running in the dark
Two times in my life I was certain I was about to die.
The first time was in Nairobi, when I was making a desperate dash from the hinterlands, trying to get to the airport to change my flight so I could get home to my wife, who had just had emergency heart surgery. I had taken an all-day ride in a matatu and was the last passenger left. The driver asked if I would mind if he gave a lift to some of his friends. I didn’t feel that I could object, and so in poured a half dozen young men who joked and laughed about I-don’t-know-what since they weren’t speaking English. It might have been about me. As we drove into the night, presumably toward the airport, I realized how easy it would be for the driver to stop, the men to overpower me, and for them to help themselves to my luggage (which wasn’t much since the airline had lost my other bag and hadn’t found it yet) and the money in my wallet (which was substantial), leaving my corpse in a ditch outside of the city. None of that happened, and I was dropped off at the airport without incident (where I did feel I was being robbed as I helplessly paid the rapacious fee to change my flight).
The second time was this past Saturday morning when I was out on my morning run.
I do my weekend runs early in the morning mostly to beat the heat this time of year. But this last Saturday, a monstrous storm was massing to the west of Kansas City, and it looked as though I had an hour or so of running time before it hit. I took off a little earlier than I might otherwise to get my miles in before the worst part of the storm hit.
It’s easy to get dehydrated on a run this time of year, but I really hate carrying a water bottle, even the one I have that straps to my hand and becomes part of my body. I don’t like that I have one more thing to manage on my run (along with the screaming in my head to STOP THIS NONSENSE RIGHT NOW!). So I picked a route along the paved Indian Creek Trail that I knew had a water fountain at a small park I would pass through.
I saw no one on the trail in the pre-dawn (in the darkest parts, I didn’t even see the trail itself and had to trust to foot memory), and I reached the small park without incident. This was about two miles from home, and I was still on my outward stretch. The water fountain is under a large shelter there, which includes bathrooms (with flushing toilets), a fire pit, and a dozen picnic tables.
But as I trotted in under the roof of the shelter, I saw a human-shaped figure slumped at one of the tables. Remember it was still dark, and all I had was the light of the faraway street lamps to help me see. The shape didn’t quite look human in the darkness, and I thought that maybe it was a mannequin placed there as a joke or such. I did say “hello” but the figure did not move. This was eerie, and if my skin hadn’t been dripping with sweat, I might have felt my hairs raise in alarm.
I quickly made my way to the water fountain on the other side of the shelter. A little distance between me and whatever it was meant I would at least get a running start if it rose and came for me. I took my sips at the fountain, turning back repeatedly to look at the human-like shape in the darkness.
Normally at this point in my Saturday run I allow myself a few minutes of rest, but I was uncomfortable enuf with the creepy situation that I decided to push on despite my fatigue and find a break a little farther down the trail, preferably within view of the public road (though no cars were about at that unholy hour).
As I passed through the shelter again, the figure raised its head and said “Howya doin’, my man?”
And aware of my presence.
I grunted some response and took off, into the darkness that seemed a much safer shelter than the shelter.
I didn’t set a personal speed record as I left, but I did go at least a half mile before I allowed myself to stop again.
In retrospect, I doubt I was in any real danger. I suspect the poor man had spent the night slumped at that picnic table and was probably more rightfully alarmed by a stinking, panting shape approaching him than I needed to be by his inert presence. And in truth, I was actually in more danger a couple of miles later when I was atop a bridge over the interstate highway, lightning and thunder crashing all around me.
I completed my run without further incident (eluding the lightning and even most of the rain) and devoured my customary bagels at the shop that is my regular Saturday morning destination.
The photo above is of me approaching the finish line at the Portland Marathon last fall. I may look together in the photo, but I was in about as much pain as I have ever been in my life, both knees stabbing me with little knives, and my right thigh cramping up tight. I don’t look like that any longer, having shaved off the beard and mustache that had adorned my wretched face for twenty-five years.