I recently came across this essay I wrote a little more than twenty years ago. After having it rejected by two running magazines (kind of the end of the line), it appeared in the Spring 1992 edition of the Green Mountain Athletic Association Roadnotes. Together with Rick Blount, I co-edited the prestigious GMAA newsletter back then. One of the editors liked the piece, so we published it. 

A STAR IS BORN

No adoring fans, no autograph signings, no magazine covers, no shoe contracts. Fame wasn’t coming my way. Not in this lifetime and not with running. At age 30, I realized it was time to come to grips with this hard truth.

This was unfortunate. A loss for many, because I had rehearsed sensitive and philosophical interviews in preparation for the “Up Close and Personal” profile that ABC would air before my gold medal bid in the 5,000 meters. “Al, I trace it back to growing up in the Midwest — the honest toil, the good earth, the simple values…” (an “Appalachian Spring” sort of melody  in the background).

It just wasn’t going to be.

Any stardom to come my way, I realized, would have to be achieved through that time-honored neurosis breeder —”attempting to live out your dreams through your children.”

I am a father now, you see. With my 30th year came the first child for my wife and me, a daughter. Her name is Grace.

I know, an ogre grows in your imagination already, an evil “Track Dad,” visions of races lost, kicks unfound, still burning in mind as he hovers over the spindly child and says, “Just run this last quarter in sub :65 and we’ll go home and get you some dinner. I know it’s hot, but don’t you think it was hot for Joanie Benoit in L.A.? I know you want your mommy. I’m sure on the back stretch in Munich Pre wanted his mommy, too. Just one more. For your dad.”

The fame, fortunately, has come far more quickly and easily. My daughter was just four-months-old when she began to help me live out these running dreams.

Thousands of miles never made mine a face you’d recognize in running circles, but a few hundred dollars did. We invested in one of those high-tech baby strollers. They allow us “‘Nineties Parents-on-the-go” to take the traditionally quaint, peaceful activity of pushing the baby down the street and turn it into an Olympic event.

Burlington, you know, boasts an eight-mile-long pedestrian and bicycle path on the shore of Lake Champlain. Suddenly, I became a celebrity in that long, narrow neighborhood of runners, walkers, and bikers. Smiles were immediate; all talked to us. My daughter brought great benefits as a training partner.

I fully realized that it had happened one day when I heard a woman say to her husband as we went past: “I saw him here yesterday. Isn’t that something?” Not just a face in the crowd, oh, no, but a face to be picked out of the crowd, singled out for recognition.

Shamelessly immodest, I’ll tell you that often I am the star attraction. I hear: “Good for you!” “I love a diehard!” “You should get father of the year!” and variations on those themes. They are amusing because they assume that I’m doing something noble, when we all know that I’m just being selfish. Faced with responsibility, any true runner will do whatever it takes to preserve the inalienable right to run. Technology just helped me out on this one.

I’m also willing, though, to step out of the limelight and let my daughter have her moment. Typically, admiration is expressed with a classic baby-spotter’s sigh or a phrase concluding with the word “cute.” But there are the more insightful types, the ones who are on to me, perhaps: “She’ll be up and running with you soon!” they say.

Sheila (ghost) and Grace (pumpkin) Weaver prepare for a Halloween 5K.

The truth be told, neither of us is the real celebrity. It is, instead, our stroller, this liberator, this freedom machine, this wonder of chrome and cordura. It is, above and beyond both of us, the headline act.

These high-speed strollers are still rare animals, I think, still common in only a few meccas of aerobic hip and in the back pages of running magazines. We are merely along for the ride, snatching some of the glory of being on the cutting edge of vehicular history. Surely the hirsute owners of the first wheel in the clan also heard the grunts of “Nice rig!” “Awesome!” “Good idea, Thorg!”

But already there are a few more strollers around town—neon colors, tinier babies on board, the next generation. I suspect that we will fade into the middle of the pack soon; we’ve had the fifteen minutes that Andy Warhol promised.

The fame may pass, but I’ll still have my running, my stroller, and, most importantly, my running partner to listen to me on the roads up close and personal. I wonder if I could teach the baby to do an Al Michaels?

