The Glorious Run

By Ronald H Bowman, Jr.

For me, it begins with the overwhelming need to be outside—free from the said and the unsaid. In search of peace, we act. I have learned to act my way into good thinking and not to think my way into good acting.

I like to believe my irreverence begins with a cigar en route to this epic trail run in the Sourland Mountains of central Jersey. This trail has claimed six broken toes, one broken ankle and two severe ankle sprains over time from me. I can feel the effects of the trail in the off season, in the way that my ankle throbs when I wake in the morning, the fifteen pounds I gained and how my feet feel when I now race.

It is hard to articulate the feelings that follow a failed attempt at the mountain. I have completed the seven-mile course successfully several times, but never without a story to tell, or a memorable moment of beauty to experience. Every time I make the run, there is a fall, a splash, a technical difficulty, or some scrape and accompanying sense of accomplishment to go with it.

When I fall on the trail (and this is remarkably easy to do) and hear a break, the first thought is always, “Oh my God, how am I going to get out of here?” The trail is full of hikers and day climbers who give way to the crazy guy who has decided to run the mountainous course. But on the days I make the walk of shame down the mountain, I am always humbled. The sweat turns cold on my body quickly, and as the chill sets in so do the misery and the embarrassment of a failed attempt on the mountain. The failure makes me feel small as my breaks and sprains laugh at me.

This year, I am back with a new mindset. I think often of my father, who, during my boyhood, "hotboxed" the car with cigarettes after he completed his workout on our neighborhood track. I often feel him with me when it’s quiet on the mountain. This year, I am fit as never before. I am lighter, faster and my heart is full. Bring it, bitch!

The course does not mislead you. The climb begins immediately. The circuitous route of the trail is as littered with choices as it is with boulders, roots and streams. I find myself negotiating more time on rocks, fallen logs or glacial formations rather than dirt. In approximately ninety strikes a minute in forty-eight minutes total, I will make around forty five hundred decisions shortly.

The trail comes at me fast. I feel that same sense of freedom when I am skiing You can get a similar sensation from playing a video game where the obstacles demand a decision which leads in turn to another decision. Foot placement gives way to leaning, or gravity and inertia rules the moment.

The branches along the trail reach out and scratch me as I fly by them. The rocks have moved from last year, and the mud is deeper so it is harder to follow the trail as it is obscured. Spring has come early this year and I am just grateful to be able to be back here on the mountain. My lungs burn as I run along, my hair groomed by the wind. Here, there is no glory, no “pull of the crowd” like when I’m racing along Third Avenue. This is a personal time. Just me and the mountain. My shirt is off and sweat beads fly off my chest and knuckles as I run. I am as free as I can possibly feel. Like swimming with no clothes on.

I yell, I grunt…"bring it" falls out of my mouth. Is that it? Is that all you’ve got? Come on baby…let’s go! I hit the ground unexpectedly, and immediately I am back up on my feet, bouncing with the adrenaline of the moment. This is why I come to the mountain. My watch says that I am within striking distance of a personal best (PR) time with about a mile left to go on my run. I start to cheat a little bit…I lengthen my strides, pump my arms as hard as I can to make a better time. But then I remember the danger of falling, and I slow down a little so that I don’t crash. I open my stride once again as my lungs and heart allow me to achieve a personal best time.

It’s a perfect spring day with a clear blue sky. I look up at the sun and have a moment of gratitude for the ability to run. To run for friends lost who cannot run any longer. In an uncommon grateful and melancholy moment, I fall to my knees and kiss the earth. Today, I had my way with the mountain. She let me play on her back, make some noise and smile. My heart is full and for a moment I am at peace and free. The mountain gives me this sense of fulfillment, accomplishment I call the “glorious exhaustion.”




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