Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Upshot...

What, you might well ask, is a photo of filthy feet doing on a blog about life with dogs? If you've been reading about the mileage logged with Ella on our walkabout, you'll know those feet have covered a lot of miles. A lot of miles. What I may not have mentioned, and if I did it bears repeating, is that all those miles were done in Teva sandals. Every last mile of preparation for the journey, the journey itself, and afterwards until the frosts hit (and with a pair of socks, I extended it a few weeks beyond). They carried me over jagged crags and gentle meadows, waded refreshing brooks and slogged through quicksand-like quagmires. My mother always said, only half-jokingly, that she and Dad had been so poor they couldn't buy baby shoes for me, and by the time they could afford my first pair of shoes I could outrun long after most girls were in nylons and high heels, I was still running around barefoot. The Teva's are a concession to heel spurs and the vagaries of age...otherwise I might've been tempted to try the whole thing entirely shoeless.

The idea for freeing my feet from the bondage of shoes didn't stem from a sudden yearning for the good ol' days of childhood. I'd long-since acquiesced to the apparent necessity of specialized footwear for various functions; cross-trainers for off-road runs, sandals for summertime, thinsulate/gore-tex boots for winter, pumps, heels, riding boots, dance shoes, shoes for slacks, skirts....suffice it to say the over-stuffed nature of my closet is evidence that I like shoes. But Born to Run had planted concepts that were germinating, and I'd been wearing Teva's one hot summer day when I headed to the Delaware Water Gap to meet Jess, my daughter, for a hike. I'd thrown my boots in the car intending to put them on at the trailhead. Unfortunately, I forgot to also toss in socks. There's simply no way to wear boots without socks, so my choice was to bag the hike after driving an hour or to suck it up and try it in Teva's. I'm never one to turn away from a trailhead.

Wow. It was an instantaneous conversion. Jess had been trying to convince me that she was more sure-footed when wearing her Teva's on hikes, and I'd scoffed and continued to lecture her with the "you need ankle support on rocky terrain" b.s. that I'd absorbed and believed without question. Time for a big serving of crow. The girl was right. Not only did the Teva's have better traction on rocks, but my balance and dexterity was markedly improved. Because I could feel the terrain under my feet, the nerve-endings in the soles of my feet transmitted information to my brain about the substrate, resulting in instinctive compensation in how I moved; net result absolute certainty of foot placement and zero twisted ankles. Not to mention that my usual plantar fasciitis didn't flare in the least (and ultimately, after consistently walking in my Teva's, resolved completely on its own). It was nothing short of astounding.

That was in 2010. This year I started the season in Teva's, so doing my walkabout in them was never really a question. Sure, I hauled my Lowa hikers along, but I wore them twice and regretted it both times...shouldn't have bought into the locals' advice as to the rocky conditions -- nothing I encountered was more of an ankle-buster than conditions found in our favorite loops at the Delaware Water Gap.

Gradually I learned to trust my body, trust my judgment, trust my Self. Ella and I were alone, with utter freedom, minimal agenda, and no one to answer to. With Ella as example, I got down to the business of being wherever I was. It's raining? You still hike, and before long the rain is you is the rain...what's the difference? Being there, in the rain, or the sun, or the wind, whatever There had to offer, was all that mattered, all-consuming. Being There in my "uniform" of shorts, tank, and Teva's gave my body more contact with the elements, more contact with what's Real. The wind infused my very cells with life force carried from Madagascar or Burundi or Tibet, and swept stagnation away with each exhalation. The rain matted my hair and streaked my glasses and coursed my cheeks, joining the tears, sharing my grief, cleansing my soul. The sun strengthened my bones, rejuvenated my spirits, cradled my heart. Everything I needed was in my backpack or in the Elements around me.

Not quite everything. Companionship is an essential element, and Ella provided that and more. She was muse, and teacher, and friend. She encouraged, she insisted, she prodded, she nagged. She kept me going, she entertained, she inspired. Over the miles, our bodies flourished - I watched Ella morph from a soft housedog to a trail-hardy veteran with chiseled thighs and rippling shoulders. Little did I know, so had I.

During our weeks in the wilderness, my nearly-forgotten entry to the Steamtown Marathon had been bumped from wait-list to acceptance...but being sequestered from all things digital, I didn't know that until my return to civilization. A bit late to begin running, I'd nonetheless logged more than ample mileage to have the legs for the distance. The most I'd done in a day was about 22 miles, which correlated well with the recommendations for peaking a month before the race. My natural walking pace is about 4.2 mph, almost enough to complete the course within their time limit, so I figured if I tossed in a bit of jogging I'd make the cut-off. National Weather Service predicted a picture-perfect day, I'd have been out walking anyway, so what the hell, why not put in 26.2 miles? The only downside - no dogs allowed. Is it possible to walk that far without my canine partner?

As it happens, yes. If you take a good look at the photo above, you'll see the Steamtown race timer strapped to the sandals. I didn't quite meet the 6-hour limit, I'd slowed down to keep company with the oldest entrant in the race when he was complaining of feeling a bit faint, but for those few miles he inspired me...his first race entry was at age 76, if I remember correctly, and he'd done 25 marathons since then.

The physical and the emotional/psychological are conjoined; one cannot be extricated from the other. As I hike, I ruminate. In so doing, I've learned that I can handle adversity in ways that allow the struggle to shape me and hone my internal "muscles" right along with my physical ones. If I don't accept the lessons, if I resist the changes, the brittleness of that resistance will predispose me to break. I can keep getting stronger, or I can sit down and get old. I think I'll do more marathons.