Appendix: I swear, Baby Joggers really were something of an oddity then. Hard to believe as we’ve evolved into double-wides and various tractor-trailer arrangements hanging off the back of bikes and so on. As for Grace, she and her sister Arline both survived my attempts to set PRs on the bike path with the baby jogger (I think I went sub-6 for a mile with it.) They also both survived and actually enjoyed high school cross-country, where I think I turned out to be a fairly sane sport dad. 

Elegy for a trail

June 13, 2011

Trails appear at the whim of footsteps and they can disappear just as easily. One of my favorite sections of trail in Burlington is (was) only about a quarter-mile in length, running hard against the edge of Lake Champlain just to the south of North Beach. A groove of singletrack, well ridden in, it ran along a berm at the water’s edge. My fourth grade geology suggests that soil formed on top of the large shoreline rocks as driftwood piled up, got pounded into mulch, seeds took root, trees grew, leaves fell, decomposition and such, and, you know, pretty soon you had some dirt. My fifth grade anthropology says the first people who walked here had a good, practical reason — catching fish. Later maybe it came to be more about a beautiful view and solitude. And then in the 1980s these knobby-wheeled bikes came along and the trail became something fun, mildly gnarly.

But no more. Lake Champlain hit record flood levels this spring and it’s still slow to back off. Among the casualties, this shoreline trail. The lake rose up and bit off large sections. Admittedly the loss of a spirited little scrap of trail is small compared to the personal and economic pain many are experiencing due to the flooding. But a loss it is, and I’m sure I’m not alone in missing it.

The season has arrived for the Catamount summer trail race series. Every Tuesday night hundreds of local runners gather at Catamount Outdoor Center in Williston, Vermont for a weekly 5k cross-country race. Wednesday nights, it’s the mountain bikers’ turn on the same trails.

Bike racer turned bike television commentator Bob Roll once rode at Catamount and pronounced it a paradise in the middle of suburban hell. (As suburban hells go, Catamount is definitely an outer ring, far from the hottest fires, but the McCullough and Bowker  families do Chittenden County a great service keeping these meadows meadows when so many others have been gnawed away into a monotony of manila neighborhoods and  big box stores.)

The Catamount races are among my favorite things, right up there with cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels. Here, in no particular order, is why:

1) Trails. Wide open meadow and gnarled pine grove, rock ledge and mud, steeps that bring you to your knees and downhills that test your nerve to let it rip. Often within five minutes of running you’ll encounter all of the above.

2) Rhythm. The terrain dictates how you run. There are places where you have little choice but to slow in the woods when the course becomes mazelike and uphills where you will suffer no matter how slowly you run. You give yourself over to the course. It’s a zen thing.

3) Frequency. Redemption from a bad race is never more than a week away. (Unless it’s the last race of the season, then you have something to mull over for the winter.)

4) Competition. Running week after week on the same courses, you get a sense for where you fit in the pecking order of the regular racers. Often the runners you finish around become your friends (more on the Fellowship of the Bull in a future post) but sometimes a runner or two will become your nemesis. We all need a nemesis.

5) Or lack of competition. The races are formally called “a training series,” which gets at the vibe of them. Though many people are leaving it all on the course week after week, it’s also within the spirit of the events to cruise at the back a few days after a marathon or ultra-marathon or just because you feel like it.

6) Simplicity. I paid $90 in May and I’m good for the season’s 18 races. I pin on my #40, step on the starting line at 6:15, and there we go. No awards after, just a cool down run with friends, the ride home, then sifting through the results when they go up online that evening. (And that $90 covers me for running or mountain biking on the trails anytime during the summer.)

7) Variety. The Catamount folks shuffle between three course most years. One is on the hill side—generally more meadow, more hill.  The other two course are on “the woods side,” generally in the shade, more technically challenging, less hilly. Driving into the gravel parking lot you spot the large red, blue, and yellow Salomon banner that marks the start and discover what you’re in for. It’s like finding out an hour before gametime which pitcher you’ll be up against that night—the fastball ace or the guy with the wicked slider.

8 ) Setting: Sitting up on a hilltop, the open spots at Catamount have views of Mt. Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, Lake Champlain.

9) McCulloughs and Bowkers. Fighting the good fight against sprawl, they are down-to-earth Vermont families, the stewards of this land and the soul of the place.

10) That summer feeling. See the “About” on my homepage for further explanation.

(Credit for the photo at the top of this post goes to Tony Fletcher. I borrowed it off of his excellent, eclectic site. I met Tony at a Catamount race last summer. That’s for another blog post.)