a historic venue at the University of Pennsylvania, is home to the Penn Relays, a marquee event in American track and field.

Over the next nine weeks, I'm preparing for a pilgrimage to one such place: the University of Oregon's Hayward Field, which serves as the finish for the Eugene Marathon. Since the early 1960s, Eugene has been home to many of the nation's finest collegiate and professional distance runners, earning the moniker Track Town U.S.A. I lack the space to explain the historical significance of the community and its influence on American distance running. So, I recommend Kenny Moore's Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, a captivating narrative that explores six decades of running of history through the life of Bill Bowerman and generations of his athletes.  Over 400 pages of small font, finishing it is like a good long run - a satisfying act of endurance.

My interest in the sport's history and yen to explore the culture and natural environments of Portland and Eugene are why I chose to train for a summer marathon in the Chesapeake Furnace. I'm not ready to discuss specific goals for the race, which will solidify as my training progresses in the hot, humid weeks ahead. The preparation will be physically and intellectually challenging. An adventure.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Long Run Through My Hometown

"Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today." - Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land

Last weekend, I visited my hometown in the upper Ohio Valley.  On a balmy Sunday morning, I began  my week with a 14-mile long run through Yorkville, Tiltonsville, and Rayland, Ohio - the YTR. The towns are situated on a floodplain beneath steep foothills that roll westward to Ohio's plain and eastward to the Appalachian Mountains. The run was an opportunity to explore familiar sites and reflect on the condition of the region, particularly the changes it has undergone in the decade since I last lived there.

In my log, I often describe the birds that I see on runs. My fondness for birds is a product of growing up in the Short Creek Watershed. The creek, which meets the Ohio River near my childhood home, is rich in biodiversity. At age five, I saw Great Blue Herons for the first time in the creek's backwaters. I distinctly recall the moment, and I've been a recreational birder since. While I rarely go "birding," running in parks and wetlands allows me to entwine two of my passions. Sunday's run was especially fruitful in the backwaters. Red-winged Blackbirds fluttered about the reeds; swallows swarmed from their colonies under bridges; and I disturbed a Green Heron, rousing it from its hunting grounds in the cattails. The highlight, however, was a Baltimore Oriole, my first sighting of one in many years.

When I tell new acquaintances where I am from, they invariable reply, "That's beautiful country." This weekend the foothills reaffirmed their reputation. The budding trees made the hills a kaleidoscope of green, reflecting every Crayola shade of the color. The flora and fauna enhanced the run, but their beauty masks the land's deep scars and terminal illnesses.

The towns' most prominent feature is a steel mill. Once a symbol of industrial might and a gateway to prosperity, the mill is now little more than a ruin and a painful reminder of what we've lost. For most of the last century, the mill employed many of YTR's inhabitants. My maternal grandfather and father retired there, and unknown numbers of acquaintances and relatives toiled within its walls. Steel mills formed the backbone of the Ohio Valley.  The river and its tributaries were the spine, while the mills were the structural core. In the 1990s, I recall economic volatility and layoffs. But the mills endured, and the region retained its identity and offered some degree of opportunity.

Decades ago, we collectively leaped forward into a brave new economy. Cheap steel and cheaper labor in developing nations were too alluring for industrial magnates. Most of the mills are now shuttered. The fortunate workers embraced contract buyouts, while the rest, according to conventional thought, were victims of an inevitable globalizing economy that rendered American manufacturing as obsolete and undesirable as the streetcar.

During my run, I observed the social effects of these economic choices.  Several houses in YTR are abandoned since the recent economic crisis. Some abandoned homes never had the chance to decay, thanks to arsonists. Oddly, I feel less safe running in sections of my hometown than I do in Baltimore. At least in Baltimore, I know the lay of the land. YTR, however, is in flux. Streets that were once home to working-class families with middle-class aspirations are now dotted with drug dens (such houses are easily recognizable). There are two truths in post-industrial America: people will dull the pain of reality, and as one economy suffers another thrives.

I completed my long run in 1:31, averaging 6:29 per mile. It was a great start to my 12-week marathon cycle. While the natural environment provided a distraction from these realities, it's best not to look too closely, lest the effects of industrial pollution become evident (Where have all the shad gone?).  I began this blog with the intent of describing the social and environmental spaces that I inhabit as a runner. Many of these places are inspiring, motivating, and profoundly beautiful. Sadly, my hometown is no longer such a place.