Whenever we ran by Jupiter, we had no choice but to pick up our pace. After all, Jupiter’s gravity was never to be taken lightly. And when your running partner was Moe Johnson, well…all you really cared about was self-preservation. In fact, if the forces of Jupiter’s gravity were to somehow sneak up on Moe and annihilate him, then so be it. Sure, an unfortunate ending for Moe, but at least you got your ten-mile run in.
Let’s rewind the scene if I may…
Fulton Ranch Road, just on the outskirts of San Marcos. Moe and I had decided to do a long out-and-back run on a road that was entirely caliche. There were no fences, just rugged countryside where longhorn cattle roamed. Jupiter was the largest steer on the ranch. He was massive with a horn span that could easily skewer Moe from head to toe. One quick, swift flick of the head, and Jupiter could send Moe sailing into the air like a rag doll.
It reminds me of the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey when early man discovers tools, and with tools he discovers power. The scene transitions into the future of the space odyssey as early man, in his discovery of using a bone as a weapon, throws the bone high up into the air. In slow-motion, we watch the bone flip end-over-end up into space. That trajectory—that endless flight of bone—is how I perceived Moe would have travelled, had Jupiter had his way with him. And there I would stand, looking upwards, thinking, Wow, look at you Moe! Not only are you in the movies, but you’re headed into the future! Farewell, my friend!
Of course, Moe never did make it into the movies nor did he ever travel into the future. But he did take flight, thanks to all sixteen-hundred pounds of Jupiter who had decided to charge him. The memory of Moe is still quite clear as I watched him evade Jupiter’s attempted manslaughter, and sail over a large cactus. In his moment of airborne grace, he flew with the look of confidence, as if exclaiming to the world, “I GOT THIS!!!”
If you’re curious where I was this entire time…well, I was a few strides ahead of Moe, having foreseen this inevitable moment, and sped off the caliche road to hide like a coward behind a large stone water trough. I would have fought off Jupiter, but elected not to as I was quite familiar with Moe’s powerlifting records. Besides, he was older and wiser than I, and it would have been premature of me to suggest any plan of escape other than whatever Moe already had in mind.
And then he hit dirt—hands and knees first, like four twenty-pound kettle bells simultaneously thudding to the earth. You would have thought from the sound of his fall that Moe was just going to park his body right there and surrender his fate to Jupiter. But giving up was not an option. Moe had grown up on hockey rinks and had basically lived out of weight rooms. If he wasn’t living in a state of pushing his limits, then by his standards, he wasn’t living at all. One hard crash to the earth was nothing more than a paper cut to Moe. Adrenalized, he was up and running towards my cowardly hiding place in no time. “Can you believe Jupiter!?” he shouted, short of breath. “He tried to kill me!”
And there Jupiter stood on the far side of the cactus, staring at us as he swung his head back and forth in disgust. And there we stood, looking at each other, our heads swinging back and forth as well, and wondering, Now what?
* * *
We plan our runs. We know where we’re going. We know our pace. We know if the route will be hilly or flat, long or short. We know that if our hamstrings are sore, we’d better monitor them a little more closely than usual. We know if our legs feel heavy or fresh. We know a lot going into a run.
But what we don’t know are the unexpected moments that lie ahead. The unforeseen encounters. No different than everyday life, that’s true. But running has a way of heightening our awareness. A way of seeing the world with a bit more clarity. Whether it’s contemplating a thought or seeing something out of the ordinary, when we run our focus becomes sharper. We are, without a doubt, in tune with our surroundings.
I once ran alongside a butterfly that stayed even with me for nearly 200 meters. In its bouncy, erratic flight, it held my pace three feet apart from me. Everything—I mean everything became secondary. Even the fact that I was running seemed to blur. I once had a similar experience with a deer that ran parallel with me for over a quarter of a mile before disappearing into the woods. It was truly as if it knew we were moving together—as if some sort of communication was transpiring. I could not ignore the magic of that moment. Unable to write it off as mere coincidence, I soaked up every second we shared between us, and acknowledged the deer as a momentary gift of the uncommon. But an insect? Was it even possible that the butterfly was acting upon some form of a thought, or a recognition that I wasn’t a threat? Was it possible that amongst all of its natural innate instincts, that something as miraculous as a chemistry between us was at hand? Or was it just pure luck that I got to run, undisturbed, with a butterfly for an eighth of a mile? Either way I looked at it, one thing was for certain: running had amplified an experience that gave a whole new meaning to the term, “the butterfly effect.”
