A couple months ago, Dana tore through Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. She loves activity, adventure, new things and, for as long as I’ve known her, words, reading and writing. It was the right book for her.
McDougall took a subject as old as mankind, injected technical bits about biomechanics, sociology and archeology, infused a little history and somehow produced a passionate page-turner filled with marvelous characters and a heart thumping finale. Old met new in an epic clash that was so fundamental — a foot race through the countryside — it could serve multiple purposes.
The big race was the opportunity for the author’s redemption from injury and self-doubt. It was a also heroic tale pitting two worthy adversaries — two civilization and historical epochs — at odds. There was a subtext of cultural respect and an ode to the joy and freedom found from a good, long and self-reflective run.
Needless to say, I enjoyed it too. In fact, I took it with me to Lake Placid and finished it shortly after the race.
I don’t know if this book ignited the craze for barefoot running and trend toward minimalist shoe design. Chicken, egg, who cares? It is compelling in the central thesis: Humans evolved with and because of the ability to run. Survival required it and the body adapted in ways that other primates did not. Running is hardwired into people and it is good for us too.
One aspect of the book that gets much less attention than all of the focus on shoe companies and foot arches is how several of the characters may have run from something — a past, traditional definitions of success — nearly all of them ran with their heart. They let running embrace them and found calm and clarity in the cadence of their feet, the stretch of each stride and the graceful exertion of a practiced athlete.
Dana’s favorite character — Caballo Blanco — assigned animal spirit names to the menagerie of hard cases and weirdos that joined together to fulfill his dream of the ultimate ultra race. There was the deer, a bear, a monkey and a witch. Snow hawk and young wolf participated.
I don’t come close to the reverie Caballo Blanco’s friends find on the trail nor do I have a fraction of their talent for locomotion. No matter. I think that I heard the call recently and found my own running animal spirit name. For those of you, dear Internets, who don’t like the kooky, existential, spiritual, mumbo-jumbo aspect of this blog, you can stop reading this post here.
While at family camp last month, I went running a few times including one trail run. I enjoyed the wildlife and came within a few yards of several deer, a pair of juvenile woodpeckers and, wait for it, this is the punchline, three different frogs. One on a rock, one on the side of a tree, and then a tiny itty bitty one on a leaf in the trail. Each time, I was arrested from motion and stopped. Each frog was smaller than the previous one as if I was supposed hear the message from Nature soon or else I’d be spotting tadpoles in the Maine woods.
It was weird. It was calming. Even though my heart was thumping and my senses were on high alert for every slippery rock and jumbly root, the air was thick with humidity from the forest and I was on a schedule because I had to get back to camp to pick up the kids from their classes, I noticed, interacted and was peacefully calm with my frog friends. Weird, but natural.
Here and now, I claim my animal spirit running name, el coqui — the frog. I don’t know if it is bad form to claim your animal spirit name on your own, like some eco-spirit Charlemagne, or if it has to be given to you by a wise one. I’m not sure that picking a running name from the realm of amphibians is really the way it is supposed to go — perhaps a land-based animal that actually runs as opposed to hops would be better. I don’t know. Maybe only plodders like me who run like a fish out of water get aquatic names. Perhaps McDougall invented the whole thing to give a bit of Old World color to his story. Frankly I don’t care.
I’m el coqui and it brings me double delight. First, it is as if some great force of the universe, from history, has reached out and let me in on a secret and welcomed me to the club. I’m a member, with full privileges, of the mankind running club. Second, there is a nursery rhyme from Puerto Rico that I used to sing every night to Esme, and then Desmond and Josephine. (Tobias never tolerated my singing.) It was our song and though I only memorized one verse, I’d sing it three times each night and insert their name into the last line. Three versus, three of my kids, three frogs on my trail run.
El coqui sings a sweet song at twilight
He is singing as sleep comes to me
When I wake all alone in the moonlight
El coqui sings goodnight from the tree
Coqui, coqui, coqui qui qui qui
Coqui, coqui, coqui qui qui qui