Everyone always talks about how they will never forget their first time. Some were out in the woods, others were in a more public place. Folks do it for the first time at different ages for different reasons; some never get the chance to experience it. But I was seventeen.
It was late September. I told my mother I was going out on a run, and she laughed because it was a Sunday. I never ran on Sundays. She knew I was up to something but just told me to be safe.
I left the house wearing a watch, basketball shorts, some secondhand Brooks shoes and a tee shirt I bought from the cross country meet the week before. We lived in rural West Virginia, where it’s easy to get comfortably lost. The woods are thick, the trails are narrow and the dwellings are sparse. I left my house, turned onto a dirt road, and followed it until it ended. At the end of the road, there was clearing in the woods; I’d never seen it before, but that day felt like a great day to check it out.
Once I got about a half-mile into the woods, I was fully immersed in nature. There wasn’t a house in sight, the deer didn’t startle as I passed, and the boundaries of the trail became less apparent. I felt warmly welcomed by the place and its inhabitants. There was no music in my ears; the airwaves were ruled by birds and the wind, and that was much better. There were breathtaking views from mountaintops and sparkling rivulets that snaked through the forest for miles.
The first time I looked down at the watch was 50 minutes into the run. I had never run that long in my life and had no idea where I was. There was no fatigue, soreness, or worry inside me; there was euphoria, brought the feeling of my lungs slowly unfurling more and more. It was at this time that I first recognized I truly loved running. This was no longer a chore, but a hobby. It wasn’t just something that had the potential to pay for my school; it became a staple to my routine and identity. I wasn’t racing anyone, or even pushing myself to win the next race; that perspective was shed as soon as I stepped into the woods.
Finally, ninety minutes into the run, I started hearing passing cars in the distance. I was torn between following the sound and retreating back into the woods, but there was homework to be done, and a week for which I had to prepare. After emerging from the woods and hopping a guardrail, a look both ways was all I needed. I knew exactly where I was, and ran three or four miles home using the roads.
Running had become as much of a routine as three meals a day and sleep. My Sunday runs were 20 miles at 6-minute pace; my goal had grown from breaking 5:00 to breaking 4:00 in the mile, and I was damn close. I had run within two or three seconds of the 4:00 mile (or it’s 1500 equivalent) about five times in the span of two months, and everyone who knew me also knew that. I knew I was ready for something much faster, but had hit a wall. My season was coming to an end, and I was racing about twice a week in various venues sprinkled around the eastern United States, searching for the PERFECT setup. Then, finally, it happened.
My race was set for 8 PM on a Midwest summer night. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and a faint breeze, just barely strong enough to be considered present, meandered around Indianapolis. My legs felt springy during my warm-up and drills, and the meet director announced over the intercom that the 1500 meter race would feature two pacers who would carry us through the first 1000 meters at 2:28. That was exactly where I needed to be to do what I wanted to do, and I was sure that was the night it was finally going to happen. I was going to leave that track a “3:42 guy” on paper, not just a guy who “in shape to run like a 3:42”.
Long story short, I ran DEAD EVEN 60 second splits and added yet another 3:45 to the pile. After the race, I overheard somebody talking about how depressed they had been since they’d fallen injured. I didn’t hear much of the conversation, but I’d heard enough. My entire drive home, which I made by myself, was spent wondering what my life would be like if I suddenly couldn’t run anymore. The thought drove me to tears. Nobody talks about how they will never forget their last time, but they don’t. Some were at their peak, and others were either climbing or falling. Folks do it for the last time at different ages for different reasons; some never get the chance to experience it. But I was twenty-one.
I promised myself that if I ever started training consistently again, it would be on my own terms. Every day I ran in the eight years leading up to this day were driven by a force of habit. I wasn’t racing, or pushing myself to win the next race. There were no time goals, and there was definitely no training plan. I had lived some wild years, but, man, they were fun. The life experiences, wisdom, knowledge, discoveries, epiphanies, blessings, and realizations that came to me in those years happened in the best ways possible.
I had found other things that I enjoyed. I rediscovered my love for playing basketball. Anyone who met me after that race had no idea that I ever called myself a “runner”. In the absence of a set school routine, I started reading and writing a lot in my spare time. There was something so liberating about being able to choose whatever book I wanted to read and write about whatever I wanted. I got married to an amazing woman, we made a beautiful son together, and found my professional niche. I made great decisions and mistakes, but my happiness tells me the former trumps the latter. I felt my soul unfurling with each passing year.
This particular day was one that my son was a little cranky. He kept chanting to go outside, pronounced “açaí”. It was a beautiful day, and I had finished all my work earlier in the day. We had a free afternoon, and he has always been a huge fan of the jogging stroller. If he is ever crying inconsolably and won’t take a nap, we put him in the jogging stroller and take a few laps around the neighborhood. He usually sits with his leg up on the tray/cupholders and is consumed by the view. Sometimes, he’ll see something and point, yelling “Dada!” until I acknowledge the correct object. Today was no different. About a half-mile into the run, he yelled my name and pointed at a dandelion in someone’s yard. A few days prior, he was first introduced to these mystical weeds, and his fascination must not have been washed away by time. I picked it and handed it to him. He thanked me, pronounced “Sank-yum,” and smiled.
My son held that dandelion for the entire run, and when we got back to the house twenty minutes later, he seemed asleep. I turned into the driveway, walked up to the front door, and started unfastening him from the jogger. Before I could even lift him out, he was crying like he was before we left. I sat him back in the stroller, and the whining stopped immediately. We took a new route, one that was a bit more hilly than our usual route.
On our way up a hill, the wind started to blow, and I saw little seeds of his dandelion starting to detach and fly away. He was drifting back to sleep as the wind continued to pick up. More and more seeds flew right by me as smoothly and gracefully as time, itself. We had finally circled back to the house, and the wind had still not ceased. My son’s dandelion, once a full moon, was now a rapidly waning crescent, growing newer by the step. This time, when I unfastened him and picked him up, he squirmed, smiled, and released the dandelion, now only a stem. As I watched it fall, I made a silent wish that my son would one day roam free, run far, and get lost comfortably enough to be one of the lucky folks who find themselves. The thought drove me to a peaceful high as I laid my son on the couch, and curled up beside him for a nap with my watch still running.
By: Matthew Schiffbauer
Matthew Schiffbauer teaches at Touchstone Community School in central Massachusetts, and tutors K-12 math, English and test-preparation on the side. He is a native of Morgantown, West Virginia, and a staunch supporter of the Roam & Run brand.