* * *
But not all unexpected moments while running are uplifting. Some stop you in your tracks and wrench the emotions straight out of you. These are the moments when you wished you had taken a different route. When it would have been better to have woken up with a slight fever to keep you in bed for the day. But run you did, and the events leading up to that unexpected moment could never be reversed…
Everything was fine as I ran on the sidewalk along 15th Street in Austin. It was a typical busy Friday afternoon with traffic having arrived in full force. The term “rush hour” seemed a slight understatement. Perhaps “mad rush hour” was more apropos. I had just crested a hill when I heard the screech of tires, and a sharp, loud cry of a dog. No…no, no, no. Don’t look. Don’t get involved in this. Just keep running. This is someone else’s business. There is nothing here for you. But I did look, and that was the moment I immersed myself in the unexpected and unfortunate scene.
The driver who had hit the dog failed to stop, and continued on, leaving behind a line of cars that crept by with curiosity. I ran out into the street and knelt before the dog. It was a mutt—a male, maybe 15 pounds with brown shaggy hair. His eyes were closed as his head lay in a small puddle of blood. I picked him up, and set him on a patch of grass where I checked for signs of life, but his life was gone. He had a collar with a license tag. I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know where he lived. I didn’t know what to do, except let the sadness overcome me and honor his presence with my sudden grief. He was somebody’s companion. He had gotten loose, and this was his last day. A car pulled up next to me and stopped by the curb. It was a couple in their twenties. The girl was in the passenger seat, her window rolled down, and her eyes red from crying.
“Oh my god,” she sobbed, “Is that your dog?”
“No,” I said, “I was on a run just now when he got hit.”
“This is so sad. Is there anything we can do?”
“Could you take him to the nearest vet clinic? Maybe they could find out who the owner is.”
“Certainly,” she said, “We can do that.”
Her boyfriend got out of the car and opened up the trunk, where there were some old blankets. Before we wrapped the dog up and gently set him inside, I petted him several times before telling him goodbye. It was the first and last time I would ever see the dog.
Life is fragile. It can snap in an instant. It can be taken from you when you least expect it. I ran in mourning for three miles back to my apartment. I couldn’t shake the thought of the owners who would eventually receive the phone call. To this day, over thirty years later, whenever I run in Austin, the memory of that dog always finds me. I didn’t want to get involved with its death. I wanted to stay clear and move forward. But once the couple drove away, I remember feeling like I had done the right thing—that instead of ignoring or abandoning him, I had taken care of the dog right after his final parting moment. It was the least that I could do. After all, he was somebody’s best friend.
* * *
Unexpected surprises while running can not only awaken you to your surroundings, but can stir a sense of discovery within yourself.
Years ago I once finished a run at Sewell Park on a quiet Sunday morning. I was going to take a post-run dip in the river when I noticed a teenage boy shooting a basketball at the outdoor court. It had been years since I had touched a basketball, let alone shoot one. Though I played the game for most of my life up to age 20, there came a point where distance running became my fitness addiction. But on that Sunday morning, something in me said, “Shoot the ball.”
I walked over to the boy and asked if he wouldn’t mind if I shot a few. He passed me the ball and pointed to the rim.
Running had consumed me. I was training for the Houston Marathon, logging up to 80 miles a week. Weight lifting, swimming, biking—any form of cross-training was non-existent. I was 6’4” and weighed 165 pounds. Friends said I was too thin, that I looked weak. I dismissed their comments as ridiculous.
Standing just inside the 3-point line, I spun the ball backwards in the air and let it ricochet off the court, before bouncing back to me. As I held it loosely, I could tell that the rhythm of the game hadn’t left me. But as I looked at the basket and prepared to shoot, an unexpected thought occurred: Damn, that basket looks far away.
The instant the ball left my hands, was the instant I changed my life. There was no denying what I had just felt—the shocking discovery of the absence of strength. All my friends were right…my shoulders were bony, my arms were rails, and I was unable to shoot a basketball three-quarters of the way to the rim. It was more than an awareness of my weakened condition. It was an outright disaster.
One shot was all it took. I turned my back to the boy, and walked away. I must have done 200 push-ups later that day. From that point on, my entire outlook changed regarding overall fitness. And I must say, I owe it all to that basketball. Funny how things play out.
* * *
Here’s my advice to anyone who runs:
Take it beyond running, and take in your surroundings. You might surprise yourself as to what you’ll discover. If something piques your interest, stop and look at it. Oh, don’t worry, your guilty conscience will get over the cardinal sin of stopping during a run. Become familiar with running in unfamiliar places, and, in doing so, expect the unexpected.
Copyright Ros Hill 2017